The Garden Renovation Primer: Building a Brick Terrace

Well, with the crazy, snow-less winter here we’ve had here in Boston, I’ve gotten a bit behind in relating the story of our Cambridge garden renovation project, principally because the strange weather has kept me on site and working right into January. But now snow has finally come, so in the next two articles, I’ll be bringing you up to date. Today, I’ll show you the progress on the brick terrace, and next week, I’ll take you step by step through the now finished sunken garden.

So here’s where we were in October, just at the beginning of the patio construction. You can see one of the guys at Lighthouse Landscape preparing the stone dust base:

While I’m not going to go into the specifics of designing brick terraces (I’ve already done that in a previous article, HERE) I do want to explain how I made specific choices for this particular garden. Looking again at the back of the house, you can see that the facade has rather odd fenestration: unlike the front of the house which is perfectly symmetrical, on the back each window and door is a different shape and size. This isn’t all that unusual in old houses – it’s merely the result of design changes over two hundred years and a dozen different occupants, a fact which has now become fixed by historical covenant and can’t be altered. So given that we can’t make changes to the house architecture, what we can do is use the landscape architecture to help even out the visual picture and settle the back of the house into the garden. To accomplish this, I decided to pull a brick terrace across the full width of the back facade, some 40′ feet. Technically I could have designed a patio in any size or shape, as long as it was sufficiently large to accommodate the needs of the owners, but here, I wanted to use the hardscape to link together the various doors and windows into a more cohesive whole.

Next in goes the brick:

Already you can see how the uniformity of the brick surface starts to link together the various doors and windows (not to mention providing enhanced access to the house). Notice too that the terrace is not formed of just simple running bond: instead, there is a framework of running bond surrounding a 1′ bluestone strip, which in turn surrounds an interior laid in the herringbone pattern. These “oriental rug” terraces are something of a trademark of mine – I generally use some variation of this arrangement whenever the design calls for brick. This rug feature is especially important here, given the size of the terrace: without the stone and pattern to provide visual interest, I’d risk creating a brick parking lot.

Here’s the finished terrace, with a the new granite steps linking the two doors that lead into the backyard:

Here you can really see how the combination of brick and stone provide visual interest all year round – not to mention drawing the eye away from the odd back facade of the house. Had I used only stone, for instance, or for that matter, only brick, the result would have been far less dramatic, and far less successful. Which brings up an interesting point: how do you decide on what material to use for your hard surface? Here the choice was easy: this particular brick was historically made just over the hill from where this house sits in Cambridge, and all the surrounding sidewalks are made from the same material. But more importantly, given that I wanted to create a landscape feature of intrinsic interest, the only real possibility was provided by the play of pattern and line that brick provides.

So next time, we’re off to the building of the sunken garden: you can just see a tantalizing hint of it in the picture above, but I won’t spoil the fun –  I think you’ll be truly amazed at the complexity of constructing a feature that appears so simple on paper.

More Thalassa Cruso!

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I am a huge fan of 60s gardening guru Thalassa Cruso.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten a number of letters from various Thalassa fans, thanking me for my earlier efforts in bringing at least one her episodes back from extinction. (For my 2009 tribute to Thalassa, click here.) Frankly, my initial attempt at video restoration was a bit amateurish, with only OK sound and not terribly good picture quality, so with these latest viewer letters as my incentive, I decided to go back and have another crack at the tape we’d transferred to DVD a couple of years ago. I’d always known we had portions of three episodes, but my initial read was that they were merely fragmentary bits. Imagine my surprise, when after a lot of late night prodding and poking, I managed to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and restore all three half-hour shows! This time however, the results are much more professional: digital picture quality and stereo sound that goes a long way to restoring gardening’s grande dame to her former glory.  In the first restored episode, Starting From Scratch, Thalassa explains how little equipment is really needed to begin gardening indoors. In the second, Heirlooms from the Supermarket/10-Cent Store, she delves into the best way to grow a worthy indoor plant collection. The last episode features world renowned bonsai expert Connie Derderian teaching a dubious Thalassa how to create this Japanese art form.

So here, once again, may I present the indomitable, the inimitable, the one, the only Thalassa Cruso!

Starting From Scratch (1969)

Heirlooms from the Supermarket/10-Cent Store (1969)

And here’s the re-restored Bonsai from the show’s 1967 season.

