Drop by Drop

Time is the hidden magic behind every beautiful garden you’ve ever seen.

IMG_9904When you first start a garden, it’s not going to look great. It’s going to look spotty and a bit sad, really. The trick is not to get discouraged but to keep plugging at it, planting a snowdrop from a neighbor here and a columbine from your friend there, dividing anything and everything and redistributing as if you know what you’re doing. For a few years you’ll wonder if maybe you’re just not great at making gardens, then, poof, one May your garden will spring to life. All those plants will suddenly look like they’ve been there forever, lush and thick and trying to outdo each other with flowers, and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel the itch to get started on another section of your yard so you can experience the ride all over again.


Straight and Narrow

After the first rush of excitement when the plant catalogs start pouring into the mailbox each winter, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the variety of plants available.


While it would be lovely to have the money and space to plant some of everything, that’s not reality for the vast majority of us. Sure, maybe you can plant twenty kinds of seeds, but planting twenty kinds of fruit trees is less likely to be an option. Everything in the catalogs is bound to look appealing in the dead of winter. Narrowing down the choices is part science, part art, and part deciding you’ve packed and repacked your parachute enough times and taking the jump.

In order to spread the costs out and avoid decision fatigue, my own approach has been to focus on one section of our property each year, all the while keeping my big picture in mind: grow a variety of food, plant enough to share, give the plants what they need, minimize labor, and aim for pretty.

The area I am working on this year has a mulberry tree and a small wisteria, each about fifteen years old. The mulberry fruited its first and second years, but hasn’t since. This was a disappointment, as mulberries are one of my favorite childhood foods, so I knew I wanted more mulberries. Other than that, I was open to anything.

For each plant I considered, I researched the following questions:

Will it grow well in my zone? (Zone 6)

When does it fruit? (I’d like to be harvesting continually, rather than all at once.)

How big is it? (Will I have room for it, and will it thrive among nearby plantings?)

Is it self-pollinating? (If not, I’ll need more than one.)

Does it have thorns? (I’m anti-thorn.)

What kind of soil and sun does it need? (Wet, hot, shady, dry?)

Do I want to eat it? (Just because I can grow it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)

Do I like the way it looks? (I’d sacrifice looks for flavor if necessary, but it rarely is.)

Is there likely to be a market for excess? (Not a concern for everyone, but as I sell produce and preserves and hope to sell a greater quantity in the future, important for me to consider.)

I settled on three varieties of mulberry: Illinois Everbearing, Shangri La, and Weeping Mulberry. The Illinois is a large tree that begins fruiting in June. The Shangri La will fruit a bit earlier, beginning in May, and is mid-sized at about 20 feet. Smallest of all is the Weeping Mulberry, which is the kind I grew up with, making it more a nostalgic choice than a strategic one.

Along with the mulberries I’ll be planting two pawpaw trees, Sunflower Pawpaw and SAA Overleese Pawpaw. Again, one is a bit larger than the other. My objective is to create something of a food forest – a garden which mimics nature, where plants grow in layers, tall trees spaced widely to provide an open canopy, shorter trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants nestled around and under. Plants in straight rows may look tidy, but I want to garden as a participant in nature, not a director.

To begin my shrub level I chose three varieties of honeyberry (Blue Moon, Blue Pacific, and Blue Velvet) and to get started on the groundcover I chose wintergreen. The honeyberries will bloom early and the wintergreen late, extending my fruit harvesting season.

I’ll likely need more for the shrub layer, and will plant some bulbs and possibly some herbs as well, but we’ll be off to a good start this spring. All told, I’ll spend about $300 on this area. That’s about half as much as we spend each month on groceries for our family of four. Not small change, but I’d just as soon have my savings grow in my backyard as in the bank.

Divide and Conquer

Now’s the time to divide plants.


One nice thing about transplanting perennials in the fall is that the plants are about to die back anyway, so even if they have a bit of a shock and their leaves struggle or wither, they’re likely to come back in the spring just fine.

Talk of green thumbs can give the impression that plants are very fragile, but they’re not. I separated huge bunches of daylilies this week. Other than making sure the roots weren’t in the air long enough to dry out, I didn’t give them any special treatment, and was in fact a bit rough with them. I used a nice sharp shovel to cut through the clumps of roots, pulled the plants apart, then into the ground they went.

I don’t have any real design plan for my gardens, so when I separate perennials and move them around I make my best guess as to what might work in a given location. After a few years of doing this things start to come together, maybe not in a way that would end up in any magazines, but in a way I’m happy with. In gardening the fun really is in the process – the digging, the planning, the daydreaming – not only in the end result.

Space Invaders

If you’re looking for a fall-blooming flower and don’t mind if it takes over your space a bit, perennial Ageratum is a good choice.


It wants to spread and does so via rhizomes, so it’s perfect for filling in a large area quickly. Nondescript throughout the summer, it comes into its own in late September or early October, and will bloom straight through the first frost. The color is quite vibrant, contrasting nicely with russets and oranges of autumn. Right now mine is blooming next to bright pink asters, and I can almost pretend I’m warm.

Now Playing

Dianthus Everlast is among the plants putting on a second show in our garden.


The flowers bring some unexpected white to the mix of fall-blooming plants, a kind of punctuation mark to the palette of autumn that surrounds them.

This particular Dianthus is a perennial. It bloomed back in June, and when it was done I gave it a good haircut. When these blooms are spent I’ll let them stand. It makes for a less tidy fall garden, but I like to let plants complete their natural cycles at this time of year as they get ready to head into the cold weather.

Extended Forecast

I’m working on extending the flowering season in my garden. I figure the longer I can make it look like summer, the┬álonger I can pretend winter is not coming.


The sunflowers growing just outside the entrance to our house are doing a good job of keeping things cheerful as the nights begin to cool. In addition, cosmos are still blooming, autumn sedum are waking up, lavender is putting on a second showing, tall phlox are hanging in there, and a random balloon flower or black-eyed susan is making an appearance. Yes, I just replenished my wool sock supply and cold weather is on its way, but let’s just ignore that and enjoy the view.

Bee, Prepared

The oregano is beginning to flower, keeping the bees busy as they stock up on food to get through winter, just as I do.


Oregano is intent on taking over the world. No matter how often I cut it back, it inches ever outward, claiming any bit of dirt it can reach. We grow Greek oregano and spicy oregano, which I dry and mix together. They’re only slightly different in flavor, but combining them adds a bit of depth. With temperatures in the nineties today it’s hard to imagine wanting a hot lasagna sprinkled with dried herbs, but I know that day is coming sooner than I – or the bees, I imagine – would like. Hopefully we’ll all eat well when the snow flies.

Air Freshener

If at all possible, I recommend planting something that smells sweet outside your window.


These days the scent of our tall phlox is drifting in through the kitchen and dining room windows, freshening things up after a stretch of hot and humid weather.