Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Form follows function

For me, garden planning is difficult because I am always rushing about with a new idea for a new project. Things work out in the end, but I understand the unfettered enthusiasm that a new gardener, or a gardener with a new space, feels as she looks out at that space. However, I know that the best way forward is to move thoughtfully and maybe with a pad and pencil in hand.

First, inventory your new site. Make a rough sketch that will indicate the space the house and any outbuildings take, as well as any other permanent elements, trees, shrubs, fences and paving. Don’t worry about scale.

On your sketch note the aspects, north, south, east and west. This will give you a basic idea of the sunniest and shadiest parts of your site. It will really take a year of careful observation to understand how shade moves across your site. Indeed, if you can keep yourself in check for a whole year, it is a good idea to see what plants are already in the landscape, as well as the movement of light and shade.

“Form follows function” is one of my favorite quotes. What functions will be performed in your garden? Do you need play space for children? Do you enjoy meals in the garden? Do you enjoy entertaining in the garden? Do you want vegetables and other edibles? Or flowers? Do you want to eliminate lawn?

I am not really talking about garden design here, which is a very big topic, but if you think about the ways you need or want to use your space, you can begin to think how you might arrange those elements into a harmonious whole.

After you consider what you need and want, you must consider what any garden needs and wants. The first need is a fertile soil. In our neighborhood you can generally assume that you have acid soil. You can buy a soil testing kit that will measure the pH or acidity. You can also get a full soil test from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that will not only give you the pH, but also a measure of your nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as well as vital trace elements. After many years, I did a full soil test for my vegetable garden in 2012 and found that all the years of adding compost, lime to raise the pH, rock phosphate for phosphorus and greensand for potassium really paid off. Now I have good fertile soil with 9 percent organic matter. My efforts always go into feeding the soil.

Since your soil needs organic matter and your garden will ultimately give you substantial organic matter, find a place to put a compost pile. Compost will not attract pests as long as you only put in vegetable matter. No meat scraps!

Fortunately you can buy beautiful compost locally. A truckload is a luxurious way to begin a new garden. Martin’s Farm and Bear Path Farm are excellent local sources.

I have had great success starting a new bed by using the lasagna or sheet composting method. First, mow or clear the space as cleanly as possible. Give it a deep watering. Then, spread 4 or 5 inches of good compost and water again.

On top of the compost use a layer of cardboard. Some use several layers of newspaper, but I prefer cardboard. Since you will probably be using several pieces of cardboard, make sure there is plenty of overlap. Wet and soak the cardboard.

Top the cardboard with soil or a mixture of soil and compost. The quality of the soil matters very little because the roots will be growing through the rotting cardboard and into the layer of compost. Once you have your lasagna bed, you can just maintain it with annual fertilization.

Of course, you can just dig your bed and till in compost and fertilizers. I always use organic fertilizers and more compost because I am feeding the soil. Healthy soil is filled with living organisms that will give you healthy crops and beautiful flowers. A healthy plant is more resistant to both pests and disease.

Raised beds inside a frame are very popular now but I warn you that even a raised bed with enriched soil will eventually need weeding.

Water is absolutely essential especially if you have a vegetable garden. An ornamental garden can be left to itself in a drought and will recover fairly well when the rains come, but vegetables require regular and adequate watering.

Soaker hoses work well in the garden. The black hoses are almost invisible as the plants grow. They efficiently put the water near plant roots where it is needed. Using a sprinkler is fine, but then watering must be done early in the day so foliage will dry before evening. Most of us try to use water efficiently because wasted water in towns has implications for the water bill, or for the sustainability of the well in the country.

Water is essential for plant growth. It is also a desirable ornamental element. With small submersible pumps available, some that are solar powered, it is easy to set up a fountain or even a tiny stream or pond. What luxury to sit in the garden and hear the burble of running water.

We are edging into the realm of garden design now. Next week I’ll be talking about the mixed border and lawns.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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