Thoughts From the Belly - December 2004

ironbelly1November 14, 2004

Thoughts From The Belly

December 2004

By: Dan Mays

I am occasionally disappointed at some of the garden "wisdom" being repeated over and over by many of the magazines, newspapers and TV shows. I love reading, looking and listening to them all but sometimes, I have to wonder. Do any of these entities ever question the accuracy of what they are recommending? Have any of these writers actually done and/or witnessed the things they are writing about? Or, is it just another assignment? Much like urban legends, some of this "wisdom" gets repeated so many times that, whether there is an ounce of truth to it or not, it becomes ubiquitously accepted.

Now is the time of year when we are inundated with a barrage of articles and "experts" admonishing us to learn to appreciate winter gardens. Typically, an extensive list of specific plants is advised. Again and again, they regurgitate advice to plan for winter interest as if it were a detached entity from the rest of the garden. I am of the opinion that much of their "wisdom" is a root cause of why gardens look miserable during winter in the first place. Rather than thinking in terms of a certain time in the garden, we should instead be thinking of a timeless garden.

When it comes to landscaping, we should forget about winter interest. What we need to concentrate on is making our landscapes more interesting. Well-designed gardens look good whenever you view them; be it any of the four seasons. The appearance and featured plants will be in constant flux but a unifying master design will remain the timeless bulwark. Well-designed gardens have enough interest that they beckon you to sit, walk around or even putter, though it may be essentially dormant.

We need to abandon old notions about annual and perennial beds. Use those same plants but use them differently. Evergreen structure is perhaps, one of the most overlooked aspects in midwestern gardens. Plant several of them in every bed. For those of you striving for that low maintenance garden, conifer trees, especially the dwarf ones, are the ultimate no-brainer. The structure, form, texture and overall beauty add value 365 days out of the year. These slow-growing, dwarf conifers provide instant pizzazz and require virtually no labor once they are established. No pruning, no fall clean up, no deadheading, no fertilizer regiment and no requirements for digging and dividing sound pretty good to me. The dwarfs and their larger cone-bearing brothers look great in combinations whether it be with crocus and daffodils, roses, ornamental grasses, autumn leaves or snow.

Vertical interest is typically lacking throughout the year in most gardens. Larger shrubs, artwork, small deciduous flowering trees, structures and hedges supply a constantly evolving look as other plants come and go. Vine arbors add height, vertical interest and are just plain fun to walk under. They continue to be a delight whether used as a shady summer retreat or as an alluring snow tunnel if the dried vines are allowed to remain.

A timeless garden favorite of my loving wife, Cyndia and many of our guests is a statue by local artist, Patty Anderson. It is titled, "Consider the Lilies" and consists of a little girl seated on the ground with a bouquet of lilies lying in her splayed skirt. She contemplatively gazes downward. It is so easy to develop an ever-changing vignette as the maiden grass begins to create a tall background for our little maiden of the garden. The seasons progress with a succession of lilies beginning with trout lilies in early spring. Soon the Asiatic lilies begin strutting their stuff to be gently replaced by the heavenly scent of Oriental lilies. Blooming plantain lilies (an old name for Hostas) fill in a brief lapse until Japanese toad lilies put forth a delicate dazzle until freezing weather sets in. The maiden grass has now attained full height and full bloom, providing shelter for wildlife and our garden girl. Later, snowfall gracefully places a white bonnet upon her head. And, if the wind patterns are just right, a little snow muff is provided to warm her hands.

Throughout the year, a wide variety of plants, trees, artwork and structures provide an ever-changing, always interesting environment. Our little statue girl continues to consider her lilies. We should consider timeless additions to our landscape gardens. I say forget about winter interest and concentrate instead on making your landscape more interesting. Timeless gardens embrace all seasons.

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Great article Dan!! I agree with you wholeheatedly. I depend way too much on perennials. I really need to get more structure in my gardens, be it living or hardscape. Do post some pictures of your gardens, please. ;)

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   November 18, 2004 at 1:19PM
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uicricket(z5 IA)

Wow, a light bulb just went off. I knew something was lacking in my little piece of heaven but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Evergreens! Thinking back, every garden that has made an impression on me has had a suble backdrop of evergreen color along with smaller evergreens interspersed throughout the landscape, and a feeling of welcoming comfort.

