The impatient gardener


Seasoned gardeners will tell you that a newly planted garden can begin to look effective in three years, full in five and knitted together by seven. But what if you can’t wait that long? (Julie Notarianni for The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist April 3, 2013

Seasoned gardeners will tell you that a newly planted garden can begin to look effective in three years, full in five and knitted together by seven. Give the shade trees a decade or two.

But what if you wanted a near-instant garden because you are planning to retire to the Eastern Shore in a few years, or intend to sell your home in five, or you’re just an impatient soul in need of instant gratification?

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

As Arlington landscape designer Tom Mannion points out, commercial landscapers install finished exteriors all the time, using oversized trees and shrubs, lots of big evergreens for plant architecture, and beds that rely on seasonal annuals or mounding ground covers, all tied together with lots of mulch and push-button watering systems. The advantages: a neat and mature look with relatively low weekly maintenance. The drawbacks: a landscape that is expensive to put in, needs a seasonal maintenance regimen and has all the character of a hotel courtyard.

For those who want a more personal garden, there are tricks that hasten effects without robbing the landscape of its heart. Here are some ideas that aren’t necessarily cheap or without toil, but will richly reward your efforts in short order.

Patio and arbor

Whether you want a speedy garden or a plodding one, every paradise needs a place that ties the house to the landscape, and where you can sit in comfort, shelter and privacy. It’s called a patio.


(Julie Notarianni for The Washington Post)

Patios should be dry, flat and shady in summer. Some form of paving will lift you out of the mud, but, as Mannion points out, if you have storm water that is compromising the house, you need to fix that before you do anything else. A wet area that doesn’t bother the abode doesn’t need expensive drain systems; you can use it to create a pretty garden of moisture-loving plants, including the common mallow, the swamp hibiscus, ostrich ferns, ironweed and butterbur.

Gordon Hayward, a Vermont-based landscape designer, says a quick and effective floor for a patio might be something as simple as pea gravel, with framing to keep it in place, though it would quickly become littered under a tree.

A step up in materials and price would be dry-laid brick or bluestone (each has more character than modular concrete pavers). Salvaged brick, in particular, can save costs and give an instant look of age.

“If the house is contemporary, I like to use exposed aggregate concrete, edged in stone,” Mannion says. Often, patio terraces need some form of retaining wall to achieve flatness, an investment that will be repaid when the house is sold. Alternatively, a low deck can provide a level patio floor without requiring masonry walls, Mannion says.

Once you have a floor for the speedy garden, you need walls. Fences, trellises and arbors can provide an instant veil that a screen of trees or a hedge cannot. As Mannion points out, many people think that a fence is an ugly stockade or chain-link affair. “I say, get a beautiful fence; they don’t think such a thing exists,” he says.

Find a competent carpenter, show him or her structures you like, and go for cedar, if your budget allows. Tip: Use larger material than you had in mind; scale is different outdoors than inside.

Also, you don’t have to fence out your whole lot: You can put up a fence or trellis around just part of your patio. A trellis will lighten the wall effect and permit summer breezes.

Local building codes limit fence heights, but an arbor or pergola can provide an elevated garden element that screens, shades and provides support for vines. Again, don’t skimp on materials or size, not least because something like a climbing rose or kiwi vine needs a sturdy support. (See the next page.)

Annuals and perennials

Petunias have their place, but there are a host of other annuals that will give a quick “hit” in this and future growing seasons. Sow sunflowers weekly in May and June for a successive bloom from late July to frost. Giant sunflower varieties such as Mammoth and Sunzilla provide their own near-instant screen, but the more delicate ones grow to five feet, are covered in smaller blooms and add a degree of elegance missing in the linebacker versions.

May sowings of cosmos and cleome bring summer blooms; just sprinkle the seed in rich, cultivated beds and thin the seedlings when they are small. Surely one of the easiest and most rewarding annuals is the zinnia, especially the improved varieties that resist the late-season powdery mildew.

In the fall, after clearing beds of fallen leaves, I sow extravagant amounts of seed of Shirley poppies, California poppies and larkspur. I could add bread poppies to the mix, but I find them rigid in comparison to the softer Shirley poppies. All these seeds germinate in late winter, grow rapidly in the warmth of spring and produce unexpectedly showy flowers in May and June.

