Oh, to be an English gardener

May 27, 2014

By Jane Garrison

MasterGardenLogo 2013 copyEnglish gardeners are really something. They know intricate little secrets that we wouldn’t even dream of.

Years and years of trial and error have taught them what works, and it seems to work on all levels, not just aesthetics. English gardens seem to make plants, animals, good insects and Mother Nature all smile in appreciation.

For example, they might plant early daffodils under a Corylopsis bush. Why? There are many reasons, and these are a few: First, the Corylopsis will keep frost off the ground when the daffodils are trying to bloom. Second, the shrub allows plenty of sun on the daffodils with its sparse branching and bare limbs in winter. And finally, the shrub leafs out and spares us the indignity of looking at the old, dead and dying leaves of the daffodils.

What more could you ask for? English gardeners know all of that and also where to plant this symbiotic duo in the first place. We marvel at their gardens, try some of their antics in ours here on the Eastside, but many times we fail. Why?

Well, in the first place, we haven’t tried and failed enough in our short gardening history. But more importantly, our gardening conditions here are as varied as our topography, vegetation and soil conditions. It’s hard for us to go by general rules.

Our hills are steep, close together and varied in height, creating micro-climate extremes. Vegetation can be gigantic, close in, scrubby or non-existent. Our soil was compacted by the glacier on the hills and deposited by water in the valleys with pockets of either here and there.

Small, fenced yards can create heat sinks in some areas, making it possible to grow good tomatoes, while others areas are cool and windy, making it impossible to grow anything edible.

Some rules just don’t seem to apply here. For example, if you want to grow roses, you need six hours of sun, but not just any sun. My yard doesn’t get sun until noon due to the towering trees in the neighbors’ yard, so the soil is always cool, even in raised beds. I could eke out six hours of weak, low-heat sunshine in one area. Is it enough? No, but I found out only through trial and error. The general rule of six hours did not work for me.

The only way to know is to take your best guess for your micro-climate, sun, shade, hot, cold, soil conditions and air circulation. Then, buy the most suitable plant varieties and plant them where they want to be. If you don’t know, look around your neighborhood and see what is growing well. I plant just a few of each until I know if they will be happy or not. And then, I follow the advice of the famous English gardener, Vita Sackville West who said, “If it doesn’t do well, just hoick it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Jane Garrison is a local landscape architect who gardens in glacial till on the plateau.

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