Saturday, July 2, 2011

Phoebe's Patented "Divide and Conquer" Method

I've decided to go with the flow this wet spring and put in some landscaping. Long wet springs are the very best kind of weather to put in trees and perennial landscape plants. It gives them plenty of time to get established in the soil without the stress of very hot or dry weather.

I have been wanting to put in an herb garden along the side of the vegetable garden but I had put it off as a frivolous endeavor until bigger projects were finished.

But the rain kept coming down and I couldn't do the big projects like fix the roof, so I started planning the herb garden, partly to keep my spirits up, partly because I had lots of horse manure to use since the weather was forcing me to keep Rio in his stall for all these cold, wet nights.

I've turned grass into garden several times and so I have a pretty good method I thought I would share.

This is my "Divide and Conquer" method

I start at least one month before I want to plant. Two months is even better. It helps if it is above 45 degrees or warmer so the worms come up and eat the buried sod.

First I mark out where I want the edge of the bed. This bed is just an uncomplicated curve, so I just did it by eye. If I want a more involved double curve I use a long garden hose to establish the line.

Then I use a nice sharp shovel to cut the entire edge. This is the "divide" part. It makes it so the grass and weeds that have runners and roots under the ground can't help the grasses and weeds you are about to bury.
 Then I turn the entire perimeter upside down onto the grass further in. This way the sod on both sections, the one you dug up and the one you put it on, get robbed of sunlight and die.
Dieing yellow sod after one week

For a couple of weeks the grass at the edges of the clumps will be getting sunlight and growing. Just go around with a shovel every couple days and cut the green parts off.

Then I pile whatever I have on top of all of it. Sometimes it's leaves or chicken bedding or wood chips. This time it is horse manure. Whatever you put, make it deep enough that the grass underneath can get no sun at all. Stomp on it so it's packed down and it will kill the grass even faster. If it is dry out, water it well and often. This will accelerate the rotting of the sod and encourage the worms.
You can see I only dig the perimeter of the bed. I just kill the grass in the middle with thick mulch. This cuts the work of starting a bed into a very small effort.

Then I let the worms and nature do their work.

Meanwhile I source my plants. I hit all the Big Box stores before they have time to stress the plants- like as soon as the truck gets unloaded.
Then I fill in the plan with plants from the local greenhouses.
I don't buy huge plants. I get the little ones so they will transplant better and it makes the project much more affordable.
This bed design needed to be good for the bees in Hive #1, good for cooking and bad for the deer. The first two are easy, the last one is a little harder.
When I plant the perennials I have to leave some pretty big spaces between so that there will be plenty of room when the plants mature. If it just looks too spars, I put some annuals in the big open spaces. They will brighten the bed up the first year and then die in the winter. Here I added an Eggplant just for the fun of it. I don't know if deer will eat eggplant. We'll see.

One nice thing here at the Homestead is that the deer have plenty to eat and are not all that determined to eat my plants. Don't get me wrong they will and have eaten my plants, but if they have to go to any trouble to do it, they don't bother.

My main plan is to fill the bed with aromatic herbs that deer don't care for, but the bees love: different types of lavender, thyme, oregano, sage and marjoram.
For some nice bold color and an architectural element I added three rhubarb. I love rhubarb pie.
Rosemary would work too but I already have a very large rosemary plant that I use at the back of the garden. I also don't like how rosemary always turns into an ugly woody bonsai thing after 4 or 5 years of harvesting.

While designing I try to keep in mind the natural growing habits of each plant before placing it.
For instance I want the lavender to be at the back, partly because it will be the tallest throughout the seasons (not always, because oregano gets pretty tall when it blooms) but mostly because the bed backs up to the garden and no grass will be creeping in. Ever try to get grass out of the roots of a lavender without killing the lavender? It's nearly impossible. I want the lavender as far from the grass as I can get it.
The Golden Oregano on the other hand can deal with invading grass from the front. Every four or five years you just dig it up and divide the oregano, pull the grass roots out of the root ball and put some of the grass free oregano back in the ground.
I'm also putting in some Pinks because I got a good deal on them and the butterflies love them, as seen while I was storing my plants in the garden.
But I know the deer will most likely get around to eating the Pinks.

I put the plants, still in their pots, in the garden where I can keep them watered and fertilized with fish fertilizer until I can plant them. If I have time I repot the ones that are about to get pot-bound. That way they are even bigger and healthier when I plant them in the bed.

When most of the grass is dead and the soil is dry enough to hoe, that was about 25 days for this project, I start to work the soil and pull out any surviving grasses or weeds.
I keep an eye on the bed, pulling and digging up any stubborn weeds for two or three weeks. It only takes about 30 minutes a week. I don't plant yet because there is no use rushing to plant if I end up having to dig all the plants back up to get the last of the weeds out.

When 95% of the weeds and grass out are not growing back, I set out the pots of plants where I have been planning to put them and step back to think if I have it right.

When I am sure how I want them, I start to plant. Since they are little plants I am careful to plant them far enough apart to accommodate their full grown size. It looks funny at first with all that space between plants but they will fill in and be beautiful and uncrowded in just three years. If the empty space bothers me, I plant annuals in between to fill it up for the first year.

On the day I plant them I keep a big bucket of water and a cup with me. I put the potted plants in the bucket for a few minutes as I dig it's hole. I drain it, take it out of it's pot and place it in the soil. I water it immediately, the minute I put each one in the ground. I don't finish the row or plant one more, I water that minute.

Ever siphoned water? If you let air get into the hose you cannot siphon water. If air gets into the roots of a plant it cannot drink. It takes the plant a long time to get it's siphoning strength back if you let it sit for just a few minutes with its roots dangling in the air or dry dirt. I have planted both ways many times. Watering right away makes a huge difference.

After the bed is planted I will be vigilant and spend about a half hour a week hoeing any grass or weeds that come up when I start watering regularly. I can't let the weeds win now.
I add a layer of compost or manure to keep the soil weed free and then I step back, admire my new bed and recite the poetry of perennials:
"The first year they sleep
The second year they creep 
The third year they LEAP."

All that needs to be added now is patience. It's going to be beautiful.


  1. ..hehe..looks great...it is so nice to have extra areas for things to grow..makes me want to get rid of all my lawn!

  2. I like your plan. Since we're battling grass and weeds everywhere, this looks very doable for me. My entire front lawn is earmarked for a huge herb garden, but it's a little at a time. The slow life is indeed slow. :)

  3. Great post!! I've never put much thought into this sort of thing. Jon just rotor-tills everything which I don't think is always the best approach. Question: what is your fish fertilizer? Maybe you already posted about this??

    All of the weed talk reminds me of a quote: "A weed is a plant who's virtues have yet to be discovered."

  4. EGB, do it! Get rid of the lawn. I am, slowly but surely.

    Leigh, I know you have big plans for herbs, the nice thing about this method is that it creates a lovely island of order in a sea of chaos.

    Holly, I just use the Alaska brand liquid fish fertilizer concentrate. It smells a little funky but works great. I do warn people with dogs that the dogs absolutely LOVE the smell and will roll in it and drink the runoff with pleasure. It won't hurt them, but the smell comes indoors with them.


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