The Art & Science of Designing a Vegetable Garden…

May 25th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

potager-furnitureCreating a beautiful and bountiful potager

harvest-basket

A vegetable garden can be an incredible source of pleasure.  Every sunny morning, my four-legged companions and I take a walk to the potager where we enjoy each other’s company while I sip my morning coffee.  I like to start my day listening to the mocking bird and watching the butterflies flutter about the herbs and vegetables from the comfort of my old wicker chair. Although my potager is relatively small, it provides me with enough vegetables for myself, and extra to share with friends and family.  For a modest plot, the garden is quite productive.

The renewed interest in vegetable gardening this year is exciting to observe. Jack Manix of Walker Farm presented a seminar on vegetable gardening earlier this May, and the turn-out was so overwhelming that he and his wife Karen decided to add a second session.  For those of you unable to attend the talk, this article will pass along some of Jack’s tips, as well as some of my own creative ideas and experiences for designing and planting a beautiful, productive and welcoming potager.

Bountiful harvests in the vegetable garden are usually the result of good planning. Full sun, attentiveness, regular deep-watering, disciplined weeding, and most importantly, good earth, make for success. Vegetable plants generally prefer deep, loose, well-drained soil. And the most delicious crops tend to grow in mineral rich earth with plenty of organic material worked in. Dark, fertile soil is home to aerating, fertilizing earth worms and microscopic life invisible to the naked eye. But the soil’s texture and quality is only one part of the good-dirt equation. Just as important to your plants is the soil’s fertility, provided by the nutrients in the earth. Natural, organic soil chemistry is what makes for fertile soil. Good garden soil provides balanced nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus.

Green, healthy, steady growing leaves are the result of proper nitrogen, (N). Nitrogen provides plants with nutrition, and its presence results in deep green foliage and balanced growth. Too little nitrogen and plants will be yellowish and stunted; too much nitrogen and plants will become jolly-green-giants, growing an over-abundance of lush foliage but little produce.  An excess of nitrogen can also result in poor quality fruit and plant disease. Overly fertile conditions and rapid growth also tend to attract pests like aphids. In addition to nitrogen, plants also require potash, (K), for strong, healthy growth.  Soil rich in potash will produce colorful, flavor-rich vegetables and fruit.  A lack of potash will result in poor root systems, curled and spotted leaves, and low yields. Phosphorus, (P), is another key nutrient in the garden. Like potash, phosphorus plays an important role in healthy, vigorous plant development. Cold, heat and disease resistant plants are the product of adequate phosphorus. Conversely, stunted growth and slow maturity are often signs of phosphorus deficiency.

It is important to check garden soil fertility at least once or twice a year.  As soon as the soil dries out in spring, pick up a soil testing kit for N, P, K and pH to test your soil.  The process is quick and easy with a kit from your local farmer’s supply store. Or if you prefer, you can send a soil sample to your local university extension service.  Test in early spring and amend your soil according to the kit’s instructions. It also makes sense to test your garden again in fall, and amend the soil before mulching the vegetable beds for winter.

Balancing plant-diet is as important to garden health as it is to our own.  But no matter how nutrient-rich the soil, plants need to be able to make use of what is available to them in order to grow. Checking both the soil pH, and the preferred pH of plants within the garden, will let the gardener know if the plants are able to absorb the nutrients in the soil. Correcting pH is best done in fall or early spring, but if you are building your garden at a different time, this is the first step to take no matter when you plan to begin, or what you plan to plant.  Even the most optimally textured, fertile soil can not help plants if the nutrients can not be absorbed.  Soil may look dark, rich and moist as chocolate cake, and it may contain a wealth of nutrients, but the improper pH will keep those nutrients out of the reach of the plant system. Incorrect pH will cause poor seed germination, and a weak, disappointing garden.

