Some 600 years ago Before Christ, Lao Tzu was doing a lot of thinking on our behalf. I admire a person who can succulently present small words into life’s biggest challenges, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Each day, week, year, or any of the number of life’s change of events begins a new journey. Isn’t this wonderful? At any time, we can begin again in our journey of a thousand miles.
When my first child came along, for a tiny moment in time, lasting about a year, I figured I would have to put gardening on a back burner. At the time of her arrival in 1996, we lived in a 1905 cottage in Oakwood, in one of the Raleigh’s historic districts. This is a home my husband and I renovated on weekends. During the week, we lead life in the fast lane, each working exciting careers, but on the weekends, we worked at a comfortable pace renovating our home, one room at a time. It was the perfect home for the two of us and we figured when the children came along, we would find a bigger place to live.
The garden was renovated along with the house itself. When I think of home, whether mine or yours, I naturally think of the garden gracing the grounds as much as the place where you tuck in your loved ones in at night. Rarely can separate the two. I loved that garden; no doubt she was my surrogate child.
As timing would have it, Hurricane Fran arrived a month before the arrival of our first child. Fran was nature’s way of telling me to slow down. At the time, I wasn’t sure of her reasons, and clearly a hurricane didn’t hit Raleigh just to send me a message, but I took Fran as a first step of what would become a thousand miles.
Before Fran, my little garden in Oakwood was in full shade; after Fran, she was in full sun. I looked into the future, one month down the road, and decided to let the garden be. I have a child coming and with that child, we will need to soon move. This was a defining moment. I spent that first year looking for our next home, with my little Bud in tow.
On Bud’s one year birthday, we closed on a 25 year-old home in Raleigh. I can vividly remember looking at the new garden before me realizing, ironically, this was also transformed by Fran from full shade to full sun. It was obvious, too, the previous owners did nothing with their garden as they planned the next journey in their lives. When I looked out at what was to be my garden, I realized for the first time, this was no longer my space, but rather a place where my kids would run and play. This would be the place my kids will share stories to their kids about how they played in the garden. My kids would need a place to explore, to kick a ball, and to chase fireflies, and not having me fretting over my beds and borders.
It was then I decided that if ever there was a time to build a garden, it was now. Now, when the kids could build along with me. For the next 2.5 years, Bud and I hung out in the garden together. With her running around wildly, while I wiled away the hours digging in the dirt and learning where my sun laid. Then came number two, quickly followed by number three. We were family; one who planned to spend hours everyday in the garden. And of course, for us, a garden is really just a metaphor for enjoying the out of doors and all it has to offer. Today, 14 years later, my kids know where to find me on Sundays, my day in the garden. All time leading up to this day and the day itself, I know where my kids are – in the garden, running, playing, exploring and chasing fireflies.
Because time was precious and money was tight, I wanted to get the garden right the first time. During this time, I gained a lot of confidence in the garden and learned many lessons. Here are five essentials I learned early on so I could garden with confidence. Why not begin today with a new or renewed mindset: right plant for the right place? Understanding these five essential elements will help you garden with confidence.
FIVE ESSENTIALS TO GARDENING WITH CONFIDENCE
There is a lot of talk about zonal denial, micro-climates, and changes in our zones due to global warming. If you are a risk taker and know your garden well, then by all means push the limits with your gardening zone. In my garden, Helen’s Haven, Zone 7b in Raleigh, North Carolina, I no longer take these risks. I’m perfectly happy in the zone I own. I know plenty of gardeners that plant zone 8 and even zone 9 plants in our zone 7b gardens and are thrilled with their success, even if it may be short lived. I use too, but don’t anymore. I find it even risky planting plants on the zone’s edge. Ideally, I like to wrap a zone around a plant. There is no doubt, I’ve missed out on a lot of fun this way, but I don’t loose as many plants either.
We need to accept the soil we’re dealt or be prepared to amend. I have yet to garden in perfect soil, and still, I find gardening success. I’m a heavy amend-er and believe in the power of mulch. In our area of the Piedmont region of North Carolina, there is clay and sand. In the heart of Raleigh, where I am, it is all clay. As you move outside of Raleigh, you’ll find sandy soil. So when I read a plant label that recommends planting in well drained soils, I know they’re not talking to me. But planting these plants in my garden is a risk I’m willing to take. Why? Because here I have some control; I can amend my soil. And I do. I have amended all my garden beds, one planting hole at a time. Adding composted leaf mulch or other organic matter to the hole and blending it with the clay with some added insurance of a permanent clay buster such as PermaTill or Clay Busters, I can make my sticky clay soil friable. In any garden soil type, you cannot go wrong adding more organic matter. Then top dress the garden beds with a lush, thick layer of mulch each year to moderate the soil temperature, suppress weeds, retain water and generally tiding up the garden. By doing so, you’ll have a happy garden; happy gardens give gardener’s confidence.
