A Perennial Food Forest Garden

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

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Do you grow any food in your garden?

We have had difficulty with growing food crops in this garden.  Between poor soil, shade, and a forest full of hungry critters, many of our efforts have not left us with much to eat.  Even efforts at growing tomatoes and other vegetables in pots on our deck, out of reach of the deer, have not produced the harvest we expected.  This community’s squirrels must be some of the cleverest in the state!  Most of the produce ends up in their little paws days before it is ready for us to harvest.

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June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.

June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.  False strawberry plants grow along the border to the left of the photo, untouched.  Tomatoes are perennial crops in warmer climates.

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But I remain interested in finding new and productive ways to grow food in a ‘forest garden.’  In fact, “food forests” are a whole genre of garden in themselves, and there are many dedicated gardeners out there experimenting with various crops and novel strategies for  organizing and camouflaging those crops in order to supplement at least part of their diet from their own land.

Which is what we would like to do, too.  I realized after the first year or so that planting raised beds in the sunny areas of our back garden simply invited more critters to find their way in through our deer fencing.  I won’t even tell you how many tomato plants and cucumber vines simply disappeared in the night.

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Our first raised bed garden in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

Our first raised bed  in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

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Among the things we liked about this property, when we first saw it, were the fruit trees, fig trees, rosemary and tomato plants already here.  The variety of fig selected by the previous owner stays green, even while ripe, fooling the birds and squirrels.  We have had some good fig harvests, although the harvest fluctuates year to year.  This past year we got a few pears.  But the peaches have never made it through the summer to harvest, nor have the hazelnuts.

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June 12 garden at dusk 011

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But I don’t give up easily, and keep searching for new ideas.  Which led me to Martin Crawford’s book, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables:  Low-Maintenance, Low-Impact Vegetable Gardening.9781900322843_p0_v1_s260x420

Now Martin gardens in the UK, in East Devon,  which means some of the crops available to him are harder to come by here in the United States.  And his climate is a bit warmer than ours here in Virginia.  But he also offers very practical suggestions for overwintering many of these crops in cooler climates.

I’ve learned a great deal from this book, and recommend it to anyone interested in ‘forest gardening,’ which is Martin’s own approach.  He focuses in this book on vegetables, and only includes herbs which might be used in quantity in salads.  He also leaves fruit trees, vines and shrubs off of his plant list unless the leaves may be harvested and eaten as a vegetable.

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May 24 2014 vines 049

Milk Vetch is a legume and produces edible seeds. It also adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows.

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And that brings us to the most illuminating thing I’ve learned from this book.  There are many plants we grow for one purpose which may be eaten in another way.  For example, I grow pots of strawberries on our deck, a gift from a friend, and harvest a few handfuls each spring.  Did you know that strawberry leaves may also be eaten?  All of those leaves can be added to salads, stir fried, layered in casseroles, or used to wrap small packages of food before it is cooked.  Who knew?  I’ll include a list of plants whose leaves may be eaten at the bottom of this post.

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Some of those weeds are edible...

Some of those weeds are edible…

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A bonus of many perennial vegetables, and their leaves especially, is the concentrated nutrition and minerals they contain.  Since perennials tend to be very deeply rooted, they have access to deeper layers of soil than many annual crops.  They absorb more nutrients from the soil, storing these nutrients in the roots, tubers, bulbs, and leaves which we can consume.

Perennials also require less effort to grow.  Planted once, enjoyed for years to come.  Many take care of themselves once established, or need a minimum investment of time and labor.  Most need little or no fertilizer and can be grown with organic (chemical free) methods.

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Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.

Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.  Although the fruits are delicious, these leave aren’t edible.

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And perennials are a good investment, anyway.  Once purchased, you have them for many years.  Whether you divide them, save seeds, or take cuttings; your volume of plants will increase each year through annual growth, suckering, and clumping.  Food producing perennials, shrubs and trees are always a good investment for the frugal gardener.

My eyes were opened to the many many plants already growing here successfully which we could eat, if we chose to.  The wild ‘false strawberry,’ Duchesnea indica,  which I yank out of my beds by the bushel each year as a weed, is edible.  Martin suggests eating both the leaves and tiny fruits in salads.  The many new shoots of bamboo encroaching on areas we prefer to keep clear, which we’ve been cutting back each spring, could be harvested and eaten rather than tossed into the ravine.

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Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12" for the most tender vegetable.

Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12″ for the most tender vegetable.

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In fact, the perennial vegetables Martin describes are harvested throughout the year.  Some crops are enjoyed in spring, others in late autumn or over winter.  Most can be eaten all summer, and many can be eaten in different ways at different points in the growing season.  For example, many of the Alliums may be eaten throughout the season by cutting back their leaves even though the bulbs aren’t harvested until late autumn.  Some of the Alliums produce bulbils or offsets which may be harvested before the main bulb is ready to dig.  For each plant described, Martin indicates whether you may eat the roots, stems, leaves, shoots, offsets, fruits, seeds, or some combination of these.

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Wood Mallow

Wood Mallow

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I recently read an essay by Euell Gibbons, reprinted in the current issue of Organic Gardening magazine, about gathering a meal of wild foods in Central Park to feed himself and a skeptical journalist interviewing him.  Originally printed in August of 1968, Gibbons “Survival in the Wilds of Central Park” demonstrates how many edible food plants grow wild with little or no effort on our part at all.  It may require some adjustments to our taste and cravings to choose to use them, but they are still available to us if we can only recognize them and understand how to harvest and prepare them.

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Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.

Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.  Viola flowers may also be eaten in salad or used as a garnish.

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Martin Crawford’s book goes into detail about how each part of each plant should be prepared for eating, as well as giving enough cultural information to allow one to grow the plant successfully.  There is even a section on growing a number of aquatic perennial vegetables, including our native arrowheads, water chestnuts, water lotus, and watercress.  Detailed instructions are offered for growing these crops in a child’s wading pool for those not blessed with a pond on their property.

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The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water.

The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water in sun or partial shade.

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And reading this book, now for the second time, has made me far more optimistic and open-minded about our potential for growing food in our forest garden.

I have a far better understanding now, than I did five years ago, of what plants we can grow successfully.  I know what the deer will leave alone and what they will fight their way through or over our fences to eat.  (In fact, a beloved neighbor recently suggested, as a group of us were discussing our gardening, that we should all plant those things which would feed our beautiful deer.  She is a confirmed animal lover, and I understand her concern for the well being of all creatures.  She just didn’t understand that in planting crops for them, they would overgraze and kill the plants very quickly to the great frustration and expense of everyone.)

