To keep deer from munching their way through perennials in spring and evergreens in winter, turn to Russian sage. I grow it in tandem with day lilies to foil their appetites in season but also make use of the spent stems, bundled like bouquets and tucked into Rhodies and Mountain laurels. Enough of the volatile oils remain in the stem to be a deterrent throughout the winter, however harsh; in the five-plus years that I’ve been doing this not a single leaf has been lost. It looks better than netting or burlap and, unlike sprays, doesn’t need to be reapplied ~ the fact that it also doesn’t cost a dime makes this thrifty Yankee doubly happy!
Three hints for creating dramatic planters and staying in budget:
1: Use a central plant that can either overwinter in your house (as the black taro here) or a shrub that will fill a landscape requirement come fall.
2: Add new perennials (see the chocolate mint in the pics below) that can be used in the garden when this growing season is over.
3. Add perennial divisions from your own garden (see the cimicifuga ‘hillside black beauty’ in the pics below) that need time to mature before being added to another planting area.
For these planters, I’ve stayed with the darks ~ this includes the flower of the ivy geraniums that were a splurge but hopefully can be held over in the greenhouse for next year. I love the smoky effect against the bronze green of the house and the contrast with the terra cotta planters, but I could easily spike it w/ chartreuse or lime for contrast. Note that I’ve stayed with plants that the gophers won’t decimate~would have loved fat orange begonias, but it only takes one season to learn how crafty they are!
If you’re going to make a raised bed, make a raised bed! This took 9 landscape timbers each measuring 6″x6″x8′; 3 per side were used to make the 8′ length, the remaining 3 were cut in half to make the 4′ width.* The brackets were made for me by the local tech high school; each measures 12″x14.5″x3/16″, the bend occurs at the 3″ mark of the long side. Holes were drilled 1″ either way from the top, bottom and side edges with the third hole evenly spaced between; each hole accommodates a 3″ wood screw.
If you’re building these yourself, they’ll run about $200 for materials, including the compost to fill them ~ worth every dime, as they require no bending for installation or maintenance. The edges are fat enough to afford reasonably comfortable seating for planting or weeding and the width (2′ from either side) makes them usable, with proper surfacing of the surrounding ground, by wheelchair gardeners.
*You could get fancy and do a greek key pattern, but the brackets are so sturdy I didn’t bother.
If you need more incentive this Fall to grab your pruning saw than my usual mantra of pruning-is-therapy, here’s a useful stat for 30 minutes of work: it will burn about 200* calories!
*based on a weight of 150 lbs
I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen several years ago listening to my mother complain about the trees in the back yard, how the branches had all grown back, how shaded the area had become, how poorly the sun-loving perennials she’d planted were doing. All this by way of discussing, yet again, the apparently never-ending argument she and Dad were having about pruning the trees on their woodland property. “Wouldn’t you think after all this time,” she was saying, “he’d just take care of it?” She meant, of course, wouldn’t he just give in and give her the bright, sunny space she wanted? No, actually, I wouldn’t have thought that; Dad liked the trees and didn’t give a damn about the flowers. I managed a certain amount of diplomacy in my answer, I think, but I really wanted to say, “What are you, nuts?”
Expecting my father to change was as crazy as expecting my mother to change, but that pales in comparison to the kind of crazy you have to be to expect Nature to change. If you build a house in the woods, it doesn’t matter how many trees you remove, you have a house in the woods. You do not have, and you will not have, sunny meadows full of flowers, because nature will work overtime to fill that space with the things that were there before you. All you have to do to see the advantage that Nature has over you is to take a look at a pine cone and count the seeds, then take a look at the number of pine cones on a tree. Think you and your little pruning saw are any match? Think again.
While you’re thinking, take a look at the little propellers the surround a maple seed. They’re designed to carry that seed far enough away from the parent tree that the sapling will get all the sun and nutrient it needs to survive, and oak trees are so clever they get squirrels to do the work for them. Clever as we are, with all the tools at our disposal, we are simply outgunned. Nature has a bigger arsenal and all the time in the world.
It’s easier to find the right environment — for a plant or a person — than to continually manipulate a wrong environment in an attempt to get it to behave according to your desire. My favorite example of this happened a few years ago and involves a couple of peegee hydrangea, an extraordinary oceanside property, and people with way too much money.
