Mimic Nature’s Perfection with Hügelkultur

This woodland area has fallen conifers that have been nourishing the soil for decades. We are filling in the eroded spots with dead trees we are cutting down, and then we’ll build low mounds with smaller branches, shrubbery and wood chips, topped with composted manure and topsoil.












What aspect of nature could I improve upon when nature already functions perfectly?”
JosefSepp” Holzer,Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture,” 2011

Jerry and I are using a permaculture method called hügelkultur (“hill gardening”) that will enable us to mimic the natural processes we’ve observed in our forest by creating piles of wood and other compostable materials and planting right on top of them. I’m excited about hügelkultur because it will enable us to make good use of the wood we’re clearing, rather than burning it or hauling it away.

Hugelkultur is one of the most efficient ways to incorporate organic matter into the soil over a long period of time. The biomass sequesters carbon, thus preventing its release into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Plants can use the stored carbon more effectively to produce healthy food and beautiful flowers.

            As the logs and branches in hügel beds break down, they create fluffy, humus-rich soil, eliminating the need to till. The wood also acts like a sponge, absorbing water during wet winter months and providing a steady supply of water to plants during dry summers. Little supplemental irrigation is needed.

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Help for dead dirt

“Soil remediation is a process of developing the life of the soil by introducing beneficial bacteria and fungus in their living state.” – Frank Holzman, Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming, 2018

I recently found a brand new thrill in a rented excavator as Jerry and I cleared away several root balls of gorse shrubs at our New Place in Bandon. I was happy to see the last of the highly invasive, highly flammable, mighty-weeds go, but I am not pleased at all about the dead dirt the gorse has left in its wake.

If ever a soil was in dire need of remediation, this is it! I want to plant a garden here; so what’s a new property owner and aspiring gardener to do?

I talked with Scott Goode, environmental scientist and founder of the soil replenishing group Nourishing Systems. He made me feel a lot more hopeful about improving the soil I have in Bandon through a process called regenerative gardening.

To replenish my soil in Bandon, Scott suggested I plant a cover crop mixture, along with daikon radishes that will loosen up compacted earth and add carbon as they decompose. I’ll spread a layer of composted horse manure when the cover crop shoots emerge, and then I’ll cover everything with rice straw for the winter. Next spring, I’ll mow the cover crop down, plant a summer crop of buckwheat, and allow the overwintered cover crop to decompose.

Here is the cover crop we’re planting in the fall. It’s a mixture of annual rye grass and Austrian peas, common vetch, white clover and buckwheat
This is daikon radish, which we’ll plant along with the cover crop to replenish the soil.

Next year, my soil will look, feel, and smell very different. Now, that will be a thrill!

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Late-summer-to-fall bloomers

“Every flower blooms at its own pace.” – Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem, 2011

In Sunday’s column (September 1, 2019), I shared suggestions from retired nurseryman, author, and horticulturalist Baldassare Mineo for five late-summer-to-fall blooming perennial flowers and shrubs.

Here they are with pictures from Baldassare’s garden, Italio Gardens, in Medford:

1. Hardy begonia (Begonia grandis ssp. evansiana)

2. New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’)

3. Daphne (D. xtransatlantica ‘Blafra’ or ‘Eternal Fragance’)

4. California fuchsia (Epilobium, formerly Zauschneria)

5. Tall sedums (Sedum spectabile hybrids)

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Rejuvenate with a forest bath

“Shinrin-yoku is lke a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. And when we are in harmony with the natural world we can begin to heal.” – Dr. Qing Li, “Forest Bathing,” 2018

Here is part of the conifer forest in our New Place in Bandon. Before we bought the property last year, no one had lived here for decades. The smell of the forest reminds me of Christmas trees, only this heavenly fragrance will last because the trees are alive! Some of the trees have worked hard to survive by reaching, reaching, reaching for the sun.

