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.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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After the Frost

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The ginger lilies were hit by frost early Thursday morning, and will bloom no more this season. The Lavender will remain green and beautiful through much of the winter, blooming in early spring.

Our first heavy frost came Wednesday night into Thursday morning, with a low in the 20s overnight.  We were greeted with a sparkling white lawn on Thursday morning and obvious frost kill on the ginger lilies and Lantana.  The garden does, indeed, look like a very different place than it did early in the week.  In fact, there was a distinct “seedy” air to it when friends visited yesterday to adopt a half dozen Mahonia seedlings.

The garden looks a little "seedy" at the moment...

The garden looks a little “seedy” at the moment…

Looking around the garden one might wonder where to even begin with the clean up.

And I would ask, what needs to be cleaned up, and why?   Since the garden is a wild place, and is designed to shelter birds and other small creatures, we tend to look more to maintaining the balance of the garden than to pure aesthetics.

Lambs Ears will stay green through most of the winter.  Remove any dead foliage, and keep tree leaves from accumulating on top of the plant.

Lambs Ears will stay green through most of the winter. Remove any dead foliage, and keep tree leaves from accumulating on top of the plant.

Our goal is to let every bit be used, nothing thrown away, so much as we are able.  We try to allow one season’s growth to nurture the next.

With that in mind, here is an overview of what we will do, and not do, over the next three months.

Tender perennials

Ginger lilies are left alone to collapse and mulch their how roots until at least February.

Ginger lilies are left alone to collapse and mulch their own roots until at least February.

We push the limits of hardiness by growing ginger lilies and Lantana here as perennials.  Technically, they aren’t hardy to zone 7, and in an especially cold winter, might not be.  We have found that leaving the plants in place after frost kills back the foliage helps them survive winter.  Although not beautiful, the dying leaves and stems provide insulation to the roots and so increases the chances of them living through the winter.

The ginger lilies will collapse after another few cold nights, fall to the ground, and provide a thick mulch; along with the leaves falling from the trees.  I’ll move this around so the rose roots are also mulched and simply let it be until late January or early February.  On a warmish day I’ll cut and remove the stalks, exposing the growth tips of next summer’s lilies; dig the rhizomes growing forward into the roses, and vacuum out the accumulated leaves from the surrounding trees.  The roses will get pruned back and the entire bed will get a fresh cover of compost.  I’ve already vacuumed and shredded leaves from this bed once this week, but its hard to tell that now.

Lantana are left in place until at least March to protect their roots and provide food and shelter for songbirds.

Lantana are left in place until at least March to protect their roots and provide food and shelter for songbirds.

The Lantana have grown into large woody shrubs over the summer.  The largest are over 6′ tall now.  They were in full bloom when the frost came, and so are still covered in flowers and berries.  This is a favorite spot of our songbirds who appreciate the ready food supply and the dense shelter of the Lantana.  We’ll leave these in place, just as they are, until at least March.

No, the Lantana aren’t pretty anymore.  I suppose we could string white lights over them for the holidays, but we’ve never done that.  By patiently leaving them in place through winter and into early spring we’ll protect the roots and have a better chance of enjoying them again next summer.  When the time comes to trim them back, we’ll cut them to 6″-12″, depending on the plant, and remove all of the old leaves and branches from the bed.

I generally set Violas into this bed as I remove them from pots during spring planting.  They’ll live here for another few weeks, and then die off as the Lantana fills in again.  This bed will also get a thick covering of fresh compost, some Rose Tone, and general re-working in March.  Patience is required with Lantana because they normally don’t show new growth until late April or May.

Bright rose hips form when spent roses aren't deadheaded.  These are pretty during autumn, and provide food for birds who will eat them.

Bright rose hips form when spent roses aren’t deadheaded. These are pretty during autumn, and provide food for birds who will eat them.

Roses

Roses have not died back with the frost.  We still have both leaves and buds.  They may even bloom some more over the next few weeks.  Trimming roses always stimulates growth, and so it is important to wait until early spring to prune them.  Hard pruning now could kill the plant if tender new growth dies off in a hard freeze.  Deadheading spent blooms is even optional this time of year.  Of course, in our climate, roses will continue sending out new growth over the next few months with only a short break in late December and early January.  I’ll wait until February to prune them, and will begin giving Rose Tone and Epson salts by early March.

Hardy Perennials

Seeds from hardy Hibiscus pods provide food for many birds.

Seeds from hardy Hibiscus pods provide food for many birds.

Hardy perennials like Peonies, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Iris, Hibiscus, and Chrysanthemum are often the first targets for fall garden clean up.  Browned foliage is simply cut off near the ground, tossed into a trash bag, and “Voila”, the garden looks much neater.

That is certainly one approach, but isn’t mine. 

Peony leaves are definitely unsightly now.  Since the flowers bloomed in May, they haven’t looked good for a while.   The frost finished them off, and the foliage definitely needs to get cut back before spring growth begins.

Peony foliage should be cut back in autumn, supports removed, and stored.

Peony foliage should be cut back in autumn, supports removed, and stored.

Peony crowns don’t need insulation from their own leaves, and leaving them in place can certainly encourage disease.  This is the first foliage I’ll cut on the next warm day.  I don’t bag such trimmings and add them to the trash pick up, but neither do I add it to a compost pile.  We’ll throw these trimmings  into the ravine, away from our perennial beds, along with other old foliage.

The Iris are still blooming, and their rhizomes will continue to grow all winter.  Dead leaves and finished stalks may be removed, but it is too late in the season to dig or divide the plants. 

Iris, "Rosalie Figgee" will continue to bloom into December.  She'll take a break, and bloom again in the spring.

Iris, “Rosalie Figgee” will continue to bloom into December. She’ll take a break, and bloom again in the spring.

Chrysanthemums are just finishing.  Spent flowers should be deadheaded, and in fact the plants can be cut back after the leaves are killed by frost.  If protected, new buds can still open in the weeks ahead.  Any new, potted chrysanthemums should be planted as soon as possible if you intend to keep them as perennials.  Otherwise, add them to the compost pile.

Echinacea seeds are enjoyed by many birds.  The dried cones also make nice additions to autumn wreathes and arrangements.

Echinacea seeds are enjoyed by many birds. The dried cones also make nice additions to autumn wreathes and arrangements.

