Do you have a spot where nothing (but weeds) will grow? Do you have a patch of lawn you’d rather use for growing food? No-dig gardening may be the answer.
Digging out a lawn is hard work, and it damages the living things that help soil stay healthy. Areas of ground that regularly fail to support plant life often have poor soil structure and are lacking beneficial soil microorganisms. No-dig gardening uses layers of organic material to create the conditions needed for worms and other invertebrates, plant roots, and soil microorganisms, to transform a barren or compacted piece of ground into a friable, fertile place to grow healthy food.
No-dig gardening is the opposite of traditional cultivation. For thousands of years, we have drilled holes, cut furrows, and plowed up the land we use to grow food. Traditional cultivation provides many benefits. It hides crop seeds from birds and other seed eaters, removes perennial weed roots, exposes pest eggs and larvae to predators, and it loosens the soil (sort of).
All those chemicals and disruptions are creating problems, and we need sustainable solutions. No-dig gardening may be one of those solutions.
Natural processes that have evolved over millions of years rarely result in furrows being dug in the ground. Instead, leaves, seeds, flowers, fruit, blood, urine, feces, and dead insects and animals all fall to the ground and lay on the surface. This mix is then walked on, blown around, and rained on until it is ground into tiny bits. These tiny bits of organic material are then pulled into the soil by worms and other invertebrates, and gazillions of microorganisms, that all convert organic matter into mineral elements plants need to grow and thrive. These processes also create soil with important spaces, called macropores and micropores, that allow the soil to breathe, and make room for water and roots to move freely. This nurtures soil microbes, which generate biologically active enzymes, vitamins, antibiotics, and glomalin (the glue that holds soil particles together). [Did you know that plants release one-third of all the organic matter they generate through their roots, to attract and feed nearby soil microbes? Pretty cool, eh?]
So, maybe we don’t need to dig to be able to garden…
How to no-dig gardening works
Clearly, if you are going to plant a bare root tree, you need to dig a hole. But, if you have a patch of ground that you want to convert into a garden bed, digging is not necessary in most cases. Instead of digging up weeds and existing, unwanted plants, you simply smother them with a 3 to 4” layer of organic material, be it compost, aged manure, wood chips, or whatever you have handy.
Benefits of no-dig gardening
First, let’s face it, digging is work. If your soil is heavy clay, like mine used to be, it’s damn near impossible to break ground in summer without power tools. In addition to saving your back, no-dig gardening leaves the complex world of soil life alone, to do it’s thing. This means beneficial fungi and bacteria, worms, and other invertebrates can go about their business, eating and pooping, unmolested, converting organic matter into plant food, and improving soil structure and texture as they go.
This is an excellent way to put those autumn leaves, and all that yard and kitchen waste to good use. Placing all that organic matter on top, rather than digging it in, reduces the number of weeds you have to deal with, and it encourages worms to come up to the surface and grab a bite before heading back down to safety. All that worm traffic helps aerate the soil.
No-dig gardening reduces erosion. Every time you dig or plow, you are exposing more soil surface area to sun, wind, and rain, which can lead to erosion. Over time, this exposed area develops a protective crust that repels water, interfering with the absorption of rain and irrigation water.
No-dig gardening also reduces soil compaction. Here me out on this: as you rototill, dig, or plough the soil, one layer gets churned up and aerated. Below that level, however, everything gets compressed, potentially creating hardpan, or plow pan, an impenetrable barrier to delicate roots.
So, why wouldn’t you want to try no-dig gardening?
Drawbacks to no-dig gardening
The first downside to no-dig gardening is that a lot of mulch and compost are needed on a regular basis. If you’re like me and raise your own chickens, this is not a problem. Or, if you live near a stable, manure is readily available, just be sure to age it first. If you have seriously compacted soil, no-dig gardening can and will, eventually, improve soil structure and texture enough to make it easier for plant roots, but it will take some time. [One of the easiest ways to reduce soil compaction in the garden is to install designated paths. This is true regardless of what gardening method you use.] Finally, because decomposition is occurring all around your garden plants, you may find that snail and slug, sowbug, and gopher populations skyrocket. While they are there to eat (and breakdown) all that compost, they may find your lettuce and young seedlings irresistible.
How to create a no-dig garden patch
If you want to try no-dig gardening, start with a small patch. First, water the area well. If there are any large, perennial weeds present, cut them off at ground level and place a piece of unwaxed cardboard or several layers of packing paper or newspaper over the area. Water the area again. Then, cover your patch lasagne-style with layers of aged compost or manure, straw, mulch, and other organic material, water it, and let it settle for a few days. While it may take a year or more for the benefits of no-dig gardening to fully take effect, you can plant large, spreading plants, such as pumpkins or squash in this patch right away, assuming its the right time of year. As the organic matter breaks down, simply add more layers on top and let nature do all the work. I use this method in my raised beds, adding organic material as a repeated top dressing.
Once your no-dig garden is established, you can install new plants by simply clearing an opening with a dibble, your hand, or other garden tool, and water around it. No-dig gardening may not be the cure-all to your back and garden problems, but it is certainly worth a try!
Good fences make good neighbors.
Fences in and around your garden can create spaces, cause problems, or they can be sturdy helpers. How do fences impact your garden?
Fences add perspective
While some gardeners (farmers) prefer wide-open, Nebraska-style landscapes, fencing can create manageable spaces. Short fences can line pathways, providing support to a row of tarragon, oregano, or sweet peppers, while a medium-sized fence can block a view of your pool pump and provide afternoon shade for more delicate plants, such as currants. Tall fences create a sense of security and privacy. They also provide structure for vining plants.
