Home for the Harvest

DIY Hugelkultur Planter Boxes

My favorite DIY garden project this year was building raised planter beds along our deck. Our house had a 25-year old cedar deck which was starting to deteriorate. We decided to redo the deck and incorporate two raised planter boxes into it.

planter boxes

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

Before refurbishing the deck and building the planter boxes, we took down an existing linden tree which was overhanging the deck. It created quite a mess each year. It was a bit sad to see it go even though we knew it was time (my dad planted the tree when I was a kid). We decided to incorporate the timber from the linden tree into our planter beds as hugelkultur to utilize the organic matter on-site.

After taking down the linden tree we removed the old deck boards and replaced some of the structural lumber (see the before photos here). We re-decked the area with new 1-by-6-inch cedar. Then it was time to build the garden planter boxes!

Raised Bed Frame

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

Building the Planter Boxes

We built our planter boxes with 2-by-4-inch lumber frames. The simple frame was clad on the outside with 1-by-8-inch deck fascia board. We are lucky to have a great local lumber yard that sourced this custom cedar for us. Finding nice cedar 1-by-8-inch can be a bit tricky (especially in the 16-foot lengths we used for our deck side stairs).

Building Planter Boxes

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

The inside of the frame was lined with salvaged plywood left over from the dance floor from our backyard wedding. It makes me happy to know that a little piece of our wedding is now incorporated into our deck!

We decided to line our planter boxes with some leftover plastic that was in the garage. This should extend the life of the plywood lining by a few years, delaying replacement of the plywood liner. I usually avoid buying plastic for the garden, but I made this exception as it was a good way to repurpose a waste product and may lengthen the lifespan of the salvaged plywood liner.

Hugelkultur Raised Bed

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

Filling the Planter Boxes

A few years ago I built a small hugelkultur bed. It was a fun project and got me thinking about more ways to incorporate in-place composting into our landscape. When we were considering the future for the linden tree, using it on our property as a carbon source for in-place composting seemed like the natural choice.

The bottom layer of the planter boxes was filled with large deciduous linden log pieces from the felled tree. I had hoped to place them vertically but we ended up just placing them horizontally on the ground in the bottom of the box. The voids between the logs were packed with branches, leaves, and grass clippings. We tried to pack the voids as tightly as possible. We don’t have pest issues with termites or carpenter ants here, but I just don’t like leaving large voids.

Next in the box was a layer of nitrogen-rich composted manure followed by some of our homemade yard waste compost. We topped the bed with high-quality potting mix.

Planting Planter Boxes

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

Planting the Hugel Planter Boxes

Because the planter boxes are located right on our deck, I’m torn between using them for convenient leafy salad greens or filling them with bright cheery flowers to enjoy from the patio. Next year will be the first full gardening season with the boxes, and I’m sure I’ll have fun planning what to plant! I have a feeling that I’ll want to mix in some flowers and hopefully some leafy greens.

To test out the floral look, I transplanted some canna lilies passed down to me from my husband’s family. I also put in some of the dahlia tubers that were given to us by the organic flower farmer who did the flowers for our wedding. I like the height of the flowers as the deck will feel more enclosed and cozy (like an outdoor room).

patio with planter boxes

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

Here’s the finished look of the raised deck hugelkultur planter boxes! We’re so happy with how they turned out. I’ve already started next year’s garden planner so I can plan these beds out for the spring!

To see more photos of our DIY deck project, check out this article on my personal blog.

5 Classic Perennial Flowers to Rescue from Old Gardens

One of my favourite ways to add classic perennial flowers to my garden is by rescuing plants from old houses, homesteads and gardens. Many of my perennials were not purchased, and instead were saved during the process of renovating nearby houses and renewing overgrown landscapes. Not only is transplanting classic perennials a low-cost way to populate my own garden, but it preserves these varieties which have often survived and thrived despite little care or maintenance in recent years.

1 - 5 Perennial Flowers to Rescue From Old Garden

Classic Perennial Flowers

Many perennial flowers in mature gardens come with fascinating histories or with sentimental value. It’s always nice to hear how a grandmother’s peonies have been passed down through the generations or how roses were originally planted by homesteaders. Here are five of my favourite perennials to save the next time you’re renovating an old garden.

2- Old Roses

This old rose lives in the river rock foundation of a homestead farmhouse that is long gone.

1. Roses

Roses are a classic perennial flower. Many of us have memories of the lovely scented garden roses grown by grandparents, other relatives and neighbours. Old-fashioned roses can often be found around the perimeter of old farmhouses and cabins. I’ve found both small rose shrubs and climbing roses in with the weeds around old structure foundations.

Here in Canada, I transplant roses in the early spring during the end of winter dormancy. To transplant, carefully dig up the rose bush once the ground has thawed but before the plant has started to green up. That being said, it is possible to move a rose plant during the growing season, especially if that’s the only option.

