Our gardens in many lights

dimanche 31 mai 2015

Money doesn't grow on trees, therefore...

Cet article en français.

Louise :
 ... therefore it's a very good reason "not to throw away your Lamb's Quarters" (aka Meldes - Chenopodium album in Latin - Choux Gras in French, Cenizos in Spanish). This old saying comes from the fact that this very common weed being perfectly edible, in past times, any gardener who eliminated it from its' garden beds was considered to be wastefull.
By mid-May, the garden is green again.
Stonecrops (Sedum) and white violets (Viola alba).
Note the few dead leaves that still stick out here and there.

Certainly, I cannot brag about being the queen of thrifty gardening, but just like yourself, probably, I developped a few ways to spare money when I garden. It can be a clever trick or a very simple but efficient idea. Each time, though, it takes place within a general approach which reflects my personal experience and my values, my own evaluation of my gardening practice and habits. This permits me - or not - to make substancial economies on the long run.

Obviously, our own personal way of viewing gardening will give each of us very different results, from a very expensive garden to another one built practically for free. It depends on our choices and priorities. We know that we succeeded when our goals are reached and when the results match our values.

I remember reading in a gardening magazine an article presenting a gardener who succeeded within only a few years in building a wonderland even if he invested only a few dozens dollars a year. All his constructions were built from recycled, free material (pergola and small bridge included). He used to borrow every gardening tool from friends, neighbors and family (at times in exchange for help). He made his own compost and acquired every plant or shrub, seed or cutting through donations.

Somewhere else, another gardener may pay good money to hire a landscaping company to create from scratch the garden of his dreams. Furthermore, the same company may offer him to take all the maintenance in charge, in exchange for a monthly fee.

My gardening expenses

This spring, in order to prolong by one more season the
life of this worn wooden half-barrel, I recycled two 
potting soil plastic bags, I cut them open and covered the
sides of the half-barrel with them, black side against the
wood. This should keep the soil inside while maintaining 
a more acceptable humidity rate for my plants.
Well, they're in between those two extreme cases. When I stumble on a trick which can save me money and is easily implemented, I jump on it.  There was a time when I invested a lot of money in buying ornemental plants, but at the same time, I've always been thrifty on gardening tool expenses. I do all my work simply with a shovel, a couple of trowels, good pruning shears and a sturdy wheelbarrow. I complete this list with long-handled pruning shears. Only recently, we bought a chain saw and a wood shredder to take care of our trees. Before that, we simply worked with manual tools and a lot of elbow grease. 

Speaking of trees, since the beginning I've always relied on their sculptural form to give dimensional structure to my garden. Therefore, I never had to invest much in costly manmade elements, with the exception of our garden shed, which is quite fancy. To start my seedlings, I bought a used metallic lighted shelf unit of 3 shelves, for 100$. I know, I've been very lucky to find such a bargain. I also built another two-shelves unit, with two fluorescent fixtures for about 70$.

I estimate that my seedling operations cost around 27 cents per plant (15 cents for Jiffy peat pellets - ideal for the lazy gardener - and the rest for potting soil when my seedlings need repotting). In this calculation, I don't take in account the electricy cost - it's minimal - or the purchase of the seeds, which may vary a lot (from 1 cent or less to nearly 1$ per seed). More and more, I harvest my own seeds, but I still buy a lot of varieties and I don't deny myself that luxury.

I have numerous windowboxes and pots, but I also reuse various plastic pails and other containers whenever they suit my needs. I make my own compost, but not in sufficient quantities, so I rely on other tricks, but we'll come back later on this subject.

So now, on the topic ofa (relative) frugality in the garden, here is a general reflection through a few of my gardening habits.

Practice number 1 : reduce plant purchases
It is well known that we can acquire new trees and shrubs as well as diversify plant species in our garden by exchanging seeds, cuttings and divisions. Gardening Clubs, ads on billboards and internet sites are good resources to put gardeners in contact with each other.

Hélène : I suscribed to a site, called Plantcatching. Two weeks ago, I exhange plants with someone from my neighborhood. I invite you to go take a look.

Louise :
When we start a new garden, we often have to start from scratch, therefore and logically, we have nothing to barter for plants ! Well, not exactly. With a pair of hands and some enthousiasm, we can offer our services to rake, weed, plant or turn the earth in exchange for divisions, cuttings, old pots, compost, etc. If we offer to assist an old gardener during his or her gardening chores, we don't risk to displease him or her because this person is there to supervise us closely. Moreover, we can learn a few tricks from a fellow experienced gardener, especially if we are a novice. 

