Gardening Unplugged - Winter Bones

Gardening Unplugged - Winter Bones

Designing Garden Structure with Tony Avent

By Published December 06, 2022

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Do you ever wonder why some gardens feel comfortable and relaxing, while others feel awkward and boring? Join JLBG Director Tony Avent as he takes guests on a walk through the grounds and discusses the fundamental principles of garden structure. Learn how to plan your garden paths and rooms, take the most advantage of the planting space, and ensure the best growing conditions for the plants.This talk was recorded on February 27th, 2022 as part of our Gardening Unplugged series of free talks during our annual winter Open Nursery and Garden Days.



Video Transcript

Well, delighted to have so many brave souls today. Our class today is... or our brief walk around, Gardening Unplugged, is winter bones in the garden. And the reason we started doing winter open houses [is] because we wanted people to see the garden in its absolute worst. So basically, all its' clothes are off today so you're seeing it at its worst.

Think of Your Garden Like the Inside of Your House

What we're trying to do is to get people to think of their gardens as they do the inside of their house. So a garden, to be properly functional and a place you want to spend time, should have a ceiling, it should have a floor, it should have walls, it should have furniture, and then it should have decorations. So, think of your outdoor space the same way. If you did not have walls in your house, would you really feel comfortable in there? If you could sit in one place and see in the bathroom in the kitchen in the dining room and you could see everything that wouldn't make you feel comfortable, you would not want to spend time in there. But yet, so many gardens you can stand in one place, and you can see the entire garden, even on a small garden, and we don't realize that's really not where we feel comfortable. So, we want people to create rooms, create spaces, just as you would in your house. So, I always prefer to do landscaping, planting, what I can, in the winter months. You can plant around here any time of year, so it doesn't matter. As long as you can keep the plants watered and the ground isn't frozen, you can plant. But I love winter because I can see what the garden is about. So, all the perennials, for the most part, except for the evergreen ones, are down now.

Does Your Garden Have Something of Interest During Winter?

So, take a look at the garden. Does your garden look like this? Does your garden have something interesting in the wintertime? Now if you're in Chicago, all right, not as much luck doing that, but down here we can have something. So, what do we have? Ground cover, we've got here a lawn, well what was left of the lawn, we've got our paths, we've got our mulch. That is the ground. Your ceiling or your canopy, what you have created with trees. We use a combination of deciduous trees as well as evergreen trees. You don't want too many evergreen trees, yes it looks great in the wintertime, but you can't get any moisture down underneath that. You can't get any light down underneath. So, it's really nice to have that combination. What are your walls? So, for us we created walls by building beds. In each bed, we have a pathway. You have a hallway basically, like you would have in your house, and we make it where, in some cases, you can't see through to the other side, in some cases you can see a peak to the other side. But what we want to do in the garden is to draw you through, to pull you to something else.

So, let's just walk around. And the same with our furniture. Some furniture is deciduous some is evergreen; it all works together. There's not a right or wrong, or how much works, but we always want something that is of interest in the wintertime and so that's why we use so many evergreens. Because I see so many gardens where you go out in the winter and it's all brown, it's all mulch or dead plants, when you can have some pretty amazing things. So just take a look as we go through and just think about how you would place that furniture, how you would build your walls. You look up at the ceiling see here we have it where we have the plants far enough, we have two evergreens, but we have them far enough where you can still get moisture down through them. If you don't get moisture and you don't get light the plants underneath don't grow.

Take Advantage of Evergreens

The opportunity for evergreens it's just it's so really incredible for furniture that looks good. You'll see now things that you will not see in spring because in spring you got all the bling. I mean, all the perennials come up it's just like overwhelming. But now, most of those are down so you can see things like aucubas, which are one of the most wonderful if you've got dry shade, just a plant we can't even say enough great things about. You've got palm trees, which are amazing. Two of the palms we grow are southeast natives and almost nobody grows them, and they're evergreen, and they do absolutely fine here. There used to be palm trees native within 20 minutes of here. People don't think of those as natives. You know, we had a guy came up years ago in the... got to be head of the City of Raleigh Parks Department, he told them to dig up all the palms because they didn't look like they belonged here. It's like - here's your sign. Okay, look up above you, see here - we've got a tree holly. This is Ilex chinensis, absolutely gorgeous, full of fruit, that provides a ceiling.

