Experiments From Other Gardeners

Gardeners help one another in numerous ways, sometime knowingly and at other times, unintentionally. That “aha” moment, when visiting other gardeners, can come at a moment’s notice. This article features my garden experiments set in motion by the influence of other gardeners.

Lucy Hardiman, of Perennial Partners, truly influenced my garden experiments over the years. Her garden opened for the Gardens of Natural Delights and for the open gardens convention many times. Numerous years ago, Lucy instructed us in a class to place all flower pots, no matter the size, in water up to the stem of the plant to soak. While doing so, we watched the bubbles come from the pot until the bubbles ceased. This presoaking method produced spectacular results. From hit and miss in the survival of new plantings, we went to 100% of new plants thriving! “What about large trees?” you ask. That’s a major use of multi-gallon, empty garbage cans around here. Removing even rootbound plants from their containers comes easily with this soaking method.

Lucy also taught us about spreading out the roots of our new plants. Stuck in their flower pot, sometimes for a long time, these new garden additions need encouragement to spread out their roots into a larger area. Think of spreading the roots like untangling matted hairs. Gently open the roots by teasing them along the sides and bottom of the root ball. You can even use a teasing comb. The new plant, though slightly disturbed by the transition into the ground or bigger planter, feels ready to spread and grow. This truly helps with the move!

Next in the transplanting process comes the watering of the plant in its new soil. This will help remove air pockets. You can straighten the plant at this time and add more soil as necessary to bring the soil to the right level. Thanks to Lucy’s methods, my plants, throughout the years, displayed a resilience that they previously lacked.

The idea of garden “rooms”, though hundreds of years old, possibly dating back to Ancient Roman times, came to me through the influence of Lucy Hardiman also. Her use of distinctively different areas in her garden, made this concept real for me. She even featured garden pebble mosaic “flooring” created by Jeff Bales, something I never saw before. From that point on, each of our garden “rooms” took on their own flavor. There’s our “Sedum Stream,” with ceramic fish swimming on rebar, fountain areas with accompanying foliage and flowers, a fern and mostly native plant bed, “Bee Haven,” filled with pollinator friendly plants, and a series of raised vegetable beds. More garden rooms beautify the property, many with seating to rest and enjoy the scenery.

The use of recycled materials in the garden, like garden rooms, has been around for many years, and evident in many open gardens. My wife, Patricia, and I experimented seeing things in a different perspective. For example, there’s a wrought iron table pedestal base sitting upside down, anchored into the ground with long stakes, serving the avian community as a bird bath. Upside down curtain rod halves prevent our canine friends from intruding into a bed. Topped with used glasswork by Patricia, they provide decorative value also. Old glass electrical insulators, obtained from a second-hand store, prevent the ends of bamboo poles, employed as fences, from jabbing into people and protects the bamboo supports from the rain. The glass electrical insulators offer an eye-catching characteristic that unifies the garden. Patricia also came up with an idea for a cobalt blue bottle screen. Displaying bottles on rebar, the bottle screen acts as both a work of art and a divider between two garden rooms.

Years ago, I visited Mary Denoyer’s garden. I saw a large variegated dogwood in a planter. You can grow trees in a planter! Wow! Apple trees, eucalyptus tree, pineapple guava, Lawson’s cypress; trees in planters sprang up all over my yard, my patio, my driveway! I tried resin plastic planters and half-wine barrel planters, but they seemed too small. On a visit to one open garden convention I saw an entire vegetable patch in a large animal stock tank. Even the drainage is built in with a side hole…gingko tree, pomegranate tree figs. Early on, the strenuous task of moving planters frequently necessitated some solution. So, I put the planters on wheels—little plant rollers, piano, or moving dollies helped patio and driveway plant migrations.

Vern Nelson, a former garden columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, influenced me in many ways. His garden featured many, diverse kinds of edibles displayed in an attractive and compact way. From Vern, we learned about the resilience of figs and tea plants in our hardiness zone, how to interplant edible plants with perennial flowers, the benefits of espaliered fruit trees, and a great way to grow squash plants. Vern’s garden, displayed in the Metro’s Gardens of Natural Delights and in an open gardens convention, produced many experiments using edibles.

