Complementary Gardening – Gardening Without Borders

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“Tulip Behind Borders” – The Garden Table – Wilkinsburg, PA – This garden is a vacant lot that happens to be located in a rather high traffic location… I am actually planning on installing a fence and gate this summer… Something I said I would never do…

It is a long-standing practice in gardening to use a border to define the edges of our gardens. My preferred border material is bricks, they are plentiful in my neighborhood, have historical value, and help me keep my personal gardens neat and orderly. Borders are basically a line used to define where the lawn maintenance ends, and where the meticulous garden maintenance begins. Without borders, the neighborhood children would not know where my garden started… They also wouldn’t know the point at which I start yelling… Though… The kids are very good about not stepping in my garden…

As a garden installer, I spend a great deal of time thinking about garden borders… But as an artist/environmentalist… I also spend a great deal of time thinking outside my garden borders… To start this article off, I want to answer a simple question… What is a garden? A garden is typically defined as a collection of plants… In most cultures… To dream of paradise… Equates to dreaming of a garden… Or a lush landscape at the very least… This collection is typically contained within the confines of ones own yard… It just makes sense… Plants cost money… Why would you put them someplace you don’t own?

As my journey through the gardening world has progressed… I have found myself constantly looking to nature for inspiration… Over the last few years, I have left the borders of my garden… And gone in search of other gardens… My search has taken me into the forest in search of spring ephemerals… Into the fields to look for Echinacea… And up into the mountains to look for ginseng…

I have spent a great deal of time seeking out, and observing plants in their natural settings. Over time, my hobby has blossomed into an obsession. Now that I have been doing this for a few years, I have developed a bond with many of the plant patches I find… I have actually developed an emotional attachment to them… Oddly… I recently realized that I feel the same way about the woodland wildflowers I regularly seek out, as I feel about the plants in my garden…

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“300 Acre Garden” – Keystone State Park – Westmoreland County, PA – Can an entire state park be considered a garden… I believe it can be… A sunset photo of my newest garden…

Walking through trillium along the side of a mountain… I stopped to pick up some litter… It was at this exact moment that I realized my garden no longer had a border… Standing on the side of this mountain… I realized I was the only person who would ever pick up these plastic bottles… The Trillium certainly couldn’t do it… Not the jack-in-the-pulpit’s… Not the tasty Morels… Without me stopping to pick up those bottles… They would have been there for a really long time…

In order to garden, an individual must have an affection for plants… In my own experience, this rarely dies, in most cases it blossoms into an addiction and before you know it… You have more plants than you know what to do with… Some see this as a bad thing… But I personally see it as a good thing… It is at this point most people start looking outside of their own garden to scratch the gardening itch… When a gardeners mind finally steps outside of their own property… Only then does nature truly see a benefit… This is when the journey really begins…

Our gardens are a direct connection between ourselves, and the environment that surrounds us. Bees for example, collect pollen from the flowers blooming in your garden, although this pollen is then transferred among the other plants in your own garden, it is also spread to the plants surrounding your garden. This everyday transfer of genetic material is just one way plants communicate… The plants you plant in your own garden, affect the next generation of plants that will grow in your surroundings…

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“Trout Lily” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – Frick Park is a place I have been spending a lot of time in… I consider it an urban garden… And I will care for it as such…

Although we will go to great lengths to keep animals and birds out of our gardens, nature always wins. Many seeds have evolved to survive digestion, after consumption, these seeds are then spread through “natural processes”. I have followed plant-covered deer trails through the woods, these trails can be hotspots for finding early spring wildflowers… I have followed trillium trails for miles… Likewise… The old ginseng hunters used to follow deer trails when foraging for medicine…

Humans have been pushing nature away for hundreds of years… We cap the earth in cement… Trap and kill anything we consider “wild”… We eliminate ecosystems… Then replace them ad-hoc in the places we deem suitable… We create gardens full of food in the middle of exotic monocultures of chemically dependent monocots… Organic vegetables growing among a sea of garbage… Food labeled as organic… Hiding behind a ten-foot fence… Taunting the deer… Torturing the rabbits… But in desperation… Will not stop a single one of them…

Man and nature can live in harmony… In fact… Nature only requires a small amount of compensation… I laugh when I hear stories of people living in these new plans of McMansions… Entire ecosystems have been destroyed to put these plans in… Yet the inhabitants still cry foul when their cheap landscaping shrubs get devoured almost immediately… If you tore my hundred-year old house down… And built a fire-hazard on top of it… You better believe… I am going to do more than eat your shrubs…

Living in western Pennsylvania, I am asked more questions regarding deer… Than any other garden pest you can think of… Everybody wants a magic bullet… When I answer by saying feed them… Most people scoff… But I stand by my word… The goal to keeping nature from eating your share… Is to compensate… More simply put… You need to make other food sources easier to acquire than your own… Depending on your situation… This is often as easy as a simple fence around your vegetables… And a feeder and salt block somewhere else… This isn’t really a secret either… Any old-time farmer will tell you this…

I guess what I am trying to say is this… Gardening is a skill that requires us to learn how to work with nature… In order to do this properly… We must think outside the borders of our gardens… We must allow our minds to seek out answers beyond the confines of our own property… The insects and animals surrounding you have no respect for the borders in your gardens… They do not see property lines… They do not know where nature ends… And where the garden begins… And that is my point… Nature doesn’t see where the wild ends… Animals don’t know where the garden begins… And neither should we… The entire earth is a garden… A paradise… Every square inch of it deserves protection… As gardeners… Our gardens have no borders… And Nature… Well that Is in fact… What we do…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Sheet Mulching

