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Planning the Serenity Garden

February 10, 2011

The mostly shady serenity garden site at 8 a.m. Note the yellow stakes marking the outer edges of the planting area. (photo credit: Jean Potuchek_) Shortly after I began designing, digging, and planting the back garden, I found myself dreaming about putting a flower bed at the back of a clearing behind my house. This clearing has always had the sense of being  separate and secluded from the rest of the back yard, a garden room of its own. At the edge of the woods, presided over by two mature white pine trees, this area seemed like the perfect place for a quiet retreat, and I have come to think of it as “the serenity garden.”

Last year, as I finished the planting for the new fence border, I knew that it was time to get to work on this project. In May, I measured the site (an ellipse roughly 8’ deep at its deepest point and about 18’ wide) and put in some stakes to mark its outer boundaries. I also cut down some tree saplings that were within those boundaries. And once the deciduous trees had leafed out, I did a sun study by photographing the site once an hour from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Full sun at 1 p.m. (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Sun and dappled shade at 3 p.m. (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

When I had a sense of the patterns of light and shade, I began making lists of plants that I might include in this new garden area, gathering ideas from visits to gardens and nurseries and by scouring my plant reference books. I created a separate page in my garden spreadsheet for these ideas, noting height and width of plants, foliage characteristics, flower colors and bloom times, and light and soil needs. Because this garden at the edge of the woods will be an attraction for the neighborhood deer, I also noted plants that are deer “resistant” or even deer “repellant.”

screenshot - garden spreadsheet

Now it is time to put all these pieces together and actually develop a planting plan for this new garden. In order to create a sense of serenity in this shady woodland retreat, I want to put the focus on foliage, combining plants into pleasing combinations of foliage types and colors.  I intend to include some hosta, despite the fact that they are a favorite deer food; and I’m hoping that surrounding them with deer-resistant plants and including a kinetic wrought iron and stone sculpture will help to keep the deer at bay. I also want to enliven this garden area by using flowers to provide  intense shots of color at different points in the garden season. In addition, I need to get each plant in a location within the flower bed that will best match its light requirements.

This part of the design process always makes me a bit anxious; it’s like doing a very complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. But I have poor spatial reasoning skills, and I’m not very good at visualizing how a garden area will look when it’s done. When I sit down to plot it all out on graph paper, I’m always surprised to find that I can’t fit as many plants into a given area as I had imagined. I also know from experience that some plants that seemed like good bets when I read about them will turn out not to be very happy after they are planted. And some plant combinations will not look as good in reality as they did in my mind’s eye.

Fortunately, just as I’m starting to feel intimidated into paralysis by all these complexities, I remember that gardening is a process. Any plan will be subject to lots of revision. When I actually get the plants out there and start spotting them around in their pots, I will make some adjustments to my plan. And in the years that follow, I will move plants around, removing some that aren’t working out and adding some newly discovered plant loves.

Neither my garden plan nor my garden will  be perfect – and that’s all right. I just need to get out my graph paper and pencil and start drawing. It’s time!

31 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 12:14 am

    What fun! I so enjoy planning a new part of the garden. And don’t worry about plants clashing, they never bloom when they’re supposed to anyway… Clever idea to capture the sun/shade patterns with a camera.

  2. February 11, 2011 4:09 am

    What a lovely project. You are so right about the need to always be prepared to change your mind once you have the plants in front of you – and afterwards! I love to plan out a new planting scheme in quite a lot of detail, but always find myself changing it at least a little, either because I have different numbers of the different plants, or just because it looks different in reality. And I am always happy to move something a little – or a lot – if it doesn’t quite work for me. Enjoy your planning and can’t wait to see the first planting.

  3. sylvia209 permalink
    February 11, 2011 6:16 am

    Jean I love the idea of taking picture of the sun/shade of a garden but here it varies so much depending on the time of year. I have a border which doesn’t get any sun in December and January but is in full sun in June. It is trail and error to find plants to grow there. I am enjoying following you as you develop this border.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  4. sequoiagardens permalink
    February 11, 2011 6:30 am

    Enjoy, Jean! This is always one of the most exciting of garden activities!

