The simplest way to increase your success in the garden is to select plants that match your conditions. Sun-lovers such as Peonies and Daylilies will be less vigorous and less floriferous when grown in shade, and shade-lovers such as Hostas, Astilbes, and Ferns tend to get crispy and bleached when they bake all day. No amount of fertilizer will change those performances.
It’s easy to fall in love with a plant, but you’ll spare yourself a lot of heartache if you can match that plant’s needs with the conditions you have. It may be worth experimenting once in a while, but you’ll save time and money and frustration when most of your choices fit your site. Beyond the basics of sun and shade, you can also look in our quick guide for plants that resist deer, attract butterflies, rebloom with abandon, or even tolerate tough conditions.
Whether you’re lucky enough to have mature trees providing shade or you live in a new development with lots of wide-open sunny spaces, there are perennials, bulbs, and shrubs that will love to grow in your garden. So size up your site, make notes on your aesthetic preferences and enjoy browsing for just-right plants. Our Web site provides an A-Z List of Growing Guides in the Gardening Help section so you can be successful with every plant you choose.
Magazines and TV talk shows exhort us to live in the moment, and gardening is a way to encourage that practice — to stop and smell the Roses. But gardening is also very much about anticipation, eagerly looking ahead to the first ripe Tomato or the blooming of a favorite perennial.
We find it’s easy to extend that sense of anticipation far beyond the summer growing season with fall-blooming bulbs such as Crocus, Colchicums, Sternbergia, and Lycoris. These charmers provide a delightful way to bring the gardening year to a close.
Like bulbs that flower in spring, most fall-flowering bulbs need a sunny or partly sunny site (although Lycoris radiata prefers partial shade in warm climates) and moderately fertile, well-drained soil. To improve drainage, incorporate organic matter into the soil and to boost fertility, apply bulb fertilizer on top of the ground after planting. Sternbergia often benefits from a bit of limestone worked into the soil.
Plant fall-flowering bulbs as soon as possible after you receive them because they need to establish their root systems. Plant Crocuses 2-3in deep and 3in apart. Colchicum bulbs are larger; plant them 4-6in deep and 10-12in apart. Plant Sternbergia bulbs 6in deep and 4in apart. Set the bulbs of Lycoris so that the neck sits just below the soil surface and space them 5in apart.
As long as the soil is well drained, pests and diseases are rarely a problem with these bulbs. Deer and voles do not bother them. Fall-flowering Colchicums and Crocuses usually bloom about 3-6 weeks after planting. Lycoris requires more time to settle in; it may not bloom until the following year, but the wait is well worthwhile.
Visitors to the farm this June are in for a splendid show. After two years of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called “extreme drought,” our part of New England has been blessed with rain, and plenty of it. As of this writing, maps produced by NOAA and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) show that drought conditions have eased in Connecticut and many other parts of the country. Even before the news was official, the plants in the garden were broadcasting the news, the effects of the abundant rainfall evident in lush growth that celebrates the end of a dry spell. It’s raining again as we write this, and our perennials, shrubs and trees all look vibrant and refreshed. The succession of bloom that began in late winter has segued into a June crescendo of Bearded Iris, Peonies, Poppies, Nepeta, perennial Salvia, Allium, and Amsonia hubrechtii. It’s an enchanting time in the garden, one of our favorite “moments” in any season, and this June is particularly magnificent.
Visitors to the farm often remark that we must be awfully busy at this time of year, and, of course we are, but not necessarily in the way you might think. While the garden staff is finishing up the mulching and is steadily weeding and tending the beds and borders, the planting is nearly finished, and a goodly number of us have moved on to making plans for autumn. The publications staff is finishing the final edits on the fall catalog (which will arrive in your mailbox sometime in early August). The nursery and product development teams are focused on clearing out the warehouse and greenhouses, which soon need to be empty to make room for the arrival of fall-planted bulbs and houseplants.
Lest you think we’re idling around the place, there is plenty to do. Pursuant to our need to empty the warehouse and greenhouses, we’re pleased to host our Annual Tent Sale & Open House on Friday and Saturday, June 16th and 17th.