Fencing materials have an impact, too. A solid brick or stone fence has a very different feel than a crisp white picket fence, a rustic pole fence, or a cedar plank fence. The materials and the construction method used alter the look and feel of your property and your garden. They also impact the way your plants grow.
Fences as barriers
Neighborhood fences are a great way to keep kids and pets safely at home. A good fence can also block garden invaders, such as deer, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, and rats. Of course, some of those pests will need more than a wattle fence (or a very tall fence, in the case of deer) to slow them down, but fences provide a good starting point. For burrowing pests, such as voles and rabbits, the fencing material needs to go underground a ways to be effective.
Fences and air flow
A solid fence can provide serious protection against strong winds. Rather than tearing through your garden, leaving broken stems and branches in its wake, the wind is pushed over and around your sanctuary, keeping everything safe. Sometimes that safety comes at a price: poor air flow. In gardens prone to fungal diseases, poor air flow is a liability. If you have a solid fence and fungal problems in your garden, judicious pruning for good air flow and proper plant spacing can counteract these problems.
Fences as climbing structures
Fences make it easy to grow vines and other climbing plants. They also provide a great support for espaliered fruit and nut trees. Fences can also be used in tandem with planting containers. A mounted rain gutter with end caps can transform a bare fence into a strawberry wall. Short walls or railings provide the support needed for container plants that a re prefect for growing herbs, lettuces, Swiss chards, spinach, and many other edibles, without taking up extra space. Fences are also a great place to hang garden tools!
Fences block sunlight
The same fences that offer protection from wind and marauding pests are the same structures that can block much-needed sunlight. Most garden plants need at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day to thrive. If you have fences, it is important that you take the time to see how much sunlight nearby plants actually get. While a west-facing fence may offer respite from scorching summer afternoon sunlight, an east-facing fence will only provide that protection to your neighbor’s plants.
Some fencing materials, such as chain link or stone, require very little care. Other fences, particularly those made out of wood, have some special needs. Since wod can rot, these tips will help your wood fence last longer:
Make the most out of the fences in and around your garden or foodscape. And, if you have the time, do an online search for “unique garden fence ideas.” There are some gorgeous, creative, stunning ideas out there!
Sometimes it is difficult to know just where to begin, especially when you are new to gardening. Themed gardens are one way to jump-start the garden planning process.
Garden planning basics
Before you start designing your garden, landscape, or foodscape, there is some important information you will want to have on hand:
Creating a garden plan
Planning a garden can feel overwhelming. Sometimes, the best way to start is to simply select one type of plant, often tomatoes, and grow from there. A single potted tomato, however, is not going to transform your landscape. You can also go to the other end of that spectrum and learn about landscape design, using boundaries, lines, surfaces, forms, texture, color, art, furnishings, and lighting to create your masterpiece. Somewhere between those two extremes is a balance of what you want, what you have the time to maintain, and what plants need to stay healthy. To help you pull your garden together and select plants, you may decide on using a garden theme.
Types of themed gardens
Traditionally, themed gardens have been classified by either a geographic location, a type of terrain, or a historical prototype. Using a theme narrows down your options and pushes you to be more creative. Some traditional garden themes include:
But, there is another way of looking at themed gardens. You can create your own themed garden to create a favorite dish or holiday meal, or it may be a children’s garden, an herb garden, or an edible storybook garden. Having a theme can help guide you with plant selection. Today, we will look at some common edible garden themes, the plants that might be used in those gardens, and maybe a little garden art, just for fun.
Salad gardens are very rewarding, because lettuce and other greens and radishes tend to grow quickly. There are a rich variety of salad greens available, red loose leaf, pale green curly endive, buttery Bibb lettuce, upright cos or Romaine lettuce, dark green spinach, and many more. You can also add color to your salads with rainbow Swiss chard, with brilliant red, pink, white, and yellow stems that can be sliced up just like celery. Oh, yes, and you can grow celery. And cucumbers, sweet peppers, carrots, artichokes, corn, dandelion greens, mustard greens, fennel, jicama, and kale can also be used in a salad-themed garden. You can even add a dwarf almond tree for some slivered almonds on top of that salad. If you prefer your vegetables stir-fried, a stir-fry garden makes it simple to throw together a flavorful, healthy, fresh-from-the-garden meal. Carrots, onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers, hot peppers, even your own saffron can all be grown at home.
Introducing children to gardening at an early age is an excellent way to get them outside, away from technology, and physically active. A children’s garden nearly always features fast growing, dramatic plants, such as a fort made out of sunflowers, or a pole bean teepee. Children also enjoy fragrant edibles, such as chocolate mint and lemon thyme, and fast growing radishes. Unique plants, such as golfball-sized Parisian carrots, and cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons (Mexican sour gherkins), can add whimsy and fun to your children’s garden. Favorites, such as strawberries, blueberries, and cherry tomatoes can create a magical play area, filled with delicious, healthy edibles that create curving paths, secret hideaways, and storybook reminders.
Aside from the meat and cheese, you can grow pretty much every other ingredient used to make a pizza. You can grow tomatoes, onions, and garlic, for the sauce, along with herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme. You can also grow sweet red, green, orange, and yellow peppers, hot peppers, and artichokes for your pizza. If you like, you can even grow your own olive tree in a container, and a patch of wheat, for the crust. And if pizza isn’t your thing, you can pick a different dish, and create your own garden theme using those ingredients.
A storybook garden is a delightful way to add art and whimsy to a landscape. Designing, installing, and caring for a storybook garden is an excellent children’s activity, as well. Nearly all traditional children’s stories can be used to create a storybook garden: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden are popular favorites, but you can use any book you like that has edible plant references.
