This weekend it’s time to get professionally serious about a small area west of my fenced kitchen garden which has functioned as a mini-wildflower meadow (and then general eyesore) for the last four or so years. With the advice and help of the talented horticulturist, designer and author Gregg Tepper, I’m going to dive into the heretofore unknown-to-me world of specifically planning a medium-ish bed for specific perennials, for specific reasons, for a specific season, for a very specific result.
Why are such things unknown to me? Well, for the long answer I’d send you to my first book Big Dreams, Small Garden (2017) – a book about working within limited resources to create a beautiful and functional garden – particularly in a small space. (I see that Amazon has just discounted it to a price that I can’t even get from my own publisher. And that should tell you all you need to know about how lucrative it is to be an author in the digital age.)
I am deeply committed to this philosophy, and for the 25+ years of my gardening life I have followed it, motivated by financial necessity and inspired by the intense satisfaction that comes from creating something beautiful from virtually nothing.
Here are several of its tenets:
- Carefully observing other gardens and principles of design, and utilizing some of those elements in my own space.
- Joining plant clubs, organizations, societies, etc.. to meet and mix with other gardeners and learn from them.
- Not ordering all of the plants that excite me, but instead finding cuttings, seeds or divisions of them off of friends, and raising them over several years.
- Not setting out a plan that uses masses of particular species (much less cultivars) to create an effect (unless I have propagated them myself and have plenty).
- Finding rhyme, reason, and placement for the odd plant that comes into my life via a trial box or a friend.
- Creating a garden that is heavy on showy shrubs, dramatic tropicals, volunteer annuals, with few pockets for more costly, higher-maintenance temperate perennials.
- Having a working relationship with the guy who oversees the clearance racks at Lowes.
- Attending every plant swap or exchange I can make time for.
- Gradually developing a plan for the garden based on resources.
- Being flexible. Very, very flexible. Contortionist level flexible.
When we moved to a larger property in 2013 after years of being intensely frugal, the same principles applied — as we put everything we had at buying the property, with little left over for painting bedrooms, much less landscaping.
So I Just Skipped All That. What’s the Short Answer?
Because I want to see what the alternative feels like for the very first time in my gardening life.
So, You’re Finally Selling Out Then?
Oh hell no. My garden is evidence of all of the above (and I’m sure there are those out there who just mumbled “yes, we can tell” under their breath). But I would be flat out, bald-faced lying if I said that I don’t see value in many of the things [above] that I do not do, and have not been able to do, out of necessity.
So You’re Saying There’s No Need for Designers & Landscapers Then?
No no no no no no no no.
For gardeners (and I use that term with precision, and in opposition to the regrettably apt term “consumers”) the ability to hire a competent and creative designer or landscape architect is an incredible gift. It can be the beginning of a relationship that not only expands one’s own garden, but the conversation around, and evolution within, garden design itself.
And the ability to buy and plant EXACTLY the plants you want, to create the effect you desire, is an absolutely intoxicating thought.
So, You Won The Lottery?
Nope, I just decided that the amount I am going to learn with Gregg’s expert help, with regards to design, plant choice, sourcing, planting and maintenance, is worth the money I’m going to spend on it. As is the beautiful addition it will make to my garden. Call it professional development without the CE credits.
And we’re not talking about a huge space. At the moment, about 400 square feet. Unless of course two G&T’s are involved in the planning and I start to move up into the sunny hillside – currently an invasive brambled nightmare – which I’ve always wanted to do, but which will involve terracing.
That would also involve divorcing my sweet husband and marrying a sugar daddy with a taste for older, opinionated women who wish to spend their step-children’s inheritance on plants and hardscaping.
Probably best just to stick to the original plan.
So, Why Now?
Because it’s time to create a garden bed where before, there has just been the outline of a garden bed. It’s the last part of the original “plan” for that end of the garden. After that we get back into the fantasy realm of “if I had a crew, I’d…” (terrace that entire hillside, build a rill, mulch paths through the forest…..etc…). This bed simply puts a period at the end of the current garden sentence.