As a rule, well-grown perennials make a show in their second year and look well-established by their third. Perennials — including ornamental grasses — can look fussy and formless if planted without sufficient thought. This is avoided by massing them as bold clumps that speak to each other.

A bulb (or tuber) contains a whole plant ready to go, so putting in bulbs guarantees a floral show just a few weeks after planting. The most common mistake is in not using enough. Six daffodils will barely register; 60 will create an effect; 600 will make a spring.

If placed out of deep shade, daffodils will come back year after year. There are so many varieties that you can have a show from early March to late April, with sizes that fit their surroundings.

Some tulips will come back year after year, particularly the delicate wild tulips, but the showier ones should be viewed as a spring extravagance and pulled after blooming.

These and other spring bulbs bridge the gap between the start of spring and early May, when annuals and tropicals can be grown that will give an immediate season of dynamic growth and bloom.

Summer bulbs offer their own immediate display, and dahlias are particularly useful in providing months of flowering if they are given rich soil and adequate moisture. The single and semidouble types with dark stems are easy to place with other plants.

Dahlias must be lifted at the end of the year and stored indoors, but lilies can stay put, and they make great architectural summer plants. I like the big and fragrant Oriental-trumpet hybrids.

In shade, use caladiums and calla lilies.

Containers and tropicals

Containers give instant form and height to a garden and accommodate a whole range of plants. There is no rule that says you can plant only geraniums and impatiens in containers, but avoid a mess of small pots and invest in larger containers. A large pot at least 14 inches in diameter makes a statement and is less stressful on plants than tighter quarters. Frost-proof pots can stay out all year (covered) but clay ones cannot. Hayward says buy or rent a ball cart, a large dolly designed for planting trees, to move heavy containers around.

A woody plant in a container offers an unexpected delight: Gardenias, sago palms and citrus in a handsome pot give an exotic flair to the patio. Lavender and boxwood look good, too, but there is one plant that will set you apart as a sophisticate: The dwarf pomegranate has exquisite foliage and red blooms, and is tough enough to survive most Washington winters.

Tropical plants love the Washington summers and grow with vigor here. Banana plants take about three years to reach full size — that is, 12 to 18 feet, depending on how pampered they are. They will reach six to eight feet in their first season. One of the most robust is the red Abyssinian banana, which has the added bonus of having striking plum-red veins. In the fall, cut it back and store the root ball indoors. The hardy banana, called basjoo, will survive a typical winter in the garden. Some gardeners cut the stems at waist height in November and pile in leaves for extra protection.

Elephant ears or taros come in a number of sizes and colors, from striking black-leafed, white-veined varieties such as black velvet to enormous green-leafed taros. Given moisture and nutrients, the Thai giant has leaves that are more than five feet long.

Cannas offer more big leaf drama. In shaded areas, you could use many varieties of coleus, a metallic purple plant named Persian shield or large specimens of house plants such as kentia palms and the peace lily.

Vegetable garden

Another wonderful, speedy garden is the vegetable plot. Don’t bother with this if it won’t get at least six hours of full sunlight each day. Flat land is a plus, though beds can be terraced, and don’t worry too much about poor soil: By building frames, you can add lots of organic matter, including cheap municipal leaf mold.

Start with a plot measuring just over 20 feet in length and width; this will give you room to create six rectangular beds, each five by eight feet and surrounded by paths. Vegetable gardens can produce three overlapping seasons of harvest in a single year, making them the ultimate in hasty horticulture.

The more structure you can give a vegetable garden, the less scruffy its nature. A low picket fence, a brick path and a trellis or two all elevate the plot into a fancier kitchen garden. Veggies or herbs in pots will increase the harvest and give visual accents to the garden.

The garden can be delineated by a low hedge of quick-fruiting plants, such as red currants, blueberries or the more brambly raspberries and blackberries.

Asparagus can make an effective, feathery hedge that will take about three years to fill in. Be creative, be industrious, but above all, be quick.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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