Herb gardens are attractive, tenacious, and rewarding. Except for basil, most herbs will continue to grow for many years. Rosemary, lavender, and thyme add fragrance, flavor, and beauty wherever they grow. Members of the mint family, oregano, lemon balm, summer savory, marjoram, and sage are best grown in containers, due to their tendency to spread. You can also add chives, cilantro, and tarragon to an herb garden. You may want to add a nice place to sit and enjoy a good book. It’s going to smell so lovely, you’ll want to stick around.
Holiday dinner garden
What if you could create a traditional Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other holiday meal from your own backyard? You can. If you plan ahead, you can harvest an abundance of many popular holiday meal ingredients: beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, pearl onions, fennel, tomatoes, and spinach are just a few of the possibilities. Sage, basil, oregano, parsley, and mint can also be grown for holiday meals. Whatever traditions your family celebrates, you can create a garden patch that saves you a trip to the grocery store and gives you full bragging rights.
Fruit cocktail garden
You may have seen grafted fruit cocktail trees available through garden catalogs. These dwarf trees usually feature nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots, all on the same tree. You can flesh out your fruit cocktail garden with potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries, and then surround the whole thing with a small blueberry hedge. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea. Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. But, this traditional black tea is not the only plant grown for its use as a tea. If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy chamomile, mint, and lavender tea. Other options for a tea garden include lemon balm, jasmine, coriander, bergamot, hibiscus, elderberries, ginger, rose hips, raspberry and blackberry leaves, licorice, lemon grass, blackcurrants, dill, and dandelions can also be used to make tea.
The more pollinators that visit your garden, the more likely you are to have a good sized harvest. You can attract bees, butterflies, honey bees, and many other beneficial insects with brilliant blooms of borage, salvia, and butterfly bush, and by allowing many common food plants to go through their complete lifecycle. Carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, parsnips, dill, fennel, and parsley are all umbellifers. Umbellifers have umbrella-shaped flowers that beneficial insects love. Allowing lettuces, Swiss chard, and others to go to seed also provides nectar and pollen for these beneficials, as well as hummingbirds. The changing shape, colors, textures, and sizes of these plants keeps your landscape interesting. Just be sure to provide a water source for all these tiny helpers. A birdbath or small fountain is all that’s needed. Just be sure to clean them, every once in a while.
Rather than leave creating that garden for some distant future date, pick a patch of ground today. Select your theme and cover the area with some aged compost while you choose your plants and your design. In no time at all, you will be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables and herbs) of your labor!
What’s your garden theme?
Small living spaces do not eliminate your gardening options, they simply mean looking at what you have in a new way. Rather than tolerating a lack of space, you can look at it as a challenge to grow vertically!
Balconied apartments, duplexed mini yards, townhouses, and small properties are often seen as too small to garden, but this is simply untrue. All you have to do is look at the dandelions and other weeds pushing their way through concrete in a dank alley to see that plants can and will grow pretty much anywhere that isn’t completely dark or in the Arctic Circle.
What is a vertical garden?
A vertical garden may be nothing more complicated than strings attached to the top of a fence and anchored in the ground near climbing plants, such as peas and pole beans. It may be a collection of stacked cinderblocks, or large coffee cans screwed to a fence. It may be a cylinder of chicken wire placed on top of a half barrel or a planter, and filled with potting soil. A vertical garden may be an elaborate pyramid, hanging, or other store-bought vertical gardening method, or it can be something scrounged from your neighbor’s curb, or something repurposed from the garage or attic. Keep in mind, there are plenty of free options! The fundamental idea behind vertical gardening is that, rather than traditional, horizontal rows at ground level, a vertical garden makes use of several different methods to grow plants up.
Here are just a few fun and easy vertical container gardening ideas:
The point I’m trying to make here is that the only thing limiting your vertical garden is your imagination - and sunlight.
Sunlight is often the most limiting factor when it comes to growing plants in tight spaces or indoors. This is not a time for guessing. You need to know how much sunlight actually reaches each area. For the uninitiated, sunlight exposure is defined as:
If you try growing sun-loving plants in an area with inadequate light levels, the plants will get long-stemmed (‘leggy’) and weak. This is called etiolation. Often, these plants will look pale or bleached, and they usually die. For each space that you have identified, take the time to note when it receives direct sunlight, and for how long. This information can make or break your vertical garden.
You need to select plants that are suited to the available sunlight. Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers need full sun, while root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, and potatoes, can perform beautifully in partial sun, partial shade, or dappled sun. Salad greens and other leafy vegetables can grow very nicely in full shade or dappled sun. Herbs need sunlight, but they are a pretty tolerant bunch. Once you have identified how much sunlight is available, and the types of plants you want to grow, then comes container selection!
Choosing your containers
Different plants have different types of roots. If you want to grow plants with taproots, your containers will need to be deeper. Plants with fibrous root systems need more lateral space.
Note: There are countless images of amazing and inspiring vertical gardens online. Keep in mind that many of the plants pictured are not actually growing. Very often, they are well hydrated, cut plants, put in place just for the photo shoot. Do not use these images to guide you in your plant selection. Most plants need more root room than many of those images imply. Find out about the normal root depth of the plants you want to grow.
Manufactured planting containers are generally plastic or ceramic, with drainage holes and trays that are either attached or separate. Use these gardening container tips to help your plants stay healthy:
Trellises and hammocks
A trellis can be a sheet of lattice, purchased from your local lumber yard, a section of wood-framed chicken wire, a teepee of bamboo rods, a stock panel, or any other framework that supports your plants as they grow upward. If you are growing crops that produce heavy fruit, you may need to provide a little extra support. Melons, pumpkins, and squash can be held in place with net or fabric hammocks, attached to the trellis or fence.
