Plants That Thrive On Benign Neglect

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Workhorse Plants For Tough Places

A few years ago, I was asked to plan and plant beds at the entryway to Bainbridge Island, a new pocket park above the ferry dock. Created by a team of Rotarians and community volunteers, this little park now leads thousands of people to and from the ferry each year. Like a well designed home entry bed, the Waypoint plantings must look good all year without needing much care. Especially now.

For the first few years, I and a small band of volunteers maintained the beds. However, an unfortunate series of decisions that did not include us resulted in the care of this entryway park resting on a single park employee. Since I’m very fond of her, I recently decided to get over my snit (sort of) and give her a hand with getting the beds back in shape. This is no small task, since the larger bed alone consists of about 10,000 square feet and holds hundreds of shrubs and perennials. Fortunately, the plant palette has largely proven to be successful and most of the plantings are quietly thriving despite the dearth of care. Indeed, they read quite well through the year, perhaps especially from a distance, as they were intended to be as attractive to passing motorists as to walkers.

The Dark Side Of Perennials

I’ve been fascinated to see how well the perennials in particular are holding up. Back in the 80s, I was so smitten with perennials that I used them anywhere and everywhere. Gradually, however, I began to find the winter blankness of perennial beds depressing. Perennial borders also need frequent division and resetting or they lose definition and become over crowded. Some fleetingly lovely plants just don’t earn the space they require while others are frustratingly fussy or all too eager to spread. In reaction, I started developing mixed borders. My early experiments were a little iffy, since it takes some skill to create lastingly effective and compatible combinations that really do hold their looks all year. Eventually, those mixed borders wove colorful combinations of perennials and shrubs, grasses and bulbs into a tapestry that could hold up visually even in the depths of January.

Naturally, I then developed an obsessive fascination with shrubs, to the point that perennials nearly vanished from my palette. Good looking, hard working woodies can definitely transform the gardening experience for aging gardeners and what joyful fun to explore their possibilities! Soon enough, perennials sneaked their way back into my gardens, earning their place with gorgeous foliage, bold color, and delicious fragrance. These days, I only plant mixed borders, but the balance is a bit more even. For one thing, my current perennial palette has been strongly influenced by the way plants age. Evergreen perennials, slow clumpers, and those with marvelous seed heads are very welcome. Incorrigible floppers are out, even if their flowers are lovely. Takeover thugs and wild runners are out as well, no matter what they offer.

The Bold and The Beautiful

Perhaps because my eyesight is not what it was, I no longer plant demure dainties. These days, most of my plantings are designed to read from a distance, and they’re usually based on the natural architecture of the plants. Thus, perennials are planted in sweeps unless large enough to constitute a “sweep of one” (think Six Hills Giant catmint). The bigger catmints are very dependable for large scale plantings; each can cover 3-4 square feet and will repeat bloom reliably if sheared lightly once or twice a season. At the Waypoint, catmints make excellent edging plants, spilling gently over the lip of the stone retaining wall that delineates the huge border we call the Wild Garden.

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is a similarly solid performer here, surrounding its pleated foliage with foamy masses of tiny, starry blooms that hold their looks for months. Prairie sunflower (Helianthus Lemon Queen) is a spreader in terrific situations but is slowed down considerably in poor ones like this, where its sheaves of sunny flowers carry on for months despite drought and heat. When happy, as it is here, joe pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum Gateway) can soar as much as 8 feet high, making statuesque thickets of sturdy stems topped with the soft globes of dusky purple flower heads. In shadier areas, massed hellebores hold their own in summer thanks to long fingered foliage, brightening the cooler months with long lasting flowers as well. Tough as nails, my favorite ground cover perennials, Bishop’s Hat (Epimedium) also offers shapely foliage and smoky fall color as well as unfurling coils of late winter flowers that look like balancing birds on a wire.

