Saturday, October 13, 2012

Clueless at the Casa: How Star Trek Saved My Garden

Late Summer 2011

I stood in my backyard, my garden struggling against the grass border, and scowled. Beds full of lush, healthy plants merged tentatively with bare patches, the dessicated remains of 'drought resistant' perennials, and oddly designed groupings. I walked slowly along the grass, dragging myself from bed to bed.  Maraschino red flowers screamed against the fuchsia of rose campion and I turned away. Salvia scrambled over its neighbors, suffocating expensive plants in a carpet of purple fluff, while soft orange agastache, overly shaded and desperate for sun, collapsed onto the plants in front. The garden was a study in contrasts and the ugly parts were screamingly obvious. White loosestrife had taken over an entire bed and needed to be pulled out root by root. If the garden had been a dating site, Total Hot Mess would have been pathetically flirting with Manicured and Polished.


Bright pink rose campion looks truly hideous planted next to red 'Maraschino' salvia. Next time, I'll garden with my eyes open.



I planted the campion in a semi-circle around the red salvia because I wasn't paying attention. Note to Self: Drifting into La La Land while transplanting can have disastrous consequences.

Frustration rising, I could feel my emotions begin to boil. I breathed deeply but it was no use. Angry and overwhelmed, I headed for the house, my clogs and hat thrown in a heap on the patio. Something was off and I didn't know how to fix it. Images of other gardens pulsed through my brain and I wanted to know how they were so beautiful. What artistic epiphany drove the gardener to create such exquisite designs? Flopping onto the couch, I curled into myself and simmered. Analytical, lively, and curious by nature, I didn't want to compete with the gardeners I admired, I simply wanted to know their secrets. My family wisely avoided me while my dogs huddled close.


This bed was a complete mess. A ring of overgrown shasta daisies, a clump of almost dead linaria, and a scattering of miserable groundcover plants as well as undermulched soaker hoses were painful to look at.


This entire area was redesigned.


This bed had been completely taken over by white loosestrife, a beautiful but highly invasive plant. The day lily, dwarf heliopsis, and phlox were miserable in the dry partial shade. The loosestrife had already been cut to the ground in this picture and was waiting to be dug up.


Too emotionally tied to the labor and expense of my garden mistakes, I needed an impartial judge to help me identify the strengths and weaknesses of my designs, but no names popped to mind. Restless and covered in dog fur, I got up, went back outside, and began pacing.



Verbena bonariensis had taken over this bed and crowded out numerous plants. It was thinned heavily. The compost tomato should have been moved to a pot. 


These plants were all too close and had to be moved further away from each other once I began transplanting.

Weeknights at my house as a kid were spent watching TV with my dad. A quiet, awkward man, he was as devoted to the crew of Star Trek as he was to his family. I would slide onto the couch after dinner and we'd sometimes discuss my day. All problems could be solved by internalizing the lessons of Star Trek. Never be the fourth person in the transporter, always listen to Bones, take a few risks like Capt. Kirk, and never doubt  Mr. Spock. As unemotional as a rock, Spock analyzed every situation with unflagging accuracy and honesty. My father would punctuate the theme music with an enthusiastic "You tell'em, Spock!" with nearly every episode. Focusing on the attractive parts of the garden while ignoring the rest, I had my answer. I needed Mr Spock.


The Spock mind meld.

Rejuvenated and optimistic, I headed back inside and got to work. I went back to the garden pictures that had seemed so unachievable and asked myself what I liked about them. Emotional statements such as "They're fabulous" were off limits while I focused on the different parts that were the most appealing. I loved the fullness of one and the color harmony of another. I broke each photo down into likes and dislikes until I had a cohesive idea of what I wished my garden looked like. Keeping my emotions in check, I went back outside and forced myself to look at worst of my mistakes.


The wine cups (callirhoe) were removed completely since they were suffocating the surrounding plants. 

Since I couldn't teleport Spock to my garden, I had to do my human best to channel his unflinching honesty and contextual precision. Once again I outlawed emotional statements such as "My garden sucks and was designed by drunk space weasels." Instead, I focused on making pure observations such as 'Rose campion and the agastache do bloom at the same time and the color combination is jarring.  The coneflowers and asters are unhappy because the soil level is too low due to erosion, etc." I mentally broke my garden into a grid and like a field scientist analyzed it chunk by chunk. I stopped trying to convince myself that my cheap soaker hoses would make dry soil moist and began to acknowledge that my trees were only getting bigger, thus creating more shade annually.

