Garden planning: Make a mockup

The house addition inches onward. Now that the sheathing is on and the windows are installed, I am able to grasp how this developing garden room may relate to the house. I can clearly watch patterns of light and shade, and notice where water collects and what stays dry (of course, that will change a bit when the gutters are installed).

The new addition with windows installed and wall and roof sheathing.

The new addition with windows and wall and roof sheathing installed.

As much as I love to rearrange my plant furniture, I recognize that if I am to  embrace my goal of producing more of my family’s food, and particularly fruit, I had better devise a plan and stick with it. Fruiting trees and shrubs do not appreciate being moved, nor do I appreciate a lack of production from them.

For once in a rare time, the plants and I are in agreement.

I like to sketch a bit, but I’m not terribly talented at it. I do love a good mockup, though. In the past this has tended towards my scrounging bits of  junk, like fallen tree limbs, lumber scraps, and overturned buckets, and placing such objects around the garden to simulate borders, edges, and large shrubs and perennials. Then I live with it for a while. But it is an uneasy existence, as I have to explain to visitors and neighbors that really, I don’t mean to live in an untidy dump. There’s a purpose to it. I’m visioning.

There is, however, a better way.

Making a Garden Mockup

Exploring the attic recently, I found a long, narrow piece of plywood. Dragging it down the rickety attic stairs (not advisable), I dug out a copy of our plat map, a calculator, and a tape measure.

A quick cut or two with the circular saw and I have a board whose proportions mimic our lot by a ratio of 1″: 3.75′. Time for nerdy arts and crafts!

mock up of west-facing view of house and garden

I raided the recycling bin and the kids’ craft supplies, commandeering some cardboard boxes, a bag of drinking straws, duct tape, toothpicks, paper bowls, paper towel rolls, and modeling clay.

First I assembled the house, measuring to scale, cutting out the cardboard, and duct-taping it together. The real roof has a relatively shallow slope, and the corresponding cardboard roof doesn’t sit well on the walls of the house, but as the cardboard house doesn’t have to pass any safety inspections, we shall give it some grace.

Paper towel rolls (cut and slimmed down to approximate diameter scale) topped with upturned paper bowls represent, if you will, very tall oak trees. The bowls, when they stay on their trunks, provide reasonable representations of the shade cast by the trees.

A view over the proposed hedge

Time to play with the clay. The red snake at right represents a low brick wall, roughly 12 inches high. The bizarre drinking straw forms are Lonicera fragrantissima, or winter honeysuckle, which is an ungainly but gorgeously smelling evergreen shrub whose long, thin branches sprout from the base like a forsythia’s. Pipe cleaners would be a more appropriate craft material here, but alas, we are all out.

The three dark green pyramidal lumps in the foreground are proposed Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Northline,’ one of the fruits recommended by Lee Reich in his book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.  It’s probably a little hopeful to model them in dense pyramidal shapes; open blobs might be more accurate.

On the left (above), near the house, is Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk,’ which already lives on the property but needs transplanting. I put some gray rocks nearby, which would need to go in before any planting gets done. And the green smudge in the middle is my proposed Carex lawn.

view from the kitchen window

The proposed view from the kitchen window.

This design is the rough outline of one option, playing with my idea of a cloister garden. The space would also be filled with a mixture of vegetables and perennial and annual ornamentals, but modeling that level of detail requires both more clay and more leisure time than I have.

I welcome your ideas and comments.

A new obsession: edible groundcover

Vaccinium vitis-idaea, photo taken in Sweden.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea, photo taken in Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I adore fruit of all kinds, and I am glad to have a small (but growing) collection of blueberry bushes in my garden. Blueberries are rather easy to grow, requiring only a thoughtful pruning in late winter and netting in the summer to fend off the birds and squirrels, but they require strongly acid soil: optimal pH is around 4.8.

This is easy to achieve in my garden, as the pH seems to hover in this general area if it has never been improved. Good drainage, another important component for a successful blueberry crop, I can achieve by digging in chopped oak leaves and decomposed pine bark mulch at planting time.

The challenge, then? Integrating them gracefully into the larger landscape. Blueberries can grow to be fairly large plants–mine are 5 feet tall and wide, varying in shape from a clumsy vase to a clumsy umbrella–and probably five years old, so they may grow a bit larger still. I am reluctant to dedicate the space I would like to these shrubs given that very little will, or should, grow under them.

I have been reading Lee Reich’s intriguing book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (I wish he could have kept the name of its predecessor, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention), and am building an unreasonably long list of plants I hope (intend) to grow on my heavily wooded, half-acre suburban lot. But Reich recommends one fruit that I think may solve my blueberry dilemma: lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).

Extremely popular in Scandinavia but not well known elsewhere (at least around here, except perhaps in the gourmet supermarket jam jar or at IKEA), lingonberries are relatives of blueberries and cranberries. They are extremely cold hardy (not an issue for me), but Reich assures me that they can be grown in areas with hot summers if the cultivar is carefully selected and tended with some care.

English: Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Ericaceae, Cow...

English: Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Ericaceae, Cowberry, Lingonberry, fruits. Botanical Garden KIT, Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Ericaceae, Preiselbeere, Früchte. Botanischer Garten KIT, Karlsruhe, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The plants grow from a few inches high to nearly 2 feet tall, depending on the subspecies. They demand the same conditions as blueberries: acidic soil, moderate water during fruiting, organic mulch, and perhaps some intelligent shading on hot days (like blueberries, they will grow in part shade although fruit best in full sun). They fruit twice a year, including once in late fall or early winter. And they are evergreen: I envision their short, glossy, oval leaves obscuring my mulch neatly all year.

