Back in October, we found out that our 14 year old cat, Cosmo, had cancer and only a few more months to live. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, the time came and we had to let him go. It was, by far, my longest relationship with an animal, so I wanted to commemorate our time together by building him a garden.
An indoor cat most of his life, Cosmo loved when he was allowed to spend time outside on the patio. He was pretty well-trained and knew that stepping onto the grass meant having to go inside. (Trust me when I say that being outside was the one and only thing that was motivating enough for him to exhibit some self-control.) But that said, he couldn’t resist the butterflies. If a butterfly flitted too close by, before he could stop himself, he would be joyfully bounding after it, trying to keep up with the erratic pattern and elevation changes. Those moments, watching him unabashedly enjoying himself like that, are some of my favorite memories and it makes my heart happy to know that he’ll be surrounded by butterflies for a long time to come.
I knew that if I was going to do this I needed to design a system, not just plant a tree. This is permaculture design afterall, where systems are the name of the game, but also, the idea of Cosmo endlessly cycling through a system built just for him is very appealing to me.
After some site analysis, I designed a plum tree guild in a large boomerang berm, sited towards the top of a southeast-facing slope, close to the house for easy access to water, in an area that already has some peach and Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) trees growing.
Since no one currently lives out at the Farm, irrigation presents a design challenge. Timed drip irrigation is not possible because we turn the city water off whenever we aren’t there, so my options became earthworks, adapted plants, and ollas — all three of which are being used in this design, along with cover crops for quick soil coverage.
The ollas I’m using hold two gallons of water and I’ve realized that I probably need to add a third one, just up-slope from the plum tree. They are currently emptying in about a week so it looks like I’ll be making weekly (more in the Summer) watering visits for a while.
One thing I didn’t pay enough attention to ahead of time was what was already growing on that spot. The day we installed the garden I noticed it was mainly pioneer plants and annual wildflowers, with some perennial wildflowers and bunch grasses. Had I noticed that sooner, I would have planned to have more organic material on hand to work into the soil as we built the garden because I suspect it’s going to need it.
I chose a ‘Methley’ plum tree (Prunus salicina ‘Methley’) to anchor this garden because it is self-pollinating, has a low chill hour requirement (about 250 hours), is heat-tolerant, and, as opposed to Mexican plums which make good jellies, ‘Methley’ plums are good right off the tree.
The nitrogen fixer I chose to accompany the plum tree was more of a sentimental choice. Because of its name (Mi-MO-sa), its thorny nature, and its butterfly appeal, I decided that a Fragrant Mimosa (Mimosa borealis) would be an excellent addition to the garden that would be the resting place of my thorny-natured, butterfly lovin’ MoCat. This native shrub/small tree is extremely heat-tolerant and its adorable pink puffballs are an excellent source of nectar for both bees and butterflies.
As far as the understory goes, I intend on putting my beehives in this area as well so I’ll be looking at plants that, in addition to supporting the plum tree, also support the pollinator population. Luckily those priorities are not mutually exclusive since most companion planting information emphasizes planting for pollinators and other beneficial insects.
I plan to start with heat and sun loving natives like Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), Mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea), and Drummond wild onion (Allium drummondii). Other non-native, less-well adapted edible and beneficial perennials will be introduced once the system has had some time to mature, since they will probably be more successful then.
The morning Cosmo passed away, we drove out to the Farm straight from the vet. Once we got there, I used my A-frame level to find the contour line on the slope, then I marked the line and the berm with flags, and the digging began.
When planning for the eventuality of building this garden on a day that was going to be pretty hard mentally and emotionally, I decided that the priorities would be getting the earthwork dug, the ollas in, and the plum and mimosa trees planted. I knew that I would have help that day for all of that, and the rest I could do myself later. In hindsight, I should have paid a little more attention to soil preparation and amendment. As we dug and planted, I added compost, mostly to the trees, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough for the entire garden. Thankfully, I do have an endless supply of cow manure on-site, so I’ll be working to amend the soil with that going forward.
In addition to planting the plum and the mimosa trees that day, we also planted a couple of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) tubers, spread leguminous cover crop seeds over the berm, transplanted some of the disturbed wildflower plants into the garden (mostly Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) and Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis)), and threw out a bunch of wildflower, chicory, yarrow, and sunflower seeds.