Three Easy Steps to Make Your Garden a Work of Art

Plan, Plant, and Purchase sums up the three easy steps to turn your garden into a work of art.

back yard bordering new garden area
Looking into BellaVista Gardens Northeast Garden

Landscape architects tell you there are rules to obey when designing a garden if you want it to be a work of art. My husband and Dr. Manuel Jimenez, a friend and small farm advisor emeritus for UC Davis just dig in, and they have beautiful gardens. 

Another friend, Jack Pizura of Wicky-Up Ranch Bed and Breakfast says, “I’ve done all these things over the years, and they come out, but I couldn’t tell you what I’ve done.”

Doesn’t that sound like most of us? When something comes naturally to us or we’ve done it so often, we can’t explain how we did it.

As a non-landscape artist, non-horticulturists, I’ve come up with my own rules based on observing others as they fashion something beautiful out of bare land.

Marsha’s Rules

Step One – Plan Your Layout

“Hardscape, Marsha. You have to start with hardscape.”

Vince Ingrao

Warning: This phase can take a LOT of time!

Last spring when we started planning our Northeast Garden, my husband asked me to draw out what I wanted in the big garden.

“Write it down,” his rule for me not for himself. He works by vision and talking it out.

Not being artistic I panicked and found a garden planning site and spent most of the day researching what plants grew best together. You might find this helpful, but I found it hard to use it as a design tool. The plant information was great, though.

My husband looked at my plan and said instantly that it wouldn’t work.

“Where’s the structure? You can’t fit that many plants into that amount of space? What do you want from your garden anyway?

Ouch, he had a point. Although some people do, I knew I wasn’t going to supply our entire food source from the garden. I was stumped and our garden languished for a year.

“I like to watch things grow,” Vince’s sister commented.

“Yes,” I thought. “It’s that simple.”

Plants are beautiful, and I enjoy looking at my garden as much as I enjoy eating from it. So Vince designed Section One of the Northeast Garden. He terraced the garden into two sections using the repurposed cement and began shaping the lower section.

Fewer plants enjoyed the room to grow in raised rows and rock pathways. I would not have made the paths so wide, but it’s working well. I appreciate that now. Fewer plants mean it’s a lot less work. I can live with that. Harvesting is very time-sensitive and time-intensive work.

I planted the strawberries and beets. He brought in the bathtub – a garage sale find that has been unused in the back forty for at least ten years.

In January, Vince needed a project before he could tackle the garden again. He began to plan outside with a measuring tape and the vision in his head. First, he envisioned a bridge over the gully, where the creek will go someday .

There still was no plan for irrigation in the garden. You can not garden in the Central California Valley without irrigation unless you want to hand water every day. That’s what I have been doing for five years in the South Garden.

Bridge to BellaVista Gardens

Over the years, I’ve learned that one can’t fight with visions. No amount of coaxing is going to speed up the process. One of the things I love about Vince has been his ability to imagine a space and create something beautiful from nothing. I can’t do that.

However, Vince was not motivated to plant a garden. He finished a pathway around the palm tree made with cement from a project completed sixteen years ago. Manuel, my horticulture mentor, lined one of his garden areas in ornamental cabbage, so I bought the ornamental cabbage to line the path. Still no plan for irrigation. He loves to hand water every morning. I think it must start his creative juices. It doesn’t do that for me.

Nutter Butter enjoys the bridge but could care less about the cabbage. He looks forward to digging in the garden and adding his own touches.

When Vince asked me in April what I wanted to plant in the upper garden, I told him that I wasn’t lifting a finger until there was a watering system. I was done. I lied, of course, but I refused to give him any ideas and said the garden was his. The next day he had a vision for the irrigation system.

Newest landscape elements, rocks defining the tomato area, a retaining wall behind the tomato area, steps to the third terrace, old farm implements, and a garden-store-bought planter wreath without plants.

Encouraged, I planted some tomato and eggplant six-packs, while he got sidetracked by additional design elements. Within a few more days he and Hector Casteneda, the handyman/gardener/ who makes all of Vince’s projects doable, had built another terrace and a set of steps down to my new and improved composting area.

