Living Garden Art: Espalier

Espalier is a French term, pronounced “eh-spal-yay”, for the ancient practice of specialized pruning to train woody plants, like trees, shrubs, and vines, to grow in a predetermined shape. This process was originally created to allow fruiting plants to grow in limited space, however, mere function has evolved over centuries to become a beautiful “high” art form, similar to the gorgeous art of the Japanese bonsai or European topiaries.

espalier of grape vines
Espalier grape vines in a vineyard. Photo courtesy of

Creating an espalier takes time, patience, and the right choice of plant, space and design.  Because of the somewhat complicated nature of creating espalier, I won’t go into specific instructions, however, I will give you a simple description of how it’s done.

1. Choosing Your Space

The first step is to decide where you want to plant your espalier.  That will help you choose the right plant and design for that space.  The space could be a wall you would like to highlight or cover, or a decorative trellis.  Or, as seen below in the photo, your creation can be used to  segment areas to add visual interest. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do with espalier.

Open Space Espalier
This stunning espalier visually breaks up the space adding interest to a very large area. Photo courtesy of


2.Choosing a Design

Now that you have chosen your space, you can choose a design to fit the space.  There are several popular designs, but your imagination is really all it takes.  Some  of the more popular designs range from the rather simple easy to create to more intricate designs that require a great deal of knowledge and patience to produce.  The photos below show three common espalier designs including the candelabra, the Belgian fence, and the horizontal cordon.

Candelabra Espalier of pear tree.
Candelabra espalier of pear tree. Photo courtesy of
Belgian Fence espalier of fruit trees.
Belgian Fence espalier of fruit trees. Photo by unknown artist.
Horizontal Cordon Espalier
Horizontal Cordon espalier. Photo courtesy of

The photos above show images of  just a few of the popular espalier designs but there are many more.  The most important aspect of choosing an espalier design is to consider what you want the plant to do.  Do you want a focal point,  a living fence, or something else?  After you choose the right design, you must choose a plant that will accommodate both the design and the space you have chosen.

3. Choosing the Right Plant

Espalier design uses woody plants to create living works of art.  Woody plants can be trees, some shrubs, and even vines. When using fruiting or flowering plants, care must be taken to prune at the correct time or the plant will not be able to produce properly.

Common espalier trees include pear, apple, and crabapple because  their soft wood is easy to manipulate but cherry trees with their harder wood can also be used. It is best to use semi-dwarf or dwarf fruit trees due to their restricted size rather than their full sized cousins when attempting to create an espalier unless you have a large area to fill. Non-fruiting trees like magnolias can also be used to create spectacular espalier designs.  Shrubs commonly used in espalier include juniper, gardenia, privet and viburnum and vines like grape, jasmine, and wisteria, create beautiful living art in your garden and landscape. Always be sure the plant you choose can accommodate the space and design you have chosen.

4. Structural Support

After choosing the space, the design, and the plant, you must create the structural support necessary for your creation to come to life.  This may be include driving in posts and running the necessary wire supports, drilling anchor holes in brick to sink the bolts into, or simply securing your new trellis to a wall or fence in order to support the weight of your mature creation.

Once your basic support structure is up, you need a way to fasten your plant to the structure.  Common plant fasteners include garden twine or wire, plastic clips, and VELCRO brand adjustable plant ties.  There are numerous variations of garden fasteners to use on your plant but make sure the material you use doesn’t cut into the plant stem or you could damage your plant and endanger your project.

5. Pruning

Extensive and persistent pruning is a big part of espalier.  This must be done with correct timing for each plant in order to allow fruiting and flowering plants to produce.  Also, pruning is best done frequently to clip off unwanted sprouts and support the sprouts you want rather than waiting.  If you wait too long before pruning you put your project at risk.  Having to cut out large amounts of foliage because you waited to long may have detrimental effects on the health of the plant and the design you have chosen.  It’s best to frequently prune and adjust supports in order to create the living art you see in your mind’s eye.

For more information about espalier, research the specific plant  you would like to use in your project to find more detailed information on when and how to prune your plant and which designs the plant of your choice is well-adapted for.  As always, make sure your sources are reliable when completing your research.

