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Save time and money with a “plantiful” approach to gardening

by Timber Press on May 22, 2014

in Gardening

A front yard full of self-sowers, spreaders, and keepers, the keys to a plantiful garden. Image: Gail Read

A yard full of self-sowers, spreaders, and keepers, the keys to a plantiful garden. Image: Gail Read

“Some say it takes at least twelve years to create a garden,” Kristin Green writes in Plantiful. “I don’t want to wait that long. I expect my garden to grow.”

By filling her garden with self-sowers, spreaders, and plants that winter inside and summer outside, Kristin maximizes yield while minimizing cost and maintenance. “Aside from some full days in spring preparing for the season,” she confesses, “I spend only as much time as I have.” Plantiful is her way of passing on her experience. “I would share every plant in my garden with you if I could. Instead, I wrote this.”

The following scenarios illustrate the unlimited potential of Kristin’s approach. Read on and see if you don’t recognize yourself.

I’m a new homeowner starting a garden from scratch. What should be my first design considerations and how can I narrow down the many plant choices?

Most gardeners will wisely advise you to spend a year learning the lay of the land—how the sun travels across your garden through the season, where rain collects, and where the soil becomes cement-like during drought—to help you identify what plants will thrive in your garden and where. I couldn’t wait that long. I say take your best guesses and start planting. Make your garden beds large enough to give your plants plenty of room to grow—a good 6′ to 8′ front to back and as long as you like will allow for a generous mix of shrubs, hardy and tender perennials, and annuals. Site them where they will be visible from inside: from your kitchen window, the living room couch, your desk. Every glimpse you get of your garden will pull you outside to learn its quirks and make adjustments.

Before heading out to nurseries and asking friends for seedlings and divisions from their gardens, prioritize your interests. For instance, if you love watching birds, be sure to include a few native shrubs and trees that support the insect population (high protein bird food); plant perennials, biennials, and annuals with bird-feeder seedheads, such as sea holly (Eryngium planum), cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), and peony poppy (Papaver somniferum); and leave room for tender perennials like Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ that promise to attract hummingbirds too.

When it comes to design, prioritize your interests. For a wildlife-friendly gardens, Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ will attract hummingbirds. Image: Kristin Green

When it comes to design, prioritize your interests. For wildlife-friendly gardens, Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ is a good choice if you want to attract hummingbirds. Image: Kristin Green

I live in a townhouse with a tiny patch of yard in back. I’m concerned about plants getting out of control. Can I still have a plantiful garden?

Absolutely. No matter what size garden you have, plants grow and reproduce at different rates depending on their habit and the available conditions. You are the boss, and in a small garden, time is definitely on your side. It won’t take long to tend it.

Start with a limited palette of plants that will stay in scale with your garden. For the sake of surprise and serendipity, include some self-sowers that bloom and set seed at different times. If you have room for small drifts or a repeating pattern, encourage a polite spreader or two to increase ranks, such as Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) for partial shade or lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) for sun. Every spring, allot space for at least a couple of frost-tender plants that will extend the season into fall (and winter too if you bring them inside) and attract the entertainment—bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds—to the garden.

Most importantly, be sure to select plants that you find beautiful and then be mentally prepared to edit, share, and/or pitch excess in the compost whenever you have too much of a good thing. None of us, whether we have a tiny patch or a huge estate, should ever let unwanted overgrowth ruin our opinion of anything that’s perfectly lovely in small doses.

Japanese forest grass, a "polite" spreader perfect for small spaces. Image: Kristin Green

Japanese forest grass, a “polite” spreader perfect for small spaces. Image: Kristin Green

I’m a homeowner with an established yard but I want to liven it up a bit. I’m filling in some barren spots and places where I’ve removed plants I don’t like. How can I know which plants will “play nice” with the ones I already have?

Plants naturally compete with each other for light, water, and nutrients and we gardeners sometimes have to referee, particularly during their spring sprint. But we can also try to pick teams that play fair and work together.

