Flowers II

January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

This rather long post relates events chronologically anterior to the previous post (Flowers I), but writing the first one inspired me to write this. It is a discussion on basic horticulture disguised as a personal account. In 2011 I was called back to the states for family reasons, my mother being diagnosed with cancer. To make the most of the time while I was there, and there was a lot of free time, I decided to transform a portion of her back yard into a garden area. Grass is boring, and the flowers were sure to have a positive effect on her — she was preparing herself to be initiated into chemotherapy, which is obviously an intimidating and frightening prospect for anyone (she is out of danger for now, thanks to a group of excellent doctors and nurses). There were selfish motivations as well; the work was actually enjoyable, relaxing, even if sometimes physically strenuous. Ultimately, it’s about transforming a negative situation into a positive one by doing something simple, yet concrete.

Garden full view

I had never done any gardening or horticulture before, apart from trivial things, so I had to learn from scratch, with the help of the internet, as well as some friendly neighbors. As I progressed in my reading, I began to realize that I knew absolutely nothing about flowers, or plants in general (besides the ones we regularly eat). It was just something which had never interested me. In French there is the phrase: l’appetit vient en mangant (appetite comes with eating), and despite the fact that it’s a cliché, it’s often true. The phrase, like most phrases, can be interpreted in several ways:

  1. Once you possess something, you’re no longer content with it, and want more — i.e., a greedy person is never satisfied.
  2. One develops an interest in something through doing it, participating in the activity. Only by actually performing the task does one begin to appreciate the subtleties and joys of it, which one was unaware of before. Thus, what previously seemed a dull and boring activity is transformed into something engaging, stimulating and enjoyable.

It’s this second sense that applies here – not only learning about the impressive variety of the different species of plants and flowers, their different requirements for soil, nourishment, water and sunlight, but also putting oneself to the physical work required to prepare the terrain. Dirtying one’s hands, when it’s not compelled by a zealous overlord but done freely, is good for the soul. The most interesting part is of course composing some kind of harmonious combination of all of them, compromising their variable needs with what’s aesthetically pleasing – sometimes you must choose one over the other, as flowers which seem to go well together don’t necessarily have the same needs for sunlight and have to be separated, moved, etc.

Path with stonesOne can design an elaborate space with pathways, trellises, bird baths, hanging baskets, climbing vines, anything — or even turn one’s front lawn into a vegetable garden, like this couple near Montreal (apparently they were absolved of their non-grass sins, they were able to maintain the garden, despite the howling of grass-loving fascists).

The rewards of vegetable gardens and flower gardens aren’t the same — one gives sustenance and the other some peace of mind, pleasure, psychological wellbeing (though many herbs valued for cooking and their medicinal properties also make nice flowers). When we consider how we find flowers so pleasing, it’s worth thinking of some basic notions of evolution — that is, we should remember that the qualities we appreciate in them have nothing to do with a “desire” to please us or the hummingbirds and bees which feed off of them, it’s a characteristic which favors their pollination and reproduction. The animals are attracted to the scent, nectars and colors (although in a slightly different light spectrum) much in the same way we are. That we find them beautiful is somewhat of a byproduct — far be it for me to say that’s a “bad” thing.


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The following does not purport to be an exhaustive, or even a necessarily well-informed, list of knowledge or techniques to be harnessed in order to have a successful garden, just a recounting of what I did with the limited knowledge and resources at my disposal, while having gleaned some very basic principles. It aims to be a distillation of some of what I learned while building a small garden.

First I delimited the area reserved for the garden area, meaning more than half of the yard was to remain covered with grass. Generally it’s more advantageous to choose an area away from under any trees, as most flowers need at least some direct sunlight during the day, and also because the numerous roots will make the soil difficult to turn and till (also, there’sTrellice with morning glory a limit to how much trees can tolerate having their roots attacked by gardeners). Nota bene : birch trees have elaborate root systems, close to the surface, so avoid if possible. After deciding where the garden area was going to be, and defining roughly the shape it would have, I proceeded to remove the turf. This is not as easy as it looks. There are machines made specifically for that purpose, as it would be grueling, of not to say impossible, for one person to remove it manually from a significant area — unless s/he is a masochist with a lot of free time, in which case I can suggest other activities besides gardening. One may notice, depending on the location (mostly eastern United States), Japanese beetle grubs underneath the turf; they should either be killed, or served with stir fry vegetables and a white wine sauce.