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Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

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Now I know that plants with very fragrant or coarse textured leaves will be left alone by deer.  That means that most herbs will grow here in peace.  It also means we could grow artichoke, cardoon, all Alliums, and hops.  Did you know you can eat the new shoots of hops vines each year?

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Food crops may also be grown in unconventional ways, in polycultures with other plants, so they are effectively hidden.  Mixing the tasty with the pungent is one way.  Growing crops like potatoes, which bear poisonous leaves but tasty tubers is another.

Whether you are gardening in a forest, on an average suburban plot, or even on a balcony or rooftop; you’ll find this book about growing perennial vegetable crops useful and very interesting.  There are many reasons to grow some part of our food; and great value in knowing how to gather and eat “wild foods” when needed even when we normally shop for our groceries.

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Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

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I’ve developed a new appreciation for the richness and delicious diversity of our own garden, and generated a good list of plants to add this season.  The Gogi berry shrub, Lycium barbarum, which I’ve considered for the last several years, is now ordered.  And there are several other crops I’ll hope to order over the coming months.  There is a good list of sources at the back of the book, some US suppliers, where I’ll hope to find some of the more interesting “walking” onion varieties.

We will also plant a patch of Jerusalem artichokes this year, which have grown easily in other gardens.  One huge advantage of many of these crops is how well they support bees and other beneficial and beautiful insects.  These are so prolific, once established, that there will be plenty of tubers to dig in autumn even if the tops do get grazed a bit during the season.  They likely won’t though, as their foliage is coarse.

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Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

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I’ve made a good list of perennial food crops we already have growing, along with that list of plants we would still like to acquire.  Have you ever considered harvesting the leaves of the lovely flowering Columbine, Aquilegia, for a salad?  Well, neither had I….

Here is a short list of plants recommended by Martin Crawford for their delicious leaves or leafy shoots.  Some might surprise you, as they surprised me.  But if you’re a bit adventurous, you might want to try a few of them over the season ahead.  Just make sure to check out his book, or another trusted resource,  for complete instructions on how to best harvest and prepare them.

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Columbine in a friend's garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

Columbine in a friend’s garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

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Perennials with edible leaves:

Alliums, Basswood tree, Beech tree, Cardoon, Chard, Chives, Columbine,  Dandelion, Daylily, Elephant Garlic, False Strawberry, Gogi Berry, Grape, Fennel, Hollyhock (Mallow), Hops,  Horseradish, Hosta shoots, Lemon Balm, Linden tree, Mints, Mulberry tree, Ostrich Fern (shoots only) Plantain, Pokeweed, Rosemary, Sage, Strawberry, Sweet Potato, Solomon’s Seal (shoots),  Thyme, Violets

Woodland Gnome 2015

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August 15, 2014 014

 

 

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“Deer Resistant” Flowers and Free Bulbs

Easy To Grow Bulbs has a special offer for those of us who enjoy frequent visits from deer.

I found it in my email earlier today:

Don’t Let Bambi Turn Your Garden Into A Salad Bar

Photo courtesy of Easy To Grow Bulbs, from their email earlier today.

Photo courtesy of Easy To Grow Bulbs, from their email earlier today.

Deer. Squirrels. Rabbits. Chipmunks. To some they’re just cute, furry woodland creatures. To gardeners they are so much more … they’re a nuisance!

There is no real way to “deer-proof” a garden, when animals are truly hungry they will eat anything (even wood siding) in order to survive.

Not to worry, there is a way to live in harmony with these animals and still have a beautiful garden.

By putting these less-than-palatable plants in your garden you’ll ensure that your garden is passed over in favor of the more delicious plants in the neighborhood.

Want to add a few critter resistant bulbs to your garden for FREE? You’re in luck!
To get your FREE PACK OF 5 LEUCOJUM BULBS just write “BAMBI” in the comment box on the final page of checkout (before you hit “place order”).

We’ll make sure you get them AND the FREE Adventure Pack when you place an order of $50 or more! Don’t wait, this special offer ends on August 26th!

That is a very nice offer, a value of $8.95 were you to order a package of 5 bulbs.

But even nicer is the extensive list of plants and other products to help outwit the deer!

Have you visited the Easy To Grow Bulbs site before?  This is one of my favorite online merchants.  I’m always pleased with the product they send and with their customer service.

This morning’s email contains a link to a special page of over 300 products known to withstand deer.

Many are spring flowering bulbs, but there is also a selection of flowering bulbs to carry one right through the season until late summer.

Belladonna Lily, blooming in my neighbor's front yard in late July

Belladonna Lily, blooming in my neighbor’s front yard in late July

My personal bonus for taking time to peruse their list was in recognizing a plant, growing in a neighbor’s front yard, which I’ve been trying to identify for a few weeks now.

Our neighbor passed away earlier this year, and yet the front of her yard was graced, in late July, with a stand of beautiful pink lilies.

These hardy Amaryllis are often called "Naked Ladies" since their foliage comes out at a different season than their blooms.

These hardy Amaryllis are often called “Naked Ladies” since their foliage comes out at a different season than their blooms.

 

And they were never touched by deer, or any other creature, for their entire period of bloom

Now I know they are Belladonna lilies, also known as “Naked Ladies,” which are a hardy Amaryllis.  Because their foliage and blooms come at different times, the stalks of the lilies appear “naked,” thus their name.

These are extremely hardy bulbs, long lived, and will bloom in remembrance of the gardener who planted them for many summers to come.

Easy To Grow Bulbs offers these beautiful flowers in three different varieties; one from a breeder who passed away before he could bring his introduction of white Belladonna Lily onto the market.  Belladonna lily is native to South Africa, but still attracts its share of pollinating insects here in North America.

The Fred Meyer White Belladonna Lily is available exclusively from Easy To Grow Bulbs, who dug them from his Southern California garden to bring them into the trade.

Hardy to Zone 7, these bulbs multiply over the years to produce a good display in a full sun area each summer.

So should you be interested in a little plant shopping, please take a look at what ETGB has to offer for your garden.

Just remember to write “Bambi” in the comments at the final  check out…

 

July 29, 2014 garden 006

Most photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Deer Resistant Plants Which Grow Well In Our Community

Living With a Herd of Deer

Our Herd of Deer

Things Change: Butterfly Garden

Pineapple Sage fills the butterfly garden last October.

Pineapple Sage fills the butterfly garden last October.

 

The butterfly garden was built four springs ago during our first year on the property.

Finding the garden full of butterflies and hummingbirds when we first settled in, I wanted to plant even more nectar rich flowers  on the sunny west facing slope between our house and the ravine.

We constructed a raised bed, roughly 8′ deep, which stretched the full length of a fairly flat area between walkways.

