Using More of What Works

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It has taken a lifetime of gardening for a certain truth to make itself evident.

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Up until the last couple of years, when gazing lovingly upon the garden but with a critical eye about what might be needed to make it look better, the answer has usually been to buy more plants, new kinds of plants.

Verbascum chaixii Album

Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’


Limited by what was available for purchase at the time, or biting the knuckle and ordering online such as the Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ ordered from Annie’s Annuals, it was always the hunt for plants that were not already growing here. Seen in a magazine article, blog post or in real life garden visiting, it was the wanting of what we did not have that seemed to be the cure for the dull garden blues.

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Following that course for over thirteen years at this location along with bringing in favorites from previous abodes in several states and climactic conditions, there is now a nearly encyclopedic array of botanical delights growing in the Fairegarden. Many have died, oh so very many, but some have proven themselves to be flexible when it comes to wet or dry, sun or shade, even acidic or alkaline. Or being moved over and over and over again.

Stipa tenuissima is a useful filler matrix

Stipa tenuissima is a useful filler matrix


I am a true believer in the Piet Oudolf/Noel Kingsbury school of garden thought. Naturalistic plantings with a matrix of grasses, swaths of perennials that might stretch past the boundaries of the original plan and dottings of taller, more colorful volunteers is the longed for look. Pre-Piet, the method was more of a plop a plant where there was room for it. We are still working on not plopping. It is a journey, not a destination.

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Achieving the garden design goal without creating budgetary night terrors calls for using those plants that have already proven themselves on our steep slope. Divisions and seed saving are the way. Cuttings have not been as successful but do work for some, such as Sedums. A story was written in 2009, click here to read it, about how there came to be so many plants growing here. Hint, they were not all purchased, as some folks mistakenly thought.

Echinacea Harvest Moon, Festuca glauca and Nigella damascena

Echinacea ‘Harvest Moon’, Festuca glauca and Nigella damascena

Things to consider when shopping for plants in your own garden are height, color, season of bloom, foliage interest, and dying well if they are not evergreen. Repeating clusters of the same plants in an area is pleasing to the eye and makes good design sense.

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As rains return in the fall the soil becomes moist again and digging is easier. August is the time to make those divisions if weather permits in our USDA Zone 7a garden, allowing the roots to be settled in before winter arrives. My To Do list includes the spreading of various Stachys ssp. along the wall behind the main house to spots where the fancy Euphorbias have died out. Stachys seems to like it there.

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Rudbeckia seedlings will be lifted from the gravel paths and placed where a burst of yellow in late summer would be welcome. Low grasses such as Festuca Glauca or Japanese blood grass, Imperata cylindrica rubra make great fillers and can be safely moved and divided if well watered now.


There is one spot that has been properly planted in the mass grass method, the stand of pink muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris along the driveway, seen above in a shot featured in this post from October, 2010. If only we could get a similar vibe going in the rest of the garden using the divide and conquer scheme applied to the muhly border.

Castor bean and Dahlia atropurpurea

Castor bean and Dahlia atropurpurea


Does this mean there will be no more plant buying? Well, the answer would have to be no, because I am not just a gardener but also a plant collector. Trying new things is good for us, after all and I like to support local and some online businesses. But the solution to making the garden more appealing is far less expensive. Use what is on hand that has proven itself to be worthy.

Frances

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20 Responses to Using More of What Works

  1. I have been eyeing my neglected garden (due to my day job) and have come to the conclusion recently that i am taking stock of what works and what has earned the right to stay and will be dividing and moving a lot next year. Of course there is always more plant buying but now with a more discerning eye.

    Hi Donna, thanks for sharing here. It sounds like you have the right approach, go with what works. It makes perfect sense and is easy on the budget.
    Frances

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Oh yes, the divide to conquer is a frequent method here too. I don’t have many grasses in my garden though. I love the blood grass but can’t seem to find a place here that it likes.

    Hi Lisa, thanks for stopping by. Grasses are so easy and add so much, with such long periods of interest. There is a grass for every situation in a garden, I believe. Keep trying to find those things that work best for you.
    Frances

  3. Boohoo about the fancy euphorbias due to this summers generous amounts of rain…mine, too, are waving the rotted flag of defeat. However, if that is the trade off for not being a slave to constant hose, I’ll take it. That pictured variety of Verbascum is delightful and seems like it would be a wonderful companion for so many other plants. What is its bloom time and how long is it in flower? Love the looks of the ‘Harvest Moon’ echinacea. I bought about 5 echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ this spring and have been delighted with its color blend.

