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Perfectly Imperfect: What Makes A Garden Beautiful

Every second Thursday of the month I have my mother-in-law over for an evening of cocktails and chatter in my garden. It’s an effort I started shortly before marrying my husband in hopes of establishing a better “mother-daughter” relationship between the two of us. Needless to say, the affair took a while to settle into a tolerable experience, because my mother-in-law’s idea of a garden differed profoundly from my own. For her, gardening involved cute outfits, perfectly manicured flowers, absolutely no over-growth, and the only bugs that existed were cute, ceramic lady bugs that filled the gap around her potted plants. While this is often fine and dandy, sometimes it is nice to let nature be nature, and I made it my mission to teach my mother-in-law a little about why a garden au naturel can be a beautiful thing.

Let me start off by saying that I do appreciate the appearance of a traditional garden—having spent much of my life in or around them, and consulting people on ideal plant growth. However, after having spent so much time in focusing on perfection, I found myself reaching a point where I just wanted to let my hair down at home, so to speak. I decided to let my garden take a season to do what it wanted. This is not to say I neglected it by any means; I still watered my plants regularly, made sure no invasive plants find their way in, and turned the soil when needed—but essentially I truly did let it go, and I found the results to be very pleasing.

For one thing, the amount of bug life—something that once would have bothered me greatly—became a fascination for me. Snails were once a problem, one that I remember my grandma paying me a dollar an hour to help her take care of as a little girl, as we both roamed her yard with milk cartons half full of captured snails. Now I enjoy their presence, and find their pace of life a source of relaxation as I sit in my garden each evening. The spiders create custom tapestries for me to appreciate, and their intricacy and finesse allow me to realize just how creative nature can be. Allowing the insects to flourish gave a life to my garden that I could have never expected or experienced other wise, and it gave me a true look at the tenacity of the natural world.

The plants themselves took on their own lives as well. I was shocked at how beautiful I found this—not specifically in the aesthetics, though I certainly do appreciate this, too, but the idea of them taking their own path. I realize this sounds very free spirited, and it is. The idea of living entities finally breaking the boundaries and going their own way is a wonderful way to perceive the phenomenon of a natural garden. This is as organic as it gets; you can appreciate manicured plants, and their sole purpose of looking pretty, but this is an artificial beauty only made possible by external manipulation. Here we have life, existing and growing in a way all its own. This idea relaxes me, because when I am in my garden I like to feel that I am also breaking away from the external confines of life, and be how ever I want to be.

Perhaps the best part is that a natural growing garden is that it reduces some hassle in your life. I love gardening, and I love the joys of helping others reach their gardening goals; however, there are times that this can begin to feel like work, and when you allow it to consume you—like I have been known to do—it becomes hard to just sit and enjoy your space when you know there are a million things to do, and resist the urge to work when you should be enjoying the moment. Obviously with the natural garden this issue never arises, and every time I step in with my cup of Chai I am able to linger for hours, soaking in the pleasures of the outdoors, and not once feel tempted to go to work.

I am not sure if I have been able to sway my mother-in-law much about her position concerning my garden, or if she will ever see the beauty in it the way I do; but I know it is not important, because my garden is there for me to enjoy, and that is what matters most. I have also found that my experiences with the natural garden has enhanced the way I manage other, more typical gardens. I feel much more attune to what is happening amongst the plants, what they are doing and how they respond to their varying environments. If you have not taken the time to go and enjoy the wonders of nature in your own back yard, I recommend you at least give it a try; it may change the way you garden forever.

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Water-Saving Ideas For Your Garden

Simple xeriscaping techniques have a big impact.

Nature usually knows best. When it comes to designing our backyards, we can all emulate nature by using xeriscape techniques, a term coined to describe creative landscaping practices that minimize the use of water. Many assume that xeriscaping means growing only cacti and yuccas, or covering the soil with gravel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lauren Springer, in her book, The Undaunted Garden, refers to her xeriscape as a “lush, dry garden.” Plants classified as xerophytic require less water, or have better methods of obtaining water (for example, a long taproot system) or retaining it (for example, waxy leaves that slow transpiration). Xeriscaping doesn’t mean avoiding water-guzzlers, such as astilbes or ligularias, altogether. It is simply a matter of organization – grouping plants together according to their water requirements.

Xeriscaping has become a way of life in areas where water is scarce. Since the 1995 drought and severe water restrictions in England, signage saying “drought tolerant” has been seen at all British nurseries. In Colorado, many homeowners leave a buffer zone between their lawns and the street, so that runoff water from lawn sprinklers doesn’t run down the gutters. In some cases, this is simply a mulched area planted with low-growing junipers and large rocks, or it may be a flower garden that needs only the lawn’s excess water. In Europe, the formerly pristine lawns at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Tuileries Gardens are now low-growing, flowery meadows. City parks in Germany also feature low-maintenance perennial and annual plantings that never need watering.

Xeriscaping is also becoming popular in Canada. To educate consumers about water-wise gardening practices, Ontario’s Durham Region decided to develop a demonstration Water Efficient Garden in the town of Whitby. The beauty of this garden, watered only by Mother Nature, has educated and amazed many of its visitors.