The hydrangea had been planted in partial shade, which is okay everywhere except waterfront property. On waterfront property things planted in the shade never completely dry out, and things that don’t dry out are the ideal breeding ground for mold. When I saw these poor little trees I realized that fully half of the branches — the half that were in the deepest shade — had blossoms that were absolutely black with mildew. The other half — the ones that received a bit more sun — were lovely. The damp ocean breeze enveloped the entire tree, of course, but the sunnier side was able to dry out before the mildew could take hold.
Now most of us would say, Oh, I get it, I need to plant something else there, and put the peegees in another spot. That was exactly my advice. Did the owners take my advice? No. They hired a guy with a tree spade — a nifty, but very expensive, bit of machinery — to dig up the trees and turn them around. Yes, you heard correctly; they rotated the hydrangea 180º and stuck them right back in the ground. That, by the way, is the too much money part.
Nature doesn’t care how much money — or time, or energy — you throw at something; she’s going to do what she’s going to do. Our best hope as gardeners is to read a site correctly and to plant accordingly. Our best hope as humans is to do the same. If you’re happiest in full sun surrounded by lots of open space, or if you want to grow the things that are, plant yourself in that environment. If you want to be cozy, or cool and quiet, wrap yourself in a cocoon of trees and grow woodland things. Attempting to change the nature of Nature is a project even Sisyphus would reject.
I got an email from a client yesterday asking if she should deadhead spent hydrangea blossoms, and since there seems to be fairly widespread confusion about what to remove when, here’s the five-minute drill on deadheading.
Let me start by saying that, while deadheading is a form of pruning, I’m not talking here about removing tree limbs, or thinning out an overgrown quince or rejuvenating an old lilac. Deadheading refers just to the removal of spent flowers from a plant, an ornamental shrub or tree. I’ll tackle the grittier aspects of pruning in another format, but I will say here that if any of your shrubs or trees suffers from one or more of the three D’s, you should tackle it immediately. What are the three D’s? Dead, diseased or damaged. If you’re not comfortable enough with your own skill level to handle the problem, ask for help. If you even suspect the plant’s in trouble, don’t wait.
That said, let me give you the same answer I gave Andrea about deadheading her hydrangea. She’s got three varieties, but this applies to all the so-called mophead hydrangeas like Nikko and Endless Summer and Annabelle: for a summer-flowering shrub, it really doesn’t matter. If it’s early in the season and a blossom has gone by, by all means remove it. Later in the season, and throughout the Fall, some people like to leave them on and watch them caramelize, and some don’t. With the PeeGees and the Tardivas and the Limelights, the whole point is to watch them turn that fabulous copper color, so don’t whack those before you enjoy the show, but for the others, it’s really your choice.
With the spring-flowering shrubs, it’s a little more complicated, but far from complex. My preferred technique is to cut the blossoms while they’re in bloom, and to use them the same way I use all the other cut flowers. I do that because the first word of flowering shrub is ‘flower,’ and it seems to me like damn fool nonsense, as my father would have said, not to enjoy them. The other reason is that I’m going to have to dead-head the thing eventually, anyway, and it’s more enjoyable to me to gather sheaves of flowers than to dead-head a shrub. I grant you, I often get into the zone where dead-heading becomes a meditation of sorts, but for the most part, I’d rather gather.
The chief reason to dead-head Spring-flowering shrubs is not cosmetic, it’s to ensure that the plant puts all of its energy into setting itself up for the next year. Removing the spent bloom tells the plant “Okay, show’s over; move on.” You can do this by hand or with shears, depending on the plant. For example, I take my shears to lilac, but use thumb and forefinger on the rhodies. This takes a bit of practice because the old flower is nestled between the new shoots and you may wind up taking more than you intend, but you’ve got a couple of hundred chances to get it right, so keep at it.
There is one codicil to this: dead-heading should never be done to any plant that sets fruit or berries, because those lovely little fertilized clusters will become the things you want either to eat or to admire. There’s also a half-codicil, I suppose, in that any shrub that sets inconsequential blooms — red osier dogwood comes to mind — will have inconsequential spent blooms, and since removing them won’t make next year’s blossoms of any greater significance, don’t bother. You, too, should move on, and spend your energy where it will do the most good.
There are lots of perennials I do let go to seed, just for fun, and although I remove the spent flowers of Siberian iris, I think the seed pods have a certain drama that carries the plant through the remainder of the season. This year I’m allowing the seed pods of some yellow Bearded iris to ripen, but since the seeds of a hybrid plant often revert to the parent stock, I’m not at all certain what they will produce. If it’s anything fabulous, I’ll let you know. For the most part, though, when the show’s over, I lop off their heads, and for certain plants, whack them back entirely. If it’s early enough in the season, they may do an encore. It’s seldom as vibrant as the first, but it’s something, although I have to say that the chives I whacked at the end of June because they went by so fast, have come back with great speed and in full.