Once the turf removed from the area set aside (which represented a considerable volume to dispose of), I mixed in some decent soil, mulch and manure over the whole area, tilling and turning the ground at the same time. Decent quality soil is important for a healthy garden, which brings me to the first major point:

  • You need to feed the soil

Some discussion of the importance of this factor — and Ruth Stout’s mulching methods — are found here : Building Fertile Soil | and here : Ruth Stout’s System

After the soil was sufficiently broken and turned, I decided what plants I wanted to put where. Here I must clarify that I intended to make a perennial garden (meaning flowers which survive the winter in whatever climate you happen to be in), expecting them to bloom again the next spring (or summer). That brings me to my second major point:

  • You need to know what your Hardiness Zone is

For the USA, find where you are on this USDA Hardiness Zone map here : USA Hardiness Zone Map | for Canada : Canada Hardiness Zone Map | for Europe : Europe Hardiness Zone Map | and a more general discussion : Hardiness Zones

It so happens that there were already several Peonies and Hostas already planted there, so I used them to help delineate a narrow pathway through the future garden, which would later be crudely covered with spaced paving stones. I then had to choose what plants I wanted where. This was done by going to the local outlet mall and hardware store, or whoever was selling perennials, and purchasing whatever seemed most robust, needing the least care. However, I failed to pay much attention to the requirements of each plant regarding sunlight, and ended up placing some of them in areas incompatible with their needs. This can result in the flowers not blooming, or the plant not being as healthy as it could otherwise be. Most plants need at least a few hours of sunlight per day, but some are less tolerant of shade than others. Some do very well with little sunlight, while those which thrive in the absolute shade are rare. This brings me to my third major point:

  • You need to know the sunlight requirements of your plants

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some good shade-tolerant perennials (thrive with less than 6 hours of sunlight):

  • Hosta (Plantain Lily – excellent plant for a novice gardener, reliable, resistant)
  • Astilbe (False Spirea)
  • Aconitum (Monkshood)
  • Pulmonaria (Lungwort)
  • Aruncus (Goatsbeard)
  • Heuchera (Coral Bells)
  • Hardy Geraniums (Cranesbill)
  • Hellebore (Lenten Rose)
  • Digitalis (Foxglove)
  • Ligularia (Leopard plant)
  • Brunnera (Siberian Bugloss)
  • Campanula (Bell flower)
  • Veronica (Speedwell)
  • Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)
  • Aquilegia (Columbine)
  • Lobelia (Cardinal flower)
  • Hydrangea
  • Bergenia (leaves give color during winter)
  • Fern

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some good full-sun perennials (prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight):

  • Echinacea (Coneflower)
  • Rudbeckia
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Aster
  • Chrysanthemum (Garden Mums)
  • Peony
  • Rose
  • Alcea (Hollyhocks)
  • Iris
  • Baptisia (False Indigo)
  • Monarda didyma (Bee balm, Bergamot)
  • Papaver (Poppy)
  • Delphinium
  • Eupatorium (Joe-Pye Weed)
  • Solidago (Goldenrod)
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Perovskia (Russian sage)
  • Buddleja (Butterfly bush)
  • Penstemon (Beard-tongue)
  • Sedum
  • Ornamental Grasses

Fall-blooming perennials (flower late in the year) include:

  • Aster
  • Chrysanthemum (Garden Mums)
  • Solidago (Goldenrod)
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Ornamental Grasses

A garden is part of an ecosystem, and the more flying creatures visit your garden, the better it will be. These are some excellent perennials for attracting bees, hummingbirds and butterflies (they tend to prefer bright reds, blues, pinks and purples):

  • Monarda didyma (Bee balm, Bergamot)
  • Lobelia (Cardinal flower)
  • Penstemon (Beard-tongue)
  • Buddleia (Butterfly bush)
  • Aquilegia (Columbine)
  • Veronica (Speedwell)
  • Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)

My personal favorite perennials, for ease of care and beauty:

  • Hardy Geranium (many varieties to choose from)
  • Hosta (Plantain Lily)
  • Campanula persicifolia (Peach-leaved Bellflower)
  • Peony
  • Alcea (Hollyhocks)
  • Ligularia dentata (Leopard plant)
  • Heuchera (Coral bells – many varieties to choose from)
  • Eupatorium purpureum (Joe-Pye Weed)
  • Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)
  • Iris siberica (Siberian Iris)

