May 18th, 2012
Famed Redding gardener Ruth Stout is best remembered for her 1955 book “How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back”. In it she advised mulching heavily with spoiled hay so as to eliminate weeds, enrich the soil, and ease the gardener’s workload.
Though Ruth primarily referred to the vegetable garden, there are techniques to simplify the life of the flower gardener as well. For instance, encourage self-sowers. These easy plants enjoy our Connecticut conditions so much that they happily broadcast their progeny and fill our borders.
We must, of course, be careful not to encourage invasive plants such as goutweed or purple loosestrife. (For more information see the Connecticut Invasive Plants List at http://www.hort.uconn.edu/cipwg/pdfs/CTInvasivePlantList2011-CommonName.pdf )
There are many well-behaved, perfectly lovely flowers, both annual and perennial, which aren’t aggressive, but rather are colorful and undemanding. Here’s just a sampling:
Johnny jump up is the quintessential harbinger of spring, and will even bloom in mild winters. They’ll peter out with summer heat, but set seed for next year.
Nigella, aka “Love in a Mist”. I purchased a 6-pack of these babies years ago and now they’ve proliferated in shades of blue, pink and lavender in sunny areas. Great for the cottage garden.
Verbena bonariensis, aka “tall verbena” or pencil plant. Ditto. I bought a 6-pack and now they liberally sprinkle themselves throughout the beds. Since they flower on tall, thin stems, they’re useful in the middle or back of the border.
Portulaca, aka moss rose comes along later in the season, and though they tend to stay open only in the mornings, they boast cheerful blooms in many colors. Give them a dry sunny location.
Columbine pops up where you least expect it, though mostly in semi-shaded areas. Despite the fact that you may have chosen a purple or pink or white cultivar last year columbine is headstrong, and after self-sowing will bloom in whatever color they desire.
Rose campion. With its silvery leaves and magenta flowers, this 24 inch upright plant is welcome in my sunny garden. I received a gift of this from my sister in upstate New York years ago, and now it scatters itself in shadier areas too.
A choice early bloomer, hellebore will set many a seed if it’s happy in shaded, moist conditions. Look for the baby plants with ?? leaves around the mother in the spring. They will take a few years to bloom, but since these are expensive plants at the nursery, consider them a treasure!
Bleeding heart is a wanton breeder, but a welcome one. I rue the day I actually purchased my first few bleeding hearts, because now I have way too many. I’ve often transplanted them in my shaded borders, and they always do beautifully.
For me heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ comes fairly true from seed, and I find welcome little plantlets all over the garden.
For later, long-lasting bloom as well as food for birds, try coneflower. I started with ‘Magnus’ in one garden and now have it in many places. It’s pretty in pink, tall, and hardy as a rock.
The flower of lamb’s ear is another plant which is attractive to wildlife. In this case bees and butterflies. I grow it primarily for its felted gray leaves, but also allow it to flower to help out Mother Nature.
With all these self-sowers, it’s important to recognize the seedlings the following spring, lest you rip them out as weeds. And don’t mulch too early or too heavily; you don’t want to cover up your incipient crop of freebies.
Let Ruth Stout’s philosophy be your guide, and you, too, can have a green thumb and a colorful garden without an aching back.