As you look at anyone's garden, it’s easy to see that, like fingerprints, each is unique. Gardeners imprint their personalities as surely as a pianist interprets a piece of music. Are there more vegetables, flowers or shrubs? Is the focus on color, foliage, shape? Is there art? Is it whimsical, modern or English high-tea formal?
As you plan your garden you have a wonderful opportunity for self-expression. Even for longtime gardeners whose beds have been in place for many years, it never hurts to re-examine once in awhile to be sure what you have planted reflects who you are today. Plants and people grow and change. One of the first lessons gardening taught me is to be flexible.
Whether you’re a new gardener or a veteran, each year you need to decide the size and placement of your beds, what go grow, how much maintenance you want to take on and who you’re gardening for. How many times have you gone into a garden center and bought some Knockout roses like the ones growing in your next-door neighbors' yard instead of the sweetspire you had on your list?
To thine own taste be true. Your yard might eventually put Miss Tillie’s to shame, but if your heart isn’t in it, you and your garden will both suffer. I suspect I’m not the only one with a backbreaking bundle of garden catalogs over which I have been poring during the winter. Checking for hardiness zones – this area is a solid 4 – and sun requirements to make sure your plants have the best possible start, collect the ones that make you sing inside. That way, each step in your garden is a spiritual massage.
Vegetables or flowers? Why not the best of both worlds? Plant vegetables and flowers together. Flowers will give your vegetables a splash of color while confusing insect pests looking to have a lazy graze. Some plants like catmint (not catnip, no matter what your kitty tells you) exude a natural herbicide that keeps weeds at bay. Research suggests that intermingling plants this way is actually good for your entire garden. Either way, raised bed gardening will help your plants thrive, keeping the soil warm and providing good drainage. A caution: Raised beds need to be watered more often.
Art or not? That is completely a taste call. I love it. Whimsy is fun, and I love fun. For those of you who like statuary, try to find a figure of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardening. I know, St. Francis of Assisi seems to have pride of place in local gardens, but St. Fiacre is the saint not only of gardens, but of potters, florists and cab drivers.
Vegetable lovers, the is a great place to try out square-foot gardening. Made popular by writer and former engineer Mel Bartholomew, it turns even the most modest plot of land into a produce dynamo. There are all kinds of books, both by Bartholomew and others, that offer more specifics, but the basic principle is literally to divide your garden into one-foot squares, planting each square more densely than you would a row garden. It makes weeding, watering and mulching much easier and, again, uses the principle of raised beds. We’ll devote an entire column to raised beds very soon.
Annuals or perennials? Annuals add that wonderful splash to a summer garden. Geraniums, petunias, impatiens begonias and coleus are always favorites that thrive under a variety of conditions. With our fickle, cold wet weather, don’t be eager to plop that flat in the ground just yet. May 20 is the general frost cutoff date. This year a few days grace might be wise. It would be a shame for this changeable weather to take a cold bite out of your wallet. Buy the flat, take it home and stash it in the garage or a shed until you know it’s safe to put them in the ground.
I like perennials for many reasons, mostly because when they peek out of the ground from winter dormancy, I know spring is on its way. They boost my spirits. I have several variety of Echinacea, creeping phlox, iris, sedum of several kinds, coreopsis, lungwort, huchera, roses, lilacs, a wonderfully gnarly Harry Lauder’s walking stick, a couple of sedges, daylilies, an herb patch with perennial lavender, sage and borage. They are all easy to care for and prolific.
As always, Mother Nature is our guide. Variety is the rule in the wild; why not take your cue from the expert?