 

March of 2010, our newly built bed is ready to plant.

March of 2010, our newly built bed is ready to plant.

By then we had discovered the voles.  So we laid down landscaping fabric and filled the bed in with purchased garden soil and compost, hoping to create a bed the voles couldn’t reach.

And that first season we planted three butterfly bushes, three rose bushes, white and purple coneflowers, several different Salvias, lots of Basil, Cleome, Monarda, giant Zinnias, and probably a half dozen other things I’m not remembering.

Late June of 2010, the newly planted garden is taking off.

Late June of 2010, the newly planted garden is taking off.

It was gorgeous, especially in late summer and early autumn, when all of the Salvias came into bloom.

Back then, the Rose of Sharon shrubs weren’t quite so tall on the bank above the garden.

There were a few spindly little deer nibbled Rose of Sharon shrubs below the bed, too;  but they were too short to make significant shade.

The garden in 2011

The garden in 2011

The bed has changed a little each season.  I’ve added several new rose bushes and some Iris.  Two of the Buddleia davidii  died over winter.

But perhaps the most significant change has been a change in the light reaching the garden from full sun to partial shade.

June of 2011 with full sun, the herbs and perennials grow happily.

June of 2011 with full sun, the herbs and perennials grow happily.

And I was inspired to keep planting in tiers down the slope, setting out shrubs as they outgrew their pots, more iris, and lots of little Rosemary and Lavender plants on the sun drenched slope.

Like with any growing family, over time, things change.

By mid-August of 2014 surrounding shrubs shade the actual raised bed..

By mid-August of 2014 surrounding shrubs shade the actual raised bed..

The Rose of Sharon in front of the bed, given a little love in the form of careful pruning and Plant Tone have just taken off!  They’ve grown from knee high to “out of reach” in just these last few years.

The little re-blooming lilacs moved from pots into the ground quickly quadrupled in size, casting their shade back onto the original raised bed.

Plants along the edges of the bed have gotten enough sun to grow.  The Pineapple Sage made it through the winter, and has grown high again this year.  It will burst into bloom late next month.

Plants along the edges of the bed have gotten enough sun to grow. The Pineapple Sage made it through the winter, and has grown high again this year. It will burst into bloom late next month.

I started work in the butterfly garden in early spring, cutting back last year’s woody growth and weeding.

Our long cold winter delayed appearance of the perennials.

But I kept puttering out there, transplanting bulbs “in the green” from pots into the ground, pruning and feeding the roses, and finally as the weather warmed, planting Basil, Zinnias, and scented geraniums.

April 2014, Comfrey and Parsley

April 2014, Comfrey and Parsley

But the butterfly garden never quite came together this summer as it has in past years.

We had a nice crop of roses in May, but the Monarda, Echinacea, and Cleome just didn’t appear as I had expected.

And while I waited for them to appear, weeds sprouted in their place.

Late May 2014

Late May 2014

But I was busy elsewhere and let them get away from me.  Life happens, doesn’t it?

And, as you surely know, I’ve invested a lot of my “gardening hours” in other parts of the garden this season.

So last week, when I finally had a stretch of days at home, it came time to face the sad state of our once stunning butterfly garden and see what could be done to fix it.

The roses are already shaded by over arching Rose of Sharon shrubs here in mid-May.

The roses are already shaded by over arching Rose of Sharon shrubs here in mid-May.

With  encouragement from the weather, we used the cool August morning to our advantage, and waded in.

I pulled out weedy growth by the handful, and my partner gathered it all and carted it off to return to the Earth in the ravine.

The main offender, Mulberry weed, or Fatoua villosa, has leaves enough like our herby perennials that it can easily hide out near other plants.

It grows thickly from seeds left the season before, and easily shades out more desirable plants returning from seed.

It was the featured weed of the month in a gardening magazine I happened to read last week.  When I learned that it can shoot its little seeds up to four feet away from the mother plant, I realized it could be tolerated no longer!

Mulberry weed is growing among the perennial Ageratum, at the base of the Echinacea here.  This is on the opposite side of the pathway from the raised bed.

Mulberry weed is growing among the perennial Ageratum, at the base of the Echinacea here.   This is on the opposite side of the pathway from the raised bed.

The ground was soft and moist enough to allow us to pull the weeds, roots intact, with minimal effort.

I was happy to find a few of the Salvias and Monarda we’d been watch for struggling on among the weeds.

Zinnias and Penta, on the front edge of the bed, got a bit dirt covered during the great weeding....

Zinnias and Penta, on the front edge of the bed, got a bit dirt covered during the great weeding….

But the main problem with the bed wasn’t really the weeds…. it was the shade.  Leggy growth on perennials can only be explained away in so many ways….

Although I thinned out some of the over-arching Rose of Sharon branches, that won’t be enough to restore this bed to its original sunny exposure.

Rose of Sharon, which has grown from knee high to "out of reach" in such a short time.  Butterflies and hummingbirds just love these flowers.

Rose of Sharon, which has grown from knee high to “out of reach” in such a short time. Butterflies and hummingbirds just love these flowers.

 

It is time to acknowledge that the growing conditions here have shifted, and adjust with new plants.

 

Leggy growth is a sure sign of too much shade.

Leggy growth is a sure sign of too much shade.  This poor rose was recently grazed by deer, in spite of the scented geranium planted in front of it.

The roses will stay, of course, and the herbs and Lantana planted along the very front edge will just have to manage for the remainder of this season.

We also have one good stand of Pineapple Sage on the  end of the garden.  But once the weeds were pulled, there was a lot of bare real estate to replant.

Early August, before I got busy working on the butterfly garden.

Early August, before I got busy working on the butterfly garden.

Visiting deer remain a  complicating factor for this garden, which limits plant choices.  All of the Heuchera I moved out of pots to this garden in the spring have been grazed.

The scented Pelargoniums, onion sets, Basil, and Comphrey were supposed to help keep the deer away… But the roses and missing Heuchera bear witness to the deer and their hunger.

So what nectar rich, deer resistant, shade loving plants might survive in this garden?

Hardy Begonia, before I dividided it and replanted portions in the butterfly garden.

Hardy Begonia, before I divided it and replanted portions in the butterfly garden.

Most of the obvious selections, like Impatiens, Hosta,  or Solomon’s Seal have already proven too tasty in summers past.

Even Coleus, which produces flowers in the sun, tempts our deer from time to time.

But  hardy Begonias have survived  on a shady bank, in another part of the garden, since we planted them there in 2009.

Hardy Begonia begins its season of bloom in August, and blooms until frost. Here, on a shady bank.

Hardy Begonia begins its season of bloom in August, and blooms until frost. Here, on a shady bank.

