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It’s November 19, 2012, and the garden at little yellow house is now as blank as it will be. The big square section on the right of the front walk is about 50% bare ground. The biggest plant is the pittosporum bush  near the house on the left. To its right (near the truck) is the bare space where the giant silk tree came out.

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On the left side the big wisteria looms over three just-pruned daisy bushes. On the right are some grayish French lavender bushes, and on the left a butterfly iris and a low Santa Barbara daisy. Directly in front are some decorative strawberries and English violets.

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The right side street strip contains purple-blooming lantanas, still unpruned and just recovering from the damage done during the great big silk tree removal. Also present here, buttercup oxalis and some annual grasses pushing up between the step stones at the street edge. At the upper right, the street strip is temporarily shaded by a street-side recycling bin.

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In the left side street strip the blue mailbox post rises near a massive clump of red-flowering stonecrop, also known as sedum, currently not blooming. Beyond, a wild-looking mix of white flowering sweet alyssum, creeping oxalis, California poppies, and much more. This small section of the garden is already one of the most diverse, ecologically healthy areas.

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Between the big pittosporum bush and the front of the house an old flagstone walkway is being deconstructed. These stones will be reassembled into a more eco-friendly mortar-free patio where mosses and other small plants can establish their own kind of ecosystem between the stones. Beyond the remains of the walk way is the blank space where the silk tree was removed. This is where the next major action will take place. Let’s fast forward a couple of weeks to December 5…

140510-0917Here in Menlo Park we are very tree-aware. When a large old tree comes out (a “heritage tree”) the law says you have to plant a new tree that can grow as big.

At right, two trusty garden experts from Roger Reynold’s Nursery put in in a strapping young red maple. Sadly, Roger Reynold’s has since gone out of business.

We chose a large-leafed deciduous tree to replace the old silk tree. While this maple will drop its big crinkly leaves all over the garden, they will be easy to remove from the tops of bushes and smaller plants, and easy to redistribute under the bushes and in other deserving parts of the garden. Unlike the old silk tree, it will not drop tons of fine debris, smothering everything beneath. It will also experience a wonderful annual cycle, being beautiful in different ways around the year. A big improvement!

For now, the new garden citizen is small and bare. In coming episodes of this series of posts you’ll be able to watch as it leafs out, grows a bit, drops its leaves, then leafs out and grows some more. We’ll prune it now and then as its branches reach out into the air. It will be quite a few years before it reaches the garden-shading extent of the old silk tree!

Below: On December 10, 2012 the garden at little yellow house basks in the slanting winter sun. Even now, it is mostly a blank slate. Its deep nature evolution has only just begun!

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Next: the garden greens up with massive diversity, and the first frost of the winter.

Look at this monster! It’s like a gigantic plant amoeba, slowly oozing out across the landscape. Beautiful in its own way but just a bit too aggressive. Let’s see if we can tame it.

Here is a basic principle of ecosystem gardening: even though the garden is managed by a human, we want it to have a natural look, as if all the plants sprouted and grew right where they are. So the challenge in pruning is to make the resulting pruned plant look like it has not been pruned. Can it be done here? Let’s find out…

For this task, I’ll be using a method I call “edge undercut” pruning. The idea is that we want the plant to look as natural as possible, through the entire pruning process.

Edge undercut is accomplished by reaching in under the lowermost, outer edge of the plant and clipping as far as possible in the depths of the stems. The primary factor is whether or not the cut ends of the stems are visible. A secondary factor is whether there is an obvious notch or gap in the plant’s overall shape.

With sturdy shears in hand, I began with round 1. It took about 15 minutes. All around the outer edge, just a few stems at a time, frequently stepping back for a look. This is art, people!

Here’s how it looked after round 1. See how it still looks fairly natural. All I’ve done is elevate the lower edge a bit, giving the whole plant a smaller “footprint”:

…and here is the pile of clippings at this point:

The clippings will be added to the compost pile, which has just been started at the back of the yard.

I’m not done yet! The bush is smaller, but it still takes up too much space. For round 2, I have to start watching the flower balance. The bees LOVE the lavender flowers, so I want to be careful to keep as many as possible. Fortunately, the flowers are mostly on the upper section of the bush.

Around once more, this time clipping into the actual main mass of the bush, still stepping back frequently for an artistic evaluation. Here is how it looks after round 2:

It’s definitely smaller. I have not yet decided whether to remove the catnip plant on the right side. It’s the only medium size catnip left in the garden, but it’s a bit bedraggled.

I’ve clipped much more off on the east side (the far side of the picture above), giving the bush a bit of a “windswept” look and making more room for new plantings on that side. The main stems are now visible (but still no obvious cut stem ends!) and the open space created there will fill in over the next few months as the lavender bush adjusts itself, growing out new shoots to meet the light:

…and here is the second pile of clippings, more compost food:

Thanks to careful pruning, the giant lavender monster is now tamer, and the bees still have a bounteous source of nectar and pollen:

This post is part of the new ecogarden project at Elizabeth’s place

also part of this project:

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Your comments are welcome!