Building great garden soil is an ongoing process. Regularly adding compost to the soil helps to retain moisture, improves air circulation, and attracts earthworms and microscopic organisms. Another great addition to garden soil is green sand, which loosens clay soil, binds sandy soil, supplies potassium and helps soil hold water. Green sand is a great soil conditioner containing loads of minerals. It can be added directly to the soil, or sprinkled into compost.  Mined from ancient ocean floors, green sand is a little-known garden secret to building great soil.  Once I began using green sand, I was amazed at the difference in my garden.

At his vegetable gardening seminar, Jack Manix stressed the importance of waiting for proper temperatures to plant out your vegetable garden.  This is very important. Working wet soil too early can lead to compaction, and seeds planted in cold earth will fail to germinate.  If you must get a jump on the season, start plants on your windowsill or in a cold frame, and wait until the recommended planting dates for your area to sow seed. The Farmer’s Almanac is a great online source for planting dates. All you have to do is enter your zip code. Following the garden calendar and measuring soil temperature is an easy way to avoid disappointment and crop failure.

Planting the right plants for your area is also key to your success. Ask long-time residents about favorite crops, and buy your plants from a local grower. When buying seeds, Jack Manix recommends buying from companies testing in the Northeast, (or wherever you live). Some of these companies are listed under the seeds section on the links bar to the right of this post. I buy my vegetable starts from Walker Farm because they grow what they sell, so I can be certain that what I am buying has been tested and proven on the farm. I also care that my crops are raised organically, and it is important to me to support my local organic farm, and the people employed there. Why gamble money on a pretty picture in a catalog when I can see, touch and smell a plant at my local farm before I buy it ?

When planning your garden, try to make notes in your calendar as a reminder to rotate your crops each year.  Planting vegetables in the same location makes it too easy for insects playing hide and seek in your garden.  Make things more challenging for pests by moving crops around, and by using companion plants like calendula, (marigold), nasturtium, thyme, sage, chamomile, and other herbs and flowers. Beneficial insects are attracted to companion plants, and this helps to naturally protect your veggies from not-so-desirable creatures.  Organic gardening starts with good planning.

Regular weeding and thinning in the vegetable garden are so important, that I make them part of my daily routine. Every morning, I spend a half hour or so gently thinning extra seedlings, and removing tiny little weeds with my hand cultivator. Removing competition from weeds and excess seedlings is essential to a plant’s success. The paths between my mounded vegetable beds are lined with straw. This makes a comfortable, dry place to sit while tending to my plants. The straw paths also retain moisture and keep down weeds.  Weeds: the not-so-glamorous secret to successful gardening is weeding. Learning to love weeding, and making it a relaxing, meditative process, will help both you and your garden.  In this respect the old advice, “the best fertilizer for plants is the gardener’s shadow”, couldn’t be more true. I do some of my best thinking and problem solving while weeding.  And on my favorite days, I leave the garden thinking about nothing at all.

With this in mind, why not make your potager a truly desirable destination? Properly siting your vegetable garden is the first place to start. Almost all vegetables require full sun from dawn to dusk. This also makes the garden a pleasant place for people. An artful, winding path leading toward the potager is attractive to the eye. Make the path wide enough to easily transport plants and soil supplements via wheelbarrow. It is often true in life that the more pleasant the journey, the more frequent the trip. Adding a couple of chairs and an old table will make for a warm gardener’s welcome in a vegetable plot. Nestled amongst the fragrant herbs and flowers, a table and chairs set in the garden can be a place to read, talk on the phone, or share a glass of wine with a friend. One afternoon as I was driving home from a visit with family, I spied some cast-off wicker furniture wearing a “free’ sign, sitting on the side of the road . Now that I have found a new home for that furniture in my vegetable garden, I find that I spend much more time there. Adding annual flowers, particularly those attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, will also make a potager more inviting. My rustic fence also looks much more attractive to me with sweet peas and morning glories scrambling up the wire and winding round the saplings. A few old wicker baskets scattered about the garden are helpful for collecting weeds and spent vegetable plants for compost. And when my baskets show too much wear and tear for carrying debris, I often position them in corners to be filled with soil and trailing annuals until they decompose. This year and next, adding berry bushes and fruiting trees to the potager  are on my list. I love having a fresh pantry right outside the kitchen door, and I find the more time I spend in my garden, the happier and healthier my summer.

