photo by Chiot’s Run on flickr.
Gardening, quite literally, gives children the perfect platform to grow. They get to experience responsibility, a sense of ownership, and the excitement of seeing a tiny seed transform. Spending time in the garden is an opportunity to soak up the sun and a great introduction to the “magic” of nature; something our little ones will learn to know and love. Grow vegetables, plant flowers, plant trees, there’s really no limits. Let their curiosities run wild. Gardening with children is a win-win, you’re spending quality time together and also producing healthy homegrown vegetables or beautiful flowers to enhance a landscape. Here are a few tips to help you and the kiddos get started.
Give Them Their Own Space
Whether it’s a spot in the garden or their own separate bed, it’s essential to give kids their own space to grow. They can help you in the “adult” garden all they want, but be sure to dedicate an area that they can have all to their self; it’s crucial to a child’s development. This gives children a sense of responsibility and also sparks their creativity. It gives them the freedom to experiment. A separate gardening space teaches children independence and gives them that feeling of being a “big kid”. Repurpose an old sandbox or place a stake in a section of the garden. Be sure to clearly label their area and emphasize ownership!
Choose Plants that Grow Fast
This is a big one. Children want to see results! Checking their little garden each day is what makes gardening fun for kids; watching seeds sprout, flowers bloom, and new plants take shape. It’s important to have things happening in the garden otherwise kids become disinterested. If they are just starting out, make sure to plant vegetables or flowers that will sprout up quick. Sunflowers are a must for young gardeners; try planting one, or two so the first can have a friend. Sunflowers sprout within a week and grow to 2 feet tall in a month’s time. Radishes are another plant for quick results. Although not typically tasty to the younger ones, radishes have a very short growing season; after 20-30 days they are ready for harvest. Another good crop for children are potatoes. They’re an easy and “fail-proof” option as they tend to grow under almost any conditions. Red potatoes will mature faster than white and are ready to pull from the ground when the plant collapses. Try cherry tomatoes to offer some variety in preparation. Place 2’ stakes beside each seedling and let your children watch them climb to the top. The growing season is about 50-75 days and lightly tying the vines to the stakes will keep them headed upwards. Lastly, and certainly nonetheless essential, is the coveted pumpkin. A staple for any child’s garden, the pumpkin seed will sprout in a week and are ready to pick and carve in 80-120 days.
Help Out Behind the Scenes
Gardening is a big responsibility for our children and its okay to give them some help when they aren’t around. This will keep them interested, keep their plants healthy, and keep them happy to see their plants doing well. Tending to a garden is not always glorious and the last thing you want is for gardening to feel like a chore. Add some extra water or prune flowers and weeds where needed to ensure the garden maintains its “magic” factor and your kids remain engaged. If your seedlings are having trouble, consider changing up the soil or adding more compost or fertilizer. If all else fails, visit your local nursery and buy plants that have already sprouted. Take your young gardeners so they can see all the different varieties of plants and pick their favorites.
Mix Education with Fun
Watching plants grow and getting their little hands dirty is not only a fun experience for children but it also provides opportunity for education. Teaching kids how to be sustainable and grow their own food is something they can utilize for a lifetime. Experiment with different types of vegetables and flowers to see what really sparks their interest. Use gardening as a stepping stone to other aspects of nature. Visit a local farmer’s market to see what others are growing, or even sell vegetables of your own. Take them on a hike and stop to see the wild flowers or plants. Do anything to get them excited about the outdoors. As for the slightly older kids, harvesting crops is a great time to educate them with aspects of cooking; a way for them to see out the entire process from seed to table. No matter which route you choose, get your children outside and start gardening today!
Have you ever considered composting? It’s an easy and environmentally-friendly way to create nutrient-rich fertilizer from discarded waste; such as kitchen scraps, grass trimmings, wood ash, etc. It’s a technique that has been around for centuries, proving to be a literal lifesaver for those in extreme climates.
What is compost? Compost is decomposed (or decomposing) organic material. It’s a process that occurs in nature, whereas dead material is constantly recycled back into the earth, keeping soil rich and fertile. A compost pile is just a more concentrated sped-up version of this cycle. Modern composters redirect up to 30% of household waste from trash bins, which saves space and money. All you need is a small 3’ x 3’ section to begin.