We can also bring back new plants or seeds from wild harvesting expeditions. This is how I came back with a few specimens of Forget-me-not (Myosotis), Herb-Robert (Geranium Robertianum) and Wood Violet (Viola Odorata). Be careful, though, to respect private properties and laws protecting threatened and vulnerable species. But sometimes, harvesting is the way to protect a species. For instance, a friend share with me some bulbs of wild garlic that she had harvested in a nearby wood just a few days before the bulldozer came in to raze the site to the ground for a new construction project. 

Hélène :
Another way to reduce  plant purchases is to allow some volunteer plants to establish themselves in our garden. It's always prudent to duly identify them before. Each spring, I discover a variety of spontaneous seedlings where they are unexpected. Sometimes, they give me  rather surprising results ! For example, squirrels brought in a few different bulbs, and now I have crocuses that I never planted myself.
A young Leatherwood (Dirca Palustris), born from a seed. It will probably replace its parent, from which we can see a few dead branches on the photo, because it outgrew its location, partially blocking the access to our garden shed door. Leatherwood is a shrub indigenous to mixed forest in the Eastern part of the North American Continent.
Louise - Practice number 2 : to bet on the "winning horse"
We can save a lot of money when we don't persist on trying to grow plants ill suited to our garden's environment conditions. It took me about a decade to fully understand this lesson.

Not to say that I have anything against an adventurous and innovative gardener who would finally succeed in growing bananas under Quebec skies. On the contrary, many similar new advances (but maybe not quite so bold) came up from trial and error. But then, you must be willing to spend a lot of energy, time and even money, without any guarantee of success whatsoever. 

We can look at what species of plants our neighbours have good success with. Not  very original, maybe, but usually, it increases our own chances of success. Note that, even there, nothing is totally foolproof. For instance, I could show you, in certain neighbouring gardens, big, nice, healthy patches of lupines. But in my garden, they start to die slowly after their first season and end up disappearing. Hélène asks me if my soil would be too rich (this plant prefers a poor soil). Possibly. I'll have to think about it.

Then, we can learn to read and understand correctly the plant's tag, to check wether it has a reasonable chance of survival in our garden. Light, humidity, pH, zoning are, among a few others, important factors to consider before purchasing a new plant or tree. Note that si you ask, in a garden center, for classic plants which proved themselves reliable, you will have a much better guarantee of success than if you indulge in the lastest novelty of the year.

Personnally, I indulged into various kinds of trials with the years. I often moved plants from spot to spot to try and find a better suited site for them. I also did try four or five times before giving up on a species of plant, sometimes with success, finally, but other times, it's been a repeted failure.

Practice number 3 : certain plants are more profitables than others
Certain plants, provided they feel satisfyied with their location, will give us more bang for our buck. 

Daffodils are among the happy plants of my garden :
they cope very well with humidity in springtime, take 
in every sunray before the neighbouring trees leaf out
and settle happily in the dryer summer soil for their
next dormancy period. On the other hand, 
after a few years of bulb multiplication, they crowd
too much and stop blooming. Time to divide them.
Planted in a ring around a young tree, they're supposed
to deter rodents from coming munch on their bark.
Hélène also read that they can act as a weed barrier,
but observed a rather poor performance in her 
own garden. 
  - It's the case of perennial plants, since they live during many years and/or strive to expand and reproduce. A majority expand their root system or send in every direction long creeping stems, and in addition, some set viable seeds. 
Gardeners can also help their expansion by dividing clumps or by taking cuttings to make them root. These various possibilities of reproduction render a perennials more profitable than annuals, despite a higher price tag. Further more, established perennials demand less maintenance than annuals. For example, a hosta may live 60 years and to multiply it, we can divide it every three to ten years. Plus, many varieties of hostas are considered a vegetable by japanese people .
Careful though, some perennials don't easily tolerate transplantation. It's the case of the Gas Plant (Dictamnus Albus), which presents enough aesthetic qualities to counterbalance this fuss, its most precious asset being big showy flower spikes sported high in May.

 - Certain annuals or biannuals can also reproduce under our latitudes. They seed themselves spontaneously or, at least, offer us their seeds to start them in the following spring. Forget-me-not (Myosotis), Herb-Robert (Geranium Robertianum), Wood Violet (Viola Odorata), Mayweeds (Matricaria), Johnny Jump Up (Viola Bicolor, Viola Tricolor and others) and Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens Glandulifera) all come from the first few plants I brought to my garden and they come back faithfully every year. They are even more or less  invading, if I don't cut their flowering stems before they set seeds. 

