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August: Time to Critique the Garden

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Marty Wingate

August is a time gardeners turn a critical eye toward all or parts of their landscape.  Except for weeding, which never ends, garden jobs are at a minimum; it's too hot and dry to plant or engage in any terribly vigorous activity, so we spot water the newest additions, cut flowers for indoors, and sit outside in the evening to admire our surroundings.

All that inactivity and observation leads us to become critics of our own gardens.  In mid- to late summer, we begin to see what doesn't work, as well as what does.  But where do we begin?  Faced with an entire garden to analyze, we may not be able to focus on the best and the worst, much less think about what we can do to make it better.

It's time for some advice.  Here are the suggestions from two Northwest designers, who have seen it all before and can offer thoughtful ways to go about figuring out what works and help us understand how we can make our gardens better.

Checklist for maintenance

Sue Cruver is owner of Tsunami Design in Olalla.  In her design and maintenance business, she seeks a balance between what she recommends and what her clients want.  That isn't always the same thing, as we all know:  how many times have we wanted a particular plant even though we may not have the most appropriate place to put it?

Cruver sees gardeners facing August with that vague "Something's not working here" feeling.  "August is a bad time for a lot of gardens," she says, "and so in a lot of ways it's a good time to look at the garden critically."

In other words, if a plant or particular design looks good at this time of year, it must be a keeper.  But if the geraniums are flagging when you expected them to shine or if that special seating area you created in order to view the garden has been overwhelmed by a fast-growing elderberry, these are things that need to be changed altogether.

Although not the perfect time to actually do the work, it's a great time to think about it.  "What has happened in your garden this season," Cruver says, "is still fresh in your mind."  By the time November or February rolls around, you could forget those small but important details of design and planting.

Fortunately, at this time of year, some of those details hit you in the face.  My confession is a large and well-established Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans.  Oh how I've bragged that you don't need to divide hostas constantly, and that this particular plant, in the ground for at least eight years, looks magnificent.

Until this year, when I suddenly noticed its sparse and scraggly look.  That goes on my list for dividing in the fall.  And knowing how large the crown will be, I'd better have a saw handy.

The maintenance issue:  There's work to be done in the garden, no one is denying that.  It isn't the same as arranging furniture and hanging pictures.  Once those are in place, they will stay the same size, they won't die and they don't need periodic care, dusting and vacuuming aside.

So, another tip from Cruver is to think about what you've enjoyed taking care of, and what has been a chore.  Immediately, something will pop in your mind - it could be a small pond you've never enjoyed or, perhaps, it's a pest- and disease-ridden rose that needs constant attention.

We all have different tolerance levels; one gardener's invasive weedy perennial is another's easy care choice for constant color.  It goes for maintenance, too, which is why I recently dug out a Geranium phaeum as big as a dining table when I realized that it was muscling out other plants that I liked better.

If you are missing that spark in late summer, now's the time to find some solutions.  "It's a good time to go into the nurseries and see what looks good there," Cruver says.  Inspiration could also come from late-season garden tours, such as those that members of Northwest Perennial Alliance enjoy (for more information:  www.northwestperennialalliance.org).

Design critique

Keith Geller runs a landscape design firm and teaches classes on design at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture (for information and a schedule of classes, go to www.urbanhort.org or phone 206-685-8033).  He emphasizes to his students that first, you must look at the big picture in the garden.

 "I tell them to think of spaces in the garden," Geller says, "and teach them how to link those spaces."  Understanding what we want to include in our gardens is one thing, but if we aren't able to see beyond one plant at a time, then we miss the mark, and the garden's effect on us and others is lost.

Focal points are one example.  "People look at their perennial border," he says, "But don't see that just beyond is the neighbor's driveway and a big RV covered in a blue tarp."  Immediately the effect of the border is lost, and we begin to blame it on the plants.

"We tend to be myopic in the garden," Geller says.  "We look at this plant, that plant."  Initially, attention should go instead to the bones of the garden, a term which helps gardeners understand the garden as a whole, before breaking it down to finer details.

Form the skeleton first, then, as they say, put the meat on the bones.  "Actually," Geller says, "I like to say, then put the tofu on the bones."

Geller helps his students train their eyes to understand space, how to define it and how to link spaces.  It could be hardscape or a change of levels or a narrowing of a path that signals moving from one place to another. 

The psychological effect of foreground and background is another way to lure you from one space into another.  Geller uses this effect in his own garden as he draws you from shady spaces into the sun.

The principles of design apply to established gardens, as well as blank slates.  Geller advises looking not only at foreground and background effects, but also the seasonality of the garden and the effect that even one tree can have depending on whether it is deciduous or evergreen.

"It's all about comfort," Geller says.  If the goal is to create privacy, then the gardener needs to establish those boundaries.  Gaps that let the eye escape into unwanted scenery - whether it's the neighbor's recycling bins or your own - need to closed up.

But don't be shy to borrow views to help enlarge your own garden.  Geller himself borrows the trees from the park next door to help create a sense of seclusion in the city, and also to link his garden in a bird-friendly way to the trees and shrubs on the other side of his property line.

You may not have a view of Mt. Rainier to incorporate into your garden, but you may have treasures only slightly hidden that, once revealed, add depth and interest to your own landscape.  The city skyline or a lovely conifer two doors down, either one could become part of your own garden.

In his charming book A Gardener's Year, Karel Capek writes that "a real gardener feels in his bones that August is already a turning-point."  As we enjoy the turning, let's start making notes about how to make next year even better.

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