Annual Tent Sale & Open House
We know some of you wait patiently each year for the Tent Sale, and for good reason. This year’s two-day event takes place, rain or shine, on the hillside beside the store. On offer will be an array of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, along with growing supplies, garden gear, and our exclusive Crete pottery in a wide variety of sizes and forms. For you early birds, please note we’ll be opening at 8 a.m. on Friday morning. If you’ve attended the sale in year’s past, you know shoppers line up well before start time. When the clock strikes the hour, aficionados and bargain hunters bolt up the hill like colts in the Kentucky Derby, racing to secure Crete pots, Tomato ladders, and plants, all at substantially discounted prices. To help with your shopping, we suggest, if possible, you bring along a garden cart.
Hours are: Friday, June 16th: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, June 17th: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
In the midst of the glorious madness, we’re a bit humbled and mighty grateful to be celebrating our 67th year in the nursery business. We hope you’ll mark the occasion with us by attending our free Annual Open House on Saturday afternoon, June 17. Free guided tours of our gardens begin at 1 p.m. At 2 p.m., we’ll set out free fruit, cucumber sandwiches, iced tea, and fresh strawberries, which we hope you enjoy as you mingle with a company of friends, fellow gardeners, and members of the Wadsworth family, the owners of White Flower Farm. While you’re here, we hope you’ll take the time to shop for a few great additions to your garden and landscape.
Among the new sights to be seen in our display gardens are the plants that have been settled into our Native Garden. Nearly all of the perennials and shrubs are now in the ground. The spring rains have been beneficial in allowing them to settle in nicely after transplant. Our head gardener Cheryl Whalen is pleased with her layout, the actual planting now fairly closely mirroring the original planting plan she created on paper. (Here is where beginning green thumbs may take heart: Even among the most experienced gardeners, there are often challenges and surprises in going from a paper plan to the ground, with adjustments and replantings often required as you go.) None of the freshly planted natives are in bloom at this writing, but that’s to be expected. “It’s only a first-year planting so I don’t expect much in the way of a big show of blooms,” Cheryl says. “It’s enough for the plants to just get well established.” (Beginning gardeners might also take note of the patience that is part of every great gardeners makeup.)
On the subject of blooms, with our spring planting mostly complete, our minds are shifting to plans for autumn bulb planting. Tops on our list are fall-planted, fall-blooming bulbs, which add surprise and help continue the garden’s color show right up until frost. Too little appreciated, bulbs such as Colchicum and Sternbergia are planted in the autumn, and they bloom a few weeks later. One of our favorites is Colchicum ‘Waterlily,’ which we like to tuck in amid the spiky chartreuse foliage of Sedum ‘Angelina.’ When the Colchicum blossoms in September and October, the color contrast is pure delight. Sternbergia lutea may be nicknamed the “Autumn Daffodil” for its golden yellow color, but in form, it most closely resembles a Crocus. Planted near blue-flowering Caryopteris or purple-flowering Salvia, the September-blooming heirloom creates lovely contrast.
On our list of fall-planted bulbs that will bloom in spring, we’re stocking up on Species Tulips. The most perennial of all Tulips, these charmers are available in a beguiling array of colors, forms and sizes. Last fall, Cheryl planted Species Tulip bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ under an ornamental Dogwood tree, and intermingled it with the dwarf Narcissus ‘Hawera’ and the perennial ground cover Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop.’ We can’t walk past a Dogwood without wishing to see the same combination planted under every one. Low-growing Species Tulip humilis ‘Tête à Tête’ will find a place alongside a few of our rock walls, the vibrant cherry red color being just the thing to banish winter when it peeks out in April or May. Golden orange Species Tulip praestans ‘Shogun,’ which grows 6-10” tall, is a welcome warming sight in the early spring garden, and it creates a burst of sunshine orange alongside Fritillaria imperialis.
If we can help with your plans for fall planting or answer any questions, you know where to find us. In the meantime, we hope you’re enjoying the beauty of your own June garden.
