Archives for May 2012

A Formal Vegetable Garden

vegetable garden layout

Every now and then I have a call for a formal vegetable garden.  By this I mean a garden with a formal layout and structure.  These clients wanted raised beds for their vegetables for several reasons.  They liked the idea that they could tend the garden easily.  They liked the idea that the soil mix would be especially tailored for growing vegetables.  They have children; their lives very much revolve around the dinner table.  They have strong ideas about good food, and where it comes from.  Their soil is very heavy clay, and the site chosen for the garden does not drain particularly well.  I designed the garden, and laid it out with stakes and strings for them to see. 

Once they approved the plan, we stripped away the existing sod. We excavated the area, as the garden would have a decomposed granite floor.  This is a great surface on which to push a wheelbarrow.  It is a surface that requires little to no maintenance. 

vegetable garden boxes

Steve and his crew built the boxes on site.  Several courses of lumber were installed below grade, and set level.  When the garden is finished, we will reconfigure the edge of the driveway to run parallel to it.  There will be some regrading involved as well.  But at this point in the project, we are a long ways away from the finishing touches. 

A 3″ base of 22AA road gravel levelled the floor of the garden.  The sloping lawn will be regraded to meet the finished floor of the garden.  The poor drainage became very clear after a rain!  The raised beds will insure that water drains away speedily.  Vegetables attract no end of disease and insects.  A clean growing, well draining site is a good natural defense against trouble. 

growing vegetables at home

Once the bases of all of the boxes took shape, it was easier to see the overall plan.  Four boxes were simple rectangles.  The four center boxes were L-shaped.  A three tiered theatre for the center will hold pots of herbs, and culinary flowers.  At this point in the construction, we were going over lists of vegetables and herbs.  Like most families, they have vegetables that appear on their dinner table frequently.  Others-not so much.   

worm castings

Steve is an expert with soil.  He spent 16 years as superintendent of grounds at Grand Hotel, on Mackinac Island.  The island has very little in the way of soil.  A thin layer of compost covers layers of big rocks, and little rocks.  The cost of transporting soil from the mainland was considerable.  He composted thousands of yards of soil for their 165 acres of golf courses, employee housing, and hotel grounds.  He knows how to cook up great soil.

growing vegetables in boxes

This soil is compost of his own making, to which he added sand, and lots of worm castings.  It is rich, and friable.  The the idea of worm castings raises eyebrows, but vegetables thrive in it.  Decomposed organic matter is an essential element of good soil. 

drip irrigation

Each box has its own drip irrigation lines.  Water from drip hoses does not migrate very far away from the hose.  The drip is so so slow that the water sinks straight down-gravity, this.  Thus there is a need for multiple drip hoses, so the plants are evenly watered.  A drip irrigation system is not perfect.  A person needs to be in charge.  A person who can pick up a hose, if there is a need.  This spigot was run off the irrigation system.

vegetable garden fencing

My client has 7 acres of property.  This means they have all manner of wildlife.  Deer, raccoons, mice, rabbits and woodchucks, just for starters.  The garden had to be fenced.  The mainstay of this fence is a very sturdy galvanized steel mesh. A vegetable garden has to be sited and planted to take advantage of the sun.  A privacy fence might shade the garden.  The steel mesh does not impede the sunlight.     

Each panel of steel mesh is enclosed in a cedar frame.  A horizontal bar of cedar midway up the panel adds a good bit of reinforcement to the mesh.  As much as you love your home grown vegetables, all of God’s creatures love them too.  This fence says keep out in a very simple way.   

The fence is 6 feet tall.  The 6 feet wide gates are just 3/4 of an inch shorter, to permit the gates to be opened wide.  The decomposed granite finished floor has yet to be installed.  A second short round of steel mesh will be buried below grade.  This will deter the crafty diggers and the little creatures.

vegetable gardening

We are a ways from the finish here.  The tomato towers and herb theatre will be done shortly.  7 espaliered fruit trees are yet to be planted.  The drive needs to be reconfigured.  A cutting garden will be planted ouside the fence on the gate side.  Roses for cutting will be planted on the far side.  As for the planting of the vegetables and herbs-Steve is in charge of that part.   

This is a big garden. Not like a field of corn in Iowa, or a grove of cherry trees.  This is by no means a farm.  But it is as big a garden as they will ever need.  It is a working garden.  Sturdy, simple, plain-and organized.  I hope within a few weeks it will be a good looking working garden.   


