The lone voice of horticultural reason

Behold The Holding Pit

While touring an acquaintance’s large garden years ago I stumbled upon a small raised bed in the corner of his backyard, blocked from general view by low shrubs. At first I thought it was a vegetable patch, for unlike the sweeping flowerbeds so obviously on display, the greenery in this rectangular, raised plot was planted in straight rows, and grouped strictly by specimen. Only upon closer inspection did I see it contained young perennials, and only after inquiring of my host did I learn the name and function of this extremely useful area; “That’s my holding pit,” he informed me.

Museums and art galleries have storage areas housing perfectly good pieces of art not currently on display; the perennial holding pit serves the same function for our gardens. Now that I’ve had one for a number of years, I can’t figure out how I gardened without it.

Currently in my holding pit I have 14 perfect Gaillardia (blanket flower) I started indoors from seed last winter. They won’t flower until next summer, so they’re biding their time in soldier-straight rows, developing strong root systems and gaining size in preparation for their 1999 front-yard debut. Next to them are four exotic Aquilegia (columbine), five Delphinium and a couple Dicentra (bleeding heart), also grown from seed sown indoors. 10 red lily bulblets plucked during fall division fill one corner, a year or two away from useful maturity, while next to them lies a great clump of butterfly bush that must be five years old by now; it should make for a dramatic main stage showing, if and when I ever get around to figuring out where it might fit.

Dividing clumps of daylilies one always winds up with handfuls of single, healthy young plants-into the holding pit they go. Ajuga, left over from some mid-stream design change, has spread quickly to crowd one side, while two small clumps of a very pretty dwarf Alcea rosea (hollyhock), also left over from division, bide their time.

Plants rotate in and out, of course. One of the main uses of the holding pit is the wintering of perennials you pick up in the fall at rock-bottom prices. I can run over to the Garden Patch in Excelsior in September during their end-of-the-season-sale and grab three small pots of Jacob’s Ladder, some first-year sprigs of baby’s breath and anything else that looks good, bring it home, pop it into the pit, and when it appears next spring it’s not only bigger, it would now cost twice what I paid for it. The pit also allows me to buy small, inexpensive perennials that I know I’ll use during future expansions. I don’t seed perennials directly into my pit, but many gardeners do-to the tune of hundreds of dollars in savings.

To make your own holding pit, choose an area in the backyard that is as yet undeveloped. A semi-shady spot works well-it need not be full sun. You just want the plants to grow; they don’t have to bloom. My pit receives about two-and-a-half hours of direct sun a day, meaning I can fill it with both sun and shade plants. A stretch that is currently lawn is ideal, because not only will you discover some depth of black soil after removing the sod, you’ll be decreasing the total amount of Green Plague marring your property.

Raise the bed by ringing it with eight-inch wood ties. Whereas I dislike the look of wood timbers in the display garden, they’re good for this purpose. 4′ x 8′ is a good size for a small pit, and can be constructed out of just three, eight-foot ties. My pit is an 8′ x 8′ square with a tie running down the center, so I can step. Rototill the existing soil to a depth of eight inches, then add peat moss, compost, composted manure or anything else you have that contains organic material, and rototill it again.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener