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Thinking About the Front Slope

June 10, 2017

front slopeI have been giving quite a bit of thought recently to the design for the Front Slope section of my new front garden. The Front Slope isn’t on the agenda for this year; this year’s focus is on creating the grassy path that will connect the upper and lower gardens, the shrubbery that will anchor the front west corner of my property, and a small rain garden depression by the downspout on the front west corner of the house. But, even as I begin to work on these areas, my mind has been skipping ahead to the Front Slope, which is next year’s garden project.

The Front Slope is the largest planting area in my new front garden, approximately 720 square feet (36 feet wide by 20 feet deep). As I work on other parts of the garden, I have been noting ideas for this area: (1) I want to feature hot colors below the retaining wall– reds and oranges that are not much found elsewhere in my garden, mixed with yellows and purples. (2) I want to transition from more formal planting at the top of the slope, closest to the upper garden, to informal planting in the lower garden.

Wild Seed Magazine 2017My current thinking about how to bring these ideas together has been shaped by three influences: First was a class I took a few weeks ago with Bill Cullina, President and CEO of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, about how to incorporate native herbaceous plants in the Maine garden. Second was the Wild Seed Project’s annual magazine, with inspiring articles about gardening with native plants. Third was Larry Weaner’s Garden Revolution (Timber Press, 2016), about ecological gardening. (Look for a review of this book in a later post.)

What all these inspirations have in common is an emphasis on using plants in the garden that we more often think of as wildflowers. I came to gardening through a love of wildflowers, and I have often tried to incorporate wildflowers into my garden. These sources give me a better understanding of how to do so successfully. Years ago, I read that plants that grow in poor soil will always do better if you give them good soil, but that turns out not to be the case. Many of my attempts to transplant wildflower volunteers on my property into the garden have not been successful. In his class on gardening with native herbaceous plants, Bill Cullina distinguished between plants that do well in amended garden soil and those which do not. In Garden Revolution, Larry Weaner notes that many plants growing in nutrient-poor soils are not good competitors. They thrive in challenging conditions because they are filling a niche that other plants aren’t adapted to; in rich soil, however, they will be out-competed.

Larry Weaner recommends not amending soil at all, but instead choosing plant communities that grow naturally in the soil you have. However, the kind of wild garden look that he extols is not what I am after. Nevertheless, there are a number of plants that have volunteered to grow in the unimproved soil on or near the Front Slope that I would like to include in my garden. These include four plants that can be used as groundcovers: wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis), bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and moss phlox (Phlox subulata).

front slope strawberry front slope potentilla
front slope bluets front slope phlox

Other volunteers include Tradescantia virginiana, Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), and black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

front slope tradescantia front slope daisy

I am thinking that I can combine these (and other) volunteers and wildflowers with cultivated plants and my other goals for this planting by using gradations of soil amendments, from fully amended rich garden soil at the top of the slope to unamended loamy sand at the bottom. I don’t want the design to have obvious horizontal bands, but if I create undulating edges between different gradations of soil richness, the different plant communities will weave into one another, blurring the boundaries between them.

I am excited by these ideas and have begun to compile lists of plant possibilities for the various levels of soil richness. I expect to modify and expand on these ideas as I continue to work on the design for this planting in the year to come.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2017 12:15 pm

    A wildflower would be a lovely complement to your house, Jean. I’ve not been particularly successful in getting wildflowers to germinate and bloom in my own garden but my brother, who lives in an inland valley here, has made a good go with wildflower seeds. He’s added compost on top of what is very poor soil but otherwise no amendments. He seeds heavily and does little to no thinning. Of course, the key addition here is irrigation as our rain is often too little too late. Best wishes with your plans!

    • June 16, 2017 11:03 pm

      Thanks, Kris. I found in very helpful in my class with Bill Cullina to have him distinguish plants that will grow in rich garden soil from those that will not.

  2. June 11, 2017 8:34 pm

    Planning a new garden is always exciting. I too am impressed by what Larry Weaner and others are suggesting and am trying to incorporate his ideas into one area of my garden. But I can easily understand that the wild look he goes for isn’t what you want in the front garden. Lucky you, to have taken a workshop with Bill Cullina. His books are ‘go too’ books for me.

    • June 16, 2017 11:07 pm

      Pat, As I’ve been reading Weaner, I keep thinking about your big meadow. The classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are wonderful because they are kept small (15 or fewer) with lots of opportunity for interaction with our distinguished teachers. I have three more days of class with Bill Cullina this year — 1 more day in July of Native herbaceous plants for the Maine garden and two days in September of Horticultural ecology — all requirements for my Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture.

  3. June 12, 2017 4:48 am

    A wildflower would be a beautiful supplement to your home, Jean…Best wishes with your arrangements!

    • June 16, 2017 11:08 pm

      Thank you. I’ve always wanted to combine wildflowers with more cultivated garden perennials, but now I have a better understanding of how to do it successfully.

  4. June 12, 2017 7:11 am

    We gardeners are all the same, aren’t we?! Always dreaming about next year’s garden. 🙂

    • June 16, 2017 11:09 pm

      Next year and the year after that and the year after that … 🙂

  5. June 13, 2017 12:33 pm

    I love this post Jeanne. I recognize all of the six of the native wildflowers you posted pictures of as friends that show up around our house here in Auburn (although I consider the Tradescantia virginiana something of a treat; I don’t see it every year). I’m so glad you are looking out for these plants and how to include them in your garden.

    • June 16, 2017 11:11 pm

      Sarah, Most of the wildflowers in my garden were here before me and before the garden. The tradescantia is the exception; I planted it and then it happily seeded itself around both in and out of the garden.

  6. June 13, 2017 1:26 pm

    A wildflower garden on your front slope sounds just lovely, Jean! It’s interesting to learn that many plants thrive in nutrient-poor soil because they are not good competitors. Thank you for sharing the garden wisdom you are learning. As gardeners, we are always planning ahead… and dreaming our garden dreams. Wishing you happy June days in the garden! ♡

    • June 16, 2017 11:12 pm

      Dawn, I found that bit about poor competitors a very useful insight. As a retired teacher, I’m always happy to share what I’m learning with others. 🙂

      • June 17, 2017 12:02 am

        Our gardens certainly keep us learning and growing, Jean! From one retired teacher to another, wishing you happy summer days in the garden! 💗

  7. June 19, 2017 1:09 pm

    Jean I look forward to seeing what you plant….my back gardens…oh heck all of them are overrun with wildflowers and weeds surviving in clay and poor soil. I try to amend soil where I don’t want them to run wild but in the challenging areas, the natives thrive and look wonderful.

  8. June 19, 2017 6:21 pm

    Going to be exciting to see this bit in a year, or two or three.

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