Choosing a Location
When choosing where to start a compost pile there are a few factors to consider. Choose a level location that allows for a couple hours of sunlight a day. Decomposition only occurs when the pile has the right amount of moisture, too much sunlight and the process will come to a halt. If your pile does dry out, a quick spray with the water hose and your back in business. Another factor to consider is distance. You don’t want your pile too far from the house if tossing scraps, or too far from your garden. Also, keep the pile away from nearby trees or other long rooted plants. The roots will soak up all the pile’s nutrients.
Prepping the Pile
Once you have chosen a location, you can begin preparations for the pile. To prevent animals from getting to your compost, such as raccoon or deer, its best practice to place wired or wooden fencing around the area. It’s also more aesthetically pleasing to have a decomposing pile of scraps hidden from view. Next, if your location has grass growing, turn the ground. This will kill the grass and create a nice base layer to host the decomposition. Add 2-3 feet of grass clippings and leaves to the turned soil and your prepping is complete.
Now that we have a base layer it’s time to start adding to it. If collecting kitchen scraps, consider placing a container with a lid under the sink that you’ll empty once a week. This method makes collecting easy. If odor becomes a problem, keep another container of dried shredded leaves or newspaper to pour on top of the scraps. Paper and cardboard can be added to compost if it’s not glossy or exposed to harmful chemicals. It’s very important to have a balanced layered compost pile. Too much household waste will cause odor and attract animals and flies. When adding scraps, it’s best to add another layer of leaves, grass clippings, or hay on top. This ensures an odor-free and moist compost. You always want to have a nice balance of green and brown material. Consider keeping a trash bin of leaves and clippings close to the pile.
Waste to Avoid
Although anything organic can decompose, some waste will slow the process or even contaminate the pile. Avoid pet waste as it will introduce unwanted parasites and microorganisms to the soil. Wood ash and sawdust from untreated wood are great, but don’t use charcoal ash or shavings from processed materials; these introduce sulfur and harmful chemicals. Avoid meats, fats, and diseased plants or weeds. It’s also important to note that size matters! Smaller waste is easier to decompose. Chop kitchen scraps into small pieces and introduce light even layers of trimmings to reduce clumping.
Reaping the Benefits
Congratulations! You’ve just started a compost pile that’s creating nutrient-rich soil at this very moment. For best results, turn your pile every couple of weeks to keep the contents moist and decomposing evenly. Use the enriched soil in flower beds, potted plants, or sprinkled throughout a tilled garden. Keep some of the dead material to kickstart the decomposition again once you’ve used the soil. Repeat the composting process to keep utilizing household waste and clippings to create top-notch fertilizer for all your needs.
Summer is almost here and it turns out we aren’t the only ones that like to soak up the sun. Add a touch of color to your garden or spice up your landscape with easy to maintain, sun-loving perennial flowers. “Perennials” are plants that will bloom for multiple years, dying out in the colder months and growing back again from their rootstock in spring. Some even retain their foliage year-round. Plant perennials to enjoy the scenes and scents of these beauties throughout the seasons, year after year. Here’s a few of our favorites:
Phlox’s beautiful wheel-shaped petals come in a variety of styles and colors to suit any palette. Typically planted in April or May, these flowers will bloom May through October. They make great ground cover and their aromatic scent will be sure to attract birds and butterflies. Plant the Phlox bulbs at least a foot apart and be sure the ground is both loose and moist. Note: it is easier to grow Phlox from cuttings or transplants than seeds. If you are moving the plant from a pot, dig a hole roughly twice the size of the pot’s diameter and place the plant where the root ball is, even with the soil’s surface; then fill and water.
Dianthus aka “Pinks”:
Dianthus, commonly known as “Pinks”, have vibrantly hued petals and give off a spicy scent; a perfect addition to any flower bed. These flowers tend to have tight-knit spreads of foliage and come in many colors, shapes, and sizes; from miniature varieties boasting tiny colorful clusters to plants that grow up to three feet tall. Dianthus’ starry petals appear first in spring and then stay in bloom all summer long. Plant “pinks” about one foot apart and be sure to water only at the base to prevent mildew spotting. Be sure to clip dead flowers in order to keep these beauties well, beautiful and in full bloom.
