Amateur gardener with limited time needs help with the front garden.
March 11, 2010 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Calling the green-thumbed: My front garden is a mess, and I suck at making things grow. Plz halp.

I am determined to make the garden look better this year, and now that spring is starting to creep up, it's time I get myself in gear. I used an online garden planner to map out what I have now, which you can see here:

Current garden layout (anywhere you see a decimal measurement, just round up to the nearest whole number. The online garden planner wasn't completely user-friendly)
Photo of front garden in happier times

Here are the problems/salient details:

1. The two lavender bushes I have (one English, one French) are freaking HUGE, and I'm not completely sure how to groom them. That information, first and foremost, would be appreciated. I do love the lavenders, though, so I don't want to ditch them, just make them less overwhelming.

2. The catmint exploded last summer; I had no idea it was going to get so unruly. Plus, the purple blossoms, next to the lavender, is an awful lot of purple. The unruly catmint and the ungroomed lavender make for a really messy effect, and I hate it.

3. There are three shrubs in a row against the porch. Not sure what they are, but in the fall the leaves turn a lovely shade of crimson, so they're keepers.

4. There's an unidentified tree to the left of the porch. Not sure what it is, either, but I'd like to keep it as well.

5. In front of the tree are three small stonecrop that I planted. They seem to be doing ok, but I won't be devastated if they go.

6. In front of the three shrubs are two iris bulbs I've planted. They're doing ok, but again, I'm not devoted to them.

7. To the left of the lavender, and on the smaller garden on the other side of the path to the front door are three holly bushes. I really kind of hate them, as they aren't particularly attractive. I'm all for ditching them in favor of something else.

8. In the smaller garden to the right of the path to the front door is a Miss Kim lilac that I planted two years ago. It's doing pretty well, I'm happy to say, and I do want to keep that.

9. I've tried for two years in a row to get daisies to grow just behind the stonecrop, but they wither and die within a month of planting.

10. I'm trying to lean towards perennials, because I just don't have the time or the inclination to plant new stuff every spring, even though the brighter colors of the annuals are appealing. Ideally, I want to plant something and be done with it, aside from occasional seasonal care.

I'm really not very good at gardening, so whatever I end up doing needs to be fairly low maintenance. We live northwest of Philadelphia, which according to the zone maps is 6b. This used to be farmland, but when we dig up anywhere there's quite a bit of shale. Our house faces SSE, and the main part of the garden gets a good amount of direct sunlight, although the little garden to the right of the path is mostly shaded, thanks to the shape of the house.

So! Given all this information, what would you recommend? Please treat me like a complete moron in your directions, because I really am not far from that, although I am an eager student.
posted by shiu mai baby to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a good gardener either. As I say that, it strikes me that the amount of time people spend on gardens is really what makes them good at it.

I would suggest contacting your local extension office for finding the kind of plants that would do well in your area. They can also give you ideas for low-to-no maintenance plants that you can drop in and almost leave alone. My father put in a native plant garden that he doesn't have to weed or fuss with, and it is doing well.

Here is a very unpopular idea, but one that I like. I planted my yard with zoysia. It will send out rhizomes, and it will spread to other peoples lawns if you can't contain it--so be warned. And these other people will most likely, be mad about it. It can't spread from my lawn because my lot is locked--I live on a corner and right next to me is a parking lot for a law office. Zoysia is really thick grass that many garden people don't like, but it chokes out weeds and needs little watering. One thing is that it browns off at the first frost, but I actually like that. It looks nice to me, but it isn't your traditional green lawn. And although it is classified as a warm weather grass, I live in zone 5 and I have had it for about 15 years.
posted by chocolatetiara at 10:40 AM on March 11, 2010

I think your crimson-in-fall bushes are "burning bush." Are the branches a sort of X shape in cross-section? They're very popular landscaping bushes (and very easy) because they are so pretty in fall, and in winter they "X" branches collect the snow and ice very prettily too.

Best information, hands down, is from your county cooperative extension. They will give you information specific to your county, and they have services dedicated to home horticulturalists, from informational pamphlets to books JUST for your region, to phone hotlines, to soil testing services. Pennsylvania's are operated through Penn State:
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2010

Any kind of mint will spread like crazy. I'd get rid of the catmint, myself. You'll probably be pulling it out of your beds for many seasons to come.

I attended a workshop last year on planting a perennial garden that will bloom all season long. The concept was to start at the back of your border with the earliest blooming plants then work forward in layers of plants that bloom next in succession. The examples we were given were daffodils at the back, irises in front of them, daylilies in front of them, mums in front of them. The idea being that, as the daffodils die back, the irises will grow in front of them to hide the spent daffodil foliage, then the daylilies will grow in front of the irises as they die back, etc...

I'm fairly certain I'm missing a plant between the daylilies and mums, though. Perhaps someone else has ideas for a mid- to late-summer blooming perennial to go there... Coneflower or black-eyed susans?
posted by iceprincess324 at 10:49 AM on March 11, 2010

In my experience, lavender can be given quite a "haircut" and rebound just fine.
Last year, I cut an unruly lavender (not sure of the specific variety) down to 10" with a nice flat top. It bushed out and became thick and compact. It was been given a few maintenance haircuts to keep the size down. It looked great until we went on vacation last summer and it didn’t get watered for the two hottest weeks of the year.

If the lavender is just too much of a pain, yank it and consider dropping in a fern or two. You can mix and match a few varieties of fern for a nice effect (like a larger sword fern, a smaller ghost fern and a small deer fern. Use the size of the sword fern to help shade the ghost fern.

