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Time for a Makeover

August 8, 2022

Now that I have finally finished creating my new front garden, I am turning my attention to areas of the back garden that were neglected during this seven-year project.

The back garden was created to go with a large deck that I had built onto the back of my house twenty years ago. The first flower beds to be created were the deck border (2001-2003) and the blue and yellow border (2003-2004), and these are now showing their age and looking a bit tired. Although the deck border is the older of the two, the blue and yellow border is the focus of my attention this summer.

Here’s how it looked when I chose it for my blog header in 2009:

Blog Header

Here’s how it looks now:

Blue&Yellow tired

The daylilies have done well here, but the tall spires of delphinium that were meant to be the stars of this display in high summer are long gone. Some plants that did well for a while have gone into a decline in recent years.  Hostas, for example, have been struggling after being eaten repeatedly by deer. Many of the Siberian irises have been getting shorter and blooming more sparsely. And as some plants have failed to thrive, areas of bare soil between plants have grown.

I think the main problem with this flower bed is that, over the years, organic matter has leached out of my sandy soil, reducing both the availability of soil nutrients to plants and the ability of the soil to hold water. Therefore, my plan for renovating this border mostly involves digging in organic matter. I am working the soil in 24-square-foot sections. The most time-consuming part of the process is lifting and relocating the plants currently growing in each section. Many of them go into my holding area, some get parked in open spaces elsewhere in this flower bed, and some go into pots. Once the plants have been removed from a section, I spread a couple of wheelbarrow loads of compost and a cubic-foot bag of composted cow manure on top of the section and then fork it in. When I have the soil prepared in an area eight feet wide and twelve feet deep (four 24-square-foot sections, about 40% of the total area in the flower bed), I will put plants in place before going on to the next segment.

Most of the plants currently growing in the blue and yellow border will remain in the renovated border – but most will change location within the border. The exceptions are two large perennials, a blue star flower (Amsonia tabernaemontana) and a false indigo (Baptisia australis). These are thriving and have grown into large shrub-like clumps, and because they have deep taproots, they would resent being moved; so I am leaving them where they are and working around them. There is also a large clump of the tall Rudbeckia x ‘Herbstsonne’ that lights up the back of the border in late summer and fall; a division of this will be added in another location, but most of it will stay where it is.

Generally, though, I am using this renovation of the border as an opportunity to re-think the design. The blue and yellow color scheme will remain, and I’m planning to create a lusher look by planting more densely. (A garden design course I took this summer recommended spacing plants at 75% of their mature width. This means spacing daylilies, for example, 18” apart rather than 2’ apart.)

Here is the new planting design:


Planting more densely means being able to include more plants. Where previously there were three clumps of yellow daylilies, for example, there will now be five. Two clumps of Siberian irises will become three. The number of balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) and false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) plants – both of which have done well in this planting and both of which are inclined to self-sow in my garden – will double. Some of the plants in the original design that did not survive (Aconitum, Delphinium) will be replaced by plants that I have not grown before that are more suited to my soil conditions. I am also adding some shrubs to create structure at the back of the border, particularly on the right side where several trees have come down in the past ten years, opening up space and light.

Right now, this is hard, dirty work. But I’m looking forward to the reward of enjoying this renewed, refreshed flower bed in the years to come.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2022 7:28 pm

    Oh, I find renovation to be difficult, not because of the effort, but because I can not bear to replace items that I have grown for many years. I got so many of the perennials that I grow now when I was a little kid, and very few were acquired during this century. The few that I got early this year from Tangly Cottage Gardening will likely be with me for the rest of my life. For me, renovation involves relocation, or pulling up items to just groom them and put them back where they came from.

    • August 12, 2022 4:53 pm

      Tony, I like the tried and true plants best, too. I don’t have to part with any loved plants in this renovation, although I’ll be giving away some divisions of those that need to be divided. Mostly, I’m replenishing the soil, rearranging existing plants, and adding a few new ones.

