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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. Jackie DiGiovanni says:

    What a great to-do list. My garden is more spatially petite. But there are hostas that could be divided. I have some seed packets for things that like to wander about. I’ll let the swamp milkweed plants self-seed and pull up the excess next spring. I need to do more to improve the soil, starting with saving the leaves. I have a couple of pots of bulbs in the frig waiting for the cold weather to settle in.

    I love your idea about nicotiana, it always smells so good. May I borrow that idea?

  2. cecilia says:

    I’m with you on the sunflowers. The more I plant, the more I want – and I suppose, since the squirrels and birds are spreading the seeds everywhere, I shall have plenty next year. When everything else started looking peaked with this summer’s heat and drought, the sunflowers were magnificent!

  3. Norma says:

    You’re so right about the “onesies”! Even after gardening for so many years, I still find myself buying just one of something that catches my eye at the garden center. Too often it ends up getting lost in a flower bed. The worst outcome is when months (or years!) later I find the tag and think, “I don’t remember ever having this plant…”

    I resolve to do better.

  4. Ginny says:

    I hear you on messing up on the beans! I forgot I started one bean fence with a few saved seeds of one variety. Later when I noticed some gaps I stuck in my main pole bean. Bean confusion until I realized what I had done. I grow my beans on tall fencing that started out as fencing around trees to protect them from deer. Now they are supporting beans but my favorite heirloom bean loves to grow very tall. Just had the idea of rigging some sort of “roof” (bamboo?) supports between two rows of bean fences and creating a bean tunnel. That would make picking beans so much easier besides how cool literally would it be to walk through a path shaded by beans.
    I also love nicotiana but I can’t seem to find one that really fragrant. My first attempt years ago was so wonderful but was a very reluctant self seeder. I have one now that looks wonderful, self seeds, but barely smells and that is only if you stick your nose right on a flower. It was advertised as fragrant and looks like the one I once had. What variety is tall, white, and very fragrant in the evening?

  5. Lucie J. says:

    On my property I have been mowing areas further from the house only 1-2 times a year to keep out trees and unwanted shrubs and then keeping paths mowed more frequently. It creates lovely transitions to more wild areas.

  6. After three years of renovating a spacious and once neglected urban garden, I find I am getting more impatient, not less! That’s my resolution, to damp down my impatience and listen to what my garden is telling me, not what I want to tell it. The soil needs to be grown and the garden needs green bones–it takes time to make leaf mould and grow transplant-size evergreens from cuttings!

    Thanks for this inspiring post.

  7. Beth says:

    Yes, I also make my gardening resolutions in the fall. And I forget half of them by next spring- guess I should keep a journal! I’m wondering, do you plan to build the trellises for the raspberries in the spring? Do you think they could be built in the fall? My raspberries are a jumbled mess too.

  8. Lorraine Syratt says:

    What an interesting collection of plants you have and I love your creativity. Something I’ve yet to try is an old cottage garden method. Grow scarlet runner beans directly beside giant sunflowers. The sunflower “stalk” will act as a bean pole as both plants grow up together. The effect of bright red and bright yellow would be striking. It might be a fun try. You could probably do with the cardinal flower as well, or any vinish plant that would grow from seed or pod at the same speed as the sunflower.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Lorraine, for your kind words and great suggestion. I wonder if my garden will eventually just be overtaken by vines and Nicotiana…I am seeming to give over more room to them each year! See you soon again, I hope.

  9. Robin Young says:

    I’m so glad to see that Angelica gigas is your favorite biennial-mine too! I am only slightly worried that I might be someday contributing to an exotic invasive problem-do you ever worry about that with this plant?

    1. margaret says:

      I haven’t read up about issues with it in my region, no, Robin. In fact it can be tricky to keep going for years and years — I had a big stand of it for many years, and then — poof!

  10. Jason says:

    I agree about the sunflowers, but after having written about a preference for the wild perennials, I am thinking now about pulling those out and going with the annuals. Not the monsters, but the multi-branched varieties like Italian white. Also with you on vines, I planted some more Lonicera sempervirens this fall. Very thoughtful post!

  11. Beth Urie says:

    I check this site daily – have for a long time! The ‘journal’ aspects help keep me focused on my own dreams and chores at home and for clients. Thank you for your inspiration, and your ‘permissions’ through example. I write this first contribution in response to Lorraine’s idea regarding vines growing up tall sunflowers. In an extensive research of companion plant combinations – resort vegetable garden as landscape feature – sunflowers were noted NOT to be good companions for vines – at least vining beans. The reason given was too much competition for sunlight. There may be other reasons as well, and there may be some vines that could abide the sunlight competitions. Good luck with all your educated experimentation!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Beth, and thanks for saying hello. You know, now that I think of it — I have read that sunflowers can inhibit many other things from growing near them (called allelopathy). Now I have to go do more reading! :)

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Mary Beth. Have been outside doing more cleanup today, and I think I have a few things to add to the list already! :) See you soon.

