Dear Problem Lady - April 2017

Our new townhouse back yard is entirely unplanted. There is a brick patio at the back door, a nine-foot wood fence around three sides, and nothing. What perennials do you suggest we might plant first?

The Problem Lady loves a tabula rasa, but not if it exists inside the gardener’s own mind! Please stop all planting plans for a few seconds to focus on some questions:

  1. What purpose must this back yard serve in your life? A place to sunbathe? Meditate? Entertain? Impress your mother? Grow vegetables? Bury pets?
  2. Does your household consist of other persons beside yourself? For example, do you have a three-year-old child whose needs might be fully met by a sand box and a birdbath? Will you receive gardening help from spouse or friend?
  3. From which direction, and for how long, does sunshine enter the yard?
  4. Does your yard have exposure to winds coming from the northwest?
  5. Of what composition is the existing soil in your yard? Why must you know?
  6. How will you water your garden? It is easier to install an underground watering system now, at the outset, before any planting, if you can afford one.
  7. Do you wish to have any trees or shrubs? Do you like shade gardens at all?
  8. What Hardiness Zone do you live in?
  9. How much time each week, if any, can you devote to caring for, nay, working, in a garden? Some say this work is a garden’s chief pleasure.
  10. How many Capitol Hill back yards have you seen? Capitol Hill Garden Club’s monthly programs and walks can provide ideas that might blow your mind!


We have a cheerful jasmine shrub that blooms in January. Friends tell me it is not really jasmine because it has no scent. That is not my fault. I do wish it did. Now I am curious about what true jasmine is, and what mine really is.

Your shrub is winter jasmine. A deciduous shrub with no scent, it blooms with tiny yellow flowers as early as January. Your friends allude to Carolina jessamine (or jasmine). This one is an evergreen vine with intensely fragrant, tubular yellow flowers. It also blooms in late winter, and all summer too. The state flower of South Carolina, it is hardy in the same zones as yours – 6 through 9. Because it is a vigorous vine, it is happiest on a strong trellis or fence.


On Tuesday, April 11, the Capitol Hill Garden Club will feature National Arboretum speaker Piper Zittel on the many different kinds of salvia. We meet at the Northeast Public Library, corner of Maryland Avenue and Seventh Street NE. Meetings start at 7 p.m. and are free and open to all.

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