    Hi Michaele, thanks for joining in the conversation. Those Euphorbias are short lived, even in the best of conditions, sad to say. I have replaced dead ones with colorful sedums of yellows and darker reds, for those are reliable if not as showy. The Verbascum blooms in spring but I allow the stalks to stand much longer for vertical interest. They are said to self sow, but I have not had that happen here, yet. Good luck with your new Echinaceas!
    Frances

  4. gail says:

    “Using what works “is such a smart way to garden. It’s why I let the Susans and native ex-asters grow with abandon. They can cover the shallow soil where nothing else wants to grow and that’s a good thing. I must take a page from the Piet Oudolf/Noel Kingsbury school of garden thought and add more grasses to my mix. I might have to visit a few nurseries this week! If the rain keeps up I can plant anytime! Your garden looks wonderful~in all the seasons! Love the eryngiums and echinaceas together. xoxoxogail

    Hi Gail, thanks for your support. The Rudbeckias and asters are having a fine year with all the rain. Normally August is not the month to divide and conquer when it is severe drought conditions. This year is glorious in the moisture and not having to water is good on so many levels.
    xoxoxo
    Frances

  5. bittster says:

    What good advice! It seems a no brainer to use what works, but the lure of new plants is always so tempting. I’ve been trying to follow the advice you gave. This year I’m aiming for bigger blocks of plants that really carry the garden all year…. basically the stuff that works…it’s been helping to make my plant collection look more “landscaped”. Yours looks great whatever method you’re relying on!
    I wish the Stipa was reliably hardy for me :(

    Thanks, Bittster. It takes more effort and planning to get the block of plants look, and it seems to go against my instincts to plant in that way. A shock collar is needed to plant the same thing close together in groups, but it is paying off now after several years of doing so. The stipa is gorgeous, but needs grooming and sometimes replacing with self sown seedlings to look its best. It is worth the effort.
    Frances

  6. Layanee says:

    Every season has its challenges but those tried and true plants, which vary in each individual garden, thrive no matter what it seems. Sorry about your disappointments but celebrating the success of certain plants (I so envy that pond of muhly grass) with division is sweet success indeed.

    Hi Layanee, thanks for stopping by. The failures are considered learning experiences and those empty spots places for new experiments. The muhly is a highlight of fall here, for sure.
    Frances

  7. commonweeder says:

    Your blog is not only one of the most beautiful, it is also the most charmingly instructive. I do plan to shop in my garden this fall, and see what divisions I can donate in the spring to the Bridge of Flowers plant sale. Unfortunately there is no pink muhly grass, to keep or share, in my zone 5 garden.

    Hi Pat, thank you for those kind words. I so appreciate you! What a nice idea to donate plants to that sale. I sometimes set plants down by the street with a free sign and they always are gone by the next day. Usually it is lamb’s ear, but it is a good way to share.
    Frances

  8. Nancy says:

    I struggle at gardening and really appreciate all you share! Do you know of a zone 5 garden blogger that I might subscribe to? I have been buying plants, but want my gardens to look more like yours, so I’m going to work on your advise and start sharing/dividing, etc. Thank you!

    Hi Nancy, thanks for your support! I am not sure which blogger would be best for you to follow, but my sidebar blogroll has many who are zone 5, I believe. If you hover over the name listed, it should show you the state or country in which they live. Good luck and I hope that helps!
    Frances

  9. Dee says:

    I have these same thoughts. I decided to try and start most of the really unusual from seeds. Some things worked. Others didn’t. I also divide a lot of things now and move seedlings about. The Earth doesn’t know a plant is precious or rare. Only humans do.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks for adding in here. I like to order seeds of plants that I can’t find anywhere else, too. Most are failures, but sometimes we get lucky and have that rarity live and thrive. Or something that is a rarity for my area, anyway, like Erigeron karvinskianus used so much in Europe.
    Frances

  10. Oh so true – and so difficult to learn! ;) (And as usual, luscious photos to drool over!)

    Hi Jack, thanks for dropping by, so nice to see you. Even today, not plopping or planting things closer together in groups is not a given! I have to stop myself from *spreading the wealth*! HA
    Frances

  11. Lola says:

    I totally agree with you. Your garden is always a beauty to me. I so enjoy your blog.

