I read an article the other day on being OK with gardening failure—as in shrugging it off when your garden doesn’t respond the way you would like. When the balance you have worked to secure in place goes awry, and your new plant seizes on the opportunity of open soil or becomes overwhelmed by aphids. To this I say: There may be a better way.
A simple shift in how we plant and tend our gardens can allow for less fretting. After all, a garden is intended to make us happy. You may need to take a more spontaneous approach. One where you allow your plants to move and shift. One that is just as much about process as it is about flower color and form, counting all the garden visitors as part of that composition as they introduce an eye-popping bit of nature and spectacle. When was the last time you saw hummingbirds in your garden?
Consider some of these guidelines that are sure to bring you joy when planning a new garden or reworking an existing one:
First, go wild and choose native plants. Natives spread, fill in, and move about the garden. With a little self-control, you can learn to appreciate the patterns that nature creates as these plants mingle and meander. This is when a garden really shines; it may take several seasons to get there, so practice some patience as well.
Second, select species that grow well together and plant them in dense groupings. This may mean considering appropriate heights, so plants stay upright and don’t topple over in a strong wind or rain. Or filling in with sedges and other shorter species that will create a dense carpet below, helping to shade out unwanted species. Areas of open soil and sunshine are opportunities for a seed to germinate (wanted or not), so fill your garden. If you notice the big-leaved aster running amuck, you need more plants to help keep things in check. I generally space new plants 15” apart, so when planning for the upcoming season measure your area (a rough measurement is fine) to determine the total square footage. Then, divide by 1.56 to determine the approximate number of plants needed. Purchasing smaller plants as pints or plugs is an easy and cost-effective way to make these introductions.
Third, it’s OK if your plants decide to move or even go away. Step back and assess this new composition—but give your garden some time to adjust. If it happens that the Monarda fills in and you no longer see the shorter Rudbeckia or Ruellia, then so be it. As patterns begin to emerge, you can play with these nooks and structures. I often plant in groupings of two or three species, considering texture, color, and size, tucking them in wherever there is an opening. The fine texture and bright green of some sedges pair very well with shorter asters and look fabulous winding around the base of your shrubs and trees.
Lastly, gather seed and redistribute. Some species flower early such as Carex, Geranium and Allium, others flower mid-season, and some even into November. You can easily collect their seeds several weeks after the flowers fade. Sprinkle them in new areas of the garden or within that existing patch and edit the emerging composition as you see fit. This is not necessarily true of non-native species, so when expanding your garden and wanting to try a new approach, think native. The bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds will thank you.
Liz is a professional horticulturist, observer, artist and writer, and co-owner of North Branch Natives, an education-focused native plant nursery.