 

These beautiful plants bloom in the shade, attract butterflies, spread, and return year after year.  Luckily, we have a large pot of them started from cuttings last summer, which survived the winter, too.

Ferns will also fill the space beautifully, hold no interest for deer, and spread a little each year.

We had a large clump of Japanese Pained Fern, Athyrium niponicum in a pot on the deck which needed dividing anyway.

So I began the rehabilitation of this once lovely garden with divisions of fern, Begonia, and two hardy ferns picked up at Lowes.

 

Divisions of Japanese Painted Fern and Hardy Begonia will spread to fill the shadiest portions of the butterfly garden.

Divisions of Japanese Painted Fern and Hardy Begonia will spread to fill the shadiest portions of the butterfly garden.

Once plants fill the space, weedy growth will not be much of a problem.  And once the Begonias establish, they will bloom here reliably season after season.

A bag of compost is always a good investment when re-working a garden space, and I added it generously to this bed as I planted.

I grew this particular Begonia for more than a decade in my last garden before moving it here, and I have no idea what its cultivar name might be.

 

August 16, 2014 garden 036

Plant Delights Nursery offers a dozen different hardy Begonias which I’m looking forward to trying here.

Begonia grandis, ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ is growing nicely in a pot on the deck.  I’ll take cuttings and have more plants to add to the now shady butterfly garden by next season.

Begonia, ‘Pewterware’ should arrive in the mail later this week.  A new plant in the catalog, I’m looking forward to watching it grow.

We also have Saxifraga stolonifera, or Strawberry Begonia, spreading like crazy in a large pot in the front garden.   I’ll move a few of these around to the front edge of this garden for spring blooms.  We saw them in full bloom at Forest Lane Botanicals this year, and they make an impressive display for a few weeks each spring.  They provide a pleasing ground cover during the rest of the season.

There is space left to add a few more ferns to the garden around the Begonias.

Autumn 'Brilliance' fern remains evergreen in our garden.  I'll add a few of these to the bed as they come available.

Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern remains evergreen in our garden. I’ll add a few of these to the bed as they come available, and will also add some evergreen, winter blooming Hellebores.

The Patton’s have promised that a shipment of ferns will be in at the Homestead Garden Center later this week, and I’ll hope for an interesting selection.

We have plenty more Japanese Painted Ferns in pots to divide, but they are deciduous ferns.  I’d like at least a few evergreen ferns to fill the bed over the winter.

One thing I’ve learned over the years:  good gardeners experiment continuously. 

August 16, 2014 garden 045

We continue to experiment and to observe; to try new plants and methods, and to learn more than we currently know.

We change and grow with our gardens.  And we find ways to transform disappointments into opportunities.

That is our philosophy in our Forest Garden, and thus far we’ve been rewarded richly  for our efforts.

August 16, 2014 garden 041

 

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

Scarlet Mallow

Hibiscus coccineus

Hibiscus coccineus

 

This gorgeous scarlet flower caught my eye today.

It is the first blossom to open on the Scarlet Mallow, Hibiscus coccineus, we purchased at the Williamsburg  Farmer’s Market in May.

The beautiful, deeply cut foliage drew my attention at the market.  Almost lacy, like some Japanese Maple leaves, it appealed to me.

 

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The plant wasn’t even in bud yet, but I knew a native Hibiscus would work in the border. no matter what color the bloom.

So I bought it on impulse and brought it home to the garden.

When the Japanese beetles attacked the Cannas and other Hibiscus, they left this one alone.  It’s quietly grown into its spot without drawing too much attention to itself…. until today!

Wow!  What a huge, elegant flower!

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Native in the deep south, Scarlet Mallow is hardy north to Zone 6b.

It can eventually grow to 8′ high, though it dies back to the ground each winter.  The plant is upright and sturdy.

It prefers wet soil, and will even tolerate flooding.  No chance of flooding where it is planted in our garden, but it is on the downhill portion of a slope and will catch run off in a heavy rain.  Like all Hibiscus, it appreciates full sun.

As a native, this plant will pretty much grow itself.  I’ve given it compost and a little Plant Tone thus far.  The deer have grazed around it, but have left it untouched.

I hope it is self- fertile and the seeds it produces will sprout.  I plan to gather the seeds when they ripen this fall and sow them, hoping for more of these gorgeous plants.

Scarlet Mallow grows near Azalea and Ginger lily.  The Ginger Lily will come into bloom soon with huge white flowers.

Scarlet Mallow grows near Azalea and Ginger lily. The Ginger Lily will come into bloom soon with huge white flowers.

If you’d like to grow Scarlet Mallow in your own garden, it is available at Plant Delights Nursery.

You will likely see more photos of these gorgeous flowers as the season progresses, so I hope you like them.

They inspired me to  look for “red” around the garden, and so here is a bit more of the scarlet found in our garden today.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Hardy HIbiscus

Always Evolving

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Why do you choose certain plants to add to your garden, and not others?  What drives your selections?

My answer shifts from garden to garden, year to year, and even season to season.  Perhaps your priorities for your garden shift, also.

 

Basil, "African Blue" grows in a bed of plants chosen to be distasteful to deer.

Basil, “African Blue,” Catmint, and scented Pelargoniums  grow in a bed of plants chosen to be distasteful to deer.

 

We garden to fill a need.  Some of us need to produce some portion of our own food.  Some of us want to grow particular ingredients or specialty crops, like hops or basil.

Some of us want to harvest our own flowers for arrangements, or produce our own fruit or nuts for cooking.

 

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Once upon a time I focused on growing flowers, and am still struggling to grow decent roses in this wild place.

And our garden is filled with flowers; some already growing here, some that we’ve introduced.

But our current inventory of flowers is driven more by the wildlife they will attract  than by their usefulness as cut flowers.

Lantana attracts many species of nectar loving wildlife to our garden.

Lantana attracts many species of nectar loving wildlife to our garden.

 

Although I could still walk around and clip a decent bouquet most any day from February to November, we rarely harvest our flowers.  We prefer to leave them growing out of doors for the creatures who visit them whether for nectar or later for their seeds.

Purple Coneflower, a useful cut flower, will feed the goldfinches if left in place once the flowers fade.

Purple Coneflower, a useful cut flower, will feed the goldfinches if left in place once the flowers fade.

 

Our gardening  focus is shifting here.  It began our first month on the property.  I moved in ready to cut out the “weedy” looking Rose of Sharon trees growing all over the garden.

I planned to replace them  with something more interesting… to me, that is.

And it was during that first scorching August here, sitting inside in the air conditioning and nursing along our chigger and tick bites, that we noticed the hummingbirds.

