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Garden by Design: Thoughts on what can be done with items in the garden #1

Updated on January 16, 2015

You need to plan for a good design, even in a "natural" setting

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This used to be a lawn...Really.My favorite NeoregeliaIt took a lot of time an effort, but not all at once, to create this from the lawn that was here.
This used to be a lawn...Really.
This used to be a lawn...Really.
My favorite Neoregelia
My favorite Neoregelia
It took a lot of time an effort, but not all at once, to create this from the lawn that was here.
It took a lot of time an effort, but not all at once, to create this from the lawn that was here.

Wood and lumber in the yard

There are thousands of garden styles, some formal, some informal. Some kind of random or jungle like, but there are probably some things in and around the house that you might not have thought about as being useful in the yard, conditioned, of course, by the style of yard you enjoy.

Sometimes, things around you might be very interesting in the garden but you simply haven’t thought about using it in that manner. Here we look around the yard and garage, say, and see what we find that can be used on the garden as a point of interest or beauty, or even utility, sometimes all of the above.

Sometimes we come upon leftover wood. Maybe from a building project, or a tree that died, a project we did at home, regardless of the origin, wood is, of course, a natural product and can be used in many forms in and around the garden. It has a lot of nutrient, no nitrogen, but lots of very complex carbon forms.

Hardwood tree trunks often used as firewood or simply found in forested areas can be used as highly ornamental garden planters, especially those with unusual shapes that allow them to hold soil, or you can make it into something that can simply by cutting a hole using any variety of tools.

Don’t worry about drainage, just fill in a light soil mixture and put your favorite fern or other green plants into the log or burl then place it in the garden or yard and water as you would any other plant or planter.

Yes, it will eventually rot away, but in the mean time, it provides a beautiful, recycled wood container.

When it does rot away, it has already improved the soils both inside and outside the container itself.

One of my favorite plants when I was young was an old oak knot or burl from the forest I used to hold a rabbit foot fern (Devalia) in my yard. It looked like a small piece of nature in an otherwise well structured yard with lots of brick and concrete.

First it was put out where we could easily see it on the walkway. Then, when it started to deteriorate a bit, I set it in a garden. Later, when it was really run down, I half buried it and allowed the fern to grow out into the garden. Eventually, it deteriorated back into the soil, there was nothing to throw away, but the soils benefited greatly from this deteriorating oak.

You don’t need an oak knot to do something similar. You could actually plant your favorite plant into the top of a log by cutting a hole or even standing that upright by burying the end in the soil and planting the top.

Even a clump of such wooden pots can be used. You could make a walkway out of a series of such containers. Just remember, they are temporary by nature and will eventually need to be replaced, but look great while you are doing this, and well worth the little trouble this actually causes.

Logs and other large wood pieces can be used in the garden in many ways, just remember it slowly returns to the soil. That’s good, it is nature recycling materials it made, you just need to plan for this in the garden.

When we were young we helped dad set railroad ties into the yard for both planters and for steps down into our canyon. At that time no one was using them, they just piled up in the rail yard and they gave them away. Since then they have been in demand as decorative and structural elements for landscapes.

Old telephone poles were another element we would use, but with heavy rope or chain draped over them, it looked more like a dock and so called in an ocean theme.

But even wasted lumber can be used in the garden, it can be laid in the garden as a walkway that prevents weeds from growing and provides a clear path for years, a genuine Boardwalk. It can also be made into planter boxes that can be lined for longer use, or simply set out and good soil added to use as a planter box.

Perhaps you have a small yard, but want inexpensive planters for the yard. Stop by a local construction site, while they are framing they will have a lot of waste wood that is usually available for the asking.

There are two things to note here. 1) If this is an old house being torn down, don’t use lumber that has old peeling paint. It may contain lead that you don’t want in your garden. 2) don’t use pretreated wood without lining the planter so those chemicals don’t make it into your garden especially if this is to be a vegetable garden.

Newer treatments use copper or boron. These are OK. But older treated woods use arsenic. So, if it is from an older house and it is treated wood, don’t use it.

Sawdust can be used as a mulch, however it is not very nutritive to the soils until it breaks down a bit and this uses nitrogen in the process, but as a mulch it holds in water and cools the surface of the soil. Once it begins to break down, it will provide carbon needed by the soils and make the plants around it happy. In cold climates, mulch helps reduce or prevent freezing by maintaining an air barrier which slows the heat flow out of the soil.