Vern Nelson’s growth of a squash plant on top of a compost pile really made an impression on me. He started growing squash in a compost pile because squash volunteer in his compost pile voluntarily. For the past two summers, I turned one of my five raised garden beds into a compost heap by piling on layers of chicken manure, mostly composted leaves, some kelp meal, fresh coffee grounds, and Epsom salts. After time to get the decomposition process going, I added ‘Costata Romanesco’ zucchini starts from a four-inch container, a personal favorite. The very first zucchini plants from Italy, ‘Costata Romanesco’ fruits, heavily ribbed with attractive patterns, retain a rich, incredible flavor. The plants took off in the compost pile right from the start! Last year, I measured a zucchini leaf early in the season at 19 inches across. Fruits developed very rapidly, keeping me on my toes harvesting them. Eventually, the plants hopped my wire bed fences and fell into the path, making picking a little tricky. However, thanks to Vern, I now have a surefire way of growing these scrumptious zucchinis.

I decided to try my own version of creating an “espaliered” apple. Instead of the usual method of using cables, I experimented using zip ties, and instead of posts, I used electrical metallic tubing (EMT) as supports. Following the backyard garden path, I pruned off the branches that headed into the path. Leaving a passageway of about eight feet, I permitted higher branches to take their usual form. In that way the path remained clear and the apple could bear fruit on yet more branches.

Kathleen Fortune, gardening in Gresham, OR, showed a method of cold composting leaves over several years. Pile up the leaves in a compost area and allow to sit enclosed in framework until composted. Of course, I felt compelled to add coffee grounds which are—yummy for plants and PH neutral once they break down. Earthworms adore coffee grounds in moderation. They’ll rise to the decomposition task. Resulting compost became incorporated in many garden beds.

Michael Babbit and Ellen Bartholomew showed me that flower pots contribute much to garden decor. The best combinations of plant and planter make a stunning display. Their planters and extraordinary plants made me want to grow things in containers I never tried before. For years, I grew a hardy citrus plant, Poncirus trifoliata ‘Flying Dragon’, like these two gardeners. Finally, ‘Flying Dragon’ succumbed one incredibly cold winter. However, the influence of Michael Babbit and Ellen Bartholomew continues in the wealth of growing containers in our garden.

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For years, I planted clematises because we loved them so much in other gardens. Each time, the clematis lasted for one, maybe two seasons, and then died. Thank goodness, that I spoke with Rick Meigs during an open gardening convention. Rick explained that clematises needed to be planted below the initial level of the plant in the planter. Rick also made clear that clematises really love rose fertilizer. Linda Beutler helped me find clematises from the Rogerson Clematis Collection that fit our garden conditions and needs. Soon, we enjoyed thriving clematis plants in many locations.

As you can see, visiting open gardens meant so much to us. They provided springboards to garden experiments in our own yard. So many gardeners supplied wonderful ideas that this article would extend quite long to acknowledge their contributions.

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Creating Layers in Your Garden

You know that feeling when you walk through the forest? It surrounds you and activates all of your senses. It makes you feel good. The Japanese have a name for it: shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.

In the Pacific Northwest, as we look to nature for inspiration, we can use the forest as a model for the way we organize and care for our gardens. We can recreate the magic of the forest by layering plants. From the tallest conifers and deciduous trees, to the smallest groundcovers and everything in between, layering is one way we can create sanctuary and a sense of intimacy with the place we live. No matter what size your property, it’s easy to start with your largest tree or shrub and layer down from there.

Fit in more and varied plants

Sometimes described as canopy layers, you can put any plant into a category based upon height. When viewed as a whole, a forest may contain all of these layers but not necessarily all in the same spot. The tallest trees are known as the overstory, and you can think of them as the roof of your garden. These are the trees that are larger than our homes and give our neighborhoods context. They may be the heritage trees we associate with a certain place. They are landmarks. Next in line come the understory trees, those that are commonly associated with urban spaces. These are considered small trees and might approach the height of your house. You can think of them as the ceiling of your garden room. Below that you’ll find the arborescent shrubs; those large shrubs you may prune into a tree to become a focal point of the garden because their flowers or foliage color, structure, fall color or bark attract attention. You might use these to create definition in the garden or to create privacy from neighboring homes.

Within the shrub layer are both medium and small shrubs that might vary in height from 10’ to 3’. This is a very important layer for baby birds as they learn to navigate their world with undeveloped wings. Most of the woody plants in our gardens fall into this category. This is the layer closest to us in size and is the layer we most interact and do our pruning dance with, clipping a little here, letting another grow there. On a small property, this is the layer that takes up the most of our precious space so we often must make difficult editing choices. Form becomes essential as we might choose columnar shapes for the taller plants, or dwarf versions of round ones, or choose to eliminate one of these layers altogether.

