Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Planning your garden, Part 3

Garden Planning takes a new direction after you have decided how much time you have, what activities you want to enjoy in the garden and what the garden needs in terms of soil improvement. You will also have decided whether you want a strictly ornamental garden, or if you want to include edibles.

In urban and suburban settings, the first consideration is the front yard. Most front yards begin with a lawn and perhaps some shrubby foundation plantings. This is fine as far as they go, but often those foundation plantings are placed in a narrow bed, with little other interest.

The lawn requires regular mowing and while I never fertilize or use herbicides on my flowery mead, many people over apply these chemicals, which can pollute our waterways every time rains wash those chemicals off the lawn. What are the alternatives?

The first might be to enlarge and broaden the beds around the house that would allow room for a small tree or two, possibly a witch hazel that would bring the earliest spring bloom, as well as shrubs and some flowers. You could create a long season of bloom by including spring blooming bulbs, perennials and some annuals that will bloom all summer. This arrangement is called a mixed border and it can be used to mark lot boundaries or to separate spaces in the garden. I have two gently curving mixed borders in my front lawn. They separate lawn areas, cut down on lawn (their original purpose) and have become greatly admired by visitors to the garden.

My mixed borders were begun in 1999. That is an easy date to remember because of the ages of our five grandsons. We had a big family visit during which the five boys, between ages 3 and 1, each planted a gingko tree. They needed (a lot) of help, of course. We chose the ginkgos in honor of the time we spent living and working in Beijing. The gingkos were planted at the edges of the prepared beds. The North Bed is about 25 feet long and the South Bed is about 15 feet long. Both are about 10 feet at their widest.

The three gingkos in the North Bed survived, but only one did in the South Bed. Therefore, we later planted a weeping birch in the South Bed. In the middle-ish section we planted low junipers — too many as it turned out. When you are beginning with such a large space, it is hard to remember how big plants will grow.

At the beginning, the beds didn’t look like much. The plants were small and annuals can only do so much. There was a lot of mulch.

Over time, other shrubs were added. These include two hollies, male and female, a weeping cherry, a tree peony, two cotoneasters (different varieties), two The Fairy roses, a Mothlight hydrangea, which has grown very large, and an array of perennials like astilbe, garden phlox, Echinacea, Northern sea oats, salvia, delphinium, aconite, Shasta daisy and a few annuals along the edges. Herbs like parsley, sage, and chives can also be a pretty and useful addition.

All these years later, I have well-filled-in borders with trees that are gaining in height and throwing some welcome shade, lush shrubs and an array of perennials that will need dividing again this spring. I actually wish I had made the beds wider and will probably do a little tweaking to make that happen in the spring.

This is a planting scheme that can work at the edges of a yard. I love the idea of a shady woodland with spring bulbs and a native ground cover like tiarella separating two houses on an urban street. I might be harking back to the narrow shady woodland in front of my parents’ first house, which provided a veil of shelter from the road.

One stunning garden I visited last year turned the front yard into a beautiful, low-maintenance garden by using a lot of stone, a graceful tree, native groundcovers and a few shrubs and flowers. The owner said she had been on a mission to eradicate lawn for 40 years. Her front lawn was reduced to a path that meandered between the foundation plantings and the rock garden, leading from the driveway, around the house to a welcoming screened room. This garden gives pleasure to all the neighbors, as well as the gardener.

Another important way to reduce lawn is to increase social space. I love screened porches and summer houses of all forms because I like to be sheltered from the sun and the bugs. Decks and patios are common ways of providing social space and also take a multitude of forms. One important consideration when creating a patio is to make it out of pervious paving. Rain run off is a municipal problem. We can help our town and our own landscape by keeping rain where it falls.

Lawn reduction and mixed borders are ideas to consider whether you are a new gardener or an experienced gardener who needs to cut back.

Next week, to conclude this series, I’ll talk about periodic re-visioning and since we do not weed all winter, the view from the window.

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

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