Creating a sun map of your yard may surprise you. And your plants will thank you.
Sun-loving tomatoes will never produce abundant fruit if they don’t get enough sunlight, while tender lettuces may bolt before producing much in the way of salad greens if they get too much sunlight. Without enough sunlight, plants die. Without the right type of sunlight, plants fail to thrive.
Just as a soil map can help you take better care of your plants, creating a sun map of your yard will help you see where different types of sun exposure occur at different times of the year. This will help you place plants where they can grow and thrive.
How to make a sun map
Making a sun map of your yard is not hard, but it does take some time - a full year, in fact. That’s because the angle of the sun changes from season to season and you will need information from each season to make an accurate sun map. The easiest way to create a sun map is to start by taking photos in the morning, midday, afternoon, and early evening in each of the four seasons. To make this job easy to remember, you might want to set aside the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices for this task. If you aren’t that motivated, you can do it in spring and summer.
Select viewpoints that give you the widest perspective on your property. You might want to position a lawn chair, plant stake, or other marker at each of your shooting spots so that they remain consistent, but this isn’t necessary. The important thing is to get out there and take the photos.
To put those photos to work, you can use graphics layering software (beyond me), you can draw a sketch of your property, or use a printed Google Maps screenshot of a terrain view of your property. I start with the terrain view and then trace the image. These images are very handy, I keep copies in my file cabinet. The next step is to decide on a key for each type of sun exposure.
Morning sunlight and afternoon sunlight are different. Sunlight in summer and winter are different, too. Sun exposure is classified this way:
These terms do not give you a ton of information, but they give you enough to make better decisions about where you grow your plants.
Your key will use different symbols to indicate different types of sun exposure. For example, your key may use dots for full sun, dashes for partial sun, slashes for partial shade, and tiny triangles for full shade.
Take your property map and your photos and pencil in the different sun exposures, using your key. For more helpful information, use different colored pencils for each season. This will help you see how things change over the course of the year. Or, you may prefer creating a different sun map for each season and saving the colored pencils for the different sun exposures. How you do it doesn't matter. That you do it does matter.
Why map the sun?
The most important benefit of a sun map is that it helps you position plants, raised beds, and structures, such as garden sheds, properly in the first place. If everything is already in place, a sun map will help you select the best locations for annual plants. A sun map can also help you figure out why fungal diseases may keep occurring in certain areas. Locating plants prone to fungal disease in areas where they will receive morning’s first light will help dry leaves as quickly as possible. And if your summers are like mine, you can reduce the afternoon scorch by locating plants where they will receive some protection in the afternoon.
Retailers are happy to sell you a physical sunlight calculator and apps for your phone, but these are not useful. You can see for yourself if an area is shaded or not. Much like OTC soil tests, the information these products provide is not detailed enough to actually mean anything.
It is all too easy to forget about the effect of seasons on sun exposure. As neighboring trees leaf out or drop their leaves, nearby plants can find themselves in a completely new environment in a short period of time.
Creating a sun map may also give you a better view on how your plant population changes over the seasons. It's pretty amazing stuff!
I have been asked several times what I would plant in a survival garden, so here it is.
Assuming you are talking about a total social breakdown situation and not a Robinson Crusoe deserted island situation, a survival garden (like any other garden) has to be designed around your soil, microclimate, and personal tastes. On a deserted island, you would probably have to focus on fish and coconuts. In a social breakdown survival situation, you would probably want to focus on high nutrient foods that are easy to store. And you would need access to water or none of this will matter.
High nutrient, easy to store foods include legumes, such as beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils. These plants have the advantage of being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use and they can be dried for long term storage. Other good choices for a survival garden include members of the squash family, especially winter squashes, such as easy to store butternut squash and pumpkins.
Beets, carrots, fennel, onions, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables are also good choices for a survival garden.
Perennials, such as fruit and nut trees, grapes, and raspberry and blackberry canes, take longer to become productive, but they can be game changers in the long run. Other perennials to consider include asparagus and rhubarb. Cereals, such as millet, wheat, rye, and oats, might have a place in your survival garden, as well.
You can also grow many common annual (or grown as annual) edible plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, chard, garlic, spinach, sunflowers, and kale. As you harvest these crops, always leave some behind, to go to seed naturally. This allows seeds to fall where they will. Very often, these seeds will grow where they are best suited without any effort on your part.