Echinacea finished flowering weeks ago.  Their seeds are loved by goldfinches and other birds.  They can be left standing in the garden deep into winter.  They are sculptural, attractive to some, and definitely appreciated by the birds.

The  same is true of any Hibiscus or Rudbeckia seed pods still standing.  They can be left in place until March or April if you wish.  Collect seeds to broadcast in areas you would like new plants, or leave them to the birds.  You might even cut some Echinacea or Hibiscus to use in winter wreathes, pots, or arrangements.  It can be sprayed gold to add a little sparkle, if you wish.

Other perennials, like lambs ears, daisies, Rosemary, Sage, Lavender, and other herbs will stay green through most, or all of the winter.

This daisy should be dead headed, but the foliage left alone until new growth appears at the base in spring.

This daisy should be dead headed, but the foliage left alone until new growth appears at the base in spring.

I’ll deadhead the daisies, but leave the foliage standing until new growth appears in spring.  Herbs should have already been harvested and trimmed.  What is left can be lightly harvested all winter, or simply left alone.

Shrubs

Hydrangea needs to be deadheaded before spring.  Cut carefully above any buds so next season's flowers are left on the shrub.

Hydrangea needs to be deadheaded before spring. Cut carefully above any buds so next season’s flowers are left on the shrub.

Hydrangea blossoms dry easily.  You can collect them now for a fall arrangement.   Already dry blossoms can be sprayed gold or used as is in wreathes and winter arrangements.  There is no value to the plant in leaving them, and in fact they just look worse as the season progresses.  And, they don’t harbor any seeds for the birds.When you trim them, be careful to cut above where new buds are forming so you don’t prune off next year’s blossoms.

Wait to trim Rose of Sharon until the worst winter weather has passed.  Songbirds will enjoy their seeds through the winter.

Wait to trim Rose of Sharon until the worst winter weather has passed. Songbirds will enjoy their seeds through the winter.

Rose of Sharon is covered in little dry seed pods at present.  These can be left as an important food source for the birds as long as you wish.  I generally prune back Rose of Sharon in early spring.  Most need to be thinned and shaped before new growth begins.  Since this shrub blooms on new wood, pruning only increases the following season’s bloom.  Althea tend to be tender sometimes, and may die for no apparent reasons.  So I don’t cut them, leaving wounds exposed, until after the worst winter weather has passed.

Buddleia, butterfly bush, should also be left alone until early spring.  Not only is it covered in seeds, but it will have a greater chance of survival if left unpruned until early spring.  Cut back hard in February, almost to the ground, as it blooms each year on new growth.

This Camellia was grazed by deer sometime in the last day or so.  Although protected with Plant Skydd, after the rain it must have been palatable enough...

This Camellia was grazed by deer sometime in the last day or so. Although protected with Plant Skydd, after the rain it must have been palatable enough…

Camellias, as evergreens, are in their glory at the moment.  Many are either blooming now or preparing to bloom.  They enjoy a mulch of chopped leaves, so mulch freely as yard clean up progresses.  Their main need at the moment is protection from grazing deer.  Deer love the flower buds and will even eat their leaves.  I have sprayed mine with Plant Skydd multiple times, and will continue to do so.

Another concern is with damage done by bucks during “rutting season” in autumn.  They go a little crazy during their mating season, and rub their antlers against trees and shrubs.  The damage to this little magnolia happened last night.

Magnolia tree damaged overnight by a rutting buck.

Magnolia tree damaged overnight by a rutting buck.

  I have no idea why a buck chose to damage this particular tree, since it’s small, pliable, and not a favorite to eat.  But, he did.  Despite hours and hours spent this week reinforcing deer fences and protecting individual plants, somehow a buck  got in and stripped the bark down much of the Magnolia’s trunk.  I taped up one of the branches left hanging, and will hope for healing.  This Magnolia is special to us as our neighbor gave it to us.  Ironically, I sprayed Plant Skydd, even on this Magnolia, earlier this week.

Figs are also losing their leaves now.

Figs survivie our winters without special winter protection.  Remove fallen leaves and give the roots a little mulch.

Figs survivie our winters without special winter protection. Remove fallen leaves and give the roots a little mulch.

The plants are covered in buds for next season’s growth.  Although they need winter protection further north, the figs seem to overwinter very well here with no particular care.  Other than gathering their leaves, and possibly adding some compost or shredded leaf mulch around the roots, they will make it through winter just fine.

Hollies, Pyracantha, Cedar, Forsythia, Viburnum, and other shrubs won’t need any particular care over the next several moths.  All will appreciate shredded leaves mulched over their roots.  Forsythia still have their leaves, but I noticed a few yellow blossoms on some of our shrubs yesterday.  They normally bloom in February, so this November bloom is a mystery…

Annuals

Annual Ageratum should be clipped at the soil line and discarded.  It could be replaced with Violas for bloom through the winter.

Annual Ageratum should be clipped at the soil line and discarded. It could be replaced with Violas for bloom through the winter.

Annual flowers and herbs are past their season now.  Unless they are covered in ripe seeds, like the Basil, there is no reason to leave them any longer.  Clip at the soil line, leaving the roots  to enrich the soil.

Some annuals, like Cleome reseed freely and can become invasive.  These should definitely be removed.  Others, like this basil, will feed many hungry birds.

This basil is covered in ripe seeds.  I'll remove it, but throw the plant into the ravine where the birds will still enjoy its seeds.

This basil is covered in ripe seeds. I’ll remove it, but throw the plant into the ravine where the birds will still enjoy its seeds.

But it doesn’t have to be here.  This whole plant can be removed in the interest if tidiness and thrown into the ravine, where the birds will still enjoy the seeds.  Seeds should never be added to a compost pile, for obvious reasons.

Fallen Leaves

Living in a forest, we have leaves everywhere at the moment.  They are still falling.  Some of our neighbors are so concerned with the leaves that we hear their blowers running daily.  In fact, we shake our head in disbelief at neighbors out blowing leaves off their walk or driveway on a windy day, with leaves continuing to fall all around them.

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Hardy Hibiscus seed heads stand out against the leaf covered forest floor.

It must be a deeply held cultural fetish to manicure the lawn and remove every fallen leaf; a concern we don’t share.   And so we have made only small efforts so far to sweep the porches and steps, clear the driveway, and remove leaves from newly planted Violas.

When most of the leaves have fallen, we’ll use a combination of broom, lawn mower and our leaf blower/bagger to tidy up around the house.   We do our best to maintain the peace and quiet by using hand tools, like a rake, when possible.

