Uncluttering the Garden
The Great Garden Overhaul began last week during cool, overcast days that made working in the unshaded southern exposure more tolerable than it has been since mid-spring. This garden is only five years old, mostly comprised of plants I brought from my previous house, which had a very different microclimate. Many plants that performed nicely in their original location, which was a little shadier and a little sandier, went crazy in the new one. It’s been a mixed blessing.
Digging My Way Out of a Problem Garden
The garden thrives in full sun, all right–but this particular gardener does not. Even after frequent cutting back and completely removing some plants, I haven’t been able to keep up with it during the summer months. In addition, the shade from a market umbrella isn’t enough even for just sitting out there for long. It was time to deal with these problems, especially since it’s bad enough to have cabin fever in the winter when it’s too cold, without having to have cabin fever in the summer, too, because I haven’t a quiet, shady place to sit and work outdoors.
A crazy mass of perennials is wild and romantic, making the kind of gardens that you remember when you spot them, especially in towns and cities. I’d never had the luxury of a full-sun perennial garden of my own before this one, but as it’s turned out I couldn’t enjoy it very often, didn’t have the time, strength or stamina to maintain it, and sometimes could barely breathe amid the overwhelming scents of sage, lavender, basil, and mint. After a time, some of the choicer plants gave up, like the irises and the asters. The gorgeous peony that was here when we moved in was less and less showy, crowded out by things that grew too large.
Then there is the old ornamental double-loop wire fence. It is what remains of the 1920’s fence that once enclosed the property next door; the weeds and weedy trees that shoot up from under it become entangled in the wire and create a maintenance nightmare. And of course they do their worst during the hottest months, when I’m least able to deal with them. This year they got tangled up in the climbing roses that were trained along the top of the fence. Ugh. Ouch!
But where to begin? So often I’d try to take advantage of a cooler, overcast day, and I would end up standing there stupidly, just looking at all those plants, and feeling overwhelmed. The Becky daisies, touted as a well-behaved variety of Shastas, went from a 1-quart size clump to a concrete-dense mass of posies four feet wide by three feet deep in the space of four years. I couldn’t get a shovel in to even start digging them up. Various clumps of daylilies were even worse, and everywhere I looked the naturalized black-eyed susans were threatening to choke out better-behaved flowers.
Steve, dear soul, offered his digging services–but insisted that I tell him exactly what to do, what to dig where, and any specifics. He tackles general outdoor maintenance with reasonable enthusiasm, but considers “gardening” my particular domain. Americans have the notion that all Englishmen are enthusiastic cottage gardeners, but it is a myth. I do agree that gardening is different than, say, mowing the lawn or whacking the privet, and the intimacy of selecting a flower, planting it, and helping it grow really is a world unto itself, particularly when growing perennials. One actually develops a sort of relationship with a plant that has a long lifespan, that comes back each year slightly altered, whether larger or in need of division. Part of the fun of gardening is making decisions about plants, and taking action as you go, working intuitively. To tell someone else what to do requires a lot more thinking things through, and changes the nature of the pursuit from gardening to overseeing.
So it came about that the garden/gardener relationship fell to pieces and I didn’t just need to divide my plants, I needed to divorce a lot of them. In fact, I needed a completely different kind of garden if I was to have a garden–and be a gardener–at all: one with more shade and fewer problem plants, less work and more relaxation. It was time to be as ruthless with my plant collection as I was with my wardrobe, in order to return the garden to something that I could manage mostly on my own again. And furthermore, I wanted a pleasant outdoor space where I could sit or have gatherings (or play with that future grandchild).
Some kind of protection from the intense sun is the first personal requirement, so I’ve decided that at some point in the near future (probably early spring), we’re going to build a pergola over the garden, extending from the studio wall to the border, and generously covering the largest sitting area. It will shade and cool the garden exponentially. This meant that some of the sun-loving plants would have to be relocated, and I made a priority list of what I wanted to save and what could be eliminated. Then Steve had at it with his trusty spade, and I followed with my transplant spade once the dense clusters were sufficiently broken up.
The fence row was also dealt with ruthlessly. We found all sorts of reusable goodies in the mess: stone, brick, parts of a sculpture, etc. Mint and wild ginger were dug up out of the otherwise nice growth of periwinkle and English ivy, and some of the ivy itself will be transplanted to newly bare areas. Underperformers were tossed out with the overperformers. I offered perennials to everyone passing by, but there were no takers–evidently my plants haven’t been the only ones going crazy, as everyone felt they had too much.
How does it look? Surprisingly nice–much more serene than it did when it was crowded with plants. Once the pergola is up, it will look like a real outdoor room. I envision a climbing rose and clematis on the posts, and perhaps a bamboo rollup shade on the west side to screen the afternoon sun. The antique work table in the studio can easily be brought out for dining al fresco. We’ve got a few small bits yet to do this fall, but otherwise it is ready for the next stage in the spring.
I feel like I own the garden again–it doesn’t own me.