It all started when Jenn said my new bird bath needed some phlox. “Gosh, she’s right,” I mused. “And I have some bright pink phlox in the front bed that I want to move out before I dig out the goldenrod infestation. Those pink phlox would look perfect by the bird bath.”
Bird bath transforms septic lid
The bird bath rests on the lid to our septic tank. The septic lid was a level and stable place to put the bird bath. But it also disguises the septic lid, and incorporates it into the garden. When you look at it, you don’t think, “Oh, look, they put a bird bath on their septic lid.” Instead, your mind sees a bird bath resting on a concrete base. But without plants around it, the bird bath still looked like it was just plopped down.
Shape of bed determined by mowing path
The shape of the bed was determined by another design problem. We use a DR Brush Mower with a lawn attachment to cut the grass. The mower operator runs the machine along the chicken yard fence until he approaches the septic lid. Then he must turn away from the fence in order to go around the lid. This leaves a crescent shaped patch of grass that the operator must retrace his steps to mow. (You might be able to see that unmown grass shape in the photo above.) I used that crescent shape to determine the shape of the bed.
Plant choice informed by practical considerations
Plant choice was also affected by the septic lid. Our septic tank is pumped every year in early spring. That means foot traffic around the lid. Any plants growing in the immediate area either have to be slow to emerge or able to tolerate some foot traffic at that time. Furthermore, I had to accept that in the event of problems, the area might need to be dug up at any time. No sense planting anything precious or irreplaceable there, only to have grief later.
Too late to dig
It was already October when I realized it would be best to move the phlox that autumn if I wanted to dig goldenrod next spring. There was no time to dig a bed in the usual manner, removing sod, forking the soil to loosen clay and remove rocks, adding organic matter and forking it in. If I was going to make the bed before the ground froze solid, it would have to be without digging.
Proceeding without research
When I was in high school, someone had given me a copy of The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, but sometime in the period after college but before gardening I got rid of it. Neither Lasagna Gardening nor Weedless Gardening were in my local library, and it would take too long for them to come from another library. I was forced to rely on my vague memories of Stout’s book and other reading I had done on the topic, plus an article in the April 1995 issue of Garden Gate (issue 2).
Now, I’m the kind of person who reads Consumer Reports before shopping for kitchen appliances. I don’t care if it’s a Cracker Jack prize, I read the instructions before attempting to put anything together. So, if I’d had my druthers, I would have read all three of the above mentioned books plus spent the summer calculating how many square feet of newspaper I needed and how many cubic yards of compost and mulch I needed to stockpile. But, I realized it was now or never. So I winged it, big time.
Follow along in this photo essay to see if starting this project without adequate research was a good idea.
Tell the truth, the whole truth
This fall I checked out Lasagna Gardening and Weedless Gardening and flipped through them. They both sound like miracle cures, and if you do everything right, maybe they are. But to summarize, here are some problems I had:
- Not enough cardboard/paper available
- Not enough organic material on hand
- No edging to keep grass out
- Truly pernicious weeds to battle
All of these problems could have been eliminated with better planning and a willingness to wait another year. But I find it disturbing that neither Lanza nor Reich address problematic plants such as bindweed or Japanese knotweed. Have they never had to deal with them?
Neither author addresses the price you must pay for the organic materials you can’t scavenge from your own property. They love to talk about free leaves or manure for the hauling, neglecting to mention that you need to have the use of a truck, or figure out a way to package manure so it won’t stink up your trunk. And no one was too concerned about the price of gas when either of those books were written. And where are you going to store all that stuff before you have time to build your bed?
This method does work. Colleen of In the Garden Online used it with great success. Margaret Roach has made her beds this way for years. And I have used a modified form of it for the beds I have reclaimed. I remove the garden plants I want to save and I dig out all the perennial weeds. Then I shovel at least three inches municipal compost on top–but I don’t dig it in. The compost is semi-decomposed wood chips, and functions as soil amendment and mulch. I just wish these books would tell the whole truth, and not just the part that’s pleasant to hear.
How to fix this mess?
I’m going to collect a bunch of newspapers, cut down the weeds in that one end, and start all over again. On the better maintained end, I’m going to cut the dianthus off at ground level and put more organic matter over the bed. I would love to cover the whole thing with mulch, but frigid weather may arrive before I get to that. As for the bindweed, I will continue to work on eradicating that, but I’m in it for the long haul.
How About You?
Have you tried a version of no-dig or weedless bed making? How did it work for you? I’d like to know. Or have you ever been frustrated by a gardening project that was supposed to be simple and easy–and turned out to be anything but? Tell us about it in the comments.