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (August 18, 2019), I suggested taking a break during the “dog days” of August in order to rejuvenate the senses by experiencing what Chinese medical doctor and author Qing Li calls a forest bath, or shinrin-yoku.

I recently took a forest bath in the conifer woodlands on our property in Bandon, Oregon, which we named New Place after William Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon Avon.

According to Qing Li, the key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses and letting nature enter our beings through our ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet. Closely observe, touch, smell, taste, and listen to the trees and other plants in the forest. Pay attention to the way our sensory experiences make us feel.

Also, pay attention to nature’s patterns, called fractals, which are all around us but we miss as we hurry through our busy lives. Shinrin-yoku requires us to slow down and be present in the moment – this is not easy!

This is one of the biggest conifer trees on our property. The bark has deep grooves where vines have taken hold.
Invasive ivy has found its way up the tree trunk.
Look closely and you’ll see that four saplings have grown from a single trunk that has extended as far it could go in search of the sun.
Nature’s magnificent patterns, called fractals, are everywhere, if only we take the time to notice them!
Himalayan blackberry bushes are invasive, but the ripe blackberries taste delicious and add another sensory experience to my forest bath.
Bright green moss feels furry on the tree bark.
I call this tree “The Lovers” because two trees have entwined to help each other find the sun.
We’ve cleared out a section of the forest for our home. For now, it’s so relaxing to listen to the birds singing and the wind moving through the branches.
This conifer has grown out of a tree that fell decades ago. It’s amazing to me how these trees have worked together in this neglected forest in order to survive and reproduce!

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Take a break to assess garden successes and failures

“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a Nectar
Requires the sorest need.”
– Emily Dickinson, “Success,” 1864

My elderberry bushes have grown and produced prolifically!

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (August 11, 2019), I posed 21 questions to assess garden successes, or “nectars” as Dickinson named them, as well as the season’s “sorest needs.” I recently took a break from summer maintenance chores to assess the Bard’s Garden at historic Hanley Farm.

Here are my observations for the fruit trees and shrubs in the garden, which were planted between spring 2017 and spring 2019: crabapple, pear, plum, black currant, elderberry, lemon, grapevine, fig, pomegranate and hazelnut. I’ll conduct similar assessments for other trees and shrubs in the garden, as well as flowers, herbs and vegetables.

Noting what has worked and not worked this season will help me make informed gardening decisions.

Italian plum tree grew and produced well, although several plums dropped because the tree is still young.
  1. What has grown/produced well?

Crabapples, elderberry, black currant, pear and plum grew and produced well. Newly planted grapevine, fig, blackberry, apricot and pomegranate grew well.

  • What has not grown/produced well?

Newly planted lemon did not produce may flowers/fruits. Newly planted hazelnut is heat stressed.

  • What would you like to grow more of?

I want to plant more grapevines. I also need to plant a cherry and nutmeg tree for the garden.

  • What would you like to grow less of, or not at all?

The elderberry bushes became top-heavy with fruit and flopped over; staking required.

  • What needs to be divided/propagated?

Nothing.

  • What needs to be replaced?

Nothing so far.

  • What needs to be removed?

Need to transfer one crabapple to MND garden; bring lemon (in container) indoors for winter.

  • What pollinators and beneficial insects are you noticing in abundance?

Lots of bees, especially on crabapple flowers

  • What pollinators and beneficial insects would you like to attract more?

Predator insects (ladybugs, etc.)

  1. What garden pests (insects, diseases, weeds) were less of a problem this year?

Insects and diseases were not a problem this year for any of the fruit trees.

  1. What garden pests (insects, diseases, weeds) were more of a problem this year?

Weeds are always a problem in the garden!

  1. What worked about garden irrigation?

Overhead rotating sprinklers shared with FNC crops provides adequate water to plants in the ground – soil holds water well.

  1. What didn’t work about garden irrigation?

Overhead sprinklers don’t water container plants well; encourages weeds in walkways.