Crocuses arising from the leaf mulch in the
first days of spring is indeed a happy sight !
Their patches expand a little more with
each passing year. 
   - Certain bulbs multiply themselves readily. Among others : Daffodils (Narcissus), crocuses (Crocus), Glories-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa), Siberian Squills (Othocallis Siberica or Scilla Siberica), native tulips like Tulipa Greigii and Tulipa Tarda. Within a few years, those species multiplied themselves by 2, 5, 10 or even more. My Siberian Squills, for instance, formed a dense carpet, 30 square foot (10 square meter) wide. Other bulbs degenerate or don't multiply. Hyacinths (Hyacinthus) and  many varieties of hybrid tulips fall into this category. My clump of (Galanthus Nivalis)barely begins to expand a little after a 20 year residency in my garden ! And regarding the hybrid tulips, I finally gave up spending good money for a one-year-only good show.

Hundreds of Siberian Squills are all born
from the dozen bulbs I bought years ago.
The nice thing is that, by falling back in
dormancy soon after  their spring flowering, 
they leave the space to other perennials 
for the rest of the season,
as part of their natural cycle.
 - There are also trees and bushes that will reseed themselves or produce off shoots that can later be separated from the mother plant. We can also obtain a new tree or bush by the techniques of layering, grafting or rooting cuttings.

- Finally, any plant  that cumulates more than one function will be automatically more interesting. For example, if you want a bush, why not chose a  Gooseberry (Ribes Uva-Crispa) for its berries and because its blooms attract pollinator insects, or a Gumi (Eleagnus Multiflora) for the same two reasons plus its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil ? You have enough space to plant a tree? Lindens, aka lime trees and basswoods (Tilia) offer a very aesthetic silhouette, heart-shaped leaves, a good capacity to adapt to urban environments, a beautiful, delightfully scented flowering, you can dry those blooms to make linden tea, you can eat its young leaves any time of the year (lime trees are also called salad trees), a green flour rich in protein (with the dryed and ground mature leaves) and it provides you with soothing shadow. How about that ?

Practice number 4 : leave it in place
We can save a fortune in both commercial mulch and fertilizer, while diminushing, if not eliminating watering, simply by leaving in place vegetal debris instead of sending them to the dump or piling it on the compost pile. All we have to do is to keep our bags of autumn tree leaves and to leave in place aerial parts of our plants during autumn (except for plants that would show signs of sickness, of course).

For many reasons, lack of time in fall not being the least, I prefer not to cut back the dried vegetation before the following spring. In our last article, you can see the sculptural effect of this practice during winter. The huge "bush", to the left, is a non edible legume perennial : Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia Australis).All parts of the plant, including those dry erect stems, trapped a good quantity of nitrogen, an essential fertilizing element for vegetation.  I cut them in short sticks, creating a mulch even more nutritious than usual.
Here is the same Blue Wild Indigo,
photographed from another angle
and almost completely cut down.
I spread its mulch wherever it suits
me, sometimes quite far from the plant,
in order to feed other parts of the 
If you don't like the untidy look of such a mulch, you may either wait for the perennial vegetation to grow through it and finally hide it completely, or use better looking commercial mulch in front of your beds and relegate your vegetal debris to more discreet spots, like at the foot of shrubs standing further back and around plants that will hide everything under their large leaves or behind their high stature. Plants producing multiple stems are also good for emprisonning dead leaves and other debris on the spot, preventing them to fly in the wind.

It's also good to know that not all vegetal debris are equal in fertilizing value : legume plants like Blue Wild Indigo, Lupines and Clovers accumulate nitrogen, while other plants gather greater amounts of a variety of nutrients (like Comfrey, Borrage and Dandelions). Those plants will diminish the need for fertilization and for watering. Therefore, next time you pull out a dandelion, why not spread it over the existing mulch and let it  die in a remote corner of the garden? Just make sure to remove any flower bud or spent flower and to throw them in the garbage, because the plant will spend its last bits of energy to try and produce viable seeds. Even a cut spent flower will sometimes succeed in maturing enough to do so. Dandelions are a tough species !

