still trimming the sails;
a work-in-progress...

Gardening with St. Francis

The other day, I was out in the garden preparing to plant my garlic, which I do annually, right after the full moon after Halloween. One of the beds has been rather dormant since the end of lettuce in the summer, and was full of chickweed (Stellaria media), not to mention snails, grubs, and other flora and fauna.

I cleaned all the chickweed out, and relocated snails (many under a few bricks that had held shade cloth down weeks earlier) out to the lawn to finish off the pumpkin seed pulp from preparing our jack-o-lanterns. I had put the pulpy seeds out for the doves and jays, and set the snails to cleaning up everything else. Once I was done, the bed looked pretty clean - although one could see some slug eggs (like little clusters of translucent BBs), as well as various pupae and larvae - not to mention the remnant roots of weeds. With still a couple of weeks before planting, I put some other assistants to work on the bed:

I scattered cracked corn all over the weeded bed, as if sowing grass, and even scratched it in as one would, with a soft rake. The next morning when I went out to fill the birdfeeders just at dawn, I saw that sure enough, the weeded bed was filled with sparrows, juncos, a couple of towhees and a jay. No doubt, those avian allies will go through like hens, scratching out all the weed seeds, too, as well as all the other undesirable stuff.

In the days since then, I've seen birds in the bed nearly throughout the day, scratching and pecking away; by the time I'm ready to plant, it will be pretty meticulously cleaned out.

I'd been put onto the notion when some clients moved from town and bequeathed several large bags of Sweetgum leaves (Liquidambar styraciflua), prized for composting. As it was, I used them as mulch, and piled up all the rest. Gradually, I used leaves to mulch pots when I planted them, but when I began scattering bird seed among them for the marvelous little golden-crowned sparrows, and others, gently emerging from the ferns and shrubbery, I saw the utility of the birds. Over a few days of feeding them like this, they managed to shred the leaves until they were a perfect mulch, rather like black tea leaves cast from the pot. And daily, the mulch always looked freshly groomed and raked.

Perhaps I could make this a conventional tactic in my garden-management strategy? One concern we gardeners have with using leaves as mulch is the introduction of slugs and other pests; however, if the leaves were subject to frequent handling and inspection by a meticulous crew of birds, I have no doubt the mulch would be shredded lovely and fine, and the invertebrates kept at bay.

One could even work one's way around the garden over the course of the week, scattering seed in sections, completely exposing the landscape each week to the grooming of the gentle little birds.

It's cheap, too - I calculated that the first cup-and-a-half of cracked corn I scattered cost me not much more than a quarter ($0.25). I would have paid a tweezer-weeder over twenty bucks ($20.00) to do the same thing.

St. Francis explains Suburbanites to God

As usual, I'd love to attribute this; I've researched it, but haven't found the author.
And as usual, I ran it through my editorial mill, punching up a few parts, and burnishing others.
Lest you be concerned, or possibly unnecessarily jubilant, at my apparent fondness for Saint Francis - I'm mostly a secular pragmatist, and certainly not religious, but will indeed cop to being frequently spiritual.
My father, a Lutheran, has suggested, "I wish you prayed; I wish you went to church." I informed him that I believe we everything we say is a prayer, and while his church has maybe four or five doors, every door that leads outside is a door to my church...
And Saint Francis was a pretty amazing fellow; I'm pleased the Church recognizes his brilliant and inspiring humility.
The report below, though, runs in a slightly less than beatific vein.

