Easy Rain Gardens, Walk-in Tomato Cages and More from a Baltimore Master Gardener

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Robert Cook in rain garden, with elderberry.

My post about a recent tour of Baltimore gardens omitted one because it was SO interesting, I wanted to go back and talk to the gardener another time, for another post. This one.

It’s the garden of Baltimore City Master Gardener Robert Cook. Retired from his law firm, now he spends more time than ever teaching people to garden, as he did with the hoards of visitors during the tour.

Simplified Rain Garden that WORKS

Rain garden in early days and now.

First, Robert’s rain garden doesn’t just successfully manage stormwater; it also looks great and, most interesting to me, was easier to design and install than most. Those rules about deep excavation and amendment? He pretty much ignored ’em.

A rain-garden rule he did follow was to calculate the size garden needed to collect the rainwater coming off that side of the house, which he did with free help from Bluewater Baltimore.

After that, he just dug a basin, built a berm around it, mixed in a bit of Leafgro, and planted away.

A large elderberry shrub is the stand-out plant now but a willow oak will eventually dominate. The plants are almost exclusively natives with deep roots that soak up the water. The importance of those roots was obvious when the garden overflowed at first, before the plants were added.

For a pleasing aesthetic, plants were selected for blooms, attractive foliage, and other items of interest throughout the year.

The sunny side of the rain garden

As for maintenance, Robert trims back the elderberry, and he waits until spring to take down the perennial shoots because bees nest in the stems. (Speaking of wildlife, the garden attracts lots of birds, and foxes have been known to sleep there.)

And like any mixed garden, some rearranging is required as plants mature. The smaller shrubs in the center (like beautyberry) and some of the perennials (like turtlehead) are being overpowered, so he’s adjusting the design a bit but largely letting them duke it out among themselves. To reduce maintenance, he recommends planting heavily.

Vegetable Production and Critter-Proofing

Now for the food production part of the garden. The 18 raised beds and other growing space totaling about 550 square feet now produce over 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year.

What’s most noticeable is the walk-in tomato cage Robert built out of 2x2s, which has proven to successfully thwart squirrels and other wildlife threats. He also installed drip irrigation.

Same view, later in the season.
Close-up of the walk-in tomato cage.

Visitors to the Maryland State Fair going on this week are also learning about Robert’s tomato cage, thanks to the Master Gardener demonstration garden he built there.

Tomato cage at the Maryland State Fair.
The ONLY pretty place at the Maryland State Fair.

Groundcover that COVERS

In the front garden I noticed a large border covered with Liriope, which Robert tells me had been designed by a professional landscaper before he became an avid fan of native plants. So would he choose a different groundcover today? No, he says, because that Liriope does the job better than any plant he knows of. That’s pretty much what I’ve learned in my search for plants to replace lawn. Ground’s gotta be covered, and Liriope and plants like it (some Carexes) do the job better than any, at least here in Maryland.

Speaking of native plants, Robert recommends Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore. It’s a natives-only nursery with very knowledgeable staff. Good to know!

2 COMMENTS

  1. I love the rain garden, but liriope is invasive in Montgomery County Maryland. So, I wish he would recommend taking it out. There are lots of native ground covers that aren’t wrecking havoc in our Parks and natural spaces. Ginger makes a good ground cover; there’s a native pachysandra and ferns of course.

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