Friday, June 27, 2008

Planning and Planting

Most garden books will tell you that the two most important things to do before you plant is to plan the garden and amend the soil. Since I'm just starting this blog, I thought some basics about my planning and planting might make a good second post.

I'm very good about soil--more on that later. Planning, though, is one area where my personality provides certain, shall we say, challenges. On one hand, I love to plan. Stuck in my books are elaborate maps and plant lists for gardens that never were. I received garden design software for Christmas one year and spent the next two weeks glued to the computer (not that I can do much actual gardening in January, but it might have been nice to get some other things done). Plans are very important: you need to know what conditions the plant likes, how big it will get, how it will look beside the plant next to it. And my obsessive planning early in my gardening career had its advantages--I actually learned a great deal about plants, and I can rattle off Latin names almost as easily as my landscape designer friend the Garden Curmeodgen. But realistic planning is not my strength--I discovered that those elaborate maps I'd measured out on graph paper never translated quite rightly to the actual dirt, and so I'd find myself improvising when it came to the actual digging and planting.

And I love the improvisation as much as I love the planning. I also love to move things around, so that if I misjudge the size of a plant, I don't mind transplanting it when it gets too big. So my garden is in a pretty constant state of flux, as I discover that this plant liked the location a little too much, this plant looks better next to that one over there, this plant needs a little more shade, and so on.

Still, you need to know what the plant needs to survive, or that some plants really resent being moved. I have a stand of baptisia (, for example, which has very deep roots and so is very difficult to transplant--it's not in an ideal spot for my current vision of the front, but I'm going to plan around that plant so that I don't damage it (more on that project in future postings). My planning these days happens mostly on the large scale--how I want the yard to look, big picture--while the more detailed what-goes-next-to what happens more spontaneously. I can work that way because I have lots of plants, because I know the sites around my yard (e.g., what parts get full sun, what parts have really good or really bad soil), and because I know what a specific plant will do as it grows (or where to find out--and Dave's Garden is a great resource). But if you're just starting out, you need to plan more carefully.

So here's my big plan. This summer, I'd like to get the front of the house in shape. Last summer, we decided to restore the back gardens that had been destroyed by the hurricane, and then convert the front to a small lawn leading back to the woods. Because we lost so many of the trees in the back, our only view of the woods is from the front, and having the gardens in the front interrupted the vista. The only plantings, then, will be some small shrubs and trees at the front of the woods and then immediately surrounding the house. However, the project turned out to be too big to accomplish in one summer; we made great progress on the back, but we were back to a very hectic school year before we'd done anything with the front. Yadda yadda yadda, the front is now full of weeds where the gardens used to be.

Here are three views of the front, the first two from our main room, the third from Salix's office:

The darker green to the left is thyme that's taken over: I'll leave some of it, and move some to form paths around other borders. This fall, we'll fill in with grass seed so that the lawn extends to the small shrubs at the edge of the woods.

More immediately, I'm working on the borders at the base of the house. Here's a view of my current work around the front.

The big windows in the foreground are to the garage; in the background, you can see our front porch, and beyond the porch are the windows from the main room and then the office. Salix wants tall plantings in front of the garage windows, both to screen the windows and to give the effect of a house in the woods. On the other side of the porch, we are planting smaller shrubs that won't block our view from the main room.
At the time I took this picture four days ago, I was clearing out some houttuynia cordata ( and a pretty but very invasive fern (here when we moved in); the two had grown so rampant that they were choking a box wood shrub.