I wandered the garden silently for an hour, my brain bursting with ideas. I had a ton of work ahead of me but finally knew how to fix my mess. Buoyed by a successful redesign I'd completed the previous spring, I felt confident and determined.  I closed my eyes and wished I could slide onto the couch next to my dad, Star Trek blaring through the cheap speakers. I would snuggle next to his thick shoulder and describe my day. I hadn't been the fourth person in a transporter and Bones was no where to be found, but I'd taken a risk like Capt Kirk and hadn't doubted Spock.


Captain Kirk and Mr Spock
Live Long and Prosper!


 I filled one of my driest beds with aster ericoides, variegated sedum, sea oats, and Solomon's Seal, all of which thrive in dry partial shade.




All of the loosestrife was removed and this bed was redesigned. A few phlox seedlings popped up but were moved this fall to a moister spot. More work was done on this bed recently and I think I've finally found the winning combination. Pycnanthemum muticum (Native mountain mint) and rudbeckia grow well here.


The red salvia 'Maraschino' was moved to a pot, the agastche was given growing room, and much of the campion was given to a friend. I still have a clump that I'm not sure what I want to do with.


I dug up the ring of daisies and put a teensy frog pond into the empty space. I filled the surrounding area with heuchera, amsonia 'Blue Ice', 'Rotkugel' oregano, and low growing veronica. 


I added fragrant white 'Sunday Gloves' day lilies to a bed with too much pink.


Part of the redesigned dry shade garden.


This spot is super dry so I just added a decorative urn instead of sentencing another plant to death here. The frog pond and daisies are on the other side of the pink 'Red Fox' veronica. 


I took out more grass to leave a mulch border between the garden and the lawn. I use the 'eyeball' method which doesn't always result in a very straight line. :o) 


This is the bed that had been taken over by loosestrife, looking through the crepe myrtles and into the rest of the garden.

75 comments:

  1. Looks lovely what you've done and the line can easily be straightened.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

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    1. Thanks! Straightening the border lines is a constant project. I need a shovel with a level attached so I know how straight they are.

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  2. Very inspirational. I am returning home soon after several months away and have no idea what I will be returning to on the garden front. I just hope I will be able to think it through logically and act decisively to get things back in shape too. And I love the garden bed with sedum and Solomon's Seal.

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    1. Thanks and welcome home! The thought process was a bit more extended than I've presented here, but I found it really helpful. Our gardens are such an extension and representation of ourselves that admitting our mistakes can be hard. It's much easier to blame them on space weasels. Does Solomon's Seal grow in Australia? It's a really tough, versatile plant.

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  3. Finally someone who turns to "Star trek" instead of to the "God Father"!... I never get the God father references because I just can't sit through the whole movies.... Now Star Trek..I totally get that.. Being fourth in the transporter is like being a Bond girl!... Your going to die....Looks to me like your redesign is well on its way.As long as when you walk out into your garden...It pleases your eye.. gives you peace and maybe makes you catch your breath.... Thats all that matters.. Being in the midst of the very same thing I really know what you went through. But WOW am I ever having fun.
    Thank you for sharing your garden with us.

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    1. Most Godfather quotes are way past me although I do know a few since I live with die-hard movie line quoters. As for being a Bond girl, that definitely has its rewards! This fall I'm tweaking a few of my redesigns from last fall but overall I"m really happy with how the garden looks.

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  4. While I may have the arched eyebrow and pointy ears of our beloved Spock, a lot of my garden process leans more toward a Romulan brandishing a disruptor. I've been accused of gardening with a green fist and I'm not beneath resorting to threats. I look at failed plants and plantings, envisioning them in the transporter - all wearing red shirts. The disrupter whines.... HA!

    While this method works for me most of the time, I'm thinking I should sign up for a couple of Kohlinar refreshers this winter. I could use some de-stressing. And the disruptor could use some down time.

