I get so many questions from people about permaculture, edible landscaping, Robinhood roses, and “permaculture in pots” that I thought I’d list some of the top things I’ve discovered here. This is by no means a comprehensive post — just sharing some of the beauty and a handful of general tips. (If you would like personal assistance with your own situation, this month’s Property Reading Special can include that.)
Combine Flowers with Veggies:
One of the easiest ways to sneak edibles into a “regular” landscape is to intermingle them with flowers. Passersby will notice the blooms but not the edible. This purple iris and columbine camouflage purple and green radicchio. The taller, vibrant plants distract critters from the radicchio, while the lower radicchio covers the soil and keeps it from drying out so fast. The radicchio is so well hidden that I forgot it was even there, until I found it un-nibbled and happy in the slight shade provided by the purple maple and taller flowers:
Even trickier, you can plant edible flowers like nasturtiums, violets, hibiscus, borage, and roses. Many herbs like sage and lavender flower as part of their life cycle, and squash blossoms are not only beautiful but delicious!
Many vegetables come in unusual colors beyond what you find in the grocery store. Sources like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds specialize in rare and colorful varieties of garden classics. Even standards like red chard can play nicely with coordinated snapdragons and pansies like we have approaching our front door:
Consider the Critters:
Regular readers of this blog know that we have a groundhog. Our neighbor tells me that in 25 years of living here, his shed and our shed have never not had a groundhog, so learning to coexist seems not only compassionate but wise. I’ve learned our groundhog’s patterns — and they do tend to be creatures of habit. While “ours” darts across the front yard like a jackrabbit, I’ve only once caught it munching on some non-hidden radicchio. A good scare and some spray like “Expel” has worked well to discourage this one from exploring the front beds again.
In addition to groundhogs, we’ve got raccoons, skunks, squirrels, possum, voles, cats, and occasional deer, but our most regular visitor is the groundhog who suns itself in our fully fenced backyard. At first glance, you’d expect a garden to be more secure within the fencing; however, our backyard is — and according to our neighbor long has been — groundhog territory. Knowing this, I plant only groundhog resistant plants back there. That sounds limiting, but we’ve got lots of variety, including edibles and pollinator treats.
The yellow irises and purple clematis came with the house, but I planted catmint, sedum, lavender, beebalm, dianthus, lilies, cosmos, liatris, peppermint and magenta yarrow (in pots), garden sage (now blooming), blue delphinium, another clematis, stinging nettles (in a large plastic pot, on top of concrete slabs) and sweet William in and around this existing bed:
Behind our shed, I’ve got another large sized Big Bag Bed filled with garlic, which nobody but people eat! I also researched other edibles that critters tend to leave alone, but I’ll discuss those in the next tip.
Smart Pot Permaculture:
Some people claim that “permaculture in pots” is an oxymoron, since the “perma” part of the word stands for “permanent.” How can pots be permanent? It depends how long you consider “permanent.” I contained some thriving chocolate mint in a Big Bag Bed in Goshen, and my own experiments show that blueberry bushes grow 5x faster in Smart Pots than in the ground. I like the fabric pots, because they aerate the roots, make blueberry bark less convenient for winter bunny feasts, and because I can easily control the soil acidity and moisture. I’ve found that a very low growing thyme (sorry, I forget the variety) companion planted at the base of the blueberry bushes slows evaporation and further deters any nibblers:
To the left, above, you can also see rhubarb in a 20-gallon fabric pot. I wasn’t sure how the rhubarb would do, but after the first year, the two potted rhubarbs look stronger and bushier than the one I planted in the ground. These fabric pots have allowed me to begin an edible hedge in front of our existing hedge, saving me the massive toil of tearing out privet, honeysuckle, hydrangea and more. Now, we have one black and one wild elderberry shrub, two rhubarbs, two blueberry bushes, and two aronia berry bushes with strawberries as groundcover. Knock on wood(chuck), so far the groundhog and everything else have left these alone.
Up front, 10- and 20-gallon Smart Pots and Big Bag Beds have allowed me to plant around existing trees and behind (and uphill from) our existing mailbox flower bed without damaging roots or risking road contamination of soil. The ruby red chard, bee balm and catmint in those beds add color and structure to the inedible roadside garden begun by someone 30 years ago.
We’ve got heavy, clay soil here, and as mentioned in a previous post, some upcoming large scale yard changes due to mandatory sewer conversion and possible sidewalks. Using fabric pots has allowed me to get started without needing to wait for all the answers on what will go where. At some point, I might plant fruit trees or shrubs in the ground. On the other hand, I’ve had very good success with Smart Pots. I might continue to use them even in a more permanent landscape, knowing that future owners of this house might not want all the edibles.
