Spring! It’s the time of year when passionate gardeners are preoccupied with planting, mulching, weeds, dry spells, ravenous rabbits and deer. Despite making vows in January that this would be the year we are going to “enjoy” our gardens, the return of warm weather once again finds us on our knees in the soil, only getting up to chase the groundhog away.
1 – Visit Public Gardens
One of the best ways to get ideas is to visit selected public gardens. This helps us look at our own borders with fresh eyes. What I consider to be the finest pleasure garden in the Northeast, Chanticleer, is not far away in Wayne. One could visit this gem every month. Every few steps there is something of wonder: plant combinations, carvings, iron and woodwork and seating. Chanticleergarden.org.
The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College is a great place to see labeled and perfectly grown trees and shrubs. The arboretum’s imaginative container plantings are also notable. Be sure to pay special attention to the plantings around the horticulture offices and the Gold LEED-certified Wister Center. Scottarboretum.org.
Closer to home, there’s Conestoga House, which was built over a three-year period beginning in 1812. Originally a tavern, it served Conestoga wagon traffic as it made its way between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The property was purchased by James Hale and Louise Steinman in 1927. The Steinmans brought in the Philadelphia firm Mellor & Meigs to create a landscape plan for the estate. Since then, the gardens have evolved; European formality is balanced by today’s gardening trends. You can see it for free, courtesy of the foundation that was established in 1982. The grounds are open from early June through September (hours vary). Self-guided tours are available Wednesday and Thursday (hours vary), while guided tours (by reservation) are offered Tuesday and Friday. Conestogahouse.org.
2 – Go On Garden Tours
The more one looks at gardens (even in books), the more one can figure out what is appealing about some of them. Fortunately, Lancaster County residents love to share their gardens with the public. Upcoming tours include: Marietta Garden Tour (June 5, parivertowns.com); Maytown Garden Tour (June 11, maytownhistory.org); Columbia Garden Tour (June 11, parivertowns.com); Demuth Garden Tour (June 11-12, demuth.org) and Secret Gardens of Strasburg (June 18-19, strasburgheritagesociety.org). You not only get to see some great gardens, but you are also supporting some worthy causes. Always take your camera to grab an image of a plant or combination that you like. Gardening, like any art form, begins with borrowing.
3 – Repetition Unifies the Whole of Your Garden
If you have a large garden or a series of small borders, introduce a feeling of unity by repeating a plant throughout. For instance, I use a variegated form of yucca (Yucca filamentosa) throughout my garden because the color of its sword-like foliage blends with everything and is evergreen. I also like nepeta (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) because of its fragrant mint foliage and pleasant mauve flower color. After the initial long-blooming period, it can be cut back for another period of display. Both of these plants can be divided every third year for further planting. Repetition of a reliable plant provides a solid base line that holds the garden together and keeps it from looking disorganized. Another way to unify our plantings is to sprinkle foliage plants throughout, which rests our eyes and gives the colorful flowers an added punch. Silvery foliage is great for this and combines well with both hot and cool colors. Possibilities include dusty miller (Senecio cineraria); lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantine); silver mound Artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana); or silver sage (Salvia argentea). Purple foliage is also a great unifier, especially with yellow flowers. Consider a purple basil, Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), or an ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum), with purple-black foliage. Another useful foliage plant that also is great for containers is the chartreuse sweet potato vine (that is, if you don’t have rabbits).
4 – Create Harmony
Harmony is one of the hardest things to achieve in a garden. To get started, consider grouping plants according to similar times of bloom, color harmony and cultural needs. That is, sequestering all the hot oranges and reds from the misty blues, pinks and mauves. If plants are matched according to their cultural preferences and your growing conditions, then they will grow well (the first requirement for a satisfactory garden). Beginning gardeners should avoid plants that are inflexible in their cultural needs.
5 – Plant and Plan for Serenity
The derivation of the word garden suggests an enclosure or safe place, a place for quiet and refreshment. And, I would add, a place for creativity. All too often we are so enthralled with plants that we want to grow one of everything. As a result, our gardens become too complex – there is so much variety to look at that a feeling of repose is lacking. The most important way to achieve repose is repetition of plants and textures throughout the borders.
