garden plans

The Garden Goes On… And On

Gardens are collections of plants. No matter what the gardener does, plants grow, bloom, go to seed, and/or die, depending on the type of plant and whether it is getting the conditions it prefers. The gardener is a mere adjunct, trying with varying degrees of success to impose her idea of what the garden should be on a population of diverse plants. That’s the essence of gardening. It’s a constant struggle an intersection of plants, their needs, climate and weather, and the gardener’s desires and exertions.

Olympic Mullein -- gardener, look out!

Olympic Mullein — gardener, look out! Aaargh — too late!

Shortly after I retired at the end of March, I realized that as far as the garden was concerned, I was late to the party. Spring was early and warm, and growth was well under way before I had a chance to take a good look around. Too late for most pruning operations and moving plants around — two critical activities in this garden. Some plants — mainly shrubs — need frequent pruning, trimming and sucker removal. Others threaten to fade away unless moved to better spots, i.e., not overhung by trees or shrubs, in soil that isn’t full of maple roots.

I’ve spent the summer deadheading, watering, poking around and making plans for a grand game of musical chairs to be executed (what a word that is!) this fall and next spring. And a list of Things to Prune next winter. I’m keen to get going, but August isn’t the time for such exertions.

In the meantime, plants are going through their annual cycles, and so is the garden, which has entered what I think of as the brown season — late summer in a summer-dry climate. I’m getting tired of dragging the hose and hoisting the watering can. I know this happens every year. I know it will rain some day (and rain and rain some more). Hardy cyclamen will bloom. Mushrooms will sprout. Moss will green up. A few spring-blooming shrubs will send out a few flowers. The air will smell of coming autumn. But right now that seems far away.

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore — in September, after rain.


The State of the Garden(er)

Once again, I’ve become disengaged from my garden. Haven’t done anything much out there since leaf-raking time. But now it’s January — stock-taking time — and spring is lurking just below the horizon. A few days ago, I walked around and looked things over. No gloves on my hands, no tools in them. I had no intention of doing anything, just looking and seeing.

The garden is going along without me. Leaves are rotting, fallen branches accumulating. Lots of pond-side rocks rolled into the pond by raccoons. Holes dug all over the place by same. Lawn grass creeping into the beds (probably fleeing the dog pee, which is destroying it over wide areas). Early bulbs starting to sprout, some clematises also. Winter honeysuckle is in full bloom, wafting a delicious lemon scent in the evenings. The days are getting longer.

Conclusion: the garden is doing fine. Life and death processes are present. Nature doesn’t care about looks.

The gardener?

Having fits over the rotting leaves and fallen branches everywhere. Annoyed by raccoon damage. Distressed by the damaged lawns and fuzzy edges, resenting the dog. Making plans for edging, pruning, raking. Anticipating more fits. Envisioning better fences to contain the dog. Rejoicing at the sight of sprouting bulbs and budding clematises, gentians, etc. Heartened by the sight of what look like viable Meconopsis crowns. Feeling nostalgia induced by perfume of winter honeysuckle. Looking forward to retiring from The Job at the end of March and re-engaging with this patch of earth.

Maybe someday it will look like this again…

The Back Garden, May 2010

…minus those plastic chairs, of course.

Remaking a Perennial Border

I suspect most naive gardeners (even those with years of experience) think that a perennial bed or border, once made, is a done deal. Plants may come and go, but taking the whole thing apart and reconstituting it is unthinkable — sort of like rebuilding a house. But of course a perennial border is a collection of living things, so it’s bound to change. Over time, the tough and hardy plants muscle out the weak and fussy. Some inevitably become dominant in the picture, while others disappear.

Consider these two views of my back garden:

Back Garden, Fall 2010

Back Garden, Fall 2010


Back Garden, September 2015

Back Garden, September 2015


The same scene, obviously, but details are different. Some plants have grown bigger or more numerous, while others have declined or disappeared. Superficially, though, one could say it still looks fine, despite the addition of dog-excluding fences in the 2015 scene. But I know it was lusher, fuller and better-maintained five years ago.

I plan to retire from my job next spring. Near the top of my list of post-retirement projects is an overhaul of the garden, yanking it out of its present state of decline. Over the years I have whined about the effect of tree roots on perennial beds and vegetable patch (now the Ex-Veg Patch). I have vacillated between accepting the inevitable (substandard beds and borders in dry, rooty shade) or doing the heroic (and expensive) — tree removal.

Now I wonder if there is a third option — rebuilding the border. I remember reading a description of how English perennial borders (the ne plus ultra of this form of gardening) were taken apart, re-dug, enriched and replanted every few years. This was (still is?) a routine procedure, intended to keep the border at a peak of perfection.

Something like that — which I admit sounds pretty heroic, if less expensive — may be the answer, especially as I’ll have more time but less cash.

So, a plan is needed. What plants to dig up and return to refreshed, de-rooted soil. What plants to dig up and discard. What plants to leave in place because they are too difficult to dig up. And I have to decide just when all this digging is to take place. The usual seasons for planting and dividing perennials are spring and fall. A rough rule is to divide spring bloomers in fall, and summer and fall bloomers in spring. But I think this operation is best done in spring, or even earlier — mid-February to mid-March, which I think of as “pre-spring” here on the fortunate west coast. With some care I’ll be able to extract the plants to be kept with enough soil around the roots that they won’t even know what’s happened.