Wet leaves underfoot are definitely a safety hazard, especially when they freeze.  And wet leaves on masonry do bad things to steps and porches.  Our reality, living among deciduous trees, is that leaves blow around from place to place all winter long.  We accept them and appreciate the good things they do for the garden.

Leaves around porches and walkways can be swept, and then shredded.

Leaves around porches and walkways can be swept, and then shredded.

Leaves are extremely important  for building good soil.  As they decompose they release many important nutrients to the soil, feed earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures, insulate the ground, and hold moisture.  We either shred the leaves with the lawn mower, allowing them to mix with the grass clippings for speedier decomposition,  or suck them up with our blower.  In both cases we catch them in the appliance’s bag, and pour them out around shrubs where the mulch is needed.  Leaves are far too valuable to an organic gardener to bag and throw away. Carbon and nitrogen, along with many minerals, accumulate in the leaves throughout the summer.  These are released and enrich the soil as the leaves decompose.  When earthworms feed on the leaves, even more of their nutrient content is made available to feed other plants.

My friend has begun working on a new hugelkultur bed and will fill this area with shredded leaves, fallen branches, and other organic materials to prepare for spring planting.

My friend has begun working on a new hugelkultur bed and will fill this area with shredded leaves, fallen branches, and other organic materials to prepare for spring planting.

Shredded leaves are an important ingredient for new hugelkultur beds and for  compost piles.

Any spot where you plan to plant in spring can be covered in a layer of shredded  leaves now.  First lay down cardboard, grocery bags, or sheets of newspaper in new areas to kill off any grass or weeds over the winter, pour on the shredded leaves, and then water the pile to keep the leaves from blowing away.  This method is called “sheet composting”.   Throughout winter add coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable scraps, rinsed egg shells, and used potting soil under the leaves.  Top this mound off with a few inches of topsoil or finished compost in spring, and plant directly into this new bed.

Shredded leaves used as mulch around shrubs enrich the soil, conserve moisture, encourage earthworms, and prevent erosion.

Shredded leaves used as mulch around shrubs enrich the soil, conserve moisture, encourage earthworms, and prevent erosion.

So work done in the garden, now that we’ve had our first frost, will focus on conserving our resources and preparing for the coming season.  As we clean up what remains from this year’s growth, we will provide protection from winter’s cold, allow food and shelter for our birds to remain in place, build the soil, and prepare our beds for the coming season.  Recycling nature’s gifts enriches the garden, and makes it more beautiful and abundant with each passing year.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.

Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

After the frost, the garden is still beautiful.

After the frost, the garden is still beautiful.

Edgeworthia in the Garden

Our Edgeworthia in February, its first spring in the garden.

Our Edgeworthia in February, its first spring in the garden.

Early in the spring of 2013, friends invited me over to see their Hellebores in bloom.  We had discovered our common interest in these beautiful winter blooming perennials.

This was a special treat since they had just redone their garden, and they gave me a complete tour.  As we walked around, an unusually beautiful shrub, in full bloom, drew my attention.  “What is that? I’ve never seen anything quite like it!”

Our Edgeworthia in late February.

Our Edgeworthia in late February.

Elegant smooth branches glowed in the afternoon light, each holding clusters of tiny creamy flowers.  This large, sculptural shrub commanded attention in the center of a network of pathways.

Our Edgeworthia open and fragrant, now, on March 15.

Our Edgeworthia open and fragrant, now, on March 15.

This was the day I fell in love with Edgeworthia chrysantha We encountered one another again, only a few weeks later, at Homestead Garden Center.  They helped me find the Edgeworthia among the huge variety of shrubs in the nursery.

As much as I wanted to grow one, I hesitated.  I couldn’t visualize where it would have the correct growing conditions and place of honor it deserved in my garden.

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Our newly planted Edgeworthia in mid September.

It is a very good thing I hesitated back in April.  Little did I know then how completely a June storm would transform my front “woods”, or that I would soon have heavy equipment rolling through my yard day after day disassembling our forest.  Now the work is finished, and I”m getting used to the changes, including the change in light.

Which brings us back to Edgeworthia.

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It likes a mix of sun and shade, and now it can grow well in any number of spots along the edges of the big, sunny open space where my Afghan figs will soon be growing.

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Back at Homestead on Friday, when Dustin and I were looking at shrubs for the pot garden, we found three Edgeworthia left in stock.  Even better, these shrubs were grown locally  by the Patton family, and all three were healthy and beautifully shaped. September 14 Edgeworthia 003 - Copy

We chose one for the pot I was planting for This Century Art Gallery, and one for me to plant in our garden.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea growing with Black Eyed Susans.

When I plant a shrub out in the garden, I generally plant it as the centerpiece of a new little garden bed.

Like constructing a quilt, I expect that one day these little islands of beauty will flow into one another to make something grand and beautiful.  It is also a pragmatic approach.

Once I learned that every part of a daffodil is poisonous, including the roots, I began planting them around every new shrub.

Daffodil bulbs, ready to be planted in a ring around the Edgeworthia.

Daffodil bulbs, ready to be planted in a ring around the Edgeworthia.

The garden has been infested with voles since at least the day I planted the first anything in the ground here.  I’ve lost too many new plants down their tunnels, and had too many shrubs stunted by voracious gnawing on their roots to put anything in the ground without protection.  Daffodils are my insurance policy.  I plant a ring of them around everything these days.

So once deciding where the new Edworthia would be most admired and enjoyed, near the drive, and shifting that spot several times to avoid major roots, I dug a hole large enough to accommodate the shrub and a ring of daffodils.

September 14 Edgeworthia 004

There are so many different views on how to prepare a planting hole.  When I first began gardening, I learned, “Dig a $5 hole for a $1 plant”.  Advice was to dig an area at least twice the size of the root ball, half again as deep, and generously amend the soil with compost and fertilizer.

September 14 Edgeworthia 007

Lately I’ve read experts who say that is unnecessary, and in some cases harmful.  They recommend digging a hole just the right size, using the same soil taken out as back fill, and going lightly on the fertilizer.  I think it depends a lot on the growing conditions in your own particular garden, and also on what you are planting.

For bare root roses, I dig a huge hole, tinker with the soil quite a bit, and do all sorts of interesting things.   It can take half a day!

