Roots and Shoots: Designing a New Garden, Part 2

By Pamela Doan

As I described in an Aug. 22 post, after a tree was cut down in my yard, I have a new sunny space for a garden. I’m working through a series of steps as I plan it, considering different ways to create ecological value and make it lovely.

In my previous column, I covered budget, style, how to maintain the garden as plants grow and spread, inspiration, the carbon footprint and how to keep it low on natural resource requirements, i.e., watering and amending soil. Most important, I want it to be a flexible and resilient garden as climate change effects become more intense — heavy rain, drought, hotter temperatures, milder winters, abrupt temperature shifts and scarier storms.

Site conditions. This is now one of the sunniest areas of my yard. There are tree roots in the soil and the stump remains. A spruce grew here and its needles cover the top few inches of soil. A bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) and foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) are all growing. Unless I include taller plants that can shade the bleeding heart and wood poppies, I’ll have to transplant them. Both prefer part-full shade. In the winter, this spot will have snow from our driveway and I’ll have to mulch well to keep the soil from drying out too quickly in summer’s heat.

The before photo for the writer’s new garden. Check back in the spring. (Photo by P. Doan)

A feature. This could be an arrangement of stones, pieces of wood, a fence or other non-plant material that I combine into the design for aesthetic purposes. I’d like to make a low fence from tree branches to create a border on one side and make a path using circles of tree trunk I saved when the spruce was cut down so I can walk in it and weed or transplant without compacting the soil.

Layers. Because of the way the ground slopes around my home, ground level is the view from my dining room windows. Layered planting is a technique to keep weeds out; I also want to make sure I don’t stare at the stalks of plants.

I need to mix plants that are low-growing under mid-height and taller plants. Bottom layer plants could include thyme, sedge (Carex sp.) and barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides). Mid-layer plants in the 6- to 18-inch range could include the foxglove beardtongue I have planted already, butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), lupine (Lupinus perennis) and lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). The leaves, flowers and berries are beautiful in all seasons and at 12- to 24-inches high, it’s the right height. (Also, bears love it, which I have mixed feelings about.)

Fall color on a blueberry bush. (Photo by P. Doan)

For a tall layer, I haven’t decided what to work with. Dill, fennel, alliums and black cohosh are possibilities. I’d also like a selection of flowering spring bulbs that will be the first to bloom outside my windows.

Drawing a plan. While I’ve been doing this with garden-coaching clients regularly, I admit that I usually don’t for my own yard. Most of my landscaping has been replacing the thugs like Japanese barberry. I haven’t been able to approach a project that is as much as a blank canvas as this one and transform the whole space. Starting with the dimensions, I can make a rough sketch of how bloom color and timing, plant height, paths and features will work and hopefully avoid mistakes. Taking the time to lay out the entire garden before I begin will show me if I’m achieving my vision.

Preparation. Fall is such a perfect time for planting because then the plants can get settled, go dormant, and build their energy to spring up after winter. My garden will get closer to its potential in the first season if I can get it all done soon. My goal is to dig as little as possible. I’ll add 2 inches of compost. Once I’ve planted everything, I’ll top it all with aged woodchips as mulch.

Look for photos next season.

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