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A garden can be a loving journey through ages and stages

“A garden should be in a constant state of fluid change, expansion, experiment, adventure; above all it should be an inquisitive, loving but self-critical journey on the part of its owner.”
— H.E. Bates
As all gardeners know, a garden is not a static “thing” that you plant once and expect it to stay the same. Rather it is an artistic creation which is always evolving, most obviously from month to month but also, more subtly, as the years roll by. Time is like the fourth dimension of the garden.
A garden is also more than just a collection of individual plants; it is a living organic whole. And, like any living thing, to keep it healthy and vibrant, the garden needs a little attention from its gardener. Whatever others may say, there is no such thing as a “maintenance-free” garden.
So, as summer draws to a close and we anticipate fall chores around the corner, let’s take a look at the ages and stages of a garden, and the attention needed along the way.
Early years
As with a child, it is during the early years when a garden needs the most care.
When our plants are youngsters, their root systems are small and careful watering is critical. And, however diligently you prepared the soil prior to planting, some weed seeds and roots inevitably remain. Given half a chance, new weeds are ready to sprout and outgrow your precious new garden plants.
Also, with an eye towards long-term maintenance, it is prudent to plant young trees and shrubs far enough apart so that, as they mature, their branches will just overlap. This means in the early years there will be considerable bare ground to keep weeded.
This is when most gardeners cover their beds with a layer of mulch. Mulch is an extremely functional gardening aid; it helps maintain moisture, slow the growth of weeds and fill the spaces between young plants. But it also results in that depressing brown “sea of mulch” look so characteristic of a young garden.
So what can you do to reduce the “sea of mulch?” Start by planting a low-growing groundcover like Big Root geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) around the base of your shrubs. Then fill the remaining spaces with trouble-free perennials like Daylilies (Hemerocallis) or black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia “Goldsturm”). As the shrubs expand it will be relatively easy to relocate any excess perennials to other parts of the garden.
One practical strategy to reducing the workload inherent in a new garden is to limit yourself to making only one new bed each year. Another is to limit the size of any new bed to accommodate just the woody plants and a few perennials. Then, as everything grows in, you can expand the edge of the bed outwards and move the perennials into the newly prepared outer portion.
Peak of perfection
Little by little the garden reaches its peak of perfection with everything in balance and a fluid tapestry of color and texture that dances through the season.
As the plants enlarge, they shade the soil naturally, reducing the opportunity for weeds and decreasing the “sea of mulch.”
With few demands on the gardener beyond a light annual weeding, this is a wonderful time to savor your handiwork, perhaps even inviting the local garden club to visit.
Editing and tweaking
However, if you want your garden to stay looking fresh and vibrant as it matures, sooner or later you must start editing and tweaking.
As the trees and shrubs expand, the patterns of sun and shade reshape themselves and sun-loving plants need to be moved. And, even with the most careful attention, some plants outgrow their spaces or weeds creep in, making everything seen overly full or messy. Or, at the other extreme, fussy plants prove to be short-lived, leaving holes to be filled; occasionally even a truly robust plant dies for no apparent reason.
Late summer is an excellent time to examine the garden with a critical eye and make a list. What needs moving? What needs dividing? Are there better plant choices for problem areas? Are there sections that need to be thoroughly weeded?
Then in the fall, after the perennials have gone dormant, you can lift and divide them and, at the same time, remove any weeds. At this point you can either return the perennials to the same bed or replant them elsewhere. Any excess will make nice gifts for other gardeners who may have their own empty beds to fill.
One garden’s ebb and flow
As an example of the natural ebb and flow of the garden I would like to share the story of our gazebo garden.
Back in 2000 we built a 12-foot square, screened gazebo as the perfect bug-free place to enjoy our long Vermont summer evenings. Then, to create a magnet for birds and butterflies, we surrounded it with a large garden bed.
To establish a year-round framework I planted a trio of crabapples, set 20 feet apart. Each spring they are covered in pink flowers, and for the remainder of the season their bronze-tinted leaves contrast nicely with the rest of the garden. Then, in August, cedar waxwings arrive en masse to devour the fruit.
Around the crab apples I planted lots of shrubs, chosen for fragrance or colorful leaves, including scented summer-flowering azaleas, summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), red-twigged dogwoods with variegated leaves; a burgundy-colored Weigela “Wine and Roses” and, for fall color, some witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana. I then planted some low-growing spireas to fill out the sunny central portion of the bed.
I also found room for three “special plants”: a beloved tree peony, the beautiful hybrid yellow peony “Garden Treasure,” and a dwarf white pine, Pinus strobus “Kurley.” And finally, a stepping-stone path allows me to stroll throughout the bed and enjoy the plants.
I then sought out perennials that would be happy in sun or partial shade, including some fragrant yellow daylilies, tall pink oriental lilies, and Japanese catmint (Nepeta subsessilis), plus bigroot geranium as a groundcover. In the shady areas behind the gazebo I chose the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) and various astilbes.
Over the years I have responded as the garden has matured. The crabapples now shade much of the bed and the sun-loving spireas became thin and scraggly. I have already replaced several of them with two shade-tolerant dark-leaved cultivars of ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius “Little Devil” and “Amber Jubilee”) plus some hosta “Guacamole” for contrast.
The azaleas, while flourishing in the filtered light, have expanded to be as tall as me. So every summer after flowering is done, I prune them down slightly to keep them in scale with everything else.
And finally, the geranium has increased beyond where I want it, but it was a relatively easy job to pull out the surface roots and get it back into proportion.
Thus the evolution of the garden continues and the work of the gardener goes on. But that is the way it should be. Again, to quote H.E. Bates:
“The garden that is finished is dead.”
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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