Francis, you know all about gardens and nature; what the Hell is going on down there in the US? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistles, and the other stuff I started aeons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan: those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought, and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees, and flocks of songbirds, who also enjoy the seeds. I expected to see a vast garden of color by now, but all I see are patches of green.
St. Francis:
It's the tribes that settled there, Father, the "Suburbanites". They started calling your flowers, "weeds" and went to great and horrible lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
Grass? Are the Suburbanites cows? Sheep?
St. Francis:
No, Father, they're people, like your "Adam and Eve."
But - grass is so boring; it's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, bees or many birds, only grubs and sod worms, and some spiders. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want grass growing there?
St. Francis:
Hard to say, Father. They put fertilizers on it to make it grow faster, but as soon as it has grown a little, they cut it... sometimes twice a week.
They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?
St. Francis:
Not exactly, Father. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.
They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
St. Francis:
No sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.
Wait a minute. Let me get this straight... they fertilize it to make it grow, and when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?
St. Francis:
That's about it, Father.
Well, at least these Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.
St. Francis:
You aren't going to believe this, Father, but when the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.
What nonsense! I hope - at least they kept some of the trees.
St. Francis:
They did. Those were a sheer stroke of genius, if I say so myself.
(relieved) Thank you, Francis. Yes, the trees grow leaves in the Spring to provide beauty and shade in the Summer. In the Autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep the moisture in the soil and protect the trees and shrubbery. Plus, as they decay, the leaves become compost to enhance the soil, which is then vigorously alive with such a variety of insects and other things; it's the natural circle of life.
St. Francis:
You'd better sit down, Father. As soon as the leaves fall, the Suburbanites rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.
No! What do they do to protect the shrubbery and tree roots in the Winter to keep the soil moist, loose, and friable?
St. Francis:
After throwing the leaves away, they go out and buy something called "mulch," which they haul home and spread around in place of the leaves.
And where do they get this mulch?
St. Francis:
They cut down trees and grind them up to make it.
Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. I feel lightheaded...
(God faints)

how to: a small garden layout

The image below is left over from a project - not an installation for a client, but some work I did with a young woman for her graduation project when she was a senior in high school; to build a vegetable garden.

Some best-practice principles are at play in the design; see below.

Click here to open a larger image in a new tab.

Best Practices

Raised Beds

Raised beds are a good conservation measure: the soil stays in them, instead of straying down berms onto paths, thus being lost while also making a great medium for weeds to stage an insurrection. Water is also conserved, as it stays in the box where there are plants, and doesn't run down the sides of berms into the path - fomenting the insurrection.

One can build them from local lumber, which is generally affordable.

In my region, the pacific northwest of north america, cedar is abundant, but expensive, if one buys thick boards. It's plenty durable, but douglas fir is more affordable, and although it will rot faster - five years is good life for a fir board with soil contact, as far as a garden goes - it's fairly inexpensive; not only that, it's the ideal lumber for framing, is lovely as cabinetry, makes a soft but gorgeous floor, and are lovely to look at in the woods, especially when the late-season sun shines on them, low in the afternoon, and they glow with red among the down-sweeping dark branches.

I think it's essential to install them level, so they don't have a low side to which water and surface stuff runs, which is a bit tricky. You can go out there with your fabricated bed and dig and shim, using a spirit level on the top of the boards, until it sits just right, and I've done it - but I use a different method now, and am now known for level and straight-arrow installations.

Although the procedure might be obvious to the engineering mind, for now, I'll continue to consider it proprietary, since it puts coin in my pocket, and so won't describe it here.

Appropriate Path Width

I've installed well over a hundred of these things, in all sorts of configurations, and in accordance with my standards: level, square, and in perfect alignment [ those attributes were rather challenging to achieve, for the first couple of dozen, but then, I hit upon my easy method].

In the early days, I laid out cardboard slabs of varying width, to determine whether it was possible to run a wheelbarrow around on them. One wants to maximize the bed area in a fenced garden, so the path must not be wider than necessary.

We found that a path that's two-and-a-half feet wide [2.5 ft, or about .75 m] is perfect for moving a wheelbarrow around, makes for comfortable walking, and kneeling next to the bed to work in it. In an extensive garden, it's worthwhile to examine the traffic areas, and perhaps have a wider, main path - connecting two gates, or leading to the compost area - as wide as four feet [4 ft, or about 1.2 m]. Be prudent when laying that out; a wider path is a loss of gardening space, but can enhance a visitor's experience in the garden. It's always best to make one feel comfortable in a garden, and hopefully remain, and ideally, while there, do a bit of weeding or other work.

But with paths two-and-a-half feet wide [2.5 ft, or about .75 m], one can move a wheelbarrow around, and with some small effort, turn it around at path intersections.

I've installed beds as narrow as two feet [2 ft, or about .6 m], but with wider beds at least abutting one side of the beds, so a wheelbarrow could be maneouvered adjacent to any bed. Maximize bed space, but don't create maintenance limitations.

Ideal Bed Dimensions

You'll often be working in these beds while kneeling on your paths, so your bed can't be so wide you can't reach the middle.

I've found that even for more petite gardeners, with commensurately short arms, a bed no wider than four feet [4 ft, or about 1.2 m] enables easy for most, and reasonable for the rest, maintanance opportunities, for hand weeding, seed planting, and the like.

