Yes, You Can and Should Garden II: Selecting Site; Preparing Beds and Containers


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    Nice job, Rose.

    And the easiest compost bin of all is a couple yards of chicken wire, in a circle, held closed with a few twist ties.

    I have a neighbor with one like this, she grows clematis on it. After the frost, she cuts one side back enough to open it, clean the old leaves out and spreads them over her perennial beds for winter blanket, and then rakes the leaves from the yard and puts them in the bin for the next fall.

    Rose, are you familiar with the garden books by Ken Druse? Eye and imagination candy. His website (which I just discovered has a podcast!):

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    Use gentle, slow curves to make your beds. You can mark them off by laying a garden hose, dribbling flour along the line, or spray chalk. Avoid straight lines. Straight lines, along with perfectly trimmed boxwoods, are a formal garden look, and definitely not what you’re going for in low maintenance. (I also think it’s less homey).

    A possible countering opinion – Too many curves and weird angles/corners make the remaining lawn a bit of a hassle to mow (you can’t get good straight back and forth lines and get into a “rhythm”), which is work you do MUCH more frequently than working in the beds. So be careful in getting too creative with the beds.

    Trust me on this, my backyard looks kind of like the one on the picture above and while it’s cool looking, mowing/edging/trimming the grass takes longer than it should for a lawn that size. It’s also harder to set up for outdoor games that require symmetrical fields (baseball or soccer or volleyball or badminton, say. Cornhole or horseshoes is fine).Report

  3. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Random thoughts…

    I like the idea of composting, but I end up throwing all my veggie scraps out the back door for the squirrels. It’s easier and I like watching them.

    Stone, as you note, is expensive. A cheaper and greener option is to use old concrete. Using plants that grow over the edges, it’s very hard to tell it’s not stone. The trick is to contact construction companies and let them know you’re interested. The difficulty is that the supply is very unpredictable, and when they happen to have it, you have to be willing for them to drop a load of concrete in your yard/driveway that day, whether you’re ready to deal with it or not. So it’s not for everyone, but a friend who is an architect did it to deal with a steep slope in his backyard, and it looked great by the next summer as plants filled in.

    Rose, what about areas that are deep shade, as in never touched by direct sunlight (<1 minute of sun per day)? A northern exposure perhaps, or the back of my yard which is so tree shaded that it's literally never hit by sun when the trees are in leaf?Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Yes. Stone is not for everyone, but it’s just so lovely. I always dreamed of having a place with a mossy stone wall – I never knew I could build one. We have a very tall concrete retainer wall as one part of the border of our yard. Kinda ugly, but I just send vines up it for the growing season.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Is there never even dappled sunlight or light reflected in from nearby areas. For example, if the shade is cast from one direction and the other side is next to a light area, that is different from the deepest darkest overgrown woods. There are a couple of options, but you have to go into it with a sense of we’ll-throw-something-at-it-and-see-what-works. I have an area that’s never touched by direct sunlight, but is nearby light areas and gets reflected light, and regular old shade plants do fine.

      If you were in a warm zone, I’d suggest cast-iron plant (apsidistra). I just add that in case anyone in a warmer zone is curious. Otherwise, things to try are (in more or less the order that I’d try them):


      Brunnera “Jack Frost” (this has the advantage of beautiful silver foliage that lights up shade areas – needs moisture)

      Dryopteris celsa (handles dry soil, moist is better)

      Polygonatum odoratum

      Dicentra spectabilis (any kind except “Gold Heart – chartreuse foliage in general, e.g., in hostas, doesn’t do well in super-full shade — keep in mind that dicentra goes dormant in summer, so you might want to plant it near hostas or something that cover the foliage midsummer — prefers moist)

      Asarum splendens

      Trycirtis sinonome (prefers moist, can handle dry)

      Winter Jewels Hellebores (posionous, if that matters)

      Vinca minor (some varieties are invasive – check to see which aren’t in your area)

      Hostas – the bluer the variety, the more likely to be happy.

