Sunday, August 14, 2016

The transformation of a yard

This is the story of Susan Morrison of Rutherfordton, N.C., who transformed her 2,000-square-foot yard from degraded soil to a thriving ecosystem of native flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables—all carefully chosen to be the most useful to her—in one year.

Susan Morrison

Before: Front yard
After: Front yard
"Part of my retirement dream was having gardens all around our new house," Susan said. "Before I met Megan, I could visualize my gardens but was completely stuck when it came to implementing my vision. Megan is helping me bring my dream down to Earth. She listened to my vision and was able to create a design that reflects what I saw."

One of the most concerning elements to Susan was that the topsoil around her property had been graded for the construction of her home. What remained was the typical red Appalachian clay soil, which she was not accustomed to. The clay appeared hard, sterile, and impossible to work with. I explained that almost all of us are dealing with the same soil in this region, and if we learn how to work with it, the mineral-rich clay ends up being a blessing.

"Megan taught me how to rebuild the topsoil that was graded away during the building of our house," Susan said. "At first I was going to do container gardens for my natives and herbs, but Megan quickly convinced me that her method of building up the soil was the way to go. The day we started working on preparing the beds I felt deeply that we were healing the damaged earth by layering the organic compost and leaves to decompose over the winter."

Soil building by layering decaying leaves, mushroom compost and cardboard to decompose over winter

Following our initial interview and a visit to her house, I completed a "bubble draft" of the design, in which I drew the pathways and major themes of each bed. My design process is always a collaborative one, in which I talk with the landowner throughout the stages to make sure I'm on the right track. From that draft, we had enough information to start laying out the beds and building the soil in October.
After one coaching session with M R Gardens, Susan and her husband Carl finished building the rest of the beds that fall.

Side yard in late winter, nearly ready for planting.
We kept the gardens untouched over the winter, although perhaps the most important activity was happening—beneficial microbes were decomposing organic matter, unlocking the nutrients in the clay so it's in a useable form for the plants.

In the meantime, I completed her design, which included a list of the plants, indicated as symbols in the following picture, along with bloom times.

Susan's full design, front and side yards

The Design: Up-Close

Entry way to side yard
The first garden we see as we pull up the drive is a bed of sun natives, chosen because they are "well-behaved," meaning they need less maintenance than other native perennials to look their best throughout the season.
Culinary Herbs, Beneficial Flowers, Vegetable Bed and Aggressive Medicinals

Walking through the garden, we first pass a lavender bed and a circular culinary herb bed, before arriving at a small vegetable bed and complementary beneficial flower bed, which brings in pollinators and insect predators of garden pests.

To the far east side is a slope where we planted spreaders—medicinal plants that Susan likes to use even though they tend to grow aggressively. (It's best to plant them together so they compete with each other rather than with slow spreaders).
Aster Bed and Tall Natives
At the back of the property, as we walk toward the arbor, we pass a meadow-like bed with tall natives on one side and a bed of asters and other perennials that will form a relaxed naturalized look. A vine climbs the arbor (currently in greasy beans, but could be passionflower), where we can sit enjoying the gardens and the surrounding woods.
Blueberries, Medicinal Bed, and surrounding Natives beds

Six blueberry bushes are at the front of the house. In the center of the yard is a circle bed of medicinal plants chosen specifically for Susan's needs. The surrounding gardens are in native perennials. We placed them according to their specific growing conditions depending on how close they are to the existing oak tree.

Note at the front of the house is a relatively simple bed that provides a break to the eye from all the diversity in the rest of the gardens, albeit with bold colors. The purple of the Anise Hyssop spike infloresence is against the magnificent red of the Cherry Brandy black eyed Susans. The plant is so well suited for Susan that it is placed in the far back bed of the side yard as well, so that viewers eyes are drawn to the red even if they are standing in the driveway.

Planting Day!

April 20, 2016

With the plan in hand and the organic matter partially decomposed, we were ready to dig in. In April, Susan had one garden coaching lesson in which we filled two of the beds.
Bleeding hearts

Susan finished her new gardens by May 2016
Side yard: May 2016
And then the plants grew!
Side yard: July 2016
Tall Natives bed: July 2016
Tall Natives bed: mid-August 2016

In the typical landscaping world, a year might be a long time to complete an installation. Plants may be placed quickly as an afterthought to the building process—as if the yard is a room and bushes are furniture—with little thought to how the homeowner might interact with the landscape. But in the world of edible, medicinal, native and sustainable landscaping, a near completion of a yard the size of Susan's in one year is a feat, particularly if the property owner is taking on the bulk of the work. Susan was committed—in her time, motivation and financial investment—because this landscape was her long-lived retirement dream. She valued it above most other projects in her life at this moment in time. So she made it happen.

In other situations, I may have advised property owners to install one bed at a time to make sure they could handle the time commitment, as there are many unknowns when establishing a garden. Most notably how many plants will naturally sprout in the area. While the no-till gardening method limits weeding, it doesn't eliminate it.

But Susan is in a unique situation in that she has little weed competition. The property used to be woods, so fewer seeds that like sunny conditions are in her vicinity than, say, a yard that was formerly pasture. Furthermore, while the removal of topsoil next to her house is not wanted or advisable, one helpful side effect is that weed seed was likely scraped away (along with the beneficial microbes and nutrients, unfortunately).

Susan's landscape will always evolve as she continues to learn about plants she'd like to interact with and watch how the plants grow and look next to each other. Since she's learned some concepts of landscape design, she'll be able to make some decisions about plant placements on her own. She's come to realize that this is just part of the fun. People are forever changing—so if we don't stay the same year after year, why should our surroundings?

"My garden—that Megan helped me create—gives me such pleasure every day.  Everyone is amazed at how we have transformed our land.  I see now that this is an ongoing project, and that is exciting—and empowering—to realize that I can build on what Megan has taught me and helped me to create going forward!"

Susan's wildflower garden - July 2016