Here again is the same bed, three weeks later. In a few more days, nothing of this natural mulch will be left visible from the street.
I know that many persons will protest that leaving vegetal debris around the plants may increase the risk of spreading diseases and pests. It's true, except that in my personal experience, only if negative factors are existing in the garden. For instance :
- When a specimen is in dificult conditions for its species' requirements (zoning, sun, cold or heat, pH, type of soil, humidity, etc.). If a plant grows in favorable conditions, it will be able to defend itself against sickness or pests, because it will have the energy necessary to do so. Moreover,  if your soil is healthy, it contains a good number of micro-organisms (small bugs and bacteria) and beneficial myconiums (kinds of fungi) that create a symbiotic relationship with plants, protecting them against diverse attacks and providing them with the exact nutriments that they need, and moving them from sources out of their reach, all this in exchange for a little of the carbohydrates produced by the plants.

- Within the same order of ideas, each time we disturb the soil by plowing it, we kill a good proportion of those essential organisms and myconiums. Again, with perennial plants, the need to disturb the soil doesn't present itself very often once they are established, and the soil has a real chance of balancing itself and attaining its natural richness and fertility. 

 - When a species is not surrounded by a variety of other plant species, or when it's cultivated in monocultures, this represents another negative factor. Years ago, I once visited a garden containing only a lawn (the number one monoculture in America, by the way) and hybrid tea roses. The poor things were planted in line along a picket fence against the public sidewalk. Their soil was exposed to the elements, without any mulch to protect it. This garden got together many problematic conditons around a species of plants that have the reputation of being fragile and finicky under our northern latitudes. Thank God, the gardener who took care of these roses did it with a real passion and she spared no effort to pamper her prized specimens (nor did she spared chemical sprayings, by the way).

   - When a gardener uses pesticides against the smallest bug, he starts a bad chain reaction more often than not, simply by killing also a number of beneficial micro-roganisms and insects along with the presumed culprits. The predators usually take more time to reproduce themselves than their prey, therefore a localized environmental imbalance is put in place, calling soon for another application of pesticide and soon provoquing a spiral of problems, frustration and recurring costs. Buying those pesticides one season after another represents an important expense.

Who said that vegetal debris and dead leave mulch made a poor fertilizer ?
The soil from this perennial bed (photo below) is black, light and rich. My plants certainly don't complain about it !
Another of my perennial beds, in mid-May. Since a few decades, I fertilize it almost exclusively with the thick carpet of dead tree leaves which fall naturally on it each autumn. By the following spring, most of my perennial make their way through this mulch on their own. The leaves dry out enough to get fluffy again. I noticed that numerous critters live under there. My guess is that they are partly responsible for this naturally occuring aeration of the mulch. At dusk, I can hear them making russling noises by their restless activity. When a plant has a little more trouble emerging from this thick carpet, I help it and move the dead material around its base. Bulbs (crocuses and daffodils, for instance) often need help, because they tend to pierce their way through the dead tree leaves and lift them up while growing. It's like they would try to poke their head through a T-Shirt that would be too small for them !
Practice number 5 : be curious
I could have mentionned it first : in order to make a satisfying selection of plants, we usually cannot escape it, we must invest time to educate ourselves. We need to gather information on any plant, tree or shrub that we want to bring back home as well as on the vegetation that is already there. A wise start is to find out their latin name, a much safer way to guarantee that everybody is talking about the same plant.
Personally, I think that the information found in most gardening magazines and gardening centers are a good start, for sure, but they are not always sufficient. Most of the time, their point of vue reflects a very traditional and commercial approach to gardening. Therefore, we need to forage a little further in order to find hidden vertues and flaws of each plant. As you already know, Internet opens a door to organic and permaculture gardening practices. Many gardeners also generously share their experience and certain organisations built lists of plants that are interesting from a point of vue or another.
My ungoing search for information lead me to invite in my garden plant species that are less usual, like this Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia Grandiflora), a beautiful, understorey indigenous perennial plant, giving bellshaped yellow flowers in springtime. Since it's considered a vulnerable plant, it's better to buy it from a reliable gardening center than to harvest wild specimens.Note that in this garden bed too, I left all dead vegetal material in place. I simply help a few plants to emerge, letting the majority of them work it out by themselves, like for this clump of Double Japanese Aster (Kalimeris Pinnatifida 'Hortensis'), in the foreground. This plant always take its time to emerge in the spring.
This kind of research is, for me, a good way to obtain knowledge for free, but it's always wise to double-check it. A good source to begin with is Wikipedia. For instance, this is where I found Chinese Mallow (Malva Verticillata) and where I learned that in China, it's considered primarily a vegetable. From there, I was able to confirm its edibility through a few other sites and then, to find two retailers on internet that could sell me some seeds.

Wishing you good discoveries !

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