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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: ‘Five Plant Gardens’

Nancy Ondra has been gardening for over 20 years and she has 10 books to show for it. Her latest is “Five Plant Gardens: 52 ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants” (Storey Publishing $18.95). This book has something for everyone, but it takes garden design to a new level of ease and understanding for the novice gardener.

Even an inexperienced flower gardener understands pretty quickly that you put tall plants in back of the short plants. Then what? Ondra actually has more than 52 ways to design a garden because she suggests alternates for each of the five plants in a garden. By treating a five-plant arrangement as a building block, you can plan long borders along a path, around a deck or patio, or half-moon plantings by a doorway or around a lamppost. It will not take long for even a new gardener to find places to install one of Ondra’s gardens.

Before she gets into general gardening advice, Ondra explains why she chose five plants. “It’s enough variety to give you a good mix of flowers and foliage, heights and shapes and seasons of interest, but not so much that the collection looks like a jumbled mess. It’s also a manageable number of new plants to learn about at one time, as well as a limited amount of money to spend.” How understanding and practical she is.

I have been gardening in Heath for over 30 years and I still found good advice in this book. Even those of us who have been playing in the garden for many years trot off to a nursery or plant sale and are quickly seduced by plants we never thought of before. When we get home, we often just stick them wherever we might have a bare spot and have to think all over again about height, shape, texture and bloom time. For most of us, practicing interesting and attractive garden design is an ongoing process.

Ondra’s book is first divided into two parts: sunny gardens and then shady gardens. Within each section are 25 five-plant combinations, but with some alternate plants in case you want to provide a little more variety when you are extending the original plan. For example, the Welcome Spring Garden appeals to me because I am so hungry for flowers after our long winters. The five suggestions are Jacob’s ladder with its tall lacy foliage and clusters of blue flowers; deep blue Caesar’s Brother Siberian iris; Corbett, a yellow wild columbine; a striped bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum); and ajuga Burgundy Glow. I was pleased that Ondra gave a warning about the vigor of ajuga. Ajuga is wonderful because it so quickly covers a lot of ground but it is so vigorous that it is difficult to contain. I don’t mind the ajuga that has invaded a section of my lawn because I am no devotee of fine turf, but it is good to be warned.

I think it is good to have early spring flowers right near the house where they will be a comfort and be admired while going out and coming home as the days warm. Alternates are the wonderful blue anchusa, or Telham Beauty campanula, almost any other Siberian iris or a foxglove, and any columbine would also be pretty, as would dianthus.

Ondra is only addressing perennials in this book, but after working on our Bridge of Flowers, I have learned that it takes annuals to keep a small garden like this in bloom for the whole season. Ondra’s spring choices bloom early, but you might like to think about adding a few annuals once the season warms up. She notes how many of each perennial to put in her five-plant scheme, but perennials are not always large when you buy them. You can add pansies or violas to boost that early spring bloom and, as the season progresses, you can add other annuals taking your color cue from Ondra’s plan.

Ondra is an encouraging writer. Her 2009 book, “The Perennial Care Manual,” is still an important resource for me whenever I need to check if a plant I have impulsively bought should be planted in sun or shade, whether it will tolerate a damp spot, or a very dry spot. I know how often I have told a friend that the secret to a successful garden is putting the right plant in the right spot. I know this is true, but I sometimes forget the specifics for a given plant and I’m glad to have this book as it is full advice for the care of over a 100 popular plants.

Ondra’s newest book will also be a big help to the new and experienced gardener.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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