My theory is that perhaps the blueberry canopy will provide some cooling shade in the hottest months of summer, but not so much as to hinder fruiting substantially.

I think I may have hit on something good. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Additional resources:


Slow food lunch: Open-faced Goat Cheese and Fig Sandwich with Apples and Honey

It is entirely fair to say that as a grower of fruit at home, my ambition and enthusiasm exceed my talent and success. So when I happened to look out the window just before lunchtime and saw that my fig tree, which is three feet tall and not impressive, had some fat, ripe fruit on offer, I had no qualms about seizing the opportunity. (Plus, I don’t think the other residents of my home care for figs).

I harvested four figs; the first edible treats of fall.

My favorite way to enjoy figs is as follows:

Open-faced Goat Cheese and Fig Sandwich with Apples and Honey

  • 1 oz. (30 g) crusty french bread
  • 1-2 tablespoons of goat cheese
  • 4 ripe figs, or as many as you can obtain
  • 1 small Fuji apple
  • drizzle of honey
  • freshly ground black pepper

Sprinkle the crumbled goat cheese on the bread and put it in the oven to toast. Wash and slice the apple and figs. When the bread is golden and the cheese is soft, remove the cheese toast from the oven, top with figs and apple slices. Drizzle with honey and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper. Slow down and savor.

a really, really good lunch

(I didn’t mean to make the sandwich look like a face. Now it’s bothering me.)

Dreaming and scheming

The house addition progresses despite frequent rain. Thanks to an unusual dry week last week, the framing is up, and sheathing is on.

house addition framed and sheathed

And with the sheathing, I can finally get a fair sense of how light will fall in the emerging garden space. It gets good morning sun, but the space 6 feet out from the wall is deeply shaded from about 11:30 or so in the morning until about 3:30 in the afternoon. Then it gets harsh sun again. And of course, the light will be very different in the winter.

shade 6 feet deep against north wall

The new garden space measures 25 feet deep and 22 feet wide, almost precisely (that is to say, give or take 5/8 of an inch or so). I do love when that happens.

And so I am beginning to explore what I can do with this area. I would like it to give some sense of enclosure (still dreaming of my cloister), so some kind of screening towards the back is called for, though it does not have to be a solid evergreen wall, necessarily. I have five roses that are calling to be transplanted here (2 ‘Abraham Darby,’ 1 ‘Gertrude Jekyll,’ 1 ‘Sophy’s Rose,‘ and 1 ‘Generous Gardener’ climber). I also have a Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk’ that wants re-siting.

Although the left side of this space, opposite the large window, has a staggered planting of  three Lonicera fragrantissima which are mostly evergreen here, I am going to need additional evergreens. And I am craving more homegrown fruit. I’ve had my mitts on Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, and am now trying to decide how to cram all these fascinating foodstuffs into 550 square feet.

I do want a bit of grass in this spot, although nothing I have to mow frequently. I am thinking of putting in a small Carex lawn, and planting it with crocuses and colchicums to give it a little kick. And I need to reserve space for lots of spring ephemerals, minor bulbs, and maybe a Melianthus or a Rodgersia. Gunnera, alas, can’t take the humidity here. Who can blame it?

What fun to plan! If you have any thoughts on how to gracefully cram in a medlar orchard, do let me know.

Shock and Augh!: When garden labor goes unappreciated

Gardeners will go to extraordinary lengths, sometimes, to prevail over Mother Nature.

Exhibit A: The Blueberry Fortress

blueberry fortress

I wish I could take credit for inventing this contraption, but I cannot. I saw it in a recent issue of Fine Gardening.

I like blueberries, but I live with someone who LOVES blueberries. I can’t grow many food crops because of the deep shade that covers most of my garden, but in this 15′ square little plot off the edge of our deck, I manage to grow three little blueberry bushes. The rest of the space is a large nursery bed for everything else I’ve acquired but don’t know where to put.

Blueberries are a painless plant to grow, but saving the fruit from our woodland neighbors is not so easy. In the past I have put up tall tomato stakes and attached netting to them, but my technique with this equipment is insufficiently refined. Tired of entangling myself in bird netting every time I wanted to harvest, I knew when I saw this article in a recent issue of Fine Gardening, I had to act.

The walk-in cage (that doesn’t sound dodgy at all, does it?) is made of 8 lengths of 8 1/2′ long, 1/2-inch PVC pipe, joined at the top by a 90-degree elbow. The uprights are anchored in 1-foot lengths of 1-inch PVC, hammered into the ground. The bird netting is anchored onto the frame with twist-ties. The whole edifice cost less than $20 at the local hardware store, and the only tools I needed were a hammer and a small saw.

When I presented The Fortress to the blueberry aficionado-in-residence, all he said was, “Wow.”  It didn’t sound like the awe-stricken “Wow” I was hoping for. It sounded similar, actually, to the “wow” I got when, eleven years ago, the same Aficionado came home from a late-evening grad school class to find a 9-week-old sitting happily in his swing, having not napped for 17 hours, and I, lying on the floor, laughing ridiculously to a Baby Einstein foreign language video, greeted him with a hearty “Konichiwa!”

If it’s going to be like that, we’ll see who gets the blueberries on her cereal.