Jeff Epping, Director of Horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, speaks to gardeners on a WHPS garden tour last summer.
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What's a northern gardener to do during these last weeks of winter but go to garden talks with lots of inspirational pictures? Which is just what I did last week on a deadly cold night. A neighborhood gardening friend drove the two of us in her car with heated seats!
Cindy and I are both avid gardeners who spend as much time as we can in our gardens. But we're also experienced enough to know we can't keep up this pace forever. We're also at an age when it would be nice to spend more time in the garden not on our hands and knees. So we went to hear Jeff Epping, Olbirch Botanical Gardens' horticulture director talk about maintenance levels in the mixed border.
THE MIXED BORDER
"Mixed border" means a combination of trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, bulbs and annuals interplanted with each other. Here's a corner of the mixed border plantings at Olbrich's Sunken Garden (below).
Jeff had images of English and American gardens, public and private, that called for very high maintenance down to low maintenance. Having lost a number of woody plants (goodbye Japanese maples!) in the brutal winter of 2013/14 and others to old age, meant I did a lot of re-thinking of our garden last year, along with re-planning and re-planting. I was curious to hear if anything I was doing was going to make a difference. Here's my take on the concept of lower garden mainenance.
SHRUBS TO THE RESCUE
The good news is that I had done one of the things that Jeff talked about in multiple areas in my garden. He pointed out that shrubs take up space which helps with maintenance. All the fancy things that died last winter got replaced with trees and shrubs that are more hardy here than many I had been growing. I also opted for a number of varieties whose leaves are as colorful as flowers but last all season. It was encouraging to feel that I am on the right path. This view of my garden (below) shows how many shrubs take up prominent space in the garden.
Jeff showed lots of images of gardens that achieve a lower maintenance level with the use of boxwoods in particular. He pointed out that Buxus 'Green Gem' is one of the best varieties for area gardeners to use as it is not only hardy here but also slow to grow so needs little pruning. We've used boxwoods in numerous locations but especially on slopes where we want to plant things and let them take care of themselves for the most part. The next two pictures show boxwoods, yews and juniper planted near a set of stone steps leading up to our Tea House.
Looking back down the steps in the opposite direction from the picture above you can see the slope is full of shrubs. Behind the shrubs on the left side are ferns and ground covers that I hope will fill in this summer.
I originally thought I would plant this area along the fence (below right) as a long perennial flower bed. But before I put anything in, I thought about the fact that it really was one side of a corridor that led to more interesting garden areas at either end of it. Planting it in box and Yew balls would lower maintenance, but more importantly would increase the effect of the garden you were approaching as you came through this simple green garden. Eventually these shrubs will merge into a wavy cloud hedge.
Behind me on the left side is a grass-covered hill, a mowing menace. I'm thinking of putting in a Russian cypress which can take sun and shade and spread far and wide. Or perhaps the solid green form of Hakonechloa grass. Something with a different texture than the rounded shrubs on the opposite side of the path, but keeping the theme green — and low maintenance.
GROUND COVERS TO THE RESCUE
When I look at pictures of English mixed borders or visit Olbrich, I am blown away by the plant combinations and the rich mix of forms, textures and colors. But a frequent visitor to my garden helped me to appreciate a different approach. She said how much she liked the fact that I could use swaths and sweeps of a particular plant because of the larger size of my garden.
Her vocal appreciation of that planting concept helped me to think about ground covers in a positive way. Typically I used them in out of the way locations rather than putting them in prominent places in the garden. But Jane made me look for spots where I could use ground covers — like this group of Iris cristata (below) — to good effect, from both a visual and maintenance standpoint. So I am working on creating a river of this coming down the slope next to the boxwoods by the stone steps. Gardening on a slope is always a challenge. A combination of shrubs and ground covers, punctuated with Hellebores and Hostas, will make maintenance and my life much easier.
NEXT: My absolutely lowest maintenance garden bed and the highest maintenance area.