More and more these days landscapes must be low maintenance, have a high aesthetic value and in recent times, be sustainable. The pace of life seems to be ramping up in this modern age, technology that was supposed to improve our lives appears to have made us work harder and longer.   With all of life’s responsibilities people have realized what an important role their landscape play in re-centering  and rejuvenating their souls. We need to connect with nature, feel like we are part of it, and our landscape is our conduit.

Sustainability has come into the spot light in recent years as some city infrastructures are  having trouble keeping up with the residential growth. Pressure is placed on the water supply and then restrictions must be put into place. Twenty years ago the thought of conserving water was almost laughable. Then in the early 1990s cities like Vancouver started to impose water restrictions forcing people to think twice about their use of water.

One definition of sustainability is “The use of ecosystems and their resources in a manner that satisfies current needs while allowing them to persist in the long term. “ When looking at a typical garden this seems unattainable. Careful consideration is required when designing or renovating a new landscape. So let’s talk about how we can achieve this goal without sacrificing the quality of the end product.

In a nut shell it’s a combination of appropriately selected layered plantings (Tree, Shrub, Perennial, Bulb), the use of organic matter, watering appropriately and starting a  garden with a good foundation of top soil. One should think about cultivating soil rather than cultivating plants. If you look after your soil, the plants will look after themselves, at least to some degree.  Sounds simple, but so often in life the simple methods are the best.

First of all the layered planting, we call these mixed borders. You have all seen or heard of the great perennials borders that England is so famous for. Well imagine these with a mixture of Trees, shrubs and some bulbs thrown in. This creates a naturalistic look while having interest on multiple levels. Not only does this look great, there are some huge benefits also associated with this.  We work our way down from the tree layer one can imagine how the shrub layer, protecting the root zone of the trees from high light levels and thus reducing evaporation. The same holds true for the herbaceous or perennial layer, these are planted between and in front of the other two woody layers. They will shade root zones and create habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Our clients our amazed at how quickly birds, and insects find these new havens.

Layered plantings or mixed borders also have another important role. As a unit they occupy the majority of space in a given area. This not only helps conserve water by protecting the soil, but also inhibits weeds from germinating.  With competition   from surrounding ornamental plants the weeds have little hope in establishing themselves.

You would think this alone would reduce work and water usage in a typical garden setting. If you thought this you would be right, but there are several other methods which will enhance the benefits we discussed already. 

One of the simplest and oldest methods that man has used is the use of organic matter. In earlier days farm yard manure was the primary organic product used, as it was an abundant waste product from farms. This is still used today in Windsor Great Park, England, home to one of Britain’s finest Herbaceous gardens. Aged cow manure is used to enrich the soil of the borders. Early gardeners realized that animal waste did have weed seeds that would germinate and create work for them.

At Windsor  every year in the fall one of four herbaceous borders is lifted. The plants are then divided, and the work begins on preparing the ground for the plants to be replanted . Many tons of cow manure are placed at the bottom of the garden in a method know as trenching. You start at one end of the bed and remove soil that is a shovel depth and width and runs the width of the bed. This is hauled down to the end of the bed for the last step in the process. Now you have an empty trench, which you fill half way up with some well rotted cow manure, I was told cow manure will last up to four years underground and provides nutrition this long for the hungry plants above. Once this manure is firmed into the ground we dig another trench behind the last, flipping the soil on top of the previous trench.  We carry on with this until we get to end and use the soil we removed from our first trench. Sounds like a lot of work…well it is, this process would take a month or so until the day finally came when replanting would occur. Once complete the border would be left for another four years, judging by the display that is produced this method  works very well, but is labour intensive.

Not all of us have the resources  the Queen of England has, so here’s a different method. Each year purchase some well composted organic matter, Seasoil or Fish compost is a wonderful product that is available in our area. It’s important that the product is well composted (dark in colour). This ensures that your garden will receive some nutrition in the short term. I usually apply 1-2” on top of the garden in Jan-March. Try and avoid the temptation of mixing this in with the soil, ideally you want to seal the top of the soil which will help reduce evaporation, protect the soil from harsh sunlight and inhibit annual weeds from germinating.  Once you are finished, that’s it for the year….how easy is that ?

You will still need to divide your perennials from time to time, but you won’t have to do this chore all at once. In fact there are some Asters which don’t require division for up to ten years, so why disturb them ?

Now obviously mulching your lawn may cause some problems,  so use a granular organic fertilizer. These are derived from plant or animal waste and enhance the soil beneath your lawn. Your soil is alive and needs to be healthy in order for your lawn to be low maintenance and lush.

Why should we be so concerned with the soil in your garden or lawn ?

Here’s a few facts that might put things into perspective.

•    In most ecosystems more life and diversity lives underground than above.

•    A single shovel full of rich garden soil contains more species of organisms than can be found above ground in the entire Amazon rain forest.

•    Air moves freely in the upper 8” of topsoil and is renewed every hour.

•    It’s estimated that 30 percent of carbon dioxide, 70 percent of methane, and 90 percent of the nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere each year is passed through the soil.

•    Soil organisms play an integral role in cycling nutrients through the environment

One of the top misconceptions people have relates to watering their landscape. This is a case when too much of a good thing can cause some serious side effects. Once a planting is somewhat established, usually after 1-2 years,  you would irrigate this area once or twice a week.  This should be a deep water which will then encourage deep or dense root development. If the plant is allowed to dry slightly between watering it encourages a healthier root system.

We recommend the use of automated irrigation for efficient use of water and convenience to the home owner. We design in provisions to irrigate both woody plants, perennials, and lawns separately. Newly planted trees and shrubs require much more water than adjacent perennials. Lawns require a different amount of water as well. In this case we install micro irrigation for all trees and shrubs. Pop-up sprinklers for the perennials, and a separate pop-up or rotor  zone for the lawn areas.

Micro irrigation is a low volume method of irrigation which allows you to deliver a deep watering to selected plants. By adjusting your irrigation controller you can apply as much or as little water as you feel is required. We find that newly planted trees and shrubs take three years to establish. There should be slight adjustments each year to account for this.

Perennials establish quickly and after the first year are well on their way. We typically water these for 20 min. 2-3 times a week in the first  year, 20 min 1-2 times a week in the following year, and in year number three once a week is adequate.

Lawns should have 1” of water applied to them on a weekly basis. One way of determining this rate of application is to place a water gauge on your lawn and activate the appropriate sprinklers start timing at this point and once you hit 1” you can set your irrigation controller accordingly. These gauges are widely available at various outlets.

Lastly when starting a new garden or lawn area think about investing in quality soil. It’s a one time application so it pays in the long run to start on the right step. We recommend using  12-18” of top soil in a new garden and 6-12” of soil in a new lawn. 

Part of my families daily ritual is strolling though the garden until we reach our featured destination, a pond and waterfall. We sit, sip wine, and discuss the days events while the sound of cascading water lulls us into a trance, or perhaps it’s the wine. At any rate the sound of water takes all the tension of the day and releases it, so that relaxation can be a part of our lives for another day.
Serving Vancouver Island, Nanaimo, Lantzville, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Ladysmith, Duncan, Port Alberni, Comox and Courtenay