potager-big-viewThe potager, June 2008…

potagerRaised beds (earthen mounds) of vegetables.  Here, last year’s radish, lettuce, bunching onions and hot peppers happily mingle.

teepee-in-potagerCopper-wire teepee with pole beans

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Potager and fence design : Michaela M

Fence construction : William B / Michaela M

All vegetables starts : Walker Farm or grown from seed

Article and photos ⓒ 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

Shopping locally for garden plants supports your community

May 22nd, 2009 § Comments Off on Shopping locally for garden plants supports your community § permalink

walker-farm-stand

WALKER FARM

Route 5, Dummerston, Vermont – (photo: road-side display and entry)

Well here it is again – Memorial Day Weekend. And for many of us, this weekend means it is finally time to shop for warm weather vegetable starts and flowering annuals. What better place to go for plants and free advice than your local grower ? Here in southern Vermont, Walker Farm in Dummerston is the source for organically grown vegetable plants, including all my favorite classics like “sungold”cherry tomatoes, “raider” cucumbers, bell peppers, walla walla onions, and every other potager plant you can imagine. But more than that, at Walker Farm I can find hard-to-locate heirloom tomatoes, herbs, old-garden nasturtiums and even berry-patch additions like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.  At this time of the year, a visit to a local grower can inspire the green-thumb in anyone.

Over the years Walker Farm has made a name for itself with unusual specialty annuals and beautiful hanging baskets as well as hard-to-find perennials and rare trees and shrubs. Jack (Walker) Manix and Karen Manix have been operating their farm for more than 35 years now, and it has been in their family for more than 200 years.  Their daughter Kristin and son Dusty are also part of their farm-business, which has grown from a classic Vermont dairy operation to an organic fruit, vegetable and flower farm.  The picturesque farm-stand on Route 5, heading north out of Brattleboro, Vermont, belies the complex, modern nursery sprawling down below the bank and into their fertile fields.  Gorgeous greenhouses, filled with every unusual flowering annual and exotic plant you can imagine, have been steadily added to the property.  Charming potting sheds dot the farm, overflowing with classic and novelty seeds, beautiful ceramic pots, watering cans, hand-forged tools and other gardening supplies and necessities. Specialty plant connoisseurs  from hours away make the drive to Walker Farm to buy plants that will fill garden beds, urns, clay pots and window boxes in such far-away places as New York and Boston. Many of my garden design clients request Walker Farm plants by name. Among the note-worthy mentions too numerous to list, Walker Farm has been written up by Ann Raver in her garden column for the New York Times, and the farm was also mentioned in Ruah Donnelly’s, The Adventurous Gardener, as a favorite plant-shopping destination. Authors Wayne Winterowd and Joe Eck, long-time customers and friends of the Manix family, credit Walker Farm in their beautiful books on gardening and designing with rare and unusual annuals. (Winterowd and Eck will be at the farm for a book signing this Sunday, May 24th, from 11 am to 1 pm). But to understand what all the fuss is about at Walker Farm, you really must see for yourself.

Walker Farm is staffed by real-gardeners, and knowledgeable employees, and they are always ready to help out with plant selections and helpful advice.  Like many organic farms throughout this country, Walker Farm is an important part of the local economy and community.  It is important to remember that buying local is not only a healthy thing to do for yourself, but it is also a socially organic thing to do for your friends and neighbors. Farms and nurseries provide jobs and experience for the young and the not-so-young; helping college students get a start in agriculture, horticulture or science, and helping part-time workers like parents and retirees make a living in a healthy, positive way. Businesses like Walker Farm also support other farmers, by buying and selling locally grown produce and products as well as their own. I buy whatever I can at my local organic grower, Walker Farm, and I hope that you will do the same… wherever home is.