If transplanting the rose isn’t practical, roses can also be propagated by taking cuttings. I always take a few cuttings of anything sentimental or hard to get just in case one or two cuttings don’t take!


3 - Peonies

These peonies were once lovingly cared for by the previous owner of a house renovated by my family. Now they’ve been divided and are thriving once more.

2. Peonies

Peonies are perhaps my favourite flower to gather from old properties. There are so many different kinds of peonies and they are all absolutely stunning to me. I often end up rescuing them after they’ve bloomed so I’m never sure what colour or type they are while I’m transplanting them. It’s been so much fun each spring waiting to see what types of peonies will appear!

Peonies do best when transplanted in the fall. I carefully dig them up at the end of the day and then come back the next morning to divide them and bring them to their new home. I’ve also had to transplant peonies in the heat of summer because that was the only chance to save them. All of the peonies I’ve transplanted during summertime have survived, possibly because of the attention paid to keeping them moist. I’ve noticed that watering them thoroughly both before and after transplanting has really helped them through the process.

4 - Irises

These irises from my front yard were transplanted from a residential construction site before we started the final landscaping.

3. Irises

Irises are a lovely perennial that are relatively easy to transplant. They come in a variety of colours, making them a surprise for next year if you rescue them after they’ve bloomed. I moved the irises pictured above from the front garden bed of a house that was to be renovated. We had no idea what colour they would be! I was so thrilled when they turned out to be this lovely dark purple shade.

Iris plants appreciate being divided on a regular basis. If the plants you’re transplanting have not been divided for many years, you may find that the rhizomes have become overcrowded. I generally choose the smaller fresh baby rhizomes to transplant into the new location. Irises do well when divided and transplanted in late summer or early fall. I’ve also transplanted them in early spring with good results.

5 - Daylilies

These daylilies have been moved and divided several times to produce many plants for a border garden.

4. Daylilies

Daylilies are another easy plant to rescue from an existing garden. An established daylily plant can be split into many small plants to create a nice floral border or patch. Most daylilies in our area are a bright yellow colour but it’s possible to find them in orange and pink as well. Fortunately, they’re very forgiving to transplant.

Daylilies do best when transplanted in the spring or fall. That being said, I’ve had to transplant them in full bloom before and they’ve survived to bloom the following year. They really are one of the more reliable perennials to transplant. Daylilies transplanted later in the spring may not bloom that year but those transplanted in the fall will likely bloom the next year provided they get enough sun.

6 - Pink Tulips

Tulips and other early perennial flowers bring classic colour to the garden in early spring when we need it the most!

5. Tulips, Daffodils, and Other Spring Bulbs

Tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs are classic perennial bloomers in cottage gardens. Many old houses and homesteads have perimeter gardens full of these lovely flowers. There is an empty lot just down the street from us where an old house was taken down. Even though the house is gone, the old front border garden appears each spring when the rows of bright red tulips come up.

I move tulips and other spring bulbs from their existing location in the late fall. Transplanting in the fall is much easier when the plants have been tagged for transplant while they bloom in the spring. I like to take photos of blooming spring bulbs with my phone in the springtime. That way I can pull the photo up on a GPS map in the fall and know where the plant is and what the flowers look like. I’ve had mixed success transplanting tulips in the summertime. It's all too easy to damage the bulbs, so it’s more reliable to transplant them after they’ve bloomed (and hopefully once they’re dormant).

7 - Old Roses

Old gardens (just like old houses) will appreciate a bit of fresh love!

Transplanting Classic Perennial Flowers Into Your Own Garden

Perennial flowers are often accompanied by wonderful stories about the gardeners who grew them years ago. By transplanting these treasured plants into our current gardens, we are continuing the traditions and stories of these historical gardeners. Even the most modern of gardens can include a little something extra by adding a perennial with historical or sentimental value.

What are your favourite perennial flowers to rescue from old gardens? Do you have a particularly sentimental plant or something with an interesting history in your garden?

How Seed Swaps Inspire Heirloom Gardening

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to leave the big city and move to my hometown. We didn’t know what to do once we got there, but we were determined to settle down where we could breathe fresh air, hear birds singing, and see the stars at night. One snowy weekend right before we moved, I noticed a handmade sign advertising a seed swap. It seemed like the perfect excuse to get our new garden started.

I couldn’t wait to have my first real garden. In the city, the closest thing I had to a garden was a tray of wheatgrass in the kitchen. Fortunately, the seed swap turned out to be the perfect place for an introduction to organic gardening! It was exactly what I needed before our move.

How Seed Swaps Inspire

There are Fruits and Vegetables I Don’t Know About?

As I walked across downtown to the seed swap, I made a mental list of the things I’d like to grow in my new kitchen garden. The classics like tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce all made the list. These were veggies I already loved which were reportedly much tastier if you grew them yourself.

At the swap, I went up to the tomato section at the first big booth. I was completely stunned at the number of choices! There were more kinds of tomatoes than I could have possibly imagined.

