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Creative gardening: Fall planting offers opportunities

Corey MacDonald, of Woodstock, holds a yellow bell pepper in a garden she designed at her parents' house in Woodstock, while her mother, Debbie MacDonald, looks over her shoulder. — Rich Cooley/Daily

Debbie MacDonald and her daughter, Corey, stand beside their flourishing green bean plants in the MacDonalds' backyard in Woodstock. — Rich Cooley/Daily

Debbie MacDonald reads a book in the garden retreat that her daughter Corey designed at the Woodstock home last fall. At left, sweet potato plants spill out onto the patio, and green beans in the background have become more abundant than the MacDonalds had hoped. — Rich Cooley/Daily

Corey MacDonald cuts some Swiss chard in the backyard permaculture she designed at her parents' Woodstock home. In a class last year, she learned about creatively designing an ecosystem by combining vegetable plants into a garden with perennials, and she advises using annuals like marigolds to fill in space in a new garden. — Rich Cooley/Daily

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

No one would know the flourishing garden at Debbie and David MacDonald's home in Woodstock was only a strip of grass last fall and that less than 12 months ago, the dozens of flowering plants and vegetables growing there now never existed.

"I think what's interesting is just what we've done in a year," said Debbie MacDonald.

Thanks to her daughter Corey, who took a design class through the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network in Harrisonburg last year to learn to creatively design an ecosystem, the MacDonalds are able to grow most of their own produce throughout the summer. Even the spring and fall allow for an abundance of crops to grow in a small section of the yard next to a patio and the family's in-ground pool.

"She's kind of trying to maximize the seasons," said Corey MacDonald, 35, of Woodstock.

Because she was starting from scratch, she planted what vegetables and herbs she thought her mother would use.

"This is kind of the end of the summer garden," Corey MacDonald said, pointing out beans, peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Nearby are a bay leaf tree, creeping lemon thyme, lavender, yarrow, chamomile, bee balm, cilantro and basil growing alongside perennials and annuals used for color and to fill in bare places until the garden could take root.

Perennials take a few years to form, she said, but annuals will fill in pretty quickly in the meantime.

But the flowers aren't only for show, said the Rosetta Stone teacher.

The perennials assist the annuals in their growth, renewing nutrients in the soil.

Herbs invite friendly insects that help pollinate the garden, she said. False indigo is a nitrogen fixer, pulling nitrogen from the air and distributing it into the soil.

Bee balm attracts bees, she said, but it also can be used to make tea. Yarrow fern is edible, "So we can experiment with that, see what we think of the flavor," she said.

"Pretty much everything in here has a purpose," she said, and in many cases, multiple purposes.

"It's also a source of beauty," she said. "It's been all of these things and that was the intention."

Corey MacDonald can recite lessons she learned from the class as if she has been studying the subject for years, but she said anyone can grow their own permaculture, and she said fall is a great time to start.

Ann Orndorff, who owns Springtime Garden Center in Front Royal with her husband Lamont and son Colby, recommends planting any cold-weather crop in the fall. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, collards, turnips and lettuce will grow in spring if planted in the fall.

In the spring, she said, marigolds planted to surround vegetables will help repel insects, and lavender will be safe from deer, who don't care for it.

In the meantime though, to get the garden started, Ann Orndorff suggests planting perennial flowers like chrysanthemums, sedum, yarrow, coneflowers and pansies.

Pansies, are cool-weather plants, she said, "so they'll even last through the winter." When faced with frost, she said, they'll shrivel, but "when the sun hits them, their little faces just shine, they're great."

Ornamental cabbage and ornamental kale also will keep a garden active throughout the winter, she said.

Corey MacDonald, who noticed chard lasting the winter in her own garden, suggests planting bulbs in the fall.

"A lot of the things you can do in the spring you can also do in the fall," she said.

"The fall is a good time to build soil," she said. Leaf mulch and manure will fertilize plants, and a layer of straw on top will help keep moisture in the ground through the winter, she said.

"Frost does a lot for breaking down things," she said. "It's a great time too because we don't need it. Let the earth worms do their job."

After building a patio last fall, the family planted the garden around it, and because the land they were working with isn't really that big, Debbie MacDonald pointed out, "We tried to use vertical space as much as possible."

First they planted blueberry bushes and strawberry plants, waiting until the spring to plant vegetables and herbs.

The vegetables and herbs they chose produce flowers that complement other plants like lilies and marigolds chosen more for their looks. Edible nasturtiums bloom alongside rosemary and oregano.

Borage, which Corey MacDonald said has given her bragging rights, is a nutrient accumulator with edible leaves and flowers, great for companion planting. With its own blue flowers, it's believed to enhance flowers of other plants that grow near it, she said.

Eat it raw or cook it, she said, when the leaves are younger and more-textured.

This fall, they say they plan to plant garlic to harvest late next spring.

"Every year you can sort of recreate," Corey MacDonald said.

Her mother agreed, "We will evaluate what went well."

One thing she knows for certain: "I definitely will not do as many green beans."

For further reading, Corey MacDonald recommends "Gaia's Garden," by Toby Hemenway, and "Edible Forest Gardens," by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.

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