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Thinking About Our Gardens


Thomas Affleck Rose

Thomas Affleck Rose

As I‘ve worked  to put my gardens to bed this fall I’ve also been thinking about gardens and how they came to take this form, and how any garden takes form.

Some people plan a garden in one fell swoop. Or have someone do it for them. But I think for most of us we begin slowly and one step follows another. Which is a good thing because we learn about our site, and about ourselves as we move through the seasons.

Still there are some basic things to think about when we plan, or plan again.

First we have to consider the site. Do we have a lot of room or a confined space? Where is the sun on the site? Where is the shade? How does the shade move over the course of the season as the sun’s course across the sky changes? Is the soil sandy, or clay? Is it very dry or damp?  Does the site slope and is it exposed to wind? The answer to each of these questions will help determine how to proceed. The answers will guide us as we search for the right plant for the right spot.

The second consideration is how each gardener will use the garden. We each have different desires and needs. I’ve needed a vegetable garden, but I’ve also wanted flower gardens. I want to be comfortable in my solitude, but I also enjoy eating outside, and entertaining friends in the garden. I like to stroll through the garden, but some like to admire the garden landscape from a deck or from inside the house.

Beyond the practical ways we use the garden, I think we have to examine how we want to feel in the garden. Do we want to feel sheltered? Do we want to feel we are in a private woodland? Or do we want to feel like a Jane Austen character strolling through the estate shrubberies with a dear friend?  What is your fantasy?

One element of your fantasy might be a season of constantly blooming flowers. This will mean gaining knowledge of the many beautiful annuals that can bloom from spring well into the fall.  On the other hand, you might have a fantasy of a serene green garden where it is the shades of green and foliage textures that please.

For myself, my mostly-achieved fantasy is that of a mixed border. It did not happen all at once. Inspired by my mentor Elsa Bakalar I once tended a 90 foot long perennial border. Many perennials were gifts from Elsa, and many were bought with careless enthusiasm when I saw them at the garden center. I could not maintain such a garden for long.

It was only about 16 years ago that we planned The Lawn Beds. These are mixed borders, which is to say in each bed I have evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Because the shrubs take up more room than flowers, these generous beds are much less labor intensive than that 90 foot long border. I still have perennials which will bloom for three or four weeks in their season, but there is room for annuals that will give me bloom all summer long.

Ghislaine de Feligonde whose orange-apricot buds open to cream

Ghislaine de Feligonde whose orange-apricot buds open to cream

Of course, I have The Rose Walk. This began as my fantasy of growing lush fragrant old roses. Thirty two years ago I planted the first two roses in the middle of the lawn. I don’t know why I chose that spot. Those two roses ultimately forced the creation of the Rose Walk. I have mourned (briefly) the roses that did not survive, and enjoyed adding new roses every year. I loved my early summer morning walks along the Rose Walk thinking of the centuries that roses have bloomed on this earth, and the ladies that have cared for and enjoyed them in their modest farm gardens or on great estates. The Annual Rose Viewing., our annual garden party was a further natural outgrowth. The Rose Walk is proof that a complete plan is not necessary to begin.

A garden will inevitably attract wildlife.  Some wildlife like deer are not welcome, and it behooves us to be aware that some plants are very inviting to deer and rabbits, and others less so. Lists of these are available. I never plant hostas because of deer, but thought my herb garden was safe because they would not dare to come so close to the house. I was wrong. They tramped across the Daylily Bank (totally unnecessary) to eat the parsley in the herb bed.

Other wildlife, birds, bees and other pollinators like butterflies are very welcome. Birdwatchers have told me that the sound of moving water is the most dependable draw for birds. The burble of a fountain, especially if it is near some sheltering plants is especially inviting.

Pollinators are attracted by the many plants that are native to our area. Bee balm, asters, rudbeckia, and even our fields of goldenrod attract the pollinators that will keep our vegetables and fruit trees productive.

Finally, when planting we have to remember those basic considerations like allowing for growth. A small shrub in a small pot bought at the garden center will not stay small. When planting allow for that growth, how wide and how tall will it be in three years?  Or five years?

Soil needs annual attention with applications of compost, and mulch. Where will the compost pile go?

