Use These Strategies and Resources for a Fantastic Garden Year After Year

Books to Read, Things to Do, and LOTS to Look Up and Learn About!

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grey twigs of a magnolia tree covered with snow Our first item is brought to you by the department of obvious department. January makes an ideal time to assess the need for winter interest. Do you have enough?

What shapes and structures define your space? Is the ground on your property flat or varied, monotonous or interesting?

Consider your winter views. What can you see in winter that you can’t see other seasons? Is there an unpleasant sight you’d prefer to screen?

Does your yard have enough green going on? If you’d like to add more in the form of leaves or needles, plants such as wintergreen, heather, Aucuba, Bergenia, Galax, Rohdea, Rhododendron (=azalea), dwarf or full-size conifers (=juniper), Yucca, Hesperaloe, and Camellia just might belong somewhere. Beyond green are the plants that offer marbled or colored leaves such as cyclamen, Heuchera, Illicium ‘Florida Sunshine’ and ‘Shady Lady.’ Many heathers offer spectacular winter colors, some azaleas and rhododendrons change near black in the cold, and there are so many variegated Abelias on the market now, you might lose track of them (I think I have)!

a goldenrod plant dried up and gone to seed covered with frostBeyond leaves and leaf-like structures would be the deciduous plants that hold berries or offer colorful twigs in yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and black. Then there are the perennial plants that might have stems with lasting seed heads, both flowers and grasses, such as this goldenrod above.

Some people might even consider the PeeGee Hydrangea a significant contributor to winter interest. Do you?

a view of PeeGee hydrangea shrubs in winter with no leaves but holding the dried flower heads

Need I invoke Piet Oudolf’s mantra? “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living.”

Since it’s the beginning of the year, you need a garden journal to record arrivals and departures and other things that might matter, such as temperature and rainfall.

Have you gotten one?

Next comes the un-learning you probably need to start the year with. If you haven’t read the books exploring common myths in horticulture, let Linda Chalker-Scott teach you a thing or two–and probably more than two! They’re worth their weight in gold, compost, orchids–you pick the comparison, but don’t proceed without them!

the cover of the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas TallamyIndoor time is an opportunity to educate yourself about invasive species in your area. Look up your state or region and find out whether you have any in your yard or growing nearby. If you do, consider removing them entirely; I hope you’d replace any potential problem plants with a native.

And what about invasive species that you discover are growing on adjacent property? Bring a fruitcake to a neighbor as bribery while you tell people they might need to do something about it.

For a really eye-opening treatment of invasive species and what we cultivate, Douglas Tallamy says it with his well-worded title Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. The message itself is easy to grasp, but what you probably don’t realize–and need to see–is most of the evidence behind it. It is eye-opening, transformative, and could alarm you–as it should)!

Wintry months make a very apt time to learn more about part of the reason Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was chosen Perennial Plant of the Year: the milkweed hypothesis. One of the best books of 2017 was Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal. I hope you’ll read it if you haven’t and give it too.

If you live where it snows, use snow to observe wind patterns on your property.

This is common sense, but it can tell you important things. Remember that advice from Voltaire published back in 1764: common sense is not so common.

a portrait of Franz Joseph Haydn from 1785 by Christian Seehas

Agrawal’s book shows how a brilliant mind can illuminate and communicate a subject as potentially difficult and esoteric as the biology of an insect and plant that evolved together. I can’t tell you about his book, then, and skip another example of brilliance: the apex of Enlightenment Era thought about humanity’s place in nature. Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons begins and ends with winter. It presents nature as a metaphor for truth and the small farmer it celebrated was also the ideal citizen in Jefferson’s concept of what a nation should be.

Although Haydn meant to emulate and commemorate Handel’s contributions to the Colossal Baroque, with this piece he also took the oratorio away from its sacred origins into secular territory: the world around us. A new recording by Paul McCreesh has given it “the treatment“; although there are other excellent ones, you won’t want to pass winter without listening to Signum 480 at least once.

Consider water use.

This means fundamentally that if it needs a sprinkler or watering by hose, it’s on life support, as in NOT SUSTAINABLE.

sprinklers watering a lawn in the morningIt’s no accident that ancient cultures in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia built cities by rivers. Beyond a source of water and rich land for agriculture, rivers also meant transportation and commerce. Of course, that aqueous provider and sustainer of life could be the source of destructive floods . . . which remain a problem to humanity even now thousands of years later . . .

Balance this consideration about water use with the realities of your region and your preferences, which might lean in favor of watering for valid reasons.

One of the most popular shrubs in much of North America is hydrangea, which is a plant that needs moist conditions. So does a beautiful perennial called Astilbe. Most rhododendrons, azaleas, hollies, and ferns won’t tolerate drought either, and heathers certainly don’t start out drought-tolerant.

Lobelia cardinalis and Sagittaria latifolia painted in 1886 by Ellen Fisher, chromolithograph by Louis Prang
Two plants that grow in wet conditions and bloom in late summer, cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis and broadleaf arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia painted in 1886 by Ellen Fisher, chromolithograph by Louis Prang. Behind the subjects you can also see an aster.

Some of the best flowers of late summer and autumn are not drought-tolerant or are even adapted to marshy places. These include Phlox, Lobelia, Dahlias, New England Aster, Tricyrtis, and Chrysanthemum. I’m not recommending a ban on these, just that you consider the plant’s needs and yours.

a shot of a lawnmower on a lawn in summertimeRelated to this concern about water use and planting to suit your location and lifestyle: Do you have more lawn than you need? Consider the time and trouble involved in its upkeep. Also think about cost and water. Michael Pollan presented a solid argument against lawns back in 1989. Read it now if you didn’t then. Heck, share it with someone who hates to mow!

We’ll end by returning to the seasonal topic of cold in a somewhat unusual way: zone-pushing. If you’d like to push the limits of what plants will survive where you live, you’ll want the only book on the subject, Dr. Francko’s Palms Won’t Grow Here.

Now, I could keep going, and you could keep on reading, but it’s time to act. Are you ready to apply what’s been covered so far?

With this advice and these resources, you ought to begin the year more inspired and better prepared. Shall we tally the tab–an investment of sorts in your property and perspective? All this means you might have only four or five books to order or look up in the library, plus get the garden journal, and one recording you won’t want to be without.

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