Home Living Farm and Garden HANDS-ON GARDENER: Rules to Plan By



by Miriam Hansen

Photo by Miriam Hansen
Photo by Miriam Hansen

This is one of those years when spring has really passed in the blink of an eye. My prediction that we’d have to wait until late May to plant warm weather crops has proved utterly wrong. We’ve been frost-free in East Montpelier since the beginning of May. Despite a brutal winter that wouldn’t quit, everything is early. The asparagus, usually ready in early June, has been producing like crazy.

Still, I am glad I started many of my seedlings later than usual this year. I have not had to juggle the usual jungle of plants. I even figured out how to grow broccoli and cauliflower seedlings without having to transplant them twice. I just planted two seeds in every cell of a plastic four pack and set them out in the garden when they had their second set of true leaves. They’ve been under row cover for about two weeks and are growing rapidly.

Aside from the benefit of not having huge, leggy plants to set out, staggering your seedlings means you won’t have everything ready to eat at the same time. This spring I planted only four cabbages for early coleslaw. I’ll start the bulk of the cabbages in late June for a fall crop that should overwinter in the root cellar better than the ones I planted in spring last year. We do have celery, parsley, peas, onions, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, carrots, beets, and chard planted. But I just barely seeded the brussels sprouts, kale, Chinese cabbage, and kohlrabi in six packs to be transplanted into the garden in about a month. It’s a little late for brussels sprouts, but they should be ready to harvest late September to mid-October, and that’s actually ideal.

I’ve been busy in the perennial gardens and have been pleasantly surprised to see that most of the plants the deer damaged are actually rebounding. Remember this past winter? Apparently the deer were so hungry, they needed to shear my heathers and prostrate Daphne down to the nub. The heathers actually benefit from a spring shearing, but my prize fragrant creeping Daphne is another story. I’ve been amazed to see it leafing up and producing flowers even where the deer smacked their lips on my treasure early this spring.

Still, something has to be done about the unfettered deer munching in my perennial beds. We circled the largest bed with a see-through black netted fence, but I’m tired of seeing those fence posts even though the netting itself is invisible from a distance. There are a number of liquid deer repellents you can purchase either ready-to-use or in a concentrated form. The concentrate is a better deal, although if your needs are minimal, I’d go with the ready-to-use Liquid Fence or equivalent. My perennial beds, like my vegetable garden, are ever expanding, so I’m going to buy concentrated Bobbex to keep the deer off my azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, and tulips in the spring. Deer actually eat my hostas any time of the year, so I’ll be spraying those plants through the summer. The rule of thumb for these liquid repellents is that you need to spray about three times a season. I was unable to find Bobbex at local garden centers, but it is easy to order online.

I’ve been thoroughly weeding my perennial beds. Unlike the weeds that come out of the vegetable garden, I do not recycle perennial flower bed weeds in the compost pile. Many of these are flowering invasive plants that I either purchased or requested from well-meaning gardening friends. Plants such as Canadian anemone, Japanese anemone, gooseneck, violets, Johnny jump-ups, and forget-me-nots are all beautiful in their way, but they run or self-seed to the detriment of plants that behave impeccably, mounding up, staying where you put them, or self-seeding modestly and appropriately. I can’t get a hot-enough compost to be sure of killing those noxious roots, so I dump those weed loads over the bank where they are free to run and jump as the case may be. Beware of plants that do exceptionally well. They are apt to be invaders.

After over 30 years of growing perennials, I do think I am getting the hang of it. It has been frustrating. I can grow almost anything, but knowing where to put plants has been an elusive concept. If you are starting new perennial beds this summer and need help thinking about it, here are some valuable rules to go by.

Many of the rules for writing apply equally well to perennial gardening. Think of it this way. The human eye, like the human heart, prefers asymmetry to symmetry and likes to bounce a bit. Thus the first rule: when planting multiples of the same plant variety, always plant in odd numbers — three, five, seven — instead of two, four, six. Properly spaced, the plants will grow together to form a pleasing large clump.

The second rule has a few branches. Getting the eye to bounce can be achieved through repetition along the bed. So if, for example, you love cleome, or lilies, or hostas, or any plant whatsoever, repeat them at intervals. Your eye will travel along these repetitions. Another way to get the eye to bounce is by varying heights, and we need to think of the height of a plant not just by the height it will reach but where it is as it grows. In early spring, tulips and daffodils are the high point in my rock garden. But when their flowers are spent, the hostas and peonies are what bring the eye up from fairy wings, dianthus, and heathers.

Which leads to a third rule. You want to pair perennials such as Oriental poppies and lupines with plants that will hide their yellowing or floppy leaves after they have gone by. My poppies are behind a giant peony and repeating euphorbias that hide the unsightly poppy leaves and straw colored daffodil leaves when they have gone by. To be continued.

Happy spring and happy gardening!