If we move somewhere else (hopefully not anytime soon!), I could take this garden with me and just reseed the grass. In that sense, the fabric pots make a garden more permanent to me than the in ground plants and trees I left behind in Goshen. Permaculture stands for “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.” For renters or homeowners who want freedom to experiment sooner rather than later, as well as keeping more permanent plant and tree companions, “permaculture in pots” opens doorways kept closed by only planting in the ground.
Use Plant Nannies for Smart Pots:
My trick for establishing perennial veggies or shrubs in Smart Pots or other fabric pots is to use a Plant Nanny for the first year. Fill up a leftover wine or San Pelligrino bottle with regular water and stick that plant nanny into wet soil as far as it will go. This keeps the soil moist below surface level, and you can refill as needed. The fabric pots are great once roots establish, but you want those roots to grow large ASAP. I consider the Plant Nannies an essential component of my Smart Pot success.
My husband loves orange daylilies — the ones that spread across highway ditches and lawns. Containers make good sense for something that takes more work to dig out than to establish. I always plant orange daylilies wherever he first returns home. In this case, you can see their greens peeking out behind dianthus and in front of chamomile:
You might also notice I’ve clustered three similar light brown pots together. The eye loves groupings of three, five or seven in the garden. Here, I’ve got two fifteen gallon pots full of (totally edible) daylilies, companion planted with various herbs and summer blooming flowers. The larger pot behind holds a determinate tomato with a green cage that blends nicely with the forsythia (out of frame, to the right). That potted tomato already has tomatoes growing, along with many blooms. I could not normally plant in that area for a variety of reasons, but the pots will give David a happy welcome home after work, plus herbs and food.
Find Good Resources:
People always ask where they can purchase Robinhood Roses, since I remain in love with our Goshen hedge. I bought mine from Direct Gardening, but I can only recommend that company with HUGE caveats. Yes, they are cheap. They have that going for them, but in most cases, you get what you pay for. If you order from them, realize that you’ll have no idea when they ship anything to you, and at least half your order will probably arrive moldy or dead. Robinhood Roses are tough as nails, though, so I (and others) have had great success with these, despite their poor beginning.
I’ve also had reasonable success with Direct Gardening’s cold hardy gladiolus — often difficult to find anywhere besides a company that also turns out to be Direct Gardening even if it looks otherwise. The five-way dwarf apple tree I ordered in Goshen did live and produce fruit, but for that one tree, I lost at least six other shrubs and trees from them.
Their return or refund policy is very sketchy. If you order from them retain EVERYTHING, including the original envelope and list included when you received your plants. You need to follow their directions to a T in order to get anything refunded or replaced, and even then, they make it so inconvenient that most of the time I just let things go. Although a few other things have lived over the years, after last year’s experience with them, I vowed that the only living things I’ll ever order from them again are Robinhood Roses and cold hardy gladiolus … which, if anything, should tell you just how much I love those plants!
The good online sources I’ve found include Raintree Nursery and Stark Bro’s, both of which ship very high quality, bareroot in Spring and Fall. Raintree specializes in permaculture friendly plants and trees, so if you want unusual edibles, they’re a great resource. Stark Bro’s have been around since 1816, so buying from them puts you in touch with American history, as well as a caring group of people. I love both of those companies and have had nothing but excellent experiences with them.
If, however, you’re an impatient CPL (Crazy Plant Lady) like I most certainly am … sometimes you want a fruit tree and you want it now! If that sounds like you, then I recommend Fast-Growing-Trees, because they ship in pots. This allowed me to receive and plant a dwarf cherry tree, two blueberry bushes, a Meyer lemon and an avocado tree — all in the scorching heat of summer. You’ll pay more for this convenience, but you’ll also receive fruit a couple years sooner with an established root system. My avocado and Meyer lemon didn’t love our indoor conditions, but our cherry tree produced the very next year.
For perennials, I’ve had wonderful success with Bluestone Perennials and Breck’s. I usually (but not always) have good success with American Meadows. We’ll see how their customer service is; I just put in a claim. If you can find a local nursery, you can assess the health of your plants before purchase, as well as save them from the vicissitudes of shipping. I love supporting local nurseries, natural food co-ops, and the farmers market, and don’t forget local gardeners as a resource! Many perennials need regular division. If you admire someone’s garden, tell them. They’ll probably offer you some starts or root cuttings, and if they don’t, just ask. Gardeners LOVE to talk about their gardens. In the world of gardening, flattery gets you very far.
There’s something about the joy of plants that brings people together. Whether edible, beautiful or edible-beauty, flower power and plant wisdom offer ways forward in a dreary world. Instead of bemoaning the state of our nation or the state of our environment, consider starting very local, like your yard or your neighborhood. You’ll be so very glad you did.