Steep, sloping ground seems to demand a garden (because we can’t safely mow lawn there) and thwart our gardening (weeds multiply while we struggle to stay upright).
What’s a gardener to do?
I have my own challenging banks, and I know many in our garden community do as well. For planting inspiration, I turned to a much-loved resource, David Culp’s beautiful book The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage.
But the inspiration I found was not what I expected:
“The weeds are still a constant battle, one that we cannot let go for too long, but we believe that the ecological benefits of doing the job ourselves, rather than letting the chemicals do it for us, were worth every minute of the extra work.” – David Culp
I have a sunny bank planted with daylilies. I have a shady bank planted with Sweet Woodruff, hostas, astilbe, and ferns. I have another sloping patch of ground covered in daffodils. But what do I have in every single one of these places?
I have so many weeds, that these banks and slopes are frequently overtaken with them. They seem to need a heavy-duty going over at least twice a year. Which must mean I am doing something wrong, right?
If an experienced gardener like David Culp says that weeds are a “constant battle” on his hillside garden, then perhaps it isn’t my planting that is wrong but my attitude.
With that epiphany in mind, here are a few tips for both plants and perspective:
- Weeds are not a sign of failure. They are an invitation to tend my space.
- Banks and slopes are not “problems.” They are unique places with unique needs. Growing a garden on a slope is as rewarding as it is challenging. But it is challenging: topsoil is easily washed away by rain and the soil can dry out quickly.
- If I am willing to ask for help in other areas (perhaps I pay a teenager to mow my grass), perhaps I can ask for help with my bank (and train and pay that same teenager to weed!). It is okay to admit that maintaining a bank is not a one-person task.
- Banks might need special hardscaping like retaining walls and terraces, but these can become especially beautiful features in a garden.
- Consider planting in the layers of nature: first trees, then understory shrubs, and finally herbaceous groundcovers.
- Consider planting in a mass: for instance plants that can quickly be divided and spread around to cover ground like daylilies
- Consider plants that are relatively fast-growing and low maintenance: dwarf forsythia, dwarf sumac, hypericum, Christmas fern, liriope, polygonatums, native pachysandra, hydrangeas (though perhaps not the thirsty mophead types), and Japanese maples
Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.
Introducing a new series for our community: Meet the Gardener
Gardening is an often solitary practice. The quiet solitude I find in my garden is one of the greatest gifts it gives me. But a shared love of designing and cultivating, tending and harvesting is also a joyful foundation for friendship and fellowship.
A healthy community is fertile soil for personal growth–whether we aim to become better gardeners or better humans (or both!).
I hope to enrich the “soil” of our community by sharing interviews with some of the gardeners in our midst. I hope they teach you and inspire you. I hope they remind you that there is no single, right way to grow a garden. I hope they help you feel more connected to others in this online place.
First up is Julie Witmer, a woman whose garden and gardening practices I’ve admired online for years. I also encourage you to visit her beautiful website here. Julie even offers garden design services, and you’ll find all the details there.
Here is my friend Julie, in her own words:
Tell us about your garden.
We live in small-town northwestern Pennsylvania in a 95-year-old brick house, which we call Havenwood. It has an acre of garden around it that was mostly turf when we moved in plus some marvellous old trees and a few shrubs. Six years into our garden build, it has a good mixture of areas that are still being developed. Currently we have a British-inspired Cottage Garden with sun-loving perennials, shrubs and annuals; Birch Walk with cool white flowers and green yew hedging; boxwood Knot garden; Hot Border for tropical plants such as Bananas, Dahlias and Cannas; half-acre Woodland garden that wanders Trilliums, Epimediums and Hellebores back and forth under many large trees including several old White Oaks; low-lying damp areas for our little nature pond and bogs; Kitchen garden for veg, herbs, blackberries, and black currents; Fruit Tunnel; and the beginnings of a moisture-loving perennial border. I created a long-term plan we call the “40 year plan” over our first winter here, after taking stock of our place and planning views for out the windows. We hit the ground running and digging with shovels and wheelbarrow that first spring, planting some very long hedges and adding several dump truck loads of mushroom compost to give our clay soil the lift it needed. We have some pretty sizable projects coming in the next few years, such as a 40 foot pergola, a 20 foot long trellis wall, remodeling a shed into a summer house, and relocating our driveway for a better layout. Those will all take time! This is not something that will be done in a rush, and that’s ok.
Havenwood is our second garden. We are fortunate to still own and care for our first garden, Gilmore Gardens, which is a flower-and-foliage-filled tenth-of-an-acre around our rental house, which was owner-occupied by us for six years.
Why do you garden? And how did you begin?
I have always loved flowers – a childhood dream of mine was to work at a florist shop. But I had very little chance to be outdoors at all growing up, let alone gardening. When my husband James and I were married in 2002, we decided that I was going to take a year off from teaching and instead I worked part-time at a nursery owned by friends of ours. I went out into the fields on my first day of work to divide irises with the wonderful gardening matriarch of the family. She chatted to me about plants all day as we propagated hundreds of new plants for their existing pots. I came home sunburned, exhausted, and completely in love with gardening! It was instantaneous for me. I had been waiting my whole life to get to that moment.
