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.

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