Considering that, your beds should also not be longer than eight feet [8 ft, or about 2.4 m], a dimension that's mostly rather convenient: four feet by eight is the standard size for a conventional sheet of plywood, and eight feet is a standard lumber length - pieces of two-by-four fir [actually, 1.5 in by 3.5 in], eight feet long, are known commonly as "studs," and are a standard item in the walls of houses framed in a conventional and reasonable fashion.

By default, then, the beds were routinely eight feet long. It also results in a bed that's essentially two adjacent squares, so it also appeals to that aesthetic - but although I've built beds longer than eight feet, either to accommodate provided lumber of that length, or to maximize the bed space, a long bed is - perhaps surprisingly - sometimes too tedious to walk around, and often lacks attention on the other side.

Thus, your beds would ideally be four-feet-by-eight, but if you're inclined to make them long, then - per my own experience - makes them really long, as in fourteen to twenty feet. Granted, you'll have to take the long way around with the wheelbarrow, but if you make little "bridges" for yourself, similar lumber to the bed construction, or what you have laying around or can find, about every eight feet, just lay those across the top, and fasten them if you will, and give yourself little paths to get to the other side.

You must not walk on your garden soil, thus compacting it, among other impacts. It's your soil: would you think a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit would climb on the bed, and walk on her patients? Treat your soil the same.

A Good Fence

Where I live, presently on an island north of Puget Sound in Washington [see the maps page, if you will], deer and rabbits roam freely. White-tailed deer [native], and Eastern Cottontails [introduced as game]. Once, there were wolves and bears on my island, but the county paid a bounty to elimate them, to benefit the farmers and sheep ranchers, so the natural control is gone, over a century ago.

However, the bridge was built to the island at the north end in 1937, and the coyotes "walked across," which is how we south-enders refer to going on the ferry to america as a foot passenger. Since then, they've spread to occupy the whole island, and generally always make a positive impact in benefit of wildlife diversity.

Even moderately urban gardens are beset by both, so a good fence is in order.

It ought to be six feet high [6ft, a bit under 2 m], and will also have a wire or line a bit above that, with strips of fabric hanging from it - the bucks will leap over a six-foot fence, so you need the extra couple feet, with the wire,visibly marked.

Down below, the rabbits will slip through your wire fence, so you'll need to put two feet of poultry netting [AKA "chicken wire"] along the bottom of the fence, hopefully an inch [2.5 cm] below the soil. That will keep them out.

Here's a great tip: if it snows where you live, go out to your garden after a fresh snowstorm; if rabbits or other are getting into your garden, their fresh prints will alert you to their access, so you can respond accordingly.

It's best to install rot-resistant pots - cedar's best, where I am; won't use pressure-treated near the garden... but have also contemplated cast concrete fence posts, which might stimulate your own thinking.

For cedar posts, don't bother with expensive cedar 4x4 posts, which will break your garden budget. Instead, when installing fences for clients, I go to the farm supply, where they sell posts and rails for split-rail fences, and pick out the heftiest rails. My own garden fence is made from rails from a fence I dismantled at a farm, and they're doing fine in the ground, after having been exposed to weather as rails for about thirty years.

If you can get them, black locust poles are even better than cedar - although cedar's rot resistant, black locust is so much more so that you might as well say it doesn't rot. It's not readily available as lumber where I live, but is a common tree in the midwest United States, so perhaps if that's where you are, you'll find it.

Getting the fence installed tightly enough so it twangs when plucked is tricky work, and experience is helpful; find someone with that if you need the help, or be satisfied with a slightly sagging fence. As long as it keeps the varmints out of the garden, you shouldn't be losing any sleep over it.

Note: corner posts, and end posts, such as those for the gate, need to be braced with diagonal sections leading down to a short post in the ground, so the tension of your tight fence doesn't pull them out of plumb.

A Good Gate with a Good Sill

Make it three feet wide [3ft, about one meter], so you can easily get a wheelbarrow or conventional garden cart through it.

Ideally, it will swing both ways, like a kitchen door in a restaurant. Otherwise, it's best if it swings outward, if you can, as the inward swing might hinder path or bed access, if your garden maximizes a small footprint.

