It's All About the Zones

This photograph of my front porch, taken this morning, isn't likely to impress anyone blessed with even the most basic gardening skills, but to me it represents a huge change in the way I think about plants. A few years ago I began planting my front yard, and in my enthusiasm I made a mistake which I'll bet a lot of beginners make: I was working without a plan. I'd be at Urban Roots or Home Depot and I'd see a plant I liked, and as long as it met my simple checklist of criteria (perennial, interesting foliage, and cheap) I'd buy it, with no thought to the overall effect. For a while, it worked. I guess maybe "my taste" was enough of a unifying factor, and I've never really been a fan of rigidity in gardens anyway. For one magic moment about four years ago, everything achieved a spectacular equilibrium. The plants were lush and thriving, and there was something interesting in every square inch without it all competing for your attention. But gardens are not snapshots frozen in time, and so this beautiful state of balance lasted about a week before everything just started to look overgrown and silly. A better gardener than I could have easily reined it back in, but I just didn't know what to do. That's when fate stepped in. I hired a guy from Craig's List to mow the tiny lawn and clear out the weeds along my driveway fence. I neglected to include "and don't mow my garden down" and so I returned home from work one day to fine my garden completely gone... mowed right down to the bare dirt. Ornamental grasses? Gone. Astilbe? Gone. Chocolate Snakeroot? Gone. Nothing but a small rectangle of naked dirt. I was very upset, and in fact I didn't plant anything last summer, leaving the ground bare and keeping the grass along the street trimmed neatly. This year I decided to try again. While browsing at Urban Roots I found myself falling back into that same way of thinking, so I stopped myself cold, went home, and made a plan. Nothing elaborate, just breaking the small rectangle into three zones, and assigning an ideal height to each zone. No matter how much I may love a plant or how right the price may be, if there's no room in a zone with the right height, no sale. My height restrictions are on the tough side, because my yard is so small, so it may well take all summer to get first plantings in. That's ok, because even now with only a few things in the ground, the proportions just look right. Mother nature will take care of the rest!

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