Gardeners in the West enjoy the unique luxury of living with few rules about what’s right or wrong in the way we plan our gardens and grow our plants. We appreciate and adapt to our garden’s setting and cultural conditions. We may be overwhelmed with the seemingly endless selection of healthy and suitable trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines, bulbs, and groundcovers from which we can choose for our landscapes—though few complain!
In the Pacific Northwest, we’re particularly lucky to have temperate conditions where it’s not too hot—and not too cold. This welcoming, plantfriendly climate bestows added blessings. (Imagine how hard it was for us to compile a regional gardening book and limit ourselves to only 186 great plants!) Perhaps the horticultural excesses in our lives call for a little discipline. Certainly, we want to be good stewards of our gardens, both to ensure our immediate enjoyment and the long-term health of the plants and places we tend.
So, with apologies to Steven R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, we offer the following seven habits of a highly successful gardener:
Hone Your Powers of Observation
Invest time in understanding your garden’s microclimate, noting everything from light patterns to the location of sheltered or exposed spots. This skill also benefits your plants, as you can watch for clues about the type of care they need— and when.
As you assess your site, take note of the following:
- Know where it’s hot and dry.
- Follow the shade, and plant accordingly.
- Identify the toughest challenges, such as parking strips and other high-traffic spots.
- Exploit the garden’s unique microclimates, such as protected courtyards or warm, south-facing walls.
- Invest in a thermometer and a rain gauge to measure the highs and lows from season to season.
Choose Plants You Love
With thousands of plants from which to choose, you’re more likely to realize success as a gardener if you enjoy the plants you grow. If a plant is highmaintenance, overly aggressive, or underperforming, it’s okay to edit it (okay, we mean dig it up and toss it) from the garden.
As we gardeners mature, we move beyond our passion for lavish blooms to a humble appreciation for stunning specimen trees and shrubs. We embrace plants with distinctive foliage and those that serve specific (and, perhaps, multiple) roles in our design scheme. Here are some of our tips for selecting plants:
- Whenever possible, purchase your plants from a local grower. This practice will introduce you to excellent regional nurseries that may be growing plants in conditions similar to those in your own garden.
- Fall in love with unique specimens. Often called collector’s plants, these one-of-a-kind gems deserve places of honor in the landscape. Place them where you’ll appreciate their features every day. In Mary’s garden, she cherishes the diminutive Pinus hokkaido (named after a Japanese island where its seed was collected). In Debra’s garden, she enjoys the brilliant golden selection of Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. glabra ‘Limelight’).
- Single out stunning ornamental natives. We both love madrone (Arbutus menziesii) for its four-season interest.
- Watch for newer introductions. If they prove viable, grow lots of them. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ is a great example of a once-pricey collector’s plant that’s now affordable for planting en masse.
Do Your Plant Homework
Find useful reference books and plant lists, tour gardens, visit nurseries, and keep learning about your own plants. Local garden tours have introduced us to the creative efforts of hundreds of gardeners and their private “Edens.” Likewise, when we visit botanical gardens, arboreta, and nursery demonstration gardens, we amass an abundance of great ideas for plant choices, placement, and design.
Be a student of your surroundings and do your plant homework:
- Jot down notes and ideas in a garden notebook; bring along a camera to record stunning displays.
- Learn about unusual plants in fantastic settings. Inevitably, once you see a terrific plant used well in a landscape, such as golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’), you’ll start noticing its presence in other gardens you admire. And, naturally, you’ll want to have one in your own garden.
- Observe great combinations, such as this one that caught our eye in a water-wise garden: Allium christophii, a variegated century plant (Agave americana), and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’.
- Note “happy pairings” of plants, such as Euphorbia polychroma with Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), or “happy coincidences,” such as coral-bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) with a coral-flowered lungwort (Pulmonaria).
Know Your Soil
When you understand the conditions that add up to healthy soil, you have the key to success. A high “soil IQ” will help you and your plants survive the Northwest’s soggy winters. In other regions, you may be gardening in sandy or hardpan soil. Once you know the composition of your garden’s soil, you can begin improving it.
- Touch, feel, test and know your soil texture and profile.
- Good drainage is one of the most important soil issues for plant health in our climate.
- Rely on groundcovers to discourage weeds and keep soil from drying out. Carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans) is one groundcover that can tolerate both dry and moist soils.
Be Water Wise
When you learn how to cope with summer drought, your plant choices will begin to reflect that reality. Gardeners in the maritime Northwest region have a further challenge, which is choosing plants adapted to dry summers and wet winters.
Try these tips for water-smart gardening:
- Grow native plants in combination with non-native species that prefer similar conditions, such as those from mediterraneanclimate regions
- Provide good drainage for plants that hate soggy winter conditions. Mulch with gravel to encourage drainage, or grow moisture-sensitive plants in containers or raised beds.
- Evict the “water hogs” from your garden, unless you have a bog.
- Group thirsty plants together so you can irrigate in “zones” throughout the garden. Similarly, group drought-tolerant plants together in less-irrigated areas.
Take Advantage of Every Moment
Don’t let gardening tasks overwhelm you. If you see a weed—pull it; if your roses need deadheading—grab the snips and deadhead away. Tend to tasks in short chunks of time and you’ll have a well-maintained garden that’s easy to enjoy. In other words, remember to divide your time between “doing” and “being” in the garden:
- Recruit loved ones to help. Friends and family (especially children) can lighten your gardening duties and add laughter to the time spent on those chores.
- Set realistic expectations. Although they may be beautifully groomed, highly formal gardens are not always the best choice for home gardens.
- Diversify your plant selections. “Monocultures” are prone to disease and pest infestations.
- Place plants where they’ll perform best, whether it’s in the sun or shade. Watch your plants for clues. If one is flopping over or scorched, it may be because it’s in the wrong location.
- Do your chores. If you garden in quick bursts (fifteen to twenty minutes at a time), you’ll not feel overwhelmed by everyday maintenance jobs.
- Enjoy the small details in a plant’s growth cycle; sometimes you may want to get down on your knees to truly observe some of your smaller plants.
- Let nature be your co-designer. Joyous results can occur when two plants commingle on their own.
- Delight in surprises, such as a stray tulip that appears where least expected.
- Plant for wildlife. Invite pollinators to your garden’s nectar sources with plants like Echinacea purpurea.
- Place containers where nothing will grow easily in the ground.
Celebrate and Share Your Successes
Enjoy your garden during every season. Share plants and ideas with other gardeners along the way. Embrace the generous spirit of gardening and try these healthy, lifelong habits:
- Reduce the amount of lawn in your garden. As you do so, you can incorporate more of your favorite plants, in addition to sculpture and other artwork.
- Add comfortable seating, benches, or hammocks to your landscape. Rest and enjoy the beauty around you.
- Incorporate paths in the garden. Take a stroll, slow down, and explore your own garden sanctuary.
- Distribute bouquets and baskets of garden bounty. Share your harvest with others.
- Note the inherent beauty of every plant—not just flowers, but structure, foliage, berries, bark, and branching habit.
- Keep splendor close at hand; site a stunning plant right by your front door. When possible, plant for appealing fragrance.
- Grow low water-use plants that are as attractive as thirsty ones.