Winter can be the most productive time of the year for planning your garden and deciding what direction you want it to take. The winter garden displays its backbone for all to see so look at it carefully to discern whether you like what you’re observing.
To do this, you have to determine the reason you garden. Originally you probably started the way I did: You had a blank canvas that you needed to paint. When I was in this stage, I put in a row of magenta blooming azaleas and an awful lot of English boxwoods.
The result was that I had an awful lot of mangled English boxwoods, distorted by ice storms and dieback. The azaleas blazed with the color magenta every spring, leaving me to see that perhaps this was a flame of color gone too far. I learned a lot from this experience as I realized that I didn’t enjoy large blurs of color; at the same time, I didn’t particularly enjoy the appearance of azaleas when they weren’t in bloom. As for the mangled boxwoods, they simply weren’t worth the trouble.
I also learned that I needed to garden for myself, not for others, a concept that the successful gardeners I know all share. I always tell new gardeners to figure out why they want to garden as the installation of the garden is the easy aspect to gardening.
By now you’re shaking your head, thinking of all the hours spent composting and building up your soil, constantly deadheading plants, and wondering over the mysteries of fertilization. However, bear in mind that we all garden for different reasons.
Some garden to provide a sanctuary for wildlife. Others garden to attract the birds, while some doggedly want only native plants in their garden. Others are desirous of flowers, wanting a constant supply for indoor bouquets. Some want a fragrant garden while others seek to have something in bloom twelve months of the year. The reasons we garden are many in number and vary widely.
I garden because I’m intellectually interested in plants. In fact, some accuse me of being a plant collector rather than a gardener – a comment that is fine with me although it isn’t offered as a compliment. I want to see how large the Polygonatum odoratum will get, how many flower spikes my Hosta ‘Branching Out’ will put out, and which salvia I prefer.
I have themes in my garden – probably only detectable to me – that help in my mind to tie the garden together. Spread throughout the garden are many sustainable roses as I willingly forgo the tight two-rowed “rose gardens.” Camellias, both sasanqua and japonica, exist throughout the garden as I love their glossy leaves in the summer while their blooms soothe me for six months of the year.
I have plenty of birds in the garden but I don’t specifically garden for birds although I have learned to leave the seed heads on the plants a lot longer than I used to. I have plenty of squirrels and chipmunks but don’t encourage rabbits and deer – in fact, I turn into Mr. McGregor when it comes to rabbits.
I have one firm, strict rule when it comes to my garden: I never knowingly plant an invasive species. Now, this is harder to follow than it sounds as many of the plants I see in nurseries and garden centers are invasive. The widely available English ivy is such a scourge that the states of Washington and Oregon and several Virginia counties have outlawed it. Clematis paniculata, aka Sweet Autumn Clematis, is incredibly seedy – and is offered by way too many garden centers.
I do not limit myself to native plants because there are many non-invasive exotic plants (such as roses, camellias, and gardenias) that I enjoy. I prefer to follow the dictates of Tony Avent, Nancy Goodwin, and the late JC Raulston, all of whom enjoy[ed] plants that are not necessarily native in their gardens. There are some native plants, such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper, that I choose to ignore.
These are some of the personal reasons why I garden. I find that this knowledge helps me to choose plants from a catalog wisely and that it aids in creating a garden that I enjoy. Gardens are not only personal creations, they are also our personal connections to the outdoors. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like about gardens – and then you’re well on your way to creating the garden you want.
After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was a gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She now writes the “How Does Your Garden Grow?” column for “The Local News” in Chapel Hill.