In Your Own Backyard
How I Learned to Garden in Chesapeake Country

by Patricia Acton

Our yard, just two blocks from the Chesapeake Bay, was going to be wonderful: lots of perennials, a big space for growing vegetables, flowering shrubs and trees, a swing set for the kids, a deck and a screened porch. Overall, the effect would be inviting from the street, private out back.

But first, our ugly-duckling, one-third acre in Deale needed a total transformation. Our newly built house sat on a wedge-shaped lot with a torn-up lawn, plenty of poison ivy and a few scraggly, nondescript bushes. On the plus side were several American hollies, a persimmon, a couple of red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and a big swath of orange daylilies.

I'd already killed my fair share of plants at our previous home; this time, I decided to do things right. I took first horticulture, then a landscaping course at Anne Arundel Community College. I spent days poring over plant encyclopedias, making sketches and wearing down erasers. In the end, I had a plan for landscaping my yard. It looked very tidy and professional on paper. It was, I thought, the key ingredient for landscaping success. All we needed to do was follow the plan and, in no time, we'd create our own little backyard paradise.

No time has turned into a decade, but who's counting? Ten years after moving to our house, some of my plan has been implemented and some of it scrapped. A lot of things were added, such as a small basketball court for the kids. Some of the plan we just haven't gotten around to yet. And our yard is fairly small. How on earth do people ever landscape a whole acre?

Our yard is pretty nice, I think, certainly much better than when we moved in. Still, there's a long way to go. Gardening here in Chesapeake Country has presented certain challenges I wasn't prepared for when I so carefully drew my plan - which, by the way, I got an "A" on.


Not in Kansas Anymore

We moved here from Silver Spring, just 40 miles away and also in USDA Zone 7. In many ways, it feels like we've moved much farther. The red clay in my Silver Spring yard was difficult to work with, but I'd never seen anything like the soil in my Deale yard. It was gray, extremely dense and, when it dried out, hard as cement.

Frank Gouin, former chair of the University of Maryland's horticulture department, has retired to the area and knows the local conditions well. He identified the two common local soil types in Chesapeake Country as silt loam (what we have in our yard) and sandy loam. In higher elevations 10 or 15 feet above sea level, clays begin.

"Silt will be on the brown side. When you squeeze it between your fingers, it will feel sticky when damp, but clay will feel greasy. A gray color generally indicates a saturated soil," Gouin said.

Saturated is right. In the terminology of gardening books, that's translated to "damp conditions" or a "wet situation." It didn't take me long after moving here to discover why local roads had such names as "Swamp Circle." Or why, after a hard rain, ducks come to our yard to bathe, and mosquitoes multiply with abandon.

Actually, if it were bigger, my yard could have been a swell site for a famous national building. After all, swampland was good enough for the Washington Monument. Of course, the monument sits on former swampland. And my yard? Let's just say that, after wheelbarrowing two truckloads of dirt around in an attempt to fill in the worst of the low spots, some in my neighborhood have swampier yards than mine. Then again, if it rains heavily, we have a good-sized skating rink out back.

The solution should be to plant only things that like wet feet. The problem is that many of these plants don't tolerate dry spells very well. Even low land dries out in a drought like we had last summer. And then, silt becomes a diamond-hard substance.


On the Bright Side

Sure there are challenges to gardening here, but also great advantages; the climate is warm, moderated by proximity to the Bay, and there is plenty of rain most years. We can enjoy Bay breezes as we toil in our gardens (or lie in hammocks).

Clever lot that we are, gardeners by the Bay have many strategies for coping with the local conditions. One of the best ways to deal with silty soils is using raised beds.

"Hydric [saturated] soils that are gray from flooding frequently are hard to reverse. The easiest solution is to build a raised bed," Gouin advised.

Hildreth Morton, owner of Bittersweet Nurseries in Davidsonville, agreed. "You have the worst conditions possible. The soil almost never dries out in the Deale-Shady Side area. When it does dry, it's like a brick. Having a raised bed is almost essential" to a successful garden here, she said.

Raised beds have worked very well for me. I knew I wanted to grow vegetables, but the sunniest place in the yard was also swampy as heck. The raised beds we put in drain so well that, even in the wettest spring, I am always able to get lettuce and other cool weather vegetables in very early, often before St. Patrick's Day (the traditional spring planting day).

Raised beds offer advantages to home gardeners no matter what your soil type. It's easier to work compost into the raised beds, partly because they are elevated and partly because the soil is not compacted from being trod upon. Because the soil is in such good shape, it will sustain more intensive planting. Even though we only have three 18-by-4-foot beds, I always grow four or five kinds of lettuce, spring onions, snow peas, five or so varieties of tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers, chard, hot peppers, parsley, cilantro and lots of basil. I usually stick in something I haven't grown before; last year I tried eggplant (which was a flop) and the year before I grew two respectable, jack-o-lantern-sized pumpkins.

Even so, I want to grow more edibles. I've read that some vegetables don't need full sun to do well. Last summer, I planted asparagus in a plot in back of our shed, which gets sun maybe a third of the day. I want to try growing rhubarb there too, but it'll be a few years before I find out how these experiments have worked.

Besides using raised beds, I use compost to improve the "tilth" of the garden. The leaves I compost each year are free and save me the trouble of lugging bags of compost and top soil home from the nursery.

Composting doesn't have to be complicated. Good things to use in your compost pile, Gouin said, include leaves, prunings from shrubs and trees, grass clippings and manure, well mixed together. Horse manure is full of weed seeds but, if properly composted, the seeds will be killed when the compost "cooks" to a temperature of 140 degrees, Gouin noted.

"The better you mix it, the better it works. It's important to keep compost wet. The problem is that water rolls off dry leaves. I add a shovelful of soil to a five-gallon bucket of water and use that" to wet a compost pile, Gouin said, because the muddy water adheres better.

Another strategy that's worked for me is working with, not against, the different conditions within my yard, planting water-loving plants in low spots and plants that prefer drier conditions on higher ground. My yard (most of Chesapeake Country, for that matter) is pretty flat but, even so, some areas are higher and better drained than others. I plant bulbs and any shrubs and perennials that demand good drainage in these spots. In damp places, I've done well with deciduous hollies, clethra, Virginia sweetspire, pussy willows, and swamp bay (magnolia Virginian). Mulching these moisture-lovers will help see them through a hot, dry summer.

Sometimes it's just a matter of moving a plant. I planted my redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) bushes in full sun, as instructed by the mail-order catalog. This would have been the right thing to do if I lived in Connecticut. The problem was that, in my yard, come summer I'd have to water the dogwoods every few days or they began visibly wilting. This went on for a couple of years until, finally, I moved them to a partly shady spot. They haven't wilted since.

Ever since, I've been distrusting plant catalogs and moving plants around when they languish. Some plants don't move so well, though. Always make sure that you put a crape myrtle just where you want it. I got it in my head to move a crape myrtle that wasn't flowering very well to a sunnier spot. Though I'd planted the crape myrtle just two years before, its roots had an extremely tenacious grip. I broke two shovel handles before finally prying the thing out; it has been flowering quite nicely now, in my front yard, for several years.


No-Fail Plants for Chesapeake Country

For me, the only fool-proof plants are probably weeds. However, there are many plants that usually do well around here, and others I think people should plant more often.

One of the best ways to determine what to plant is to "look around. See what's growing. What are the neighbors growing?" advised Morton.

Pussy willows and many viburnums do well in wet areas, Morton said (though she personally finds pussy willows "ugly as hell"), while viburnums attract birds. The number of evergreens that do well in wet conditions are limited, she said, with American holly (Ilex opaca) being a notable exception. Other plants that like wet feet are inkberry and winterberry, both types of holly, she added.

Following Morton's advice - observing what grows well in the neighborhood - comes naturally to us, since my husband and I often take an evening stroll. One of the first things we noticed when we began looking for a house in the neighborhood is the number of really huge old trees here. Many of the oaks are tremendous; a tree expert told us that one growing in the community right-of-way next to our house is about 300 years old.

This oak and another one, neither on our property, shed enough leaves in our yard each fall to provide us mulch, after composting, for many planting beds. The only problem with the oaks is that their leaves fall very late, usually the very end of November or early December. So, when other people are out Christmas shopping and baking cookies, I'm raking leaves, sometimes until it's dark. Raking leaves at night isn't the most efficient way to do it, but one time I did see an eclipse of the moon that way.

Besides oaks, hollies, persimmons, Juniperus virginiana, and sweetgum grow everywhere in my community. I didn't much care for the junipers, or red cedars, when I moved down here, and had intended on cutting down the two on my property. I must have been nuts. Now I love those trees and would never think of cutting them. In general, its best not to get rid of any plants, even if you think you don't like them, for a year after you move into a home. You may change your mind.

