Summer gardening: Plan before planting

Published on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 by Naomi Knowlton

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Even though I knew better, I did it anyway. It was so easy.

I was in a local nursery looking at perennials, even though I wasn’t ready to plant flowers in my garden. The Beast of Burden and I are still fighting blackberries, morning glory and horsetails.

We have soil to amend and grass to eliminate. I was in the nursery because, for me, it emanates a magnetic pull. I was there without a purpose and worse yet, without a plan. I turned a corner and there it was, right in front of me, the African Lily Agapanthus Black Panther. I picked it up and was transported from reality, envisioning an allee of bright blue agapanthus backlit and glowing in the afternoon sun.

This wasn’t the bright blue agapanthus of my dreams, it was Black Panther, but I rationalized it would look outstanding underplanted with the chartreuse creeping jenny Lysimachia nummularia aurea, in combination with the lime yellow/blue of Hosta June.

In the stupor of my gardening fantasy, gone from my mind were the facts that agapanthus can’t survive below approximately 40 degrees, and that the nodding borders and overflowing containers of agapanthus that I had long admired were in California and southern Spain.

Agapanthus is a native of South Africa, blooming romantically from the Cape to the Limpopo river. Ignoring all facts and succumbing to my dream, I bought the agapanthus anyway, and not only one but three!

In the harsh light of my home garden I searched for an appropriate site, soon realizing the extra work I had just created for myself. I would have to either dig each agapanthus plant up at the end of the season and bring it indoors, or plant the agapanthus in a container and bring that in for the winter. Sadly, there would be no allee of agapanthus in Blaine.

Plant lust is a dangerous vice and all too easy to fall prey to. It is so easy to stroll the nursery aisles and, as each enchanting bloom or leaf catches our eyes, add it to our cart. The nursery trade does an outstanding job of providing thousands of plants, fresh from greenhouses, blooming in their prime for each appropriate season. The problem is we buy and plant without planning, creating a garden that can be a hodge podge of divergent plantings, many of which will languish or die because they are planted with the wrong conditions.

Rather than be tempted to buy everything we see at the garden center, or accept any and every cutting or division from a friend’s garden, resist temptation, apply restraint and plan before you plant.

Consider these factors when planning what to plant in your garden: the planting zone (which is the climate for your site), the light (sun and shade) and your soil. Of course you can go well beyond these basics and consider the style of your home, the surrounding views, existing plants, neighboring structures and your needs in the garden. By needs I mean such things as privacy, places for people to gather, play areas, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and a pond.

Climate, light and soil

In general terms our climate zone is Zone 8. Other factors such as freezing and thawing, the nearby ocean and rivers, high or low ground, the location of the planting area in relation to your house (e.g. south or east side) and the wind should also be considered. Does the wind directly hit the planting area or is it sheltered? If you were very industrious you could make a climate chart for your site noting all of the variables to consider. In general however, when choosing plants look for those that will overwinter in Zone 8. Lower zones are colder and higher zones are milder.

Available light is extremely important to consider when choosing plants. Few plants can grow in complete shade, while others languish in direct sun. Nurseries provide tags that note the light conditions appropriate for that particular plant, but very seldom do the tags explain exactly what that means. This guide will help you out:

• Partial sun: about 6 hours of morning or afternoon sun

• Partial shade: about 3 hours of direct sun with filtered sun the rest of the day

• Shade: no direct sun but strong, even light all day (e.g. north side of a house or under the canopy of trees)

Again, these are general considerations for the growing conditions in your garden. Our full sun is not the full sun of Arizona, for example. Plants selected for our light and our climate will help you achieve success and avoid disappointment in the garden.
If you have tried to plant mid summer in clay soil you will never forget it. Your shovel fails to break the soil and you fear the soil will break your shovel. You find yourself going to the tool shed for your pick or iron bar, just to try to break open the concrete-like soil.

Other soil problems abound: too sandy, too wet, too rocky, all depending on soil composition. The composition of all soil consists of minerals, decaying organic matter, water, air, and microorganisms (fungi, bacteria) and dissolved mineral salts. The classification of soils depends on the size of the mineral particles in its composition.

Sandy soil has large particles and is quick to drain. Clay soil has small particles and is slow draining. The particle size also determines how easily the soil can be worked and how easily the plants roots can penetrate to obtain nutrition. It also determines how quickly a soil becomes workable in the spring.

I have a lot of clay soil and because of our particularly wet spring, areas remain unworkable because the clay is still holding the water.

The perfect soil is called loam, a balanced mix of sand, clay, and humus with the good drainage of sandy soil and the moisture retention of clay. The humus (decaying organic matter) provides a home for the microorganisms that benefit plants and make the soil feel spongy and friable. We can improve our less than perfect soils by augmenting them with humus such as compost or decomposed lawn clippings or leaves.

Plants, like people, have differing characteristics. There are plants which will tolerate sandy soils and those which will tolerate heavy clay. By determining the kind of soil you have in you garden areas you will be able to find plants that will grow and prosper in those soil conditions.

Plan before you plant and your plants will be well suited to their site, ensuring your success. My three aganpanthus are now happily planted in a container sitting in a sunny spot in my garden. I will have to bring it in this winter. Now I still have to search for suitable plants for the empty spaces in the garden that I should have been buying instead of agapanthus. For now, lesson learned and back to controlling the weeds.


June Activities

Garden essentials:

• Plant fall perennials, asters, and chrysanthemums

• Encourage birds in your garden for help with insect control

• Remember, if you kill a beneficial insect, you inherit its work.

• Enjoy June colors and scents.

Veggies year-round:


• Replant replacement crops when early lettuce, mustard greens, bok choys and spinach mature.

• Mulch the garden with a thin layer of straw or rough compost after soil warms.

• Control weeds with frequent light cultivation.

• Provide an inch of water a week as rains taper off.


Lawn care:

• Water deeply and slowly.

• Keep irrigation systems on manual, not timed, application.

• Continue grasscycling. (Grass clippings don’t create thatch).

• Mow often enough to remove only one-third of grass blade length.

Please remember, a garden is never finished. It is a work in progress, and there are no big secrets to a healthy garden. A recipe for a healthy productive garden: common sense, good gardening practices, and consistent effort.

“Keep a tree in your heart, and perhaps a singing bird will come.” –Chinese proverb

Email the Garden Guru at info@thenorthernlight.com with your questions.