Beginner’s Guide To The Magical Backyard Garden

To be a gardener is to enter the world of enchantments, miracles, and wonders, which is our true destiny. — Claire O’Rush, The Enchanted Garden

It was 1995, a very difficult time in my life. I had just gone through a messy divorce and had three boys to raise. Earning a living as a writer and activist was nearly impossible and my work only made things worse, focused as it was at the time on researching corporate bad guys. One morning I sat alone at my kitchen table listening to yet another account of an environmental disaster on the radio. It was too much. I couldn’t breathe and my body started to shake. I looked down at my hands trembling in front of me and saw to my amazement that they were covered with dirt as if I’d been working in the garden. I shook my head and the vision disappeared. But the message was clear: I needed to dig in the earth to find the solace and hope my heart required to heal. Soon after, I made the decision to move to my family’s home in Maine, in the White Mountains. The first thing I did was plant a garden.

Right from the beginning I approached my garden as sacred space. I wanted to learn from the nature spirits, to hear their voices in my heart and feel their energy as I worked among them. I believe that every living being and life form — insect, plant, rock, tree, mountain, river, plain — is imbued with spirit and a unique consciousness. I also believe it is not only possible, but imperative, that we remember how to work with, co-create with all life. The voices of trees and mountains, whales and oceans, spotted owls and hummingbirds must be heard before it is too late and they are silenced forever. The garden is where I listen and put what I hear into practice.

Cooperating with nature spirits is a uniquely individual process but books can provide a framework and language for thinking about them. Dorothy MacLean, one of the founders of Findhorn, would tune into their essence and ask specific questions about all aspects of gardening. She grew to understand the devas (Sanskrit meaning “shining one”) as “manifestations of an intelligent forcefield…interpreted in different ways by different cultures through the ages. [They] hold the archetypal plan and pattern for all forms and aspects of creation [and] fulfill their part in the divine plan by wielding the energy needed for the growth and development of form.” We can communicate with the devas because we share the same essence or spirit, and love is the key.

Machaelle Small Wright, who shares her experiences in The Perelandra Garden Workbook, uses kinesiology or muscle testing to communicate with the “nature intelligences” in her garden. She trusts this method implicitly and relies on it for everything from plant placement to plant health. Wright turns to devas for help with garden design and layout, and nature spirits for help on day-to-day matters. Nature spirits, she explains, are “individuated energy presences” that are connected to a specific place, whereas devas are universal; the pea deva is the same intelligence in my garden in Maine as it is in Findhorn’s garden in Scotland.

When I started my garden I was tempted to use muscle testing or to dowse for answers with a pendulum but instead decided to trust my own way of communing with nature and let my relationship and my ability to hear evolve over time. There are times when I consult an organic gardening book and times when I rely on direct communication. Plants, like people, need water and sunlight and good nutrition to thrive and the more we know about our soil and the needs of individual plants the better they grow. So follow your heart. Use whatever information makes sense, toss the rest. Experiment. If your garden is beautiful, you’re doing something right.

Each spring I bless the garden and invite the nature spirits to join me. I promise to do my best to listen and to balance my desire for a productive garden with the wildness and free spirits of the plants, insects, worms, snakes, toads, and other creatures that live in a healthy garden. Every time I enter the garden I greet the spirits and devas and bees. I don’t see fairies — at least not as little beings running throughout the garden. Some people do, though, and maybe you’re one of them. At certain times of the day, such as late afternoon or after it rains, I do see tiny lights flitting around certain plants or a glowing aura over parts of the garden. I have a sense of something there but can’t quite make it out. When I walk through the gate I am often moved to tears by the beauty and fragrance that greet me and an overwhelming presence of love fills my heart completely. The garden is luminous, even on cloudy days (especially on cloudy days, actually), and I feel lighter and more alive. I am aware everyday that the garden is holy and that I am not the only one out there.

Grounding Your Vision

A garden is more than a plot of land. It is a living entity and interacts with the trees, fences, shrubs, and outbuildings in your yard, the landscape, and even the neighborhood. It will add to what’s already there, transforming the energy of the space. Before digging anything you’ll want to bring your vision of the garden into the space, share the idea with Earth, and open the lines of communication with the nature spirits of your place.

To help determine the size of the garden think about what you’d like to grow, the amount of time you have, and whether or not you’ll be doing all the work yourself. If this is your first garden or if you’ll be doing all the work yourself, start small. An ideal location is relatively flat and receives full sun (seven hours of sun in midsummer over most of the garden). Do the best you can. Observe the area at different times of day and note patterns of sunlight and shade. Morning sun with some shade in late afternoon is preferable to shade in the morning with full sun all afternoon.

