Thursday, July 26

The Bitty Garden

I admit that I have a little crush--the harmless schoolgirl kind--on Frank Ronan. The columns that he writes for the back page of Gardens Illustrated often leave my wheels spinning in circles... and I will always have a soft spot for a man who makes me think. In the June issue, Frank related the experience of having an (unidentified) expert visit his garden. As this guru walked around, one of his compliments sent Frank into a tailspin. To his horror, he realized that what the gentleman meant was that his garden was bitty. Bitty. You know, "A little bit of this, a little bit of that..."

Well, reading Frank's words put me into a tailspin of my own. Could my garden be bitty, too? Even thinking the word made me irritated because of its stingy connotations, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Frank had put his finger on the reason I have been largely unsatisfied with some areas of my yard. And why "thickly planted" wasn't always translating to "lush and generous" as I had wanted.

For the past couple of years, since moving to a small urban plot, my aim had been high contrast. I figured that I needed to maximize the impact of every individual plant in the yard by showing off the leaf texture, habit, and flowers of each against a foil. Some plants were repeated throughout the garden in an effort to achieve some sense of rhythm and continuity, but always they were surrounded with different, contrasting colors and textures.

After chewing on its implications for several weeks, I reread Frank's article last night and then walked around my yard. My dawning understanding that combining areas of high contrast and areas of low contrast are... well, a good contrast... made me want to make at least a few minor adjustments yet this year. I tried to think about it in terms of allowing some plant combinations to be the main attraction, and making others lead your eye to that painting--or at least serve as a complimentary mat around it.

One of the first things that I did was a relatively easy fix. The retaining block wall that I had built planting pockets into this spring had a jumble of things planted on its upper edge. The gray creeping germander and the wooly thyme are at least the same shade of gray-blue, but there was also a green sedum between the little bluestem grasses and a cascading rosemary smack dab in the middle of the wall. These greens interrupted the repetition and line of the brick wall and just kind of felt awkward and jumbled.

So I relocated the rosemary and the sedum, moved the germander over in front of the little bluestem in spit of my concerns about too much of the same color there, and filled in the rest of the space with more wooly thyme. The second picture was taken when I was midway through the project, but I think you can already tell that it is going to be an improvement.

Then I went over to the driveway bed, which I had optimistically been thinking of as "a funky riot of color, Pacific Northwest style." Yup. Definitely lots of bitty going on there. A solitary 'Brise d'Anjou' jacob's ladder was moved next to a scaly Brackler fern to echo the leaf shape, and was thus made to seem more "unique" and less "orphan." Two of my cimicifugas were sited about three feet apart, but the third was located about 8 feet down the same bed... now all three are living more closely together, with room in between for a couple of large leaf plants (maybe green brunnera or hardy begonia) of the same kind to tie them together.

As the sun started to set, I quickly pulled out all of my 'Whiskey' wax begonias for one last fix. Instead of planting them in drifts or clumps, I had used them singly to fill in empty spaces. Eek. This might have worked better with a spreading plant like petunias that would eventually give the impression of groundcover, but with wax begonias it just made the garden look... well, you know. So after they were all out and laid neatly in a row on the driveway, I went back through and found a half dozen places were I could clump 3 or 4 of them together, then replanted. You can see three of those clumps next to the fern and polemonium combination in the third picture.

There are a few more things to move, and a few more things to think about moving before I actually go at it again with a shovel. There may be things that I decide not to move at all, to keep some repetition in the garden and make sure I don't lose all of the contrast. But I have a good feeling that my efforts thus far--and just keeping in mind that I want to avoid being bitty--are going to help the garden look much better in the long run. It may take another 3 or 4 years and quite a few more mistakes, but I hope to get there.


kris said...

I love, love, love how you share your thought process with us! I seem to be a very visual gardener - I can spend hours planning, but only after I actually see it can I determine if it "works" or not. And I am certainly not as fine-tuned in my thinking or my goals as you are. Thanks for giving me something to think about on my next garden walk-about.

Bev said...

