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In the garden: Design challenges for "The Zone of Unlife"

As promised yesterday, I'm going to present the weedy area for a consult. But first, just to show the point of the whole exercise:

Figure 1: Front garden "Zone of Life"

This year I have been coming to the conclusion, or understanding, that what I really want from the garden is not the vegetables -- though I love to eat them and even more to give them away -- but what Ursula LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness describes as one goal of her fictional interplanetary polity, the Ekumen:

The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life.

My intelligence, primarily, so I can sit in the garden and work pleasurably in the summer months, but I suppose also other intelligences, like birds, or bees, especially if we consider the idea that living intelligence goes all the way down into the earth, through the plants, the soil, the mycelial mat, the groundwater, and the rock, all the way to the magnetic core. Anyhow, it would take a better photographer (and a better camera than the iPad) to really do my experience of that flowerbed justice; suffice to say that I'd like very square inch to be visibly alive, and that bark mulch doesn't figure largely in my view of proper gardening, as opposed to sheet mulch; it's amazing the sheer volume of dew[1], all of it captured by the straw; no wonder I never have to water, with sheet mulch. Anyhow, for want of a better term, we might call LeGuin's goal aesthetic; certainly systems that achieve this are not ugly.

So all that said, here is the design challenge:

Figure 2: Front garden "Zone of Unlife"

As you can see, the front garden is roughly triangular, being bounded by the path, the driveway, and the sidewalk. (The view from the sidewalk, along "wildflowers," is important not only for my sensory experience, but to maintain diplomatic relations with the town as a source of conversation and general benevolence, and to show that I'm not in any kind of trouble.)

I have two over-all goals, both aesthetic, but one geometrical, the other complexiful (if that is a word).

Geometrically, I want the the entire area to be a triangular pyramid; I feel this will provide a pleasant dynamic view, as the various parts of the system shift into new relations as the pedestrian walks by. I've have achieved that goal now, but with inferior plants and no visual impact.

Complexifully, I want more beneficial critters, pollinators but especially birds that eat the sort of bug I would like to be eaten. (And maybe toads?) Especially I would like to maintain or re-attract Cardinals, because they are known to eat Japanese beetles, a scourge. (I'm inspired to this idea by a friend who pointed out that I had successfully achieved a virtuous cycle: Two years ago I had planted self-seeding annuals from a wildflower mix, like Tansy and Borage, that attracted pollinators and then birds who propagated their seeds around the garden, and now I have not only more of these annuals but more beneficial critters, too. So more like this, please.) So let me go through Figure 2 area by area to create a set of requirements.

Area 1, the "Zone of Unlife": This area, in the very middle of the front garden, has been problematic. I have not managed to create a reason for me to walk or do anything there, as opposed to round the edges, and right now it languishes weedily (bad lambert, but what is the point of weeding it?) I did try an herb garden in this zone, but it's really too near the fumes and dust of the street for that, and in any case I don't cook enough to warrant the work of taking care of an herb garden; and I don't like work.

So I thought, next year, or even this year if I get lucky, I might bring the "Zone of Unlife" alive with a water feature; preferably (a) made from a stack of stone, with (b) a buried tank covered by mesh, and (c) solar power. (I don't like work, so I don't want to be filling the water feature all the time, or cleaning leaves out of whatever source feeds it. Also, I hate garden gnomes, resin, wishing wells, puppies, bowls, wooden barrels, tiers, accents, and fantasies of all kinds, LED lighting, the word "rustic" and anything from Tuscany. All these are kitsch, and kitsch is about death, not life. I really do want just a pile of rocks with water cascading over it.) Unfortunately, all the water features I ever came up with on my small budget had two of (a), (b), and (c), and not three. Perhaps I will have better luck next year, or a reader can help.[2] Oh, and the water feature has to survive the winter, maybe if I mulch it; I'm not dismantling it and putting it into the garage or anything like that. That's work, and I know myself well enough to know that I will postpone the dismantling effort until after it snows, and then it will be too late.)

However, as it turns out my real reason for wanting a water feature must have been my subconscious forcing a card on me -- the water feature will attract birds, and birds (ideally Cardinals, as I have said) will not only spread annual seeds, they will eat the hated and icky Japanese beetles, currently copulating orgiastically all over my raspberries and roses, and possibly other bugs, like squash bugs and cucumber bugs.

So a water feature at Area 1 primarily meets the complexiful aesthetic requirement, but also to an extent meets the geometrical requirement, because it will draw the eye to the base of the pyramid, thence to sweep upward to the apex at ...

.... Area 2, as indicated by the cryptic blue vertical line. Right now, even though neither Figure really shows this, Gooseneck Loosestrife supplies the apex, and it is wonderful at attracting pollinators: Bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, butterflies (although I would like more butterflies, too). However, the Loosestrife is a weed (I know, I know, but still) but more importantly just isn't robust enough to do dominate the geometry; it is so airy and lacy and lightweight that it has no visual impact as a vertical; it is tall, but the eye does not follow it upward. Now, ultimately the Filbert tree -- crippled by the people who installed the gas line, and so not especially happy -- will play this role, but that will not be for some years yet. So I need a tall plant -- or a solution, involving tall plants, plural -- that makes a visual impact as a tall plant, that attracts pollinators, that won't cripple the Filbert even more, and that I can happily root up or move somewhere when I feel the Filbert has come into its own. (I'm not completely averse to a trellis or a pole around which things might twine, as long as there's very little work involved. However, as readers know from the U-hoops, I really like lightweight and disposable. And trellises, unless against the side of houses, always feel unnatural, not organic to a site, to me.)

