Extension Educator, Horticulture
Over the years I have given many programs about garden design. The classrooms are filled with a combination of frustrated and hopeful gardeners. They are either so frustrated the concrete is on order, or they are novices and don't know enough to be frustrated yet.
I have come up with a few tips that will hopefully make gardening more fun and rewarding.
First of all, learn to love your yard–even those quirky shady areas, wet spots and areas where the tree roots stick out. Certainly some changes can be made short of a bulldozer, but resolve now to quit fighting what is there. Work with what you have. Remember in this ball game, Mother Nature bats last.
I often hear the lamenting of the sunless. They have all shade in their garden and yet the sun loving plants call to them like the Sirens beckoning Odysseus into the rocks. Well, about the time August rolls around I wish I had more shade in my garden. It's nice to be able to work outside without the sun beating down on my head. Plus, there are hundreds of plants that grow well in the shade including some delightful new cultivars of coralbells, lungwort and hosta. Get to know them.
I also hear the groaning of the clay people. Clay soils are a challenge. They tend to stay wet longer than loamy soils and when they do dry they are difficult to wet. Clay is also more subject to compaction from traffic. Clay soils are easily abused, with a yard of bricks as the outcome.
However, clay does not mean you can't have a beautiful garden. There are many places in the U.S. where clay is all they have, and they still have wonderful gardens. Plant selection is particularly important as well as paying attention to the land topography. If you are a clay person, get to know every form of organic matter possible to add to your garden. Compost is a dear friend to the clay people.
Remember gardens evolve. They will not look exactly like you planned. As you plant you will make changes. Each year it will look different whether you want it to or not. Some things will do well and others will languish. If you expect your garden to be a constant like your living room with each item carefully placed and selected for color and size, then your garden will constantly frustrate you. Just imagine the couch getting bigger every year as it overtakes the end table.
Maintenance can make or break a garden. Be realistic about the time you have for maintenance. You may have a beautiful design with great plant selection, but it will quickly fall apart if it isn't maintained. Actually another word for maintenance is therapy, but no one wants to be in the doctor's office all day.
Mulch, mulch, mulch. It reduces weeding, watering, soil temperatures in summer and adds organic matter as it decomposes. Remember to experiment with plants and have fun!
For more in-depth design tips, join Master Gardener Phyllis Brussel and myself for the University of Illinois continuing education class, Flower Garden Design on February 7, 14 and 21 from 6:30–8:30 pm in the Extension auditorium. This class will take you through the design process and familiarize you with some tried and true plants for your particular garden in plenty of time for spring planting. Course fee is $29. To register call 333-7369 or http://www.continuinged.uiuc.edu/specialprograms/noncredit.cfm, print a registration form and fax it to 333-9561. Also be sure to attend Garden Day 2001 on February 24 at the Park Inn. Pre-registration required. Call 217-333-7672 for more information.