Our new front yard, part 4: a digression on the new paradigm


Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500

A couple of comments have come in on my last post remarking that this way of designing a yard (inspired by Planting in a Post-Wild World) seems really complex. And I’d say to that, it is! And yes, it’s kind of a pain to figure out. But (fingers crossed) I think it is a worthwhile thing to do.

What I’m talking about here is moving from seeing our yards as outdoor rooms, and our plants as furniture to be arranged and re-arranged at a whim. Instead, I’m talking about seeing our yards as communities, or as systems. You can pull a chair out of a living room, or paint the walls a new color one day, and these changes won’t effect the the other furniture. In a living system or community, though, changes to parts of the community ripple through the whole community.

I used to buy plants to suit my needs. These needs came in two general categories. The first was the need to fulfill a limited function: “I need a bush over there to hide that section of fence.”  The second was acquisitive lust: “That plant is beautiful.  I’m going to buy it and find some place to put it.”

Both of these ways of thinking are, to go back to the first simile, very much like doing interior design. I need a curtain for this window. I found a great clock at a swap meet, and now I need to fit it into the living room. In approaching planting this way, I’m pretending that plants are inanimate objects subject to my will, and I am placing my needs ahead of theirs.

Sometimes this approach “works” and the yard looks good. What this means is that I make some right calls and the plants play along. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the plant dies, or fails to thrive, or conversely, grows unexpectedly large and tries to take over the yard. When this happens, I cast blame around, against myself for being a poor gardener, against the soil, against the drought, against the nursery which sold the plant, against the plant itself. In all cases, though, I’m considering the plant as an isolated individual, and I’m evaluating its success or failure in myopic terms.

Now, I’m not a botanist or any other kind of “ist” and I sometimes I suspect all I know about plants would fit in a thimble. Yet I don’t think that the point of viewing the yard as a system means that I have to understand the intricacies of how the system works–I just have to respect it. That’s why I prefer the term “plant community.”

System implies something we could pick apart using logic. Community is more mysterious–it gives agency to the plants. In other words, they are doing their own thing, they have their secrets, their alliances and their agendas– and I, twitchy, chatty primate that I am, can only understand a little of what goes on in their elegant, sessile world.

If I’ve learned anything recently, from books like Planting, from talking to Masanobu Fukuoka’s student Larry Korn, and from hearing Suzanne Simard speak, from studying the aboriginal idea of the kinship of all things is that we should be humble before plants. As Fukuoko-san said, we know nothing. Starting from a place of humility, I’m trying to find a new path. I’m trying to develop a new relationship with plants, and as a result, a new approach to landscaping. This is the path of the post-wild.

New paths often run rough. Meanwhile, the lawn n’ shrub is a path worn into smoothness. In fact, it is a rut.

So yes, learning to view the yard as a community takes some mind stretching and extra work. We are changing the lens by which we view our relationship to the natural world. (Dare I say we are becoming wise?)

This is work, but it is rewarding, because as we engage with this process, we realize that we’re a part of the community, too.  Instead of being a petty overlord, mowing and blowing the world into submission, we are partnering with the life in the yard to make the world a better place. Re-connection with nature is its own reward, because lets face it, it’s lonely being a despot.

068 Planting a Post-Wild Garden

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This week I interview Kelly about the ideas behind the remake of our front yard. We talk about why we took out a bunch of stone fruit trees and Kelly discusses how the principles in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book Planting in a Post-Wild World  inspired the new design of our yard.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Our new front yard, part 3: design


The endless series continues!

In this post, I’ll cover the design principles I used (or at least tried to use) as I planned our landscaping. As I’ve said in the previous posts, this project was greatly inspired by the wonderful book, Planting in a Post-Wild World.

Planting shakes up our basic assumptions about what a landscape is, and how it functions. I tried to absorb this information as best I could, and used it to inform my design.  Here’s a quick summary of the five basic design principles the authors lay out:

Principle 1: Related populations, not isolated individuals

Don’t think of plants as individual specimens to be arranged, as you’d arrange your furniture in the living room. Instead, conceive of the area as an interrelated community. The design process is more akin to putting together a puzzle than arranging a room. How do these plants relate, how to do they fit together, how do they function together?

Principle 2:  Stress as an asset

When we start a garden, we want level everything out, turn over the soil, add lots of water and amendments because we think that is what gardening is all about.  This makes for boring gardens, and for weak gardens. Gardens are given character, given a strong sense of place, by their limitations: a dry garden, a beach garden, a rock garden, a wetland. Don’t fight the site, embrace it. Let the plants work it out themselves.

Principle 3: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants

Bare soil is uncommon in nature, being found only in deserts and a few other extreme environments. Plants want to live cheek by jowl (to use a very poor metaphor!) with other plants. They are cooperative by nature. Yet our yards have vast areas of bare soil–under trees, around bushes, for instance–and you’ll note we spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep those areas “clean”. Weeds naturally rush in to fill those gaps, because nature abhors bare soil. Rainer and West advocate “green mulch” — covering all the soil with plants. (Wood chip mulch is better than bare soil, but not as dynamic as green mulch).  There is an art to planting many species close together, and that is what the book is about, in essence.

Principle 4: Make it attractive and legible

I’ve already talked about legibility some in my last post. We are saddled with some kind of devolved 18th century British concept of the picturesque as the model for our landscaping, no matter where we live, no matter how unrealistic that might be. Thus the continuing ascendancy of the lawn and the specimen tree as the be all and end all of suburban landscaping.

It is difficult to challenge this model with more naturalistic landscaping. If a design is not going to cause complaints and wrinkled noses, it can’t look “too wild.” This means using hardscaping strategically to make a landscape look well planned, and to also mix in more traditional landscape elements with wilder ones. A good strategy, for instance, is to keep some mowed turf as a border or frame for a wild area. The contrast between the manicured turf and the more loose and rangy plant forms can be really appealing, and the turf demonstrates that the garden is in fact a tended space.

Continue reading…

Does Compost Tea Work?

If you’d like to pick an argument in the mostly staid world of gardening, I can’t think of a better subject than compost tea. I’ve, somewhat cowardly, tried to stay out of the fray and leave the debate to Linda Chalker-Scott and Jeff Lowenfels. If you forced me to pick a side I’d lean towards Chalker-Scott’s skepticism.

Thankfully, I can now point towards the eXtension.org webinar on making and using compost teas that I’ve embedded above. I’ll oversimplify things a bit with a few of my own bullet points inspired by what Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State University and Catherine Crosby, a Ph.D. candidate in Soil Science at Washington State University had to say in the webinar.

  • Due to a lack of research no peer reviewed recommendations can be made on the use of compost tea.
  • Nobody agrees on what compost tea is or how to brew it. What kind of compost do you use? Do you have to aerate it? How and for how long do you aerate it?
  • Compost teas have been shown to both solve and cause disease problems.
  • Compost tea shows promise as a fertilizer.
  • If you add sugar to your tea you need to be very careful about food safety issues.
  • You must dilute compost tea before using.
  • The compost going into tea must be mature and of high quality.
  • You might be better off just applying normal compost to the soil.

My personal conclusions are that if I were a farmer (which I am definitely not), compost tea might be worth looking into as a fertilizer or, in certain specific circumstances, for disease control. As a home gardener, however, I’m going to wait until there is more research before I spend money on a subject that is still so unresolved.

Let us know what you think–leave a comment!

Our new front yard, part 2: theory

just railing

Erik’s Sketchup rendering of the front yard.

In my previous post, I discussed the history of this little patch of slope which we’re trying to redesign. Now I’ll talk about the ideas behind the redesign.

What do you do with a slope?

Our front yard has always been a bit of a puzzler, because it tilts up. I’ve envied folks with flat front yards, because you can sit in them. You can host a party out front. Our slope has always seemed like a space which we had to take care of–but which wasn’t very fun or useful. It’s not built to be accessible by humans (which makes working on it real fun.) That might be one reason why the idea of making it into an orchard had so much appeal.

When garden design books bother to address hillside gardens, they always feature much bigger hills than ours, and these hills feature expensive hardscaping, like artfully arranged imported boulders, fancy staircases which sweep along the contour of the hill, or dazzling water features. Nobody designs in 15 foot wide spaces stuffed between a staircase and a garage. There’s just not a lot of room in our yard for sweeping gestures. I’m afraid our space is inescapably boxy, dorky and pokey.

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