I began gobbling up every gardening book I could lay my hands on at our local library. One author that drew me particularly was Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter, UK. He was an elderly gent who made his living writing and gardening in a style that he called “succession planting,” where one plant quickly follows another and so there are interesting things happening in a garden throughout all the months of the year. I made long equation lists of his plantings, but I couldn’t try any as we were still renters, though I did start growing cuttings on my windowsill, seedlings and potted things.
A few years later, when I had miscarried our first child and we were dealing with the crushing grief of a season of infertility, I offered to make a garden for friends of ours. It was in the planning, buying, digging, problem-solving, and planting of that first garden where I really learned the power that gardening held for me. I buried all of my grief as hope into those plants and paths. I finished planting that shade garden well over a year later while reaching over my large belly. It was another year before we had our own first garden at Gilmore Gardens.
“I buried all of my grief as hope into those plants and paths.”
When did you start designing gardens?
After three years at Gilmore Gardens, it was pretty apparent to everyone who walked down our sidewalk that I was a bit of an unusual, nutty gardener. I had planted up the curb strips, between sidewalk and road, along with the entire front and side yards so that our garden extended hospitality to every person who walked past our home. People would stop their cars to comment and ask about plants. And some of them asked me to come to their home and help them learn to make something similar. During that time I also studied for the British RHS horticultural certification exams, which I was able to complete remotely in Pittsburgh.
My style of business is very different than the typical landscapers. I love to help people create beautiful, intimate gardens. And I’ve realized that very often when people hire me, I can help grow both a new garden and its gardener. It is the education and empowerment of home-owners to create a space that will give new life to their relationships and ecological redemption to their places that really excites me. In the dozens of gardens I have designed since 2005, only one client has hired a landscaper to install it for them (and that for health reasons). All of the other gardens have grown from the finger-tips of real gardeners who are learning and creating more beauty around where they live.
“I had planted up the curb strips, between sidewalk and road, along with the entire front and side yards so that our garden extended hospitality to every person who walked past our home.”
What is the main difference between a garden made as it goes along and a designed space?
Plants are beautiful not matter what, but when they are choreographed into living architecture that you can walk through and experience, our interactions with plants rises to a whole new level. Walking through a well-planned garden can give you peace, or it can give you drama and excitement. It can give you direction and shelter. The planting combinations of color and form work together just like the colors and textures of a painting or a delicious restaurant dish. Orchestrating plants together looks better than do they alone, like planting forget-me-nots with tulips. Knowing a bit about the life cycles of plants gives you good hints as to how they will work together in plant communities, which are actually less work for the gardener and more ecologically sustainable! Gardens that are planned to keep blooming are also much better at sustaining healthy pollinator populations.
“Walking through a well-planned garden can give you peace, or it can give you drama and excitement. It can give you direction and shelter.”
What are your own hopes and dreams for this next gardening year?
We’ve all had a collective curve-ball this year with Covid-19, and Havenwood has as well. We were just days from signed papers for work to begin on our biggest garden project yet – moving the garage (demo and construction) and the driveway. That will unfortunately not be happening this year, but there is plenty to do in a one-acre garden. I’ve come to accept that some years are building years, and some years are growing on years. I see this year as a “growing on” year, which will mean enjoying watching all the dozens of shrubs and trees we have planted grow, working to make new perennial plants and plantings from what I already have, and looking for inspiration in the slower pace this year. We will be growing lots from seed, and maybe embarking on one of our smaller garden construction projects later this summer.
What is the best gardening advice you’ve received?
I have two bits! First, Fergus Garrett, head gardener of Great Dixter, says to always bring a notebook with you on your first walk around the garden before starting work. I like to do that same thing at the end of my gardening days, to remind myself what other things I saw while I was about. Even if you can’t do anything about the gaps that you have in your planting, or the lack of daffodils in a bed in April, you can make note of those things so that you may return to them later if you do get a birthday gift certificate or an offer of plants from a friend. Knowing where your gaps are is the first step to filling them. I like to use a date planner, as the garden and and the calender are intimately connected.
My second bit of foundational advice came from my nursery boss, who told me to not worry about killing something: “You are not a real gardener until you’ve killed a lot of plants.” Learn something if you can from a plants demise and move on!
What are a few plants that you love to grow?
Catmint (Nepeta) is a wonderful plant for gardens in the US. It has blue flowers and silvery foliage that many people mistake as lavender. But in the border, its a better plant than lavender as its cold hardy and very easy to care for by cutting it to the ground each spring. There are several species and cultivars to chose from now, but Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ is my favorite. Nepeta makes a great combination with Allium ‘Purple Sensation,’ which you can order as a bulb in the autumn for planting. Throw a short Sedum, such as Sedum acre, as a ground cover around the mounds of catmint and you have a nice little planting.
One of the main reasons for this Garden Library is to offer you a friendly guide through the firehose of gardening information it is possible to find online.