Herbs and teas
Your food will taste better with the addition of these perennial and/or self-seeding herbs and other flavorings: chives, cilantro/coriander, dill, ginger, horseradish, lemongrass, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, and turmeric. Some of these aromatic plants also help keep away common garden pests. Even tender basil can be grown and allowed to go to seed.
Teas will be the hot beverage of choice in a survival situation, so you will want to add chamomile, licorice, and mint to the mix. You could also use leaves from your raspberry and blackberry plants. Since medicine is beyond my skill set, you would have to talk with someone else about medicinal plants.
Making a survival plan
Living in earthquake country, my family has a collection of supplies, just in case. A survival garden takes that possibility to an entirely different level. If you believe that a survival situation is possible, it is a good idea to get started right away, to give everything time to get established. Before you can plant any seeds, however, you need to take your soil, local climate, and sun exposure into consideration.
Your soil should be tested by a reputable lab first. Many universities offer this inexpensive and valuable service. A soil test will tell you what nutrients are present in your soil, what is needed, and what is in excess. It will also tell you the pH of your soil. Armed with this valuable information, you can amend your soil in ways that will help, rather than hinder your plants. Note: too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Your location will dictate which plants you can grow. Identify your Hardiness Zone. You will also need to determine how much sun each area of your garden gets. Most fruits and vegetables need a full day of sun. Anything less than that and you will have to choose plants based on the available sunlight. Finally, if you decide to plant fruit and nut trees, you will need to determine the number of chilling hours your property gets each winter to ensure you select varieties that will actually produce food. Depending on where you live, almond, apple, citrus, fig, and walnut trees can produce a lot of food that is easy to store. Again, you have to select plants that will grow well where you are.
Other considerations for a survival situation include chickens and bees. Horses, sheep, goats, and pigs might also come into play. You should also put some thought into how you will protect these important assets in difficult times.
Let’s hope it never comes to this. Unless it does, let’s just call all this farming.
If you have a peaked roof, roof gardens may not be not for you. But what about garden plants on your shed, chicken coop, or other flat-topped structure?
We are not going to get into the details of how to install a roof garden here because that would mean talking about moisture barriers, structural integrity, and a bunch of other topics beyond my skill set or interest level. You can check out this article for more of that information.
Instead of learning all the technical stuff needed to safely build a large-scale roof garden, we are simply going to explore roof gardens and learn a little about what they have to offer. Before we get started, we need to clarify the difference between green roofs and roof gardens. Roof gardens incorporate container plantings, seating areas, and outdoor living space, while green roofs are living blankets of plants installed primarily to improve insulation. Sod roofs are a type of green roof.
Roof gardens and rainwater
In cities around the world, rain falls on buildings and concrete, collecting car exhaust, trash, dust, grime, and who knows what else. This polluted water is then carried to our lakes, steams, oceans, and aquifers. Not good. Roof gardens reduce that run-off by absorbing the water and using it to provide for plants.
Roof gardens as habitat
Let’s face it - city dwellers rarely have access to enough natural surroundings. Roof gardens can offset that lack. Wildlife benefits in similar ways. Roof gardens provide habitat for a wide variety of native birds, animals, and beneficial insects. A series of roof gardens can also create a corridor for migratory birds and insects
Basic roof garden design
If you are sold on the roof garden idea and want to move forward, here are things you need to consider:
Rooftop garden plant selection
Rooting depth is particularly important when gardening on a roof. Check this list of plants and their minimum rooting depths to help you select the right plants for your roof garden:
Plants that can withstand a lot of wind and sun are also good choices. Succulents and most herbs certainly qualify. Remember, installing a roof garden can reduce summer energy costs by 25% to 80%.
Plus you get fresh herbs and vegetables!
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea.
There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to put your mind at ease or boost your spirits and there’s no reason why you can’t grow some of your own.
Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. Unfortunately, commercially produced teas can contain pesticides, fungicides, and even heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic.
For me, that’s reason enough to start growing my own.
Traditionally, tea is made by pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of tea plants (Camellia sinensis). Tea plants can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. Tea plants are evergreen shrubs native to East Asia. Tea plants can reach 6 feet in height and they have a deep taproot. Tea plants use a lot of water. Their native regions get 50” of water a year.
Tea leaves and terminal buds, known as flushes, are typically harvested while young. This is generally done by hand twice a year, up to every week or two, depending on the local climate. High quality teas are picked by hand. Leaves are then allowed to wilt before they are “disrupted” or “macerated”. This process bruises or tears the leaves to allow enzymes to start the oxidation process. Leaves may be rolled between between a person’s hands, or crushed by machinery. Finally, the leaves are heated to halt oxidation. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.