One very important question is how much time can the gardener realistically expect to devote to garden chores?

Are you thinking about your garden this fall? How might it change? How does it need to change? We gardeners must always be thinking. ###

Garden Planning IV – Review and Renew


Redvein Enkianthus

            Before I end my discussion about garden planning, I want to add a few words about the view from the house, or more specifically, the view from a window.

            We spend time in the garden working, and time socializing in the garden, but we can also enjoy the garden when we are inside the house. Do you have a kitchen or dining table by a window that looks into the garden? When you look up from your newspaper or book, do you look across the room from your reading chair and out a window?

            Our dining table is right by a large window looking out at the Lawn Beds, and across the lawn to an ancient apple tree. The field beyond that is bordered by trees with hills in the far distance. This is an expansive view of the garden and the landscape beyond. A more intimate view is from my reading chair back towards the tractor shed which is hung with the lovely white, green and pink foliage of a hardy kiwi vine, fronted with several pink rose bushes, and an edging of annual blue salvia. It is such a pleasure to look that this Shed Bed garden, that as disorderly as I often am, I try to keep this area neat.

            What would you like to look at from your reading chair, or from your table? Flowers? Birds flitting and settling on a feeder? A burbling fountain set beneath a flowering tree? I have been told that the sound of water will attract birds to the garden even more surely than a well stocked feeder.

            What kind of garden tableau would please you? It only takes a little planning to create a view that will give you immense pleasure.           

           I hope I have not led anyone to believe that garden planning is ever done once and for all time. When a garden plan is implemented unforeseen obstacles may arise, as may unforeseen opportunities. We must never let a beautiful plan get in the way of a beautiful result. A plan must always be flexible.

        Even after a garden plan is beautifully in place, enjoyed by the gardener, and admired by visitors, time will bring change and alterations will be required. We all know this, or come to know it after only two or three years of a gardening career. I remember a time after I planted my first perennials under the late Elsa Bakalar’s tutelage, when she came to visit and looked at the garden. She suggested, gently, that it was time to divide the yarrow and bee balm.

         “What?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought the whole point of perennials was you put them in place, cared for them and they were perennially there, no more thought or work required. It was a simple lesson, and is relearned when plants need to be divided because the clump gets too big, or when a plant grows taller, wider or more vigorously than expected or planned, or when you realize that a particular plant like plume poppy has spread itself all through the garden.

Plume poppies, Macleaya cordata, which is not really a poppy at all, looked beautiful in my garden. Plume poppies are tall, up to eight feet, with large slivery blue scalloped leaves, and plumey blossoms. They increase by sending out new rhizomes. They are stunning, but to say they grow vigorously is an understatement. That kind of growth was not part of my plan, and I ripped them out. Gardening Goes Wild takes a different view of the plume poppy.

Redvein Enkianthus – nevermore

This past fall I cut a redvein Enkianthus shrub down to little nubbins. Years ago I planted this shrub in the middle of the North Lawn Bed because it was described as growing gracefully tall, producing little bell-like flowers in June, and good fall color. It is disease and pest resistant, not fussy about soil, or dry weather. It sounds like a wonderful plant, and in many ways it is.

When I chose Enkianthus I somehow did not take in the fact that it was a very slow grower. That was my mistake. And I found the little bell-like flowers very small indeed. Both of those disappointments would not have mattered if it took the graceful form promised – layered branches spreading out three or four feet from the center of the plant. Mine grew into a widening dense column, with no grace at all.

            I made another mistake. I did not take into consideration the growth of the other plants around it, the ginkgo trees, the weeping hemlock, also very slow growing, and the fast growing low junipers. The whole area was too crowded, something had to go; I chose the Enkianthus. Now there is breathing room.

            Calculating how big and how fast plants will grow is not always easy. We can research a plant, read the nursery label and make our best judgment, but we will not always be right. Then something has to go. Sometimes we will simply not like a plant after we have seen it in our garden, and sometimes a plant will not like our garden, dying a miserable death. Either way, the plant leaves the garden, and we have to come up with a new choice, if not a new plan.

