Your garden renaissance - design like Da Vinci (Part 1)

You and I can become better at creating amazing garden spaces by thinking like the all-time master of creativity.  Leonardo Da Vinci used 7 specific principles to design, develop, and create some of the most enduring works of art, and fascination the world has ever seen.  He initiated the renaissance age of enlightenment and rebirth.  How appropriate when we consider our garden's rebirth each springtime.

Let's put Da Vinci's enlightenment to work in our garden.  I'll examine his thinking principles one at a time in a series of blogs to explore how we can utilize them to become better gardeners this year.

Da Vinci's 1st principle is:  Curiosity.  

Da Vinci constantly challenged his own assumptions.  He crafted questions that represented his curiosity on how things worked.  We can do the same to get ourselves off of auto-pilot.  For example, "What might you do differently this year to spark a new feeling of excitement in our garden?"  The key to curiosity is in the questions we ask ourselves.

We don't have to go out and buy the same tired flat of annuals, the cliche hanging baskets, or plant the same predictable combination of vegetables. Let's do something new that causes us to look forward with anticipation to the outcome.  Might that be trying a new bold color combination, planting a vegetable that you thought was hard to grow, or using tropical texture plants mixed into your ole perennial bed?  There are so many things to question with curiosity to help us learn and experience something new.

So, what haven't you tried before that you are curious about?  Every year I purposefully buy perennials I've never even heard of so I can have a first-hand experience with them.  Check out some of the inspiring websites to discover exciting new plants.  One of my absolute favorites is  They only have new and dramatic plants and cultivars that'll spark curious conversations with your guests.  It's so fun to have people ask, "Wow, what is that?".

Look at your garden with new eyes this year and the curiosity of a 5 year old.  Kids love secret garden nooks, and paths that disappear around the corner.  We all still love those things because it pokes our curiosity!  Let's begin our own renaissance and the rebirth of excitement for gardening this year.  What questions do you need to ask yourself?

Botanical Latin for dummies

I always get a funny reaction from people when I spout out the botanical Latin name of a plant.  First off, it seems to boggle their mind that I actually know it, and secondly, I think it must make me sound like a complete plant snob to them. 

 In defense, the botanical names are incredibly useful to know.  The “real names” unlock all kinds of information about the plant that can help you select and take care of it.  Plus, the botanical name is a “fingerprint” of sorts, which confirms beyond a doubt the identity of the plant.   

People instead seem comfortable using the “common name”.  The problem with common names comes from them being inconsistent and often a misnomer way of communicating.  For example if someone said, “I want a Japanese Maple. “ That common name would not even begin to help narrow down the myriad of possible choices.  They could be thinking of a 30 foot tree form with red leaves, or a green dwarf weeping specimen that would look great in their rock garden.

 Get comfortable with the botanical name:

 It can be an “aha” moment once you understand the pattern or rule for how the botanical Latin names are constructed.  They are meant to unlock the true characteristics of the plant.  The rules are consistent and governed within the scientific horticulture community.  I can distinctly remember the moment I learned this at one of my classes at Longwood.  It immediately unraveled the naming mystery for me. 

 Here’s how it works:


The first name you see on a plant tag is called the Genus.  This is the equivalent of a car brand name like Honda, or BMW.  So for example, the maple tree Genus is called Acer, a Dogwood tree is called Cornus.  The Genus name gets you closer, but is still very general to the real plant identification.  


The second term in a typical plant name description is called the species.  This is the equivalent of a Honda now being further identified as an Accord.  Or, if you had a BMW the species of your BMW might be 325i.  The species is listed in lower-case.  So for example, our maple tree could now be listed as Acer rubrum (common name is Red Maple).  Now we are getting some useful identification that has distinction.  But wait!   There’s more.


Most of the time you will see a third term called the Cultivar.  The term Cultivar stands for cultivated variety.  This means that someone purposefully identified and cultivated a distinguishing characteristic of the plant that makes it different from the straight Genus and species version.  The cultivar name is listed in single quotation marks.  This is the equivalent of calling our car a Honda Accord LX.  Now you’d clearly know that this specific Honda Accord has the leather seats and the moon roof features because of the LX identification.  So for example, our maple tree could now be called an Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.  Now we could distinguish this plant gets consistently brilliant orange-red fall color. 

 Get practical

For practical purposes, if I’m shopping for a Red Maple tree, now I would know that I could make a smart and superior choice by selecting an Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.  The other wonderful reason the botanical Latin name is so practical has to do with Google search terminology.  You can plug in the exact name in the search bar and be assured you get the correct information and images for that particular plant.  If you plant perennials, then you know how confusing it would be without the botanical name.  There are so many cultivars to consider, plus new ones being introduced every year.  Knowing the real name helps keeps it straight. 

