garden resolutions: what i’ll do differently

AUTUMN, NOT NEW YEAR’S, is when I make my gardening resolutions. As I gradually pull things and cut others back, I’m deliberately contemplating what I’ll do differently next year: more of this, less of that—you know the thinking. I’m saying them out loud (well, here in print), in the hopes that I’ll actually track down some unusual-colored Nicotiana to add to the existing jumble here, explore more annual poppies, and loosen my mowing style–just three of the things on my “must do next year” list. The rundown:

1. Mow more creatively.  The dry season we’ve had reminded me of this, when rather than risk the steep hilly part above the house burning off to an ugly brown, I just let it grow the last eight or 10 weeks.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) was part of the jumble up there when I got here, and I used to let it flourish (seen above in foreground, with an island of Miscanthus in the back), mowing just once in late April or early May. Eventually brambles and other woody things started to take over, so I started mowing it short, like lawn, to eradicate them. That went on for five years or thereabouts. And then, this summer, I stopped.

Up popped the bluestem again, and is taking on its beautiful reddish-tan fall hue that lasts into winter. I’m going to mow around the densest stands of this bunchgrass and cultivate it once again. Some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve visited have deliberate mown paths through taller grass, or other loose areas where the garden transitions from kempt to a little wilder.  Yin-yang, you know?

2. Pump up the volume of self-sowns I love. Nicotiana basically plants itself here, many years after I planted N. mutabilis (giant, pink and white), N. sylvestris (also large, with extra-long, tubular white flowers) and N. langsdorfii (small, chartreuse), and now have a mad mix of half-breeds, or so it appears. (Above, a mass of white ones erupting from the patio.) The hummingbirds adore flowering tobacco, and I adore them. I must track down some dark-colored ones (like the elusive ‘Stonecrop Mauve’ I used to have) and other species.

And how can I have just one annual poppy (pods, above)? Dare I let the Perilla, with its purple leaves, go mad again? Pretty, but oh, so prolific! Maybe not, but I need more stands of tall verbena, or Verbena bonariensis, and also noticed in my walkabout that my favorite biennial, Angelica gigas, is calling out for some human intervention (my hand, sowing seed and plugging in transplants in key spots) to get more thickly re-established.

3. Grow sunflowers. At my friend Tod’s magical garden, and at the farmer’s market, these high-summer big guys kept calling out to me. I planted the silverleaf species, Helianthus argophyllus, but it didn’t completely satisfy my craving. Need to make room for more.

4. Dig up “onesies” and either eliminate or replicate them.  Unless a plant is a stunner that can stand alone, onesies are usually the recipe for a polkadot garden. I have some beds that are looking sadly that way—where once-impactful groupings have dwindled.  Time to add more Joe-pye weed or eliminate it; ditto the anemone called ‘September Charm’ and many other choices. Will it be more, or less?

5. Repeat successes. Last week a friend and I hauled out chunks of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ and some merrybells, or Uvularia grandiflora (above)–things I had giant clumps of.  I made divisions for more of the same elsewhere, and also made breathing space around those overgrown clumps. Win-win.

Another kind of success to repeat: Order more bulbs to grow in pots. I do well with pineapple lily, Eucomis bicolor; there are other species and varieties of Eucomis to try, and a nursery friend suggested I’d do well with overwintering Amorphophallus konjac and other voodoo lilies in my cellar in pots, too.

6. Add more vines, annual and perennial. (Which means add more supports–though I will grow even more of them up existing shrubs.) I was reminded this year when growing things like cardinal climber, for instance (above), just how much this extra vertical layer does to add another season to the same garden space.

7. Speaking of supports, rethink the ones for many vegetables. I need to study up and see what I can build for cucumbers, squash, peas, beans. A related resolve: Grow my pole beans one variety to a teepee, or two very different kinds to a support (such ‘Romano’ (flat green pod) and ‘Rattlesnake’ (round purple-flecked pod) or a gold-podded type, but not two basic green ones to one single trellis. What a mess to tell apart.

And this: Set up one or two entire bean teepees for bean varieties I’ll harvest dry. On more than one occasion, I think I picked young pods of shelling beans. Oops.

8. Erect support wires around my raised bed of raspberries. What a mess! I’m studying up on easy, effective berry-support designs (pdf).

