Communing with Nature

Good gardening practices almost always equal “working with Nature.” That is simply because natural processes have emerged after many eons as the Earth’s flora and fauna developed strategies for successful survival and propagation.

We write “almost always” from an excess of caution: it would be safe to say “always,” except for the use of the slippery term, “good.” The term “best” would also be debatable.

Still, all gardening practices that are beneficial for air, water, soil, plants and animals turn out to be time-honored, natural practices.

Not surprisingly, these practices are also beneficial to the gardeners, because we are also members of the animal kingdom, and tool-users as well.

Some of the gardener’s benefits are physical: everyone can gain health from exercise that is appropriate to one’s age and ability. Some are economic, providing either an inexpensive form of recreation or, for those with backyard nurseries, supplemental income.

Most benefits, however, are psychological, generating positive feelings, mental peace, and the release of “happy hormones,” e.g., serotonin and dopamine. Admittedly, the latter benefit could be called a physical benefit, but it affects the psyche.

Working with Nature, therefore, works best for gardeners and literally everything in their surroundings. This concept can and should guide the gardener’s response to questions that arise in the garden. “What would Nature do about [insert gardening issue here]?”

This concept also works in reverse. Many commercially motivated gardening practices might appear to save time or increase productivity, but they often create harm in the long run, and sometimes even in the short run.

The worst of these practices involves bringing synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides into the garden. Non-toxic, effective organic products are readily available and should always be preferred.

Another avoidable and unnatural practice is the use of power tools in the garden, with gas-powered devices being the most problematic. The most common of these are gas-powered leaf blowers, which contribute faster than cars to climate change and air pollution and disturb the peace that we value in our gardens and neighborhoods.

The usual arguments favoring leaf-blowers include (a) our desire for tidy surroundings and (b) the operator’s interest in making the surroundings tidy as quickly as possible.

We should acknowledge, firstly, that Nature is not tidy. When trees drop their leaves in natural surroundings, the leaves decompose in time and add nutrients to the soil. When trees drop their leaves on pavement, we perceive untidiness. This suggests that we should plant trees only where their leaf drops would be beneficial.

If that is unrealistic (many people like street trees and patio trees), we should use manual methods to remove dropped leaves. Rakes and brooms work quite well, and in capable hands can be as efficient as leaf-blowers, and certainly much easier on the environment and our psyches.

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping demonstrates an alternative to leaf blowers. Photo by Dan Coryo, Santa Cruz Sentinel

For these reasons, many communities have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers, including Carmel and Santa Barbara to our south, and Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Menlo Park to our north. The Santa Cruz Coalition for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE) has launched a petition favoring a local ordinance to ban these unnecessary and harmful tools. Check it out at http://preview.tinyurl.com/kvgws3d .

 

Garden Decor

Gardens can be more than artful displays of plants: they can also include arts and crafts that reflect the owner’s tastes, interests and creativity. Collectively, such items comprise the garden’s décor.

The selections that we might encounter in gardens range from stunning works of fine art to found art to  “junktique,” with items such as plants growing in worn-out boots. This range could be defined in terms of cost.

For many home gardens, the most prominent décor consists of plant containers, which offer many opportunities for artistic expression. The more successful of these expressions present an interesting relationship between the container and the plant(s) it contains.

The less successful involve uses of nursery cans, which are typically black plastic. Such containers could be seen as an exercise in utilitarianism: they are valued for their usefulness and low cost.

Gardeners often acquire their décor often on the open market, but they gain the most satisfaction by making their own pieces. This requires creativity but doesn’t necessarily require artistic skill.

As an example, this “garden path medallion,” one of four in my garden, is a unique product that required care to build, but inexpensive materials and only a modicum of artistry. The medallion is four feet in diameter. My rabbit, Harvey, is sitting in to indicate the scale.

Pathway Medallion

Click to Enlarge

An important component of this project is a circular strip that retains the circle of bricks. I found this product on Amazon.com, marketed as the “EasyFlex No-Dig Tree Ring Kit.” This strip retains the bricks with a 1.5-inch high edge, low enough to hide under the pathway surface.