Speaking of recycling wood. In San Diego it is popular to make large fires in fire rings at the beach using old wood pallets. A better use is to use three (in a “U” shape) or four (in a square) to build your own compost bin. Because of the air slats, the compost can breath, which the bacteria need to keep working, and this gives you a form to use so you don’t just have a pile in the yard. These can, of course, be used modularly to make larger compost bin for those of you with a large yard, horses, or cattle, but for the average person, three or four will do just fine.

Place a brick under each corner to keep the wood off the ground and preserve your bin.

We designed and built this over time.

Come to think of it, we even build the bench!
Come to think of it, we even build the bench!

Dead palms and other waste

Do you remember seeing biodegradable pots in the nursery? You might not have known what they are but they are simple compressed recycled paper pulp.

Here we have a good example of an industrial or commercial use for recycled paper that does indeed end up in millions of gardens every year.

Let’s take a step back, back to something that, if you live in a temperate zone, you may well come in contact with periodically: palm trunks or palm leaves.

I have a small garden next to a porch all of which is surrounded by a block wall (image above). The palm clump that was removed was one extremely common in Hawaii, often called a cat palm, the trunks look like segmented bamboo, a yellow green color, and a nice “feather” leaf. I have used the back of this garden for some time as a dumping ground for plant materials including for the tropical vine that is usually grow as a house plant, an African vine called Nephthytis.

The garden is basically a triangle and in the front center was this clump of palms. The palms, the tallest about 9 feet at the very top, were blocking the view of the garden, so, they had to go. Out comes the reciprocating saw and in three minutes they were laying on the ground.

So, being consistent with our writings here, I asked myself, “Self, what can you do with these palm trunks and leaves.”

To understand the answer, you have to understand that the trunk of a palm, and the largest part of the largest here was less than 5” in diameter, as a mixture of pulp and fiber which can hold water and resist rot for years. In fact, I found several old pieces from several years ago still in the garden. I cut the two larger pieces to fit between the wall segments, then stacked those two to create a raised area which I would later fill with mulch, most of the rest, tops and leaves I stacked on my lap while seated in the garden seat, parallel then took the long opposing leaves and tied them to make a bundle then stacked this over the other two, and viola! No palm in the trash cans.

Now I happen also to pick up a rock called Sonora Ornamental which has holes in it and I plant small plants in them, so I used these to barricade all of that creating a stepped area at the rear of that garden.

Because I had stepping stones made from remaining travertine tiles, I used these to create a short walk way (two tiles long), then improved the soils with my own mulch, plenty of worms, mixed this in and planted bromeliads both in the ground and in metal containers.

So now you can see how to recycle just a little thing, but think of the impact on the city dump if everyone prevented, say, five cans a year from going to the dump. In a city like San Diego, that is nearly a full day’s trash load. I probably recycle ten times that which either doesn’t go into the garbage disposal or into the trash pickup, rather, back into my soils.

Revisiting the palms, can you do this with larger palms? Yes, they can be made into tables, if you will, that will help hold water in the soil, or laid down ad barriers, small retaining walls, larger versions of my 8” wall, hollowed out as a planter, all of which you realize will need to be replaced sometime in the future, but you have created a small version of a jungle by allowing the plan to decay on the ground to the benefit of the ground, microorganisms, plants who slowly feed off of the decaying trunk, and saves water because Palm trunks hold water. Once they start to hollow out, they hold bugs which continue the decay process, and lizards which feed on the bugs, all of which make waste, which is fertilizer! No wonder people stop just to look at my yard.

But see how thinking about the direction of your yard helps in planning where to put things?

By the way, those palms are gone now, I made a small stacked wall where they held up the soil and lore palms, this time Queen Palms have replaced that. I will post a photo below.

Recycled Garden, GIGO, Garbage In, Garden Out

Palm trunks originally held back the soils left to right horizontally in the photo under the metate stone,
Palm trunks originally held back the soils left to right horizontally in the photo under the metate stone,

Designing a garden takes time and effort

We tore out a Hibiscus hedge to build a shade area for some plants requiring shade.
We tore out a Hibiscus hedge to build a shade area for some plants requiring shade.
We used 1" and 1/2" square steel stock for the structure
We used 1" and 1/2" square steel stock for the structure
Screen (expanded metal") for a shelf
Screen (expanded metal") for a shelf
Turned out pretty nice!
Turned out pretty nice!
The plants above were here under a different wooden shade area which deteriorated, so we poured a slab and built the walls.
The plants above were here under a different wooden shade area which deteriorated, so we poured a slab and built the walls.

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