So THAT'S what's bothering me??? Hmmm... thanks for identifying this. I too love to hear your thought process. I'm now inspired to give things another look with this process in mind.

Anonymous said...

While I love big drifts of plants (and have plenty of space to indulge that), I think it was Tony Avent who said there is nothing wrong with 'a drift or one'. And, in fact, I've never bought more than a single individual of a plant from his nursery, and seldom buy more than one from any other source, either.

What I find when I plant these out is that some die, some grow but don't multiply much, and others thrive. Those get divided or channeled into those big drifts. So yeah, I've got a bunch of bitty between drifts of other stuff. That's what works for me.

David said...

I've always wished I could "see" what a group of plantings will look like before it is planted, but invariably I end up taking things out and moving them around because the look bothers me. You know, some people refuse to call these "mistakes;" they refer to them as "experiments."

Anonymous said...

This is a nice post, Kim. By sharing your learning process, you're helping others learn from your experimentation. And I found the description "bitty" to be particularly funny. Thanks for passing it on.

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Your sound as if you're re-arranging your garden the way some people re-arrange their living rooms! This is a great way to think about how we can make our gardens ever-changing. Always improving. Thanks!

--Robin (Bumblebee)

Unknown said...

Kris, I'm so with you... I have all kinds of visions in my head, but only when I actually see things together do I know if it's going to work or not! I admit that right now there is a yellow-variegated sedum sitting with its rootball nestled on top of the mulch in the driveway bed... because I'm not sure if I want to plant it there or not, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to "test it" there for a while. lol.

bev, the processes kind of change... sometimes on a daily basis, lol... but that's what's going on in my head now. Maybe next week I'll find out that it's really not the only thing bothering me, but that's all part of the discovery I suppose. :)

Craig, I love that quote: "A drift or one!" What you have is what I want... drifts to separate the bitty, bitty between the drifts, whatever you want to call it. Right now I have all bitty and no drifts save my hedge of baptisia. I need drift space (and not driveway concrete kind of space) to give the eye a place to rest.

David, I'm fine with "mistakes." *grin* I'm a firm believer that the only shame in making a mistake is if you don't learn from it and do better the next time. (Ask my parents and they'll tell you that I was always one of those kids who learned things the hard way.)

I wish I had that kind of vision, too. And sometimes I wonder how big and established my garden would feel if I could just quit moving things all of the time!

Unknown said...

pam/digging, I did get a kick out of the word "bitty," too. Doesn't it just sound appropriately stingy and mean?! I kept reflecting that Frank had chosen exactly the right word to describe the phenomenon.

Robin, you should see how often my living room gets changed! *grin* I do sometimes think I'm out of control, though. And wonder if I might ever get to the point where I stop tinkering with it. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

Kim: Another great post with a positive conclusion. Gardening is a learning process for all of us and it is never finished. Just when you think you've got it right, something dies or someone points out 'bitty'! I am going to check for 'bitty' tomorrow! Thanks!

chuck b. said...

I had a lot of bitty in my garden for awhile too. One particularly ill adventure saw me planting four very different kinds of ornamental grasses next to each other at the same time.

It's interesting that you had bitty even with repetition, because that's supposed to be the solution. As I understand it, you're saying is it's not enough to repeat the plant, but you have to repeat its color and textural context as well.

I haven't really done much with color in my garden, except that I strive to avoid red next to yellow (McDonalds). Foliar texture is my game, so big leaves next to small leaves, and try to evenly intersperse the various greens with the silver/grays. (Those are the two main color axes in the kind of garden I strive for.)

I regret it dearly whenever I deviate from that ideal. And I'm regretting it right now because I have lupine next to salvia; they're both silver/gray and fine-textured. It's killing me because I don't want to remove either plant but the combination is an eyesore! I've decided to remain paralyzed until the extent of my loathing increases to a point where I must act.

I find the rule about repeating in threes and fives (and not twos) not vital. It's important to consider, but it's not always vital in the execution. For one thing, formal, self-restrained plants can be pleasingly paired. Right now I even working a three pair side by side thing I'm really liking.

