The Garden Life: How lessons learned can take root in your garden



My mind is still working through the experience of visiting a dozen open gardens during the Hardy Plant Society Study Weekend, which was held at Portland State University the last weekend in June. My garden, along with those of Carol and Jack Kelly, Fran and Sharri LaPierre and Vanessa Gardner Nagel, represented Clark County. More than 250 visitors visited our gardens.

Touring local private gardens was a key element of the Hardy Plant Society Study Weekend. This is the best way for gardeners to experience another person’s unique window on the world. While it’s exciting to envision all the possibilities, it’s also a bit overwhelming to return home and wonder how we can even begin to bring our own home and garden up to the new standards we have seen.

For me, learning new things about gardening is a great way to spend the day. I think of learning as another element of garden maintenance. Therefore, I want to immerse myself in the study of gardening. I find the never-ending possibilities fascinating. There are so many directions to face, innumerable vistas to pique my interest. I feel a distinct sense of aroused attention at the mere mention of a plant name, a garden book, the look in the eyes of a weathered gardener’s face. They draw me deeper in to the very garden I am trying to create for myself.

At a certain stage in my education, when people began to ask me if it was hard to learn all those plant names or how to plant a tree or how to identify the signs of a specific disease, I told them that the only thing I really knew was how much I still had to learn. Difficulty was not the issue for me. What I thought about was how I would ever learn enough when I wanted to know everything. Sometimes I have felt that the well of my imagination would overflow with the flood of information.

One of the featured speakers at the Hardy Plant Society Study Weekend was Fergus Garrett, the gentle mannered chief executive officer and head gardener of the renowned gardens of Great Dixter in Sussex, England. Great Dixter is the family Manner House of the late Christopher Lloyd, a world famous gardener and garden writer who spent his life practicing and refining the art of gardening at his family’s home. Fergus brought his ideas about planting for a sequence of plant interest through the year to the Study Weekend audience.

With this in mind, I approached each garden I visited with the hope of understanding how I could best bring the latest garden trends to my own garden. Even after two difficult winters and an exceptionally languorous spring season, most of the gardens were at their peak summer flower bloom. I made a point of looking for those plants that had recently finished flowering as well as those that would follow behind the plants currently in bloom.

I have always felt that creating a garden with a sequence of bloom is the ideal. Beginning in spring, certain plants come into flower. As these flowers fade, another plant in the garden will begin to bloom. By planting the proper selection of trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers and perennials, the process continues with waves of color from one plant to the next throughout the gardening season. The ultimate goal is a garden with twelve months of plant interest.

Expanding on this idea, an ardent gardener eventually goes beyond the desire for mere flower production and extends his or her vision into a complete garden picture. Seasonal leaf color, fruit and berry production, bark and foliage texture as well as the silhouettes of deciduous and evergreen trees are all brought into this creative image. From the dainty white blossoms of the early spring snowdrops to the pale green petals of winter hellebores, the Southwest Washington gardener can have a garden worthy of the best magazine photographer every month of the year.

Implementing the concept of sequence of bloom into your own garden is more complicated. It takes forethought, time and effort, three aspects of every garden endeavor. Many gardeners tell me they did not know what their favorite flower colors were, let alone their favorite plants and flowers, until they had been gardening for a few years. Only then were they able to formulate an understanding of how to combine plants in the garden for the best effect of flower color, plant shape and foliage texture. This is the art of gardening and my task for the summer of 2011.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at