Natural Gardening – Part Two

Sprouting SeedSprouting Seeds

You can raise your own native plants for a natural garden, and the approaching fall is the perfect time to begin. To accelerate germination before planting, dampen the seeds, put them into plastic bags, and store them somewhere cold, at around 34 degrees Fahrenheit, for 60 days. These conditions simulate winter and prepare the seeds for germination rather than dormancy. Plant these seeds using a 50/50 mixture of sand and potting soil in flats or peat pots. By midspring, some of your native plants will be ready to transplanting into your natural garden, but before you do so, be certain that their roots are well-developed and that the plant has a minimum of 4 or 5 leaves.Seed Tray

Planning Your Natural Garden

First, make sure that there are no local ordinances against “wild” planting or tall grass prairie plantings. See our previous post, Start an Organic Garden, for tips on planning your new natural garden.

  • Pick a site with the appropriate amount of sun for the plants that you have chosen. Prairie plants in particular require full sun
  • Choose an organic shape for your garden, such as curves and rounded corners. Avoid straight lines, pointed corners and rows
  • Place plants that will be tall  when full grown in the back or interior of the planting so that they do not obscure shorter plants
  • Choose a diverse variety of plants so that you will have blooms throughout spring, summer and fall, and plant species in clusters, for best effect when in bloom

Create Your Natural Garden

Remove turf from your chosen site. Cultivate the bed in early spring with a garden tiller to bring weed seeds to the surface. Once these weeds have sprouted, pull them to reduce competition with your chosen native plants. Plant your site with seeds or transplants.

Maintaining Your Natural Garden

An established natural garden requires little maintenance, but you should remain vigilant to potential problems.

  • Weeds may be persistent for the first year or two. Pulling weeds by hand is the best strategy, as herbicides are just as likely to kill your native plants as they are to kill weeds
  • Some native species, particularly prairie grasses, can become very tall. Support these plants with stakes
  • Natural prairies were subject to grass fires that would remove thatch, or dead vegetation, and encourage new growth. Simulate these natural conditions by mowing or using a weed whip in earliest spring to cut last year’s dead vegetation to ground level, before the plants begin to grow, and remove thatch at this time



57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment and Yourself, Weinzerl, Rick et al.



Natural Garden

Prairie 02Bring the wilderness back to your yard with a natural garden, one that focuses on native species and less formal arrangements to create habitat for native wildlife.

Choose plants that are native to your area, those being commonly defined as species that were present in your area prior to settlement by Europeans. These include grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees.

The benefits of native species include:

  • They have evolved to excel in your regional climate
  • They require less maintenance
  • They are the species that native wildlife has evolved to use as food and shelter
  • They are a beautiful alternative to nonnative species

Before planting, check with city and county offices, as there may be ordinances that restrict the height of certain plants such as grasses.

The United States Department of Agriculture has divided the US into plant hardiness zones, which you can use to determine if the plants you’ve chosen are well-suited to your regional climate conditions, including temperature extremes and rainfall patterns. Growers and suppliers will list the plant hardiness zone of your chosen plants, usually on a tag on the plant or a card in its pot.

Create a map of the space you will be devoting to native species that tracks soil type and the amount of sun. See our Starting an Organic Garden Post for tips on creating a garden map. Choose plants that match your soil types and amount of sun.

Native habitats have a greater diversity of species than a conventional garden, providing a richer variety of food and shelter for a greater number of native wildlife species. Strive to mimic this diversity by incorporating as many species as your space allows.

Many nurseries carry native plants, even if only a limited selection. PlantNative is an excellent resource for determining what species are native to your area, as well as finding local nurseries that specialize in native species.

Strive to buy local plants or seeds, those from growers within a 100 mile radius, as plants beyond that range may not be well adapted to your local climate. Another option is to salvage plants from land that is about to be developed. Do not pick or transplant native species that are growing in undisturbed wilderness, as they are important to the survival of wildlife in the area and the ecological integrity of the wild landscape, but if you know land that is about to be drained, plowed, or bulldozed, seek permission to transplant native species that would otherwise be destroyed.

In Part Two, we will discuss how to raise your own native plants from seed, and how to plan, establish and maintain a backyard prairie.



57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment and Yourself, Weinzerl, Rick et al.




Container Gardening

Container Garden 2Would you like to garden, but have little or no space? Create a container garden at your doorstep, on your balcony or your window ledge, or even on a wall, to add color to your living space, even on a budget. Let your creativity run wild with unconventional containers and surprise yourself with what you can do, on a budget, and in places you never thought to see plants.



Vertical Garden

One of the newest trends in container gardens is the wall garden. With some hardware and a drill or hammer, you can turn any drab wall or fence into a living work of art. Anything that will hold soil can be used as a container, from battered cowboy boots, to lengths of rain gutters to old shipping pallets.

If you have a little more space, you can use more traditional terra cotta or beautiful decorative ceramic pots, or take your container to an extreme by using a piano, bed frame or claw-foot bathtub. Fill the drawers of a shabby-chic dresser and tier them for a colorful cascade of classic heirloom flowers.

The Size of Your Container

The size of the container depends on the space available for it, what you plan to plant in it, and whether it will or will not be moved. Choose a container that will provide ample room for the roots of the plants you will put in it, as a rootbound plant dries out quickly and will not grow well. The larger the container, the more soil it will hold, the longer the soil will stay moist, and the less it will be subject to rapid fluctuations in temperature. The small hanging baskets so readily available at garden centers and grocery stores are particularly susceptible to drying.

What your container is made of will have its own benefits and risks.