The many roots in this garden settle the question for me.  I dig the biggest hole I can, remove the fewest established roots I can get by with, build up a little hill of compost on top of the ground around the root ball, which is generally high, and hope for the best.   Somehow it works out.

September 14 Edgeworthia 005

This Edgeworthia got lucky.  The spot I finally found allowed me to dig a hole 4″-5″ deeper than the root ball, and a bit wider.  After cutting out the displaced roots, I poured in a generous serving of pea gravel, to greet the voles’ little hungry mouths, and a generous serving of Plant Tone.

All of this got mixed into the loose soil at the bottom of the hole, and then mixed again with a good bit of compost.  Just like planting a pot, I smoothed this amended soil up the sides of the planting hole, and adjusted the depth so the root ball sat level with the surrounding ground.

September 14 Edgeworthia 008

This Edgeworthia had more root growth than the one which went in the pot, and a lot of roots were showing on top of the root ball.  Since the weather is still warm, and its buds are forming, I didn’t want to shock it by pruning the roots back, but I did lift them gently away from the ball with the tip of my pocket knife.

Roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball need to be loosened before planting.

Roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball need to be loosened before planting.

“Roughing them up” a bit is actually a good thing as it encourages new growth out into the surrounding soil.  Breaking up the roots on the bottom of the ball is as important as loosening the roots on the sides.  All of this is done in the shade, of course, and just before planting.

Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

Once the shrub was set in the hole, I added a little more gravel, and then began back-filling.

The soil that came out of the hole was surprisingly good:  a nice mix of loose clay and dark rich dirt.  I layered the soil with gravel and compost to a depth of about 6″ from the top, and then planted the first ring of bulbs.

Daffodil bulbs planted at a depth of 8", and about 6" apart all around the root ball to protect it from voles.

Daffodil bulbs planted at a depth of 8″, and about 6″ apart all around the root ball to protect it from voles.

Their bottoms need to be about 8″ deep, and so each was pushed down into the loose back fill.  Once they were planted and covered, I watered the hole well to allow this much of the soil to settle and wash out any air pockets.

When the water drains, the rest of the hole can be filled, again in layers, ending with a light layer of compost covering the exposed roots on top of the root ball.  A shrub should be planted at the level it grew in the pot, but when the roots are exposed, I put a light covering of compost over them as a mulch.

September 14 Edgeworthia 014

Next, I circled this initial hole with a second ring of daffodil bulbs; an Autumn Fern ready to move from the pot its grown in for a year to a more spacious accommodation in the ground; and the ground cover Creeping Jenny growing with it.

I dug a fairly large hole beside the shrub for the first two bulbs and the fern, backfilling with compost and the original soil.  Then I spaced additional bulbs wherever I could dig a large enough hole, about every 8″ around the entire shrub.  All of those lovely poisonous daffodil roots will grow together to make a protective ring around the shrub’s roots while it establishes.

Edworthia, surrounded by two rows of daffodil bulbs, an Autumn Fern, and Creeping Jenny, will settle in for a few weeks before I add Violas and more spring bulbs around this planting.

Edworthia, surrounded by two rows of daffodil bulbs, an Autumn Fern, and Creeping Jenny, will settle in for a few weeks before I add Violas and more spring bulbs around this planting.

 Finally, I broke up the remaining root ball of Creeping Jenny,  put hunks of it on top of the outer ring of bulbs, and covered the whole outer ring with additional compost.

Now,  this is a totally unorthodox planting method- planting on top of the ground.  But it works.  Creeping Jenny are very tough.  They root from every leaf node along the stem.  I’ll keep this watered until they take hold, and soon they will form a beautiful chartreuse ground cover around this entire area.

After watering everything well one more time, I left the new planting to settle.  In a few weeks, I’ll come back with 6 packs of violas and small bulbs of Grape Hyacinths, Crocuses, perhaps some Siberian Squill; and develop the area around the shrub a bit more.  By the end of October, this entire area along the drive will be planted in violas ready to bloom their hearts out all winter and into next spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013-2014

 

Serenity, and Joy

The hardy Begonias are finally blooming.

The hardy Begonias are finally blooming.

Walking around the garden this morning the first few lines of Karl Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer came to mind.  It is the first time in a few days I’ve had time to simply wander around, camera in hand, and I had been wondering what I would find. August 21 2013 garden photos 020

The Butterfly Tree is almost finished blooming, and is now forming seeds.  When the seedpods open, they will be bright blue, and as beautiful as the flowers.

The Butterfly Tree is almost finished blooming, and is now forming seeds. When the seedpods open, they will be bright blue, and as beautiful as the flowers.

The garden is never the same, even one day to the next.  What is blooming today may be gone to seed in another day, or may be gone- into the stomach of a hungry deer.  I was amazed to find deer droppings all around the garden, and evidence of their ripping and chewing on so many shrubs and perennials.  All of our efforts to fence them out and repel them for naught; much of the conventional wisdom of plants the deer will ignore proven wrong.

Autumn Brilliance fern

Autumn Brilliance fern

It has been a good growing season as we’ve had no drought.  The rain has been consistent and abundant.  The new ferns have gotten off to a good start in this moist summer.   It has been a difficult season for all those summer plants which need days and days of sunshine and heat to produce well.  Geraniums, tomatoes, basil, squash, lavender….  So many plants are either sulking with very little new growth, or have just molded and dissolved. The cool, overcast and wet weather has put a damper on things.  Not a single daisy has broken bud yet, though they are sitting there at the ends of lush green branches.  Perhaps in September they will give a glorious show.

On the other hand, some plants have grown so much that pathways are nearly closed off by their luxuriant growth.  Roses and Rose of Sharon reach out to join hands across the path.  Echinacea and Monarda, fallen over from their own weight, spill into the walkway.August 21, 2013 close up garden 014

Our new fig has quadrupled in size since it went into the ground last autumn.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.

And so I’ve come to understand that there are things I simply must accept and expect to maintain my peace of mind tending this particular bit of land.  Despite chigger bites, snakes, and ticks, I’m not going to give up and live inside.  It is long since time to mentally evolve a bit and apply the concepts of the Serenity Prayer to working with the reality of this garden.   So here is the short list of principles I have embraced:August 21 2013 garden photos 009

Nature will surprise me.  Every day.  It is up to me to get up, suit up, get outside, and see what is there with fresh eyes.

A "surprise", volunteer vine, growing in the shade, is making a surprise squash.

