Introducing Melody Johnson
My friend Melody Johnson is a northerner from the Chicago suburbs who retired to the rural south (Southeastern Tennessee) with gardening in mind. Having traveled all over the world as an art quilt teacher, she wanted a more secluded lifestyle and slower pace for her non-working days. But gardening is real work, just a different kind, with much lower pay, but much greater rewards.
Melody finds it difficult to pass up a nursery clearance sale and has spent this year finding spots for plants which were neglected but revivable, as well as admitting garden mistakes and finding new solutions. Her garden is on a shady hillside that was scraped clean of soil, leaving only hard packed clay. The solution was to buy soil and make raised beds everywhere. Her husband Dave does the heavy lifting and brings in lots of wood chips for paths, and to eliminate grassy areas where grass never would grow. The pugs, Chester and Chumley, are in charge of snacking and snoozing.
There are links to Melody’s daily blog, quilts, paintings at the end of this interview. You will have your socks knocked off.
Hello Mel! How did you become a gardener?
I think it had a lot to do with tomatoes. Nothing like the taste of homegrown tomatoes to make one want a little spot in the yard to grow them. Then, of course, one must have basil, and a few flowers to make a house a home. It began that innocently, but soon became an obsession.
I had to have clematis, hardy geraniums, peonies, Asiatic lilies, bleeding hearts, heuchera, sedum and baptisia, not to mention my insatiable need for all sorts of hosta and hydrangeas. The awful part was not being home to tend the garden, as my travel schedule was hectic. I longed for the day that I could spend a few regular hours planting and observing growth patterns.
Now that I have retired and have that time, I try to finish planting by June 1st, if I could just stop buying plants!
When we moved south, I wanted to be realistic and have a back garden for flowers and tomatoes and a front garden for flowers. But I had a shade, vole and chipmunk problem and my plans had to be constantly revised.
It’s been six years of revising and I think I have found that final working arrangement: annuals in a deck planter box, perennials in raised beds, and mixing perennials and annuals in pots for color, saving my knees in the process.
What’s different about gardening now that you’ve moved from Chicago to Tennessee?
The weather! Our Tennessee winters are so mild and short. We get less than an inch of snow, and rarely get temps in the teens. On the other hand, we do live at 2200 feet and the last spring frost comes at about the same time as it did in Illinois, so I don’t get as early a start with new plants as one would think. However the perennials are quite vigorous, quite early.
Our summer temps are lower at this elevation than in the valleys, and add to that the shade we have from the surrounding woods, provides a micro-climate that makes gardening a breeze.
In the fall, we have lots of leaves to mulch the ground, and the killing frost comes in late November, making a very long growing season. Of course my enthusiasm wanes way before things stop growing. By September the garden is crowded and overgrown with nasturtiums and sweet potato vines.
Besides the greedy voles and chipmunks, are there any other problems you have to deal with or things you wish were different?
We are constantly battling poison ivy and wild raspberry bushes everywhere. And I didn’t mention drought, which sometimes happens in late summer, accompanied by Japanese beetles. But we have our own well so we keep the beds watered.
And of course I wish we had soil. Every year I bring in more and more soil to amend the beds. My compost pile is huge and untapped because it is always full of something blooming, like the dreaded phlox which I pulled out and dumped there. It took off and despite being full of mildew is blooming.
I also have nasturtiums, hyacinth beans, Autumn Bride heuchera and even a potato from two seasons ago, all growing nicely in the very shady compost. Someday I will get the soil out of it and spread it somewhere in the yard.
Do you have a vision of what you want your garden to be like or do you just wing it?
I could never have imagined that I would have ever had a garden this large and thriving. This season we have had a tremendous amount of glorious rain and as we all know, water makes such a difference in how the plants grow. The rain makes me look like a genius, when the same garden would look awful without it. I am humbled by the gift of regular rain.
The ‘Before’ picture…the cleaned out front bed, with just the essential foundation plants.
