Part of My Test Garden
Several years ago I decided to use parts of my garden as a ‘test garden’ so I could see how plants behaved under different growing conditions (can plants labeled as full sun actually thrive in part shade), to see how placement of plants affects deer browsing (I’m beginning to think there is something to the theory of deer pathways and how plants planted near a known deer pathway are highly vulnerable to browsing), to see if plants recently listed as cold-hardy for zone 6 will survive here in Stamford, CT (stay tuned for a post about my Crape Myrtle) and often just to see how plants actually perform in garden situations. The way a plant grows here in my Connecticut garden (zone 6) will be different than how it grows somewhere else.
As a landscape designer and garden coach, I am especially interested in real-life performance so I can relate that experience to my clients. My test garden allow me to ‘try out’ plant combinations in my own garden before using them in a client’s garden. I can observe plant combinations over an entire growing season, not just a day or two. Since every garden is constantly changing, it never looks the same for more than a few days at a time. It’s easy to focus on flower color when combining plants but a successful marriage of plants is about more than color. I have seen plant combinations that are pleasing during the spring and summer become spectacular during the fall as foliage changes color. And I’ve found the opposite true too!
And I always looking for ways to outsmart the deer so that I can grow more ornamentals that are not on the ‘deer-resistant’ plant list. Yes, I know, no plant is truly deer-resistant but I am always interested in trying out plants that other area gardeners have luck with to see how they perform for me.
Northern Sea Oats
One problem with a test garden is that I ignore some of the rules of good landscape design that I try hard to impress on my clients. I may buy more than one of the same variety of plant but I rarely plant them next to each other to create drifts of color or interest. For example, I just purchased three Chasmanthium latofolium (Northern Sea Oats) , a wonderful native ornamental grass that is supposed to thrive in a wide range of site conditions, and planted one in full shade and the other two in varying degrees of part shade. While many gardening books list Northern Sea Oats as a partial shade plant I have seen some that say it will survive in full shade so I’m looking forward to seeing how they all perform this year.
I also use my test garden to try out different kinds of deer repellent. I have had varying degrees of success with different products and am currently trialing Liquid Fence since I’ve heard such great things about it from other gardeners who swear by it. I just sprayed for the first time last week and all I can say for sure it that it is by far the worst smelling product I’ve ever used in my garden!
More Notes From My Test Garden to follow shortly…
Sometimes when I talk to my landscape design or garden coaching clients about choices of shrubs for their gardens, they want something new and exciting. Something all their neighbors don’t have. something that will stop them in their tracks because it’s so beautiful. I can certainly understand that sentiment but I always tell them there is real value in planting at least a few ‘ordinary’ or ‘tried and true’ shrubs. Yes, they are often under-appreciated because they are so commonplace but they are commonplace because they perform year in and year out. Admittedly, some years the show is better than others, but there’s always a show.
- An ‘Ordinary’ Rhododendron
Here’s a photo of my ‘ordinary’ rhododendron that I took yesterday. This shrub came with the house when we bought it almost 20 years ago. It has always been planted in this spot, which is on the southwestern side of our property. It’s the ultimate in sustainable gardening – I rarely need to prune it, I never water it and some years I’ll add a few handfuls of Hollytone to the soil underneath it but that’s about it for routine maintenance.
Every year it has flowers on it but this year the display is possibly the best I’ve ever seen from it. I don’t know why exactly, I guess the conditions have been right for prolific blooms on rhododendrons. I know my dogwoods (Cornus florida) barely bloomed this year and I heard similiar reports from friends and clients living in or near Stamford, CT (zone 6).
I admit, there have been times when I’ve toyed with the idea of taking it out and replacing it with an more exciting shrub but I never do. One reason is that this rhododendron is not a focal point in my garden, it’s planted on the corner of the house to soften it. Most of the year it’s just ‘there’ – an evergreen mass that is typically home to one bird’s nest each year. But for a few weeks each year, this ordinary shrub shines and I remember why ordinary can be extraordinary.
- Get This Book!
The New England Gardener’s Book of Lists by Karan Davis Cutler is a must-have book for every gardener who lives in one of the New England states. In this one relatively small book, you will find over 200 different lists of plants perfectly suited for growing in any New England garden.
Looking for a list of annuals which will thrive in your garden and whose seeds you can sow directly into the ground? There’s a list of 14 different ones in this book.
How about a list of back-of-the-border perennials that don’t need staking? There are 18 different flowers listed.
Maybe you’re looking for a comprehensive list of shrubs that are suitable for growing in containers. You guessed it, there’s a list of 13 different kinds included in this book.
Thinking about turning a patch of unused grass into a meadow. This book has a list of 25 different perennials to use.
There are also lists of roses for New England gardens, heirloom veggies, plants for a moonlight garden, weeping deciduous trees and trees for seashore gardens.
Feeling left out because you don’t live in one of the New England states? You’re in luck, there are also similar books for gardeners in the mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest, Florida, California and on and on. No matter where you live, get one of these books – it’s like having a knowledge friend, or garden coach, to turn to whenever you need one.