Designing Landscapes: Growing landscapes organically


    By James Young

    In the previous article, I covered why growing food organically was so important for our everyday lives and our children’s future. We can apply the same principles at home to grow safe and healthy landscapes.

    I have a hunch most people think growing organic is about all the tips and tricks to get rid of plant pests without using industrial pesticides. While that is part of growing organic, it is not the main part.

    In organic growing, our goal is to culture the best conditions to prevent plant problems from happening rather than trying to cure problems after they have already started. It’s really about understanding Nature’s systems, working within those systems, and doing no harm to them.

    It’s just like human health. Prevention takes less time and money and avoids the most harm but it also requires planning and up-front effort.

    In a knee-jerk modern society bent on multi-tasking ourselves to death, taking the time to plan doesn’t get the credit it deserves. We’re more likely to Tweet or Facebook what just happened to us rather than envision, plan and execute what we’d like to happen.

    Below, I’ve outlined four important steps to follow to get your landscape started in the right direction.

    1.  Know Your Place

    Isabelle was a pretty young lady who dreamed of marrying a prince one day. Only she was but a lowly peasant…she did not know her place.

    The drama of social-class structures is not what I’m talking about. What I mean is to become familiar with the place you’re living in.

    Where does the sun shine at different times of year and for how much of the day? What areas become boggy messes in winter? What areas get blistering hot and dry in summer? Do you know how moist the soil is throughout the year? Whether the yard is windblown or stagnant? Do you have pockets of cold? Or reflected and captured heat? Paying attention to your land is the first step in becoming a good organic gardener.

    Getting to Know Your Place will form the basis for all your plant selections and placements. This is the second part of the saying: ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ but it’s the first thing you should do, not the other way around.

    Although I know at some point you’ll be at a nursery and have to buy something, just because the plant is so unbelievably awesome. Believe me I’ve been there. The problem is when you get your prize home and have to find a place to put it. This is not a success-based approach. More like a make-do-with-the-consequences approach.

    By Knowing Your Place beforehand, you can select plants that will thrive in your conditions. And that is what we’re after as gardeners, a thriving garden, not a mishmash of specimens on life support. OK, maybe one or two irresponsible choices is OK. Or three. Or 10.

    2.  Pick the Right Plants

    Now you’ve gotten to Know Your Place, you need to choose plants that will grow well there.

    Start with the basics:

    Hardiness. Check your plant’s USDA hardiness zone rating or Sunset climate zone rating and make sure it is within your area’s rating. Edmonds, WA is rated USDA 7b, or Sunset 5.

    You want to pick plants that have a number that matches your rating or lower. For example, USDA 7a should be OK in Edmonds. USDA 8 is a plant that will probably freeze to death in our winters unless you have an especially warm spot (year-round) such as a courtyard, good southern exposure in winter, provide winter protection, or you live close to the water.

    The USDA rating should be listed on every nursery plant’s label but the Sunset rating is only listed in the Sunset Western Garden Book so you will need to cross reference with that book if you want to use Sunset ratings. It’s still a valuable rating and most every experienced Northwest gardener has or is familiar with that book. The Sunset rating takes into account accumulated heat and effects of moisture. USDA is based solely on coldest normal temperatures.

    Sun Exposure. Plants are classified by sun exposures: full sun, part sun, part shade, full shade, etc. The meanings of these are loose and go hand in hand with the amount of moisture available to a plant.

    Many plants rated as part sun can stand full sun when there is enough moisture in the soil (or by irrigation). A lot of bog plants are like this. People from Edmonds are kinda like this too: Enjoys part sun with plenty of moisture present. We’re like bog plants.

    Many plants rated as full sun may indeed survive full sun but not look so good. Japanese Maples and Dogwoods are two plants that come to mind that often get thrust into full sun conditions when they are actually understory trees by nature. They need some shade. They might survive full sun but will often look like they’ve been “screamed at all day” as one of my horticulture instructors used to say.

    Also, begin to discern such differences between part sun on the accommodating east side of your house versus part sun on the dry sweltering west side of your house. The last half of the day has less moisture in the air and is the hottest part of the day, on average, than the morning. So a western exposure is especially trying on part-sun plants that need moisture. These little differences have a big impact on plant health.

