Super-Sophisticated Gardening


Fallcolorweb2a_2Ever since Michele described the gardens in my neighborhood as "super-sophisticated woodsy," I’ve been pondering that phrase.  Of course, unaccustomed as I am to seeing my name in the same paragraph as the word "sophisticated," it was a surprise.  And "super," no less. 

Now woodsy?  You bet – I got lucky there.

But what the hell is sophistication, anyway?  Not the pseudo kind that’s such a turn-off but the kind we acquire slowly by doing and learning and changing.  And as gardeners, we naturally change our plant choices and styles as we learn by doing.  We fall in love with new plants and new ways to grow them.  So whether it’s sophistication or not, it’s really cool stuff.


  • Using increasingly organic techniques and caring more about how I treat my land.
  • Going for a more naturalistic and informal look, wanting all lines to curve.
  • Simplifying the garden – by massing plants and using less fussy lines and fewer types of hardscape.
  • Caring less about blooms and more about whole plants and groupings of plants.
  • Sacrificing blooming plants in favor of evergreens as I care more about how the garden looks in winter.

My garden is stuffed with American Mixed Borders, as the wonderful Ann Lovejoy calls them in her book by that name.  They imitate open meadow surrounded by low plants, then understory trees and then tall trees.   We humans apparently prefer habitats with this arrangement of plants.

So how have you changed as you’ve progressed as a gardener?  Because whether it’s called sophistication or something else, we’re changed by what we do.  And do and do and do and do, in the case of gardening addicts like myself.


  1. Hi Susan,
    I’ll leave words like ‘sophisticated’ to Michele, and just say you design beautiful gardens!

    As to change and progression – in spring of 1989, my husband and I began our first xeriscape garden, out toward the sidewalk in the hot, sunny, west-facing Illinois front yard. In his books, Allen Lacy had warned me about this and it was true: Once you begin to digging up the front yard, taking your own property back from the street, you will never garden in the same way again.

    I’d also read the Savannah theories and by 1990 had joined that bed to others, incorporating existing tall trees, adding evergreens and grasses, which eventually enclosed the reduced lawn area. Although these mixed borders were in progress by the time I bought Ann Lovejoy’s book in 1993, her book was a source of inspiration, an influence toward further refinement, and also gave me that wonderful name for what we’d been doing – making an American Mixed Border.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  2. I haven’t read Ann Lovejoy’s books, but I’ll check them out the next time I’m in Borders.

    I have been reading “The Self-Sustaining Garden: the Gardener’s Guide to Matrix Planting” by Peter Thompson, which advises much the same method (planting closely and in vertical layers so that by the time the ground is reached all the available sunlight is used up). I’ve been going by the section titled “Scrubberies and the mixed border.” It’s slanted toward British gardens, and unfortunately the suggested species lists are not immediately recognizable to me, but it’s still a very interesting book.

    It is out of print now, but apparently a second edition is due out in July 2007. (Please somebody set it in larger type–it’s about an 8 point font in the paperback version!)

    I reluctantly admit that I have plans to rework a section in one part of the border around the deck, although I did some math on the year from November 2005-November 2006 and found that I had planted almost 600 things (understory tree seedlings, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and bulbs). You’d think it was time to stop already. Not!

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one here with the tendency to “do and do and do and do”!

  3. Learning by doing – is there any better way? 🙂 Here’s how I’ve progressed as a gardener:
    – No longer using marigolds as my dominant flower choice (okay, I was seven when that flower last ruled)
    – Realizing that “organic gardening” doesn’t mean “no additives whatsoever;” mulches and (organic) fertilizers are still muy beneficial.
    – Oh, and Susan, I’ve got “woodsy” too. That’s one more thing I’ve learned: the English Cottage garden doesn’t do so well in shade and damp.

  4. My yard was filled with mature trees and non-descript shrubbery when I moved in 13 years ago. My plan (because I was poor in both time and money then) was to work with what I had and basically infill.

    In my first attempt of a border I made a graceful curve lined with rocks I’d dug up. I would say that over the years my garden has been so naturalistic that few people recognize it as a garden at all.

    So in the last six year or so, I’ve been building paths with straighter lines, edging beds with boards, and introducing more shrubbery to act as strong anchors in the “off” season–that being our drought-filled summers. My garden is becoming more and more formal.

    Like Heavy Petal, the cottage garden flowers do not do well for me–but my challenge is shade with heat and drought. And too many tree roots!

Comments are closed.