I love the informal feel of my cottage garden, but I'm enough of a plant geek to want organization, too. It's harder than you'd think to plan a random, natural looking garden without having it look contrived. But I still get a random layout in my garden - by planting alphabetically!
Certainly there are times when I want to plant particular combinations of plants, mixing and matching colors, heights, bloom times, etc. But at other times, I want an easy way to randomize those same characteristics in my garden. I might place an assortment of new plants alphabetically according to their botanical names. If I have a lot of different varieties of the same plant, I'll alphabetize them according to their cultivar name. Either way, organizing plants by name means everything but their labels will look random.
Alphabetical planting has a practical side, too. I use a lot of different labeling methods for my plants, but sometimes I plan to add a label "later" and forget. Other times, plant labels get rearranged by visiting kids or retrieved by neighborhood dogs. If I have planted alphabetically, from left to right (or from front to back) across a bed, I have a good chance of figuring out the identity of a lost-label plant.
For the past several years, I've grown a dozen or more varieties of heirloom tomatoes in a row across the back of my vegetable garden. Arranging them alphabetically by variety lets me remember who's who without labeling each plant or searching for labels in dense foliage. If an especially delicious yellow tomato comes from the left end of the row, I know it's ‘Brandywine Yellow' and not ‘Olga's Round Yellow Chicken'.
I recently added a border of daffodils along the back of the yard. I wanted to make a colorful, long-blooming display with clumps and drifts of different varieties. As I paged through catalogs and made my wish lists for ordering, I took copious notes. I started making myself crazy trying to plan out their placement so that colors and bloom times would vary along the length of the border. I didn't want a patterned look, as I was going for an informal, naturalized effect. Then I had a thought - if I arranged them alphabetically by name, I could randomize color, type, and bloom times while appeasing my need to plan!
My daffodils were lovely this year - sweeps of color appearing in one part of the border, then in another. I could not have planned a prettier or more informal effect. I noticed a lot of my markers had popped out of place, but putting them back was no problem. That early yellow daffodil near the left side of the bed must be ‘February Gold', and the one on the other end must be ‘St. Keverne'.
I also sow seeds alphabetically, if I'm starting a lot of different varieties. Remember all those tomatoes I mentioned? It's easier to keep track of which is which as I transplant them if I've sowed the seeds in alphabetical rows. That way, if my labeling tape falls off the seed starting tray, I can use my list of "tomatoes to start" to figure out the varieties. I do the same thing with basil, since I'm growing a dozen varieties again this year. I've found the take-out trays that Sam's Club uses for a rack of ribs are perfect for sowing many rows of just a few seeds each (and as a bonus, those ribs are pretty tasty).
Sometimes I use the alphabet to limit my choices when I'm having a hard time deciding what plants to include in an area. I have an "ABC Butterfly Bed" in which only plants starting with A, B, or C are allowed, although I confess I've stretched that a bit by using both botanical and common names. Bronze Fennel, Agastache rugosa, Buddlea davidii, and Ascelpias ‘Cinderella' grow side by side there, to the delight of the butterflies and caterpillars. I planted the zinnias elsewhere, rather than crowding them into that same bed, and that gave me the start of a great cutting garden.
Now, I don't mean to imply that my entire garden is arranged alphabetically. I use a lot of different criteria to determine which plants go where. Sometimes it's as simple as planting a new acquisition in any available opening in the bed, although I do try not to plant a short, shade-loving plant in a spot better suited to a tall, sun-worshipper. But when I just can't come up with a plan, or when my plans start getting far too complicated, I turn to the alphabet for a simple solution.
Alphabetical Gardening: it's a fun way to plan your planting for an informal, un-planned look!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
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