Phase I of the Garden: The Bare Bones

| 5/15/2009 11:44:03 AM

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgMy spring project this year has been the new hillside garden. Mostly shade to partial shade, I think it would be pretty planted with a few Eastern Canadian Hemlocks, one of our most graceful native evergreens, and lots of rhododendron, don’t you? But no, no, no – the only thing it’d be in a year or two is “pretty” dead. When planting a garden all site conditions need to be taken into account – the amount of sunlight, moisture, wind, and what soil types are present. Although hemlocks and rhodos grow in shade, they can not handle the conditions in this particular garden: the wind, heavy soils and sand, and eventual inconsistent watering.

Landscaping is like building a house – you start from the ground up, and hopefully in the case of a garden, the foundation is composed of good soil. If not, don’t fret – even in poor soils, a garden need not be doomed to failure. The 300-and-something yards of soil we had brought in last fall to bury an old, crumbling and poorly built retaining wall, came from a construction site, and is very typical of the soil in this area – there was very little top soil. Here, it’s said if you don’t have clay, you have sand. The new garden is comprised of both; there are areas of heavy clay, and other areas are sandy. I’ll be working with what I have – I’m adding no topsoil or additional soil amendments.

I’ll also be practicing elements of xeriscaping; once established, most of the garden will receive little-to-no supplemental watering except what nature provides. Mention “xeriscaping” and many people wave their hands in dismissal, having a vision of a harsh, barren landscape of desert-type plants and rocks. Some of the misconception comes from the word xeriscaping itself. The “x” is pronounced as a “z,” which leads people to think “zeroscaping,” a term that is sometimes used as a synonym for a xeriscape, but one that is very misleading. Other terms synonymous with xeriscape are water-conserving landscaping, drought-tolerant landscaping, and my favorite, Smart Scaping.

With careful selection, the plants I introduce to the adverse conditions of this garden will thrive and provide a lush landscape not only beautiful, but environmentally sound once they are established. There are those words in italics again – “once established.” Few plants, if any, can be stuck in the ground to fend for themselves until they develop a root system strong enough to pull them through periods of drought. It could take one to two years before I can stop providing consistent water to this area.

The trees that frame the garden are already established. A large, mature maple provides most of the shade. An elm, a serviceberry, smoketree, a white spruce, and two clumps of river birch serve as a backdrop. When planning a landscape, work from large to small; after the trees, comes the shrubs – the bones of the garden.

After the shrubs are planted, the garden starts to take shape

Cindy Murphy
5/26/2009 11:14:11 PM

Oooo, Dave - I'm glad your plants are doing so well and not only survived your time away, but are thriving! I'd like to take some credit, but I'm sure it's every bit your doing. It sounds like your dribble/dripper system did the trick - that and all the extra care you've been giving them. We've had our first couple harvests of mustard greens and spinach. The mustard greens are coming on like gang-busters. The spinach not so much; only about half of what I planted is doing well. The dog ran through that part of the garden, disturbing the little seedlings when they just started to poke their noses out of the ground. Between what is doing well though, and with all the mustard greens, we have more than enough for salads, hot dishes, and will probably have plenty to freeze too. The hillside garden is coming along great - almost done actually. It NEEDS to be done - I've got to move on, and finish other projects I've put on the back burner while working on the garden; housework comes immediately to mind. Look for the finished project (as finished as it's going to get this spring) next week, I think. Comparing it to the photos in this post, you won't recognize it now! Meantime, I just sent another post to the kindly Grit editors. I was in the potting mood last week; lots of begonias in this one.

Nebraska Dave
5/26/2009 10:12:02 PM

Cindy, I’m back from my trip and good grief the plants not only survived, but out grew my wildest expectations. I planted a bush tomato plant just for decoration and experimentation more than any thing else. I gave it a dose of Miracle Grow before I left. Good gracious that plant jumped a foot while I was gone. It’s loaded with blossoms. I need a bigger support. Sheesh, I just can’t believe how well it’s done. All the other plants I mixed Miracle Grow time release granules in the soil. The Marigolds are just about ready to pop a second crop of blooms, begonias are starting to really take off, and the glads that were just peaking through the soil when I left are a good 13 to 14 inches up now. It’s got to be your green thumb advice, Cindy, coming through cyberspace that has super started my container garden. I just had to take a flashlight walk out to the earth bound garden plot where 3 tomato and three green pepper plants call home. I quickly stuck them in the dirt and set up the sprinkler to water 15 minutes each day while I was away. The spindly little plants that were shoved in the dirt before I left are now a good 6 or 7 inches above ground level. I haven’t even fed them yet. I did cover the garden plot with year old compost to keep the weeds down so maybe the 15 minute watering has leached the compost nutrients down into the soil to feed the plants. I so appreciate all the advice you have given me the last couple months. How is the xeriscaping coming along?

Cindy Murphy
5/20/2009 7:03:22 AM

Hi, Dave. I've never had dandelion greens in a salad, though it's something I meant to try earlier this spring. I've heard they're best if you pick them before they flower, when the leaves are still small and tender. Too late now - I was too busy working in the garden to notice the dandelions until they were already blooming. I've never had dandelion wine either, though my aunt made it. I was too young at the time to give it a try, but remember the adults talking about how good it was. It's kind of interesting that dandelions were brought into this country by the European settlers as a pot-herb; they were planted right outside the kitchen door for easy access. Yep, it's an interesting concept to actually plant what naturally grows in an area; it would definitely curtail the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and conserve water at the same time. A xeriscape though, doesn't have to include strictly native plants. They're a natural choice, of course, but there are many non-natives that can be considered xeric plants too. Dandelions (if they were considered to be gardenally correct) would fall into the xeric plant category for sure. HA! I'm glad your dribble/dripper system is working well! You've got to let me know if you find any casualities upon your week's return. Hope not; I'm pulling for you to leave your planticide tendencies behind this year!

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