Freshly mown lawn, twittering birds, brightly colored flowers, the crunch of a mulched path under our feet - these garden components create a more enriching experience by waking up our senses. You can make more of your landscape with a sensory garden.
Most garden designs are based on visual experiences or crop production. Sensory gardens are designed with the five senses in mind. A fuzzy leaf, a fragrant herb, and plants that attract song birds are just skimming the surface of this sensory garden experience.
Gardens and good health
Research has demonstrated what gardeners have always known - working the soil, tending plants, and strolling through a garden are good for your health. This is especially true of sensory gardens. They pull us out of our fast-paced, tech-driven lives and back to nature. This is critical for both our physical and mental health.
The positive effects of gardens, in general, and sensory gardens, in particular, have been found useful in helping people with autism, dementia, and mental health issues. Public sensory gardens incorporate walkways that are accessible to those using wheelchairs. They also tend to use plant labels with Braille or other interactive plant labels. Disabled or not, we can all enjoy the experience of a sensory garden.
Accessibility is only part of the site selection process. You will also want to make sure that your site will be able to support the plants you want to include in your sensory garden. Soil structure, sun and wind exposure, drainage, soil pH, and overall soil health should be considered before selecting plants.
Sensory garden plant selection requires that we consider different aspects of plants than we might otherwise think about. Instead of selecting the meatiest tomato variety, the most prolific beans, or the sweetest melons, we must think about all of our senses. How will a specific variety feel when touched? Is it brightly colored? How will it sound as a breeze passes? Will it attract buzzing bees or songbirds? Does it have an aroma? Is it safe to eat?
Of course, our senses do not exist in isolation. If you walk across a sidewalk, followed by cobblestones, and then over a pile of pinecones, the sounds, smells, and sights will change with each experience. As you look through seed catalogs and your own seed collection, which plant varieties will be suitable to a sensory garden? Let us explore each of the senses for some ideas. Before we do that, however - a word on native plants.
For ease of care and to increase biodiversity, consider native plants for each of your senses. Native plants are already suited to your microclimate and to the local wildlife, reducing the need for irrigation and protection from pests and diseases.
Now let’s start planning a sensory garden!
Most of us rely very heavily on sight, often taking it for granted. But visual aspects of a sensory garden are more than just brightly colored flowers, leaves, and stems. As with any other garden design project, other visual considerations include lines, shapes, and textures.
Fences, pathways, buildings, and hedgerows create visual lines that the eye will follow. The shapes of plants, raised beds, trellising, and the overall space contribute to the experience. Textures of bark, foliage, flowers, and walkways change how we feel about a space. Garden art, tree cages, furniture, and lighting also impact the visual aspect of a landscape.
Some plants that provide bright colors and contrasting shapes include:
Twittering songbirds, a hummingbird in flight, and buzzing bees can bring a garden to life. Water features, such as a babbling creek, a burbling fountain, or the sound of birds splashing about in a birdbath also add a new dimension to your landscape. So can wind chimes, spinning pinwheels, and rustling stems and seed heads. You can increase the variety of sounds in your sensory garden with native plants that attract birds and insects, and plants that make noise as they move. Cereals, such as barley, millet, and sorghum, and pseudocereals, like quinoa and buckwheat, rustle nicely in stray breezes. Insectary plants, such as borage, lavender, and yarrow, will attract a variety of insects and birds with all their twitterings, chirping, and other sounds of nature.
Scent can trigger powerful emotions, take us back in time, or lift our mood. Scent is so powerful that entire gardens are designed specifically with scent in mind. These scent gardens are a type of sensory garden.
If you brush your hand across a rosemary shrub or rub a tomato leaf between your fingers, there is no mistaking those heady aromas. Think of how tiny white citrus blossoms can fill an area with their sweet fragrance. Many herbs contain essential oils that can fill your sensory garden with a variety of scents. Chamomile, cilantro, dill, lemon balm, mint, and tarragon are just a few of the scented edibles you may already have in your landscape. Other plants with strong aromas include curry plants, lavender, and salvia.
Pet a moss covered rock, stroke the bark of a tree, or hold a ripe orange in your hand. In each case, your finger tips will experience something entirely different. Fuzzy sage, lacy fennel, and ticklish thyme offer unique textures and scents, especially if you close your eyes.
Taste is is one aspect of garden design most often neglected. You wouldn’t go to a public garden and think about tasting the plants, unless you were a toddler. Which reminds me, if young children will be participating in your sensory garden, be sure to avoid potentially toxic plants. You also need to make sure that these plants haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals, or come into contact with fresh manure. You want the plants in your sensory garden to look and be good enough to eat.
Choosing plants for their taste, to nibble them where and as they are, can be a lot of fun. My chocolate mint plant always surprises visitors. Tentative chewing of a raw leaf turns into a look of delight as a peppermint patty appears on their taste buds!
Did you know that borage leaves taste like cucumber? Or that nasturtiums are edible flowers? Basil, cherry tomatoes, chives, mint, and parsley can be enjoyed au natural, fresh from the landscape. Fruit and nut trees provide delicious tastes when in season, plus they offer shade from the sun in summer and textural experiences year round.
The goal of your sensory garden, then, is more than just visual appeal. It is an experience that heightens the senses and makes us more aware of our surroundings while slowing our heart rate, reducing stress, and adding beauty to our lives.
I think we could all use more of that, don’t you?
There is something about rocks that begs us to play with them. Have you ever considered
creating a rock garden?
Rock gardens, also known as rockeries or alpine gardens, consist of aesthetically placed rocks with plants growing in the gaps. This particular garden design is well suited to drought-prone areas and alpine regions. Rock gardens tend to require very little care, once they are established. If you look closely, however, you will see that rock gardens are busy places.
A world in miniature
Rock gardens create a microhabitat for a wide variety of beneficial insects and animals. All those nooks and crannies create wonderful hiding places for native ground nesting bees, predaceous ground beetles, lizards, soldier beetle larvae, spiders, frogs and toads. Rocks also provide great sunning spots for a wide variety of amphibians and reptiles. These creatures are in need of all the help we can offer. In exchange for providing them with some real estate, many of these visitors will consume a lion’s share of the pests that damage and carry disease to your garden.
Types of rock gardens
Your rock garden can be designed to look like a dry stream bed, a natural stone outcropping, a Japanese Zen garden, or something else entirely. Stones of different sizes can be used to create pathways or visual appeal. Amphibians are particularly fond of rock gardens with water features. Your rock garden can be very formal or it can simply be a bunch of rocks positioned in ways that you like. There are no rules.