I purchased common bricks for the four medallions, each of which required 34 bricks. We installed the steppingstone and bricks in a bed of decomposed granite (also called path fines), which has angular grains that lock into a firm yet permeable surface. Beach sand has more rounded grains that stay too loose for such applications.

Common bricks are too large to form a tight ring around the steppingstone, so we used black, oval-shaped stones, sold as Mexican pebbles, three-to-five inches long. We installed them on edge, and used a rubber mallet to level them with the steppingstone and bricks. The last step was to sweep decomposed granite into the gaps and water it to settle it around the hard materials.

The costs for each medallion include the tree ring $10; 34 common bricks: $34; Mexican pebbles $16; cast concrete steppingstone $20, more or less, for a total of about $80 for a near-permanent feature.

Decomposed granite costs $40-to-$50 per cubic yard, but the amount required for this project would depend on the length, width and depth of the pathway.

A relatively new product for filling the gaps between stones is polymeric joint sand, which includes a water-activated polymer that forms impermeable joints. This product, available from masonry services, costs $15-to-$20 for a 60-pound bag.

For pictures of many do-it-yourself garden arts and crafts projects, visit Pinterest.com and search for “steppingstones,” “garden crafts,” “garden arts” or related topics of personal interest. You might be inspired to adapt someone else’s idea or come up with your own unique creation.

However you proceed, décor could bring interest to your garden and provide creative opportunities fvor the gardener.

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Because we are bulb-planting season, I will share a link with a recently discovered webpage, Tulips in the Wild, that presents a map of Europe and the Middle East, showing where various species of tulips grow, with photos of each species in its natural habitat. This website was developed by the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and the U.S. bulb seller, Colorblends. Browse to <tulipsinthewild.com> and click on “Interactive Map.”

If you enjoy tulips, this page provides a fascinating and informative display of the origins of many different tulips. If you thought that tulips come from the Netherlands, the truth is that only hybrid tulips come from growers in Holland. This webpage shows the real origins of this popular garden plant and could suggest a new idea for plant collecting.

Garden Plants on the Move (Moving Trees & Shrubs)

Autumn in the garden is a good time to prepare for relocating shrubs or trees that would look or grow better in a different location.

If the thought of moving a shrub or tree troubles you, recognize that even good plants need not be permanent. Here are some reasons for moving a healthy shrub or tree.

  • The tree or shrub has grown so large it’s crowding a walkway or other plants.
  • Other nearby plants have grown so large that they are shading a plant that needs sun.
  • Other nearby plants are now gone, exposing a plant that needs shade.
  • The tree or shrub is needed elsewhere in the landscape.
  • The gardener wishes to install a new feature, and the tree or shrub is in the way.
  • The gardener has wishes to establish a thematic plant bed where an off-theme tree or shrub is growing.

When preparing to relocate a plant, first decide on where it will go. Examine the new location to ensure that it is the right place for this particular plant. Confirm that the soil is suitable, the drainage is good, and the exposure it right for the plant. Finally, make certain that the new spot could accommodate the plant when it is fully grown. Then, dig a hole twice the width of the intended root ball.

Ideally, prune the roots to protect against transplant shock. This involves digging a trench around the plant, outside the intended root ball, refilling the trench and watering to settle the soil. Root-prune in March for plants to be moved in October, and in October for plants to be moved in March.

Then, plan how to move the plant, taking its size into consideration.

Small Shrubs and Trees

For a shrub less than three feet tall, or a tree with a trunk is less than one inch wide, you could move it bareroot, i.e., without digging up a root ball. To move such a smaller plant bareroot, dig a trench around it, cutting the longer roots, wash the soil off the lateral roots, and use a flat shovel to remove the soil under the plant. Keep the roots moist until you are ready to transplant.

Not-so-small Shrubs and Trees

If you are preparing to move a plant that is between three and five feet high, decide how large a root ball to provide. For industry standards for transplanting different plants of various sizes, visit the website, americanhort.org and search for “root ball.” For example, moving a five-foot tree or shrub requires an eighteen-inch wide root ball. A root ball of that size could weigh 250 pounds, so plan for the appropriate equipment and helpers.

