On 10 March 2012 was Eat Play Live (Knoxville); an educational forum designed to help “people become directly involved in local food sources and active outdoor spaces in support of their own healthy living” by focusing on teaching participants about food production, active neighborhoods, safer streets, and farm to fork (seed to plate).
Having the honor of facilitating one of the afternoon break-out sessions, I took on: Grass to Garden (Grow Food Yourself). The description of the session reads:
Would you like to put in a garden but don’t know how to begin? When planning a garden, not all spaces are created equally. Beginning with a less than optimal gardening space, participants will learn how to assess an area, work with existing features, and plan a garden. Finally, participants will assist in planting a garden that will benefit the L&N STEM Academy!
Though the title reads “grow food yourself” there is no (human) food in this garden. My philosophy when planning a garden and assessing a space is as follows:
- Does this location support a place that I can grow food to feed my family? Yes or no? If the answer is yes, I plant some kind of edible like vegetables, fruit, or nuts. If the answer is no (this may be due to lack of sun or too close to a home that may have lead paint)…
- Can I plant something here that will support, encourage, and feed wildlife like bees, birds, and/or butterflies? Yes or no. If the answer is yes, I plant something to support wildlife, preferably a native species. If the answer is no (this may be due to lack of proper sunlight)…
- Can I plant an ornamental native species here that supports the nature scape of my area? Yes or no? There usually isn’t a “no” here, but sometimes I may want to plant an annual or a bulb.
By following this simple train of thought, I am able to create garden spaces that require very low care and support the environment.
The area around the tree with the flagpoles in the background.
The Eat Play Live committee chose the L&N STEM Academy as the location for this breakout session. Most of the places available for a garden sat in parking lot islands/medians. I assessed the grounds of the school and choose an island that has high visibility and is used for the school’s flagpoles. This garden is visible from the World’s Fair Park playground and the Veterans’ Memorial. The students often pass this area while changing classes or hanging out in the yard. It’s location seemed to support adding a sense of pride to the school. Also, the space mirrored similar circumstances that people may contend with in their own yards: unmovable structures, trees, some undesirable plants…in this case, creeping juniper, and crab grass.
I went through my series of questions: Can I grow food here? The answer to this question was, “Yes,” but in this case, there were several other factors to consider.
Most of this creeping juniper stayed, but got a healthy pruning.
School gardens are great ideas because students learn a sense of where food comes from. They also learn responsibility in caring for plants that, will in turn, give something back…in this case, food. The challenge with growing an edible garden is that most plants mature in the summer when students are not in school, and no one benefits
from the vegetables. Even if a Spring or Fall garden presents a challenge. During the summer months, the garden becomes overrun and the students return to an area that leaves much to be desired and a lot of work.
Creeping juniper that was removed and lots of crabgrass.
In this case, I needed to consider the quality of the soil. Before the L&N became a school, lawn crews mulched heavily not taking the time to place the mulch around the plants, but often throwing the mulch directly on top of the plants. I found plants (dead or half dying) completely buried by the mulch. Not knowing where the mulch came from, I was concerned about toxins in the mulch/soil. Taking all this into consideration, I ruled out human edibles.
Area in between the flagpoles filled with crabgrass and creeping juniper that was removed.
On to the next question: Can this space grow plants that will support, encourage, and feed wildlife? Absolutely.
I met with the beautification club and YES, the school’s environmental club. When planning a garden for other people, it is important to include the actual people who will care for the garden in the general assessment. I can plant whatever I want, but if the population of the school is uninterested, the garden will fail. I explained my thought
Rough draft of ideas and plant choices presented to students of the YES and Beautification club at the L&N STEM Academy.
process to the students who agreed and were interested in a bird and butterfly garden. I reviewed the native plant list from Overhill Gardens, a local nursery that specializes in native plants and provided fruit bushes that were presented as parting gifts to participants of the Eat Play Live conference. I took a list of possible native plants and a rough draft of my idea to the students. The students liked the idea and the plants. I gave them the option of mixing berry bushes with perennial flowers, and they choose to stick with flowering plants.
After consulting with the students, I went to work designing the actual garden. I went straight out to the space with my tape measure, and to the best of my ability, got the dimensions of the island. I measured the location of the tree, flagpoles, and light pole. After I had the locations roughly drawn with notes marking distances, I sketched in the juniper. Then I stood back and visualized the space keeping in mind the possibility of native plants.