Gardening is all about being creative.  If you would like to create your own espalier, do your research and choose your space, design, and plant wisely.  With a little planning and a lot of patience, you can create your own living art.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

-Pablo Picasso, Spanish artist





INTERVIEWS WITH EXPERTS: Renita Kainz, Master Gardener

Renita Kainz has been a been a serious gardener since her early 20’s.  She has worked in the commercial garden industry for most of her adult life.  In 2008, Renita furthered her experience as a gardener by gaining formal horticultural training in the Master Gardener program.

Tip:  If you would like more information about becoming a master gardener, contact your local extension service for details.

I met with Renita for an enjoyable morning interview, after which she took me on a guided tour to view her large collection of potted plants, landscaped gardens, and amazing backyard greenhouse.  We talked about how she became interested in gardening and how gardening has played a central role in her life.  I asked her a few questions to learn more about her long-term dedication to the hobby she loves so much.


How did the interest in gardening begin?

Renita said grew up on a farm in a rural area watching both parents work the ground,  her mother through vegetable gardening and her father through farming.   Then, when Renita was in her teens, her mother brought home a collection of houseplants that tickled Renita’s passion for plants.  Renita said it was in her college days that she dove head-first into gardening herself when she came into ownership of her own large collection of houseplants.

How did that interest become a lifelong activity?

Renita said that in her 30’s, she began work as a seasonal greenhouse worker and once she began working at a greenhouse full-time, she was content and happy.  At that point, her passion for gardening stuck.

“Remember, every gardening year has successes and failures, just like people.”          – Renita Kainz          

Renita’s garden organization participation.

The Garden Plotters

Renita explained that in 2006, she, along with greenhouse co-workers, started a garden club known as the Garden Plotters. The club has evolved into a fun social group that allows members to share their passion for gardening.  The club meets monthly to share ideas, view local gardens, and listen to speakers among other things. The club members also volunteer time, energy, and money to Kuhnert Arboretum.  To date, the Garden Plotters have raised nearly $17,000 for Kuhnert Arboretum with their club’s annual plant sale.

Aberdeen Garden Plotters Photo from Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook Page
Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

The 2018 Garden Plotter’s Plant Sale is celebrating its 10th Anniversary.  For more information about the annual plant sale, please check out the club’s Facebook page at Aberdeen Garden Plotters.

Master Gardener Program

Renita started her master gardener training in 2008 and became certified in 2010.  Since then she has been involved with the Prairie Partners Master Gardener Club,  holding office for six years, including serving as president for three.

Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota

Most recently, Renita joined the Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota. This club also volunteers time and resources to Kuhnert Arboretum, having designed and installed the recent rose garden addition which includes 100 roses of 51 varieties that are hardy in South Dakota’s Zone 4 climate zone.

Kuhnert Arboretum rose garden
Kuhnert Arboretum rose gardens. Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

Any areas of specialty or favorite type of plants?

Renita said she doesn’t really have a favorite plant or area of gardening which she prefers.  She said that in general she loves landscape plants which include a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials.  But, Renita said, as a hobby, she has a fondness for airplants, orchids, succulents, and exotic geraniums.

Gardening books Renita recommends:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson,  The Truth About Garden Remedies by Jeff Gillman, and The Truth About Organic Gardening, also by Jeff Gillman.

Why is gardening organically important?

Renita said she has always loved nature.  She said she prefers organic gardening, as opposed to using synthetic chemicals, because not only do chemicals “smell bad” but as she has learned more and more about synthetic chemicals, she realized just how dangerous they are to people and the environment. Renita pointed out that synthetic chemicals sometimes kill off the beneficial microbes in the soil which help keep plants healthy and strong.

“If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your plants.” –Renita Kainz

What are three frequently asked gardening questions?

Renita said the most frequently asked question is, “How often should I water?” followed by, “What’s wrong with this plant?” and “What can I plant that I don’t have to do anything with?”  These are all very common garden questions that most gardeners face at some point.  The answers to these questions of course, rely on the details of the garden, the plant, or the gardener involved.

Column evergreen with metal flower

What are three gardening tips or hints every gardener should know?

  1.  “Tough love is better than too much kindness.”  Renita and I laughed about this hint because we agree that more plants are killed from too much attention than not enough.
  2. “Don’t be afraid to try anything.”  Renita said that she has killed far more plants than she has ever successfully grown, which I think most gardeners could agree with!
  3. “Do your own research, either through books, magazines, the internet, or by asking experts.”  Renita recommends educating yourself on your topic of interest prior to planting.  She cautioned that in regard to internet searches, it is best to use sites that end in .edu or .org as these sites can usually be trusted for accuracy. Use caution with information from other sites as the information may not be reliable.

What are the benefits of becoming a master gardener?

Renita said that master gardeners are trained in horticulture by experts in the field.  The “job” of the Master Gardener is to pass along this information to educate the public.  She said the experience allowed her to meet like-minded people and the training  satisfied her deep desire to keep learning about gardening, a subject she is very passionate about.


It was great fun to interview Renita about her passion and expansive knowledge of gardening.  And, I was very honored to have a tour of her beautifully landscaped yard and awesome backyard greenhouse.  I hope this interview stoked your passion for gardening and all the joys that come with it.

The next interview in the Interviews with Experts series is with expert commercial grower and retail operations manager, Dana Althoff.  Until then,

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

-Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist



Growing The Nearly Indestructible Daylily

For new gardeners, the vast sea of flower choices for a new perennial garden can be overwhelming.  Hemerocallis, or the daylily as they are more commonly known, is a great place to start.   Not only are daylilies easy to grow and hard to kill, but they also come in a rainbow of colors and many sizes.

Fun Fact:  The common name “daylily” comes from the fact that each individual bloom on the hemerocallis plant lasts only 1 day.

Origins of the Daylily

Hemerocallis or common daylily
Hemerocallis: photo by Wanette Lenling

Daylilies are perennial plants that have been grown in Asia for thousands of years.  These plants were relished not only for their beauty but because they are also edible and used for medicinal purposes.  Daylilies are thought to have been introduced to Europe around 400 years ago and then were imported into the United States by early Europeans.

Fun Fact:  There are now more than 80,000 registered cultivars of hemerocallis.

Plant Description

Daylilies are fast growing easy care perennials that come in a wide variety of colors and sizes.

double daylily bloom
Peach double daylily bloom: Photo by


Daylilies grow in a vase-shaped arching clump of dark green grass-like foliage with blades that are 1-2 feet long and up to 1 inch wide. Daylilies can grow anywhere from 12 to 36 inches or more in height and between 12 to 24 inches wide.

Hemerocallis 'Swirling Waters'
Hemerocallis ‘Swirling Waters’: Photo by Wanette Lenling


Hemerocallis blooms generally have six petals centered around a tube-shaped throat, however some recent cultivars have double blooms meaning they have more than 6

Hemerocallis 'Seal of Approval'
Tri-colored bloom from Hemerocallis ‘Seal of Approval’: Photo from Bluestone Perennials

petals (see peach double bloom daylily pictured above). Daylilies  come in shades of nearly white, yellow, blue, red, pink, orange, purple, and black. Many cultivars have blooms with dual or triple color combinations as well.

Petals on more recent cultivars have also been bred to exhibit a ruffled appearance. The tri-colored cultivar ‘Seal of Approval’ (right) exhibits such ruffled petals whereas the ‘Swirling Waters’ cultivar (above) has the more traditional smooth petals.

How to Grow a Daylily

Daylilies are extremely easy to grow and generally take care of themselves. Daylilies naturalize well in open areas but they don’t compete well with trees and shrubs.   The plants are adapted to grow in zones 3-9.  Plant in average well-drained loamy soil.  For best results, grow in full sun to partial sun.  Dead-head spent flowers and remove old flower stalks to keep a tidy appearance and to encourage re-bloomers to continue blooming.  Water established plants deeply only once or twice per week unless there are drought conditions, extreme heat, or sandy soil, in which case plants may need watering for frequently.

Fun Fact: Some newer cultivars are referred to as “re-bloomers” which means that they  will bloom more than once or continuously throughout the summer.