The design is not finished but he repurposed two loose extra sections of the fence that had been just leaning up against the back of the fence for nineteen years and some rocks from around the back – a mystery where he found them. Who knew all that stuff would be so handy?

Vince and a friend dug the stove from our friend’s field. Notice where the legs ended up.

As of May 18, the upper section irrigation was not finished, but as you can see, I couldn’t wait to start planting. The result was that I lost ninety percent of my bean plants and fifty percent of my squash. I replaced most of them with seeds. The South Garden still awaits irrigation.

You really need a plan, and part of the hardscape in this area needs to be irrigation.

Step Two – Plant Like Vegetables in One Area

Garden experts agree that you should plant a lot of what you like and plant it together, not scattered throughout the garden.

rows of blueberries

My husband loves blueberries, so he mentally designed our new garden to have a patch of blueberries. (Not three like I bought from the nursery. ) They cost $12.95 apiece, and I felt I had splurged buying three plants. Eighteen blueberry plants now mark the start of the Northeast Garden in rows fanning out from the fence line in three rows of diminishing numbers of plants – 7-6-5.

As a side note, my friend Manuel is the hybridizer or inventor of the types of plants that make it possible to grow blueberries in the super-heated, semi-arid climate in the Central Valley of California.

The lone blueberry bush – ah, where is it?

In my South Garden, there is one blueberry plant amid some leftover strawbabies and mint babies that Vince would not let me put in the Northeast Garden. I’ve stored them there temporarily/semi-permanently. You probably would agree with Vince and other garden design experts that the blueberry plant doesn’t make a statement.

What about volunteers?

My South Garden – totally under my control now that the design elements are done has evolved into an experiment, much like my blog. That is a design flaw. To have a beautiful garden, you must not let these little babies sway you into letting them stay.

These blackberries started growing in a limited place in my small garden. I left them where they were, but put them in their own dirt in a small pot. I have a place for them next year in the big garden.

Manuel who created the Woodlake Botanical Garden might commingle two or three types of vegetables – a row of tomatoes next to a row of carrots, for example. Plants that grow well together in the same place, but they don’t take up the same air or root space increase your garden’s yield. Putting varieties of plants together works when you know what you are doing but it can get messy.

This gem is growing on the cusp of Terrace Three where my compost pile was this winter. The soil is dry, rocky and nothing should live, let alone flower.

High-yield gardening is not the same as random planting or allowing volunteer plants to overtake and manage your garden. I am guilty of the latter. I can’t bear to get rid of a healthy-looking plant. I’m so proud of it for surviving and surprising me by its presence.

Step Three – Purchase or Make Decorative Elements

 Themes allow the non-artist to contribute to the overall look. The BellaVista Garden is rusty. Sometimes you can buy decorative pieces in garden stores, handcrafted shops, or home goods stores. That’s my speed. It can also be expensive for very small items.

Repurpose

Really great garden pieces are bigger and more unique than you can find in stores. Manuel builds fountains out of old farm implements for his gardens.

He brought in a building-migrant housing, a tractor, and now is building a porch with a house front.

In our case, the fence defined the space. Vince wanted rusty Rebar, so he found someone who would make the fence. Over the years it has rusted to perfection.

The fence is rusty. How many other rusty elements can you find? I see eight.

We found our own yard art sitting on the side of the road with a for sale sign. We had driven by it for probably a year, then one day I said, “I wish we had a business or something. I love that truck.”

Before I could blink, Vince turned the car around and was already dialing the number on the sign. We had it towed home. Yesterday Valero Brothers in Woodlake, CA moved it to the garden. Vince has plans to lift the back of the truck and add steps with rows of flowers cascading down. Or possibly a tailgate party look with a shade cover. Then he will whitewash a sign on both doors that says, “BellaVista Gardens.”

Additional Gardening Posts

Creative Gardening Ideas

Spring Inspires Gardening Chores

Lessons Learned from Sheltering in Place – Harvesting Lettuce

Lessons Learned from Sheltering at Home

I’ve learned to appreciate you – and what you do. 

