View from the deck on a glorious morning in early June.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Flower gardening for the design challenged.

My name is Ien van Houten, and I am a plantaholic. 

I admit it, I suffer from CHAD: Compulsive Horticultural Acquisition Syndrome. Thanks for that wonderful term to John of heritage perennials. If you love flowers, get their newsletter. I have never met a flower I didn't like, and certain plants bring out the collector: I'll take one of each colour of pansy please!

I am also design challenged. I can combine two or three plants that look good together, but lack the talent to instinctively create a pleasing whole. There are piles of books on the topic, but learning cannot replace the artistic touch that one is born with or not.

Even so, we are getting better. Here are some lessons I finally learned: 

1) Keep it Real. 

That means accepting the limitations of both garden and gardener.
The garden has poor sandy soil and is besieged by voracious deer. 
The gardener is not the most efficient worker, especially around flowers. I cannot visualize and am always changing my mind and moving plants around. Poor babies. 

Another reality is too much garden. This year I had no farmers market, plenty of energy, and some money to spend. The only excuse for not achieving more is that we started the year behind after 2012's aestas horribilis. It has become clear that either the fenced food garden up the hill, OR the gardens at dwelling level would be enough to keep one busy.

Be it resolved that growing food has priority, and flowers are a hobby and will have to take second place. 

2) Keep it simple. Less is More.

CHAD may cause stamp collection syndrome. It must be resisted, or limited to a small section of the garden. Large colourful blocks of a few kinds of flower will show up better than a bit of this and a bit of that. It took me years to learn that.

3) Grow plants who like your terrain. 

The motto here is: No Prima Donnas! I stick to plants that put up with poor soil and some neglect. 
A good example is old fashioned Yellow Loosestrife, one of my all-time faves. It blooms for weeks in early summer and is one of the most generous souls in the flower kingdom. Deer nibble it in spring but it bounces back. Yes, it spreads. It is also easy to rip out where it is not wanted. Cherry coloured yarrow has a similar temperament and the two play nicely together. 
Beth's primrose is another favourite. Tulips are a lost cause because of deer, and daffodils have to be planted fresh every fall because some wormy critter in the soil burrows into the bulbs. But these beauties liven up the spring for weeks, reliably, sun or shade. As a bonus they remind me of the friend, dead too young, who gave them to me.

4) Don't try to make the whole perennial bed look great all at once. Let islands of colour take turns. 

5) Annuals in containers are a great way for the design-challenged to fill gaps. Containers also slow down the slugs. (a bit) It seems to be a law that any plant not devoured by deer is particularly adored by slugs. Marigold and dahlia come to mind.

Above: Crocosmia finally became a real presence. I have loved it for years. Sometimes plants will just sit there for a while and suddenly take off. Next year I want some purple annual in front of it, unless there is a low perennial that blooms at the same time? Unfortunately the deer have taken a liking to verbena, they left it alone before. Maybe heliotrope.
 Extra annual tip: annuals like petunia and lobelia enjoy a mid-season haircut followed by a generous application of fertilizer when they get straggly. They will respond with a bushier shape and increased flowering, amazingly fast. 
6) No plant is deer-proof. The white-tailed rats will enthousiastically eat a plant one year that they never bothered before. Campanula conglomerata used to be safe, now it gets eaten.
7) Nothing stays DONE. Just when you have a section exactly the way you want it, something will go wrong. One perennial dies out, another needs dividing. This lovely combination of silver and magenta never looked quite as good again. The lamium in the container got too big and had to be replanted, and the cerastium tomentosum over ran the creeping cranesbill.
8)Forget perfection, ENJOY the moments!
And finally, with wild flowers like these, who needs gardens?

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