Trouble Shooting:

  • Few to no blooms:
    • Over-fertilization can reduce the number of blooms. Add compost in the spring around your hemerocallis or a small amount of general all-purpose slow release fertilizer to feed your daylily all summer long. High nitrogen fertilizer will reduce the number of blooms.
    • Low light can reduce the number of blooms.  Move the plant to a full sun location if the plant fails produce abundant blooms.
  • Over-watering:
    • Over-watering can lead to many issues including fungal disease and root rot. In general,  water deeply only once or twice per week.
  • Diseases:
    • Leaf streak fungus: This fungus is not normally deadly to the plant but causes cosmetic issues. Remove infected leaves.  Water and fertilize the plant to encourage new growth.  Water with
      daylily leaf streak fungus
      Daylily leaf streak fungus infestation. Photo by University of Wisconsin Extension

      soaker hose or drip irrigation which puts the water directly on the ground to stop the spread of the fungus.  Apply fungicides containing chlorothalonil, mancozeb or thiophanate-methyl  during wet weather to prevent the disease.

  • Insect trouble:
    • Aphids and thrips may take up residence in your hemerocallis.  Remove dead foliage and treat with a soap and water mixture or a commercial insecticide.

Daylilies are a fantastic addition to any sunny garden. They can be used in a formal as well as informal garden and require little care for the beauty they produce.

Happy Gardening!


Quote of the Day

“A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.”

-William Arthur Ward, American writer

What Does Heirloom Mean In Gardening?

When you think of the word “heirloom” you may be thinking of your grandma’s china dishes that her mother received as a wedding gift or great-grandpa’s bamboo fishing pole that he used as a child to catch the perch in the lake in back of the cabin where he grew up. These items would be passed down from generation to generation to be cherished.  In gardening the term is actually used quite similarly.  Plants or cultivars of plants used to be passed down from generation to generation in families. They were considered heirlooms.  However, a more modern interpretation of the word “heirloom” in gardening is a plant that is openly pollinated by insects or the wind without mechanical means and the cultivar of the plant is at least 50 years to 100 years old.



Normally plant tags at the nursery or the plant description in a plant catalog or online will state whether the plant is considered an heirloom. This is a great selling point in gardening today.   Plants listed as GMO’s  or genetically modified organisms are never considered heirlooms so any plant that is listed as a GMO is disqualified from heirloom status no matter the age. Most plants are not labeled as GMO’s because in gardening today, this is not a selling point.  It’s probably safe to say that if a plant is not listed as an heirloom it is probably a GMO or it’s disqualified from heirloom status for another reason.

Any type of plant can be an heirloom.  Vegetables, decorative garden plants, trees, and shrubs can all be described as heirloom plants if they fall under the heirloom status.  There are some great companies, like Harvesting History , that sell heirloom plants and seeds.  I like heirloom plants because the fruits and vegetables tend to taste better than those that have been modified. And, I have found that heirloom flowers tend to have more fragrance than their modified counterparts.

There is a drawback to some heirloom plants, however.  Many times plant breeders breed new plants to make them resistant against disease that the heirloom plants are susceptible to.  For instance, garden phlox is extremely prone to a fungal disease called powdery mildew.  Breeders have created new cultivars of garden phlox to be more resistant to that particular disease.

Vegetables have also been modified to be more resistant to disease but they have also been modified for their looks and uses. For example, Beefsteak tomatoes were created specifically to use on sandwiches because one slice is big enough for the whole sandwich.  And, Roma tomatoes were created to use in tomato dishes because they are more meaty and less juicy so tomato sauces come out richer and thicker.

Trees and shrubs have also been modified by breeders for many reasons. For example, in my garden I have two mock-orange shrubs, one is an heirloom and one is modified.  The heirloom shrub has a single flower which means that there is one row of pedals around the outside of each flower similar to a daisy. The heirloom shrub is much taller than the modified version and it’s rather unsightly but the fragrance from the flowers is incredible.  The modified mock-orange, on the other hand, has beautiful double flowers which makes the flowers look more full and elegant but they lack the gorgeous fragrance of the heirloom flowers.  The modified mock-orange shrub is also rather dainty and quite compact making it an excellent foundation plant for the landscaping around the house.