Visit the Walker Farm Website HERE.

walker-farm-pergola

Rows and Rows of Gorgeous annual bedding plants and hanging baskets…

walker-farm-greenhouse

The Grand Central Greenhouse at Walker Farm, filled to the brim with unusual specialty annuals, exotic plants and herbs…

walker-farm-entry-to-perennial-garden-sales1

walker-farm-perennials

wf-trees-and-shrubs

From top: entry to perennial display and sale area, trees and shrubs in front of Grand Central…

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Smiles at the Stand

HAPPY PLANTING !

*****

Copyright Michaela H. 2009

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare

May 18th, 2009 § Comments Off on “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare § permalink

wild-rose

Selecting and Siting Roses in Cold Climates

Damask, Moss, or Gallica?  Modern, Old or English? Call them what you will, many gardeners fall in love with roses early on, and the infatuation never ends. The moist, velvety petals and heady fragrance of this fabled flower are powerfully seductive.  It is easy to to understand the allure of roses. A garden in June, with roses climbing walls, tumbling over fences and nestled into perennial borders, is a beautiful sight. During the long, dark months of winter, many northern gardeners curl up with spring catalogues, fantasizing about the vast array of rose offerings.  I too have been tempted by this fragrant queen of flowers, and having succeeded in my first garden with a luxurious climbing-beauty named “Constance Spry”, I know the sweet rewards of success. But as a professional gardener, I also know that growing roses can be a real challenge in cold climates. And unless the rose-lover takes as much care in the planning and planting phase as he/she does in the dreaming stage, there will often be great disappointment. Healthy, vigorous roses of almost all types can be grown in New England with a bit of research and proper care. The first steps in successful cold-climate rose culture are choosing the right location for the rose within the garden itself, and of course, selection of the best plants for hardiness

Choosing and siting a rose with it’s individual lifetime requirements in mind is wise for many reasons.  A rose planted in a proper site will receive ample sun, water, nutrients and protection.  The site should also allow the rose enough space to reach its full size and shape, and provide ample air movement for healthy foliage and adequate drainage of soil for healthy roots. Focusing on the process of gardening, by providing a proper environment, is key to success no matter what the gardener wishes to grow.

Soil is important to all plant life, of course.  And roses, like most plants, have preferences about the soil in which they grow.  It is wise to test your soil pH level, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash levels, and adjust your soil chemistry accordingly. Roses prefer soil rich in minerals, nutrients and organic matter.  Like most garden plants, roses prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH between 6 and 7. When soil pH becomes too low or too high, nutrients become less available to plants. A pH test is easy to do, and takes just a few minutes. Soil testing kits are readily available at most garden centers and through online vendors and more extensive soil tests can often be done through your local university extension service. Getting pH and nutrient levels right is the first step toward making sure that your roses are receiving what they need from the soil in order to grow and thrive.

Soil texture is also very important to roses. And while it is true that roses prefer mineral-rich soil, it is also critical that they receive proper drainage and air circulation at their roots.  For these reasons, it is often helpful to closely examine your garden soil, and modify the texture if necessary, before planting roses.  Clay rich soils provide the minerals roses prefer, but unless organic matter, (such as compost and peat moss or other fiber), is added to the soil,the rose will rot and suffocate in water-logged, poorly aerated root conditions. Conversely, sandy soil will provide the rose with the drainage and dry roots it prefers, but the plant will suffer as minerals and nutrients wash away from the roots in quickly draining sand. Organic matter such as compost and other fibrous materials will hold moisture, minerals and nutrients in the soil, allowing the plant time to absorb them into it’s root system.  Adding compost and other organic material will improve your soil, be it clay-like or sandy.

