By Kim Davis
Taking a stroll down the streets of Alexandria this time of year is a true delight. We are graced with gardens filled with fresh-faced daffodils of many hues, beds of multicolored tulip lollipops, clouds of white native Virginia dogwoods, pops of bright magenta redbuds and, of course, the region’s cotton-candy cherry blossoms.
When my husband and I moved into our home in Jefferson Park in 1987, the yard was sparsely planted, despite having been constructed in 1926. Throughout the years, we have learned a lot through trial and error. It wasn’t until I joined the local Hunting Creek Garden Club that we began to grow our knowledge of horticulture in lieu of our omnipotent weeds.
Growing and maintaining a robust garden is a journey, not a destination. Thankfully, there are a number of basic gardening tips that will prove helpful to any budding gardener.
First, begin with a bit of research about your garden space. Watch for patterns of sunlight around your property to evaluate where you get the most sun versus shade. It is even helpful to keep an eye on the number of hours of sunlight your garden receives. This will assist you in better evaluating the right plant for your growing conditions. If you put a shade-loving plant in full sun, it will burn, wilt and fail to thrive. Alternatively, plants that love full sun will not produce their beautiful blooms if placed in shade.
Also, discern whether your beds are north, south, east or west facing. This will help you gauge the strength of sunlight and shade. For example, sunlight from the east is soft and great for mycrophylla hydrangeas, but others may find the strong western sun a good fit. I have a shade garden that is filled with hostas of many varieties, azaleas, pieris japonica and fall-blooming camellias, so do not be dismayed if you don’t have much sun.
Unsure of which plants will flourish in Northern Virginia? Make note, we are in Zone 7b of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chart of plant hardiness zones. Plants that thrive in other zones are not likely to be full producers in our gardens, but with global warming the lines are now blurring a bit.
Creating beds with rich soil nutrients are essential to ensure that plants will flourish. If you do not have established beds, you are likely to encounter the hard clay common to our area. Dig a hole twice the size of the plant, discarding heavy clay clumps and fill it with soil amendments. Most garden beds will thrive with a combination of topsoil, potting soil and compost. Flowering annuals should be fed all-purpose plant food, such as a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 formulas found at all garden centers.
Water is the lifeblood of the garden, especially during hot summer days. So, be prepared to spend some time in the early morning providing the moisture your plants need to survive the day. In-ground sprinkler systems, rotary sprinklers or old-fashioned watering cans all work well. Make sure they get a good soaking.
For curb appeal, anchor plants around the foundation of your home. Evergreens provide a rich green contrast and structure year-round. The options are limitless, but examples might include new hybrid boxwoods not prone to blight and a wide variety of holly shrubs. These provide a backdrop for a layered look with flowering perennials – plants that survive year-round – including the many cultivars of hydrangeas, phlox, rudebeckia or annuals – which only survive the blooming season – including pansies, zinnias and begonias.
For those with small garden spaces, all the above applies, and garden containers are a great solution. Utilizing interestingly shaped pots in groups of three offers the opportunity for a perennial surrounded with annuals for no fuss beauty. Or try growing an herb or vegetable garden to add fresh ingredients to your recipes. I guarantee you will never go back to bottled herbs.
If you didn’t have a chance to visit the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week in Old Town this year, I heartily recommend you reserve a place on your calendar for next year. It is held the third Saturday of April and provides inspiration and great insights into some beautiful gardens.
The writer is a member of the Hunting Creek Garden Club and formerly served as both president and vice president of the club.