So basically whether or not to plant heirloom plants comes down to the preference of the gardener.  There are pros and cons to both heirloom plants and modified cultivars.  Do your research and have fun choosing the new plants that are right for you and your garden.  The great fun in gardening is that you get to choose the plants and the design to create the garden of your dreams!

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat.”

-Beverley Nichols, English author






Why Are Mushrooms Growing In My Landscape?

Knowing what a mushroom is and its purpose in the environment helps to understand why they suddenly appear in your lawn and landscape.  Mushrooms are classified bunch of mushroomsunder the Kingdom of  Fungi (plural for fungus), which is separate from the plant and animal Kingdoms. Mushrooms are one of nature’s decomposers.  They “eat” organic material in the soil.  Organic material can be anything from dead plants and animals to leaves and other debris on the ground. Mushrooms can pop up anywhere when the conditions are right, which includes sufficient moisture and organic material in the soil.  Shade will also encourage mushroom growth, but is not absolutely necessary. Some mushrooms will grow in a fair amount of sunlight.

Fun fact:  According to National Geographic  there is a mushroom, nicknamed Humongous Fungus, growing in Malheur National Forest in Oregon that is the largest organism in the world and may in fact also be the oldest.  It is estimated that this mushroom is anywhere between 2,400 and 8,600 years old and covers 2,385 acres. Aren’t you glad this mushroom isn’t in your yard!

Is it ok if mushrooms are growing in my lawn and landscape?

The short answer is yes.  Mushrooms are actually good for the soil.  When mushrooms “eat” organic material, it supplies the soil with nutrients and acts as a natural fertilizer.  Mushrooms will naturally die off when the organic material in the ground is gone or when moisture is not sufficient to sustain them.  However, mushrooms can be unsightly in the landscape to some people and some mushrooms are actually poisonous which could harm children or pets.

How do I remove mushrooms from my lawn and landscape?

flat mushroomIf you choose to remove mushrooms from your lawn or landscape, it is relatively easy to remove them from view. You can use a garden rake to simply rake up the caps (tops) of the mushrooms and dispose of them.   But, raking up the caps only removes the portion of the mushroom you see above ground.  The main body of the fungus remains underground.

Tips: Some mushrooms are poisonous. Always wear gloves when you handle wild mushrooms  in your landscape.  Also, dispose of mushrooms in the trash.  Do not put them in your compost pile. If you put them in the compost pile they may spread as the compost pile contains the organic material and moisture that mushrooms feed on.

How do I remove the underground portion of the mushroom?

Removing the underground portion of the mushroom is not as easy as raking up the caps.  The organic material and moisture needs to be removed in order to suppress mushroom growth.  This takes a little more time and work.

First remove the moisture source if possible. There is not much a gardener can do about natural rain fall but if you irrigate your lawn and landscape, set the sprinkler system to start in the morning.  This allows your lawn to dry during the day.  Never water at night because it promotes fungal growth by allowing water to sit on the soil and plant leaves for an extended period of time.

Water your lawn and landscape fewer and longer periods each week.  Watering less often allows the soil to dry out in between waterings which discourages fungal growth. Plus watering in this ways encourages plants to extend their roots deeper into the ground in order to access moisture.  This makes your lawn and landscape plants stronger and more resistant to drought conditions.

Next, remove the organic matter that is feeding the mushrooms.  When mushrooms are in the lawn, look at the ground between the blades of grass.  Thatch is a layer of dead grass and debris that covers the ground.  If this is too thick, it will retain moisture and provide the perfect conditions to grow mushrooms.  Some thatch is good for your lawn but if it’s too thick or mushrooms are popping up, de-thatch the lawn with a de-thatching rake or rent a de-thatching machine from a local lawn care service. You can also hire a lawn care company to perform this service for you.  This will help remove the conditions necessary for mushrooms to grow.

If the soil doesn’t have a thick layer of thatch but still retains more moisture than it should, the soil may be compacted. If the soil is compacted, it may need to be aerated.  Aerating the soil quite literally means small holes are punched into the soil to allow air to penetrate the ground and moisture to escape. For small lawns  or for small sections of the lawn, you can use a tilling fork to aerate the ground by pushing the fork into the ground and rocking it back and forth.  If you have a larger area to aerate, you can rent an aerating machine or you can hire a lawn care service to perform the aeration for you.