  1. What worked about the garden’s organization?

Trees are spaced well with plenty of room to mature.

  1. What didn’t work about the garden’s organization?

Elderberry bushes fell into the pathway, blocking access.

  1. What hardscape features worked in the garden?

Oyster shell paths are pretty and fairly easy to maintain. Ornate fencing makes an attractive and effective border – need to buy 50 more feet to complete.

  1. What hardscape features didn’t work in the garden?

Wooden borders became dislodged and needed to be screwed together – will they hold? Wording is difficult to read on the wooden signs – need to paint.

  1. What garden tools were particularly useful?

Large spade was very useful for shoveling top soil, compost and bark mulch from the truck – good buy!

  1. What garden tools were not useful?

Bought way too many gloves because fingertips wore out fast – invest in better pair!

  • What particularly useful lessons were learned?

Elderberry bushes grow fast and produce prolifically – fruit tastes delicious!

  •  What do you want to learn more about?

How to effectively prune elderberry bushes and what to do with elderberries.

How to improve health of young hazelnut trees.

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Are Tomatoes Easy to Grow in the Rogue Valley?

Homegrown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes,
Wha’d life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things money can’t buy,
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Tomato deformity or a ruffled cultivar? This Medford tomato has what is sometimes called catfacing, a physiological disorder that does not make the fruit inedible.

 – John Denver, “Home Grown Tomatoes,” 1988

If you are a gardener in the Rogue Valley, growing at least one, if not a dozen, tomato plants every summer is practically a requirement in order to claim “real” gardener status. During the first weekend of every May, throngs of tomato enthusiasts leave the Spring Garden Fair at the Jackson County Expo with tomato plants of all types and sizes.

We eagerly anticipate that fine summer day when we will walk into our garden and pluck from the vine the prettiest, juiciest red, yellow, orange or purple tomato the world has ever known. If it’s a cherry tomato, we may pop one or two in our mouths before we even leave the garden. If it’s a meaty beefsteak tomato, we’ll carry it proudly into the kitchen and make that colorful hallmark of the season – the summer salad.

However, in between lugging tomato plants home from the garden fair and lugging our bounty into the kitchen, all kinds of unexpected things can happen. After eight years of growing tomatoes in the Rogue Valley, my answer to whether tomatoes are easy to grow here is “it depends.”

On one hand, if you set out a tomato plant in a sunny spot with reasonably fertile soil and water it regularly, you are going to end up with some tomatoes. On the other hand, if you are a “serious” tomato gardener and expect no less than the finest in terms of tomato quantity and quality, achieving that lofty goal is somewhat more difficult.

There are two big challenges to growing tomatoes in the Rogue Valley, and they both have to do with temperature. It’s well to remember that tomatoes originated in the tropical climes of western South America. Even after thousands of years of cultivation, it remains true to a certain extent that you can take tomatoes out of the tropics, but you can’t take the tropics out of tomatoes.

Accordingly, one challenge Rogue Valley tomato gardeners face is the dramatic temperature fluctuations between night and day, and from day to day, in the springtime when tomatoes prefer consistent temperatures to establish their roots, set flowers, and produce fruit.

For example, in May the temperature soared to almost 90 degrees on the 11th, but nighttime temperatures dropped to 50 degrees – that’s a 40-degree fluctuation! – and tomato plants don’t like temps below 55 degrees. Then on May 14th, the high daytime temperature didn’t reach 65 – that’s a 25-degree shift in a matter of three days!

These fluctuations confuse tomato blossoms, which shows up in the fruit the flowers set because tomatoes, like cucumbers, squash, eggplants and peppers, are produced from the flower’s ovary. If a tomato flower becomes deformed or is otherwise compromised due to cold temperatures (below 55 degrees), hot temperatures (above 95 degrees) or extreme weather shifts, the fruit will also be deformed or compromised.

