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  • Writer's picturerebeccaecarpenter

Bonnie’s Garden: Containers & Wildlife

I am lucky to be working with one of my favorite people on her garden this season — my mom!   Bonnie has experience growing her own veggies — tomatoes, squash, okra — but it was years ago, and so she was feeling a bit uncertain about how to get her garden going again.  So I was excited to be able to work with her to explore the possibilities.

My parents live in Burke, which is a lovely suburban neighborhood.  They have a good-size yard, with plenty of sun and good drainage, so the options for a garden space are plentiful.  However, their home is surrounded by woods, so there’s an abundance of wildlife around.  They regularly see deer, foxes, rabbits, moles, and of course squirrels and birds in their yard.  And while the fauna is beautiful and fun to watch, the animals can be a nuisance to gardeners like my mom, because they eat her flowers.  Just yesterday she told me she watched a rabbit eat her daisies, one petal at a time.  The deer eat her tulips, and so she sprays the flowers every evening with a natural deer-repellant.  (Talk about labor-intensive!)  She has found some natural ways to deter the animals, but no deterrent is fool-proof.   So her number one challenge for a veggie garden is wildlife, and we needed to find a solution for that.

There are a variety of ways to keep wildlife out of the garden — natural, high-tech / low tech, organic / chemical, humane (or not so humane).   The choices depend on your preferences, your animals, and your plants.  A few traditional options include scarecrows, tin pie pans tied nearby, aromatic herbs & flowers planted around the perimeter, pepper, and animal urine (I know, ewww).  Higher-tech solutions include electric fences and traps.   Some folks plant “sacrificial plants” in other locations or around perimeters to distract animals from the main garden.  And there are a variety of chemical and less-humane options too, which I won’t go into here because that’s not my preferred method of working with nature. For Bonnie’s garden, we decided containers on their deck would be the best option.  Presumably deer won’t wander up the stairs onto the deck (let’s hope not, for everyone’s sake).  And we knew we could use bird netting around the veggies if the smaller animals ventured up there.  The deck gets plenty of sun (veggies generally need at least six hours per day), the house shields the space from wind, and there is a water source nearby.  So it was an all-around good choice. As we do with all our Sprout clients, we followed our simple four-step process for Bonnie’s garden: 1) We discuss our client’s garden vision & do a site walk-through;

2) We gather our materials;

3) We plant; and

4) We coach our client on plant care. So after assessing the location for the garden, we discussed my parents’ produce preferences.  They enjoy tomatoes, peppers, onions, squash, and a variety of salad greens, and my mom wanted to experiment with some fresh herbs.  I knew we could grow most of these crops in containers — except the squash.  Squash is a large plant that needs lots of space, and generally grows better in the ground.  So we decided to move forward with everything but the squash. After we decided on our plants, I gathered our materials.  I bought our herbs and veggies from DeBaggio’s Herbs in Chantilly, and Greenstreet Gardens in Alexandria.  My mom had a bunch of containers already, so we didn’t need to purchase any new ones (though I’m happy to do that for clients if need be).   The containers should be large enough to accommodate the plants (at least 12-18″ deep and wide in our case), and need to have a hole at the bottom for drainage.  The containers we used here were so large and heavy that we got some coasters to put under them, so my mom can wheel them around if needed.  I used Gardener’s Gold potting soil — it’s a great organic option that I’ve had a lot of success with.  And with that, we were ready to get planting.

I recommend using potting soil in containers — it has the texture and nutrients needed for plants to thrive in contained spaces.

Here’s what I planted:

  1. Tomatoes (Better Boy & Sunsugar)

  2. Leafy greens (Simpson leaf lettuce, Butterhead lettuce, Red salad bowl lettuce, and Spinach)

  3. Sweet peppers (Mini yellow bell)

  4. Sweet onions

  5. Strawberries

  6. Herbs (Rosemary, Cilantro, and two varieties of Basil — Genovese and Napoletano)

A variety of leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers onions and strawberries.

We designed Bonnie’s garden to be very low-maintenance, so there’s not much plant-care coaching that needed to be done.  But I gave my mom some simple tips — water in the mornings, at the base of the plants (to avoid fungal growth), and only when rainwater isn’t providing enough moisture.  Cut the lettuce leaves from the outside of the plant, so the center can continue to sprout new leaves.  And pinch or clip the herbs regularly from the top, so they don’t bolt or get leggy.  And that’s it!

My mom reports that they’ve been eating the greens all month, and that she has started experimenting with the fresh herbs in the kitchen.  And in the month since we’ve planted them, the mid-season crops (tomatoes, peppers) are growing beautifully.  Here’s a snap she took this week:

One month into the season, and plants are growing great!  Tomatoes have been staked, lettuce and herbs eaten, and peppers are producing fruit.

So far there have been no signs of wildlife — deer or otherwise — pilfering the produce.  We’ll see what happens when the tomatoes ripen — their sweet, juicy goodness might be too much for the squirrels to resist, and I imagine we may need to wrap them with bird netting.  But that’s ok — it’s all part of the gardening adventure!

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