Partner plants with different growth habits and life cycles. Shrubs and sturdy perennials with impenetrable crowns like hosta, and baptisia can stand like rocks in ground-covering rivers of sweet alyssum (Galium odoratum) or hardy chrysanthemum. Encourage mid-to-late-summer blooming annual self-sowers like tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and flower-of-an-hour (Hibiscus trionum) to dot and weave themselves wherever early-summer perennials go quiet and around foliage plants that could use a flower in their ear. You might even allow plants with evenly matched vigor like plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) and bronze fennel (traditional partners with sublimely contrasting foliage; one rampantly rhizomatous, the other an enthusiastic tap-rooted self-sower) to play together like tiger cubs.

That said, this might be the perfect opportunity to fill your garden’s vacancies with plants whose growth will be restricted by climate: frost tender keepers. Nobody is going to call pink porterweed (Stachytarpheta mutabilis) a bully, no matter how large and weirdly sculptural it grows in a single season.

Annual self-sowers like flower-of-an-hour shine while other plants are winding down. Image: Kristin Green

Annual self-sowers like flower-of-an-hour shine while other plants are winding down. Image: Kristin Green

I live in a northern climate with a short growing season. Does it make sense for me to have frost-tender plants?

You bet. In fact, you might benefit from frost-tender plants more than any gardener blessed with a long growing season. I know I couldn’t get through a New England winter without them. Choose plants that hit the ground blooming, like abutilon, African blue basil, dahlias (if you start them growing in pots indoors in spring), and hummingbird sage (Salvia guaranitica), and plants with fabulous year-round foliage like Boston fern, oxalis, and mistletoe fig. Enjoy their exuberance for as long as possible in the garden and then bring them inside to keep on gardening all winter long.

A short season can make good use of Abutilon ‘Kristen’s Pink’ which doesn't waste any time to bloom. Image: Kristin Green

A short season will make good use of Abutilon ‘Kristen’s Pink’ which doesn’t waste any time blooming. Image: Kristin Green

I have $200 to spend this season. What can I do with so little money?

A lot. You garden with a generous nature (we all do) and our investments earn all kinds of dividends. Here’s a list to get you started:

Packets of seeds: $1.75 to $5.00 for dozens to hundreds of potential plants.
Frost-tender perennials: $5.00 to $10.00 each for months of flowers, hummingbird, bee, and butterfly activity in your garden. Pinch them back when you get home to encourage branching and extra flowers, and then propagate those tips. Save your plants for next year’s garden by wintering them (or cuttings from them) over indoors.
Hardy perennials: $10.00 to $15.00 each from your favorite local nursery; or $0.00/a trade in kind for divisions from friends and neighbors.
Shrubs: $0.00 to $40.00 each if you accept friends’ offers of offshoots and/or purchase them young and watch them grow.
A plantiful garden: priceless.

Let the plants do the work for you. Here, anise hyssop, dahlias, and tall verbana crowd out weeds to allow more time to enjoy nature's beauty. Image: Elke Borkowski

Let the plants do the work for you. Here, anise hyssop, dahlias, and tall verbana crowd out weeds to allow more time to enjoy nature’s beauty. Image: Elke Borkowski

__________

green_k-sKristin Green first unearthed a passion for gardening while on the West Coast earning degrees in art and painting from the University of Washington. Now back on native soil, she is a full-time, year-round gardener serving as interpretive horticulturist, garden blogger, and photographer at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, a 33-acre non-profit public garden in Bristol, Rhode Island.

__________

Click image for a look inside this book.

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A front yard full of self-sowers, spreaders, and keepers, the keys to a plantiful garden. Image: Gail Read

When it comes to design, prioritize your interests. For a wildlife-friendly gardens, Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ will attract hummingbirds. Image: Kristin Green

Japanese forest grass, a "polite" spreader perfect for small spaces. Image: Kristin Green

Annual self-sowers like flower-of-an-hour shine while other plants are winding down. Image: Kristin Green

A short season can make good use of Abutilon ‘Kristen’s Pink’ which doesn't waste any time to bloom. Image: Kristin Green

Let the plants do the work for you. Here, anise hyssop, dahlias, and tall verbana crowd out weeds to allow more time to enjoy nature's beauty. Image: Elke Borkowski

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“A delightful new book…filled with gardening tips and inspiring color photos of plants and gardens.”—Orange County Register

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