Lilies add elegance to a yard or garden and their bright large petals can be seen throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. The two most popular varieties of Lilies are the Asiatic and Oriental Lilies. The Asiatic lily is the shortest, standing around two to three feet tall, and don’t give off much fragrance. The Oriental variety are famous for their pungent aroma and grows to about four feet. For the best effect, plant lilies in groups of four or five bulbs. For the biggest blooms, plant bulbs in the ground late fall before the first frost. Container-grown Lilies will thrive throughout spring and summer months.
Black-eyed Susans are among the most popular wildflowers grown in North America, and for good reason. Their glowing yellow petals often blanket open fields, leaving the passersby in awe. Given the name “Black-eyed” Susan for its dark brown-purple center, these plants are an obvious member of the sunflower family and can grow upwards of three feet tall. Their sweet nectar attracts bees, butterflies, and other insects and they bloom throughout June and well into October. Note: Black-eyed Susans tend to be territorial and will smother other nearby flowers. Its best practice to isolate them in containers or in clusters, keeping them a safe distance from other blooms.
In cities across The United States, urbanites have found a creative way to “green” their cramped spaces: building rooftop gardens and landscapes. Practically, there are several benefits to building a green space high above the ground. On rooftops, sun is ample, soil conditions are well controlled, and deer can’t eat into your flowers and produce! A garden can also beautifying an otherwise nondescript roof. As more and more people and businesses explore the possibilities of rooftop gardening, previously dull city skylines are becoming flush with verdant color.
What is a Rooftop Garden?
Rooftop gardens are typically comprised mainly of container plants—plants grown in beds or pots above the ground. Many rooftop landscapes also contain hardscapes like patios, fire pits, lighting, etc. Some rooftop landscapes are built as an added outdoor living space for people and businesses who don’t have conventional yards. Other rooftop landscapes are used for more practical purposes. An increasing number of urban restaurants, for example, are utilizing rooftop gardens to grow fresh food.
Because rooftop gardens and landscapes are cultivated above ground, they require extensive planning. Details like the type and size of planting containers, soil, storage space, wiring for lighting and miscellaneous electric fixtures, and other resources must be prepared before the landscape can thrive. It follows that a rooftop garden requires a significant amount of planning. Here are some starting points to consider:
Rooftop Gardening: What to Consider
Gardening on rooftops is often an exercise in compact gardening. There’s simply not much space on your average urban rooftop, so finding storage and planting solutions can be difficult. Luckily, people have been pioneering the art of gardening in cramped spaces for a long time. Using stacked planting containers that can fit atop one another on shelves, raised beds, vine climbing walls, and seating that has built-in storage space can reduce clutter. Many rooftop gardens incorporate design elements that are multi-use.
Daily weather fluctuations can be more extreme on top of roofs. Sunlight on concrete can be dangerously hot, and a lack of tree coverage means there is often little shade or protection from rain storms. Windy days are also much windier twenty or forty feet (or more) above the ground. For these reasons, rooftop gardens often need to be fortified and delicately cared for. Simple fencing or some barrier shrubs can provide shelter from gusty winds. A tarp or lattice wall can provide some shade on hot days and cool down shade-tolerant plants. Regular waterings can help plants fight dehydration, which happens quickly when the sun is directly above them. Ultimately, sun-loving, weather-hardy plants that retain moisture well are probably better suited for a rooftop garden than more temperamental varieties.
Safety is vital when it comes to rooftop gardening. Every year, hundreds of people injure themselves working on roofs. If you plan on spending a lot of time gardening at great heights, make sure the structural integrity of your roof is sound—it should comfortably support you and the weight of anything you’re installing. Ideally, work with a partner so you can watch out for one another, and make sure you have explicit permission to garden where gardens don’t typically go. Many landlords (and some zoning ordinances) forbid gardening on roofs.