 

 

Hummingbirds hovered right outside our living room windows, because they were feeding from the very tall, lanky Rose of Sharon shrubs blooming there.

The shrubs didn’t look like much, but their individual flowers spread the welcome mat for our community of hummingbirds.

And watching those hummingbirds convinced us we could learn to love this Forest Garden.

This butterfly tree and Crepe Myrtle, volunteers growing along the ravine, normally attract dozens of butterflies each day during the weeks they bloom each summer.

This butterfly tree and Crepe Myrtle, volunteers growing along the ravine, normally attract dozens of butterflies each day during the weeks they bloom each summer.

 

Our decision to not only leave the Rose of Sharon shrubs, but to carefully prune, feed, and nurture all of them on the property marked a shift away from what we wanted to grow for our own purposes, and what we chose to grow as part of a wild-life friendly garden.

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After a year or two of frustration and failure, hundreds of dollars wasted, and a catastrophe or two; we realized that we had to adapt and adjust our expectations to the realities of this place.

A dragonfly and Five Line Skink meet on a leaf of Lamb's Ears.

A dragonfly and Five Line Skink meet on a leaf of Lamb’s Ears.  Lamb’s Ears is one of the ornamental plants we grow which is never touched by deer.

 

What had worked in the past became irrelevant as we had to learn new ways to manage this bit of land.

And how to live in a garden filled with animals large and small.

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The other major shift in my plant selection has been towards interesting foliage, and away from flowers.

Fig, "Silvre Lyre" and Sage

Fig, “Silvre Lyre” and Sage

 

Although the garden is filled with flowers loved by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees of all sorts, wasps, moths, and who knows what else; the ornamentals we choose for our own pleasure run more towards plants with beautiful and unusual leaves.

 

Huge Cannas and Colocasia chosen as a screen between home and road have interesting leaves.  The Cannas also produce wildlife friendly red flowers.

Huge Cannas and Colocasia chosen as a screen between home and road have interesting leaves.  The Cannas also produce wildlife friendly red flowers.

 

If they produce flowers, those are secondary to the foliage.

There is such a wonderfully complex variety of foliage colors and patterns now available.

 

Begonias in a hanging basket are grown mostly for their beautiful leaves.

Begonias in a hanging basket are grown mostly for their beautiful leaves.

 

And leaves are far more durable than flowers.  While flowers may last for a few days before they fade, leaves retain their health and vitality for many  months.

Begonia foliage

Begonia foliage

 

We enjoy red and purple leaves; leaves with  stripes and spots; variegated leaves; leaves with beautifully colored veins; ruffled leaves; deeply lobed leaves; fragrant leaves; even white leaves.

 

"Harlequin" is one of the few variegated varieties of Butterfly bush.

“Harlequin” is one of the few variegated varieties of Butterfly bush.

 

While all of these beautiful leaves may not have any direct benefit for wildlife- other than cleansing the air, of course –  they do become food now and again.

These Caladiums are supposed to be poisonous, and therefore left alone by deer.... But something ate them....

These Caladiums are supposed to be poisonous, and therefore left alone by deer…. But something ate them….

 

It’s easier to find plants with distasteful or poisonous leaves, than with unappetizing flowers.

Our efforts to grow plants the deer won’t devour may also drive our move towards foliage plants and away from flowering ones.

Scented Pelargoniums offer pretty good protection to plants near them.  This pepper has survived to ripeness.

Scented Pelargoniums offer pretty good protection to plants near them. This pepper has survived to ripeness.

 

Our interests, and our selections, continue to evolve.

Gloriosa Lily, new in the garden this year, is hanging down off of the deck.

Gloriosa Lily, new in the garden this year, is hanging down off of the deck, still out of reach of hungry deer.

 

We choose a few new plants each year to try; and we still seek out a few successful  varieties of annuals each spring and fall.

The garden never remains the same two seasons in a row.

 

Spikemoss is a plant we've just begun using as groudcover in pots and beds.

Spikemoss is a plant we’ve just begun using as ground cover in pots and beds.

 

It is always evolving into some newer, better version of itself.

As I hope we are, as well.

 

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Photos by Woodland Gnome, 2014

 

August 3, 2014 butterflies 105

The Herd

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Our neighbor took these photos of “The Herd,” which hangs around our bit of the neighborhood.

Many of our neighbors enjoy sighting the deer.  Some even feed them.

Our wooded neighborhood hosts several family groups who wander the ravines and gather around the ponds.

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Although the deer are beautiful creatures, they are extremely destructive to our gardens.

And worse, deer roaming through the area bring deer ticks, which harbor Lyme’s disease.

Our neighbor took these photos near our homes, in mid-morning.  Not a bit shy, this group was happy to rest in full view in the middle of the day.

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Other neighborhood friends describe deer who regularly rest in their yards during the day, like a pet dog might.

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We began the conversation, which resulted in the gift of these photos, when my neighbor called to ask what is growing in our new pot on the driveway.

It seems this group was grazing their way down the street, but completely by-passed our new planting.

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Watching the deer leave our  pot  untouched,  our neighbor wanted to know what flowers are so  immune to grazing.  And the answer is, zonal geraniums.

The odor of geraniums is distasteful to deer.  I suspect they don’t care for the thickness and texture of geranium leaves, either.

Zonal geraniums are distasteful to deer both for their odor and the texture of their leaves.  They protect the Coleus, Begonia, and ivy in this pot.  The Caladiums are poisonous.

Zonal geraniums are distasteful to deer both for their odor and the texture of their leaves. They protect the Coleus, Begonia, and ivy in this pot. The Caladiums are poisonous. The Lamium vine  is also distasteful to deer and has not been grazed in other locations in our garden.  It has a purple or blue flower earlier in the spring.

Other plants in this group, like the Coleus, have been grazed other years.  I suspect the geraniums deter interest in the entire pot.

Deer nibble our coleus from time to time, depending on where they find it.  Petunias, in the rear, are distasteful and rarely bothered.

Deer nibble our Coleus from time to time, depending on where they find it. Petunias, in the rear, are distasteful and rarely bothered.

We are growing five different varieties of zonal geraniums this year, in addition to ivy geraniums, and several varieties of scented geraniums (Pelargoniums).

Not only are they left untouched, the deer pass the other plants in pots where they grow.

Ivy geraniums (white flowers) and a rose scented Pelargonium share this pot with Eucalyptus.  Artemisia grows behind the pot.  All are scented and distasteful to deer.

Ivy geraniums (white flowers) and a rose scented Pelargonium share this pot with Eucalyptus. Artemesia grows behind the pot. All are scented and distasteful to deer.

If you live where deer graze frequently, you can still grow beautiful flowers. 