It Takes Time to Plan a Garden

I don't need to tell you about the decorations, that you can figure out. The decorations are easy. That's the perennials, that's the annuals, for those of you that engage in such. But just look at how the... just sort of how the garden weaves together. And to do this as you're placing it around. Unlike furniture, which you put in one place - you know that chair is always going to be 2 foot by 2 foot, your plants are going to grow. So, it takes time to really plan well to realize what size those plants are going to get, and I encourage you go to botanic gardens where you can see the plants. Come here with your tape measure. You know, I don't go anywhere without a tape measure. I'm always out here measuring... how does that grow? And when we plant something, it’s in a 1-quart pot or 1-gallon pot, I go out and I use survey flags, you'll see a lot of them, I’ll pick a color and always put the outside of the flags the outside of the mature size of that plant. So, if it's this big now and it's going to be five foot across, I put my flags there and that way I don't put something right on top of it. It's very hard because people's first inclination is to plant everything, so it looks great right now but that's going to kill you down the road maintenance wise. You always want to plant for the future plant for what it's going to look like down the road the other thing we look at when we're designing in the winter is textures. Textures and forms, that's really even more important than colors. How do those textures play off each other? Look at... just look for a minute the difference of textures. We got a boxwood over here more of a fine texture here. The palm, because it has big bold leaves, is very bold textured. There's not a right or wrong how you put textures together, that's personal preference, but realize consciously what you're doing when you put those together.

And you can have plants with different forms. So here, we wanted something to sort of give us a canopy here, but we didn't want to take up much ground space, so we used a podocarpus as opposed to some plants are bigger at the base just like people; some are bigger at the base and smaller at the top, some are smaller at the base and big at the top. And that's when you go around take a look at those plants make notes. You know, here's a plant I like; this one's bigger at the base, I can use this; here's another, this is small at the base but branches out as it goes up.

And you can raise the ceiling as high as you want. If you look up here, you'll see the ceiling. We have a sort of a drop in ceiling with the shrubs but yet up at the top we've got a pine tree which gives us a very tall ceiling. Now the key is... anytime you have taller trees you have to be very careful because as they grow, they continue to add new limbs, new layers of limbs. So maybe you start out, you got five layers of limbs, you can get light through that. But after a couple years you've got 15 layers of limbs all of a sudden, you're not getting any light. So, instead of cutting down the tree, we just take a saw and lift the canopy. So, you take the bottom limbs up so you've still got your ceiling, but you've raised the canopy, so you don't have as many layers for the light rays to go through. Because very little will grow in dark shade, lots of stuff grows in light shade.

For Texture, Try Clumping Bamboo

For texture, we use a lot of bamboo. You'll see that used throughout the garden. Everything we use are clumping bamboos. I discourage strongly allowing a running bamboo on the property. They're beautiful but they are... you will regret the day you ever put one in. But all of these are 10-15 years old, and they provide a wonderful airy texture. So again, you can take the principles and you can create whatever you want. This particular area we call it our tropical hardy tropical garden because there's a lot of stuff in here with a tropical look. So, selecting the feeling once you understand the principles, that's what you do.

With plants and the neat thing about having diversity is that your garden continually changes. Yes, you've always got an evergreen here, but it comes some they come into flower they go out of flowers they're fragrant. Like this holly in the back. Now that doesn't have red berries through most of the year but in the wintertime, all of a sudden, you take a plant, and you add an extra feature to that, and you can have fun playing off that with different other colors with different textures. Tomia is of course incredible for coming into bloom in the wintertime.

Think of Your Garden as a Puzzle

But just stand in any one place and just look at how the garden is put together. You have to think of your garden as a puzzle. Each piece goes together and when you get it together correctly, it actually looks nice. It looks like it belongs there. But again, so many gardens ...gardeners don't think of their garden as something [that] you're putting those pieces together.