The second challenge tomato gardeners encounter is the dry, intense summer heat in our area that is increasingly becoming the ominous harbinger of wildfires and smoky gardening days. Tomato plants will stop setting flowers/fruit and will drop flowers, and tomatoes are slower to ripen if temperatures exceed 95 degrees, particularly for several days in a row. It’s not only the intense heat that bothers tomatoes; it’s the lack of moisture in the heat that causes tomato plants to shut down.

Last year, 19 days in July exceeded 95 degrees (but only six days in August exceeded 95 degrees because smoky haze kept the temperatures down). I have talked with several gardeners who told me last year was the worst year they can remember for tomato harvests, and my tomato crops suffered, too.

Most of the other problems tomato plants develop are secondary effects of these temperature issues. Stressed tomato plants that have switched into survival mode are less able to fight against insect pests that are common tomato invaders: aphids, flea beetles, fruitworms, hornworms, cutworms, whiteflies and spider mites.

Weakened tomato plants also have fewer defenses against common tomato diseases: curly top virus, early and light blight, verticillium wilt and tobacco mosaic virus. Cornell University’s Vegetable MD Online website has useful descriptions and images of each of these diseases, as well as other common problems with growing tomatoes.

Fungal diseases are one of the most common tomato diseases, caused by foliage coming into contact with the soil, or water splashing from the soil to the leaves by using sprinklers or a forceful stream of water from a hose nozzle.

In addition to insect pests and diseases, tomato crops can develop physiological disorders such as cracking, zippering, catfacing, sunscald and blossom end rot. These disorders cause tomatoes to develop uneven coloration or deformities (sometimes the deformity looks like a cat’s face). The good news about physiological disorders is that the damaged portions of the tomato can be cut off and the fruit can still be eaten. So much for growing the prettiest tomatoes the world has ever known, though.

Blossom end rot, where tomatoes develop brown or black lesions on the blossom end of the fruit, is a particularly common problem. Although the disorder is caused by a calcium deficiency, it’s often the case that it’s not a matter of the soil having the deficiency, but that the tomato plant is unable to adequately take up calcium from the soil because it’s stressed and/or because of fluctuating soil moisture.

Over-fertilizing or using the wrong kind of fertilizer can also cause nutrient imbalances (use fertilizer high in phosphorus and low in nitrogen). In addition, fertilizer will damage leaves and fruit if it’s splashed onto them during fertilizing.

Uneven soil moisture is sometimes due to poor soil drainage (soil with lots of clay), but most of the time it’s because automatic drip systems don’t accommodate for fluctuating air temperatures. On hot days, gardeners tend to let the soil dry out too much, and then try to overcompensate by watering too much.

The trick is to supplement drip systems with careful hand watering on the hottest days, and to scale back on watering if needed when temperatures drop. Testing the soil frequently by poking your index finger into the soil to the second knuckle, or using a good moisture meter, is the best way to determine if your tomato plants need more or less water.

Mulching your tomato plants will help keep moisture levels consistent, and will protect plant roots from drying out. Having floating row cover ready to protect tomato plants on the hottest days and coolest nights will also help prevent fruiting failures.

Perhaps the best way to promote success with tomato gardening is to use varieties that have been developed for the growing conditions in our area. Oregon State University’s vegetable breeding program has developed several tomato varieties in the past 40 years including: Medford, Talent, Indigo Rose, Legend, Gold Nugget, Oroma, Oregon Spring, Oregon Star, Santiam and Siletz. Find out more about these Oregon-bred tomatoes at the OSU Extension Service website: https://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/eight-osu-developed-tomatoes-try

If a tomato plant produces well in your garden, be sure to save some of the seeds from the fruit for next season. As offspring from plants that have thrived in the particular microclimate of your garden, these seeds will likely grow into healthy, highly productive tomato plants, too.

Even if growing the perfect tomato isn’t all that easy in the Rogue Valley, don’t allow the challenges keep you from trying. After all, as John Denver sang:

Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer,
All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer;
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Everytime I go out and pick me a big’un. 