Rabbits burrow under gates, so you'll need to install some kind of impervious surface below your gate, as a sill. You can use wide boards, but they tend to get slick in the garden environment, so I create little "patios" of bricks or pavers, which the enterprising scavenger can easily find.

If you can't find bricks or pavers, concrete is your next best material. To make a nice sill under a three-foot-wide garden gate, you'll need one bag of ready-mix concrete, for a sill six inches wide, or two, for one twelve inches wide - and three inches thick. You'll need a little form made from plywood or other, or you can just perfectly excavate the surrounding soil and use that to keep the concrete where you want it.

If pouring concrete, just cover it with plastic or straw, so you can keep it moist for a couple of weeks while it cures... and don't bother pouring it in freezing weather [why would you want to, anyway?].

Working with concrete is enjoyable, but be sure to wear a filter mask when mixing the dry sack with water, as the dust is toxic, and be sure to wear good gloves, as it's highly caustic.

With a sill made from bricks, pavers, or concrete, you'll need to attend to putting it on a firm base, so it won't settle. Even a small gap will permit creatures under it. Dig down far enough to encounter firm soil, and fill that in to the desired grade with crushed rock - scoop it from your driveway, if you have to - you likely won't need more than a couple of buckets full.

Tamp that down and lay your bricks or pavers, or pour your concrete. Of course, you'll have to figure out ways to know how deep to make the base for your sill, but you ought to enjoy that not-too-perplexing process.

Plan for Expansion or Upgrades

You'll note, in the illustration above, that attention has been paid to how the garden will grow. You may find, as many do, that once you successfully bring some of your land under cultivation, that you want to cultivate more, so rather than biting off more than you can chew right away, just keep in mind with your first efforts how the garden can expand.

Garden Design Tips

Garden location

Ideally, your garden will be in soil that's not already doing something else, like being a drainfield or croquet lawn. And it will have good exposure to the sun, which would place it to the south of your house, in a northern climate, or far enough away that it wasn't shaded by it... but not too far; see below.
And for those in northern climates wanting to grow the nightshades, having part of the garden near a south-facing wall or fence will provide a bit more heat.

Don't have it too far from the kitchen. If it's on the other side of the pasture, you're seldom going to go there; ideally, it's a short scamper from the house, and you can see it from your kitchen window when you're washing your dishes. Believe me, those gardens get the fondest attention, and thrive the most.

If you're fond of ready-to-hand sprigs of herbs, then plant them in some containers not far outside.

Design before you build

map the site

Make a nice map of the site on graph paper, using ¼" or .5 cm grid, with that unit equalling one foot, or 30cm.

To do that, it's best if you don't just sketch your idea of the site, but actually measure it out and plot it on your graph paper. You'll have to go out with a measuring tape, and your notepad.

I also put a string along the ground for as far as seems practical, in the middle of the site, and use that as a baseline for my grid sketch.
If you're lucky, you'll also have access to a half-sheet of plywood, cut as a square, which you can drag along your line and use as a square, for accurate measurements.

Plot out all the "monuments," such as the corners of the house, or trees - the possibly shading canopy, which might hinder your fence installation, must be considered - and fence posts, measuring from your baseline and using your square. Keep good notes. Also mark out where you have access to water, and how far it is from the proposed garden site.
Also be aware of where you'll have to haul the garden debris, whether it's putting it in your curbside greenwaste bin, or in your compost, or the back of your friend's truck, and mark that out on your map. If you haven't determined where your compost or other waste will go, now's the time to consider it.

Extra credit can be had by measuring the distances between the "monuments," and using your trigonometry tables to come up with the plotting data; we've done that, and we've also used algebra to determine the maximumm number of beds that could fit on a large site, which you can see here, at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens:

View Larger Map

Once you've laid out your map of the site on the graph paper, try this:
cut out some pieces of sticky notes to the same scale as your grid, in the dimensions suggested above: four by eight feet [4' x 8', or 1.2 m x 2.4 m], and play with them on your map as if it were a jigsaw puzzle.
You might also find a strip cut to the path-width scale helpful when moving your little paper beds around.

Consider where you'll want to put your paths and gates, and whether in some places, beds of other dimensions, or appropriately narrower or wider paths might suit best.

Of course, the pencil is a great tool for this design step, particularly if you want to go a bit more "non-linear," although circles or other shapes cut from paper work well for easy tweaks to the design on the grid.

sitework »