This summer I did plant some perennials but I was always drawn to the garden section with shrubs and trees. I focused more on planting shrubs than perennials and we are planning for more trees. I was looking for some bird friendly shrubs so I replaced and relocated the diseased yews we had removed, and I put in 8 viburnums, 3 red twig dogwoods, 4 beautyberry and a crabapple tree. Yes, I really like yews -- when they are placed where they can grow and mature naurally without being clipped into round, green, lawn balls.

Now I have a whole list of evergreens and trees for next year. I was thinking I need more winter cover for birds and wildlife. Subconsciously I must have known what was missing all along. Thanks for the "AHA!" moment, Ironbelly. I've learned as much from your articles and advice to others as I have in any class I've attended.


    Bookmark   November 19, 2004 at 12:26PM
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Diann & Cricket,

Thanks for your kind responses. I am trying to pump a little life into this forum but it is sometimes tough to tell. I write these articles and have posted a few of them with usually almost no response. I'm not sure if nobody is reading them or if most just wish I would shut-up.

Most of these articles are somehow design related because I believe that is where we, as gardeners, can get the biggest bang for our buck. I believe in substituting common sense in place of dollars and cents anytime that I can. The problem is that this topic has usually been so poorly presented that more fear and confusion have been created than helpful knowledge generated.

Far too many folks wind up avoiding design issues because it intimidates them. One of the great secrets to life is that the experts usually don't know anywhere as much as you think they know. Unfortunately, when it comes to garden design, many of those who don the appearance of expertise know even less about it than the people reading the magazine. Sorry... I'm not falling for the notion that some writer living in a high rise apartment in New York City is qualified to be telling us (who actually play in the Iowa dirt) how to do things. Picante sauce should not come from New York City and neither should garden advice!

I just try to present a little different look at design based upon what I have found actually works. Many times, all that really needs to be done is show folks how they can apply common sense used in daily life to garden situations.

I am a great believer in the power of the human spirit. Given a chance and combined with a bit of working knowledge, the potential is awesome. However, each of us are individuals and we don't all learn things the same way. I attempt to capture the essence of design principles and present this information a bit differently without all the highfalutin words. Hopefully, some of us in "that other group" can now understand it too. I may be just an old clod kicker but I have come to realize that the "experts" seem to have a hard time explaining highfalutin words without using a bunch of other highfalutin words. Perhaps they really don't understand things that well either.


If anybody actually reads this stuff and would like me to continue posting other articles; please let me know. I'm not looking for ego strokes -- just want to make sure I'm not wasting your time. Otherwise, I'll just crawl back in my hole.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2004 at 10:19AM
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uicricket(z5 IA)


Keep on writing because I'm reading and I'm learning. Every time you post an article I have an "AHA!" moment. I'm sure others are reading too. I ready every post but don't always post a response because I don't have anything useful to add, or anything I have to say has been posted in other responses. I've learned more from the people at this forum than in a lot of gardening magazines. Magazines seem fussy and most garden designs aren't very practical for daily living.

Must be the home grown Iowa common sense gene influencing my opinion. Can't tell you how many times I've read and article or watched a garden show and thought - what are they going to do when it rains, or when they get a wind storm, or that's going to cost them a fortune to tear out when the novelty wears off.

I admit to being intimidated by design. Designing a bed is one thing. Plants are fairly easily moved around. Hardscape and trees are pretty permanent and mistakes are a lot harder and more expensive to correct. I bide my time until I really decide what I want and in the mean time, I watch the fools on TV make the big mistakes.


    Bookmark   November 22, 2004 at 9:59AM
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Ironbelly, Yes, keep on writing, I agree with Cricket that what you wright is insiteful and useful. I think people need to read about and most of all, visit as many established gardens as possible. I like to get as many perspectives on gardening as I can. The silly ones seem to weed themselves out. I look as my gardens as ever evolving. What I liked about them 5 or 10 years ago, might be totally different from what I want from or like about them now. I'm getting old and my knees and back are not what they use to be, so I'm looking to plant smarter and less labor intensive gardens. Keep on writing. :)

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   November 22, 2004 at 12:19PM
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I am trying to pump a little life into this forum...