As you go about your normal day, keep an eye open for unique, useful items that are often kicked to the curb by your neighbors. That unwanted pet staircase can be repurposed into a beautiful, space-saving tiered herb garden!
Do your basil plants wither into oblivion each summer? Do frost sensitive lettuces lose their flavor after a severe cold snap? You can use agroforestry to stabilize temperatures and reduce erosion and wind damage in your garden or foodscape.
What is agroforestry?
Technically, agroforestry refers to the intentional addition of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming for economic, environmental, and social benefits. To qualify as agroforestry, four conditions must be present:
There are five different agroforestry systems: alley cropping, forest farming, riparian forest buffers, silvopasture, and windbreaks. In each case, you can take the basic principle and modify it to benefit your home garden.
The alley cropping method of agroforestry plants fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains and more between rows of immature trees. The trees provide protection while still allowing adequate sunlight to reach the other crops. Growing dwarf fruit and nut trees in your foodscape allows you to do the same thing year after year.
Forest farming, also known as multi-story cropping, uses the shade provided by a forest canopy to grow herbs and other edible plants, as well as ornamentals, that perform better in shady environments. You can apply the same principle by planting shade-loving and sun-sensitive plants under existing trees.
Riparian forest buffers
When something is riparian, you will know that it is alongside a stream or creek. Riparian forest buffers can be natural or artificial plantings of trees, shrubs, and grasses along waterways. In nature, the roots of these buffer zone plantings stabilize the ground and filter runoff. In your yard, you can install an artificial creek that increases biodiversity. You can even add some fish and try growing watercress, if you feel like it!
Silvopasture gets its name from the word ‘sylvan’, which refers to the woods. Silvopasture is the practice of incorporating trees and shrubs into pastureland to improve life for livestock and their forage crop. These plantings can also provide fruit, nuts, and timber, as an added income. While silvopasture is normally applied to cattle, you can do the same thing by building chicken coops around trees, or adding trees and hardy shrubs to your chicken run. In each case, the animals get food, shade, and shelter from these plants.
Rows of trees can be used to create a windbreak. These barriers work the same way as fences, providing protection for plants, animals, buildings, and soil against wind, snow, dust, and even bad smells. These barriers increase biodiversity by providing habitat and food for local wildlife. These windbreaks are also known as hedgerows, shelterbelts, or living snow fences. Hedges and rows of trees on your property can provide the same benefits. You can get a bonus when these plants are also edibles.
Each of these agroforestry methods take advantage of natural processes to create sustainable, environmentally friendly conditions that help plants and soil stay healthier, with less effort on our part. These vegetative barriers also reduce erosion, improve air and water quality, increase biodiversity, and provide more opportunities for growing your own food or selling marketable crops.
Backwards isn't exactly a gardening word, but planting backwards can make you look like an amazing gardener!
How many times have you been preparing a special meal and thought to yourself, "I wish those carrots/beets/whatever were ripe!" Or, when searching for that just right gift for a friend or co-worker, when a miniature herb garden or window box would have been perfect, but there isn't enough time? This is what planting backwards is all about.
We gardeners are an idealistic group. We look to the future each time we plant a seed. You can do the same thing by looking ahead for when you will want or need certain plants and sow accordingly.
To be ready for upcoming holiday meals, make a list of all the garden edibles and ornamentals you will want to have at hand. Beets, carrots, sage, cilantro, onions, parsley, sweet potatoes, green beans, potatoes, garlic, chives, radishes, and pumpkins are just a few holiday dinner staples that you can grow for yourself with just a little pre-planning. Simply count backwards, using the days to maturity for each plant species, from the date you will want to harvest, and plant accordingly. This information is found on seed packets, and you can always look it up online. Of course, we all know that natural processes can be fickle. You may want to give your seeds an extra few days, or even a week or two, and you may want to add a few latecomers, just in case.
Remember that determinant species are more likely to produce a useful harvest within a specific number of days, while indeterminate species will spread out their harvest over a wider period. And you can trick those bulbs into flowering at odds times of the year by chilling them in the refrigerator for a spell. Each species has its out chilling requirements, so be sure to do your homework. And put all those extra seeds to good use!
Don't run out of fresh produce or flowers when you know ahead of time that you are going to need them. Instead, plan ahead by counting backwards!
Swale… Doesn’t it sound elegant to say, “The iris are growing next to the swale?” Well, it certainly sounds classier than saying, “Those flowers, over by the ditch,” but swales and ditches are very similar.
The joy of ditches
Traditionally, a ditch is a V-shaped or U-shaped channel that is cut next to roads that redirect melted snow water downhill, without flooding the road. When I was a kid in Upstate New York, hammering open rocks in the dried out ditch in front of our house was great fun. You never knew what they were going to look like on the inside until you cracked them open! You couldn’t play in the ditch in spring, though. In spring, the ditch held water that was moving too rapidly to be absorbed and too cold to be any fun.
Swales are swell
Unlike a ditch, swales are low places that collect water. They can occur naturally or be manmade. You see them all the time next to freeway on-ramps and off-ramps. These particular swales, or contour bands, act as infiltration basins. They are called contour bands because a trench is dug along the natural contour, and then that dug out soil is used to create a berm on the downhill side. Swales collect water that may contain pollutants and filter the toxins out naturally. Since the water in a swale is in a low place, it doesn’t run off. Instead, it is slowly absorbed. Often, ornamental plants that can tolerate pollutants and wet soil are planted around swales. Also, microorganisms in the soil begin breaking those pollutants down into less toxic materials.