A “surprise”, volunteer vine, growing in the shade, is making a surprise squash.

August 21, 2013 close up garden 006The wild things and I share this garden.  It is teeming with birds, lizards, frogs, butterflies, squirrels, dragonflies and bees.  It will also always be home to mosquitoes, chiggers, deer, bats, voles, and other furry things which visit only under cover of darkness.  I will never completely eliminate the deer, or the biting bugs, and will stop expecting to be successful in doing so.August 13 2013 vines 020

This will always be a wild forest garden.  I have given up any illusion of taming it into neatness or manicured tameness.  The plants will do what they will do, and my efforts or expectations have very little impact.August 21, 2013 close up garden 009Sun and shade, wet and drought are completely unpredictable.  Shade becomes full sun when a tree falls.  Sun becomes shade when a shrub grows beyond its expected size.  Rain will come when it comes, and often too much at once.

Garlic chives, now shaded, still bloom.

Garlic chives, now shaded, still bloom.

Gardening magazines and nursery catalogs are full of plants I can’t grow and techniques which won’t work here.  I will simply erase the Parrot Tulips and Toad Lilies from my mind and plant the few reliable plants I have learned to count on.  Purchasing new plants is enjoyable, but too often counterproductive; when they soon get eaten, drowned, or burned by the sun.

This hydrangea has been grazed by the deer more than once, even in this protected area in a pot.

This hydrangea has been grazed by the deer more than once, even in this protected area in a pot.

Record the triumphs in photos.  If a rose blooms today and is eaten tonight, at least I can enjoy it in the photo.  Looking back at photos from other years, I can see how much growth and progress has been made since the beginning.  It is encouraging to have a photo record of successes and beautiful moments.August 21 2013 garden photos 019Buy gravel and compost on every trip to the garden center.  A new hole will always need to be filled, and the beds need regular gifts of compost.  A bag of compost must be purchased along with every new purchase of plants.  Any plant worth planting is worth caring for.August 21, 2013 close up garden 025

Never give up or lose hope for more beauty to follow tomorrow.  After months of trying to overwinter and save a Rex Begonia, I finally gave the sad empty pot of soil to the Earth to fill a hole near the foundation of the house.  And today, miraculously, I found the Begonia growing again, under a shrub, just as beautiful as it ever was last summer.August 21, 2013 close up garden 002This garden is full of surprises.  So long as my eye settles on the beauty and wonder of it all, this forest garden is full of joy and possibility.

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Begonia Rex, given up for dead, is alive and well in this forest garden.

Begonia Rex, given up for dead, is alive and well in this forest garden.

Beginning, Again: Step By Step for Building and Planting a Raised Bed

July 27 new stump garden 016~

Before our oaks fell in a storm this past June, there was a small shaded bed around the base of one of the oaks filled with Azaleas, ferns, Hellebores, Caladiums, Begonias, Violas, and spring bulbs.  A 15’ Dogwood tree grew  beside the oak, providing additional shade to the bed.

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The bed in mid-September 2011, a few weeks after Huricane Irene.

The bed in mid-September 2011, a few weeks after Huricane Irene.  The trunk to the far right was a 15′ Dogwood, destroyed in the June 2013 storm. Filled with roots, and heavily grazed, everything struggled in this bed.

 

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When the crew cleaned up after the fallen trees, they also picked up the wood which had bordered this bed since before we bought the property.  The azaleas were broken and the Hellebores were left to bake in the full sun.  It was as bedraggled after the clean-up as the rest of the front part of our garden.

This bed is at the top of the forest in view of the street.  We drive by it coming and going, so it needs to look neat and cared for.

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Time to begin again to build a productive raised bed around the stump of this beautiful oak.

Time to begin again to build a productive raised bed around the stump of this once beautiful oak.

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Now that the remaining trees have been pruned and all of the equipment has come and gone, it’s time to begin again and restore this area.  I’d like to experiment with a modified version of European hugelkultur, or building a self- sustaining raised bed on pieces of wood and compostable materials.  In traditional hugelkultur the bed is constructed as a mound of wood several feet high, covered in organic materials and topsoil.

A good friend learned about this system and has been building beds in this style behind her house all summer.  She is having good results, and so I will experiment with this method as well.

Hugelkultur is a sustainable organic gardening practice which allows plants to grow with very little further attention from the gardener once they establish.  The biomass of the wood absorbs and holds water, then releases it slowly to the growing plants as needed.  Rainwater is absorbed and retained so little additional irrigation is needed.  As the wood and other organic materials built into the base of the bed decompose, they release nutrients to the plants.  A rich community of bacteria, fungus, worms, and insects forms in such a bed limiting the need for additional fertilizer.  Over a period of years the wood breaks down into rich soil to sustain the plants, many of them perennials, planted into a Hugelkultur bed.

Pea gravel and compost are essential when I plant anything in the ground in this garden.

Pea gravel and compost are essential when I plant anything in the ground in this garden.

Hellebores and ferns were dug out and moved to a shady fern bed.

Hellebores and ferns were dug out and moved to a shady fern bed.

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I’m building my bed around a large stump, on top of the massive root system of the tree, so I’m counting all of that biomass below the surface as the foundation for my bed.  I add to that, above the surface, bits of limbs and bark left after the clean up and the rich mixture of chipped wood and leaves left behind from grinding up the trimmed limbs.

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July 26 new bed in forest 004

Mulch raked back to expose the remaining plants.

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I began by raking back all of the material left from grinding to expose the Hellebores, bits of fern, and remaining azalea twigs.

The azaleas have been in place several years and so I’m hoping they will grow back from their roots and survive in spite of the bright sunlight.  The hellebores need to be dug and moved to a shady area in the fern garden.

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July 26 new bed in forest 007

A loose layer of pea gravel is poured first to make it more difficult for burrowing voles to get into this bed.

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Once they were all moved out, I gathered enough branches and bark to roughly cover the area I’ll convert into a raised bed.  This new bed will be a few feet wider than what was there before and I plan to eventually work some food producing plants into the mix.

The first layer of the new bed is a loose covering of pea gravel to slow down the burrowing voles a bit.  Since the roots here are dense, I don’t think they’ll have an easy time getting in, but the gravel is a good foundation.

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Bits of wood are laid to make a frame around the surviving azaleas.

Bits of wood are laid to make a frame around the surviving azaleas.

