by Gardening Coach Susan Harris
Readers, observe the foundation plantings in the Calvert County garden of writer Robin Ripley – they illustrate a clever and focused use of professional help in the garden. She asked a designer to create some borders and fill in the back and mid-border region with great shrubs for a great four-season appearance. But here’s the fun part – she asked for space in front of those shrubs for some perennials and annuals of her own choosing, for her to fiddle with however she liked.
So in the photo above, on the north side of the house, we see in the background: a Japanese maple, Osmanthus, Nandina ‘Gulf Stream’, azaleas and cherry laurels, with a skirt of her favorite hellebores, a large stand of Solomon’s seal and a splash of white in the impatiens.
Here on the left of the front door are the same shrubs repeated, with Robin’s favorite Heucheras and Hostas.
What’s great about this focused use of design help is that it gives the garden what most of us are so terrible at providing - structure or “bones”, in the form of low-maintenance, long-lived shrubs for beauty and interest 365 days of the year. Then we can experiment and learn along the way, but at least the important plants in the garden are done right.
It reminds me of the first year in my own garden, back in ’85. Lots of jungle needed to be removed in the large back yard but once that was done, I didn’t know where to start. So I found a reasonably priced designer who, off the top of her head, produced a design with sweeps of evergreen shrubs I’d never heard of (cherry laurels) and a whole grove of deciduous shrubs I’d never heard of (mainly viburnums, one of my now-favorites).
I remember going with her to the nursery, being underwhelmed by the dormant viburnums, and asking, “Are you sure?” Her reply - ”If I could only grow one shrub, it would be the viburnums” – convinced me to take the leap. Her shrub choices, including not just viburnums but also the evergreen beauty Pieris japonica, were real eye-openers to me, a newbie gardener with exactly two shrub in my repertoire - azaleas and rhododendrons.
The shrubs she chose for my garden continue to provide screening and year-round interest to this day, 25 years later. My only regret? That for some reason, probably to come in under budget, her design included shrubs for the left and rear borders, but not for the one on the right. So I used my own meager plant knowledge and nonexistent design skills to choose and place big plants for that side of the garden, and have regretted my choices ever since. I grouped trees and shrubs in unnatural ways. I picked one of everything. I made the mistakes gardeners have been making for years, but with large, long-lived trees and shrubs, my mistakes have been long-lived, too. I did finally remove my largest mistake – one Bradford pear. It grew fast, as advertised, but was so large and full that it took up too much space, and pruning away the lower limbs freed up space in the border but destroyed the tree’s natural shape. Finally, I had it removed and replaced it with a mass of five ’Green Giant’ Arborvitaes. What a relief that was.