Monday, July 13, 2020

How To Plant A Garden

"God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures." 
-Francis Bacon
Gracie knows that traipsing through the flowers is completely forbidden but she's bewitched by the fascinating aromas of the fresh compost laid in this newly planted bed, and I can't blame a girl for sniffing. 

The past week had found me up to my muddy knees in hard-core gardening projects.

Which means I've been whiling away the hours by:

digging out big nasty roots and invasive chunks of weeds, 
pruning away major branches of rhododendron bushes and rose canes, 
stacking heaps of refuse around my driveway as my compost recycling bin overflows, 
weeding dozens of dandelions and those evil Columbine seedlings, 
drinking endless cans of Pamplemousse LaCroix, my refreshing drink of choice
and asking my husband every ten minutes, "Do you see where I set down my trimmers?'

In between staunching the blood flow from my various rose thorn injuries and casting admiring glances at my ever-patient dog mapping under the nearest hydrangea, I've been thinking about the art of gardening.

The art of perennial gardening, I should say. For perennials - the flowers that bloom for only a few weeks each year but come back season after season, like the most reliable kind of friend - are my heart's desire and my gardening jam. 

Now it's only fair to point out that I've been at this game for decades, but I've come a long way as a gardener. Sure, I started out by reading all the gardening books I could get my hands on (no internet back in those days) and taking in advice from anyone who might offer it to me, including even the nineteen-year-old landscaping entrepreneurs who dug great wholes in which to plant bushes in my brand spanking new yard but were otherwise blissfully unaware of the nuances of their profession.

And I spent an inordinate amount of time studying other people's gardens. Even before I moved into my own house and began my life as a gardener, I was obsessed with analyzing every yard I passed to see what I could learn from the gardener in residence. To this day, I 'm still inspired by a country garden with white daisies, bright yellow day lilies, and a pink climbing rose next to a sweet blue cottage down the street from my home in Evanston, Illinois. 

But as I looked around my chock-full-o-blooms yard this past weekend, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and delight in my happy, thriving gardens, I realized that my success is due to just a few simple steps. Here I present my three best tips for growing the gardens that have made all my dreams come true.
Even though all of my garden beds have been double dug many times over the years, whenever I'm replanting an area, to this day I still give the soil a good working over and enrich it with a wheelbarrow load of homemade compost. That feeling I get when my shovel slices smoothly and effortlessly through the deep rich soil is my sweet reward for all that back-breaking work. 

Dig Deep

This fact is boring and annoying but one hundred percent true: before I made even one single trip to the plant store to buy all the plants I was dreaming of, I forced myself to do the right thing. I prepared the soil. 

And that was hard, wicked work. 

I knew it would be a bear, so I started this process going one bed at a time, enlarging the beds and eventually connecting them as the years flew by. Painstakingly, with a fair share of sweat and moderate to severe cuss words, I did what's called double digging.

Which means that I dug down as far as the depth of my shovel blade. I heaped that dirt out of the way, and then I dug down again, as deep as my shovel blade. 

Oh that sounds so simple, doesn't it? But it's wretched, back-breaking work. And I'll admit there where afternoons when I couldn't bear any longer to torture myself in this way, and desperately sought someone to work a spell while I took a break.

Like a husband. Or indentured servant. Same difference, right?

Just kidding. I do most of my own digging. It's a point of honor for me. 

Anyway, once I got all that soil out into the sunshine, I noticed that it did not look a darn thing like the rich, crumbly, dark brown stuff I find inside the bag of garden soil purchased from my local big box home store. 

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where real estate developers sell off all the lovely topsoil from the forest floors that become our neighborhoods, we are left with hard-packed clay. My mom's natural soil was literally sand, dropped in her Michigan back yard by those pesky glaciers. My father-in-law's natural Ohioan soil was fine and dusty, and blew away in a strong wind. 

The point here is that no one's natural soil is all that great. It needs to be amended. 

Which is to say that I needed to mix some good stuff into my yard's natural soil in order to make a delicious brew for my future plants. Peat moss, organic compost, sand, steer or chicken manure -I learned that these delightful supplements would improve the quality of my soil, and make my plants sing for joy. 

