• Planning a large forest garden

    by  • March 5, 2011 • Garden, How to, Projects, Winter • 15 Comments

    Becoming stewards of our forest

    For some of us, here in the California foothills, especially those who live near the national forest, nature provides the perfect landscaping. Using the existing trees and native plants can help your garden design blend smoothly into the surrounding landscape.  Caring for  a large forest property has its challenges and rewards.

    California mule deer were here first.

    California mule deer were here first.

    The garden plan here was begun well before the house was completed. Emphasis was on grooming the native landscape to make it more hospitable to its new residents (us!). I decided early on that I loved the deer and other wildlife much more than I was attached to any cultivated plants I might add. This philosophy guided me when decisions had to be made and wonderful exotic plants wanted to come home with me on visits to the local nursery.

    The Existing Landscape

    Peckinpah Mountain

    Peckinpah Mountain

    Oaks and Pines

    Trees were protected by not allowing heavy equipment to work near their root zones. (Note: Recently a homeowner lost over 50 full grown pines on a very visible edge of the nearby lake because bulldozers trampled and compressed the roots during home construction.) For fire safety, we trimmed trees ten feet up and ten feet around and at the same time revealed the view down the property bit by bit.

    Dead branches were trimmed from the larger manzanitas, revealing their dark red sinewy trunks, and weedy areas underneath all the trees were eventually cleared away. Larger branches, trimmed from the trees served as planting bed edgings, both inexpensive and rustic. Later, logs were used as steps going down the steeper slopes.

    Field of tarweed or rosinweed

    Field of tarweed or rosinweed, cleared of poison oak, in 2009, and now natural.


    Some open areas were designated as ‘meadows’ and left to grow their natural grasses and wildflowers. Some weedy Yerba Santa plants, Eriodictyon crassifolium and thistles, Cirsium occidentale var. californicum, were trimmed to the ground, causing them to grow back busier and with more flowers. The poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum , was sprayed every year, but needs control indefinitely. These meadow areas, green in winter and spring, turn soft gold in summer, giving a look of ‘wide open spaces’ beyond the cultivated areas of the garden. More work needs to be done here in the meadows, to reduce tarweed where we walk, and eliminate the non native filaree, Erodium cicutarium, and bur clover, Medicago polymorpha.

    Moss rocks

    Moss rocks

    Granite rocks

    Huge mossy boulders were uncovered, as we groomed the trees and made visible as garden features, by trimming the branches up around them.

    Trimming the oaks to reveal the huge rock

    Trimming the oaks to reveal the huge rock

    During the septic system construction, large rocks were unearthed and collected, and care was taken to dodge the back hoe to ‘save’ each one. These movable rocks were used as accents and as edgings for planting beds. We collect rocks for edgings and a rock garden.


    The soil is varied and impressive here.  There are distinct areas of leafy loam under the trees; there is clay, especially in places where the construction scraped away the topsoil; sand in the natural drainage slopes, and decomposed granite around the rocky places.

    It’s good to become familiar with all these types and get to know how to mix them for a planting bed. Thick clay needs organic matter added to make it plant friendly.

    The tractor helped immensely to move sand to mix with clay and topsoil from forested edges of the property to replace the compacted ground near the house where most of the construction debris left devastation.  Loads of mulch continue to be added every year and free mulch is truly a treasure trove that both I and my husband scout out.

    Burn piles

    We are city kids, did I mention? We learned how to do burn piles, from our fireman friends, burning large piles each rainy season.  You need to know where… how far from trees; you have to have water nearby and rakes and shovels.  You learn not to lay your good jacket down where the embers can reach it; else you pick it up to find tiny holes burned in it.

    Burn pile

    Burn pile skills are necessary for safety

    There is a number to call (in Madera Co. (877) 429-2876) to indicate if it is a ‘burn day’, or you’ll just notice thin lines of smoke rising from residential areas across the valley and call to confirm. I have learned how to use the scorched ground to the garden’s benefit.

    In an old book found online, I learned that if you dig down under the soil where a burn pile was done, the soil is very much like potting soil and can be used in planter and to enrich planting beds.

