Posted on 17 Comments

Holding Patterns

Holding Beds at Summer 2003

The snow seems to be gone for good now, so I’m finally making progress on the garden cleanup I didn’t get to tackle last fall. The work is so routine now that it leaves plenty of time for contemplation. It’s easy to start dwelling on the various planting and design mistakes I’ve made over the years, but that’s a poor frame of mind to be in at such a promising time of year, so instead, I try to focus on what I’m happy with. I’ve come up with lots of things to be positive about, but overall, the best decisions I’ve made for the garden have been related to creating an abundance of holding beds.

Holding Bed at May 2001

Holding beds—also called holding areas or nursery beds—aren’t nearly as enticing a project as a new border or a pretty path. Though they can look nice, they’re mostly meant to be practical. My first need when I moved here was to make a place where the plants I saved from my old garden could hang out until I had a permanent place for them. So back in 2001, even before the house was built, I gathered loads of surface rocks to make a frame, filled it with a big truckload of purchased topsoil mix, and set in all my treasures. It looked kind of crazy, having a big raised bed out by the road, but it had to be out of the way of all the construction equipment to come.

Holding Bed at May 2001

Of course, it broke one of the first rules of good placement for a holding bed: proximity to water. Trying to keep all of those tiny plants from drying out involved hauling a lot of water buckets through that whole growing season. Fortunately, I had a good site inspector to make sure everything was doing ok.

Guinevere Inspecting the Holding Bed at May 2001

I tried to make the holding bed look a bit garden-y by repeating a few things that I had multiples of, and by tucking in a few annuals where things died. It was still a hodgepodge, but it served the purpose for that growing season.

Holding Bed at late June 2001

When the house was done and I was able to make new beds the following spring, I felt very rich being able to dig an ample supply of “free” perennials and shrubs.

Holding Bed at June 2001

Once I relocated all of the plants, I hauled the rocks closer to the house for wall-building and leveled out the remaining soil. I scattered an old bag of sunflower seed as a filler for that summer, then sowed grass seed in fall. You can’t tell now by looking that the holding bed was ever there, but it’s one of the boys’ favorite places to eat when I take them out to graze, so there must still be something good about that spot after all these years.

Holding Beds at mid-April 2002

The next area of holding beds was behind the house. To separate it from what was supposed to be the dogs’ play yard, I used old hay bales until I could afford the fencing I wanted.

Holding Beds at late May 2002

Filled with topsoil mix scavenged from the old holding bed, they worked great for small purchases, seedlings, and tiny acquisitions from plant swaps.

Holding Bed at Summer 2002

Giving the small perennials a season or two to bulk up before moving them to their final destination was a big help. They had a much better chance of survival, and sometimes, they were even large enough that I could divide them first to fill more space. I also used the trick of buying overgrown pots on sale in fall, planting them in the holding beds, and then dividing them in spring—a great money-saver. One other benefit: for things that grew easily from seed, I could buy just one, let it bloom, and collect enough seed to grow as many new plants as I had space for.

Holding Beds at Summer 2003

As I moved plants out, I’d fill the spaces left with new seedlings, or with vegetables.

Holding Beds at Summer 2007

Eventually, I developed a new nursery area and separate vegetable garden, so a few years ago, this area became an herb garden.

Herb Garden at Summer 2013

The nursery area I have now, on the far side of the area above, has gone through many changes over the years. At first, it was a kitchen garden.

Kitchen Garden at June 2001

Eventually, the small sitting area above became the home of a small greenhouse.

Greenhouse at April 2010

It’s not heated and not well insulated, so it’s basically just a big cold frame, but it’s very useful for hardening off indoor-started seedlings and greenhouse-grown plants that I buy in spring.

Greenhouse at April 2013

Kitchen Garden at June 2002

The other side of this sheltered, close-to-the-house space was very useful for veggies, herbs, and cut flowers the first few years.

Kitchen garden at August 2002

Kitchen Garden at June 2007

Once I had other, bigger places for the edibles and cutting garden, this space finally became my nursery area. Mom made these tables for me when I had a little retail nursery at my old place. They’re supported on sawhorses with removable legs, so it’s easy to store them once the main seedling season is over.

Nursery at mid-April 2010

When time allowed, I removed the old gravel and weeds, re-leveled the area, put down some landscape fabric, and used one side just for seedlings.

Nursery at late April 2010

When the seedlings were done each year, I’d turn this spot into a little sitting area with leftover ornaments and potted odds and ends.

Nursery/Sitting Area at late September 2010

It turned out a little different each time, depending on what I had left to work with. I really enjoyed creating and using that special space for a few summers.