Next, go outside into the garden area and quiet your mind. Pay attention to all your senses; your whole being is a sponge for sensation. Notice colors, the breeze, the songs of birds and buzzing of insects, smells, textures. Walk around, touch the trees, get down on your hands and knees and breathe in the musky scent of soil. Are there trees, bushes or plants where your garden will be? Spend time with them, even if they are weeds. See how they feel. Talk to them. Be open to change. What do you see growing? Where are the paths? What shape are the beds? You may want to do this several times to ground the vision, to allow it to take shape energetically. Take notes, draw what you see. Create a plan for your garden.

Remember, every day before you rush in to dig, plant, or tend take a moment to center yourself and focus on your intention and on the nature spirits that are right there with you. If you find yourself frustrated by the weeds or uncooperative weather or the failure of a plant to grow, stop and take a deep breath. Remember who you are and why you’re there. Don’t do anything until you’re calm and centered once again.

In spring, after the ground has dried somewhat, mark the borders of the garden using the plan you’ve created as a guide. Use stakes and twine or draw an outline with lime, flour, or cornmeal. You can break ground by hand or with a rotary tiller. The purist in me wants to say, “do it by hand,” but a rototiller does do the job quickly. You can rent one or hire someone to till for you (check the classifieds or inquire at your local garden store). Once the area is tilled, remove all sod, grass, and weeds. From this point on I suggest keeping machinery out of the garden. Tillers are violent, smelly things and are not appreciated by the nature spirits and devas. They destroy the texture, or tilth, of the soil, and expose long-hidden weed seeds to light. And contrary to what you may have been told as a child, if you cut a worm in half, it dies.

To break ground by hand, use an edging tool or straight-edged spade to cut along the outline to a depth of two to three inches. Using the same technique, divide the garden into manageable strips then cut under the sod making sure to get all the roots. It should come up easily and can be rolled or removed in smaller sections to be used elsewhere or composted. If the area is relatively bare turn soil with a shovel and remove all weeds and roots.

I recommend planting in raised garden beds which have excellent drainage, warm quickly in spring, and make it easy to control the type of soil used. Beds should be no more than five or six feet across so you can plant and weed from the paths, which should be wide enough to get a wheelbarrow or garden cart through. Here’s how I made my beds: I marked the beds and paths then shoveled the top ten inches or so of soil from the paths into the beds, adding any soil amendments such as compost, humus, peat, etc. Old bricks, large rocks, boards, and even cordwood surround the beds, preventing soil from coming back into the paths. Eventually the board and cordwood borders will be replaced with rocks.

Know Your Soil

There are three basic soil types: sandy, clay, and loam. Loam is ideal. It’s medium textured and light, holds moisture, retains nutrients, yet drains well. Sandy soil is made of large particles. It drains well but is so porous nutrients drain out, too. Clay soil is mostly fine particles that compact together. It’s heavy, difficult to work when wet, dries into hard clumps, and lacks drainage. Adding organic matter (compost, manure, peat, grass clippings, leaves, straw) will improve both sandy and clay soils.

My garden had sandy soil — think beach sand. The first three years I invested in bags and bags of composted manure, peat moss, and humus until the soil felt less sandy and my first earthworms appeared — a real cause for celebration! Please note that overuse of peat by gardeners has seriously depleted peat bogs. I didn’t know this when I started my garden. Alternatives to peat moss include sustainably harvested sphagnum peat moss from Canada (not to be confused with sphagnum moss which is the fresh plant), and coconut coir, the waste product from coconut shells, available in bricks or bales. Now, each fall I mix in plenty of leaves and I’ve also planted cover crops of winter rye. A cover crop is sown in fall, then turned under in spring about a month or so before planting. It’s a great source of organic matter and adds nitrogen to the soil.

Plants need adequate supplies of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) along with trace amounts of minerals like calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S), and zinc (Zn). Garden books recommend that you test the soil and amend accordingly, but I rely on regular applications of compost and let my plants tell me the rest. During the growing season I apply compost around the base of heavy feeders like tomatoes, potatoes, and squash, and sometimes spray the leaves with fish emulsion. Fish emulsion is a concentrated liquid organic fertilizer you dilute with water. Since plants take in nutrients through the leaves as well as roots, a dilution of fish emulsion is like a jolt of nutrition. Spray it on squash and tomatoes if they look a little wan or yellow and watch leaves become noticeably greener in a matter of hours!

