Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lawn to garden conversion - first summer

I can now say with confidence, our front yard is starting to happen.

Last fall we cut up the sod, stacked it into rows to form gentle terraces in the hillside, and mulched with shredded cardboard, burlap and wood chips.

We planted trees in the spring, and I broke up lots of established perennials from other parts of the garden and stuck tiny divisions into the wet, pulpy soil in the rainiest part of spring.

Some of them looked so sad, so ready to wash away. Some of them probably did.

But we are beyond the green shoot stage now. Some of these plants have found their roots and decided to grow.

A plant that goes straight from a pot into the ground can run into trouble. If its roots had filled up the pot, they may have stopped reaching out and started curving around the edge of their little universe. When they go into the ground, if the soil is too compact it feels like the edge of the pot. The plant has learned about limits and doesn't try to expand beyond them. Whenever you plant a potted plant, break up the roots a little - just massage them hard. Break up the soil all around the hole, and fill it with water. Water the soil in around the new plant so it fills the cracks you made in the root ball. This helps the plant discover all the opportunities outside the edges it's gotten used to.

On the other hand, bare root plants are in danger from not having any contact with the ground at all. You can plant them and walk away, and they can be surrounded with pockets of air instead of nice soil. Always water them well, even if it's raining, and stamp or press hard on the soil around them to bed them in.

But when your transplant works, it's amazing. If you watch a new transplant, day by day, you can almost see the moment when the new soil becomes home. The leaf buds it already had when you planted it are all open. Suddenly a tree starts to form new leaves, or a perennial pushes out  a second shoot from its crown. The plant is no longer drawing from its reserves, but making new food for itself from the sun, soil and water in its new location.

Red currant from this year's bare root. Purple penstemon from a garden division

Our currants are ripening. We have raspberries.

While the bushes and brambles are fruiting, the new trees aren't making fruit this year. If they did we'd snip it off. They need more time to form their shapes. But they are leafing and growing. Most of the herbs are transplants from elsewhere and look pretty scrawny, but they have passed the moment where they might die. I even succeeded in transplanting a very young fennel which I will probably regret when it turns into a thicket of stems taller than I am.

There are three rows of 'retaining walls' we built out of the strips of turf cut up from the old lawn.  Stacked up five or six layers deep, it's now broken down in to fine soil and forms a long row of raised area that slows the water flowing down the hill and traps if for the plants. I planted it with divisions from plants I already had - sedum, aster, artichoke, thyme and other solid performers that will spread their roots into the retentive soil and hold it in place in the many rainy winters to come (I hope; this is at least the plan). These raised areas are the champions.

Artichoke has not been watered yet this summer!
Neither has the sedum. Just residual water from the swale-like hill structures

The trees are doing well too. They were put in bare root and I was worried they wouldn't make good enough contact with the soil. But as far as I can tell they appear to be expanding their roots into the soil beyond where they started. I'm especially proud of this shapely little quince. The persimmon appeared dead but I had already been prepared for that. They need a certain amount of heat units before they wake up, and transplants are often the last to start their first year. Now it's starting to leaf out.

I always include a pineapple sage in every new garden I plant. They smell wonderful. The leaves are nice in desserts and beverages.  More important from my perspective as a gardener, they also wilt immediately when the soil even thinks of getting dry and days before any other plants start showing stress. The are like living moisture meters; very convenient if you keep an eye on them. Late in the summer this plant will be about waist high and will suddenly cover itself with bright red flowers beloved by hummingbirds and also useful as garnishes.

There are still wide open tracts of wood chips.  Last fall I sowed oats, which died over the winter, fava beans which were mostly eaten by squirrels right after their first true leaves appeared (here's one that survived) and crimson clover, which made a miserable show but at least gave it a try. Wood chips aren't a great place to grow unless you're a mushroom.

There are spots where you can see the burlap bags we put down over the lawn, and there are a couple of places where grass and hawkweed have pushed through the layers of cardboard, burlap and wood. Here and there, a plant struggles with compacted soil.

But in this hotter, drier than average July, none of the plants here are showing drought stress and the soil even a few inches below the wood chips is rich, damp and squishy. I think the plants are digging it.