When we moved to our earth-sheltered home from the farm, one of our goals was to reduce our required maintenance. We enjoyed the farm routine, but sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens and horses, not to mention the pastures they lived on, all had their own requirements and timetables. So we’ve gone completely in the other direction. We gave away our lawn mower, sold the tractor and implements with the farm, and now we don’t even own a household pet.
It worked. Our required maintenance is at a minimum (except for cutting firewood for the winter), but we still enjoy working outside when we want to. We have a vegetable garden, are building a scree garden and soon will be planning a butterfly garden.
Now most people can recognize a vegetable or a butterfly, but what is “scree”? Technically, it is an accumulation of weathered rock fragments at the foot of a cliff or hillside, often forming a sloping heap, and is sometimes called talus. Well, we don’t plan on gardening in that, so our scree garden is on a much smaller scale with much finer rock.
We are planting a beautiful perennial scree garden that requires very little watering or weeding, and no fertilizing.
A scree garden is a form of xeriscaping, a portmanteau of xeros (Greek for “dry”) and landscaping. As you can imagine, xeriscaping refers to a method of landscape design that minimizes water use. We first found out about it from Keith Squires from The Country Squires Garden in Campbellville, who gave an evening talk at our local library.
Scree gardening begins with the base – a minimum 45 cm-deep bed of Granular A road gravel. That’s right, the gravel that is used as a base under all roads in Ontario. Granular A is sand and crushed gravel with particles all under 2.5 cm in size. It is a strong base material used as an untreated road surface or for driveways and paths to provide strength while maintaining good drainage. See the construction steps below.
Will plants grow in this stuff? Keith Squires has been doing it for decades; you just need the right plants. These aren’t the pampered pansies that need mulch, organic material, loam, topsoil, fertilizing and daily watering. These are the tough, hardy, independent, beautifully flowering plants that grow naturally in many places in Ontario. In fact, for our garden, we are only using species native to Ontario.
Because the plants are adapted to these conditions, you barely need to water them. Their roots plunge through the scree and into the soil below. You also don’t need to weed much, since most weed seeds that blow in are fried by the sun on the surface of the scree. An hour a week is all the time you have to spend, but I’ll bet you end up spending a lot more because:
- By lowering your consumption of water, you make more water available for other domestic and community uses and the environment.
- With less time needed for general maintenance, you can (if you wish) shape, prune, pluck and do the fine tuning that makes a garden look spectacular, even up close.
- You will have more time to enjoy your garden; a scree garden is simpler and less stressful. It will be slower growing than a soil garden but, by the second and third years, it will fill in nicely.
Planning is the key. Choose a site, mark its boundaries and excavate the area to a depth of at least 50 cm. Fill half the total depth with a soil mixture containing equal parts (by bulk) of leaf mould or peat, Granular A gravel, and loam. If the soil is inclined to be sticky and heavy, use equal parts of leaf mould or peat, and gravel, with no loam. Then top up the site with Granular A gravel. The scree will look more impressive and offer cooler root conditions for many plants if larger stones are added. See http://www.gardeninginfozone.com/creating-a-scree-garden-rocks-stone-and-gravel-in-the-garden. Select your plants carefully; below is a list of what we have planted so far, but there are so many to choose from.
I’ll just talk about the two that I am most pleased with so far: Little Bluestem and Prickly Pear Cactus. They’re associated with other locales, but both are native to Ontario.
Little Bluestem was the anchor of the tallgrass prairie, and fed bison, horses and cattle. Reliably perennial, Little Bluestem grows to a typical height of one metre.
Although it has a blue tint in the spring, it is more reddish in the fall and throughout winter into spring. Nice to have a bit of prairie in our front yard for any bison that happen to be passing by.
Prickly Pear Cactus is native to certain areas of Southern Ontario. The fruit of prickly pears – commonly called cactus fruit, cactus fig, Indian fig or tuna (in Spanish) – is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin. Indian Fig Opuntia might have a reducing effect on alcohol hangovers by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators.
Some studies have witnessed significant reductions in nausea, dry mouth and loss of appetite, as well as less risk of a severe hangover. In any event, the gel-like sap of prickly pears can be used as hair conditioner.
Prickly Pear is also used as the intoxicant that produces the hangover in the first place, in dyes, and in plaster and stucco. The native varieties we planted are just a few inches tall, so watch your step!
Inside the circle of rocks in our front yard is our bed of scree and the common names of what we’ve planted so far are: Yarrow, Sweet Sage, Harebell, Sundrops, Fragile Prickly Pear, Eastern Prickly Pear, Hairy Beardtongue, Little Bluestem, Purple Love Grass, Nodding Wild Onion, Butterfly Milkweed, Prairie Smoke, Rough Blazing Star and Hairy Mountain Mint.
We will keep you informed on our progress.
A scree garden is what I think every garden should be: ecologically sensible, beautiful, and without the backbreaking work.
Try a wee spot of scree in your yard.