Solution Gardening: Solves Problems, Meets Needs, Fulfills Wishes in the Landscape

I love a good conference. Attending landscaping and gardening industry conferences keeps me up to date on what’s been happening in the industry while I’ve been busy designing, digging, planting, meeting with clients and running our business all year long. They’re usually held in the winter, during the off-season, so they’re also a good excuse to take a break from the everyday routine without feeling guilty.

The best part is that I get to learn about new concepts, trends and practices in the gardening and landscaping field, which I can put to use in my work and share with my clients and readers.

Last January, I attended the Georgia Green Industry Association’s Wintergreen Horticultural Trade Show and Conference in Duluth. Georgia, that is. It was great. In addition to all the exhibits and displays, they had educational sessions taught by experts from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension and other recognized industry leaders.

I especially liked the presentation by Allan Armitage, Ph.D. on solution gardening. He’s a well-known and respected horticulturist, writer and speaker living in Athens.

The term “solution gardening” was a new one to me, so I Googled it. What I found was an excerpt from a 1940 Scientific Monthly journal article describing the (then) 80-year history of the study of growing plants in nutrient solutions—without dirt. Of course! Hydroponics! It was a very interesting aside, even if not what I was looking for at the time.

As it turns out, the term solution gardening, as used and popularized and discussed by Dr. Armitage at the conference, refers to thinking about plants in terms of how they can be used to accomplish specific goals in the landscape rather than simply as isolated entities. The concept offers a different, often more useful, perspective on making plant selections.

As it turns out, even though I haven’t used that term, solution gardening is something I believe in and have been practicing and teaching about for years.

It’s essentially planting with a purpose.

A typical thinking process often goes:  I love this plant… now where could I use it in my yard? A solution gardening approach might be:  I want to have something blooming under that shade tree…which flowers can I choose from that would do well in that location and in those conditions? The solution gardening approach increases the likelihood that what you plant will thrive, and that you and the plant will be happy with your choice.

Putting the concept of solution gardening to use in the landscape

There are three common reasons to call upon the solution gardening approach:   to solve a particular problem in the landscape, to meet a specific need and to fulfill a wish. I’ll give you some examples.

deer resistant garden
The chaste tree (Vitus agnus-castus) is well suited for our hot weather and it’s deer resistant. Here, it’s under-planted with lantana (Lantana camara), which is too smelly for deer.

1. To solve a problem:

You’re sipping your coffee on a peaceful morning, watching through the window as day breaks over your hard-earned landscape. Suddenly you freeze, in awe of the sight of a doe and her fawn. You’re moved by the precious moment, until you realize they’re EATING YOUR HOSTAS!

You’ve identified the problem. In response, you can plant the same things again, putting up fencing or some other type of barriers to keep the deer out. You can hang aluminum pie pans from the tree branches to scare them away. (Please don’t do that.) You can use trial and error to experiment with different plants. Or you could take a solution gardening approach, which would mean doing a little research or talking to knowledgeable nursery staffers  to learn what plants that thrive in Northeast Georgia don’t appeal to deer—or might actually even repel them? A previous post from our archives offers some good suggestions on that, too. From that list of plants, you could choose something that you love and the deer won’t.

Examples of other common problems that might need solving:  a low area with poor drainage, a steep slope with erosion issues or a barren area under a specimen tree.

Hedgerow or border garden
: If you have the space, a hedgerow, with its assorted mix of plants of different heights and other varied characteristics, provides multiple garden solutions. Besides defining borders and creating privacy, hedgerows offer diversity that attracts pollinators and other wildlife.

2. To meet a need.

Solution gardening doesn’t always need a problem. Sometimes, it’s about taking advantage of an opportunity. Say you’ve got a great outdoor space that you use a lot. It’s perfect except for one thing:  there’s not as much privacy as you’d like.

You could pick up a half-dozen containers of that cool-looking bamboo at the garden center and plant bamboo all along the property line. But…do you really want a 16-foot-tall privacy screen on your quarter-acre subdivision lot?