Types of rocks
Most first rock garden designs are built with rocks and stones that are already present on the property. You can also collect rocks and stones from friends and neighbors, or buy specific rocks, stones, and even boulders. Sometimes, you can get free rocks from construction sites, just be sure to ask permission first.
When selecting rocks for your rockery, more porous rocks are better suited than harder rocks. Harder rocks take longer to look natural. Softer rocks look weathered and like they have been there forever much faster. Also, moss grows on it more readily.
You can encourage the growth of moss on your rockery by collecting mosses that you like and putting them in a blender, along with some yogurt or sour milk. Puree this strange concoction into a thick slurry, which is then poured over the rocks. Sooner or later, moss will start to grow.
Once you have selected a site for your rock garden, remove all of the existing vegetation. Many of these plants may become too large for your rockery. Next, loosen the soil enough for the largest rocks to be somewhat sunk into the ground. This will make it look more natural and prevent the whole thing from toppling or rolling around. For the best results, create a shape with the largest stones and fill that area with high quality planting soil. Mud in that soil in to reduce large air pockets before adding medium-sized rocks. Repeat the soil addition and mudding in until all of your stones have been placed. Now you can start adding plants.
Plants used in rock gardens
Rock garden plants need to stay small or your rock garden will disappear. Limited by the lack of deep soil and all those rocks, rockery plants are chosen for their ability to thrive, albeit slowly, in well-drained soil. Plants that can survive in dry environments are called xerophytes.
Some of the more common rock garden plants include:
*Lichens are not actually plants. Lichens are shared living arrangements. Algae or bacteria living within fungal filaments in a symbiotic relationship are what we see as lichen.
Much like stumperies, rockeries use natural materials to create spaces that are both beautiful and beneficial. Once your rock garden is in place, make a point of examining it closely for signs of life. Your rockery will end up creating a tiny world all its own.
Pollinator gardens attract insects that pollinate your crops. They also tend to look lovely.
Similar to butterfly gardens, pollinator gardens use flowers and other plants to attract and provide for pollinators.
What are pollinators?
Pollinators are mostly insects, such as bees and butterflies, that carry pollen from one flower to another, resulting in fertilization and fruit production. Bats, birds, lizards, and even people can be pollinators, as well. Most pollinator gardens use insectary plants to attract these garden helpers.
What are insectary plants?
Insectary plants are those that provide food, shelter, and/or egg-laying sites for beneficial insects at various life stages. Those beneficials may be predators, pest parasites, or pollinators. The flowers that provide this service are usually globe-shaped, such as chives and onions, umbrella-shaped or flat-topped umbellifers, as in seen in carrot and cilantro plants that have been allowed to go to seed. Depending on your region’s pollinator species, the insectary plants suited to your area may be tall or short or both, but most are brightly colored.
As convenient as generic pollinator plants lists are, you will have a more effective pollinator garden if you take the time to identify pollinators native to your area. You can do this by searching online for “pollinators in [my town/state]”, and by contacting your local native plants society, Master Gardeners, and universities. In California, the following native plants attract and provide for pollinators:
*Those marked with an asterisk are recommended by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. In addition to adding pollinator plants to your landscape, there are other actions you can take to create a more successful pollinator garden.
While you generally want to keep salt as far away from your garden as possible, there are exceptions. Using a damp salt lick to provide minerals and moisture for bees and butterflies is one of those exceptions. If you have an area that stays damp, simply add salt or wood ashes to the mud. Otherwise, you can put out a dish of slightly salty water. Sea salt contains more important micronutrients than table salt, but table salt is better than nothing. Just remember that salt will damage nearby plants.
Plant for variety
Pollinators are active, in most regions, from early spring through late fall. Ensuring that your landscape includes a variety of insectary plants during that time frame will go a long way toward attracting and supporting valuable pollinators. That variety includes clumps of native plants, suited to your microclimate, and some night-blooming plants that provide for moths and bats.
I use a spreadsheet that lists months across the top and a rainbow of colors down the side to document what is blooming, throughout the year, in my landscape. I add to it as I notice or add new plants. This way, I can see when there are gaps in flower production. Since those flowers provide pollen and nectar, the more I have, the better off my pollinators will be. [The file is too large to share here, but you can email me if you would like a copy.]
Evolution is a relatively slow process. Many of our modern hybrids, especially those with ‘doubled’ flowers, have had their fragrance, nectar and pollen bred right out of them. They may look nice, but that’s all they have to offer.
Quit the chemical habit
Broad-spectrum herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides have no place in your pollinator garden. Even those advertised as “safe” can disrupt the breeding, feeding, and existence of beneficial insects. They are probably not very good for us, either. Instead of chemicals, practice least damage Integrated Pest Management (IPM). If you absolutely must use chemicals, apply them at night, when most pollinators are not active.
Dead limbs can be good
Dead branches and dead trees provide nesting sites for native bees. Stumperies also create habitat and food for a variety of birds and other insects. Just make sure your dead tree does not create a safety issue. Trees are extremely heavy.
Your hummingbird feeder provides nectar for far more than just hummingbirds. Chickadees, wrens, and orioles may also enjoy a sweet sip every now and then. And so will many pollinators. The 1:4 sugar to water ratio used in hummingbird feeders is fine for many beneficial insects, too. Just be sure to wash your hummingbird feeder with hot, soapy water once or twice a week to avoid mold and the spread of disease.
Setting aside just a little space in your landscape for a pollinator garden can profoundly increase the number of butterflies, native bees, and other beneficials you see each year. And they could really use our help these days.
You can instill a love of gardening in your child with a children’s garden.
I learned my love of gardening as a child. It all started with a clear plastic cup, a black sponge, and four hard, dry corn seeds. It was an educational toy which had a child insert the sponge into the cup and then push the corn seeds between the cup and the sponge. Each seed was positioned so that it pointed in a different direction. Water was added and the magic of germination began.
I was impressed by the fact that the first roots (radicles) always knew to go down, while the first shoots (plumules) always found a way to move upward, even if it took some twisting and turning. The whole process still amazes me and you can let your child in on some of that magic with a garden designed with them in mind.
Make it child-sized
Adult-sized shovels and trowels can take all the fun out of gardening for a child. So can cheaply made tools that tend to break. Start your children’s garden off right by investing in a well-made child-sized trowel, shovel, hoe, and rake. A small bucket and watering can will be handy, too.