Protecting the root zone of roses in climates like New England,where wildly fluctuating temperatures are common, will help prevent many problems. Compost-mulch shields roots and soil from heat and cold, weeds and insects, wind and erosion.  Bare soil is not natural, and stresses plants. Caring for the parts of the rose beneath the ground is as important as the attention we give to the plant we see. The rewards of good soil-science are strong, healthy root systems and roses with access to good nutrition. a few inches of compost mulch, and perhaps the addition of herbal companion plants such as thyme and lavender, (herbs provide some natural insect resistance, and attract beneficial insects), will go a long way toward giving your rose ideal growing conditions.

Of course, what goes on above soil level is equally important to rose-culture. Full sun is an absolute requirement for healthy roses. The plant should receive bright light from sunrise to sunset. Without full sun, a rose can not properly photosynthesize, and the result is a weak and spindly plant with few blossoms. Sunlight is also critical for dry foliage, and dry foliage is key to preventing fungal infections and disease. Although some rose varieties will tolerate less than a full day of sun, no rose is truly happy in shade. Sunny-sited roses will always be stronger and healthier than their shadowed neighbors. Give the rose what it needs, and it will return the favor of what you want: blossoms.

Considering air circulation and flow is advantageous for plant health, and longevity.  Siting your rose for unobstructed growth and air movement is important for disease prevention and cold protection.  Roses protected from prevailing winds by taller trees and shrubs will grow stronger and avoid the damage of winter desiccation.  So long as neighboring plants do not obstruct sunlight, roses will benefit from the back-up provided by neighboring hedges or groups of shrubs.  It is also beneficial to plant roses on a slightly elevated portion of a site.  Cold air flows downhill, and frost settles in lower parts of the land first.  Siting roses in a raised position will help with both airflow and drainage, giving roses another advantage in a cold climate.

Providing roses with the correct growing conditions is clearly important. However, no amount of care and consideration can substitute for proper selection of the rose itself.  When selecting roses for any garden, it is important to first consider the uniqueness of the plant. Every rose has an individual habit, mature size, shape and texture.  Some roses are vigorous and shrubby, some are politely contained bushes. Certain roses are open-shaped, others are dense. A few roses may be grown as climbers or tall shrubs, others remain petite. Knowing the form of the plant will help the gardener decide if it is right for the garden’s design. Rugosa roses have very different requirements from English roses.  And of course, any rose grown in a climate with cold winters must be fully compatible with the garden’s USDA hardiness zone.

As most gardeners quickly become aware, even individual gardens can have micro-climates with enough temperature variation to make a major difference in cold-hardiness. Spots protected from prevailing winds and freeze-thaw conditions on an individual site may allow for some zone-flexibility.  However, given the temperature variations in New England, it is safest to stick with a conservative attitude toward cold-hardiness, unless the gardener is willing to take extra precautions by mounding rose-root zones with compost each fall, and in some cases providing protection for the entire shrub.  New rose varieties will be more variable than the tried and true, and for the beginning gardener, hardy and time-tested varieties are a good place to start.  USDA zone 4/5 roses are a safe bet for most gardeners in New England, and zone 2/3 varieties will be safest for very cold, windy or exposed sites.

Most rugosa roses, modern landscape roses, and many antique shrub roses are extremely cold hardy. Rosa rugosa “Sarah Van Fleet”, “Belle Poitevine” and “Blanc double de Coubert” and hybrid “Therese Bugnet” are beautiful, exceptional performers.  Rugosas are a good choice for fences, hedges and groupings in the landscape. David Austin English roses are a nice choice for mixed borders, and provided the bud-union, (point of graft), is planted at least 4 inches beneath the soil-surface, a well sited Austin rose will perform well in New England.  Tried and true landscape roses, such as “Carefree Wonder”,( and for small-bloom lovers, “The Fairy”), are excellent selections for a wide variety of perennial garden designs, including designs with stone and along walkways. For old rose lovers, the hardy gallica, alba, moss and damask hybrids are good bets. “Charles de Mills”, “Konigin Von Denmark”, “Karl Forster”, “Maiden’s Blush”, “Striped Moss” and “Stanwell Perpetual” bring some old European-style to northern rose gardens. In addition to the shrub and landscape roses mentioned above, some climbers such as  “William Baffin”, “New Dawn” and “John Cabot” are tough enough to weather the cold winds and blistering sub- zero temperatures New England dishes out. Extra care must be taken when siting more marginal climbing roses, such as “Constance Spry”, in a cold climate.  It is important to protect the exposed canes of more delicate climbing roses from desiccating winter winds. And always remember to position your rose to avoid damage from snow loads sliding off a steep roof.