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Next the gathered wood.  I used larger pieces to frame out an area around the base of each remaining azalea so they don’t get buried.  Leaving these shrubs in place will limit the depth of the new bed.

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Bits of branch and bark form a foundation for the new raised bed.

Bits of branch and bark form a foundation for the new raised bed.

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Once the layer of wood was in place, I topped the entire bed with a layer of the ground up wood and leaves, making it thinner around the azaleas and thicker in other areas.  This is a nice mixture of high nitrogen material (the leaves) and high carbon material (the wood).  I expect it to compost in place nicely, especially topped with the layer of finished compost.

There were only three bags of finished compost on hand, and so I spread them out in a fairly thin layer over the entire bed.  This certainly isn’t as deep as I want it, and so we’ll bring in more bags of compost over the coming weeks.

New raised beds are traditionally constructed in the winter and left for several months to season and settle before planting.  Since I’m constructing this one in late July I’ll limit the amount of new planting directly into the bed, and instead place several large planters on top of it.  I’ll move plants out of these planters and into the bed in a few months.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

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I purchased six sage plants, two Setcreasea (Purple Heart), and one Hypericum moserianum,’Tricolor’, variegated St. John’s Wort.  Three others are already growing in the pots, so a total of four will live in this bed.  All of these plants are happy in hot, dry conditions and aren’t picky about soil.  They’re deer resistant, and should be good pioneer plants as this bed is established.

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This is a very thin layer of compost, but I'll keep adding more over the next several weeks.

This is a very thin layer of compost, but I’ll keep adding more over the next several weeks.

All of the new plants are laid out where they will grow. Potting mix will help the plants get started in this shallow bed.

All of the new plants are laid out where they will grow. Potting mix will help the plants get started in this shallow bed.

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The layer of compost on top of the chipped wood and leaves is too thin to hold the plants, so I scooped out an area for each root ball into the chipped materials and filled in around the new plants with potting soil.

All of these plants are root bound this late in the season.  It is important to gently pull the roots apart a little so they will grow into the surrounding soil, and not continue to grow around in a circle, as they have been in the pot.  Roots should venture out away from the plant to soak up water and nutrients.  Roots growing in a circle aren’t able to provide a firm foundation for continued growth.  All sorts of problems can develop and kill the plant.

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These plants are root bound at the end of the season. Roots need to be gently pulled loose from the root ball before the plant is settled into some fresh potting soil.

These plants are root bound at the end of the season. Roots need to be gently pulled loose from the root ball before the plant is settled into some fresh potting soil.

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All nine new plants are now planted, and the pots set between them.  I’ll add more compost a little at a time, make sure the plants don’t dry out, and allow the bed to begin to “cook”.

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New plants are settled in the bed, and pots positioned between them. The bed will continue to settle in until autumn

New plants are settled in the bed, and pots positioned between them. The bed will continue to settle in until autumn.

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In early September I plan to plant several kale plants between the sages.  I expect the sage to protect them from any curious deer that get into the garden. Kale and sage are the first food crops added to this bed.  By late October it will be time to move the remaining Hypericum out of the pots and into the soil.

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The nearly finished bed. More compost will be added to cover the remaining wood on the border, and eventually I'll install some edging material to hold it all together.

The nearly finished bed. More compost will be added to cover the remaining wood on the border, and eventually I’ll install some edging material to hold it all together.

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  Perennial geraniums, received bare root in the mail this spring, are getting their start in the pots.  They can also be moved into the bed or planted elsewhere.  The Setcreasea will move into the garage before frost.  The sages, St. John’s Wort, and kale will look good throughout the winter, and will probably be joined by a few violas for even more color.

By spring, I can plant additional perennials, and this new raised bed will be ready to take its place as a productive part of our forest garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2013

Perma Culture

 

tree of life 3A forest, by its very nature, is very old.  The largest trees may have grown in the same spot for more than a century.  The Earth around these trees has been disturbed very little over the years, allowing a complex colony of fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, snails, reptiles, and even small mammals to live peacefully among the roots of the trees. Sept 11, 2011 after the storm 007 A wise gardener tends the garden while disrupting these ancient communities as little as possible.

stump and amyth

Mushrooms, bacteria, and small insects help this stump decay back into the Earth.

The roto-tiller has no place in a forest garden.   Gardening is done more around the edges of things than in rows; either with individual plants tucked into their own planting holes, or raised beds constructed on top of the existing soil.  In a forest garden, the roots of existing trees and shrubs fill the soil in their own lacy network.  Every attempt to dig will be met with resistance. Every new hole must be carved out between existing roots, or the roots running through that hole must be sacrificed to make room for the new addition.

Garden Oct. 21, 2012 032

Ginger lilies, lavender, and roses grow in a new bed along the edge of an established forest.

The gardener seeks balance between the old and the new, adding new plants gently into the existing forest community.  fern and hostaWith that in mind, it is wise to add plants that will live more than a season, plants with strong roots that will branch out and seek their own spaces and sustenance.  The essence of “perma-culture” is based on this idea of introducing useful plants who will dig in, find their own way, live indefinitely, and provide an on-going benefit to the gardener.

A newly planted fig tree is surrounded by Rosemary and Iris.  Planted once, these will grow happily here for years.

A newly planted fig tree is surrounded by Rosemary and Iris. Planted once, these will grow happily here for years.

The most obvious choice, if there is space and sunlight, is a fruit or nut bearing tree.  A tree which is beautiful, adds to the landscape, and produces a useful crop is a good investment.  Care must be taken to give each new plant the space it needs to mature and get adequate sunlight.  In the tropics, trees produce staples such as coconuts, dates, breadfruit, mangoes, papayas, and avocados.  These crops are reliable year after year and provide a steady food source.

In Zone 7b, there is still a wide range trees to plant in a forest garden which produce a reliable edible crop.  For an initial investment of $10.00 to $30.00, healthy, well grown trees can be purchased either bare-root or in pots.  Most will produce a first crop within 1-3 years of planting, depending on the variety and maturity of the sapling.

The Passion Fruit vine can grow up to 50' a year and produces edible fruit.  Grown throughout warm climates, this perennial vine is beautiful and productive.

The Passion Fruit vine can grow up to 50′ a year and produces edible fruit. Grown throughout warm climates, this perennial vine is beautiful and productive.

Good choices include fig, apple, pear, peach, pomegranate, persimmon, plum, paw-paw, cherry, pecan, walnut, hazelnut, and hickory. 

