Gardening lessons may not include plans

#569 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 2008, Hills Newspapers

My garden is steep and hard to work on. In some spots I have to climb up or scoot down to dig and put in new plants or to cut back and weed. I lose buckets full of gatherings all the time. They roll down the hill and I have to climb out to get them; back in to where I was.

But in some parts of the garden it’s easier. Over many years, I’ve added piles and lines of rocks and paths that are nearly level and two sets of stairs that go from bottom to top of the hill.

A couple of years ago I hired “the wall man,” as I call him, to work on some of the then-failing stairs and to lay a rock wall across the width of one section of the garden. He brought in beautiful, large buff-colored rocks, carried them up the hill and fitted them together in a lovely wall.

Finally available to me was a part of the garden I’d never developed and I began to wonder what I wanted to plant there. Which is when I realized that I have never designed a garden and didn’t know quite where to start.

I’ve had many gardens. And yet, I think now, none of what I grew or where it was placed was pre-planned. I plant my gardens by walking into them with a plant in one hand, a trowel in the other. Plants are located where I find the space or where the dirt is diggable and water is available.

I do spend time deciding which plants I want to try. I go to the nursery and just wander, don’t buy a thing, but read the labels and make notes and come home to look up especially attractive plants to learn if they’re easy. I like plants that are easy, ones that heartily grow, preferably tall and fast. I enjoy drama and mass in my view of the slope from my kitchen window.

Garden reference books are a great help to me because I do pay attention to a plant’s need for sun or shade or sandy soil, and especially for indications of fussiness or slow growth. But garden design books, to me, are a slow, uninteresting read. I may not be able to locate in local nurseries plants mentioned in these books, probably because many are written by people who garden in climates quite different from mine. It just makes more sense to frequent local nurseries and choose from what they’ve got.

And so, although I am still unwilling and probably unable to make a paper plan diagraming what will go here and what will go there, I have developed my own gardening scheme. My gardening practices include the following:

Wide paths are excellent, the wider the better they look, as do the plants along them.

Bulbs are super: different ones for every season, almost never-fail, don’t take up much space. In this category, lilies, the type that florists sell, the fabulously scented ones, are easy to grow and definitely worthwhile.

I’m impatient for big growth but usually young/small plants are better to buy because they grow better and also take less initial digging.

Grouping at least 3 same smaller plants in the same general vicinity is almost always a better idea than using one or two. Planting shrubs, baby or adolescent-size, is probably even better. The longer I have a garden, the more I appreciate and include shrubs. Some flower in spring, are green in summer, and have autumn-colored leaves, even red or orange berries, in fall. Many require no care at all other than water.

Water is the most important element in gardening. Plants die if they don’t have water. But there are some plants that can get by just fine on rain only once they’ve got their feet down.

It is possible to see photos of almost any plant by typing the common name or Latin name into Google Images. What a wonder.

Clay soil is never going to be light loam. When I am stymied by thick, sticky clay, I dump on top compost or potting soil or similar into a pile and plant in the mound.

Colors do not clash in the garden. Isn’t that curious and wonderful? Pink goes with yellow goes with orange goes with purple.

A surprising number of plants can be grown from cuttings. It’s very handy to know which ones because you never know when you’ll see one you’d like for yourself. They’re free, often easy to grow, and it’s fun.

The number of plants is unimaginable, like the number of stars. I can never begin to know even a fraction of them. I have grown dozens of different plants only once. That was all I needed of them; then I was done.

I’ve also got favorites that I will always have. Tough and beautiful, they ask for little beyond sun and water and give back a lot. Institutions in my garden include hydrangeas, bridal wreath, ranunculus, various nicotiana, nasturtiums. All of these can be planted in November.

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