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How to Boost Your Backyard's Flower Power


  • Courtesy Of Red Wagon Plants

Very soon, that first glorious spring day will arrive and, with it, the urge to create something beautiful and blossomy in the backyard. Whether your goal is to augment an existing garden or start from scratch, now is the time to plan.

We asked Julie Rubaud, owner of Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg, for some advice.

On a late February morning, seeds for tomatoes and peppers were germinating in trays near a heater in one of her hoop houses. Rubaud marveled over fragrant lavender plants that had miraculously survived the winter in the space. Outside, the red berries of an ornamental sumac shrub stood out in the gray winter light.

A new gardener — or a new homeowner with a "blank canvas" — needs to begin by doing some homework, Rubaud said. Study the light on your property with an understanding that some flowers love sun and others need shade. Take note of the sunniest spots, where the snow melts soonest in the spring. Watch how the sun and shade change across the yard from morning to afternoon.

Rubaud has been growing things her entire life and remains dazzled by what the sun can do in a yard. "It's the slowest-moving performance art," she said.

It's important, too, to learn what kind of soil your yard has. (That's a topic beyond the scope of this article, but plenty of help can be found, from online sources to your local extension service to other, more experienced gardeners.) Also observe where your yard is dry, wet or exposed to the wind.

Inside your house, look out a window onto the yard and think about planting where your gaze falls. You might also consider flowers that attract butterflies or feed the bees.

Next, plan your layout. Straight lines and rectangles are orderly, but half-moons, circles and curving borders might work well in your yard. Pay attention to flow. Rubaud encourages gardeners to use the paths that people take on a property "almost as a dotted line" to guide design. Make note of your own habits, and plant along routes to common destinations such as a shed. "See which way you walk to the mailbox, which way you walk to the car," she suggested.

The layout works best when the yard "feels like rooms [that have] always been there," Rubaud said.

Especially with a new flower garden, you should anticipate its maintenance. Generally more color means more weeding, Rubaud noted. Many blooms mean a lot of deadheading — the removal of dying blossoms to invigorate new ones. And while the overflowing English cottage garden looks effortless, that's deceptive. It tends to be labor-intensive, she cautioned.

An alternative is to buy three flower varieties in abundance and group them together. This avoids the "confetti" effect of random blooms planted willy-nilly. It also reduces your temptation to buy clashing annuals because they're on sale.

  • Courtesy Of Red Wagon Plants

Rubaud likes to line a walkway with curly parsley, sweet alyssum and pansies, then fill in with zinnias or marigolds when full summer arrives and heat-sensitive pansies die back. She often mixes edible herbs, such as that parsley, with flowers for texture and fragrance. Garlic chives, with their white flower heads, and variegated lemon thyme are also good options. Another winning combination, she suggested, is rainbow chard, nasturtiums (easy to grow from seed) and a trellis holding up scarlet runner beans. Ornamental grasses also add height and contrast.

Foliage can be just as beautiful as blossoms. Enjoy shades of green by grouping Solomon's seal, lady's mantle and hosta. Also incorporate different heights, as with this trio: autumn joy sedum, dwarf Magellan zinnia and verbena bonariensis — a tall, slender, purple-topped flower.

Sculptural shrubs can help a garden maintain appeal from stick season through mud season. Evergreens, dogwoods and hydrangeas work well. Rubaud also likes variegated willow and Physocarpus, commonly known as ninebark.

"You can create a lot of texture and color without flowers," she said.

Red Wagon specializes in herbs and edibles. Some of Rubaud's earliest gardening memories are of plucking tender butter lettuce and escarole for dinner. "I'm from a French family, so we had really nice kitchen gardens," she recalled.

Rubaud was born in Megève, France, an Alpine ski town. Her family moved to Vermont in 1976, when she was 6. Her father, Gérard Rubaud, took a job with French ski maker Rossignol, which then had an office in Williston. He later ran a restaurant in Burlington and then moved on to baking bread. The senior Rubaud still bakes crusty country loaves five times a week at his home in Westford, where Julie grew up.

  • Courtesy Of Red Wagon Plants
  • Julie Rubaud

She got her start growing herbs for her father's restaurant in a plot at Burlington's Intervale. Rubaud briefly lived in the red-brick farmhouse on the property — it's where her (now college-age) daughter was born. Though edibles are still Rubaud's focus, Red Wagon also offers a wide range of annual and perennial flowers. This year the retail side of the business celebrates its 10th anniversary. It opens for the season on April 15.

Over the years, Rubaud has learned to accept nature's gifts. At her home in Hinesburg, she said, one of her "happiest accidents" was a patch of milkweed that appeared next to dwarf sunflowers, echinacea and ornamental sumac. It was a lovely reminder that nature has its own agenda.

"That's the beauty of gardening, because the plants really teach you what you need to know," Rubaud said. "And every year you get another chance."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Growing Where You're Planted"