Getting Started – Part 1 of 3

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The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
— Mark Twain

Creating a new garden can be overwhelming. Where to start? On one extreme, you can tear everything out and begin with a blank slate. On the other, you can replace plants here and there, allowing a new landscape to emerge gradually. Most people, though, do something in between. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The best approach is the one that meets your personal needs, desires and resources, while taking into account garden conditions.

So what kind of person are you? Do you have the guts, energy and resources to erase the current reality and create a new one? If you do, you have my deep admiration. It will be costly and you may make some big mistakes, but if well designed and executed, the end result can be a beautiful, coherent and sustainable garden.

The big pros for this bold approach are:

  1. You don’t have to worry about the needs of existing plants,
  2. It is easier to create a coherent landscape when it is designed and executed all at once, and
  3. The whole garden makeover can be completed in a reasonable time frame.

The cons include:

  1. The cost to landscape an entire property can be high,
  2. Mistakes are big for all to see,
  3. You cannot learn as you go along since you will doing everything at once,
  4. It may make your neighbors nervous, and
  5. Properly done, an immature landscape looks bare and sparse, especially if all mature trees and shrubs have been removed.

Let’s take a closer look at the last point. You may be thinking, well I’ll put the plants closer together and make room as they grow. Or maybe you’ll just buy older, bigger plants. Right now I am going to make a case for doing neither, and advocate taking an old-fashioned approach that requires an old-fashioned trait, patience. This is hard to accept, especially during a time when we watch teams of “professionals” on TV enter the lives of Jane and Joe Ordinary and in a few harrowing days convert home and yard into a designer’s dream in an Extreme Makeover.

New plants are small, they take a while to get established, and so it takes time to fill the empty spaces. Placing plants too close together is one of the most common errors new gardeners make, especially with native plants. That spindly twig in the one-gallon container will reach its predicted size, often quicker than you expected. If you do not leave enough room for these plants you will be faced with losses as some get crowded out. Even if they do not die, you will be compelled to prune back the over-reaching behemoths as they burst out of their meagerly allocated spaces.

It would be lovely if you could plant twice as many as you need and then just remove some once they start filling in. Yes it costs a bit more but the garden wouldn’t look quite so skimpily clad. The problem with this is that the ones you want to remove for design reasons are usually the strongest, healthiest and prettiest, while those sitting in exactly the right places are either struggling, dying or dead. Plants are living things and they don’t cooperate the way we would like. So yes this approach might help, but it will probably create more problems than it solves.

Newly plant garden in Claremont, April 2005.

Properly spaced Pigeon Point coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’), deer grass and Canyon Prince giant rye (Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ filled out nicely (April 2007).

The second “modern solution” to our desire for instant results is to start with larger, older plants. Why put in a tiny one-gallon when you could plant a five or even a fifteen gallon? For one thing, the more time spent in a nursery, the more abuse a plant may be subjected to. Repeated stress from improper care and watering may not be apparent while the plant is in the rich, sterile, potting mix, but can result in failure once it must survive in the garden. Sometimes plants are not moved into larger containers often enough. These plants become pot-bound, their roots circling the container rather than developing a good branching structure. When they are repotted they may do fine for a while even though their roots will never develop a strong, healthy structure. These plants will be stunted and ailing, often failing within a year or two.

This perennial will do fine even though its roots are circling the pot. The roots should be gently unwound before planting. Trees and shrubs with larger, stiffer roots will not fair so well when pot bound.

This non-native Chinese fringe tree did not grow vigorously like the other fringe trees that we planted. When I finally removed it I could see that it had a poorly developed root system from growing in an undersized pot..

Even plants grown perfectly may have trouble moving from soft, pampered nursery conditions, where they are watered and fed to speed them along, to our harsh world of long hot, dry summers. This is especially true of California native plants that are adapted to summer drought. It takes time for their roots to extend beyond the potting soil into the surrounding area. During this time they are susceptible to dehydration, wilting and stress, especially during the hot, arid summer. In spite of needing water, they are not adapted to having it in the summer. Disease-causing bacteria and fungi in the soil have perfect conditions, warmth and moisture, for their growth; they also have ideal target plants that do not have natural resistance to them. Establishing native plants is difficult because of this problem. The plants are not strong enough to survive the first couple of summers without supplemental water, and yet they are not resistant to the pathogens that are present in warm, moist soils. The problem is usually worse for large, older and more expensive transplants. Although it is possible to create a mature-looking garden by planting large container specimens, it can be costly and risky.

There are some ways to make a young garden look full and attractive. Planting short-lived perennials and annuals between the young plants is one possibility. I often sow wildflower seeds, especially poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in new beds. Monkeyflowers (Mimulus species and cultivars) and penstemons (Penestemon species, P. heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’) are fast growing, short-lived perennials that add color to a young garden. I caution you that if you do this with an aggressive grower like California poppies, be brutal and remove those that are crowding or growing over your more long-term plants. They need room both above and below the ground to get a good start. Adding these plants means that the first spring is a riot of color and so your neighbors will only spend about five months wondering whether you were too cheap or too poor to add more plants.

Plants set out for new, wild sidewalk garden.

Poppies and phacelias brighten the garden the first spring after it was planted. I should have cleared more space around the new grasses and perennials. They all made it just fine, though less hardy plants may not have

4 thoughts on “Getting Started – Part 1 of 3

  1. Ah, yes. I'm probably leaning toward the radical approach, money be …darned. It's so much more expensive to make even minor changes to the inside to the house than to make changes to the garden, I feel as if it's a bargain. This year, however, I'll be doing some remove and replace gardening, an interesting change.

  2. What are you removing and replacing? Is it something you did before or did you inherit it? <br /><br />I think I will continue encroaching on the lawn. Mostly I am going to add deergrass, buckwheat and white sage. I want them to unify the yard especially since the taller elements -trees and large shrubs – are already there.

  3. Barbara- do you know of a new (or newly re-printed) book about SoCal grasses? We want to replace some of the more invasive grasses with some better choices, and since they are my favorite part of our native yard, i want to expand the selection, too!<br /><br />Mary (in Arcadia)

  4. That was a useful and encouraging post, thanks. We&#39;ve removed the grass and are now contemplating our next move. I would like to plant the tallest trees possible–it&#39;s tempting to get instant height, but will stick to the little guys thanks to you.

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