9. Now—before I forget—write down what vegetable varieties really pleased me (such as ‘Aunt Ada’s Italian’ pole bean, above) and which didn’t, so I make room for the former and not for the latter next time.  I had particular revelations among the peas, the beans, and also with broccoli.

10. Grow more herbs–for visual and olfactory enjoyment, and of course to cook with.  I already confessed I’d become herb-complacent; this is the year to change all that, one aromatic beauty at a time.

11. Be a more ruthless pruner.  Not a butcher, mind you, but extending a firmer hand to things that want to try to take over the path, for instance. There is no cure for too-stingy spacing at planting time, but certain things can be kept in check if Mommy has a firm resolve, and a firm grip on her pruning shears.

12. Remember to walk back inside and look out the window, before taking shovel to ground to implement any above decisions.  The best-laid home landscape plans start from inside, looking out, I think; that’s always been my conviction, and remains my resolve as I think about the year ahead and the garden-to-be.

  1. Patrick Smith says:

    My garden is largely a jumbled looking chaos now – all the sins and weaknesses abound. Onesies? I think i have a garden of Halve-sies! I feel so guilty pulling things up or disturbing the little fairy world of insect-zen. I really must be more ruthless. I think I can feel the spirit of my departed gardening grandmother rolling her eyes or banging her vaporous head against the garden shed.
    Resoulution: No, I really can’t let that beautiful, sweet Tulip tree volunteer keep growing next to the front porch.

  2. Carole Clarin says:

    When I started reading “Gardening for a Lifetime” by Sydney Eddison early this past summer, I started several lists, one of them being what I observed that needed to change or be improved to make gardening easier as I get older. I’m not sure I have made things easier but I am eliminating those plants that I love but just haven’t worked in my garden and increasing the successful ones. I have also learned that replenishing the soil every few years in a must. I expect my lists to continue to change as my garden does.

  3. Delores says:

    This is a timely and informative post, loved it! I too assess the garden in the fall. I have a garden diary that I keep that includes the proposed layout of the vegetable garden (all in 8′ diameter livestock tanks, so no rabbit problems here!) where I work out crop rotation; it includes the actual layout (sometimes things catch my eye and I add veggies so have to rearrange or fit in); I record when I do my planting and succession planting; I record the successes and failures and keep the tags of new plants here which is unbelievably helpful when you’ve forgotten why you planted it and how to care for it. It sounds like work but really isn’t. I find it pleasurable and really just record 3-4 times per growing season. It works for me and I use it when dreaming about next summers garden when the seed catalogues begin to arrive in the winter! This year I tried a hyacinth bean vine and it is spectacular climbing on my garden arch. I will do that again and figure where else I can use it. Peony’s are my all time favorite – so floozy, lush, just lovely. With the drought, I had lots of failures and am too trying to build a garden that becomes easier as I grow older. I love hearing all the ideas and revelations of your followers. Margaret, thanks for doing this blog. It is one of my favorite places to visit on the web. Happy fall cleaning and planning to you all.

  4. Donna West says:

    Autumn is a second spring here in the desert. I will spend time dividing iris, planting new rhizomes and planting bare root roses. As far as next year, I will deadhead more aggressively and thin my volunteer sunflower plants more, selecting only the most staple ones to provide a great source of food for the wrens and finches. Next spring I plan to try veggie gardening in wine boxes…

  5. Linda Weaver says:

    I have a tip for remembering next year what I learned this year: On my 5 year ring-bound appointment calendar, I put sticky notes on the months ahead with the things I need to remember when that month rolls around. It would work on a 2013 wall calendar as well. I started doing this one December when there was some static over a family custom and I didn’t want to repeat the mistake. Then it grew into gardening tips from one year to the next. It really helps!
    Thanks for such a wonderful newsletter.

  6. Kathy M. says:

    Great post for today. Have been out in the garden this morning pulling out Caladiums to dry and save,pulling out Impatiens which have seen better days and cleaning up my houseplants before I try to find a place for them inside.How they grow! The perennial border is a jungle but still filled with buterflies and birds gleaning the blossoms.Notice I still have some Nicotiana in bloom but only because I watered and deadheaded it this summer.Love it but so do the spider mites in hot dry weather.I m really looking forward to some cooler fall temps. Thanks for making my break in chores so pleasant with your web site Margaret.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Kathy, and you are welcome. My Nictoianas will go well into frost here. Love them for that!

      Hi, Linda. Glad to help. I need to make a proper calendar as you describe, good idea.