I did test my soil to discover its pH level. Extremely acidic or alkaline soils prevent plants from absorbing nutrients. A pH of 6.5 to 7 is considered neutral and is preferred by most, but not all, garden plants. A lower pH is acidic, higher is alkaline. If your soil is much too acidic, add lime or bonemeal following the directions on the package, or apply wood ashes sparingly. If in doubt, leave well enough alone; it’s better to be slightly acidic than slightly alkaline. Soil test kits can be purchased at any garden supply or hardware store or you can send soil samples to your county or state agricultural extension office, listed in the phone book.

Compost

“In the soft, warm bosom of a decaying compost heap, a transformation from life to death and back again is taking place.” — J. I. Rodale

Compost is the key to organic gardening. It’s what you feed the soil and what, in turn, feeds the plants. It’s also an elegant way to recycle organic wastes. You can dump grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps into a pile somewhere near the garden and call it a compost pile, but this will attract wild animals and the neighborhood dogs. A better idea is to construct a simple bin from scrap wood or wire fencing, or purchase one from a garden center or catalog. Make sure it’s big enough (three or four feet high) otherwise it won’t heat up and heat (a temperature of 130 degrees) is what transforms the recycled materials into humus.

  • What to Compost: most kitchen waste (I recommend crushing the egg shells), leaves, straw, weeds and disease-free plant debris, twigs, grass, wood shavings, pine needles, sawdust.
  • What to Avoid: Meat, bones, grease (slow to decompose, attracts animals), large pieces of anything (shred or chop large stuff), diseased plants, weeds that have gone to seed or have strong root systems, cat or dog manure (parasites), anything toxic or poisonous.

Start your compost pile with a layer of brush or other rough material. Then add manure, grass clippings, weeds, soil, and kitchen waste in layers. If the pile is dry, add water. Periodically, turn the compost pile using a pitchfork. If your pile just sits there, it’s either too small or too dry. If it smells, it needs more air (turn it, add bigger materials). Compost is ready when it fails to heat up after being turned. It should look, feel, and smell like good soil.

Seeds and Plants

Deciding what to plant can be confusing. Keep it simple and when it comes to veggies, plant what your family will eat. This seems obvious but those glossy, full-color seed catalogs that arrive in winter are so tempting. While there are many excellent seed sources my two favorites are Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco. They’re both in Maine, have pledged not to sell genetically engineered seeds, and offer a wide variety of organic, open-pollinated, and heirloom varieties. Johnny’s catalog has great pictures and provides such detailed information on the cultivation and harvest of every variety they sell that you won’t need anything else. Fedco is a consumer cooperative and has some of the best prices around. They also offer a good selection of high quality “moose tubers” (seed potatoes).

To ensure proper germination, seeds must be planted in soil that’s the right temperature. A decent soil thermometer can be purchased for under $15.00. Some veggies such as greens, radishes, and peas need cool spring soil to germinate (40 to 50 degrees) and bolt (go to seed) and become tough and bitter in the heat of mid-summer. Carrots, beets, onions, potatoes, and the heartier herbs go in next, then, after all danger of frost has passed, plant the beans, squash, basil and other tender herbs and seedlings.

Pay attention to the growing habits of the plants you chose. Bush varieties of beans and squash don’t need support and are relatively compact but some squash can take over the garden. Pole beans and most peas are climbers and need support. Tomatoes are either determinate (bush) or indeterminate (vines). Indeterminate varieties need to be staked or caged and fruit ripens over an extended period. Determinate varieties don’t require staking (although it doesn’t hurt) and fruit ripens in a concentrated period of time. If space is limited, chose bush varieties and take care where you plant the squash.

In New England, hot weather plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, as well as many annual flowers and herbs must be started inside and transplanted to the garden once all danger of frost has passed. Local greenhouses in my area offer a much greater variety of herbs and flowers than in the past but the varieties of veggies hasn’t kept pace, so if you want to grow heirloom tomatoes, for instance, you’ll have to start them from seed. The keys to successfully growing your own transplants are starting at the right time, providing adequate light, and proper hardening off (exposing the tender seedlings to gradually increasing hours of sunlight before planting in the garden).

When setting out seedlings, take care to disturb the roots as little as possible (unless they’re root-bound in which case you’ll want to loosen the root mass before planting). Dig a hole two to three times the size of the root ball, add a handful of compost and some water, plop in the plant, replace the soil, and gently tamp down. Don’t let seeds or seedlings dry out and once plants are tall enough, mulch well to hold in moisture and keep weeds down. In general, an inch of rainfall a week is ideal but it also depends on the plants you’re growing and your soil type. If Mother Nature doesn’t come through, you’ll have to take over. To encourage deep root growth, a good drink once a week is preferable to a taste every day. Chose an adjustable sprinkler that provides a gentle, yet full spray, and is easy to move around the garden. I also recommend a watering wand for easy spot watering. And mulch, mulch, mulch!

