6 tips for impatient gardeners
You don't have time to watch the grass — or anything else — grow. Here are six big tricks and a ton of tips on how to make your garden look great right now.
You're expecting the in-laws. Your house is on the market. You're having a party. You've got no time for the whole shoots, roots, buds and flowers thing and you want color and zip in the garden and decks right now. For you, the impatient gardener, here is a bag of tricks for instant happiness.
But first, as with all things that are too good to be true, a disclaimer: There is no way around the central fact of gardening, that it takes time for stuff to grow. Demanding instant satisfaction from your garden is like demanding that your kids grow up right now and skip childhood. The pleasure of gardening is in the planning, planting and waiting. But, OK, today, you've got no time for that. So let's substitute some sleight of hand.
1. Use pots right in your garden beds
Colorful containers are instant medicine for a bored gardener. You may know they're great on decks and patios, but did you know you can put them right into the middle of garden beds to add height and color? Daniel J. Hinkley, plant specialist and author of "The Explorer's Garden: Rare and Unusual Perennials," suggests amassing a collection of containers and planting them to bloom at different times. Keep most in a holding area, then wheel out the best to fill holes in the garden, at entries and in other dead spots. Rotate the containers with the seasons.
You can get a big bang from a container by potting a dwarf tree or medium-sized evergreen plant — boxwood is good for this — in the center and surrounding it with flowering bedding plants that you swap in and out with the seasons. In winter, trim the tree or bush with holiday lights.
Garden designer P. Allen Smith, whose recent books include "P. Allen Smith's Container Gardens: 60 Container Recipes to Accent Your Garden" and "P. Allen Smith's Colors for the Garden: Creating Compelling Color Themes," says his favorite potted trees are Japanese maples, weeping cherries, dwarf crab apples and the oddly named Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (corylus avellana 'Contorta'). This little tree resembles a corkscrew willow but remains compact, making it perfect for pots. Its wildly switchbacked branches look good with or without leaves.
Set aside modesty when you buy containers: Go for big, dramatic pots. Smith says the biggest mistake gardeners make with containers is buying puny pots.
"Overscaled ones are bolder. They exude confidence," he says. Try this: Set out pots in clusters of several sizes, placing a large one in back, a medium one before it and a low bowl in front.
2. Clean up
It's amazing how great a garden looks after a quick grooming. The job is instantly satisfying because it makes things look so "pulled together," as the personal shoppers at Nordstrom like to say. You'll need clippers and a cheap bamboo rake, which is best for this kind of surface cleanup.
Walk the garden, casting your critical eye on the beds, Hinkley advises. "If you have dead foliage, just get in there and clean it out," he says. Snip off spent flowers and cut back ratty looking perennials that are not blooming. Then rake beds and paths clean of dead plant material. The tine marks make the surfaces look groomed and fresh.
In the mood to go all out? Apply bark. Even if there's no color in the beds, Hinkley says, a covering of bark mulch makes the garden look dressed up.
3. Use quick-fix plants
If you can't wait for flowering plants to put out blooms, get instant satisfaction from colorful foliage plants. Coleus, a tropical plant that is grown as an annual for its richly colored foliage, comes in a rainbow of colors. (Pinch off coleus flower buds to encourage leafing.) Smith recommends a coleus called Fishnet Stocking, with chartreuse leaves and bold, burgundy veins.
Ornamental grasses are striking in pots. So are the purple-leafed Persian Shield (Strobilanthes) and elephant's ear, a caladium which has huge, heart-shaped leaves and can quickly grow to 6 feet tall. The "Black Magic" elephant's ear, with its deep, deep purple leaves, is a traffic stopper.
For those with pots and a bit more patience, Smith shares this high-impact trick: Layer as many as 75 tulip bulbs in a container that is 24 inches wide. First, fill the container about three-quarters full with potting soil. Lay down a thick layer of bulbs, add a layer of soil, then place another layer of bulbs down. Stuff each layer with bulbs "cheek to jowl," as Smith puts it. Use early, mid- and late-blooming tulip varieties and you'll have blooms for about a month. Plant the top with violas and keep it watered. Smith promises an outstanding effect come spring.
4. Add structure
Great gardens rely on structure: unchanging elements such as trees or garden sculpture, screens and fences, birdbaths, carefully placed groups of big rocks, arbors or free-standing columns. Even artfully placed garden furniture or salvaged garden or farm equipment can instantly bring life to a landscape.
