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Clueless in the Garden: Excerpt from Chapter 8

Color Your World: Planting a Flower Garden
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

April 6, 2003

2002_foxtail_lilies_web.jpg (79044 bytes)
My perennial garden with foxtail lilies (Eremurus) in flower (June '02)

A gorgeous flower garden is an artfully seductive piece of work-but unlike a painting that's actually finished when the artist packs the brushes away, gardens have an incredible habit of changing over time.

Consider the transformation that a single perennial goes through from early spring, when it re-emerges from the ground, to flowering, going to seed, and then dying back in autumn-and remember that most perennials get bigger year by year and that the odd one will just disappear. Responding to inevitable change is precisely where the challenge comes in. Nobody creates a prize-winning flower garden the first year-but you weren't going to invite the garden club over for coffee just yet anyway, were you?

There are countless choices to make-some purely aesthetic, some purely horticultural-but the more closely you base your decisions on meeting the growing requirements of your plants (the horticultural stuff of light, soil, moisture levels, and so on) and on what looks good to you, the more likely you are to succeed.

When you're starting out, it's easy to think that all you have to do is plant perennials, and with the exception of weeding, watering, and cutting back, your garden is done. Here's what really happens: In the first year, your new plants are underwhelming-the clumps small, the flowers sparse. By the second year, they've grown fuller and have more flowers-but in the third season, watch out. Your plants look like they're on steroids and you look like an accomplished gardener.

But your perennials keep growing-some so aggressively that they crowd out their neighbors with spready habits that are too much for your garden. Then there are plants that go into an inexplicable decline, and others you decide aren't the right color or aren't quite what you expected.

The solution? The vigorous plants that you like you divide and move to other garden beds or give away (what are friends for?). The ailing ones you try in a new spot that you hope suits them better. And the aggressive ones and those you don't really like you boot out (try the compost pile).

Then you start adding plants and moving others around to fill gaps or to create better-looking or more compatible plant combinations, or...well, you get the point. I did this so much when I started out that my husband said my perennials should have been on wheels.

All this activity adds up to-you guessed it-gardening. Veteran gardeners are quick to tell you that no garden is ever truly finished. But it does get better: These days, I don't move my perennials nearly as much as I used to do. And you'll get there too if you follow a few basic planning principles before planting.

[Next excerpt: Planning a Flower Garden: How to get started]

From: Clueless in the Garden (Key Porter Books, 2003) © Yvonne Cunnington

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