Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Joining the permaculture club

Last weekend, Brian and I took an unusual (for us) step: we actually consulted a professional for help with a home project. Well, a yard project, to be exact. As I mentioned in this post last year, our yard—both front and back—is a real mess, and fixing it up is a challenge because of our really, really heavy clay soil. In the five years we've owned the place, we've made a few small improvements, but they haven't always been successful. The asparagus we planted on the south side of the house is doing okay, though it hasn't produced as much as we'd hoped—but the rhubarb I foolishly planted on the north side, where it's mostly in shade, has mostly remained scrawny and insect-riddled. The day lilies we planted along the wall in our front yard are thriving—but the little cherry tree we planted on our fourth anniversary first developed a fungus on its leaves and then perished of canker. The creeping phlox we planted to prevent erosion on the slope in front of our front hedge has spread out nicely—but the shrubs themselves gradually started dying, due most likely to overcrowding, and eventually we just removed the lot.
So fixing up our yard ourselves has been kind of a hit-and-miss proposition. That's why I was intrigued to read this post on Young House Love, one of my favorite home blogs, about the couple's decision to bring in a landscaper for a one-hour consultation. Like us, these two bloggers generally dislike paying professionals for jobs they could do on their own—but they also, as Sherry admits in the post, have "black thumbs" and little knowledge about plants. Also, they were able to take advantage of a deal on Living Social that reduced the cost of the consultation from $125 to $60. After reading their enthusiastic post about all they learned in just one hour with a landscaper, I started wondering whether it might be worth it for us to do the same.

My ultimate goal for our yard is to have a low-maintenance permaculture landscape that mimics a natural ecosystem, sustaining itself with little need for extra materials (such as fertilizer) and labor (such as weeding) from outside. I wanted to get rid of the things that required a lot of effort to maintain and produced no real benefits in return (such as lawn and non-flowering hedges) and replace them, as much as possible, with plants that would provide us with flowers, veggies, and fruit without a lot of fuss. So I figured that if we were going to call in an expert from outside, it should be one who specializes in this kind of landscaping. After a bit of searching around, I located one in Morristown and e-mailed to ask what she charges for an initial consultation. The answer: $150, enough to make us hesitate a bit as our usual tightwad instincts kicked in: "Do we really want to pay over $100 just to have someone look at our yard? Is she going to tell us anything we don't already know (or have the ability to find out on the Internet for free)?" But eventually we realized that (1) I'd already devoted many, many hours to research (both in books and online) on suitable plantings for our site without finding any answers I felt totally confident about, and (2) with our present hit-and-miss approach, we were wasting time, money and effort on plantings that weren't necessarily good choices. If a professional could give us sound advice on what to plant, she would probably save us at least $150 that we might otherwise spend on plants doomed to fail in this setting, not to mention many dollars' worth of unnecessary work and frustration. So we bit the bullet and made an appointment.

When the landscaper first arrived, her initial advice had me worried that maybe we weren't going to hear anything useful after all. We explained that we'd been thinking about planting a couple of fruit trees in the front yard, but that our first planting (a cherry tree) hadn't done well, so we were looking for something that could thrive in our heavy soil. Her response was, "Well, I always start with the soil first, and amend that to make it a better environment for planting." She advised us to till up the entire front yard, break up the clots of clay, and then select the best areas for planting and add organic matter in a three-foot circle around each spot. At this, my heart sank into my shoes, because the whole reason I'd hired this person was to help me choose plants that would work with my site, and here she was instead telling me to change the site to fit the plants. This seemed to me the complete opposite of ecofrugality—throwing everything out and starting over rather than putting what we already had to good use. 

As we moved about the yard, however, she did begin to offer more useful suggestions. She confirmed that, as I'd already found from my online research, the easiest fruit trees to grow in our area are pears, apples, and plums, and she also suggested figs (which we don't care for) and pawpaws, a native tree with a mango-like fruit that's nearly impossible to find in stores because it's so delicate that it's basically impossible to ship. However, neither of us has ever tasted pawpaw, and we'd be reluctant to plant a fruit tree without knowing whether we actually like the fruit. (My inclination is to stick with semidwarf plums, which, according to more than one of my references, actually prefer a stiff clay soil.) She also suggested that taking down the side hedge, as we've already done with the front one, would most likely improve air circulation and help the trees grow and pollinate better. She said we could use dollar-store pinwheels to test the wind direction and strength before deciding.

