Water-wise gardens bloom with nonliving materials


mixed garden flooring

This geometric design shows a range of nonliving garden materials to mix artistically with succulent plants. Water-wise gardens can double as living areas.

Although we tend to think of a garden as a gathering of plant materials, much of the landscape is taken up with noniving materials. This is helpful space in the water-wise garden. There is the soil between one area and the next, a front pathway, and probably a driveway in the front of your home. But even these prosaic members of the landscape need not be dull. Permeable paving has become popular in recent years. It allows water to sink into the garden rather than sheeting off flat surfaces, gouging out erosion gullies and wasting water. More than simply creating flat surfaces for foot traffic or for setting things on, consider that non-living areas can add more color and texture .

Unlike a few decades ago when everything was covered with cement or brick, the choices for paving areas have exploded – both for flooring and vertically. Now there are colorful types of stone in a wide range of designs and finishes as well as woods, vinyls, metals, glass and more, all perfect for integrating into the new landscape.

Becoming creative about landscaping offers a chance to think about more than the usual ground surfaces for non-living garden décor. Any space is now a place to have fun with.

With the cost of materials rising and landfills overflowing, this is the time to put to work all that stuff in your home, garage and yard that is just taking up space.

recycled sculpture

Recycled old auto parts make a decorative garden sculpture


Recycling has donned the elite title of ‘up-cycling’ when you re-use old items for new purposes. Look for all those pieces of left-over building materials: pieces of wood, pipe, PVC, screening, odd tiles or latticework hanging around your yard, garage or home. These can be formed into safe-houses for growing vegetables to keep out pests, fashioned into trellises or cobbled into artistic fencing. Old concrete chunks stack into fine retaining walls.

Battered car parts, sinks, toilets, tubs or cracked fountain bases make unique container gardens. Broken dishware and pots can add color and texture as mulch over small garden areas where no one will be digging or walking. (These can have sharp edges.) Repurpose young tree stakes or poles into low fences, an archway or a series of pee posts over a washable gravel area for male dogs you don’t want marking your favorite plants. (Paint them bright colors for fun.) Hey, one designer even used bowling balls from an alley that closed down to cover open soil areas. This was one material guaranteed not to float or blow away even in the most aggressive winds!

metal landscape effects

Corrugated metal makes an interesting addition to this nonliving part of a landscape.


Even mulch offers more interest and color in the water-wise garden than ever before. Bark pieces come in colors, gorilla hair (shredded bark) clings to hillsides, gravel and decomposed granite can come in a wide range of colors – even greens and purples – or mix your own blends. Find durable colored shredded, recycled tire chips. They are bouncy for running, sitting and playing as well as just covering exposed soil. Go glittery with colored tumbled glass. Invite imaginative materials into water-wise gardens.

unusual stepping stones

Have fun with cast critters as stepping stones.

Form paths, edgings or designs with bricks, stepping stones, flagstone or a wealth of precast concrete blocks.

water-wise gardens

Gravel and stone in gray hues make for an artistic combination of living and nonliving materials in this water-wise cactus garden.


Floor a patio with slices of tree trunks for a rustic look. Check out some of your local industrial plants. You can find extruded waste materials in vinyl, metal, plastic and glass that may be ideal for decorating surfaces of your landscape. (Just make sure the material is not toxic, sharp or anything that could degrade into an undesirable form.)

Get creative or hire a designer or artist to help you make your space special. Decorate walls, furniture and even cement areas with murals or paint them with your favorite colors or designs. Hang outdoor curtains. Spread around colorful outdoor pillows or create gardens of metal or colorful pots.

Add a trellis, pergola or a screen. Lay down outdoor rugs.  Or paint your own yellow brick road on recycled materials to lead you on a winding path that tours your garden. Place sculptures. Dangle wind chimes. Post colorful fabrics to be spun by the wind. Mix living and nonliving materials for the widest range of effects and for a healthy, eco-friendly, easy-care landscape.

Assorted stone floor

Assorted nonliving stone shapes create their own floor design

As you can see, there is an endless supply of nonliving materials you can use to make your landscape into a work of art. Partner your creations with drought-tolerant plants, some comfortable furniture and turn your yard into a water-wise garden/work of art that invites you to live in it.

Gardening is a living thing


growing world

The Earth is a growing place!

