Tag Archives: perennials

Let’s Talk About Swales

Let’s talk about swales. These landscape features have become a quintessential part of permaculture. They’re touted for their productive ability; saving water and reducing erosion while providing a bounty. But do you really need a swale? 

Swales are basically ditches with mounded beds in front of them. They do work extremely well to prevent erosion and are the perfect way to turn hillsides into productive agricultural land. They’re also excellent for preventing water loss. Any rainwater will get caught in the ditch and be slowly absorbed over a long period rather than flowing downhill. This is a key feature for areas without frequent rainfall. 

However, if your property is mostly flat or you don’t see much runoff from your hillside you may not need a swale. Many people create swales only to be disappointed that they never see water in them. A simple hugelkultur mound can be a great alternative if you determine you don’t need a swale.

Contour Swales

While small swales can simply be placed perpendicular to the general slope of a hillside larger, longer swales should be constructed on contour. This simply means that the swale follows the hillside at a single elevation. This keeps it level, preventing water from flowing to one end or part of the swale. 

While some large projects are done with laser levels you can find a contour with a simple homemade A-frame level. This video is a great DIY tutorial on how to make one for cheap or free. 

Once you have a level you can use stakes to mark out your contour. 

Building a Swale

To begin building your swale start with the mound. It sounds backward but to start you should create a mound of organic material like sticks, leaves, compost, and even logs if your swale is going to be large. The mound is basically going to be a hugelkultur mound. Then you can dig the ditch behind it, using the soil that comes out of it to cover the mound. The ditch should be roughly 3 times as wide as it is deep.

Small swales can be dug by hand with shovels and mattocks but larger swales are frequently created using large machinery. Before getting into creating larger swales it’s important to consider how beneficial they’ll be to your property. Starting with a hand-dug swale can be a good test run!

Planting a Swale

What you plant in your swale will largely depend on its size. Large swales are frequently printed with larger perennials like fruit trees. Fruit tree guilds are perfect for planting on swales! In any case, deep-rooted perennials are ideal plants for swales because they help to hold the mound in place. They also use water throughout the year preventing the mound from becoming overly saturated. However, annuals can also be planted in combination with perennials. Here are a few good options for swales:

  • Fruit trees: apple, peach, cherry, etc.
  • Comfrey
  • Strawberries
  • Rhubarb
  • Asparagus
  • Grapes
  • Perennial flowers: bee balm, coneflower, etc.
  • Chives
  • Berry bushes

Creating a swale is hard work. However, if you have erosion problems on your property a swale may be worth the investment. Follow this advice to create a productive swale of your own.

Everything You Need to Know About Plant Hardiness Zones

Photo of the USDA Hardiness Map (https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#)

One concept that’s often brought up in gardening literature and rarely fully explained is hardiness zones. While they are a simple concept, to a new gardener it can be helpful to know exactly what a hardiness zone is and how to find theirs.

What’s a Hardiness Zone?

A hardiness zone is a geographic area that has similar climatic conditions that affect plant growth. In the United States, the most commonly used hardiness zones are those 13 zones found on the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is based on the annual minimum winter temperature.

History of Hardiness Zones

Starting in the 1920s people and organizations in the U.S. began making efforts to create a system of hardiness zones. However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the system we use today was created by the National Arboretum in Washington.  Over the years the map has been revised by the American Horticultural Society, the Arbor Day Foundation, and the USDA. Many other countries employ the USDA hardiness zones or a similar system.

The Current Map

The current hardiness zone map was created by the USDA in 2012. The USDA based the map on temperature recordings that were taken between 1976-2005. It’s digital and interactive, allowing users to enter their zip code or click on their location to find out more about their zone. In the future, this map will no doubt need to be updated. In fact, some believe that it already is incorrect due to climate change. Certain zones may have experienced warmer than average winter temperatures in the past few years.

You can find the current map here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

How Accurate Are Hardiness Zones?

