Gardening is addictive. First you start with a few small containers. Then you clear a small plot in your lawn and grow a bit more. Then, you expand the plot. You expand again. And again.
Before you know it, you’ve outgrown your suburban lot and moved to severely sloped, horribly eroded, but affordable acreage in rural North Carolina. There, you begin using permaculture practices to regenerate soil, take advantage of the slopes, and grow an incredible number of plants on land where no conventional gardener would dare to grow.
As your soil improves and your gardening skills expand, you phase out some wild, weedy plants used for restoration to make room for cultivated plants that will now (thankfully) survive.
Working with nature, you create a series of garden rooms that meld the functional aspects of permaculture with your aesthetic desires for having the “grounds” around your mobile home resemble those of a fancy French chateau.
Yes… that’s my story. Yet, I am not alone.
Many gardeners have moved to a rugged property and then spent every free minute joyfully creating their own garden paradise that evolves and expands over their lifetimes. Thomas Jefferson, Anne Spencer, Tasha Tudor, Prince Charles, and Monty Don are a few famous examples that come to mind. But ordinary people do this too. We grow beyond a small vegetable garden and move on to landscape gardening.
Landscape gardening means your entire landscape becomes your garden. You are no longer limited to a small chunk of what was once your lawn or a corner of your patio. Now you get to engage with nature on every bit of land you have legal rights to use.
I loved my first container garden, first in ground herb garden, first large vegetable garden, and first mini-orchard. Each of those firsts were the stepping stones that led to this path to becoming a landscape gardener. They are amazing teachers and providers of bounty.
Along the way, those early gardening experiences also save money, improve health and mental well-being, and teach us how to grow not only plants and soil, but ourselves as eco-citizens of a shared planet. When you are ready though — taking the leap to planning and gardening on an entire landscape is a profound and life changing experience that will challenge, excite, and satisfy you in ways you never imagined possible.
Garden landscaping literally becomes your life’s work. You get to co-create with nature in ways that makes you aware of natural forces at play, of the interactions of all the elements, and of the abundance that is possible when you stop trying to dominate and begin listening and cooperating as part of the natural world.
Vow of Stability
When I was researching monastery gardens during the early days of COVID, I came across a concept called a “Vow of Stability”. Essentially, the idea is you commit to a place — even after the novelty and excitement wear off, even when there are challenges you didn’t anticipate, even though the grass may seem greener somewhere else. Then, you make the best of it because this is your home. This place, the patterns of living you create in it, they become the constant in your life.
I loved this idea of making that kind of vow because I realized it’s also what’s necessary if you want to become a landscape gardener. That’s because environmental stability only happens when the cumulative transformations you make to a place to become tangible with the passing of time.
You are also at the heart of the stability you create. Your patterns, habits, and ways of meeting the landscape become part of the natural stability. When I sit in my garden at the end of the day to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight, the goats come out to pasture to be next to me. The ducks relax and nap easily knowing that I am near.
All sorts of wild birds sail, soar, and sing all around too because I am still for the day and the landscape is theirs for the moment. The blue heron couple nesting in the woods around our pond sound-in with their bizarre series of honks, eeks, and the guttural growl (that reminds me of Miss Piggy when she’s angry). Honestly I can’t tell if they are talking to each other or to me. Either way, I listen intently – understanding without knowing the language. Year after year, their babies grow up completely undaunted by my presence because I have been here the whole time. I am part of the landscape now.
Honestly, garden landscaping will not be for everyone. If you move often for work, don’t have the budget yet for a piece of land yet, or any host of other reasons why you can’t make a commitment to a plot of land for the years it will take to transform it into a garden sanctuary — this isn’t the path for you right now. Perhaps one day it will be. For me, it only happened 7 years ago when I was 38 — even though I’d been dreaming of it since I was a teenager.
There are plenty of other ways to begin the acts that in retrospect will add up to your life’s work. For example, creating community gardens, volunteering at a botanical garden, park, or wildlife sanctuaries, or raising awareness of all the environmental issues we can solve if we work together can all make a lasting difference for generations to come.
But if you can answer yes to these three questions, then I welcome you to this beautiful landscape gardening journey.
1) Do you have, or have the ability to purchase, some marginal, environmentally degraded land in need of restoration?
2) Are able to make that vow of stability knowing that it will take years of pleasurable work to achieve?