    You are so sweet, Lola, thank you for your readership and support!
    Frances

  12. Love your last question…does this mean no more plant buying….hahahahaha. That Verbascum from Annie’s is gorgeous. I have to go out back and cut out a lot of dead from the excess water earlier this summer. ugh.

    HA, Janet, you probably know that was meant as a rhetorical question! I have been cutting things like mad all summer, too, either from so much extra growth from the rain or downright deaths. But of course that means more opportunity to spread those things that do well in these crazy drought/drowning.
    Frances

  13. babushkablue says:

    I’m a plant plopper, but I’m learning to appreciate the easy going perennials that love my little shady place in the world. The birds bring gifts too. I’ve developed a new garden rule: If it is a surprise gift, it gets to stay. Funny how that works, because eventually everything looks harmonious in spite of my poor planning! Loved this article.

    Hi Babushka, thanks for sharing here. Yours sounds like a good rule to follow. Allowing the self seeders to stay here has made our garden much more beautiful and wildlife friendly, too. Except for the dadburned poison ivy!
    Frances

  14. vwgarden says:

    It is hard to control the plant collecting tendencies! I find myself buying plants that I know won’t work for long, but I just have this urge to watch them grow for a while – see how they bloom – before passing them along to other gardeners. I guess I can call it ‘annual gardening with perennials’, LOL. Everything is looking lovely, by the way!

    Good one, VW, and thanks! I buy those fancy Euphorbias in the fall because they look so much better than anything else on offer and will winter over. It seems to be the summer that does them in. Perennial annuals is exactly right!
    Frances

  15. Norma says:

    What beautiful gardens!!! I, too, ‘experiment’ a lot. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, try something else! I’m adhere to the saying, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. I don’t fret when a plant doesn’t do as I want – I just try to find a place it wants! Love the muhley grass border!!!

    Jacobs Ladder is a plant I’ve try for years (I love the color) to get established = with no luck (in Zone 8) !!!! I just ordered more to put out this fall. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I can keep them alive and well?

    Hi Norma, thanks so much for visiting. Your garden philosophy is a good one for all occasions, but especially for gardening. Right plant, right place is quite wise. I cannot grow Jacobs Ladder, having tried several times. It is too hot and dry here, even though we are included in the zone 3-7 hardiness. Your zone 8 might be too warm. Perhaps someone can help you, for it is a beautiful spring blooming plant.
    Frances

  16. I absolutely love your philosophy! And your garden . . .good grief, even though I share your philosophy, my garden looks nothing like that. Wish I could frame each of those pictures!

    Hi Linda, thanks so much for those kind words. I admit to showing the best that the garden has to offer on the blog at any given moment. Lighting can work magic, but the garden does look better than ever, especially for usually dry August.
    Frances

  17. I witnessed this in your garden firsthand and have taken the lesson to heart, as much as I can when starting a new garden. I know what worked in the old garden which was not that much different in its beginning. If something here is doing well I ask myself where else could it do well, or even better than where it is.

    Thanks Kathy. It was so fun for you to see my garden in the spring, I wish you could see it now, it is so overblown and lush with all the rain, very different. I am honored that you found a lesson for your cold climate in my hot one.
    Frances

  18. pivi says:

    Marvelous colours ! Especially I fell in love with the one with Yellowish Echinae, Fectuca glauca and Nigella. Maybe I some day will try Imperata cylilndrica, thoug it’s not here absolutely tough – but surely is worth trying !

    Hi Pivi, thanks for visiting. The blue fescue and Nigella go well with everything and are so easy to grow. Perhaps there is a reddish plant, grass or not that can be substituted in your climate?
    Frances

  19. Pam/Digging says:

    Great advice, Frances: use more of what already works. Massing looks better anyway, plus using divisions saves money. Win-win!

    Thanks Pam, Free plants plus easy care, it doesn’t get any better in gardening!
    Frances

  20. I’m on a similar journey, but it sure is a long one!

    Lifelong, Robin!

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