This year I was determined to make big changes, transplanting what I had, into better sites. I started early since they were all perennials and ripped out and discarded mistakes, heartlessly. Cruel to be kind, was my motto. It has made a big difference. Both front and back gardens are more organized, have more space for specimens to perform optimally, and fewer weeds.
I feel that I have finally learned to do more with fewer plants, although I continue to add to the garden, in pots! I learned from my laziness that hosta, heuchera and hydrangea (my three addictions) could winter over in pots without harm. So now I have a hosta, heuchera and some annuals together in pots, on pavers, sitting in the beds.
When I need to weed, I pull out the pots, stand on the pavers, and rip out the invaders, replacing the pots when I am finished. The pots of hydrangea are now planted and are the mainstay of the garden, surrounded by enough space to reach their full size in a few years. Of course I had to add a few wave petunias to keep some understory color.
What are some of your favourite plants or areas in the garden?
I am particularly happy to have three baptisias thriving in my front garden. It took several tries before I found the right spot for them, but this spring one had blooms for first time.
And two years ago I followed the advice of another gardener and tried out Celandine Poppies in my shade beds. They have a great early bloom and such a nice leafy habit, self seeding effortlessly, and now after buying two plants, I have uncountable volunteers.
They are mixed with white and pink bleeding hearts, also freely reseeding, and both manage to look good most of the season. The dense foliage hides whatever weed might be invading.
I cannot speak of favorite plants without citing the hosta.
We have everything from the tiniest Mouse Ears to the most outrageously sized Sum and Substance, all loving being a part of our garden. I did have to move them often, one step ahead of whomever was eating their roots, but for the time being, I feel we are gaining on the critters.
Tell me about your pond.
I love having a pond, and while it is man-made (no filter) and necessary to prevent spring flooding, it serves as a focal point for our back garden. Surrounding it are plantings of redbud, arborvitae and ornamental grasses.
In the pond are four different varieties of lily pads, which bloom constantly all summer, with no effort on our behalf. And the fish! We have hundreds of big goldfish, and a few growing koi, all of which come when they see us. We toss them catfish pellets and they have a feeding frenzy.
While the water is cold, it is clear as can be, and then suddenly it turns muddy and green as the weather warms. We can see the fish like living under the lily pads during the hotter months, and then returning to swim around once the water cools down again in the fall.
Can a garden ever be done or is this something you intend to always be working on?
It may have happened that this year, I got it right, and I may have figured out what works and can have a modicum of control. But then it is only June, and I have a long summer to discover what works and what doesn’t.
I am trying to be realistic and make it easy for these old knees and hips to keep it up. I think perennials in beds and both annuals mixed with perennials in flower boxes and pots may be the answer.
What would you tell a new gardener starting out in a climate like yours?
The valley climate is so different than the hills climate. So much hotter and sunnier in lower altitudes and things thrive there that die here. Know what works, by paying attention to your neighbors’ gardens.
If she is lucky to have soil, amend it anyway. Clay will be underneath, and rock, so if the top soil is thin, bring in soil, and composted manure and make raised beds.
No one ever regrets making a raised bed. Add new soil to top it off in the spring and water daily if it doesn’t rain. Start with native perennials and don’t be afraid to move them if necessary.
And now, most importantly, how are the dawgs doing?
These are my first dogs, always having been a cat person. I must say I am completely devoted to them, and love watching them enjoy our open field as well as the wooded areas. They are not diggers, and don’t wander much, but we do have a short fence should they see something of interest in the road. I wish they were chipmunk hunters, but alas, they only bark at them.
Pugs aren’t very good in the heat, or the cold, and prefer eating as their main interest, topped off with a very loud snooze.
Of course every plant must be christened by each of them in turn. Here they inspect early peony shoots, before lifting a leg.
And What’s The Secret to these Giant Hydrangeas?
Hydrangeas can be fussy for some gardeners. If you’ve struggled with them, try growing them in large containers where you can provide exactly what they like. Often it’s just a matter of good quality, organic container soil instead of garden soil.
As you can see from the pictures, this has worked beautifully for Melody.