Some of you have been doing creative things on the computer with Zoom and other communicating programs. I love the music videos compiled from various performers operating from their home. That’s not what I’ve been doing.

In Tulare County, California, we have the second-worst COVID-19 statistics in the state. For that reason, unless I have to go out, I shelter at home. The weather has been perfect for gardening – 70 to 80 degrees. Ultra-violet light is supposed to be good for us, and here in the Golden State, we have plenty of sunshine.

The most important lesson I have learned this week is an appreciation for the people who process food. 

Yesterday, I chopped off two beautiful lettuce plants to make room for a summer crop of cantaloupe. If you think growing the food is work, then be prepared. Harvesting is much more work, and if you let it go, your crop and months of effort are wasted. 

Steps to Harvest Lettuce

First rinse

Warning! Don’t immediately take fresh lettuce or leafy plants in your house. You might be safe if you harvest a few leaves at a time but don’t count on it.

When you cut off lettuce be prepared for several unappealing things to happen. 

  • First, the bottom leaves are wilted and mushy. 
  • Secondly, bugs emerge from within the safety of the leafy bundle. Earwigs scurry out of the plant and carpet the soil in a mad dash to save themselves from sure destruction.
  • I immediately plopped the plants upside down into a bucket of water. A few roly-poly bugs surfaced during the first rinse.
  • Slugs leave their shells behind and burrel into the plant. 

So, rinse OUTSIDE! The lettuce soaked in a large pail of water for an hour or so. With the lettuce removed, you can see all the dirt that came off.

Second rinse

Inside, I stripped the leaves off the core and tossed the core, and the scummy leaves into a compost bucket. I added dish soap to this wash. The water came out mildly dirty compared to the water from the first rinse.

Third rinse

I thought this would be the end of the rinsing, but stubborn pieces of garden soil clung to the crevices of the curly lettuce. Bugs had left their brown marks on the center of the leaf. The compost bin grew, but I still had more lettuce than we could use in a month.

Fourth rinse and packaging

This last rinse came out clean. I let the lettuce drain and dry for about a half-hour, then packed the leaves into plastic bags with a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture. The towels help the leaves stay fresh for a long time. I’ve kept them for a month and the leaves came out crispy and sweet as though I had just picked them.

The discarded leaves went into a compost heap outside in the back of the garden. 

Harvesting and Processing Peas

It takes time to shell peas, but it’s an easy task. You need a knife to save your fingers, a clean bowl for the peas, and a compost bucket for the shells. This was the final harvest of peas which I gleaned off the bushes I pulled off the fence.

I put the peas into a Ziplock bag with a paper towel inside and stored them in the refrigerator. Google says that they last 3-5 days like this, but you can tell if they are going bad. I found that they last much longer.

Harvesting and Processing Strawberries

Strawberries must be picked twice daily, but not processed that often. If I don’t get them, the birds, roly-poly bugs, or slugs will. I store up the berries until I have enough to serve, no more than a day or two. After that, I process them simply by slicing them and adding sugar. My husband wants me to dry them in the oven, but that takes three hours so I haven’t tried it. 

Today I found this strange strawberry. Since almost every seed had sprouted, I planted it. We will see what happens.

Thanks to Food Processing Workers

So today I offer my thanks to all the workers who do the processing that goes into the food I normally buy from the grocery store in a nice clean package with everything included. 

And don’t even get me started on how much I respect those who run restaurants! I will never take any of you for granted ever! 

Next time tribute to farmers!

What have you learned during your time of sheltering at home? 

Always Write Adopts a Section of the Woodlake Rose Garden

What are you doing with your business, church group, or your non-profit group? Have you considered gardening in a public garden?

The City of Woodlake has way more work than they can handle caring for the fourteen acres that is Woodlake Botanical Gardens. The founders, Manuel and Olga Jimenez and their non-profit, Woodlake Pride Coalition, manage all but the three acres designated as Woodlake Rose Garden. That Garden is divided into small sections and several groups have reached out to support it.