Larger Shrubs and Trees

Most gardeners will hire a tree service to move a tree or shrub that is larger than five feet high. If you prefer to do such work yourself, I will say “best wishes,” and predict that you will have professionals do your next transplant.

Really Large Trees

Even very large trees—up to forty-five feet high—can be moved successfully, if not cheaply. The widely available tree spade uses an array of large shovels to dig a conical divot to pluck a plant from the ground, and deposit it in a matching hole. For video clips of tree spades in various sizes, browse to YouTube.com and search for “tree spade.” To see an interesting DIY device, search YouTube for “Tree Toad 24 inch Tree Transplanter.”

Tree Spade

A mechanized tree spade makes transplanting large bushes and small or medium trees a much easier proposition. Photo: Dutchman Industries

 

A newer technology for moving larger plants is the “air tool,” which uses compressed air to blow soil away from a tree’s roots. This bareroot method avoids pruning or breaking the roots, so the plant experiences little trauma and quickly resumes its usual growth cycle. To see a brief video demo of the air tool, visit growingwisdom.com, click on “Trees & Shrubs” and scroll to the link, “How to Move Large Trees Using an Air Tool.”

After moving a tree or shrub, transplanting herbaceous perennials is easy!

Planning Garden Stairways

My garden includes a slight slope with a few stairs, made with 8” x 8” x 48” wooden highway ties. Earlier, garden stairs might have been made with railroad ties, which were often soaked in creosote as a preservative. Today, highway ties are pressure-treated with chemical preservatives, many of which are too toxic to be used near edible plants.

Happily, my short flight of aging stairs was not treated with a preservative, but consequently it is deteriorating and needs replacement. Wood is suitable for stairs that do contact soil, but in this case I will avoid rot by using flagstones or other natural stone. There are manufactured stone-like materials that also are available for such a project.

When planning garden stairs, first determine your preferred dimensions for the risers and treads. A six-inch riser with a fifteen-inch tread is a recommended combination, but other combinations also can work well. A steep flight of stairs might have seven-inch risers and eleven-inch treads, while a gentle flight might have four-inch risers and twenty eight-inch treads. See on gardening.com for the range of other good combinations.

Then, use a straight board and a carpenter’s level to measure the change in level from the bottom to the top of the slope. For a longer slope, use a garden hose, taking advantage of the fact that water seeks it own level. Hold the hose in a U-shape, with one end near the top of the slope and the other end near the bottom. Fill the hose with water, and adjust it so water is at the opening of each end. When this condition has been met, the two ends will be at the same elevation, and the distance of the lower end to the ground, minus the distance of the upper end to the ground equals the change in level. See ongardening.com for an illustration of this method.

Divide the change in level by your preferred height for the riser to determine the number of steps needed for that particular slope.

Then, measure the horizontal distance from the bottom of the slope to the top. Your preferred dimension for the tread times the number of stairs should equal that distance. If it does not, modify the riser and tread dimensions (using one of the good combinations) or include a curve in the flight of stairs or reshape the slope.

The width of the stairs is the next design issue to be addressed. The narrowest width could be two feet, which might be sufficient for a utility stairway. A one-person stairway should be four feet wide, which is generally considered the minimum for a garden path. A two-person stairway should be five feet wide.

Wider stairways, in scale with the landscape, can provide a visually striking appearance. This stairway at Les Quatre Vents, an estate near Quebec, is designed for grand entrances. (Click to enlarge)

Grand Staircase

Staircase at Les Quatre Vents, near Quebec, Canada

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Paths to Garden Success

One of my projects during this past week was to install a maintenance path through a deep garden bed, to provide access for weeding, deadheading, organic spraying, irrigation maintenance, and whatever else.

(By the way, my recent call for alternatives to the term “deadheading” yielded an intriguing suggestion: “bloom boosting.” That term is more descriptive than my relatively technical term of “rejuvenation,” and the best one I’ve received. It could catch on!)

A very deep bed should have a maintenance path every four feet, which effectively divides the larger area into beds that are four feet wide and accessible from both sides. That maximum width enables the gardener to reach all parts of the bed without stepping into the bed and compressing the soil.

To avoid fragmenting the appearance of a deep bed, the gardener could form maintenance paths with twelve-inch (round or square) concrete pavers. These are available for as little as ninety-nine cents each, and, when placed behind taller plants, can be unobtrusive.