The Clematis On The Bench

garden fountain
My garden is a fairly quiet affair, as evidenced in my Roundtable home garden/tour post yesterday.  A garden that provides sanctuary is of interest to me.  But as structured as my landscape is, there are those unexpected moments.  When I drove up yesterday, Buck had the fountain jets turned up full blast.  Those columns of water sparkling in the sun made me smile.  Buck cranked up those pumps, knowing I would be tired when I got home.  A little unexpected joy never hurt anyone!  Until the pots on the deck are planted, this is my first stop on my early evening tour of the garden.      

clematis trellis

Last year I raised the bed under my garden bench, edged it in steel,  and planted it with European ginger.  I added a pair of clematis, intending them to grow up one arm, and climb along the back of the bench.  I don’t have so many options for change in this part of my garden, but this was a small change that would prove to have a considerable impact.  Our warm March triggered a lot of really early growth. The vines were up and budded up before that interminable string of freezing nights we had in April.  I was sure I would loose all of the flowers, and perhaps some of the foliage, but that was not to be.  These clematis were unfazed by the freeze.

For the past month I have come home, anticipating the latest change to the clematis.  Buck is very patient about the fact that it is the first topic of discussion.  Watching the changes has truly been a pleasure.  It has also set me to thinking about them.  

This large flowered clematis is a variety called “The President”.  I have not really grown much in the way of clematis, except for the small flowered varieties.  I really like clematis vitacella violacea, and its hybrids such as Polish Spirit.  The sweet autumn clematis, and the spring flowering clematis montana are both lovely.  Watching my pair of large flowered clematis grow and bloom has been a small but significant pleasure.

My earliest exposure to clematis on the bench dates back 50 years.  My Mom always shopped at Semrau Nursery on Gratiot Avenue.  This would be the east side of the suburbs north of Detroit.  On every bench growing geraniums, interspersed and widely spaced,  clematis.  The most beautiful clematis vines I have ever seen.  Thier stakes were at least 4 feet tall-the vines spilled over the top.  I remember how luscious they were in leaf.   I was 12-yes, I remember.  

In my 30’s, I grew but one clematis.  It was called Sho-Un.  It was the longest blooming of all of my perennials, and it obligingly rebloomed.  After 4 years in a not so swell spot, I moved it.  It never skipped a beat.  I remember how astonished I was that a vine whose stems were brittle enough to break given an unkind word would survive a major move.  Those large pale blue flowers enchanted me.  It is hard to find now-I am sorry to say.

I have read plenty about clematis wilt.  I hate a problem in the garden over which I have no influence or control.  All of that literature and documentation is enough to deter any gardener from growing them.  This might account for why I have not grown them much-beyond the small flowered varieties that grow vigorously.  This large flowered pair has done well.  They are not fussy in the least bit.  Should I rethink the clematis?   

clematis blue ice
There are so many large flowered varieties of clematis available now.  Who could choose?  I chose this vine strictly on the basis of its very pale blue flowers.  I think it is called Blue Ice, but I could be wrong.  I bought the shape and the color-not a name. 

 Margaret Roach, gardener and writer extraordinnaire via her blog, A Way To Garden, posted about Brushwood nursery in the late winter.  They specialize in vining plants, and especially in clematis.  I read, and reread their list .  How would I choose?

May blooming clematis

I have a big love for the pale blue, and blue lavender varieties.  This would include Sho-Un, Will Goodwin, and Mrs. Cholmondeley (just say Mrs. Chumley-is this not friendly?).  How would I evaluate new varieties?  I did not order anything from Brushwood.  In retrospect, I should have.  Whatever seemed good to me.  Experimenting is part of the soul of good gardening. 

clematis the president

Beautiful flowers are not the only criteria for inclusion in my garden.  The flowers are next to the last.  I like plants that are vigorous.  They make me look good.  They reward me.  Tricky, stubbornly unresponsive and fussy plants leave me frustrated.  I don’t want to worry about whether I am a good and thoughtful gardener.  I want plants that thrive, and encourage me to keep gardening.

The new issue of Fine Gardening has quite an article about the best of the best clematis.  I am disappointed that there are no white, or pale blue varieties listed.  That disappointment lasted all of a minute.  Given the pleasure these two plants have given me this spring, I think I should plant lots of them.  Everywhere.  Take my chances.  I have really so little to loose.

large flowered clematis

A clematis vine takes up not one bit of space on the ground.  When properly sited, they grow towards the sky.  Their large single flowers are breathtaking.  This spring, I am thinking I should endow my garden with clematis-lots more of them. 


Do you have favorite varieties?  What pale blue, or heliotrope blue large flowered clematis grows well for you?  Do you have a white variety that you like?  Which variety is your best performer?  Where have you placed them?  How do you handle those brittle vines?  Do you grow them on the ground?  What are your favorites?  Could you please be so kind as to advise me which clematis I should try?  I am ready to try to grow more clematis.    


Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Take The Tour

This is my first time posting as a member of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable.  Every month, a group of landscape and garden designers from all over the US and Britain post on a single, mutually agreed upon topic.  This month-a discussion of our own personal gardens.  I live in an urban neighborhood first established in the 1920’s.  My 1930 house is a curious amalgamation of both Arts and Crafts, and Mediterranean style architecture.   

There are 8 steps up from the street to the front door.  Every change in elevation in the front is marked by yew or boxwood hedges.  I like evergreens in the landscape, but I am especially fond of them in my own garden.  My landscape was designed to give me what I want most when I come home from work.  A little peace, a big dose of quiet, and not so much work.  After designing and planting all day, I want to come home and enjoy being outdoors with Buck and the corgis. 

I will confess that I have a weakness for containers-I do have quite a few.  Watering and deadheading my pots is a pleasure I look forward to at the end of the day.  The groundcover underneath these containers-herniaria.  Getting a lawn mower to this upper level would be a nuisance.  The yew topiaries have survived their third winter in these big concrete pots.  These containers look fine even in the winter-a season my zone is noted for.  Empty pots in the winter have such a forlorn look.

On either side of the house, on the house side of the tallest yew hedge, are blocks of limelight hydrangeas.  They start blooming in late July, and entertain my gardening eye until late in the fall.  As long as they get a spring pruning and some regular water, they deliver a lot more than they demand.

Inside the gate, my south side garden.  There is a place for Buck and I to sit, and grass for the corgis.  Sinking the lawn panel 8 inches, and retaining the original grade with steel provides a little visual interest to a landscape that is very plain.  The boxwood and arborvitae provide a sense of privacy and enclosure.  This space is neat and organized-unlike my desk and work life.

annual container planting

I plant this giant concrete square for the summer.  A very large pot in a small space not only organizes the space, it enables me to have a version of a garden that I am able to look after.  I want to come home to something that looks good to me, and takes just a bit of care. 

In June there are a few roses on the south side.  Carefree Beauty, Sally Holmes, and Earthsong are all strong performing low maintenance roses.  On the wall, the dwarf climber Jeannie LeJoie, and the large flowered climber Eden.  For a few weeks there is enough glory to satisfy me.  There is some Boltonia, hardy hibiscus, and white Japanese anemone for later season color.  I planted some asparagus between the roses.  This year I did not pick any.  The roses are getting large, and starting to crowd them out.

At the bottom of the rose garden steps is a fountain garden.  The pool is 26 feet long, and 9 feet wide.  The sound from the jets is lovely.  I can hear it from the deck where we have dinner outside, and all of the rooms on the back of the house.  Princeton Gold maples, yews and pachysandra are planted on the perimeter.  Around the pool-herniaria. 

annual gardens

It is 5 steps down from the fountain garden to the driveway.  My car is usually parked here.  I like driving up to the pots, and the color from the narrow strips of annuals.  The butterburrs on the left are difficult to keep under control, but I have help from a local nursery that comes for them, and pots them up for sale.  Sometimes I buy them back, if I have a good spot for them in a client’s yard.

I will be planting my pots the first week of June or so, after I have the planting for clients a little further along.  The bottleneck in the drive makes that drivecourt a little more private, and a little more inviting.

container gardening

I do have lots of pots on the deck, all of them terra cotta.  I think they look great with my house. I spend at least an hour out here every night, puttering, while Buck cooks. 

The room where I write is just inside the open door pictured above.  We have that door open all summer long.  The corgis like going in and out.  They are happy outdoors if I am inside writing-as long as that door is open.  One nice feature of city living-we never have mosquitos until after dark.   

On the north side, I have a little garden of sorts.  A few dogwoods, rhododendron and azaleas are original to the landscape.  Last year I tore out an overgrown block of ornamental grass, and planted a small perennial garden.  A much smaller version of what I had when I was in my 30’s.  It is a little wild, and not so neatly kept.  I like this change of pace from the rest of the landscape.  My garden gives me a lot of pleasure and privacy.  It has a quiet atmosphere-perfect for me.  The rest of my family likes it too.

Interested in the home gardens of the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable?  Check them all out!

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Container Garden Design

Every move you make in a garden has to start someplace.  Some activities begin for everyone in the same place.  Should you decide to run a marathon, there is a starting gate and a finish.  If you are designing a container garden, it’s your choice where to begin, and where to end.  The inspiration for a container can come from lots of places.  A favorite flower, color, or texture.  A favorite pot, a memory of a garden from another place or time can provide a place to start.  For this container design, I started with my two Julias.  Julia the Mom from whom I inherited a love for flowers, and Julia, my friend.  Friend Julia is a plant afficianado-whether it be a dwarf evergreen, a flower, or a tree.  She spent 20 minutes with me a few weeks ago, extolling the virtue of a new osteospermum called 3D.