As visitors stroll the display gardens at the farm, they often ask us about the plants they see in the borders and beds. No plants generate more questions than Alliums. Members of this genus are available in a broad range of colors – from various shades of purple to pink, true blue, yellow, and white, but the hallmark of this family of plants is a form that is both playful and utterly distinctive. Larger cultivars such as Alliums ‘Globemaster,’ form sizeable spheres (in this case 8-10” flower heads) that appear to float like balloons above other plants in the border. Smaller varieties including the delightful Drumstick Allium (Allium sphaerocephalon), produce lollipop-sized orbs on slender stems at a lower height.
Alliums are more commonly known as Flowering Onions, a pedestrian name unworthy of these remarkable plants.
It’s worth mentioning that Alliums, like Daffodils, are deer and rodent resistant, thanks to their faint oniony scent. The odor is not noticeable above the ground unless the leaves are cut or bruised, and many of the flowers have an enchanting, sweet scent. There are hundreds of species within this under-appreciated genus, and we annually struggle to restrain ourselves to a reasonable selection. They are reliable perennials when they get good drainage and plenty of sun.
Using Alliums in the Garden
Alliums offer colorful, distinctive, and long-lasting flower forms that are standouts in the early summer garden (there are some fall bloomers as well). They love sun and prefer a well-drained, even sandy, soil as long as it has sufficient nutrients. Tuck the bulbs around clumps of summer-flowering perennials where the Alliums’ withering foliage will be hidden by the expanding perennials. Some combinations we use at the nursery include Allium ‘Globemaster’ among Echinacea (Purple Coneflower); Allium sphaerocephalon (the Drumstick Allium) with Yarrow, Asiatic Lilies, or Phlox; and Allium cristophii (Star of Persia) with Salvia ‘May Night,’ Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle), or Roses. We offer 5 varieties of the shorter Alliums (10–30″ tall) as A Big Mix of Little Alliums. They look best along the edge of a shrub border or planted in front of late-blooming perennials.
How to Care for Your Allium Bulbs
Light/Watering: Most Alliums grow best in full sun, with at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Those we offer require well-drained soil and are longest lived in locations where the soil is on the dry side during summer dormancy.
Planting: Plant Alliums more shallowly than comparably sized bulbs, just one to two times the diameter of the bulb deep.
Fertilizer/Soil and pH: Alliums prefer well-drained, fertile soil. Fertilize in fall and spring with any bulb fertilizer.
Continuing Care: The leaf tips of many varieties, especially the tall ones, begin to brown before bloom time. Remove the spent flowers (except from varieties that are sterile, such as ‘Globemaster’) if you wish to prevent them from self-sowing.
Pests/Diseases: Alliums have few problems except when planted too shallowly or in wet soil.
Companions: Place Alliums behind heavy-foliage plants such as Peonies and Iris. Good for bedding, and in mixed borders. Flower heads are good for drying.
Dividing/Transplanting: Alliums rarely need transplanting or dividing, but this can be done when the bulbs are dormant.
Here at the farm, we’re in the midst of mad preparations for this weekend’s 12th Annual Great Tomato Celebration, which runs May 19th through 21st, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, rain or shine. The weather is set to be mostly lovely (which, we have to say, always improves everyone’s mood a bit), and we’re raring to go.
On Thursday, staff members will set out tables in the open field adjacent to the store. As the sun rises Friday morning, our tractors will be buzzing back and forth to the greenhouses and warehouse ferrying flats of Tomato seedlings, vegetable starts, herbs, growing supplies, container pots, and anything else we think gardeners might need. Tomato aficionados, some from as far away as Vermont and Massachusetts, tend to arrive early, and at the stroke of 9 a.m., the shopping begins! Gardeners who know just what they want can be seen bolting up the hill, sometimes running to claim their favorites. Their lists in hand, they work the aisles, filling their wagons. Others adopt a more leisurely pace, scanning the signs that describe each Tomato variety and asking questions of staff members, who are always happy to answer and to steer shoppers to favorite selections.
This year, we’re pleased to be offering more than 130 varieties of Tomatoes, including highly coveted heirlooms and bestselling modern hybrids (all non-GMO), and everything else you may want for this season’s kitchen garden including savory herbs and veggie plants.
