Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
August, 2011
Regional Report

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It will take more than a few nickels and dimes to replace this unattractive deck with a covered porch and make this space a garden.

The Three "M"s of a Great Garden

I've always believed that one of the most effective ways to glean useful information from a garden tour is to keep your own garden in mind, relating everything you see and hear to the landscape at home. So on a recent visit to the gardens of Delaware Valley I traveled with camera and notepad in hand, seeking new ideas and inspiration to ease the task of updating and customizing my landscape.

I found both of these things and more, but one thought that keeps coming back to me is a quote attributed to Marian Cruger Coffin (1876-1957), the landscape architect of Winterthur and more than fifty other estate gardens created in the first half of the 20th century.

Considered a pioneer in her field, Coffin was one of the first women to earn a degree in landscape architecture. Though unable to secure a job with an established firm after receiving her degree from MIT in 1904, she opened her own office in New York and enjoyed a successful career that spanned five decades.

What did Coffin, a woman of great skill, spirit, and courage, say that was so thought provoking? Just this (or something similar): There are three "M"s necessary for a great garden -- money, manure, and maintenance.

It's easy to agree that maintenance is required in every garden, be it great or even just run-of-the-mill. By definition a garden is a contrived arrangement of plants and structures designed for human enjoyment and appreciation -- of beauty, wildlife, or some other purpose. Dare to turn your back for just a day or two, especially during the growing season when weeds, insects, disease, and heat are at their peak and you invite disaster. So yes, persistent upkeep is key to maintaining order and control over a landscape that would revert to a more natural state if given the chance.

What about manure, however? Though it's true that nearly all soils can be improved with the addition of compost, conditioners, nutrients, or other additives, not every plant needs or even wants enriched soil. And nearly sixty years after the end of Coffin's era, there is greater concern for and interest in preserving native ecosystems and indigenous plants.

Even still, I won't diminish the importance of soil science on the cultivation of a plot of land, large or small (even container size), and I take this point to heart. In my book, there's nothing more heart-wrenching in the garden than a poorly-grown plant.

For me, though, it's money that's the most questionable of the three "M"s. I have little doubt that the gardens Coffin designed took a great deal of money -- fortunes in fact. She created masterpieces for some of the wealthiest families in America, including the du Ponts, Fricks, Huttons, and Ballards. We're immensely fortunate that some of her works survive and are now open for all to enjoy.

But I know many great gardens that have been conceived and created on a shoestring. What is a pack of seeds, if not a garden in waiting? And for many, being frugal is part of the fun, not a necessity.

Though it sounds as if I have very fixed ideas about Coffin's edict, the truth of the matter is that the three "M"s, and how I choose to deal with them at home, will in many ways dictate the development of my new, but already established, garden.

My previous landscape, though carefully designed and filled with mostly no-fuss plants, took nearly all my free time. The recent move to a new home has given me the opportunity to reevaluate. Do I really want to tie myself down to the same degree, or would I rather travel more and pursue other pastimes?

So at more than 50-years old and with children grown, the object is to make a garden that needs less time but is equally satisfying. Perhaps even more important, though, is the challenge to create a garden that I can continue to nurture and enjoy at 60-years old, and 70-years old, and beyond if I'm lucky.

The use of organic and chemical fertilizers and controls, especially in the half acre of property that abuts the Reedy River, also poses challenges. Currently overrun with alien invasive plants such as ivy and privet, this area is a prime candidate for restoration of its native ecosystem, but care must be taken to protect the waterway, as well as indigenous plants and animals.

And needless to say, money -- how to spend it and how not to spend it -- is always an issue. Perhaps even the du Ponts of Winterthur had to check themselves a time or two.

Luckily, the front garden and the area near the river will have minimal, if any, expensive modifications or additions. However, the wide but narrow area just behind the house (roughly 150-feet by 35-feet), is a different story.

Sometime in the future, my husband I and plan to replace an over-large and unflattering deck built atop a crumbling patio with a covered porch that will compliment the style of our home. Also on the wish list are a stone retaining wall with entry stairway, a fence to enclose the space, some type of water feature (yet to be determined), and a combination parking pavilion/garden shed.

This area, on hold for now, will certainly have us scraping together more than a few nickels and dimes. But it also holds the greatest promise for the sanctuary we crave -- a private, happy spot to share with family and friends. It's where we'll make our mark. True to Coffin's statement, it's where our landscape will become a great garden.

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