Sunday Opinion: The Novice Gardener

My beginnings as a gardener were so many years ago that I cannot really remember them.  But  I do remember that I was enchanted with the White Flower Farms catalogue, so charmingly written by one Amos Pettingill.  Its yearly arrival was a cause for celebration.  I would race through it, and then reread it all winter long.    The directions for cultivation of any given plant were extensive, concise, and very opinionated.  But what mattered the most to me was how their confident and friendly expertise created an aura of excitement and encouragement.  I absolutely believed they knew exactly from whence they spoke.  Like any other beginner, I was interested in formation, rules, parameters and lists.  Luckily they only offered “must grow” plants; I did not need to sort through the list for what seemed like it would work well for me.  Thank goodness for that, I was not far enough along to know what to look for, or when to be skeptical.  I believed they were helping to make me a better gardener.  In retrospect, that catalogue did encourage me, and help me to learn about gardening. 

   I do so remember the luscious photographs and prose accompaning their offerings of the Blackmore and Langdon delphiniums.  Ever more shockingly beautiful, the Blackmore and Langdon tuberous begonias.   Blackmore and Langdon plants come from England; they have had a relationship with White Flower Farms for many years.  WFF does not offer that series of delphinium any longer, but they still sell those shockingly beautiful Blackmore and Langdon tuberous begonias.  I could not afford them 30 years ago.  But I could look and learn. The last I looked, one tuber of the fragrant tuberous begonia John Smith was $125.00.    

What they charged for plants never bothered me.  It was always my option to say no.  What has stayed with me is how much I learned about plants, and more so,  how much I was encouraged to grow plants.  Mr. P was happy to explain how any plant got on his A list.  Plants that performed well made the list.  Rare and unusual plants made the list.  Perennials, shrubs, evergreens, roses, bulbs and tubers-their list was broad and eclectic.

One of my first gardens was a rock garden.  Why?  I had a slope piled with rocks.  Decisions then were easy; I had a lot of ground to cover.  What would like that dry sun drenched soil?  I went on to really become absorbed by those plants; I made it my business to learn more about them.  I planted everything with big empty spaces in between, and weeded like crazy.  I had an amazing patience for that garden, and for myself.  I killed lots of plants.  I had the energy to move things around until I found just the right spot.  The only design on my mind was to contrast the forms of neighboring plants, so I could clearly see how large my stand of encrusted saxifrage had gotten, or the shape of that river of Elfin thyme. 

I read lots of books-every one of which related to plant culture.  I read extensively about plants I really did not like that much.  I remember the first time my Paeonia tenuifolia bloomed, my friends rolled their eyes and yawned.  I barely noticed-I was transfixed by the foliage and flowers of that little peony.  Oh yes, I had read about it in the White Flower Farms catalogue.  I doubt I will ever grow it again, but I have vivid memories.  The plants I grow now are very much different than what I grew 30 years ago, of course.  One’s tastes and interest evolve.  One’s circumstances change.  I mostly work; I garden when I have a moment. 

Some interests return.  I am thinking of taking out a block of panic grass, and planting a perennial garden from scratch.  I have not had one for many years.  I am resigned to being a novitiate, all over again.  It is not that I cannot remember what I learned about the plants.  What matters is that I will be growing them again.  My question for the day-can one grow Dame’s Rocket’s in a perennial garden? The hesperis is blooming everywhere now-on the sides of the roads.  Are they not so beautiful?

As for the novice gardener-that would, in my opinion, apply to everyone who gardens.  Every day there is something new to learn, something old to grow in a new way, something new I have never seen.  I am perfectly happy, being still fairly new at this.

At A Glance: The Tulip Season

Scheming

This is the time of year I start planting annual plants for clients.  I am hoping we are at the tail end of the third rainiest spring on record; I planted all week last week in the cold rain.  It is a good thing I really like to do this; it kept my mind off my wet feet.  I have other things to think about besides being wet-like a color scheme, for instance.  I just planted one small garden at the shop, in illustration of the idea of scheming.  Scheming can refer to some underhanded activity-I prefer to think of it as an orderly way of working, or a way of working where all the pieces fit together in a satisfying way.  The concept of a color scheme for a garden is easy to understand.  Putting plants together where all of the respective colors workwell together-not always so easy.  

Color schemes that feature contrast will be lively.  The wild card of course is that every flower comes with a plant that has leaf color. The heliotrope pictured above has intensely purple flowers.  The leaf color is a medium green.  Flower color may be your primary interest-but there is a green scheme that needs attention too.  The lime licorice in this pot is a green that contrasts well with both the flowers and the leaves of heliotrope.   

Both the lime and variegated licorice are invaluable in planning a color scheme.  This lime green will read yellow, when planted next to yellow flowers.  It will read very lime green when paired with red flowers.  Red geraniums and lime licorice is a color combination that reinvents the red geranium.

This lantana topiary has several shades of yellow in the flowers.  Both lemon yellow and deep yellow are represented.  Why did I choose variegated licorice in this pot?  That more blue green leaf relates better to the deep bluey-green of the lantana foliage.  The alyssum chosen here is called “citron”.  In a composition featuring yellow, it reads cream yellow.   All of the greens featured here are related.  All of the yellows relate.  