Homegrown tomatoes home grown tomatoes,
Wha’d life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things money can’t buy,
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.

For more about tomatoes and tomato gardening, visit

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Thinking of growing in a community garden?

“One of the wonderful things about growing plants in a community garden is that so many things are possible,” said Mary Foster, director of the Community Garden Network in the Rogue Valley. Foster worked with teens from a youth shelter several years ago to establish the Community Garden at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix. More recently, she was instrumental in developing the Union Park Community Garden in West Medford.

Foster shared useful information for people who are thinking about growing in a community garden:

  • Working in a community garden is a great way to learn how to grow plants. New gardeners have ready access to more experienced gardeners who usually love to talk about their garden successes and challenges. Many community gardens also host monthly work days that provide hands-on learning.
  • Working in a community garden also benefits experienced gardeners who are new to the Rogue Valley and want to learn how to grow plants in our local conditions. Community gardens are a great place for newcomers to meet other garden enthusiasts.
  • There are about 24 community gardens in Jackson County. With so many locations, it’s not hard to find a community garden nearby so you won’t have to travel far to garden.
  • Some gardens, such as the Community Garden at Blue Heron Park, have “enabled garden plots,” which are built high enough to make gardening easier for people in wheelchairs or who have other physical disabilities. If a community garden near you doesn’t have these accommodations, apply for a grant from the Community Garden Network.
  • Community gardens provide water, soil and tools for free or a small membership fee, so new gardeners don’t need to spend a lot of money to start gardening, and gardeners don’t have to lug items back and forth. However, it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of gardening gloves, wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and water bottle.
  • Gardening in a community garden doesn’t need to be time and energy intensive. Find out which crops or flowers are easiest to grow, start small, or share a plot with someone else. If you go on vacation, there’s always someone around who will help out in your garden plot while you’re away.
  • Community gardening thrives from friendly participation and good gardening etiquette: keep your plot maintained and the pathways weeded; keep tools clean and replace after use; avoid growing tall plants that will shade a nearby plot; resist the temptation to pick plants and produce from other garden plots; observe garden restrictions against using chemical/non-organic pesticides and growing marijuana.
  • Most of all, get ready to enjoy an awesome experience in a garden with others who love gardening as much as you do!

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Welcome temperamental March in the garden

Rogue Valley gardeners, let’s greet “Dear March” by planting a berry bush and some seeds for cool-season crops. Indoors, it’s time to sow eggplant, bok choy, kale, celery, and mustards in peat pots, as well as Chinese cabbage, peppers, and tomatoes in trays/flats.

Sow seeds directly outdoors for: radishes, carrots, lettuce, peas, arugula, cilantro, collards, garden cress, kohlrabi, parsley, Swiss chard and turnips.

Don’t forget to rotate from last year where you plant seeds in raised beds to help prevent insect pests and diseases. Or try polyculture planting by mixing carrots, leeks, onions and lettuce together, saving room to transplant in tomatoes later on. Here’s a useful link for more polyculture planting ideas.

Avid gardener and poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) often wrote about nature. Her sing-song poem, “Dear March,” was the inspiration for my poem, called “March and Her Yellow”:

Hello, March!

The month of my birth;
Your clamorous winds
Re-awaken the Earth.

It’s been a while
Since I’ve seen your yellow,
Good morning, Sun!
You’re such a fine fellow!


Did you lend your glow
To shy Daffodil
Who bows her head
Expecting Winter still?
Or, bold Forsythia,
Was that you, instead
Who coaxed Daffodil
From her earthen bed?


Greetings, March!
And the gold you bring,
Your Sun, your Flowers
Call out, “It’s spring!”

Please join me in greeting spring at Hanley Farm for Sundays in Spring from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 7 and April 14 and May 5 and May 19. The Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Family Nurturing Center’s Farm and Food Program are teaming up to offer family-fun gardening activities. I’ll be there to show folks around the Shakespeare Garden and talk about spring plantings. See you there!

