Planning a Comeback

A sign that reads "Certified Wildlife Habitat" sits among the plants in the front garden. Smith's goals: "I need plants that are tough, good for birds, butterflies, bees, and other critters, ornamental (of course), and minimum maintenance."
A sign that reads "Certified Wildlife Habitat" sits among the plants in the front garden. Smith's goals: "I need plants that are tough, good for birds, butterflies, bees, and other critters, ornamental (of course), and minimum maintenance." (ED HILLE / Staff)

After drainage work led to Ginny Smith's garden being dug up, she had to plan her next step. What she learned: "It's all about the interplay of changing the needs of the garden and the gardener."

Posted: October 27, 2012

Second of a two-part story.

It is late March, and the most visible part of my city garden has been reduced to bare dirt.

Drainage problems in the front yard have finally been corrected and the five-foot-deep trenches filled in. The casualties include almost a decade's worth of plantings, which have either been moved elsewhere on the property or buried with the new pipes.

It's time to plant again.

Which illustrates the garden's most unforgiving lesson: You will never be "done," and this is both the fun and the pain of it. Emily Tynan, a professional gardener who is helping me get from pain to fun, calls this endless loop of doing and redoing "a lovely, beautiful, frustrating dance," one that I - and, I quickly discover, she - cannot resist.

Before I met her, Emily, a Brown University grad who grew up an outdoorsy kid in Dedham, Mass., had been a science and marine biology teacher. More recently, she'd finished a master's degree in linguistics at the University of Delaware and was about to start a Ph.D., when she stopped - and did a life-changing pivot.

A redo, if you will.

Although she enjoyed exploring the nexis of anthropology and language, "I did not want to spend my life doing that," she recalls of her decision to forgo the doctorate and academic life and embrace the world of garden design and landscape, consultation, and education. It is not an easy way to make a living, but it made deeply satisfying sense. Gardening had always been the thing that made her happiest.

So here she was, barely a year after launching Homegrown Gardening, her new business, helping me rebuild the half of my East Falls garden that had been upended. She would also help me rethink the much larger half in the back yard, which had reached the stage that gardeners euphemistically refer to as "mature."

Emily and I had been e-mailing for a few weeks about the bombed-out front yard. She understood my sadness over losing this familiar place, the public face of my garden. She sensed my attachment to the coneflowers and daisies, iris and hostas, that I'd nurtured for almost a decade. And she was well aware that I was stressing over the unanticipated expense of having to replant an entire garden.

But soon we were in the thick of planning its comeback.

She e-mailed to ask about sun versus shade. She wondered whether the workers had found rock when they dug. Was the soil compacted now? How much clay was in there? And most important, what was I interested in planting this time around?

"My goal this time . . . is a lot more practical," I e-mailed back. "I need plants that are tough, good for birds, butterflies, bees, and other critters, ornamental (of course), and minimum maintenance. I'm not interested in the usual suspects, unless they're unusual varieties."

Emily was extraordinarily excited about this project and now, so was I. I'd not felt this way about any part of my garden in some time.

Actually, time was a big part of it. I didn't have nearly enough. The pace of my life, for which the garden had famously been an antidote, had spiraled away from me.

Dinner's at 9 p.m. in my house. Weekends are a blur; I've taken to calling myself "Chore Girl." And something else was at play, too.

I've had my share of disappointments with garden professionals whose poor choices have cost me a small fortune to get rid of or fix. Some even blew off my phone calls and e-mails.

Of course, I wanted someone who knew plants and could work creatively with my site. I also wanted someone I could trust, who would understand what was in my heart. On a practical level, I wanted much less maintenance.

The rapport with Emily was instant. It was like talking to a 33-year-old me.

One evening early on, we sat at the kitchen table talking plants for the front. She suggested Athyrium 'Ghost,' or ghost fern, named for its moody silver fronds, which I'd never heard of. Slowly, the image downloaded on her laptop screen.

"Oooh!" we cried in unison.

Next to unfurl: Viburnum dilatatum 'Cardinal Candy,' with its bright red berries for birds, also new to me.

Out came another "Oooh!" Then silly laughter, like punchy girls at a pajama party.

There were serious discussions, too - about the gifts a garden bestows and its importance to our well-being and to wildlife, especially in the city. Living on a well-traveled corner of said city, I was also mindful that my neighbors were counting on this garden coming back.

For them, it's a reality show.

It's awfully fun to see grown-ups stopping to smell the heirloom roses along the fence, and little kids wide-eyed with delight at hummingbirds hovering in the native honeysuckle.

Emily assures me that the tale I tell - of this living, growing, changing landscape that alternately torments and thrills me - is "the real story of a garden."

"It's all about the interplay of changing needs of the garden and the gardener," she says, "and when your garden becomes a burden, like a second job, it's time to change the landscape of the garden - not get rid of it."

What a relief! Emily believes that the back garden - still beautiful but, in places, overgrown and disorganized - can be managed. And that the new front garden can be even more spectacular than before without being a drain on my precious free time.

And so it is. For the front, we choose a four-season mix with many natives - a dramatic weeping redbud, some unusual hydrangeas and berry-producing viburnums, phloxes and mountain mint, and a slew of cool hostas, ferns, heucheras, and hellebores.

The experience refreshes me and seems to invigorate Emily so much that we decide to work together for a day in the back garden.

We chat incessantly, totally comfortable in our plant craziness. She weeds, thins, and prunes with formidable focus; time is money, after all. I wander from here to there, distracted, overwhelmed. She says, "It's OK. Just go where it takes you."

This is taking me to a very good place - back to my garden. I've been away for too long.

"If I had my way, I'd do this forever," she says, and I know exactly what she means.


Learning Curve

Every garden is a teacher, every gardener a lifelong student. Here are some important lessons I've learned - so far.

Problem: Agreed to overly complicated digital irrigation timers installed by someone who programmed them to run nine hours a day. The results were disastrous for both plants and water bills.

Lesson: Hire garden professionals as you would a doctor doing heart surgery. Ask: How many of these have you done? And when it comes to garden gizmos, communicate your level of competence, pay attention to the pro's choices, and try them out before they're irrevocably yours.

Problem: Assumed all native plants are well-behaved. I'm still battling trumpet vine, which was planted by a professional garden designer on my 8-foot-tall pergola. Clipping off the seed pods in fall will keep it in check, but if you aren't 8 feet tall, you're stuck. New shoots will come up everywhere. This has been a costly mistake, one that necessitated several rounds of spraying a powerful herbicide, something else I'm unhappy about. (The battle is not over yet.)

Lesson: Be discriminating about natives. Beware those described as "vigorous growers."

Problem: Bought more and more plants just because. My buying days are temporarily suspended. It's time to clear out, give away and toss, something I used to be reluctant to do. Plants now have to persuade me to buy them.

Lesson: Periodic or total abstinence. Failing that, try to buy thoughtfully and space out your must-haves in the garden. Then, next year, be ruthless in reevaluating what's there.

Problem: Thought ripping out the lawn and replacing it with perennials would be less work.

Lesson: Oh, my achin' back. Best to keep some lawn or replace some of those labor-intensive perennials with less-needy shrubs, ground covers, and trees.

Biggest lesson of all: Learning from these mistakes. They're not the last I'll ever make, but with luck, by the time I'm 90, I'll have this all figured out.

- Virginia A. Smith


Hear Ginny and Emily talk about bringing order and joy back to the garden at www.philly.com/ginny


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com. She will be reporting in spring the results of her garden's redo.

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