Create a space
You may not want your child(ren) digging around your prized rhubarb or roses, so set aside space just for them and their garden. You can make the space a fun shape, too, such as a triangle, a butterfly, or a series of small circles. This will help create ownership, which will carry your child through some of the more difficult tasks, such as waiting for plants to germinate or flower.
Ask them what they want to grow
Do they want to grow their own pumpkin for Halloween? Or, maybe a sunflower fort, a pizza garden, a Three Sisters garden, a butterfly garden, or a pole bean teepee. The possibilities are practically limitless. Head to the library with your child and explore the gardening books section. Check out several and be sure to grab one or two grown-up gardening books geared towards your region or microclimate while you are at it. That way, as plants are selected, you can research the best way to help them thrive. [See, you don't have to know how to garden to help your child create a garden of their own!]
Grab a pad of paper and a snack and start exploring all the garden design possibilities with your child. Including them in the planning process is important. As you look through photos and drawings together, have your child create a list of plants they want in their garden (if they are old enough). And you will be there to instill some basic gardening principles and to rule out plants not suited to your area. As much as your child may want their own banana tree, it wouldn’t be a good choice for a beginner. In the beginning, you should keep explanations simple. You can always delve deeper into the information for yourself once they go to bed.
Popular children’s garden plants
You can’t go wrong with radishes. They grow so fast that things start happening before your child loses interest. Soaring giants, such as corn and sunflowers, are nearly always a good choice. Plants with large seeds, such as beans, melons, and squashes are easy to work with and the edible harvest is a bonus. Climbing plants, such as pole beans or dramatic red noodle beans, can be used to create hanging walls or secret hideaways. Mounding miniature lettuces and spiky shallots look nice and are always welcome in the kitchen. Cherry tomato plants are prolific and they provide healthy snacks as your child works and plays in the yard. Marigolds, snapdragons, and zinnias add color with little effort.
Include scents and textures
Children are very tactile. They like to touch, taste, and smell whatever is around them. This makes many herbs good choices for a children’s garden. Chives, dill, mint, and sage add delicious aromas and an edible harvest. Fuzzy lambs’ ears and ornamental grasses are fun to touch, while English thyme can make a fragrant ground cover. Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, pansies, and violets are also good choices. Just be sure to educate your child about how not all flowers are edible.
Plants to avoid
Most edible plants a re a sage bet, but some plants are toxic and should be avoided when designing a young child’s garden. [Especially those marked with an asterisk.] These plants include:
As your child gets older, the risk of toxic plants becomes less of a problem.
Birdfeeders, pinwheels, crawl-throughs, and other special touches can help make your child’s garden even more engaging and fun. Yard sales are a great place to find a child-sized garden bench and unique garden art without spending a lot of money. You may also want to include a fruit cocktail tree. These trees have been grafted to provide more than one type of fruit on the same tree.
If your child is so inclined, encourage them to document their garden. They can create a book of bug drawings, a chart of plant growth, or a photo album of their garden over the seasons.
At the end of the day, after you have both washed up and eaten supper, you may want to curl up with a good gardening bedtime story, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It sure worked for me!
How many butterflies did you see in the past year? Not very many, right? You can attract a surprising variety of butterflies to your landscape with a butterfly garden.
Back in my hitchhiking days (the 1970s), I saw millions of butterflies along the Interstate. They would litter the side of the freeway and create colorful clouds in the air. In my own insect-friendly yard, however, I saw no more than a dozen butterflies last year. What happened?
Threats to butterflies
Butterflies have been around for 56 million years, but times are hard. Habitat loss, pollution, pesticide use, invasive species, rising temperatures, and interruptions in their food web all make life difficult for butterflies. Butterflies are particularly hard hit because many of them rely on a single plant species as hosts for their eggs and offspring.
When I lived in San Jose, California, I learned that there were 144 species of native butterflies. Sadly, that area also has the highest density of endangered butterfly species in the nation. Some of the most threatened California butterflies and their host plants include:
Which butterfly species are native to your neighborhood? How are they faring? Imagine what would happen if everyone added just one butterfly-friendly plant to their landscape.
Most of the plants used in butterfly gardens are insectary plants. Insectary plants are those with the color, shape, and height that appeal to butterflies and other beneficial insects. Common insectary plants include the following:
Members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) also make good insectary plants. The problem with these generic lists is that many of these plants are non-natives, which can cause problems. Even though these plants provide nectar and pollen for adults, they can actually devastate local butterfly populations because the adults see food for themselves and lay eggs nearby. When those eggs hatch, the larvae have nothing to eat. Put simply, these might or might not be the plants your butterflies need. Or they might be perfect.
I cannot tell you which plants, specifically, to include in your butterfly garden. This is because each region has its own indigenous butterfly population. To find out what is native to your area, conduct an online search for “butterflies native to [your town]. The results may surprise you.
Once you have a list of indigenous butterflies, you can track down their host plants. Host plants are those that will provide the pollen and nectar needed by adult butterflies and the leaves needed for egg-laying and caterpillar feeding. Armed with this information, you are ready to design your butterfly garden.
Planning your butterfly garden
Your butterfly garden doesn’t need to be big or formal to be effective. You can scatter host plants throughout your landscape, if you like. Or you can create an elegant parterre. It’s up to you. Butterflies do use sunlight to warm themselves, so south-facing areas are preferable, as are areas protected from wind. A water feature, such as a bird bath or fountain, can help your butterflies stay hydrated. Rocks, for basking, are always appreciated.
There is also nothing saying you have to install plants specifically for endangered species, although it would be nice. The important thing is to get the correct plants in the ground and helping them to thrive.
Adding a butterfly garden to your landscape does not take a lot of effort on your part, but it can make a huge difference for the butterflies. It will also increase the biodiversity in your garden, making it a healthier environment. Other beneficial insects will also be attracted to these plants. These beneficial insects might be pollinators, predators, or they may parasitize insect pests.
And the flowering plants look lovely.
Did you know that some adult butterflies also eat carrion, rotting fruit, and tree sap, while the larvae of some butterfly species eat ants and other insect pests? I didn’t either.
Now we know.
Rather than rushing to a crowded grocery store at the last minute for holiday meal ingredients, wouldn’t it be nicer to simply walk outside and collect the freshest ingredients possible? You can, with just a little planning.
Creating a holiday dinners garden is a form of planting forward. You know ahead of time what you will need, so you estimate which ingredients should be planted and when. That way they will become harvestable as they are needed. And your holiday dinners garden is not limited to edibles. Seasonal decorations, such as flowers and greenery, can be found in your yard just as easily.