It can be hard lugging necessary garden resources like fertilizer, mulch, and water up onto a roof. For this reason, work out the logistics of how you’re going to maintain your rooftop garden before you jump into building it. Running a hose up the side of a house or apartment is not always an option. Some rooftop gardeners chose to build rain gardens into their landscape to maximize water conservation. This is an Eco-friendly way to reduce the need for outside water sources.
When young professionals or families get ready to buy their first house, landscaping is typically an afterthought. More immediately pressing is the interior design of the property, and how well it accommodates both need and comfort. Though some prospective homeowners might think at length about the amount of acres a plot has, or the levels of sunlight/shade a yard gets, most are more preoccupied with the square footage of the house itself—how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, the size of the kitchen and hallways, etc.
No doubt, interior design is incredibly important to homeowners; after all, most of us spend the majority of our time inside. But overlooked landscaping can make a home feel unfulfilled. A thoughtfully curated landscape encourages homeowners to spend more time outside—gardening, grilling, swimming, playing sports, and indulging in relaxing moments with family and friends. Considering the increasing amount of Americans working sedentary jobs and then coming home to a generally sedentary lifestyle, making use of outdoor space and finding good reason to spend time outdoors is now a key component to creating work/life balance. Investing in good landscaping is one way to encourage you and your family and friends to find that balance. Plus, the money you put into your lawn and landscape will likely return to you in the long run; properties with polished outdoor living spaces are more valuable than properties without them.
Utilizing Your Landscape for Outdoor Living
An underdeveloped landscape can be difficult to use. Overgrown lawns are hard to garden or play in, and a yard without a patio or deck is hardly ideal for entertaining. If you find that you’re struggling to use your yard, investing in it may offer some incentive. First off, think about what you’d like to use an outdoor space on your property for. Do you want an outdoor cooking area to grill in the summertime? A patio with seating and lights so you can throw more parties? A swimming pool or garden that will beautify the space? Landscapes are very malleable, and you want to make sure you’re investing in something you will actually enjoy, so it’s important to start with a realistic plan.
Ultimately, a landscape doesn’t need much renovation for it to become useable, and even amateur landscapers can shape up a neglected yard and make it more amendable to regular use. Pulling weeds, removing debris, and mowing regularly make yards safer to play in and prettier to look at. Adding a few garden plots and planting a colorful array of perennials (native perennials are the easiest to care for) dresses up a landscape and also encourages homeowners to spend more time working on it. Gardening is a great way of getting frequent light exercise.
More complicated landscape renovations, such as the leveling out of a hill (ideal for creating more space) or the installation of a hardscape like a patio or a fire pit, is best handled by professionals. Professional jobs are more expensive than DIY works, but they are usually well worth the investment. Our clients regularly tell us about how much more useful their outdoor space is after a landscape renovation. According to them, renovating their landscape encouraged them to see it as a place with newfound potential. Patio and fire pit clients tell us that they spend more time outdoors with their families and friends. Swimming pool clients tell us that they spend more time exercising and hosting parties. Clients who have had their landscapes leveled out tell us that their children have more room to play and so spend more time playing. In all these cases, a bit of money translated into a significant lifestyle change and, thus, a solid return on investment.
Having and utilizing these outdoor spaces has proven emotional, psychological, and health benefits—especially for people who spend the majority of their time indoors. If you’ve been overlooking your landscape, spring is the perfect season to start reconsidering what a functional outdoor space could do for you. You may be surprised by how far a small change can stretch your home’s potential.