            Garden planning is never done. How can it be? Time brings change to our garden, we are always learning about new plants, and visiting inspiring gardens. Keep planning. Keep gardening.

Between the Rows   January 25, 2014

Garden Planning II – What Does the Garden Need?


Green and wax beans


For me garden planning is difficult because I am always rushing about with a new idea for a new project. Things work out in the end, but I understand the unfettered enthusiasm that a new gardener, or a gardener with a new space, feels as she looks out at that space. However, I know that the best way forward is to move thoughtfully, and maybe with a pad and pencil in hand.

            First, inventory your new site. Make a rough sketch, don’t worry about scale, that will indicate the space the house and any outbuildings take, as well as any other permanent elements, trees, shrubs, fences, and paving.

            On your sketch note the aspects, north, south, east and west. This will give you a basic idea of the sunniest and shadiest parts of your site. It will really take a year of careful observation to understand how shade moves across your site. Indeed, if you can keep yourself in check for a whole year, it is a good idea to see what plants are already in the landscape, as well as the movement of light and shade.

            “Form follows function” is one of my favorite quotes. What functions will be performed in your garden? Do you need play space for children? Do you enjoy meals in the garden? Do you enjoy entertaining in the garden? Do you want vegetables and other edibles? Or flowers? Do you want to eliminate lawn?

            I am not really talking about garden design here, which is a very big topic, but if you think about the ways you need, or want, to use your space you can begin to think how your garden planning might arrange those elements into a harmonious whole.

            After you consider what you need and want, you must consider what any garden needs and wants. The first need is a fertile soil. In our neighborhood you can generally assume that you have acid soil. You can buy a soil testing kit that will measure the pH or acidity. You can also get a full soil test from the University of Massachusetts that will not only give you the pH, but also a measure of your nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as well as vital trace elements. After many years I did a full soil test for my vegetable garden in 2012 and found that all the years of adding compost, lime to raise the pH, rock phosphate for phosphorus, and greensand for potassium really paid off. Now I have good fertile soil with nine percent organic matter. My efforts always go into feeding the soil.

            Since your soil needs organic matter, and your garden will ultimately give you substantial organic matter, find a place to put a compost pile. Compost will not attract pests as long as you only put in vegetable matter. No meat scraps!

            Fortunately you can buy beautiful compost locally. A truckload is a luxurious way to begin a new garden. Martin’s Farm and Bear Path Farm are excellent local sources.

 I have had great success starting a new bed by using the lasagna or sheet composting method. First, mow or clear the space as cleanly as possible. Give it a deep watering. Then spread four or five inches of good compost and water again.

            On top of the compost use a layer of cardboard. Some use several layers of newspaper, but I prefer cardboard. Since you will probably be using several pieces of cardboard make sure there is plenty of overlap. Wet and soak the cardboard.

            Top the cardboard with soil or a mixture of soil and compost. The quality of the soil matters very little because the roots will be growing through the rotting cardboard and into the layer of compost. Once you have your lasagna bed you can just maintain it with annual fertilization.

Of course, you can just dig your bed and till in compost and fertilizers. I always use organic fertilizers and more compost because I am feeding the soil. Healthy soil is filled with living organisms that will give you healthy crops and beautiful flowers. A healthy plant is more resistant to both pests and disease. A healthy plant in healthy soil.

Raised beds inside a frame are very popular now, but I warn you, that even a raised bed with enriched soil will eventually need weeding.

            Water is absolutely essential especially if you have a vegetable garden. An ornamental garden can be left to itself in a drought, and will recover fairly well when the rains come, but vegetables require regular and adequate watering.

            Soaker hoses work well in the garden. The black hoses are almost invisible as the plants grow. They efficiently put the water near plant roots where it is needed. Using a sprinkler is fine, but then watering must be done early in the day so foliage will dry before evening. Most of us try to use water efficiently because in town wasted water has implications for the water bill, or for the sustainability of the well in the country.

            Water is essential for plant growth. It is also a desirable ornamental element. With small submersible pumps available, some that solar powered, it is easy to set up a fountain or even a tiny stream or pond. What luxury to sit in the garden and hear the burble of running water.

            We are edging into the realm of garden design now. Next week I’ll be talking about the mixed border, and lawns.