3) Do you accept the long-term challenge of creating a garden landscape that will nourish and sustain you while also creating healthy habitat for wildlife and (in some cases) livestock?
Beginning Your Life’s Work
The truth is, once upon a time, caring for the land was normal. People understood the direct connection between well-loved land and a decent life. Today though, we are starting with degraded land. We are gardening in a climate in flux — that is likely to get worse not better. Plus, how bad the climate will get depends on the choices every country and every person on earth make right now.
As such, a vow of stability today requires so much more than promising to keep things the way they were. To ensure stability in our landscapes for years to come, we have to peer into the future and prepare for the worst — as best as we can. We also need to take action to help prevent the worst possible outcome from becoming a reality (a planet not fit for human habitation).
Planning Stability in a Changing Climate
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve likely seen lots of posts about me putting down mulch and gravel and redesigning my gardens. This isn’t just because I want pretty gardens. I mean, yes, of course I do! But these are also strategic changes designed to improve the long-term stability of our landscape.
The granite gravel I put down in my large potager is part of an aesthetically interesting drainage plan I came up with in response to the rain events we’ve faced the last 4 years. When we moved here, climate data predictions for our area said we’d go from an average of 42 inches of rain per year to about 45 inches. However, the last 4 years, we’ve logged between 55-76 inches per year on our land. We’ve also had four inches drop in under an hour multiple times every year for the last 4 years. When you live on a mountainside, even small changes in rain volume running down slope from above can add up to flooding and massive soil erosion.
So, that Mount Airy crusher run gravel was a $500 investment in a drainage plan designed to ensure better soil stability in my garden for hopefully the next 15 years. I could have used cheaper blue gravel. However, since we’ve also experienced an additional 10-12 days per year over 85F the last 4 years, a lighter colored gravel that reflects heat was a smarter long-term choice. Plus that granite was quarried locally not hundreds of miles away.
I like to share the fun of gardening, landscape design, livestock care, and home cooking. I want to make this lifestyle inviting and accessible to others by showing off the real and ordinary happenings of my everyday homestead life. I have a blast doing all this stuff. Yet, I am an unabashed environmental realist. I’ve been taking notes and watching our landscape for the last 7 years to make informed decisions about how to adapt to changing on the ground conditions.
So, in these longer Simplestead posts, I want share the deeper strategies and philosophies behind the choices and actions I take rather than just snippets of the process. Toward that end, I’ll be putting up a series of posts about landscape gardening. I’ll get into some of the details how we went from that slide show at the start to the two “after” slide shows.
I’ll also talk about the work we still have to do. We’re only 7 years into this journey on this piece of land. We’ve made a lot of progress. But we still have so much more to do. The good news is that it is so completely rewarding to do this pleasurable and sacred work.
Today, I want to leave you with this idea and some homework to get you started.
If you don’t want your life’s work washed away by flooding rains, dehydrated by drought, or destroyed by pests and pathogens, then you must design and grow your garden for future stability.
1. Find out what climate predictions exist for your region.
In the US, Climate.gov is a great resource. Many other countries have also set up climate data websites that include regional predictions of what’s to come. Lots of states also have their own climate centers. Where I live in North Carolina, they are doing incredible work on the climate change front including honing in on the details of what to expect in every climate region of our state.
2. Research what impact those changes will have on plants, soil, and wildlife in your area.
Your extension office can likely help or publications from universities or nature organizations near you may also have good data on this.
3. Walk your landscape and imagine how those new conditions will impact your landscape now. Then begin to think about how your landscape gardening plans can be used to solve those problems before they happen. (Even if this is not the landscape you plan to garden on, this is still a wonderful exercise to get you adapted to this way of thinking about your garden.)
This little dip into the currently available predictions and your own observations is just the beginning of what you’ll need to do to garden for stability. But just opening your mind to the realities of our coming future will help you better engage your landscape and the importance of this work in powerful ways.
If you want to dig deeper, into these ideas right now, permaculture offers a dearth of information to help you come up with creative ways to prepare for and counter with our coming climate challenges, as well as make change now to avoid the worst consequences later.
These books were extremely helpful to me when I first began down this path:
- Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture : A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening
- Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway
- The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Ben Falk
I also got great inspiration from these books:
- Paradise Lot : Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Jonathan Bates and Eric Toensmeier
- Miraculous Abundance: One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World, by Charles Hervé-Gruyer and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer