Can a Small Garden be Grown from Seed?

Another horticultural experiment in our garden

See list below for species

I have several horticultural experiments brewing at my own home garden. Last year, my wife and I bought a small, mid-century Ranch house on a corner lot. The architecture is functional, but not terribly charming. We spent most of last year gutting and renovating the interior and still have big plans for the exterior. While most of our efforts have focused on making the house livable, we have started a few different garden experiments.

We’re keeping a small patch of lawn in front of the house, but the two side yard areas have been the focus of our efforts. We located gardens in the side yards mostly out of need for screening. Both spaces are close to streets, so gardens serve the dual function of screening and embellishing those spaces. Each of the gardens will be somewhat opposite in character, a sort of yin-yang of moods. On one side, we planted a sunny, exuberant border—what will be my mid-Atlantic version of the splendor of Great Dixter. That border will eventually be a raucous, over-the-top assembly of all kinds of plants—a hot mess of North American prairie natives, tropical bulbs, Mediterranean herbs, and lots of landscape annuals. So far, that experiment has not been terribly successful—mostly because it has been half-heartedly implemented—but more on that later.

The other garden is intended to be a more serene perennial meadow, focusing mostly on native plants. I want it to be restrained, yet lushly layered. My goal is to create a romantic garden, evocative of an opening in the woodland. Right now, the garden sits under cardboard and six inches of leaf mulch, smothering the lawn. So while the lawn dissolves, my wife (a brilliant plantsman herself) and I have designed . . . and redesigned (and redesigned again) this new garden space.

The Experiment

The space itself is nothing more than a narrow wedge of land between a lawn and a busy street. Two Catalpa trees (one of them rather majestic) sit in the space. The vision is that the entire ground plane will be covered in a native perennial meadow, a sort of edge-of-the-woods landscape.

A plan showing one corner of the garden
The experimental part of this garden will be how it is installed. Most landscapes I design are done with transplants. Plugs, quarts, or gallon-sized perennials and shrubs are planted on a cleared site and, VOILA, instant garden. But the problem with transplants is that gardens never have that looseness, that spontaneity of a wild, self-seeded landscape. When I decide where a plant goes, something inevitably goes wrong: the plant doesn’t like the soil moisture, the heat off the sidewalk, or its neighbors. So I’m eager to try seeding a perennial garden. But there are risks to seeding. Seeding can produce random, chaotic plantings. The outcome is more uncertain and the risk of creating a weedy mess is higher. While I’ve seeded meadows for large projects, but never used them in a small, garden setting.

So to mitigate these risks, I am planning a hybrid approach. First, plugs of grasses and perennials will be planted around the edges of beds. Next, I will seed a custom-designed mix of low perennials and grasses to fill the center. I will add a thick layer of sand mulch throughout the center, and roll seeds into the sand this fall. By using transplants around the edges, I can create a frame that gives the bed structure while allowing for more spontaneity in the middle.

The experiment is meant to be a low maintenance and cost effective solution for a garden space. That way, I can save my pennies for the rare, garish varieties of mail-order Dahlias I’m want for the border garden (see my previous post on Spring Fever). Moreover, the experiment is an attempt to answer some questions: Can hybridized garden perennials (mostly native cultivars) be mixed with straight species native grasses and wildflowers to create a beautiful garden space? Can seeding be used in a small garden scale? And will ceding control over the placement of plants result in a more evocative garden space? Or just create a weedy mess?

Stay tuned. I'll report on progress as it develops.

The Palette: Here are some of the plants I’m considering for one corner of the garden shown in the collage at the top of this post. From left to right. Top: Deschampsia flexuosa, Wavy Hair Grass; Hierochloe odorata, Sweet Grass; Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Blue Ice’; Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master; Bottom Row: Allium cernuum, Nodding Wild Onion; Camassia scilloides, Wild Hyacinth; Parthenium integrifolium, Wild Quinine; and Solidago speciosa, Showy Goldenrod
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