Sometimes I wish there weren’t so many plant choices. It really complicates things. Just when I think I have it figured out and I’m forming a plan of attack, man this sounds like I’m waging war, I crack a new magazine or see someone’s Instagram post and all hell breaks loose again in my mind. Now let me be clear, I don’t need to build a garden in the side yard, but darn it I’m sick of seeing nothing but grass and my neighbor’s white siding as I look out my laundry room window. This place is screaming for plants and I’m ready to dish it up. I’ve been saving since October and while it’s not much, it’s enough to fill this small area with some lovely plants. More on those later.
But first, the grass. I considered the no-dig approach but decided against it because I know my soil is going to take some work and no amount of cardboard (to smother the grass) and a few inches of compost on top will change the fact that this soil is as bad as it gets. And no, I’ve not had a soil test yet. I just know from previous experience, about 17 years worth to be exact, that I need to get in there. I wasn’t willing to wait several months either for the smothering to happen before I could plant. In a perfect world, I would have laid the cardboard last fall and by April, I’d plant. Nothing’s ever perfect, especially this sticky clay I call soil.
So I went with this plan…the one that involves an extension cord, a shovel, a hori-hori knife and a good dose of determination and patience. The extension cord is perfect for laying out a bed, I use it all the time for this purpose. It’s a great visual before you get in there and start digging and so easy to move around until you have the layout just so. It took me a day to get it all dug. My hands hurt.
In the picture at the top of this post, you can see a circular area in the grass where the Bradford pear was that came with the house. It had fire blight, smelled like dead fish when in bloom, and is invasive to our area. How’s that for a sales pitch? I can’t believe I kept it for so long. The tree line along the forest preserve is peppered with Bradford pear. My husband and I took it down last year and I was happy to see it go. Only wish we’d done it sooner.
I planted a tricolor beech, about 10 feet from where the pear tree was, as well as two Techny arborvitae. They’re tiny, but not for long. So you can see I’ve had plans for this area for over a year and it’s thrilling to see it take shape. With the big things in place and the grass removed, I’ll get a soil test to know exactly where I stand and add plenty of compost and whatever is called for once I have all my numbers. I’ll take you for that ride too.
This is where things get tricky. I’m no good at editing and have maintained a running list of contenders for this bed, none of which have been eliminated so the list is long. I’m certain I want a mountain hydrangea. The macrophylla types like Endless Summer are endless bummers in my garden. Their buds can’t stand up to this zone 5 winter. No amount of winter protection has worked, including a combination of fall leaves packed tightly around the plant, then covered with the biggest styrofoam cover I can find. Word on the street is Hydrangea serrata, or mountain hydrangea, is the ticket.
Unlike the macs that hail from the coastal and far more temperate regions of Japan, the mountain hydrangeas come from well, the mountains of Japan. Despite the harsh climate, their buds make it through each winter to bloom throughout the spring and summer. So the big decision is which one? It’s a toss-up between several from Proven Winners including Tuff Stuff, Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha and Tuff Stuff Red. All have the same growth habit but with different flower forms, colors and even foliage, what to do? I could take the inny-minny-miney-mo approach and that’s probably what I’ll do, unless you have personal experience with these and would like to make a suggestion. The floor is yours.
I’d like to round the space closest to my neighbors yard with an evergreen, something small like Tater Tot arborvitae, Mr. Bowling Ball arborvitae, or Gembox inkberry holly. I’m leaning toward Mr. Bowling Ball for the blue/green foliage. In the shadier area closest to the fence, I like the Shadowland Coast-to-Coast hosta from Proven Winners. It’s three-foot spread will eat a lot of real estate and I like the bold limey green foliage near the hydrangea. On a visit to the Growing Place nursery in Naperville, IL, last fall I saw a bed full of anemone and would like to fill the rest of the space with either Anemone Honorine Jobert or Robustissima. Both flower late summer/early fall.
The remaining space I’ll likely fill with Artemis Silver Sage I grow from seed. It’s got great texture and is easy on the budget, which will be exhausted if I follow through with this plant palette. Once I settle on the plants, I’ll start laying it out with landscape paint and empty containers to get a feel for the flow. I need a good visual. I’m terrible at scale and hate to just wing it when the budget is limited and I want to make every foot (and dollar) count. I think small spaces are the most challenging because they require restraint. When it comes to gardening, I have zilch.
Now that I think of it, I need a clematis for the fence. See what I mean? Zilch.