    The deer and the garden live in peace

    The deer and the garden live in peace

    Colors of the forest

    The colors of this natural ‘garden’ are subdued, soft greens and grey-greens and golds. Tree trunks are grey, grayish-brown or reddish-brown. Ponderosa pines add that luscious deep green that contrasts so beautifully against the blue, blue sky. The oaks take getting used to for me, with their stickery leaves and rough bark. I have come to admire their strength against the wind and their age, which calls attention to the fact that they were here first.  This is their world and we respect their needs of low water and space plantings well away from their roots, 10 feet away. After thinking about it for a seemingly interminable time, we chose the color of the tree bark for our house color, a grayish-brown.

    Learning about and working on our property has been so rewarding and given us much joy, ever thankful for all this natural beauty and instilling in us the inspiration to be stewards of the land, leaving harmony and  perfect balance to those who come after us here.

    For a list of plants here before we came, see Existing Native Plants.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    15 Responses to Planning a large forest garden

    1. March 5, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      I really love what you’ve done with your property. It’s respecting what’s there, but also taming the landscape somewhat to make it home sweet home. So beautiful! Mule deer are frequent visitors to our neighbors’ properties that abut the Cleveland National Forest – wish we had them here, too. Our mammalian wildlife consists primarily of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, bunnies and squirrels.

    2. March 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      Good post. I think I should figure out to give a similar explanation of what I am about. As an over view to the disjointed posts I do now.

    3. March 6, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Absolutely wonderful philosophy, Sue!!! You have a truly beautiful ‘natural’ garden, your very own Eden and it’s so generous of you to share it with us (we, who live in little urban gardens). I try to practise as many of the points you’ve highlighted here, as possible, in my own very, very much smaller town garden and find this approach to be very rewarding. I do, however, have several exotics (both non-indigenous and non-endemic), but feel I can ‘get away’ with it, as it’s on such a small scale. Additionally, when we started our garden from scratch almost 28 years ago, we were complete novices and I don’t know whether the average ‘layman’ gardener was even aware of trying to grow strictly indigenous at that time. Also, our budget at the time was sorely constrained and we tended to select plants we knew from growing up, as we felt we ‘understood’ them and so they seemed to be safe bets! The fact that now we know many of them are thirsty plants and we live in a dry summer area is one of our persistent challenges. We have tried to overcome this by installing several rain water tanks over the years, so that in dry spells, we’re able to supplement by watering with our harvested rain water.

    4. March 6, 2011 at 9:31 am

      Hi Sue!

      Back here after visiting your previous post where I left a comment, too – but suddenly remembered I’d felt compelled to tell you how much I envy you your beautful mossy rocks and the gorgeous little deer that visit your garden!!! We get squirrels and rats 🙂

    5. March 6, 2011 at 10:19 am

      Thanks, Arleen, I do enjoy keeping an eye out for the wildlife and I watch, holding my breath as I notice what my pet deer are eating. It’s satisfying when you actually see them passing by a native plant!
      Kerry, I would love to see more posts on my favorite blogs titled something like this, “A tour of my garden”. My gardening friends in my neighborhood joke and say we’re going on a ‘garden tour’ when walking around each others gardens. Let’s all put up posts like that!
      Desiree, thanks for your kind words! It’s amazing how we gardeners go through progressions and constantly reinvent our gardens as we know more. Hard work sometimes, but fun!
      We have skunks, one of which the Tractor Man encountered stepping out early one morning. Boy, did he do a two-step getting back in the house!

    6. cynthia
      March 6, 2011 at 7:13 pm

      You are living on such beautiful property and it is very comforting to see that you are taking wonderful care of it and the critters too! But burn piles will eventually have to be a thing of the past. Here in our bay area valley we can no longer burn wood in our old fireplaces so why are the local walnut and grape growers still allowed to fill our air with smoke when their piles could be left as shelter for birds and animals or shredded for compost? I hope that next year you will find an undisturbed corner where you can leave all the trimmings to nature.