6 – Photograph Your Own Garden
Photographs taken throughout the seasons and years will provide you with a way to review what did well in your garden and what failed.
7 – A Place to Reflect
Try to introduce surprises and secret places in your garden: perhaps a small bench under a tree with a comfortable pillow, a piece of stained glass hanging from a branch and catching the light, a piece of salvaged architectural molding, and definitely a pollinator hotel. Think about the way you move through your garden and provide places to pause and reflect. When planning a new garden or rethinking a garden in decline, plan meandering paths so that the garden unfolds to the visitor.
8 – Add an Element of Surprise
Introduce an occasional shocker in the flower border that will bring a visitor’s glance to a standstill, like the vivid magenta color of rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), against its silver foliage, or a flaming torch red hot poker (Kniphofia).
9 – Don’t Be Afraid to Crowd Your Plants
Tidiness might be a virtue, but when each plant is forbidden to touch its neighbor and is surrounded by an ocean of mulch, the border becomes little more than a collection of plants. Plants tumbling over one another also help to shade out weeds.
10 – Accept the Conditions You Have
By selecting plants that will thrive in the conditions they are given, you’ll have success growing them. Don’t try to set up a 6-foot-deep English-style perennial border and expect the delphiniums to survive our hot summer nights. The swampy area that you envision turning into a lawn might better serve as a home for irises, primroses, forget-me-nots or marsh marigolds. It’s wiser to visit one of our many fine local nurseries and discuss your choices with well-informed personnel than it is to order something that catches your eye in a glossy catalog. Try to love the soil and topography that you have. Your garden should be a product of the land you have and not an attempt to reproduce a magazine image.
11 – Think Ahead
Late summer/early fall is the time to think spring, as bulbs need to be planted. A favorite source is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, whose catalogs are filled with information and instruction. You’ll find countless possibilities that your pillaging squirrels will not bother. Brentandbeckysbulbs.com.
12 – Contain Your Vegetables
If space, sun exposure or rabbits are an issue, don’t give up on raising vegetables. Instead, plant a cooking garden in containers. Herbs are naturals in pots, as are peppers, cherry tomatoes, chard, eggplants and pole beans.
13 – Shrink the High-Maintenance Turf
Certainly, expanses of green are expected around suburban homes, and they provide the perfect backdrops for our gardens. Grass also provides an ideal outdoor surface for play. But, today’s ecologically minded gardener understands that the constant mowing, watering, fertilizing and reseeding to ensure perfect turf is not sustainable. It’s time to rethink the time spent maintaining these rolling expanses of green. Why not enlarge your growing beds with large drifts of a single, low-maintenance plant species or replace grass with less-needy fescues, raked gravel or slabs of bluestone interspersed with creeping thymes?
14 – Plant a Few Choice Woody Shrubs
Although many home gardeners think of colorful annuals and perennials as being the centers of attention in their gardens, woody plants are essential for providing structure and background. Plant as many multi-seasonal flowering shrubs as space allows. Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus), royal azalea (Rhododendron schlippenbachii), smooth witherod viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’), and doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum) will all provide spring flowers and fall foliage color. The viburnums will also provide colorful berries for the birds.
15 – Start Composting
Compost plays a critical role in building healthy soil. Compost fosters diverse life in the soil and supports healthy plant growth. Healthy plants are less susceptible to damage from pests and weather. Compost encourages healthy, strong root systems in plants, which in turn holds water in and decreases runoff. Composting is free, unlike the use of costly chemical fertilizers. The hardest part is to just get going. Visit epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.htm for ideas.
16 – Fall and Winter Interest
At least 50% of the plants, shrubs and trees should add seasonal interest. Gardens organized with only an eye for summer color are not always successful, since they fail to draw attention in the off seasons. The astute gardener celebrates the progress of the seasons and enjoys observing what every change in the weather brings. Past gardening journeys have offered many suggestions, most notably the red berries of deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata), the peeling cinnamon-colored bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), or the late winter flowering of witch hazels (Hamamelis).
