Home » Eco-Farming Index » How to Build a Successful Demonstration Garden

How to Build a Successful Demonstration Garden

By Louise Placek

A visitor came out one day and was inspired to do something similar on her own homestead. She asked me where you start when you have acres of “wildness.” It is pretty overwhelming, especially in this day of instant gratification.

I told her that I had to live with it for a few years, watching the native plants and their growth habits to figure out what I wanted to get rid of (or move to another place) and what I felt I could leave. I studied it all carefully, making mental notes on the lay of the land and how the plants looked and acted at different times of the year.

Then, one foot at a time, on my hands and knees, or bent over a grubbing hoe or shovel, I worked to create the garden, clearing out stuff I didn’t want and leaving or moving stuff I did. I did not have a plan. It just sort of happened.

Rosemary in bloom

One thing I have tried to do is develop “zones” for plants with similar needs. Much of this was inspired by the natural growth in the area.

I watched sun patterns (which change throughout the year), subtle differences in native soil from one side of the garden to the other, drainage trends, slopes, etc. All these things have helped me make decisions about where to put the plants I want in my garden.

Placing plants with comparable requirements for things like moisture, sun, drainage, etc., in general proximity to each other prevents disasters down the road; i.e., my water-loving malvas do not drown out my xeric rosemary.

One reason I like to grow the plants we sell in containers in my garden is to be able to take pictures of them at maturity or in bloom. These pictures graphically demonstrate the characteristics of the plant.

There is nothing like a good photograph to convince someone to try a plant in their own garden, especially if it is in a small size when you are selling it.

It might otherwise take some powerful imagination or trust to convince them that this little four inch baby plant will someday grow up to be a big, beautiful shrub.

It is also a good idea to have experience with the plants you sell.

  • How tall or wide will it get?
  • What color and size are the blooms?
  • How long does it bloom?
  • Does it need to be cut back before fall?
  • Does it overwinter well?
  • How soon does it come up in the spring from the root or from scattered, dropped seed from last year’s plant?
  • Does it tolerate some frost?
  • And, more importantly in Texas, does it tolerate the heat of summer?
  • Do the “bad boy” bugs really like it?
  • Do the butterflies, bees or beneficial insects use it for pollen or nectar?

All of this experience with plants gives you an edge. This goes for vegetable transplants too. If you grow them out and actually harvest and eat them, you will be more convincing when it comes time to sell those varieties to your retail or wholesale customers.

Garden Magic

One of the most important reasons to have a garden in front of or surrounding your greenhouse, especially if you are involved in organic container plant production, is the diminished load of pest insects. Some beneficial insects need nectar for a specific phase of their developmental cycle, and so must have flowers available to sustain them.

Butterfly on flower
Butterfly in garden

If you are growing a variety of blooming native or well-adapted annuals and perennials, you will provide them with a steady supply of food. And since pests will likely go to your garden if they are around, your army of beneficials will take care of them before they have a chance to enter your greenhouse. This provides something like a screen.

If pests do enter your greenhouse, the load will be light and easy to deal with. Besides, if you have beneficials outside, they will often work their way into the greenhouse thereby taking care of the majority of any pests that enter. It is positively miraculous how well this system works.

If you are not sure what plants to use, contact your local native plant society, your county extension agent, a local garden club, a university in your state with a horticultural department, or just get in the car and drive around, looking at some of the really nice gardens in your area. Talk to your neighbors. Find out what they have had success with and what has failed.

Retail nurseries that sell native and naturalized plants can give you lots of ideas, not only for your own garden, but they can give you a glimpse of what plants people desire. Subscribe to publications that share information on what grows well in your area. Join associations that focus on horticulture or on the types of plants that you want to grow commercially.

Your Garden Soil

It goes without saying that I recommend the use of organic techniques for sustaining and maintaining your garden.

Digging in garden
Soil health is essential in the garden.

If your soil needs help, find out what it needs (basic soil test kits are available through most agricultural extension offices), but bear in mind that good quality compost will salvage most soils (see Chapter 6, Making Compost).

It provides bulk and moisture retention for sandy soils and tilth and friability to clay soils. (If you want to find out what kind of soil you have, do a soil texture analysis. See Appendix for instructions.)

Compost also provides the nutrients, growth factors, microorganisms and humus needed to create a healthy, living soil.

If, after a year or so of amending your soil with compost, you are still having problems with pH or specific mineral deficiencies, you can judiciously add the supplements needed to balance the soil. Just remember that compost by nature is a soil balancer because the microbial activity contributes a continuous supply of nutrients by breaking down carbonaceous material.

Many pH or deficiency problems disappear after the soil has been sufficiently amended with compost.

Nutrients that were “locked up” will become available to your plants as the pH works itself to a more neutral level.

Besides, if you are growing native or well adapted plants, there is no need for extra rich, heavily amended soil. Only if you are trying to grow finicky, fussy plants will you need to monitor levels of specific nutrients.

If you have to make your soil more acidic or alkaline on a regular basis to grow the plants that you want to grow, then you are creating a tremendous amount of work for yourself. Ultimately, the plants will not thrive as their roots get farther into an incompatible, native soil.

Want more? Buy this book here.

Author Louise Placek

Louise Placek undertook the transition from a 20-year, traditional career in nursing to the unknown world of owning and operating a small container plant business. Now, to help others with the same goal, she shares her extensive knowledge and experience in regard to becoming a successful organic plant grower and business owner. With her husband Chris, she bought a hilly, 22-acre site with sandy loam soil, lots of prairie grasses, an oak and cedar woodland with wonderful wildflowers and a 50-mile view. Misty Hill Farm and the container business grew into a successful commercial venture all without the use of the standard industry chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Louise had a mission to grow outstanding plants commercially using only natural, earth-made products. A challenge at times – because there wasn’t a manual or mentor to turn to – but it has become a very worthy cause.