What do you see when you think of your ideal garden? I picture a green, leafy English Cottage garden. There are perennial beds filled with flowers, well-tended vegetables in perfect, weed-free rows, roses and clematis climbing and rambling, and a shady pergola where I’m having afternoon tea. Then I look out at the Southwest reality around my home and remember that I don’t live in a thatched cottage in Sussex and I’d better set my expectations accordingly. That doesn’t mean my landscape is gravel, rocks and a couple of stunted conifers (although if that’s your minimalist style, go for it). It’s a matter of planting what grows where you live. Plants do their best in conditions that mimic their native habitats, and those habitats vary widely. It’s a matter of making the best of your garden wherever you are.
The Perfect Garden. If you’re a gardener, even if your entire garden consists of a container on a balcony, you know there’s no such thing as perfection. Nature has a way of keeping us humble. Two years ago today, I had fruit trees putting on an amazing show. Last year, I had nothing. This year, they are just starting to bloom. Enjoy the imperfect, go with the flow, and embrace the variety.
Go Zonal. There are two definitions of zones in gardening. One is the plant hardiness zone where you live; the other is the concept of planting in zones around your house. Trying to grow plants that are too far outside your hardiness zone is probably doomed to failure. You may have microclimates around your property that are warmer or cooler, so you can experiment, but don’t be too disappointed if something fails to grow. When you just must have plants that aren’t best suited to your climate (I’m talking to you, Himalayan Blue Poppy), plant in zones. Put the plants that need the most attention closest to your home, or in one specific area. For example, if you live somewhere wet and cool, but you must have cactus, look for varieties that can stand cooler weather, put them in the sunniest place, and make sure the soil is fast draining and poor.
Find The Right Plants. One key to success is to buy the plants that will do well in your area. Although the big box stores may have great prices, what they are selling is not necessarily right for your region. A locally owned nursery is more likely to have plants grown in your part of the country, and you’ll often find knowledgeable people working there. A terrific resource is a local Master Gardeners group. The members are passionate volunteers who have completed special training and are committed to sharing their knowledge. However, if you can’t live without tulips in Florida, you’ll need to pre-cool the bulbs in your fridge (or buy them pre-chilled) and enjoy their brief show before replacing them with something tropical.
Herb Is The Word. Want to try something easy? Herbs are a great example of no-fuss plants. The harsher the environment, the more concentrated the flavor. Herbs are perfect for gardeners with little time because they thrive on neglect, within reason. They don’t need fertilizer. They are fine with minimal water. They do well when they’re crowded. Some of them (such as sage, chives, and rosemary), have attractive flowers, too. I have a sage that I’ve neglected for at least 10 years, and every year it leafs out and produces showy purple flowers. I give it a little extra water in the summer and prune out the dead branches when I think about it. It gives me intensely flavored leaves for roast chicken and salad dressings. It’s a good trade.