As for the final configuration of the beds, I’m considering fewer large and medium plants and more low groundcovers, such as variegated periwinkles, which are not as pushy and vigorous as the plain types. I’d like more hostas, but I’ve come to realize they really don’t do well in rooty soil. The only way I can grow them well is in pots. Therefore, a combination of large ferns (Dryopteris species) snuggled up to potted hostas (the ferns concealing the pots), with some white foxgloves in the background, and the stalwart hellebores, of course… Too many large plants already? Well, I’ll work it out.

The best gardens, of course, are those in the gardener’s imagination.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring that this small area near the pond, right now, looks a lot like this picture, also taken in 2010.

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Autumnal Ruminations

(OK, that’s a silly title for a post, but I like it better than the others I thought of — Fall Bits & Pieces, Autumn Thoughts, etc.)

I was actually stumped for a topic this week, so decided to ramble on about the state of the garden at the end of the 2011 season, and my plans for next year.

I can’t say that this was a spectacular year, garden-wise. The spring was rather cold and damp, the first part of the summer also.  After the middle of July the weather dried out but remained cool, which was fine with me, since I’m not a heat-lover. I got a good crop of tomatoes from my potted plants, and two HUGE crops of apples. Today I made apple crisp with the last of them.

The blue poppies? Not so good. A few of them bloomed, but not much. Late in the summer, most of them succumbed to crown rot. On the plus side, I do have a couple of dozen seedlings coming along for next year (if they make it through the winter, that is).

The single word that best describes the garden right now is “overwhelmed.”  Trees and shrubs have grown too big and are taking up too much space on this modest lot (50 by 120 feet). The wall of rose-and-clematis-overhung maples and vigorous hollies on my western boundary has become oppressive, and a magnolia in the front garden is now wider than it is tall.  It’s a dark pink, lily-flowered variety called “Ann” (or maybe “Susan,” I can’t remember which). In any case, the lady is a thug. Something Must Be Done, specifically removal of at least 3 large limbs near the bottom of the trunk, a process I’m somewhat apprehensive about, because I have read that magnolias really should not be pruned.

The vegetable patch is a lost cause — not even scarlet runner beans do well any more, due to maple shade and maple roots. Herbs, even sun-lovers such as lavender, are quite successful, so I intend to repurpose the space into a herb garden. At some point this winter I will read Henry Beston’s Herbs and the Earth once again, to develop enthusiasm for the project, which I fear will involve improving the narrow brick walkways and other efforts requiring digging and lugging.

In the meantime, there are the maples. Eventually one or both will have to be removed, as well as the Ailanthus in the northeast corner. Not just yet, however. Maybe some judicious crown-thinning will do the trick for another couple of years. This year all that remains is the business of raking up the fallen leaves, something that won’t happen for a few weeks, it seems, because 90% of them are still on the trees and a good many are still green. Altogether it’s been a rather peculiar gardening season, with just about everything happening later than expected.

Foliage of fireweed (Epilobium) turning colour

The Garden’s Bad Neighborhood

I suspect most gardens have at least one area that might be described as a bad neighborhood. Mine looks something like this:

"Bad Neighborhood"

Under a rather lopsided ceanothus bush is a convention of thug plants, most notably a relentlessly pushy periwinkle (Vinca minor) and a sneaky grass that I have no hope of identifying.  The former is a self-inflicted pest; I suspect the latter invaded from my neighbor’s lawn. A few other tough characters have swaggered into the mix — suckers (or possibly seedlings) from a handsome and vigorous Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) I planted years ago, and a gang of less vicious but still formidable specimens of seedy plants such as toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia).  Rooting around in this danger zone,frantically ripping out periwinkle, I came upon several corpses — the stump of a fancy French lavender that perished in a hard winter some years ago, and remains of long-dead valerians (Centranthus ruber) whose descendants still bloom at the same time as the ceanothus, presenting a nice (if naive) contrast of powder blue and deep pink.  There were also a few clumps of irises (purple-blue ones, I recall from the last time I saw them bloom), looking somewhat  anemic and possibly grateful to be rescued from the mob.

"Urban Renewal" site

I’ve been eying this area nervously for years (easy to do since it’s close to the front door of my house) and thinking that Something Must Be Done — just not now. Well, this spring it’s time for urban renewal. In the process of digging out a superfluous clump of Oregon grape last weekend, I realized that despite its problems, this spot is not infested with a mat of tree roots. In my garden, that’s prime real estate.

My first idea was simply to reduce the periwinkle and remove as much as I could of the invading grass, although experience tells me that fight will end in a standoff rather than a victory. Then I would improve the soil and plant some bulbs for spring and fall — crocus, Chionodoxa, colchicums — stuff like that. I would keep a watch on the periwinkle and its thuggy pals, and life would be beautiful.

Then I got a bit more ambitious. The ceanothus has blue flowers. I love blue flowers. Why not make this a little enclave of blues? Rip out all the periwinkle and replace it with plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and add a few clumps of the blue poppy (Meconopsis) of which I have about half a dozen growing in pots. And Chionodoxa, which blooms a heavenly blue in early spring.

OK, we’re talking about a spot that measures maybe three feet by four, angled between a big ceanothus and and even bigger Oregon grape. Probably not the best site for the fussy Meconopsis, a prima donna type plant if ever there was one, especially with that evil grass still lurking under the surface. Yes, but if I dig it over carefully, sifting out the grass roots, and add some prime compost…

Some say that the best gardening is done in the mind.