If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy herbal teas. Herbal teas generally do not contain the caffeine found in regular tea. Many herbal tea plants are lovely to look at and they tend to be pretty resilient. Much of that resiliency is from the essential oils that gives these plants their flavor. Apparently, bugs and pathogens don’t enjoy them the way we do!
There are several traditional plants to choose from for your tea garden: bergamot, German chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and mint. But you might also want to consider blackcurrants, borage, coriander, dill, elderberries, giant hyssop, ginger, hibiscus, jasmine, lemongrass, lemon thyme, licorice, oregano, raspberry and blackberry leaves, rose hips, or rosemary. Most edible flowers and even dandelions can be used to make tea. [And homegrown tea makes lovely gifts!]
Tea garden design
You can certainly intersperse your tea plants throughout your garden, grow them in containers on your patio or balcony, or you can create a lovely display dedicated to tea. You can build an elegant parterre, an artistic knot garden, a rustic cottage garden style, or something else entirely. Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about gardening. You can try just about anything. It won’t always work, but you’re bound to learn something in the process. And you just might discover something amazing about your plants or yourself. Back to the tea.
Harvesting and storing tea
Fresh tea leaves or herbs should be cleaned of dust and bugs and then hung or laid out to dry, out of the sun. Placing leaves in an old pillowcase laid flat works well. Once they are completely dry, your tea leaves need to be kept away from light, moisture, air, and heat. Air-tight tins and storage jars kept in cabinets work well for storing tea and you can find a great selection at yard sales and thrift stores.
How to make a proper pot of tea
Being raised in an age of microwaves, take-out, and instant everything, few of us have actually learned how to make a proper pot of tea. Different varieties of tea need to be handled differently, but they all start with a kettle of boiling water. You want to use the water as soon as it starts to boil. Let it go too long and the water will taste flat.
While you wait for your kettle to boil, prepare the tea leaves. Generally speaking, one heaping teaspoon per cup is recommended. You can put the leaves into a tea sock, an infuser, or use a tea ball. The trick is to make sure the tea leaves can expand. You can also put the leaves directly into your teapot, but you will want to warm your teapot with some of the boiling water first. This will help keep your tea warm.
Some people prefer their tea strong and dark, while others, like my mother, simply wave a teabag at the hot water. Both are fine. The idea is to soak, or steep, the leaves in the hot water long enough to extract the flavor you prefer. Traditionally, steeping times vary by tea type:
Once the preferred taste has been attained, remove the leaves. If the leaves stay in the water for too long, your tea can taste bitter. Wrap your teapot in a cozy to keep it warm and enjoy!
Which plants would you like to include in your tea garden?
You can create a gift garden specifically for plants to be given as gifts.
How many times have you been searching for that just right gift for a friend or co-worker, when a miniature herb garden or succulent garden would have been perfect, but there isn't enough time? This is what gift gardens are all about.
Then gather growing information for those plants and count backwards to know when to sow. Even in the midst of winter, or during the scorching days of summer, many of these plants can be started indoors and protected from the elements as they develop into the perfect gift for family and friends, as long as they get enough light.
Too many times, we shop for gifts out of habit, often at the last minute. Many of these gifts are mass produced and have little to do with us or the recipients. A gift garden gives you the space and reminder to create holiday gifts by your own hand. These gifts can be herbs, bulbs, canned goods, seeds, or seasonal decorations. The important thing is that these gifts are created by you for them.
We've all experienced those unexpected moments when a gift would be appropriate, but we are unprepared. It happens. As gardeners, we can maintain a collection of stand-by gift plants, just in case. Miniature herb gardens, flowering bulbs, durable succulents, and perennial edibles can all be welcome gifts that keep on giving. [A potted pineapple, anyone?] A special added touch might be a handmade plant label that includes care directions on the back, for those unschooled in plant husbandry.
Seed packets contain a lot of seeds. We rarely plant them all and, unless they are stored perfectly, they won’t stay viable. Also, after growing plants in a region for a few years, many gardeners end up with a collection of seeds that work best in their microclimate. You can share all those extra seeds with family and friends. Create unique seed packets and gift to your heart’s content!
Each year, many of us end up with far more citrus, nectarines, plums, and tomatoes than we could ever eat. Most of these items can be converted in delicious marmalades, jams, and sauces. Herbs can be dried. Nothing say love like something made by your own hand. And you can use inexpensive address labels to mark the contents and canning date of your edible gifts.