On Friday, we’re thrilled to be welcoming nationally recognized Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier, author of the award-winning book Epic Tomatoes. He’ll give two free talks on May 19th only. (For a few excerpts from his terrific book, read below.) For times and more details, click here.
Also on tap to offer Tomato-growing tips and answer questions is White Flower Farm’s Nursery Manager Barb Pierson, who will give two talks on Saturday and also be available each day to answer questions. Chef Charlene Goodman Dutka, owner of Ciesco Catering in Torrington, presents Grow It, Cook It, Eat It, a live cooking demonstration that focuses on Tomatoes on Saturday afternoon. For times and a complete schedule of events, click here.
If you’re hungry after rounding up what you need for your kitchen garden, Ciesco Catering’s truck will be selling delicious, made-to-order food.
See you at the celebration!
While you’re shopping, consider picking up a copy of Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes. This splendid book is stuffed with all sorts of facts and information about Tomatoes – from their early history in this country, to definitions of the different types, to profiles of individual varieties, to tips for planting, growing, staking and harvesting. You can read this book from cover to cover, or keep it around to dive into now and again. It’s a delightful read, and a wonderful resource for those of us who grow and love to eat Tomatoes.
Here’s a somewhat condensed version of LeHoullier’s account of the early history of Tomatoes in America:
“The Mayans and Mesoamerican people domesticated the tomato plant and first used it in cooking . . . By the early nineteenth century, tomatoes were present in many towns across America, though it appears most people didn’t eat them . . . Most people had no idea how popular the tomato was becoming in Europe . . . [and] The tomato had a reputation for being poisonous . . . The most famous early American tomato story is the daring public tomato consumption – perhaps – by Robert Gibbon Johnson in Salem, New Jersey, reported to have occurred in 1820. . . . Hundreds of onlookers reportedly traveled from far and wide to witness this remarkable event . . . Johnson bit into a tomato, some onlookers fainted, and, with Johnson suffering no ill effects, the tomato industry in America began.”
At the farm, we’re often asked to define hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinated, determinate and indeterminate Tomatoes. Here are LeHoullier’s definitions, just in time to help with your shopping:
“A hybrid tomato is grown from seed collected from a fruit that developed from a process known as crossing. Most simply described, pollen from one parent is directly applied to the pistil of another parent. Prior to the cross, the anther cone (the pollen-producing part) is removed from the receiving parent so that the flower doesn’t self-pollinate as it typically would.”
“Also referred to as non-hybrid, open-pollinated tomatoes have stable genetic material, and seeds saved from open-pollinated varieties will (unless cross-pollinated by bees) replicate the parent variety. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are considered heirlooms.”
“An heirloom is an open-pollinated variety that has history and value embedded within its story.”
“This class of tomatoes is by far the most common, and its members grow upward and outward continually until killed by frost or disease. Indeterminate tomatoes have a central main stem from which side shoots, or suckers, grow at a 45-degree angle outward from the attachment point of the leaf stems. In turn, each sucker of side shoot acts as an additional main stem and produces its own side shoots. The central stem of an indeterminate tomato, if vertically staked and tied, will easily exceed 10 feet by the end of the growing season. Flowering clusters appear at varying intervals along the main stem and side shoots, ensuring continual fruit potential until the plant dies: this allows for continual and extended harvest throughout the growing season. Another important characteristic of indeterminate varieties is the relatively high ratio of foliage to fruit, and all of that added photosynthesis means a significantly higher flavor potential when compared with determinate varieties.”
“Determinate varieties are far less common than indeterminate varieties; the gene that produces determinate growth habit didn’t appear until the 1920s. Determinate varieties look identical to indeterminate varieties as young seedlings, with the same stem width and foliage shapes and textures. There is a genetic component, however, that signals an end to vertical growth, emergence of flower clusters at the end of flowering branches, and massive fruit set over a very concentrated time span. This leads to a very narrow window for fruit ripening, which makes determinate varieties very attractive for commercial ventures that benefit from picking the fruit in just a few rounds of harvest. Because of the way the flowers appear, any pruning of this type will significantly reduce yield. In addition, the very high ratio of fruit to foliage means less photosynthesis: as a result, the vast majority of determinate tomato varieties have less flavor intensity and potential than indeterminate varieties (though there are always exceptions). Because of their compact growth, determinate tomato varieties are perfect for container gardening and caging.”