Yank the mint out. If you'd like to keep a mint of any sort, I'd recommend placing it in a planter. Half a wine barrel might look nice in your yard - but everyone's aesthetics differ. Once you've got it out, scrape the barkdust away and place cardboard over the spot, then recover with your barkdust. Don't use super thick, glossy, waxed or leftover tape encrusted cardboard. It'll stick around as a good weed and mint blocker for a year or two, then disappear into the ground. This works especially well if you were to place a container (like half a wine barrel) over the cardboard and barkdust to keep everything in place.

My greatest yard challenge is remembering that some empty space (when kept tidy), really does wonders.
posted by terpia at 11:19 AM on March 11, 2010

7b gardener here from south of Philadelphia.

If that's the catmint down in the right-hand corner of the picture, I'm guessing it's Walker's Low. It's actually a very well-behaved mint, in many ways, in that it does not, as iceprincess324 asserts, spread like mad. In fact, as far as I can tell, it doesn't spread seeds at all. The plants just get big and flop. To keep it tidy and un-flopping, prune 75% or so of it back whenever you damn well feel like or at least once or twice a season, and it'll not only come back much more tidily and in a little bush, but also surprise you with a proper flush of flowers to extend the period of time you've got a pretty bit of purple in that corner, since lavender doesn't rebloom in the 6b area.

If you have a lavender growing in a place happily, my experience in this area has been that a well-behaved fern is unlikely to do well there because lavender really likes heat and light and lights of dryness. The ferns that will grow well there probably aren't ones that you'll want, because they spread like mad and are notoriously hard to yank out and get very, very untidy.

Black-eyed susans are, by the way, biennuals, which means that you'll get a succession of little plants that bloom somewhat and then big plants that bloom a lot and die that winter then littler plants that won't bloom so much, etc. More relevantly for you, though, black-eyed susans in the Mid-Atlantic tend to get pretty ratty by mid-summer, what with our humidity, various bugs, and punishing heat. Most kinds also drop seeds, which means that you'll have volunteers coming up and more and more black-eyed susans in that bed as time goes by. They will get untidy if you don't keep yanking them out. If you like the coneflower look, try one of the echniaceas that are now available in almost every color under the sun. They generally don't drop volunteers, for one thing, and won't take over a bed.

Final note: I wouldn't go so much with the county extension in this area, but try giving the Philadelphia Horticultural Society a call. They're the seeeeeeeeeeeeeeerious gardeners in this area, and they also have experts by county who can talk to you about what works and doesn't work in your specific area.
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:12 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not into garden layout, but a few thoughts on the plants themselves:

1. If you don't like where your catmint is, move it. There are lots of recommendations about when is best to move plants. Me, I just pick a day I've got the energy & assume a plant's will to live will pull it through. By and large it's a technique that works.

2. The visual wasn't quite good enough to tell for sure, but I'd put money on your red-turning shrub being a "burning bush" (one of a great big family of shrubs called "Viburnum". And it does turn a glorious red in the fall, when receiving decent light). It will eventually get 6 to 10 feet high, but that's a problem for another day. Keep an eye out for scale insects.

If it's not the viburnum, my next guess would be some form of Abelia, based on the color shift and how the leaves are arranged on the stem. Abelias generally have conspicuous flowers; the burning bush has a very inconspiuous flower.

3. Daisies are really prone to a type of borer that gets into the stems. If you decide to try again, check them compulsively for signs of boring and proceed from there. Beyond that problem and deadheading them when they get appalling, they're not particularly demanding plants. When they're not flowering, most daisies are low-growing, non-descript plants.

In terms of being a good gardener or a bad gardener: Most of being a "bad" gardener is lack of experience. Some people never get a lot of experience because they're just not that into it and give it up as a bad job. People who like it despite the disappointments and frustrations tend to learn a lot in the process of dealing with their losses and trying new solutions. Eventually that turns them into better gardners. Unless, of course, they refuse to learn from their mistakes.

Also: I have to take exception to ChocolateTiara's assertion that great yards are created by big budgets. Many a great layout has completely bypassed the idea that you need a riot of plants to acheive a fabulous garden.

I mean, sure, if money is not a concern you can plunk down your money and get everything done in one go and have every inch of space filled, and maybe even someone to mulch and weed it and fertilize it for you. But if you don't, that doesn't mean you can't get lovely results. It's definitely going to mean working with fewer plants, and probably starting with smaller plants to boot, but plants GROW. And frankly, they grow better when they've got some space to expand into. Yes, that does take time. Give it a month. And don't skimp on the ground prep or the fertilizer. In fact, I like to get two fertilizers: A capful of slow-release to put under the plant when I'm planting it, plus a weekly treat (OK, monthly) from my watering can in the form of a water-soluble fertilizer.

Another trick when using fewer plants is to stagger your row: It gives a sense of a denser planting than lining everything up one behind the other or stringing them out in a single row.

And with perennials in particular, you can develop a fabulous perennial collection by buying tiny starter perennials, planting them out, and then dividing them like crazy at the end of the growing season/beginning of the next growing season.

Sure, a beautiful garden can be created with money. But it can also be created with patience and planning. Good luck & happy growing!
posted by Ys at 6:50 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

These are all great suggestions. Thanks so much, everyone. It will be interesting to see how well I can pull any of this off. Heh.
posted by shiu mai baby at 6:49 AM on March 19, 2010

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