I had been aware only of “hot-house” and Roma tomatoes because these were the two types sold in the grocery store. At the seed swap, however, there were packets of seeds for heirloom tomatoes unlike anything I’d ever seen. There were even tomato-like things for sale that I’d never heard of like purple tomatillos and ground cherries. Most of these interesting seeds were labelled as being heirloom cultivars.

Homegrown Tomatillos 
I had never heard of tomatillos before going to my first seed swap. Now we eat them almost weekly!

I’ll admit that I was a little shocked to see that there were fruits and vegetables that I was simply unaware of. It was humbling that there were so many types of produce that I didn’t know about! I would later learn that only the most uniform, disease-resistant, transportable, and shelf-stable produce types and cultivars end up in the grocery store.

After quite a few additions to my “must-have” seed list, I decided I’d hit my limit and went on to the next room at the swap. The next area of the seed swap was full of small plants available for purchase. Vendors were again selling things I’d never heard of like mulberries, paw paws, purple sweet potatoes, and sunchokes. I was hooked! I wanted to try all these different new foods.

Heirloom Garden Planning
Now I make a written shopping list of the plants I’m looking for before I go to the swap!

Heirloom Seeds and Seed Saving

After discovering these heritage plants for the first time, I had to wonder where the seeds at the swap had come from. Chatting with the vendors, most had inherited their seeds from family members, traded them with other growers, or picked them up while travelling. These cultivars had been saved by generations of gardeners and small farmers rather than by large seed companies.

Each vendor had created their own seed library from these heirloom seeds, which was replenished and refined year after year. In most cases, the plants had been grown in our area for so long that they’d become specially adapted to the region. The vendors were also more than happy to explain terms like open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid to me.

Seed Swap Packets 
Heirloom seeds are passed down from generation to generation

Although most of the seeds at the seed swap were available for purchase from small independent vendors, there was also a community swap area. I absolutely loved that tradition! Local gardeners thoughtfully collected seeds from their favorite plants and brought them to the swap to share with other gardeners for free.&

Sharing seeds is a vital part of keeping heirloom cultivars alive and thriving. Now that I have my own garden, I love bringing the seeds I’ve saved to our local seed swap to pass on to other gardeners. Many organizations that host community seed swaps also house seed libraries throughout the year. In our area, gardeners can bring bulk seeds they’ve saved to the seed library in the fall. Volunteers clean and package the seeds over the winter, just in time for distribution at the swap. This tradition is a wonderful way to connect gardeners together.

The Culinary Appeal of Heirloom Cultivars

As is customary, I ended up with way more seeds than I meant to at that first seed swap. My excuse was that my friends and family are always looking for the next unique ingredient to cook with. I decided that my first garden would not be about offsetting my grocery bill. Instead, our garden would be about discovering and learning to grow interesting heirloom varieties that aren’t found in the supermarket.

Seed Swap Event
Seed Swaps are a wonderful introduction to heirloom gardening

How Seed Swaps Create New Heirloom Gardeners

My first seed swap introduced me to organic gardening methods and heirloom cultivars. I was completely inspired to delve into edible gardening in a way that has been far more rewarding than simply growing a few staple grocery store crops. The heirloom cultivars I’ve grown have enriched my favorite recipes and even introduced me to some new dishes. I’ve also been so grateful to connect with other local gardeners as we pass down seeds and stories.

Heirloom seeds that have been passed down between generations of gardeners are an incredibly important part of local culture. The swap events themselves are also an amazing way to get to know other local gardeners while learning about the heirlooms that thrive in your area.

Inspiring Heirloom Gardening

This year, consider saving some extra seeds from your garden to donate to a local seed library or seed swap organization. If you’ve got a great seed swap in your area, why not bring a few new gardeners along with you next year and help them navigate the tables of seeds? You can read more about how to make the most of your local seed swap by going to my personal blog, Home for the Harvest.

If there isn’t a seed swap in your area, consider hosting one yourself! You’ll be helping keep varieties available for future generations while making everyone’s garden a little more interesting. Check out some more ways to get heirloom seeds to every gardener in the article Share and Share Alike: How to Get Heirloom Seeds to Every Gardener.

Photo credit: All photos by Mary Jane Duford (Home for the Harvest)

Become a Preferred Subscriber and start enjoying the benefits today!

Fall in love with the flavor, versatility, and beauty of Mother Earth Gardener

Mother Earth GardenerDelight your taste buds, mind and eyes with beautiful photos and inspirational techniques on everything you need to know to grow, preserve and cook your own heirloom fruits and vegetables. You won’t want to miss the stories about plants passed down from generation to generation.

Don’t miss a single issue of Mother Earth Gardener. Published by the editors of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Mother Earth Gardener provides decades of organic gardening experience from the most trusted voices in the field. Join today and save off the newsstand price! Get one year (4 issues) for only $24.95! (USA only)

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube