January 25, 2021

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Home Improvement

Help next year’s garden thrive by reflecting on this year’s mistakes

As autumn moves into winter and gardens settle into a long seasonal decline, the time for retrospection is upon us.

Each year gardens generate a large amount of useful information. It is important to note what worked really well and what didn’t in an effort to make your garden more successful and easier to care for — and gardening life more enjoyable — next year. This is a time to develop a new strategy based on experience and observation.

Though most of us enjoy some time spent on tasks like weeding or trimming back plants, too much of it can dominate one’s schedule and limit the amount of time we have to admire our flowers or do fun things like process the profuse basil into fragrant pesto. Gardens should generate pleasure instead of lists of endless tasks. All gardens must be managed.

The most time-consuming chore this spring and early summer in my garden was seedling poppy management. In the fall and winter, self-seeded annuals and perennials may be appearing in many of our gardens. The big question is, how many should we leave? This year I had a lot of overwintered seedling hybrid breadseed poppies, the ‘Lauren’s Grape’ cultivar. These poppies are as beautiful as peonies and can be grown for pennies. This particular cultivar has crinkled satin petals of deep raspberry purple with contrasting natty large white anthers. The effect of the whole is spectacular. The plants are 3 to 4 feet tall, with large classic frilled leaves of gray-green.

As spring progressed, the poppies grew and grew, wide and high. The lower-growing perennial penstemons, salvias, monarda, evening primroses and scabiosa become smothered by them. Weekly I pulled off the lower poppy leaves and kept thinning the plants to give everyone room. It was a time-consuming, ongoing and nerve-wracking job. Despite putting in quite a lot of time managing the poppies, the perennials in the flower bed really suffered from the competition for light from the too-close poppies and overhanging leaves. It took the remainder of the summer for the perennials to recover. I should have rigorously thinned the poppy seedlings early in spring. Plants like Verbena bonariensis, Gaura and biennial evening primroses also can seed heavily and require management.

In contrast, the seedlings of Shirley poppies I planted early in the spring in large gaps between the perennials gently filled in their allotted space, providing a lovely and more well-behaved addition to the spring floral show.

An easy way to grow large annuals like these poppies or plants like sunflowers, a very competitive plant, is to give them their own space where they can grow uninhibited. For next season, I pulled up the few poppies I had left with mature seed heads and shook the seeds over their own flower bed, where they can grow as large as they like. The poppy seeds won’t germinate until the fall when temperatures cool. After the poppies are finished and have dropped seed, I will plant summer annuals like zinnias or orange cosmos in their place.

It is tempting with highly desirable plants like this poppy to rejoice over profuse seedlings instead of being a stern editor of plants. Excess seedlings also can be moved or potted up and given away.

I visited a vegetable garden this summer where the homeowner has been reseeding lettuce, parsnips, California poppies, sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) and in summer, zinnias. She hasn’t replanted any of them for years. The vegetables have their own beds where they grow without competition. The seedling flowers are strictly kept within the confines of their own designated areas and thinned somewhat so each plant type has its own space in the bed. After the spring blooming flowers mature and drop seed, they are cut back or pulled out. Zinnia seedlings fill in the summer show.

Lettuce is allowed to bolt and go to seed. When seed is mature, the plants are pulled up and the seed heads shaken over the garden. The seedlings germinate and grow over the course of the summer and fall in and around many of the beds and are harvested as needed. The homeowner has not replanted any of these plants for years and just relies on willing and vigorous volunteers. It took some time to work out a system that now is happily self-perpetuating.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home.

Contact Kate at: [email protected], freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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