Garden Design: Quantity vs. Quality

There’s an old saw, probably apocryphal, about a ceramics teacher who divided her class in two, made one half spin as many pots as possible while the other struggled to create one perfect pot. The students who were graded by quantity rather than quality made the best pots. I’ve noticed, from the years I used to be in the art world, that he most talented creative folks I’ve met crank out lots of material.

So how do we apply the quantity over quality principle to laying out a garden–especially since you often get only one chance a year to get it right? Above you see some of Kelly’s ideas for the parkway garden we planted in the fall. I think it is at this first point in the process–when you’re just sketching out ideas–when it’s best to generate as many drawings a possible, stick them on a wall and see which ones pop out. I think Kelly made more than the three drawings we saved, but we certainly could have done more–I’d say 20 minimum.

Part of what we learn by focusing on quantity is about making mistakes and learning from them. But I think there’s more to it than that. A gifted high school English teacher of mined likened our creativity to a tank of water. Sometimes you have to drain off the not so great ideas at the top in order to get to the good stuff that lies deep in our unconscious. Letting go of stifling perfectionism also forces us to try out ideas that might not have come to us otherwise.

I wish you all a quantitative 2013. Best of luck with your gardens!

Qualitites of a Good Outdoor Room

Our front porch.

One of the features of gardens that I like is that they tend to be divided into smaller spaces, what has come to be called outdoor rooms. The Ecology Center, that we visited on Saturday, is a nice example of how to arrange a large space into many smaller ones. Just like the Huntington Ranch, the Ecology Center is subdivided into distinct spaces that host school visits and classes. Well designed residential gardens, like guest blogger Nancy Klehm’s, also leverage small outdoor rooms to make a small space seem bigger and to provide pleasant spots to read, meditate, use as an outdoor office, or host gatherings.

Our arbor and earth oven.

Outdoor rooms can be as simple as an area of mulch or gravel surrounded by shrubs. Or they can be much more elaborate affairs incorporating arbors, tables and decks. Their greatest benefit may simply be in getting us outside to commune with nature for at least a few minutes a day.

My ugly outdoor home office near the chicken coop.

We’re in the middle of a year of re-designing our garden and there’s still a lot of work to do. As a part of this process I’ve been trying to figure out why I prefer sitting on the front porch to sitting in the backyard. I came to the conclusion that the front porch works better as an outdoor room than the spaces we have in the backyard. I think it’s because the porch better embodies qualities that make for a successful outdoor room. Those qualities are:

  • A sense of enclosure or shelter
  • A view
  • Some shelter from the elements (in our climate that’s the sun)
  • A ground treatment that sets it apart from the rest of the yard (could just be mulch or could be concrete or wood)
  • A place to sit
  • Art, objects, i.e. some human touch

With these ideas in mind, how can I improve the outdoor spaces in the photos in this post? On the front porch I could add a small table to hold a book and a glass of beer. The space with the stove needs shelter from the sun during the morning (in another year the grapes will cover the arbor but until that time maybe I need to string up some shading). The earth oven we built definitely improved the “roomedness” of this space, creating a sense of enclosure and providing a focus. But I clearly need to construct something to hold the wood for that oven so as not to create a cluttered view. The last photo, of the area by the chicken coop, is obviously a disaster. Cleaning up will help, but the space also needs more of a sense of enclosure and a larger footprint to accommodate the table. A vine to cover the trellis would also help.

So what do you think makes for a successful outdoor room? Is there something I left off the list? What is your favorite space to sit in the garden and why do you like that particular spot?

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.

How To Design a Garden Step IV: Clues to Care

Clues to care at the Huntington Ranch

In the landscape architecture biz, “clues to care” is a phrase meaning that a garden has some sort of indication that humans were involved. Those clues could be anything from a couple of stepping stones, a bean teepee, to a piece of garden statuary. Particularly if your garden has a wild look or if you’re trying to grow vegetables in the front yard,  “clues to care” can go a long ways to keeping the neighbors happy.

Dr. Susan J. Mulley, a landscape architecture professor at Cal Poly Pomona is doing some interesting research on how people react to alternative forms of landscaping such as native plants and urban vegetable gardens. She’s doing opinion polls using Photoshopped mock-ups of residential, academic and commercial landscapes with food crops, native plantings and more conventional landscaping. The conclusion I took away from Dr. Mulley work is that most people like some kind of clue to care. In general, most folks don’t like a residential front yard that looks like a farm, or anything that looks too “wild.”

