How to Plan Your Organic Garden
A successful organic garden depends upon growing a wide diversity of plants, including as many native plants as possible, in order to attract wildlife and useful pest predators. The result will inevitably be informal. There is, however, no reason why an informal garden should look neglected or untidy and, indeed, there is every reason why it should not. Pests and diseases go hand-in-hand with a slovenly approach to gardening; a neat and tidy garden, where regular cultivation keeps unwanted weeds at bay and where you remove rubbish before it has a chance to accumulate, is bound to be more efficient and productive.
My own belief is that a garden is essentially a personal place, and so its final design must be something that you have conceived and put into practice yourself. We all have the innate creative ability to transform that muddy patch of ground outside the back door into a beautiful, productive and, above all, enjoyable place in which to be. And bear in mind that, no matter how inexperienced you are, nature will give you a hand along the way.
First, take account of the physical characteristics of your garden – the soil type, the direction it faces and so on. Second, draw up lists of the features that you need to include in your garden such as windbreaks, or trash storage areas – and the features you would like, such as a vegetable garden, compost bins, a greenhouse or a terrace. Then, before you start any real gardening, draw up a plan of your garden and work out where you want to site things in relation to each other. These principles apply if you are starting a garden from scratch, taking over an established garden, or simply changing to organic gardening.
The Physical Characteristics of Your Garden
When contemplating the overall plan of your garden,consider its physical characteristics, such as the direction it faces, your local climate, and the type of soil you have to work with – clay, peat, silt,sand or limestone.
The features that are within your power to change,or improve, include drainage and the quality of your soil and the contour of the land. The techniques for improving them, however, will vary according to the soil type of your situation.
Aspect and Climate
It is not possible to do anything about your garden’s orientation and you can rarely remove shade, which is generally caused by the house, walls or fences. Likewise you can do nothing about the weather.Altitude, rainfall and the wind will all dictate certain features of the garden, such as the amount of shade and protection you need to provide. If frosts are a regular occurrence, or you live in a frost-pocket (a low-lying area where frost accumulates), make sure that you use the correct type of hedging or fencing to minimize the problem, and that you choose late-flowering or especially hardy plants that are not going to lose fruit and flowers every time the weather turns cold.
There are five main soil types – clay, silt, sand,limestone and peat. Each one is made up of a mixture of minerals, the proportions of which are highly variable even within a small area. An important consideration with soil types is the degree of acidity or alkalinity, or the lime content. Certain plants prefer certain types of soil and, while you can do much to improve the general fertility or drainage qualities of a poor soil, and even make special provisions for “unsuitable plants”, it is easier,in the ornamental areas, to grow plants that are happy in the existing soil conditions. You may, though, have to take measures to alter the soil pH for your vegetable and fruit areas.
Steep slopes are difficult to maintain. It is much better to terrace the garden to form a series of “plateaux” linked bypaths or steps even though this involves a great deal of hard work initially.It is not good enough simply to level the top-soil because that results in an extra deep layer of topsoil at the front and very little at the back. The only satisfactory way is to dig off all the topsoil from the area and level the subsoil before replacing it.
The easiest material to use for fencing on a slope is a wire fence, a length of plastic windbreak or even posts and rails because they can be made to follow the general fall of the land. Don’t, however, try to follow every little rise and fall or the top of the fence will go up and down like a switchback: try instead to even it out to form one overall slope.
Panel fencing is difficult to put up on a slope because the panels cannot be erected to follow the line of the slope; it would mean putting the posts in at an angle. On gently sloping ground, you can erect the panels vertically in a series of “steps”. Make sure you take this into account when you buy your fencing material because you may need to order slightly more panels and longer fence posts than normal. Panel fencing is unsuitable for steeply sloping ground because you will get gaps at one end of each panel.
On sloping ground, fencing built across a slope can act as a barrier that prevents frost-laden air moving downhill and out of the garden, creating a frost pocket. To avoid the problem, raise the bottom of the fence slightly to allow air to flow underneath.