This planning process may feel overwhelming, at first. Instead of taking on more than is fun, you might want to select one holiday at a time and build on that over time. Either way, it all starts with a calendar.
Create a calendar
Calendars are handy tools, especially for gardeners. You can use printing paper or an inexpensive paper calendar to design your holiday dinners garden. Start by identifying all the holidays you celebrate each year with special meals. In my family, these holidays are New Years’ Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Mark your family’s holidays clearly on your calendar.
We all have favorite dishes for each of our holiday dinners. In my house, New Years’ Day would never feel right without hoppin’ john and Easter wouldn’t feel like Easter without a ham surrounded by baby beets and carrots.
Whatever your traditional meals include, create generic menus for each holiday dinner. For example:
I do not raise pigs or turkeys in my suburban yard, but including as many of the dishes as I can think of helps me work out the details when figuring out what to plant.
Make a list and check it twice
Using each of the dishes you want to include in your holiday meals, create a shopping list of ingredients that could come from your garden. Be sure to include the date when the ingredients will be needed. Spreadsheets are very handy for this step because this list can get a little unwieldy. You may want to use a separate page for each holiday. Using my menu for the 4th of July, I would start with this:
As you can see, there is some overlap between dishes. [My son, the cook, recently told me that most people have a flavor profile. Apparently, my profile features potatoes, thyme, onions, and garlic!] My avocado tree is not old enough to produce fruit, so I will not include it in my plan just yet.
Nearly all dishes use herbs of one sort or another, so these mostly perennial standbys can be used to create the framework for your holiday dinner garden. The nice thing about perennials is that they are either actively present, or they have been around long enough for you to have canned or frozen some of their harvest.
Common perennial herbs for a holiday dinner might include rosemary, tarragon, and thyme. To make your holiday dinners garden look more attractive and to prevent these frequent members of the mint family from taking over completely, you may want to grow them in containers, placed artfully throughout the garden. Some herbs, such as cilantro, dill, and parsley are not perennials, but they will self-seed once they become established. Others, such as oregano and sage, are perennial in some Hardiness Zones and annuals in others. Once the perennials are in place, you can plan for the annuals.
I love spreadsheets. To me, they make it easy to keep track of a lot of information. You may or may not feel the same way, but they are very handy for this step in the garden design process. You can start with just one holiday or go whole hog with all of them. For this example, I am only using my 4th of July BBQ, but I am including the date for when I add other holiday dinners.
In the first column, list each of your ingredients. In the second column, add the date you want each ingredient to mature. The third column is for a note about whether each ingredient is a perennial, already preserved, or how many days it takes from planting seeds to harvest. Keep in mind that days to maturity found online and on seed packets may be different for your region of microclimate. These numbers are simply averages, but they are still useful.
For each ingredient, count backwards from the holiday the number of days to maturity for a planting date. In the example above, my apples ripen long before July 4th, so I freeze or can them. Then, I see that basil takes 50 to 75 days from planting to harvest, so I count back 75 days from July 4th for a planting date of April 21st. Now, my family loves basil and I plant a lot of it, starting long before April 21st, but I add a reminder in my calendar to plant basil on that date so I know I will have plenty when I need it for that holiday.
If your planting date occurs before it is actually warm enough to plant a specific species, you may need to start it indoors, or buy seedlings at a later date.
In some cases, like celery, I could plant it but I choose not to. For me, celery is fiddly to grow and is so inexpensive at the store that it is not worth the garden real estate. You might feel the same way about onions or garlic. A lot of this will depend on where you live and how much time and space you have. Even if you only select 2 or 3 ingredients for each holiday meal, you’ll be glad you did.
Simply go down the list, counting backwards for each ingredient that needs to be planted. You can add these annual reminders to the calendar in your computer and add alerts in your phone. If you set them to repeat every year, the planning process is done. Before you know it, you will have all the information you need to plant your holiday dinners garden!
There is something about garden water features that makes everything better.
Calming, refreshing, or splashing playfully, water has the ability to improve our mood, create art, and support local biodiversity. And, hey, it looks nice!
Benefits of water features
Water features provide many benefits other than the artistic appeal. Water features can provide life-sustaining moisture for hummingbirds, butterflies, other insects, reptiles, and amphibians, many of which are severely threatened these days with habitat loss. You can encourage honey bees and other pollinators to come to your garden when a water feature is present.
Water features can suit any style, from rustic to elegant, quirky to traditional. Water features also tend to improve curb appeal and property values, if you are thinking of selling your home. If you are even the least bit handy, you can install your own garden water feature. [Instructables has some excellent ideas!] You can get the necessary information from your local library, or you can buy a kit.
Types of garden water features
Water features come in all shapes and sizes. They can be birdbaths, fountains, or waterfalls, ponds or pools, or even a creek or stream. Starting with the most simple water feature, and moving through to more complex features, each has its own pros and cons.
A simple birdbath can often be found at yard sales and thrift stores. You can also make your own with a wide, shallow bowl, or any other container that has sloping sides. While a birdbath requires regular refilling and cleaning, it is very rewarding to see goldfinches, mourning doves, and jay birds drinking and bathing. Add a pump to a small water-holding container and you have a fountain, or a waterfall.
Fountains and waterfalls
Fountains and waterfalls are especially good at transforming a space without a huge expense. And you can now find solar pumps to power a garden water fountain. Fountains add water movement and oxygenation to your water feature. This slows the growth of algae and reduces the likelihood of creating a mosquito breeding ground. Also, the sound of falling water can be very soothing, and it can mask less desirable sounds of traffic or noisy neighbors. Moving water also adds moisture to and helps clean the surrounding air, supporting nearby plants and animals, along with your family. You will need to maintain water levels in your fountain, especially in summer. Also, fountains do need to be cleaned occasionally, to keep water flowing through the pump. If you have more room, a pool or pond might make a lovely addition to your garden.
Ponds and pools
While swimming pools have chemicals and steep sides that can prove detrimental to most local wildlife, small ponds and pools take up only a moderate amount of space and can often be self-sustaining. [And who wants the wildlife playing in your swimming pool, anyway?] A small pond can create a shady sanctuary for weary feet, brilliantly colored koi, and overheated dogs, along with local wildlife. You can take a pond idea one step further by using the soil dug out for the pond to create a sloping creek.
Creeks and streams
Backyard creeks and streams create a magical space in your yard. And these systems are mostly self-contained. Water is pumped from the pond, through a filter, and then up over a small waterfall. Because the water is moving, you get the sights and sounds of running water, the water is oxygenated, and the filtering system reduces the amount of maintenance you need to provide.
