Gardening 101

Gardening Rules to Follow, Or Not


I started writing for Triangle Gardener in 2011, beginning with what I thought was a fairly dreary article on witch hazels. From that inauspicious beginning, our editor, Beverly, was great because she gave me leeway to write on subjects I wanted to dwell upon. And now, it’s time to hang up my hat and let the younger generations have their gardening say. And in parting, I’ll happily leave you with a few gardening rules, which I have learned and unlearned over the years. Obey them – unless you don’t want to.

Basic Gardening Rules

The gardening rules I followed were pretty specific. Never plant invasive plants, even if they are offered in local nurseries. Here I am thinking specifically of Clematis terniflora (also listed as C. paniculata), a.k.a Sweet Autumn Clematis, and English ivy. There are, of course, other invasives offered so it behooves the gardener to shop with care.

Learn the benefits of mulching. Bryce Lane once said a long time ago that the single best way to improve the soil is through applying mulch. By mulching, I am, of course, referring to a good organic mulch except for pine straw, which as far as I can determine never breaks down enough to benefit the soil. Please avoid synthetic and painted mulches.

Go easy on the fertilizer – and this is said by someone who adores roses, plants that require additional nutrition. Learn to compost to build up the nourishment of the soil. When you do fertilize, try to do so before a gentle rain settles in so there will be little runoff – we don’t want the fertilizer to end up in our streams. A teeming hard rain can be ruinous.

Use chemicals with huge discretion. Glyphosate, aka Roundup, must be employed with great care. I know too many people who reach for it without thinking. Learn to weed. The art of pulling out unwanted plants is very effective. I use insecticidal soap to deal with many plant pests, such as mealybugs, while I save glyphosate for those sprigs of poison ivy arising from the seeds birds leave in the garden.

My Gardening Rules

As for garden design, don’t be afraid to break the rules as most of these rules were made from the decided opinions of great gardeners. Gertrude Jekyll detested magenta so the gardening rule of prohibiting magenta in the garden appeared. If you like magenta, by all means use it.

Likewise, there is an informal rule of planting in odd numbers because it allows the eye to move around. Maybe you don’t have the space for three or five identical plants but can incorporate two specimens. Perhaps you can afford two plants only. I try to adhere to this design rule until I don’t, rationalizing that it’s my garden and my eye can discern two plants if I want them to. The point I’m making is this: Do not feel you have to follow design rules rigidly.

Remember that for many of us, the garden is the introduction to your home. Therefore, I believe firmly that gardens should reflect the tastes and habits of the owner. For example, I, try as I may, manage to have a cluttered house. I have tried to unclutter it with little success as my things have a knack for following me wherever I go.

Therefore, my garden is one that I call “Organized Chaos.” It makes sense to me; I can discern organization but many of my fellow Master Gardeners thought I was just a “plant collector” – not always a compliment. However, I garden for myself. I’m intellectually interested in plants, and I enjoy having a wide variety of them. Monocultures do not entice me.

Once I had a long row of magenta accented azaleas that created a blazing effect for perhaps three weeks. This was a powerful learning lesson for me as I discovered that (1) I found azaleas rather boring; (2) while I like magenta, too much magenta turned me off; and (3) I didn’t enjoy long lines of any plant.

What interested me was the inclusion of different sizes and shapes. One of the most valuable plants to break up the monotony in my garden is the needle palm, Rapidophyllum hystrix. It grows into a pleasing shape, offering a lovely contrast to all the small-leafed plants we have in our landscape.

Don’t be scared to experiment. I planted Rosa ‘Peggy Martin’ on a trellis near a sidewalk leading to the house. Soon it became apparent that Peggy was going to overtake the sidewalk so we built an extension going across the sidewalk to the other side. The lady had no objection while my guests walked under her to get to my front door. Unusual? Absolutely but it works for me. Bear in mind that the lady lacks thorns so I have had no impaled guests.

Accept the death of plants. We as gardeners deal in life and death. We tear out plants that we don’t like or that may be too exuberant (and there is a difference between exuberance and invasiveness). Sometimes we forget to water a thirsty new plant – am I the only one who has forgotten at times where I planted a particular young plant? And sometimes, for no discernible reason, a particular plant or shrub decides it doesn’t like us and dies.

Accept it. I once had a particular pine that I was fond of, suddenly turn black before dying. It turned out that it was supporting a flourishing continent of aphids that I was unaware of. Since then, I have kept a bottle of insecticidal soap on hand when I spot a black moving smudge.

In Closing

My last plea is to try to learn some garden Latin. Some Latin genus names you already know: Aster, Iris, Clematis, and Phlox are examples. Some are easy to figure out: Lilium and Rosa are two illustrations. These are followed by some tongue twisters such as Symphyotrichum and Polygonatum, the latter being the Latin name for Solomon’s Seal that I mispronounced for years. Gradually they will begin to make some sense and you will laugh at Rapidophyllum as the needle palm grows with excruciating slowness. Then one glorious day you find yourself merrily declaring you wish you could grow Hakonechloa.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for thirteen 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.

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