It is easy to recognize a badly drained site, since the garden, or large parts of it, will be wet under foot and water may lie on the top, particularly in winter. Compacted topsoil or an impervious layer of compacted soil beneath the soil surface, particularly on a new garden, are common reasons for bad drainage. You can do a great deal to improve the drainage by good soil management. A heavy soil such as clay, for example, can be greatly improved by digging in organic matter and coarse grit.
In very badly drained gardens, however, you may have to install a drainage system, and you will have to do this before anything else.
If your soil really does drain badly, you need to install a drainage system. It is relatively easy to install the drain pipes,but not as simple to dispose of the water. If you have a ditch at the end of your garden, there is no problem. Otherwise, you should run your land drains into the storm drains that feed into the sewer system or the local authority’s drainage system. Seek permission from the local authority before connecting up your garden drains in this way because it is illegal in some areas.
You will almost certainly need some sort of fencing or hedge around your garden for privacy. There are many different types of man-made fencing available so choose one to suit your needs and to blend with your house and style of garden.
In addition, if you live in an exposed position,fencing or hedging can go a long way to protecting your plants from high winds.Winds can be particularly damaging to all plants, especially in the winter if they are not protected by a covering of snow. If protected, your fruit and vegetables will produce heavier crops and your ornamental plants will grow and flower better too.
BARRIERS FOR WIND PROTECTION
The most effective windbreaks are those that merely slow the wind down, such as hedges, slatted wooden fences or barriers made from perforated plastic windbreak material. Solid barriers can be worse than use less as wind protection unless they are extremely high. When the wind comes up against a solid obstruction, it tends to whip over the top and swirl and eddy over the other side, increasing in speed during the process. If you are using man-made barriers, make sure that the posts are sunk deep into the ground and, if you are using a plastic windbreak material, fix it to the fence posts with battens. Do this by laying the windbreak material against the posts then nailing battens over the top.
Hedges make very good garden boundaries as they are far less obtrusive than man-made barriers. They also make the best windbreaks.You can choose from either formal hedges or informal ones, those that are allowed to flower. Hedges do, however, take up a lot of growing room because they will compete with other plants for water and nutrients. Never, for example, choose privet unless you are prepared to sacrifice at least 1meter/yard along either side of the length of the hedge.If your garden is small, choose a formal hedge that can be kept compact by clipping. Choose informal hedges only if your garden is large because they need at least 1-2m (3-6ft) growing room either side.
If your garden is on a slope, make sure that your hedge does not act as a barrier, preventing frost-laden air escaping. Keep the area under the hedge cleaned out to allow air to pass through freely and to stop pests using the debris as winter cover.
Features to include in your garden
While you are carrying out the necessary groundwork, you must think about the features you want to include in the garden and the eventual scheme you wish to achieve. Working out a plan isn’t easy because there are so many possibilities. Take time over it and put your ideas on to paper first. Your budget may not allow you to complete your chosen garden design all at once but an overall plan will at least give cohesion to the finished product.
ALLOWING FOR THE ESSENTIALS
Start by making a list of the features that you simply must include in your garden – a clothes line, for example, a coal bunker or wood shed, a place to hide trash cans, or a gate to stop the children running out into the road. If you are simply changing over to organic methods, then you may already have these features; nonetheless, put them on the list in case you want to improve them, move them, or even dispense with them completely.
In my experience, the things you would like to include in your garden always exceed the space available, so draw up a list in order of priority. If you have a family, you may decide that a large vegetable and fruit plot is most important, but that you also need an area in which the children can play, and a leisure area for yourself. After all, gardening is not all hard work!
In any organic garden, you will certainly need an ornamental area where you can grow some of the plants that attract birds and insect predators. If you have space for a greenhouse or a cold frame, make sure you include this. And don’t forget to allow room for the utility area – the compost containers, the manure heap (if you are lucky enough to be able to get any) and the tool shed.
From a strictly practical point of view, a water supply is absolutely essential to allow you to maintain the garden. Ideally,you should have an outside tap and a hose pipe long enough to allow you to water every part of the garden. With long gardens, you might want to install a stand-pipe at the far end. If this is your intention then make sure you lay the necessary pipes at an early stage of garden preparation.