First, it’s important to note that though winter minimum temperatures are what hardiness zones are based on they are not the only factor that determines a plants survival in a specific area. Some areas within the same zone may experience low winter temperatures for months on end while others within the same zone will only reach anywhere near the minimum temperature for a couple of days.

Snowfall is another big factor. Snow acts as insulation and if plants are consistently covered it can help them survive temperatures they otherwise wouldn’t. Wind is another important consideration. Think about the areas referred to as “above treeline” in certain sections of the Appalachian mountains (particularly the northeast) even though it may be colder farther north where trees are still present, extreme winds play a huge role in limiting growth in the mountains.

What if I Want to Grow Plants Not Suited to My Zone?

While greenhouses and high tunnels are typically used in modern agriculture to extend the growing season of annual plants you can use them to grow perennials as well. Planting in a shelter like this can allow you to plant species that would need a whole hardiness zone warmer than your area.

Some people have also had good luck planting against large rocks or buildings. These features shelter plants from wind and can absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it slowly as nighttime temperatures fall.

Lastly, some perennials can be grown like annuals or brought indoors during the winter. Keep in mind if you bring a perennial in during the winter that is typically found in warm climates it probably won’t be quite as productive. You may also need to provide supplemental light unless you have large, south-facing windows.

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10 Reasons to Grow Thyme

German Winter Thyme

Thyme certainly isn’t the most popular herb in backyard gardens but we’re stumped as to why! This little plant has a lot of great things going for it. Check out some of thyme’s benefits to learn more about why it deserves a spot in your garden.

Thyme has medicinal properties.

Thyme may be generally thought of as a culinary herb but it also as a long history of medicinal use. It is primarily used to treat lung and throat issues like colds, coughs, and sore throats. It’s an excellent ingredient for homemade cough drops, soothing teas, and gargles. Thyme can also be used for soothing for upset stomachs.

It’s a hardy perennial.

It’s a hardy perennial. At SESE we offer three varieties of thyme. German Winter Thyme and Creeping Thyme are hardy in zones 4-10 and Summer Thyme is hardy in zones 6-9. If you’d like a low maintenance garden it should definitely be on your list.

Thyme can be started from seed.

While many perennials can be a bit tricky to get going from seed thyme is actually quite easy. It can be started indoors with other garden plants like tomatoes and peppers and set out after the danger of frosts have passed in the spring. It may take a little while to get going but not having to buy transplants may be worth the wait.

It’s delicious.

In the kitchen, thyme is incredible versatile. It can be used in sweets like shortbread cookies or savory dishes like sauces, meats, and beans.

Thyme is beautiful.

Creeping Thyme

Thyme plants a truly beautiful and different varieties offer a plant perfect for every garden. German winter thyme is shrubby and upright while summer thyme is a bit smaller. Creeping thyme is a vining plant that creates an excellent ground cover for rock and herb gardens. Even though they have different appearances all three can be used as culinary or medicinal herbs.

It attracts beneficial insects.

Thyme’s little flowers attract a variety of beneficial insects including native pollinators, honeybees, and predatory wasps.

Thyme makes an excellent companion plant.

It can be planted in with cabbage, potatoes, eggplant, and strawberries. It’s thought that it repels cabbage worms, flea beetles, and tomato hornworms.

It’s good for you.

In case you needed a reason besides its wonderful flavor to add thyme to your recipes thyme is very nutritious. It’s high in iron and antioxidants.

Thyme will tolerate shade.

If you have an area of your garden that’s get’s too much shade to be an excellent vegetable patch you might want to add some creeping thyme. It will do fine in areas that are fairly shady.

It doesn’t need much water.

While you need to water your thyme plants while they’re getting established once they’re mature these Mediterranean plants require very little water. They’re perfect for water conscious gardeners or those in drought-prone areas.

If you’re planning your garden for next year you may want to add thyme to your list! These are just a few of the many reasons this wonderful herb deserves a spot in your garden. What’s your favorite thing about thyme?

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