You may have noticed how much pollen is in the air now that temperatures are warming and spring is in full bloom. If you suffer from spring allergies like I do, you’ve probably been dealing with a runny nose and eyes, fits of sneezes, and other unpleasant side effects of the burgeoning season. Indeed, pollen gets on a lot of people’s nerves. It can seem like an obstacle preventing us from enjoying spring to the fullest, but, ironically, spring needs pollen to thrive. More specifically, spring needs pollinators—animals such as bees and butterflies that carry pollen from one plant to another and aid in plant reproduction—to sustain all of its famous colorful blooms. Pollinators support the building blocks of all ecosystems, and they are essential to environmental health. Humans and animals alike need them to survive—the least us human gardeners can do is create pollinator-friendly gardens. So take an allergy pill, power through your sniffles, and consider these tips for attracting pollinators to your yard:
In the wild, pollinators seek shelter away from potential threats: predators, severe weather, and, most insidious of all, human beings. Unfortunately, human development has destroyed many of the natural shelters that pollinators depend on. As a gardener, you can help remedy this by creating shelters in your garden. For instance, let a patch of your grass grow wild so bees can build nests there. Or set out an old log at the edge of your yard for pollinators to burrow in. You can also build a nesting box out of wood for bees and bats on the move. And if you see a pollinator habitat in your yard—a bee hive or butterfly nest—it’s best to leave it be.
Pollinators are constantly searching for food. However, flowers and water can be in short supply, especially in urban settings. Encourage pollinators by providing easy access to food in your yard. Humming bird and butterfly feeders are both cheap, easy to build, and great opportunities to observe pollinators up close!
Plant Lots of Flowers
This one is easy—pollinators love flowers just as much as gardeners do. For year-long feeding, chose pollen and nectar rich annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, sunflowers, alyssum, and salvia are all great options. You can also supplement your pollinator population by planting dill, fennel, and milk weed, all of which help support butterfly larvae.
Limit Pesticide Usage
Unsurprisingly, most pesticides are toxic to bees, birds, and butterflies. They may provide a quick fix for insect infestations, but their negative side effects often outweigh their usefulness. Instead of using pesticides, consider natural and preventative pest control measures, like keeping your yard free of rotting plant debris and supporting populations of pest-killing insects.
Human development causes massive amounts of environmental damage all over the world. Pollinators are in danger because we have too often invaded their habitats and left them without viable sources of food and shelter. Gardeners and homeowners need to do their part to cohabit with pollinators and support local ecosystems. That means thinking small and “green” when it comes to development—opt for native plants over exotic species, and chose natural remedies for molds and pests rather than chemical cures. You can also support pollinators in your area by supporting local conservationists and environmental action groups. Whatever you do, remember that your actions have a larger impact than you might realize, and that the survival of human beings depends on the survival of pollinators.
Now that endless tutorials and how-to guides are available online for free, DIY home improvement is more popular than it’s ever been. There are plenty of good reasons to go for a do-it-yourself kind of project, and the most pressing of those reasons is money. Many homeowners find their properties in dire need of hardscape upgrades, but they understandably don’t want to invest thousands of dollars into hiring a team of professionals. However, hardscapes are a lot more complicated than a garden bed or a lawn. When a professional undertakes a hardscape project, they consider a long list of factors before they even begin drafting a design. Building a successful hardscape feature requires a lot of skill, time, and labor. If you want your hardscape to last, it may ultimately be worth it to invest in a professional hardscaping team. Besides, a well-constructed hardscape can add significant value to your property, making it worth the initial splurge. Here are some more reasons to forego a DIY hardscape:
Maintain a Timeline and a Budget
Life happens. Homeowners are often busy with work, school, childcare, and other preoccupations that make it difficult to invest a lot of time into a big hardscaping project. DIY hardscapes often take much longer than homeowners anticipate after all of the planning and troubleshooting they require, and plenty of amateur hardscapers end up going way over the budget they originally intended. Professional crews, on the other hand, maintain a strict to-do list and can typically guarantee a reasonable timeline to a finished project. All the while, the homeowner is free to continue working, taking care of family issues, and attending to anything else that comes up. Further, professionals stick close to their estimates and are already aware of how much labor/materials cost. When you agree to pay $10,000 on a hardscaping project, that’s what you’re going to pay—full stop.
More Flexibility in Hardscape Design
Amateurs are perpetually limited by their skill level. Simply put, it takes many hours of intense training for professional hardscapers to get to the skill level that they’re at. Amateurs might have big plans for a hardscape design, like adding in water features or lights, but they’ll ultimately be limited by the kind of special expertise that electric/water features require. And any mistake made during a hardscape install can be debilitating to the overarching design. A property with a botched patio or fire pit is unappealing to most. So, unless you are confident in your own expertise, it’s safest to leave it up to the professionals.