So, don’t worry about sounding like a plant snob.  Instead, be smart and savvy by making great informed choices that make gardening interesting and more rewarding.  I hope this has helped you break the botanical Latin plant code.

Get the edge - The highest impact quick fix for your garden

So you only have a short time before guests or family members are coming over and you want your gardens to look their best.  It’s obviously too late for a total make over.  What’s the number one thing you should prioritize to have the highest impact?

Head to the shed, get out your flat-point shovel, and prepare to get the edge.  Edging your garden beds is an amazing way to make your garden beds instantly look refined by being “defined”.   A crisp new edge tells any visitor that your garden is loved and cared for, and there must be something good going on.  It is quite remarkable how much of a difference edging makes in the immediate appearance.  Fresh edging makes it look new.  It’s very noticeable to everyone (even a non-discerning gardener) that the garden seems well kempt even if other elements are not up to par.

Here are some tips on the easiest ways to get the edge:

Don’t go to extremes. Create a new garden bed edge line that is only 1 to 3 inches farther out into the turf.  If you start digging up huge clumps of sod, you’ll never finish in time.  Plus you’ll be buzz kill for your guests since you’ll likely be exhausted and fall asleep before the appetizers are even over.

Clear the debris.  Use a flat-point shovel to cut the edge.  Go straight down 3 to 4 inches.  Lightly jack up the soil but don’t flip it into the garden bed.  Leave it in the trench.  Once your total edge line has been cut, you’re ready to come back using a Mattock (a long-handled pick-ax).  Use a hoeing motion to pull the cut sod and soil out of the trench and into the grass. Use a leaf or garden rake to create quick and easy piles.  Pick up the sod and debris by hand and toss into your wheelbarrow.  Place the good soil into your compost pile.  Go back and gently rake out the remaining soil so it disappears into your turf.

Finish with mulch.  If you’ve recently mulched and have a generous top coating, you may only need to rake some off the top into the newly created trough.  If not, it’s great to grab a few bags of mulch (or whatever you have left over if you had it delivered) and freshen up the edging.

Your guests will assume you’ve been spending hours out in the garden making it special just for the honor of their visit.  You don’t have to admit to them that all you did was get the edge.

A fresh crisp edge makes everything in the garden look better

A fresh crisp edge makes everything in the garden look better

Hardening-off your tender plants

Plants—no matter if they’re flowers or vegetables—must be toughened up or “hardened off” before you plant them in the garden. They’ve been inside (either in a commercial greenhouse or on your window sill) for weeks and they’re quite tender. Just like humans, plants can get sunburned and wind burned. A little care and time devoted to readying your plants for their new outdoor home will really pay off. It takes about 10 days or so to harden plants. By hardening off your plants, you’ll reduce the shock and stress they’ll undergo when planted outside.

On the first day of the hardening process, take your plants outside for a few hours and place them out of direct sun and wind. Each day lengthen the time a little and expose them to more sun and breeze. After a few days, leave them out all day and night—except if there is a chance of frost. 

Tropical house plants (the ones you plan to move outside for summer) need to be hardened off too.  My favorite day to begin that process is a mild rainy day.  The plants respond well to having the dust washed off their leaves at the same time they get a gentle soaking.  This is a great time to give them an organic fertilizer amendment.  Poke holes into the compact potting soil around their roots for aeration and to allow the fertilizer to mix into their root zone.  Worm castings are the very best choice typically.  Just be sure to avoid windy days and direct sun for the first 4 or 5 days and you'll be rewarded with healthy vibrant tropical color all summer long. 


Weed block is for block heads

The concept of weed block fabric sounds really smart at first.   You roll out a fabric to cover your soil and prevent weeds forever right?  The water passes through the pores, but the weeds can’t grow.  I’m in!

You may be thinking after the first year.  “Hey, this stuff really does work!”  It’s often wishful thinking at best.  Here’s what happens that can leave you with significant regrets. 

Of course we mulch overtop of the fabric to hide it.  So what happens to the mulch over time?  It decomposes turning it into rich soil.  After 2 or 3 years, your once effective and well-intended effort of putting down a weed barrier is now 2 or 3 inches deep into your soil layer.  Now weeds can easily grow on top.

