Friday, January 29, 2010

On The Verge

I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and a large Garden.
~Abraham Cowley, The Garden, 1666

A bit of lawn can be nice to have. It’s soft to rassle on, restful to look at, but it takes a lot of mowing, edging, water and fertilizer to maintain, especially if you just gotta have it like a putting green. Do you want to put in a garden and reduce the amount of lawn you currently have? Maybe you want to get rid of all your lawn or just whittle it down to a little patch surrounded by more garden, or put a perennial bed smack in the middle of it. Do you have big dreams but the back breaking thought of digging up all that tough turf has smothered your dream for years? Well un-smother that dream and smother your grass instead! You don’t have to do ANY turf digging. Here’s how.

First, figure out where you want the new garden space to be. Outline it with stakes and twine or simply lay out your garden hose in a square or a nice curvy pattern till you get the size and shape you want. If you do a curved line and the garden will be bordering grass, be sure not to make the shape too tightly curved. The example in the photo is too tight. Keep in mind you’ll be mowing and mowers don’t like tight curves, nor do most edging materials.

Next, figure out how much soil/compost you’ll need to smother the grass. Buying it in bags is fine if you’re doing a small plot. But for larger plans getting a cubic yard or more delivered may make more sense. One cubic yard = 27 cubic feet. Delivery companies can help you with the square foot calculations if need be. Some companies have delivery minimums, so if you don’t need 3 yards but that’s their minimum, ask around, maybe a neighbor with gardening aspirations will go in halfsies with you. Most soil and compost delivery companies have specific mixes depending on your project. If you’ll be growing food in the bed, definitely shop around till you find a certified organic source. For vegetables a light mix of compost, sandy loam and sand is great (often called a three-way mix). For ornamental plants and trees, a 50/50 mix of compost and sand is perfect (often called two-way topsoil).

If you want a raised bed you can simply pile 12 inches or more of the soil/compost right over the turf. The thicker the better. If the layer is too thin, any of that grass poking through will grow. If you don’t want to buy that much soil/compost or don’t want it to be raised you can put 1 layer of cardboard (get those boxes out of your recycle bin) or 3-4 sheets thick of layered newspaper down first. Next, put 4-6 inches of soil/compost on top of the cardboard/newspaper layer. Be sure to cover everything, even the edges where grass blades poke out. It will take a few months for the cardboard to decompose enough to be able to dig through it. Years ago I used the cardboard method in my backyard to cover my grass in July and by late September most of it was soft enough to dig holes in to plant trees and big perennials. The soil/compost is fluffy, so as it settles the volume of height will go down so don’t be skimpy if you want a raised bed. Never use plastic for this smothering method. Garden soil hosts many living organisms. Plastic sheeting will starve them of air, water and nutrients and can create water runoff catastrophes for your home.

Seeds, shallow rooted vegetable seedlings (save the root veggies for next year), annuals or small potted perennials can be planted into the new top layer of soil/compost providing it is thick enough. Six inches should work here.

If you piled six inches to two feet you can also plant veggies or bigger potted plants, provided it is deep enough to support the root ball and plant itself. For big potted plants, shrubs or trees wait till the cardboard and turf is soft enough to dig through. You’ll need to go deeper and wider for those. Be sure to stake shrubs and trees for the first year so the roots can reach out and the soil will settle and hold them up.

At some point you may want to put in some sort of retaining system to hold the dirt in if you haven’t already. You can choose from a wide variety including brick edging, plastic rolled edging you can mow over if this bed is adjacent to grass, or for raised beds concrete blocks, timbers, or plastic ‘wood’ edging all work well. Please never use any wood that’s been soaked in creosote and pressure treated wood is ok if no food will be grown in the space. Both contain chemicals with differing levels of toxicity, harmful to the soil organisms and you. In my opinion, nothing with chemical treatments is best. Most edging material will be easier to set after all the turf is smothered and cardboard is decomposed because most edging material does have to be dug down abit for stability. It’s so much easier to dig after decomposition than to dig through turf. There are also rigid plastic or flexible steel edgings that can just be hammered into place, no digging needed.