      Hope to see you both again soon between chores…. :)

  7. lou desena-wtn,ct. says:

    love your site-look forward to up-dates.fall puts me into a “depressed mood”-the only thing that keeps my “mood-up” is the “planning” for next year.one has to have a “vision”.next year-more”marigolds” for “fillers”.more “tall sunflowers” to “accent” the
    garden.more “holly-hocks!”-i’m like “johnney apple seed”.holly hocks popping up
    all over!!!!-i’ll transplant many to open spots where i want them to grow,and discard
    the ones that i don’t need.more zinnias-red,white and purples.had a great year this year with them,in “mass”.more “red cardinal flowers” throughout the flower garden to
    create more “accent”.added additional “butterfly bushes”-more “work”-but it keeps me
    “busey!!!”.love “gardening”-it’s my “hobby”.vegetables–the same next season.the “basics-garlic,beans,squash,cukes,lettuce,broccoli rabbe,tomatoes.
    hoping for “no “blight” on my tomatoes for a “change”.hoping for an early spring
    and a long summer- well it’s back to the “garden magizines” and garden internet sites
    to–“get me through the long winter season”.

  8. Kate Caruso says:

    Margaret this is a little off subject, but each time I see a picture of Jack, I wonder if he is related to Henri, le Chat…..famous on the internet for his droll ennui and very bad French accent. There is a striking resemblance in fur and expression! If you google his name you should find 3 hilarious videos…be careful, though, Henri is almost as addictive as your blog! :)

  9. Dahlink says:

    Kate, I also love the videos of the French “poussiequette” (Julia Child’s name for her beloved kitties). No garden is complete without a cat, in my opinion.

    I was interested to read that some find the end of summer depressing. Summer is my least favorite season of the year–I hate the humidity and the bugs! Gardening in spring and autumn is much more my thing! To each his own.

  10. Sharon Elaine says:

    In TN, we’re waiting for our 2nd harvest. Had my best garden ever this year due to amending, amending and more amending. Also adding epson salts to the peppers really works. I’m still canning and freezing so not quite in planning mode yet but getting close. Will plant more hyacinth bean vines – the hummingbirds love them.

  11. kat otto says:

    I agree with the sunflowers. I planted several varieties in the back row of the garden. I planted some Titans-only one survived, but…..it’s like a small tree. I can’t budge it or bend it. I don’t know how I’m going to till the garden with that monster stem and root system in the garden.LOL But.. next year, in another area of the yard, I’m definately planting MORE SUNFLOWER! (and doing the Bee Count Project.
    Also, yes, I get very meloncollie (sp?) this time of the year. I find the Winters hang-on here in Iowa wayyyy toooo longgg. It seems Winter lasts 6 months. I’m suck in the house like a prisoner for months. I crave green plants and black dirt by February.

  12. Karen Budnick says:

    Great post! Rather than get depressed watching everything get shaggy and overgrown waiting for the long winter to set in, I’m looking around toward changes for next year. Thanks,


  13. A great list! Mine, as always is to eliminate more lawn with new beds. Add a small water feature. Add asparagus. I would love to grow some raspberries and found the trellis ideas helpful. My space is limited but I love to fill it with big, bold plants. American Spikenard is on the list thanks to you!

  14. Noor says:

    In the photo, “Look out back window 1”, can anyone tell me the name of the flowering shrub in the lower left hand corner? I’ve seen them around in the spring and wonder what they are. Thanks!

  15. Joel says:

    This year I learned that I can cut my bunch grasses two or three times over the summer and harvest them for straw, which I use for mulch, mainly. I let them grow back enough before winter to still provide a home for my beneficials.

  16. Tom Rozier says:


    I was looking at your patio (#12 above, looking outside from inside). Is it a perimeter of stones with pea gravel inside? You do a great job of raising consciousness about creative gardening and home economics. Have you read essays by Wendell Berry? If not, I believe you would find him to your liking.

  17. Kathy says:

    Loved this blog. I rather like the first frost so I can say goodbye to. This year’s garden and plan for next year’s perfect one! I too need to write my ideas or they will drift right out of my mind by spring.I continue to add more shrubs and trees to our landscape as I get older and make smaller the more work intensive perennial border.Have added quite a few varieties of Viburnums and Hydrangeas this fall as well as some Hollies and Japenese lilac. Next year hope to add some Newer varieties of Redbuds and Dwarf Crepe Myrtles

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