It is important to decide the position of the hard surfaces, such as terraces and paths, before you decide anything else because they determine the level and position of many other garden features. Bear in mind right at the planning stage that areas of concrete or gravel can look stark against the background of a plant-filled garden, so try to allow for softening by including raised beds or leaving space for plant-filled tubs.
If you decide on an area of paving for sitting out in the garden, you do not necessarily have to build it against the house,though this is certainly the most convenient place. For example, if the back of your house faces north, it will be a bleak place to sit; on the other hand, if you live in a hot sunny climate, you may prefer to sit out in the shade.
Make the area a useful shape. A narrow strip of paving or concrete running along the back of the house is almost useless, since there is simply not enough room for a table and chairs. A square or triangular area in one corner is more practical and requires no more slabs.
If you decide to butt paving up against the side of the house, take a careful look at the level of the damp-proof course on your house, or any air bricks. Paving slabs must finish no less than two courses of bricks below the level or you risk damp creeping into the house.
Use paving material that blends in with your style of garden and the house itself. Soften stark and intrusive lines by leaving a few spaces between the slabs and then include some low-growing plants such as alpines that thrive in a well-drained soil and need sun.
Edging paved areas with raised flower beds allows you to bring color right up to the house; edging them with a hedge provides both privacy and a windbreak, if this is necessary. If you plan for it at the outset, it is relatively easy to build a barbecue into the paving.
In my view, you should only use paths where they are absolutely essential because they tend to cut gardens into pieces. In a small garden, that is a disaster. If you must have a path, make it curved, so that it disappears from view here and there, giving the illusion of hidden nooks and crannies. In large gardens you can use paths extremely effectively to link one feature with another. I like to see them in either gravel or, better still,grass. Never make a dead straight path in a small, informal garden or allow a path to run either across the plot or straight down the middle.
There are some situations where a path is essential- however large or small your garden. If you have children, there is likely to be a lot of washing so you will need easy access, via a path, to a clothesline. In this case, it will probably also have to be straight, so try to site it at the edge of the garden where you can hide it with a border of flowers.
An extremely attractive way of making paths,particularly in small gardens, is to use stepping stones set in gravel. Space the stones out so that they deliberately slow you down, giving you the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of your garden, and plant alpines in the spaces.
The lawn area
An area of grass is a highly desirable garden feature. It makes an excellent feeding place for birds, a comfortable playing surface for children, and a superb “foil” to the plants in the borders.When planning a lawn you will also, as a result, be shaping the flower borders. Bear in mind that, if you are going to adopt traditional “cottage garden” mixed borders – with swathes of tall and short annuals and perennials, including many native plants to attract suitable wildlife, then there is no place for formality. You should lay out the edges of the grass in long, sweeping curves to produce borders of varying widths. Long, simplified sweeps of grass make the garden look bigger and are easier to cut.
If you have the room, allow a small patch of grass to grow tall and sow some wild flowers to help attract useful insect predators.The “miniature meadow” will soon become a very attractive feature.You can also include some bulbs with the wild flowers.
An area of water is particularly useful in an organic garden if you want to increase the range of wildlife you attract. If you have a small pool you will attract birds and insects, frogs and many other pest predators. You can make a pool by digging a hole and lining it with a butyl-rubber liner or simply bury plastic containers and fill them with water.
Remember, though, that any water is dangerous if you have young children. It may be worth including a bird bath until they are older.
Plan your pool with rounded edges, instead of harsh angles, to blend in with a more informal garden. And allow for very shallow water at the edges, or provide a ledge in the side of the pond, so that you can include marginal or bog-loving plants and a marshy area. If you are lucky, you will also attract frogs and that keeps your slug problem under control.
If you want moving water in the form of a water fall or fountain, provide an underground electricity supply before laying paving or lawns.
Fresh, home-grown vegetables are part of the organic gardener’s way of life, so allow as much room as possible for the vegetable plot. The idea that vegetable plants are unsightly is nonsense; a well-ordered and productive vegetable plot is a truly heartening sight.