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My plastic womb

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things –
We murder to dissect.

Enough of science and of art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned,” 1798

In this week’s Literary Gardener column and podcast, I discussed “greenhouse romanticism,” a genre of literature and poetry in which the relationships between plants and people are highlighted. In the 19th century, Romantic writers like William Wordsworth waxed poetic about nature as a way of criticizing the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which was moving people further and further away from nature and into cities and factories.

I wonder what the Romantics would have thought about gardening in today’s plastic-covered greenhouses? Indeed, plasticulture has transformed greenhouse gardening since polyethylene became commercially available after Word War II.

My plastic womb

For the past seven years, I’ve been growing plants in a 10 x 20 foot greenhouse covered in woven polyethylene. I’ve been impressed with the reinforced design of the 12 mil film (a mil is one-thousandth of an inch in thickness), which has made the greenhouse cover more resistant to stretching, tearing, puncturing, and turning brittle. The weave diffuses sunlight throughout the greenhouse, which reduces shadow spots, although the transmission of available sunlight is slightly reduced to about 85 percent. (By comparison, 6 mil clear polyethylene transmits about 90 percent of available sunlight inside the greenhouse.)

Polyethylene and other plastics are highly processed petroleum-based products; as such, I don’t think Willliam Wordsworth would have considered modern greenhouse gardening “sweet (a)s the lore which nature brings.”

But maybe that’s because Willy never gardened in a plastic-covered greenhouse. I love working with the plants in my greenhouse in the middle of winter when it’s cold and raining outside. There’s something about being in the enclosed space with the earthy smell of soil and growing plants and the sound of fat raindrops hitting the plastic roof that makes me wax poetic:

My Plastic Womb

Look up! My Friend, and quit your texts;
Surely, you will be fitter:
Look up! My Friend, you’re cyber-stressed;
Why all these tweets and twitters?

Venture ‘way from your plastic screen,
Give your tired thumbs a rest;
Yonder, there’ a capsule of green
Plants, where fragrant air is best.

Breathe deep! Take in the fertile smell!
Soil, rich, with tiny lifeforms –
Rain patters on the plastic shell,
Yet the womb is cozy-warm.

And look! Tiny seedlings emerge,
Gazing sunward as to home –
Oh, what joy to hopefully urge
New life ‘neath the plastic dome.

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What’s on your garden reading list this winter?

“The garden is a ground plot for the mind.” ~ Thomas Hill, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, 1577

In Sunday’s column, I shared my winter reading list for fellow literary gardeners – those who agree with garden designer and writer Mirabel Osler (1925-2016) who wrote in a A Gentle Plea for Chaos (1989), “Books nourish a gardener’s mind in the same way as manure nourishes plants.”

I am always looking for good fiction writing about gardens and gardening, so I was delighted to find The Garden of Reading: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Short Fiction about Gardens and Gardeners (2005) edited by Michele Slung. Did you know that the word “anthology” has botanical roots, deriving from the Greek words for “flower” and “gather”? Slung has certainly gathered an intriguing assortment of 24 short stories about flowers and other plants and the gardeners who tend them.

Her book provides gardeners with a perfect opportunity to take a break from garden how-tos and explore gardens of the mind imagined by diverse authors such as Eudora Welty (A Curtain of Green), James Thurber (See No Weevil), Doris Lessing (Flavors of Exile), Sandra Cisneros (The Monkey Garden), Robert Graves (Down to Earth) and Stephen King (The Lawnmower Man). As author Roxanna Robinson notes, “This collection of stories explores the very notion of gardens…After you’ve read these, you still may not know how to prune a rose bush, but you know a great deal more about human nature.”

My tip for this week: Find a copy of The Garden of Reading or another fiction story about gardens and gardeners and allow them to nourish your gardener’s mind. Please share what’s on your winter reading list by posting a comment.

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