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Garden Design

Dear Victory Garden

I have a new garden with superb exposure. My question: should I make the rows east-west or north-south? — Aster, Seattle, Washington

Dear Aster,

This is a question that always provokes a lot of discussion and there is not universal agreement on the answer. Most folks agree that planting north-south is marginally better, with the rationale running as follows:

When rows run east-west, a tall crop in a south row can easily shade out a shorter crop in the next row north. Plants try to get all the sun they can and that may mean growing taller than they would otherwise to try to clear the crop to the south. And the energy they put into height is energy they don’t put into food production (and often energy that you have to put into staking them).

When rows run north-south, plants can lean into the aisles a bit to pick up sun, and they have two exposures (morning east and afternoon west) so it is less likely that they are completely shaded.

If the crop height is lower than the aisle width (e.g. carrots), it really doesn’t matter which direction the rows run from a sun perspective.

There is enough ambivalence on this subject that you should certainly consider other factors in determining row direction, primarily slope and prevailing wind.

If you plant crops that are wind pollinated (e.g. corn) and the prevailing wind comes from the west, an east-west row will get you better pollination than a north-south row (unless you have a lot of rows of corn). Similarly, if the wind strength is often damaging, planting a wind-break across the wind and the rows along the wind may give you the best results.

And finally, if the garden is on any kind of slope, make the rows run across the slope rather than up and down it, or your garden and all its soil will migrate to the bottom of the hill on the first heavy rain.

Dear Victory Garden

I just had a shed installed. By regulation, it had to be set back from the neighbor's fence at least three feet. I don't really want to have to mow grass back there, so I would like to plant something that doesn't need much care. Do you have any suggestions? — Alison, Frederick, Maryland

Dear Alison,

Certainly, mowing in tight spaces is difficult and probably not worth the trouble. Why not grow a groundcover there — something that won't mind a bit of foot traffic if weeds crop up and need to be pulled — such as ivy (Hedera helix) or periwinkle (Vinca minor)? Alternatively, after stripping off the sod, lay down a layer of landscape fabric and cover it with three inches of gravel. (I like 3/4" stone.) This will prevent dirt from splashing onto your new shed during rainstorms and will suppress weeds. It will also provide some extra wet-storage space.

Dear Victory Garden

We just built a new home designed in the 1840s Greek Revival style. It is in a rural area, literally in the middle of a field. I need landscaping help! I'm looking for period plants and garden designs for foundation plants and walkway borders. In researching photos of other Greek Revival homes, it doesn't seem like they used a lot of foundation plantings — is that true? Can you point me in the direction of books and articles on the topic? I have a blank slate to work with! Many thanks for any advice you can send. — Lori, Clarence, New York

Dear Lori,

Well, you've come to the right place for this question, because historical landscape design is one of my specialties. You're right in thinking that Greek Revival homes had little or no foundation planting. The disease theory of the time held that most common illnesses were caused by stagnant air (malaria for instance, is Italian for bad air) so almost nothing was planted near the house that would impede circulation. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that planting around the foundation became common.

For a complete list of plants used in the period, as well as design tips for historically based homes, you should consult my first book, The New Traditional Garden.

Dear Victory Garden

What would you suggest for a high-profile yet narrow fence-line plant, preferably fast-growing? An airy rather than solid density would be nice as it is only to break up the sun's reflection off our neighbor's light-colored two-story house. We were considering bamboo, but a non-deciduous plant is probably a good idea so there will be something nice to look at all year. — Wanda, Eugene, Oregon

Dear Wanda,

A plant that is narrow, evergreen, and airy? I'm not sure you will have much luck finding plants with all three of these attributes. There are a number of very narrow evergreen conifers that should grow extremely well in Oregon, but they are narrow because the foliage is densely arrayed on vertical, non-spreading branches—not what I would call airy. However, since these plants taper toward the top, there will always be gaps, "air spaces," between individual specimens. Thuja occidentalis (American arborvitae) 'Degroot's Spire' would be a good choice, and so would various cultivars of Juniperus scopularum (Rocky Mountain juniper). As for bamboo: Beware! Tall species, such as those in genus Phyllostachys, can be extremely invasive.

Dear Victory Garden

How can I make a beautiful garden with only a little garden space? — Angela, Princeton, New Jersey

Dear Angela,

This is a very broad question, but I will do my best to provide some useful answers. First, choose plants that are in scale with the space — nothing so large as to overwhelm it. Vary the texture, using plants with a balance of different leaf types: ferny, broad, and sword-like. Choose a color scheme, and stick to it! If the space is meant to be a sitting area, you might want to install a vertical privacy screen if none already exists; a trellis for ornamental vines can be attached to this (unless you are using evergreen shrubs) as well as to existing walls or fences. Container plantings can vastly increase the flower-power in a modest space whether it is paved or unpaved. Books or magazines that feature garden photos are a good place to begin looking for specific ideas.

Dear Victory Garden

I recently visited all 21 California missions. Interestingly, it sparked an idea to transform my small backyard into a mission-style garden. However, nobody at any of the missions had a good understanding of the plants and flowers that comprised their respective gardens. I also cannot seem to find any book on the subject. I realize that each of the gardens may have a different soil and climate, but there's got to be some candidates that I could use for this project. Ideas? Suggestions? — Michael, Long Beach, California

Dear Michael,

I know the problem. Several years ago when I was researching mission gardens for my first book, I rapidly discovered that there was very little information out there, and with good reason: mission gardens, at least as we visualize them today, are something of a myth.

While the Spanish missionaries were in fact responsible for introducing many new plants into western gardens, the fact of the matter is that the missionaries were generally far too busy simply surviving in hostile lands and extending their spiritual sway to spend a lot of time building highly ornamental gardens. Although many missions did have gardens attached to them, they were mostly of the practical sort, designed to provide food and herbal medicines for their inhabitants. Most of the mission gardens we see today were recreated in the 1920s during the Colonial Revival design fervor that swept the country, in much the same way that the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg were "restored" in the 1930s as well.

That having been said, the fact that these gardens aren't historically accurate takes nothing away from their beauty, and as long as you have an appropriate style house, the idea of a mission-style garden sounds quite intriguing. Some elements common to most mission gardens, whether authentic or restored, are: some sort of central water feature; the use of citrus and other fruit-producing plants; an emphasis on herbs and other practical plant materials; and the inclusion of many Southwestern native plants, which were novelties at the time and proved highly adaptable to tended gardens. Hope that helps, and good luck!

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Published January 8, 2009