When purchasing potted roses, try to buy from a local nursery, where the growers know your zone hardiness and purchase or propagate roses with cold conditions in mind. Take the time to ask the garden center staff about the roses you buy, and research the variety online to learn its habits and preferences. Knowing your rose and giving it what it needs are key to success no matter the garden climate, however this advice holds particularly true for gardeners in the north, where roses named “cold hardy” will continue to smell sweet for many years.

( coming soon…. part two roses: planting, pruning and maintenance )

Copyright 2009 Michaela H

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Waking up the Garden in Spring

April 26th, 2009 § Comments Off on Waking up the Garden in Spring § permalink

early-viburnum

Although a thorough fall clean-up will make a gardener’s work-load lighter in spring, there are many reasons we might find ourselves in quite the opposite situation. Personally, I have always enjoyed the visual delights of a winter garden. I like seeing the plumes of ornamental grass covered in ice and snow, and I love watching birds flock to blackening seed pods.  And while I will protect my tender plants with a blanket of mulch, carefully putting my valuable perennials to ‘sleep’, I am more inclined to postpone certain gardening task until springtime.

All gardens, even the most meticulously trimmed and tucked, will need special attention in spring with a ‘wake-up’ in order to look great and perform well through out the coming seasons.

I like to begin my garden year in March.  As soon as my mailbox begins to fill up with gardening catalogues, I know it is time to start rummaging around the tool shed. In early March, before the spring thaw in Vermont, I begin to take stock of my tools.  I examine my garden spades, shovels, rakes and hand-tools for wear and tear and I repair what I can. Before the gardening frenzy begins, I like to sand and oil wooden handles, tighten or replace missing screws, and sharpen and oil metal blades. Sometimes, I will find tools in need of cleaning, or things beyond repair and needing to be replaced.  As things wear out, I try to replace them with the best quality I can afford.  Hand forged tools, (DeWit is a fine company), are the best choice for a serious gardener.  With proper care and protection, well made tools will last for generations.  I always give my pruners and shears a thorough cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a first sharpening with an oiled whetstone at this time of year. I have owned the same pair of Felco bypass pruners for years, and they have served me , and my clients, very well.  A thorough inventory of the shed includes a check of tarps, hoses, nozzles, wheel barrows, power tools and mowers. Getting things ready now will save me precious time later.

Once I have my tool shed ready to go for spring, I start thinking about my pots, potting soil and soil amendments.  Usually I get a jump on the season by buying some fish emulsion, dried blood, and anything else I might be needing before the garden centers run out. Meanwhile,  I have a look at my seeds and their expiration dates, and I begin to fantasize about my annual displays. I try to empty my decorative clay pots in fall, and store them upside down in the cellar for winter, (with the exception of the heavy frost-proof pots I tend to leave out on the terrace). Come spring, I examine those pots and give them a thorough cleaning with soapy water and a bit of hydrogen peroxide or bleach before refilling them with fresh potting soil.

Around this time, the snow is beginning to recede and I enjoy taking walks around the perimeter of my sleeping gardens.  It is hard to resist the urge to pull mulch and prod plants before temperatures moderate.  But I have come to expect the bitter cold snaps and late snows following those flirtatiously warm spells in early April.  So until I hear the Hermit thrush singing sometime around the second week of April, I try to keep the mulch on my tender plants.  It is also wise to avoid compacting valuable loam by making it a rule to never walk around in wet gardens.  I try to stick to the stone paths and walkways I have made, leaning my body in toward the beautiful, dark soil to see what is happening.  For a lover of gardens, it is always such a pleasure to smell the damp earth in spring.

As I walk around I note my garden’s structure and examine trees and shrubs.  I may finish up some last-minute tree pruning on varieties not at risk for bleeding sap, (avoid early spring pruning of maple or birch, for example).  I will look for rodent damage, such as gnawed bark and girdled branches and prune those jagged edges clean.

Once my soil has dried out, and has the consistency of crumbed chocolate cake in my hands, I pull out my shears and begin to cut back my over-wintered perennials to within a few inches of the ground.  Some gardeners like to use a string trimmer, but I prefer hand shears.  I would rather not risk nicking a fine Japanese maple, or favorite viburnum, and so I stick to the manual labor.  Cutting back my garden makes the second phase of spring-clean up easier.  At this early stage, I use a wide plastic garden rake to whisk away the debris left over from last year, allowing the sunlight to warm and dry my garden beds and reveal the new growth emerging from the soil.  I clear away the dried remnants and rotting debris completely, using a hopping motion with the rake to pile it up and remove it from the garden on a tarp. I never add this material to my compost heap as it may contain fungus or insects, but instead I choose to burn these left overs.

I like to enjoy the pleasure of early spring bulbs, and I take photographs to remind me of my plantings later in fall.  By then I have usually forgotten where things were located, and I like having these visual notes to guide me in my plans.  As things continue to warm up and plants emerge further, I switch to an adjustable metal rake for continued clean-up.  This tool gives me a bit more control between perennials and shrubs, and helps me to avoid ripping the heads of my fragrant narcissus.  A well cleaned and tidy garden enhances my design, and it is the first step in successful organic gardening.  Now I may begin to add well rotted compost and mulch to my beds, and to test my soil for pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Usually, I amend the soil in my gardens in fall, but I check it in spring too and make adjustments as necessary.  I like my soil just slightly more acidic than neutral, as most perennials and shrubs tend to prefer.  I use organic methods, and I improve my soil with compost, peat, manure, dried blood or fish emulsion, rock phosphate and green sand when necessary.  I also add a bit of green sand to my compost, as it will keep my potassium levels steady and condition my soil.

As I walk around primping and pruning and edging in mid to late April, I take note of what has died off, and what needs dividing.  I do some early weeding as those undesirable plants emerge, to get a jump on their aggressive ways. Soon I pull out my fork and spade and set to work on the task of removing the weak, dividing the over-zealous, and replacing the gone.  I have a realistic look at my plants as they awaken, and I make a list of what I might need to buy on my first shopping trip to Walker Farm and my other local sources for healthy annual, perennial and woody plants.

Now that I have spent many long hours and days awakening my garden for spring, I try to reward myself with trips to the greenhouse and nursery, checking out what is new, and planning for my annual planting splurge.  It always feels so good to get outside in the morning with my cup of coffee and my sleepy pets, enjoying our morning-walks in spring.  Everything, even the earth itself, seems suddenly awake and full of life.

***

This article is a summary of a detailed seminar presented at

Walker Farm – Dummerston, Vermont

Article and photos copyright 2009 Michaela / The Gardener’s Eden

Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year…

April 24th, 2009 § Comments Off on Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year… § permalink

 

spring-looking-down-the-stone-stepsEarly Spring Entry Garden

Designing and planting a garden for all seasons reminds me a bit of theater. From the moment an audience stands at the entry of a garden, an opportunity exists. When guests emerge from their cars, or step inside a gate, what will they first notice? In early spring, perhaps the delicate scent of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will lure them forward as they open the door, or the small, starry- blue blossoms of chionodoxa will greet them alongside a stone walkway. The bright colors of spring bulbs and the perfume of fragrant shrubs enliven a washed out winter landscape and awaken dormant senses.  Taking advantage of the very early days of spring in your garden design will lift your spirits and prolong the pleasures of the growing season.