  5. February 11, 2011 7:54 am

    What a great post. And a great idea, both about finding a spot like that and doing a sun study. I know a place where I really need to do a sun study before I choose some new plantings. Thank you.

    • February 13, 2011 4:41 pm

      Thank you all for visiting.

      Jack and Town Mouse, I agree that this is one of the most exciting parts of gardening. Despite the occasional anxiety that it creates, I love the anticipation of this planning process.

      Town Mouse and Pat, I don’t know where I first read about doing a sun study before designing a planting, but I’ve been doing it for years. I used to do it on paper, drawing in patterns of shade and dappled shade, but it was really tedious (especially considering that I can’t draw!). When I asked my sister to do a sun study for a garden area I was helping her with, she did it with her video camera — which is what gave me the idea for taking photos (much easier!!) instead of making drawings.

      Sylvia, The patterns of light and shade differ with the seasons here, too, but not as much as they do where you are. (I think I’m almost 10 degrees latitude further south, which means that the angle of the sun and the hours of light and shade don’t vary as much here.) I think the other big difference, though, is that we have a much shorter gardening season (no gulf current to warm the climate in winter). This area is probably in full sun much of the day in the winter months, but it’s also under feet of snow then, so I don’t have to worry about how the sun will affect any shade-loving perennials!

      Janet, I find if I start with a plan, I can depart from it; but if I don’t have a plan, I’m likely to cram plants in too close to one another. (Even though I know it intellectually, I can never quite believe that those small plants that look miles apart will be much larger and pushing into one another’s space in two or three years.)

  6. February 11, 2011 7:57 am

    Jean, You are so organized and intentional. Allan at Garden Guru will be so proud. He works so hard to keep design slouchers like me in line, and I really appreciate his efforts. I tend to wander around the garden with something I want to plant, and once enough of these pots get planted in one place it’s a bed. Plants die, and I replace them with more of the plants that thrive. Certain colors start to predominate and I go with that flow. Often a beautiful garden emerges five years later. I am such a sloucher in the design area. I don’t have much hope for your hostas though unless your deer are full. Carolyn

  7. February 11, 2011 8:49 am

    Jean, So sorry, I had to come back after I read the current Gardening Gone Wild post by Noel Kingsbury. Very interesting in relation to your post and Allan’s. I like what he says about the best made plans being thwarted by site conditions because that’s what happens in my difficult gardens (although maybe those should have been scouted out in advance). Also the designers, notably Oeheme, who are irritated when the garden owner plants their own plants?!? Would be interested in your thoughts and Allan’s. Carolyn

    • February 13, 2011 4:59 pm

      Carolyn, LOL, is “organized and intentional” a polite synonym for “obsessive-compulsive”? I plead guilty on all counts; spontaneity is definitely not my strong suit. Even if I were inclined toward spontaneous planting, however, my soil conditions don’t allow for it. My glacial “soil” is one step up from beach sand, and anything I’ve ever just stuck in the ground simply disappeared. Even such seemingly indestructible plants as oregano and Geranium x cantibrigiense ‘Biokovo’ couldn’t make it in unamended sand soil. So before I can plant, I have to lay out the outlines of a new flower bed, and then I have to spend many, many hours at the back-breaking labor of digging in hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds of organic matter, in the form of compost and manure. (My typical formula is 40 lbs. of each for every 6 sq. feet of garden area.)

      My deer aren’t full, but they’re not ravenous either. This is a rural rather than a suburban area, and there is still lots of habitat for the deer (and also lots of hunting that keeps the size of the herd down). Typically, I’ll see a lone young buck or a doe and a fawn or two, but never the large herds of deer that I see in southern Pennsylvania. I have hostas growing in other parts of my garden. The deer do eat them on occasion — if I’m away for an extended period of time, or if spring comes early and the hostas come up before I get back to Maine in May — but, usually, as long as I go out and walk around the garden every day and leave my scent everywhere, the deer keep out of the flower beds. But I’m assuming this area right on the edge of the woods and further from the house will be more vulnerable.

      Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Noel Kingsbury’s post. I have to admit that the idea of having the spreadsheet compute the area that will be covered by each plant and keep a running tally of how much space in the planting area is used up or still left really appeals to the geek in me! (I bet Excel already has the formula for area of a circle programmed in.) It seems like you’d need to be planting a pretty large area for this system to really work well, though. Since I keep myself going through the less-than-fun labor of soil preparation by dividing the bed into sections that I can plant after they’re dug, I’m usually working in pretty small areas.

