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.

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.