Some of her other helpful ideas:
  • Move the rhubarb out of the shade in the north side of the house, where it will never thrive, and instead plant some kind of brambleberries, which are less vulnerable to birds than blueberries. She suggested golden raspberries, which fruit twice, spring and fall (although another source I consulted, The Weekend Gardener, says you can prune them in such a way as to get a single, heavy crop in the fall, which is less work).
  • Get rid of our overgrown foundation shrubs and plant a "pollinator garden" of native perennials. In a follow-up e-mail, she explained that her favorites "to attract pollinators and the good insects that eat the pests" include Joe-Pye Weed, New York ironweed, goldenrod, New England Aster, boneset, mountain mint, bee balm and catmint. Unfortunately, all of these go dormant (brown and ugly) in the winter, so I'm afraid this combination could look pretty depressing from November through March. Brian suggested we just try the plants in a small patch and see how they look, but I'm a little hesitant for fear we'll never get them out of there once planted.
  • Use the comfrey plant that a friend gave us as a compost accelerator to brew "comfrey tea," which makes a nice garden fertilizer. (Comfrey has deep roots that pull nutrients from way down deep in the soil, which then make their way into the leaves and can be transferred to other plants.)
  • Along the back fence, plant some "hardy kiwis," a vine-like plant that can grow in any soil and produces grape-sized, smooth-skinned fruit that can be eaten whole. We'd never even heard of this plant, so that's an idea we definitely wouldn't have come up with on our own.
  • Interplant flowers and herbs with the veggies in our garden to ward off pests. When I said some gardeners found marigolds, commonly recommended for this purpose, to be useless, she said that most commercial varieties were too inbred and I should get a good organic seed and start it indoors. (This led us to a question about why our seedlings always tended to be so scrawny, when we'd done everything the books said to do—using a special seed-starting mix and giving them plenty of light with our homemade light tray. She advised us to continue using the sterile potting mix to start with, but then transfer the tiny seedlings to larger pots full of real soil that contains the nutrients the plants need to get bigger.)
  • Whenever we get around to putting a patio in the back yard (with those pavers we got more than two years back), add a pergola or lean-to along one side of it that can be covered with plastic to make a miniature greenhouse for starting cold-hardy vegetables or hardening off the more tender ones.
  • Cover our long-neglected garden paths with a layer of brown kraft paper (which makes a better weed barrier than newspaper) topped with a few inches of wood chips. We were thrilled with this idea, since we have tons of kraft paper left over from our paper floor project and would love to put it to good use. When I expressed concern over the cost of the wood chips (which have to be replaced every year), she suggested contacting a local tree company, which will often deliver them right to your driveway for little or no cost. Oh. Duh.
  • Finally, while she approved my idea of terracing the slope in the backyard to put in a strawberry bed, she thought I'd be wasting my time putting in Alpine strawberries, which she considered too small and hard to harvest. When I explained that I thought these were easier to care for since they don't require selective thinning to keep the beds from getting overcrowded, she said she doesn't bother doing that with her regular strawberries either; she just cuts the whole lot back in July (or whenever it finishes fruiting). So that, too, was useful advice that we hadn't seen anywhere else and that probably will save us a lot of needless work whenever we get around to planting the strawberries. (She mentioned that, as an interim measure, we might try putting some flowers in on that slope so that we wouldn't have to mow it in the meantime.)
So was her visit worth the $150 we paid for it? Well, I'd say it's too soon to tell. She definitely gave us some helpful ideas that we probably wouldn't have come up with on our own, but it remains to be seen how well they will work out in real life. One thing her visit definitely did, however, was to reawaken our interest (Brian's especially) in doing things to the house and yard. For the rest of the day after she left, he puttered around the yard making measurements and drawing sketches on a clipboard, eagerly planning out what we might eventually build in the back yard. We also now have a lengthy to-do list for the more immediate future, including getting some pinwheels to check our wind flow, tearing out our forsythia hedge in the back yard (a project for which Brian is contemplating investing in a small electric chipper/shredder to dispose of the plant corpses), ordering some bush cherries to take its place, putting down some paper on those garden paths, and ordering a load of wood chips. So we should have more than enough to keep us busy until winter—and plenty of planning to occupy us until spring. Now I'm just hoping that, with the impetus from this consultation (and the knowledge that we've invested $150 already and wouldn't want it to be wasted), we'll manage to get up the gumption to actually do all these things, rather than just talking about them.
Post a Comment