Gardening is a living thing and as with all living things, nothing stays the same. We tend to perceive life through our experiences and often think what is now will always be – even if our logic tells us it isn’t so. But still we plant a garden and expect all the good parts to stay the same while we focus our attention on the parts we want to change. Now that we are beginning to accept even the weather patterns may be moving away from the expected, our view on gardening – like many other parts of our lives – has to become more flexible, too.

Also, because gardening is a living thing, to have a successful landscape means to expect a fair amount of trial and error. Every plant and every planning space is unique. Although a friend, neighbor – or even a trusted plant expert – may assure you that what has grown easily for him/her will do fine in your garden, it is never guaranteed. Experience has shown that one particular kind of plant that grows well in the same garden can languish in another, even though conditions appear to be the same. As if that’s not enough to rock our sense of security in the landscape, we have to deal with the fact that each plant, just like each person, is a little different. So it is entirely possible that an individual plant will be stronger, weaker or grow a little differently than others of the same type. Then there is the fact that even if the plants behave as expected, their surroundings may not. Pests can suddenly discover even long-time residents. It took years before the gophers in my garden area discovered (and destroyed) a group of roses and all the agaves on the hill (all untouched for over a dozen years). And once the ground squirrels happened by my outdoor vegetable patch that grew unmolested for over five years, no amount of protection could save the edibles from decimation. Sun exposures change, too, as surrounding trees grow or structures are added or removed.

If you love gardening, then the quirkiness of designing and maintaining a garden is half the fun. Nothing is entirely predictable. Some of the most exciting events happen when a plant that isn’t supposed to grow well thrives anyway, or a favorite plant seeds itself into perfect locations you’d never considered.

Part of acknowledging that gardening is a living thing is realizing that even the best areas will die or be overgrown in parts. Weather or pests can make a mess of well-controlled gardens. Trees or large shrubs are likely to grow in ways you didn’t count on. And most of all, no matter how long it took you to put your garden together, it will take no time at all for it to look awful if neglected!

When bigger issues impact our gardens – like the climate change we seem to be experiencing, being flexible can seem more daunting. Many people have given up on their gardens and lawns feeling overwhelmed by the impact of drought, flooding and temperature changes.

But we gardeners can be flexible and allowing our property to die off and become dust bowls will not only cheat us out of the joys of gardening, but will actually exacerbate the problem. Clearing land or leaving dead lawns then covering the surface with seas of gravel, cement or nothing at all will create heat sinks (or heat islands).

bad gravel landscaping

Poorly designed oceans of gravel create ugly landscapes that are bad for the home and bad for the environment.

Heat sinks reflect sun and raise temperatures around and in your home as well as in the outdoor environment. These lifeless areas do not help balance the oxygen and CO2 in the air (as plants do), lower humidity by denying the moisture provided by leaf transpiration, and encourage increasing winds to whip through uncontested. With heavy rain, such areas quickly erode away. If human beings are going to survive in high numbers on this planet, we need to take responsibility for the space we occupy. Ironically, this means gardening is a good thing so long as we make provisions for our needs, our aesthetic desires and the environment. This is not hard to do, but it does mean we have to look at a larger picture, design landscapes we can love – and so can the wildlife, our neighbors and Mother Earth.

There are millions of designs possible to create a dream garden that can improve our living conditions and help maintain nature’s balance. Start looking into all the possibilities a harmonious garden can offer. Ask for advice or hire labor when you need it. It is no longer “gardening-as-usual”. Start with the little things you already have. Don’t give up. Gardening is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, your family, pets, and property. Design something new and exciting. Or start by just working with what you currently have. Either way, there are rewards for gardening with respect for living changes; your landscape will look better, be more productive, require less labor, save you money and be more fun to enjoy.

Romantic pool

A romantic swimming pool blends with the look and climate of this landscape.

Hot dry garden

Hot, dry climates can be homes to beautiful gardens, too.

Try to schedule regular upkeep in your landscape. Do the small things as an excuse to get out of the house or take a break from work. Gardening is a wonder-drug for the mind and body. It will also keep the little problems in the garden from becoming big ones. Call in regular help so maintenance doesn’t get away from you. Calling in a good gardener, landscaper, tree trimmer or other expert at least annually will keep the garden healthy and keep big issues from becoming even bigger. And expect to review your garden every few years to decide what areas are working and which ones are not. Climate changes happen, events occur, and even your lifestyle will likely be different as time goes on. Again, gardening is a living thing! Keep adjusting your garden so it works for you, not against you. We human beings have something in common with our landscapes: we are both alive and constantly changing. Adjusting for those changes makes for a better quality of life. And, for better or worse, it sure keeps things from getting boring!