Though I’ve never had a detailed master plan for any of my gardens, I have always had eventual goals. From Chapter 4 Planning Your Garden in Big Dreams, Small Garden:
Moving purposely toward a goal…[is]…an idea of what you want to do that goes beyond “over there, something, and over here, something else.” It’s not a total master plan, but it keeps you moving slowly and organically toward a functional, beautiful garden, because you have a good idea of what you eventually want – even if you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there.
For those of us who can’t do it all at once, steps are needed.
Once I decided to put in a large garden in the field below my house – the first step was outlining an idea of the beds in relationship to each other and to a guiding path. The next step was mowing around those spaces so I could always see what I was heading for. That step lasted a while.
The next step was slowly cultivating the beds and keeping those areas maintained – in the case of the long serpentine bed, about 10 linear feet each season. In the case of this area, removing the turf and throwing a pound of wildflower mix and sand at the problem to give me something to look at besides Japanese stilt grass.
I’ll go into the mini-meadow building and its pitfalls in my next post on this subject, but a meadow was never the goal – it was simply a placeholder. The aim was to eventually create a mid- to late-summer/autumn perennial border in a flowing, naturalistic style backed by a black fence. When plant-literate friends came over and I told them of my plans someday, I’d shorthand the above with a simple phrase: “I want to Piet it up.”
A few months ago, Gregg Tepper and his partner Joseph O’Brien came down to visit and have dinner with us on their way down to Asheville. Wine glasses were filled and these conversations were had. Except they meant a little more to Gregg because he actually oversaw the installation of the Piet Oudolf meadow at The Delaware Botanic Gardens where he was Director of Horticulture from 2013 to 2019. He is now Senior Horticulturalist at The Arboretum at Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.
As he stared at the shameful mess that was once a mini-meadow, now a mugwort-meadow (again, more on this next time), he said, “I’d love to help work this out. It would be a cool challenge. We could get a plan together and talk to Melanie (Ruckle) at Putnam Hill Nursery about growing some of the plants over the winter, source some plugs where necessary, and plant it in spring.”
You’d think that I’d immediately make him sign something in blood. Right there.
Instead, I thought about my ancient and time worn philosophy (outlined in the points above).
I thought about the time commitment.
I thought about the weaknesses of the site.
I thought about the $@#@%$ deer.
I thought about the possibility of failure.
And then I said the thing we all say in such situations, knowing it will never happen – “That would be great.”
Then I mulled it over.
And I mulled it over a bit more.
And I called him a month later and said. “You’re on.”
So we’re on. The mugwort and stilt grass was cut and sprayed, and will be sprayed again in a couple days (and then pulled by hand for the next 10 years no doubt) More on that next time too. I am starting to think about plants I want to include, and those I don’t. And I’m trying to figure out a budget. I’m sure Gregg will have thoughts.
I’m excited to share all this over the next few months as we go through the process of preparation and planting – the garden itself will take the next two to three years at least. But just going through photos to illustrate this post, I found myself amazed by seeing what has already happened over the last seven years.
It’s an undiscovered country for this gardener. An intoxicating one.
And he’s totally going to talk me into making it bigger. How much do you want to bet?
You’re a brave person!
There is a built-in excuse when you put in a new garden bed with what is available (on sale) and affordable (no statement trees/shrubs moved in with back hoes.) But now, your vision, perfectly grown, is going to be put on full display.
Maybe the admiring oohs and ahhs will echo through the gentle curves of your land. Or, maybe . . . there will be the gutteral sounds of retching visitors (including itenerant deer).
Regardless, enjoy the creative process. The risks and rewards are worth it. And if not, editing a garden is fun, too!
John, I think you’ve actually hit on a deep but uncomfortable truth there. Making do is an extremely valuable life skill, and sometimes it feels onerous; but it does give one a [moral?] advantage/edge. If you hit it out of the park, you’re a genius. If you don’t, well, you didn’t have the resources. It is frightening to put this plan together. I don’t want to waste money, I don’t want to fail and I don’t want to invite criticism if those two things occur. That’s a very human place to be, so I’m going to ignore it, and do it anyway. That’s the way we get better at what we do, right? – MW
I’m excited for you. I read “Big Dreams Small Garden” and I applied a lot of your book suggestions to what I was doing in my former garden and even in what I’m doing now. Your suggestions are still sound.
