The Mountain Gardener: Small spaces can be wonderful places
by Jan Nelson
Aug 29, 2013 | 2783 views | 0 0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
slideshow
Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
slideshow
Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
slideshow

He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden. Unique in such a small space. He asked if I would I be interested in visiting some time. I love being invited to tour all types of gardens, but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. It is all part of the design to attract beneficial insects, I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials; from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he wove a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College, so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provides moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are beneficial plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia. These flowers have flat flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They, in turn, eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800-square-foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park, but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife, so I came away with lots of great ideas.

Once a teacher, always a teacher, so Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden. It explains in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce. The insects are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self-sown in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall, making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia was a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

Dida Merrill loves flowers for fragrance and cutting, so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which are prime syrphid fly attractors. Merrill obtained several bird of paradise from different locales in the hopes that one will be hardier. They grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at janis001@aol.com, or visit www.jannelsonlandscapedesign.com to view past columns and pictures.

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