In the mid-1900s, television programs, movies, and even display advertisements presented Americans as living in tidy, rectangular homes surrounded by straight-line foundation plantings with uniformly green, rectangular lawns. No weeds. It wasn’t an accurate depiction of the way people lived then, but it became the accepted standard by which gardens—and gardeners—were judged.
Today, a quick drive down about any residential neighborhood in the Gorge shows how far gardeners have fled from those rigid standards. Green strips between our streets and sidewalks are no longer reliably neatly trimmed grass, but are instead teaming with native plants, boulders, even vegetables and fruit trees. What are these mad-hatter gardeners up to?
Certainly water restrictions and climate change have contributed to the gardening evolution (or revolution as traditionalists might describe it), but a taste for more creativity and rejection of conformity can take some of the credit as well. Personal space, both inside and outside our homes, has become a valuable part of our identity.
Our Creative Learning Gardens
Hood River County Master Gardeners have planted a number of learning gardens in the community that are designed to teach sustainable gardening. Most are located at the OSU Extension center, however one, the Hood River County Library’s garden, is in the middle of downtown. Its mission is to demonstrate how beautiful a 21st century sustainable garden can be. And it’s a beaut!
“Gardens like this are a moving screen,” says Norma Benson as we walk through the library’s water-wise garden. “They’re magic in little places where a combination of plants create a vignette, a place where people pause a moment on their way to the library. It’s an unusual visual experience.”
Norma talks like that, a bit in the present and a bit in her thoughts. And creating a spectacular garden takes that kind of multilevel focus.
have maintained the space ever since. If you aren’t a patron of the library, do stop there anyway to see how beautiful small-space gardening can be. And beauty isn’t even the best part of the story.
Oregon State University Extension has published guidelines for home gardeners to create their own garden for the future like the one at the library. A water-wise garden is a mix of Xeriscape, natives, and innovative irrigation that requires minimal water use, reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and still inspires.
This winter, you can design your own water-wise garden and be ready for a spring planting. Begin by reading all of the information on the excellent OSU WaterWise site, (https://tinyurl.com/3rdnbdzd). Additionally, you may search for water-wise gardens in your browser for more information, just remember that our growing zones may not be appropriate for information on other areas of the world.
Next, choose a small area (think less than 100 square feet) on your property that you want to develop into your first water-wise landscape. Do keep it small if you are doing the work yourself. Then evaluate that space for the kinds of plants it will successfully support:
• Is it full sun? Part shade? Full shade?
• Is the soil clay, sand, or silt?
• Is a water source present? If not, make that installation a priority. It need not be an underground system, though a drip system is preferable.
• Is the site a deer pathway? (Deer tend to browse in a routine, so it’s best to avoid the areas deer prefer.)
• And know your planting zone, wind patterns, and impacts from the environment, such as existing tree roots, bank instability, and impacts of neighboring property.
Choose a few water-wise plants that most appeal to you that will work in your zone. They can be a mix of Pacific Northwest natives and water-wise perennials. Humble Roots, a native plant nursery in Mosier, Oregon, has published an outstanding resource to help you choose your plants, The Pacific Northwest Native Plant Primer by Kristin Currin and Andrew Merritt. The OSU website listed above also has a good listing of plants.
Once the water source is established, smother or remove all existing weeds and grass. Don’t skip this step or you will be fighting weeds for months or even years. (See https://tinyurl.com/428eyey6 for an authoritative resource on killing grass safely.)
You can smother the site this month, and by spring, your site should be weed-free. Finally, add any organic matter that may be desired by your chosen plants as well as boulders or logs should you wish any. They are helpful to tuck smaller plants out of direct sun and give a new garden some structure while the plants are small.
Then, in spring or fall, purchase your plants (or get a permit from your local forest service district office) and get them in the ground as soon as possible. The first few weeks, and throughout the heat of their first summer, keep the soil moist, but not saturated. Using a timer on your sprinkler is a simple way to avoid either forgetting to water or applying too much water, which are both effective ways to kill your plants.
You can convert to a drip system immediately after planting, but if you haven’t the time or resources, adding it later is not an issue.
Once your new garden is established, you will become a convert. But give it time. Natives don’t live up to their potential the first or even second year. And if you need further inspiration, stop by the Hood River Library when you see Norma’s gardeners tending their creation. Any one of these talented people can help you with your own water-wise garden.
Central Gorge Master Gardener volunteers provide free beginning gardening classes and continuing education to home gardeners. For research-based information about specific gardening or pest questions, submit your concern online at extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/hoodriver or by phone at 541-386-3343. Home gardeners can also drop off plant or pest samples Monday—Thursday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the OSU Hood River County Extension Service, 2990 Experiment Station Road, Hood River, Oregon.
The Central Gorge Master Gardener program is a division of the OSU Hood River County Extension Service. OSU Extension Service prohibits discrimination in all its programs, services, activities, and materials.