Tips for Creating Beautiful, Successful Patio Pots
In our part of the country, the high and low temperatures of spring are beginning to even out, and the danger of frost will soon be past. That’s when we pot up collections of annuals (and sometimes a few perennials) to decorate our porches and patios. Each spring, our staff members have fun creating new plant combinations. To help you create yours, here are a few tips:
Selecting Container Pots
Start by selecting container pots. The variety is limitless, which is both a good and bad thing. The advantage is you have lots of choices – terra cotta, glazed, cast iron, plastic, footed, self-watering, etc. – but choosing too many pots in too many colors or styles can create a look fails to unify and isn’t very appealing. As a general rule, you’ll create a sense of visual harmony by choosing a grouping of pots that goes well together even before you add the plants. Then, as you fill them with annuals and perennials, it may look best to pot the same or similar plants in a variety of pots, or pot a variety of plants in the same or similar pots. When in doubt, keep it simple. Less can be more.
Remember to choose pots with at least one drainage hole, says our nursery manager Barb Pierson. If a pot has no drainage hole, drill one. If that’s not possible, fill the bottom of the pot with gravel, river rocks, or Styrofoam peanuts to create a space for drainage.
Choose the right size pot for your plantings: Barb’s rule of thumb is that 3 plants generally need a 12” opening, and 5 plants require a 16–18” opening.
Know Your Site
Will your pots be in blazing sun all day? No problem! Choose zinnias, lantanas, salvias, and other heat lovers. Part-shade is very forgiving for most varieties. Are you designing pots for shade? Look for impatiens, fuchsias, caladiums, some varieties of coleus, and some types of begonias.
Play With Colors & Textures
To create a pleasing combination, play with plant groupings until you get something you like. Here at the farm, our staff members do this in the greenhouses where the annuals are grown. Customers are invited to “play with plants” at our Annual Container Workshops. Another way to experiment with various combos is to pull up images on your computer screen and create a collage. Or, collage the old-fashioned way by cutting out catalog photos and creating groupings of images until you’re satisfied with what you see.
For best results, most patio pot combos should contain 3 types of plants: a thriller (which will be the tallest variety in the combo), a spiller (to cascade over the sides), and a filler (to fill in around the middle). Larger combos tend to have multiple spillers and fillers, but the thriller is generally a single, tall plant such as a grass, elephant’s ears (colocascia), caladium, upright coleus, begonia or fuchsia, or a vine such as a low-growing clematis on a tuteur.
As you’re working, pay attention to colors and textures. Are you using hot colors (red, yellow, orange, and lime), cool ones (blues, lavenders, whites and grays), or pastels (soft pinks, soft yellows, and baby blues)? Do you have a range of blossom forms and foliage types?
The Right Planting Mix
To begin your potting, fill your container with planting mix. Barb recommends a mix of ¾ high quality potting mix combined with ¼ compost. (The mix is also great for raised beds.) Water the mixture thoroughly until it is evenly moist but not soaking.
Now position your plants: Before you take them out of the pots they came in, set them atop the planting mix and arrange them in a way that will promote best growth and work best for your site. (If the pot is to be set against a wall or doorway, the “thriller,” or tall plant, is best positioned at the back-center area of the pot. If the pot will be viewed from all sides, the thriller belongs in the middle.) Once you’ve settled on an arrangement, plant your annuals in the container pot. Be sure to fill in with soil around them. (You can use the tip of a trowel or even a large spoon to add more potting mix where it’s needed.) Water again to dampen the soil that’s been added, and let the combo settle.
Feeding & Watering
Over the course of the season, check your pots for moisture daily and water as needed. Larger pots need less water. (In dry summers, container pots may need to be watered daily.) How do you know when your container pots need water? Look for the soil to shrink a bit from the sides of the pot, Barb says. When that happens, it’s time to water. You can also test by sticking your finger in the soil mix. It it’s dry an inch or so down, the plants need a drink.