Gardens can provide so much bounty it’s overwhelming, especially if you plant everything at once. I’ve learned to plant beans at intervals of two weeks to stagger the harvest. Greens and peas can be planted in late summer for fall harvests. Some plants take all summer to reach maturity; others — peas, greens, and snap beans, for example — grow quickly. Take advantage of this to make the most of your garden space. For example, beans can be planted when the peas are spent. Carrots can go in after the greens and so on.

Be creative. You don’t have to plant in straight rows and you don’t have to plant all the beans in one place, all the carrots in another. Plant in circles and swathes. The more diverse your garden is, the healthier it will be. Mixing herbs and flowers with the veggies looks great and also helps keep insect pests under control. Keep these basics in mind: Plants that need full sun like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants won’t do well in shade. Spinach, lettuce, and most greens will appreciate some shade especially mid-day. Don’t plant water-loving plants with those that prefer dry conditions. Rotate vegetables from year to year, especially the heavy feeders like tomatoes, potatoes, and squash. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil so plant them where heavy feeders grew the year before. Chose hardy, disease-resistant varieties. Follow your intuition and listen to the plants.

Fall is time to put the garden to bed. The most important task is to remove rotting vegetables and plants and pull obvious weeds. You can compost most of this as long as it’s not diseased. Mulch around perennials, but leave the stalks and seed heads for the birds. This is the perfect time to add compost and manure as well as leaves and mulch from the paths to the soil or plant a cover crop. If you’re planning on expanding, do it now. Fall is also the time to note what did well and what you want to do differently. Each year the garden is renewed, each year brings new possibilities. Yet the cycles remain the same, a mix of new and old that is both reassuring and exciting.

Weeds and Bugs

Weeds, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Some common weeds — chickweed, purslane, and chicory, for instance — are more nutritious than many veggies. Others are healing herbs — mullein, plantain, St. John’s Wort. I don’t pull every weed and I love surprises: sweet Annie sprouting in the carrots, cherry tomatoes near the fence, mullein anywhere. Last summer a gorgeous goldenrod graced the center of the garden. Most gardeners would have pulled it. But you will have to control the weeds if you want what you plant to thrive. Be vigilant. It’s amazing how quickly they can take over. A thick layer of mulch keeps weeds at bay and holds moisture, too. Leaves, mulch hay, or grass clippings make great mulch and can be turned into the soil come fall. You can also use plastic mulch but I like to keep plastic out of the garden.

Every healthy garden is full of bugs. Develop a sense of curiosity; get to know who lives in your garden. A basic insect guide with color pictures or illustrations will help. From the gardener’s perspective, bees, lady bugs, ground beetles, dragonflies, earthworms, fireflies, green lacewings, spiders, praying mantis, parasitic wasps, and soldier beetles are all good guys. Aphids, pest beetles (flea beetle, Japanese beetle, Colorado potato beetle, June beetle, striped and spotted cucumber beetle), borers, squash bugs, brown stink bugs, grasshoppers, mealybugs, slugs, and caterpillars are considered “bad.” I have my share of bad guys, but I generally live and let live unless things get out of hand. Healthy plants are more bug resistant, so fertile soil and providing plants with what they need is key. Other tips: Plant a diverse mix of plants and spread them around — herbs and flowers with the vegetables, beans in a couple of different places. I plant basil and calendula everywhere and every vegetable bed is graced with herbs and/or flowers. To attract insect-eating birds, let a few plants go to seed, plant sunflowers. Rotate crops; some bugs have life cycles that depend on plants staying in the same place.

I’ve met gardeners who have great success simply asking pests to leave certain plants or areas of the garden alone. I know it’s possible because of my relationship with the bees and other stinging insects in my garden. But bees are friends; I just don’t want to get stung. I have a long way to go when it comes to Japanese beetles and I’m sure my negative attitude has something to do with it. That said, the least toxic method of insect control is to pick them off by hand and squash them or drop into a jar of water with some detergent added. If hand-picking isn’t an option, biodegradable sprays such as hot pepper wax spray, garlic juice spray, and Safer’s Insecticidal Soap are generally safe and effective. Another option is Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), a form of biological insect control. Bt is a species of bacteria that produces toxic proteins that attack the digestive systems of insect larvae. Different varieties attack different larvae. Rotenone and pyrethrum are considered safe for organic gardens but they kill good bugs too and should used only as a last resort.