The trick is to know what the deer will leave alone, and only invest in plants which will have a chance to grow.

This Lantana is blooming for its third season here.  It survived our winter.  Here, Lantana, "Miss Huff" which is hardy to Zone 7.

This Lantana is blooming for its third season here on the street. It survived our winter. This is  Lantana, “Miss Huff” which is hardy to Zone 7.

“Deer Resistant” has lost its meaning for me.  I’ve purchased too many “deer resistant” plants which were grazed within the first week.

This same sage, sold in 4 packs this spring, also comes with white flowers.

Our Catnip, with white flowers.

I prefer “poisonous” plants, like Daffodils, Caladiums, and Hellebores; but will settle for “totally distasteful” plants like Geraniums and most herbs.

A perennial sage grows here with Dusty Miller.  Both have gone untouched for several years in our garden.

A perennial sage grows here with Dusty Miller. Both have lived untouched for several years in our garden.

For more information on “deer proofing” your garden, please look back at some of my previous posts:

Deer Resistant Plants for Our Area- Revised Annotated list

Living With A Herd of Deer

Pick Your Poison

Tick Season Is Here

Scented Geraniums

 

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If you just want to bring home something pretty which will survive on your deck or porch through the season, make sure to include some geraniums and herbs in your pot.

I hope your herd of deer will walk right past it, on the way to someone else’s garden.

Deer photos by Denis Orton 2014

Plant photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Situated in full sun at the street, this newest, unprotected pot must tolerate heat, drought, and stand up to our herd of deer.

Situated in full sun at the street, this newest, unprotected pot must tolerate heat, drought, and stand up to our herd of deer.

 

WPC: Split Second Story

The, crouching into my photo of lovely Hibiscus, "Kopper King."

Theo, crouching into my photo of lovely Hibiscus, “Kopper King.”

This is Theo.

Theo spotted me photographing his plants at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market this morning.

Knotts Creek Nursery's display is acroos the street.  They area the ones flocked with customers....

Knotts Creek Nursery’s display is across DoG street at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market this morning.  They are the ones flocked with customers….

He ended up selling me the plant I wanted to photograph, and a lot more!

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Knotts Creek Nursery, in Suffolk, normally a wholesaler; brought a selection of their beautifully grown perennials, herbs, and shrubs to temp the citizenry of Williamsburg this morning.

And the plants were just flying out of  the display so fast that you couldn’t hesitate.

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A beautiful Euphorbia was there and gone in an instant.  Other customers were browsing “my pile,” already paid for, before my partner could get round with the car to load up.

So the lovely Hibiscus “Kopper King” came home with us, as did some perennial Salvias, perennial Foxglove, and a Hibiscus Coccineus ‘Texas Star’.

This Foxglove came home to Forest Garden today.

This Foxglove came home to Forest Garden today.

Theo is a great salesman!  I liked him right away, as soon as he crouched into the frame of my first photo.

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We chatted, and I found out why.  It seems Theo is just finishing up his first year of teaching high school science in Chesterfield County, Virginia.  I’m sure his students and colleagues love him.

He is a bright spirit, and knows his plants.

When I asked him for not just “deer resistant” varieties, but poisonous ones;  he sent me to the Foxglove right away.

This lovely Echinacea did not make the cut.... "deer candy."

This lovely Echinacea did not make the cut…. “deer candy.”

Yes, with a raised eyebrow, but give the customer what they want,   Right?

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Achillea

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Split Second Story

And Then It Got Complicated….

 

May 20, 2014 Garden 006

An inspiration, when it first flits into one’s mind, is beautifully simple.  In its purist form, the idea is more powerful than the forces which will conspire to prevent its materialization.

At least in my experience….

A vivid imagination is both gift and curse; tool and trap.

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A gardener’s winter dreams of pots and beds and borders sometimes get translated into actuality; sometimes not.  Rarely do they grow as first imagined.

There is the small matter of reality standing between the vision and its accomplishment.

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My original idea was quite simple:  I saw a raised bed growing at the base of a young Dogwood tree.

The tree, badly damaged when our trees fell last summer, would become the center point of a cool and shady four season garden in the edge of our forest near the street.

Populated with Cinnamon Fern and Helebores, this perennial bed would be impervious to deer, low maintenance, and provide winter blooms.

Simple, right?

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When imagining what to use  to build the raised bed, I decided to use Hypertufa troughs.  A gorgeous cardboard box shipped from Plant Delights became the mold for long window box shaped planters.

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The first two un-molded perfectly and went to the drying shelves.  Then the third cracked as I turned it out of the box.

Heavy, and not quite dry enough, I realized I had rushed it; and made a patch.  After another week in the mold, I gingerly turned it out, and the patch held.

A second very large trough also cracked.  I must not have had the mix quite right that day.

 

This large and heavy trough also cracked when I lifted it from its mold, but it was a clean enough break to patch.  Can you spot the patch on the pot's rim?

This large and heavy trough also cracked when I lifted it from its mold, but it was a clean enough break to patch. Can you spot the patch on the pot’s rim?  A chunk of another broken trough, which couldn’t be repaired, rests nearby.

I wasn’t as lucky with that attempt to “fix it,” and it ended up in a dozen jagged pieces tucked into a shadowy corner of the basement.  It gets complicated…

That temporarily halted work on the new raised bed.  With only two of the four planned troughs ready to use, I wasn’t ready to move forward.

Caladiums fill the hypertufa troughs used to border this raised bed.

Caladiums fill the hypertufa troughs used to border this raised bed.  The apparently empty pot is filled with perennial hardy Begonia, which will emerge by early June.

And I didn’t have time by then to start the fourth trough.

But, I already had three potted Helebores and three Lady Ferns languishing in holding areas, ready to sink their roots into a permanent spot in the garden.

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Lady Ferns, you ask?  Wasn’t the original idea to grow large, stately Cinnamon Ferns in this bed?  Well, it got complicated…

On one shopping expedition after another this spring, my search for Cinnamon Ferns was in vain.

Yes, Plant Delights had them, but I wanted to purchase them locally.  I’ve learned my lesson waiting for bare root ferns from the big box stores to sprout, and I was hoping to score them in the tiny pots Homestead Garden Center offered all last season.  But, no tiny pots appeared…

A few badly grazed Azaleas fall along the peremiter of this new raised bed.  Broken pot pieces help form a low "wall" to hold soil behind them.

A few badly grazed Azaleas fall along the perimeter of this new raised bed. Broken pot pieces help form a low “wall” to hold soil behind them.

It gets complicated. 

Our long, cold spring made things very difficult for the growers this year, and many items came late, in short supply, or not at all.