A word about houttuynia, the variegated ivy in the left hand corner--I love it, but deciding to plant it is liking deciding to get a tattoo--it's not going to be easy to remove. I'll talk about where I've used in successfully in later postings; for now, suffice it to say that the three four-inch pots I planted as an accent a few years ago took over a 20-foot border, and I'll be pulling it out for years to come. Anyway, I'm going to move the boxwood, which is not thriving in this spot, to the other side of the front porch; I'm going to transplant in its place, between two barberry bushes (, a little bayberry tree volunteer that sprung up just outside the border.
Our lot is full of bayberry--my garden books classify these as a shrub (myrica pensylvanica), and if they're not native, they certainly love the conditions here. They're tall for shrubs--some of our older stands are probably 9-10 ft. tall with maybe a 6 ft. spread--and they are open and airy. So I hope this will be the right shrub here--it volunteered, so it clearly likes the location; it will grow quickly and cover the garage window nicely; it will be easy to cultivate around as I continue to pull out the houttuynia; and its dark green, slender leaves look lovely against the bright red purple of the barberry. I'm going to fill in around the bayberry with some creeping plants that aren't thriving in other parts of the garden--a little bit of creeping rosemary, and a small evergreen that I discovered languishing under a pile of leaves near the edge of the woods. But first, I have to amend the soil.

We didn't start this border--it was here when we moved in, and was comprised of barberry bushes, the taller spruces, and the invasive fern (I don't know if the latter two were intentional--both grow throughout the woods, and the spruces crop up everywhere--but we like the trees, they like the spot, so we've let them stay). We put in a camellia bush next to the porch, moved the barberry bushes around the yard so that they provided more accent and less of a hedge effect, and interspersed boxwood, coleus, and--one of my most questionable decisions--the three houttuynia plants. As I've added new plants, I've consistently amended the soil. Typically when I start a bed here, I take out the old soil and fill in my own mix, but since the border was already established, I've worked in compost and peat moss and added top soil as I've planted.

Here's my soil mix. It's not particularly novel (I think the recipe comes off one of the bags of soil), but it's very good if the health of most of my plants is an indication. I use 2 parts top soil to 1 part humus to 1 part peat moss, and I typically throw into the bottom of the planting hole a shovelful of leaves and pine needles that ferment in the woods into wonderful compost. In this site, I dug a hole for the bayberry (and on the other side of the porch, a hole for the boxwood I moved out of this site); then I worked the remainder of my soil mixture into the surrounding garden to prepare for the creeping plants.

So it's taken me a couple of days to actually write this posting, and I've finished the plantings. I also tucked in around the bayberry some sarcocca, a lovely shade-loving ground cover that thrives in this bed, as well as a more refined fern that I've also had good luck with at the base of the house:

The openess of the bayberry should allow the rosemary, sarcocca, and fern enough light to thrive but enough shade to protect them.

So that was this week's project. Next week I'll work on the other side of the porch--and I have some maintenance to do on the back garden. Talk to you then.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why Start this Blog? A Brief History of Cosmo's Garden

Call me Cosmo. I've lived in the Tidewater area of Virginia for 22 years and I've been gardening for most of them. I read more gardening books than I do novels (even though I'm an English teacher by day), and when I can, I plan my week around prime time I might spend outside. But despite the fact that I write for a living, and despite the fact that nearly every one of those gardening books I've read recommends it, I've never been able to keep a journal (gardening or otherwise)--and so I constantly struggle on Wednesday (or in September) to recall the brilliant insight I had on Tuesday (or in June). The impetus for this blog, then--and I am a novice blogger--comes first of all from my need to record my ideas, my successes, and my mistakes. The idea of recording those publicly is potentially embarassing, but then again, what I've found missing from most gardening books is exactly the gritty, delightful details of gardening--and so I thought it might be helpful to share those with people experiencing some of the same challenges and joys that I do.

I have two very close friends who garden, and when I told them I was thinking about creating this blog, we talked about blogging together. But we garden in somewhat different conditions: my collaborators live in suburban neighborhoods, while I live in the country; one of us is a landscape architect who grows and promotes native plants, while the other two of us have jobs totally unrelated to gardening and should own stock in Lowe's; one of us has too much sun, another too much shade; the two of them are incredibly "handy," while I couldn't lay a brick if the life of my 14-year-old osmanthus burkwoodii depended on it. We decided instead to design a website for Tidewater gardeners with general information and advice and to establish links to our respective blogs; the website, "How It Grows: A Different Take on Gardening in the Tidewater," will be up soon.