      Disporopsis pernyi – (prefers moist – this is hardy to zone six, so would be extra risk for you)

      Epimedium x youngianum – there are a few of these running around – I don’t know if one is more shade tolerant than any other, but I think youngianum is more tolerant than other epimediums (epimedia?)




      Wax-leaf begoniaReport

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The last 8 feet of yard barely even get dappled light. It’s the east side of our yard, and across the property line is a line of trees large and small. It’s great because the other side of the fence is a very very deep yard, and the 50′ or so across the boundary is a sort of untended “waste.” So when we look out at our yard, it looks like it ends in forest.

        The south side of our yard is lined with mature trees, so throughout the day only the north side get sun.

        We do have vinca back there, which is spreading nicely, but I’d like some vertical plants as well. I like hostas, but we have a lot of them along our south side fence. I’m just looking for something different to add variety.

        I’ll look up those other things you mention and see what strikes my fancy. Thank you.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Oh, I just looked up dryopteris. I have a surplus of that in a couple of shady areas. It really fills in nicely. Along with a huge hydrangea it fills in n the weird NW corner of the house, where there’s a 10′ setback from the front of the house to the north wing, and no direct sunlight hits. Last year I killed most of it stomping around fixing the foundation beam and residing the house, but it’s rebounding nicely this year. I love the way it looks, too.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Around here, we have Construction Junction, where you can get used building materials.
      More likely to pull brick than concrete, probably, but who doesn’t like brick?Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    I’ll just throw this into the mix, though I appreciate that it’s a bit too rustic for most people:

    Pig has a plow at the front of his face. It developed to root up underground tubers and fungi. It’s terrific at taking overgrown areas, and literally rooting out the rocks, the roots, the junk car parts, etc, in preparation for future planting.

    Now I realize most of us do not want a pig. But for those that want the meat, and can bear to have a fellow creature root up an area and bear to part with piggie, sending him to the the freezer after her work is done, this is an awesome way to reclaim an overgrown yard.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled and civilized gardening. Oink Oink.Report

  5. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    Good point. One problem I’ve seen is that people make the curves too tight (actually, I think that is the case in the picture above). So, as Glyph says, not too many weird angles and corners. And I totally agree you should leave as much lawn as you use. If you play games, etc, on it, then keep the lawn for it. At the end of the day, gardens should help keep you outside, not inside.Report

  6. Avatar Citizen says:

    The location I am in (S. Texas) takes a sever solar load in full sun. The hard pan clay is only about 12″ deep then beyond that, calcium carbonate rock.

    The combination of solar loading and compacted shallow soil have a detrimental effect with the ability of the soil to retain rainwater as well as supplied water.

    Bed preparation:
    To prepare a bed in these conditions I trench to near 30″ depths. To backfill I lasagna layers of plant organics, sand and ditch silt. A fair amount of rabbit waste and charcoal is useful if it can be found. If I have significant quantities of weed matter with seed, It will be placed at the bottom of the trench with a light sprinkle of vinegar.

    The trench beds will eventually become infiltrated with clay after about 3-4 years, which will require another application of organics to prevent the “hard pan creep”.

    From chipping nearly 24″ depth of rock from the trench operation I find an abundance of white rocks near 4.5″ diameter. In beds that are exposed to full sun all day I stack the rock above the lasagna. This “large white rock mulch” has also worked well for the dozen or so fig trees I have planted in full sun.

    When stacking/placing the rock I will assure that there are access holes to water through. This allows the water to go directly to the soil without coating much of the rock surface.

    I first tested the rock mulch after seeing a program about how the people of Easter Island mulched. I noticed the rocks they were using were about the same size as from the trenching. You would think the rocks would lead to compaction, but from the worm/bug/microbe/lizard/frog activity It remains less compact than the soil outside the insulation zone.Report