This little neglected area is about a third of the way along the Garden path. I probably should have counted the number of roses before I volunteered to adopt it, but I’m impetuous. With some community help, I think it’s doable.

There are probably about fifty roses on the property, several pomegranate trees and about 20 Rose of Sharon bushes and several clumps of overgrown Pampas grass. The tree front and center is a mystery to me.

Woodlake Rose Garden Floribundas
“Adopt us,” cried the roses as Chuck and I walked over to check out the Master Gardener’s well-groomed rose bushes.

What prompted me to adopt the garden is that it’s time to prune roses in CA. This is as cold as it gets, and you can still see roses in bloom on the bushes.

The Master Gardeners lead the way with their work in the Floribundas. Last year they held a training workshop at the Garden, and we have another one scheduled on January 25 from 11:00 – 2:00. It’s a great opportunity to learn how to make your roses gorgeous.

Pruned roses examples
Model section ready for the January 25th pruning workshop at the Woodlake Rose Garden.

The pruned roses looked so good I blurted out that I thought I could take care of one section. After I announced my decision on the internet, I told Mr. Write, AKA Vince, about my project.

“There’s an adorable cove that I did not even know existed in my new section. I bet you could create something really beautiful there.”

An almost secret garden in the middle of the Woodlake Rose Garden unadopted section.

Vince loved it and quickly came up with several ideas of what he might do with it. Meanwhile, I got started turning my new section into a Master Gardener amateur masterpiece.

My bucket is so handy to carry all my tools: loppers and clippers are essential but the knee pad allows me to work for two hours instead of three minutes. You can see my long-armed leather-like gloves peeking out of the bucket. Don’t even try to prune these thorny critters without them.

I advertised on Facebook for community members to help the day before, but that was pretty short notice. However, the Garden has its own regulars.

The first person I saw was Jose. He offered to help so I gave him the loppers. He can’t see well, but that didn’t stop him. He chopped the roses down to a manageable level. Then I dug them out a little farther. Leaves, old branch trimming, and cockroaches filled the center of the plant, so I cleaned them out with a trowel as I clipped the smaller branches.

One garden regular said, “Put your hair up in a ponytail, then it won’t get in your face.” Duh! Good advice – dress for success.

My friend Sally raked the unwieldy branches into piles so they wouldn’t trip walkers after she finished working in other parts of the garden.

Instead of the three or four rose bushes I might have been able to prune on my own, we pruned fourteen roses, and I even found an old label telling us what they are.

Coral Meidiland Floribunda rose
Coral Meidiland introduced in France in 1993 by hybridizer, Alaine Meidiland, it is a Floribunda shrub with lots of thorns. I can vouch for the thorns. It is shade tolerant and disease resistant. Good choice, Manuel!

Last year the Master Gardeners hosted a pruning class in the Garden. That information came in handy. It takes me a while to make the decisions as to which branches to prune, but the basic idea is to think of the rose as a bowl and clear out anything that points inward. They also say to prune off little branches and anything that is crossing.

Woodlake Rose Garden regular, Victor
My neighbor showed me how to add his name to his picture on my phone.

Meanwhile, a friend of Jose’s named Victor came up and said he couldn’t help but would love to help the next time I come. He pruned a Rose of Sharon tree and several rose bushes before he left an hour or so later. Working in the Garden is addictive!

Pruned roses
You can barely see the Rose of Sharon trees in the upper left of the picture.

On Sunday afternoon I returned and three people dropped by to say hi as I worked.

If you have a business, church, or a non-profit, this is a great way to get out of your own circle of acquaintances and make some new friends. Today I chatted with Jose, prayed with a woman on a motorized scooter, and chatted with a police officer who offered to help during my next workday, which is February 22.

pruned roses
The sign says, “Unadopted.” That’s changing to Always Write.”

If you live in Woodlake or nearby you might be interested in caring for this garden which has been dubbed a Tulare County Treasure. Let me know if you are interested in adopting a section of the Woodlake Rose Garden and I’ll get you connected.

