Try a raised bed and a couple of conifers this spring!

As I mentioned in previous posts, we  just moved to a new home with a completely blank slate in the back for gardening.

And seeing how it’s still winter here in western New York (and probably will continue to be for what feels like about six more months), I’m grabbing some of my 2½-year-old daughter’s paper and crayons, and remembering the best gardening (and landscaping) advice I ever got:

Start with raised beds, and be sure to use conifers (cone-bearing plants, mostly evergreens). The raised beds give you good “garden bones” and the conifers provide fantastic foliage and year-round texture, color and shape.

Of course, this advice came from conifer enthusiast, master gardener and former neighbor Jerry Kral, who has turned his Rochester, NY property into a terraced conifer dreamland featured in Better Homes & Gardens.

Jerry Kral’s garden featuring conifers of all sizes and shapes

BUILDING YOUR RAISED BED . . . Before you stick any plants in the ground, Jerry taught me, the idea is to create a frame for your “art.”

First, determine the shape of your bed (a natural, organic form looks best – try something like a kidney bean). You may want to spray paint the border on the grass and then run a course of bricks or stone (about $200 a pallet) on top of them. For the lovely terraced look you see (above) in Jerry’s garden, you can feel free to go a few courses higher.

Next, plan on filling in that border with soil about 3 to 4 feet high and 4 to 6 feet wide (landscapers can provide the fill soil for about $30 a cubic yard).  If you plan to use dwarf or miniature conifers, (an especially good idea if you want low-maintenance or easy-care gardening), maybe go a bit smaller. Or, if you’re putting in plants that are going to expand a lot as they grow, go a bit larger.

Next, just wheelbarrow the dirt from the delivered pile (usually on a tarp in your driveway) to your raised bed, and just shovel it right onto the grass within that border. No need to kill or dig out the turf below.

 

DESIGNING YOUR RAISED BED . . .  Try to start with taller trees for a high leaf canopy. Add bushes and shrubs for a mid-level canopy. Then, fill in the bottom part with groundcovers and lower-growing perennials, bulbs, annuals, ornamental grasses, gnomes, flamingos – whatever it is that floats your boat.

Then, consider putting a tall, dark plant (like juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’) in the center or back and two weeping conifers (like Golden Cedar) on each outer edge. Fill in the space between with round- or bun-shaped conifers (like chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Green Globe’) and a few tall, skinny ones (I’m a big fan of ‘Sky Pencil’ holly). Arrange smaller plants at the front, from shortest on the outside to tallest in the center.

Then, add a big rock. Or three. Or five. Odd numbers are better. If you’re using three, get one small, one medium and one large. For a more natural effect, try to find stones that are native to your area.

For a high-impact look, try contrasting colors. Blue-green and yellow-variegated conifers go great together. So do dark green varieties with those variegated white.

Also contrast textures — stiff, sharp needles of spruce or pine, for instance, with the cup-shaped, ferny Hinoki cypress or the string-like chamaecyparis pisifera.

Next, mix it up for a more natural look. In nature, notes Jerry, you won’t find straight lines or a mass of just one kind of shape, color, texture or kind of plant. So mix in some deciduous trees and shrubs as well as herbaceous perennials, annuals, bulbs, ground covers and ornamental grasses.

I’ll get more into planting when spring gets here. But now’s my time for dreaming, and I’m checking out mail-order sites such as Arrowhead Alpines and Greer Gardens and garden blogs such as The Amazing World of Conifers, The Garden Years, A Way to Garden and Daniel Mount Gardens. You can also find images of conifers and cultural information at the American Conifer Society Web site.

Are you a conifer lover? Let me know some varieties and plant compositions that have worked for you!

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