If mushrooms are growing in your landscape mulch, remove the old mulch and replace it with fresh mulch.  Wood mulches and pine needle mulches are the organic material mushrooms need to grow.  If mushrooms are a constant problem, consider replacing organic mulches with decorative landscape rock or another type of inorganic mulch like recycled rubber.

In some instances, organic material cannot be removed. For example, where a tree has been cut down, even if the surface stump is ground out or removed, the remaining stump underground and root system will start to decompose and mushrooms may appear.  Removing any excess moisture and increasing the sunlight the area receives will help inhibit mushroom growth but may not stop it entirely. In this case, removing the caps will keep the area clean of mushrooms from view. Remember, mushrooms will disappear on their own once they are through “eating” the organic material present.

Mushrooms are good for the environment and your landscape, but if they are unsightly to you or if you’re concerned due to children or pets, removing mushrooms may be necessary and it’s easier to accomplish once you know what to do and why they grow.  Please remember to wear gloves when you are working with wild mushrooms.  As always,

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The sudden appearance of mushrooms after a summer rain is one of the more impressive spectacles of the plant world.”

– John Tyler Bonner, Development and Evolutionary Biologist




How to Garden in Dry Shade

Lady’s Mantle

Dry shade is a difficult condition in which to grow a garden, even for experienced gardeners.  Dry shade provides only limited sun and moisture for plant life. Without these two elements, most plant life will not grow.  So what is a gardener to do? There are a few steps a gardener can take before starting a dry shade garden in order to have a more successful garden.
Solomon’s Seal

STEP 1. The first step is to visit the area where you would like to put the garden.  Go to the area several times during the day to determine how much sun is actually hitting the area and at what times of the day sun is getting through.

Look up and determine how much cover is provided by trees and other structures in the area.  Some trees, like birch and honeylocust, provide dappled shade because of their small leaves. Other trees, like oak and maple,  may create  deep shade with their large leaves essentially blocking most of the sunlight the area would receive. You need to determine what type of shade you have because that will determine the types of plants that will grow in that area.  Many plants will grow in dappled shade but far fewer plants will grow in deep shade.

Next, determine what time of day the sun is hitting the area? Morning sun is much cooler than afternoon sun.  This means a shade plant that is shaded most of the day but hit directly by afternoon sun, even for a short period of time, may actually suffer from burns by the sun. Believe it or not,  in this case, you may need to plant a sun-loving plant in that area of your shade garden!

STEP 2. Look around on the ground. Is there any plant life growing in the area now?  If so, what is it?  Is it herbaceous weeds, like dandelions and crabgrass, or is it mostly moss and mushrooms?  If plant life is abundant on the ground, it’s a good sign. This means that the area will likely support your new shade garden.   If there isn’t vegetation on the ground, it doesn’t mean you can’t put your new garden there,  it simply means you must determine why plants are not naturally growing in that area and fix the problem.
bare woodland floor

 If the ground in the area is desolate of herbaceous plant life, you’ll need to determine the cause. Is the area too shady for plant life? Is it too dry?  Is the ph of the soil really high or really low?  Is the ground infertile? (Hint:  If there was a house or other structure located on the area for many years, the ground may be sterile or contaminated.  If the ground is sterile, add compost.  If you feel the soil may be contaminated, contact your local authorities to determine what the contamination is and what needs to be done to contain it if necessary.)

Use your senses to determine the moisture level in the soil. Look at the soil.  Is the soil dry and cracked on the surface.  When you hold it in your hand, does it simply fall apart (dry) or can you press it into a ball (moisture is present)? If the soil is too dry,   you need to determine why.  View the area after a rainfall. Is dense tree cover keeping rain water from hitting the ground? Does rain hit the ground but simply run away from the area because the area is on a slope? Or, is the ground boggy and water pools on the surface, not soaking in as it should?
step landscaping

If the area is dry because it is covered by a canopy of large dense trees, the area will need to be irrigated to provide the moisture necessary for a garden.  Running soaker hoses under the mulch after you plant your new garden is a great way to provide the moisture your plants will need to grow. (Hint: I don’t recommend using sprinklers in a shade garden because it creates a situation wherein the foliage of the plants remains wet for extended periods of time which could cause fungal issues in your garden.)