The Garden Renovation Primer: Moving Established Trees

When renovating an old landscape, almost inevitably you’ll be faced with the issue of what to do with established plantings. On one hand large trees and shrubs add a dignity and grace to a property that is almost impossible to replicate by any means except the passage of time. On the other hand, often poor planning means these fine old specimens are too close together, or shading out other plantings, or simply in the way of a new scheme. Cutting down such established plantings should always be your last option however: what you can destroy in an instant will take decades to replace. Generally, trees and shrubs up 20′ tall or so can be moved to new positions on the property reasonably economically (when viewed against replacement cost) and with a high rate of survivability.

There are essentially two ways to move a large tree or shrub. The easiest is with something called a tree spade, pictured below on a suburban project I did several years back. (Click on any of these pictures for a larger view.)

Appropriately named, a tree spade is exactly that: a large mechanical claw for digging and moving heavy plants. To dig the tree, the two halves of the claw open and encircle the specimen; then the four heavy spades descend vertically into the soil, severing the roots. They then fold together underground, creating a root ball. The tree is lifted out, tipped horizontally across the back of the truck, and is carted off to the new location. To plant, the process is reversed, with the claws literally wedging out the soil to form a hole into which the tree descends. (This is exactly what you see about to happen above. Look closely: there’s a large hinoki cypress, almost identical to the just-planted specimen at the left, within the claw of the spade.) It sounds simple, and it is – in the hands of an experienced operator – and depending on the size of the tree spade (they come in various versions from middling to huge) you can pretty much move any sized tree up to 20-30′ tall. (In case you’re wondering, the tree shown above weighed in at just under 4 tons.) The drawbacks to tree spades are two-fold. The first is cost: a tree spade for a day, with operator, will run about $4000, and can realistically only move 1-4 trees (depending on the distance between digging and plantings sites) in a single day. The second is access: these big machines don’t fit well on small sites with buildings and overhead wires in close proximity, which was exactly the case on our Boston garden renovation project. There, we had a very lovely old American holly, ilex opaca, which both the owners and I insisted be saved. (These plants are quite rare in this part of the world, at the northern extremity of their range.) In the old plan the holly was far too close to its neighbor, but in the new scheme we had the perfect spot for it: in the corner behind our new sunken garden. The question was how to get it there. The answer: ball and burlap, and a lot of digging, pushing & tugging.

So here’s the first part of the process. Russell Gates and his crew at Lighthouse Landscape spent the better part of the morning digging around our holly with an excavator. Once the trenching was complete, they used the front-end loader below to slice underneath the holly, severing the bottom roots, thus allowing the crew to get burlap and ties underneath the root ball:

As the root ball is too heavy to lift to any appreciable height without a tree spade, in order to move the tree to its new location, it has to be dragged along a fairly level roadbed, in this case, a trench Russell dug earlier with his excavator. In the view below, you can see the trench behind two members of Russ’ crew. These gentlemen also give you a good idea of the size of the holly involved, which weighs upwards of 5 thousand pounds.

To move the tree along the track, Russell pulls the chain tied to the root ball with his excavator, while the front end loader pushes. Russell is sitting pretty much where the holly is headed.

And a remarkably, less than an hour later, here’s the holly in its new location, safe, sound and happy in the far corner of the lot. The area in the foreground is precisely where our sunken garden will be built.

In fact, this picture shows almost exactly the same view as the rendering we prepared earlier. There’s the holly in the far corner:

I must say that even after so many years in the business, I find the process of moving from design to reality quite amazing – especially when you combine a group of professionals with precisely the right equipment. One moment it’s there only on paper, and the next, voilà!

Next stop on our project: laying the new back terrace!

Garden Travels: Lessons from Malta

A shot I took while hiking the limestone cliffs on the western coast of Malta.

I’m just back from a very interesting 10 days in Malta. Truth be told, it’s not someplace I’d ever intended to visit, but a dear college friend of mine was on sabbatical there this fall, and the invitation seemed too good to turn down. Turns out, it’s quite the place, Malta. A tiny rock of an island not far from the Libyan coast, this miniature nation state has an incredibly long and diverse history dating back over seven thousand years. The oldest architectural remains in Europe are found there (which I toured, spectacular!) and the island has been occupied, in succession, by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards, and Italians, each helping to produce a remarkable cultural heritage.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Maltese farmers manage to grow a fantastic variety of crops on what is essentially a tree-less block of barren limestone. Of course by November, most of the harvest was already in, but as I traveled about the island, I came upon field after field of the most spectacular leeks I’ve seen in a while, just finishing their long growing year:

This lush growth is all the more remarkable when you take a closer look at the soil:

