Planning a garden while the snow flies

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The approach of spring has our phone ringing every day. People are excited about the new season, they all have plans and everybody wants to get going right away. The variety of subjects is a wide as the number of gardeners.

One family is going to concentrate on the planting phase of a landscape development plan they have been working on for the last three years. They have their drainage under control, pathways and utilities in, and they've been collecting plants from their friends and growing them in a nursery bed. Last year they built rock retaining walls, compost bins, a covered deck and a ``fence on a box'' (a planter box, internally braced, requiring no excavation, that can support a 6-foot fence while providing space for a shrub and perennial garden in the planter).

They ordered bare root perennials and shrubs to be delivered with our spring shipments, and are going to plant hundreds of landscape sized Astilbes, Peonies, Bleeding Hearts and Primroses as well as Roses, Dogwoods, Lilacs, Potentillas and Spireas. These will go in the ground during April and May and bloom the first year.

Another person has suffered incursion by a neighbor with a chainsaw.

The thick grove of Alder and Spruce that had sheltered her from the roadway was decimated. It would grow back in another 30 years, but the everyday exposure has made her private home into a public viewplane. Her options include planting a grove of evergreen ornamentals, making a rock and earth berm and covering it with a thicket of flowering shrubs and trees, or moving a large native evergreen tree into the vacant spot. She will probably make a combination of these possibilities.

Intimate side yards are a pleasure to build and many people are planning them. Their purpose is soul easing, and the scale is small enough that they can be made in a few days. The ragged turf and old fence will be gone, and in their place will be a group of carefully chosen stones half-buried in soil and planted with a couple of slow-growing, gray-green Mountain Hemlocks and a grove of strong blooming shrubs. Something that has good branches, abundant bloom, bird attracting berries and nice fall color: American Cranberry, Saskatoon or golden-flowering Clove Scented Currant.

The ground cover layer is where the real action is in a garden like this.

The layering of smaller plants, dwarf bulbs and tiny creeping perennials ensures that the scene will be distinctly different every time it's looked at. Snowdrops pushing abruptly up through the dusky smooth Lowbush Cranberry leaves, will be followed by dark purple buds of tiny Julianna hybrid Primroses, showing for weeks before they suddenly burst open. The long, slow flowering of the delicate Grape Hyacinth will carry the show into early summer.

We are blessed with an abundance of small-leafed creeping shrubs in our wildlands. Planting some of these in a closely viewed location sharpens our appreciation for these little gems. Lignonberry, Bog Rosemary, or the Cassiope Heather are good choices, and the tiny-leafed Ramapoo Rhododendron makes a tough companion.

Island beds of perennials are the choice of many busy gardeners. They can plant six or ten large blooming types that have staggered flowering times and have a colorful arrangement that can even yield table decorations and fresh herbs. Peeling out a bed in the lawn is easier to build and maintain than one under the eaves and against the wall.

Take the turf up and use it somewhere else. Don't even try to dig it into the ground: grass is tough stuff. Amend the soil with compost, weed-free chicken manure, sand and a little lime. Make enough to raise the soil 8 to 12 inches and you're in business. The great thing about one of these freestanding flowerbeds is that you can be ready to plant the same day. Plant the tall growers in the center and arrange the others in descending order, and be sure to space them closely enough to cover the ground.

Fragrant Lilies, feathery Astilbes, sky blue Himalayan Poppies and Globe Plants can fill in around Monkshoods, Meadow Rue and Queen of the Prairie. A couple of upright irises, masses of billowy pink and white rock cress in the spring and a summer layer of magenta or pale pink European Perennial Geranium will bring it down to the edges.

Planning a garden is great work for a snowy afternoon.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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