So there’s the skinny: gather ye rosebuds — and lilac and laurel — while ye may, and if you have forgotten to gather, gather up your gloves and your pruning shears and have at it. It’s good for your plants and good therapy, to boot. Trust me on this; the next time you’re upset, spend half an hour or so in the garden snipping off every dead little head you can find. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel!
I overheard a conversation in a local nursery last week between a woman who was trying to buy the ‘right color’ hydrangea, and the nursery attendant who was trying to explain that color (for the mopheads, anyway) is all about soil acidity. I watched them lob phrases back and forth for a couple of minutes, but when it became clear the customer just wasn’t getting it I put on my Master Gardener hat and stepped in.
In less than a minute I was ready to scream. She just buys things and sticks them in the ground, she said; if they grow, they grow. If they don’t, she rips them out and buys something else. Get a book, take a class, for the love of God, learn something! It was on the tip of my tongue, and I’m actually rather proud of myself — not to mention a bit surprised — that I managed not to say it. Part of my reaction stems from my very Yankee background — we hate wasting money — and part of it is that, to a gardener, wasting good plant material is just wrong, on any number of levels. If you can’t be bothered to learn anything at all about gardening, buy a plant for your neighbor and then go cut your share of the flowers.
In lieu of that, here’s the five-minute drill on soil. Soil is composed of sand, which is pulverized rock, and organic matter, which is all the stuff that was formerly living and all the biotic life that feeds on the stuff that was formerly living. It usually also contains some degree of clay, which is composed of fine particles of silicates and other minerals. Along the coast here in southern Maine, because the land was under water for millennia we have a great deal of clay. This is harder to correct than soil that’s too sandy because clay is so dense; getting into it, breaking it up and amending it with the organic matter that will support plant growth is a bear. It’s a task I happily consign to boys — preferably good-looking, shirtless ones — with toys, because brute force is required, and I don’t have the back for it. Even if I did, there’s still the good-looking, shirtless part, and why spoil the fun?
Structurally, good garden soil is friable, a word that should mean ‘capable of being fried,’ but actually means ‘easily crumbled.’ When you squeeze a handful, it should hold together for a few seconds before falling apart. If it doesn’t hold together at all, it probably has too much sand; if it holds together longer, it probably has too much clay. Usually, you can tell good soil with just your eyes and nose: if it’s blond or grey, it needs organic matter. If it’s a good color but lacks that great, earthy scent, it needs organic matter. That’s compost, peat, desiccated manure and, my favorite, earthworms. Liquid fertilizer is fine for spot shots, but you can’t beat amending the soil. It allows water to flow, it allows the roots to branch; that in turn allows the plant to be secure in the ground, and to take up water and nutrient. If you’ve got organic matter in the soil, the earthworms will happily create little tunnels that allow roots to flourish, and they will do something else. They’ll poop, which will fertilize the soil and help it recharge. There’s also, of course, my preferred technique of soil management, which is planting the things that like the soil that you have. That means lavender and other woody herbs in sandy soil, and things that like their feet wet in areas with a clay base. That’s either laziness or practicality, I’m not quite sure.
Soil acidity is a different thing altogether. There are plants that want to be in ‘sweet’ soil, soil that registers on the ‘alkaline’ side of the ph scale; and there are plants that want to be in ‘sour’ soil, which is precisely what it sounds like: soil that registers high in acid content. Though there are many plants that are content to be somewhere in the middle, the bulk of plants that are really happy here in Maine are acid-lovers, and that’s no surprise, because Nature is no dummy. This state rests on a ledge of granite, which is why the pine trees came, and flourished; between the granite and the pine, we have some of the most acidic soil going. There are ways to reduce that, to sweeten it somewhat and bring it closer to neutral, but trying to grow plants that only do well in sweet soil is an exercise, perhaps not in futility, but certainly in frustration. If you really want to grow something that is foreign to your area and has a very particular ph demand, try a large pot or a raised bed, someplace where you can control soil. Sticking it in the ground, a la the woman who incited this discussion, will result in an unhappy plant, and an unhappy you, and life is way too short for either.
So there you have it; if you need more than this, get a book, take a class, or stay tuned to this blog.