  • Clay and terra cotta pots are widely available and come in many attractive styles, but they are susceptible to freeze and thaw damage and are easily broken.
  • Cast concrete is durable, but very heavy.
  • Fiberglass and plastic are lightweight, but can become brittle with age and winter exposure.
  • Wood is readily available and easily worked into attractive containers, but pressure-treated or stained wood containers should be lined if used for edible plants.
  • Metals are durable, but heat rapidly, exposing roots to fluctuations in temperature, and should be lined if used for edible plants.

WIndowsill GardenPreparing Your Container

Whatever container you chose, drainage holes are important. Without them, soil becomes saturated, causing plants to die. You don’t need large holes, but you do need enough of them for water to adequately drain. If your container does not have holes, drill them yourself. Do not cover drainage holes with gravel or pottery shards, as they can block the holes. Place a layer of paper towels or newspaper over the holes before filling the container with soil.

If your container is one gallon or less in size, fill it with a houseplant soil mixture, as garden soil is too dense. For larger containers, use a coarse mix such as a commercial planting mix, or make your own from equal parts compost and sphagnum peat, pulverized pine or fir bark, perlite, or vermiculite. To improve this mixture, add the following to every cubic foot of mixture:

  • 4 ounces dolomitic limestone
  • 1 pound of rock phosphate or colloidal phosphate
  • 4 ounces of greensand
  • 1 pound granite dust
  • 2 ounces of blood meal

Water your containers thoroughly and frequently enough that they do not dry out completely. Fertilize them by adding fish emulsion, seaweed extract, or compost tea to their water, once every two weeks at first, and then adjust according to the response of your plants.


All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors



Earthworm cluster


The ancestors of modern earthworms survived the brutal conditions of the ice age. Since that time, 3000 species of earthworms have evolved to inhabit almost every ecosystem on earth. As many as 500,000 earthworms may work to improve the soil of a single acre of cultivated land. They play a vital role in maintaining healthy soil, so be mindful of them when you work your garden.

An earthworm uses its head to push through loose soil, in essence, plowing it. In hard and compacted soils, earthworms eat the soil, creating a series of interconnected burrows up to a depth of several feet below the surface. Soil eaten by earthworms is excreted as castings, and they are a source of rich nutrients, such as nitrogen, which is otherwise unavailable naturally to plants. The actions of earthworms break up compacted soil, allow air and water to penetrate it, and thus improve conditions for roots.

The body of an earthworm is 72% protein, and as nitrogen is the foundation of proteins, earthworms require large quantities of nitrogen. Compost that is rich in nitrogen will attract and benefit earthworms, but they will avoid synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Earthworms, having a permeable skin that makes them sensitive to physical and chemical conditions in soil, avoid the salty conditions created by synthetic fertilizers.

Earthworm Bin

If you are transitioning from conventional to organic gardening, or are otherwise concerned that your yard or garden has few earthworms, you can raise your own indoors. Use a garbage can, washtub, or wooden box to create your own worm bin. Conditions must be kept moist but well-drained, so use a rigid divider to create a drainage area in the bottom of the bin separate from living space for the earthworms. Keep flies away and light out with a loose cover. Use 2 parts commercially available steer manure, 2 parts sawdust and 1 part shredded leaves to fill the bin. Mix this well and add enough water to dampen it thoroughly. This mixture will begin to compost and generate heat, so avoid adding earthworms for the first few days. Store it in a cool, dark place as a compost bin for kitchen scraps and a home for your own colony of earthworms.

If you intend to introduce your earthworms to your garden, excavate a few from your garden to begin the colony. Store bought earthworms typically are species that survive in only very rich soil and may not survive in your garden.

Add well-chopped vegetables and water to your bin to feed your earthworms. Give them only soft foods the first few days, such as oatmeal, toast, fruit and vegetable trimmings, and coffee grounds, all put through a blender. If the food is not completely consumed within 24 hours, reduce the amount you are feeding them. Your colony should double in size within a month and your bin should be composted within 60 days.

To separate the earthworms from the compost, place the compost outside on a sheet of heavy plastic or fabric. After about an hour, the earthworms will have clustered together to avoid the heating surface of the compost and to maintain their moisture. Dig through your compost to find the cluster. Save some earthworms to start a second colony in a fresh bin and put the remainder to work improving the soil of your garden.



All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors



Toads in the Garden

Toad 01Toads are another beneficial member of your garden community. Welcome them into your garden with shelter and water, and they will thank you by eating 10,000 to 20,000 insects per year, or roughly 50-100 a day from spring through hibernation in the fall. Toads will eat grubs, slugs, flies, cut worms, wood lice, grasshoppers, and just about anything else small and slow enough for them to catch. Best of all, they are not herbivores, and so pose no danger to your flowers or vegetables.

Avoid using toxic pesticides, as this contaminates their food supply as well as posing a direct threat to them. A toad’s skin is a thin, permeable membrane, through which it absorbs water and oxygen, and which is easily penetrated by toxins.

Toad House

Encourage toads to take up residence by providing them with water and shelter. Toads prefer a fair amount of sunlight and humidity, and a place out of the wind, such as a stone wall or a rock garden. Low shrubs, thick vegetation or small piles of brush provide excellent cover. Make shelters for them by digging depressions only a few inches deep in the ground and covering them loosely with boards, while leaving a large enough entrance for them, or use an old clay pot and sink it part of the way into the ground to create a toad shelter. Provide water in a plant saucer or ground-level bird bath set near rocks or plants that will provide cover from predators.

Toads hibernate through the winter. They prefer to burrow below the frost line in loose sandy soil, or to borrow the burrows created by other animals. The soft soil beneath your compost pile is another excellent choice for hibernating through the winter.

Once a toad has taken up residence in your garden, he may remain for decades. Toads lay their eggs in water, so consider a rain garden or pond as a breeding site for future generations of toads.



All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors