September 6th, 2006
2. Evolutionary Design

“It has not been all success. I have had to learn the soil and the location best suited to each plant; to know when each bloomed and which lived best together.” — Helena Rutherford Ely. A Woman’s Hardy Garden. 1903.

Annie in Austin asked me, “With a chance to redo beds and plan anew, are there parts of the garden that you were unhappy with anyway?”

I guess my initial reaction is to think that I hadn’t really finished implementing my plans for the garden. So I haven’t had a chance to get tired of it yet or long for a change. The garden was still growing into my vision for it. Not that I have any grand design. I’m not a good designer. More specifically, I don’t implement well from a design. I have a tactile approach to gardening.

Although I imagine I’d love one of the fab designs from Floribunda (Aren’t they the coolest!?! Most of these are in my neighborhood. I’ve been intrigued by them and was happy to discover they were all done by Floribunda.) or a lovely cottage garden like Pam’s at Digging, the reality is I’m a plant person. (I’m not saying you can’t be both, just that I don’t have the talent for pulling a design together–and not just in gardening. I’ve never owned a matching purse and shoes in my life, or even matching bras and panties.) I’m a hodgepodge and so is my house and so is my garden. And it shows!

Due to constraints of both time and money, I rarely buy more than one plant at a time. I was full of wonder and envy when some friends of mine recently had their garden designed by a professional. The cost of the plants alone was $1,000. The only plants I’ve bought this year were the three Duranta erecta that I bought on sale for $4.99 each (Still alive!) and an anemic basil which I’ve had in a pot for summer pesto but will be planting in the fall garden soon. Dirt gardener describes me pretty well.

Despite the dreary drought photos, there are only two beds that I feel that I need to tear out and completely replant: the two 12×12 beds on the south side of the house that I started as a winter garden. However, I don’t really know what to do with a blank slate. My usual habit is to watch how parts of the garden grow and change and then nestle in a new plant here and there.

I’ve tried designing on paper but it doesn’t work for me. I design in four dimensions (time is very important and frequently ignored in garden design I think). My approach to design, if what I do can even be called design, requires a lot of walking around and looking at the garden from various angles.

I was working in the garden all day today (not a fingernail left unbroken) clearing out dead plants. When I was finished and saw that newly turned dirt in one of the front beds, I thought, “If I’m going to have tomatoes this fall, this is probably the best place to plant them…it’s the only spot getting sun this time of year.” It’s precisely this kind of thinking that results in the odd combinations in my garden. I look primarily for conditions where I think a plant will survive and don’t worry much about the effect of my plant combinations.

Has this summer taught me anything? Have I learned my lessons? Will I reform? Or will I be at Gardens tomorrow checking whether they have their fall tomatoes in? Stay tuned…

by M Sinclair Stevens

4 Responses to post “2. Evolutionary Design”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Different approaches for different gardeners. The important thing is to have fun and just enjoy being in your garden. I often think that a blank slate—so full of promise and no mistakes!—is the best thing a gardener can have, so I envy you a little for being able to start over in those two beds.

    While you’re at Gardens tomorrow, ogle those gigantic stone orbs for me—I just love those.

    Pam, I wish I had your knack. Hmmm. Maybe I could rent out the land to garden designer sharecroppers. — mss

  2. From r sorrell (Austin):

    Ah, your “design approach” sounds a lot like mine:

    1. Find pretty plant

    2. Walk around yard looking for place to put pretty plant.

    3. Drink beer.

    4. Stare at proposed new plant home.

    5. Change mind.

    6. Drink more beer.

    7. Yell at dogs for barking at women with babies in strollers.

    8. Stare at proposed plant home some more.

    9. Dig hole.

    10. Try to figure out if bone meal should go in hole.

    11. Put plant in.

    12. Take picture of plant while it’s still alive.

    13. Write plant’s name on popsicle stick; insert stick in ground next to plant.

    14. Drink more beer and admire massive accomplishment.

    (OK, so you don’t mention beer drinking. But my point is that I don’t really have a REAL plan, either.)

    Love it! Especially #12. “Take picture of plant while it’s still alive.” My secret’s out. — mss

  3. From Annie in Austin:

    On the outside of the privacy fence, we try for neat and sensible, and keep a low profile. On the inside, we’ve made more of a plan, broken into small stages that we can do ourselves.

    What was the most basic, first decision, on which all else pivots? “Which part of the yard is best for tomatoes?” You already have that element under consideration!

    Floribunda’s gardens are amazing. I love that starfish-thing on the one front garden.

    The first summer I moved here, I thought I spotted the perfect place for a vegetable garden. I tilled and composted and prepared the soil and planted my tomatoes. A couple of weeks later the cedar elms leafed out and my vegetable garden was in shade all day long. — mss

  4. From Stuart:

    While I tend to prefer working from a plan I find that your concept of evolutionary design is still applicable.

    My garden hasn’t been planned using the “crossing the “t’s” or dotting the “i’s” theory but has evolved from a fundamental design that continued to change.

    Gardening has to be flexible. The moment it isn’t is the time you realise you’re pouring concrete…