Nursery/Sitting Area at mid-September 2011

Nursery/Sitting Area at late September 2010

In the other half of the nursery, I built two holding beds for seedlings and special veggies and left some open space for potted stuff.

Nursery Holding Beds at mid-June 2011

One year, I turned the seedling/sitting half into a mini-garden for a how-two article I was writing and photographing on creating a bean teepee. I missed my sitting area, but this project gave me lots of other ideas for mini gardens I could create in this space.

Bean Teepee in Nursery at mid-August 2012

I’ve resisted that so far, though, because another project took over the space last year and will again this year: the container plantings that Rob Cardillo and I are working on for our next book.

Nursery at mid-May 2013

First, it was the plants I bought and grew for the pots, along with my seedlings for the garden.

Nursery at early June 2013

Gradually, that muddle resolved into the planted-up containers.

Nursery at early July 2013

The nursery has been a great place to keep them safe and cared-for, though it’s a bit cramped when Rob needs to set up his equipment on shoot days. Fortunately, we did more than half of the containers last summer, so there will be a few fewer to take up space this year.

Nursery at early July 2013

Throughout all the changes, the holding beds here are still serving their purpose. Since I’m not making big new gardens any longer and don’t need to propagate large quantities of plants, I mostly use these small beds for growing out special perennial, bulb, clematis, and woody seedlings. They’re also handy for holding pots of seeds that need a season or two of alternating temperatures to germinate. Sinking the seed pots up to their rim means that I don’t have to worry about them getting knocked over, and they’re not as quick to dry out as exposed pots.

Holding Bed at mid-June 2012

Holding beds are invaluable for testing new acquisitions, as well. See the cute little campanula on the left edge of bed above? Somehow the glossy color plant tag failed to mention that it was a creeping type. I should have known just by looking at it, but it was a busy planting time and I just stuck it in here and forgot about it…until I found that it had crept all through about a quarter of that bed by the following summer. Though it was a bother to take everything out of the holding bed to try to eliminate the campanula, I was very grateful that it was in a confined area and not running loose in a border.

A holding bed is also handy as a “spa” area for plants that aren’t doing well out in the garden. I wouldn’t bother trying to nurse obviously diseased plants back to health, but if they’re just sitting there, neither thriving nor dying, or if they’ve been weakened by competition from overly enthusiastic companions, transplanting them to a holding bed filled with rich, loose soil sometimes helps them regain their will to live. After a year or two of pampering, they’re usually sturdy enough to go back to the garden and settle in for good.

When I need more holding space temporarily, I sometimes also use growing bags or large pots or tubs.

Nursery Area at late March 2012

For a few seasons, I also had a plastic wading pool that I’d bought for the boys to play in. Their pointy toes poked holes in the bottom almost right away, which made it useless for splashing in but ideal for planting. It looked kind of junky and crumbled after a few seasons, but it was useful while it lasted.

Last spring, I created one more holding area, down behind the cottage-garden shed. It was a great place for planting out extra perennial divisions, and for the pansies and potted spring bulbs left from my spring containers. It served as a test garden, too, for seedlings of various unidentified seeds that friends shared with me last year.

Holding bed at mid-April 2013

Most of my holding beds are in full sun, because that’s mostly what I have. But I did find a spot for one in a basically shady spot, under the silver willow and behind a row of giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha), so I would have a place to line out hellebore seedlings for a few years, until they reach flowering size and I can decide where to put them. They get plenty of light in fall, winter, and spring, and they don’t mind the dense shade in summer.

Hellebores at early April 2013

I don’t expect to create any more areas specifically for holding beds, but that’s just because I’m out of space inside the fence. Fortunately, there’s always room for odds and ends in the vegetable garden. When I pull out a spring crop of greens, for instance, I can put in seedlings of forget-me-nots (Myosotis), honesty (Lunaria annua), sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus),or other biennials for the summer. Once the biennials are big enough to move to the garden, I transplant them in late summer and put a crop of fall greens in that spot. Or, when summer beans or squash are done, I can tuck in perennial seedlings—such as the baby Indian physic (Porteranthus stipulatus) below—for the winter and move them to their permanent homes before the next crop of vegetables needs the space.

Porteranthus stipulatus seedlings at late October 2012

And there’s always room along edges or in corners for odds and ends.