One could continue with this forever, and this only scratches the surface, so here are some useful gardening sites which provide more thorough discussions on all the aspects of the different perennials:

The Garden Helper | Dave’s Garden | Painting with Flowers


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Wildflowers should not be neglected. Part of what I find interesting about them is the way they haphazardly scatter over the most unlikely areas, and many of them are just as beautiful as any privileged perennial — also, as animals will make no distinction between wildflowers and cultivars, some wildflowers will attract as much, if not more, flying creatures, making them a benefit and not a drawback. My original idea for the garden area was for there to be a centralRed wildflower patch reserved for wildflowers, surrounded by a path, because I wanted there to be a more unruly and natural aspect to some of it. I find that an exaggeratedly ordered and cultivated garden is generally uninteresting, and not as beautiful. There are certain “wildflower packs” one can purchase at some hardware stores, mixtures of seeds and paper mulch which one can spread haphazardly over a certain area, and cover with a thin layer of soil. Such collections often include a large proportion of annuals to perennials, like Zinnias, Baby’s breath, Bachelors button, and are worth trying — mine bloomed fairly densely. Otherwise, they can be found in the countryside, forest, or even at the side of the road and transplanted. I noticed next to the road, for example, some purple wild Asters blooming during the fall, which I transplanted immediately into the garden. The bees thoroughly enjoyed them. You’ll see a birdbath in the middle of the wildflowers here, a sure way to attract birds during hot weather.

For wildflower identification in the US, see: Wildflower Conservancy | Wildflowers of the United States

Wildflower patch

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Populating your garden with varieties that flower at different times of the year is good, ensuring that there is always something of interest to look at instead of there being one concentrated bloom period surrounded by nothing. Once I had decided which plants I wanted (the selection process was a bit haphazard, me being an amateur) and had a vague idea of where I wanted them, I began transplanting them into their places — while respecting the needed distances between them. When plants are bought young it’s easy to underestimate future growth, causing one to plant them too close together. The empty spaces between them will eventually be filled in.

After the all of the perennials were transplanted, I proceeded to cover the soil around them all with a layer of mulch — ideally, one could use a mulch/compost mixture. There are two reasons for doing this : 1) It smothers weeds 2) It adds organic material to the area around the plants, which is always welcome. Bark mulch, wood chips, sawdust, and any other compost material can be used, but one should avoid too much bark. Also avoid using landscaping fabric, or tarps, which are effective at smothering weeds, but can also prevent the soil from receiving the moisture and organic material it needs. See: From Dirt to Soil. I was lucky enough to have a friend of my mother’s who practiced wood-turning in his shed drop off regularly the several bags of wood shavings and dust resulting from his work, always a multicolored mixture of the banal and exotic woods he sought for his bowls (which are excellent, by the way).

Another method to prevent weed proliferation is to place low-growing ground cover plants between the larger ones, which will help suppress forming weeds in the same way mulch does, as well as filling in “empty” space. Some good, robust varieties often used for this purpose are:

  • Pachysandra (Japanese Spurge)
  • Vinca minor (Bowles Vinca, Periwinkle)
  • Lamium
  • Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian Bugloss)
  • Ajuga (Bugleweed)

— all of which will tolerate (even prefer) a fair amount of shade. Also sometimes used for ground cover is Convallaria (Lily of the Valley), which has pretty white flowers, but comes with a strong caveat : it is extremely robust and can spread rapidly, taking over. Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny, Moneywort) is another to avoid for this same reason, unless you have a well-fenced in area over which you don’t mind it proliferating.

I placed square paving stones along the small pathways already designated, more for aesthetic reasons than functional ones. Over the years they will tend to sink into the soil.

