When you say “garden,” most people think first of plants, but all gardens ultimately depend on the quality and quantity of soil fertility and clean water. I don’t recommend planting anything while you’re still designing the water flow through your garden. It makes so much more sense, for so many reasons, to design your water systems first, then group the plants according to their water needs, than it does to put in vast gardens and then try to design an irrigation system to accommodate it.
Repeat: design the water first. Next, learn how to find and create microclimates. Then, learn as much as you can about what grows, easily, where you live. THEN start planting. That’s why we put this gardening module so far down the list, and why we ask you to do so much other work in the course before you even get here--because it’s super important. You’ll save time and money, spare yourself a lot of frustration, and kill way fewer plants if you heed our advice on this one!
This is probably one of the most common questions in gardening forums! The first thing is to find out more about the plant, and about your garden. If your garden provides similar conditions to what the plant needs, then it will probably grow happily in your plot.
If not, then it becomes a “special needs” plant (see below), that will consume more resources for less yield. The question then is can you and do you want to cater to these? Making sure plants are in the right place means they are more likely to look after themselves and not need a lot of nurturing. Thinking ahead when designing can save a lot of time, work, and headache later.
Creating your plant list
It’s time to create your plant list! You’ll need to do lots of observing and, in some cases, asking around.
You should probably go on some site visits, too. This is all part of the design process.
Use this list of questions to help you:
Once you’ve got at least a draft of your plant list, use this chart to help you work out your guilds.
The chart here is an example from one of my own gardens; the functions are listed down one side, the layers in space listed across the top, and my plant list occurs at the intersections.
Check out the example and then download the blank PDF version to try for yourself. The chart can help you see which niches of plants you might be missing as well, so don’t wait until you’ve got your “perfect” plant list to try it!
Plant propagation falls into two categories, sexual and asexual reproduction.
Sexual reproduction is about seeds, pollen/flowers, swapping of genetic material and inviting in slight variations and newness. Some plants are wildly “untrue to seed” because parent material was a crafted hybrid. Some plants are very tidily true to seed, in form and taste very much like their parents. Those are the ones that easier to save seed from. In general, plants from seeds, and plants which create seeds, are more ecologically resilient because they’re quicker to adapt.
Pros: quickly adapts to your site, easy to store & share, culturally important to be part of the genetic diversity maintenance & process.
Cons: can cross into duds, observation needed when flowering (so no interference), new plants will need more time.
Asexual reproduction might not sound as exciting as flower sex, but hey, it really helps grow a lot of exact plants fast. In most situations that is just fine. If you have a whole food forest understory to populate, than having pots of mint, yarrow, strawberries, oregano, thyme, bee balm, chives, etc, all propagated through asexual means is what can do the job fast (and fragrantly and deliciously)! Think about all the time it would take to start and baby tiny mint plants that are who-knows-what smell and taste? Asexual reproduction wins.
These techniques are all variation on cutting a plant apart to start new ones. You can divide, literally with a serrated kitchen knife, replant runners (like strawberries), or encourage other plants to have stems make roots (through “layering”). You can cut parts of the plant to make “cuttings” or “clones” that root on their own, or with some plants “live stake” cuttings straight into the ground. Many plants take better to one technique than another, and if you’re unsure ask google “what’s the easiest way to propagate ____?”.
Pros: faster, exact flavor and type, bigger plants.
Cons: needy to get rooted, pots/potting soil infrastructure needed, not as resilient ecologically.
Grafting is a method of combining two plants in order to get the plant we want. This is usually done with fruit trees because growing fruit trees from seed won’t result in the same variety. A twig or scion from the parent fruit tree is grafted onto a rootstock. The rootstock needs to come from a tree in the same family. There is often a choice of rootstocks; different ones result in larger or smaller trees. The scion and rootstock are carefully cut so that the cambium (green growing layer) of both fits together. A graft is successful when the scion and rootstock have fused and become one plant.
Pros: great fruit, great structure, can plan for diversity of sizes (from dwarf to standard).
Cons: weaker plants, may not live as long, more expensive.