Access to Industry Standard Materials
Professionals have ample access to the most durable and quality materials on the market, and most have deals with manufacturers that allow them to buy these materials at a discounted price. Amateurs are not often afforded the same discount, and, most of the time, they don’t have access to the same standard of materials, or adequate knowledge about which materials are best considering the possibility of erosion, wear and tear, and climate related damage. And materials are key—the right materials help distinguish a thorough job from a rushed one.
This one is too often overlooked. Professionals are trained in hardscaping safety standards: how best to lift heavy blocks; what kind of precautions should be taken before wiring a light; how to avoid utility lines; and how to minimize environmental impact. Amateurs can easily underestimate how dangerous building a hardscape can be. In turn, they might hurt themselves or cause expensive damage to their property. Remember, when you’re paying a team of professionals, you’re paying for their labor *and* their expertise—and expertise is priceless.
In this day and age, new technologies are changing the way that people garden and digitizing plant science. There are cellphone apps that can instantly identify plants, help you plot, figure out your soil pH, and keep track of watering schedules for you. There are also highly sophisticated irrigation systems, mowers, and even planting pots on the market—but all of these newfangled gadgets are derivatives of what came before them. For many thousands of years, gardeners have been expanding on basic practices that are both timeless and amazingly effective. Here are some tried and true ancient gardening practices that still hold up today, smart phones be damned!
Before organic gardening was a niche market within a gargantuan industry, it was the only kind of gardening there was. In fact, most of the best practices organic gardeners subscribe to today were invented thousands of years ago by people who had only their hands and basic tools to cultivate the land. Despite their “primitive” means, ancient gardeners had many clever hacks that helped them sustain themselves and their families off of the “fat of the earth.”
Ancient gardeners learned to recognize the ways native fauna interacted with native flora. They were experts at decoding the environment around them and using it to their advantage. To help their gardens, they encouraged the proliferation of pest-eating insects like ladybugs, praying mantis’, and spiders. They built habitats and planted food for these bugs in their gardens, and, in turn, the bugs ate the pests that threatened their fruits and vegetables.
Composting may be trendy, but it is hardly new. Composting techniques have been around in various forms for hundreds of years. Turning organic waste materials into compost is easy, cheap, and has a miraculous effect in the garden—which explains how widespread the practice is. Especially in climates where the soil is sandy or hard, composting is key to productive gardening.
Companion planting—another popular organic gardening tip—has roots in ancient practice. Gardeners have long been planting compatible plants side-by-side, whether to save space in a small plot or to deter pests. Corn and squash grows well together; so do beans and peas. Basil, an aromatic herb, can be planted alongside tomatoes to deter pests and, supposedly, make the fruit taste better.
Using these techniques and many other classic strategies, modern gardeners continue to build on the wisdom of gardeners from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. What timeless gardening methods do you use in your garden?
Happy National Joe Day! For many of us, having a cup (or five) of joe is an essential part of our morning routines. Coffee helps allay drowsiness, grumpiness, and laziness; it calls us to action and fuels the fires of productivity. But, beyond its usefulness as a caffeinated beverage, coffee is also a valuable gardening resource. Gardeners have long been using coffee grounds as a component in compost, fertilizer, and mulch. Some even suggest that coffee grounds can deter pests like ants from damaging crops and flowers. If you have a lot of leftover coffee grounds and want to try putting them to use in the garden, here are some tips of where to start:
Coffee and Compost
In general, coffee grounds contain a healthy amount of nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium, plus small amounts of other nutrients than can benefit plant growth. Quality and nutrient density varies depending on the type of coffee, and so gardeners often chose to use high-quality, organic coffee for their plants rather than generic brands.
Incorporating coffee grounds into a fertilizer or compost pile is easy and normally requires little preparation. You can sprinkle clean grounds right on top of existing soil (and mix well) or on top of a compost pile. For composting purposes, coffee is considered a “green” component, meaning it must be balanced out with sufficient “brown” components, like dried leaves and wood scraps. Using coffee this way is widely regarded as safe and effective, and it is much more useful than throwing pounds of coffee grounds into the trash every week! For more on composting, see our how-to guide.
