The Dirt: Happy Days Are Here Again

Winter has finally packed its bags, and it’s a perfect time to plant all manner of trees, perennials and annuals. It is also a great time to weed and reseed your lawn, before the weather gets so warm Bermuda grass takes over. Warmer days and frequent rains give everything a good start.

In preparation for the trip to the nursery, I figured this was the perfect time to talk about four beginner’s mistakes most people make when starting a garden.

1. The one of a kind syndrome.
Do you remember your high school class photo? Each of you with your own style, height, color, clothes, looking awkward? This is what happens when you plant one of each; every lovely plant looking awkward and lonely, with that slightly out-of-place, desperate look of a school photo. Everyone does better with a few friends, so try to find some strength in numbers. Say you plan on buying 24 plants total: Better to buy in threes, fours or sixes than 24 different plants.

2. Pushing plants out of their comfort zone.
Even plants that are adaptable do better when they are planted in the right spot (anyone who tried growing a lawn in the shade knows this). This means that in the long run, they will be stronger, look better and handle benign neglect with fortitude. If you go to a local nursery, they will sell plants that are adapted to the Brooklyn climate, and can inform you as to their needs for sun, shade and the kind of soil and drainage they require. If you order online, make sure to check that they are adapted to our zone (7b), and place them where they will be happy.

3. Too much of too much is not that great.
It can be tempting to get a sense of instant fullness and lushness by over-planting, but it guarantees plants will run into each other in Year 3. It’s much better to give your perennial garden the proper room to grow and spread, and fill in with annuals the first couple of years. You can interplant with pretty edibles like kale or cabbage in the sun, and basil and parsley in the shade, and annual flowers like begonias in the shade, or lantanas in the sun.

4. Failing to consider the four seasons.
A common complaint I hear is “my garden looks lovely in the spring, but nothing is going on the rest of the year.” That’s because we all go shopping the first gorgeous weekend — I too am guilty of this — and buy everything in bloom. But really, every border needs to be planned for all seasons: If all plants die back with the first frost, you will be staring at bare dirt for four or five months. If everything is evergreen, your backyard will look like a cemetery.

Consider peonies, my favorite flowers: They’re just coming out now, and they are glorious to watch, from the first red peek of the new stalks to the flowers that last about a week. As soon as the weather turns warm, the leaves start to die back. I plant mine in the middle of the vegetable garden, next to the sage. In an ornamental garden, they would be fine with daylilies or chrysanthemums or sedum Autumn Joy, which will occupy the space once the peonies are spent.

The photo at the top shows alliums in bloom, with daylilies and a butterfly bush ready to take over in late spring. In the photo below, the evergreen magnolia holds the spot. In the foreground are red fountaingrass, sedum Voodoo and daylilies. In the back are elephant ears ‘Black Magic.’

I hope I convinced you to commit a plan to paper before you go shopping. Next month, we’ll talk about weeds.

The Dirt is a monthly column that explores gardening in Brooklyn by Brownstoner commenter and Brooklyn garden designer Marie-Helene Attwood of Edible Petals. Each month, she will answer any questions about Brooklyn gardening over the following weekend.

12 Comment

  • I am so excited for this column, wish it was weekly rather than monthly! My back yard is mostly paved stone but we have 2 long raised beds which join together to form an “L” shape at the edge of the yard. One-half of one of the beds is completely in shadows due to a fence and a neighbor’s oak tree. Even hostas fail to thrive there. Any suggestions on what I can do to fill this almost completely bare area? Wish I could post a photo of my thriving daffodils (new this year) which are so bright and pretty right now.

    • There are a few plants that are tolerant of dry shade: heucheras, hostas and lilyturf usually can handle the toughest spots. Oak shade is a category of its own though, because the leaves decompose so slowly they can effectively prevent other plants if you allow them to pile up. Maybe you can plant a shrub that will love the acidic soil and the shade, like a small azalea, and use lilyturf as a ground cover.

  • Do you have any recommendation for dog-proof plants? We have a flower bed on one side of our small south-facing yard which needs to be replanted thanks to the dog. We’re thinking daylilies and hostas. Another possibility would be roses, which seem to be indestructible. Would appreciate any feedback.

    • Daylilies certainly fit the bill; they are very tough plants that can go toe-to-toe with most dogs. Hostas tend to prefer shade, especially in Brooklyn where we have hot summers. If placed in sunny spots, they can go dormant very early in the season.
      Another way might be to create a raised bed. It doesn’t have to be very high, 4 to 6″ would be enough. It would create a frame that you could train your dog to respect, the same way they’re trained to stay off the sofa. You could have daffodils, alliums and daylilies in the front, and coneflowers and sunflowers in the back. If your dog can’t be trained away from dirt, knock-out roses are the way to go: they mound in a bush about 3′ around, bloom from May to October, and don’t need to be deadheaded.