Plan to position the plot in a sunny part of the garden and never plant a screening hedge between the vegetables and their source of sun.
If space is limited, grow your vegetables on the deep-bed system, a method of cultivation whereby vegetables are grown in blocks rather than rows. The soil is deeply dug to form very deep topsoil, or root zone. This encourages their roots to grow downwards, enabling them to be planted very close together. It is important to note that the beds need to be about 1.2m (4ft) wide with a 30-45cm (12-18in) path between each one. If possible, leave extra room for crops such as Brussels sprouts and runner beans,which are not suited to this method of cultivation. There is no reason at all why you should not have an irregular-shaped vegetable plot if this helps it to blend in better with the rest of the garden.
If your garden is too small for even the most restricted vegetable plot, grow a few fresh salads and some of the more ornamental vegetables in among the flowers in the borders.
Not so long ago, growing fruit trees in a tiny garden would have been impossible because of their size. However, you can now grow many types of fruit on special dwarfing root stocks and, with modern pruning methods, these can be restricted so that they will grow happily in the smallest of spaces. If you have a sunny wall or fence, reserve it for a peach tree grown as a fan and trained close to the wall or fence so that it takes up virtually no space at all. The dwarf North Star cherry (a cross between a Siberian cherry and the Morello) is self-fertile and uses little space at its1.8m (6ft) height. You can also train apples and pears up walls or fences, as either fans or espaliers; east- or west-facing walls are best for these. Alternatively, you can grow them as cordons, planting the trees 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart and training them to grow parallel to each other at a45-degree angle, to form a hedge wherever a barrier is needed. You can even train some soft fruits, such as gooseberries and redcurrants, as cordons against a wall if space is limited. More compact still are single-tier espaliers, or stepovers, which form trees no more than 30cm (12in) high. These are ideal as a low hedge round the vegetable plot. Birds are the biggest nuisance in the fruit garden. If you have enough space for a fruit cage, try to plan it into your scheme. In fact, if you can erect a cage to protect your vegetables as well, you will find it well worthwhile.
Growing under glass
A greenhouse is an asset to any garden, and is well worth finding space for. Obviously, it needs as sunny a place as possible. It is also best sited as near to the house as possible, since this makes the installation of electricity or gas for heating cheaper, and, above all, makes the trip to attend to it on raw winter nights less daunting.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the question of which way to site a greenhouse, but in my view it does not really matter if it faces east-west or north-south. There are many different greenhouses to choose from. Rectangular ones are the most common, but bear in mind that, if your garden is small, a hexagonal greenhouse may be more suitable. Greenhouses are widely available with frames made of either wood or aluminum.
If you plan to raise your own plants for setting out in the garden, try to find the space for a cold frame, a wood, metal or brick frame with a glass top. This is essential for acclimating plants to outside temperatures before planting out, a process known as “hardening off”.Site it as near the greenhouse as possible.
The utility area
Organic gardeners are usually do-it-your-selfers by nature, and they tend to accumulate plenty of material that other people would class as rubbish. I find it difficult to throw away a piece of wood, I keep all my old styrafoam coffee cups for use as pots, and compost bags pile up in their hundreds to make growing bags and tree ties, or for mulching between rows of vegetables for weed control. Throwing away a length of nylon string is anathema. Make sure you leave plenty of room which you will need to store these valuable, money-saving materials.
If you have room for a garden shed, there is no problem. There is no need to hide it, since a few climbing plants will soon transform it into a thing of beauty. If you do not have room for a shed and you don’t nave any room in the garage, arrange some kind of cover for tools and equipment. It is possible to buy garden “chests” or”lockers” now; I have even seen an old wardrobe pressed into service as a “mini-shed”.
You will also need room for the compost heaps – at least two and preferably three – perhaps a pile of manure, certainly a container for leaf-mold, and an area for storing bales of peat or bags of fertilizer (if you don’t have a shed, buy them in plastic sacks and keep them outside). Set aside a general-purpose utility area for all these things and arrange to screen it from the rest of the garden. You can tuck it behind tall-growing shrubs or conceal it by planting some hedging plants in front of it. But, if space is limited, the best method of screening is to erect a trellis (or posts and wires) and plant some fast-growing climbing plants in front of it.