    Really glad you managed to re-design your gardens in warp speed. All that since late 2011? Easy up - you'll blow your dilithium crystals. :-D

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    1. Loved all your references! :o) It took 2 months of weekends to get it all done. My son helped dig the frog pond, which was vital since he's currently at Army boot camp and I knew I couldn't do it alone. The 2 mos also included adding the Founding Flowers garden, which was a biggish project. I will admit to having a lot of energy. Someone asked me once what my workout plan was and I just responded, "Gardening". They totally didn't get it! Sometimes I make heavy handed, impulsive decisions that involve me getting mad at a plant and just ripping it out. But at heart I am a gardening planning ponderer.

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  5. Sometimes I think of plants at the nursery like puppies at the pound. The odds of them finding a good home are, well, not in their favor. How blessed are the ones you put in your cart! You are a gardener that works hard to find the best culture for each plant, and I tip my hat to you, maam. Impressive. You and Mr. Spock are welcome in my gardener at your earliest convenience. Total side note: I loved your phrase, "curled into myself and simmered". It was like a Twix bar of deliciosity for my linguistic appetite. :) Gracias!

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    1. We are fellow wordnerds, which is part of the reason I love your beautifully written blog so much. I fall in love with my plants and feel a protective commitment to them. Except when they start whining. Then I feel like I'm running a damn daycare! ;o)

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  6. Wow! You have really been working hard! Your garden looks fabulous! I love how you broke your garden down into grids and analyzed each one. I need to do that! "Don't be the fourth person in a transporter"! hahaha - I'll try to remember that one!

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    1. Thanks! Breaking my garden mess into smaller chunks made creating solutions less overwhelming. It was like taking a puzzle apart and then putting it back together. The fourth person in the transporter never came back!

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  7. What a fabulous weaving of garden frustration and trekkiness-- all so familiar, I loved it! I have a bed beside a long fence that I had almost written off as some sort of undocumented radioactive-material dump area--everything I planted there languished in eye-averting ugliness. After many years (and a lot of compost) I think it's coming around, but boy do I get the emotions you described here. And it was great to revisit the Star Trek words. We always called that doomed guy in the transporter the 'expendable ensign'... Great post, and your new garden efforts are first-rate charming! (Don't you love gardening in the fall?)

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    1. Thanks! The 'expendable ensign' is awesome! Whatever extra was playing that role always had a look of surprise on his face when he was eaten by a space monster, etc. Meanwhile, my dad and I were already planning his funeral the minute he stepped into the transporter. :o)I've had several problem beds like that, too. It took so long to figure out what would grow there, how to fix the soil problems, etc. Gardens, like babies, should come with directions.

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  8. What struggles we all go through to get it right. There is no easy formula, you just know when you see a nice combo that it works. I think designing with perennials is difficult --- I do better with shrubs and trees, and then use a few perennials to fill in. Even then there is a lot of moving things around. A full bed of different flowering herbaceous forms is really tough to pull off unless you are Fergus Garret. Thank goodness you have Spock and your Dad to advise from beyond!

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    1. It's definitely much harder than I ever thought it would be. People who don't understand how challenging gardening can be aren't gardeners. I had to Google Fergus Garret and then Google Christopher Lloyd, because to me that's the crazy guy in Back to the Future. I only read a small bit about him but now want to read more, more, more! If my dad were still alive, he'd be proud and that makes me feel good. :o)

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  9. All your hard work has certainly been worth it. The garden looks great and as a Trekkie I loved this post :-) You've also done me a favour... the little flower that I have just saved seed from that I labelled as "pretty magenta flower with grey furry leaves" is actually a campion!! Thanks for that x

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  10. It looks great, although I was relieved to read in the comments that it had actually taken you two months. Until then, I had been under the impression that you had achieved all this since your last post and I was feeling the pressure to achieve more as a garden blogger. I have just pulled out all my campion which has been very naughty and behaved like a weed. Good luck with the new planting, it is fantastic.