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So during my tour of Forest Lane Botanicals, I purchased three beautiful Lady Ferns to use in the garden… just before that third trough broke.  And they’ve been sitting ever since….

With the art festival completed over the weekend, it was decided that today I would work with the universe to bring this new raised bed into reality.

One way or another, something would be built today.

An experimental "stepping stone" holds back the soil behind a second Azalea shrub, forming more border for the garden.

An experimental “stepping stone” holds back the soil behind a second Azalea shrub, forming more border for the garden.

Armed with three potted Helebores, three Lady Ferns, two Autumn Brilliance Ferns, four bags of compost, more Caladiums than I care to admit to having, an almost murdered Begonia which got too dry last week and lost its leaves, a tray full of broken Hypertufa trough pieces, some old plastic pots, and some 6″ clay pots left from the weekend- I set to work.

Some might call this a scrounger’s garden.  I see it as a fortuitous opportunity for some serious recycling.

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With three now completed troughs, already planted in Caladiums,   the outline of the new raised bed was already sketched in.

A larger free-form  hypertufa trough, again broken in unmolding but patched, joined the group two weeks ago when I decided not to offer the  patched pot for sale.  It also holds Caladiums.

May 19, 2014 new raised bed fern garden 005

With the fourth trough a minimum of two weeks away, if I cast it today; I decided to border the bed with other materials- if only temporarily.

So a pile of new 6″ terra cotta pots, scored at the Re-store for a children’s art project, got filled with soil, planted with Begonia semperflorens, and pressed into service as a border.

A few old plastic pots, filled and planted up, helped plug the gaps.

Sedum planted into a pocket made from a piece of the broken pot.

Sedum planted into a pocket made from a piece of the broken pot.

Large pieces of the broken hypertufa and a few experimental stepping stones work to camouflage this motley mix of bordering materials.

Borders in place, compost poured in and smoothed, it was finally time to plant.

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The bed is far from completed.  That fourth trough will materialize over the next few weeks to complete the outline.

I don’t have much faith in small terra cotta pots on our hottest summer days.  They dry too quickly.

The third hypertufa trough, which cracked, now holds Caladiums.

The third hypertufa trough, which cracked, now holds Caladiums.

So I’ll replace as many of the small pots as I can with hypertufa planters, which keep roots cool, moist, and happy even in the heat of summer.

I found a 4″ Cinnamon Fern this afternoon, finally, and planted it among the Lady Ferns.

Over the next few days I’ll transplant some Hellebores seedlings from other beds, add a few more Caladiums, and possibly even plant some Spikemoss, a new favorite, as a frilly ground cover.

May 19, 2014 new raised bed fern garden 002

Time, the essential ingredient in gardening, will transform this motley conglomeration of bits and pieces into a beautiful garden within a few weeks.

Once the plants settle in and begin weaving themselves together, it will take on a life and vision of its own.

Gardens, like people, evolve in their own time from one form to the next.

Rooted Begonia cuttings join sprouting Caladiums in this newly planted recycled plastic pot.

Rooted Begonia cuttings join sprouting Caladiums in this newly planted recycled plastic pot.

We might plant a seed, push a cutting into the soil, or tuck a transplant into a new bed.  But that is only a gesture.  It is the concrete expression of a wish.

Magic happens after we water in our intention and wander away. 

As the roots take hold, and the plant unfolds itself in new growth, something entirely new evolves.

Newly planted in 2013, this perennial bed has grown into a vibrant community of plants.

Newly planted in 2013, this perennial bed has grown into a vibrant community of plants.

A community comes together as roots intertwine in the soil.

Vines stretch, branches form.  Flowers open.  Our wish takes on a life of its own.

It gets very complicated, but also very beautiful.

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Clematis

Clematis

 

Which Herb Is It?

May 10, 2014 first roses of summer 027

Do you know this herb?

I knew it only from books on herbs until I purchased a start and began growing it three years ago.

A lovely plant, it is drought tolerant, shrugs off the full summer sun, is never touched by deer, blooms with lovely purpley pink flowers, and is a powerful tool for healing.

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This herb is very useful in an organic garden.  Perennial, it develops extremely deep roots.  The roots “mine” the minerals of the soil well below the depth most roots will penetrate.  These minerals  are deposited in the leaves.  The leaves may be cut, on established plants, several times each season and used for healing or to improve the soil.

Left to steep in rainwater for a few weeks, the leaves  make a nutritious organic fertilizer tea.  Added to compost, they activate the microbial action and speed the “cooking” of the compost.  Used as mulch directly on the soil, they feed the plant they are mulching as they decompose.

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Common names for this plant include “bone knit” and “bruise heal.”

The powerful healing compounds speed cell repair and healing when applied topically.  This herb is a frequent ingredient in herbal healing ointments, and may be simply wrapped around an injured area of the body to heal a cut, bruise,  burn, or other injury.

Although there are medicinal  uses which include ingesting parts of this plant, these are somewhat controversial and must be prepared by a qualified herbal healer.  As with many medicines, a little helps, a lot can do significant harm.  Please consult a good herbal medical practitioner or manual before using this herb medicinally.

Also, wear gloves when harvesting this herb as the hairs on leaves and stems can irritate the skin.

Plant in spring in a well prepared bed with moist soil.  Ammend the soil with plenty of nitrogen, including manure, to keep this herb happy.  Don’t harvest until the second year.

This plant spreads with underground rhizomes, and will take a large area of the garden when allowed.  I dug up many divisions this year to establish it in new ares.  It is a hardy herb, and needs little care after the first year.

Do you know this herb?

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It is Comfrey, Symphytum officinale.  Please remember this is a medicinal herb, but is never intended to be eaten.  It can be poisonous if eaten in quantity.  Which is one reason I’m spreading it around the sunny areas of our garden.

This is another plant that deer, rabbits, voles, and other hungry creatures will not touch.

Bees love it, and it attracts butterflies and beautiful moths.  It is an entertaining plant to grow where you can watch the constant traffic to its flowers.

This is an herb generally only available from herbal nurseries.  It can be difficult to find a start to establish in your garden.  The more popular cultivars aren’t available as seed because they are hybrids, and may only be produced from divisions.

But it is an herb well worth growing for its beauty, hardiness, and its healing properties.  If you grow herbs, please get to know the beautiful Comfrey plant.

 

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Making the Bed

 

A tiny raised bed near my friends' front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

A tiny raised bed near my friends’ front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

When you’ve been gardening for more than a week you realize that the vigor and beauty of your plants, and the success of your planting schemes, relies entirely on the quality of your soil.

The Rodale Press gardening books I poured over as a novice in the ’80s always had chapters devoted to soil preparation.  Double digging was recommended “back in the day.”