Below these various canopy layers will be the annuals/perennials, grasses, ferns or herbs/forbs where we find our favorite flowers and foliage plants, as well as our vegetables and other small and useful plants, including those in containers. You might consider these the furnishings, easy to move around and change like the pillows on a couch. At the lowest canopy level is where we’ll find the groundcovers which are the soft floor of our own personal forest.

Create shade

I always suggest to my clients that we try to include the largest trees that are appropriate for their landscape. Big trees are a valuable commodity in the city. They provide clean air for us to breathe; they drink up copious amounts of stormwater throughout the long rainy season, reducing reliance on infrastructure like pipes and drains; they reduce the “heat island effect” of the city streets and rooftops; they cut energy costs with proper placement by decreasing the need for air conditioning, they lower the temperature beneath their leafy canopy and provide a place of solace. As urban density increases, it becomes harder to find places for the titans of our urban forest canopy. When space allows, especially in corners where properties meet and far enough away from buildings and other obstacles like utilities to not become a hazard over time, consider adding an interesting large scale conifer or unusual shade tree and treat the whole neighborhood to an enchanting view from their windows.

Increase habitat for birds and other wildlife

The Backyard Habitat Certification Program (www.backyardhabitats.org) provides lots of guidance on the value of canopy layers. From the tippy top of the tallest conifer where you may see a bird precariously perched to the density of a thick shrub alive with sound in the winter to ground feeding birds scratching their way through debris left in the fall, birds will find a variety of places to act as a lookout for others in the flock, find shelter from the weather and from predators, locate the perfect nesting spot and raise a brood, or forage for food in the form of insects, nectar or berries.

Native wildlife (and pollinators) create special relationships to the native plants they have evolved with. The timing of migration coincides with the food that is sought. Most of our native insects are specialists and require the support only a specific native plant will give them (think milkweed and monarch butterflies). Certain species like our native Ninebark or Elderberry support various stages of local butterfly life cycles and other native species like Bitter Cherry or Garry Oak support a larger variety of birds, insects and more. You get extra credit if your garden’s layers include native plants.

Reduce weeds and the need to mulch or fertilize

The more canopy layers we include, the more varied and interesting the garden gets, and the harder it becomes for weeds to get a foothold; less light, less weeds. Open spaces become occupied by chosen plants; each shape fitting with the next like a 3 dimensional puzzle. We get to play with the composition of plant forms, and play with the design elements of color, texture, repetition, unity and balance until we find a garden full of the plants we love, arranged in a way that makes us happy and fulfilled.

When the ground is taken up by plants in varying layers, they begin to create their own mulch through seasonal changes and it becomes no longer necessary to add more unless you remove the organic materials generated. No one mulches the forest, do they? It’s a self supporting nutrient cycle where fertilization is also no longer necessary. No one objects to less work. It’s an important consideration as we continue to age along with our gardens.

Create community for your plants

Plants living together in the forest have the same cultural needs of light and water but also support each other in sharing nutrients and soil microbiology. We can take a lesson from permaculture by planting a combination of nitrogen fixing plants, plants that bring minerals up from their roots deep in the soil to the surface as their leaves melt into compost, flowers that attract pollinators, and groundcovers that create living mulch. Companion plants that support one another, and might naturally grow together like they do in the forest, set up a natural system that makes gardening easier.

Bringing Nature Home

Layering is the best way to bring the tranquil sense of the forest to your home garden. Whether you are trying to create shade or privacy, layer your plants from top to bottom. If you want to welcome the birds, bees and other wildlife into your sanctuary, give them a variety of places and canopy layers to find refuge. If you’re trying to reduce the amount of weeding you need to do, fill your garden with plants of various shapes and sizes. If you want your plants to thrive, encourage them to support one another by planting them within an intentional community. Think of the space you want to create and layer accordingly. If you’re looking for privacy, layer densely. If you want a living space, leave out the middle layers. If you want to grow flowers or vegetables, leave out the overstory. But always work toward 3 or more layers whenever possible for the most diverse and self supporting system, like a forest. Now go for a walk in your garden and bathe in the sensory experiences it provides.