From the creamy whites and cool blues of galanthus and muscari to the warm golds and peaches of eranthis and narcissus, spring bulbs are the first notes of music in the garden theater. When planned successfully, these early players will slowly fade back as the other acts roll out and fill in the story. Companion plants such as huechera, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, galium and Artemisia ‘silver mound’, (to name a few stalwarts), gradually nudge-out the spring bulbs as they take over the garden stage. Ideally, a complex tapestry of perennial foliage and flowers will camouflage yellowing bulbs as they die back for the year. Plan your plantings accordingly, leaving space for bulbs between perennials, and make note of your plans in your fall calendar.  Early spring photos can be a help later as well. When you return to the garden to plant spring flowering bulbs in fall, your notes and photos from spring will serve as your guide.

When choosing from amongst the vast array of flowering trees and shrubs for your garden, it is important to consider those varieties blooming very early as well as those extending very late in the garden year. The star players in your garden will shine best when each is given a moment of design consideration all its own, in addition to thoughts about how the plant will play in scenes created with other members of the garden cast. Try to select woody plants with staggering bloom dates for an uninterrupted show. And keep in mind that a carefully chosen cast of characters will provide not only drama when blooming, but will add interest and support to your garden story though out the year. Try to always consider foliage, a season-long contributor, in your choices.  And remember that many shrubs, will provide a full year’s performance, with structure, blossoms, lush foliage, autumn color and even winter fruit.

By the time many of the early blooming shrubs make it to local garden centers, they have faded out and become unlikely candidates for sale.  Hamamelis vernalis, (the spring witch hazel), Fothergilla gardenii, and Lindera benzoin, (spice bush), are three oft-overlooked early blooming shrub varieties for the garden.  All three of these garden-worthy plants provide early spring blossoms, structural interest, contrast, and spectacular autumn foliage. Early blooming trees for the garden, such as amelanchier, Cornus alternifolia, (pagoda dogwood), and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), and the show-stopping Cercis canadensis,(eastern redbud), are some beautifully structured, smaller-sized tree choices for gardens. Amelanchier and cornus are valued for both bloom and later, vivid red and orange fall foliage and fruit. The plum-hued buds of Cercis candensis are followed by heart shaped leaves; dark green in summer and then turning a lovely golden hue in autumn.  In addition, all these shrubs and trees are natives to north America, making them environmentally sound choices for the landscape as well as beautiful additions to the garden.

A well designed garden will provide a steady performance, with early scenes seamlessly flowing into later acts.  Successful spring planting involves the big picture.  Carefully selected plants will provide a solid structure and a season-less stage for poetic vignettes of spring bulbs and vibrant perennial dramas through out the year. I am continually amazed by the design possibilities and endless combinations I discover when visiting friends gardens.  Take the time to visit public and private gardens in early spring, and make notes about what you see.  Add some new characters to your cast to extend your seasonal show, and enjoy the pleasures of your garden-theater throughout the year.

 

early-spring-walkwayPlantings pictured, (top and bottom photographs):

Stone steps and an entry walkway are lined with Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ , Juniperus squamata,’Holger’, Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Fothergilla gardenii, and Acer palmatum x dissectum “Seiryu”. These shrubs and trees are complimented by an under-planting of various bulbs, including muscari, galanthus and narcissus and companion perennials such as heuchera, sedum, Cerastium t, sanguinaria and Phlox divaricata among others.

Along the walkway, emerging perennials are edged by a wide blue swath of ajuga.

Article, design and photos: ⓒ 2009 Michaela – The Gardener’s Eden

all stonework: Dan Snow

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