Garden Q and A

With two questions already asked, we might as well get to some answers. And both questions are good ones. But before we do, we’ll start with the unavoidable fact that gardening is always experimental. The variables from year-to-year and even yard-to-yard are great enough that there’s no such thing as a guarantee. That might turn some people off, but it’s the greatest attraction for me. What could be better than a field wherein a lifetime of learning only scratches the surface and there’s always more to know and try?

Dawn has presented me with a doozy right off the bat. She has a narrow foundation bed that sounds like it’s mostly shade and quite dry. Well, good luck, Dawn…good luck.

The general issue here is that most plants that like the shade also like moist soil. Amending with rich humus will help, as will heavy mulching (a great use for the municipal compost, which is mostly woody material, that’s often free for the taking). Unfortunately, this will probably be a case for applying water when needed. Since the bed is narrow, it would be a great candidate for burying soaker hose 3-4″ deep. It will be the most effective, easiest (as in least frequent) and the most water efficient way to get the plants moisture until they’re established and/or when they really need it.

A few possibilities for the bed include: Greater Wood Rush (Luzula sylvatica), which looks strong for the situation. Euonymus fortunei, which has umpteen varieties and common names like “Moonshadow” and “Emerald Gaiety”. It’s a small shrub, evergreen in the PNW and is one of those plants that will heaping abuse once established. The gold variegation really stands out in a shady bed.

If you’re willing to water, even just spot watering a few things by hand, heucheras like the shade just fine and can bring some amazing splashes of color. The burgundy varieties will pair nicely with the gold-variegated euonymus.

How about Horny Goat Weed? (or maybe you prefer the Chinese Yin Yang Huo) Bishop’s Hat, Epimedium youngainum ‘Niveum” could be just the thing.

If you’re happy with a simple ground cover, this might be a fine place to plant Liriope as the shade and nearby trees should keep it from getting away from you.

Dawn tested the soil pH, and it’s a happy 6.0. That isn’t the problem with getting things to take here, but it’s a good lesson. Soil testing, at least for pH, is one of the easiest and best things a gardener can do. Fixing it is easy, but growing with the pH out of whack is very difficult.

I think that there is probably enough sun in the south portion of the bed for poppies, but probably not the north Try one towards the south and see. Beauty of Livermore (Papavar orientale) is the classic, red poppy.


Sam doesn’t have much space, but does have plenty of light. All that sun bouncing off brick and concrete can cause some heat problems. The good news here is that most of the kitchen garden favorites that fruit love the heat and the sun; the trick is to keep them from drying out.

Do you like grapes? Because if there’s a structure or you provide some, grapes love the environment you can provide. If you plant a few vines next to the wall, they’ll not only cut down on the heat radiation bouncing back onto the patio, but they’ll do a little to keep the house cooler too. And they’ll look cool and taste great. You could also work this trick with hops if you’ve ever thought of home brewing. (the hops will do the trick, much much faster)

If you’re growing in containers, amend the potting soil with a little compost and/or vermiculite (which can be found at any garden center). Don’t over do it, but both will help with water retention. Mulch the surface to keep it from losing water. Set the containers up on something an inch off the ground or so to keep from cooking the soil. And there’s a product called SoilMoist that would be worth picking up. It’s just inert polymer crystals that absorb water and then release it when the surrounding soil dries out. They’ll save you from worrying about watering twice a day for mature plants in hot weather, and they’ll help keep fruit from cracking due to extreme wet-dry cycles.

I’m currently trying to find a way to make a horticultural grade silica solution for cheap at home, but haven’t found it yet. Buying the bottled stuff isn’t cheap, but watering with it (especially when plants are young) will strengthen cell walls greatly and help the plant battle heat/drought stresses. Vermiculite is high in silica, so adding that will help.

If you’ve got something to hang it from, and unfortunately the standard metal shepherd’s hook won’t cut it, the topsyturvy planter is a great way to get a lot of tomatoes from a small space without staking. You’ll definitely want to add SoilMoist to a topsyturvy as the soil volume is small for a full sized tomato plant full of fruit.

You can also do things like plant a ring of carrots around the outside of a container and a tomato in the middle.

Lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, etc. are cool season plants. Heat will make them bolt and get bitter. Put them out as early as possible (different varieties have different planting dates). And then plant some again in the late summer. I’ve known people who use a big pot, plant lettuce around the edge and then plant a tomato in the middle when it gets warm enough. You’ll harvest the lettuce long before the tomato gets big and may even be able to plant the carrots around the edge after that.

For head cabbages, i’d wait and plant them as a fall crop because they take up a lot of space. You can plant them under/with something else like peppers when the other plant is nearly towards the end of its productivity. Asian cabbages like Bok Choy can be treated like lettuce for spring planting.

The basics of small space and container gardening probably deserve their own post. I’ll see what i can do about that.

9 replies »

  1. Lex – thanks. I printed it out to study your reply. You picked some plants I wouldn’t have thought about, so cool. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Lex. We used a couple topsy-turvy planters last year and will likely do so again this year. I like the grape idea a lot, although I’m going to have to check on the HOA regs.

    Don’t you love HOAs?

  3. By HOA you mean the crochety old lady who lives next door and her bald eagle fetish “boyfriend” who used to live there too until she kicked him out for dropping an F-bomb on her? Now he just comes a courtin’. They don’t give me too much grief, except that he likes to plow the entire yard (front and back) so that the reverse gear is unnecessary. If he had his way, he’d plow across our front yard; in fact, he did until we moved in. I’m still struggling to rehabilitate that portion of lawn. Funny, all summer long Viola complains that her grass won’t grow. I explain that the grass will never grow if you scrape it with a plow an average of once per day all winter. And yet all winter long they both ask me once a week if Pete can plow across our yard.

    Does your HOA wear a house dress and yell a lot?

    Since i can’t see your yard, Sam, i can’t say. But it’s possible to put up a trellis structure that would be semipermanent but not such that it couldn’t be removed.

    I like the topsyturvy. I do think that soilmoist is almost a necessity with them (at least when i’ve used them). Cucumbers love hanging baskets and would probably go wild in the new topsyturvy’s with side holes. One hill to a 12 or 14″ basket can produce a lot of cukes. They will, however, suck up the water and need some fairly strong nitrogen feeds at times.

    Sounds like you’ve got the most important concept for small space growing: go vertical…and from up to down adds significant space.

    • By HOA I mean Homeowners Association. They’re organized. And invisible. Like the Ninjas Local 666. They don’t like it when things look different.

      But the trellis idea might work, actually.

  4. Dawn, i know you’ve talked about rocks and a birdbath there. I think some of these ideas would go really well with that. Greater Wood Rush, i think, would be lovely in such a setting and while the euonymous will grow up to some degree, it likes to creep on things like rocks. Check out the Heucheras, you can get some amazing splashes of color with them. (Native to the US too.)

    I think i want a Horny Goat Weed plant, mostly because someone decided to name it Horny Goat Weed…though Yin Yang Huo isn’t bad either.

  5. Lex – I’ve been looking at your suggestions – really nice choices. Heucheras are beautiful – so many choices of color. I’m going to read up some more on each of these and attempt to plan them into the space. Thanks. 🙂

  6. My pleasure. I really like Heucheras; the texture and the color. They sort of remind me of a N. American begonia. Though the flowers aren’t significant, i like them too. And you know, i thought of another possibility. Goatsbeard. Striking plume flowers…usually in white or pink.

  7. Lex, – Goatsbeard – like that one too. I loaded a picture of each suggestion into Flickr last night with an associated link to help me research them. Of course now I have to get the beds dug up 🙂 – hopefully we will have good weather this weekend.