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Susan Patton, Winchester, Ky.

Gardener Transforms a Clay Tobacco Field into a Lush Flower Garden

Susan Patton
Susan uses lots of organic mulch, which has gradually improved her heavy clay soil.

In rural Kentucky, tobacco has been king for generations. But as development encroaches on rural areas, fields filled with tobacco are being replaced by rows of houses. Susan Patton's property was once part of a large tobacco field. When she purchased the land, she dreamed of planting flower gardens where there had once been acres of green tobacco. Her dream has come true, and her home is now surrounded by a riot of colorful perennials, shrubs and annual flowers.

Although Susan now gardens in Kentucky, her gardening roots are both deep and broad. "My father is from England and my mother from Ohio. Both were big gardeners when I was growing up," says Susan. "But I hated it, especially the weeding." However, sometimes you just can't escape your roots. Now Susan and all her siblings are big flower gardeners. "I've found gardening be an important stress reliever for me," she says. "I worked in the biotech industry until recently, when I retired. The best part of every day was getting home from work and puttering in my gardens," she says.

The Winds of Kentucky

Susan has large perennial beds all around the house filled with favorite flowers such as irises, coneflowers, liatris, phlox, clematis, peonies and daylilies. "I love growing perennials because many of them seem to move around on their own and new flowers pop up in different places," she says. To complement these herbaceous flowers, Susan grows colorful shrubs, such as weigela, azalea, rhododendron and spirea. "I particularly like the ornamental grasses," she says. "The Karl Forester reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) provides great structure in the garden and serves as a backdrop to my flowers." Wind poses a significant challenge to all the plants in Susan's garden. "I garden in an open field. It seems like there's nothing stopping the howling wind from Kansas to Kentucky," she claims.

To keep her tall perennials upright, Susan relies on Grow Through Supports and Support Rings. "I must have 15 plant rings in my garden. They work great keeping floppy perennials such as oriental lilies vertical so I can enjoy the flowers," says Susan. "I use the grow through supports to keep the peonies and iris upright. I leave them out year round and even after many winters they still look great." Susan even uses the linking stakes to keep her raspberries in bounds. "My raspberries and blueberries are mixed right in with my flowers so I can munch and work at the same time," she says. She also has planted a windbreak of arborvitae and Japanese black pine, combined with a fence, to reduce the effects of the wind.

Working with Clay Soil

One of the other challenges of gardening in rural Kentucky is the clay soil. Though fertile, clay soil is hard to work. Susan's solution is mulch. "I've been adding mulch to my flower beds for 10 years and the plants love it," she says. Susan mulches in spring and again in fall. For her rhododendron and azaleas she uses pine straw and pine bark mulch to help keep the pH low. For the perennial flowers she applies a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of hardwood mulch.

It also helps that Susan grows her perennials in raised beds. "I have used the Raised Bed Corners to construct some of these beds," she says. "I like them because they're easy to put together, make a nice square or rectangular-shaped bed. You just screw them in and you're done."

Along with clay soil, Susan also contends with excess moisture. Surface water runoff from another neighborhood ends up in her backyard during heavy rains. To remedy the problem, Susan fills biodegradable leaf bags with organic yard waste and leaves and places them in the area to redirect the water flow. "The bags act like hay bales to slow and divert the water creating a little retention area. The bags save the rest of my yard from drowning and eventually degrade along with the organic matter in them," she says. Every year she adds a few fresh bags to keep the system working.

Now that Susan's own yard is so packed with beautiful plants, she's helping create other gardens in her community. As a Master Gardener she's been working on beautification projects around historic and civic buildings in her town. "Even though I've been gardening for years, I still feel like a new gardener, learning new things as I go along," says Susan.

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