Friday, March 30, 2012

Looking ahead to the future of my new garden.

I have a relatively new garden. I bought my current house in October 2011. It came with some daunting obstacles that had to be addressed before I was to start a garden- the garden that I wanted. In the oddly "L" shaped backyard there was a 60' Norway Maple that sat, with a huge trunk and buttressed roots, directly in the center of the largest part. Not only did it produce deep dank shade it rained a prodigious amount of leaves in fall. Along the fence and against the house were ancient, overgrown, and sunlight starved Lilacs and Forsythia. The only plant with redeeming qualities was a bird sown Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) that formed a 6' wide and 12' tall evergreen screen that blocked the neighbors intrusive view. I like our native Bay Laurel and had plans for it to stay.

In the front yard of my 1944 bungalow were two Magnolia x soulangiana that were equidistant in the center of the lawn on both sides of the crumbling walkway. They had been pruned horribly and sheared with crowns in the shape of discs. There was really no hope for redemption in their future. In the parking strip (or hell strip- and this surely is because the front yard faces due south) there was a Thuja pruned into an 8' wide and 12' tall shrub. On the far west side of the strip was a well established and 40' dwarf Linden (Tilia sp). I have nothing against Lindens. They have among the most divinely fragrant flowers in the world, but in my opinion they are trees for parks and boulevards not small urban gardens. Against the south wall of the house and obscuring a large picture window was a sprawling ancient Camellia that had been pruned into the shape of a coffin- the top whacked off annually to preserve the view from the window.

I love all sorts of plants - I don't discriminate but there was no getting around it. I had to start from scratch. With the assistance of a friend- who is also a great arborist we eliminated all of the trees and shrubs that I have mentioned. Surprisingly, the logging of this small lot didn't even phase the neighbors. And in fact those behind me and on the west side thanked me for the removal of the Norway Maple. It had shaded both yards which contained ambitious vegetable gardens. I'm not sure how well they yielded produce in the shade of that tree but they were grateful and thanked me after its removal. Several months later I had all of the stumps ground out. I had a blank slate.

This brings me to the current status of my garden. After one year and planting the back
in what is a simple design- two alles of Crape myrtles couch a newly planted rectangular lawn and the west side and the back were left as deep beds.  Between the Crape myrtles next to the lawn and alongside my garage I placed a basalt steppingstone walkway- on either side of it are a row of Hebe sutherlandii and dwarf boxwood to present a more linear formal component. I won't go into detail about what else I planted to fill in the gaps but I can say that within months it began to feel like a garden. I still have a lot of work to do- its periphery is surrounded by a hideous and privacy-free chain link fence. That at some point has to go. I've made due by planting 15 vines which I hope will obscure it by this year once growth kicks in. In front of the fence along the side I planted 6 golden Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens 'Swane's Golden'). And 6 more ordinary Italian Cypress directly outside the back patio to obscure an overly intimate view inside my neighbors covered porch.

In the past Italian Cypress had always been my go to plant for a fast screen and a slender vertical element in a garden. In my previous garden they grew insanely fast- up to 3-4' a year. I planted these from one and two gallon containers and expected them to progress. Strangely, they did not. Throughout all of last summer when I expected them to rocket upward they sat there and showed no inclination of vertical growth. They are in full sun, good soil and received plenty of water during the summer. I could have started with larger plants- but I expected instant growth and when they stalled it left me flummoxed. I hope they have grown an extensive root system and this will be the year they begin to fulfill their task.

I have relied heavily on plants for the structure and bones of my garden. I have neither a plan or the money for hardscape at present. When the Italian Cypress stalled and it began to look like a lengthy wait for them to mature it changed the way I think about my garden.

I used to pooh-pooh garden designers and landscape architects that would only intall what I thought were huge specimens for an instant finished look. I thought they lacked patience and many large plants that are installed do not receive adequate care to become established. I still believe that many plants should be planted in smaller sizes so that they establish more completely. But now I am a fan of larger and instant gratification and I see where they are coming from.

In my front garden I realized that I wanted trees to balance the house with the street
and I needed street trees that would provide structure and shade the hot bare parking strip. The choices were huge and I needed a nudge of inspiration to proceed. I didn't want towering shade trees. I wanted to take advantage of the sunny front slope with many plants that I love and thrive in that kind of environment. I couldn't make up my mind.

One day last summer I visited Home Depot for a trellis project. What I found was the
answer to my dilemma. They had 6' tall Albizzia j. 'Summer Chocolate' in 5 gallon
pots for an insanely decent price. We have grown this tree at our nursery- but sold out and the lack of supply and expense has kept us from growing it again. I immediately snagged two and planted them in my parking strip. I liked them so much that I got a third and
they looked wonderful all in a row. The chocolate maroon foliage balanced wonderfully
with the dark trim on my house- an added bonus. It was then that I understood the
allure of instant gratification.  I had been converted.

Two months ago I was rummaging through one of our stock greenhouses and I came
across several 8' tall 7 gallon Olea europea 'Frantoio' (Olive). When I pulled them out into
the open I realized they were respectable and handsome specimens. With my new
instant gratification attitude I took them home and planted them in the center of
both sides of my front lawn. They are big, bushy, silver and beautiful. And I don't
have to wait for substance. They will never become shade producers but they perfectly fill the void with which I had been struggling. I've begun to see my entire garden in a different way now.  It has solidified a goal I was lacking. A balance between instant gratification and
as well as patience. I needed to think bigger.

At a visit to Gossler Farms I was introduced to a large blooming specimen of Magnolia campbellii var. mallicomata 'Lanarth'. In full bloom its dinner plate sized deep pink flowers were beyond luxuriant- they were decadent. It takes 5-7 years for this fast growing Magnolia to reach blooming size. In an instant I was hooked. Instant gratification had
been balanced with patience and a longer vision for my garden began to take shape.

I could have the decadent luxuriance of this Magnolia in my garden. Its
a step in the direction of a more cohesive plan. Instant gratification is now balanced
with vision. I can have it all- and I can nurture and care for plants that are for
the future and at the same time start with larger plants.

Recently a dear friend and gardener bought a new house with
a completely bare front and backyard. She decided she wasn't going to wait. I was with her when she bought a huge boxed specimen of Cornus controversa 'Variegata'- 10' tall
and already a respectable specimen. Instantly her garden will appear from nowhere
with a bold statement. Now I understand the allure and I'm happy to say that
gardening for me isn't just about patience. I can allow myself some instant gratification
and in that I've grown as a gardener.


  1. It makes me happy to read I wasn't the only one who fell for that amazing deal on the Albizzia at Home Depot, of course the fact that you actually had a place to plant them makes your purchase slightly more reasonable than mine.

    I hope you've taken pictures of your garden building project thus far, and that you post them someday!

  2. Yes, please share some before and after pics--looking forward to following your process!

  3. I usually never read massive posts, I'm very visual, but for some reason I was drawn to yours & am so glad I read it, but am now hanging out for visual satisfaction, thanx & don't delay!

  4. I have visited your blog for the first time and found it a well organized blog. thanks for sharing
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