Clues to care include:

  • Defined pathways
  • Raised beds
  • Mulched beds and paths (vs. bare soil)
  • Artwork
  • Trellises and other attractive supports
  • Birdbaths
  • Benches

While the above items fall under the category of hardscape, clues to care also include aesthetic choices in planting and arranging the yard. For instance, it’s never a bad idea to plant lots of flowers, even if you’re more interested in food, and place them toward the front of the yard to appease the neighbors. Choose your flowers well and they’ll both please the neighbors and the beneficial insects.

And keep the yard tidy. Part of the mystique of the pristine suburban front yard is that it somehow takes care of itself–there is never any evidence of work left around. Similarly, your front yard garden should be clear of wheelbarrows and shovels and piles of manure &etc., and the less attractive parts of garden infrastructure, such as the compost pile, should be kept out of sight. If you can’t hide your compost pile around back, consider building a screen around it.

So why not use clues to care to make native and edible landscaping more appealing to the general public? The central principles of permaculture according to David Holmgren, are “care for the earth, care for people and fair share.” I believe that the “care for people” portion of those three ethics should include our aesthetic needs as well as our needs for sustenance. And clues to care–a human touch–are the means to fulfill those aesthetic needs. With just a few simple touches a garden can fulfill aesthetic, nutritional and wildlife habitat needs.

Right now our back and front yards really need some clues to care! I’ll document those clues as they are created.

How To Design a Garden Step III: Pathways

So you’ve set your goals and have a scale drawing of the land you plan to garden. What’s next? Paths! Paths keep you from compacting soil and lend visual interest to your garden. Some tips:

Establish a path hierarchy
Create wide paths with smaller branching paths. Think of the human circulatory system:

Or fractal patterns found in nature, like tree branches:

Now our property is so small that, when I’m done re-doing the backyard it will only have two main paths and one or two branching paths, but the path hierarchy concept is scalable to any piece of land large or small.

Put paths where people walk
Avoid what’s called in the landscape architecture biz “vanity paths,” i.e. paths that look good but aren’t actually used. If people are taking a shortcut, make that a path!

Path size
A comfortable path is probably no smaller than 18 inches. If you’re designing a public garden where wheelchair accessibility is an issue make the path no smaller than 3 feet. For two people to pass each other you need 5 to 6 feet, though a path that big would be for a larger piece of land than we own. Consider the size of any tools or wheelbarrows you might need to accommodate.

Materials
I’m fond of mulch. It’s free, easy to maintain and breaks down into soil. I’ve used gravel in the past–it looks nice but it can be hard to keep clean over time. Stepping stones also work nicely. As for edging, I’ve been using river rock as it’s easy to find in my area.

Create gathering areas
Paths should open up in to larger seating areas. We have a deck area for entertaining visitors and a smaller spot that I use as an outdoor office in the summer months. A school garden might have an outdoor classroom off of a main path.

I can’t emphasize how important paths are, both aesthetically and for preventing soil compaction. Years ago Kelly suggested the path we just put in and it’s a real improvement to the garden. Perhaps listening to your wife is a design lesson for another post!

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post.

How To Design a Garden Step II: Using Google Earth to Draw Up a Plan

So you’ve set the goals for your garden, as we outlined in a post earlier this week, and you’re ready to start putting pen to paper. Google Earth makes it easy to quickly create a plan to scale.

Zoom in on the space you want to garden and print out an image. Next, take separate sheets of tracing paper and use them to map out:

  • your goals
  • existing conditions such as trees and buildings
  • future plantings
  • where water flows when it rains
  • sun and shade
  • problem areas
  • topography
  • future paths (more on this in tomorrow’s post)
  • permaculture zones

For a more accurate and sizable plan you can also use Google’s free 3D modeling program SketchUp. The drawback with SketchUp is that it requires a couple of evenings to learn.

If only we had taken the time to draw up a plan to scale when we first moved into our house back in 1998! Better late than never, and at least it’s easier now thanks to Google.

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post!

Growing Greens Under Fruit Trees

In the photo above is Scott Kleinrock showing off a section of the edible garden he designed at the Huntington Gardens. At first glace it looks like a lot of weeds, but it’s a clever idea: growing greens in the understory of fruit trees.

In this picture, which was taken last weekend, you see a field of:

  • mallow
  • daikon radish
  • arugula
  • mustard 
  • vetch
  • calendula
  • cabbage

Except for the vetch, which helps build soil, all are edible and nutritious. It was grown with almost no supplemental water. Labor involved removing unwanted grasses in the first year and spreading seeds. And all of these plants readily reseed themselves.