A Garden Never Ends

And the garden... another fallacy is people think... a lot of people think a garden is something you install, or a landscape is something you install. No, a garden is alive. A garden never ends because the garden is constantly growing. Just like I said earlier with those chairs, they're one size but when you got plants, they're constantly growing you're constantly having to come out and take a limb off here, oh maybe I planted this too close, you're always having to adjust, raise the canopy up. So don't think of a garden as something you put in. That's something that I think sadly people when they started, I know we had cable put in at our new house and I cut the guy's line three times. And I’m trying to explain to him if you do not get it down below one inch, I’m going to continue to cut it. He said, “Well, I’m just going to lay it on the ground, you call me when you're finished.” I said, “You don't get it, you don't get it.” A garden is never finished. There is no stopping point. It's something you're constantly tweaking all the time. More so than you even do with furniture. I mean I know a lot of people they'll replace furniture they get tired of this and tired of that. But the garden is even more of that, and I want people to learn to embrace that change but embrace the opportunity to have those sections of the garden.

Look at everywhere you go. All right, you can't see through there, but we draw your eye through with pathways so that you come around the other side. But always having really interesting pieces. Here a beautiful, beautiful elm. Look at that. It's like having sculpture but you can do it with living plants. Plants are incredible sculpture. You know and think of those special furniture pieces as something that is a feature a centerpiece for the garden so it can be functional in providing canopy and it can be artistic in providing a particular form in the garden.

And we talked earlier about aucubas. Look at all the different sizes and forms of aucubas. So, we've got some that are seven foot tall some that top out less than three feet tall you can really do anything you want if you have a large enough plant palette. And that's why we just we always try to encourage this not just for biodiversity it's for having different forms even with the same genus same species of plants.

So again, just another example, look at how we've used the pathways to separate the room. So, you really, from here, can't see that room up there on the patio. That's a completely different feel. When you get up there, that's more of a southwest feel. You're standing here, you're in the middle of woodlands and all you have to do is move 30 feet and everything changes just like those rooms in your house. Again, you don't decorate the bathroom the same as you do the living room, the same as you do the kitchen. Each room is different because you'll find that your mood changes. I come out some days I want to be up in the sun garden other days I want to be here in the shade some days I want to be here by the water. Your mood is constantly changing so think of your garden in a different way more like you would the inside of your house. I will take any questions I think I’ve used up my time. Anybody got any questions, comments?

Hopefully it makes you think in a little different manner and that's what we're about is giving you that inspiration.

Q: I have a question.


Q: When you have a big open flat space...What's the best way to start creating the separate areas or rooms?

A: Great question. All right, well, this was all, from the time you drove in the driveway, this was a flat tobacco field when we started. So, I use survey flags and you'll see those... you know what survey flags are? They're on the little wire, you'll see a lot of them, actually here's one for those that don't know. Now I buy different colors. So, I buy like a half dozen different colors and when I start this, I will just lay this out. How does it feel? Always start from the house, that's always the best place to see what that looks like and then come out. And lose the idea of foundation plants. That was like a great thing in the 1920s when all foundations looked ugly, but they really make no sense now. It used to be you know you had your dog under there and you had your junk from your house, but we don't do that anymore. So, take a look at what we've done around the house you don't see a foundation let that be part of the bed bring your landscape out. So, start in the house and stand in the house first and look outside. What does that look like? What kind of space do you want? Because you're looking outside a lot more than you're outside looking in. And then take these flags; use one color for a bed, use another color for a different bed, and then walk over that for a month or two. See how it feels. I like beds that I can reach across, or I can see the plant. I've seen beds that are so wide you really can't see or enjoy the plants that you got in them. But I love survey flags. I can't tell you how many of those I use. I'll walk by something again for a month, six months sometimes, just to see - how does it feel, how does that walk flow. So, each walk we would make and then we came back, if we didn't like it, we'd move the flags around. So really start there but start inside and start small. Start with one bed and then once you get one bed, you're like all right well the next bed makes sense. But and some people can draw this on paper, I can't. My brain does not work that way you there. I love people that can come out there and draw your plan and this looks great. I don't have that gift. I have to walk, and the plants tell me where they want to be. I walk and listen to the land, oh you need a tree here, okay, I can do that. You need this right here to block this, got it, I can do that. Listen to your garden. Nature tells you all kinds of things if you listen. Some people can tune in, some people can't. Some people it sounds like lulu, crazy stuff. Yeah, probably is.