Tilling was the common practice then, especially for vegetable gardeners.  It was years on that biologists and botanists came to realize that mechanical tilling, and even double digging, totally wrecks the ecosystem of the soil.

Countless small worms and insects are ravaged.  Long dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to sprout.  Delicate colonies of fungi and bacteria are disrupted.

Tilling is no longer recommended for the long term well-being of the soil; even in traditional vegetable garden culture.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur bed near the bottom of the ravine in my friends’ back garden.  This two year old bed grows potatoes, herbs, and an Oakleaf Hydrangea on the far right.

Double digging, done once when land is first dedicated to a garden, might be useful in some cases.

If the double digging includes the addition of lots of organic matter, and possibly some minerals such as greensand, gypsum, or super-phosphate; it can be a useful way to break up clay soils before initial planting.  Once the bed is established, annual double digging is terrifically disruptive to the soil’s ecology.

More recent practices eschew the digging entirely and focus on constructing raised beds of various materials.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now.  It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now. It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

There is no one right way to make your garden bed.  So much depends on variables; like your soil, your climate, and what you plan to grow in a given area.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

I learned very quickly that our new garden had terribly compacted hard clay soil over much of the property.  Nearly all of my early attempts to plant anything in this new garden left me somewhere between underwhelmed and downright depressed.

It wasn’t until I began building raised beds, and bringing home bagfuls of compost, that we began to make progress on this property.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds.  Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.

Notice the variety of matierials my friends used to form the border for this one bed.

Notice the variety of materials my friends used to form the border for this shallow bed around her Crepe Myrtle tree.

I’ve made raised beds from many different materials over the years.  I started out when railway ties, landscape timbers, and even 2×10 boards were at the cutting edge.

Soon enough someone figured out that the chemicals in all of that treated wood leached into the soil and then got into the food grown in the bed.    Building a bed of untreated wood meant a very short-lived border on the bed.

A very innovative friend introduced me to Hugelkultur.  This practice originated in Europe and incorporates downed trees, limbs, compostable materials of all sorts, and topsoil  to build very thick raised beds.

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Sometimes built into a trench, sometimes mounded high above the ground, these raised beds retain water, produce heat, and slowly release nutrients into the soil as the materials break down.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

My friend is going into her third growing season with Hugelkultur beds.  Her garden is on a steep slope at the edge of the forest.  There is an abundance of  downfall wood and stumps on her property.  She is using them all very creatively.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis.  This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

A mix of vegetables, flowers, and herbs grows in this Hugelkultur bed.  My friends use netting to keep deer out.  The plants in the foreground are Astilbe.

I have also experimented with Hugelkultur, building around a stump over its root system, with a base of wood left from our downed trees last summer.  My bed is not quite a year old yet, but already I’m pleased with its progress.

The basic requirements for a good planting bed are adequate drainage, abundant organic materials, rich microbial life, and an adequate balance of minerals.   The most effective way to feed plants is to feed the soil.  Chemical fertilizers, such as “Miracle Grow” and other non-organic commercial products not only burn plants in high concentrations, but may also kill the microbial and invertebrate life required for  healthy soil.

Good soil has the loose, soft texture which only comes from plenty of organic material incorporated into the mineral content.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Finding earthworms living in soil is always an excellent sign.  Their digestive process helps release nutrients plants need, even as the movement of worms through the soil opens it up and creates the loose texture roots need for growth.

One way to achieve good beds, without all of the heavy lifting of building Hugelkultur beds, is simple sheet composting.

To begin a new planting bed, cover the entire area with brown paper grocery bags, plain white or brown wrapping paper,  torn cardboard from boxes, or several thicknesses of newspaper.  This initial layer smothers grass and weeds to form a barrier for those first crucial weeks, and then it decomposes into the soil.

Pile a variety of organic material onto the paper or cardboard base.  These layers can include grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, chopped leaves, shredded paper,  straw, rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, and sea weed.

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If the straw is mixed with rabbit or chicken droppings, all the better.  Bags of topsoil or pre-made compost can be piled on top of the organic materials the first year to speed the process.  Although the organic materials need to be dampened,  they do not need to be turned and mixed in sheet composting.

The frame of this bed can be made from many different materials, depending on what you have at hand.  This can even be made as a rounded, raised row without a border.

One popular technique uses bales of hay as the borders or walls of the bed.  I’ve done this.  It isn’t pretty, and there are the sprouting hayseeds in the bales to contend with all season.  Eventually the hay will mold and begin to fall apart.

You eventually get good soil, and vegetables will grow well in such a bed if you keep the whole bed and hay bale wall moist.  Some organic gardening resources even offer instructions for planting into the hollowed out and soil filled bales….

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in.  This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in. This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

Over time, these “sheet composted” beds decompose into the original soil beneath them.  The organic materials attract earthworms, which begin to mix the soil during their travels.

The moisture in the raised bed softens the soil below, and after a season or two you have a fine bed for planting, without the digging.  Continuing to add organic mulch to the bed once or twice a year keeps these beds “cooking” and rich in nutrients over many years.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.  This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant.  This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals. This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant. This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed, than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.  Notice the use of cinder blocks for these miniature Hostas.  Cinder blocks used as the border for a raised vegetable bed may be similarly planted with herbs, Nasturtiums, garlic, etc.

I’ve learned on my property that digging into the soil is extremely difficult.  And plants put directly into the ground may be at risk of vole attack.   I still do it, though, and did it this past week.

When I dig to plant a shrub directly into the ground, I make a far bigger hole than the root ball requires, and add copious quantities of compost. And gravel.  And I try to surround it with poisonous daffodil bulbs for good measure.

This littleAlysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil.  It will grow to 8' tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms.  I dig out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma plant tone.  I'm hoping it will grow well here.  I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

This little Aloysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil. It will grow to 8′ tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms. I dug out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma Plant Tone. I’m hoping it will grow well here. I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

I was able to feel the improvement in a bed begun four years ago, when I dug into it to add some little rose bushes this week.

The texture of the soil has completely changed, thanks to regular additions of compost and pea gravel.   I found earthworms.  I dug out space for the root balls easily, added yet more compost, and planted the little potted roses, blessedly growing on their own roots.

Then I added a border of slate roofing tiles to the sides of the bed, and piled more compost into the bed as fresh mulch.

However you make your planting beds, you’ll find that plants grown in raised beds grow bigger, healthier, and more productive than beds planted directly into  the ground.

Even a bed just 4″-6″ high, made with loose organic matter, give plants a huge advantage, because the roots are able to develop more fully and find nutrients more easily.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 073

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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