Low cost, low time investment gardening (1 of N)

Having a large garden is beautiful but can be time consuming. I’ve done a lot of experiments to reduce the amount of time required to implement and maintain an effective garden. Some factors I already optimized for our Walnut Creek garden were: hummingbird, butterfly and bee habitat; others include low-weeding requirements, drought tolerance and bloom time for cut flowers to bring the garden inside.

We have enough room in our Walnut Creek garden to have interesting shapes of foliage as well as bursts of color here in, but the San Francisco garden is significantly smaller, so I’ve increased the emphasis on color and sculpted the trees for interesting shapes.

Getting a sculpted bonsai style lemon tree is surprisingly easy. The tree was an absolute mess; no visible structure, a lot of diseased stems, etc. This basically took 4, 15 minute sessions of pruning to establish the basic tree shape. Now that doesn’t count the countless minutes sitting staring in the tree’s basic direction, trying to imagine future shapes while either just enjoying the weather or doing some writing. You don’t want to trim off too much at once; that can send a tree into shock. So I did three of the 15 minute sessions just getting the diseased and crossing branches and the usual crap out of the way. Then I let the tree cover for a couple of months, and now that I could see it the shape of the tree, I could safely proceed with the fine-tuned pruning, designed to show as much of the shape as possible.

Here’s where I hit a significant handicap; the tree actually had no interesting structure to it! So after a lot of contemplation, I kind of gave up on finding the ideal solution in favor of getting any direction going on now, then improving later. So all I did was to tie some bricks to the tree! I pulled the tree top towards the ground, using two different attachment points to pull it over further in the direction it was already leaning; kind of an exaggerated wind affect. Then I used more stringy bricks to pull other branches into a more open arrangement, especially to lower branches that looked like I could develop them into minor lobes of a new tree structure. It’s really important not to go to overboard at this stage, particularly in time investment, because you never know what the tree is going to respond with.

Expect lots of little sucker growth coming up in a couple of months and you want to be able to either incorporate those into your design, or pluck them off while it is still easy to do so. Those six stringy bricks out there, each taking about three minutes to install, burned less than 20 minutes, and presto! Bonsai shape in motion! Now we just need fertilizer and time. Once a month, I pull the bricks further out to re-tension the strings and exaggerate the proto-shapes more.  When you’re ready to cut the strings, expect some bounce-back, hence the exaggeration times.

This Bonsai approach is the best chance for the tree’s survival. When the owner gets their permits, this whole property is a tear down and start over. But a mature, well-shaped lemon tree is enough of an asset that even a ham-fisted renovator would probably keep it. I hope… I also sculpted the bushes that serve as privacy screening; that may save them as well.

The other parts of the garden I went with two approaches. The first was the traditional weed out what you can, sprinkle with water, rake everything to kill the germinating weed seeds, repeated twice. But there were so many weeds that the wildflower seeds I put down were quickly choked out by grasses and crap. So for the other beds, I just laid down some cardboard and put some weed-free, store-bought dirt on top of that. WAY FASTER! And much less maintenance thus far.

This is the first garden I’ve done on a tight budget and a tight schedule, so I restricted myself to a hundred dollars of butterfly native habitat plants, some cuttings from Walnut Creek, and maybe twenty bucks of wildflower seeds. The weed hassles led to a couple of blighted areas: that drove up the cost by, say, fifty bucks of bagged dirt over free cardboard. Then to make things portable, I have the expensive plants in partially buried containers, with some rooting holes cut into the sides and bottoms. The sprouting wildflowers will hide the containers, and the extra height from the containers gives an line of sight accent to the plants. In Walnut Creek, I found three tiers of growth height worked the best, but here in the Mission garden, I’m only doing two.


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