Celebrate: Garden Chairs!

 

A post for a garden library on chairs?

Yes, chairs!

If you had asked me when I first began to garden what the most important tools for a gardener were, I’m sure chairs would not have been on that list. A hand trowel, yes. A watering can, of course. Those would still make my list today, but every other item would probably be unrecognizable to my previous self.

Bulb planter? Really? Soil block maker: what is that? And Adirondack chairs? Surely not!

But I have learned a few things over these gardening years, and I am convinced of this: without a comfortable chair in our gardens we will miss out on one of the most important aspects of our job as caretakers.

We will neglect the simple act of sitting still and observing.

I have many different chairs in my own garden. Most of them are fine for a moment or two but only my Adirondack chairs make me want to sit in them every time I look at them. There’s just something about the slant of the back that is incredibly comfortable. I can sit with a book in a chair like this for ages without ever wishing I had a cushion. And the wide expanse of the arm rest? It’s the perfect spot for a cup of coffee in the morning or a cold drink in the afternoon.

A chair and table in one.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

An Encouraging Perspective on Banks and Slopes

 

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?

Weeds.

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?

Apparently not.

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:

First, 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.

Second, plants:

  • 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.

In Praise of Terra Cotta Pots

 

I have long been a gardener in search of the best container.

Over time, I have come to use terra cotta pots almost exclusively in my garden. Here’s why:

  • Affordable

For a natural material, non-plastic container, you can’t beat the price of terra cotta. They are also easy to find. Available at every garden center, I have found the best prices at my local independent nursery.

  • Recyclable

When a container inevitably cracks and breaks, there’s no need to throw the pieces in the garbage. I keep a big bucket of all my broken terra cotta and use these pieces to cover the drainage hole at the bottom of a new pot. This keeps soil from escaping every time you water. For big pots, I sometimes pile a whole bunch of broken terra cotta at the bottom of my pot in order to use less potting soil.

  • Drainage

Terra cotta is permeable in a way that plastic is not. This means that terra cotta containers dry out much more quickly, and you will probably find that you need to water them more often than other containers. This may sound like a drawback, but I have found that most of my container plants prefer not to sit in soggy soil. Quick-drying terra cotta works well for me. It’s easy to add water to the potting soil but impossible to take it away.

  • Classic

Terra cotta is a classic garden look, and, in my opinion, goes with just about everything. Once upon a time, my garden was a mishmash of different containers with different colors and different materials. I appreciate that my many pots now look cohesive and coordinated with little effort. A terra cotta pot looks as good in a fancy estate garden or botanical garden as it does on a humble back porch.

  • Drawbacks

Terra cotta pots are not as lightweight as plastic or some of the new hybrid materials, but they do weigh less than concrete or cast iron. In places with cold winters, they generally shouldn’t be left outside as the freeze/thaw cycles can encourage cracking.

Pro tip: I write “pro” with a smile on my face, as I tended container plants for years without realizing what I now feel should have been obvious: when planting, do not fill your pot all the way to the top with soil. Instead, keep the soil line at least an inch or two below the rim. This means that you can water without washing soil over the edge of your pot every single time. That classic rim on many terra cotta pots? It’s a great guide. Simply fill to the bottom of that top band or edge. When you water, the water can slowly soak in, no potting soil wasted.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Florida Favorites for Every Garden

 

I lived and gardened in northeastern Florida for two years.

Those were lonely, often difficult years, but there were bright spots, mostly of the botanical sort: thick bougainvillea vines tracing patterns on the walls of old St. Augustine, the intoxicating scent of jasmine, the dry rustle of Queen palms.

Here are the garden plants I remember most fondly from those hot and humid days, and–to help us all out–some suggestions for plants that might give similar effects in more northern places.

I will never forget stepping out of the car at a Florida park near my home and seeing a Passionflower vine for the first time. I was like a cartoon character–eyes almost popping out of my head–what could this be?? This bizarre, alien, vivid, purple beauty? It was too strange to be real. And yet, there it was, curling its way around and around the wooden fence that separated parking lot from park.

Passionflower is a native of the southeastern U.S. and can actually be grown as far north as zone 6. It is a vigorous grower. If passionflower isn’t the vine for you, the famous clematis variety ‘Jackmanii’ makes a stunning, purple substitute.

Queen palms are elegant trees with a dry, silvery beauty. River birch is a lovely native tree–excellent for wildlife–that brings a similar textural beauty to our gardens.

The first year in my Florida garden, I was astonished to discover the exotic greenhouse beauty of an amaryllis flowering in our slightly shady side yard. I’d never seen a flower like that growing outside. Southern and northern gardeners can enjoy these flowers that have long been associated with Christmas celebrations. In the north, we can keep potted bulbs indoors to bring much-needed botanical beauty to long winter days.

Star jasmine (sometimes called Confederate jasmine) was a garden plant I discovered by smell, not sight. The scent used to taunt me as I took walks around our Florida neighborhood. It didn’t take me long to discover that the scent belonged to a gorgeous, starry-flowered vine growing on many back fences. My Pennsylvania garden is far too cold for Star Jasmine, but I achieve a similar white-flowering perfume by growing moonflower vines from seed. These annual vines take time to grow, but by the end of summer I usually have a few flowers opening up each evening. And all it takes is one to stop you in your tracks.

Plants for Soggy Soil

 

Most of us know that too little water can be a problem for our gardens, but we’ve probably given less thought to the problem of too much.

But is it problem or opportunity?

That damp or boggy section of your garden might be a problem in need of a solution: perhaps a French drain or raised beds. But perhaps all it needs is the right plants.

As the garden writer Beth Chatto famously said,

Right plant, right place.

That simple phrase rocked the gardening world because it turned so much gardening practice on its head. Rather than attempting to change the conditions they’d been given, Chatto insisted, good gardeners should study their garden and choose the right plants for the conditions they had.

If that’s the approach you’re determined to take, here are some trees, shrubs, and perennials that don’t mind having “wet feet”:

Trees:

  • River Birch
  • Red maple
  • Weeping willow
  • Sycamore

Shrubs:

  • Winterberry
  • Bottlebrush Buckeye
  • Sweet Pepperbush

Perennials:

  • Hardy Hibiscus
  • Black Snakeroot
  • Meadow Rue
  • Bee Balm
  • Siberian iris
  • Japanese iris
  • Astilbe
  • Calla Lilies
  • Canna
  • Elephant’s Ear
  • Joe-pye Weed
  • Phlox
  • Royal fern
  • Ostrich fern
  • Camassia

Finally, is your wet area simply damp or is it completely submerged for days on end?

Keep this question in mind as you choose your plants. Some of these can handle dampness, while others can manage even prolonged submersion.

Explore the entire Black Barn Garden Club Library here.

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