  12. Valerie Gillman says:

    I collect nicotianas too. The tall, graceful kinds that usually smell good. I found an interesting coco red at Annies Annuals and a dark red.The strongest fragrance I’ve found are N. alata and N. sylvestrus (which is now confusingly called, “Only the lonely)Annie also sometimes offers a pink and green type, but no fragrance mentioned. Avant Gardens had a few this year. In zone 6 I have to save seeds and start them early because the self seeding babies come up late and don’t have enough time to bloom

  13. Deborah B says:

    I love your list. Repeat successes is one that I need to take to heart more. And my corollary is to divide or move plants that aren’t living up to their potential to see if they are happier in a different situation. I leave plants that are struggling in place too long, just waiting to see if they will die, I guess. My other resolution is to rethink some areas of my garden that just aren’t sunny anymore. As my katsura trees continue to grow, my shady areas have expanded also. Way past time to move that Jens Munk rose that used to be so far away from the katsura in front! Also, I want to do more pruning out of lower branches on my younger trees, to make more room underneath for perennials. I did this for one of my katsura’s last winter, and loved the difference it made.

  14. Dahlink says:

    Great timing, as usual, Margaret. I will be reworking one bed which has too many day lilies when the tulips I have ordered are planted. I also plan to sow two varieties of annual poppies there, inspired by your earlier suggestion. I will be sharing the extra plants with a friend who takes care of two community gardens (hate to throw out plants someone could use!)

    I tried a pale green nicotiana this year and will be planting more next spring–it made a great filler plant in arrangements.

  15. Patricia says:

    Love your blog; you give me so many wonderful ideas. My biggest chore is keeping my cottoneaster in check. After shoulder surgery I neglected it for months. It was planted between 2 boulders that are bigger than my car. By the time I was able to prune the boulders could no longer be seen.
    My spring next year will be filled with dividing plants and moving them to new locations. I also have poppy seeds to plant thanks to one of your wonderful readers (Marilyn Wilkie).
    Keep up the good work; you are a great inspiration to me.

  16. Dianna K. says:

    A lovely post as always Margaret! I have had the Verbena bonariensis for several years, and I love it but have plenty of seed that I could give away. The butterflies love it!
    In my small yard the massses have to be small (or onesies) but repeated here and there. If in mass, if it is something that withers then it draws the eye right to it. Much easier to hide a small patch than a big one, in a small yard.
    A timely post, thanks!

  17. Lorraine Syratt says:

    Thanks for responding to my idea Beth. I’ve never heard that and I, too, am about to research “allelopathy”. The method I suggested is a tried and true old cottage garden method — a means to conserve space, using every inch of soil (which I think you get). It may be more charming than workable, however. But I’ve always respected the wise ways of the old English cottage gardener. And the thing is, if both plants are reaching for sunlight, both growing at the same speed, I would think the sun would be spreading the love. I’ll try this myself next spring, just to see. You’ve certainly added an interesting twist to it, though, and I’ll probably spend the day the next few hours with my older gardening books which I don’t mind in the least. :) Margaret, thanks for the word “allelopathy”.

  18. Sharon says:

    My chores the last few weeks have been dividing, planting new shipments of bulbs, and pulling up annuals – generally putting everything to rights before the cold comes in with a vengeance. Mulch shipment scheduled for 10/12/12.

  19. Marcia says:

    I had very few poppies this year–some critter found them irresistably delicious! :( My two varieties are both “shaggy” ; one red and one lavendar

  20. Amy says:

    More peonies for me, such an impact in spring, essentially no maintenance after a proper planting, good looking foliage all season (if you choose the ones with good looking foliage all season) and years, decades of enjoyment. More milkweed for the Monarchs and more groupings of perennials rather than small trios or single items. Also more poppies.

  21. kath says:

    I love that you get wonderful plants growing on your hillside. We have a somewhat steep hill in front of our house and if we don’t weed whack it weekly (say that 3 times fast, LOL!), we will find every single non-native invasive species in NY growing there within days! I have been trying to find some type of dense, full sun ground cover to plant there, but I’m having a hard time. I was toying with the idea of putting some strawberry plants in and letting them take over, or planting some low growing thyme or other herbs, but they start to get a woody underlayer after a while, so I’m not sure what to do. Any suggestions?

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