Those aren’t clumps of dirt you’re looking at, they’re rocks: thousands and thousands of bits of limestone, surrounded by what is, in essence, stone powder. Imagine having to garden in soil like this! Yet the Maltese do, with spectacular results. What’s their secret? Well, it’s two-fold.The first part is adding sufficient organic matter: Maltese fields are lightly manured after each harvest, and this annual dose of organic matter not only feeds the crops, but also helps the soil retain much needed moisture during the dry summer months – something that simply adding fertilizer alone wouldn’t accomplish. The second key to success is knowing when enough organic matter is enough. Simply because a soil is rich doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good garden. In fact, soils can contain too much organic matter, something I learned to my dismay this summer in my own vegetable garden. Last fall, I covered the beds with a good foot or two of leaves as I had the past three seasons, which I dutifully tilled into the soil this past spring. But it seems I overdid it: I added so much composted matter that the drainage was adversely affected, producing a dark, muddy soil that pooled water. Without sufficient air at the roots, my plantings weren’t able to absorb food and moisture properly, and the result was the poor growth I experienced this summer. (Of course, record rains and a hurricane didn’t help either.) Fortunately, the situation is self correcting: by next spring the excess organics will have sufficiently broken down and proper drainage will be restored. (I may also add a bit of grit in the form of sand to help things along.) But in the meantime the lesson is clear: add organic matter regularly but sparingly to your garden, never changing the soil’s composition by more than 20% or so at a time. And above all, maintain good drainage. It’s the sine qua non of successful vegetable gardening, as the clever Maltese will attest.

The Garden Renovation Primer: Evolution

My grandfather’s mantra was: plan twice, plant once.

As it turns out, that wasn’t quite accurate.

In reality, it’s plan, plan more, replan, and plan again, and keep planning until the garden you’re searching for finally emerges from the design.

Of course when you’re planning your own garden, you have only one judge to please. Build what you want, plant what you want – you are judge, jury and executor. When, however, you’re working for someone else, things become considerably more complex. I always jokingly warn my clients at the beginning of a project that they’ll wind up with one of two gardens: mine or theirs. Both will be lovely, but one will feel much more like home than the other. The key to achieving a garden design that is unique and individual to you is continual input and feedback throughout the planning stages.

In this article, I’m going to give you some sense of how a garden plan evolves over time. I’m not going to take you through the step-by-step of how to actually draw a plan – those basics I’ve covered already in my books The New Traditional Garden and The Victory Garden Companion. What I would like to describe now is some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating an individualized garden plan.

So, back to our Federal-era house in Boston: after having spent considerable amount of time on site measuring, photographing, cataloging existing conditions, etc., my next step was to meet again with the clients, to get a better feel for exactly what kind of landscape they’re were looking for. In the first article, I’ve already detailed some of the general parameters of what the clients, Mr. And Mrs A., wanted in the new garden. Further discussions, though, brought up some other considerations: Mrs. A was rightly concerned that the south/west exposure of the area off the kitchen would make for overly hot conditions in the summer; she also mentioned her preference for being able to walk through the garden space, often even taking an outdoor route to the car, rather than walking through the house. Mr. A revealed that he was concerned that the garden not look “suburban.” The house, he rightly noted, was unique and quirky, and he wanted a garden to reflect that.

While these might not sound like hugely important design considerations, in reality they were. Take for instance Mrs A.’s point. What she was stating, though in layman’s terms, was that landscapes can be static or kinetic, meaning that you can either participate in them visually, from a far, as you do with a painting, or in a tactile sense, actually experiencing the landscape in sound, touch and scent. Her preference was clearly for the later. Mr. A was also addressing another important issue: the overall impression the final garden would give. Simply put, he wanted something with a bit of visual bang.

A week or so later these discussions led to a very basic plan, essentially just a plot to show how space might be divided in the garden:

The initial site overview plan (click on this and the other plans to enlarge.) At this stage, the garden is more like a furniture layout plan indoors, simply trying to decide what goes where, and how we'll move through the "room."

To orient yourself, you’re looking only at the backyard. West is at the top; south is to the left, The kitchen and family wing of the house are on the bottom and right.  There are five main features to this plan: a large terrace off the kitchen linking various entrances at the back of the house;  a large water feature, called a rill, to provide some sound and motion to the garden; an extensive mixed flower/shrubbery garden area for Mr. A, which would provide both visual interest and privacy from the neighbor to the south; some sort of secondary structure, at this point still in the conception stage, to provide shady summer seating, and a bluestone bordered games lawn with four large corner piers capped with urns. To the south and west, the property was to be surrounded by a yew hedge, which would help hide some irregular fencing and give some additional screening from the neighboring houses as the plants reach their final 10-15′ height.

Always travel with a camera when touring gardens; you never know what might inspire. Here's a rill I saw this summer in the Hudson Valley, which prompted its inclusion in the initial plan I proposed to my clients.