Garden designers think of structural elements as the "bones" of a landscape. Usually vertical, these pieces create definition and give the eye relief from the low, horizontal plants and shrubs. In seasonal lulls or when nothing is blooming, bring in a new structural element for instant life.
5. Go for seasonal zip
When you buy flowers — for pots or garden beds — look for the newer, heavy blooming varieties.
- Spring: Nemesia is a good choice for early, instant color because it blooms happily in cool weather. Osteospermum (African daisy) is another colorful bloomer that loves cool spring weather, and it also tolerates heat. (Smith recommends the long-blooming Cream Symphony Osteospermum.)
- Summer: Intensive research has morphed the dreaded petunia of your grandmother's era into a true instant-gratification variety. Try Supertunias — Smith calls the Vista Bubble Gum Supertunia "a colossus" that is loaded with buds from April through early fall. The tiny petunia look-alike called Calibrachoa, or Million Bells, starts cranking out a trail of blossoms in June and the flowers often keep blooming through the first frost. The same is true of Bacopa, another trailing container plant. Lantana, an annual in most places, also delivers great results in pots.
- Autumn: For color in fall beds or pots, use salvia (blooming sage), a perennial. Smith likes the blue Victoria salvia, or Blue Mealy Cup salvia. In an article here, Mississippi State University horticulturist Norman Winter calls Mealy Cup sages "the poster plant for the cottage garden" because of their spiky, colorful presence and their ability to combine handsomely with other plants. Salvias are drought tolerant and look stunning when planted in masses. You'll get a lot of action from an annual called Torenia (Wishbone Flower) that flourishes in sun or shade. Plant Torenia in summer for a good fall display. Toffee Twist, a brown grass — it's a sedge, really — looks like a big bronze mop and is excellent for instant color in autumn and winter.
- Winter: "There's not much you can do about a bed in wintertime that hasn't been planted for seasonal interest," Hinkley says. That doesn't mean your garden has to lose all personality, however. Simply treat your containers like vases and fill them with interesting materials you've scavenged from the roadside. Use cut grasses or fern fronds, leafed or bare branches from trees, dried flowers, dried poppy seed pods or weeds or a bundle of attractive sticks like curly (also called "corkscrew") willow, bamboo or driftwood. Place the material straight up in the container or fan it out if the container shape permits. To help it stand up straight or if you want to add height, fill the bottom of the container with some sort of dry material like crumpled or shredded newspaper, stones, fill dirt or bark. Some gardeners use spray-on insulation foam to anchor an arrangement. To keep cut greenery or flowers alive, place a jar or vase of water in the pot first.
6. Don't garden, decorate
For those who want truly instant results, Smith says to forget sowing seeds, digging holes and clipping hedges. Instead, think like an exterior decorator. Smith ought to know. His public TV program, "P. Allen Smith's Garden Home," introduces audiences to principles of garden design. Start, he says, by deciding where to focus your energy. Take a tour of your outdoor spaces. "Ask yourself," Smith advises, "'which of these spaces can I build out and make more livable?'" His suggestions for fast, fun results:
- Water features: Create instant atmosphere and lure attention from bald decks, dead corners and bare earth by installing a small, wall-mounted water feature outdoors.
- Indoor-outdoor rugs: Smith likes the new, inexpensive indoor-outdoor rugs (also called "patio rugs") made of tough synthetics. Some look like sisal or coconut husk. Others mimic decorator carpets. Just roll them out to create an outdoor living space.
- Outdoor fabrics: Bring color to a dull garden or patio with water-, stain- and fade-resistant outdoor fabrics for pillows, tablecloths and awnings. Throw color around by hanging a hemmed swath of fabric on an outside wall or over a railing. Sunbrella, for example, produces reversible indoor-outdoor fabrics in a range of solid colors, stripes and linen- and silk-type patterns.
- Lighting: "Most of us are so busy that we don't get to enjoy our gardens until after dusk," Smith says. That's why you should consider garden torches, strings of decorative lights and outdoor fixtures to extend the use of an outdoor room into the evening. When installing outdoor light fixtures, aim to shine the light either below or above your eyes but not directly at them. Test a fixture's placement at night before permanently installing it.