Four days to go: IT’S ALMOST SHOWTIME—Tips for making any garden ready for its closeup

The countdown is in earnest. I walked around the garden with a notebook yesterday morning, writing down every last thing that needs to be done before the Garden Conservancy July 7 Open Day, and the list is daunting. It ranges from hauling the last fir bark for pathways to tying up the wayward yew that the snow splayed out. I have folks coming to help me this week.

Sonji—her business card says “The Garden Nanny”— will be here every day. She’s been working on this garden for three years now. She’ll bring Andy on Friday. He’s a computer guy who has just discovered the outdoors. He likes to build, so I put him on the entry circle construction.

Andy created the entry circle.

Then there’s Andrew, who has worked in my garden in years past. He has been pressed into service with his father’s truck. He’ll haul the last mulch that isn’t fir bark. We use a local product called “mint straw.”

Black mint straw mulch gives a uniform look and makes even scant plantings stand out.

It’s a by-product of the Oregon mint growing fields, what’s left over after the plants have been cut and heated to 160 degrees to distill the essential oils. It’s black and crumbly, already partially broken down, and it has some nitrogen and other essentials available to the plants. It makes a handsome mulch—except with black plants, which tend to disappear—and a good soil amendment for heavy clay.

In my walk yesterday morning, I was thinking about what I’ve learned about getting a garden ready for an open day. God or the devil, whichever you prefer, really is in the details. Cameras notice what our eyes usually glance over, and as a garden writer, I’ve worked with photographers like Robin Cushman and Allan Mandell. So I have a pretty good idea of how it’s supposed to look. (Whether my garden will or not, that’s another story.) I’ve discovered four areas of quick attention and will make any garden will look better.

Go for Strong Edges: We’re assuming your plants are well-grown and fairly well-groomed. The easiest job that makes a difference? Edging a lawn. Even if the grass is scruffy, a clean edge makes it look sharper.

Cutting a neat edge or building a mowing strip will make a rough lawn look better.

Use Mulch: Aside from all the benefits mulch brings—retaining water, adding nutrients—a smooth layer of organic or rock material between plants brings order to the most chaotic arrangements. Nature doesn’t do bare ground.

Mulch retains water, adds nutrients and ties together disparate plantings.

Make TidyTransitions: The ease with which you can move from one garden room to the next or from one vista to the next is accomplished with tidy transitions. Be firm and clear about how you accomplish the changes. You can design thresholds that keep different paving materials separate. Don’t let the bark path slop into the rock one. Keep the mulch off the patio. If you must use a blower, electric is quieter than  gasoline, and of course, brooms really are best for this.

When creating transitions, keep materials separate for a tidy look.

Add Details: Little crafty surprises that catch your eye have a soothing effect and convey that the garden is cared for, even if weeds are lurking.

Edging with these square-cut cobbles allows gives a crafty feel to the industrial look of a stamped concrete sidewalk..

I had been searching for cobbles like these and couldn’t find any in Eugene. Last February, I spotted them in designer Pamela Richards display garden at Seattle’s Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I knew Pamela because I’d written about another of her display gardens for Sunset’s Secret Gardens–153 Design tips from the pros. She sold me the cobbles and Lou and I hauled them off the show floor during tear-down–another perk for being a garden writer.

Lou prepares to haul the cobbles off the show floor.

Here’s some other quick crafty ideas that Sonji has done.

Sonji made this stone edging that works to keep the mulch from shifting during heavy rains.
She created a fun fir bark edge between the bed and the driveway..

What cheap and cheerful ideas do you use to quickly spruce up a garden in no time? # # # #


    • marykate says:

      Hi Michael, It is mint straw, not blended mint compost. The mint straw lasts longer as a mulch. The only down side is that the dark black color fades over time to a less dramatic black/gray.

  1. Fay Olsen says:

    I am trying to locate some of the black mint straw….I’ve heard it works very well as a bed mulch. I live in the Wilsonville/Sherwood area. Do you know where I might be able to get some??? Thanks

    • marykate says:

      Hi Fay, In my neck of the woods, which is a good deal south of you, Lane Forest Products sells mint straw. they do not deliver it, but you can pick it up by the truck load. If you call them, they may tell you some place closer to Wilsonville. Good luck. It’s the best.

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