Michael Kappel’s Miracle Garden

blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)Gardening is often described as therapeutic, but such a description just begins to tell the story of Michael Kappel or, more precisely, his recovery.
Five years ago, Michael was in an accident that left him with a new status: C4 quadriplegic incomplete. This means that he broke the fourth vertebra in his spinal column and has disability in all of his limbs, with partial or incomplete paralysis and constant excruciating pain.
Remarkably, for short periods, he gets out of his wheelchair and walks around, virtually like you or me. But he must be careful.
“My spinal cord is like a frayed wire,” he explained. “I can move for short periods, and my arms and legs respond to signals from my brain like everyone else. However, should I continue to move for very long, my system becomes overloaded, like wires with too much electrical charge, leading to a variety of neurological problems.”
Because of the delicate balance he must maintain, Michael spends nearly all of his time in bed or in a wheelchair and only leaves his house on rare occasions.
Before his accident, Michael was a tree-fruit broker, an extension of his horticultural pursuits while in college. Today, he has gone back to horticulture, to planting and growing, and much of the movement he rations for himself is spent in the garden.
Michael’s residence in Westwood has modest-size front and back yards and planter beds circling his house. Every inch of ground has been utilized, whether for growing new varieties of violets and Oriental poppies, for building raised beds to properly nurture ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes, or for planting seldom-seen ground covers, perennials and woody plants. Nothing here is ordinary or predictable.
As a ground cover in parkway and driveway strips, Kappel has selected Arctotheca calendula, which creates a blanket of yellow daisies accompanied by whimsically lobed foliage that is green on one side and silver on the other.
In one strip, clumps of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) rise out of the daisies, matched by the light-blue flowers of rosemary bushes (Rosmarinus officinalis) in the other.
In a front planter adjacent to the house, there is a majestic manzanita (Arctostaphylos) standing about 5 feet tall. This manzanita, which is full of delicate pinkish, urn-shaped flowers, has been artistically pruned to reveal its smooth, mahogany red branches.
Each time I see an arboreal manzanita, I am reminded that in our part of the world, there is no more stunning ornamental woody plant than this. If you feel something is missing when you look out at your garden, (without knowing precisely what it is), plant a manzanita. Regardless of what else is growing around you – and even if it is nothing much at all – having a manzanita tree will make you feel complete.
Even so, Kappel has added a ground-cover manzanita variety to complement his arboreal specimen.
Kappel has also planted flowering meadow sage (Salvia chiapensis) and autumn sage (Salvia jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’).
In the Valley, the meadow sage does best in partial sun exposures, putting forth magenta-fuchsia blooms most of the year. Autumn sage, which actually can bloom in any season, has coral-apricot flowers.
An eye-opener for me was Kappel’s use of yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) as a soil builder and nutrient booster in his raised beds,which are actually rectangular boxes constructed from 2-by-8inch planks. I had heard plenty about growing red clover in a vegetable bed between the harvesting of one crop and the sowing of another but had never heard about yellow clover. Judging from the health of Kappel’s potato plants, it obviously does its job.
Clover enriches the soil with nitrogen when, just prior to flowering, it is plowed under. Clover also deters pathogenic soil fungi and insect pests.
In addition to ongoing potato crops, Kappel grows alpine strawberries, asparagus and artichokes. His strawberries are smaller than the store-bought kind but are more disease-resistant.
He has kept up his strawberry harvest for 15 years, transplanting volunteer seedlings to replace older plants.
Asparagus is a perennial, three-year proposition when planted from seed, but plants yield for many years once they start producing. Kappel propagates artichokes by detaching and planting offsets that grow out from the base of his mature specimens.
Along the side of his garage, Kappel has planted ‘Angel Face,’ ‘Altissima’ and ‘Joseph’s Coat’ climbing roses. In front of the roses, there is a row of Festuca ovina glauca ‘Golden Toupee.’ This ground cover is a bright yellow version of the commonly encountered blue fescue. It is a tufted grass for narrow planters or containers that not only shines a spotlight on roses and other notable flowers, but contrasts nicely with both green and blue-needled conifers.Gardening is often described as therapeutic, but such a description just begins to tell the story of Michael Kappel or, more precisely, his recovery.