Again, at this stage, these were only suggestions as to how one might utilize the space.

During the course of our next meeting, we reviewed these options. Mrs A liked the idea of the large terrace, and secondary seating area, but was concerned that it not appear too massive or grand. (I also had proposed some sort of classical garden folly, which was adjudged a little to English for New England.) Mr. A liked the terrace & garden idea very much, but thought wasn’t at all convinced about the water feature. (After talking about this at length, I decided to nix the rill. While I am a huge fan of water in the garden, I also know from personal experience how much work it is to maintain these kinds of features, and Mr. A. showed no enthusiasm for such a project, while Mrs. A was ambivalent. That’s a recipe for disaster. As the garden owner, you must either love, or be ready to learn to love, the major features of your garden.)

Most importantly, while Mr. A appreciated the idea of the stone bordered lawn, he was concerned that the end result might lack some of the visual bang he was hoping for, and wondered if something might be added to give a bit of drama to the landscape. In landscape design, “drama” generally means “structure,” so we discussed several options. A series of brick piers with wrought iron chains? Very Fletcher Steele and very French. Too French perhaps. Some sort of wall? Not really appropriate…

Then: How about some sort of change of level, he suggested. A sunken garden?

Hmmm. A brilliant idea. Changes in level, inside or out, are always a dynamic feature, opening up all sorts of opportunities for altered vistas. The problem is they are expensive. I had briefly considered the idea early on, but discarded it as too costly. (You don’t want to give your clients cardiac at the first meeting arrest, after all.) I threw out some ballpark figures for such a plan; again, this was an item that was measured in tens of thousands.

Let’s draw up some plans, and get some estimates, Mr A. decided.

A section of the second layout review, incorporating the ideas from our earlier meetings

Another week, and another plan, the product of our extended back and forth.

So in this version, several major elements have changed. The summer pavilion has shifted from round to rectangular, and moved to the central axis. It was now envisioned as a simple New England structure, cedar roofed with ionic columns. A 2′ sunken garden (really a sunken lawn, as the garden surrounds the lower area, not vice-versa.) has been been added, with four oval granite stairs, and a band of ground cover along the base of the walls. The terrace has been given some additional ornamentation: bluestone banding separates a frame of running bond from a herringbone interior to provide textural interest during the winter months. A small outdoor grilling area has been added off the terrace, and natural stone pathways added through the garden areas to allow the owners to better experience the garden.

But what was this actually going to look like, Mr. And Mrs. A asked?  The elements seemed OK, but both were having trouble visualizing the design in three dimensions.

This is a very common issue, which can be resolved in several ways. One of the easiest and most cost effective methods is simply use spray paint to lay out the proposed sections of the garden. It’s really amazing once you paint out a space: you can almost see the final product. Walks can be judged for width; terraces for furniture sizing, beds and borders for shade patterns.

Here though we had a problem: not only was there a dense thicket in the way, but the layout I was proposing required moving several very large American hollies and other shrubs in order to clear the space. There was no possible way to paint it out before hand. And even if you could, that really wouldn’t give you a feel for the summer house structure or sunken garden I was envisioning.

For a project of this size, cost and complexity, there is really only one solution: a rendering. And knew just the man to do it: architectural artist Jeff Stikeman. A true wizard of design, Jeff can take flat, two dimensional images and bring them to life like few others. He and I had become acquainted several years back while launching the FDR Suite Project, and I was totally amazed at his ability to translate thoughts and impressions into visual reality. So I sent him the plans, and rough sketch of my own showing the stairs, pavilion and orientation I wanted to see in the drawing, and this is what I received back:

The garden! Pretty amazing, huh?

Equipped with the view, Mr. and Mrs. A. could now visualize their new back yard, and gave the initial go ahead for their project. As a final precaution, I suggested clearing out the overgrown plantings, moving the large hollies, and taking one final look in the planning phase before we committed to the final design (that’s the subject of the next article.) In the meantime though, here’s the moral of today’s story: whether you’re working with a designer, or designing a garden for yourself, take the time to plot your proposed landscape out on paper, then play with  possibilities, and think, think think. You’d be amazed what a little brainstorming can do.

And, as Grandpa rightly pointed out, thinking twice is a whole lot easier than digging twice – or thrice.

The Garden Renovation Primer: In the Beginning There Was… A Lovely Old House

So many of you have asked me for advice on how to renovate old rundown landscapes over the years that I thought I would start a new series of postings taking you through the process step-by-step with one of my actual projects. While specifics differ greatly from one garden to another, design criteria and sequencing remain remarkably similar, which will hopefully constitute a valuable guide for anyone considering such an undertaking.