Vegetable Garden at mid-October 2011

Now that I’m done making new beds, maybe I can think about upgrading some of the existing holding beds. It would be great to have some sort of wire-mesh covering over them, to keep bunnies out and prevent birds from pulling out small seedlings. It would also be handy to have an open frame (a raised bed frame, but with no soil inside) to corral nursery pots so they don’t get blown over while they’re waiting to get planted. It would make things look tidier than this, too.

Plants Waiting for Homes at

Another thing I’ve long wished for in my nursery area is a Nearing frame for rooting woody plant cuttings. I cut an article with building instructions out of the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s newsletter nearly 20 years ago but have since lost track of it, so I was thrilled to find recently that it’s available online in the articles section of the HPS/MAG website. You can access it directly as a short pdf file at The Nearing Frame. If you enjoy playing around with propagation projects, it’s something you too may want to try. Be prepared to add more holding beds as well, though, to make space for all of your successfully rooted cuttings.

Posted on 17 Comments

17 thoughts on “Holding Patterns

  1. Thanks, Nan.

    I think people forget that plants can be moved. I’m in the horrible pattern of not buying plants because I don’t have the place they need to go prepped properly (a contrast to my mom who buys every treasure she finds and then finds a place for it). And then I don’t get around to the project when path-building or chicken-coop building takes precedence. Some things I can’t do without, live in pots for years until I can build the berm, or bed. Also, having a holding bed is great for two other reasons – trialing something to see what it is going to do or what it looks like, and isolating it if it comes with pests.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Thanks for reading, methylgrace. Yep, holding beds are a great way to get around the “don’t buy plants unless you know where you’re going to put them” rule. If you know you have room in a nursery bed, then you’re free to make as many impulse purchases as you like. The only potential problem is leaving them in the holding beds too long, which can make transplanting more difficult. But crowded plants in a holding bed still have a better chance at survival than those left in neglected nursery pots.

  2. Hi Nan, great posting. You are very fortunate to have space for a holding bed, sadly it is only a dream for me. Those ‘impulse buys’ why oh why do we do it! I have so many impulse buys sitting around in pots I could dig my whole garden up plant them out and still have plenty left over lol Still the start of another gardening year hooray! I am glad that the snow has gone from your area and you are able to get gardening again. Can I ask you what method of slug deterrent you use because all your plants look unslugged. I must have super slugs because they have even eat my alliums this year. God bless p.s. Was that a Sheltie in pic 4?

    Hi Allan! Well, you have space around your new pond to fill this year, I think–or perhaps you’ve already filled it by now. Maybe there should be some sort of allotment scheme for gardeners who have no available space at home for a holding bed. As far as slugs go–well, some years they cause trouble here and some years they don’t. When they do, I sometimes think about using some sort of control measure but usually forget; eventually the damage stops or the plants are dead and I fill their space with something else. I wonder if the fact that I don’t use mulches in my borders makes a difference. And yes, that was my Gwennie: distant kin to your own darlings, perhaps!

  3. Ooh, now I *really* am starting to feel cramped in my current garden. I wonder what it would feel like to have so much wonderful non-driveway space for a nursery? :)

    I think you’ve answered your own question, Alan: Imagine what you could do with that driveway if it were garden instead. Then go rent a parking space somewhere and turn that asphalt into useful garden space. Seems like an obvious solution to me.

    You know, you and Allan before you have given me a great business idea for helping out both the nursery industry and folks with no space left at home: You pay for the plant at the garden center but take home only the label. They get to sell the plant to someone else then, and you get the thrill of buying the plant and the proof of having selected it without the guilt of killing it when you forget to find a place to plant it.

  4. I’m envious, you have so much space! My holding/nursery bed seems to have turned into a permanent home for a number of plants who decided it was the perfect spot. So now when I need to ‘hold’ a plant, I pot it up and put it in a shady corner of a small patio. City gardening has its space challenges, although somehow that doesn’t seem to stop me from trying a bunch of new plants every year.

    So sorry, Laura, it wasn’t my intention to taunt you all with having so much room. My first place was a small garden in the center of town, so I know what it’s like to need every bit of space to count. I thought it would be blissful to have acres instead of square feet to fill, but that presents its own set of maintenance challenges. I really miss having the time to pay close attention to individual plants and the ability to choose them for quality or rarity rather than practicality.

    Holding beds are most valuable in newer gardens, where there’s space for borders-to-be and a legitimate need to accumulate plants to fill them. Once a garden is established, the holding beds aren’t as useful, except for propagation experiments. Still, we have to find a solution for those unplanned purchases somehow. Here’s another idea: hire people or critters once a year to sneak into the garden at night and dig out/cut down/devour a dozen or so existing plants. Once you get over the shock, you’ll have a dozen empty spots to fill with those impulse purchases. Just a thought.