If the problem is that rain water is running down a slope, you may need to create small level areas called steps or terraces on which to plant your gardens.  This will help the area retain natural moisture from rainfall and dew. It also stops the soil from washing away in a heavy rain.

If the water is not soaking into the ground as it should and the area is not in a low spot on the ground that naturally collects rainwater, then the issue may be compacted soil.  Compacted soil is generally due to having too much clay in the soil.   Clay soil holds little by way of nutrients and because it is made up of such small particles, it compacts and does not allow water to flow through it.

How do you determine what your soil consists of?  There is a very simple and fun test you can do to determine your soil structure.
soil composition test

Fill a glass jar with approximately 1/3 soil and 2/3 water. Seal the jar with the lid and shake it up.  Let the jar rest for a day to allow the soil to settle out of the water.  When the soil settles,  you should see three distinct layers: sand, silt, and clay. If there is any organic matter in the soil, like leaf particles, it will be floating on top. Sand particles, which are the largest and heaviest particles, will settle to the bottom of the jar.  Silt particles will make up the center layer of soil in the jar and clay particles, which are the smallest, will form a layer at the top.

Now that you know what your soil consists of, it will help you to determine your next step. Sandy soil allows all the moisture to drain away and creates a situation in which your garden will need to be watered constantly.  On the other hand, too much clay in the soil will create a situation in which the ground will retain water and become boggy and lack oxygen.  (Hint:  Plant leaves take in carbon dioxide but cells in the plant roots need oxygen to stay alive.)  Also, clay soil, with its small particles, tends to get compacted which creates a very dense and hard growing medium that plant roots struggle to penetrate.

Under most circumstances, it is almost always necessary to amend the soil in a new garden area with compost.  This will correct both sandy and clay soil situations. Compost adds organic matter that breaks down into the nutrients your plants will need to thrive.  It also improves the soil structure by aerating the soil. Oddly enough, it improves water retention in the soil while simultaneously improving drainage creating the perfect growing medium for plant life.

STEP 3.  Check the ph level of the soil.  This step is optional but it may help you to understand what will and what won’t grow in your new garden. (Hint: Look around to see what types of plants are naturally growing in the area.  Evergreens, oak trees, and hydrangeas like acid soil while grass, lilacs, and linden trees like neutral or slightly alkaline soil.)  Testing kits for ph can be found either at your local garden store or online.  They are generally under $10.  The test usually consists of a test tube, a capsule that tests the soil ph,  and a chart showing different colors for different levels of ph.  To run this test, add a small amount of soil to the test tube along with distilled water and the ph capsule.  Then seal the test tube and shake it. The water should change color.  Look at the chart that comes with the product to determine the ph level of the soil by the color of the water in the tube.  (Hint: Directions for each test product may vary so read the directions carefully before using your new soil ph test kit.)

Soil ph is important  because certain plants grow better in acidic soil, like hydrangeas and azaleas,  while others grow better in a more neutral or slightly alkaline soil, like spirea and brunnera. (Hint:  You can adjust the soil ph by adding amendments to the soil but I don’t recommend it. If the soil ph is really high or really low, amend the soil with compost and imported top soil.  If you simply want plants that don’t grow well in the soil that is present because of the ph, try growing them in pots because artificially changing the natural soil ph of the area may, through leaching,  injure or kill the plants naturally growing in the native soil around your new garden.  It’s always best to work with the soil ph that is present and plant accordingly.)

STEP 4. Is the ground fertile? There isn’t really an easy test for the average gardener to check the ground for fertility. The fertility of the ground is measured by the  nutrients that are present and in what amounts.  Generally, to begin any garden (or to add nutrients to an existing garden), the solution is to add plenty of compost.  Compost adds nutrients back to the soil naturally.  In addition to compost, you can also use a starter fertilizer when you plant your new garden plants to give them a boost and then use a general all-purpose fertilizer twice a year thereafter.  As always, I recommend using organic fertilizers when you can. They won’t burn your plants and they are better for the environment.