Feed your plants. Annuals give their all in a single season, and they appreciate a bit of food to keep their blossom and foliage shows going. Barb recommends using a blossom-boosting fertilizer such as our All-Bloom. It makes all the difference, she says.
As the plants grow, trim back varieties that are more aggressive than others. Some varieties of coleus, and trailing plants including ipomoea (potato vine) and helichrysum are vigorous growers. Don’t be afraid to get out the scissors for some judicious pruning. Pinching back plants including impatiens and coleus also helps encourage branching so you get bushier plants.
Not Just for the Patio
Colorful container pots are a joy to behold all season long, and they’re not just for the patio. Pots also can be sited in garden beds and mixed borders, and in front of hedges and walls. A container pot full of colorful blossoms makes a lovely focal point when silhouetted against a green hedge or sited at the end of a path.
If we can help with your combinations, you know where to find us.
Shade is a wonderful opportunity for gardeners to play with the color, shapes, and textures of foliage, which plays an important role in creating cool, lush tapestries along woodland walks and under trees. When selecting plants, consider your site first. While few plants will grow in deep shade, many tolerate — or require — low light and partial shade. Surprisingly, sun-lovers like Daylilies and Geraniums perform well in light shade; their flowers may be sparser but they continue for a longer time.
Check soil composition and drainage. Be sure to include a generous amount of humus-rich organic material, to supply nutrients and help the soil retain moisture. Soil moisture is an important consideration. Astilbes and Primula, for example, prefer moist soil, while Hostas and Epimedium do well in dry situations. All Plants appreciate regular watering, particularly during their first year while their roots establish — about an inch of water each week. To help minimize moisture loss and moderate soil temperature, cover the soil around new plants with organic mulch.
When choosing plants that will thrive in your location, focus on foliage contrasts because flowers are fleeting. Look for plants with distinctive leaf shapes and colors, including variegation, and combine smaller-leaved linear plants with the bigger, bolder forms. One final point — plan for a succession of bloom, starting with early spring bulbs followed by plants with spring, summer, and fall flowers. Annuals are a big help here.
Now that you have created this beautiful shady respite from summer’s heat, consider making it destination. Welcome admirers with a pretty bench or other garden seating.
Paths serve many functions in a landscape, both practical and esthetic. A paved one can lead guests, mud-free, to the front door, or allow you to fetch the mail every day. A gravel path might provide access to a storage shed or garage year-round to fetch the lawnmower and snow shovels. A grass or mulch pathway could lead to the vegetable garden, or invite you to explore the far end of the backyard among shrubs and ferns. Paths should be treated as important design elements, allowing you to link different parts of your landscape or simply draw your eye to various focal points. Sometimes it helps to imagine yourself as a designer, not just a gardener!
Here are some ways to meet the challenge of creating successful pathways that are functional as well as pleasing to the eye.
Start with long-blooming perennials and those with handsome foliage. For a long walkway, plan to repeat some of the elements to impart a sense of unity.
Vary foliage texture for the most interesting display. Start with your favorite varieties and then look for contrast — narrow and broad-leaved or feathery and ferny leaves. For a full to partial sun location, consider the scalloped, sage green leaves of Lady’s Mantle and deeply cut foliage of hardy Geraniums. For the shade, Hostas provide handsome leaf coloration with varying shapes and sizes.
Consider compact shrubs for plenty of easy-care color. For partial or full sun, a number of Hydrangea varieties stay relatively short (3-4ft) and provide lush, showy flower heads. For full sun, there’s a whole new generation of Butterfly Bushes that mature 3-5ft tall with long-lasting, fragrant blooms.
Add romance by letting some plants grow over the path’s edge. Imagine a tumble of colorful perennial blooms such as Dianthus, Nepeta, or Coreopsis. Or the blade-like foliage of Ornamental Grasses that catch the slightest breeze and provide a sense of movement.
Using the path in the evening? White flowers remain visible for a long time after sunset, and reflect the tiniest bit of light. Hardy perennials such as white Astilbes, Gypsophila, and Leucanthemum will look clean and crisp during the day and glow at twilight.