Rainwater as resource
We all know that, in nature, rain falls down, is absorbed by the soil, and is then used by plants to grow. Simple. But we have now paved much of that soil. In the United States alone, by 2004, more than 43,000 square miles of land was covered with concrete. That’s about the size of Ohio, and I’m pretty sure that number is higher today. When rain falls on concrete, or other impermeable surfaces, the water runs off and away, carrying topsoil, fertilizers, pollutants, and small bits of trash and plastic with it. We call that run-off urban drool and all of it the ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. The California Native Plant Society tells us that urban drool is the #1 source of ocean pollution. The average 2700 sq. ft. roof in the Bay Area can collect more than 25,000 gallons of water each year. Rather than allowing that water to go to waste, you can harness it for your garden with a swale.
Swales in your backyard
Swales help retain and filter water three ways: slow, spread, sink. First, the flow of water is slowed down because it has a low place to collect. Then, rather than running off, it has a chance to slowly spread and expand through the nearby soil. Finally, the water sinks, naturally, into the soil where it feeds aquifers and underground creeks. All this water attracts the root systems of many of your larger and medium sized trees and shrubs. These nearby plants tap into this resource, which means they need less irrigation water.
Swales as damage reduction
Swales are an effective way to redirect water away from your home, without letting all that water go to waste. Most homes are built with a slightly sloping grade that should take rain water away from your home. This design really helps prevent foundations from shifting, but where does that water go once it’s away from your house? If the slope isn’t steep enough, very often, you will still end up with a muddy yard. Instead, you can redirect water from your downspouts into swales that draw the water away from your house and out into the yard, where it will nurture your plants.
Swales can be beautiful
Swales don’t have to look like a ditch. Instead, they can be made beautiful with river rocks, and plants that can handle the periodic moisture. This would include sedge, mosses, birch, iris, white cedar, azalea, rhododendron, hydrangea, hosta, Peace lily, japonica, ferns, pussywillow, coreopsis, geranium, and scarlet monkey. Heck, if you had a way to filter out the first flush of rain, you might even be able to grow rice! First flush refers to the first 1/2 inch or so of rain that contains higher levels of dust, debris, and pollutants. Before you install any plants, though, make sure that they are not invasive in your area.
Swales can be an attractive part of your landscape. They make the soil healthier, which makes your plants healthier. Plus, there’s less mud in your yard with a swale. Swales can be one part of a rain garden.
Creating areas where rain water can be slowed down and prevented from running off is called watershed design.
Cattle panels, or livestock panels, make it easy to grow vertically.
Manufactured for the farming community, cattle panels, also known as stock panels, are used to modify corrals, create paths, and move livestock from one place to another. Being made for the rigors of farming and livestock, these panels are durable.
Cattle panel description
Cattle panels are made out of heavy duty 4 gauge (1/4”) galvanized rods that are welded into a grid. Most livestock panels are quite large, usually 16 to 20 feet long and a little over 4 feet wide. They are surprisingly affordable, at $20 to $30 each. [Getting them home can be tricky.] Hog panels are similar, except they are 3 feet wide, and the squares are more narrow along one edge. Once nice thing about stock panels is that you can cut out the horizontal rods along one edge to make legs that can be stuck in the ground for added support. If a full-sized panel is bigger than your garden space can handle, have the seller cut it in half for you, and then you’ll have two panels! Admittedly, this metal is sturdy, so bending (or cutting) it takes some effort. Cutting these panels requires the use of bolt cutters and some arm muscle. Gloves are a good idea whenever handling stock panels, too. Once the job is done, however, your garden will have added vertical space and it is easy to repurpose your stock panels as the seasons change.
Advantages of growing up
Apartment balconies, strips of ground between a house and a fence, and areas next to walkways are just a few places where you can get more out of your garden by growing vertically. Not only does growing vertical take up less space, it often improves air flow, reducing fungal diseases and making plants healthier than they would be spreading out on the ground. Healthier plants are better able to defend themselves against pests and disease, so you don’t have to resort to chemicals.
Ways to use cattle panels in the garden
Because these panels are so sturdy, they can be used in several different ways in the garden. Here are just a few ideas to get you inspired:
Which plants get trellised?
Many different plants can be trained up a stock panel: pole beans, peas, cucumbers, melons, and squash come to mind for most people, but raspberry and blackberry canes can also be trellised using cattle panels. Tomatoes, too, can be coaxed into growing up and around these panels, gaining support similar to what they would get from a tomato cage. Grapes, gourds, and even pumpkins can be trellised on stock panels, but heavier produce may need a hammock for added support, especially as some of them can become quite large!
Cattle panels are not your frail, fancy trellises, prone to rust and breakage. These suckers are sturdy and will last for many years in your garden.
Insectary plants are grown to attract and provide for beneficial insects.
There are many insect parasites and predators that can help control garden pests without the use of chemical pesticides. While they may not eliminate all of the pests, insect parasites have evolved into effective predators of the insects that plague our gardens and landscapes. By installing plants that attract and feed these beneficial insects, the need for more stringent measures is reduced. And, hey, who doesn’t want a garden filled with flowers?
What makes an insect beneficial?
Insects are called ‘beneficials’ when they help us get what we want. In the case of gardening, beneficial insects may be pollinators, predators, or parasites. Pollinators, such as solitary bees, increase crop yields by transferring pollen to female flowers. If you have a monochrome garden with no flowers other than your cucumber and tomato plants, you won’t get nearly the same production as you would with a diverse color palette and many other flowers besides your vegies. Other beneficials, such as lady beetles, chow down on aphids and many other pests, like they were a bag of potato chips. A third group of beneficials is the parasites. These insects lay their eggs in insect pests, killing them from the inside out. The syrphid wasp, or hoverfly, and many other tiny parasitic wasps, are very efficient killers and, no, they do not sting people.