I think I didn't like the junipers because, as they are so common around here, I didn't think they were anything special. But really, they are wonderful, especially this time of year when they take on an attractive bronzy tint. They are common like forsythia or the orange daylilies that I keep trying to beat into submission. Common or not, they are nonetheless beautiful; few plants can top the exuberance of bright yellow forsythia, and my very ordinary daylilies are in such a large group that they make quite a statement.

On your walk around your neighborhood seeing what is native to the area and what the neighbors are growing, a benefit is that you will get to meet your neighbors. We have a lot of wonderful neighbors here, and many of them are great gardeners. They have given me many plants over the past 10 years, which is very helpful when you are starting almost from scratch, like we were.

My next-door neighbor gave me lovely daffodils, bearded iris, astilbe, and artemisia (unfortunately, the artemisia died, or should I say I killed it?) The rest, though, are thriving, so much so that I've divided the daffodils and they now are making a second little colony. My elderly friend across the street passed away several years ago, but the mint, lilies and vinca she gave are all prospering (the mint has done a little too well) and are a nice remembrance.

This might be a good place to mention that sometimes it is best to refuse politely any plants a friend offers that you don't like. The rule is that these plants will invariably thrive and spread, over-running other favored plants. That is just what happened with the iris my Mom gave me. She had several lovely varieties - purple, blue, and white - and an awful brown. After a few years in my yard, the awful ones predominated.

The principle in operation here is, I think, related to the cheap sunglasses rule; namely, if you buy cheap sunglasses that are really hideous, you can't lose them to save your life. On the other hand, your favorite, expensive pair will promptly be dropped over the side of a boat or pier, or your son will run over them with the lawnmower.

The author in her back yard.


An Evolving Plan

The placement of plants in my yard has remained essentially the same as I originally envisioned but, often, I used different plants. In some cases that's because I later found out about a plant I liked better. Some plants I scrapped because I later found out that they were disease-prone or insisted on well-drained soil. Some of my first choices wimped out and died. When it comes to plants, I almost never give second chances.

In general, I've relied a lot on mixed borders, which have shrubs, perennials, small trees, and annuals mixed together. For example, one edge of my back yard is planted with hosta, variegated yellow stem dogwood (Cornus sericea Silver and Gold), evergreen viburnum, foxgloves, orange daylilies, yellow daylilies (Stella D'Oro), deciduous hollies, an azalea, Virginia sweetspire, liriope and Lady's Mantle (Achemilla mollis).

Since my vegetable beds take up a fair amount of my back yard and are partially visible from the front, I wanted them to look nice, too. Circling the beds in a crescent-shaped border are roses, a spreading juniper, Japanese iris, a viburnum (Opulus compactum), boxwood, coreopsis Moonbeam, catmint, and a few square feet I reserve for annuals.

Along the right side of my house, I've mixed grasses (miscanthus) with a white-fruited beautyberry, perennial sunflower, lavender, salvia and dwarf fothergilla. The soil is probably too damp and acidic for the lavender, but it was on sale at the nursery.


My Favorite Plants

It's pretty hard to pick favorite plants. A year from now, I'd probably give different answers.

Living so close to the Bay, I would not include on my list of favorites anything that needs a lot of spraying of chemicals. Fortunately, my husband and I are pretty tolerant when it comes to bugs and weeds. Actually, when it comes to weeds in the lawn we are very tolerant.

Figs are an excellent choice if you want to grow a fruit but don't want to spray. I have a single fig, the variety Italian Honey. Even if you don't particularly like figs, they are worth growing for their easy care and bold, tropical-looking leaves. I have mine planted just outside my back porch door, on a south-facing wall. One winter I thought severe weather had killed it, but it grew back as good as ever from the roots.

Crape myrtle. My original plan didn't call for crape myrtles, but now I have four. One, unlabeled as to variety, came from a local nursery and now occupies a place of honor at the right edge of the front yard. At the left edge of the front yard, I have a group of three miniature crape myrtles, variety Victor. The flowers are a beautiful dark red color and they bloom forever - about 3 months in my yard. Even before they bloom, the buds are dark red and big as berries; they look lovely against the new foliage growth, also reddish. Even in small yards like mine, there is room for these shrubs, as they only grow 3 to 5 feet tall. The only drawback is that they sometimes get powdery mildew.

Ilex opaca Maryland Dwarf. I planted this variety of American holly by my front door and never regretted it. It is low, only about two feet tall, but wide spreading. The leaves are very large and glossy, with bright red berries in fall and winter. It's just a superior holly, but wear gloves when weeding around it. Other hollies I like very much are the deciduous types known as winterberries (Ilex verticillata). The variety I grow, Winter Red, produces great masses of large red berries from September until February, very cheerful on gloomy winter days, but be sure that you have a male winterberry nearby for pollination.

Pseduocamellia. I planted this tree, commonly called stewartia, off-center in the front yard, where I can see it from my windows, and I'm always happy I did. It looks great all year; in summer, it blooms for weeks with white, camellia-like flowers with bright golden centers. In fall, the leaves turn a lovely reddish-orange; in winter, the exfoliating bark is an added attraction. It's fun to grow this because it's pretty uncommon in gardens around here; people always ask me what it is.

Magnolia virginiana, also called swamp bay or sweet bay, may be evergreen in the deep South where they grow to 60 feet or so. Around here, they stay considerably smaller. Mine always loses its leaves, which are large and deep green; when it's windy, I can see their silvery undersides. The flowers are white and smell wonderful. As the common name implies, these trees like plenty of water.

Virginia sweetspire. Another great plant for damp areas is the native plant Itea virginica. I planted three in a row. They are about five feet tall and grow very well in shade, though they can also be grown in sun. The narrow green leaves are a beautiful red in fall and, in spring, the plants are covered with long, slender white flowers.

Roses. I only grow a few of these, none of which are hybrid teas because I don't like spraying for black spot. However, one rose I've had great luck with is the old-fashioned variety Konigin von Danemarck. It has bright pink buds and, when the flowers first open, they are bright pink also. When fully open, the flowers fade to very pale pink and are delicate looking. The flowers aren't large but there are tremendous numbers of them and they bloom over a long period. Unfortunately, Japanese beetles also like these plants, but I can't blame them for that.

Gelesium sempervirens Pride of Augusta is a long name for the evergreen vine known as Carolina jessamine. Since my yard is small, I'm always looking for things that don't take up too much space but give plenty of impact. On either side of my front door, I have these jasmine-like plants growing on trellises. They are fairly vigorous yet not rampant-growing vines with yellow flowers in spring. The leaves are fairly small and deep green. All in all, these are classy-looking vines.

Autumn clematis. Another favorite vine is Clematis ternifolia. I have this vine growing on a trellis up the side up my porch. Cut to the ground in fall, it grows rapidly in summer to drape over the porch railing and up into a nearby tree. In early fall, the vine is covered in small, sweet-smelling white flowers, followed by fuzzy-looking seed heads.

Boxwood has a distinctive smell that some people don't like. I do, and my boxwood have done very well here. Because they grow so slowly, I don't have to worry about pruning them anytime soon.

Buddleia (butterfly bushes) I would love even if they didn't attract butterflies. I have two: Royal Red and Nanho Blue. The foliage of the blue is especially nice, sort of a silvery gray that blends nicely with other plants. Sometimes these are covered with so many butterflies that the plants appear to be in motion.

I try to plant flowers that attract hummingbirds, too; supposedly they like the color red. The most success I've had, though, was not with red flowers but with a garden hose. Last summer during the drought, I was watering the garden with a very fine spray mist. A hummingbird flew up to the spray and stayed there for a full minute. He left, then came back for another minute. It was the best view I have ever had of a hummingbird.


In Retrospect

I now think it's better not to install a landscape all at once. I say that partly because I can't afford to hire someone to do that and partly because there are limits, imposed by my back, on how much I can plant in one day. I once planted 10 shrubs in an afternoon and swore not to repeat that experience.

Mostly, though, the best reason to go slow when putting in your garden is that you will change your mind about what plants and other garden embellishments you absolutely, positively must have. This affliction comes from visiting nurseries and reading garden catalogues with their flowery descriptions of dazzling, faultless plants. Garden writers are guilty of false advertising, too. They often write articles about how spectacular such and such perennial is without mentioning that the flowers smell bad and, though gorgeous, only bloom for two days.

Gardeners' tastes are always changing, too. For instance, I didn't realize until five years ago that I had to have a fig tree. Also, I used to hate cannas but, for some reason, I've suddenly developed a hankering for some, preferably orange.

In other words, it's hard to say what our yard will be like in 10 more years. Probably the only thing I can say for sure is that it won't be the same and that many mosquitoes, and the occasional duck, will feel quite at home.


Patricia Acton, a regular at New Bay Times, reports her gardening experiences nationally as well as locally.


| Issue 14 |

Volume VII Number 14
April 8-14, 1999
New Bay Times

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