Flower gardening 101
May 18, 2015 5:46 PM   Subscribe

How do I garden? More precisely...how do renovate/set up a perennial bed and get it looking good for next month, not just next summer? It's time to do something about the horrible parking strip/hell strip out front and I'm not sure how to execute when it's a total mess, some things are already blooming, and I want it to be not-crappy looking basically as soon as I'm done.

This is my parking strip. It's about a 6x30 area, currently full of many beautiful irises that badly need dividing, some daylilies, and a field's worth of crabgrass. I would like to turn it into a an actual garden, which is common here (Denver, CO). I want it to 1) be pretty; and 2) require very little maintenance to stay that way, so low-water and low-groom, with plants that will spread (tidily) by themselves to fill the space and very little bare mulched area I have to weed except a landing strip right by the curb and a walkway. Very simple and informal, big drifts and clusters. I'm That Girl who knocks on random doors when I see good gardens, so on the plants themselves I've got a list to check out and ask about at the nursery - a mix of flowering perennials, ornamental grasses, and ground covers to fill the space in between.

BUT I don't really know how to actually do it? I'm a hardcore vegetable gardener but am realizing quickly that I know next to nothing about growing non-edibles. The current state of things is pretty dismal; there is crumbling 10-year-old hardwood mulch and landscape cloth covering the whole area. Established crabgrass in all the non-planted places and some other tall grassy thing is growing throughout the iris, which is currently blooming but is badly crowded.

Specific questions:

1) How does one go about making an actual plan for this kind of thing? I'm working through my design ideas and know I need to think about height, color, bloom time, etc. along with all the normal shade/sun/water/condition stuff, is there anything else about flower garden planning I need to know? I don't want to get precious about designing the garden, I want to get 'er done. Should I actually make a plan on paper, and if so how do I account for things that will spread? Practical resources or tutorials, and your own parking strip garden advice, would be handy.

2) How do I break down the project stages when it can't all be done at once? The priority I guess is to get the weeds out and the ground cleared, then get mulch down/spring plantables in? A second wave in the fall to plant bulbs? But the iris can't be divided for a few more weeks at least—can I do everything else around them, leaving spaces for the divided iris, and then go back and re-do where the iris currently are after they're cleared out?

3) Anything special I should know about digging up the current trashy stuff or tips to make it easier? The mix of established grass, tearing rotted cloth, and mulch is a nightmare to dig, like removing sod IN HELL. I'm pulling big clumps before digging but that still leaves a lot of behind. Would a sod shovel make this easier?

4) How about refilling once everything is cleared? I know how to handle this for vegetables but is anything major different for flowers? Hopefully I can just amend and won't need to buy a lot of new soil...oh god should I double dig this thing? I will if it will make a real difference but omg I hope not.

5) Should I put down landscape cloth under the (few) mulch-only areas, curbside landing strip (say 18" wide) and walkway as aforesaid? Should I use edging between planted areas and mulch-only areas? How about between sidewalk/curb and mulch? Seriously I know nothing about this.

6) I'm fine with few blooms this summer and understand that the perennials will be small and leave more bare ground than I ultimately hope to have. But I really really do not want to be weeding the strip for a couple hours every week while they spread, not to mention buy a ton of mulch I don't actually want. Is there some kind of annual I could put in NOW to fill up bare spaces between plants? How do people usually handle this?

Thanks AskMe gardeners!!
posted by peachfuzz to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This doesn't address any of your specific points, but in honor of your ambition, I recommend getting some hard-core knee pads (will work for people of different sizes) at a hardware store. I strongly recommend getting some. It will make this whole endeavor, plus many more (cleaning bathtub, floors, etc.) much more pleasant. You will feel triumphantly empowered.
posted by amtho at 6:07 PM on May 18, 2015

Ha! Just came from a consultation with landscape designer at the local nursery for help on a new 11 x 24' bed. I can help with a few questions. She highly recommends landscape cloth covered with stones or mulch for painless weed control. I wonder if removing the largest weeds then cover with the cloth and stone/mulch would save you some labor... I have put 3 layers of newspaper sheets down first, then the landscape cloth for new beds cut from former lawn areas. I have added English ivy in other new beds for instant cover and color. Just keep the ivy away from your house walls as it will eat them up. Edging yes, and there is new sturdy stuff that bends nicely for radii and blends in. Note that some garden stores charge for design, others require you to buy a gift card for future use, but they all seem to be happy to give free advice!
posted by Lornalulu at 6:26 PM on May 18, 2015

I would do it in stages. First, pull up the crabgrass and other weeds, put down three layers of newspaper in the blank areas, and cover with mulch. That's a good Full Saturday right there. THEN, I would step back and figure out what else I needed. The next phase would probably be to divide the perennials, pick out and plant a ground over, buy a few big rocks and place them. Then comes the third stage of actually choosing the new plants to add height and texture to what you already have. Unfortunately, the fun part usually comes last, after the hard labor.
posted by raisingsand at 6:48 PM on May 18, 2015

Response by poster: raisingsand, that's really good advice. I think I really just needed someone to tell me what to do first.

Dumb question: With the newspaper down, how do I plant through it when I want to put something else in? Will my shovel just cut through it?
posted by peachfuzz at 7:21 PM on May 18, 2015

The newspaper will rot away pretty fast underneath mulch. I was going to add - don't bother with weed cloth at all. It's not effective forever and it's a pain to cut through once you're ready to plant. I bet you will feel really good once you get the weeds cleaned out and more inspired for the design parts.
posted by stowaway at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2015

I just did this with my front yard & tree strip in Denver! But I gotta admit, it involved a lot of mulch. It's still very pretty though - a lot of the ground cover plants I used are flowering now and bringing a nice array of color. I did work with a landscape designer who I would definitely recommend - she does a lot of small urban, xeriscape gardens. Even if you don't want a design done, she can do a consultation with you for under $100 and could help with recommending a great mix of plants for height, color, texture - she pointed out things for me that I would never have thought of that are gorgeous, and helped me figure out how to best tackle the project. If you'd like her info (or if you'd like me to go on at ridiculous length about what I planted) feel free to memail!

Other thoughts - I was too lazy to dig out grass (I had a huge grassy area) so I sheet-mulched it last year (mulch over cardboard - the grass dies, the cardboard decomposes, you rake away the mulch and you have glorious rich soil). It's not a quick solution but it worked so well. When I was ready to plant I didn't have to double dig or amend or anything, just started planting!

The sheet mulching also controlled weeds really well; I only spent about 15 minutes a week on my entire front yard. I only used landscape fabric where I had rock instead of mulch. I didn't really know at that point what I wanted to do long term, so I didn't plant anything, just did pots full of annuals all around the mulched area, and decorative rocks here and there, and it really did look nice. So that's one option while you think about what you want.

Finally, if you do end up with mulch, definitely order some good quality stuff from a local nursery - when I started out I had that horrible red stuff too and hated it. The stuff I put down this year is worlds apart - it looks a thousand times nicer.
posted by tinymojo at 8:32 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Check these out: http://www.highcountrygardens.com/pre-planned-gardens. There are a few hell strip plans, and I suspect their plants would work well where you are. If you want to do bulbs, ever, don't do landscaping fabric. The cuts you have to make to plant additional things greatly hasten its demise. I know from hard experience.
posted by bloggerwench at 10:43 PM on May 18, 2015

The mulch you will probably want is called hardwood mulch.
Weed things manually. The first round of weeding is going to suck, but once it is done, things will get better. Get yourself something called a scuffle hoe for future weeding. The blade slips beneath weeds and kills them without you having to do much kneeling. It also goes pretty fast.

Choose a vague color scheme you like. Since you've already got purple irises and orange day lilies, you could go with purple and orange. Personally, I'd decrease the amount of iris and daylily by a lot, but since you want things to look fairly completed this year, you may not want to do this but wait for next year to edit them. Choose perennials in this scheme - don't worry too much about design. Try to get things that have different leaf shape or leaf color to provide variety. Don't overthink it, just get things and try them out. The joy of flower gardening is trying things out and if you don't like them, you can move them or remove them. My general advice is to avoid planting things in lines or equilateral triangles. Give them space to grow in. Select things that make sense for your hardiness zone and light levels - and how much you're willing to water. Plant these perennials and then choose about three kinds of annuals to use as "socks" to cover their ankles while they grow in.

Water after planting and continue to do so for a week or two as the roots of the plants grow in. Put down mulch after planting. Do about 2-3 inches and be sure to leave a tiny ring around each plant that is mulch free. The mulch can burn the stems of your plants, so don't mound it up on them.

In the fall, put in bulbs. A fairly good supplier of wholesale bulbs to the public is Van Engelen. Narcissus are great for naturalizing and aren't bothered by rodents or deer. Choose two or three kinds of bulbs you like and put them in in drifts. See how you like them in the spring and then plant more in the fall.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:05 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You could take a divide and conquer approach. Focus on fixing up the planted part first and spiff it up as a quick win before taking on the bare and grassy bits. So, Start witht that planted part first and maybe prep a foot or two adjacent to it (clean out the weeds, newspaper under compost on the bare spots to keep the weeds down and feed the soil. figure out what else you want to put in to complement the existing plants and add those in.

Then, ta da, the planted focal part of your parking strip already looks better. If you don't have the money and energy to do over the entire thing, you can stop there for this year and look like you made a major improvement, which you did. Whereas if you mulch and cover the whole strip and don't get it planted out it will look like a big gnarly unfinished pile of dirt...

It's a thought,
posted by Sublimity at 4:45 AM on May 19, 2015

Look at the list of plants you have/want, and mark down when they bloom and when they sprout/die. A really good perennial garden looks good in early spring (bulbs/flowering shrub) in late spring (flowers and good greenery), mid-summer (lots of greens and a few flowers) and into fall (there are plenty of fall-blooming things, but also look for greenery that turns pretty colors) and you can consider how things will be over the winter (does it die back naturally, are you supposed to raze it to the ground and mulch over, or is it going to hang out being a brownish half-dead hulk?). You don't have to plan the heck out of it, but just make sure you haven't picked a whole list of stuff that will look fantastic in May, that gives you a boring holding pattern the rest of the year.
posted by aimedwander at 5:53 AM on May 19, 2015

Yes, your shovel will go through the newspaper later when you're ready to plant!
posted by raisingsand at 7:28 AM on May 19, 2015

Another argument for not using weed cloth: The Myth of Landscape Fabric
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:58 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone here has good advice. I would also suggest that you think about the height of your plants, in addition to the bloom time. If you will be looking at your strip from both sides, put the tallest plants in the middle and then the middle-height on either side and the shortest ones on the edges. Mind you, you don't want to plant everything in straight lines either, but just be sure plant X isn't obscuring your view of plant Y.

Also there is a lot to be said for cleaning up the strip, planting a few small plants and mulching around them - it will look a lot better immediately, even if it's not full and lush right away.
posted by sarajane at 9:00 AM on May 19, 2015

Buy plants in multiples. Get at least three of everything unless the item is a large bush
posted by sciencegeek at 9:35 AM on May 19, 2015

And as far as buying plants:

*first year they nestle, second year they root, third year they explode. Don't be surprised if you don't get big blooms after planting perennials. In year 3 you'll be so excited!

*To have a garden that blooms all season, plant new flowers every 2 weeks. Go to your preferred nursery and buy 3/6/9 of whatever is blooming THAT day. In a few years, you'll see how this will keep your garden always colorful.

*As silly as it may feel, take pictures of the garden EVERY week. This will help you remember what blossoms when.

*Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. It makes SUCH a difference when you dump in a lot of lovely manure and work it into the soil upon first planting.

*Don't forget bulbs! They are completely awesome. Plant them once, forget about them and then every you're happily surprised by hyacinth, tulips, lilies and daffodils in the spring.
posted by kinetic at 1:36 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

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