Finally it’s time to plant.  What types of plants grow in dry shade? Here is a list of just a few garden plants that will grow in dry shade to get you going. Remember also that the level of shade a plant will tolerate, from dappled shade to deep shade, will vary depending on the plant and sometimes by the variety as well. Don’t be afraid to do your own research to find just the right plants for your new garden.

  • Lady’s mantle
  • Helleborus
  • Brunnera
  • Fern
  • Hosta
  • Foxglove
  • Pachysandra
  • Vinca Minor
  • English Ivy
  • Bergenia
  • Dicentra (Bleeding hearts)
  • Foamflowers
  • Lenten Rose
  • Lamium
  • Tradescantia
  • Perennial Geranium

Dry shade is a challenging condition in which to grow plants but don’t shy away from it.  Gardening is all about trying new things and using your creativity to tackle the problem.  Dry shade can be a tough venture even for an experienced gardener but it’s well worth the work when you finally get to take that walk through your beautiful new shade garden enjoying the beauty of the landscape and the scents around you!

beautiful shade garden

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning. ”

–Helen Mirren, actress

Planning Next Year’s Garden

As I sit at my desk, watching the snow come down during our first blizzard, I am daydreaming of spring planting.  On my desk, gardening books and catalogs lay open to designs I love and plants I would like to have.  Graph paper and color pencils are patiently waiting as ideas begin to form.  If you are like me, when one growing season ends, it’s time to start planning the next.

I love design. I love planning for new flower beds and borders.  I also love to redesign old gardens with new walkways, trellises, or arbors along with flowers.  Fences can also add to the landscape by separating large gardens into smaller spaces.

Gardens separated by fences
Gardens separated by fences:


After settling on the new hardscape (walkways, retaining walls, etc.), it’s time to delve into the joy of picking out the new plantings.  It’s fun to pick out new perennials such as roses, delphiniums, peonies, and lilies but don’t forget to include decorative trees, like birch and canadian cherry, and shrubs, like viburnum and lilac.  Mixing flowers in with trees and shrubs gives your new garden the thoughtful balanced look every designer craves. This is where planning is really important.

Landscape design with trees and shrubs

Adding trees and shrubs to the new landscaping will create a vision of beauty in your garden, however, there are some things to consider when doing so.  Trees and shrubs are more permanent parts of the landscape than annual and perennial flowers. Annual flowers must be replanted ever year and most perennial flowers that come up every year can be easily moved.  This is not the case with trees and shrubs.  It is important to take into consideration how large a tree or shrub will get at maturity, how long it takes to reach maturity, and the plant’s long term needs. For example, a small white pine tree may look elegant in the landscaping next to a red brick home but within a few short years it will outgrow the space and it will need to be removed.  A better option for such a space would be to plant an aborvaete or juniper that grows vertically and slender.  This will still give the homeowner the elegant evergreen appearance and the plant will be able to thrive in that space for many years to come.

Color and bloom time for each plant is also a consideration when planning a new garden or landscape.  Some plants, like hostas and coral bells,  are grown strickly for their foliage texture and color.   However, plants like peonies and lilacs, which are grown for their showy colorful blooms, have a definite bloom time.  It is important to plan around the bloom time of each plant to allow your garden to have consistent bloom coverage for the entire growing season.  To get the most from your garden, plant a mix of flowers and shrubs in the colors you like that start blooming in early spring, like tulips and forsythia, with summer bloomimg plants, like coneflowers and viburnum, and fall blooming plants, like mums and asters.  Then, to make sure there is no time your garden color falls flat, add in some annuals for all season color and a show-stopping look.


Planning your new garden or redesigning an old one is fun way to stay in the gardening spirit even when the snow is falling outside. And, creating a good plan ahead of time will  give you a beautiful garden or landscape that is colorful and inviting all season long!

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

A black cat among roses, phlox, lilac-misted under a quarter moon, the sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock. The garden is very still.  It is dazed with moonlight, contented with perfume…
― Amy Lowell, American poet