Ponds with creeks also create ideal habitat for shy amphibians and reptiles who will feed on pesky beetles, wasps, and other pests. You can find affordable kits that walk you through the installation, or you can hire a professional.
Garden water features add beauty and value to your home and garden, while improving the quality of life for all nearby living things.
Indoors or out, you can create an attractive salad garden that provides fresh, crisp salads practically year round.
Imagine walking over to a container, raised bed, or garden patch with a pair of scissors and snipping off fresh ingredients for a salad. Much like an herb garden, salad gardens can provide a variety of colors and textures to your landscape, balcony, or home, as well as delicious, fresh ingredients for your meals.
Where can you grow a salad garden?
Balconies, patios, raised beds, windowsills, towers, and containers are all the space you need to create a salad garden. You can also add salad plants in with your other plantings!
You can use a collection of artistic planter pots, or some of those long, narrow planting containers found at yard sales and thrift stores, or you can get really creative, using takeout containers, an old wheelbarrow, or any other food safe container. And that’s really important. Be sure that whatever container you choose is rated for food use - many pallets are sprayed with a cocktail of chemicals, and some ceramic pots are decorated with toxic enamels. Once you’ve made sure your containers are food safe, it’s time to start choosing your plants!
Choosing plants for a salad garden
Start your salad garden plant selection with foods you and your family will eat and enjoy. There’s no sense using up valuable growing space on plants you don’t want. To select the best plants for your salad garden, consider the time of year each plant will be able to grow in your area. Check with your local County Extension Office and read those seed packets. You can also get all the information you need right here, online. If you will be growing outdoors, be sure to check with the USDA Hardiness Zone Map to identify your zone. You will also want to identify which plants are perennial, which are annuals, and which are biennials:
Salad perennials — chives, patience dock, Malabar spinach, nasturtiums, perennial rocket, sorrel [If you have the space, rhubarb and artichokes provide HUGE, ongoing crops each year]
Salad biennials — kale, parsley, Swiss chard
Salad annuals -- arugula, bok choy, cilantro, dill, lettuces, mizuna, radish, spinach
The perennial plants will serve as year-round anchors in your salad garden, the biennials may take 2 or 3 years before going to seed, and annuals will have to be replaced each year. Or, maybe they won’t. We will get to that in a moment.
One tool for helping in the garden design planning process is to get a package of 3x5 index cards and create a card for each type of plant, putting all the relevant growing information on the card. That information would include:
You can spread the cards out on a table and move them around, to create attractive, productive groupings that will play well together. Consider the height and shape of each plant. A deep container that features tall, wispy dill in the center, offset by brilliantly colored Swiss chard, surrounded by a bright green halo of short, mounding lettuces will look lovely and taste good! Keep a lookout for hybrid dwarf varieties of many salad greens that fit better in containers. If you are growing indoors, you may need to add grow lights during winter.
As your salad garden begins to produce edibles, remember to continue planting new annual seeds every 2 to 4 weeks, whenever the growing conditions are appropriate for each plant. This succession planting will keep you in salad greens practically year round. The important thing about planting a salad garden is to keep planting those seeds!
Surprises in the salad garden
Some plants don’t seem to play be the rules of botany. Beets, for example, are classified as biennials. This means they are ‘supposed’ to generate a fleshy root in the first growing season, to store nutrients for the next growing season, during which seeds are produced. [By the way, beet seed-bearing stems are lovely - they look like Japanese art.] My seed-producing beets, however, have been providing me with beet leaves and seeds for over 5 years now! I use the seeds to grow new plants, and the baby beet leaves are delicious in salads.
You can add a tiny touch of art to your salad garden with ceramic bunnies, glass balls, or tiny metal snails. Will these features help your plants grow? No, they won’t. But they might make you smile!
Harvesting your salad garden
Many salad greens can be harvested using a cut-and-come-again method. This mean you remove outer leaves, as you need them, and the plant simply generates new leaves from its center.
If you allow some of your annual and biennial salad garden plants to complete their lifecycle, going to seed, you will end up with a perpetual motion salad garden that continues to generate new edible plants each year.
While most salad greens prefer cooler temperatures, if you plan around your microclimate, you might be able to put together a salad garden that will continue producing throughout most of the year.
What do you put in your salads?
Stumperies are not Gordian Knots of the pop-quiz world. Instead, stumperies are garden features that use large branches and tree trunks as their anchor points.
While visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden, I was delighted to discover an entire section of the gardens dedicated to stumperies. Coming around a curve in the path, I was met with a cool, green peaceful bit of gardening that featured logs, branches, sheets of bark, tree trunks, and skyward bound tree roots, surrounded by wispy ferns, colorful lichens, and fuzzy mosses. The effect was soothing and peaceful - and who doesn’t need more of that these days?
Originally described as a “Victorian horticultural oddity”, stumperies use branches and other large pieces of tree to create habitat for a wide variety of shade-loving plants, growing them more closely together than might otherwise be possible. First created in 1865 England, stumperies often use storm-damaged or diseased trees to create a unique shade gardening space, rather than going to the trouble of disposing of those trees.
Personally, I had an ancient apricot tree whose trunk had been regularly sprayed with a sprinkler for years before we bought the property. Rot had taken over the tree and the root system was pretty much nonexistent. Rather than waiting for it to fall over on somebody, we tipped it over and moved it to a corner of the yard, where it now serves as a new growing space and a good place to sit.
Stumperies are based on what naturally occurs in a forest. As a tree ages, it eventually falls. When it does, it slowly decomposes, absorbing rain water, improving nearby soil structure, and acting as a ‘nurse log’ to plants that have adapted to growing on rotting wood. To design your own stumpery, you must look at each piece of wood and bark as an artistic component. Try different arrangements until you have achieved something you like. Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers. Here are some tips to creating a healthy stumpery:
Plants used in stumperies
The most common plants found in stumperies are mosses, ferns, and lichens. Hostas, hellebores, epimedium, rhododendrons, bleeding hearts, and some bulbs can also thrive in a stumpery.
You can encourage moss growth on logs and stones by smearing them with yogurt [or that carton of soured milk from the back of the fridge]. You can also install shade-loving edibles, such as arugula, basil, blueberries, bok choy, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, kale, lettuces, Malabar and other spinach, mint, mustards, nasturtiums, onion, parsley, potatoes, raspberries, sorrel, tarragon, and tomatillos. The perennials will continue indefinitely, and you can allow some of the annuals to go through their full lifecycle and propagate themselves!
