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Hamptons Life

Jan 22, 2018 11:48 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Start A Trial Garden

A drone’s eye view of the nursery shows how well it’s packed. Tall asters and a single lily in the center surrounded by several varieties of hydrangea, peonies and tall garden phlox with a handful of small shrubs. The hostas are shaded by the taller plants with most on the east (top) side.  THG AVIATION
Jan 22, 2018 12:15 PM

The seed and plant catalogs are arriving, and you might have a wish list to work off, or you may simply be tempted by the pictures and descriptions. My list and orders for my personal garden can get pretty extensive. My lists start during the previous gardening season, as I note plants that need to be added as fill-ins or a variety that I may have only a trio of that is just so stunning that I have to have more. And just to make sure I don’t lose these lists, and to help me keep them up to date, the list is shared on my phone along with my computers and iPads.

But there are other places where plants come from that end up in my garden, and probably yours. A neighbor gives you a division of something. A friend needs to get rid of an azalea or rhody, and the orphan gets adopted by you. Maybe you visit the garden centers and online nurseries at the end of the season and pick up bargains or one-of-a-kinds. Or perhaps you see a plant in a catalog that you think might be great in your garden but can’t tell from the description or picture if it’s quite what it seems, so you buy one instead of three or five.

Ah, but where do these plants go? Where can you plant them so you can watch them for a few years to see how they perform and make mental or electronic notes about them?

That’s where your trial garden or nursery comes in. Every gardener should have one, however small or humble. It’s a place to experiment and dabble where only you see the results.

Now is the perfect time to plan such a spot—and, yes, it does take a bit of planning and thought.

I call my nursery my trial garden because each year several growers send me plants to trial for them. These are generally small plants that they are about to market, and they hope I’ll grow them and then write glowing reviews so you’ll go out and buy them.

But, like you, I have no real idea how they’ll do, and I have only the promotional material they send me. Into the trial garden they go.

To keep us on the same page, let’s just call it a nursery: a place on the property where we want to get small plants bigger before they go into the landscape, or where we want to watch a plant for a few years to see how it really looks when it flowers or gains a bit of maturity in form, habit and seasonal interest.

Where does this nursery go? Well, that depends on available space, as well as quality and quantity of light at that space. It shouldn’t be blocked by buildings or taller structures and trees, allowing it to get plenty of light. It’s fairly easy to create shade if your nursery has full sun, but don’t get into a situation where there’s limited sun, because you just can’t make more light without dramatic changes to other property elements.

It’s also a good idea to have water at the site, or have the site reasonably close to a hose bib. Stretching a hose 50 feet is doable. Stretching that hose 200 feet is going to be a pain in the dirt, to say nothing of your back.

How big will your nursery be? Mine started out at 10 feet by 10 feet, but it’s grown to three times that size. Keep in mind that you’ll want to set up some kind of row system so you can walk between the plants, and don’t forget that this is a planting spot for transients. You’ll always be putting new plants in and, hopefully, you’ll also be taking plants out, either to plant in the garden or to trash.

Yes, I have to admit that lately I’ve actually trashed some plants. I never thought I’d be able to do that, but I’m at the point where my garden is close to maturity, and the failures and dogs need to be rogued. Not all is lost, though, as they get added to the compost pile.

Light and the path of the sun is critical. Stand where you want your nursery and try to follow the path of the sun during the growing season, not the winter months. How will the arc of the sun and the path of the sun affect your plants?

I have some plants along the southeast side of my nursery that lean and follow the sun. This has resulted in some hydrangeas that have gotten leggy and tend to lean, as well as some hostas that get too much sun and burn and discolor in July and August. Make the plants work for you. Let taller plants provide shade to smaller plants.

Taller plants in the back of the nursery that lean forward can be an issue. Remember, the sun doesn’t go around your nursery in a perfect circle, it follows an arc from east to west, and during the growing season it will be lower on the horizon, then rise toward late June, then slowly begin to settle down toward the horizon again come fall.

If you’re building a nursery, you’ll have only one good shot to amend the soil. Out here, the best soil will be a sandy loam that has plenty of organic material with a bit of sand to provide drainage. Compost is great to work into the native soil, but the compost should be aged and well-cooked and worked down into the native soil to a depth of at least 12 inches or more. You can even amend the soil differently in different sections of the nursery if you will be growing specific plants or starting a collection of plants.

Then there’s the fence. This is another element that is much easier to do at the start than years from now. The fence has to have several functions, but the ultimate purpose is to keep critters out.

A rabbit fence should be the first and lowest level. It should be buried about 8 inches deep and then rise about 2 feet above the grade. This will keep the rabbits from getting both under the fence and over it. This is a special type of fencing that has a tight grid on the bottom and it’s more open on the top.

Above the rabbit fence you’ll want a deer fence, and this should rise to at least 6 feet above the grade. Above the deer fence can be several strands of horizontal wire that will give you an effective protected height of 8 feet.

If you put the fencing right at the edge of your garden, you’ll lose planting space inside the fence, as you won’t want plants growing against the fence. Try to have the fence at least a foot from your planting area, with a no-grow area between the fence and the plantings, where you can put a mulch to control weeds and grasses.

Which way will your planting rows go? If they run on an east/west axis, you’ll get the most light and least shade. Have a labeling system so you can keep track of at least what you planted and when. These records should be keep in a notebook, on file cards or on a computer and each plant should have a label at the plant with the labels at the same location at each plant so you always know where to look for the label.

I try to keep plants in the nursery for no less than two years and no more than five. Two years gives every plant a fighting start, and if it hasn’t performed by year five, it’s time to give up the spot and let someone else give it a grow.

Plan your nursery now, get it ready in April, and it’s ready to have its guests as early as May. Keep growing!

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