If slugs are a problem, set out a saucer of beer. If that doesn’t work well enough, diatomaceous earth, the fine powder of microscopic diatom shells, can be sprinkled around the base of plants. It abrades the waxy surface of the slug and is also effective against sow bugs and pill bugs. If you notice tiny holes in the leaves of plants, especially greens and tender seedlings, suspect flea beetles. You can’t pick these off but you can protect plants with row covers, very lightweight synthetic fabric (usually white) that is placed over crops to protect from insects or cool temperatures. Safer’s works, too. Once the plant gets big enough, the problem is more cosmetic than life-threatening. Finally, if you go out in the garden one morning and find a seedling cut off at ground level, suspect cutworms. To prevent further damage, place a collar around surviving plants at the ground level. A certain amount of insect damage is a fact of gardening. Don’t take it personally. Insect populations are influenced by many things including the weather. Do what you can, keep building your soil, and remember: there’s always next year.

What about plant diseases? Prevention is the key. Keep your soil healthy, give the plants what they need, chose disease resistant varieties, and let the garden dry out a bit after it rains before working it. Suspect a disease if leaves become spotted, yellow and fall off, if the plant is stunted and doesn’t produce, if leaves are covered with a powdery substance, or if fruits split or become discolored. A good garden book will help identify specific diseases. Destroy diseased plants (don’t compost) and rotate the crop to another bed the following year.

Changing the World

The other night my family sat down to a dinner of fingerling potatoes sautéed in onions and garlic, steamed carrots and kale, and baked chicken. The chicken was raised by a local farmer. The rest of the food, including the herbs I used for seasoning, came from my garden. My hands touched every carrot and potato — first when the seeds were planted, then at harvest, and finally when being prepared in the kitchen. It was a wonderful feeling. We can be sure food we grow ourselves from non-genetically engineered seeds is free of chemicals and full of nutrients. Plus food grown with love and respect for the gift it truly is nourishes our spirits as well. I believe that as more of us feel this and work with it we’ll discover solutions to the most pressing problems we face. In other words, when we create a garden we change the world. Someday it may be necessary to grow all our food locally. If we begin now, we can share the bounty and our skills when they are needed most.

As I write this it is January and my garden is blanketed under several inches of snow. Still it is beautiful. It’s surrounded by a cedar post fence, a bird house is attached to the gate post. The paths and beds are clearly defined under the snow and brown stalks and seed heads of the taller herbs bend slightly. Yesterday I shoveled a path down to the wooden swing next to the garden and sat quietly. It was one of those gorgeous blue-sky days that seem to only occur in winter. Snow from the storm of the previous night still clung to the trees and the view of Kearsarge Mountain was unobstructed by clouds. The snow machines in the field across the Old Saco River were blessedly silent, space at last for the songs and calls of winter birds which are plentiful here. The garden is resting, the life energy of the soil and the perennial plants held close. It won’t be long, though, before a quickening will be felt deep within the Earth and ever so gradually roots will stretch and stir, worms and insects will move closer to the surface. Spring will arrive and the garden will come to life once again.

Susan Meeker-Lowry is a frequent contributor to Spirit of Change. She lives and gardens in Maine.

Resources

Seed and Supply Companies

  • Fedco Seeds, PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903; 207-873-7333
  • Vermont Bean Seed Company, PO Box 150, Vaucluse, SC 29850; 803-663-0217
  • Seeds of Change, PO Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM 87506; 888-762-7333
  • The Cook’s Garden, PO Box 535, Londonderry,VT 05148; 800-457-9703
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 184 Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910; 207-437-4395
  • Underwood Gardens, Ltd., 1414 Zimmerman Rd., Woodstock, IL 60098;
  • www.GrandmasGarden.com
  • Gardener’s Supply Company, 128 Intervale Rd., Burlington, VT 05401; 800-427-3363

Publications
The Perelandra Garden Workbook by Machaelle Small Wright, Perelandra, Ltd, 1987
The Enchanted Garden by Claire O’Rush, Trafalar Square Publishing, 1996
The Real World of Fairies by Dora Van Gelder, Theosophical Publishing House, 1977
To Honor the Earth by Dorothy MacLean, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
To Hear the Angels Sing by Dorothy MacLean, Turnstone Press, 1980
Working with Angels, Fairies & Nature Spirits by William Bloom, BCA, 1998
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening and Landscaping Techniques, Barbara W. Ellis, Ed., Rodale Press, 1990
Organic Gardening by Maria Rodale, Rodale Press, 1998
Organic Gardening Magazine, 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098, $19.96/yr