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.


Lisa said...

Looking good. Does the maintenance involve Liquid Fence?

Cosmo said...

It sure does--I may do a whole post on Liquid Fence!

Phillip said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm excited to see what you will be doing. You have a beautiful property. About the crocosmia - as of yet, I had not had any problems with them spreading that much. I suppose if they start to do that, I'll just divide them and share with friends.

I've been pulling houttuynia up for ten years now. I wish I had never seen the stuff! LOL

Eve said...

Someone needs to do a post on liquid fence..I've never heard of it. But I don't use many chemicals so that may be why, Is it like round-up? My DH tried to kill some Pampas Grass with that once and it came back even stronger. LOL...he is still working on destroying that plant. I love it so I hope it stays.

Cosmo said...

Hi, Eve--thanks for visiting.

I actually did do the post on Liquid Fence yesterday! Anyway, Liquid Fence is organic--it's a deer repellant that's actually good for the plants--I think it's made from seaweed and rotten eggs (seriously). It's worked very well for me against mammals; the bugs don't seem phased by it.

Does DH mean "Designated husband"? Kidding--though I'm not sure what it means. . .