Okay, enough. Thanks for a great post! You helped me clarify a few things in my own mind.

bs said...

i'm just echoing what others have said... it's really valuable to have this kind of learning process articulated. there's no sin in editing!

Ki said...

Very interesting post. I plead guilty when it comes to bitty...having two gardeners in a family doesn't help matters.

Trouble is you have to also consider height and spread of plants as well as color, contrast, texture, leaf shape, and most of all, growth or expected size especially with shrubs and trees and what to do with the space left for growth in the meantime. Easier to be "bitty". If I wanted a formal landscape look I would opt to have it done professionally like the sterile look of our next door neighbor's yard. We call them the Blooms because they don't have a single blooming thing. Or I would have created a Japanese garden or rock garden. I like variety and riotous color and collecting plants so we put them in empty spots as we keep buying plants.

I think those wax begonias would probably have been ok where you had them because their mature size would have accomplished your look of clumping them somewhere else. They look bitty because they are little bitty. It is amazing how large our impatiens and begonias became - about 2 feet in diameter.

Unknown said...

layanee, you're so right about that. Just when you get to the point where you think you're "done" one of those things happen. Or you discover a new-to-you plant or a brand new cultivar that you absolutely have to include somewhere!

chuck b., your comment has me thinking. I don't think that you have to make the surroundings of every single repeated/spaced plant the same, but I think that the combinations in which I used them were too different for them to have that effect. They sometimes lost presence because of the high-contrast plants around them... maybe I used too many scene-stealers? On a related note, I may have also chosen the wrong plants to repeat. Maybe the black cimicifuga is simply too dark to be a highlight of the shade garden? That's entirely possible.

Can you maybe post a pic of the three pair side by side thing that you're liking? That may give me some ideas. Also, I grinned at your comment that you were going to remain paralyzed until your loathing finally spurred you to action... that may be the story of my work in the garden, too. :)

bs, thank you. I always find it fascinating to read what other gardeners think about and consider as they lay out and combine plants, too. And I know that I'm long-winded, so I appreciate all of you who actually make it to the end of one of my posts! *grin*

Ki, I'm with you--I much prefer "bitty" to "sterile" any day. :) About the begonias... I mostly agree with you about begonias in general being able to be strewn, but not in my garden. These have been in the ground since maybe April and they're still so tiny because we've been in a drought and I mostly refuse to give them extra water. (That's one reason why I don't do impatiens, either.) I guess I should have realized that they were going to look bitty because of my own gardening habits, and planted them in clumps in the first place.

kate said...

Now I'll be checking on the bitty parts in my garden... I fear there are several. My challenge is trying to garden with a small urban property and plant all the things that I want to - I think I may have a bit too much "bitty" (great word!) happening and perhaps that is something I need to work on.

I enjoyed reading this post ... and seeing your pics. An improvement, I'd say!

A wildlife gardener said...

Since I have a wild garden with cottage plants and wild flowers growing cheek by jowl, I feel it has soul and character and a touch of romance, so I don't care what others think, quite frankly. It may be 'bitty', it may be 'same-y' with a continuity of similar plants here and there, it may be 'wild and unkempt'...but, it's my paradise and I love it :)

The so-called 'experts' would probably prefer manicured lawns with crisp edges, but I love daisies and buttercups on wild meadows.

I have followed your blog for quite some time now and I love all your amazing efforts. You are enthusiastic and hard-working and energetic and flexible about your planting. Do your own thing, because it's so successful already :)

Annie in Austin said...

Lovely post, Kim - with all the mental turns revealing the process!

When you first said 'bitty garden' I thought it meant Itty-bitty - the size of the place - but one could have acres and acres and still be a bitty gardener, so it's relevant for all of us.

Like Craig I start out with a lot of 'drifts of one' and with time and division the plants grow well or croak. What might look bitty in year One could be a genuine drift with time, - guess it takes me those same 3 or 4 years to get there, too.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

BTW, did you notice on my blog that I "borrowed" your idea and put my little dogs and their job descriptions on my blog? Sometimes Sophie, the older of the two Papillons, is my guest blogger!