Grand Grasses

Grasses, too are best grouped in sweeps, unless they have enough structural integrity to stand alone, and even then, I usually place them in clusters. At Waypoint, maiden grasses (Miscanthus) such as Gracillimus and Morning Light remain strong and striking through the winter and need only a late winter cutting when the green of new growth edges up from the base. I also used my favorite evergreen grasses, notably pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniaia) and Carex testacea, both of which are most satisfying to my eye when given enough room to spread into their full space, which may be as much as 4 x 4 feet. Japanese forest grass (Hakenechloa macra), plain green or chartreuse-gold in the Aurea form, is another trooper that can hold its own in tough conditions. This slow clumper gradually flows into stream-like masses that look especially attractive on slopes or underplanting small, sculptural trees, as they do in this little park.

Rich in grasses and shrubs, mixed borders become less about floral color and more about the rhythmic repeats of hummock and mound, spike and spire. Instead of falling fast for new plants, I now assess the impact of a given plant over time and try to plant accordingly. Since this might mean plunking a small start in a big, empty space, I use annual fillers as place holders. They provide seasonal color without cramping the style of the shrub or perennial or grass they’re filling in for. Calendulas are great favorites, since they bloom at least a bit all year round, producing their shaggy, citrus-bright blooms even when the irrigation fails (Yes. I don’t even want to discuss it).

On The Wild Side

The Wild Garden border blends into a steep, wooded ravine, so it’s planted with hundreds of native trees and shrubs at the back and sides. Towards the front, I echoed the wild plants with allied garden forms that evoke the island’s complex history. Thus, you’ll see both rosy pink Spirea douglassii and compact garden spireas, bigleaf maples and Japanese maples, wild cherries and ornamental Asian cherries, native roses and rugosa hybrids. Rich with oceanspray and sumac, twiggy dogwoods and hawthorns, Indian plum and huckleberries, the bold background plantings meld into the native woodies lining the ravine.

Along the street, a large, more formally planted island bed island bed combines Mount Fuji flowering cherries with a solid mass of Lonicera pileata Royal Carpet. This low-growing, evergreen, trouble-free shrub is an excellent choice for low garden hedges, maturing to 3-4 feet high and wide. Tucked into this sweep of green, small rain gardens hold sheets of dwarf redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea Kelseyi, which take up water eagerly in winter without needing summer irrigation. Along the sidewalks, pockets of seasonal color hold low maintenance perennials, clumping grasses, ground covers, and bulbs. Except when the irrigation…argh.

Soft Yet Structural

These “softer” elements must none the less be architecturally strong enough to hold their own amid the larger woody plants. Thus, the perennials and grasses need to be powerhouse plants that offer excellent form and foliage. Some also have pretty flowers in season, but they must earn their place without them. Shrubby or perennial, grass or bulb, preference was always given to plants with distinctive natural shapes. It’s been a hard year for plants (I still don’t even want to talk about the epic irrigation system fail) but overall, the palette is performing remarkably well.

Seeing how it’s all holding up has reawakened my former feelings of affection for this hard working landscape and I have to admit, I’m actually looking forward to getting hands-on involved again. After all, the plants did nothing wrong and they had no more of a vote than I did when the disruptions occurred. So. Hmm. Even though I swore (quite a bit) that I would never set foot in there again, well, it kinda looks like I’m going to. Giving up on gardens works best when we don’t have to see them any more (like the one I just left when I sold my house). (I don’t want to talk about that either.) It looks like I’m going to act like a grown up, suck it up, get over myself and offer some loving care to a planting I definitely loved creating. Yup. Because life hands us enough losses we can’t do anything about and it really doesn’t make sense to add to them out of stubbornness. Right? Yup. Right. Sigh. Right.


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2 Responses to Plants That Thrive On Benign Neglect

  1. Chris Mealy says:

    I love that garden! It’s a triumph! (I especially love the shrubs and trees in the back.) I’m so glad it’ll keep the Ann Lovejoy touch.

  2. Denise Maher says:

    Such wise words about this approach to mixed planting. I constantly vacillate between shrubs vs. perennials/grasses/succulents, winter presence/summer show, here in So. Calif. — and wise words too about being an adult and sucking it up, etc. Can’t wait to see what happens with this experiment!

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