Growing the ‘New Climate’ garden


rain clouds

A well designed garden will thrive with rain or drought.

As the weather becomes more extreme all over the world, polar ice caps melt, technology shrinks distance with instant communications and the biggest population of human beings ever to walk the earth are now traveling from one place to the next transporting lifeforms of all types planet-wide, Mother Nature is finding her own ways to adapt to a changing world. We can individually reclaim harmony and sanity with a sustainable garden to adapt to nature’s changes.

mixed vegetables

A crop of mixed vegetables from a small garden

We need to look at the bigger picture. Gardening, something too many people are ignoring in the frantic demands of everyday scheduling, is quietly becoming one of humanity’s greatest tools for survival. Food production is changing. Profitability has thus far triumphed over sustainability and long term human health. So avoiding chemical and hormonal additives as well as eating nourishing fruits and vegetables is now a project for each individual. Chemical pollution (plenty of which is added by the home gardener) threatens water resources – again something we individuals can impact. And so many diseases are being traced back to the stress we impose on ourselves – another area where our gardens can help us heal.

Whether your local area is experiencing cold, heat, dry or wet weather, you can grow a garden that will help you and your family to grow a ‘New Climate’ garden that can make a difference to your quality of life. You can deal with extreme weather by designing good drainage and places to trap and store water.

rain barrel

Rain barrels can blend with attractive landscapes.

You can build in protected areas to shelter your favorite plants from too much cold or heat and even recycle old tubs and glass shower doors, turning them into protective vegetable gardens or cloches to extend your food growing season. (Recycling will save you from having to buy new materials while increasing trash in your home or in landfills.) Add decorative umbrellas or overhangs to provide shade from hot sun. Or plant in pots (or creative recycled containers like old sinks, broken fountains or even old toilets for a bit of humor) in sunny spots in gardens that have too much shade.


Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs beckon visitors to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Look to your garden to extend your living space, add a place for rest and relaxation, meditation, play, hobbies, entertainment, outdoor rooms, sports and whatever else can give your mind and body a chance to heal from daily stress. There is always some nook you can fill with herbs, a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, a favorite vegetable – or a whole vegetable garden for fresh, healthy food. Surround yourself with beauty. In our fast-paced techno-society we are losing the magic of fine arts, replacing them with quick, cheap forms of immediate gratification and we seem to be finding ourselves more impatient, angry and frustrated than ever. Surround yourself with the shapes and colors of nature’s garden and in will fly birds to supply natural music and butterflies to brighten your heart. We are learning how very important ‘mindfulness’ is to our mental and physical health. Ironically, we have everything we need provided for us naturally. We can then add our human ingenuity to create works of art, spaces for fun and activity and centers for delicious food, rest and relaxation and places to share our ideas, laughter and love.

backyard entertaining

Design your yard to entertain.

Yes, the ‘New Climate’ may be changing the weather, but it’s larger than that: it is a loss of being grounded to the bigger picture of life. There are so many great ideas to help you create a thriving garden despite changes in weather. You don’t have to look far to enrich your life by balancing the speed and demands of the changing technology and social climate with the secrets of wisdom mankind has known for thousands of years. Look to your own garden. You may find you can thrive better with your own version of a new climate to grow in!

Up and down gardening: climbing, spilling, hanging and wall gardens

living wall

A living wall painting echoes the pathway and garden.

To accommodate small space gardening we have learned to be more efficient with our space. And because of the demand for this special efficiency, products have been developed to make the job easier. The result is that now gardens are not limited to backyards. Instead you can grow on balconies, patios and odd spaces by planting vertically. This means you can cover unused walls, cascade gardens down steep declines or hang them from ceilings, uprights or railings. Not only are these up-and-down gardens suitable for limited spaces but they are decorative and can be included in larger landscapes for powerful design effects.

