By Barbara Kessler

After nine years, Mary Bakatsa’s garden is bearing fruit…and vegetables…and flowers…and herbs. It is a chorus of life, and supports more activity than even Mary imagined when she started gardening nearly 20 years ago with a few potted herbs.bakatsas-ii.jpg

Along with her flowers and veggies, which grow side by side, she has intentionally and unintentionally created leafy havens for ladybugs, warm oases for garden snakes and food depots for butterflies and birds.

Her large Austin garden is a life force, a mini-ecosystem; a profusion of natural patter in the suburbs. It feeds her and her family with plenty leftover for neighbors and friends and looks and functions much like the cottage gardens of bygone times when people planted everything from potatoes to pansies in their kitchen yard. Today, we call it “companion planting”, and more and more people are coming to recognize the benefits of diverse, intermixed gardens as an effective method for producing quality food and flowers, organically.

MIX IT UP AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS

What Bakatsa discovered is that planting flowers in your vegetable garden – or vegetables in your flower garden – makes it stronger than the sum of its parts. For instance, some flowers like bluebonnets and cow peas, add nitrogen to the soil, which some vegetables, like corn or tomatoes, need in good supply. Other flowers bring in “beneficial,” insects like ladybugs or lacewings that eat aphids and other predator bugs.

It’s also a beautiful way to garden, and to achieve a natural balance that frees you from having to spray for bugs or use any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, says Bakatsa, who remembers natural gardens fondly from her childhood in her native Greece.

‘I don’t just inter-mix flowers with vegetables. I inter-mix the vegetables together. “I grow beets with carrots. And every time it’s a little different. Underneath my blackberries right now I have beets and carrots. I never think ‘That is my row of carrots.’ My soil is either covered with plants or mulch.”
The plants enrich each other and the soil; the mulch feeds the soil and the garden thrives, with careful planning and oversight, but without chemical assistance.
People in Austin will get to see Bakatsa’s garden, among others, during the upcoming tour of gardens April 19 set up by the Travis County Master Gardeners.

But for those of you not in Austin, picture it like this: A large suburban lot with no turf (Bakatsa and her husband Clark had that removed over time). The small front yard is planted mainly with herbs and flowers and also hosts a prolific grapefruit tree that gave up some 300 fruit last year.

The backyard consists of a 80 x 30 foot raised dry stack limestone-edged garden bordered by perennial native plants and filled to bursting with vegetables and flowers year round. (Psst, if you’ve imagined those veggies in rows, re-configure it this way: Flowers, vegetables and trees are planted in groups and clusters. Broccoli peeks out from the partial shade of peach and plum trees, and in the summer, snow peas will hover under the corn and sunflowers will waft over some of the dozens of varieties of tomatoes, offering them a partial shade break. Along the south side, a wall of apple trees trained into the single-plane espalier style, provide privacy. Elsewhere is a grouping of citrus trees. Over there, a towering Eucalyptus that was supposed to be a shrub. Connecting all these mini-projects are paths covered red clover or vetch or leaves that mellow into compost over time.

“I used my pathways as a way to compost, it serves a dual purpose. I can make compost and I can walk on it because it’s not something I’m worried about (getting compacted),” Bakatsa says. This time of the year, she collects shedding Live Oak leaves from neighbors and hauls in bags for composting, in and outside the garden, where a compost pile produces leaf mold for fertilizer. She uses compost tea, a liquid derived from her aged compost, and occasional applications of seaweed (the only thing she uses that’s not local) to fertilize.