Nov 152011
Inspiring writing by Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson knows her gardening and her spirit

Truthfully, I don’t read very many gardening books. I prefer to putter in the the garden. But every now and then, one comes along that demands my attention. Wendy Johnson’s, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World, is one of those books.

She has formidable experience in the garden, having been the head of Zen Center’s garden for many years.  She studied with the great Alan Chadwick and Harry Roberts.

In this book she combines her experience in the garden with her life as a student of Zen Buddhism. Her writing is lyrical, practical and,thank god, humorous.

I know you will learn a lot from Wendy’s experience and enjoy reading about her life at the Dragon’s Gate. It’s a perfect book for a long winter evening.


Looking inside the book

Colorful pots and plants that fit the conditions

In a practical vein, I highly recommend this book by Paul Williams called  Container Gardening. It concentrates on ornamental plantings.  He clearly lays out many types of plants and planters for every condition, from full sun to complete shade.

This is my go to book when showing clients what can be done with color and form in a pot near the house.

You’ll be very inspired, I guarantee it.

Paths are an important part of every garden.  Designing and building a path can be tricky, if it is to be both beautiful and durable.  One of the books I’ve found that can help you choose a path that you can build yourself and is appropriate for the site is Garden Paths, by Gordon Hayward. It is well illustrated and full of inspiring ideas.

Any  of these books will make  a wonderful gift for your gardening enthusiast.


How to build and design garden paths

A book with simple and beautiful path ideas

Inspiring designs for planting in containers

Best use of color and form in a book on container gardening

Nov 082011
Low retaining walls can help prevent erosion

Low stone retaining walls keep soil from falling into the driveway

Erosion of  hillsides can range from minor movement that is easy to repair, to major and dangerous situations.

Caveat! Caveat! Caveat!

If you think you have a major problem, please refer to a professional soil engineer or contractor to help you.  In this post, I am only going to address simple  erosion problems.





Building low stone retaining walls can be simple and effective for keeping  hillsides from eroding.

These walls were built without mortar in  a method called drystack.  Only soil was used to hold them in place.  Cutting back into the hillside, laying the stone, back filling with soil and then planting keeps the base of the wall stable.

Loose soil will collect in the beds at the bottom of the hill.

Vegetated swale

The swale is covered with a biodegradable erosion blanket and sowed with clover and wildflower seeds


When assessing your slope for erosion problems look for these signs:

  • Channels already formed in the hillside from runoff
  • Bare soil that is exposed to  rain or water runoff
  • Downspouts or other water sources

Ways to minimize water damage include:

  • Create swales that are on the contour of your slope
  • Build retaining walls that have drainage in them
  • Sow seed and plant  fast growing shrubs to cover bare soil
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch


Wild strawberry and Mahonia with stone wall

At the top of the stone wall you can see the wild strawberry (click to enlarge)

In the photo above I planted a native strawberry that sends out many runners and roots into the hillside.  It will cover the hill very quickly. Other California native plants that provide excellent cover are creeping Ceanothus, trailing Manzanita and  Sonoma Sage and Coastal Sage Brush.

Planting on steep hills

Creeping ceanothus, trailing manzanita and other natives were used on this steep shady slope

Small stone walls

Small walls at the base of trees keep soil and mulch in place

The most important action for you to take in your garden is OBSERVATION.  Go out in the rain and storms and watch how the water flows.  This is the best way to learn about your garden and the only way to really know what is happening.


Aug 292011

What are your favorite gardening books? Inspirational,  How- to or Reference? I’ve got books in each category that I consider top of the line.

Reference Books and How-to:

Informational and interesting book on edible landscaping

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik was first written in 1986 and is still absolutely essential for anyone wanting to have an edible landscape at home. Robert has done his homework and you will find everything from designing parameters to edible plants, planting zones and organic solutions in his book.  I’ve been using it myself for 25 years. This book is neither out of date nor out of print. Get it today!



Sunset Western Garden Book by the Editors of Sunset books and Sunset Magazine, is the must have reference books for plants and plant selection for the Western United States. It has climate zones, plants selection by theme, and difficult landscaping situations, a western plant encyclopedia and a resource directory. I really couldn’t live without it.

The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy, first written in 1982 and updated in 2010 is also full of excellent information.


Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi.  First published  in 1981, this masterpiece has now been updated as part of the Modern Library Gardening Series. Perényi’s lively and engaging essays address topics of infinite interest to gardeners (azaleas, onions, mulch, and pests among them) and offer a timeless glimpse of the exhilarating, opinionated world of gardening.  I really love this book.

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, by Wendy Johnson. For more than thirty years, Wendy Johnson has been gardening and meditating at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in northern California. She has a wealth of practical and thoughtful information on gardening, both the garden in the soil and the garden of the soul. This book is destined to be a classic in the tradition of nature writing. She is a wonderful evocative writer, and has no lack of humor.



Aug 262011

Nasturtiums cascading over wall (click to enlarge)

There are some beautiful, easy to grow and fun to use herbs for the edible landscape. In the photo above, you see the Nasturtium (Traepolum sp.) hanging over a concrete retaining wall. This is one of the multi- purpose edibles that everyone should know about.  It is pretty, it grows easily and different part of the plant can be used. Leaves of nasturtiums are tangy and great in salads. The flowers have a spicy flavor and you can use them to decorate many dishes and also eat them. In mild climates they last through the winter, and in cold climates you should treat them as an annual.

Close up of Nasturtiums

Mixed herbs in the landcape

In the photo above, you will find thyme, sage, basil, both green and purple, parsley and tarragon. You should place these herbs close to the house where you can come out of the kitchen while you’re cooking and harvest them right as you need them. Fresh herbs are SO much better than dried herbs.

They make a nice edging along the deck and are easy to reach.

Purple and Green Basil

This is a close up of purple Basil.  It has a dramatic color in the leaf, but tastes the same as traditional Basil.  Green Basil can be seen in the background starting to flower.  Like Nasturtiums, Basil does not overwinter in cold climates. If you plant enough, you can make a great Pesto sauce and freeze it for a wonderful winter Pasta dinner.

Follow this simple recipe: so easy and so good!

1/3 cup basil leaves, chopped

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons Parmesan, grated

3 tablespoons walnuts, chopped

1 clove garlic, sliced


Put the basil in the blender with the olive oil, cheese, walnuts, and garlic.  Blend until smooth: then season with salt.

This pesto can also be used to garnish pizza, soups or vegetable dishes.

More great herbs to follow,  check back soon.


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