How to Chaos Garden
Welcome to this week’s Garden Study Interview! These interviews feature conversations with Garden Study readers like you all about their own gardening rollercoasters. The basics are as follows:
You don’t have to be an expert, just enthusiastic
I make a document with some straightforward questions and send them off; if you have ideas for questions to include in future Q&As, put them in the comments
The goal is to include all types of gardening (container, flower, patio, community, desert, mountain, vegetable you name it) and zones; please be patient, I promise we’ll get to all of them
The comments are what really make this space shine, so please comment often and effusively (and go back and check out new comments on older posts, like last week’s on garden gear). You can find all previous issues editions here.)
And as always, if you know someone who’d like Garden Study, please forward this their way — but make sure to guide them to the specific way to *opt-in* to Garden Study emails, which you can find here.
And if you’d like to volunteer for a future Garden Study interview, here’s where you sign up (it might take years to get through them all, but I’m committed)
Name and Pronouns: (First name is fine, but so is full name)
Kasi Allen, she/her
Where do you garden?
I garden in my little yard in the middle of town in ruralish Idaho. I reserve most of my front yard for perennial flowers, natives, and dahlias (which are not perennial where I live) and most of my backyard for edibles, medicinals, herbs, and my annual cut flower patch. I say “most” because everything is pretty well mixed together, the birds plant things, and mysteries happen. Everything I grow is in large, in-ground beds that I steadily dig out of the pre-existing grass.
My zone is 6b, but as everyone knows, there’s a lot more to it than that. I live in the high desert, so it’s pretty dry and, although it’s fairly mild most of the time, we get extremes: below freezing in the winter and 100+ in the summer. Our biggest weather issue is wind — up to 60mph on a spring day. We have a large locust tree in our back yard and our house has two stories, so sun mapping has been invaluable for my small space.
As for soil — I dream of someday having the time to become a Master Gardener and knowing everything a person could ever know about soil. In the meantime, something I know about my soil is that a previous resident of my home was careless about garbage. I’ve dug up everything from giant styrofoam blocks to car parts to buttons and glass. So much glass. Endless glass. I remove what I can and have a sense of humor about the rest. Occasionally, my father-in-law, a former farmer, will stroll through my garden and say something like, “Looks like you need iron,” and I amend. He raises a handful of cows at his house every year, and I have found their manure to be gold.
Can you describe your gardening philosophy? How do you approach it, how do you think of gardening in your mind, what makes it feel valuable to you?
Two books have been instrumental in the formation of my gardening philosophy: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Garden Allies by Frederique Lavoipierre. I see myself as a garden ally. Of course, I love harvesting and my camera roll is 90% photos of individual blossoms, but the work itself is a spiritual act that is more important to me than the yield. I do my work in the garden just as the bees and microbes do, and I do as little harm as I can in the process.
For me, this means a few things; I try to disturb the earth as little as possible, I don’t use pesticides or herbicides, and I invite biodiversity into my space (even the kind we are raised to dislike). You’ll never catch me killing a wasp or displacing a snake. They’re doing good work for the plants I am growing! It seems silly to me to kill the wasp, then have to figure out how to kill the bug that the wasp was hunting as well as hand-pollinate the plant the wasp was working on.
As for the creatures who aren’t doing work toward the greater good of the garden, I create a living mulch of beneficial plants to surround the plants I’d like to protect. Marigolds, borage, and calendula are my go-tos and I have them in every nook and cranny in every bed in my garden. What I’ve learned from gardening this way is that it requires very little weeding and that the soil retains moisture much more effectively than if the soil around each plant was bare. My partner calls me a “chaos gardener” because my garden looks so wild, but there are a lot of spreadsheets behind all of that chaos!
Along with disturbing the soil as little as possible, I also leave the garden as-is throughout the fall and winter. I try not to disturb anything until the bees and ladybugs are awake (I’m very fortunate to have a greenhouse to work in while I wait). This practice leaves habitat and nourishment for my coworkers throughout the winter and it also acts as mulch. A surprise benefit I have found to leaving plenty of detritus around is that the rolly pollies are less interested in my early strawberry crops when they have leaf debris to munch on.
I’d love to hear more about your gradual transformation of lawn to beds — what’s your strategy, what’s your step-by-step?