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    1. Campion has the morals of a cheap whore and spreads itself around like butter. But it's a looker so I keep it around. Redesigning half the garden took working every weekend over 2 months, which resulted in rotator cuff tendinitis. But that's what pain meds and physical therapy is for! :o)

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  11. Looks like your garden redo was a success. Dry shade is the most difficult to landscape. I have to admit to being a color snob. I'm pretty particular about putting certain colors together in the garden. For instance, I am not crazy about gray foliage next to yellow blooms, and I don't like light pink phlox next to yellow blooms. Dark pink is fine, but not light pink. Oh, and light pink next to orange hurts my eyes. And any red needs to be red/red, not orange red -- unless it is butterfly weed. I will make an exception for that. I have to consider every bloom and what it will be next to and what season it will be blooming next to what. It's a jigsaw puzzle for sure. Rose campion is so shocking that I'm really not sure what it would look good next to, except maybe something blue? I just planted some new daylilies today and had to study and ponder how they would look blooming next to their new gardenmates. I'm going by a picture which you can not be sure if the color is exactly like that. So we shall see what next spring/summer brings and if they will look good or if the color combo will hurt my eyes. Part of the jigsaw puzzle is height, texture, and season of bloom, too, as you well know. If only our gardens always looked like what our minds envision, right? "Beam me up, Scotty" is the only Star Trek reference I can even remotely remember. Seems like another life ago. Sorry about the rotator cuff tendinitis! Elbow for me. We must learn to pace ourselves, but it's hard to do when the ideas are flowing. Gotta make hay while the sun shines, you know.

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    1. Considering how gorgeous your garden is, your color sense is spot on! I do like pink and orange together, though. To each their own. :o) Chartreuse foliage drives me crazy. It makes me want to grab a bottle of Ironite because it looks so anemic. I like the idea of the rose campion with blue. I might just use that idea since I need to move it. 'Beam me up, Scotty' is such a classic line. I rarely watch TV now but have vivid memories of my favorite shows from childhood. My shoulder is much improved. It's my reminder to ask for help and not try to do everything myself.

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  12. Big Star Trek fan here too. Spock has long been an idol of mine (and always will be).

    Your garden looks wonderful this year. Well done!! :)

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  13. Tammy, you did a mountain of work, I think you planted very suitable plants, as aster, sedum, sea oats in a shade place. I love the next to last photo, all is clean and beautiful!
    I watched the Star Trek too, but don't remember in details.

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    1. Thanks! Sea oats have become one of my favorite plants. They beautiful and tough, which is an excellent combination.

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  14. What a wonderful post - and not just because you reveal yourself to be another Star Trek fan! I suspect we all get over emotional and despairing about our gardens from time to time, and being brave and unleashing our inner Spock seems like a really good antidote. It certainly seems to have worked for you, and I really enjoyed the honesty of the way you talked us through the problems and then your solutions for them.

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    1. I admire other gardeners/bloggers who are honest about their gardens. It gives authenticity to the entire process. My life/garden aren't perfect so I don't see the point in pretending they are. I find imperfection much more satisfying and real. :o)

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  15. Gardening is such work, but then so worth the effort. But it does require vision and a plan. Well done. It will grow nicely and be much easier to maintain.

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    1. Bingo! Happy, healthy plants planted in the right place are easier to maintain. I noticed that this year. I feel a bit like Mr. Magoo when it comes to defining my garden vision. I know what it should look like in the future but it's the immediate decisions that sometimes have a myopic blur to them.

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  16. You're wise to know – and use – inspiration when it comes to you. Whether from near or far, far away.

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    1. Thanks! I enjoy finding solutions to problems and think inspiration often arrives very quietly. If there's too much noise in your life, you might not hear it.

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  17. Boy, you have been busy....and very critical of your lush garden spots. I am still in the 'happy something is growing' stage. I have been trying to steer clear of plants that are 'thugs' or very invasive. My callirhoe hasn't been really going gangbusters, have a nice hillside for it to fill. Again, happy it is still alive after two years. :-)

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    1. When they're lush and healthy, I'm happy. It's when they're a mess that I get frustrated and critical. I think I'm a frustrated artist who uses the garden as a canvas and when the picture comes out looking too Jackson Pollock than I like, it's time for a redo. I had a lot of unhappy plants in the first three pictures. But ultimately, you're right - I need to less hard on myself. Callirhoe loves sun, heat, and dry soil.

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  18. Tammy, you have brought back so many memories of my Dad (rest his soul) and I watching the original Star Trek on the couch. Like you, me and my Dad would enjoy the show and we were among the first Trekkies, I imagine. Thank you for these lovely memories.
    As you mentioned, many important aspects in life were gained from that show.
    May your garden live long and prosper!!!