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“Sheet Mulch on Whitney Avenue Urban Farm” – Spring 2011 – Sheet mulching allows the gardener to plant almost immediately upon completion of the bed… Although this method has been around for years… It is currently experiencing a surge in popularity… Because of this I think it is important to take a moment… And reflect on my own experiences…

The dream of every permaculturist, is to cover every square inch of soil in cardboard; and start over from scratch. In fact, I used to have this dream myself. I have practiced this method extensively in a variety of conditions over the past few years. Although sheet mulching is effective 90% of the time, I have come across situations where I wish I would have gone another route. Sheet mulching looks great on paper, and it always sounds good to the folks doing the labor, but I have found in practice it can occasionally prove to be troublesome. This article is meant to address a few of those concerns.

For those unfamiliar with this practice – Newspaper, cardboard, or a combination of both are applied directly onto unprepared ground to smother weeds. Topsoil and/or organic material are then applied thickly on top of this layer, and the entire bed is then mulched. This is one of the quickest ways to install a garden, and get planting today. Sheet mulching is one method of a style of gardening known as no till gardening.

No till gardening is a style of gardening where the earth is not disturbed by tilling. It is instead nurtured from the surface up. The ideal behind this is that nature takes a great amount of time to build up the natural layers of soil, and these layers are typically best left alone. If you currently live on virgin rural ground, that may be the case. Urban environments on the other hand are typically recently disturbed and loaded with cheap fill. Layering in this type of soil is non-existent, often the only option is to build up. In which case, sheet mulching is often the only viable option… Just don’t kid yourself and pretend you are doing it to “preserve the integrity” of the soil… Your not kidding anyone…

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“Mining Bricks at The Garden Table” – Spring 2012 – This was one of the rare situations where I decided I wanted to remove all of the bricks… And I am glad I did… Compost was tilled into the rows and then the entire row was sheet mulched… The bricks I dug up were used in the borders of the beds…

Weeds and turf grass are another reason sheet mulching is commonly used. Ripping turf and pulling weeds are not the easiest of jobs, and 99% of the gardeners I have met would do anything to get out of doing them. And to be completely honest, this method is very effective at quickly eliminating weeds. The issue arises when you are dealing with very vigorous, perennial invasive weeds. Bindweed comes to mind, often crawling along the bottom of the cardboard until it finds an opening. The problem arises with removal of the now ten foot long root system, which in my personal experience is next to impossible.

Part of the allure of sheet mulching is the little fact that it not only kills the existing weeds, it will eventually biodegrade. Although this is mostly a good thing, many perennial invasive plant can lie dormant long enough for this cardboard layer to weaken. The result being a massive root system, twice as deep as it would have been if you just pulled the damn thing in the first place. My advice, is to deal with the invasive weeds before applying the sheet mulch.

Sheet mulching on a slope can also be problematic, and depending on the scale of the project; could be disastrous. Wet cardboard is surprisingly slippery, add a layer of mud and it is like ice. Any experienced contractor will tell you it is a bad idea to put fill on top of a sloped impervious surface. On a very large-scale, this is known as landslide. On the small-scale… Hmmm… Well… It’s still a landslide… Either way, it could be a liability. Slopes need to be handled differently than flat surfaces, the initial impenetrability of the cardboard is never accounted for. My advice, skip the sheet mulch when dealing with sloped surfaces.

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“Sheet Mulch at The Garden Table” – Spring 2012 – I sheet mulched this lot extensively… This part of the garden had extensive water issues for the better part of the first year… Sometimes it would get so filled up it would look like a pond… In the end I ended up putting holes through the cardboard throughout…

Speaking of impenetrability, I see photos of (and have even visited) gardens with fruit trees that have cardboard all the way up to the trunk. This is a bad idea, for at least a year after the cardboard is applied water absorption will be minimal at best. Trees utilize both the water found deep underground, and rain water accumulated at the surface. Cardboard and newspaper do not allow as much water to penetrate as one would think. Often, this newspaper is thickly covered in soil and mulch. Therefore, water must first saturate the layers of material above before it even touches the cardboard. Please, for the sake of your trees; don’t sheet mulch under your them.

Many garden pests also to love sheet mulching as it provides cover from prey, and facilitates burrowing. Slug tend to love this paper/cardboard layer, if you didn’t have a slug problem before the sheet mulch; there’s a pretty good chance you will have one after it. Earwigs and ants also seem to love a good layer of cardboard, I regularly find massive colonies that follow the cardboard around the garden, almost like they use the space underneath as a sort of super-highway. Raccoons eventually realize there is a smorgasbord [type of Scandinavian meal served buffet style] hiding under there, and the rest is history. It is important to remember that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but could pose problems when done in close proximity of your home.

In closing… Sheet mulching is an effective way to create a garden quickly, and cheaply. I will continue to use this method in the future, just a little more cautiously than in the past. Many of the issues I discussed will probably be the exception, as opposed to the rule of the garden. As with any type of construction project, even the problems with a one in a million chance of happening need to be addressed. The same goes with your garden, at least if it has been considered; you will not be caught with your pants down.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This website and all of the information presented within is provided for free by the author… Me… It is my sole opinion and is not representative of anyone other than myself… Although this website is free… I sell prints of my photography here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – or you can contact me directly with questions at – c.condello@hotmail.com – Although it isn’t a requirement… It helps…

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.