Benefits of stumperies
Stumperies create micro habitats for local flora and fauna, increasing your garden’s biodiversity. Beetles, toads, and lizards often find sanctuary in all the hidden nooks and crannies provided by a stumpery. Of course, slugs and snails and other pests do, as well. But birds enjoy the extra perches and snacks, so it all balances out.
Stumperies can be a good way to put old wood to work in the garden. They can hide eyesores, make use of neglected corners, and create a whimsical woodland that adds some tranquility to your day. If you don’t have stumps readily available, you can always contact local arborists and construction companies. Very often, they will be happy to provide you with all the material you need for free. [That way, they don’t have to pay to dispose of such large items.] Which reminds me: keep in mind that, eventually, the trees and branches that make up your stumpery will disappear and need to be replaced.
After writing this post, I think I will have to create a more formal stumpery with my apricot trunk. I’ll keep you posted.
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).
Unfortunately, traditional cultivation also has a bad side. All that digging increases topsoil loss due to erosion, disturbs beneficial soil microorganisms, worsens compacted soil, reduces water absorption and retention, and brings dormant weed seeds to the surface, where they then germinate. We counteract these negatives with the addition of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and more water.
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.
By blocking the sunlight, most annual weeds will die. In doing so, they and the mulch add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure and texture.
Garden plants are then installed in this layer of nutrient-rich, friable mulch. Over time, more mulch and other organic materials are added on top. This is why no-dig gardening is also called sheet mulching, sheet composting, or lasagne gardening, because organic matter is simply added in layers over time, without digging any of it in. Like other gardening methods, no-dig gardening has its pros and cons.
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 cover the area with a thick layer of coarse wood mulch. 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!
One of the many attractions of gardening is that you can play with it. We are not limited to the furrowed rows of earlier generations. You can be as creative as local growing conditions and the needs of your plants will allow. Deciding on a theme is one way to pull your garden together artistically or aesthetically.
Themes provide a unifying framework, a story, and a uniqueness to your garden, and they can be a lot of fun. They are more artistic than simply how you grow your plants. Garden themes make it easy to decide which plants work best in a landscape, a raised bed, or even a single container, by providing a long-term, broader perspective on that space.
You can create a theme based on flower color, leaf shape, or even a particular shade of green. You can create a garden theme that takes advantage of a shady corner, transforming it from a seldom used, mostly wasted space into a storybook hideaway, complete with peek-a-boo elf statues and a reading chaise lounge. [More lemonade, please!] Or, you can create a theme around a favorite book or movie, a sensory garden, or a copycat garden. Garden themes can be whimsical or more practical. Rain gardens are one type of more utilitarian garden theme.
Before you start your garden design, we should consider some garden planning basics. Information you will want to have on hand as you select your plants includes:
Creating a garden plan
Planning a garden can feel overwhelming. Sometimes, the best way to start is to select one type of plant, often tomatoes, and grow from there. A single potted tomato, however, will not transform your landscape.
You can also go to the other end of that spectrum and learn about landscape design, using boundaries, surfaces, forms, texture, color, art, and lighting to create your masterpiece. Somewhere in 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. A theme can help pull your garden together.
Types of themed gardens
Traditionally, themed gardens were classified by geographic location, terrain, or historical prototype. Using a theme narrows 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 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 included in those gardens, and maybe a little garden art, just for fun.
Butterfly gardens and pollinator gardens
The more pollinators visit your garden, the bigger your harvest will be. 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 food plants to go through their complete lifecycle. Carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, parsnips, dill, fennel, and parsley are 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 beneficial insects and hummingbirds. These plants will change shape, color, texture, and size over the course of a year, keeping 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.
Children’s gardens encourage kids to be active and eat healthier foods. They can also inspire a lifelong love of gardening. Children love plants that they can touch, taste, and smell. Feathery yarrow, creeping chocolate mint, sweet cherry tomatoes, and towering fennel fronds are all edible and easy to grow. A child’s garden nearly always features fast-growing, dramatic plants, such as a fort made out of sunflowers or a pole bean teepee.
Unique plants, such as golfball-sized Parisian carrots and cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons (Mexican sour gherkins) add whimsy and fun to your children’s garden. Favorites, like strawberries, blueberries, and groundcherries, can create a magical play area filled with delicious, healthy edibles, curving paths, secret hideaways, and storybook reminders.
[You may be surprised to discover that most children love the taste of spinach when they have grown it themselves…]
Fruit cocktail gardens
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 surround the whole thing with a blueberry hedge. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place!
Gift gardens are spaces dedicated to growing gift plants. Flowers, herbs, and succulents all make lovely presents. One type of planting forward, gift gardens provide the space (and reminders) needed to have that perfect gift ready when you need a handy gift. Maintaining a gift garden ensures you will always be prepared for those special occasions.
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 invasive behavior. You can 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 gardens
Nothing says gardener like fresh Brussels sprouts and baby beets at Thanksgiving, fresh greens at Easter, and juicy watermelon on July 4th. If you plan, you can harvest many popular holiday meal ingredients right when you need them. Beans, beets, carrots, fennel, onions, pearl onions, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes are just a few possibilities. Sage, basil, oregano, parsley, and mint can also be grown for your holiday meals. Whatever traditions your family celebrates, your holiday dinners garden can save you a trip to the grocery store and give you full bragging rights.
Pizza gardens are fun. Imagine a round garden space, cut into wedge-shaped sections and planted with popular pizza ingredients. Aside from the meat and cheese, you can grow nearly every other pizza ingredient at home. Tomatoes, onions, and garlic make the sauce, along with fragrant herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme. You can also grow sweet red, green, orange, and yellow peppers, hot peppers, zucchini and other summer squash, and artichokes for your pizza. If you like, you can even grow an olive tree in a container, and a patch of wheat or cauliflower for the crust. If pizza isn’t your thing, you can pick a different dish and create your garden theme using those ingredients. Stir fry garden, anyone?
Salad gardens are very rewarding because lettuce and other greens and radishes grow quickly. Salad greens, including red looseleaf, pale green curly endive, buttery Bibb lettuce, upright cos or Romaine lettuce, and dark green spinach, add color and texture to your garden. You can also perk up your salads with ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, with its brilliant red, pink, white, and yellow stems sliced like celery. Oh, yes, and you can grow celery. Your salad garden can include cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, artichokes, corn, dandelion greens, mustard greens, fennel, jicama, and kale . You can even add a dwarf almond tree for some slivered almonds on top of that salad. If you prefer 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, and even your saffron can all be grown at home.