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    1. I'm so glad this touched you! My dad died at 55 and I treasure my memories of him. It's interesting how much I feel his presence in my garden. He would have loved this post and everyone who related to it. My daughter has a wonderful relationship with her dad, which is so beautiful to watch. :o) Plus, I think my dad was hot for Lt. Uhura.

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  19. You put a lot of work into rethinking and rearranging. I think part of the fun of gardening is that it is never completed, but always changing and always new.

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    1. If my garden were complete, I'd be bored. :o)

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  20. wonderful post - I love Start Trek too although sci fi was never anything I could share with my Russian immigrant parents. Gardening is quite an emotional roller coaster. I guess that's what makes it all the sweeter when we 'finish' the job - for the time being!

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    1. Thanks! My mom's family came to the USA from Sweden in the early 1900's and I grew up with a strong immigrant mentality - work for everything. I find beauty and satisfaction in meaningful work. :o) Gardening is emotional, for sure! I was wondering today as I was transplanting what plants I'd be moving around next fall.

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  21. You've done a fantastic job, your final pictures are wonderful. Sometimes I get attached to the vision I had when I put the plants in and don't want to give up, even though the plants have :) Great idea to look at the area critically. Excellent motivational post and I love that you can still draw from your relationship with your Dad (and Star Trek).

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    1. Thanks. :o) My visions are often pictures I've seen in magazines that I try to replicate at home without knowing all the planning behind the design. It's definitely a learn-as-you-go process.

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  22. Your redesigned beds look great! I know people who will never pull out or move a plant. If it's alive, they can't bring themselves to change it. The best garden advice I ever got was to be unafraid of transplanting or getting rid of plants that don't work. I have made many mistakes in my own garden, and sometimes it has taken more than one redesign before I realized what the problem was. Your own garden has come a long way; may it live long and prosper!

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    1. I think that's excellent advice. I recently pulled up a chunk of heuchera that really needed to be moved but it had been growing in the same spot with virtually no care for 8 years and I almost couldn't do it. I ended up being able to save a big clump and work it into the new design which was very satisfying. It felt like a wonderful compromise. :o)

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  23. Love it! What a fun post--you put a lot of work into it, and it shows (the post and your garden). I remember watching Star Trek with my cousins. You're right--having the objectivity of Spock would be helpful when analyzing what's wrong in the garden. I will have to remember that! And then if I can summon the energy level of Kirk or Chekov, I'll be golden!

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    1. Writing for this blog satisfies my need to write without having to worry about a paycheck, or lack of one, being attached to what I produce. That creates an environment that's tremendously free and creative. :o) Chekov was a pretty intense guy! He'd have my lawn scooped and mowed at warp speed.

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  24. You certainly describe the ups and downs and all arounds of gardening. It is not always easy, but I think the challenges are what keep me interested. I do like your circles and curves and have given me some ideas. I have not tried this design feature, but I am inspired to do so. Wonderful post!

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    1. I'm really attracted to round, curvaceous shapes. My garden feels very feminine to me and I like to create areas that feel full and enveloping. Even my straight lines are a bit curvy. :o)

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  25. I marvel at how you went through a catharsis over the deteriorated state of your garden and came out with renewed vigour to soldier on. Its fortunate that you were able to draw strength from your sweet childhood memories of the characters of Star Trek. You and your garden shall survive and thrive!

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    1. Finally realizing how to solve my garden problems was cathartic. Perfect word! Being able to accomplish a new design that created beauty while solving existing problems was tremendously satisfying.

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  26. I love how you worked Star Trek into your post :-D Gardening certainly does call for moments of Vulcan objectivity, especially when things can get so frustrating. Your last pictures are lovely. Hopefully the experience of struggle in the garden will help you confront future challenges as your garden grows and goes through its own series of changes. My garden is so young that it is really hard for me to anticipate how things will develop and what micro climates will emerge and what plants will bite the dust in the wake of our Vulcan-like summers. March on fellow gardener! May you, and your garden, live long and prosper.

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    1. Thanks! I rechanneled Spock a bit this summer for some much smaller problem areas and it worked really well. :o) Less emotion creates more objectivity which helps identify solutions. At least for me, anyway! But of course, I can't watch a Humane Society commercial without crying...

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  27. Hi Tammy, this is Jennifer's husband Harold. Normally I don't read the garden blogs that my wife so enjoys but as soon as I saw your title, I had too read your post. I am proud to say that I am this family's token Trekie. I really laughed when I read this.