  8. February 11, 2011 11:19 am

    How exciting! I really look forward to seeing your new garden’s progress. It sounds wonderful. You will surely enjoy your new retreat. I just read Carolyn’s comments above. I do admire your careful planning, but I’m afraid I am definitely the sloucher type!

  9. February 11, 2011 12:44 pm

    Jean you’re so organized! I’m greatly impressed. Although I should have realized this considering you have that lovely border in blues and yellows. My spatial skills are atrocious and I can’t resist a plant sale so I’m afraid my gardening style is rather haphazard at best.

    • February 15, 2011 1:42 pm

      Deb and Marguerite, I confess to being a hyper-organized planner type. (I used to joke — before the Soviet Union went bust — that if I didn’t make it in academia, I could pursue a career as a five-year planner at the Kremlin!) I keep my plant purchasing impulses in check by going to the nursery with a list of the plants I actually need and then allowing myself only one impulse purchase (one of the many plants just crying out to me to take them home!). I can always find room for just one plant somewhere. 🙂

  10. February 11, 2011 2:03 pm

    So simple, and yet so clever…a sun study! With digital cameras that’s so easy, and yet the thought never really occurred to me. My spatial reasoning skills aren’t great either when scribbling down plans, but I have found some of the garden planning software to help me with that. Most importantly though, it is a process, and I’ve learned to be not too rigid in my plans. For me a plan is rough start…but being flexible with the plan (when you run into a giant rock, or stump) is key!

  11. February 11, 2011 2:16 pm

    As we had to redesign our house plans from scratch. When we came with pegs and string, no matter what we tried, those 2 mountain ash trees were MUCH bigger than we had sketched out.

  12. patientgardener permalink
    February 11, 2011 2:42 pm

    Oh how exciting a new border. I am curious to see how the plants fair in the dry conditions under the trees

    • February 15, 2011 1:53 pm

      Clare, I don’t know where I first learned about doing a sun study, but I must have read it somewhere. I’m sure I didn’t think it up on my own, and I’ve been doing them for years (although this was the first time with the digital camera — so easy!!). I should look into some of the garden-planning software; I’m sure my geeky heart would love it. I do like the hands-on process of plotting things out on paper, though. I’ve spent my whole life learning not to be rigid, and gardening has definitely been a great way to learn it. I never run into rocks on my property, but I have a feeling I’m going to have some large tree roots to work around on this project.

      Diana, I can easily imagine the scene you’ve described. Fortunately for me, the trees on this site are behind the planting area rather than in it, so their size shouldn’t have too much impact on my design.

      Helen, This is my first experience with the infamous “dry shade,” and I think that’s part of my anxiety about designing this. On the other hand, because leaf litter and pine needles have been building up for decades on this site, it might have more organic matter and be more moisture retentive than my usual glacial sand. (I’ll have the soil tested when the ground thaws in April.) I usually use acrylic “soil moist” pellets in the planting hole to hold moisture around moisture-loving plants, and I will put down a soaker hose in this flower bed that will allow me to water it. Next year, we’ll all get to see how it’s working out!

  13. February 12, 2011 1:54 pm

    Wow, what an amazing spreadsheet! I do love to plan out the garden (mostly by drawing it), but I never stick to the plan. I usually end up shoving clearance plants here and there. 🙂 Your serenity garden sounds lovely…and I hope you can keep the deer away from your hostas!

  14. ddonabella permalink
    February 12, 2011 2:34 pm

    Jean I can’t wait to see it planted and growing…I try to make plans but never quite stick with the original idea…but that is the way I garden…

  15. February 12, 2011 4:23 pm

    Jean, What a great post. You capture so well that sense of both joyous anticipation and overwhelming difficulty that surround creating a new border. Good luck with your plans – and many thanks for the kind comments on my blog.