There should be to a certain voyeuristic appeal in this account: garden building NEVER goes precisely according to plan, so in the course of reading these records you most likely get to see both the highs, and the lows, of the process.

This new series will run on and off for the next year – a fairly common time frame for building a complicated garden – and show the creation of the entire landscape, from conception to completion.

The opening gambit: an 1810 Federal house awaiting a new garden. This is the front view from across the street. Notice the mishmash of odd fencing styles currently running along the sidewalk.

PART ONE: In the Beginning There Was… A Lovely Old House

This past summer, I was contacted by a dynamic couple, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. A, who had recently purchased a Federal-era house near Boston. Their new home, built in 1810, had been moved to its current 1/3 acre urban site in 1910. The house had belonged to several famous academics over the course of its two centuries, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also sits in a well known historic district, a not so minor detail which will have a large impact for our story as we progress, especially for the front yard of the property, which is subject to Historic Commission approval.

The back yard, as seen at our first meeting. The previous owners had had a small vegetable garden near the back door, which may have not been the best idea given the likelihood of high lead levels around an old house. The suggestion of some sort of geometric layout was on the right track, however, and formed the basis for my subsequent thinking. But the wilderness planting surrounding the lawn is both unattractive and wasteful of precious urban garden space.

How to begin? I admit starting a new landscape from scratch can seem daunting to even the initiated. But while the overall number of design possibilities might appear limitless, in reality several basic design tenets very quickly – and helpfully – begin to direct your options.

The first – and by far the most important element to consider – is the house itself. Remember, a plot of land without a house is a field; it’s the addition of the structure that converts plot to lot. The structure in this case, a rambling Federal, had had many additions over the course of the centuries -– some rather quirky –  but still maintained a very classical feel. With strong symmetrical relationships in both the facade and fenestration, my initial thoughts were that the garden should share this fairly linear geometry, to be mitigated with flowing, colorful planting, and the clients, who too were concerned about creating an appropriately styled garden, agreed. (Notice I didn’t use the word “formal” to describe the layout, though in fact that would have been perfectly appropriate here. Many people associate the world “formal” with “stuffy,” but that’s not at all the case. A formal style simply refers to the straight-line geometric nature of the layout, as opposed to a free-flowing, curvy feel of say, a woodland garden. In this particular case, the lesson of what not to do was extremely clear: the lot had been landscaped only a decade ago with a very loose style of woodland garden, which quickly degenerated into an overgrown tangle. It’s important to remember that the second you finish work outdoors, nature immediately begins to obfuscate the line: plants grow over walls, trees rise overhead, moss grows on the brick. In short: if you start with a tumble, you’ll end with a jumble.)

The roof balustrade, with beautifully turned spindles. Architectural details like these should inspire the garden design.

The second important factor to consider is the lifestyle of the owners; how did they plan to use the space? Were there young children involved? (In this case, no; all grown, so no need for play areas, etc.) Did the owners need space for particular outdoor activities, such as a pool or tennis court? (No.) Were they avid gardeners, occasional putterers, or totally disinterested in working the landscape themselves? (Putterers.) This last question may sound strange, but accurately gauging the gardening interest of the principals is a hugely important factor in the ultimate success of the design –  landscapes go down hill very quickly where there is neither the enthusiasm to garden nor the desire to pay someone else to do so. And what about overall style? In this case, the owners wished to have an open, flower-filled landscape that blended indoors and out. (This last was key, as Mrs. A explained: “Having lived for a while in Manhattan, what I missed most was the ability to throw open the French doors and experience the outdoors. The possibility of doing just that is what drew us to this house.”) Mr. A was adamant about flowers: having grown up in California, he missed the fragrance and color of his home state, and wished to create something of that same feel here. Fortunately, the situation of the backyard, protected from the north by a wing of the house, would create an ideal area for sunny gardening.

Finally come realistic discussions about a budget: At this point, I’ve discovered that it’s wise to scare clients a bit: many people don’t have the vaguest conception of what garden-building costs, and are shocked to learn it’s often as expensive as home construction. However, there is clearly no point planning a $75,000 renovation if the actual funds at hand are $20K, so it pays for both parties to be realistic right up front, even if that means losing or postponing a project. No one, least of all me, likes unpleasant financial surprises once underway. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. A, they had previous experience with a large suburban house & garden, so were aware of the cost implications of the project we were discussing, which was in essence a complete rebuild of the front, back and side yards, including entirely new hardscape, planting, and 170′ of custom built historically accurate fence for the front. These wouldn’t come cheaply, they knew. My initial read to them was that the budget would be measured in tens of thousands, not in singles.

