The best laid plans…need not be original
January is an excellent month in several ways. The days are noticeably longer, most houseguests have vacated your premises, many orchids are in bloom, plus this month marks the beginning of a brand new decade. This is a great time to take a break from contemplating the (possibly fleeting) wisdom of your New Year’s resolutions and focus instead on some serious armchair gardening and horticultural enlightenment. It’s also the time of year that I can almost appreciate the chilly temperatures that persuade me to slow down, curl up and read.
I usually like to start with the latest crop of glossy and seductive gardening catalogs to see what hybrids are hot and absorb advice on culture, growth habits and clever designs that combine familiar plants in unusual ways. You might prefer to view these same catalogs online.
Once you’ve had your fill of the marketing materials delivered to your doorstep or desktop, it’s time to get out and expand your universe yet again. The local public libraries and the horticultural library at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria offer a plethora of publications ranging from essays and memoirs by famous gardeners, horticulturists and designers to no-nonsense, hardcore reference texts and everything in between. Green Spring’s non-circulating library is comfortable enough to while away a wintry afternoon immersing oneself in the impressive collection of garden books and magazines, plant society newsletters and kiosks filled with information about local horticultural lore. Appropriately dressed and more adventurous souls can wander the fabulous grounds for real-life, entirely doable and inspiring examples of many design concepts.
Although colder temperatures tend to limit outdoor gardening activities they do provide the perfect excuse to stay inside and scheme, plan and rearrange your garden; whether it’s all in your head, sketched out on paper napkins or digitally enhanced on your laptop.
Whatever dreams you entertain for your very own great outdoors you can bet someone else has already created your perfect dreamscape (or pretty darn close to it) and has been lovingly tending it for decades. Rather than feeling discouraged by some famous gardener’s fait accompli, focus on the aspects that you like and adapt them to your own conditions. Or borrow directly and shamelessly. Nothing says you have to reinvent the wheel or come up with an entirely original garden plan. Besides, whatever you’re going to install in the coming season won’t be recognizable as a transplanted copycat Versailles or Sissinghurst; even by next year. And even if it were, I wouldn’t be shy about crediting my inspiration.
Over the course of time we all find certain design styles that we adore and want to emulate. And scores of garden plans are published, ready and waiting for you to scavenge in the form of books, magazines, catalogs and even online. So go ahead and ease into a new year of gardening without straining the little gray cells too much — reap the benefits of accomplished experts who have studied horticulture and garden design for eons. There are plans for the perusing that address every outdoor location and function: front yards, backyards, play yards, small yards, poolscaping, container gardens, green roofs; you name it, there are ready-made plans that are perfect for your unique situation.
Once you’ve selected a location or locations on which to focus, start homing in on design styles (formal, naturalistic, modern, cottage, etc.) that you like and want for your own yard, and hunt around until you find corresponding books of plans. There are books of plans by just about every great garden designer I can think of and all you have to do is read them and dig a few holes.
I’m not discouraging budding (or experienced) designers from experimentation. Rather, I’m hoping to free people from the sometimes tyrannical pressure to be supremely original and creative. By all means, when the garden design spirit moves you, knock yourself out. Thomas Jefferson said “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener”, which I interpret as: there’s never going to be enough time to learn everything there is to know about gardening no matter how long we’re at it. That’s what keeps it eternally fresh and engaging for me. Too bad we can’t learn by osmosis; it’d be so much quicker…the next best thing is to borrow ideas directly from the greats and enjoy the collaboration.
General January gardening tips
- Sow seeds of warm-season annuals
- Plant balled-and-burlapped, container, and bare-root trees, shrubs and vines
- Apply dormant spray to fruit trees before buds swell
- Plant conifers and broad-leaf evergreens
- Plant bare-root perennial vegetables
- Plant seedlings of cool-weather vegetables
- Sow seeds for frost-tolerant perennials
- Plant container and bare-root roses
- Plant summer-blooming shrubs and vines
Written by: Jacqueline Murphy