The problem with buying predatory insects
Some beneficial insects are so well known that you can buy them. Lady beetles (ladybugs), lacewings, and preying mantis are purchased each spring by the millions, It is true, they are voracious feeders and they can put a serious dent in an aphid or other pest population. And they can fly, which means that if your landscape does not give them what they want and need, they will go elsewhere. This is where insectary plants comes in.
Color, shape, and height
Some insects prefer globe flowers, while other prefer flat landing strips. Most insects see a very limited range of color (even if that range is frequently beyond what we can see). Some insects prefer flowers and foliage that are low to the ground, while others seek out taller flowers with a better view. By planting a wide variety of flower colors, shapes, and heights, you can attract and retain the widest range of beneficial insects to your garden or landscape.
The trick to attracting and maintaining these beneficial insects is to plan for sequential flowering. Of course, your job will be even easier if you select plants well suited to your microclimate, while you’re at it! The choice of which plants to use depends on the pests commonly found in your garden or landscape. These plants are nearly always a good bet:
Where to put insectary plants
Your insectary plants can be used to create hedgerows that surround a garden plot, along a walkway path, or you can simply intersperse these helpers throughout the landscape. Most residential gardens, however, are too small to make this much of a concern, unlike agricultural fields, so you can put them wherever they will thrive and look nice.
Like other plants in the landscape, your insectary plants will need weeding, irrigation, and protection from vertebrate pests to stay healthy. The initial investment of time and effort will make your job as a gardener that much easier, once these plants become established. Be sure to provide your guests with water, while you're at it!
Designing a garden before planting can make your work easier and help you get the most out of any garden space.
You don’t have to be a landscape architect to put the basic elements of garden design to work for you. Use the information below to start creating a workable garden design for yourself. And remember that most plants are very forgiving and your garden design should reflect you, rather than a textbook. When I am designing a space in the garden, I use a “Perfect Enough” mindset. Perfect Enough means exactly how it sounds. It will work, I like it, and that’s good enough. It does not have to look like a glossy magazine photograph. Garden design is part science, part art, and part whimsy. So, grab some paper, a pencil with an eraser, and a rough sketch of your garden area, and let’s get started!
Whether you are working with a balcony, a small rental yard, or a more substantial suburban backyard, there are always options for gardening. The first thing you need to ask yourself is:
What do you want out of your garden?
Some people garden for fresh tomatoes, melons, and herbs. Others garden as a means toward self-sufficiency, while some garden out of necessity. Some gardens provide a sense of sanctuary, while others are working kitchen gardens. Keep your unifying goal in mind as you read through these principles of garden design to create a satisfying garden. The next question is:
What do you have to work with?
These are physical properties of your garden and landscape location that directly impact plants:
Principles of design
Professional landscape architects use specific principles of design to help them make good decisions, and you can too. Below, you will find a description of each principle, plus questions to ask yourself about your own space.
The limits of your property certainly create boundaries, but you can use garden beds to build boundaries within boundaries. You may be surprised to learn that the human brain has a certain affinity to specific ratios. These ratios are described by the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Numbers (below). Research has shown that we feel more comfortable with shapes and patterns that follow these two principles. In fact, that’s why credit cards are the shape they are! Many plants grow in patterns using these numbers, as well. As you create boundaries within your garden, see if you can put these numbers to work for you, to create spaces that feel “right”. You can also use boundaries to keep chickens out of the salad patch, nosy neighbors from seeing in, or to hide equipment. Identify the boundaries you have and those you want to add.
Golden Mean refers to a ratio (1:1.618…) in which adding the measurement of one long side plus one short side and dividing that total by the long side equals the measurement of the long side divided by the short side. Don’t panic! For example, if you have a garden plot that is 61.8 feet long and 38.2 feet wide, you have the Golden Mean. Here’s how:
(a/b = b/a+b)
Fibonacci Numbers occur when you take two numbers in sequence and add them together for the next number in the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …
What’s really amazing about these two mathematical tidbits is that two consecutive Fibonacci numbers come very close to creating a Golden Mean! Let’s try it and see! We’ll use 5 and 8.
13 / 8 = 1.625
Lines are visual cues that pull our eyes along a certain path. Lines can be straight, curved, vertical, or horizontal. Buildings, fences, pools, existing plants, and paths all create lines.. A row of tall cypress trees will draw your eyes skyward. A curving stone path quietly invites you in to explore. Look at the lines that already exist in your yard and see how each of them makes you feel. Do they fulfill your goals? If not, how can they be changed?
Imagine walking through a garden on a concrete sidewalk. Now imagine walking through the same garden on a path made of wooden planks, or wood chips, or cobblestones. The feel of the entire space changes. Do the current surfaces in your garden allow for proper drainage? Are they durable? Are they comfortable or safe to walk on? Do they match your Dream Garden?
Form, or shape, has a big impact on how a space is perceived. Shape is the two-dimensional view, of say a circle, while form is the three-dimensional sphere. Geometric forms, such as circles and squares, create a more formal garden. Natural forms, such as those created by meandering streams, create a more relaxed atmosphere. When shopping for plants, keep their mature form and shape in mind, as well as size. What shapes will create the feel you are looking for in your garden or landscape?
Texture refers to a plant’s bark, foliage, flowers, and overall structure. Texture can be coarse, medium, or fine. Coarse-textured plants attract attention and delineate space, while fine-textured plants sooth and create openness. Buildings, paths, and other design components also have texture. You can create a sense of space by putting finer textures around the edges, medium textures within that perimeter, and one or a few coarse textured plants closest to the house. The opposite effect can be created by reversing those plantings. How many different textures do you currently have in your garden? Do those textures create the feel you want from your garden? If not, what can you change?
If everything in your garden was green, it would eventually get boring. What colors occur in your garden during each season? Are there times or spaces that need help? You can use a color wheel and color schemes to add balance and contrast to your garden design. The color wheel refers to the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), three secondary colors (green, orange, and purple), and so on. Color schemes can be monochromatic (all one color, in addition to green foliage), analogous (any 3 to 5 colors that are next to each other on the color wheel), or complementary (colors opposite each other on the color wheel). Keep in mind that the buildings, paths, and other existing features of your yard are part of this color factor, too. What colors already exist on your property? Are there places you can alter to create a more pleasing experience? Since colors have a big impact on mood, you can create the feel you want with these colors:
Garden furniture & art
Most gardens offer a place to sit, to relax, to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Patio furniture, awnings, yard art, pergolas, picnic tables, fire pits, wood boxes, and all the other manmade elements of your space have an impact on the overall feel of your garden. Looking at what you already have, ask yourself if those items fit in with your overall design, color scheme, forms, and textures.
If time will be spent in the garden or yard at night, lighting can provide safety and atmosphere. Solar lights are a popular choice for illuminating a garden at night, but keep in mind that some plants, like some people, really need the lights out to sleep well. Lighting can be used to shine on paths, doorways, and seating areas without distressing plants.
Your garden is your own. There is no right or wrong way, as long as the needs of your plants are being met and you enjoy it. If you are unsure about how to start, consider these common garden designs:
Plant selection is similar to painting a room. You know what you want the end result to look like, so you go out and buy your paint. A week and half later, you’re still sanding, spackling, and taping. Adding the plants to your garden or landscape, like the paint, is the very last step in a process that takes time. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to plan and prepare properly. After analyzing soil, sunlight, and surfaces, lighting, lines, and location, boundaries, form, and furniture, color, texture, and art, you can finally decide which plants will suit your purposes and your microclimate.
When deciding which plants to put near each other (and which ones need some space), you may want to consider intercropping, or companion planting. While there has been a lot of false claims and propaganda about companion planting, there are some scientific facts that you can put to work for you, such as the Three Sisters Method, used by Native Americans.
As tempting as it is to immediately install your new plants, it is a far better idea to place them in a quarantine area until you are sure that they are pest and disease free. This can save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
When installing plants, be sure that each location will provide the correct sunlight and wind protection. It is nearly always a good idea to install larger plants first, starting with trees, then shrubs, then perennials, and finally annuals and ground cover. Not only will this plan help you to stay focused on the design, but it will also protect smaller plants from being damaged as larger plants are brought in.
I know this sounds like a lot of information. That’s why many people hire professionals, but don’t let that stop you from trying. A printed out Google maps image of your property is an excellent place to start. Heck, print a few of them! Then you can explore each of the design principles, adding what you already have and trying out new ideas without picking up a shovel!
Take some before and after photos and let us see what you have accomplished!
In honor of Lily Hardy Hammond’s 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight, planting it forward means adding plants to a landscape that can be gifted to others. It also means designing a garden or landscape that provides year-round food and color.
As one season passes and another arrives, a whole new set of conditions take the stage. Sunlight hours, temperatures, and rainfall make it easier for some plants and harder for others. Planning a garden design for year-round food and flowers can increase biodiversity and pollination, while reducing weeds, pests, and erosion. It also makes a landscape look lovely every month of the year.
Garden design 101
A few sheets of paper and a garden book or two can help you create a year-round garden design. Begin by drawing a rough draft of an area. Next, pencil in existing perennial plants, structures, lawns, and walkways. Everything else is fair game. You can color code the garden design to include sun and wind exposure, access to water, mature plant height, and color to create a workable garden design. This will also help you to select the best plants for each spot. Also, water use can be significantly reduced by planting varieties with similar water needs together. Put taller plants against a fence, medium-height plants in front of those, and then shorter plants closest to walkways. This makes full use of available soil without blocking anyone’s view.
Garden books, online resources, and local Master Gardeners can help you select plants that will provide flowers, food, and greenery for each season. As one season’s plants wind down, the next season will be coming in, providing year-round food and color. Containers, vertical gardens, and raised beds offer extra growing space and extend the growing season.
Edibles & ornamentals
Bay Area weather makes it possible to grow edible and ornamental plants year-round. Cool season greens and cruciferous vegetables prefer our winter and spring. Potato plants offer greenery in the landscape from spring to summer, and harvestable potatoes in the fall. Perennial edibles, such as asparagus, fruit trees, bramble fruits, grapes, kiwi, and rhubarb are excellent anchor points in a landscape. Ornamental plants can provide many different shades of green, along with other colors.
Planting it forward - for others
Life is rarely restrained. Most plants generate far more seeds than are ever expected to survive. You can harvest those seeds and plant them. Cosmos and marigolds go to seed easily. Those and other seeds can be collected and planted as gifts to family and neighbors. They also make welcome gifts to individuals in hospitals and retirement homes. Melon and squash seeds can be started in small pots and gifted to neighbors and local food charities. Succulents are durable in drought-prone areas and they nearly propagate themselves. This is an excellent children's activity for several different reasons and it costs practically nothing.
So, make the most of your landscape and share the wealth!
We’ve all heard about landscaping, but what about foodscaping?
Since the economic downturn of 2008, a surprising number of households have begun to grow some of their own food. Financial conditions aren’t the only reason. Heavy chemical use, monoculture, GMOs, and agricultural politics have also played a role. [How many hands and machines do you really want touching your food, anyway?]
