Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gardens are not like paintings: Part One

It never works out that you plant it and it's done. Some plants die. Some get overgrown and have to be cut back. Some grow lopsided, or stunted, or not at all. Some promise to bloom but never do. Some don't like it here, but would maybe like it better over there, in that spot. Some just always look at you kinda funny, and after a while, it gets to be annoying.

I keep forgetting that. I keep thinking that you plant a garden and it's done, the way one might compose a painting. But gardens are living--and, sometimes, dying--things. And so, if you are a careful gardener, you are constantly making adjustments for whatever temperament your garden might have. If, however, you are a neglectful gardener, like me, then one day you look up and say, "What the hell happened here?" 

And thus it was in my back garden this year. I suddenly noticed that what was once a lush oasis had turned into a patchy landscape of dirt. Between drought, the extreme cold of winter and the extreme heat of summer (and a pair of plumbers wielding shovels rather indiscriminately), things had gotten so bad back there that it really was like having a blank canvas again. A really disjointed, ugly, chaotic, and sorry canvas that, aesthetically, was making less and less sense with each passing season.

Fortunately, one night garden designer Susan Cohen, of Miss Rumphius' Rules, was hosting Garden Chat on Twitter, and I had the bright idea to ask this question: What pulls a garden together?

Her answer? Start with the foundation.

Well, duh! Of course! Brilliant! In my enthusiastic youth as a gardener, I had shunned so-called "foundation plantings" as boring, choosing to populate my garden with "stuff that everyone else doesn't have." And it did look good for a time, but, as I've noted above, those plants are now long gone.

I don't think Susan meant, in her plea for a foundation, traditional foundation shrubs, per se. But her comment made me realize that that, in fact, was something that could help me give my garden some pattern and order--something that could make it look designed.

It was nothing short of an epiphany. Once all those "stuff that everyone else doesn't have"* plants were gone, I was able to see that my garden had no foundation.

The other epiphany came while I was out riding my bike through some older neighborhoods in town. What I noticed were the plants that didn't seem to be suffering in all the heat and drought. In fact, they were doing just fine, even with what appeared to be a robust benign neglect in some instances. And what were they? That's right. Traditional foundation plants.

Photinia, nandina, holly, boxwood, etc. etc. Even some old roses look rather fabulous, while all about, everything else was languishing.

And so I got busy. It was a major overhaul, and it involved the whole garden. Because of this, there are simply too many "before and after" shots to put in one post, so I'm going to do two or three over the next week or so. Please bear in mind that it still looks fairly skimpy, but these should fill in pretty nicely in a year or two. It was a major chore getting it all in; plus, I added a drip irrigation line to each and every plant, both for the purpose of saving water and to make it easier for garden caretakers to look after things while I'm traveling this summer. Next year, I'll add the "specials."

Here was the worst area:
The fence needs hiding. There used to be a pyracantha back there, but it mysteriously bit the dust three years ago and I never got around to replacing it.

I've added two Silver King euonymous, which can grow to be quite large (6 feet by 6 feet). I'll prune them so that they form a soft wall and give the chaste tree a backdrop. I like that they are variegated and light colored, so the foliage adds some interest. I also like the thought of a quasi-formal hedge here, and in other parts of the garden, to add some counter-balance to what is otherwise a kind of wild and crazy landscape. My front garden is designed to pay homage to the wild landscape of a prairie or desert. The back garden, because of all the pecan trees, has a wooded feel, and offers opportunities for more traditional plants and pruning.

Though you can't see them well in the photo above, I also added two cranberry cotoneasters, which show up a little better here (near the top of the photo, behind the bird bath and salvia):
(Well, okay, you still can't see them very well, but trust me, they are there in all that green; truthfully, I just wanted to show off the garden dog) The cotoneasters should grow up a little higher than the salvia, and provide a deeper green for contrast. I also filled in with some artemisia and daylilies, and left the society garlic, irises, and salvia. As you can see, I've left plenty of space for next year's planting. This year, as I said, is all about the foundation.

To create a repeating pattern, I also planted a Silver King euonymous in this spot on the opposite side of the garden:

This mahonia is old, and has been showing signs of giving up the ghost. So I'd been thinking of taking it out and replacing it.


The euonymous should fill this in completely, and screen off the work area as a living fence. The color will provide a nice contrast with the trumpet vine and Virginia creeper.

Finally, also in the interest of pattern, I added some Silver Princess euonymous as a hedge along the picket fence that separates the vegetable garden from the rest of the yard. These should grow to be about three feet high and wide, and again, I am looking forward to pruning them into a soft hedge shape.** I planted them in a slight curve to mimic the flow of the gravel path. They are a bit diminutive at the moment, but if you look closely, you can see them nestled in the mulch on the right of the photo. The variegation and color should tie into the larger hedges of the Silver King plantings.

*These were mostly native plants and xeric plants, which, at the time were really cutting edge where I live. Now they, too, have become fairly commonplace. Which is a good thing.

**I actually enjoying pruning hedges. I took out all the foundation hedges in my front yard when I converted it to a prairie landscape, and miss the monthly haircutting I used to give them.


  1. Great post. I tell my customers the same thing -- driving around, you notice the nicest yards don't have miles and miles of annual flowers. They have neatly maintained "foundation" plants. Perhaps they need a new name. Foundation plants reminds me of foundation garments which have similarly gone out of fashion. Thanks for writing!

  2. Ha! I think you are exactly right, Elizabeth. Perhaps that's why I didn't want them in the garden when I first started. I think it's time to bring the foundation garments back in fashion!

  3. You sound like me. I've realized the same thing about my garden beds. A bad season or drought/flood makes a world of difference in what's growing the right way. This year has definitely been a major challenge. I'm trying to fill in and fix some of my beds I just don't like. Thanks for posting.

  4. I went on the Garden Tour today, and discovered two new plants, new to me. One is the Apache Plume and the other is the Maxmillian Sunflower. Both are fast growning and dought tolerant. Check them out. The Ant


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