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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Filled with topsoil mix scavenged from the old holding bed, they worked great for small purchases, seedlings, and tiny acquisitions from plant swaps.
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.
As I moved plants out, I’d fill the spaces left with new seedlings, or with vegetables.
Eventually, I developed a new nursery area and separate vegetable garden, so a few years ago, this area became an herb garden.
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.
Eventually, the small sitting area above became the home of a small greenhouse.
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.
The other side of this sheltered, close-to-the-house space was very useful for veggies, herbs, and cut flowers the first few years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First, it was the plants I bought and grew for the pots, along with my seedlings for the garden.
Gradually, that muddle resolved into the planted-up containers.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
And there’s always room along edges or in corners for odds and ends.
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.
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.