Be Willing To Multiply, Edit Plants to Your Needs

WETHERSFIELD, Conn. - For author Kristin Green, having a lush garden comes down to plant choices.

Green said gardeners need to be opportunists when choosing which plants to grow. "It's amazing how much money stays in your wallet and how time appears like magic in the garden," she said.

Green shared her expertise in ways gardeners can have an abundant and inexpensive garden at a Connecticut Hardy Plant Society meeting. "You need a basic understanding and real deep appreciation of how plants grow," she said.

"I think we all - probably 99 percent of us - want a garden that looks as if money were no object," she said. "I think we all want a garden that looks like we had all the time in the world to spend in it and we all want a garden that sustains our interest through the seasons - and I think all of that is possible."

Plantiful Roots in Her First Garden
Green credits her green thumb to her great grandfather, who was an estate gardener in Newport, Rhode Island. Even though Green never knew him, her mother kept his garden alive.

"I didn't know him, but I knew his plants. They came back."

It wasn't until Green attended school in Seattle that she was "bitten by the gardening bug."

"I come to gardening from a painter's place. As a painter, I never would quite be done with a painting," she said. "I do the same thing in the garden."

Her first garden was filled with plants that would give her the most for her money. "I didn't have a lot to spend - I was the typical starving artist."

Now she is back on the East Coast and working as an interpretative horticulturalist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum, located in Bristol, Rhode Island. Blithewold is a 33-acre non-profit garden. Blithewold, unlike other historic gardens, are not restricted to plants from a certain time period.

"The people who owned the property were gardeners. We are really lucky that we don't have to preserve the gardens to a particular time - we just get to preserve their spirit. They gardened with the trends, they followed their hearts. They got to try new plants and so do we," she said.

Don't Malign Vigorous Growers
When seeds are not produced, Green said plants have a back-up-plan where they can clone themselves from the parent plant. "A lot of way plants grow can be scary for gardeners," Green said.

One example includes stolens, which are horizontal stems capable of rooting. (Think strawberries.) Another way plants can form is through rhizomes which are underground stems that look like roots. (Think mint.) "A lot of us respond to rhizomes by corralling them." Green lets her mint run because she said it's easy to evict. "Yank it out and make a mojito," she said. She also allows it to mingle in her lawn. "It smells nice when the mower goes over it."

Another plant Green leaves in her garden is teasel.  The first year in the garden, she leaves the plants because they form a weed barrier in her garden beds. In the second year, she thins the plants so only one or two remain. The plant grows as high as 7 feet tall and produces flowers that attract bees and goldfinches. Teasel also provides winter interest in the garden. "This is one plant people malign as invasive," she said.

"The word invasive has been overused so it's losing its meaning." Green said people need to reserve the use of "invasive" when describing plants as a word for plants that escape our gardens, instead of including vigorous growers in the category as well. "We need to find other words for plants - maybe 'enthusiastic' or 'thugs,'" she said. "We do need to be careful to not let the plants in our gardens escape."

Naturally, plants that multiply quickly can take over a garden bed, and while these plants may give gardeners the most "bang for the buck" as they did for Green in her first garden, it's also important to pull out any plants no longer wanted. Green said gardeners naturally have a hard time killing plants.

"It's also important to be willing to be mentally prepared to edit," she said. "It's hard to throw on the compost pile. We gotta do that."

When writing Plantiful, Green had to narrow down her plant choices to 50 in each chapter for the book. "A lot of what went into the book came from [what grows at] Blithewold," she said. "These are plants to have fun with."

Here are some of Green's favorite plants from her garden, along with her growing tips:

Spring:
  • Forget-Me-Not: Be careful not to weed out seedlings. 
  • Climbing Snapdragon: It can be found in foundation crack or in a rock wall. "When plants fill the nooks and crannies ... it give it that aged, nature feeling," she said.
Summer:
  • Poppies: The goldfinch will peel the seedheads apart. "They're like little addicts," she said.
  • Butterfly Weed: Is not the favorite food source for monarch butterflies (milkweed is), but the caterpillars will eat it. Green said it finds its way into combinations "even the artists in us wouldn't think of." Green said, "It's really fun to see what pops up in your garden with the self sowers."
  • Mountain Mint: "It doesn't spread like mint - I've probably counted at least a dozen species of bees and wasps in the garden at one time." It can reach 4 feet tall.
  • Sweet Fern: It grows in the leanest and meanest soil, she said. "Plant it in your hell strip or your driveway. The foliage is a mosquito repellant."
  • Flowering Raspberry: One of Green's favorites, she said it's a "very pretty bramble without the thorns."
  • Rice Paper Plant: "I like the big foliage things that change the scale of my garden. It suckers madly, freely - if you don't want it in your garden, pull it out." 
Fall:
  • Hardy Begonia: One of the plants that blooms in fall. Green said to situate the leaves so you can see light through them.
  • Catmint: Green said some of her evictions of this plant go into pots.
  • Dotted Mint: One of Green's favorites because it will bring the goldfinch to the garden. "It self-sows pretty nicely for me."
  • Hardy Ageratum: It has an intense blue flower. "It wants moist soil - if it has dry soil [in the fall] it will wilt," she said.
  • Dahlias: She will find bees asleep in their flowers in morning.
  • Pink Porterweed: This plant is a hummingbird magnet. "You can start by a cutting and overwinter it," she said. It's a big plant with little flowers.
Winter:
  • Meyer Lemon: Grown indoors overwinter, Green hand pollinates the flowers with paintbrushes. "I don't use them for painting as much but for pollinating," she said. Any citrus will be prone to scale and mealy bugs and aphids in the spring, she cautioned.
  • Hummingbird Sage: "They go nuts for this plant - it comes up late in the spring it does overwinter," she said.
  • Winter Honeysuckle: This plant blooms very late winter, early spring, with tiny flowers that will make a room fragrant.
"I don't have a lot to spend on my garden ...  and I work full time - I come home exhausted to my garden. I probably spend more time napping in it than working in it yet I have a garden that is full of color and wildlife and it really gives me joy," she said.

"I hope you will find some inspiration over fall and winter ... be bold .. be willing to edit. Don't be afraid to throw things out," she said.

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