  2. Heidi permalink
    August 8, 2022 8:40 pm

    So fabulous! Glad you’re having fun with it.

    • August 15, 2022 2:13 pm

      Got the first plants in the ground yesterday.

  3. Juliann permalink
    August 8, 2022 11:13 pm

    Hi Jean, This sounds like a bit of a chore to me, since I’m sweltering in the 95 degree weather in Florida! However, if I get outside early enough in the morning it’s fine for a few hours. Your plans sound beautiful. I’m looking forward to pictures when you have finished. Have fun!!

    • August 15, 2022 2:15 pm

      Juliann, We were having a lot of 90+ days here, too, in an exceptionally warm July. Fortunately, things have cooled off in August, and I have been able to work on this in temperatures in the seventies and low eighties.

  4. August 8, 2022 11:24 pm

    I’m impressed by your carefully thought out plan and methodical approach, Jean. I hope it’s cooler in your part of the country than mine – I can’t even imagine doing work like that under current conditions. Best wishes as you move ahead!

    • August 15, 2022 2:15 pm

      Kris, LOL, “Methodical” is my middle name.

  5. August 9, 2022 7:55 am

    I find this so exciting. A clean slate! I was involved with 3 other ladies in a rejuvenation of a public garden many years ago, and it is still a wonderful memory! The Winter planning the new area was great research time, and the Spring was the tough work. We hired a team to dig everything up….just too much for 3 people. But I hope you have fun with this. Your after is a perfect example of a border begging for rejuvenation…all that good plant material looking for a make over! It will be divine!

    • August 15, 2022 2:19 pm

      Jayne, It’s not exactly a clean slate, since I am mostly moving around plants that are already here (although I did manage to spend a few hundred $$ at a local nursery supplementing those). It will be nice to see those old tired-looking plants coming up next year in better soil and with a new lease on life.

  6. August 9, 2022 10:13 am

    Has it really been seven years!?
    Good luck on your next phase, I really like how you’ve broken it down into smaller sections which should be less overwhelming than facing a whole border in need of digging.

    • August 15, 2022 2:20 pm

      bittster, My approach to most things in life seems to be to break big daunting tasks into smaller, manageable pieces. Works for me 😉

  7. Janet Powers permalink
    August 9, 2022 3:40 pm

    You are an amazingly diligent gardener! Taking a design course has probably motivated you to create that detailed garden plan. I’m afraid that I am an opportunistic gardener rather than a planner — letting things spread if they want to, filling in the bare spots with new plants as experiments, enjoying the continuous blooming that has somehow transpired over the 30 years I have been at this site. Can’t believe you have been in Maine 20 years!

    • August 15, 2022 2:23 pm

      Actually, Jan, I’ve been making these detailed garden plans for more than twenty years — originally, in a graph paper notebook (where I still have the original design for this flower bed) and later on the computer using the graphics tools in Word. The garden designer who taught our classes wanted us to do free-hand drawing, which I found much, much more challenging. I bought this house in 1990, so more than 30 years — but I didn’t start gardening seriously until the late nineties.

  8. August 11, 2022 11:48 am

    Always impeccably planned and prepared, Jean. It puts me to shame. To maintain the fertility in the border going forwards, could you mulch over the whole border every autumn and let the worms and winter work it in, especially if these are herbaceous perennials? It would be like a no-dig scheme.

    • August 15, 2022 2:31 pm

      Surprisingly, Sunil, there are no native earthworms in Maine, but there are European earthworms that were brought over by the colonists and are now commonly found in gardens. Recently, we have been plagued by invasive earthworms that actually deplete the fertility of the soil. Earthworms are pretty rare in my garden, but I do depend on other insects to turn over the soil. Your suggestion for maintaining organic matter in the soil is a good one. I don’t think I can realistically keep up with the job of mulching all garden areas with compost every year, but I’m going to aim for getting to each garden area once every 2-3 years.

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