    Moisture requirements. Again, this often goes hand in hand with the amount of exposure to sun and desiccation from winds. Wind is seldom talked about in plant guide books but the drying action of wind can suck the moisture right out of plants in an otherwise bucolic setting. Know Your Place.

    One of the problems of knowing the moisture content of soil is that it isn’t visual. You have to literally dig into the soil to check. Do this often to get a true feel for the soil moisture content throughout the year. The surface may look dry when there is plenty of moisture underneath or look wet after a summer rain that really doesn’t penetrate into the soil at all (and may just evaporate back into the air again).  Dig a few inches into the soil to get the real story.

    Moisture is also related to how well your soil drains too. Play close attention to soil that puddles for long periods or that absorbs water almost instantly.

    Be aware that most house foundations usually have a drain system underground; soil up against the house has to deal with drying from this drain below as well as roof overhangs that prevent rain from reaching the soil from above. Ah, details, details and the devil that resides within.

    Fertility requirements. Check the fertility requirements. Most plant books will only put a note or two addressing fertility if the plant’s requirements for it are especially high or if a plant thrives on low fertility. Good to pay attention to.

    Use organic fertilizers or get your fertility from the decomposition of plant materials. Organic fertilizers have advantages over industrial fertilizers in several ways mentioned in the previous article. Basically they are healthier for your plants because they work within Nature’s optimal system. Industrial fertilizers can be harmful to your plants and soil.

    This is where compost mulches play a big role, too. They protect the soil as a mulch then break down into nutrients to feed the plants. Many ornamental landscape plants don’t require too much fertility so compost mulch is perfect for these plants.

    With the above basics in mind, along with size requirements, choose the ‘right’ plants for your place.

    To make things more confusing, plants have at least two names; Common Name(s) and their singular Botanic Name.

    The Botanic Name is a method scientists have invented to avoid confusion by replacing it with complexity and obscurity. And just when I was really liking the Botanic Name, Cimicifuga (Si mi si fugh ah), a name with some real lyricism and poetry to it, they go and change it to Actaea (Ack tay ee ah) which sounds like something the cat spit up.

    The Common Name for Cimicifuga is Bugbane or Snakeroot depending on the species. Now those are some really catchy Common Names infused with history and a little intrigue as well.

    The problem with Common Names is there is no higher body controlling what should be called what. For example, a “Blue Bell” could be one of many different species of plant. “Blue Bell” is very descriptive but could be any number of plants depending where you live. Common names – they’re outta control! Try to learn the Botanic names.

    The point of all this common/botanic name blah blah is that there is “work” involved in getting to know the characteristics of plants. Just the names themselves are difficult. You have to dive into books, study a bit, and take notes. It doesn’t take the fun out of it but this also would be a good opportunity to hire a landscape designer who has done all the studying for you. Or twist grandma’s arm for some more valuable info.

    3.  Keep the Soil Healthy

    Now this is the nitty gritty of organic methodology.

    The soil is alive. Good healthy organic soil is so full of microscopic and not-so-microscopic life that it actually moves and grows. It is thick and scrumptious and smells delicious and looks beautiful. I believe it’s in our genes to recognize healthy soil. It’s dark, airy and attractive.

    It is your main objective as an organic gardener to build healthy soil. If you already have healthy soil, it is your moral obligation to continue to build it for future generations.

    Now technically I’m contradicting myself here because if you really put the Right Plants in the Right Place then you would’ve picked plants that would match the typically crappy soil novice gardeners tend to start with in city gardens.

    Did you know there are plants that thrive in depleted infertile soil that aren’t weeds? The poppy comes to mind. That’s what they grow in Afghanistan, a place where the whole country has barren soil due to everything from wars to overpopulation.

    Why don’t I recommend just picking barren-soil plants instead of healing the soil to accommodate more demanding plants?

    What I’m really suggesting is to bring your soil back to an original condition or better. Strive for a higher level of quality that existed before somebody bulldozed the native landscape in order to put up your house.

    A healthy soil supports a greater diversity, abundance and level of life. Heal the soil and you will be able to grow many more plants and many different kinds of plants more successfully. We don’t want Afghanistanian soil. Growing poppies to sell for drugs to pay for food while fighting off warlords with 2nd-hand AK-47s may sound like fun and games, but here in Edmonds we’re really more practical than that.