Some gardens that border grass are simply defined from the grass by a “V trough edge”. With the back of a shovel against the lawn, slice straight down 3 inches, then scoop the dirt up and into the garden bed. Do the whole edge length this way. The 3 inch cut will prevent the grass roots from spreading into your garden bed, pretty effectively corralling it. A motorized blade edger can then keep this edge nice and clean. Otherwise you’ll have to go over it each spring with your shovel like I do, as the trough can fill back in as dirt shifts and settles.

So what would you like? A little patch of lawn, grassy paths meandering through your garden or no lawn at all? I’d love to hear what your future garden ideas are.

In bloom in my garden today: Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose, Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Author’s photos

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fragrant Sarcococca

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

Sarcococca…well now that’s a mouthful isn’t it? However, the fragrance that is filling the garden right now from this shrub’s blooms is definitely a nose-full!

The common names that I’ve seen for this plant here in the western USA are ‘vanilla bush’ and ‘sweet box’. The botanical name is Sarcococca confusa. Be sure to take the botanical name to the nursery to ensure finding the shrub described in this post, as there are other varieties with different habits and characteristics.

Sarcococca confusa is hardy to USDA zones 4-9 and grows to about a 4 foot by 4 foot sized shrub, with evergreen, waxy, dark green, pointy leaves that have a graceful waviness to them too. Its flowers produce black berries, the likes of which I’ve never witnessed any wildlife devouring. But they are pretty, interesting and hang on for a long time (the photo shows last years berries with current flowers). Its flowers are small, white, spidery looking blossoms that fill the surrounding air with a sweet (to my nose) lingering aroma. Mine is in the side yard, but when I’m in the back yard I’ll catch a whiff as the air currents circle around. Deep breath…ahh, heavenly. I just love fragrance in the garden. Bringing more than one stem into the house for a vase is really overpowering! My neighbor never fails to comment on the lovely aroma every January as she steps out her front door, which is at least 15 feet from the shrub.

**Alert!** My plant was mislabeled by the grower as sarcococca ruscifolia. Apparently confusa is often sold as ruscifolia, and yes, you too can be a victim of sloppy labeling. Luckily for me I got confusa which grows to 4 feet which was my priority. Ruscifolia is a larger variety, reportedly growing 6-7 feet tall and wide, sporting red berries with the same flowers and fragrance.

Sarcococca reportedly comes to us from China. It thrives in dry shade once established, often the most difficult garden spot to fill. Western Garden Book says “they maintain slow, orderly growth and polished appearance in deepest shade, will take sun in cool summer areas”, maybe Canada or Alaska and northern Europe? But for the rest of us (in USDA zones 7-9), if you have a spot that is on the shaded side of the house, too far from the sprinkler system or hose for convenient watering, then this is the plant for you.

The term ‘once established’ means that for the first year or two (depending on the plant species) a newly planted shrub or perennial will need watering till it’s roots have ventured out into the native soil, even plants that like it dry. This is very important; it can be the difference between plant survival and failure. For the first year only, I watered this plant once a week for the first month, then once a month till the cooler fall weather returned. Now that it’s been in the ground for several years and is full size I rarely water it at all…maybe only during an excessively dry, hot summer period. Most garden experts would probably say even that is not necessary after the first year.

Just the other day it was warm enough for my bees to fly.  They definitely discovered its pollen and nectar, as did the hummingbirds!

If natural fragrance in your garden is something you’d like to increase, this is definitely a plant for you to consider.

In bloom in my garden today: Sarcococca confusa, hellebore, Daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus

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Friday, January 8, 2010

January Cheer!

"Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle ...a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl. And the anticipation nurtures our dream."
- Barbara Winkler

It’s a new day and a new year! January 1st ushered in the New Year with the gift of an unseasonably warm morning to the garden at 50 degrees F! I loved it! Even the bees flew on New Year’s day…unheard of in our little part of the world. What a lovely morning it was, but by afternoon it turned back into our norm of cold, wet and blustery!

I much prefer the warmth but cold weather is perfect for this hellebore blooming in my garden today. As you can see, last winter its blooms were unfazed by a snowy blanket.

This particular variety is evergreen, with large, long, serrated, leathery leaves. Its flowers appear at the tip of the leafy stems and are chartreuse green, one of my favorite garden colors. The blooms stay on for a good 2 months, even offering the honey bees nectar or pollen on those warmish days when they venture out. When the blooms are mostly finishing, the main stems will begin to droop and fall over. That is when I cut them down to the ground and new growth will begin soon. The plant will regenerate itself to full size again in about 2 months.

I can’t positively identify it beyond this because I’ve lost the tag but I think it is helleborus lividus corsicus (Corsican hellebore). Sorry about that my friends. I have a box where I keep ALL the identification tags of the plants that are current in my garden. It’s the only way to refer back to a plant’s needs should something go wrong or when your friend wants to know what that plant is but your memory fails you. I don’t stick them in the dirt with the plant. I think the garden is not attractive with colorful plastic tags poking up all over the place and the weather will deteriorate them quickly, making them brittle and unreadable. But by all means don’t throw them away! They tell you the basics that you need to know about the plant you are spending your money on. If you don’t follow its instructions you often have no one but yourself to blame if your plant dies.

That’s not so say the tags are infallible, naturally there are exceptions. Over the years I’ve found that in rare cases the information given with the plant is just plain wrong. But you have to realize that these tags are written for a broad spectrum of gardening locations so generally the water needs, hardiness and sun exposure info should be correct. For example, when you buy hellebores the tags and nursery staff will tell you they need shade. When I bought this one I put it in the shade as specified and for a few years it was unhappy. It would stretch tall and flop over onto the lawn. What a pain that was every summer when I had to pick the thing up to mow under it. I was thinking of getting rid of it when I heard this one variety likes more sun than others. So I moved it to part sun. Again for 2 years the same thing happened. It kept reaching for more sun. So I moved it to full sun and it’s been happy ever since, standing up and blooming for me every January. Sun exposure information can be tricky. For instance, the sun’s intensity in southern California is hotter than here in western Washington, so this plant probably should be somewhat shaded in California but can take our full northern sun. All that to say, if a plant is unhappy in your garden it may not be your fault if you followed the requirements given. Try moving it till you find the perfect spot. This has worked for me time and time again.

Back to the subject of hellebores. When you are shopping for them, understand the other flower colors are not necessarily going to be the same variety with the same requirements as that which I have mentioned above. While their leaves may stay green year round, others don’t bloom from the old stems like that green flowering one does. I have a pink one that needs full shade, blooms later and sends its flower buds straight out of the ground. Start checking for emerging buds in February (times may vary at your location and air temps). To make the flowers more visible cut off all the old tattered leaf stems VERY carefully so you don’t cut off any flower buds. While it’s blooming new leaves will begin to come up from the ground too.

I’m ashamed to admit I don’t have the tag to identify this one either, but I think it is Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose). I know, I know I’ve committed the gardener’s sin and broken my own rule! SAVE THE TAGS!! I’ve said it to my friends till they’re ready to compost me and now I’ve lost two! And you see how important it is to have them?? I’ve had these plants for more than a decade, probably even before I made up that rule, and if I still had these tags I could share the plant names with you. Happily though the last several years have seen enormous growth in the number of helleborus hybrids available to us and many can flourish in all zones according to Sunset’s Western Garden Book. So I encourage you to run, don’t walk to your favorite independent local nursery in these early months of 2010 to see the blooming helleborus and buy your favorite to bring you some January cheer too!

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In bloom in my garden today: hellebore, daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus