With Help from Garden Experts, Learn to Grow Your Own

Some guidance from Northern Virginia’s garden experts, you can turn your yard into a bucolic oasis.

By Jennifer Shapira

Northern Virginia Home Gardening
Photo courtesy of Anne Wick.

Referring to Anne Wick and her husband Carl as extreme hobbyist gardeners may not be a strong enough term. For them, gardening is a way of life. The couple both work at the EPA, though not in the same buildings, in downtown D.C. They are so environmentally conscious, they commute to work about 10 miles roundtrip daily on a tandem bike. Carl drops Anne off at work, then pedals the last mile to his office.

After work, he picks her up and they head home, where, in the full-scale gardens of their North Arlington home, they successfully grow crops, not just a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes. Their list of organic edible successes is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. Their fruit-bearing trees include: apples, cherries, persimmons, pawpaws, plums, figs; other fruits consist of: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, currants, grapes and strawberries.

For their 300-square-foot vegetable bed, there’s another impressive list: tomatoes, lettuce, parsnips, carrots, leeks, onions, shallots, squash, pumpkins, beans, arugula, spinach, turnips, rhubarb and asparagus.  

But although they are serious gardeners. They don’t take themselves too seriously. “We tried corn,” says Anne Wick of one failed attempt, “but it wasn’t well-pollinated.”

Still, if this cornucopia sounds more like the displays at your local farmer’s market, that’s a close approximation.

When she and her husband bought their home some 20 years ago, their intent was to grow as much of their own food as possible. And they most certainly do. “The philosophy is: You don’t get too disappointed if a crop fails, if you’ve got one that’s thriving,” she says. “You just grow a variety.”

And over the years, she’s learned to make the most of every berry. The Wicks worked with Case Design to build a new kitchen that suited Anne’s needs exclusively. From the honed marble baking center where she rolls out dough for fruit pies to the extra-deep width cherry cabinetry where she can store her heavy-duty appliances—she also cans and dehydrates much of their haul and they compost the remainder—the recently installed induction cooktop is her favorite new appliance. Thanks to an efficient ceiling fan and loads of prep space, including a granite-topped island, when she makes jam on the cooktop, the kitchen temperature stays comfortable. Gone are the days of sweating at the stovetop over bubbling brews of sugar and berries, she says, with more than an air of relief.

Wick, a mostly self-taught gardening enthusiast, took one USDA class years ago where she learned about landscape design. She later drew up the plans for several intimate garden “rooms” on their home’s four-tenths of an acre. She wanted to add a touch of grace and structure, she says, laughing as she adds that her practical husband would have been satisfied with farm-style rows of crops. She wasn’t having it. She cut her teeth in England, where she says, the weather is perfect for gardening. The all-too-familiar stickiness of our hazy, hot and humid summer days is non-existent across the pond.  

And while the Wicks likely harvest a few more fruits and vegetables than a casual gardener’s aspirations, Mary Kirk Menefee, a landscape designer at Merrifield Garden Center can help a novice dig in, or advise an expert on a few new tips.

Determine conditions. Does your yard have full or partial sun? Full or partial shade? Is your soil well-drained? And possibly most important: How much time and energy are you willing to invest? To maximize four-season interest, landscape professionals like to encourage a garden’s progression of blooms, which can be challenging because the soil native to this area tends to be clay-heavy.

Northern Virginia Home Gardening.
Anne Wick's garden. Photo courtesy of Anne Wick

Here, early spring calls up cheerful crocus and daffodils, giving way to showy tulips in May and knock-out roses in June and July. In August, black-eyed Susans wave in the breeze and bright phlox pretties up ground cover. In September and October classic autumnal chrysanthemums and attention-grabbing dahlias take center stage. By November and December, winter landscapes are dotted with show-stopping native evergreens like vibrant American holly, flowering kale and cabbage, and Menefee’s four-season favorite: itea, specifically Little Henry. “It’s bushy and lovely all through the summer,” she says, then in the fall turns a “marvelous” shade of wine.

For the color-challenged self-starter, Menefee suggests pairing plants and flowers that will bloom in flashes of sunny yellow and vibrant purple. That allows for the contrast of foliage in blue and orange, chartreuse and purple, which she says will always be successful and widens plant and color choices considerably. “They’re complementary colors on the color wheel so they’ll always look good together,” she says.

To increase more color and interest, she suggests a perennial trick: “One thing I really like to do,” says Menefee, “is plant bulbs, like your daffodils, in with your hostas, in with your daylilies, whatever is going to come up in late April, early May, and then bloom through the summer. You can have that spot do double duty.” And when the flower’s foliage has finished, something new comes up to take its place.

But if you’re garden-shy, “herbs are fantastic” for starting small, says Menefee. Try your hand at container gardening. In summer, care for sun-loving, low-maintenance mint or basil and nurture it in a pretty pot on your front step or patio. As your green thumb gains confidence, step it up another level or two. Shrub-like rosemary is a great option; it needs sun and stays mostly green year-round; snip off a stalk to add to dinner even in winter.

But while edible gardening has been hot for a number of years, says Menefee, it’s not for everyone.

As the Wicks can attest, edibles require constant care, from planting to weeding to watering to harvesting, and finally cooking/eating/preserving. Their garden-to-table procedures are almost formulaic. Their walk-in pantry is always stocked; one side is reserved for soon-to-be-filled jars, on the other sits the season’s preserved abundance. Last year Wick had such a bounty of cherries she invited her colleagues to pick-their-own, orchard-style. She even schooled them in the art of canning with a bonus how-to lesson.  

Northern Virginia Home Gardening
Photo courtesy of Ellen Ash.

For Ellen Ash, a self-proclaimed garden jack-of-all-trades, trying out new plant and flower combinations is more than a hobby. And as she spends eight to 10 hours a day working in her beds, it’s practically an occupation. Of her growing list of successes, she says, “I kept sort of expanding beds and kept falling in love with different things.”  

The Great Falls homeowner, who lives on five acres, has had her luscious landscapes featured on the area’s garden tours. The eclectic gardener collects “tasteful” lawn ornaments and statuary, scouring garden fairs for pieces of art that fit her outdoor themes. “I have things hanging on trees, and I have things sitting on stumps—it’s quite a collection of stuff around in the garden,” she says. Arranged in what she hopes is an artful fashion, Ash likes the surprise of coming around a corner and seeing something new.

Her winding woodland garden is something of a mossy refuge for her, and her mass of trees and shade plants include, but are not limited to: azaleas, laurels, camellias, mahonias, hydrangeas, hellabores, epimedium, pulmonarias, carexes and ferns aplenty.

“I kind of reward myself after I do the chores in other parts of the garden,” she says. And there are many. “And I can go in my woodland, where I kind of get lost for the day,” she says.

Northern Virginia Home Gardening.
Photo courtesy of Anne Wick.

She tends to a vast garden of dahlias—she estimates she grows about 40 varieties—and she loves the pink and magenta hues of favorites Elsie Huston and Chilson’s Pride. She has entered garden club contests and won countless blue ribbons for her dahlias, which she Y-stakes with care during the growing season.

Ash has a small herb garden where she grows oregano, chives, basil, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, parsley, lavender. But the single best tip she shares for growing herbs is to ensure easy access to them: Plant them in a convenient spot so you’re more likely to snip off a few leaves to flavor your cooking.  
Menefee says it’s OK to grow herbs beside other plants as long as soil and sun conditions are comparable. “Then it just improves your cooking, ten-fold. You pop out, snip what you need and it’s absolutely fresh, instead of that $5 pack you bought for one sprig.”

For shady gardens, Menefee says, “I absolutely love the combination of hosta, hellabores and ferns. Creating interesting textural combinations is something that I do a lot, particularly when we don’t want a lot of splashy color. Getting those giant leaves of a hosta next to those tiny little fronds of a fern is just such a great contrast,” she says.

Still, there’s the old adage: When you buy a plant, the first year it sleeps, the next year it creeps, the third year it leaps.

No matter how adorable the plant looks at the nursery, cautions Menefee, it will require nurturing. People get busy, and “before you know it, that plant is ‘out of control.’ And it has overgrown,” she says. “I tell people all the time: There’s no such thing as an overgrown plant. That plant is doing what its DNA tells it to do.”

For the casual gardener, talk to the staff at local garden centers and nurseries. They can offer suggestions based on your space and conditions.

But, in general, says Menefee, customers are “looking for plants that are going to provide structure, color, fragrance. Then there’s the added satisfaction that comes with the freshness and flavor of growing your own. Nothing beats a salad grown from your own patch of earth or a summertime cobbler made from your own harvested berries.

Clearly, enthusiasts Wick and Ash have that in spades.

(May 2014)