On garden design as a skill (I don’t have)

Recently I’ve had a few nice moments where I was able to see my yard/garden as it is, rather than as a to-do list or just a work in progress. There are areas of it that look really beautiful, and appreciating them is highly satisfying.

I’ve also heard from a couple of people praising my “eye for garden design.” Which, ok, I will openly accept compliments about areas of my garden looking beautiful. But. I don’t have any garden design skills.

I have some level of aphantasia, or lack of internal mental imagery. It’s not absolute—I can briefly imagine the eye shape or smile or hair outline of a loved one, but I cannot assemble those pieces into a whole picture of the person and “see them” in my mind’s eye. And any pieces I do get a glimpse of dissolve quickly, like the part of my brain that generates them is a battery that won’t hold a charge.

I also have pretty bad spatial recognition skills, which is why I have no clue how big anything is without literally measuring it.

What this means in my garden is that it is all a mad experiment and a surprise! Some of it just happens to work, which is helped by the fact that plants are just lovely in general.

You start with a seed that is tiny, and information that it should become a plant of a certain size within some period of time. When it’s time to plant out the seedlings, the final size is still all potential—there is nothing to measure. I can and do look at plant photos online and in books but in those media, a photo of a tiny plant can be the same size as a tree, so grasping the comparative scale of things is virtually impossible. Earlier on, I tried to measure out all my planting spaces and leave plenty of room, but that leaves things looking sparse and sad for so long, and invariably something messes up the plan—one plant dies, or a storm knocks half a plant over so that it starts growing only in one direction, etc.

Then you add in the appearance of the plant—its habit, its color, the color of its flowers, how gracefully (or not) it enters winter, and so on. I can’t hold all that in my head at all, much less visualize it in combination with a bunch of other plants.

What is clear to me reading or listening to people who have real garden design skills (hey, Piet Oudolf) is that they are able to simultaneously overlay space/size, color, and chronological information layers in their mind and see what the result will be in their mind’s eye.

That is just never going to happen for me. My garden is less ‘designed’ and more ‘experimentally scattered.’ I’m coming around to feeling more comfortable with that, which means deciding where to plant things is a bit less stressful. If I accept that I’m probably getting it wrong, then anything that looks pleasing is a very happy accident. And, as I get more experience and familiarity with different plants, my intuition about what will probably work well together will definitely improve. But I’ll never be able to do garden “design.”

I was scolded by the HVAC repair guy for the rosemary plant that is too close to the outside unit. Well, when I planted that rosemary, it wasn’t too close.

On the list today: severely prune that rosemary, and look into whether moving a rosemary is a thing that is at all possible.

Six from Saturday: native grasses update edition

It’s too far into Sunday to do Six on Saturday, but that’s not going to stop me. And all the photos here were taken yesterday, on Saturday. I was just too beat by coming-inside time to do anything with them.

First a little catch up, then a grass-heavy set of pics.

One of my pumpkin plants was suddenly very dead. I identified squash vine borer damage. I pulled out the entire section of stem and set it on fire. I thought maybe I could do this without burning the whole burn-pile, but all the holly trimmings made that impossible. Well, the upside is I was able to clean up the tall weeds around the burn pile afterward, and that corner of the place now looks a lot more tidy.

I finally got a handful of ripe blueberries that Lurkey can’t reach, my blackberry patch is looking weirdly scraggly and sad, I harvested two more cucumbers, and noticed that some tomatoes have started to form. 99% certain Lurkey is going to steal all the tomatoes he can reach, as well.

1. Under-tree clean up

The growth habit of Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar) is so annoying. The branches bend downward like they are inviting the poison ivy, smilax (greenbriar), wild grape, Ailanthus altissima runners, and honeysuckle to climb on up. And if you try to go underneath to clean stuff up, you are likely to get poked in the eye by myriad bare sticks pointing downward from all the branches. I got super frustrated with this yesterday, and pruned off all the lower branches I could reach and get my loppers around. Then I cut and/or pulled out all the Ailanthus altissima runners I saw that were not completely surrounded by poison ivy. And I directly applied glyphosate to said poison ivy so I can come back later and get those runners. Pretty sure I will be breaking out in urushiol rash within a few days, despite scrubbing myself off multiple times with a rag and Joy dish soap twice during the process.

How I probably got poison ivy exposure yesterday.

2. Emerson wearing Elderflowers

Emerson ducked under an Elder tree and got accessorized on his way to the small fenced area`

3. Cinnamon Chicken in the Heimia salicifolia patch

I expected these shrubs (started from seed in spring 2019) to grow faster this year. They’ve really only started taking off in the last couple of weeks, and I need to do some trimming to encourage branching out. Last year’s seed starting theme was “Meeting new-to-me medicine plants,” and the Heimia salicifolia was part of that theme, along with Leonurus leonotis, Leonurus cardiaca, Prunella vulgaris, and Silene capensis. Missouri Botanical Garden on Heimia salicifolia:

Foliage of this shrub has been used medicinally and psychoactively dating back to the time of the Aztecs. Shamans continue to use this plant today. Leaves can be used dry or fresh for preparation of a tea (sinicuichi) which reportedly causes euphoric, time/place altered, muscle-relaxed and anti-inflammatory effects. Dried leaves are sometime smoked in cigarette form. Sinicuichi usage reportedly causes vision to become yellow tinted, hence the sometimes used common name of sun opener for this shrub. Notwithstanding some of the bizarre effects reportedly experienced by using sincuichi, this plant may be legally purchased, grown and used as an ornamental or otherwise in all 50 states.

Cinnamon Chicken keeping a sharp eye out for bugs in the Heimia salicifolia patch.

4. Elymus hystrix

The theme of this year’s seed starting was native plants, with a sub-theme of native grasses and sedges. Elymus hystrix was included in my NC Botanical Garden member seed packs, easily and quickly germinated, and looks happy around the back of the lily/peony bed. These were the last grass seeds received and the first to be planted out!

Elymus hystrix from this year’s NC Botanical Garden member seed packets doing well (with bonus Lurkey feather)

5. Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’ and Panicum virgatum ‘Blue Giants’

Next I planted Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’ (right) out around the bronze-foliage and yellow flower area next to the driveway. This grass will be blue-green until it turns yellow. It puts up tan-yellow flower panicles, which then turn bronze and persist into winter. I’m not sure about the timing of these colors in this area, but we will see.

Next in line was the Panicum virgatum ‘Blue Giants’, which should be very tall and silvery blue if all goes well. I had a very hard time deciding where to put these because of the size (and I gather it’s quite difficult to get rid of some of these grasses if you decide you don’t like the placement). I decided on two general areas: southeast corner of the house, and in a layer around the Guinea Fowl Spa.

Left: Panicum virgatum ‘Blue Giants’ just getting established. Right: Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’ a month and a half farther along

6. Eragrostis elliotti

Last-planted, as a multi-day row of storms was thundering up on me. I think some of it got drowned, but what remains is starting to stand up strong and look happy.

The two sedges I started from seed are still in their winter-sowing containers. More keep popping up in there, and now we’re in a brutally hot time for planting, so hopefully they’ll be ok hanging out until a bit later.

Eragrostis elliottii just getting settled in front of Echinacea purpurea.

Six on Saturday is hosted by The Propagator, and you can see all the other, less tardy, participants for this week here.

First harvest

Lurkey is getting all the blueberries and many of the blackberries.

I’ve gotten some random blackberries and some strawberries, but here is the first thing harvested from seeds started this season: a “Straight-8” cucumber.

First harvest of the season: Straight-8 cucumber