    Qapla! (This should give you a hint as to my favourite character)

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    1. majQa'! Hola, Harold! Since you were smart enough to marry Jennifer and watch Star Trek, I automatically like you. :o) I'm really touched that you read the post and then commented. Glad I could give you a smile!!

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  28. I am so glad i dropped into Blotanical today to read this great post, heartbreaking and wonderful, your garden looks really great now, i bet you are pleased.

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    1. I'm really happy with the way the new designs have turned out. Realizing you've put lots of work and money into something just to have to redo it is heartbreaking a bit. But I love my garden unconditionally, so I fixed what needed to be fixed. This is a love story with a happy ending. :o)

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  29. Persevere... it always works out in the end. Really good read, Tammy, I enjoyed.

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    1. Thanks! I'm good at perseverance. I just stubbornly refuse to give up. :o)

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  30. Great post ... really enjoyed reading it and seeing the transformation. Definitely getting some of the "cheap whore" Campion - love plants that can look after themselves. :)

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    1. Thanks! Rose campion loves heat, needs very sharp drainage, and doesn't want much water. It will gladly scatter itself around your garden. :o) All you need to to do it sit back and enjoy the show.

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  31. I like your Mr. Spock method :) Perspective is hard to attain with our gardens, we become so attached to all the plants we've nurtured there. By the way, I don't think you've made any mistakes at all. You've simply gained experience.

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    1. Thanks! I am permanently enrolled at the University of Trial and Error. :o) I often learn what NOT to do before I learn how to do it correctly.

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  32. Hey, quick question. Those variegated sedums you have in the pic - do they bloom white? or pink/rose? I could really use a white-blooming sedum....

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    1. It's flowers are very pale pink instead of white but the aster ericoides it's planted with is titanium tough and has tiny white flowers. I've never seen a non-ground cover sedum with white flowers. Let me know if you find one!

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  33. Wow I really enjoyed this post as my gardens really don't look so great this past summer except for the shrub areas I've planted. I think I need to follow your lead and rethink much of my garden without causing myself pain a the same time.
    Rose campion, what a plant - I allowed it to take over a spot this summer and it thrived in our drought and looked good even as the plants dried up but man oh man there are going to be thousands of seedlings to pull out.

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    1. The seedlings are so easy to pull in the spring. They don't even bloom the first year so you might have more than you realize. :o) I often find them hiding in sneaky little spots. But I have a tender spot for them because they're so tough and beautiful. Try the Spock method and let me know how it works for you.

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  34. An absolutely inspirational post. You've made me want to -- divide (plants) and conquer (I just checked the spelling of conquer, it's one of those queer words that look wronger the longer you look at it/them) my space! A plan! A plot! Sanity! You are so right, that's all one needs -- beside a nap and a fresh bag of potato chips.

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    1. Thanks! I used your brilliant word shrubbish with a horticulturalist today who is an expert shrubber and he cracked up. You get all the credit. :o)Chocolate is my fuel. Combined with a vat of coffee, I blame it completely for convincing me to remove large swaths of grass while my husband is in the bathroom, rearranging shrubs that looked fine to begin with, and spending the kids college fund on online nurseries. I'd stick with chips.

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  35. remember its the journey not the end. he he.

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    1. I'm enjoying the trip! It's new everyday. :o)

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  36. Finally someone who is showing and speaking honestly of the struggles we all have with our gardens.

    Believe me I was taking notes the entire post, we have a few difficult areas and I have been more then a little frustrated with them.

    Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

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    1. I've discovered gardening isn't a very linear process but rather a wheel of constant problem solving. It's tremendously cerebral and I wish more garden bloggers would show their entire garden and discuss how they've dealt with their trouble spots. One of the goals I have for my blog is create a place that is authentic, even if it means showing the yuck spots. :o)

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  37. The "eyeball method" may not always give you a straight line but it can make for a great learning curve. Thanks for such an informative and very entertaining post!

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  38. "Star Trek" analogies (and thought process) for gardening. Your posts are just fabulous!! This one post should especially be shared with new gardeners. One could develop such an inferiority complex reading gardening books, magazines and professional garden websites. You are sharing real world examples of true gardening. Nice!!

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