While there are some really lovely specimens buried in this jumble, including several spectacular ilex opaca, American Hollies, the planting has been allowed to become overgrown and form a dense, impenetrable thicket. Rustic designs like these rarely work in urban environments.

(How much can you expect to spend on these kinds of total renovation projects? The general rule of thumb is 5-10% of the house’s current value – which you would expect to recover presuming a 5-10 year occupancy. Spending more than that is certainly possible, but if you do, you are spending for yourself, not for investment return.)

So with the designer and clients in agreement regarding the overall look and feel of a new garden, what’s next?

The first generation of plans of course, which will be the subject of part II!

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The Great Fall Scavenger Hunt

There're bargains galore to be found in the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt – if you follow a few essential tips.

If you’re like me, right about now you are casting a fairly critical eye around your landscape. Of course there are still all those wonderful fruits and vegetables to harvest, and many flowers are still going strong, but September is also the perfect time for pointing out every single flaw in your garden: that space where the hollyhocks never emerged — barren and empty; the old lawn furniture; looking pretty used and worn; the long, open line along the road, just crying out for a privacy planting; that climbing rose – begging for a new trellis. Now that the heat and distractions of the summer are pretty much over, it the perfect time to begin what I like to call the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt.

Most people think about gardening in the spring, and garden centers and nurseries know it. They stock up on loads of plants, tools, fertilizers and other items, and we all, still partially dazed by winter delirium, faithfully march out and purchase tons of merchandise at premium prices. Often times in fact, people get into bidding wars over a particularly pretty specimen or the services of an especially talented contractor. Everyone’s anxious to get their garden in immediately, and willing to pay for the privilege. However, with a little planning and foresight, you can avoid the long lines and high prices of the springtime by doing your homework, and legwork, now.

This is where the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt comes in. Every year in early September, I take a long walk around the property with pencil and notebook in hand, carefully noting down any problem. September is the perfect time for this, because what you see now in your garden is by and large what you’ll have next year, and its easy to notice any deficiencies. While not the most exciting of pursuits, careful notation is critical to the process: In order to get the most out of the hunt, you need to know exactly what and how many you need. So into the garden I go, paying particular attention to what has worked, and what hasn’t. I look to see where there are gaps in the perennial border, for instance; what portions of the yard could use additional screening or color; what elements of the hardscape –gates, trellises, edgings etc. are in need of addition or repair; what areas of the lawn are looking tired or underfed. I also stop by the tool shed, and take stock of what equipment or supplies I might need. When my list is complete, I reorganize my notes into four general categories: 1) perennials, 2) other plants, and 3) hardscaping, and 4) maintenance supplies.

Next it’s time, list in hand, to visit the local nurseries to see what bargains you can find. If you haven’t been to garden center in the autumn, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Not only are spring crowds gone, but you’ll find prices on many items 25-50% lower than the last time you were there. While the selection may not be as complete as it was earlier in the season, nurserymen and garden center owners are eager to reduce their inventories before the onset of winter. Any perennials, bushes or trees remaining will have to either be healed into the ground for the winter, otherwise stored – or worse, disposed of at great expense. Far better to sell the stock, even at prices that are sometimes below cost. The same holds true for fertilizers, tools and chemicals. Many of these products have a limited shelf life, and even if they don’t, all must be moved to make way for the mountains of snow blowers, shovels, and Christmas paraphernalia that are soon to follow. This seasonal change makes for a savvy gardener’s paradise. Usually I concentrate on the live portion of my list first, in the early part of the season, and then worry about the remainder of the items as the weather gets colder. While its quite cozy getting a bargain on an arbor or fertilizer while shopping indoors on a cold, rainy late October day, hunting for plants outside in the wet isn’t much fun, and I try to finish up the plant part of my search while the weather’s still pleasant.

Many people seem adverse to planting in the fall, thinking that the trees, shrubs and perennials they buy now will merely perish over the course of the winter. On the contrary, fall planting is by and large just as successful as planting in the spring. In general, over most of the country, temperatures are warm well into the autumn, allowing the plants time to settle in, with the added benefit of several months of ample moisture often lacking in the late spring and early summer.

There is however one critical difference in choosing plants for purchase now. In the spring, the top of the plant — the condition of the leaves and branches — is just as important as the roots for success. Whether the plant lives or dies will be determined by how successfully the foliage produces the food required for the coming winter, and healthy foliage is important.