Vertical gardening can take a number of forms. As in the past, it can be as simple as training vines up a wall or using a trellis. You can buy or make a trellis out of any material that will resist outdoor weathering. It can be the typical fan or ladder shape, a wire grid fastened to the wall, or fashioned out of imaginative, recycled materials like old wrought iron fencing, a re-purposed metal security door or wooden railing – anything that would allow climbing plants support.

ivy wall

A plain wall carpeted with living ivy, forms a clean, textural vertical backdrop.


red wall and plant pockets

Plant pockets decorate a bright red wall

Attaching containers to the wall can not only offer planted hanging gardens, but create an opportunity to make the wall into art with artistic, whimsical or decorative container choices like kitchenware, colorful ceramics or brilliantly painted tin. You can buy fabric ‘pockets’ that hang from your walls and come complete with planting pockets, watering and drainage. When the pockets are planted they can cover the wall entirely or even offer fresh vegetables for the picking.

hanging petunias

Hang baskets of bright petunias atop each other for a colorful effect

Also available are whole systems you can purchase that can be assembled to produce a safe layer of living wall for planting. You can construct your own system, too, but be careful since plants need regular water and good root space – both of which could compromise the wall of any structure if the planting layer is not built right. Study your choices in materials and building design to find the best way to construct your vertical wall garden.

Don’t forget about the old fashioned hanging gardens planted in dangling containers.

These can append from railings, ceilings, the edges of stairs or any other place you choose to dangle the living jewelry of flowers. Long cascading plants can even form a curtain as a divider, for privacy or just for decoration. Blankets of up and down gardening can also cover up areas you want to hide or form drapes to frame a view.

Use different kinds of containers or even precast planters to display plants that climb, spill, hang, cling or dangle. The containers can be part of your design or can be constructed to create a design of their own. You can also plant edible in your vertical garden — or mix showy flowers with fruits and vegetables.

How to install and protect a backyard garden with raccoon fencing

As human habitation makes life more comfy and cozy for rodents, rabbits, woodchucks and raccoons, these pests are becoming increasingly destructive in our gardens. Many of these critters are clever at avoiding most traps, deterrents and baits. I have tried everything I could find, short of the dangerous poisons I am not comfortable using. Recently I have come across an electrified fence that uses the same non-lethal shock control commonly used for livestock but made in a smaller size for raccoons. This should be particularly helpful for around a pond — a magnet for raccoons that adore a meal of fresh fish. I am also experimenting  to see if invading rats will find the non-lethal electrical zap sufficient to discourage them from feasting on my vegetable garden. The fence can also be helpful to protect delicate garden areas from over-zealous pets. The shock is unpleasant but harmless and dogs and cats quickly learn to pass up protected garden spots, the fencing functions much like the electric training collars used in pet training.

 If any of these critters are damaging your garden, electrified raccoon fencing might be a good solution to encourage them to go elsewhere. We will all have to wait for more testing to find out how successful the electric fencing will be for my rodent rivals. At least the fencing is easy to install.


Getting all your materials together before you start saves time


 Measure out the perimeter of the area you want to enclose and gather together all your materials before you start. You will need the raccoon fencing, non-conductive posts (the kit I ordered came with too few posts to keep the fence from drooping between supports), wire cutters or clippers, underground wire, at least three feet of metal grounding post, an energizer (battery) which needs to be mounted in a weather-proof area, and gloves –if you don’t want your hands to be be bashed up like those of the guy in my photos. By the way, it is advisable to only use only materials that are designed for electric fences. They’ll work best and be easiest to use.

 Unroll the fence and guide it around the area you’ve chosen. Push the supporting stakes into the soil every three to four feet if you can.

Setting up fencing

Push support posts into the soil. (There will be a piece of brown vinyl placed between the wood fence post and the exposed net wires to maintain the electrical integrity of the raccoon net.)

As I previously mentioned, I needed more stakes than I had, so I supplemented with plastic-coated green garden support sticks and held the netting in place with coated wire. You can cut the fencing into more than one piece to cover separate areas so long as you link any part of live wire to an exposed wire from the other piece to complete the electrical circuit.

Underground wire connection

Connecting the fencing wire to the underground wire that attaches to the energizer

Make sure all power to your power supply is shut off before installing the battery/energizer.