17 – Cutting Garden
Set aside an area that can serve as a cutting garden. Rows planted with dahlias, sunflowers, salvias, irises, zinnias, coneflowers and cosmos will provide casual bouquets for your barbecue table.
18 – Youthful Entertainment
Set aside a plot for a young person in your life. Select seeds that sprout quickly. Fail-proof plants for children: radishes, sweet peas, marigolds, lettuce, nasturtiums and zinnias. For more adventurous kids, try birdhouse gourds. And, why not butterfly weed (Asclepias) for the butterflies? It can be the first step in the education of gardeners and could perhaps teach them about patience and cause them to momentarily ignore their electronic devices. For a discussion of gardening with youngsters, consult reneesgarden.com/articles/child.html.
19 – Add Architectural Drama
A plant – especially one that is boldly textured or irregularly shaped – can function as a piece of sculpture in the garden. I’d suggest a conifer, such as a dark-green upright yew, an irregularly-shaped Japanese white pine or, perhaps best of all, a Japanese maple. For bold foliage, nothing beats cannas, elephant ears, red castor bean and banana plants.
20 – Have Courage
If something doesn’t look or feel right, get rid of it. Remove that unsightly, overgrown shrub or even the tree that is encroaching on the roof. It’s OK. Really, it is.
21 – Plant for Pollinators
This was discussed at length on our Gardening Journey from April 2014. Top herbaceous plants would be hellebores, agastache, milkweed (especially the common roadside variety), herbs, mints and goldenrod.
22 – Plant Vertically
If you have limited space in your garden or a wire fence between properties, consider planting upright trailing plants: perhaps one of the many beautiful varieties of clematis, the purple-foliaged hyacinth bean vine, morning glories, black-eyed Susan vine, one of the new climbing nasturtiums or, for your bread baking and beer making, a hops vine.
23 -Invest in Good Tools
Two tools are always with me in the garden. One is my Felco pruner (No. 6 is great for smaller hands; they also make left-handed pruners). Felcostore.com/pruners. I’m also never without my digging tool made by Lesche. Amleo.com/lesche-digging-tool-soil-knife-with-sheath/p/DT1. (Go with the DT1; don’t buy the cheaper ones.)
24 – Plant for the Birds
The best bird plants are purple coneflowers, sunflowers, elderberry, cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) – especially for the goldfinches. The cardinal flower is a magnet for hummingbirds. Postpone deadheading your coneflowers until very late fall when the birds have harvested all the seeds.
25 – Think Boldly in Small Gardens
Although the range of plants must be limited in a vest-pocket garden, if it’s well-designed with flourishing plants, the tiniest garden can bring great pleasure and the envy of those with larger, more difficult-to-manage spaces. But, don’t shy away from using bold-textured plants. Pop in cannas, elephant ears, red castor bean and red hot pokers. And, why not an ensete banana?
Tuck some fragrant plants along your garden paths. Lily-of-the-valley, lavender, lemon verbena, heliotrope and scented geraniums are tops. For a small, underused shrub with fragrant pale-pink flowers, plant the Carol Mackie daphne (but not in acid soil).
27 – Clean Out the Garage
28 – Plant an Oak
Most of us plant for the here and now or perhaps for next year, but not often for the distant future. After all, it’s become unusual to stay at the same property for decades. If you have a spot with full sun and good drainage, plant an oak. In addition to their
great summer shade, many species of birds use the cavities and crooks for nesting and shelter. Birds are also drawn to the abundance of insects and acorns that are found on oaks. It’s better than a gift card to honor a birth, graduation or other event! Check out Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, 2009, Timber Press.
29 – Be Sun Smart
Wear a hat, long sleeves and sunscreen when you’re working outdoors. The risks gardeners experience due to sun exposure was discussed in our Gardening Journey from June 2014. Plan your garden chores before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m.
30 – Don’t Be a Plant Snob
Remember that well-grown and pleasingly arranged plants are the most important elements of your garden. Old standbys and divisions bought at roadside stands can bring just as much delight (and are often more reliable) as the latest, pricey, double-flowered, variegated introduction offered in a glossy advertisement. What pleases us most in a garden is its sense of design and the thought and deliberate arrangement that went into it.