    1. The raccoons are doing that job just fine.

      Uh oh, sorry to hear that, Laura. That’s one critter I haven’t had to deal with here–yet, at least.

  5. Your lovely plantings and gardenscapes make me eager to do more gardening. Your photographs show raised beds or holding beds–can you tell me what you use for the frame? I would like to build a raised at the side of our cottage where it gets good sun most of the day.
    Thanks from a new follower.

    Hi again! I usually use 1 x 6 pine lumber for beds that I know aren’t going to be permanent and composite (plastic) lumber for those I expect to last for more than 4 or 5 years. The composite is more expensive, but it comes in a variety of colors and sizes. You can find it with other decking supplies in the lumber department at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and other home-improvement centers. They’ll cut it for you (for a fee), so you can get it home in manageable pieces. If you use premade corners and joints, you can easily put the bed together in less than an hour. Add some soil and you’ll have a new garden space in no time.

  6. The Nearing Frame plan looks simple enough and might just be the thing I need to propagate my lavender plants. I started them 3 years ago from seeds, but had mixed results every year in taking cuttings. I’d be interested in reading about your experience with this design, if/when you get to it.

    I garden frugally, having been motivated by Carol Klein and Monty Don’s approach to gardening on a budget. This year, I’ll be using one of the veggie beds as a nursery bed to grow perennials for the front foundation beds (which I neglected). With 5,000sqft of space, it is taking a long time to tame the yard, mostly because we make our own compost every season and that seems to be the limiting factor.

    Your project on container gardening sounds exciting. Can’t wait to read more about it. This year, dh is curious about doing a tomato trial in pots to learn more about nutrients management in soil (we’re such soil and compost geeks!).

    I’m always inspired by gardeners, such as yourself, who start out with very little and create beautiful and functional garden spaces. With limited budget, it forces one to stretch and become creative with resources available. I find the whole process very humbling and satisfying because every plant in the garden started out as a seed or cutting that I cared for.

    Ok, I’m definitely putting the Nearing frame on my list of projects for this fall or next spring, so I will report back.

    Ah yes, the challenge of ample space but limited resources. I’m all with folks who want people to have gardens, ground covers, or planted meadows instead of lawn, but I wonder where they get the money for all the plants needed and the labor to get rid of the sod and prepare the site for planting. Lawn grass is sometimes the only practical solution as a filler for a while. It’s taken me over a decade to fill in inside the fence, and that involved a lot of propagation projects, as well as a heavy dependence on self-sowers. You’re right about having a special connection to your garden when you’ve grown the plants yourself; I hadn’t thought of it that way. I wish you happy composting and lots of success with your own projects and experiments this year, Liat.

  7. Although I’ve been actively trying to limit my impulse buys, I’m a plant collector at heart so I often end of with things I don’t have obvious spots for (especially now that I’m trying to pay more attention to the composition of the garden as a whole). I don’t have the space you do but I have considered using at least one of my raised planters in the vegetable garden as a holding area. Thanks for sharing your experiments.

    That sounds like a great plan, Kris. It’s hard to give up some prime veg space, but the really good soil can do wonders to speed the growth of small plants, so they don’t need to stay in there long. The main challenge I have with managing holding beds is finding good soil to replace what gets removed when I move plants out. But the frequent soil shifting does provide an opportunity to work in whatever organic matter you can find before replanting, so you shouldn’t lose much production when you return to growing edibles in your planters.

  8. What a great post! It’s fascinating to see all the transformations and to see all the garden areas develop. I can’t believe how quickly those red cedar have grown!
    My holding bed always ends up being the vegetable garden. It’s always a mess trying to find enough room to get the tomatoes in, and I really should make an official bed, but that would require finding another good spot and the veggies already have it…
    You really have done a nice job creating so many nice spaces throughout the garden. Even your utility areas!

    Hi there, Frank! Yes, the red cedars are amazing–easily hundreds out there, all planted by the birds and up from seed to 8 feet or more in the last dozen or so years.

    Knowing that you’re a fellow seed fanatic, I can easily imagine that you too need ample holding space. The veg garden really does make a great solution, doesn’t it? Squash plants and some of the bigger brassicas can smother small bedmates, but most other veggies seem to be compatible and can even provide some welcome shade for seedlings. Speaking of which…I hope your germination efforts are progressing well.

  9. Nan,

    Wonderful post. Great to see your garden in the beginning and how it evolved over time. Enjoyed your tips on raised/holding beds, informative and very helpful. Especially appreciated the image of Gwennie.