In the fall, though, the foliage of non-evergreens is relatively unimportant — it’s the roots that count. (Evergreens are a little different — see the note below.) While you obviously wouldn’t want to choose specimen tree with a permanent flaw such as a bad branching structure (at least one you couldn’t fix by pruning), if the leaves look a little tattered, don’t worry about it – they’ll be gone shortly anyway. The same holds true for shrubs and perennials. What’s far more important are the roots. Take a look inside the pot or burlap bag: the roots should appear healthy and smell fresh. If there’s a scent of rot or decay, find another plant. Plants that are pot-bound are perfect ; this is usually an indication of a healthy specimen.

Generally I will set aside a day or so, and take a tour of all of the nurseries in the locale. I purchase whatever they have on my list that’s both in decent condition, and on sale. Often times I will find other material that not included on my list that is too good to pass up, and I’ll take that too. The somewhat random nature of the hunt is part of the appeal. Usually I return home loaded to the gills, and begin planting. Timing is essential to the operation, for the sooner you get the plants in the ground, the longer they will have to settle in before the winter and the more successful the operation will be. Planting in the fall is the same as planting in the spring, except that once again the roots are more important than the tops. You actually want to discourage new leaf growth that in all likelihood would be killed back by the cold, and instead promote root growth. So rather than adding a balanced fertilizer with a high nitrogen count (that’s the first number of the three on all fertilizer labels), concentrate on phosphorus, (the middle number) which stimulates the roots. I like to scatter a handful or so of superphosphate (0-20-0) in each hole as I plant. I finish by covering the roots with earth, watering, and presto — a new addition to the garden. If you are planting large trees or evergreens, you probably want to drive a stake or two, and secure the plant with something relatively soft that won’t wound the bark; old nylons or sections of garden hose are perfect for this, but specialty tree staking equipment is also available.  While I don’t generally recommend staking plants in the spring (studies have shown that trees do better in the long run without stakes) the winds of winter are often quite strong and recently planted specimens with tiny root balls and large tops are no match for fierce gusts.

So this fall, as the gentle autumn light begins to creep over your garden, don’t be lulled in pleasant repose. A fun and exciting quest awaits. All that’s required is a little legwork, an inquisitive nose, and a spare afternoon or two. Your reward will be a far better garden next year, at far less cost. Sounds like a bargain to me!

End Note: Tips for Planting Evergreens in the Fall

Like their deciduous cousins, evergreens are excellent candidates for fall planting. Unlike their leave-losing relatives however, when choosing an evergreen for fall planting, its important to make sure that both the roots and the leaves are in good shape. While some damage to the foliage is permissible — after all the plants been hanging around the nursery all summer and you are getting a great bargain — the majority of the foliage needs to be intact and in good condition. The branching structure should be well-formed, and no wounds should be apparent on the bark. The roots should also be fresh and viable. Evergreens are planted just like other plants, but in colder climates its wise to take an additional step after planting. On any sunny day in the fall when the temperature is above 40 degrees, I like to spray the foliage with Wiltpruf®. This organic substance helps to prevent winterkill due to dehydration, a common problem among newly planted evergreens.

Garden Refreshers

This area of my shade garden is heavily underplanted with spring bulbs. If you bend down and pull apart the hosta, you'll still find the withering leaves, happily now hidden by broad circles of green, gold and blue.

My grandfather used to say that anybody could garden in the automatic abundance of June: it was the rest of the year that tested the gardener’s mettle. This is especially true in August, when the heady display of spring and early summer flowers is past, and the border has a tendency to revert to a depressing green monotone before being enlivened by a burst of fall flowers latter in the season. Nor is lack of color the only problem: unpleasant gaps appear as certain early bloomers, like spring bulbs or bleeding heart, turn yellow and loose their foliage with agonizing slowness as they go dormant in the heat. One day your garden is lush and full – two weeks later the bed resembles a decaying block of Swiss cheese. What’s the hapless gardener to do? Given my penchant for the past, faced with these same problems a few years ago I decided to take a look through some of my favorite Victorian garden guides for a solution. To my delight I discovered that these wonderfully inventive gardeners had developed a whole series of methods to keep gardens looking good great right through the summer season. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