    7. March 7, 2011 at 8:21 am

      it is interesting seeing what springs into growth when the thugs are cleared, one of my loves now is the beautiful wild purple orchids that grow in areas where I have cleared the tough grass and moss, I don’t know the orchids real name have tried to find out, perhaps I will one day I will but for now I just love seeing it,
      since planting so many trees soon after I moved here 9 years ago some plants need cutting back especially the willows, last year I had a great pile of wood (still have), with some christmas money to help I bought a shredder recently and am loveing it, it is soooo nice to see all the wood being turned into something useful,
      Sue did you know that wood ash is potash and good for plants? Frances

    8. March 7, 2011 at 8:21 am

      it is interesting seeing what springs into growth when the thugs are cleared, one of my loves now is the beautiful wild purple orchids that grow in areas where I have cleared the tough grass and moss, I don’t know the orchids real name have tried to find out, perhaps I will one day I will but for now I just love seeing it,
      since planting so many trees soon after I moved here 9 years ago some plants need cutting back especially the willows, last year I had a great pile of wood (still have), with some christmas money to help I bought a shredder recently and am loveing it, it is soooo nice to see all the wood being turned into something useful,
      Sue did you know that wood ash is potash and good for plants? Frances

    9. March 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Welcome, Cynthia! Yes, you do have a good point about burning. I have some reading on it and most say that it pollutes the air. We have had fires nearby(50 miles) and the air has been very bad, just thick. Madera County has a pretty good system where burn days are on or near rainy days, so hopefully the smokes just drops to the ground. You can still light a fire on those days, I was surprised to find. We have a story in the achives, August 2001, about the fire that came through our place. I like brush piles, too.

      Thanks, Frances! Have you ever made anything out of willow branches? I’ve always wanted to try it and yes, I didg down a few inches under an old burn pile, (messy), and find scorched soil like potting soil. Neat!

    10. March 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      hello Sue no I haven’t made anything with the willow yet, I hadn’t cut them and they grew a bit wild, I’m hopeing that by copicing them (cutting down to the ground) I will get some good long straight stems,

      yes Sue I read in one of your post that you dug the soil from under the ash pile for potting but I mean the ash it’s self, the ash from burning wood ~ woodash, is potash which is good for plants, I am talking about proper wood such as you have been burning, not chipwood or old furniture that may have chemicals in,

    11. March 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      Oh, I see. We have a woodstove and sometmes put the ashes in the compost pile. Do you use them for anything else? And how much do you use, mixed into soil?

    12. March 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      It’s clear it’s the landscape that drew you to where you ended up, and you’re definitely making terrific choice that respect what was there before. I love your fields of tarweed, as well as the gorgeous mossy rocks. Combined with your views to the mountains it really speaks to a sense of place. Even as I increase the ratio of my native plants, I see nothing immediately around me that my garden connects to, just blocks of suburbia. I sometimes think it’s futile, but in the end I know I’m doing the right thing. You definitely are doing the right thing keeping the land looking much like what was there before.

    13. March 9, 2011 at 9:01 am

      Thanks, James! The view blew us away and was what captivated us. We were daunted by the fact that there was nothing here as far as utilities, not even a flat area for a house, and being suburbians, were relieved and encouraged by help and advice from our friends.
      When I gardened on an average city lot in SoCal, I was unaware of CA natives, but think my garden would have been much more appropriate for California living and easy care, as well. I know you’re on the right track, and I admire your skill growing pitcher plants.

    14. March 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm

      hello Sue, re the woodash = potash, I’m no expert most of what I know is from reading books, magazines and radio gardening programmes, apparently potash is good for promoting flowers and friut on plants most recommend using early in the growing season, putting it on your compost is good too as it will get to the plants when you use the compost, as to how much I imagine that would depend on things like plant, size of plant and your soil, mine is acidic peat so needs lots of feeding,
      I have realised one reason why the earth under the burn pile is good as potting compost, due to the heat from the fire killing any weedseeds and pests and so leaving a sterile (well almost) soil,

    15. March 9, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      Frances, I’ll try some ash on my fruit trees and let you know. That’s a good point about the heat of the ‘soil’! The other thing I do is just plant wildflower seeds over top.

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