Full sun, part sun, part shade, dappled shade, full shade, afternoon sun, morning sun, winter sun, more sun. Know your sun. If the plant tag says full sun (6 hours or more a day) then that means it needs full sun. Anything less and the plant will not perform at its best. However, having said that, you can use the sun requirements to tame plants as well. As an example, I like Akebia quinata commonly know as five-leaf Chocolate vine. This is an vigorous vine. However, I grow this sun lover in the shade where it is well behaved. Remember this: The north side will have the least sun, the south side the most. The eastern side will have cool light, the western side hot. Of course all this depends on what’s above and if it is deciduous. There is nothing mysterious about this. Take the time to identify areas in your garden and track each hour. To see the effects of the sun’s angle, track around March 21, June 21, September 21 and December 21. The results may surprise you. This is also good advice to repeat every few years as your plants (and your neighbor’s plants) mature.
The last thing I want to do is deny myself is a plant based on watering needs. But, I’m also prudent. I garden water wisely. By that I mean, I have my gardens grouped into three watering zones: Oasis, Transitional, and Xeric. I’m also fortunate in that I have most sun types covered in each of my watering zones. When I garden shop, the plant’s watering needs are a high priority for me. But because my garden is designed in zones, it narrows down where I will plant it in the garden. This also makes my garden purchases easy. I wont waste money on a thirsty plant requiring shade if the only area I can plant in is in my Oasis zone, in full sun. Also, it allows me to have a mental map of my garden with me at all times. I don’t want to spend any more time than I have watering. The thought of dragging a hose around, past 10 drought tolerant plants to reach one thirsty plant is not part of my makeup. I’m way smarter than that.
We all have our critter challenges. For some it’s deer, others moles, voles, and armadillos. For me its rabbits. Bunnies are my nemesis! I have voles and moles too and once when a new development was going in two miles away, I saw evidence of displaced deer. Then I actually saw the critter. A sight common to many, but not to me. That deer was so out of character in my garden, it might as well have been a kangaroo.
I’ve given up worrying about critters. If I don’t have a chance at winning, I’m not going to play. I do what and where I can, but I will not be a bound to sprays either. I don’t have the time or the where-with-all that requires of an exact spray schedule. I get no pleasure from it either. These critter repellent sprays work fine, but need to be kept up. When I look back at what I had to give up, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I first thought. I can only have a few Hosta, because the voles love them. I have voles. But I also love Hellebores, so I grow Hellebores – the voles don’t bother them. The bunnies will have to go elsewhere to Echinacea because I will no longer provide these favorites of mine as a favorite for them. As for the Rudbeckia, I’m trying them in a tall pot this year. I may try to put some Echinacea in a pot as well.
So you see, following these five essential elements will soon have you gardening with confidence. With the selection of the right plant for the right place, do what you can and accept what you can’t and you will be good to go!
Hmm, let’s see where to begin with all my acts of silliness regarding right plant, right place. There was the time I planted 7 gorgeous Hostas in a new bed only to wake up to find them nearly gone. Every one was chomped off at the root level and much of the foliage was dragged down under and finish off. Voles! Voles are herbivores and find the roots of Hostas, Camellias, roses, and Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant) much to their liking.
Would you believe I replanted? I did do some research and followed some very good sound advice. As advised, I planted with the Hosta still in the pot, wrapped in landscape fabric the top, sides, and drainage hole and for good measure, I heavily sprinkled the area with PermiTill. I planted my 7 new Hostas; but when I checked on them the next morning, they were gone. At about this time, I was out of time, patients and money. I gave up and planted Hellebores instead and haven’t had a problem since. Voles don’t like Hellebores.
I wasn’t so lucky the time the voles went after my Aspidistra elatior. Thank goodness, these cast iron plants were only a rather pedestrian solid green variety. I had 5 planted one day and as per my usual customary habit, I went to check on them the next day. Three were gone. I was outraged, mostly because I knew there were voles in this area, but I didn’t know voles liked cast iron plants. So what did I do? I did something that put me into the “Don’t that beat all” category. I moved the remaining two cast iron plants into a location; a location where I knew there were no voles. The next morning when I went to check on these two plants, they were down on the ground. There was only on explanation – I transplanted a vole with a plant. If this ever happens to you, you have two choices – laugh or cry. I chose to laugh.
Helen Yoest is a garden writer, speaker and garden coach through her business Gardening with Confidence™.
Helen is the founder, publisher and editor of:
Tarheel Gardening – your online resource for North Carolina gardening enthusiasts.