Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: How to keep your maturing garden fresh and vibrant

TO CREATE A pleasing spatial layout, consider both the shapes of the flower beds (the positive space) as well as the shape of the lawn (the negative space) and how they balance one another. Photo by Dick Conrad

As I discussed in my last article — where I talked about the “ages and stages” of a garden — our gardens are living creations that slowly evolve with the passage of time.

Surely, one of the delights for every gardener is when our initial creation — or perhaps one that we inherited from a previous gardener — achieves a bountiful and satisfying feeling of maturity.

Dick and I have been creating our Goshen garden for over 20 years, and today it has definitely reached adulthood. Slowly but surely those little plants I brought home from the nursery as babies have achieved the “grows to” size that was indicated on the label — and sometimes considerably more! And equally delightful, as their green leaves have reached out to touch one another, they completely hide the sea of brown mulch that shaded their roots in those early years.

Furthermore, although the largest trees have yet to achieve maturity, the shrubs and smaller trees, like crab apples and serviceberries, have also reached the sizes I assumed in my initial garden plans.

But, as we all know, whatever of its age, no garden is ever quite “finished.” Sometimes a beloved plant will die and occasionally, what was once a minor flaw has gradually become more prominent over time. Thus, to keep our gardens fresh and vibrant, there is always plenty for the gardener to do.

To quote H.E. Bates:

“A garden that is finished is dead.”

So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions for keep our maturing gardens looking their best:

Woody plants may need pruning or even removing

Woody plants, although long-lived, do not survive forever. Over time some need pruning, others will die or outgrow their initial allotted spaces, while still others may become truly unsightly and are no longer the visual asset in the garden that they once were.

So, using this checklist, begin by taking a careful look around your garden:

• Do any trees or shrubs have dead or unsafe branches, possibly calling for culling the entire plant, or maybe just a portion the plant?

• Are any shrubs blocking the views from your windows?

• Is the sight of a distant mountain or other cherished view obscured by one or more large trees?

• Do you have any specialty evergreens which, although cute and small when first planted, are now spindly, gawky and no longer pleasing to the eye?

• As you peer into the interior of your trees, do you see interior branches cluttered together, some heading in contrary directions, or branches rubbing against one other — that might need some careful pruning?

• Do the lower branches of some trees dip so low that they hit the shrubs below, again suggesting the need for selective pruning?

While for larger jobs it is always best to employ a licensed arborist, you can certainly tackle many smaller pruning jobs yourself.

Before starting, I recommend you invest in a good pruning book. While many are available, my personal favorite is still “Pruning Made Easy: a Visual Guide to When and How to Prune Everything” by beloved Vermont author and nurseryman, the late Lewis Hill.

Managing your pruning jobs

Here are a few tips for successful pruning:

• Although a dead limb can be removed at any time, when pruning out living branches —  to avoid stressing the tree — remove no more than 20% of the total leaf area in a single year.

• Avoid pruning deciduous trees and shrubs in the late summer, since the new growth stimulated by this pruning will not be frost-hardy by winter

• By doing most of your pruning in winter, when the plant no longer has its leaves, it is much easier to see what you are doing.

• However, plants like lilacs and early azaleas, which bloom in the spring, form their buds for the coming year’s blooms during the early summer months. Thus, to avoid removing next year’s flowers, prune them a few weeks after flowering.

Maintaining the perennial border

Some perennials, like daylilies and hostas — the “clumpers” — gradually form ever enlarging roots systems which eventually grow into each other.

Thus at some point the bed may start to feel a bit over-crowded, which is a signal for the gardener to dig and divide some of the clumps. This activity is best done in the late fall, after the plant is dormant but before the ground freezes for the winter. You can replant some of the divisions in your own beds and still have plenty to share with friends.

Others, like Purple Cone Flowers, Shasta Daisies and Black Eyed Susans are well-behaved “minglers” and perhaps my ideal perennials. Over time they gradually form ever-widening expanses, gently merging together to create a beautiful relaxed picture. However, to keep your minglers from taking up too much space, occasionally trim back the roots around the edges.

Still others, like Prairie Meadowsweet — the true “runners” — have roots that roam far and wide in the bed. Their flowers are stunning and dramatic and I would not be without them in the garden. However now I am only permitting them in the “wild garden” around our pond, where they compete well with other rugged plants like New York Ironweed and Switch Grass.

Spaces on the ground

A lovely garden is like a beautiful painting, where the flower beds are the main areas of interest, and surrounded by lawn which forms the background. Artists often call the areas of interest in a painting the positive space, which is then complemented by the more neutral background or negative space.

To analyze the spatial layout of your garden look down at it from an upstairs window. Are the shapes of your flower beds and the shapes of the lawn equally pleasing? Does everything flow together to create a satisfying whole? Sometimes all it takes is a tiny tweak in the spatial layout to create a more compelling picture.

Then, once you have the spatial layout to your liking, install some edging between the lawn and the bed to keep it that way.

Onward and upward in the garden

All gardeners thrive on the creativity unleashed by a new project. Sometimes we need more than just managing the familiar space we have nurtured over the years.

So — rather than mourning the loss of an aging tree or the removal of an overgrown evergreen — see this as an opportunity to dive into some creative garden-making.

Or maybe you maybe you have some undeveloped space calling for something special. Go for it!

As a case in point, my latest project is to create a true woodland garden above the old stone wall that edges the wooded hillside to the east of our garden. For over 50 years, what we now call “our garden” was part of the thriving Hayes family farm. And over 100 years ago, the Hayes brothers built this incredible wall to support the back of their new milking barn.

Recently my friend and stone mason, Tammy Walsh restored this historic wall for me. And, at each end she built a set of steps so that I can access the wooded hillside behind. So far, I have laid in a pair of wood chip paths leading through the woods. But, going forward, I plan to edge the paths with hundreds of small spring ephemerals, like bloodroot, woodland phlox and Virginia bluebells that I have in my garden, together with plants like ferns and asters that remain all season.

And already, as I envision this wooded area carpeted with spring flowers, I can barely contain my excitement!

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

Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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