Dreaming Into New Possibilities
I’m in the throes of a major garden renovation and feeling like the luckiest woman on the planet. It seems like all my friends are feverishly emptying their closets, but I did that a few years ago and they’re still pretty not bad. My kitchen drawers and cabinets are tidy and organized too, and I’m working on the pantry. The garage is three-quarter empty, almost ready for a remodel. With so much done, I feel utterly justified in ignoring the basement and digging in outside instead.
This house is built on a hillside, so you walk in and find yourself 20 feet off the ground. The only flat place to garden is within the circular driveway, which just doesn’t feel like a place to be. However, thanks to the tree rats that want to live in the attic, we’ve been taking out damaged and failing trees as well as everything that touches the house. The result is so open, light and airy that it allowed me to rethink the lie of the land. That slightly sloping circle is pretty big, some 60 feet long and about 40 feet wide. Once the overgrown Norway maple and the dying antacid-pink cherry were removed, I could see beyond what was to what could be.
The Green Bowl
Rather than surround a house with trees and shrubs, I’ve always preferred to create a green bowl effect by planting woodies well away, leaving open space for human-scale gardens that embrace without smothering. The same pattern holds true for making ‘secret gardens’ tucked within a greater landscape, so the driveway was handing me a terrific opportunity. Soon, a running berm will wrap around the circle (oval, really), with a curving entrance so there’s no direct view into the center. The handsome Japanese maple now outgrowing its position by the front entry will eventually be the main focal point, but it leafed out so early this year that we missed the transplanting window. That’s ok, we can work on the back half of the new garden now and finish off the front half this fall.
The outer edge will be bermed and planted with small trees and good-sized shrubs, and the berm will slop gently down to the inner edge where I’ll cluster smaller shrubs, bulbs, grasses and perennials. Back in the day, many of us were so excited to get our hands on new-to-us perennials that we cheerfully paid amazing sums for what are now considered mediocre plants. Indeed, I recall being able to swap a 4-inch pot of Crocosmia Lucifer or Euphorbia Chameleon for the rarest treasures on the American market. Now the one is ubiquitous and the other regarded as unreliable and weedy.
Perennials That Earn Their Keep
Gardeners who get fed up with high maintenance, prima donna perennials often find that shrubs make better backbones for beds and borders. I’ve long been a proponent of mixed borders, which feature artful combinations of all sorts of plant, from trees to groundcovers. Shrubs can be both beautiful and useful, supplying architectural strength as well as colorful, shapely foliage, even if flowers are minor or missing.
The good news is that, these days, many perennials can make the same claims. The 80s saw a boom in perennial improvement, through breeding, selection and discovery of well-behaved new species. The best of the bunch are not just beautiful, but also deer, drought, and disease resistant, don’t need staking and can thrive for years without division.
Dream Book Still A Good Guide
To my mind, there is still no better guide for would-be perennial gardeners than Dream Plants For The Natural Garden by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf. Published by Timber Press back in 2000, this illustrated handbook lists only perennials that reward minimal care with prolonged seasons of good looks. Among other things, these two Dutch masters ranked for a plant’s ability to grow well in dreadful soil, to thrive in shade and drought, and to remain attractive well into winter.
Between them, they’ve grown pretty much all there is to grow, and evaluated plants ruthlessly for many years. The book isn’t perfect (they take slugs and bugs into consideration, but don’t discuss deer and other plant-eating wildlife) but it’s extremely useful. Still widely available in paperback, this once-pioneering work is a terrific guide for anyone wanting to add some perennial icing to a shrub-based garden. Gardeners battling poor soil, lousy drainage, heavy shade or blazing sun will all find inspiration for gussying up a boring bed or border.
Almost Perfect Perennials
As I’ve been flipping through the pages, looking for problem-free plants for my new but deer infested garden, I’m making careful notes. Acanthus or bear’s breeches come in several forms, but I’ll stick with the Dutchmen’s favorite, A. hungaricus. A heavy bloomer, this deer proof (so far, anyway) 4-footer produces statuesque spikes of white and purple flowers despite heavy shade. I’m planting native Amsonia tabernaemontana as much for the golden fall color of its slim, grassy leaves as for the masses of starry blue blossoms in summer.
Anemones are among my favorite flowers, so I’m using spring windflower, A. blanda, as well as 4-foot tall, white flowered A. tomentosa. Goatsbeard, Aruncus doicus, is a strapping native that makes a bushy mound 5 feet high, with handsomely divided leaves and great creamy plumes of blossoms. I love astrantias for their intricate, starry flowers and their habit of luxuriant self sowing, which means I can get bags of them from friend’s gardens.
That’s just strolling through the As, and there’s an alphabet more awaiting! We haven’t touched on Epimediums, those peerless groundcover perennials, Euphorbias, another favorite family (E. palustris and polychroma), or hellebores in the very sturdiest forms (H. argutifolius)… Actually, I’ve been potting up dozens of strapping seedlings of my H. orientalis, which I will always grow despite the black spot issues. I’ve found that as long as I am scrupulous about removing the old leaves the minute they head earthward, my plants remain clean and healthy, and I am envisioning sweeps of soft purple, rose and cream hellebores under my newly repositioned Japanese maple next winter. What a wonderful dream!