A peach tree grows in the edge of the forest.

A peach tree grows in the edge of the forest.

Orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees are hardy further south, but can be grown in large pots and kept inside during the coldest months in winter.  Banana trees can similarly be grown outside in summer, dug and stored inside in winter.  Choose varieties carefully, as fruit trees often require a companion of another variety for cross-pollination.

While some of these trees, like fig, will produce a crop with minimal care, others, like apples and peaches, do require spraying.  All benefit from an annual gift of finished compost sprinkled around their roots.   The biggest problem I’ve experienced is loss to birds and squirrels, which begin attacking the fruit long before it is ripe.  Netting offers some protection.

A forest grows in layers, and many understory shrubs also produce fruit while thriving in partial shade.  Cherries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and currants can be planted in full sun or partial shade.    Many of these can also live permanently in large pots.  Vining crops such as grapes and kiwi can be grown on pergolas or trellises in patches of sun.  Most of these need a male and a female plant for fruit production, but cover large areas with beautiful vines which also provide shade.

A raised bed garden with herbs, perennials, peppers, and tomatoes.

A raised bed garden with herbs, perennials, peppers, and tomatoes.

Peaches and figs grow along the edge of the forest

Peaches and figs grow along the edge of the forest

Finally, if there is space for a raised bed in a sunny spot, crops like asparagus, rhubarb, running onions, and Jerusalem artichoke bear for many years after planting and offer a reliable crop with little labor.  Perennial herbs, like Comfrey, Rosemary, Sage, Lavender, Oregano, Marjoram, Chives, Bay, Thyme, Monarda, and Mint will come back bigger and better each year. This is an understatement in the case of mints, which grow aggressively by underground stems and can become invasive.  They are best planted where they can spread without harming other crops.

Mint

Pineapple mint and lavender are planted together on a slope to hold the soil against erosion.

Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Bay, and some Lavender remain evergreen in zone 7b and south and can be harvested for cooking all winter.

Weeding, watering during dry spells, an annual topdressing of compost, and careful harvesting after the plants are established sums up the needed maintenance.  Some crops will need more protection from hungry wild life than others. Crops like asparagus and rhubarb should be allowed to grow for at least 2 summers before any harvest.   If space is left in the raised bed for annual herbs and flowers, any harmful insects will mostly get eaten up by birds or other insects.

This raised bed garden is edged with chunks of rock and cement.

This raised bed garden is edged with chunks of rock and cement.

Raised beds can be built from a variety of materials, including bricks, stones, hay bales, fallen branches, logs, and the prunings from trees.  A method of building raised beds, pioneered in Europe, actually begins the bed with a thick layer of logs, branches, and leaves.  Similar to sheet composting, this layer of wood is expected to break down slowly over several years.  It absorbs available water from rain and watering, holds the moisture like a sponge, and releases it to thirsty roots as needed.  The wood is covered with leaves and grass clippings, along with other compostable materials, and finally topped with two to three inches of topsoil or finished compost.  The bed can be allowed to settle or season, or can be planted immediately in pockets of deeper soil.  The building materials slowly decompose into compost, making the soil richer and deeper each year.hugelkulture

This Hugelkultur method, (http://www.diynatural.com/hugelkultur-raised-garden-beds/) is the ultimate form of recycling in the garden.  Leaves, grass clippings, branches, and fallen trees can be used in building beautiful raised beds which bear abundant crops for many years.

Stump garden

A “stump garden” in its fourth season. New plants have been added each year in an ever widening circle. A small Camellia is planted at the center, shielded from hungry deer by other, less desirable plants.

A variation of this method is my “stump garden”.  My garden is dotted with large stumps from a former owner’s efforts to remove large trees near the house after Hurricane Isabelle, and smaller stumps left from where a neighbor’s oak fell across my orchard during Hurricane Irene.  Each of these stumps has become the nucleus around which I’ve built a raised bed.

The stump which serves as the nucleus of this garden is still just visible in the center of the bed.  Compost was spread around the stump, and then plants were added each season in an ever widening circle

The stump which serves as the nucleus of this garden is still just visible in the center of the bed. Compost was spread around the stump, and then plants were added each season in an ever widening circle

The method is simple.  I spread a few inches of finished compost around the stump, and plant.  The stump breaks down in the center of the bed; holding moisture; providing food and cover for the worms and insects who enrich the soil; and initially creating a focal point.  Eventually the plants grow up higher than the stump, and it disappears as it returns to the Earth.

I’ve also used this method for recycling the still living contents of pots when time comes to plant for a new season.  Plants and their soil can be emptied and “replanted” around stumps, or in depressions in the ground which need filling.  The plant, if perennial will continue to grow, sinking its roots ever deeper.  If an annual, the roots and soil remain after the plant itself dies back.  Over several seasons, this builds into a new planting bed.

These ferns grew in pots last summer, but died back over the winter.  They were planted along the edge of a bank in depressions to help hold the bank against erosion.

These ferns grew in pots last summer, but died back over the winter. They were planted along the edge of a bank in depressions to help hold the bank against erosion.

I normally plant shallowly to avoid established roots.  In other words, I dig a small hole for the new plant, usually only deep enough to accommodate half to three-quarters of the depth of the root ball.  Often the roots of the new plant can be untangled a bit and spread out to cover more space but use less depth.  I settle the root ball into the new hole, and then mound compost around the root ball to cover it.

Rosemary can be harvested year round.  It is evergreen, and has small blue flowers in late winter.

Rosemary can be harvested year round. It is evergreen, and has small blue flowers in late winter.

A newly planted Camellia, surrounded by compost.  Violas and sea shells will help hold the compost in place as the shrub grows.

A newly planted Camellia, surrounded by compost. Violas and sea shells will help hold the compost in place as the shrub grows.

When planting into a new raised bed, the entire bed is covered in several inches of compost so the top of the new bed is level after planting.  When planting a specimen shrub, like a camellia, the compost around the root ball is extended out a foot or more from the trunk, and can be planted with bulbs, ferns, and small annuals to hold the compost in place as the shrub gets established.

Perma-culture is an economical, sustainable approach to gardening in a forest.  Fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and fruiting vines not only produce an edible crop, but are beautiful “bones” in the landscape.  They attract all sorts of wildlife, including beautiful butterflies, and bees.  They offer a food source for wild bees and other nectar seekers.