Choosing Ornamental Plants
The aim of planting in an organic garden, apart from the obvious aesthetic one, is to attract and encourage as many predators of pests as possible. The right selection of ornamental plants helps to create a natural balance of wildlife in the garden and increases the interest and pleasure you’ll derive from the garden, while also reducing attacks from pests.
For the average gardener with just a moderately sized garden, the “cottage-garden” design offers some distinct advantages over other styles of garden. This style was developed by the old”cottagers” in England as a way of combining a productive garden with ornamental plants and later developed and romanticized by the
Victorians in the nineteenth century. It is also a style that is endlessly adaptable and suits modern architecture and building materials just as well as it did old stone cottages with roses around the door and windows.
Its advantages are that, first, it allows you to grow a mixture of ornamental and vegetable plants in the same beds, so making maximum use of any available space; and that, second, the informality of the style encourages the use of native plants, which will attract useful insects and pest predators into your garden. A side-effect of the close-planting technique adopted in this style of garden is the suppression of weeds and the saving of a lot of tedious labor.
There is no need to plan all the borders at the outset. It is much better to collect all your plants slowly, learning about them first from visits to nurseries, garden centers and other gardens.Permanent plants such as trees and shrubs form the framework of the garden.Remember, though, that in ten years time, they will look very different from the small specimens that you plant, and they dislike being moved. So, before buying them, check their final spread and height to ensure that you plant them in the right place first time. Other types of plants can be moved at will,indeed, many will benefit from being moved.
Drawing up a plan
Once you have made your lists and have a good idea of your priorities, you should make a detailed plan of how you will carry the work through to completion. First, measure the boundaries of the garden, draw the area on to a piece of paper, then transfer it on to some squared paper. If your house and garden are absolutely rectangular, it is easy to measure up and transfer this to paper. If it is not, you will have to use a system of measurement known as “triangulation”.
STARTING WORK ON THE GARDEN
Once you have finalized your plan, you can start work. Transferring your ideas from paper to the ground can be tricky, and it is a good idea to set a “datum line”. This is simply a line down the middle of the garden from which you can take all your measurements. Then it is relatively easy to work out curves from the drawing and transfer them to the garden itself, marking out each step with canes.
Be prepared to be flexible when you come to dig the garden, or cut the lawn edges, for example. If, for example, the curve on a border looks wrong when it comes to cutting it out of the lawn, don’t sticks lavishly to the plan. There is nothing to stop you making an alteration here and there in order to perfect the final garden layout. Remember, if it looks right, it is right.
MEASURING YOUR GARDEN
It is rare to find a perfectly rectangular plot;most gardens are not exactly at right angles to the house. So, in order to measure accurately, you will need to master the simple skill of triangulation.
For this you need two fixed points from which to measure everything. The corners of the house are ideal. Since walls are generally at right angles to each other, you can be pretty certain that the house itself will be more or less straight. Start by measuring the house, then measure the distance to each corner of the boundary, first from one corner of the house and then from the other, and make a note of these measurements on your rough plan. Use the same method to determine the position of any features,such as trees, that you don’t intend to change.
When you come to draw up your master plan, decide on a scale to use. It is best to work in units often – 1cm: 1m, for example (or,alternatively, 1 in: 1ft). Start by transferring your house measurements to the paper. If you use squared paper you will find it easier to obtain accurate angles and lengths. Then, set a pair of compasses to the relevant scale distances for each feature and draw an arc from both points marking the corners of the house. The point where the arcs intersect gives the precise location of the feature in question. Draw all these details on the master plan in ink. Then fix a piece of tracing paper over the top of the squared paper, this gives you he opportunity to experiment with various designs (and make mistakes) without spoiling the master plan itself. There will inevitably be plenty of mistakes and mind-changing before the process is completely to your satisfaction