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Drawing new lines to germinate new planting ideas

The Garden Coach

I finally planted my fothergilla on Father’s Day. Now I can’t imagine it not being there.

Sometimes figuring out where to plant when lines have already been drawn and beds are full isn’t easy. It’s hard to see past what is already there, to think outside of the box, especially when beds run parallel to walls of the house.

In March I broke my self-imposed rule of not buying shrubs or trees until I’ve dug the hole and determined that there was actual soil there. But I wanted it so badly, I knew I’d find just the right place for it — a gardener’s constant refrain. I didn’t reckon on redesigning beds on three sides of the house to do it.

I’ve learned the hard way that taking time to place a plant — especially a large one — properly the first time is a lot easier than moving plants around. Maybe it took three months of moving the container around trying out one place after another because the right spot wasn’t there yet.

Fothergilla, a witch hazel relative, is a joy in all four seasons. I love the way its graceful stems form a suckering colony, a nearly symmetrical line-drawing in gray against winter’s snow.

In April, when fat honey-scented white bottlebrush flowers emerge on branch tips, the shrub retains its transparency. Broad oval leaves with rippled edges emerge as blossoms fade, transforming it into a solid green form.

Then in fall, the fireworks begin with blazing orange, red and yellow foliage.

There were plenty of places out in the landscape with nice woodland soil and enough light, but I wanted it close to the house where deer aren’t quite so bold and I could appreciate its charms. From the window where I draw up a rocking chair to enjoy birdwatching and a meditative early morning cup of tea, I look down on a tapestry of native Pachysandra procumbens, Phlox stolonifera (a hummingbird magnet), evergreen Christmas ferns and self-sown brown-eyed Susans.

I could picture these plants weaving through the fothergilla’s stems in an intimate vignette, a little secret garden right up close to the house. But not too close. I like looking down on these plants and out to Hatch Pond. I didn’t want to shade them out or block the far view.

Plus it had to be far enough away from the house to catch both the sun’s afternoon rays sliding along the northwest-facing wall and earlier light in the gap between the corner of the house and a tall native juniper.

If I planted it in the skimpy strip of garden that came with the house, the poor plant would barely see the light of day. If I put it out in the lawn where it would get proper light, I’d have to mow around a meaningless little island.

This presented a perfect opportunity to rethink the shape and extent of the beds, so the new shrub could be incorporated into what was already there.

It didn’t take much thought to realize that what was already there was pretty unsatisfying. The bed was ill-proportioned, didn’t relate to the topography or to where I really walk and how I really use that part of the yard.

So I started walking thoughtfully all around the house, in and out side doors, from driveway to garden shed, from back door to side door, from basement to shady porch, to get a sense of how movement flowed around the house, how that was influenced by various slopes and undulations and where wider, more satisfying beds might make sense.

Realizing that each elevation of the house had a parallel bed that basically stopped at the corner, I experimented with swooping around corners.

The little circular bed under the juniper’s canopy in front would direct movement around to the side yard better if it were a big spiral. The spiral would somehow intersect the bed I widened to incorporate the fothergilla.

A bluestone terrace in the backyard could be extended with stepping stones and a raised bed meandering around the corner, connecting three sides of the house in one flowing motion that also serves to direct the very real flow of water away from the leaky basement.

Once I got a sense of where the edges might be, I walked very slowly and stuck wire marking flags behind each footstep. Now I can visualize how future beds might look, how they would relate to both land and house.

I keep tweaking the lines. When they feel just right I’ll edge the beds-to-be, lay down cardboard to kill the grass and pile some compost on top.

Adding a layer of wood chip mulch improves the appearance of this work-in-progress and suppresses weeds.

It also provides a clean slate, so I can visualize what great new plants will fill these new beds. Maybe there’s room for another fothergilla.

Karen Bussolini is an eco-friendly garden coach, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and garden communicator. She may be reached at kbgarden@charter.net or 860-927-4122.