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A food forest in the making

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Visit to Medford garden was a soul-blossoming experience
Photo by Rhonda NowakBonnie introduced gardening to her neighbor, Austin Bangs, when he 7; now, at 16, Austin is an avid gardener himself.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBonnie is filling her backyard garden with a variety of food-producing and pollinator-friendly plants.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBonnie makes her own compost in four plastic bins filled with shredded leaves, garden debris and kitchen scraps.
Photo by Rhonda NowakMedford gardener Bonnie Patterson grows Interlaken and Concord grapes in a long arbor in her front yard.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBonnie is experimenting with making a garden amendment by using apple cider vinegar to extract minerals from crushed eggshells.
Photo by Rhonda NowakBonnie Patterson shows her ‘Frost’ peach tree; a tree collard stands behind her.

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

— Marcel Proust, “Pleasures and Regrets,” 1896

One of the pleasures of being out and about more these days is having the opportunity to visit other gardeners’ gardens again, and to share them with readers of this column. Gardening is usually a solitary pursuit, so it’s nice to change that routine sometimes and see what other plant enthusiasts are doing in their growing spaces.

I had that thought a few days ago when I visited Bonnie and Relfe Patterson’s garden. They’ve lived in their house in southeast Medford on a quarter-acre lot since 1997, but Bonnie really began devoting her time and energy to gardening since retiring from her work as a physical therapist in 2014. That’s when she participated in OSU’s Master Gardener program. Bonnie and Relfe’s landscape has been growing and evolving ever since.

“My goal for this property is to get it as self-sustaining as possible. I’d like it to be a food forest,” Bonnie said. As I toured her gardens, I realized that Bonnie is well on her way to accomplishing that goal.

Bonnie showed me a raised bed on her front patio where she created a garden on a hügel mound built out of tree limbs and small branches covered with topsoil and compost. She put in a plant community with a small serviceberry tree (Amelanchier laevis, ’Spring Flurry’) and a dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) surrounded by ferns and a number of medicinal and pollinator-friendly herbaceous perennials, including Echinacea, Agastache and Heuchera.

Bonnie said she particularly likes the Powwow series of Echinaceas, which are more compact than other varieties of coneflowers.

There is a beautiful grapevine arbor in Bonnie’s front yard, and right now it’s draped with bunches of ripening Interlaken seedless green grapes and purple Concord grapes.

“The neighborhood is looking forward to harvest time,” Bonnie said with a smile. I could tell that she enjoys sharing her garden bounty with others.

In fact, Bonnie’s gardening protege came by while I was visiting with vegetables from his garden in hand. Austin Bangs has lived in the neighborhood all of his life, and was just 7 years old when he ventured into Bonnie’s garden one day. That visit turned out to have a huge impact on Austin, and now, at 16, he is an avid gardener himself. He and Bonnie swap veggies and gardening tips on a regular basis. (I see another garden visit in my near future.)

Bonnie’s backyard is filled with fruit trees, berry bushes and raised vegetable beds that are planted in polycultures. The vegetable beds are also hügel mounds, which Bonnie said helps to retain moisture in the beds during hot summer weather. She has an automatic drip system in all of the beds, as well as her container gardens, to keep watering consistent.

There are hoops attached to the raised beds in case cover cloth is needed, but Bonnie said she hasn’t had to protect her tomatoes, beans and squash so far. On the other hand, some of the trees and container plants have suffered leaf scorch from the sun’s burning rays.

“Every year, I try to plant something new,” Bonnie said. This year, she’s trying out a ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa), which is smaller and sweeter than the tomatillos I’m familiar with growing. Another unusual plant in Bonnie’s vegetable beds is a tree collard, a perennial Brassica that can grow up to 10 feet tall. I learned that tree collards do not have oxalic acid, which makes some leafy greens bitter, so the leaves of tree collards taste sweet and nutty, similar to baby kale.

I was amazed by Bonnie’s very productive peach tree, a cold-hardy cultivar called “Frost.” Although Bonnie told me she planted the tree just last year, already it’s producing an impressive crop of gorgeous peaches. What makes “Frost” peach trees particularly successful in our area is their resistance to peach leaf curl, a common fungal disease. That’s good news for organic gardeners like Bonnie who do not spray with fungicides or insecticides.

Bonnie has a beehive in her backyard, which an experienced beekeeper friend helps her maintain. Last winter, all of the honeybees mysteriously died, and Bonnie said she really saw a difference in the number of pollinators she had in her garden this spring. She’s hoping her pollinator-friendly plants and the water sources she provides will help to reestablish the beehive.

I learned that to create another colony, worker bees build large cells in the hive to rear female larvae, which are fed special food called royal jelly. This diet creates a fertile queen bee, rather than a sterile worker. The colony only has one queen bee that produces all of the eggs, so the first queen bee to emerge from its cell will kill off the other larvae.

I was also intrigued by a small patch of lawn in Bonnie’s backyard that she planted with an Ecology Lawn Mix, a blend of perennial rye grass, fescue, strawberry and micro-clover, wild English daisy, white yarrow, Roman chamomile and baby blue eyes. The lawn stays green all year, does not require much water, and needs mowing only about once a month. In Bonnie’s yard, the green grassy area does a nice job of breaking up the vegetable beds and flower borders.

On my way out, Bonnie showed me her four compost bins where she makes all of her compost from shredded leaves, garden debris and kitchen scraps. She fills up each bin in succession, turning the organic matter occasionally with a hand tiller. She’s found the plastic compost bins with lids and bottom trapdoors work best for her.

I left Bonnie’s garden excited about all I’d seen and heard during my visit. I think Marcel Proust would have called it a soul-blossoming experience.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Share your garden story

I would love to talk with you about your garden and share your garden story in an upcoming column. Email me at rnowak39@gmail.com.