Landscape plan for the L&N STEM Academy using plants from Overhill Gardens. Adjustments were made to the finalized list due to plant availability. Not to exact scale, but close enough.
Removing the tree was not an option, and though the creeping juniper was unhealthy and dying, some of it was still quite healthy. I decided to simply prune the dead parts from juniper and clear out the dead and buried stuff. The plan I showed to the students included a walkway to make the flagpoles more accessible. I designed the path to flow between the three structures [and now would be the time to come clean…when originally looking at the median, I simply assumed all three poles were flagpoles. I did not look up (till after the walkway was designed and the landscape plan sent to Eat Play Live to be used as a handout) to notice that one of the flagpoles wasn’t a flagpole at all but a light pole…I considered changing the plan to something simply going from one flagpole to the second flagpole then out of the garden…like the original rough draft, but decided…] The flagpoles and the light post are arranged in a triangle, I made the garden path circular for full immersion into the garden; it adds curves and flow to the triangle; and it aids in sectioning the garden to appear as four smaller intimate gardens within one larger space (besides, it was just prettier…and sometimes you need to throw practicality to the wind to include aesthetics).
10 March 2012 before planting...proposed walkway set with posts and survey ribbon.
The students assisted after school with pruning and clearing the area of rocks, weeds, and grass (to the best of our ability…it is crab grass). I fined tuned the plant list picking native plants that are hardy and will spread easily, which will help control and/or mask the crab grass and other weeds.
With the hard work complete, the day of the conference and planting arrived. With borrowed shovels from Beardsley Community Farm, around 15 participants and two students from the YES club assisted in sinking the plants.
I coached the group how to plant. Now this may seem like a simple concept, but it is a fundamental step in the process. When I first began gardening, my only experience was with tomatoes. Tomatoes are an exception to the rule; plant tomatoes deep, very deep, to encourage root growth. When I branched out into larger plants, I sank them in the same manor. I killed a good number of things. Most other plants like to be planted at nursery level (ground level of the plant in the pot should match up with the ground level), and planting them too deep will smother the crown (where the stem changes to root). The hole should not be too deep or too shallow and should be two to three times the width of the root ball. I was taught this by Master Gardener, David Craig, when I worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer for Habitat for Humanity‘s HUG program.
Many of the plants we received from Overhill Gardens had not begun to crest the soil, which made the planting rather simple. Though flat in the center of the median, most of the areas we planted sat on a slope. I instructed the group, after filing in the hole, to pile the remaining dirt on the down slope side to create a terrace or contour effect. This allows a place to catch the water instead of running straight down the slope…a type erosion control that will help protect the roots.
The group sank 36 plants in less then an hour. I showed them how to water, which is another integral part of the process. Had I more than one 5 gallon bucket, I would have had participants take turns watering the plants. Normally, I also would have explained the group the importance of mulch as well as showed them how to mulch. Mulching assists in protecting the plant, reduces evaporation, and assists with weed control. (I hope the group reads this blog because I did forget to talk about it…probably because I didn’t have a pile of mulch to spread.) I didn’t ask for mulch, because the soil was already heavily mulched, and everyone seemed to replace the soil so the light fluffy mulch was right on top. After the group left, I checked the planting…something I should have done in front of the participants. I lightly tamped the soil around many of the plants to minimize air pockets around the roots. I placed more soil around plants as needed.
After planting...keep plant tags in the ground next to plant. Future Lemon Queen sunflowers, Joe-pye weed, and Autumn Sage salvia.
Overall, I found the experience exhilarating. The plants will surface as the weather warms. Hopefully with any luck, by late Summer when the students return to school, they’ll be met with a garden full of beautiful flowers.
Final plant list from Overhill Gardens: 3 smooth pholx; 1 Annabelle hydrangea; 5 purple coneflower, 2 Lemon Queen sunflowers; 3 “Little Joe” joe-pye weed; 1 Maraschino Autumn Sage salvia; 1 beauty berry bush; 9 wild columbine; 4 orange butterfly weed; 4 common milkweed; and 3 Prairie Dropseed native grass clumps.
Future purple coneflower/echinacea.
Future Annabelle hydrangea and smooth phlox.
Future butterfly weed and common milkweed marked with posts and ribbons because plants showed no new Spring growth (yet).
Prairie Dropseed grass clumps will grow to about 2 feet high and wide and produce a magnificent fountain of fine-textured, emerald green leaves. The seedhead has a faint fragrance. The highly nutritious seeds are much sought after by birds.