    • February 15, 2011 2:03 pm

      Hanni, Thanks for visiting. I think I’m the personality type for whom spreadsheets were invented! I have dozens of them — at work, for keeping track of students’ grades and for organizing applicant records in a job search we’re doing. At home, I have spreadsheets for my household accounts, for keeping health records, for savings and retirement planning, and of course for the garden. I love the flexibility of the spreadsheet for keeping garden records — the way I can just keep expanding it by adding new pages or new rows and columns as I think of new things I want to include. I know the hostas are a gamble, but I don’t see any harm in trying. If the deer repeatedly eat them, I’ll just replace them with something else.

      Donna, I can’t wait to see it grow either; I have been dreaming about this garden area for so many years. I usually stick pretty close to my plan when I’m planting and then move things around more as the plants grow and I can see what is and isn’t working.

      Jill, “joyous anticipation and overwhelming difficulty” was such a perfect description for my current state of mind about this garden area. Thanks.

  16. February 12, 2011 5:26 pm

    I was reading along, getting ready to reassure you in your designing anxiety when I saw you’d talked yourself out and recognized that gardening is a process. It’s your space, to do with as you will, and it will be wonderful because you’ve put so much heart and thought into your location and plant selection.

  17. February 12, 2011 10:23 pm

    Jean – what a perfect name for a garden! Following your progress as the design comes along will be inspiring.

    (I had to smile when I saw your spreadsheet! I’ve been making lists and notes, and web-surfing for ideas – ‘sun’ plants and ‘shade’ plants! Are all gardeners going through this off-season planning, to satisfy rabid cabin fever? 🙂 –Shyrlene

  18. February 13, 2011 2:54 pm

    Jean, I guess that the anxiety of the work ahead will just disappear once you get hands-on and start to make real you new space, but it’s hard to just wait for the time!

  19. February 13, 2011 6:54 pm

    I’m excited to see how your plans turn out. You are really smart to take pictures and watch for the sun/shade conditions. I’m the same way with planning and thinking so much will fit in until I start thinking about the sizes the planting space actually is. Have fun with you planning!

  20. February 13, 2011 8:13 pm

    Yes…. all those things, but just think how many times combinations end up looking way better than the minds eye, or even the intentional mind was planning! Hope all is well!

    • February 15, 2011 2:13 pm

      Jodi and Jess, Thanks for the reassurance. Especially, Jess, thanks for the reminder that some of the best plant combinations in my garden were the result of serendipity, not my clever intentions! Mother nature is a far better garden designer than I will ever be. It’s great to hear from you.

      Shyrlene, I promise to post more on this as it proceeds — the final plan when it is done, the actual digging and planting process, and the finished (??) garden.

      Lula, The anxiety is really about whether I’m making the right choices. But, if they turn out not to be the right choices, they can be changed! A few more months and I can actually get out there and start work.

      Catherine, I’m glad I’m not the only gardener who’s “spatially challenged.” Seeing the beautiful results you’ve had in your garden is the best kind of reassurance.

  21. February 15, 2011 1:39 pm

    Hi Jean, A sun study is a fabulous idea. With your scientific approach I’m sure your serenity garden will be lovely – and that’s a lovely name for it, too. If some things don’t seem quite right the first year, just think of all the fun you’ll have revising your spreadsheet and replanning. I would be wary of putting in hostas if you already know deer go for them. One of the main reasons I’ve had to revise my original (and I thought perfect) plan for my potager was that I had underestimated how much damage slugs would do. I’ve gotten rid of all hostas in the meantime, for example. I’ll be interested to see your “kinetic” deer-repelling sculpture. Barbara

    • February 15, 2011 2:20 pm

      Hi Barbara, I’m going to take a chance on the hostas because I’m not sure the deer will go for them (see my response to Carolyn above) and I imagine them as a focal point in this space. I’ll be looking out for alternatives as I visit shade nurseries this year, just in case they don’t work out. The sculpture I have in mind is made by a local Maine artisan. It is very simple, consisting of a vertical wrought iron rod with a horizontal piece of about the same size resting on top. The horizontal piece has a kind of cradle at each end that holds a fist-sized rock. Even though it is heavy, the whole thing is so exquisitely balanced that it moves in the breeze. I’m imagining the rocks floating above the hostas. I think the movement will spook the deer. And, if not, being bonked on the head by a swinging rock as they try to eat should provide some negative reinforcement!


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