Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Ideas, tips and gardening wisdom

by VALLE NOVAK / Contributing Writer
| November 19, 2023 1:00 AM

Recently in The Weekend Gardener, we talked about deer-proof plants and using them in the ornamental gardens. I quoted ideas from a variety of sources throughout the country, and will wrap up a few of their — and others’ — tips in today’s column.

Bare root 'no-no'

I have always recommended buying plants at area nurseries/greenhouses. I do realize, however, that once in a while something takes our eye in a catalog that is perhaps rare or not available locally.

But there are precautions: As you’re aware by now, always check the Zone and don’t buy anything over Zone 5. Zones 3 and 4 are better yet, but it’s your dime.

The second precaution is to find out how they’re packaged. Pots are best, plugs acceptable, but bare-root is a real danger, especially in smaller plants.

Two years ago, I foolishly ordered a Ligularia from a well-known garden, not realizing it would be shipped bare-root. The wispy, fragile little dried thing that was sent me never had a chance. I moistened it well, direct-planted it where I wanted it (in rich loam/potting soil mix), and tended it carefully — but it never got over the shock. It had probably been pulled from its warm, sun-drenched S. Carolina soil, never expecting to be replanted in cold north Idaho conditions and that’s the end of the story.

Yes, I probably should have potted it up first, but that’s what I get for not going to my own local people and asking them to order one for me. I have since heard countless area garden acquaintances remark that bare-root is not dependable in our climate. Live and learn.

Gardens as paintings

Mistakes, I believe, are what make us better gardeners. Legendary English gardener Gertrude Jekyll, quoted in a small compendium of articles from her many books (”The Gardener’s Essential", Gertrude Jekyll), owed much of her garden design success to having begun her career as an artist.

Ever after, she said she planned her gardens as “paintings.” She looked at each space, “saw” the garden in her mind, drew the design on paper, then determined where the variety of colors and shapes she wanted had to be place to complement each other.

In all her “schemes” — whether small, intimate spaces; retreats; great, flowing florascapes, or long borders (at which she excelled), she began with that first step, then selected the right plants for the individual ecosystem and ground layout, with much thought also given to ongoing bloom and color through the seasons! That, of course, is what we ornamental gardeners try to do, and her efforts serve to inspire and teach us what to look for.

But there is yet another danger: As we artfully draw and “name” our plant circles on our butcher paper, striving for a comprehensive pattern, we must be careful not to create a contrived, artificial, or studied look. Think of the natural hodgepodge of nature, improve on it with a little guidance, but strive for a pleasing mix of shape, complementary color, and textures that join together in a grouping that looks like they’re all “where they belong.”

Miss Jekyll was able to achieve this success, but admitted it was a while in coming. The desire to create a perfect canvas with no flaws has no place in nature, where surprises frequently happen. When a clump of Eryngium (Sea Holly) appeared out of nowhere, she was nonplussed and annoyed at first, but then realized that it had insinuated itself where it “wanted to be” and it was a sort of revelation for her.

She not only left it where it was, but began to use similar “surprises” of her own on occasion — popping an unmatching single ruffled Hollyhock among artfully arranged lavenders and lilies, for instance, or a splash of white Shasta daisies batting their yellow eyes at a sober yellow-flowered Santolina.

To me, that’s a great thing — kinda’ like a blowsy bag  lady crashing an Oscar Awards party. But it must be only once, because when people start expecting it, it’s no longer unique. Too, Miss Jekyll used these rare little flirtations in a serendipitous — rather than shocking — manner. Her whole gardening credo was always harmony.

She favored clusters of potted plants, perhaps on a patio or paved area, and never at random. They must be all one kind of flower — geraniums for instance — and chromatically arranged in graduating colors, from palest pink, through the spectrum to bright clear red (never what she termed ”cruel” deep blood red).

She was a proponent, as am I, of growing Clematis on a low wall or trellis which allowed them to romp and ramble over complementary-colored Lavender bushes for a stunning effect.

I found myself not only perusing Miss Jekyll’s plans, but those of Rosemary Verey (another great English plantswoman) as well. In my mind I began substituting North Idaho-friendly plants for those too-tender British selections, and soon came up with some great possibilities for our own area.

Editor's note: For many years, Valle Novak wrote gardening and cooking columns for the Daily Bee. "Weekend Gardener" and "Country Chef" became renowned for their humor, information, and common-sense advice on how to do everything from planting to cooking. She left behind many columns to delight her many fans. This is one such column, originally published on Jan. 27, 2008.

    Valle Novak