3d silver daisy

I decided to design a container around this particular plant. Her enthusiastic praise for its performance was compelling.  The flowers stay open all day-a decided improvement over older varieties.  They bloom strongly all season long; I like this too.  But I was intrigued by the color-an icy white, and a purple that was decidedly on the red violet side.  I laid a few plants out in the driveway, so I could take a closer look.


petunia White Russian

Julia was equally keen about a new petunia called White Russian.  Why not see if both flowers would work in the same arrangement?  After all, a pair of great plants might making for a smashing container.  But right off the bat, there was trouble.  Not all whites are created equal.  Color in nature is infinitely varied.  Some color combinations I find more appealing than others.  These two whites together did nothing for each other.

petunia White Russian

The brilliant, almost luminescent white of the daisy looked wrong with the flat white of the White Russian petunia.  The petunia took on a rather lifeless greyish look-to my eye.  But until I had some more plant choices in place, I wouldn’t rule out the combination.

annual heliotrope

Adding heliotrope to the mix was jarring.  The flower is a blue based purple-not at all like the carmine in the daisy.  This was a combination that made everyone look bad.  It looked bad to me-that is.  Everyone sees color very differently.  Whern in doubt-trust your own eye.  It also seemed that having a fine floret sized texture would be better underneath the daisy, rather than on top.  I eliminated the heliotrope.

euphorbia Diamnond Frost

A pot of Euphorbia Diamond Frost moved the arrangement in a better direction.  The bright white color was the right white.  But even better is its contrasting texture.  The daisy has a rather stiff habit in both leaf and flower.  The euphorbia has a fluttery, sparkly texture that would loosen up the composition.  As a centerpiece in a pot, the euphorbia would grow fairly tall and wide-as will this osteo.  They would be fairly evenly matched.

tricolor sage

On a whim I tried adding Cirrus dusty miller to the mix, but the leaf size was overpowering.  A tricolor saga had a little more grace, and that same blue green color that contrasts so well with red violet.  A salvia Cathedral sky blue-the wrong color altogether flower wise, and the leaves were not blue enough.  I thought briefly about some lavender, but if the 3D daisy was to be the star of the show, all of the other colors and textures should be chosen in visual deference to that idea.

cirrus dusty miller

I have a small group of plants here, with a bigger collection of rejects.  I see Rob do this all the time when he is trying to help someone design a container.  He groups plants together.  Then he adds this, and subtracts that until he gets a composition that looks right.

variegated licorice

After putting away all of the flowers that were not going to work, I added some variegated licorice to my group.  That cool green looked good with the sage, and the cool whites.

carex frosted curls

Carex comans Frosted Curls is a very similar color to the licorice, but an entirely different texture.  The delicate blades of grass would be in concert with the habit of the euphorbia.  At this point the arrangement has a subtle and delicate coloration, and just enough contrast to have visual interest.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

supertunia mini silver

The White Russian petunias proved to be too sleepy.  I switched them out for the supertunia mini silver.  It is a small flowered petunia that grows vigorously.  Those sturdy stems and that vigorous blooming would be a great contrast to the euphorbia.  It would also add a lot of color to the sage/licorice/grass mix.  In a container, I would alternate the petunia with the licorice, and then the grass.  A mix of 3 plants is much more lively and interesting than a mix of 2.

persian shield

Were I to plant a large container with this scheme, I would want to introduce a plant that would grow larger.  A Persian Shield would grow very large, so there would need to be multiple plants of the Diamond frost and 3D daisy.  The numbers of this plant versus that is about balancing the composition.  Little plants may need a bigger voice via greater numbers.

white dahlias

I could also add a white dahlia to the mix, meaning my daisy would have to become part of the supporting cast.  What I like about the dahlia idea is the yellow derived from the bud color, and center of the flower.  It would bring out the red-violet in the other flowers, and contrast with the cool greens in the foliage plants.

nicotiana saratoga white

I still liked the idea of the floret sized flower in this container.  Alyssum, whether it was white, citron, or red violet, would do a great job of that.  Even a mix of all of the colors would work well.

butterflies boston daisy

I could revisit the pale yellow idea with a flower that was smaller and less overbearing than a dahlia.  The butterflies boston daisy has a habit and size more in keeping with all of the other plant choices.

container garden design

The nursery industry has gone to great trouble and expense to include tags in their plant pots.  These tags will give you a brief overview of the eventual size of the plant, and the light and water it will require.  Taking advantage of this information means you will avoid making cultural mistakes.  Making sure you have the right neighborhood in mind for all of your residents will help your container to prosper.  I do think I am ready to plant up this pot.