If you're fond of watching gardening shows and reading books on garden design, but you doubt that your own garden will ever look like that, welcome to the club.
I've always had problems with this aspect of gardening. Most garden design concepts seem easy enough to understand on the intellectual level, but they usually escape me in practice. Maybe these concepts simply work better in formal gardens that include lots of hardscaping and well-behaved plants like evergreens and groundcovers that don't change much over the course of the year. But in my semi-wild, cottage-style, plant-collector's garden, things are changing on a daily basis. Under these circumstances, it's hard to maintain law and order.
So I've taken a different approach to garden design. I think of the garden as a stage where a year-long play is about to be performed. My goal is to keep the interest of the audience throughout the year. At the same time, I want to have dramatic changes from month to month because I get bored easily. So I choose a different star for each month or season. The star needs to stand out clearly, while the rest of the plants in the garden provide the supporting cast. Here's how my play goes:
May: tulips (in early May), peonies (in late May)
August: late-blooming annuals
October: colorful fall leaves
November - February: trees (both evergreen and bare deciduous trees)
Now, you might be wondering, where are the perennials and the early-blooming annuals? Well, they are the supporting cast. These plants are every bit as important as the stars because they help the stars shine. But they come and go quickly, and they don't carry much weight as individuals.
Have you ever noticed how each perennial in the garden has a slightly different bloom time? As I take my daily stroll around the garden, I see new perennials coming into bloom as others go out of bloom. The average bloom time for a perennial is 3 weeks. A garden designed around perennials can be nice. But for me, it seems to lack structure (or maybe I just never learned how to do it right). I find it easier to think of perennials as companion plants for my chosen stars.
Of course, a favorite perennial might be featured as a star. I do this with daylilies. Each daylily only blooms for about 3 weeks. But as a group, daylilies have a long bloom season of about 6 weeks because there are early, midseason and late-blooming varieties.
Like most perennials, early-blooming annuals belong in the category of supporting cast. They quickly go to seed and need to be pulled out to make room for the late-blooming annuals, perennials and ornamental grasses. In spite of this drawback, early-blooming annuals are an essential part of my garden design. In one area, poppies are massed by the thousands as companion plants for the roses. This area is very popular with my garden visitors. From their perspective, it probably looks like the poppies are the stars in June. But in my mind, the roses are the stars because they appear in all sections of my garden, featured with different companion plants in each section.
You might have a different list of stars than I do. Maybe you don't want to grow roses. So design your June garden around a different plant. There are plenty to choose from. It helps to keep a notebook in which you record what's blooming in your garden during each month of the year. This will become a valuable tool as you plan your garden, especially in the winter when it's hard to remember exactly what was blooming on the fifteenth of June the previous year.
You'll soon discover that there are some down times in your garden -- times when there's nothing to hold the attention of your audience. At these times, it helps to go searching for ideas by driving around your neighborhood or visiting your local nursery. Try to identify a star and some supporting cast to go with it.
The most embarrassing down time in my garden is the second or third week of May. The spring bulbs have just finished, but the roses and other June flowers haven't started yet. I've managed to find a few early-blooming flowers for the supporting cast, like iberis, columbine and blue woodruff, but I'm still trying to identify the star. Maybe one of these days, I'll discover the perfect flowering tree or shrub. If I collected bearded iris, I could use them for my stars. Another option would be to plant a large drift of lupine. Last year, I bought several peonies. Maybe they'll bloom at the right time, but I won't know for sure until they're established.
The cottage garden is always changing. Each day is a new dialogue in the play. I'm sure that my garden will never be featured on a television show or in a magazine. It's too wild looking. But there is a certain order to it -- an order that only I can see -- a sort of predictability and grand design that keeps it all organized in my mind.
Each year, I add over 800 transplants, and I direct sow about 50 packets of annuals. If I had to plot the locations for all of these plants on paper, I'd go crazy. So how do I keep it organized? First, I identify the stars in each section of the garden. Then I figure out which annuals and perennials will look good with them. When it's time to plant, I just look for an empty space somewhere in the vicinity of the star, and that's where I stick the new companion plants. The only plants that are located with precision and planning are the stars. They form the basic structure of the planting, and their companions are added as fillers.
So there's a design, but it's simple. Not every plant needs to be located with precision. This informal way of planting gives the garden a natural look, especially when the annuals self sow to fill in the remaining cracks. If this way of gardening appeals to you, please see the articles below for specific plant suggestions.
What is the supporting cast in winter? It's the dead foliage of the annuals, perennials and ornamental grasses that I leave standing like a giant, dried flower arrangement. Colorful berries on trees and shrubs, pine cones on evergreens, and seedheads on flowers and grasses all contribute to the drama.
This scene may look terribly messy to some people, but it's beautiful to me. It's also the best wildlife attraction you can imagine. As I'm writing this article in late February, the pheasants are in the garden, eating seeds off the remaining plants that I haven't yet cut down and hauled off to the compost pile. By the time I finish my spring cleanup, the crocuses will be blooming, and the play will start all over again....