Every summer in Trumbull County, a group of Master Gardener volunteers carpool throughout the county looking for the best amateur flower garden.
The excursion often takes two days and much driving, but the volunteer garden contest judges can't seem to get enough of the wonderful gardens they get to visit each year. The most fascinating part of the judging procedure is seeing how each individual gardener has designed their landscape. Everyone has a different vision of what they want to accomplish. Of course, the layout of the landscape, the contours of the house and other structures and the conditions of both the soil and the site all make a difference in how these gardens are designed.
Just like someone decorating a room, colors, textures and decor selections (or in the case of gardens, plant selections), are individual choices. One person can decorate a room or design a garden and another can tackle the same space and the result will be something totally different.
The Floraculture Perennial Garden at the Trumbull County Agricultural Center in Cortland leads visitors along limestone pathways surrounding several garden beds of new and old-fashioned perennial flowers. Perennial garden design takes into account the location, environment and topography of the landscape to give it a natural look that blends well with the rest of the property.
But even though individual choice plays a large role in the design of a perennial garden, there are some tips and recommendations. And although they aren't hard and fast rules, listening to the advice of experienced and professional gardeners who have been through it numerous times, it could save a few headaches later on. There are thousands of books written by professional garden designers and new books are constantly being published by gardeners with new ideas, but before you become overwhelmed with too much information, stop and take a look at your landscape and remember to keep it simple.
A few weeks ago, How Does Your Garden Grow looked at how to create a new garden bed in a weekend with little effort. Gardens can be a lot of work or a little, but before the spade hits the soil, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding on another, or perhaps your first, perennial garden.
Where will you be viewing the garden? Do you want to see it when you look out of your kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or any window from the house? Do you plan to sit outdoors on the patio and see the garden from there? Is it going to be hidden through the trees so that at wanderer down a wide garden path can burst into a clearing and be surprised by what's in front of them? Perennial gardens are meant to be seen, but they also can hide things we don't want to see. You also can use your garden to cover up an ugly septic system or a row of trash cans.
You may have grand thoughts of stone walkways and tall obelisks, but you also can utilize whatever existing features are already on the site you've chosen. These can include trees, buildings or other structures. Could any of these structures be a focal point in the garden? Would planning a garden around; let's say, a child's playhouse, make the play area more attractive? Or would you rather draw they eye away from the structure by planting a few minor plants around its foundation with in inviting pathway that leads to something more exciting? A garden design can create many different illusions depending on what you want to accomplish. If you position your garden where it can be enjoyed, you won't regret your choice of location after the work has been done.
Think about what type of perennial garden you want. You can go to garden centers and browse plant catalogs and ask your friends what they like, but this is your garden and only you will know what the outcome should be. If you are going for borders, a common rule of thumb is to stagger plants from tallest to shortest with taller plants at the back against a fence or wall. With an island garden, taller plants are usually placed in the middle with their heights getting shorter toward the outer edges.
You might like the look of a cottage garden with masses of blooms of all different shapes and sizes co-mingling, or perhaps you would rather see a formal setting with monocromatic colors and plants of the same height all together with obvious spaces between the groupings. While you are seeing your garden in your mind's eye, you also want to keep in mind when you want to see blooms. Perhaps you go out of town the entire month of August and won't be seeing your garden then. You may not care if there isn't anything blooming while you're away. Perhaps you want continual bloom throughout the season or maybe you favor spring bulbs and want to see all of your color in May and June. Your favorite season may be autumn and what you really want to see are the rusts and oranges of hardy mums and tall sedum.
Theme gardens also are popular. You may be thinking of a butterfly and hummingbird oasis, a Shakespearian knot garden or a boxwood hedge surrounding a fountain of cherubs. A garden of everlastings can keep you in enough material for flower arranging throughout the winter until it will be time to start planting again.
By making these decisions before you start poking plants into a space helter skelter, your garden will hold special meaning for you every time you look at it.
To help make decisions on which plants to put into your garden, visit as many garden centers as possible. Ask questions and see what is blooming. New cultivars of favorite plants are continually being created. Don't be afraid to ask what is new and if the garden center can stock some of these new varieties.
Visit botanic gardens to see how the professionals do it. There are several within an hour's drive of Trumbull County, including Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, Holden Arboretum in Willoughby and Fellows Riverside Garden at Mill Creek Park in Youngstown.
When choosing perennials, do a bit of research. Find out the plant's growing habits, including if it is invasive and how large it will spread. Be sure to take note of the plant's light and water requirements. It can be quite disappointing to find out something you had your heart set on died because it preferred full sun but you put it in the shade.
Most of all, remember that a garden, even a perennial garden where plants are expected to return year after year, is ever-changing. Even with our best efforts, there are things that just won't make it through a rough winter. There will be plants that didn't live up to your expectations or don't fit into the mix the way you expected. Of course, there will be plants that you weren't expecting, called affectionately 'volunteers' by gardeners, that seem to spring up where they weren't planted from who knows where.
And there is general garden maintenance to consider. Staking tall plants that become top heavy with blossoms; fertilizing and watering regularly; deadheading faded blossoms; dividing plants that have gotten to big for their space; and preparing the garden bed for winter to assure repeat blooms next season.
There is more. A lot more, but you will have plenty of time during the winter months to browse the library and book stores once you find you've caught the gardening bug.
Of course, all of this study and preparation isn't a requirement for having a wonderful garden in your own backyard. Creating your own flowering eye-candy is as easy as picking out a few favorites and planting them where you can enjoy their beauty.