Five years ago, Michael was in an accident that left him with a new status: C4 quadriplegic incomplete. This means that he broke the fourth vertebra in his spinal column and has disability in all of his limbs, with partial or incomplete paralysis and constant excruciating pain.
Remarkably, for short periods, he gets out of his wheelchair and walks around, virtually like you or me. But he must be careful.
“My spinal cord is like a frayed wire,” he explained. “I can move for short periods, and my arms and legs respond to signals from my brain like everyone else. However, should I continue to move for very long, my system becomes overloaded, like wires with too much electrical charge, leading to a variety of neurological problems.”
Because of the delicate balance he must maintain, Michael spends nearly all of his time in bed or in a wheelchair and only leaves his house on rare occasions.
Before his accident, Michael was a tree-fruit broker, an extension of his horticultural pursuits while in college. Today, he has gone back to horticulture, to planting and growing, and much of the movement he rations for himself is spent in the garden.
Michael’s residence in Westwood has modest-size front and back yards and planter beds circling his house. Every inch of ground has been utilized, whether for growing new varieties of violets and Oriental poppies, for building raised beds to properly nurture ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes, or for planting seldom-seen ground covers, perennials and woody plants. Nothing here is ordinary or predictable.
As a ground cover in parkway and driveway strips, Kappel has selected Arctotheca calendula, which creates a blanket of yellow daisies accompanied by whimsically lobed foliage that is green on one side and silver on the other.
In one strip, clumps of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) rise out of the daisies, matched by the light-blue flowers of rosemary bushes (Rosmarinus officinalis) in the other.
In a front planter adjacent to the house, there is a majestic manzanita (Arctostaphylos) standing about 5 feet tall. This manzanita, which is full of delicate pinkish, urn-shaped flowers, has been artistically pruned to reveal its smooth, mahogany red branches.
Each time I see an arboreal manzanita, I am reminded that in our part of the world, there is no more stunning ornamental woody plant than this. If you feel something is missing when you look out at your garden, (without knowing precisely what it is), plant a manzanita. Regardless of what else is growing around you – and even if it is nothing much at all – having a manzanita tree will make you feel complete.
Even so, Kappel has added a ground-cover manzanita variety to complement his arboreal specimen.
Kappel has also planted flowering meadow sage (Salvia chiapensis) and autumn sage (Salvia jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’).
In the Valley, the meadow sage does best in partial sun exposures, putting forth magenta-fuchsia blooms most of the year. Autumn sage, which actually can bloom in any season, has coral-apricot flowers.
An eye-opener for me was Kappel’s use of yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) as a soil builder and nutrient booster in his raised beds,which are actually rectangular boxes constructed from 2-by-8inch planks. I had heard plenty about growing red clover in a vegetable bed between the harvesting of one crop and the sowing of another but had never heard about yellow clover. Judging from the health of Kappel’s potato plants, it obviously does its job.
Clover enriches the soil with nitrogen when, just prior to flowering, it is plowed under. Clover also deters pathogenic soil fungi and insect pests.
In addition to ongoing potato crops, Kappel grows alpine strawberries, asparagus and artichokes. His strawberries are smaller than the store-bought kind but are more disease-resistant.
He has kept up his strawberry harvest for 15 years, transplanting volunteer seedlings to replace older plants.
Asparagus is a perennial, three-year proposition when planted from seed, but plants yield for many years once they start producing. Kappel propagates artichokes by detaching and planting offsets that grow out from the base of his mature specimens.
Along the side of his garage, Kappel has planted ‘Angel Face,’ ‘Altissima’ and ‘Joseph’s Coat’ climbing roses. In front of the roses, there is a row of Festuca ovina glauca ‘Golden Toupee.’ This ground cover is a bright yellow version of the commonly encountered blue fescue. It is a tufted grass for narrow planters or containers that not only shines a spotlight on roses and other notable flowers, but contrasts nicely with both green and blue-needled conifers.

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