Coffee and Mulch
Inundating plants with large quantities of coffee grounds can do more harm than good. Coffee grounds are typically highly acidic and can cause mold outbreaks if used in excess. However, a light smattering of grounds mixed with other organic material can make a great base for mulch. Start by mixing a handful of coffee grounds into a bucket of compost or leaf mold, and then spread the mixture liberally over plant beds. The nutrient-rich coffee grounds should mix well with the other material, and provide a healthful covering for plants. If your plants are highly sensitive to acid, and you’re worried adding acidic coffee grounds to your soil might hurt them, consider mixing a cup of agricultural lime or hardwood ashes into your grinds before adding them to compost/leaf mold.
For gardeners whose soils are highly alkaline (low in acid), adding coffee grounds directly to the soil could help neutralize it without creating any adverse effects.
On this National Joe Day, give thanks to America’s favorite caffeinated beverage and the various ways it is used for our betterment—including in America’s gardens!
Though the Appalachian Mountains are not quite as formidable as the Rockies, their ancient ridges still boast impressive altitudes. The highest mountain in The Blue Ridge is the 6,683 feet tall Mount Mitchell, only some three hours south of Roanoke in North Carolina. Locally, the highest peak in Roanoke County is Poor Mountain, which towers over the valley at 3,928 feet. Nearby, there are even higher peaks—the tallest mountain in Virginia, Mount Rogers (5,729’), is about two hours south, near the state line.
In Roanoke and across The Blue Ridge, most people settle in the valley, but some chose to make their homes higher up—where changes in altitude drastically affect the climate. At high altitudes, average temperatures are colder, the air is thinner, the even the composition of the soil is markedly different. Thus, mountain gardening and landscaping require a special set of skills and know-how. For local landscapers, knowledge of mountain climates is essential to serving a customer base comprised of mountain-dwellers and valley folk alike.
The Basics of Mountain Gardening
Mountain soil is notoriously tough to work with. It’s often rocky and hard, with a clay-like consistency. Generally, avid mountain gardeners rework the soil before they begin planting and shaping. This can be accomplished through using soil amendments, or adding compost to existing soil. Some mountain gardeners bypass having to rework existing soil by using raised beds and container gardens to house their plants.
Mountainous landscapes are typically shady and cool. In the summer and wintertime, average daytime temperatures tend to skew much lower than they do in the valley, and late spring frosts or early fall snows are not uncommon. When choosing plants, go for hardiness over prettiness—and take inspiration from native flora. Most mountain plants are incredibly durable: cold-hardy, shade-tolerant, and drought resistant. The plants in your mountain garden should have a similar composition. Many varieties of perennial can also thrive in mountain climates during the warmer months. Early to mid-summer blooming perennials—such as Brown Eyed Susan, Tiger Lilly, Sunflower, Pansy, Hollyhock, and Columbine—do best. If the soil is still hard come spring, start perennials indoors in containers, and then transplant them outside when the weather warms.
Choosing dear-resistant plants is also a safe bet. Unfettered wildlife is one of the best perks of living in the mountains, but all of that wildlife is liable to cause harm to a vulnerable vegetable garden. Consider fortifying non-deer resistant plants with wire fencing or deer-repellent tablets and sprays.
In particularly pesky mountain climates, landscapers have come up with creative solutions to make gardening possible. Some mountaineers have started installing rock gardens made out of the ubiquitous pebbles and stones that are often found at high altitudes. Many perennials can thrive in rock gardens without much added help. Some seasonal plants, such as dianthus and allysum, can also thrive in rock gardens.
Ultimately, mountain garden is about understanding what is possible, and then adjusting your expectations accordingly. Anyone who’s been for a ride down the Blue Ridge Parkway knows that the mountains have no shortage of beautiful wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. But only certain, well-adapted plants can truly flourish in a climate that is marked by unpredictable weather, tough soil, and a short growing season. So choose wisely—what works for a neighbor down in the valley might not work the same for you.