Monday, January 24, 2011

Week 4: Salvaged Shade Garden

There's a back corner of my front yard that's so dank, so depressing, so weed-infested, I cringe in shame whenever I walk past it. No doubt you've got a neglected corner like that in your yard, too. Well, this week I finally did something about it. A long-awaited backyard renovation is starting on Thursday, and some of my beloved plants don't fit in the new garden plan. Instead of sending my plants to the great compost heap in the sky, I moved them to that lonely corner of my front yard. Win-win all around. Here's how you can do the same.
Before -- oh, the shame!
After -- finished garden with salvaged plants from the backyard 
What You Need

  • trowel
  • shovel
  • garden gloves
  • plants
  • planting mix or planting compost
  • all-purpose fertilizer
  • bark mulch
  • edging and pavers

The "what you need" list here is deceptively simple -- first, you'll need to do a little research before digging in. Is your skanky corner sunny or shady? And just how much sun or shade does it get every day? Spend a few days observing your area at different times of day. Once you have a sense of how much sun it gets, you can plan your plants accordingly. My area is very shady -- it just gets a little sun in the mornings. Fortunately, the plants I needed to move all thrive in the shade.

You can find out what plants do well in shade by looking at the plant labels at your local nursery. Shade plants are usually grouped in their own separate area. If the label doesn't give you the information you need, look up the plant in a garden guide (the Bible for Western gardeners is the Sunset Western Garden Book).

Don't forget water needs, too. So long as your shady area gets some water, you'll be fine. All my plants are on a drip system; if you don't have a drip system, commit to hand-watering your plants frequently, unless you live in an area with plentiful rainfall.

Then, check your soil. If it's super-hard clay or very sandy, you'll want to amend your soil with soil conditioners or compost. So long as it doesn't fall in either extreme, though, you'll be fine, so let's get started.

Step 1. Arrange your plants

I was fortunate in that all the plants I used happened to be living right in my garden. I dug them up and dragged them out front, and haphazardly arranged them in a semi-pleasing way. You might want to take a little more time. If you're buying plants, buy plants of varying heights (check the label to see how tall the plant will grow). Put taller plants in the back, medium height plants in the middle, and low-growing plants in front. Keep them in their pots and move them around till your composition looks pleasing.

What makes a pleasing composition? Keep it loose. Don't put plants in rigid rows. Group them together in shaggy triangular shapes. If you're using several of the same plant, buy them in odd numbers -- again, so that they end up with a random-looking effect you might find in nature.

Choose complementary colors. You might want to have a pastel color scheme, or a bold color scheme, for example.

Again -- I just used what I had. Sometimes I only had two of a particular kind of plant, rather than three. Come spring, if the arrangement looks lopsided, I might add in another plant or two here or there to balance it.

Step 2. Prepare your planting area

If you've got soil problems as mentioned above, you'll need to do some intensive digging and conditioning. My soil is great -- it's former orchard land around here -- so I just grabbed a shovel (for the bigger plants) or a trowel (for the smaller ones) and dug a hole for each plant that was a little bigger than the root area of the plant.

Pour a little all-purpose fertilizer into your hole. I used to use teaspoons and tablespoons to measure, but now I just eyeball it. You just want to give the plants a litle nutrient boost, you don't want to kill 'em off, so go light on the fertilizer. Dig the fertilizer into the bottom of the hole a little so that it mixes with the soil. Then, mix the garden soil that you dug out of the hole with some planting mix to loosen it up.

Step 3. Plant!

Well -- stick your plant in the hole. If it's in a pot, loosen the roots with your hands so that they stick out; otherwise the roots might not spread themselves out properly. Make sure the roots are inside the planting hole, and that the top of the root ball is a little lower than the top of the hole.

Then fill the empty spaces around the plant with the soil/planting mix combo that you mixed up. Water the area and see how the soil settles. Often it'll settle down lower than the planting hole, so add more soil till the ground level is even.

When all your plants are planted, water everything thoroughly. Really soak each plant so that they have plenty of water to get them started. Take care with small, fragile plants -- soak carefully so that they don't become submerged.

If you're using a drip system, add in your drip tubing now, before mulching.

Step 4. Mulch and add decorative elements
Closeup of the formerly weed-infested back corner
The best way to pretty up a garden area (and to hide drip irrigation tubing) is to pour a thick layer of bark mulch over the area. It's not just pretty -- it keeps down the weeds, too. Be generous -- two or three inches' worth of mulch is about right.

I also added a makeshift path of salvaged pavers from the garden, and used leftover bricks as edging. It's not going to win any garden awards, but it'll look pretty nice in the spring. And I won't have to hide my eyes anymore as I walk past.


  1. Wow, what a difference! Now, I have to ask- do you have your Make52 projects planned out in advance? Or are you thinking them up as you go along?

  2. Hey Grace, I'm just thinking them up as I go along. In fact, I originally had a totally different plan for this week's project, but since the landscapers are starting this week, I had to act fast to save my plants!