Landscaping is the third leg of a design triangle; the first two legs are the topography of the site itself and the architecture of the house, both of which form a pattern of shapes. Design happens when you recognize the pattern and do one of two things: conform to it, or move in counterpoint. These are the first five things I do when I walk a property for a design consult:
1. I note the geometry of both the house and the site, and play against the strongest shape on each side when configuring the space and selecting materials. Design requires dynamic tension to be successful.
2. I evaluate the width and orientation of walkways, and establish sight lines throughout the property. At every turn and every vantage point I ask, What do I see, and what do I want to see? I draw sight lines from the interior of the house, too; the view from the living room is just as important as the view from the deck.
3. I assess the terrain and the soil condition, with an eye toward turning the natural habit of the land to advantage. A boggy area can become a wetland garden, a sandy slope an oasis of lavender or Russian sage. You may as well cooperate with Nature from the start, because she wins, anyway!
4. I chart the path of the sun, and note the number of hours given to each section of the property. I note the quality of the sunlight, as well; is it four hours of midday sun, or four hours in the late afternoon? This is important info for the people spaces, as well.
5. I track the seasonal color of perennials, shrubs and trees, and plan ways to augment those colors to highlight different areas of the property throughout the year. Think of the site as a symphony ~ when the violins come up, the horns go down, and that shift in focus allows you to enjoy every aspect of the piece.
More than half of my business comes from redesigning sites that originally were done by someone else, putting to rights landscape projects that may technically be fine but aren’t what the owner envisioned. How can you keep this from happening to you?
Ask to see the designer’s favorite projects: if they all look vaguely the same, the designer’s own style is being showcased and your style likely will be pushed aside.
Ask to see some sites that were done a few years ago: if the plants are growing in well, if they seem to have become part of the property, you’ve got someone who knows how to select the right material for the site. If the stonework has settled but not shifted, you’ve got someone who knows how to choose the right stone, and the right installer, for the job.
Ask to speak with other clients: find out if they were happy with the way the project went. Find out the best aspect, and the worst aspect, of working with that person. Landscape projects are like mini-marriages, and the same issues of compatibility and communication can make or break the relationship.
Ask for what you want: if you want a landscape that’s peaceful and serene, say it, and resist the temptation (your own or the designer’s) to shoehorn that description into any one style. Maybe a Zen garden is the perfect thing, maybe it isn’t; there are all kinds of ways to create tranquility in the landscape. Talk about what those terms mean to you, and ask how that meaning can be interpreted in color and material as well as in design.
Ask why the designer is drawn to your property: if there are particular features that you adore, either in the terrain or in the architecture, you’ll want to work with someone who appreciates them.
Ask how the new plan will fit into the property: if there’s one thing worse than cookie-cutter gardens it’s ‘orphan’ gardens, installations that seem as though they don’t belong to their surroundings. Also ask how the plan fits into the ‘borrowed’ landscape, those elements of neighboring properties that are part of your visual field.
Ask how the design relates to the interior of the house: if the two styles are wildly divergent, you’ll feel an emotional disconnect that will make you uneasy in either space. Ask how the design will look from different rooms, as well, and from different levels. Downstairs, a mid-story ornamental is a tree, upstairs, it’s a flower.
Ask how much time is required to maintain the installation: if you truly only have an hour a week, be honest. Don’t let the excitement of having something new and beautiful blind you to the constraints of your real life.
Ask how much it will really cost: if you’re on a budget, you’re on a budget; both you and the designer need to feel comfortable within those financial parameters. Ask about phasing in the plan over time; good stonework and some well-placed trees can make a huge difference even to an otherwise bare property.
Ask if the designer will be on site during installation: if problems occur or questions arise, as they usually do, you’ll want the designer there to make certain that your interests prevail. The installer often is more focused on getting the job done than on maintaining the ethos of the design.
If you’re selling a house — especially in a soft real estate market — or if your parents are coming for a visit and you need to spruce up in a hurry, here are the five fastest ways to make an impact:
1. Inventory your perennials and regroup wherever possible. Mass plantings add drama and make a great first impression.
2. Elevate the canopy of leggy, overgrown ornamental shrubs by removing the lower limbs. The exposed branches are often wonderfully gnarled and knotted, and the garden takes on an open, airy feel that adds grace and fluidity.
3. Connect planting beds ~ visually or physically ~ and remove elements that make the space seem choppy. A unified visual field looks larger and more substantial.
4. Prune shrubs, particularly those that crowd pathways and windows. Older landscapes often dwarf their houses; righting the imbalance will make the house “read” bigger and brighter.
5. Put a clean edge on the gardens and walkways, and cut mulch circles around the trees. Good grooming isn’t just for you ~ it makes the property look polished, too.