Hang the energizer where it will be protected from weather. Don’t skimp on power; the energizer needs to pack enough force to make your trouble-maker decide breaching the fence isn’t worth the effort. Choose an energizer with a minimum 1/4 joule rating so the minor contact from a weed or other growth doesn’t interrupt the effectiveness of the fence. Follow all installation directions carefully. Pay special attention to making sure you install sufficient ground rods to complete the circuit. For a smaller, home system use a single copper or galvanized ground rod at least  ½ inch in diameter. Rod length is a minimum of three feet for a small energizer. Make sure it is deeply driven into the soil. The first ground rod ideally should be placed around ten feet from the energizer with additional rods sunk several feet apart if you have a larger area and energizer. Single long rods (six to eight feet) are better than multiple shorter lengths. Plan on roughly at least three feet of length per joule. You aren’t likely to use too much grounding; 90% of energizer problems stem from a lack of sufficient grounding.

Electrical ground posts

Copper or galvanized are the best choices for ground rods, but for a small, backyard system — if necessary — you can get away with using concrete reinforcement rods for grounding. These three rods are each 3′ long. This is NOT ideal, but the preferable choice of a longer single rod was not possible in this location.

 Connect a length of insulated underground wire to the ground terminal on the energizer on one end, and clamp it to the ground rod(s) on the other end. Then attach a hook up wire to a terminal on the cut-off switch. (Whatever brand of energizer you buy should come with full, illustrated instructions.)

Splice wires

Splicing and connecting wires

 Test your energizer by turning on the electricity (there is usually some kind of indicator light to let you know the current is live) and measure the voltage with a meter or tester. Then test all around your fencing to make sure the voltage is not draining off anywhere along the full length of the fence. Contact with wood, stone or plants can form a short and interrupt your full coverage. If you find you can’t remove something that touches the live wires on the fence, you can insert a layer of inert material like vinyl (I occasionally use vinyl/plastic hardware cloth to both support parts of the fence that are prone to sagging, and to insulate it from undesirable contacts.)

Fence vp;tage meter

Voltage meter for an electric fence

Check your fencing regularly using a meter or tester to measure the voltage is both strong and consistent throughout. Also make regular inspections of the fence line to remove any vegetation that might grow or blow into contact with the live wires.

You can install an average backyard home system in a couple of hours. More extensive raccoon fencing will require more time and a larger energizer. The fence itself is very flexible so I’ve found it can slip down or droop over time or in windy conditions allowing live wires to make contact with the ground. So it is important to inspect your fence regularly. My fence is on a timer so it goes on after dark when most of these garden pillagers go on the offense. I have been testing the fence now for several months and raccoons have not bothered my pond at all, nor have the rabbits dined on any of my vegetables. (I don’t have woodchucks or other invaders in my area). Also, the few cabbages that were enticing the local rats have preserved unmolested in their protected area within the vegetable garden. Gardening season is still not in full swing, so we will have plenty of opportunities yet to test my new electric raccoon fencing on those resilient rats. But so far, it seems to be keeping my protected areas safe and sound from all my unwelcome invaders.

If you are interested in trying these materials in your own garden, I found my supplies at Electricfence.com.

How to Design Garden Sheds in the Backyard

Vinyl sheds last for years.

Landscape design can make the difference between a showy and practical garden and a basic (often minimally functional) backyard. Often getting involved in the landscape can funnel all the focus into exciting construction like swimming pools, outdoor rooms or decorative patios. Make sure that  some of the less glamorous, practical aspects of the garden are not overlooked. Whether you want extra space for keeping yard tools, building supplies or gardening materials, don’t forget to design in space for a garden shed.

Use a shed for a wall. Sheds are perfect designed against walls. Put them against stable block walls or house walls or other solid walls that will help support the shed. You can use a shed as a divider between different parts of the garden or get creative and build them into fencing or use them to create their own walls.

Place a shed where it will be useful. On a large piece of property, a shed will save you multiple trips back to the house. Sheds are convenient near herb gardens and vegetable gardens where you are likely to want to grab a tool to take a quick snip or carve an instant hole.

Check out different designs. Sheds come in many designs from simple vinyl kits to elaborate miniature houses, themed structures or home-built constructions of any style you’d like. You can invest as much or as little money or work into your garden shed as you want. You can make your shed simply useful or turn it into an asset as décor or a focal point of your landscape.

The important thing is to make sure you incorporate at least one shed into your landscape design plan. Even if you hire help to work on your garden, you will need tools and supplies. You’ll thank yourself for making sure you design a shed into your garden – especially when you’re working on a project and need find those materials or tools you want right there, conveniently located in your handy storage shed.