How My Garden Designs Evolve

Every year when I have designed a garden bed in the winter and then go to plant it in the spring, I find it doesn’t work out exactly as I had planned.  At first, I thought it was because I was a novice designer and was making mistakes.  Yes, that surely happens, but there’s more to it.  In this blog I want to trace the evolution of the South Pollinator border from paper to “in the ground” and explore how and why it changed, and then do some speculating on how it will continue to evolve in the future.

The South Pollinator border runs along the south edge of the property, is in full sun, and is intended to be densely planted to attract pollinators.  It is also a favorite hang-out for the local rabbit population, so I have learned the hard way about what plants will survive here – no echinacea, asters, or blazing stars, for instance.  For the last four years I have been adding different kinds of plants to see what would succeed. 

The 2020 season was a disappointment – the sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the center had been eaten, several non-native plants remained, and several plants were not effectively placed.  I decided on a major renovation for this year.

Designing this renovation was one of my winter projects; this is the baseline picture, based on measurements, a layout, and photos done last fall.  This version has color- coding for the plants I decided to keep, remove, or relocate.  You see how much empty space is left.

The design for the renovation, which went through several iterations on paper, has multiple groupings of different pollinator plants – my understanding is that pollinators prefer to forage in larger clumps than hop around to visit isolated specimens.  Some of the plant groupings are existing plants, some are transplants of desirable natives — downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and beardtongue (Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’) –, and there are many new types of plants – tickseed (Coreopsis), lavender and blanketflower (Gaillardia) to form a neat front border. I’m trying helenium again as well as some new plants – ironweed (Veronicastrum virginiana), bee balm (Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’) and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). There is also an underlayer of tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia fluxuosum) and wild strawberry (Fragaroides virginiana) that is not explicitly shown.

This spring as the gardening season geared up, I took the paper design and stood in front of the bed to try to visualize the new plants in place and decide how the plan needed to be adjusted.  I’m learning that due to the very nature of gardens and plants, there will always be some adaptation as you go from paper to planting.

Evolution in space

The actual space to be planted is seldom the same in the spring as when I measure in the fall.  Sometimes this is due to mismeasurement, such as on the far-right side where there was extra foot of space I had missed. But when I am revising a bed, more often it’s due to the plants.  Even though I had marked on my diagram where the existing plants were in the fall, there were surprises this spring –plants are dynamic living things and are not always predictable.  The goldenrod (Solidago ‘Fireworks’) hadn’t spread as much as I had expected, so there was more space in front of them to fill.  One of the anise hyssops (Agastache foeniculum) didn’t come back, but two nodding onions (Allium cernuum) and two false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), which had been eaten down by rabbits last year, did. The boneset (Eupatorium perfolatum), a volunteer that moves around the garden, came up in different spots. As a result, I needed more plants in the center and needed to adjust the placement of the clumps behind the prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

Small clump of wild strawberry and boneset in front of a tufted hairgrass.

Also, when planning the final number of plants in each clump, I need to physically see the design “on the ground” with markers, empty plant pots, etc. before I know exactly how many plants will fit in an irregular space and how to lay them out.  So before heading to the nursery with shopping list in hand, I needed to weed out all the early spring weeds – red sorrel and mugwort – that get in the way of seeing the space clearly.  When I did that, I noticed where the ground cover of tufted hairgrass and strawberry had emerged, so I needed to allow for that in the planting.

The front edge needed to be dense, so I needed more coreopsis (yellow), gaillardia (red) and lavender than originally planned. The grass is the tufted hairgrass, which flowers early, in June.

Because of space changes, I ended up increasing the number of heleniums, penstemon, coreopsis, gaillardia, and broad-leaf mountain mint, and decided I needed a few plants for unexpected holes.

Evolution of materials

If you have tried to buy specific native plants, you know that you often find that the plant you targeted is unavailable and you need a substitute.  This year has been especially tricky because of the surge of interest in gardening in general, and native plants in particular, so supplies were short all around.  Here, the pearly everlasting was not available, so I am trying more heliopsis, as the ones from last year came up again this year. I also used a different helenium cultivar, but it is still bright orange so it should work; the same with the coreopsis and gaillardia.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

 It always happens that when I go to the garden center I find plants I didn’t know or think about in the original plan, so I do a very quick design adjustment in my head to see if I can find a place for them. In this case, I found an obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) to try.  The straight species expands very aggressively (I had just spent a morning pulling back this plant on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston).  But the Native Plant Trust had a cultivar ‘Miss Manners’ which is not nearly as aggressive. is still very pollinator-friendly, and is supposed to be rabbit-resistant, so it is worth a try – and these became the extra plants I needed.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) ‘Miss Manners’)

While I am getting better at matching plants to the right space and conditions, some errors slip in.  I realized that the catmint (Nepeta) in front of the dogwood was in too shady a location.  To replace it I transplanted small wild strawberry plants to try forming a solid groundcover there.

Evolution of placement

The first issue in placement was with the grasses.  It turns out they have a much deeper and denser root structure than perennials, so transplanting them is harder.  I got the Pennisetum out with some effort, but the little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switchgrass (Panicum) defeated me, so they are staying in place.

Then, with all these changes of space and materials, it was inevitable that the remaining plant placement needed to be fine-tuned before digging plants in. I had to decide exactly what space each plant type had available, where the extra plants would be fitted in, and exactly how to arrange the plants within the space. 

This took an hour of placing, moving, and rearranging plants.  While doing this, I was juggling in my head vignettes of abutting flowers, the flow of eye movement and the best placement for pollinators to come to a final design.  Most of the clumps ended up close to their original place but slightly adjusted, while the helenium ended up in a narrow drift, as did the obedient plant which went into the center. 

There was one final hole left after all this placement, so I found a spikenard (Aralia racemosa) in the woodland garden that could use a bit more sun and transplanted it into this bed. Then I picked up the shovel and began installation. 

Here’s what it looked like after planting. I’ll take more photos during the season and share how it’s doing.

In the Future

Of course, nature will have a big say in how this space continues to change.  I’m hoping this collection of plants will evolve into a true plant community, which is different from a traditional static garden.  In a plant community, plants expand and move over time, based on their specific habits and reproductive strategies, and that is a good thing.  For instance, a planting that includes both black-eyed Susan and false indigo will show a lot of the Black-eyed Susan in the first year or two as it is a short-lived perennial that covers ground quickly.  The False indigo is a tap-rooted plant that takes time to establish, so it comes into play in years 2 and 3 and beyond.  By year 3, the Black-eyed Susan is popping up in small numbers in different places where there are temporary gaps to fill.

In my Pollinator Border, the groundcovers of tufted hairgrass and wild strawberry will continue to expand, hopefully slowing down the weeds.  The goldenrod and mountain mint will expand to large clumps and may need to be edited next year or the year after. Gaillardia, coreopsis, and anise hyssop don’t expand much, but the clumps will grow larger, as is the case with the little bluestem and prairie dropseed as well.  I’m waiting to see what happens to the Culver’s root, the obedience plant, and the heliopsis. The volunteers like boneset will continue to fill in any empty holes.

I will be watching and learning how all of these plants do on their own and with each other and hope to help this bed to evolve into a dynamic plant community.

One comment

  1. So appreciate you sharing your experience here (love the photos). I’m trying the same out in Western Massachusetts (small lot, different conditions) and it’s good to know we all have failures, triumphs and, most importantly, learn something about the plants and ecosystems each season. Thanks!


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