The third element in the lantana pot is a yellow potunia.  Potunias are a series of petunias developed  for a compact habit of growth, making them perfect for a container planting that does not necessarily ask for a trailing element. The lantana pot has a piecrust rim and band at the top-I would not want to completely cover that interesting detail.  The pot is not that large-I would not want it to be overwhelmed by the planting.  But the best part are the two tone yellow flowers-a perfect element for a yellow and green scheme so strongly suggested by the lantana standard.  

Persian Queen geraniums have brilliantly lime green leaves; I value this about them more than their hot pink flowers.  The lavender trailing verbena is a cool and striking foil for both the Geranium, and the scotch moss (sagina subulata aurea). Purple and lime green is a great place to start scheming. 

Variations on a color create visual interest.  Heliotrope can vary from deep dark purple, to lavender.  Sky Blue petunias are a very pale version of Royal Velvet petunias.  Yellow petunias with Sky Blue and  Royal Velvet petunias- a color scheme begins to tune up.  Add some white petunias for bright, and some lime licorice to the green scheme makes for a series of color relationships that create visual interest.

The scheme for this small anuual garden is as follows.  Lavender verbena bonariensis, lime and white nicotiana alata are my tall elements.  Mixes of three plants mix more evenly overall than mixes of 2 plants.  My mid level plant-bicolor angelonia-white and purple in the same flower.  Vanilla Butterfly marguerite is the pale cream yellow verson of the intense lemon yellow “Butterfly”.  Purple heliotrope and yellow potunias finish up that level.  On the border, white, sky blue/lavender and dark purple putunias mixed with lime licorice.  This color scheme-white/purple and lime, with a dash here and there of yellow.  If you think you see petunias and licorice planted from back to front between my tall flowers, you are right.  The big growing annuals take a long time to come on.  I like a bed of flowers that engages my eye from the start as well as the finish.  We’ll see if my scheming amounts to something good looking; I have my fingers crossed.  All is in the hands of the plants, and how they grow, now.

Muddy Day

May 25 is not my idea of a great time for a chilly rain day, never mind the cold rain for days that we have had. Oh I know, Memorial Day, which we celebrate four days from now, traditionally marks the earliest that I can plant tender plants in my zone.  Every year, I think there is bound to be some variation in that regularly scheduled programming that will let me get out earlier than usual.  Every year, I see that hope dashed. 

May is a perfect time to plant new perennials, divide old ones, and move plants.  There are of course exceptions.  Move and divide peonies and oriental poppies in the fall only.  But cool temperatures and regular rain help transplants and new plants get established.  But what we have now is soil soup.  A good client stepped off the driveway this morning into a new bed, thinking she would walk across the dirt. Almost knee high in mud, she had to be rescued. What is mud?  Soil suspended in water.  I am thinking a lot about soil today.  I have time. 

Great soil is a special dish gardeners nurture or prepare for their plants.  Natural topsoil , usually present in the top 8 inches of the earth, is teeming with bacteria, micro organisms, minerals, and organic matter.  There is so much bacterial activity in soil it is correctly understood to be living.  Soil berefit of organic material and humus is unfriendly to the nutrient uptake of the roots of plants.  By this, I mean unfriendly to life.   The iridescent, airless, non-draining and stinking blue clay that gets excavated from future basements-not so much living goes on there. This urban landscape project-that clay that sits on top, and does not drain is an issue.  The water from our relentless rain is like a lake sitting on top of the clay in this yard.

Great soil is easy to identify.  It smells earthy, truffle-like, humid; great compost laden soil smells great.  It holds moisture, but drains surely.  Loaded with air, it crumbles to the touch.  Should your soil seems to be a perfect material for clay pots, do something to leaven that clay.  If your sandy soil runs through your fingers, invest in a giant compost pile, or a collection of succulents.  You are a gardener-so you were born with the hope gene.  Nurture your soil. 

There are those to say that native soil cannot be changed to any appreciable degree, but I am certain my soil at home is vastly better than it was 16 years ago.  I mulch all of my beds with bark fines-ground hardwood bark mulch.  It disintegrates in a season or less, adding lots of organic material to my soil.  No wood chips, please.  Wood, or cellulose, requires the action of bacteria that feed on nitrogen to live in the decomposition phase.   Any plant mulched with wood chips will soon look nitrogen-starved.  Bark, or lignin, readily breaks down, and will nurture your soil.  The smaller the bark particulates, the faster decomposition will occur.  Via the bark fines, I load my soil every year with organic material.   


My plants seem to like this regime.  My boxwood flush 8 inches of growth every spring.  My European ginger is thriving.  My Princeton Gold maples leaf luxuriously. The yews under the maples-flushing new growth everywhere. My lawn is thick and green.  None of these plants get any fertilizer.  I just make sure that the soil in which they grow is loaded with organic matter and air.  My enriched soil living and breathing-see the result above.