Going Going Gone
Some of the biggest offenders in the August garden are the decaying leaves of daffodils and other late blooming spring bulbs. This foliage, which we greeted with such eager anticipation in April, now hangs on like some three-month-old houseguest who has long overstayed his welcome. Of course its completely taboo to cut of the miserable, yellowing leaves, because they are the means by which daffodil returns energy from the foliage to the bulb to power next year’s show: cut off the leaves, and the result will be little or no bloom the following spring. If you have endless time and boundless energy, you may want to run around like Martha Stewart suggests and tie up all the wilting leaves in pretty little knots: I however, who have neither, prefer a much less anal solution proposed in the crinkled pages of an old Victorian seed catalogue: plant your daffodils and other late spring bulbs in wide swathes through the garden, and then plant hosta (known a hundred years ago as plantain lilies) on top of them. By the time the hosta emerge, the daffodils will have long since finished flowering, and the large, umbrella like leaves of the hosta are perfect for hiding the decaying foliage of the bulbs. If you know a bit about the habits of these plants, you may be wondering how this scheme could possibly succeed, as hosta generally prefer shady conditions, while most spring bulbs need full sun to bloom well. The answer lies in choosing the right site: daffodils and other bulbs can often be planted in many areas of the garden that are quite shady in the summer, but remain in full sun well into the spring, until the leaves of trees and shrubs appear overhead. By June, these areas are in bright shade, which is perfect for hostas, and sufficient for the slowly dying foliage of the bulbs. For those of you who may shy away from this idea because they think hosta too drab or boring, it’s time to take another look at this wonderful plant. These ain’t grandma’s hosta anymore — recent hybridizations have produced hundred of new varieties with leaves ranging from near white variegations to cool blues and bright chartreuse that literally light up a dark corner of the garden. While this solution won’t work everywhere – hosta would fry on a baking southern exposure for example – there are varieties that will take quite a bit of sun, so this wonderful hosta/bulb combination works well in a wide range of garden areas.

Peas and Sticks
There are other wonderful early blooming plants such as, delphinium, peonies, lupine and the like, that produce a spectacular display in the early part of the year, and then sit dumb and dreary taking up valuable space for the remainder of the season, with only the memory of their past and future glories to commend them. Why not borrow another Victorian trick to brighten up these areas, this time from the pages of Gertrude Jeykll, the famous British garden designer. Jekyll gave a lot of thought to the problem of continuous bloom, because keeping the border in flower was considerably more difficult in the England of the late 1800’s than it is today. This was because many of the continuously blooming annuals we now rely on hadn’t yet been developed, and also because many of the summer and fall perennials we now depend on for extended bloom, such as rudbeckias, liatris and boltonia, are actually North American natives which didn’t become common in European gardens until much later. (Nor do they do well in English gardens, but that’s another story.) Jeykll’s solution to areas of the garden that had fallen out of flower was an ingenious one: grow annual vines up and through established plants to provide dashes of ready color. The process couldn’t be simpler: Jeykll liked to use flowering Sweet Peas, that great Victorian favorite, which she sowed among the stems of hardy perennials. As the vines grew, they twinned around the woody stems like trellises. If a little extra support was need, a dead stick or bit of branch was pressed into service. The result was a wonderfully natural display of flower that maximized every bit of precious garden space. Jekyll used sweet peas, which thrived in the cool English summers. In much hotter Boston, I’ve never had great success with peas, as they have a tendency to peter out once the weather warms. Gardeners outside of the North and Northwest may want to substitute such heat loving favorites such as asarina, cardinal climber, hyacinth vine, moonflowers or Spanish flag, depending on your needs and color preferences.

Annual Understudies
Here’s a last idea that was common in the last century, but is only practiced today by the most savvy gardeners. Instead of planting out all of your annuals into the garden in May and early June, keep some back and plant them in pots. I learned this trick from my grandfather, and I now grow a fairly wide selection of flowers for this purpose. Among my favorites are zinnias, both the regular kind and the creeping variety, marigolds, petunias (especially the old fashioned, scented “bedders”, dwarf cosmos, nicotiana, spider plant, annual lavatera, and dusty miller, but really any heavy and continuously flowering annual will work. As for pots, I generally like to use lightweight plastic 8-12 inch containers, as some moving around will be required, but once again, that choice is up to you. When you’ve finished potting up the annuals, place these containers in full sun in the cold frame, next to the back door, or on the deck, (anywhere you can tend and appreciate them) keeping them in readiness for their moment of fame. The trick here is that you really need to baby these containers like the budding starlets that they are: water regularly with a high potency liquid fertilizer like Miraclegro to promote rapid growth, lush growth, and keep the plants well pinched back and full. Then, when the inevitable holes in the border appear, whether because something didn’t grow as planned, or because of accidental demise, such as when the rabbits decided to level the early phlox this year, you can simply dig a quick hole and sink one or more lush pots right into the ground. If your plants are big and full enough, the results can be really extraordinary, especially if your garden needs to look great for some special occasion. You’ll find your lovely annual understudies will look as though they have been there from the beginning of the show, when in reality they have just appeared for the curtain call, as you ready for shouts of “bravo, bravo” from your friends and neighbors, and an inevitable bow to your sage and savvy gardening ways.