--Robin (Bumblebee)

Carol Michel said...

I have some "bitty" in my flower beds, too, but didn't know what to call it. I've been gradually straightening that out by digging and moving plants around. Plus some of my bitty plants were special to me and were getting lost in the mix. Can't have that!

Great post full of process,

Carol at May Dreams Gardens

Bev said...

Kim, I went plant shopping today and thought about your post. Realized that because my eyes are larger than my pocket book that I tend to get a "little bit of this" and a "little bit of that." But at least it was in my awareness!

PS - Chile-Lime recipe is now on my post about slow food.

Karen said...

I find it interesting that you would think this way about your garden. I have for a long time admired your garden and the approach you take, but I think it is like anything, a learning process. In learning what you like and dislike, you come across many sources and take them into account. I see this as just one more for you.

I have always called my gardening style "the mosaic garden". I just think it sounds better than "bitty" (but I'm afraid it probably amounts to the same thing).

Sweet Home and Garden Carolina said...

Great post, Kim. Hope I don't sound like a Designer snob but we often say " a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a whole lot of nothing ! " Very few plants can stand alone and make a statement. More importantly, in a small urban garden the plants have to work overtime.

Seems you already got the idea, a lot of people don't.

Using the design principle of 3 , 5 or 7 perennials when planting helps a lot I think.

I have a small urban garden as well and although I've been working at it for many years, there's always room for improvement.

A garden is NEVER done and as you know it's a " work in progress. "

Someday( soon, I hope ) you'll be able to express satisfaction for all your dedicated efforts.

Kylee Baumle said...

You know, it's interesting how differently people garden. I've got a lot of bitty in mine, but I like it. While there are certainly accepted 'rules' in garden design, for me it's like art - it should reflect ourselves and we have what pleases us, whether it pleases anyone else or not. I happen to love abstract art. Romie likes those bucolic wilderness scenes. We don't like what each other likes. But we do agree in the garden. ;-)
Anyway, this post was food for thought!

Hanna said...

Maybe this is what I am looking for. but so much work to straighten it all out. I have to admire your gumption.

Hey, I wanted to let you know I had tagged you for a meme if you would like to participate. Details can be found here:

Anonymous said...

The use of the word 'bitty' made me really laugh - I hadn't used that with respect to my own garden, but there are definite areas that would qualify. What I often think is that my garden is an extension of my work and the lab: it's one giant experiment in growing things. There's lots of 'one ofs' just to see how they 'grow'. I realized that about my fern bed yesterday - it's now a bed, it's a randomized complete block design and would require statistics to evaluate. I don't think that's what I'm after.

So perhaps you motivated me to think about this today - and maybe I'll move a few things around. I think what you've done is interesting and fun - plus, there's no 'finished' garden I don't think. That's the beauty of it.

(and I agree with you on Frank R.)

Clezevra said...

likee your blog a lot, the style of writing actually holds you. gardening is not something that interests me, though hearing avbout and seeing them is always a pleasure...

Unknown said...

This has been an absolutely fabulous set of comments--thank you all. I keep coming back here to read them, and then go back out to the garden to evaluate whether I am overanalyzing and thus seeing bitty-ness where it is not there, whether using groups of odd numbers would help, whether I am undervaluing the contribution of repetition, etc. This is definitely going to help my garden in the long run. :)

kate, isn't gardening on a small urban lot such a challenge and a joy all at the same time? Sometimes I am glad for the boundaries and limitations, and other times (especially when I see blog posts of huge gardens) I just think, "Oooh... if only I could win the lottery and buy that much land!" lol.

wildlife gardener, I love your attitude--and thank you for the compliments! I don't think that I was so much worried what other people think as that the idea of that being a problem resonated with me, if that makse sense.

annie, that's a good point. Sometimes I think that I have amazing patience, and then other times I think that maybe I should cultivate more. If I could just wait for my "drifts of 1" to grow larger, that may solve a few of my "problems"... hmm.