I see nothing wrong with getting professional help in a garden even if you’re a professional or semi-professional yourself. Different garden eyes/experiences can bring freshness to the garden. Other people see things that you may not.
While I’ve hired a landscaper in the past to look at my former garden and provide suggestions, mine was just an hourly consult. To create an actual garden plan and to have it installed would have been (gulp) $60,000 in 2007. I didn’t have that kind of cash lying around. Thus, I’m always looking at what other gardeners/landscapers do and I imitate them to a degree. Did they install a curved walkway I liked? Well, then, I would install a curved walkway.
I doubt your new garden will be a failure, but even if it were, you always learn something from failure or at least I have.
Laura I’m so glad it was and is helpful to you. Professional help is absolutely wonderful, but when you’ve trained yourself another way for so long, it really is tough to make that shift. Exciting though – and you’re right, we learn from our failures, in fact those are some of my best lessons. – MW
Exciting, for you and us!
Exciting and inspiring. My sunbed needs more this year than the tri-annual thinning of the thugs (phlox, iris, day Lillie’s, spiderwort). Time for a plan! Looking forward to future posts.
It’s so much fun to start a new project and watch how it progresses over time. Yes you will tweak it many times but that’s part of the journey.
Great – and exciting! Want to hear ALL about it!
And by now you must have thought about how to cope with the deer?
And – by the way – must a slope be terraced?
Re: terraced slope, no, not necessarily at all, I just had visions of something gorgeous and grand. Stone walls are such a feature here (thanks to the previous owner) that it felt right. However, on the lower part of the slope I wouldn’t terrace, just if I progressed up a bit more (which is extremely unlikely to happen).
As for “by now you must have thought about how to cope with the deer” – on behalf of North American gardeners everywhere, I forgive you. xoxoMW
Well, I do trust you would have told me (re deer) if you had!
Wish I could see it all on site – there is really no substitute. (I know – I could if I would!) Xx
You got this! New garden jitters are normal. I always feel a niggling sense of anxiety about whether it will actually work or not, particularly when $$$$$ is involved. Trust all the hard knocks gardening experiences you’ve had and lean into that adventurous Dixter vibe. With Greg’s practical help and sourcing, you will likely spend much less than you would on your own. This is your chance to paint a beautiful picture that’s all yours, so grab that second G&T, enjoy every minute and tell us all about it along the way!
Will do Jenny. Leaning hard in. – MW
Big Dreams, Medium Garden, Small Debt Anxiety. I think it’s a win, all in all.
Got your book, Marianne. Thoroughly enjoying the read. I too have gardened at rented houses, and houses from which I eventually moved. It’s the gardening that is fun, not just the final product. My wife calls it my therapy. Been in this house on a 1/3 acre lot in suburbia for 18 years. I enjoy the gardening and neighbors enjoy the view. No plans to move. Well, might have to when I turn 100!
Thanks Greg. You are absolutely correct – it’s the process that keeps us doing this. You’re giving your neighbors something wonderful — perhaps a bit of inspiration to try their hands at working their own properties!
Seeing the transformation of your lower garden from 2016 to 2022 is amazing. With all the other projects you are juggling ( new books, traveling/speech gigs, keeping up with social media, etc), my two questions are: 1. Do you hire people to work in your own garden? 2. Do you even get 4 hours of sleep on average ( don’t answer me with:” what, in a week?”)
Since I am spatially challenged, I have often leaned on talented friends and even paid an occasional pro to help make sense of space. No shame in that. Terrific and exciting to read your story.
Yay for you!!!! What you’ve done in the past 6 years is awesome and amazing!!
For me spending money on something I think I should be able to do myself has stopped me in getting so many things done – both inside and outside of my house. So I applaud you for taking the plunge and paying someone to work with you on this!! It sounds like you already have a great relationship with the person you’ve chosen to work with so that’s half the battle!! I say revel in your decision, lean in to it, and have fun!!
Thank you for sharing this journey with us!!
I think it’s great that Gregg recommended Putnam Hill Nursery – it’s right around the corner from me! Melanie is super sweet!!
Enjoy the process!!!
Our library system doesn’t have your book : -( so I think I might need to see whether our local indie bookstore can order it for me. I don’t mind paying full price for books by real authors (as opposed to those publisher-compiled grownup picture books).