Tri-colored sage is a tender perennial which usually survives the winter in Zone 7b

Tri-colored sage is a tender perennial which usually survives the winter in Zone 7b

Of course, “perma-culture” can be practiced as easily with ornamental plants as with food producing ones.  New trees and shrubs don’t need to produce an edible crop to provide beauty and stabilize the soil.  Raised beds can be planted with perennials, ornamental shrubs, ferns, and herbs which aren’t intended to end up on the dinner table.

This approach requires less labor from the gardener, and more watchful appreciation.  We do less digging, and more “helping along”.  An initial investment pays off over many years.  The harvest, once it comes, is reliable, and grows more abundant year after year.  We have food for ourselves, food to store, and food to share with friends and loved ones.

A few good sources for information and plants:

http://homesteadgardencenter.com/

www.starkbros.com

http://www.treesofjoy.com/fig-varieties-collection

Another stump garden with iris, a Rugosa rose, thyme, Lantana, Lavender, and coleus.

Another stump garden with iris, a Rugosa rose, thyme, Lantana, Lavender, and coleus.

www.gurneys.com

UPDATE:  Since initially posting this article, I found a reference in something I was reading online to a recently published book on Perma Culture by Rick Austin called, Secret Garden of Survival.

Mr. Austin’s book is full of interesting ideas and useful tips, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to explore Perma Culture in more depth.  His approach is very different from mine.  He appears to be living in a wooded rural area in the mountains somewhere on the east coast of the United States, and wants a sustainable food supply on his own property which is camouflaged from visitors. I am living in a suburban neighborhood, on an established property, with close neighbors.

Mr. Austin clear cut a portion of his land and brought in heavy equipment to build terraces, a water filtration system, and a large pond stocked with fish.  He is raising small animals for meat, keeping bees, and growing a huge variety of food.  His goal is to grow and preserve all the food his family needs.  This entire process is explained and illustrated in the book.

While I am not re-configuring my land or trying to create a survival garden hidden away from the world, I found lots of useful ideas for protecting plants from hungry animals and for companion planting.  Mr. Austin illustrates how grapes grown up fruit trees grow much more strongly and bear better than grapes grown on fences and trellises.  He uses blackberry bushes as a fence to protect his garden, and offers many useful suggestions for organic gardening and companion planting.

His system of planting circular gardens in concentric rights around fruit and nut trees is a fresh approach to companion planting.  These “guilds” of plants include both perennials and annual crops, trees, shrubs, vines, root crops, herbs, and vegetables.  I appreciate Mr. Austin’s reflection on the nature of “weeds” as the closest of any author’s to my own, and I appreciate his courage to publish the truth.

This is a short book, but is packed with information, useful illustrations, and the sort of wisdom only born of hands on experience.

Secret Garden Of Survival- How to Grow a Camouflaged Food- Forestby Rick Austin

http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Garden-Survival-camouflaged-forest/dp/1481839772

Seek and you will find….

Another excellent resource for growing permanent, food producing gardens in a forest or a suburban lot:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gaias-garden-second-edition-toby-hemenway/1103622562?ean=9781603582230

 

Recycling: The Stump Garden

Living in a forest means that sometimes our trees come down, whether by natural disaster or human choice, their loss changes the fabric of our gardens.

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Their loss also opens up fresh possibilities for change and growth.  One of the lessons gardeners experience again and again is the constancy of change.  Our gardens are never the same day to day, let alone year to year.

When we approach our gardens with an attitude of working with the change, we can see opportunities to create beauty and to restore the web of life where once there was only the remains of something now passed.

The stump of a great old tree, long gone, dominates the very bottom of our back garden.

A decaying stump from a great old tree dominates the bottom of the yard.

A decaying stump from a great old tree dominates the bottom of the yard.

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Although beautiful as a sculpture, I saw the opportunity to create beauty and also halt the erosion in this area.

This isn’t a good area for digging, and so I created a shallow raised bed using curved edging bricks from the hardware store.  They had to be carefully placed around the exposed roots of the old stump.  The bed was filled with a combination of bagged topsoil and bagged, commercial compost.  I use Leaf Grow Soil Conditioner which is produced in Maryland.  http://www.menv.com/leafgro.shtml  This particular product gives great results, and I use it almost exclusively when planting out in the garden.

A new planting bed built around a recycled stump

A new planting bed built around a recycled stump

Because the ground was sloped and uneven, I mounded the new soil higher around the base of the stump, and then tapered it down towards the edging bricks until the bed looked pleasingly full of soil and well formed.

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Hellebores are poisonous, and never grazed by deer. They prefer shade, and bloom from December until early summer. They are drought tolerant and spread once established.

A very good friend has a yard full of Hellebores, which reseed prolifically.  She had seedling growing up in areas where she wanted to grow roses and other perennials.  We worked together to dig the small plants out of areas where she didn’t want them, and I tucked them into containers of potting soil for the trip home.

I planted the transplants into the rich compost of the new bed, working around the roots, and spacing the plants 12″-18″ apart.  After watering them in, I left them to adjust to their new garden.

This whole process was done in early spring, and as the weather warmed, I was delighted to see that bits of Japanese painted fern   Image

and Epipedium had hitchhiked along attached to the roots of the Helleborus. Image

As the plants began to fill in and the soil settled, I kept adding compost as needed, and added a few more fern plants to the more deeply shaded back side of the stump garden.  A year later, I added an ivy plant which had outgrown its container, and a few more hybrid “must have” Hellebores from the garden center to fill in the last remaining empty spots.

This is now one of the most beautiful beds in my garden.  The plants have grown enough to cover themselves in flowers from December until June.  Hellebores make wonderful cut flowers and last a week or more in vases of fresh water.

Lenten Rose arrangement

Imagine that- an old stump became the anchor for a winter cutting garden, and a year round place of beauty!Stump garden in April

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The stump garden a full year after it was planted.

June 14 garden and cake 002

The stump garden in the second spring after it was planted bloomed from December until June, providing many stems of fresh winter flowers.

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A pink Hellebores is still blooming in June alongside ferns, Lamium, and ivy.

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Smaller stumps left from trees downed in a recent hurricane are surrounded by Leaf Grow Soil Conditioner, and then planted with ferns to serve as the beginnings for future beds in the shade.

Autumn Brilliance ferns planted in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner packed around a small stump for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade.

Autumn Brilliance ferns planted in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner packed around a small stump for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade.

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