A solution gardening approach to adding a living privacy screen would have you think about factors like location (slope, level ground, proximity to neighbors?), growing conditions (full sun, shade, drainage?), and eventual height wanted. Then, you’d consider things like how long you’re willing to wait for the privacy screen to reach full height, and how much maintenance you’re wanting to do?

As details about the intended use, the space and the conditions are specified—what is the plant being used for, where is it going and what are the growing conditions like?—the list of contenders for your privacy screen narrows.

Finally, knowing what plants will perform well, you can then make a decision based on things like which ones will best complement your home’s architecture and your outdoor space, how much you want to spend and which ones you just plain like the best.

Other examples of needs in your outdoor space that could be met through a solution gardening process:  sturdy landscape plantings that will hold up to kids and dogs, colorful foundation plantings or low-maintenance plants for curb appeal.

Flower cutting garden
Once you learn what flowers will thrive in your particular space, you can plant your cutting garden with confidence. Under the right conditions in our region, flowers well-suited for a cutting garden may include shasta daisies, gladiolas, snapdragons, lilies, marigolds, sunflowers, cosmos, and black-eyed Susans

3. To fulfill a wish.

If you love fresh-cut flowers in your home—and who doesn’t?—you may have fantasized, as I have, about having a cutting garden. A whole garden dedicated to flowers grown for no other purpose than to satisfy your vase-filling whims and centerpiece fancies.

If you’re considering planting a cutting garden, the choices of flowers to grow might seem daunting. Shasta daisies, gladiolas, snapdragons, lilies, marigolds, sunflowers, cosmos, black-eyed Susans…these are just a few that grow in our region (7b, for most of us). But that doesn’t mean they’d all be right for the spot you’ve chosen for your garden.

A solution gardening approach can help you here, too. Once you identify a space for your new garden, make note of the growing conditions there. How many hours of sun does it get, or is it mostly shady? Is the drainage pretty good? The soil?

Once you learn which flowers are likely to thrive in those conditions, you can start looking at characteristics you want in the flowers you’ll be cutting. For example, you’ll definitely want flowers that have long and sturdy stems. You’ll want flowers that put out lots of blossoms that last 7-10 days once they’re cut. And look for long blooming seasons.

Also consider factors like how much you’re going to want to tend the garden and water it. Would you prefer drought-tolerant or low-maintenance plants? Then you can play around with sizes and colors of blooms.

Now you’ve got a list of beautiful cutting flowers that should do well in your garden. It will probably include annuals and perennials. You can choose one or the other—or both. There are positives and negatives for each.

Since you’ve made your selections by focusing on the solutions they’ll be satisfying rather than being smitten by individual plants that may or may not be right for your application, you can start planting your cutting garden with confidence.

Other examples of wishes that could be fulfilled with a solution gardening approach:  a pollinator pathway or a meditation garden in the narrow, shaded strip of dirt beside the garage.

Garden centers may be moving toward marketing garden solutions more than plants

Imagine walking into the garden center and seeing plants arranged by the solutions they provide in the landscape rather than just by their names or types or colors. In his promotion of the concept of solution gardening, Dr. Armitage is encouraging plant sellers to do just that. And he sees the trend catching on.

Instead of displays with labels like bulbs, perennials or deciduous shrubs, which don’t mean anything to a lot of people, we may start seeing plants grouped by growing characteristics and contributions to the landscape like shade loving, drought tolerant or winter color.

I like that approach. I talk to a lot of people who are frustrated with gardening. It’s often because they don’t look beyond the plant with the pretty flowers to see how that plant could fit into the larger picture—their particular garden or overall landscape. Helping people choose the right plants for what they’re trying to accomplish increases the likelihood they’ll be successful and enjoy their gardening experiences.

Dr. Armitage has an array of excellent tools and resources on gardening that are well worth checking out, including 17 books, an app with rave reviews and a treasure trove of great videos on his YouTube channel. You can visit his website to learn more.

And let me know how solution gardening works for you this summer.




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