Perhaps a better way to pump life into this forum would be to make new people feel welcome, rather than those few who post here regularly just basically posting to each other and attempting to make themselves feel important by putting "newbies" down.

That would make any message you cared to post reach a lot more people, and it wouldn't just be the same few people posting here all of the time.

I know I'm not the only Iowa gardener who pretty much avoids this forum for that exact reason.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2004 at 9:24PM
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Thanks for your input. Since I happily correspond and work with newbies on a frequent basis, I am a bit perplexed as to how I am "...putting "newbies" down." If this is the appearance, it certainly is not the intent.

We are all newbies throughout our entire lives whenever we seek personal growth into unfamiliar areas. I revel in the role of a newbie and recommend it to everyone. It serves to broaden our minds and expand our horizons.

I was raised in the skilled trades and have always been taught that it is not only a responsibility but a duty owed by senior members of any given trade to impart their knowledge to the apprentice (newbie). I hold similar attitudes about gardening. However, I have generally found that gardeners are even more enthusiastic about sharing.

I am enthusiastic about sharing this forum with you and any others who wish to participate or even simply lurk. Since you possess a bachelor degree in journalism and English, I am confident in your ability to help guide us regulars to making newbies feel more welcome. On this issue, I share your desire.

Thanks and please continue with your contributions.


    Bookmark   November 30, 2004 at 12:33AM
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Lest anyone think that there is a rift evolving on this forum, let me put your mind at ease. For the last day or two I have been exchanging delightful emails with SnoBunny off-forum. She has expressed her concerns to me and I have to agree that there is some validity to her opinions.

It is so easy on these forums to quickly fire off your thoughts and not realize how they may be interpreted quite differently from what you intended to convey. Both readers and posters alike have to keep in mind that in normal conversations, we are subconsciously depending upon voice inflections, facial expressions, gestures and other body language to complete the total package of communication. On the Internet, we don't have access to all of those face-to-face forms of communication.

Unless it is not clear, I want to make it obvious to any newbie that all of us old time regulars really enjoy your contributions to this forum. We solicit your questions and comments. I have personally met a great many of the regulars and can honestly say that they would be the first to also encourage newbie participation. At worst, our bark is worse than our bite. ... but we are gonna work on that. ;-)


    Bookmark   December 1, 2004 at 1:34PM
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iowa_jade(C 5b H 6)

I enjoy your post. Keep 'em comming.

Talk about winter interest. My daughters' MIL who is not a gardener saw a photo of one of our tipped (buried) roses with a bag of manure keeping it in place, glazed by some snow icing. She thought it was hilarious. What ever!

It is too bad we don't get more snow here. It might cover up more of my handiwork. Yuck! Yuck!

    Bookmark   December 20, 2004 at 1:17PM
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I can not say how much I enjoy your articles! I find myself visualizing with each posting. I always copy your articles and add them to my notebook. I belong to a garden club and Ive shared much of your information.
I to have often wondered about some of the things Ive read or seen on TV.
I used to try all of Gerald Bakers formulas. And was also fool enough to buy his books. Ive learned much more from this forum. I continue to spread the word to other gardeners. THANK YOU Belly! You are not wasting your time!

    Bookmark   December 22, 2004 at 3:41PM
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growlove(zone4 Ia.)

Every one of us older gardeners began as a newbie and learned as we grew. With the help of writers like Iron Belly and others, gardens will flourish, newbies will be encouraged and us older gardeners will feel rewarded. Mary

    Bookmark   January 8, 2005 at 9:01PM
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garasaki(z5 IA)

Keep em coming IronBelly!

I know this post is a bit old, but ever since reading your recent bit on native grasses (and the importance of vertical aspects in a garden), I've been reading the old stuff too.

I'm a n00b, a 24 year old guy who just bought a new house and am working from a blank slate (both in the yard and in my knowledge) and have found all of your articles to this point quite useful. I also don't feel as though I'm being picked on...

Maybe I'll see you at some of the gardening classes at KWood this weekend!

    Bookmark   February 17, 2005 at 8:08PM
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