    Good evening, John. I’m glad to hear you found the post of interest. And yep, I was finally able to work in a photo of Gwennie. She loved being photographed as much as the boys dislike it. I have hundreds of pictures of her in the garden, but I don’t look at them much because she’s very missed. By the way, there’s a great article about Rob that you might find of interest:

    1. Nan,

      Thanks for the link to Rob’s article. Interesting, and glad to read about your new book.

      Very welcome, John. I know you too are a fan of Rob’s work.

  10. I always enjoy watching a garden grow and change so thanks for taking me along. Every gardener needs holding beds and mine happen to be my vegetable garden beds. Mainly because there is drip system there. It usually is necessitated by my having to leave town and the need to plant some seedlings where I know they will get water. Then there are the pass-a-longs you aren’t quite sure where to put. I just removed a large stand of iris that had been in one bed for 2 years. Now I can plant beans this year!

    Congratulations, Jennifer – enjoy those beans this summer. I don’t know, though…it sounds more like you happen to grow some vegetables in your holding beds than raise seedlings in your vegetable garden!

  11. Nan! This is a fantastic post, showing how great gardens can have humble origins. You’ve done so much, starting with so little – “just” thousands of hours of research and hard work! I really appreciate some of your tips, like buying over-grown, crowded plants at the end of the season sales… and buying one and sowing seeds from it.

    Most readers seem to be envious of your large, open space, but I have the opposite impression. How fortunate you are to have some boundaries, and how wise you have been to create your own. I have, for over ten years now, been overwhelmed by too much space, too many acres to care for or mow, too much growth of the jungle creeping in on all sides around me. Your garden seems so beautifully under control!

    Thanks for gathering so many historic photos that show so many steps toward what you have today. I still can’t believe you even know how to make stone walls. I’m so impressed!

    Animals, the garden, writing so many books, keeping the blog… do you ever sleep?


    Good morning, Clark! Oh my yes, you certainly know the challenge of gardening from the too-much-space angle…and not just that, but in grand settings with large existing structures but no existing plantings to work off of, and no wealthy patron to supply your plant acquisitions. Your drive for garden-making is unstoppable–even by earthquake devastation. I can’t believe how much you have accomplished in your new location after just one year (is it really only that long?). It’s terrific that you are keeping a visual record of your process and projects (The Hortus Horrei of Corte Eremo, Mantua, for those of you who don’t already know Clark). And well, you know, it’s generally possible to find time for things that you *want* to do, even if those things look like tiresome work to other people.

  12. I love your “stuff.”

    Thanks, Kay. At least I finally found something to do with all the odds and ends I’ve collected over the years.

  13. Hi Nan. Thanks for the incredibly interesting, well thought out and exhaustive article on holding beds and the evolution of your beautiful garden. I, too, live in a suburban garden and have only a small utility area and a separate potager. But, you’ve got me thinking I may be able to squeeze in a small bed in the the utility area. Hmmm….Any way, I just got back from a month in Hawaii where I tried to let all thoughts of my garden behind (we can garden 12 months a year here in Victoria, BC so sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming) but I did log on to Amazon Canada to order your new book which finally became available in March To my delight I was able to snag the last copy although more are already being ordered. I’ll unpack this morning and look after a few odds and ends. Finally, at tea time, I’ll settle down with your new book, a pleasure which I have awaited for months!

    Though it sounds blissful at first, the idea of gardening year ’round is daunting when I really think about it. I can imagine that it was great to get a break from it and come back refreshed. I hope you find that the book was worth the wait!

  14. It’s incredible to watch how your garden has evolved. I have holding beds too, but they are really more just pots I stuff a few plants in until I have a good spot. I also have Indian physic in my garden and just love it. Check out the Garden Love column on the right side bar of my blog.

    Right, Casa–you don’t have to have a whole separate bed: a small corner or even a few wide pots will work fine. I’ll be sure to check out your blog. Indian physic isn’t the most wow of plants for most of the growing season, but it’s charming and dependable and a real star when in fall color. My deer have a taste for it, unfortunately, but I’m hoping to make a nice space inside for fence so I can move those seedlings to the garden this spring.

  15. When we started our garden I had holding beds, too, but nothing on your scale. It is so helpful to see someone else’s process complete with pictures. It’s always useful to remember that few of us start with a garden. We start with an idea or a dream and work to turn that vision into reality. Always a pleasure to visit your blog.

    Thanks, Linda! It has certainly been an interesting journey, transitioning from holding beds to gardens. And, it’s still going!

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