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Planning A College Kid's Garden

Propagating plants fill a garden without emptying your wallet.

My niece Maisie is home from college. She’s a film studies major and, as wise folk before her have done, she’s already planning her escape. Truth be told, she’s planning a garden.  

The beneficial impact of gardens on medical patients of all ages has been noted by National Geographic magazine, NYU's Langone Medical Center and Children's Hospital Los Angeles, among others including a healthy, 20-year-old college junior.

On the north side of my sister’s new house, below the bedroom window, is Maisie’s intended escape hatch. She is mulling over the possibilities for a fenced-in, former dog run. This fenced-in area makes me think of Billy Bob Thornton on Saturday Night Live a number of years back.

Unlike Billy Bob Thornton’s dreamer, who talks big about getting a fenced-in area, Maisie isn’t all pipe dreams and Budweisers.  She’s action.

For example, I asked her to draw a plot plan of the front and back yards. Three days later she’s sitting me down with her plot plan asking for advice in figuring out what to do with the sturdy, galvanized, fenced-in area. You know, the one that doesn’t materialize for some people?

As Maisie envisions, the old dog run is a new tea garden for herself and her friends. Or maybe a bramble of a secret garden with soft moss for walking on barefoot. Or a manageable, 70 square foot project to celebrate the end of her sophomore year in D.C. 

According to Maisie, the tea garden is obscured from the next door neighbor’s house by a climbing rose, and by some unnamed tree or shrub that creates an archway into the fortress. We don’t know what we’re going to do with that yet, if anything. Meanwhile, sight unseen, I suggested a few approaches. 

Even though it’s a small (fenced-in) area, moss is a water hog. It prefers more moisture in the air than the San Gabriel Valley provides. So, Sagina subulata, Irish Moss or Scotch Moss, is the moss-like barefoot plant we can successfully work with.

Frugally speaking, I suggest a stone pathway which reduces the square footage to be covered. Additionally, if  a chaise lounge or dance party would ever be desired here, flagstone will provide more stability.

Next suggestion, plant shopping begins at home. Or at your relative’s home. We walked around my garden to see if there was anything we could propagate. To my great surprise, I have next to nothing that a 20 year old wants to grow in her private garden. 

Thymus citriodorus, or Lemon Thyme, was the singular winner. And no wonder.

This is a groundcover of many charms. Diminutive leaves that could decorate a dollhouse, what’s not to like? The low, rounded form makes a pleasing curve in a border and mounds over rocks in a tidy fashion. Pleasantly scented leaves with airy, floating flowers are part of the deal, too.

Lemon Thyme comes in silver, gold or lime green varieties, requires little water, good drainage and a bit of shade during the hottest part of the year. Can do! Plant them under the Black Eyed Susans or in the shade of a Westringia. They are easily divided by cuttings in summer, and often self -layer.

Layering? Yes, this is an easy propagation technique, successful with most woody perennials, especially in temperate climates like Southern California’s. During active growing phases, usually spring through summer, if a softwood stem can be bent to reach the ground it can be propagated through layering.

Hint: if a stem bends and breaks, it’s not softwood but has progressed to, yes, hardwood. Wait till earlier in the season next year.

Layering is the process of creating a new rooted plant from a host plant while both are still connected to each other. The offshoot is still getting water, minerals and carbohydrates from the host plant while it is growing roots which can eventually entirely support the new plant. 

How to do it: Locate a node or bud, that swollen point on the stem. Nick or wound the stem between nodes or just behind a bud and bury that section under a 1” layer of soil. Use a U-shaped pin or bent section of clothes hanger to secure the stem under the soil.

Serpentine layering is used with vines or stems several feet long. The stem can be nicked and buried, then rise up parallel to the soil surface and nicked and buried again 4” later, repeating for the length of the stem. In this snaking of the plant material, many new, rooted cuttings can be produced from one section of vine.

Water routinely, and check the stems for root development in three to four weeks. When roots are established, cut the new plant away from the host. Take care to dig up as much of the roots as possible, and keep the soil in place around them.

Transplant into a pot or directly into the ground. Dig a planting hole that settles the plant at the same soil level it was at before being moved. Mix in a balanced fertilizer such as Dr. Earth’s Life 5-5-5, water well and count the savings in your bank account.

Ryan Teves June 21, 2011 at 11:03 PM
Great. You know, we started a garden at a "rough" school and it was amazing to see these legitimate gangsters babying their growing plants... pruning them, watering them so as not to bend the leaves. There is something wonderful about being responsible for the life of another... and maybe it forces you to reflect on how you are caring the for the life you yourself have been given. So cool. Ryan Teves author of "In Defense of the American Teen"

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