Five Easier Pieces
By Chris Cohan
Pullquote: “If a plant is antsy and won’t stay where you planted it, it’s telling you something.”
New to gardening, but ready to dig right in and create the most breathtakingly beautiful backyard in the Northeast? Let me explain one thing first: There is no such thing as a low-maintenance landscape, even a natural woodsy lot will demand attention. Pristine, pulchritudinous gardens demand even more.
Meanwhile, here are a few strategies to make sure the time you put into gardening is well spent.
- Match plants to the site
At the very top of creating a landscape requiring less work is carefully matching plants to garden areas. How big will the plant get in your specific soil, light, and moisture conditions? How does it spread, and in what time frame? Is the plant native to your location? What size will it be in five to ten years?
- Match plants to one another
When you’re matching plants to site conditions, you’ll also want to learn if they’ll “play” well with others. For instance, don’t place an aggressive species next to a demure clumping plant, or a super tall plant next to a more modest specimen. Placing phlox or catmint, which have fibrous, shallow root systems, along with milkweed or coneflower, which have deep taproots, is smart design, as they won’t be competing for the same soil resources.
- Plant spacing and layers
For most herbaceous perennials, annuals, grasses, and sedges (grass-like plants), you can ignore spacing suggestions and plant them a foot apart. The closer the better, so they knit together — and impede weeds to boot. As the close-knit plants shade out weeds, they also shade the soil, which conserves moisture, creating a green and living mulch.
Take the plan a step further and design your gardens in layers.
Start with 50 to 60 percent of the plants being groundcover or shorter plants, such as pachysandra, ajuga, Solomon Seal, catmint, and coreopsis. Allocate about 30 percent of the remaining space for plants that grow between 2 and 4 feet in height. Consider spirea, caryopteris, azalea, pieris, astilbe, day lilies, Annabelle and Endless Summer hydrangeas, ever-blooming roses, clethra, and an underused beauty, potentilla.
The next layer should include 5- to 8-foot tall plants, a mix of choice perennials, small shrubs, and trees. You can’t go wrong with utterfly bush, smoke bush, gold dust, Ohio Buckeye, Shadblow, lilac, Joe-Pye Weed, and New York Ironweed are good .
These layers reduce maintenance, while also providing ample wildlife habitat and a nice, long season of interest.
<<4) Leave spring clippings on the ground>>
Wait until mid-spring to cut back your garden, which helps plants overwinter and provides shelter and hibernating spaces for birds and beneficial insects. And leave what you cut.
Resist being one of those overzealous gardeners armed with turbo-charged leaf blowers in each hand that denude garden beds of organic matter. Leave as much as possible to provide plant nutrients, and, in a month or so, watch the new plant growth cover up the seeming mess.
Okay, if you can’t abide an untidy messy look while waiting for plants to pop, fine, go ahead and minimally tidy up. Don’t forget to compost all that stuff you just had to remove. By winter, soil organisms will have decomposed most of the cuttings adding more fertile soil to your beds. Feeding your soil creates a dynamic planting medium, which means your gardens will rarely need much fertilizer.
5) Let plants teach you
As gardeners we design. Then we second-guess ourselves and redesign. Then we visit nurseries and see a beautiful plant which we must have. Then we redesign again to accommodate the newcomer.
We put specific plants in specific places because we want them there. If we’re lucky, the plants will thrive. But sometimes they die, and often they will grow in a different direction. If a plant is antsy and won’t stay where you planted it, it’s telling you something. Pay attention to your plants. You know, the same way you pay attention to your family. On second thought, that could be a problem.
Success in gardening often means being a keen observer. Accept mistakes. Relocate plants as they inform you of their displeasure with their original placements. This way they will thrive and require less attention. Choose wisely and always with an eye to make your gardens grand with less effort.