There are many scientific, government, and general knowledge websites, but my taste in online garden inspiration runs toward the personal and unique just like my taste in gardens. So, while you will probably still want to bookmark the website for your local cooperative extension or a plant database like the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder, I especially recommend these quirky, personal sources with their very particular points of view.
Here are some of the websites I turn to when I’m looking for answers or inspiration:
This pretty and stylish blog offers inspiring garden tours, growing tips, and recommendations for unique and well-designed garden tools and furniture.
This online garden community offers the chance to chat or pose your questions to other gardeners. The extensive plant database is also very useful.
The website for garden writer and podcaster, Margaret Roach. I also recommend her book and podcast by the same names.
Even if you live outside the delivery area for this innovative tree seller, their beautiful website offers a treasure trove of tree stories and descriptions. Browse here to choose the right tree for that spot in your yard, choose a tree to commemorate a special event, or simply browse to learn more about gardening with trees.
A beauty of a blog focused especially on growing roses.
Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.
Watering the garden. It’s a chore, right?
It certainly can be. A lack of equipment, the wrong equipment, the wrong attitude … any of those things can make tending your plants by meeting their need for water a real chore.
It might surprise you, but the very first tool I recommend isn’t a watering can or a garden hose: it’s a rain gauge. Knowing exactly how much rainfall your garden is already getting will save you from unnecessary watering and could nudge you out the door when your plants are thirsty. I use a simple plastic rain collector like this one that I pop right into my raised bed.
I’ve learned the hard way that a light-weight hose is the way to go. Lugging super heavy hoses around my yard is certainly a chore.
A watering can with a rose attachment like this one is a must for seedlings and other, more delicate, plants. I have also found that the long neck style is particularly well balanced, meaning it’s easy to carry and easy to pour.
Drip hoses or soaker hoses are available at large hardware stores and are fairly simple to set up in raised beds or borders. This is an efficient way to water, as less water is lost to evaporation or runoff, and may feel like a necessity for the gardener working in more arid conditions.
Because I live in a rainy place, my own garden doesn’t need constant watering. I have used drip hoses in the past, but after slicing them with my spade one time too many, I have realized I much prefer using a sprinkler for occasional watering. I can see with my own eyes what my garden is receiving, and sprinklers are easy to move around. I love this one (it rotates and is secured in the lawn or soil with a spike) because I can jab it right into the middle of a border crowded with plants.
Water more deeply but less often. This encourages plants to send their roots down deep.
Water early in the day or late for less evaporation.
As much as possible, water the soil, not the leaves of your plant.
A blast of water from the hose is also the first line of defense against many bugs and pests.
This may sound strange at first, but I have found that if I think of watering as a chore, it will feel like a chore. In other words, if it’s simply something to check off in the garden, something to finish as quickly as possible, then I tend to resent the time I spend doing it and I am always wondering if I’m doing it wrong: perhaps I should invest in some fancy irrigation system?
But if I think of watering as tending, if I acknowledge how pleasant it is to give thirsty plants a drink, then I can appreciate the way that watering re-introduces me to every plant growing in my garden. Watering becomes one of the most important ways I greet my garden.
Time spent appreciating the beauty of our gardens with a hose in our hand can never be wasted time. If it is a chore, it’s one that’s teaching me how to be still, how to be quiet, and how to pay attention.
Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.
Kitchen Garden Revival is a brand new book from Nicole Johnsey Burke, a garden coach and designer.
First, it’s a beautiful book: hard cover, lovely photographs by Eric Kelley, clearly written, and both practical and inspirational subject matter. The subtitle says it all: A Modern Guide to Creating a Stylish Small-Scale, Low-Maintenance Edible Garden.
What’s it about?
Burke’s book has a fairly narrow focus: how to create your own stylish, beautiful kitchen garden. According to Burke, a kitchen garden is an artistic and productive space that elevates your home’s landscaping while providing fresh produce for your kitchen. Her kitchen gardens are less productive and harvest-focused than a traditional vegetable patch but much prettier to look at.
Who is it for?
This one is perfect for beginners as Burke gives detailed instructions on everything from building raised beds to sowing seeds, but even experienced gardeners will find inspiration in the photographs, at least. I recently created my own small kitchen garden with four square raised beds near my kitchen door, and I studied these photographs carefully for ideas on how to keep the mix of plants in my beds pleasing to look at it.
Borrow or buy?
Anyone who loves beautiful garden books will appreciate this one, but if you’re on the fence about making a purchase, keep in mind that those new to growing their own produce will probably get the most out of this book, while those who really want to build a kitchen garden–either on their own or with the help of a landscaper–will receive the most.
Burke’s kitchen garden designs are not, perhaps, for the most frugal gardeners. But for those willing to spend money on their home’s landscaping, her designs prove that spaces for growing more of our own food–even just a few herbs–can and should be integrated into even the most elegant settings. While some rule-driven Home Owner’s Associations might baulk at someone turning their front yard into something resembling a farmer’s field, it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to these gorgeous kitchen gardens.
Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.