Area 3: On the topic of birds, nippersdad points out that birds love a mess, and I suppose they would love a mess near a water feature even more. However, what we see here is not an especially interesting mess; it's just an undifferentiated mass of oppportunistic vegetation; in fact, it's ugly. Is there a more interesting mess that I might create? Mess being good not only because it attracts birds, but because it doesn't involve work.

Area 4: This is a "rock garden," that is, a patch of reasonably good soil bounded by rocks. It has invasive violets, columbines, and it's the first thing I plant in the spring, with pansies in flats, just to show the town I still have matters in hand. The rock garden works well at the base of the pyramid, and I love columbines, but I'm putting it in play as a design challenge because I'm thinking "Could do better!" (From the sidewalk, there are three parallel zones: the "Zone of Destruction," where the town throws sand in the winter when clearing the sidewalk, then the "Zone of Wildflower", and then the rock garden. Geometrically, that is, the zones work well, and complexifully, the wildflower zone works superbly, but the rock garden could be improved.

* * *

So that is my brain dump for now, and reader thoughts will be very much appreciated.

I'm happy with "complexiful" -- it doesn't seem to have been a word! And also happy to give aesthetics their due when designing a system. More people should be able to do this; that should be a goal, a goal of political economy. People should be able to create beautiful, complexiful things much more easily than they can today; and we see the impulse to do so all around.

NOTE [1] Last night, I stepped out for a moment and walked over the sheet mulch on my way to, er, marking my territory against deer.

NOTE [2] This was the best, but it's not (c) solar. This one looks pretty good too, but it's not solar either. Is there a reason why want I want can't be solar?

NOTE The yellow arrow from top left shows the direction of the sun; the whole area gets excellent sun. The big yellow dot at the bottom is a Skitch artifact; it doesn't mean anything at all.

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nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

A contest!

What is your square footage? Kind of a tall order for so small a piece of real estate.

My entry:

Some Mexican sunflower (dwarfish sunflowers with many blooms) and millet...maybe some milkweeds or carrotty type things for caterpillars...with a cement birdbath.

You will need the BB to be raised fairly high to give the birds a sense of security from predation. Any water feature you site amongst a planting like that must be or they won't use it. Turn it over in Winter. The sunflower, millet and milkweed will also give you height, a different texture, color and attract both birds and pollinators.

caseyOR's picture
Submitted by caseyOR on

I would add cosmos because they are self-seeding, come in many pretty colors and attract pollinators.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Excellent suggestion! It would give good height and the airy foliage would provide a different textural interest to complement the other plantings. Maybe some bronze fennel as well? It also self seeds, has a different color/texture and it is great for caterpillars.

Submitted by lambert on

A bowl on a pillar in the middle of the yard, WTF. Is there some kind of less birdbath-y kind of bird bath? Maybe I could put it up on rocks or a pile of stone dust with stuff growing on it? (On reflection, I see how the stupid-looking pillar makes it hard for predators to get at the bath. But there aren't any birdbaths in the wild. What do birds do there?)

Good suggestion on the sunflowers. That would work and if I am lucky they self seed too. (Although deer like them.)

As for square footage, I'll pace it out tomorrow. I see now the picture doens't help with scale. It's really not large. Dense, but small.

UPDATE Adding, maybe I need to separate the water feature and the birdbath conceptually and have both. I wonder if there are hanging birdbaths? That might speak to the apex issue as well, although it would be work to fill.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

In the wild they take their chances; think documentary on water holes in the Sahara. But you want to attract them so your "water hole" needs to be safer than the alternatives.

You can absolutely hang a birdbath, and hanging ones have the advantage of being comparatively unstable, depending upon how they are hung, to deter heavier critters. I have seen them hanging from everything from teepees of bamboo/branches or formal iron obelisks to overhanging tree limbs. The bowl could be made from anything so long as it is rough and old wooden pasta bowl would be a good example. Just bear in mind that all of that splashing on a comparatively unstable platform will mean the need for filling it more often, hence the usual pillar....which you really don't see anyway if the bed is planted densely.

Also, there is a lot to be said for some form of feeding station. You can then attract more birds than your real estate could ever support by itself.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

It just occurred to me that I may have been unclear. The ten foot rule applies to bird baths or feeders near shrubs or trees that cats can climb or hide in. You would use that variant in situations where the BB is used as a focal point, as at the convergence of or ends of a path, on a lawn......In flower beds one would do the exact opposite: one would plant the bed densely in flowers slightly lower than the bath. The cats could get into the bed, but the density of the planting would screw up their spring into the bath.

Changing the water is as easy as spraying it with a hose; blast out the old and then fill it with the new. It is easier with focal point BB's, but not hard or time consuming with those less easy of access using one of those multiple head sprayers. I maintain five or six of them whilst doing my round of watering hanging ferns and planted urns. It really isn't that big a deal and the pleasure of watching the birds bathe more than makes up for, you are continually watering the flowers around it with free, fertilized water; no waste!

The idea is either to have no cover or low, dense cover that would impede predation.

Submitted by lambert on

1) If the ten-foot rule means a ten-foot radius round the bath, I don't have that space. I don't see the bath as a design focus, but a functional (complexiful) thing. But I can put dense,m cat spring preventing flowers around a basin, for sure. I want to swap out the dense weeds and swap in dense flowers.

2) I don't want to add a feeder. I think that makes them dependent. Let them find their own food, hopefully in my plants!

3) From what you say about birds in the wild, I wonder if the stack of flat stones thing would be enough to attract birds. Perhaps, however, they would not feel save if it is too low. (I don't think I want to build a mound of earth.)