It’s important to remember that weeds are the ultimate “opportunist” plant.  They grow where nothing else grows and in the poorest possible conditions.  How ironic.  Weeds only need a little tiny teaspoon of organic matter to germinate and start pushing out roots.  The mulch layer you put on top of the fabric is plenty fine for many weeds to get going after just a few years of decomposition.

To make matters worse, the weeds growing on top push their roots down through the fabric pores making them very difficult to pull out.  It’s like they are hopelessly trapped in the webbing.  The weed’s roots expand and stretch the fabric leaving a hole.  Over time your fabric is full of holes and has lost any integrity.

There is another annoyance to consider.  Have you ever put down a weed barrier and then later realized that you’d like to plant some perennials or shrubs in that area?  It’s a pain in the tush to pull back all the mulch, and then have to cut and trim the slimy fabric away so you can dig a hole.  I’ve also seen many situations where someone planted a shrub in a tiny little cut-out and as the plant grew it was getting choked by the tight fabric.

One exception where I think weed block fabric makes sense is in a bed that you’re topping with rocks or river jacks.  Some weeds will still grow over time once dust, debris and old leaves decompose, but it’s not usually problematic in a rock bed.

Save yourself the time, expense and disappointment of putting down a weed block in a garden bed.  Put down weed preventing layer of compost or root mulch instead.  Don’t be a block head.

Don’t go blooming mad this spring

Yes I get it.  We are all so ready for the colors of spring.  None of us can resist that first early visit to the nursery.  After a long drab winter, anything that looks vibrant immediately draws our attention.  Some of these impulse items find their way into our shopping cart.  After one or two weeks of color, the plants we bought with such enthusiasm end up as garden disappointments for the next 50 weeks of the year.

Here is the most common mistake

We buy Forsythia on impulse.  Who can resist the poster-child plant that is a harbinger of spring?  The problem isn’t so much the plant, but it’s where we put it. 

Forsythia looks best if it is allowed to grow into its natural shape and in the sun.  Most people don’t realize when they buy that innocent looking little clump; the plant wants to be about 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide.  Without thinking, people plant it right up against their foundation, or jam it in-between other plants in their landscape.  Then, the fast growing monster takes over.  To tame the beast, they get out the hedge clippers and hack it into the shape of a green meatball.

To compound the problem, people inevitably prune Forsythia in the fall and then have few flowers in spring except on the interior of the plant (ugly two-tone effect).  Forsythia, like many flowering shrubs blooms on “old wood” (last season’s growth).  If you must prune Forsythia, do it right after its done flowering.

I call Forsythia a 60 mile-an-hour plant.  In other words, I can enjoy them on other people’s property while driving by, and therefore don’t need them in my garden.  They look fantastic especially on large scape landscapes when sited properly.  But for most of us on smaller properties, there are far too many other interesting plants to grow that also have more than one ornamental feature to look forward to.  For example, if you crave the early yellow spring flowers, try Witch-hazel.  Not only does it bloom several weeks earlier depending on the Cultivar, but it is also intoxicatingly fragrant.  Witch-hazel also has incredible fall color to look forward to, unlike Forsythia that drops off in October as dingy green.

If you insist on being blooming mad:

  • Plant Forsythia in the full sun.

  • Plant as a single specimen away from other plants to showcase its natural mounding shape.

  • Only prune right after it is done flowering so you’ll have flowers the following spring.

  • If you do prune, please resist the meatball shape.  It is far better to cut it close to the ground and let it grow back again in a natural shape.  You can do this every year with discipline if you’re so inclined.

  • Consider going to the nursery and bringing home a Witch-hazel instead!



A Note To Gardeners

Imagine acquiring a fabulous piece of art.  It is something you are proud of and worked very hard to obtain.  Instead of putting it in a well-lit protected place above the mantle piece, you decide to put it outside to be subjected to the wind, weather and elements.  This piece of art changes constantly having moments of glory when it looks its best, and moments of despair when you wish it would simply disappear.  And, frequently when the piece of art has reached a pleasing level of satisfaction, it decides on its own to expand rudely beyond its intended space, or even leave you unexpectedly altogether. 

We have given a benign and pastoral name to this amazing challenge of collecting and displaying living art in an outdoor environment.  It is called gardening.  It is obvious that if gardening did not provide us with immense rewards and joy, then no one would ever continue the toil.  And, for those of us that call ourselves gardeners, we realize the passion that comes from deep within us is intrinsic and an essential part of our natural being and soul.   Gardening is an appreciation for an art of a higher calling.

I am pleased that you and I are gardeners, and that we are on the journey together.

Steve Van Valin