Q: Can you talk about the raised beds and how you create those?

A: Sure, the raised beds... we started doing that because I kept... I wanted sort of a garden with relief. I wanted a mountain-top garden, just like we made here, but I kept buying flat tobacco land. So, we wanted to do two things [actually three things].

Number one - we wanted to increase our planting space. I love people telling me they're out of room and their garden's completely flat you're not out of room if your garden is flat. You remember this dude Pythagoras? Okay, he came up with this idea a squared, b squared, c squared, you can increase your planting space dramatically by raising beds without buying more land. It's like the simplest thing but people don't think about that. If you get walk up the mountain when you finish up here and look at how many thousands of different plants, we've got on there on a very small footprint because we went up. So, we do it for increasing space, number one.

Number two - you see plants at a very different angle. There are plants you can walk up there now, and you'll see them right here. You see things about them that you don't normally see. You can get closer to the insects and watch how insects and plants interact.

Number three - drainage. If you've got drainage areas, drainage is much better when you raise your beds. You can get it up above the root of the trees that you're putting in. Tree roots want to go down unless you do a bad job of soil prep and then the roots are like there's no air down here and they turn around they come up. Raised beds solve that.

You Can Build Raised Beds Around Trees

Now you'll hear people say well you can't build a raised bed around a tree. Sorry, not true. See this pine tree right here. That pine tree was flat down here we raised up three feet around it. Now you take hard pack clay, and you pack it in there, no you're going to kill your tree. So, everything has a little bit of truth in there. If you're not careful about what you do and you filled in all the way out here, yes that would probably be a problem. But that was done 20 years ago that tree has not missed a beat. So, with everything you hear that's a rule, there's a tiny bit of truth in it. Now the other key is to know where your roots are. So, if you take a tree let's just say we're here's the pine tree I’m standing here at what we call the drip line the outermost edge of the branches so if I measured back there that's about 20 feet. The roots in there are mainly support roots. The roots that pick up water and fertilizer start here and they go out the same distance again. So out there to the furthest one of y'all, that's where the roots are that matter. So, when you're planting, think about where the roots are. The roots under here support the roots from here out to there this is where they're picking up nutrients. So, think about those. Our paths are all every these are these are compost piles. So, we put out the wood chips, at the end of two years, these have turned into compost. So, we just take the shovel throw it right back in the beds and then put down some new chips. Free compost, free fertilizer, without having to haul it in. How easy is that? And what else happens? It's benefiting the root zone which is underneath. It's like you see people plant trees in a in a parking lot asphalt parking lot. It's like how the hell do you think they're ever going to get nutrients or water are you kidding me? That's why so many trees are dying in the cities. Because the roots are way out here. So, think about all of that.

Think about, again, down the road. We've got to get people to think long term, which means you got to understand the size. So, I tell you, go out look at plants in gardens. Do not depend on labels. If you go to a garden center or a box store, god forbid, and buy your plants, you need to take if that label on there says four foot by four foot, multiply it by three. Sometimes four, but generally three will get you close. So, if it says four by four probably going to be 12 by 12. So, allow enough room there is so much bad information out there. Other questions? Great questions.

Q: Is that compose and fertilizer? What's it made up of?

A: Oh, okay our beds are 50 percent native soil, 50 percent compost. We don't bring in anybody else's soil. You want your own soil, even if it's clay. clay is much better, we're on sand here, clay is a far better soil. holds more moisture, holds more nutrients. It is missing organic matter, that's what you have to add it is missing aeration, which you'll get when you add your compost to that. And then by mulching, this mulch will decompose and a year from now six months from now this mulch will become compost. Six months after that it becomes humic matter which means it goes right down there and benefits the soil microbes and the roots. So, it's all the same product. Mulch and compost are the same product, it's [at] a different point in its life. It's the only difference.

Any other questions? Enjoy the rest of the day we'll be around if you have other questions. Thank you very much.

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