    Here are suggestions for building healthy soil:

    Add organic matter to your soil continuously. This can be anything natural, plant or animal, it’s all good.

    If animal material, it’s generally better to fully compost it first or otherwise bury it in a shallow grave (not too deep, keep it in the root/oxygen/microbial zone for best effect). You don’t want dead rodents, dog poop, stale meat, or whatever, generally laying about your garden. That is unless you’re really thinking outside the box — next year’s Garden Show Theme: Cadaver Gardens – Getting In Touch With The Passed!

    It’s simple really; cover smelly items in your compost with other organic material (dirt, sawdust, straw, etc) to prevent smells, flies, and the general bad looks of it all. Of course, judging by how many people have trouble remembering to close the lid on the toilet… A simple rule: If Smelly, Cover It.

    Compost On-Site. it’s better than trucking away tons of “yard waste” per year only to have new compost trucked back in. That’s triple the cost: pay to take away, pay to buy it back, and all that fuel wasted in the process. All that rot, duff and other messy stuff that convention says we should truck away as “yard waste;” it’s not waste at all — it’s the ‘duff’ of life.

    Also it’s safer to make your own compost as you know what’s in it. There are increasing cases of “deadly” commercial compost where industrial herbicides survive the composting process along with other harmful chemicals. The result is the newly bought compost kills or weakens your plants instead of making them healthy.

    Top dress with compost. You don’t have to dig compost into the soil. Generally, any nutrient-rich top dressing will deliver all its soily goodness downward into the soil naturally by water movement and gravity. Save yourself the work, just “Top Dress.” However, “Top Dress” is not such good rule of thumb when deciding what to wear to the office. Pants have their use.

    Mulch your soil. Mulch is any insulating top layer of organic matter that protects the soil. Examples include compost, wood chips, grass clippings, bark chips, and even pebbles.

    Mulch protects the soil from the impacts of rain, wind, and sun. Yes, those little raindrops hit the soil with amazing force on a microscopic level, stripping and leaching nutrients away like carpet bombs over Baghdad.

    Wind picks up and blows away the most valuable fine particles of soil. Like when someone opens the office door and all your papers blow willy nilly about the office. Place mulch on your office papers to keep them in place like we do at Blue Wheelbarrow.

    Sun dessicates and kills microbial activity like a cop’s flashlight does to all the fun on “Lover’s Lane.”

    Mulch greatly reduces the impact of all of these forces. It also holds moisture in the soil, reduces runoff and soil leaching as it eases the infiltration of water, suppresses weeds, and insulates soil and roots from temperature fluctuations (keeps heat in during a freezing night and protects soil and tender roots from the hottest and driest parts of the day). It also adds nutrients as it breaks down (not so much for rock mulches), and provides food and a place to thrive for various microbes and good insects.

    Plant it up. Cover open ground with plants. It’s better than mulch with less long-term cost than mulch, which must be reapplied regularly. Never just have open soil or it will soon be damaged, leached, and barren soil. Still not so barren that weeds won’t grow there though, so don’t get the idea that barren soil will save on yard work.

    Layer your planting to maximize efficiency of space: plant small, mediuma nd large plants in the same space to pack more diversity (and interest) into a small area, and yes ma’am it’s all right if the plants touch each other a bit.

    Don’t be afraid to pack your plants in there to where they’ll touch a bit when mature. Although, this may possibly lead to air circulation problems at the end of the season (when powdery mildew starts making an appearance), it’s good for soil health to have it completely covered and to have a dense and diverse root strata where most microbial activity takes place. Most home gardeners are short on space to begin with anyway.

    Having plants close together allows you to play with plant combinations as well, contrasting different leaf shapes, colors and forms against each other.

    So use this opportunity to plant things, it’s good for the soil. Plant a lot of things that you like. Don’t hold back!

    Keep the “mess” of plant material in your garden as much as possible as this makes a good environment for good bugs and microbial activity as well as supplying the fodder that breaks down into plant nutrients and protects the soil like a mulch.

    Here I’m talking mostly about the dead parts perennials leave over the winter, dropped leaves from trees, spent flowers and seed heads, etc. Stuff that you are tempted to cut back during the fall with the intent of “tidying things up,” don’t do it! Just leave the tidying up for ‘Spring Cleaning’ in late winter. When else do you get a free pass to procrastinate?