Besides the desire to conserve water, there are several other reasons to consider xeriscaping. Your property may have sandy soil, steep slopes or a garden that you can only tend to on weekends. You might find the cost of irrigation equipment and water prohibitive, or simply hate hauling hoses around. Whatever your reasons may be, follow some basic steps to create a beautiful xeriscape:

1. Planning and design

Limit your manicured lawn to a flat, easily irrigated shape (no long, narrow strips of grass), and convert large grass areas to natural meadows with mown pathways. Plant slopes with xerophytic plants, or terrace them for better water retention. Group plants according to their moisture requirements – place the ones needing the most moisture near the water source.

2. Soil structure

Add organic matter to the soil to improve water retention and increase fertility.

3. Plant selection

Select drought-tolerant plants. Good choices are native plants or naturalized species from dry habitats; plants that have fuzzy, waxy or finely divided foliage; or plants that are dormant during summer’s heat.

4. Planting techniques

Planting techniques are important – dig a hole, fill it with water, and wait for the soil to absorb the moisture. Then open the plant’s soil ball, spreading the roots so they will quickly grow into the earth. Place the plant in the hole and fill with soil, then water again. Water regularly until established, then gradually reduce the frequency. The ideal time for installing a xeriscape is late summer to early autumn, which allows for maximum root development before the drought of the following summer.

5. Irrigate efficiently

Water turf and garden areas no more than once a week, but apply at least two inches of water at a time. This forces the plants to develop extensive root systems between waterings. Drip irrigation (with soaker hoses) cuts down on the amount of water lost to evaporation by sprinkler systems. Harvest the water from your roof using rain barrels – a quarter of an inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof provides up to 150 gallons of water. Learn to measure weekly rainfall, and irrigate only when necessary.

6. Mulch

Mulching bare soil to a depth of two to four inches prevents water evaporation, maintains an even, cool soil temperature, and prevents the germination of weeds. Choose a mulch that is as natural in appearance as possible. The best time to apply mulch is in late spring, after the soil has warmed and before summer’s heat begins.

Xeriscaping is a fun and sustainable way to garden!

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An Introduction to Permaculture

Combining the best of natural landscaping and edible landscaping, permaculture aims for a site that sustains itself and the gardener. The ultimate purpose of permaculture is to develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, including food, shelter, fuel, and entertainment. (The word permaculture was coined in the mid-1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.) While it’s the rare home gardener who can follow permaculture principles to the ultimate degree, most can borrow ideas from permaculture to create a new way of landscaping based on production and usefulness.

Gardening and Permaculture

Permaculture emphasizes the use of native plants or those that are well adapted to your local area. Plant things you like, but make sure they have a purpose and somehow benefit the landscape. Plants such as fruit trees provide food as well as shade; a patch of bamboo could provide stakes for supporting pole beans and other vining plants. Along with a standard vegetable garden, permaculture gardeners would grow many types of perennial food plants too, such as arrowhead, sorrel, chicory, and asparagus.

Like all gardeners, permaculture enthusiasts love plants for their beauty and fragrance, but they seek out plants that offer practical benefits along with aesthetic satisfaction. Instead of a border of flowering shrubs, for instance, a permaculture site would have a raspberry or blackberry border.

Disease-prone plants such as hybrid tea roses and plants that need lots of watering or other pampering are not good permaculture candidates. Choose a native persimmon tree that doesn’t need spraying and pruning, for example, instead of a high-upkeep peach tree. Consider the natural inclinations of your site along with the needs of its inhabitants, and put as much of your site as possible to use. Work with the materials already on your site, rather than trucking in topsoil or stone. Remember that a permaculture design is never finished, because the plants within a site are always changing.

There is no set formula for developing a permaculture design, but there are practical guidelines. Here are some of them:

  • Copy nature’s blueprint and enhance it with useful plants and animals. Think of the structure of a forest and try to mimic it with your plantings. A canopy of tall trees will give way to smaller ones, flanked by large and small shrubs and, finally, by the smallest plants. Edge habitats, where trees border open areas, are perfect for fruiting shrubs, such as currants, and for a variety of useful native plants, such as beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax), which is used for weaving baskets. Mimicking these natural patterns provides for the greatest diversity of plants.
  • Stack plants into guilds. A guild includes plants with compatible roots and canopies that might be stacked in layers to form an edge. As you learn more about your site, you’ll discover groups of plants that work well together. For example, pines, dogwoods, and wild blueberries form a guild for acid soil.
  • Make use of native plants and others adapted to the site. Plan for diversity.
  • Divide your yard into zones based on use. Place heavily used features, such as an herb garden, in the most accessible zones.
  • Identify microclimates in your yard and use them appropriately. Cold, shady corners, windswept places in full sun, and other microclimates present unique opportunities. For instance, try sun-loving herbs like creeping thyme on rocky outcroppings; plant elderberries in poorly drained spots.

Permaculture designers are now working to conceptualize and create whole communities that embody permaculture concepts. If permaculture intrigues you, there’s a wealth of opportunities to learn more about it online.

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Find Ways to Use Old Doors and Windows

Get ideas for repurposing old items into unique garden elements.

Salvaged doors and windows can easily be given new life as garden art. An old door can be used as a gate, potting bench or privacy screen. While windows can become wall décor, be turned into a garden mirror, be used to construct a small shed or greenhouse, or be hung from a porch or patio cover to create a unique transparent wall.

Salvaged doors and windows are fairly easy to come by. They can usually be found at thrift stores or salvage yards for a reasonable price.

Garden Lights Landscape and Pool Development Orlando, CA

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Photo Credit: Garden Lights Landscape & Pool Development in Orinda, CA