Depending on your climate, the plants you use for this strategy could vary, but the idea is the same: select hardy, reseeding greens that take little or no care. Weed out the things you don’t want. Use space that would otherwise go to waste. Lastly, sit back and let nature do her thing.

How To Design a Garden Step I: Identifying Goals

Food, beauty and habitat.

Garden design does not come naturally to me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and continue to make them. One of the biggest of those mistakes is thinking of a garden as a collection of plants. Designing this way leads to lots of money wasted at the nursery and a garden that looks like a hoarder’s living room. Trust me, after years of misguided gardening design, your first step should be to identify goals.

Making a List of Goals

Sit down and think of what you want the garden to do. This applies to a residential space, a community garden plot, a school garden, anywhere. Include everyone who will use the space in the process. Kelly and I sat down a few months ago and came up with the following ideas about what our garden should provide:

  • solace and comfort
  • a place to meditate
  • food
  • habitat for insects and birds
  • beauty
  • a place to sit and hang out with friends
  • a place to sit and work with a laptop
  • space for our chickens
  • flowers for bees
  • space for native plants
  • areas that are semi-wild and not often visited 
  • space for the composting

Think and meditate on your goals before drawing up a plan.  And for those of us in the urban homesteading movement, I think it’s important to measure productivity in more ways than just the amount of food you get from your yard.  How will the garden provide peace and well being? Educational opportunities? Ways to commune with nature? Some goals aren’t obvious at first. As authors we have a lot of people who want to come over and take photos, something we have to consider as we re-do our backyard. And I’m definitely aiming for a garden that requires less maintenance!

So what are some of the goals you keep in mind for the gardens you tend? Share some comments . . .

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for an amazing class on Urban Ecological Agriculture that I had the privilege of attending. In this class I learned many important design concepts including the one in this post. We’ll share a bunch more in the next couple of posts.

How to Plan a Vegetable Garden

Today I did the unthinkable and made good on one of my many New Years resolutions: I planned our 128 square foot vegetable garden a year in advance. Here’s how I did it:

Identifying Seasons
Using an Ecology Action pamphlet as my guide, Learning to Grow All Your Own Food: A One-Bed Model For Compost, Diet and Income Crops, I divided the year into three seasons. Most of you reading this blog probably have two: a cool season and a warm season. Here in Los Angeles we have:

  • warm: April-July
  • hot and dry: July-October
  • cool: October-March

Picking Planting Dates
Using the handy Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule I chose planting dates (in April, mid-summer and Septmber/October) for each season and marked them down on my Stella Natura calendar. I identified the vegetables I’d like to grow choosing only those veggies that have done well in the past and that we like to eat.

A planning form from Ecology Action

Deciding How Much to Plant
To decide how much to plant I rely on the charts in John Jeavons’ book  How to Grow More Vegetables. I took his three day Biointensive gardening class early last year and recommend it highly, especially for learning how to use the, at first, intimidating charts in the book. Jeavons handed out a handy planning form during the class that works with the tables in the book to help organize your garden. With experience, I also now have an idea about how many square feet of, say, lettuce it takes to keep me and Kelly in salad for a season. While not everyone likes Jeavons, I can say that my best years in our vegetable garden have been when I follow his methods (minus frequent double digging).

Planting Compost Crops
Jeavons stresses the importance of learning how to grow your own compost and fertilizer. I adapted the food/compost ratios suggested in the Ecology Action pamphlet to match our climate. Instead of growing a big winter compost crop (Ecology Action is in cooler Northern California) I decided to treat the late summer/early fall as our “winter”. Growing vegetables in the hot, dry late summer here in Southern California is, frankly, a pain in the ass and water intensive. It’s a time when I’d rather just take a break from vegetable gardening and just grow a bunch of drought tolerant sunflowers, amaranth, cowpeas etc. On the other hand, winter here is the best time to grow all those cool season crops like lettuce and arugula. Using Ecology Action’s suggestions I came up with a compost/food growing ratio:

  • spring/summer – 33.3% food, 66.7% compost
  • summer/fall 100% compost
  • fall/winter 66.7% food, 33.3% compost

The compost crops will reduce my gardening workload, build fertility and assure that there’s always something growing and no sun-baked bare soil.

Apologies for a Southern Californiacentric post, but you can use the same process to identify dates and how much seed you need for any climate. In fact, if you know of a good vegetable planting schedule for your climate please leave a link in the comments.

Update: Scott left a link for readers in Texas. The Texas A&M Extension Service has a vegetable planting guide here.

And meansoybean left a link for vegetable gardeners in Montreal which you can see here.  

Thanks to Hak, here’s Southern Nevada

Kristen sent one for all of the US based on your USDA zone here.