Be prepared for any gift-giving occasion by planning and installing a gift garden.
Imagine, if you will, a circular garden space in spring. At its center, a small tree covered with blossoms. Bees and other pollinators eagerly burrow into the blooms and emerge to repeat the process all day, every day, for weeks. Surrounding the tree, at the outermost edge of this garden space, a hedge of blueberry bushes. Between the tree and the hedge, a covey of potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries. Peppering the ground, colorful borage, with its cucumber-flavored leaves and edible flowers, and equally edible Johnny-jump-ups. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Fruit cocktail gardens are designed to provide a variety of fresh and preservable fruits, all in one convenient location. Here’s how you can make it happen in your own yard.
Start with the basics
There is no sense installing all these plants if they won’t grow in your yard. Microclimate and Hardiness Zone must be taken into account, as with any garden design. You also need to know what is in your soil. Get your soil tested by a lab. It’s inexpensive. It’s important to the health of all your plants. And it makes the job of gardening much easier and more likely to succeed. You will also need to know your garden’s chilling hours. All this information will help you select plants suited to your yard.
The fruit cocktail theme
Themed gardens pull an area together with a shared concept. This makes plant selection and garden design a lot easier. The fruit cocktail garden theme starts with a fruit tree at its center, surrounds the area with a hedge or border, and fills the space with other fruit-bearing plants. You can also add artistic touches, such as statuary, a birdbath, or a nice bench. Let’s start with your tree.
Most modern fruit trees are two different trees grafted onto one another. Root stocks are selected for their ability to produce strong root systems and the aboveground portion is selected for fruit producing abilities, as well as pest and disease resistance. This is why planting seeds from your apple or that peach pit almost never works out the way you expect. This is especially true of apples.
Dwarf trees are an excellent choice for backyard gardens. Dwarf trees rarely grow larger than 10’ high and are easier to manage in the home landscape. When selecting a tree for your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to note the chilling hours. Trees are hardwired to go through seasonal changes before setting fruit. If winter temperatures are not cold enough, long enough, your tree will never produce fruit. At the other end of that spectrum, if you opt for a banana tree, you need to protect it from frost damage in winter. While you can select any fruit tree as the centerpiece of this garden, fruit cocktail trees are especially appropriate. Just be sure to use the proper planting depth, or your fruit tree will die within a few short and unproductive years.
What are fruit cocktail trees?
You may have seen them in garden catalogs. Also known as fruit salad trees and family trees, these mostly dwarf varieties are created by grafting scions, or pencil-thin twigs, from several trees onto a host tree. The scions and host must all be in the same genus for this to work. Popular examples include:
There are also family trees that provide several different varieties of the same fruit on one tree. You may have a single apple family tree that produces Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, and Honeycrisp, all on a single tree. The same can be done with practically any fruit tree species. One particularly impressive fruit cocktail tree produces 40 different fruits.
New York artist and professor, Sam Van Aken, creates trees with 40 different types of fruit growing on them. His Tree of 40 includes several varieties of stone fruits, all grafted onto a single tree.
Hedge or border?
The next step in designing your fruit cocktail garden is to select plants for the outer edge. You can create a hedge out of low-growing blueberries, a border with strawberry plants, or something else entirely. You might decide to encircle your fruit cocktail garden with melon or watermelon vines, a blackberry bramble, or delicious groundcherries. Watch out for those blackberries, though. They are tenacious and they will spread. Another possibility is small raised beds, for easy access and as a way to limit plants with invasive natures.
Other possibilities for your fruit cocktail garden
You can put those renegade blackberries into the miniature raised beds or attractive containers. Raspberries and currants can be grown the same way, just be sure to use containers large enough for mature root systems. Raspberry, blackberry, and currant roots spread out more than they dive. Containers need to be at least 20” deep and as wide as possible.
Be sure to mulch the spaces between the border, the tree, and the containers with aged compost or free arborist wood chips, providing several inches of bare ground between the mulch and the tree trunk. You can intersperse this area with herbs, such as greens and purple basil, and edible flowers, including carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), or primrose (Primula vulgaris).
As you design your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to consider the mature sizes of all the plants and their appearance throughout the seasons. You want your plants to have the space they need and you want your garden to look lovely year round.
Fruit cocktail gardens can stand alone or be incorporated into children’s gardens. Either way, you are going to love how delicious your new garden space can be!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!