    Leaving that stuff in your garden protects plants during the winter months. For example, a thick leaf layer in your garden beds offers great cold protection to the root crowns of your plants, all those bulbs, tender perennials, tree and shrub roots that you can’t see but are still alive just under the soil surface. Keeping them covered not only protects against cold dieback but also from desiccation from dry winter air. All the while it breaks down and feeds the soil.

    Add to that, it provides a place for insects to overwinter and that’s good for your garden and the environment. Plus it’s fun to see winter birds tossing leaves around to look for a winter snack. It’s an essential part of their winter survival.

    Of course, some judgment and balance are required to keep up your neighborhood presentation. The front yard might demand more tidiness than the back.

    Hopefully you don’t have an overbearing homeowner’s association that demands leaf blowing and trimming back of everything on the face of the earth that isn’t green. This is ignorance in action and needs to be stopped.

    Super clean landscapes are a waste of resources that scream “I have a garden but I don’t understand a thing about it!”

    It’s the 21st Century peeps; let’s at least learn something about taking care of Nature. It does have something to do with the survival of Humanity after all; no small cheese.

    Slow the passage of water. You don’t want rain water or irrigation water to run in little streams about your garden (also called runoff). This strips away topsoil and leaches away nutrients as well as being a waste of water.

    For excess rainwater problems, increase water storage capacity either by slow absorption into the soil (for example diverting downspout water to a designated bog garden) or develop some kind of storage (rain barrels, cistern, etc) for irrigation use later or ornamental use (pond). Try to avoid shoving all that water down storm drains if possible, that only creates problems elsewhere.

    Adjust irrigation systems to prevent excess watering.  The old fashioned “sprinkler” type heads often exceed the absorption capacity of typical soils – they water too fast. There are new sprinkler heads available that are low flow (“MP Rotator,” for example) that can solve this type of problem and put less of a strain on your house water supply. Consider converting to drip irrigation. Another irrigation problem is irrigating during rain. Invest in a weather (rain) sensor that shuts off your irrigation appropriately.

    Speaking of slowing the water, watering your plants properly is the next step to growing organically and effectively.

    4. Irrigate Properly

    Watering your landscape doesn’t seem like an exclusively organic method. It’s not like non-prganic growers don’t water their landscapes. What I’m specifically saying is you should water your plants with attention to detail so that you may optimize the health of your plants and prevent watering related plant problems.

    Again what makes this an organic method is that your goal is to manipulate how you water in order to prevent problems and maximize health. This way you don’t have to waste your time applying pesticides or fungicides to unhealthy plants. Instead avoid those problems all together.

    For example, spray irrigation wets down the leaves of your plants making them more susceptible to leaf rotting and mold problems, especially late in the season. The answer: Switch to drip irrigation, a method that delivers water directly to the soil. Or at least water in the morning where the rising heat of the day will dry leaves quickly.

    Another example is hand watering. Hand watering even a small landscape is not as effective as you might think. It takes too much time to properly hand water an entire landscape. Unless you have dedicated gardener, it usually gets forgotten and your plants will suffer. Get an irrigation system, especially a drip system with a rain sensor and a timer. That way you can even go on vacation and the most important summer gardening requirement will be taken care of.


    These are basic steps that will reduce the problems that often get blamed on pests when the underlying cause is in fact unhealthy plants.

    Use knowledge to prevent problems and support better health naturally. It may seem easier to just go and buy an industrial chemical to try to silver bullet your way to a “healthy” landscape, but it just doesn’t work that way. The long term and hidden costs of using industrial methods are high and the success rate low, not nearly as good as the chemical salesmen would want you to believe.

    There is much more to learn about organic methods. Books are filled with all the organic tips and tricks to solve the myriad specific problems you may encounter sooner or later as an organic gardener. These are valuable but don’t forget that the basis of organic growing is to create the right conditions for success. Organic growing is a plural, holistic method, primarily of prevention but always based on working within Nature’s optimal system.

    James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscaping in Edmonds.


    One Reply to “Designing Landscapes: Growing landscapes organically”

    1. Thank you, Mr. Young, for not only a wealth of useful reminders and tips, but for taking the time to making an article that is a joy to read.


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