Getting a garden going in a hurry

Adrian Higgins / The Washington Post /

Published Apr 9, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Seasoned gardeners will tell you that a newly planted garden can begin to look effective in three years, full in five and knitted together by seven. Give the shade trees a decade or two.

But what if you wanted a near-instant garden because you are planning to retire in a few years, or intend to sell your home in five, or you’re just an impatient soul in need of instant gratification?

As Arlington, Va., landscape designer Tom Mannion points out, commercial landscapers install finished exteriors all the time, using oversized trees and shrubs, lots of big evergreens for plant architecture, and beds that rely on seasonal annuals or mounding ground covers, all tied together with lots of mulch and push-button watering systems. The advantages: a neat and mature look with relatively low weekly maintenance. The drawbacks: a landscape that is expensive to put in, needs a seasonal maintenance regimen and has all the character of a hotel courtyard.

For those who want a more personal garden, there are tricks that hasten effects without robbing the landscape of its heart. Here are some ideas that aren’t necessarily cheap or without toil, but will richly reward your efforts in short order.

Patio and arbor

Whether you want a speedy garden or a plodding one, every paradise needs a place that ties the house to the landscape, and where you can sit in comfort, shelter and privacy. It’s called a patio.

Patios should be dry, flat and shady in summer. Some form of paving will lift you out of the mud, but, as Mannion points out, if you have storm water that is compromising the house, you need to fix that before you do anything else. A wet area that doesn’t bother the abode doesn’t need expensive drain systems; you can use it to create a pretty garden of moisture-loving plants, including the common mallow, the swamp hibiscus, ostrich ferns, ironweed and butterbur.

Gordon Hayward, a Vermont-based landscape designer, says a quick and effective floor for a patio might be something as simple as pea gravel, with framing to keep it in place, though it would quickly become littered under a tree.

A step up in materials and price would be dry-laid brick or bluestone (each has more character than modular concrete pavers). Salvaged brick, in particular, can save costs and give an instant look of age.

“If the house is contemporary, I like to use exposed aggregate concrete, edged in stone,” Mannion says. Often, patio terraces need some form of retaining wall to achieve flatness, an investment that will be repaid when the house is sold. Alternatively, a low deck can provide a level patio floor without requiring masonry walls, Mannion says.

Once you have a floor for the speedy garden, you need walls. Fences, trellises and arbors can provide an instant veil that a screen of trees or a hedge cannot. As Mannion points out, many people think that a fence is an ugly stockade or chain-link affair. “I say, get a beautiful fence; they don’t think such a thing exists,” he says.

Find a competent carpenter, show him or her structures you like, and go for cedar, if your budget allows. Tip: Use larger material than you had in mind; scale is different outdoors than inside.

Also, you don’t have to fence out your whole lot: You can put up a fence or trellis around just part of your patio. A trellis will lighten the wall effect and permit summer breezes.

Local building codes limit fence heights, but an arbor or pergola can provide an elevated garden element that screens, shades and provides support for vines. Again, don’t skimp on materials or size, not least because something like a climbing rose or kiwi vine needs a sturdy support.

Annuals and perennials

Petunias have their place, but there are a host of other annuals that will give a quick “hit” in this and future growing seasons. Sow sunflowers weekly in May and June for a successive bloom from late July to frost. Giant sunflower varieties such as Mammoth and Sunzilla provide their own near-instant screen, but the more delicate ones grow to five feet, are covered in smaller blooms and add a degree of elegance missing in the linebacker versions.

May sowings of cosmos and cleome bring summer blooms; just sprinkle the seed in rich, cultivated beds and thin the seedlings when they are small. Surely one of the easiest and most rewarding annuals is the zinnia, especially the improved varieties that resist the late-season powdery mildew.

As a rule, well-grown perennials make a show in their second year and look well-established by their third. Perennials — including ornamental grasses — can look fussy and formless if planted without sufficient thought. This is avoided by massing them as bold clumps that speak to each other.

A bulb (or tuber) contains a whole plant ready to go, so putting in bulbs guarantees a floral show just a few weeks after planting. The most common mistake is in not using enough. Six daffodils will barely register; 60 will create an effect; 600 will make a spring.

If placed out of deep shade, daffodils will come back year after year. There are so many varieties that you can have a show from early March to late April, with sizes that fit their surroundings.

Some tulips will come back year after year, particularly the delicate wild tulips, but the showier ones should be viewed as a spring extravagance and pulled after blooming.

These and other spring bulbs bridge the gap between the start of spring and early May, when annuals and tropicals can be grown that will give an immediate season of dynamic growth and bloom.

Summer bulbs offer their own immediate display, and dahlias are particularly useful in providing months of flowering if they are given rich soil and adequate moisture. The single and semidouble types with dark stems are easy to place with other plants.

Planning an arbor? Consider vines

If you build an arbor, fence or trellis, a vine or climber will give it life, soften the structure and enhance the sense of space. Some vines and climbers are effective within two or three years — or with annual vines, the first summer.


• Rose new dawn

This variety is the workhorse of climbing roses: vigorous, black-spot-resistant and with creamy pink flowers set against blue-green foliage. Its main flush of bloom is in May, but it repeats well through the season.

Comments: It needs an annual prune to keep it in bounds. It is a particularly thorny rose, so place it where it won’t snag you or your clothes.

• Trumpet honeysuckle

Spring flowering vine (not to be confused with the weedy Japanese honeysuckle) with tubular flowers in reds and yellows, depending on variety. Blooms in April.

Comments: New spring growth attracts aphids, which can be hosed off with water. Will grow in some shade. Botanically, Lonicera sempervirens.

• Anemone clematis

This vigorous, spring-flowering clematis is raring to go after three or four years, and the flowers are fragrant.

Comments: Look for pink flowering varieties found under the botanical name of Clematis montana rubens.

• Crossvine

This is a valued and robust native vine with trumpet-shaped orange flowers in spring.

Comments: A good choice for a shadier location, though it will need pruning once established to keep in check. Botanically, Bignonia capreolata.

Not recommended

The following vines either take too long to grow and bloom, are invasive, or are too messy and pest prone for the quick-garden patio: grapevines, English ivy, trumpet vine, climbing hydrangea, schizophragma and wisteria.