Storybook gardens are 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, too. Any traditional children’s stories can inspire 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 that includes edible plant references.
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your tea. Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) can be grown outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 - 12 or indoors year-round. But, this traditional black tea is not the only plant grown for its use as a tea. 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.
Pick a patch of ground today and cover it with aged compost or arborist wood chips. As you select your theme and start choosing plants, worms and microorganisms will be busy working to improve your soil. Before you know it, you will be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables and herbs) of your labor!
Native plants have evolved, over thousands of years, to live in relative balance with local soil, climate, plants, animals, and insects.
These are not plants from other regions or other continents. They are often not even plants native to nearby towns or counties. These are not plants that were developed in a laboratory.
Benefits of native plants
Native plants are perfect for busy (or lazy) gardeners and homeowners. They are naturally suited to your soil texture, Hardiness Zone, and soil pH. Once installed, these plants already have everything they need in a landscape:
Installing native plants reduces your workload and promotes a healthy environment over the long haul. While non-native plants may look appealing, they often require more work, water, and other resources. So, how does a gardener go native?
Going native doesn’t mean you have to stop growing your grandmother’s heirloom tomatoes or patches of delicious basil. It simply means using native plants as your first choice. Hardcore enthusiasts insist on growing nothing but natives. Personally, I find that level of commitment too limiting. Instead, I look for a workable balance. You can find information about native plants from your County Extension Office and local native plant societies. Here are some tips for gardeners looking to add native plants:
Many times, native plants are free for the taking, if done responsibly.
Around the world, drought is never far from our thoughts. Water-hungry plants may consume more than they are worth. Native plants have evolved natural water conservation methods. You can also add native plants to a rain garden or swale to create a natural watershed that slows the absorption of rainwater. This allows more of it to stay in the soil for later use.
Even if you grow native plants for no reason other than water conservation, you will be doing yourself and the environment a favor.
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.
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.
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.
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 San Jose, California, 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.
The aroma of lilacs is intoxicating, and fleeting.
Here in San Jose, California., lilacs only bloom for a couple of weeks, near the end of May, but they are worth the wait. These cousins to olive trees and privet shrubs add beauty in a landscape, and the heady blooms are bound to attract pollinators.
The purple standard lilac (Syringa vulgaris) actually comes in 12 varieties. These small trees can range anywhere from 6 to over 32 feet in height! Most lilacs only bloom once a year, though some varieties have double-flowers. There are also some new reblooming, or remontant, varieties that flower multiple times within a single season. If you don’t have room for a full-sized lilac, you can try a dwarf. Dwarf varieties are becoming more popular in landscapes and as indoor plants, reaching heights of only 4 to 5 feet. Dwarf (or miniature) varieties of lilac are mostly variations on the Meyer lilac (S. meyeri), also known as a Korean lilac.
How to plant lilacs
Autumn is the perfect time to get your lilacs started. If you received an offshoot or root cutting from a friend, don’t worry if it is looking pretty pathetic right now. That’s normal. Simply select a good location and get started. Lilacs prefer well-drained, neutral soil (with a pH at or near 7.0) with lots of organic material. Most Bay Area soil is heavy, alkaline clay that doesn’t drain well. (Lilacs hate wet feet.) If you want to put lilacs in the ground, you will need to prepare the soil first. This means digging it up (but not when it’s wet) and incorporating aged compost or some other organic material (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, that sort of thing). If all that organic material is fresh, it will take time to break down. If you do not have the time to wait, simply dig the “waste burial holes” around where you want your lilacs. The earthworms and soil microbes will take care of it for you, and the lilac roots will find it. The hole should be as deep as the root ball and twice as wide. Multiple lilac bushes should be spaced 5 to 15 feet apart. Lilacs normally prefer full sun, at least 6 hours, but the scorching California summer heat really takes a toll on my lilacs. They end up needing a little protective shade from nearby trees and shrubs.
Growing lilacs in containers
To successfully grow lilacs in containers, you will need to select a dwarf variety and a large container. Lilacs prefer having room to spread their roots, so the container needs to be at least 12 inches deep and 24 inches wide. Be sure to use potting soil with a neutral pH. Lilacs dislike both alkaline and acidic soil. Water thoroughly at planting time and keep the soil evenly moist (not soggy) until the roots have taken hold. After that, water any time the top inch of soil dries out, and not before. Containerized lilacs need at least 6 hours of full sun every day to bloom properly. Many homes do not have that much direct sunlight, so you may need to supplement with grow lights. Stabilize temperatures and reduce moisture loss adding a thin layer of mulch, such as attractive redwood chips, around your potted lilac, just be sure to leave a little space between the mulch and shrub stems.
Caring for lilacs
Lilac flowers bloom on old wood, so pruning should be kept to a minimum. Pruning should be limited to removing dead, diseased, rubbing branches, suckers, and spent flowers. Since flowers are produced on older wood, do not put off deadheading your lilacs. If you wait until the end of the season, the wood that grows in will be too young to produce flowers the next season. If your lilac becomes unruly, cut all canes back to eye level and remove one-third of the oldest canes at ground level. The next year, cut half of the remaining old wood down to the ground. In year three, cut the remaining old wood. Or, you can cut the whole thing back to a height of 6 to 8 inches. This more drastic method creates the best blooms, in the long run, but it will take your lilac a few years to get back to full size.
Each spring, top dress the soil around lilacs with aged compost. Then, cover that top dressing with mulch. This will add nutrients and protect the microorganisms that help your lilacs get to those nutrients. Commercial fertilizer is not recommended for lilacs planted in the ground. Excessive nutrients causes plants to produce more leaves, and no flowers.
Lilac pests and diseases
I have found Fuller rose beetles to cause the most damage to my lilacs. Scalloped leaves are a sure sign of this pest. Lilacs are also susceptible to powdery mildew, phytophthora, and pseudomonas. Slugs and snails are said to cause some damage, but I have not had that experience.
If you already have a lilac, you can take root, shoot, and sucker cuttings to propagate new plants. Dig up some roots, or suckers with roots attached, and place them in a bucket with some water until you are ready to plant. You can also use 8 to 12 inches new growth twigs. Simply strip away most of the lower leaves and place them in rich potting soil and keep them moist (above and below ground) until roots start to grow. Since woody stems can be difficult to start rooting, many people apply rooting powder to the lower portion of the stem. Since rooting powders are synthetic plant hormones, I don’t use them.