Maintenance paths could be simply unplanted areas, to be sure, but unpaved pathways could become overgrown and difficult to find. The use of pavers or natural flagstones avoids such problems.

The creative gardener could cast unique (or semi-unique) pavers using purchased or homemade molds. That might satisfy a creative urge, but seems like overkill for something intended to be invisible to visitors.

Pavers also could be used for a walkway for gardeners and their visitors. Such walkways should be at least four feet wide, so the casual visitor could stroll through the garden without watching every step. In larger gardens, wider paths might be well proportioned and would accommodate side-by-side strollers.

There are many possibilities for the surface of a garden path, too many to review here. My paths are not constructed with paver, but with three or four inches of decomposed granite (“DG”) on landscape fabric, with Sonoma fieldstone rocks as edging. This design can be achieved at low cost per foot, but weed seeds, delivered by the wind and the birds, will germinate in the DG. Regular applications of corn gluten, an organic pre-emergent herbicide, can reduce the continuing need to weed the walk.

This use of DG (a coarse sand) resembles a path material called hoggin, which is a mix of gravel, sand and clay that binds firmly when compacted, yet allows water to drain through it. A hoggin pathway (more popular in the United Kingdom than in America) looks attractive and is easy to maintain, just requiring occasional weeding.

Well-designed and well-constructed pathways support both the maintenance and enjoyment of the garden. Planning and building a good path will add greatly to the long-term success of the garden.

More

For a good selection of garden path designs, see “35 Lovely Pathways for a Well-Organized Home and Garden.”

The Web has lots of technical information and video clips on building a garden path, including the selection of materials and the actual construction. Search the web for “design a garden path” or “build a garden path.”

We focus here on the route for a garden path.

When planning the route of a new path, consider both its function and its aesthetics.

The path’s basic function is to support comfortable, efficient and safe movement around the garden, by both the gardener and visitors. The path should connect the garden’s entrance and its exit, and provide good access to the principal features of the garden, e.g., patio, seating area, tool shed, garden art, greenhouse, pond, compost bin, nursery, irrigation controls, etc.

Safety considerations include the following

  • running grade no greater than 4%, i.e., elevation changes no more than one foot for each twenty-five feet, or about one-half inch per foot. (Use steps for greater slopes);
  • cross-slope no greater than 2%, for pedestrian comfort and safe use of wheelchairs;
  • ramps should not exceed 15% (8% for wheelchair use); and
  • surfaces should provide good traction under wet, snow or frost conditions, and should be kept reasonably clean of organic materials, e.g., leaves.

Aesthetic considerations are more subjective.

The appearance of the pathway, determined by the materials used, should relate well to the style of the garden. For example, a pathway of concrete, clay or natural stone pavers will be best in a formal garden environment, while a pathway of sand, gravel or hoggin will look “right” in an informal garden. A pathway of poured concrete would be most appropriate in a public botanical garden or arboretum, where high levels of use by pedestrians, shuttles and maintenance vehicles would be anticipated.

The aesthetics of pathway design also includes subtle issues. Generally, avoid straight-line pathways and right angles, both of which suggest formality and seem incompatible with the experience of strolling through a garden.

Then, ensure that each part of the pathway leads to a destination, e.g., a seating area, an exit, or one of the garden’s features, as listed above. A looping segment of the pathway should be intended clearly to support viewing of all sides of a larger bed. The pathway should neither meander aimlessly or lead to a dead end that requires the visitor to retrace his or her steps.

Finally, the pathway should not expose the entire garden to the visitor’s view, but should be designed to “conceal and reveal” in a managed process. Use the curves of the pathway, in combination with larger plants, to create a series of small mysteries that entice the visitor to discover what lies just out of sight. Then, as the visitor advances along the pathway, reveal the “prize,” which could be one of the garden’s features, listed above, or a specimen plant, nicely presented.

The layout of a garden pathway that addresses both functional and aesthetic concepts successfully can be a challenging exercise, but also can add greatly to the overall success of the garden. Just about all pathway designs can be revised on the basis of experience, so the gardener should feel free to experiment.