Oh, it’s so laborious. Hysterically laborious. Friends and family run when they hear me utter the words, “I’m digging this weekend.” The first step is thinking long and hard about where I need more space and what kinds of plants that space can support with its current water/sun situation. Then, I cut the space in with a shovel and get to digging. I dig the grass out scoop by scoop, flipping it over as I go to let it dry out in the sun. Once it’s dry, I come back and grab each scoop by the grass to pound as much soil out as I can, and then the grass gets thrown in the mulch pile. This pretty much eliminates the grass for good from that bed save for a few handfuls here and there. I would say that it is a mistake to do this in the spring when the soil is very wet, and it most certainly is, except that there are few things more healing after a long winter than working every single muscle in my body while bathing in the smell of dirt.
I use the pronoun “I” here very loosely. My partner does an equal share (if not more) of the work. My sister and her wife have put in long hours, and my friend who lives a few blocks from me has sent her 8-year-old son down to dig. I love that my loved ones have been knuckles-deep in the soil that nourishes me, that we’ve laughed and sweat and toiled together over it. The aforementioned garbage has made it so that we are all always on the hunt for marbles.
Tell me about your “experiments,” as you call them, both past and present — how do you track them, what have you learned from them?
I’m the spreadsheet queen, so I track everything there. I have an indoor cat who’s obsessed with dirt and an unheated greenhouse that gets cold at night, so my most consistent experiments are around soil temperature and how early I can start seedlings while having them in my house for as little time as possible. I start nearly everything from seed, so I’m always experimenting with seed saving and seedling starting. A coworker and I will often divide seeds up so that she can start some in one condition and I can start some in another, then compare notes.
Something I experimented with last year was harvesting half of my carrots and processing them after the first frost, then mulching the other half and leaving them in the ground to harvest throughout the winter. The carrots I left were so sweet and hearty that I don’t think I’ll ever do the mad carrot harvest dash again. I’ve also been playing around with soil mixtures for soil blocking, and it’s taken a few tries and lots of notes, but I now much prefer starting in blocks as opposed to starting in cell trays.
I often ask about garden nemesis but in your case I want to talk about your garden best friends, particularly when it comes to bugs.
I love garden bugs so much! I especially like maligned bugs. Moths get a bad rap (especially when they’re young), but they are invaluable hyper-specialized pollinators. Parasitic wasps sound scary, but they are vicious predators. Is there anything more gorgeous than a cat spider in her web? If I had to choose a favorite garden bug, I would have to pick the harvestmen. I find them all over my cucumber vines and borage leaves; they are powerful pest managers and so charming to watch. It makes me feel like I’m truly part of my garden when one walks across my bare skin.
I do have a nemesis: squash bugs. I kill them on sight. This year was the first year I haven’t grown chamomile and dill, and it’s the first year I wasn’t able to keep up with killing them by hand. Next year, I will grow more plants to attract tachinid flies.
What still intimidates you about gardening and/or your garden?
Soil science! I know I’ll get really into it someday, but today it feels like a lot.
What do you most often think about (or listen to) when you’re out in the garden?
One of the most transformative experiences of my entire gardening practice has been listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer read the audiobook version of Braiding Sweetgrass while digging one of my garden beds. It left an indelible mark on my relationship with my garden and helped me to create some meaningful personal rituals and gratitude practices around the land (without appropriating her culture, of course). Now, every time I dig a new bed, I leave it with part of me (a whisker from my cat), part of its history (an exhumed marble), and gratitude. If I’m not listening to a book, I spend a lot of my time in the garden observing, so I’m not necessarily listening to anything but my neighbor’s chickens and the very loud rufous hummingbirds in the lilacs.
What are your future dreams for your garden?
Long-term, my partner is building himself an art studio in our backyard, so we have reserved that space as a no-garden zone. Once it’s built, I plan to train roses up it and create a large path of perennial flowers (think peonies and tickseed) and medicinals (think feverfew and yarrow) to the studio a la Miss Honey’s cottage in Matilda. Once that’s done, we should have just enough grass left on which to wash our canoe.
Short-term, I’m mulling over the idea of a small self-sustaining pond in the hope of attracting more reptiles and amphibians to my garden. I like the idea of having it in a clawfoot tub, but I already have a clawfoot tub in my garden for bathing and perhaps that’s one clawfoot tub too many?
Finally, this is your chance to crowdsource freely from the Garden Study community. What do you want to ask?
I have about a million gardening questions every day but I’m struggling to think of any broad questions for the whole community besides the question I ask at every gathering of gardeners: does anyone want any daylilies? ●
If you have questions for Kasi….or just have a general gardening conundrum that’s vexing you this week….please ask away!