While lilacs are not edible, I can practically taste their sweet fragrance. Also, the pollinators who are drawn to lilac blossoms often stick around to pollinate other plants in your garden.
Heat islands: tropical paradise or slow death for trees?
We’ve all seen it, but most of us don’t understand what it means. Naked upper branches of trees, singed leaves, neighborhood shrubs struggling to survive, our own garden and landscape plants growing less well than expected are all signs of heat island effect.
What are heat islands?
The term ‘heat islands’ refers to land that used to be soil, bushes, and trees, and is now concrete, asphalt, and buildings. Before all that development, natural cycles and the permeability of the soil kept things cooler and healthier for plants. All the impervious, manmade materials that now cover up 3% of the earth’s landmass absorb heat, creating a zone of higher temperatures called heat islands.
Do I have heat islands?
Unless you live in a tent in the wilderness, yes, you have heat islands. Driveways, patios, extended foundations, concrete paths and walkways, roofs, sidewalks, and the street in front of your home can all create their own heat islands.
How do heat islands impact landscape plants?
Plants installed in or near heat islands must contend with soil temperatures that can be 50 to 90° hotter than the air. This means, on a scorching California summer day, when the air is 95°F, your plants’ roots may be struggling to survive temperatures as high as 185°F! All this strain takes its toll. Most trees reach what is called a ’thermal death threshold’ at 115°F. Held too long at temperatures above this point and even the healthiest tree can die. Even if they survive, plants growing in heat islands have significantly shorter lifespans and are more susceptible to pests and disease. Also, things don’t cool down for these plants as the sun sets. While we may enjoy the lower temperatures of evening, concrete and asphalt hang on to all that absorbed heat, slowly releasing it into the immediate area, making evenings the hottest part of your plants’ day.
Impact of heat islands on water use
Plants growing in heat islands need as much as 50% more water than the same plants grown elsewhere. Since a mature tree can use up to 250 gallons of water a day during the peak of summer, that percentage can translate into a lot of water! Also, if you re growing edibles, such as cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, broccoli, or cauliflower, in a heat island, the stress can cause these foods to turn bitter, or bolt.
How can you help plants in heat islands?
City managers are working toward reducing the heat island effect and you can. too! Use these tips to help your plants survive the heat island effect:
Since plants that are growing in heat islands are already under a lot of stress, be sure to monitor for pests and diseases regularly, so that you can apply treatments right away, before things get out of hand.
Reducing heat islands on your property
There are many steps you can take to reduce the number of heat islands on your property. Not only will this help your plants to be healthier, it also reduces energy bills (if you use A/C), water consumption, and emissions from energy production. Here are just a few of the ways you can reduce the number of heat islands on your property:
Help your plants and the environment by eliminating heat islands around your home.
Echeveria are succulents native to Texas, Mexico, and Central America.
While most stonecrops are not edible (my plants of choice), these plants serve well in gardens and landscapes, protecting areas that would otherwise go unplanted. They require very little care, are drought tolerant, and easy to propagate.
It can be difficult to distinguish between different types of succulent plants. They nearly all grow in a rosette shape, have thick, rubbery or waxy leaves, and tend to have hairs or spines. They also tend to spread, self-propagating wherever conditions are favorable. Echeveria, in particular, tend to reproduce by generating stalked offspring, called ‘offsets’, that appear from underneath in a behavior frequently called ‘hen and chicks’. Echeveria are polycarpic, which means they can produce flowers multiple times. In winter, many echeveria plants lose their leaves, though not all.
Echeveria pests and disease
Rot and frost are problems for echeveria. Frost, particularly after a rain, can kill most succulents. Leaves that have begun dying off should be removed to avoid spreading fungal disease throughout the plant. Mealybugs and aphids can be troublesome.
Nearly all succulents, or stonecrops, can be propagated from a single, healthy leaf. Simply break it off and lay it on loose soil and water regularly. Once roots develop, you can plant it wherever it will receive plenty of sun. You can also break off an offset and transplant it where you want it. Non-hybrids can also be started from seed.
Growing conditions can cause extreme variations in shape, size, and color. If you can’t grow food, grow plants that take as little care, food, and water as possible. Echeveria certainly fits the bill.
Aeoniums are a genus of plants that take little to no care and look better each year.
While I generally prefer edibles, sometimes you have a space in the landscape that you just can’t find the right plant for - aeoniums might be what you need. And while they may not be a familiar flavor, many aeoniums are edible. You have seen these plants many times before, but you may be surprised to see just how lovely they can become, given the chance.
Aeonium [ay-oh-nee-um] is a group of succulents known to the Greeks as aionos, which means ageless. They earn this name because they are monocarpic, meaning each rosette produces only one flower and then it dies. Originally from the Canary Islands, Morocco, and Ethiopia, these rugged succulents can thrive in the hottest weather. They perform well in containers and can be grown indoors if they receive enough light.
Most of the aeonium plants you see today are hybrids and they can look very similar to other stonecrops, such as sedum and echeveria. The biggest difference is that aeoniums often have fine hairs or spines on the edges (margins) of the leaves. Also, the leaves, which can be rounded or pointed, tend to be somewhat thinner than echeveria. When aeonium produce a flower, it is actually an inflorescence (a cluster of flowers) on a stalk that can reach 3 feet in height. These flowers can be very striking. The surface of aeonium leaves may be fuzzy, sticky, or smooth, and the stems can be scaly, smooth, hairy, or fissured. Plants stressed by drought or sunlight may exhibit red or purple highlights. This is not a concern. It is just what they do.
Types of aeonium
Most aeonium are classified as either low-growing or large. The large varieties include A. arboreum, A. holochrysum, and A. valvredense. Low-growing varieties are A. smithii and A. tabuliforme.
Caring for aeonium
Being tropical, these plants need strong light, good drainage, and watering only after long periods of dry soil. They do need protection from freezing temperatures so some sort of cover should be provided between the first and last frost dates. Too much rain can also cause rot.
Pests and diseases of aeonium
Aphid and mealybug infestations of the plant crown (where the stem meets the roots) can often be spotted by the presence of protective ants. Since many of these plants are edible and they contain a lot of water, many herbivores will feed on them, including squirrels, tortoises, and rabbits.
Being succulents, aeonium are easy to propagate from a leaf. This is best done in autumn, when plants are actively growing. Simply take a healthy leaf from the plant and place it in good soil, in bright shade, and water occasionally. Aeoniums readily self-seed, if they are in a good location.
The range of shapes, textures, and colors make these plants easy to play with when creating a rich visual tapestry in a landscape.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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