Foodscaping, or edible landscaping, is a great way to make your yard more productive, while still being pretty. Rather than simply installing raised beds, container plants, and traditional rows to hoe, foodscaping uses food plants in place of more traditional (non-edible) landscape plants.
In practically every location, indoors and out, food plants can be grown in place of ornamentals. Before you transform your garden design, however, it is important to find out what you are working with, identify your microclimate, and decide what you will eat, using these tips:
Many landscapes feature boxwood hedges. Hedges add structure and privacy (once they become tall enough). Instead of boxwood, you can get the same effect while cutting your grocery bill with rosemary, American cranberry, natal plum, bush plum, blueberries, hazelnut, or pineapple guava.
Most landscapes feature ornamental shrubs that require regular pruning, feeding and watering. While they may look nice, they don’t produce food for your table. Instead of yet another arborvitae, barberry, or abelia, you can grow lavender, blueberry, raspberry, currants, gooseberry, or bush plums.
Trees and vines
Fruit and nut trees are excellent investments in a foodscape. In addition to the shade, a single orange tree can produce 130 pounds of oranges each year, for 50-100 years. That’s a lot of citrus! Almond, peach, pear, nectarine, avocado, plum, cherry, fig, pecan, hazelnut, walnut, hickory, and apple trees can often produce more food than a single family can eat in a season! Luckily, there are plenty of ways to put food by, and friends and neighbors are usually very happy with gifts from your foodscape! If you have a pergola or apartment balcony, you can also grow grapes or kiwifruit.
Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. Once established, they generally prefer to be left alone. The oils that make them so delicious to us tend to make them less desirable to many garden pests. Rosemary, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano, lavender, bay laurel, sage, chives, marjoram, and dill can all be grown indoors or out and they make great additions to your culinary efforts, without costing a dime at the grocery store.
Depending on your local climate, there are many perennial food plants that can add shape and structure to the garden and put food in the pantry. Rhubarb, asparagus, lovage, ginger, artichokes, horseradish, mint, Saffron crocus, and strawberries are just a few edible plants that will come back each year, providing your family with fresh food.
Many edible plants are not technically perennial, but can be regrown from uneaten parts. These plants include garlic, onions, leeks, potatoes, dill, fennel, peas, and sweet potatoes. When harvesting fennel, simply cut off the portion to be eaten at ground level, leaving the roots intact. New plants will continue to emerge from the same root system.
Annuals are the mainstay of most gardens, but they don’t have to be limited to traditional garden beds. Lettuces and spinach can be used as colorful accent plants around trees, among roses (pictured), or in containers. Sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, celery, and radishes make lovely additions to the landscape, transforming what was simply visual into something delicious and useful. A note on radishes and Napa cabbage: If allowed to go to seed, these plants can provide hundreds of delicious seed pods that work well in salads and stir-fry. The seed pods that fall to the ground can be allowed to grow, giving you an even bigger harvest next year.
Seeds and starts
Most seed packets contain far more seeds than you will ever need. Rather than allowing these potential food plants to go to waste, you can host a seed party, where guests are invited to bring a particular seed packet. Guests then swap seeds, so everyone ends up with the quantity and variety they need to get started. Many public libraries are now offering seed libraries, as well. Seed libraries allow people to take just a few of the seeds they desire, making the rest of the seeds available to other visitors.
While it isn’t recommended, due to the risk of disease spread, I have personally used the seeds from store-bought tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, pumpkins, squash, and avocados, without any problems. I also use potato eyes, scallion, onion and leek ends, and celery bases. Many commercially grown food plants are sprayed with growth inhibitors, to prevent sprouting in transit, but you can rinse these chemicals off in most cases. Some seeds, however, should not be used. Trees, such as apples, are grown on grafted root stock. The seeds from your grocery store apple will not produce what you want to eat.
You can transform your entire landscape into a foodscape, or you can slowly phase out ornamentals and replace them with food-producing plants. Whichever way appeals to you, I urge you to begin the process of providing your family with food grown by your own hands.
Keyhole gardening is a method developed for areas experiencing severe drought and limited resources, specifically Africa. However, the concept is just as useful in other parts of the world and in your backyard. Keyhole gardens conserve water, and they provide plants with easy access to nutrients.
Keyhole gardens are a variation on raised bed gardening. Keyhole gardens are round raised beds that feature a notch in one side that provides access to a composting tower, or basket, in the middle. As compostable materials and water are added to the center of a keyhole garden, the water and nutrients spread out within the keyhole garden to feed and irrigate your plants. The loose, nutrient-rich soil makes it easy to grow edibles in even the worst conditions.
How to build a keyhole garden
Keyhole gardens are easily made with curb-scored old bricks, stones, or cinderblocks. You can also use landscape cloth, wood planks or branches, wine bottles, old fencing panels, corrugated metal sheets - really, you can use anything that isn’t toxic. Use your imagination! Follow these steps to create your very own keyhole garden:
Sources of compostable materials
Most people know that yard and kitchen waste are compostable, but there are many other sources of perfectly acceptable materials for the basket of your keyhole garden or any compost pile. Remember that compostables are designated as “browns” or “greens” and that you should aim for a 50:50 mix of the two. Some interesting source of “green” compostables include coffee grounds and tea bags, often available for free from coffee shops, and fresh manure from local barns. [Manure from veterinary clinics is not recommended.] We throw away a profound amount of compostable “brown” material. Some sources you may not have considered include any paper or wood products (simply avoid the colored, slick, or waxed varieties), dryer lint, vacuum cleaner waste, unwaxed cardboard, and even clothing made from 100% natural fibers. Rather than adding these materials to local landfills, you can transform them into plant or worm food in your compost pile, worm farm, or in the central basket of your keyhole garden.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!