I grew up on 92 acres of partly-forested, partly-open land in the country. I now live on a very small lot at the outer edge of — but still within — a city.
The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the entire front yard, which at that time consisted of summer-dried grass and weeds. It is not a large piece of ground, in fact I think of it as rather postage stamp sized.
I quickly discovered that the “soil” was incredibly thin, and that it was completely filled with what appeared to be river rock in all gradations. That is the aftermath of a flood at the end of the last Ice Age that left this part of the city filled with rocks washed down from places all the way between here and Montana. So gardening on those flood remains is like gardening on a pile of rocks with a tiny bit of poor soil between them. I could not put a shovel into the ground anywhere without hitting rocks. In addition, what there was of soil was apparently strewn with construction rubble from the construction of the building in which I live.
My choice was either to dig the yard out to a depth of two or three feet, have the removed soil and rocks hauled away, and fill it all in with fine and expensive new soil — or to just work with what was there. I was not prepared to do the former, so I decided to adapt my garden to the circumstances.
Having such rock and grit filled soil made it very porous, and in the hot days of summer, putting water on it was like pouring water through a sieve. To me that meant I should definitely include drought-resistant plants.
I did not want to give up some of my favorite flowers, however, so I was willing to give them a bit more of occasional watering — but I did not want to fill my proposed new garden with delicate plants. They had to be able to survive both heat and cold and a fluctuating level of moisture.
I also did not want the kind of garden that had only one or two or three varieties of flowers, with long waits between one and another blooming. I wanted lots of variety, and I wanted at least something to be in bloom from early spring to late autumn. That meant I had to choose flowers with different bloom times.
I also had to balance the reality of my very small space with my desire for a wide variety of plants. On the positive side, doing so would give me many different kinds of flowers. On the negative side, it meant that I would not have enough space to give each plant luxurious growing room.
My solution to all this was to use a gardening method I wryly call “Survival of the Fittest,” and because it had worked for me before in poor soil in a previous city residence, I was hopeful that it would work for me on my postage stamp rock pile.
The result of my method is a garden that looks like a cross between a traditional English Cottage Garden and a wildflower meadow. There are no wide spaces between plants, so one gets the impression of something that is both wild and natural, and very floriferous. The close planting also helps to keep the weeds down.
My garden is now always interesting because it is always changing — from day to day, month to month, and season to season, from spring to fall. When some flowers have ended their blooming time, others are beginning theirs.
To do this — to have things always in bloom — I visited plant nurseries many times during the growing season, because what they have in stock tends to change depending on the time of year. If one is careful to obtain plants that have different blooming times and to mix them together, the end result is just what I wanted — a garden with something always in bloom.
I soon discovered that my little garden had another result. People passing by would stop to tell me how much they enjoyed my garden. And not only people. A space that was formerly bleak and bare of life became filled with bumblebees and honeybees, ladybugs and other kinds of insects. And hummingbirds became daily visitors as well. I just watched one making his rounds of my plants this morning — and a lady passing by in a car stopped and shouted, “Your garden is amazing!”
Well, I am sure to some people who like strict order and things in rigid rows it is not amazing, because it has a “wild” look to it — and that I quite enjoy. It is the “wildflower meadow” side of it. I like to mix in simple and wild flowers like California poppies and Bachelor’s Buttons with more elaborate plants such as bearded iris and lilies. Each adds its own color and form and texture.
At the very end of the season, when the frost has come and plants have withered, I cut the dead stalks in pieces that I let fall in the garden, to decay and provide much-needed organic matter to gradually improve the terrible soil. And I try not to to overwater, so that plants will send their roots deep and make use of what moisture they can find. Water in this city is expensive, not free for the taking as it was when I was a boy living on country land with a spring bubbling out of the ground.
So that is my simple gardening method. I enjoy the comments of people passing by, and the opportunity to meet and chat with them, and it is gratifying to watch the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds. Sitting on my little porch with a book in my hands, I can look up at my little garden from time to time and feel a part of Nature again, even living in a city.
Having such a garden and observing its continual changes is like having a natural clock that tells the time of season by the comings and goings of different kinds of blossoms. It reminds me by its transformations that all things are transient, so we humans must appreciate and enjoy them while they are here — whether flowers or people.