  • I may be moving and I will miss my glorious backyard with climbing roses intertwined with clematis among many other wonderful plants. Is is possible to somehow move my viburnum that smells like gardenias when in bloom? It is in a pot about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide — much too heavy to move as is. Also my lovely peonies which are in the ground for more than 16 years. Thank for all the wonderful advice you always provide

    • It can all be moved! I have relocated a 30-year-old climbing rose from Fort Greene to Brooklyn Heights, clematis from Bed Stuy to Clinton Hill and more. The trick is to do it at the right time, when the plant is just coming out of or going into dormancy. Ideally, April or October.
      Your peonies and clematis can be dug up and placed in containers, your climbing roses pruned hard and replanted bare root, and a potted plant is even easier. It’s just a matter of hiring the right amount of muscle.

  • Yes, you should post more often.
    is there some magic little blue pill to get my 35 year old chinese wisteria to bloom? I have tried every known combination of pruning technique without getting even a single blossom. Left it alone still no flowers.

    Also, my 7 foot tall female variegated aucuba japonica is inflicted with some sort of pestilence where the leaves and stems are turning tar black. It used to be a specimen quality shrub but I fear that it is a goner. Been cutting back the black but it is still spreading.

    • Since it is 35 years old, one can’t blame its lack of maturity. Wisterias are notoriously slow to get established, but over 10 years is long enough. My best bet is that it’s not suffering enough. We’re in the realm of old wives’ tales, but in my experience, wisterias that are treated badly (cut back by 50% or more, no fertilizer or water, root-pruned to make room for other things) tend to bloom beautifully the following year. So cut it back drastically in June (when normally it would have bloomed already), and remove any rampant root that grows furter than 4 or 5 feet from the trunk, remove all suckers and if it is close to a lawn you are watering/fertilizing, make sure it is cut off from that supply.
      Does your aucuba look like this?
      The winter has been very hard on plants and this stress can cause normal, natural issues like leafcutter bees or scale or naturally-occuring fungi to be devastating. Cut back all that’s dead with a neat cut. Do you think the site could get waterlogged or is in general poorly drained? or is your aucuba receiving a bit too much sun? Ideally, they like a well-drained spot, where the roots won’t stay moist days on end, and they don’t like direct sun. Being sited in an ideal location will help it recover.

      • Unfortunately yes my Aucuba looks like that. Sounds like it’s days are numbered if it has root rot.

        Yes I have heard that a very happy wisteria will not bloom and that it has to be stressed. I have root pruned with no success. It does make a big green wall that blocks out the commercial property next door so i guess can be thankful for that.

        • Maybe you can try re-planting it? dig a wider hole, and spread the roots on a little mound at the bottom, so the deeper part of the hole isn’t just under the plant.
          For the wisteria, don’t be afraid to cutting major branches. I made my mom’s wisteria bloom after cutting the trunk at 6ft, pretty much removing everything green. It had grown on the roof of an extension instead of the metal arbor, so we just left the trunk. It grew back in one season, was trained on the arbor and bloomed that following year.

  • I need to purchase a large quantity of topsoil and I’m wondering how to assess the quality of the product and quality relative to price. We are slowly trying to turn what was a neglected, weed-filled backyard in Bed-Stuy into something we can enjoy. Having dug up loads of knotweed over the past 2 years, we lost a lot of soil in the process. I’ve reached out to a contact at the BBG as well as a friend who is a member of the 462 Halsey Community Garden for their recommendations. We’d like the soil delivered through to the backyard, because we don’t have a car to pick it up and we aren’t spring chickens so don’t want to be carrying 50 bags at 40 lbs each. Home Depot has topsoil from $1.48 to 5 per bag (1 cubic foot). David Shannon Nursery had it for $5 bag. We could get 70 bags delivered to our front door from Griffin Greenhouse for what would turn out to be around $5 a bag, with the delivery fee. What are your thoughts/suggestions/recommendations. Thanks! (Our current project is to get some shrubs planted along the back fence of our yard, an area where we lost about 6 inches of soil or so because it was the most weed-infested area, so we need to replenish with topsoil.)

    • Sorry, I didn’t catch this question until now, and you probably already bought topsoil, but here goes:
      The stuff Home Depot sells is a bit smelly and poorly finished. Also, the bags tend to be beat up. On the other hand, there are always guys with vans hanging out by the door, so get a card and a quote to bring your 70 cu ft delivered to your backyard and this could be the cheapest way.
      The smaller bags of better quality topsoil (like the ones sold at Shannon’s) can be delivered for a fee. The advantage is that you don’t even need to go there: you can call and get them delivered to your front yard, or for an extra fee, have them carried through your house. It will be a bit pricier, but the soil is better and it’s all done with a phone call and a tip.