'Five-Plant Gardens,' easy and inexpensive perennial plots

1Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
1Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Posted: March 29, 2014

Seventeen-year-old Nancy Ondra had high hopes for her first garden: This is going to be easy, fast, and inexpensive.


“It was very difficult, way too big, and cost too much,” recalls the now-46-year-old Ondra, who might have been forgiven for abandoning her new hobby then and there.

She did not. In fact, she went on to study agronomy and environmental science at Delaware Valley College, edit garden books at Rodale, and run a small rare-plant nursery in Emmaus, now defunct.

Over the last 20 years, Ondra has also written more than a dozen gardening books. Her latest promotes the idea that gardens truly can be easy, fast, and inexpensive: Five-Plant Gardens: 52 Ways to Grow a Perennial Garden With Just Five Plants, from Storey Publishing, $18.95. (Photos are by Ondra’s frequent collaborator, Rob Cardillo of Ambler.)

There are five-ingredient cookbooks. Why not five-plant gardens?

“Three isn’t enough and it gets too complicated with seven. Five is good,” says Ondra, who lives in a nifty log house on four acres in Milford Township, near Quakertown, with her two “boys” — alpacas named Duncan and Daniel, whose manure makes excellent fertilizer.

Hayefield, as she calls her chunk of the now 36-acre family farm, was formerly a hay field. (She added the e for “snooty value.”) It comprises two acres of managed meadow, one acre of pasture, and one acre of intensively planted vegetable and flower gardens that are the focus of her lavishly photographed blog, “Hayefield: A Pennsylvania Plant Geek’s Garden,” at www.hayefield.com.

Ondra’s garden is a naturalistic cottage style, which looks simple to pull off but isn’t. The book is all about simple: Each of those 52 garden designs starts with just five different plants. More of each kind are added, depending on what the space and design can handle.

The “Say Hello to Yellow” design, for instance, calls for one ‘Frances Williams’ hosta, five golden hakone grasses, three yellow foxgloves, six lady’s mantles, and five ‘Angelina’ sedums in an 18-square-foot plot.

Most designs are under 20 square feet, with 15 to 20 plants costing less than $200. “With a garden this size, it’s hard to be disappointed,” says Ondra, who believes all of her designs can be fully executed in a weekend.

The key to success, she says, is to do the opposite of what she did as a teenager: Begin with “a manageable-sized space, a clear shopping list, and a simple-to-follow planting plan.”

Ondra’s plant picks are not cutting-edge, “hot,” or new. You ask: What fun is that? Fun, for many gardeners, especially those with a compost pile full of failures, is about time-tested, readily available, reasonably priced, and well-behaved plants like lamb’s ears and coralbells.

All that reasonableness needn’t be boring. But if you don’t like or aren’t able to find Ondra’s picks, she suggests alternatives. For example, instead of ‘Sprite’ astilbe, a dwarf version of this popular shade-tolerant perennial, she offers Japanese painted fern or dwarf bleeding heart.

Ondra’s book divides gardens into two large categories: full sun to partial shade and partial to full shade.

Within those, she includes plant combinations, assigned botanical and common names, in a single color (white, silver, pink, red, blue, yellow), or simply “bold” or “pastel”; conditions (hot and dry, wet, slopes), locations (edge, foundation), and seasons.

Like fragrance? Live near the ocean? Have a problem with deer or storm-water runoff? Ondra has designs, each with three pages of instructions, for all that, too.

The idea for the book, and its paint-by-numbers approach, came from Storey, and Ondra frankly admits that writing in such a tight format was not a magical literary experience.

But the concept’s simplicity appealed to her. “I’m hoping people look at this and think, ‘I could do this,’” she says.

Ondra does not travel, host garden tours, do talks or book-signings. She’s plenty busy, however, selling garden-photo note cards and packets of unusual seeds on Etsy, doing freelance garden photography and magazine writing, and averaging about one gardening book a year.

She balances it all with total devotion to her garden, which can require 10 to 12 hours of work per day in season. Occasional help with weeding and “big mowing” comes from her mother, Ethel, 78, and father, Joseph, 88.

To outsiders, it seems an idyllic lifestyle. People are forever commenting, “I would love to do this.”

“Yeah,” says a grinning Ondra, “you could do this if you didn’t have children, if you didn’t have a spouse, and you were willing to live on not much money.”

Actually, she says, “if I had more money I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Speaking of money and doing, Ondra’s got an October deadline for her next book: Five-Plant Container Gardens. By now, she knows the drill.



@inkygardener inquirer.com/kisstheearth.

comments powered by Disqus