A garden wouldn't exist without the gardener. That's a lesson every person who attempts to garden has to learn. Some embrace the challenge. Some realize they didn't know what they were getting into and replant the grass.
For those who plow on, there are still more obstacles to overcome. That's how we learn. And since we all tend to make similar mistakes at the start, it's also how we bond. I'd be willing to bet everyone reading this has made at least 3 of the blunders outlined below. I know I have.
All Photos: © Marie Iannotti
Soil isn't sexy. We don't' garden because we love looking at soil. Even so, there won't be many flowers if the soil isn't good. Garden books always recommend we amend our soil the season before we intend to plant. If you have that much patience, I commend you. For the rest of us, we need to do this about a month before planting. That means we can get it done in early spring, before it's really warm enough to plant anyway. Don't skip this step. Spend the extra time and money up front and you will save much more down the line. Your plants will take off and fill out faster, you'll have less pest problems because your plants will be healthy and they will require less attention from you.
Now that you have good soil, keep it that way. Growing plants deplete the soil of nutrients. Add some slow release organic fertilizer at the end or start of each season to replenish it. During the growing season, top dress with compost or composted manure to develop the active ecosystem that keeps soil healthy. As a bonus, it will suppress weeds, cool plant roots and help retain moisture.
There's an old gardening saying "Beware of free plants." We all fall prey to this. Who can say no to free Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) , New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) or sundrops (Oenothera missouriensis ). But if someone has that many plants to give away, there has to be a reason. Unless they are making room for a new pool, these plants must be enthusiastic growers, to say the least. By all means, if there is something you love and you have a spot for it, take some. But don't be overly eager to create an instant garden with your friend's aggressive volunteers or you will spend the bulk of your time in the garden ripping things out.
Friends bearing plants are not the only hazard. It's impossible to avoid impulse buying. Those nasty nursery folks put all the tempting new plants in full flower, right by the register. It's OK to bring home a plant that seduces you at check out, but don't be in a rush to stick it in the ground. Garden design is about more than pretty combinations. You need to get to know your plants a little, before you settle them into their permanent home. At the very least, know whether they prefer sun or shade
. A sun lover is going to grow scraggly and lanky in the shade It won't bloom very well either, expending so much energy stretching to reach the sun. Shade lovers will fry before your eyes, if set in full, hot sun. You may think you'll make up for it with extra water, but all it takes is one 90 degree day and that plant will call it quits.
Another factor to take into account is the moisture level of the soil. Some like it dry and well drained, some like it moist. If you've succumbed to buying multiple plants that need lots of water and you have dry, sandy soil, at least plant them all nearby each other and a water source. You are more apt to keep them watered if you don't have to run around and find them.
Plants can be expensive. It's hard to choose between two or three must have plants and so much easier to just buy one of each. They'll grow and need dividing soon, right?
It's a well known law of gardening that the more coveted a plant is, the slower it grows. Brunnera 'Jack Frost' is never going to keep pace with bugleweed. If you are willing to be patient, it will eventually pay off. But in the meantime, you will have a very incohesive, spotty garden. If you are shooting for lush and flowing, you are going to need large clusters of plants, not onesies.
Accept that gardens, like gardeners, take time to mature. Two good compromises are to use less expensive and faster growing annuals, to fill in those first few years, when you are gradually adding perennials and shrubs. Or you can splurge on one large perennial plant and divide it into 3 smaller plants. Give them great soil and TLC and they really will fill in before you know it.
Flowers are flashy, but fleeting. You don't pack your garden away at the end of summer, even if most of the plants go undercover. The basis of a garden that will evolve and age well is a solid structure made up of varying levels, forms and textures. To get that, you need to add small trees and shrubs. It's much easier to incorporate these larger plants when your garden is young - and empty - than when it is full of your favorite perennials. Trees and shrubs tend to be pricy and frustratingly slow growing, making them another stress on your time and resources. But no one has ever regretted planning a garden around a young Stewardia or a Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tomentosum) and many have regretted not doing it.
Winter interest is an oxymoron in many gardens. Most folks jump to the idea of evergreens, which are indeed interesting in all seasons (even when they're gold or blue). But even in winter there can be texture, like the peeling bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and the Stewardia mentioned above or the twisted branches of contorted quince (Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Contorta’). Winter is actually the best time to take notice of the different shapes and forms of woody plants and how they work with each other.
If you're more interested in your garden in summer, and who isn't, there is still a strong argument for branching out from flowers. With all the incredible new foliage plants out there, you can have color all season without a single bloom. Coleus led the way, but coral bells (Heuchera) aren't far behind and just about any perennial now comes in a variegated or gold or purple leaved form. There are shrubs which hold their colorful berries and some with colorful branches, like the red twig dogwood. Mix it up in your garden.
We like to think of gardening as working with nature, but the truth is we're manipulating nature to fit our vision. Plants will grow on their own, but when you put one in your garden and expect it to perform well year after year, you are going to have to be an active participant. That means things like deadheading
, so the plant's energy isn't dissipated setting seed, removing dead or diseased foliage and lifting and dividing the plant when it starts to die out in the center
or when blooming diminishes. That's the nature of the perennial flower beast.
I really shouldn't call these blunders. We should think of them as experiments or maybe flexing our gardening muscles. After all, a garden is never finished, so it's hard to get it wrong. There's always next season. Everyone has their own vision for a garden and everyone gardens differently. That will never change. But there are a few traits we all share. That will probably never change either.
I'll agree, many of the annual flowers sold in garden centers are less than thrilling, but they are hardly representative of what annual flowers can do for a garden. If you seek out some unusual plants or better yet, seeds, you will recognize many of them from those photos of English borders you've envied for so long. Tall gems like Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), Nicotiana and Verbena bonariansis and profuse bloomers like Cosmos, Love in a Mist
(Nigella damascena) and larkspur.
And annuals are more likely to stay in bloom throughout the season. If you like cutting bouquets or just want profusion in the garden, annuals are the way to go.