            Between the Rows   January 11, 2014

Garden Planning I – What Do You Need?

Peony ‘Kansas’

There is a pile of seed and plant catalogs next to my chair so garden planning for 2014 has begun. I already have existing gardens, the big fenced Potager, the blueberry patch, the  Herb Bed, the little Front Garden for early vegetables, the Daylily Bank, the Rose Bank, the Shed Bed, the Rose Walk, the Peony Border, and the two Lawn Beds, north and south, which means my garden planning is in the nature of review and renew. Reviewing and renewing at my time of life should and shall mean it is time to consider whether I must think about reducing – but we’ll get back to that.

            Some gardeners, and would-be gardeners may have a new garden space to plan.  When considering a new garden the first task is to assess what kind of a gardener you are.

Are you a new gardener with little or no experience? Are you a passionate gardener with limited time due to the demands of family and work? Are you so obsessed with gardening that you will always make time to play in the dirt?

            I think one of the most under-appreciated and under-calculated aspects of gardening is the amount of time a garden will take. Even those of us who love gardening, and happily spend hours planting, weeding and cultivating are often overwhelmed by weeds and undone chores come August, so I advise everyone to consider realistically how much time you can devote to playing in the dirt.

            The advice for a new gardener to start small is advice that may very well be revisited at different times. I think I already mentioned that I should be thinking of reducing, and making my garden smaller.

            The new gardener can start with small projects like a dooryard garden that will be welcoming. Even in a small space you can think about layering. Is there room for a small tree like a witch hazel (Hammamelis)  that will give you the earliest of twirly flowers in spring, or a new small redbud (Cercis), or a dwarf crabapple. Beneath the tree you can have annuals or perennials, and beneath that a low, ground hugging plant like the spring blooming tiarella (foamflower). 

            A small utilitarian garden could be an herb garden planted near the door. An herb bed is pretty, useful and very easy to care for. There are annual herbs like parsley and basil, and many perennial herbs like sage, chives and mint, with self seeding herbs like dill and caraway.

            I’ve always said that if I could only have the tiniest of vegetable gardens it would be a salad garden with tomatoes, lettuce and a bean tree for the green beans that I love. Someone else might have other favorite vegetables in a tiny vegetable garden.

 Whether beginning a first garden, or in a new space where you will begin again, the question to answer is whether you begin with an edible garden, or an ornamental garden with flowers and shrubs?

            After assessing what kind of gardener you might be, you have to assess your potential garden space. Do you have a lot of space? Or a small space? Is it sunny or shady?

            The attributes of the space will provide both limitations and opportunities.

            Is the space just a wide open expanse of sunny lawn? Does it make you feel hot and exposed? You may want to think about plants that will give you some shade but also some privacy.

            Is the space dominated by large tree that throws dense shade, or is the house situated so that it throws long hours of shade in the best garden spaces? Sometimes it is hard to remember that there are many plants that tolerate shade and some demand shade. It is also true that there are many shades of shade, from high, dappled shade, shade produced by deciduous trees that changes over the course of the year, and dense shade produced by large evergreens.

            Shade also moves across the landscape. Do you have shade for many hours, or only a few. Sun loving plants that bloom usually require 4-6 hours of sunlight, and it is preferable that those sunny hours be in the middle of the day. Sunlight from 7 am til noon is not as strong as the sunlight from noon til 5 pm on a summer day.

            If you are a new gardener and look at your space with despair and terror there are different ways of beginning. You can join a garden club! Garden club members love to visit other gardens and they usually have experience to share, lots of advice, and even opinions that you don’t have to share. If you have a gardening friend you’ll have someone to question, and who will play with ideas before you get to serious work.

            There are many books on landscape design like the wild and witty Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You by Amanda Thomson, or Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love by Julie Moir Messervy who has been designing beautiful domestic (and other) landscapes for over 30 years.

            You can also spend some money on a consultation with a garden designer who will help start you off.

            There are many ways to begin a garden plan, and it is wise to remember that a plan is always a plan writ in pencil, not stone. It can change.

            This is the first of a four-part series on garden planning. Stay tuned.

           Between the Rows   January 4, 2014