Robin, I just went and saw that--how fun! I am sure that I "borrowed" that idea from someone else as well, so it's nice to see it passed on. :)

Carol, that's a great point. The plants that are special and "bitty" probably need to be featured more prominently, to show the point of their solitary presence. More for me to mentally chew on--thanks!

bev, thanks in advance for posting that recipe. Yum. :) I'm trying to keep that "escape from bitty-ness" in my head, too. I bought a couple of toad lilies at the garden center this weekend and thought about how best to incorporate them without being too bitty... before I plunked down any money this time.

Karen, I think that your first paragraph is spot on. It probably is more about identifying what I do and don't like, and adjusting the reality of my own garden accordingly. I am fascinated by you saying that you probably have a "bitty" garden, too, because I never got that impression at all. I need to go back and analyze your pictures to see what your secret is. (Maybe it's the repetition of all of those lovely rocks as a framework?)

carolyn gail, you are SO right about plants having to work overtime in a small urban garden! And I'm a bit more demanding of my plants, too--many of them need to feed me (and/or smell good) as well as look good both in and out of flower. lol.

I don't mean to sound at all ungrateful for my garden, though. I love it even as I tweak it, and I absolutely appreciate the whole process... it has saved my sanity and provided a balm for my soul more often than I have admitted here. :)

Kylee, it seems to me that you and Romie both have a little bit of what you like in your garden... :) That amazes me, as I can't really imagine being able to work on the garden that well with my boyfriend. (Two stubborn artistic types, and all of that. *grin*)

hanna, thanks for the tag! I actually already posted a meme like this (although not as fun-yet-concise as your post, unfortunately) so I'll post a link to my meme on your blog.

Pam, glad that someone agrees with me on Frank! *grin* Experiments are fun, too, and with you having such a lovely scientific mind I think that it makes perfect sense you would have some experiments in your garden. That's the great thing about gardening, isn't it? ...All of the niches and styles that we can all play around with, sometimes using the same plants!

Clezevra, thank you so much for the kind words. They are especially nice from someone who writes so well (at the tender age of 15) in what I assume is not your native language! Maybe you would enjoy gardening if you gave it a try? There is lots of your favorite color green in the garden, after all. :)

lisa said...

Great post! Nothing wrong with a mid-season's all for fun anyhow, right? Heck, I've been working on my gardens for 8 years, and I get new ideas for switcharoo every year-several times! If I ever thought I was "done", I'd probably freak out! ;-)

meresy_g said...

I envy you your ability to go out and move things around. I become paralyzed by the know, if I put that there and move this here and soon I am pretty much digging up every single flower bed. I need to focus on just one at a time. You have such great style.

Melissa said...

I can't seem to avoid having a bitty garden. I have so many different and contradictory ideas and I never seem to be able to focus them.

David (Snappy) said...

Blackswamp girl you must have struck a nerve to get that many comments.Im your 30th :)
I wander if you are over analysing your garden, i like your photos, and your plants.I didnt see the black knight grass on your drive!
I dont think you ever want a Finished garden.A work in progress is better. Add plants, move plants, buy new plants.The canvas in never finished, just added or subtracted.Like working with oil paints.
Most gardens are bitty, because plants are bought and slotted in to bare soil, and only afterwards do people think how the whole thing looks.
After I went plant shopping for mums garden it took two days to plant them.I kept visualising arrangements, before sticking the pots on the freshly weeded and dug soil.I kept moving them around untill I was happy.Only time will tell if my planting works with the lavatera monster shrubs.
Cool post Kim :)

LostRoses said...

Yikes! I'm pretty sure I'm a bitty gardener. Nice to see these nagging thoughts put into perspective, but I'm not sure I can do anything about my "collecting a little bit of everything" nature!

Kathy said...

Every so often I recognize "bitty" in my own garden. It seems to be a childlike instinct to take refuge in formulas. Just about every kid goes through a stage where they draw a triangle on top of a square to make a house, and draw a circle with lots of lines emanating from it for the sun. I think it's the same kind of desire for an orderly row that makes us want to line our plants up, or order them rhythmically. And then one day we take a second look, and think, "That's not natural . . ." or, "My house doesn't really look like that."

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