How We Learned To Plant With A Compass

Here’s something different to add to your transplanting tools: one small compass. That’s right, the handy friend of every scout and a great help to the gardener too.

Actually, if you have lived long in one place, you hardly need the compass. You already know where the sun rises and sets in relation to your property, but how much attention do you pay to that when laying out a flower bed?

We all dream of the sunny perennial border perfectly placed to face the south with nary a shadow to mar the constant sunshine, but in fact many a small modern property has at best only a few spots where a perennial garden is possible. Most often none of these faces exactly south.

Use Your Compass Reading To Plant Your Border

What to do? Why, not make the best of what you have. Place your border as nearly as you can to the compass reading you need, or choose plants which will thrive in the situation your plot provides.

If the best you can do is a border that will be partially shaded part of the day, select plants that will be happy under those conditions. Check the sunniest portions and put the sunlovers there. It will mean more study on your part than if you were making a genuine sunny border, but the results may be more interesting.

The first house we owned had two long borders already in place. They ran east and west on both sides of the back yard. Being new to flower gardening it took a two full seasons before we began to understand the plantings we had found in place. By then we had made enough mistakes to learn a great deal.

How We Learned To Plant With A Compass
How We Learned To Plant With A Compass

Perhaps the most glaring faux pas we committed was to place flowers whose heads followed the sun in the border on the southern edge of our yard. Seeking the sun, these blooms turned always toward our southern neighbor’s yard. Our only consolation was to enjoy the blaze of the Oriental poppies our northern neighbor had planted in her southernmost border. They looked at our house all day, and after a while we included them in the color scheme for the border that ran on our northern boundary.

Experience further taught us the value of pinpointing the position of our southern neighbor’s trees. They explained the extensive use of astilbe, columbine and hosta lilies we found when we moved in, since Mrs. South’s trees shaded parts of our southern boundary much of the day.

Rock Gardeners Know The Importance

The rock garden enthusiast of course has known about the importance of placing an individual plant by the compass for a long time. In their zeal to reproduce the natural conditions best for alpines, they will plant on the eastern, southern or western side of a rock or bush as a matter of policy. We, however, were still novices so we had to learn the hard way.

You’d be surprised how many blunders we committed before the significance of the sun’s position finally sank into our gardening consciousness. Then we were faced with extensive transplanting, and only then did our gardens begin to show some signs of real success.

Rock Gardeners Know The Importance
Rock Gardeners Know The Importance

When we left after a few years, the border on the northern edge of our yard contained the plants which needed plenty of sun, while such as primroses, violas and columbines made pictures in the shady dells of the southern border.

We had learned many things by then both about flowers and ourselves, and it was natural that these should be reflected in our next garden.

Starting From Scratch

This time we had to start from scratch, and we were able (with the aid of retaining walls, fill and purchased topsoil) to lay out the main part of the new landscape border so shade was no problem. We had a sunny garden, and it wasn’t quite the sine qua non we had expected.

In short we missed the play of shade we had come to admire at our first house, and we craved again the flowers which needed that environment.

Luckily our new property boasted one large dogwood which had somehow escaped the developer’s bulldozer. Most of its branches grew to the north due to the long strangling action of bittersweet and poison ivy vines.

We planted two more smaller dogwoods, one to the southeast of the larger tree, the other to the southwest. Both were about ten feet away from the original tree and almost that distance apart from each other. This whole area was then divested of sod and its soil improved with considerable compost.

Here nowadays violas, columbines and Dicentra eximia bloom almost the entire season from early spring to fall:

Primroses, candytuft, wood phlox and spring bulbs run riot in their turn. And on the southern edge of this garden any sun-loving plant does extremely well since there is no shade at all.

Somewhat by chance we had hit on the perfect garden of this type. The dogwoods give only a dappled shade, and we are keeping the lower branches trimmed off so there will never be too much shadow.

The slanting rays of the morning and afternoon sun reach into the center of the bed, but there is an ever-shifting screen of shade over most of it during the time the sun is at its zenith. This is just what our shade-loving favorites wanted, and they are thriving.

Due to the way the sun hits the garden, the violas have done much better on the eastern edge of the garden, and we may plant alyssum in the western foreground next year since that section apparently gets so much more hot sun.

I think this garden under the dogwoods is the most satisfactory I have ever conceived, and know that in some form or another we shall carry its plan to any other property we own.

This first planting, however, depended a lot on chance since we cannot truly say we laid it out with any hope of getting quite such a splendid result: the placement of the trees was more or less forced on us by the lay of the land. Next time we will certainly have to use a compass in order to duplicate the effect.

Using The Shade Survey

Any reader can fashion a similar garden merely by using a compass against the lines of their property.

Whether you plan a sunny or a shady spot, your compass reading must be tempered by what I call a shade survey. This simply requires checking the area at various times of the day before you dig to make sure there are no shady encroachments such as houses and trees on neighboring lots which might spoil the effect you seek.

Using The Shade Survey
Using The Shade Survey

We did not realize it when we bought, but the streets on the southern and western boundaries of our lot make the ideal situation for a gardener. No one else’s shade can upset our plans. In addition, the shrubs we plant to give privacy on our northern boundary provide background for our gardening, but rob us of no sun at all.

We hope there will soon be an opportunity for us to buy another house with more land than we now own, and we shall then add a corollary to our adage about planting with a compass, for I intend to buy with a compass in hand.

The lessons we have learned about sun, shade, and direction will probably dismay the real estate salesmen, but we know just how important it is for a gardener to follow the sun, and we shall be content to be marked as eccentrics until we find the property that satisfies our gardener’s compass as well as the family’s needs and pocketbooks.

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