Hi, Val! Been reading your column in the Pacific Magazine for a million years. Thank you so much for all the gardening tidbits over the years.
Have a question for you - I recently moved into a one-story house that has a west facing front. I have a potential (ha!) flower bed area. After chatting with my new neighbours, turns out this Patch of Potential, is nothing more than clay, covered with gravel, covered with black plastic weed shield, and six inches of beauty bark. <gak>
I really want a low-maintenance, drought tolerant garden here. Tis prox 15' x 6'. The dandelions, grass, and cotton wood tree babies have no problem growing in this area. Is it possible for me to grow ornamental grasses and drought tolerant shubs in this environment, or do a need a mini backhoe?
Answer: The good news is your Patch of Potential is large enough for a mixed border, and since it faces west you should have adequate sun to grow flowering shrubs and ornamental grasses. But not with that black plastic in place...what a mess the previous owner left you!
When I was faced with nasty, weedy soil in my new garden in Langley, we laid down landscape fabric, covered it with a thick layer of gravel, and gardened on top in raised beds, a solution I've never regretted because the elevated soil warms up earlier, the beds are easy to irrigate and change out, and they introduced some topography into my flat garden...here it is, freshly installed, six years ago...
Whether you go for raised beds or not, you need to start with the soil...you'll have to pull up the black plastic, and rake out the gravel and beauty bark. Then if it were me, I'd take the no-dig route to rich, fluffy soil, which takes longer than a backhoe but is easy and effective. Here's the gist:
Autumn is the perfect time to begin the process, and by spring your soil will be ready to plant. A supply of newspapers, a shovel, mulch and four to six months is all you need; the joy of this method is that time and nature do most of the work.
Begin by digging a shallow ditch about four inches wide and four inches deep outlining the edges of your bed. Cover the surface of the bed (sans gravel, plastic and beauty bark) with a half-inch layer of newspapers, overlapping each sheet by four to six inches, and let the edges fall down into the little ditch. Then cover the newspaper by piling up a food-deep mound of mulch, which can be leaves, grass clippings, or purchased mulch. Now you have a thick layer of mulch, trimmed with a trench, which you can ignore until spring.
Let it all rot down for four to six months. No air or light will penetrate so the weeds will die, and the mass will shrink by more than half on its way to becoming great planting soil.
Next spring, top off the new planting area with a few inches of a feeding mulch (a mixture of bark and manure available in bulk or bags from a nursery or garden center) and you are ready to plant those shrubs and grasses into the rich, weed-free soil of your new border.