Consider adding some annuals to a walkway, especially in the shade. Coleus, Begonias, and Impatiens provide long-lasting color and form tucked between perennials along a path.
For a simple, elegant display, a hedge-like planting of fragrant Lavender will transport you to Provence as you stroll along your sunny pathway. Plants are deer-resistant and stay attractive long after the spent blooms have been clipped off.
These ideas are just the starting points for successful pathway plantings.
With wind chills near 0° last Saturday morning, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take refuge from the elements in the Talcott Greenhouse at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. Stepping inside, we were greeted with the sights and scents of a spring splendor extraordinaire – the 2017 Spring Flower Show. This year’s theme was ‘Spring Pools,’ with the main Show House filled with hundreds of forced bulbs, some exquisite Cymbidium orchids visiting from the Orchid House, and a collection of brightly colored spring-blooming plants including violas, calceolarias, and schizanthus. It was a wonderful opportunity to get a spring preview and to admire some interesting plant combinations.
With winter showing signs of an early withdrawl, some of us have been spending time sketching plans for gardens. Pen, paper and, if we’re feeling really fancy, colorful magic markers in hand, we play around with ideas for new borders or beds, and for redoing existing ones.
The first phase of this creative process always begins with what professional landscape designers call the “bubble diagram,” which is something many others might refer to as a “back-of-the-envelope” sketch. Bubble diagrams are loosely drawn schematics designed to define spaces within a landscape. No particular artistic skill or precise measuring is required, just the ability to draw circles on a page. For gardeners of any skill level, bubble diagrams are an extremely helpful way to visualize various features on a property – from specific areas or features in a yard (front lawn, back patio, wooded area, oak tree, swing set, raised bed, mailbox, etc.) to microclimates (dry shade under a Maple, boggy area, strip of lawn beside driveway that gets salt and sand on it every winter, etc.). The diagrams are a great place to play with ideas about how particular areas might best be utilized or planted.
As a general rule, the “bubbles” or hand-drawn circles are rendered in a variety of sizes and shapes to reflect the scale and form of what they represent.
Aside from defining general areas of a property, bubble diagrams can be helpful when creating planting schemes for particular beds and borders. The planning of any garden involves knowing what to put where, what grows in sun or shade, what likes well-drained soil and what will tolerate moisture, what blooms in spring and what in fall. While the growth habits and characteristics are available on plant tags and websites and in catalogs, trying to juggle these items while digging around in the garden with dirty hands and gloves can be tricky. (If you’re over a certain age, it can also be difficult to read the small type on plant tags, which means you’ll be juggling reading glasses, too.) A bubble diagram obviates the need for all of this by consolidating the information you need and putting it into a simple, easy-to-scan schematic. Where to put the Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ or the Alchemilla mollis? You sorted those questions out when you sat with your feet up beside the fire, and you incorporated the information into your drawing.
Once spring comes, and you’re outdoors digging in the dirt, you need only glance at your bubble diagram to know that Dahlia ‘Bishop of Landaff’ is the one with dark foliage that’s shorter in stature than the towering Dahlia ‘Show ‘n’ Tell’; Hosta ‘Aphrodite’ is the fragrant variety you want to plant alongside the porch (the better to enjoy its sweet perfume), and Buddleia ‘Miss Molly’ is the butterfly bush you chose for the middle of the sunny border.
There are other benefits to creating bubble diagrams. As a simple exercise, drawing them loosens the hand and opens the mind. Because these sketches are rendered without much fuss or detail, and because they take very little time, they are easily redrawn, crossed out, discarded or redone. There’s no penalty for making planting “errors” unless you count the bits of crumpled paper you occasionally add to the fire. The imagination is free to take chances and try things that can require quite a bit more effort when you’re outdoors. Bold experiments can be assayed, and the remarkable thing is, some of your craziest ideas might eventually become a reality or part of the reality of your garden.
So spend a bit of time over the next few weeks letting the ideas bubble over onto paper. Even the smallest gardens benefit from the process. Bubble diagrams are an excellent way to organize your thinking, refine plant lists, and consolidate information about what you’ll be planting where. Creating them is a dreamy and productive way to pass the time while waiting patiently for the gardening season to begin.