Woodchips garden with bench

If you have been spreading organic material/mulch around your plants for years (see Ruth Stout link above), you may not need to make a compost pile, but it’s good to have one anyway. Most gardeners keep one, which basically is broken down, decayed organic material to feed to the plants, and good compost will allow one to forgo chemical fertilizers in most cases. The end result should be a dark black earth, a humus-like substance rich with nutrients, which also helps improve the soil structure. Worms may also be used. See: Use of Compost as a Soil Amendment | Composting at Home | How to Compost

Although the chemistry of composting may be complex, a compost container can very simple, and there is no reason to build or buy an elaborate, sophisticated model. Many different types and sizes of containers are possible. See: The Perfect Compost Bin | How to Build a Compost Bin

Ultimately I decided to make a version of the “Perfect Compost Bin” linked just above, for its simplicity and modularity (the segments can be added or removed at will, used elsewhere if needed). Nota bene : for making wooden structures to be used outdoors, rot-resistant materials are preferable. See a comparative chart of the different species here, taken from a 1967 study by the USDA: Choosing Wood for Outdoor Projects. I chose cedar because of its relative resistance, preferable to treated lumber, and also because I didn’t want any chemicals possibly contaminating the compost pile. Cedar laths sold as fence posts at a local lumber yard, cut to size, did fine. You can see it it this photo, at the back:

Compost bin

It’s important to have the horizontal slots between the segments, as they let air circulate, needed for the composting process. I even drilled several 3/4″ holes in two opposite sides of each segment, alternating from left/right to front/back. One should use sufficiently thick wood to avoid warping or breaking of the sides, as the container will receive a certain amount of abuse over time.


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Other simple wooden structures can be built to make the garden area more interesting, add form and variety as well as being useful. As well as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, one can bring other birds with the judicious placement of Bird house on vertical bamboobirdhouses around the garden area. I made three copies of one very basic model — again, out of cedar wood — placed at certain heights, attached to bamboo poles. From what I read on the subject, it seems that birds don’t much care for or need beautiful, shiny houses to live in — which significantly simplified the task of making the houses: the more rustic the better. Some of them live in holes in trees after all, and what we may see as beautiful or quaint may not interest them in the slightest… As someone said on Twitter once: Like my new bird feeder? *I point to a pile of seeds in the driveway* Yeah, birds don’t really care how you feed them. In other words, the houses should be appealing to birds, and not to humans.

The fabrication is straightforward: 1/2″-3/4″ cedar (or other suitable hardwood) planks cut to size, an approximately 1-1/2″ hole for entering and exiting, a sloping, overhanging roof to protect any parents feeding their young through the hole, and no sanding to smooth the surface. An important detail is to allow for air to circulate by leaving, or drilling, holes in the bottom corners. The bottom should be removable to facilitate eventual cleaning. A landing peg some inches below the hole is optional, but if it’s there, they will probably use it. The sloppier the better. Some bird species apparently prefer to nest higher than others, as well as slightly different sized holes, but they generally don’t seem to be too picky. See: Birdhouse Build Ideas | How to build a cheap bird house | How to build a Bluebird house

Birdhouses on bamboo Birch tree

Another wood structure worth considering for a garden area, relatively easy to design and build, is a pergola. Designed to create a sort of roof by providing a structure to climbing plants and vines, it also can be aesthetically pleasing to look at. One should try to place climbing vines such as grapes, Clematis or other vines around it so they can envelop the structure, eventually covering it, like a trellis. One could build a pergola out of cedar, but that would be costly,Pergola looking through so we opted for some traditional Ye Olde pressure-treated lumber. My brother supplied most of the ideas and tools, it being his idea to build it.

The principle couldn’t be simpler : a set of parallel lathes or beams held up by vertical support beams and cross beams. The parallel beams can be crossed on top by another set of parallel lathes, solidifying the structure. One can embellish with certain details or add benches, as I did here. This requires a post hole digger, a tape measure, a circular saw, a level, some drills (preferably cordless) and a day or two of time (more if you’re working alone). The vertical beams should go at least 3-4 feet into the ground, otherwise it would be unstable, especially if people will be using a bench. One can pour concrete to anchor the beams into the ground, but if you’re not building a massive pergola, and you fill in with some gravel and/or sand and mud, concrete is not necessary. As for the rest, if you played with Lincoln Logs when you were little, or had an erector set, there’s not much to explain. It does make for an agreeable place to sit, and it also provides an additional structure from which to hang plants. Here is a presentation of the assembly of a pergola much like the one we built: How to Build a Backyard Pergola. See some more elaborate designs here: Trellis Structures

Pergola with bench

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All of this is, of course, a pretext for posting more photos.

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