Shawna Coronado has a message for all those would-be gardeners who are intimidated by the perfect plots they see in magazines and TV shows:
Get over it.
Too many people are dissuaded from taking up a shovel by fear their efforts won’t measure up, Coronado said. Her own garden isn’t perfect, she pointed out, and it’s in books, for heaven’s sake.
“We Americans think we have to have a perfect garden, and we don’t,” said Coronado, an irrepressible gardening evangelist with a resume that includes blogger, columnist, speaker, radio show host and author. It’s partly our keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality, she said, and partly the same obsession with appearance that leads our culture to adulate fashion models instead of more realistic women.
Your garden shouldn’t be like a model, she said. “Your garden is improvisational.”
Coronado is all about improvising in the garden. In fact, it’s the subject of her recent book, 101 Organic Gardening Hacks: Eco-Friendly Solutions to Improve Any Garden (Cool Springs Press, $19.99).
Her own yard in suburban Chicago is a living lab for her make-do philosophy, filled with everything from homemade soil mixes to milk-jug cloches that protect tender plants from the cold. Even the fence is an improvisation: She had an artist paint a section of it with a cheerful design to cover some gang graffiti, and then eventually turned that section around to face her yard after a protracted battle with her homeowners association.
Using what you have saves resources, she pointed out, and that’s good for the environment.
I asked Coronado to share some of her favorite garden hacks, and I added a few of my favorites from her book, too.
Now pick up that shovel and get gardening.
• Wine bottle edging. Edging a path with wine bottles not only keeps them out of the landfill, but it also adds personality to your garden.
To do it, dig a 3- to 6-inch-deep trench along the edge of the path and fill the bottom with 2 inches of sand. Turn the bottles upside down and carefully place them side by side on the firmer side of the trench, using the sand to keep them from tipping. Back fill with soil, pushing the soil into place to hold the bottles in position.
Don’t drink enough wine for a project like this? Ask restaurants if they’ll give you their empties. You don’t even have to remove the labels if you don’t want to, Coronado notes in her book.
• Seed starter. Coronado is a sucker for roasted chickens from her local warehouse store, but she doesn’t love the domed plastic containers they come in. So she reuses them as miniature greenhouses for starting seeds.
She just punches a few small holes in the bottom of a container, sets it on a rimmed cookie sheet, fills the container with a finely sifted, well-moistened seed-starting mix and plants seeds in it according to the package directions. She then replaces the lid and places the container in a warm area near a sunny window or under grow lights.
You need to keep the soil moist while the seeds are germinating, she said. Once they sprout, ventilate the container regularly to keep the seedlings healthy.
• Coffee filter stopper. Flowerpots need holes in the bottom for drainage, but that can let soil fall through. Prevent that by simply laying an unbleached coffee filter in the bottom of the pot before you add soil. Since it’s unbleached, the filter can be composted at the end of the gardening season.
• Flour “paint.” When you’re planning a new garden bed, it’s a good idea to lay out the design on the ground before you start digging. You can do that with spray paint or a garden hose, but Coronado prefers unbleached flour.
Just sprinkle the flour in a line to outline your design. If you make a mistake, you can easily brush away the flour to erase it.
• Garden yardstick. Sometimes you need to plant things at a certain depth or space plants a specific distance apart. Be prepared to be accurate by turning your long-handled tools into yardsticks. Just lay a handle parallel to a measuring tape and use a permanent marker to mark inch lines on the handle.
• Floating patio. When raccoons invaded her house and ripped bricks off the fireplace, Coronado reused those bricks as accents in a temporary patio that “floats” atop landscaping fabric. Any kind of flat material could work just as well, such as steppingstones, broken concrete, rocks and log cuts, she said. In fact, Coronado incorporated a few different types of materials into hers.
You can create a similar patio by choosing a level spot, marking the desired shape on the ground and digging a 6- to 8-inch-deep trench around the perimeter to let water drain. Cover the area with landscape cloth or some other permeable fabric, arrange the bricks in an attractive pattern on top and fill the gaps with a layer of sand and gravel. Last, pour lime screenings or crushed granite over that layer, but not so deep that it covers the bricks.
Frost heaving can displace the parts of the patio, but Coronado just fixes hers when necessary.
“It’s rustic and adorable, and it’s perfect for me,” she said.
And that’s perfect enough.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ or on Twitter @MBBreckABJ .