In those pre-Google days, I read around to figure out exactly what to add - spoilers: it's all good so you can't really go wrong - then dragged a half-dozen heavy and unpleasantly grubby plastic bags of said additives from the store to the back of my car to the side of my garden hole, then dumped everything into the hole and mixed it together. 

In the end, I found myself the proud owner of a good eighteen inches of soft, humus-y rich soil and that was a major accomplishment. In fact, this is the step that separates the casual weekend  garden from the magical plant wizard that I was hoping to become, and to this day, I'm well chuffed with my happy double dug gardens.
I wanted something tall and blue at the back of this bed, and to be honest, my first choice was delphinium. But I know, through many years of experience and frustration, that the slugs love delphinium almost as much as I do, and despite my best efforts to keep the slimy beasts at bay, they usually end up gnawing my precious children to the ground. So in my never-ending pursuit to find a tall, billowy spire of soft blue petals, I'm trying some phlox, which thrives in many spots around my yard. 

Plant what grows

My first few trips to the nursery were a rude awakening for me. As a novice gardener, I'd spend hours poring over books and magazines full of plant suggestions, make up long lists of the plants I wanted, and then skip off to the plant store to gather them up and bring them home.

Well, I quickly that plant shopping doesn't work like that.

First of all, I realized that I could only buy what the nursery has to sell. So while my hours spent drooling over photos of other people's gardens helped me focus in on the looks I liked, once in the store, I had to translate those types of plants into the options that were actually available. 

In the beginning of my journey, this was a struggle. 

These days my brain is fairly well stuffed with plant knowledge and I can deftly translate a photo to reality. But that skill took some time to develop.

Rude awakening number two: not every plant fell in love with me. Even after making allowances for growing zones and sunlight requirements, some species just didn't dig living in my garden. 

However, the really great flip side of that discovery was that other types of plants adored what I have to offer. And they became my tried and trues. Over the years, I've learned which plants I can depend on to thrive, and I lean into them by planting them in multiple places around my yard.

Trial and error were my best teachers. I bought what I liked, what made sense for my space, and I watched to see how the plants would respond. Once I got more beds dug, I experimented with moving unhappy fellows around to different spots in the yard and that often helped. My gardening philosophy is positive vibes only, and I've found plenty of plants that delight in living with me.
After several years of upheaval, I've finally filled in the blank spots along this stretch of my back yard border, and topped it all off with a thick layer of bark mulch, which is a lot like spreading creamy icing on a cake or peanut butter on a slice of warm toast, only a whole lot more delicious. 

Mulch Madly

For the first thirty years of my gardening life, I held a strong anti-bark mulch position. Oh, I was a huge fan of mulching with compost - usually my own homegrown version but I was down with store-bought too. Overdressing my plants with compost - which is a fancy way of saying "pile it up all around the base of the plant" drenched the little darlings with nutrients and gave them an extra layer of protection from the hot sun (well, warm anyway- this is Seattle) and its drying effect. 

And you know, that was fine. 

But about five years ago, something switched in my brain and I decided to give bark mulch a try. I grabbed a few bags from Home Depot and spread it about four inches deep over my beds, packing it close to the plant bases and then gently smoothing the lower leaves over the top. 

The results have been life changing. No exaggeration.

My plants are significantly more lush and luxurious, even with less frequent waterings. 

My garden beds are (mostly) free from invasive weeds, and the ones that do pop up are super easy to pull.

Plus the bark looks neat and clean, and gives my gardens a more polished, pulled together look. 

Life changing, I tell you.

And I tell my husband this pretty much every day he comes out to the yard to see what I'm doing and help me find my misplaced trimmers.His support is crucial to my mulching methodology and here's why. Mulch breaks down fairly quickly over time, so I'm constantly renewing and refreshing my beds. From March to October, every time he makes a Home Depot run - which is at least once a week - he brings me another four or six bags of bark. When he finds our favorite brand on sale, he may scoop up ten or twenty. 

I have definitely overcome my anti-bark biases. I now consider it my secret weapon.

* * * * *
A gardener must have patience, but a gardener's dog even more. 

To be sure, gardening is one part science, one part art, and six billion parts hard work. But with my three killer strategies of digging deep, finding the plants that grow best for me, and mulching madly, all my hard work is paying off. My gardens fill my heart with pure pleasure. 

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