We all know that times are tough, but gardening offers such pleasure and can cost much less money than most people would imagine- provided you are willing to put in the time and the effort. My friends asked me to take a look at their front bed- where they were having trouble growing things to see what I would suggest and that we could do. After an initial consultation, I came up with a plan for some shade loving plants that should only need supplemental water in the first year and during droughts. Our first step was to assess the site.
It was a very nice space 3 feet by 20 feet, with a few existing large leaved and small-leaved hostas as well as some prairie favorites, including Liatris. My friends had rescued the bed from under an onerous rock mulch (oh, their aching backs) and replaced that mulch with an attractive natural colored shredded bark mulch, which was very appropriate for their site. The front bed also had some neat sandstone rocks that went well with the modern style of the house. Its problems were a heavy soil, lack of fertilizer, invading tree roots, and not enough plants in such a large area.
I came up with the plan after looking at the garden and we decided to focus on white and green (another homage to the great Vita Sackville West garden at Sissinghurst that I’ve mentioned before). When you are deciding what to put in a garden, don’t be intimidated by landscape architects and their fancy plans. As you can see, this plan was drafted on a scrap of used copy paper.
As half of their garden got a bit more sun than the other half, I planned it that 3/4 of the garden would be shade lovers and 1/4 sun lovers/sun tolerant.
From Left to right, Aruncus Diocius (from Bluestone Perennials– love them), An existing large leaved variegated hosta, a small leaved variegated hosta (existing) and a japanese painted fern (bought locally), Blue Mammoth Hosta, a textured hosta (I believe the one they purchased was called Innisfree), a Sum and Substance Hosta, an existing Astilbe, Fountain Grass “Overdam,” Stachys (lambs ears, my husband’s favorite plant), and a low growing sedum with silvery grey leaves. Careful readers will note that my friends homework assignment for this fall is to plant some great white bulbs… snowdrops, crocuses or white muscari would all be great.
Our first step was to remove the mulch, and then dig out all the existing plants except for the astilbe, which often resents disturbance. Then we topped the soil with peat moss and turned it with a garden fork. You could use a rototiller, but this way is quieter.
When you have completed turning the soil and adding peat, the soil should have the texture of chocolate cake mix and you should be able to stab your shovel into it up to the hilt and it will stay in place. I test it throughout the bed to make sure we haven’t missed a spot. Then I rake the bed at an angle- especially when it’s up against a house, I like to make sure that excess water isn’t pooling against the foundation, so I rake the soil toward the house. Then we topped it with organic compost (you could use regular or manure- all are great for the soil if you are not growing crops.)
Overall we added 2 large bales of Peat Moss and 7 medium sized bags of compost. Don’t skimp on this step. Better to plant with hand-me-down plants than not dig your bed properly. At this stage some folks would fertilize the whole bed, but I don’t make that kind of money, so I fertilize the beds after planting.
When planting, rough up the rootball of the plants a little bit, especially on the bottom– kind of lift up the roots a bit and spread them out to the side, without breaking them… your plants will thank you for it. Another tip that I learned from an irritating gardening television show years ago really works- scrape off the top part of the soil from your containerized plants because it often contains about 100% weed seeds– this will save you on weeding immediately. Just put that soil in the bottom of your planting hole.
After planting all of the plants and making sure they were in the right place, we fertilized them with Terracycle’s Worm Poop and some blood meal– which is both a good fertilizer when we are trying for leaf growth and has worked in my yard to discourage rabbits. (as does cat hair.)
Then of course, water and water and water. 2 inches the first week, 1 inch thereafter. Hold the hose over a plant (with a “shower”– like most of us, plants prefer gentle water rather than a blast from a hose) and water for 12 seconds. Or you could fill a watering can and water each plant with one can of water. My life is already too short, so I opt for the hose. You can tell you’ve done your job if you stick your bare finger in your glorious cake-like soil afterwards and feel dampness 3 or 4 inches down.
While recognizing that I donated three divided plants (one of which was a division of a wonderful gift to me by the owner of the incomparable but now sadly defunct Betty’s Country Gardens), the total cost for plants was around $50– with soil amendments, around $110. That is recession-era gardening that will help make a house look so good that no one would ever believe that you’ve been forced to take a 3% pay cut.