Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
February, 2010
Regional Report

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An entry arbor made from seasoned cedar posts and a recycled iron gate give this garden a sense of history.

Creating an Illusion of Maturity

Youth is often equated with beauty, but like fine wine, a good garden gets better with age. Landscapes featuring mature trees, full-grown shrubs, overflowing flower beds, mossy rocks, and lichen-covered benches have an enhanced sense of sanctuary and mystery.

But while there's no way to hurry a good bottle of wine, in-the-know gardeners have a trick or two up their sleeves when it comes to mellowing new garden spaces. With careful attention to plant and design choices, it's possible to create an illusion of maturity in a fairly short time frame.

To do the same in your own garden, take stock of what's already in place before alterations begin. Whether you're perfecting an existing garden, or starting from scratch, careful examination will identify natural attributes or existing plants that can add character to the final design.

Because they take so long to grow and provide a real sense of permanence, large trees and shrubs are among the most important feature of a mature garden. So, think carefully before removing old plants. Even when the're not ideal, they can often be pruned to revitalize their health and to reshape their form.

Nine years ago, when I purchased my current home and made plans to redo the landscape, I kept a scraggly spicebush that I mentally marked for later removal. Though an unattractive feature of the woodland garden, it was the only large shrub that bridged the gap between towering oaks and low-growing perennials, such as ferns, hostas, and Lenten roses.

Now that I've pruned the shrub into a pleasing shape and improved its vigor, I've decided it may be a keeper after all. Its fragrant blooms are a delight in spring, and its graceful form is a complement to the more upright shrubs that have been planted nearby.

The next most important strategy for cultivating a mature-looking garden is to improve the growing conditions for new plants. Start with a soil test, then correct deficiencies with the necessary amounts of lime, nutrients, and fertilizer. Add other amendments too, such as compost, leaf mold, or soil conditioner, to improve soil texture and drainage.

In the garden's early stages, the slowest growing plants are often the ones that provide the outline of the design. To develop contours more quickly, choose a few rapidly growing plants to mix among the slow pokes. Plants that provide big shapes fast include cherry laurel, buddleia, viburnum, and ornamental grasses.

Simple structural elements can also promote a sense of permanence and age. A trellis is one of the short-cut gardener's best tools, making any area look more like a garden. It can be freestanding or placed against a wall and is quickly covered with fast-growing annual vines, such as morning glory or hyacinth bean.

Containers can also transform a too-new space. They are especially useful when paired to create doorways from one part of the garden to another, and they are speedy gap fillers, easily moved from one spot to another as necessity dictates. Planted with a conical evergreen, or an attractive deciduous tree, containers add instant height to beds or borders.

When constructing pathways, terraces, walls and arbors, select old materials whenever possible. Secondhand bricks, recycled concrete paving slabs, old flagstones, and antique iron gates are always more attractive than new ones. Plus, recycled materials can give the garden a seasoned look, even in its first year.

Finally, look for antique statuary and benches to incorporate as focal points in the garden. If a new piece is preferred, give it a head start towards a more interesting patina. Equal amounts of yogurt, fresh moss and buttermilk, mixed in a blender and spread over new concrete or stone, will encourage the growth of moss and lichens.

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