Or you can just drop by and help me in my Always Write newly adopted section.

Always Write logo

Gardening in Woodlake

Woodlake sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, forty minutes from Sequoia National Park on a slow day, in the fertile foothills. My blogging friend, Russel Ray, inspired me about weeding today. Someone posted a comment, “Don’t use Roundup.” So here’s my question for you. Which do you prefer spraying or digging?

Your opinion – Spray or dig

I’m weird, I love to dig out weeds. Today I put on my knee pads, got my trowel, and had a funeral for a bucket full of crabgrass roots then drove fertilizer spikes into any remaining villains’ hearts around our peach trees. Trust me, someone buried cement under the inch of topsoil. Around here we call it hardpan.

Here are some of our weeds. It’s Super Bloom year. (I didn’t dig these out today. LOL, most of the weeds I dug were crabgrass!) P.S. Porsche, the cat, loves to weed. I have to wear gloves to protect me from his claws. I accidentally stepped on his tail yesterday, so he gave me some space today.

Community Weeding

This Saturday our Kiwanis Group will clean out the Woodlake Rose Garden. We weed or trim officially once a month. Weeds love it here. Here is what we had last fall. If you live in or around Woodlake, come join us. The pay –you feel so good when you’re done! High levels of serotonin free of charge.


Now the weeds are green and luscious. You can see that everyone working hard together has paid off, but there are some robust weeds in the background and across the parking lot. So I can’t wait to attack them!

Our dream is to restore the garden to its former beauty.

Hope you all have a happy weekend. If you want to help us on Saturday, drop by the Woodlake Rose Garden between 8 and 11 on Saturday morning – March 23, 2019.

Where to Find the A Unique Dining Experience Near Sacramento

High Hand

When you visit a new area, do you use Yelp or other applications to find restaurants to visit? Yelp gives the High Hand Conservatory (website link) in Loomis, CA four stars, and TripAdvisor gives it four and a half stars. Traveling and Blogging Near and Far gives it five stars. 

High Hand

To get to the spacious, moderately-priced cafe, you’ll weave your way through a beautiful nursery wonderland. We arrived at a good time, about 8:00 on a Saturday, after the early birds but before the late risers. Timing is everything. The food and service were so fabulous that I forgot to take pictures and enjoyed my meal.  You can check out their menu on The TripAdvisor website.

High Hand

As much as I love food, the atmosphere made the experience unique. We ate in the covered courtyard, open to the garden vistas and could hardly wait to tour the outdoor and enclosed nurseries as well as the shops housed within the long metal building called a Fruit Shed.

High Hand

Have you ever bought a grocery-store succulent and two weeks later it turned yellow and the leaves withered and fell off? I’ve done this. Neither spritzing nor ignoring it seemed to halt the dropping leaves. If you enjoy succulents, you could pick out small ones and plant them yourselves at one of the outdoor stations.

High Hand

 You could find more than unique gifts here.  Classes for arts and crafts fill up quickly. We walked into one class, and several participants allowed us to photograph their gourd projects.

High Hand

For my quilting and knitting friends, one of the stores had plenty of “yard goods,” as my grandma used to call fabric.  Loomis, CA would be a great place to schedule a retreat and come for classes or just to sew together. 

High Hand

If you watch American Pickers, the cost of junkyard cars and parts seems out of range for the average buyer, but nothing draws attention in a professional garden or nursery like a great old car.  The cars in this nursery did not have a  price tag. To complete your home gardens, you could find fun garden art at High Hand. I loved the lasered shovel. Ideas are free.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of High Hand. Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s only about a twenty-minute drive north from Sacramento to the small town of Loomis, CA. The two hours my family and I spent at High Hand went too quickly. I’m ready to go back. Want to join me?

High Hand
Featured Puzzle

If you are interested in having one of these pictures as a puzzle, check out my puzzle website. If you have a picture from your travels you’d like to turn into a puzzle, you can make it yourself or send it to me, and I’ll set it up for you.