I should say just a bit more about where I live, what I care about, and what kinds of decisions I face when I walk outside. In the fall of 2000, the love of my life bought a wonderful house on 10 wooded acres. The house was about three years old when we moved in, and the previous owner had a small vegetable garden in the front yard (at the time, the only place close to the house that got enough sun), but had otherwise left nature as it was after the house was built. The main room of the house has large windows looking onto the back (a southern exposure) and smaller windows looking into the woods to the north. I moved in with some favorite plants I brought from the suburbs--day lilies, bearded iris, hosta, Lenten rose, pieris japonica, two kinds of osmanthus, dwarf quince, daphne, a couple of big stands of rosemary, a struggling Japanese maple--and I created a little shrub garden in the back and expanded the vegetable garden in the front.

The gardens were developing nicely, and then in September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel came roaring up the York River. We were lucky--although we lost hundreds of trees in the back, none of them did any serious damage to the house. But when the sun came up the day after the hurricane, our house was literally framed on all four sides by fallen trees--our dog had to walk across four or five trunks to find a patch of grass. Our little gardens were underneath the timber, and the heavy shade in the back of the house had become nearly full sun.

We are still recovering from the hurricane. The timber was cleared by the fall of 2004, but we now have about six acres of weeds where the trees used to stand. Believe it or not, some of my plants survived weeks under the tree trunks; however, their protective shade was gone, and they needed to be moved. We transplanted the back gardens to the front of the house for a few years; although the hurricane had destroyed the front vegetable garden when a large oak fell onto it, the overall damage to the trees was minimal in the front and we could shelter the shade plants at the edge of the woods. By 2006, a few trees, some pines, and some bayberry shrubs had grown tall enough in the back to provide shade, and we began to replant the back gardens.

As I begin this blog, I have already established a few perennial borders in the back: a white garden surrounding our blue bird house;
a more vibrantly colored sun border merging into a shade-loving shrub garden behind it; an herb-and-shrub garden surrounding our deck; and what we call our "tropical" garden outside the hot tub on the screened-in porch.

The front of the house still needs a lot of work, and this blog will document that work. My gardening is constrained by my job--I'm lucky to have summers off, but early fall and late spring tend to be crunch time at school, and so I lose some of the most valuable weeks for gardeners. I'm proud of what I have done, but daunted by what I still have to do--I hope this blog will keep me focused and motivated, and that it will show you both what I'm capable of, and what I still have ahead of me.

One last paragraph on the specific conditions in which I garden. I am in Zone 7-b, with a couple of micro-climate areas that are probably Zone 8 (for example, a lantana overwintered in one warm corner near the hot tub). Our soil is heavy clay; but in my garden, the soil is much more alkaline than is typical in this area (my hydrangea in the front is a beautifully dark pink). Deer and rabbits are a constant problem--I'll address this problem in a separate post, but I spend a fair bit of time protecting the plants. Liquid Fence is in my experience the best product available here, but I still have to use cages for particularly vulnerable plants. And Virginia is humid, which for plants is a good thing, and for gardeners is usually a good thing--but the wonderful conditions for plants that humidity creates can promote invasive growth. We will address many of these conditions on our website, and I will dedicate specific posts to my meager victories, as well as to my ongoing struggles.

This blog will give me the opportunity to record my progress and to hear your advice as I work through new areas; I hope that reading about the details of my work will help those of you tackling similar challenges. And I hope most of all that my love for gardening comes through. I don't love bugs, sunburn, or humidity--but a little Skin-So-Soft and a little planning provide me time to deadhead or pull a few weeds or just enjoy the beautiful plants despite the aggravations of a Virginia summer.

Welcome. Comment. Please, please, advise.