It has been a wild summer. I don’t just mean world news, which I have assiduously avoided because it’s been so grim. I mean that it has been a fantastic summer for wildflowers, starting with iris, lupines, foxgloves, and columbine and now peaking with golden rod, black-eyed Susans, and tall grasses gone to seed. It seems that abundant rain and not-so-hot temperatures have been ideal for run-of-the-mill wildflowers as well as some unusual ones.
In July, my Maine neighbor showed me a flower along our dirt road that she did not recognize. It had a spectacular spike of candy-pink ruffled orchid-shaped flowers arrayed in orderly profusion along a tall stem, and was growing in a delightful tangle of ferns and sedges. I had no idea what it was, so I sent a photo to my friend, Stephanie Oberle, Director at Brookside Gardens and plant expert extraordinaire. She instantly recognized it as a "Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid" (Platanthera psycodes) -- a wild orchid.
While most orchids with which we are familiar are epiphytes, plants that absorb oxygen, nutrients, and moisture through exposed roots, the fringed orchid is terrestrial, meaning its roots must be in soil. There are about 200 species of terrestrial orchids in the US and Canada, including the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid, which, though uncommon, is found inmoist swamps, marshes, wet meadows, and boggy ditches from the upper Midwest to the East Coast and from Georgia to Hudson Bay. Excited, my immediate reaction was to plant more, but unfortunately, this July-blooming, butterfly-attracting beauty is difficult to propagate and is not commercially available. It grows best uncultivated in the wild.
A few days later, I happened upon a treasure trove of light blue flowers growing in the woods. Though I recognized them as campanulas, I'd never seen this color nor had seen them growing wild before. Fresh from the orchid discovery, I was confidant they were another unusual wild flower but when I looked them up I learned that they are probably willow flowers (Campanula persifolia), a native of Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Obviously they had escaped the confines of a gardener's perennial border. Unlike the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid they aren’t native, though they are obviously “born to be wild”.
Determining that these campanulas are imports had me wondering about other flowers I thought were “wild” by which I mean native flowers that grow uncultivated in natural areas rather than species introduced from other parts of the globe. I looked up orange daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), sure they fit the bill. After all, they grow in abundance and almost everywhere. I long to stop along a roadside to dig them up and plant them in my garden. I am not too cheap to buy them but these ordinary, long-blooming lilies are not available at local garden centers or in catalogues where you can only find refined cultivars with fancy names like "All Fired Up", "Cosmic Hummingbird", or "Flaming Frolic". A quick peak at the American Hemerocallis Society website revealed that they are actually native to Asia. I confess I was a little disappointed to find that orange daylilies are just another garden-escapee posing as a wild flower.
I looked up another favorite. Tall graceful valerian (Valeriana officianalis) grows wild in meadows and along roads throughout the Eastern US and elsewhere. It blooms in midsummer, producing flat clusters (cymes) of tiny white flowers on slender 2 to 3 foot stems, and is spectacular when it grows in colonies through wild grasses and other meadowy plants. It is so common, it seems like it would have to be native, a but a little delving revealed that valerian was introduced to North America by early colonists who used it as a sedative to treat insomnia and anxiety. (Please don’t try this on your own without consulting a doctor.) Valerian, having broken free of its cultivated confines, has also naturalized, perhaps inspired by its cousin Valeriana sitchensis, a true native indigenous to the western United States.
Purple jewelweed, (Impatiens glandulifera), a cousin of the ordinary garden-variety impatiens, was next on my list. It seems to be everywhere this year, growing in moist lightly shaded areas to about 3 feet tall, with long leaves and disproportionately small orchid-like blush-pink flowers. A little research quickly revealed that this is a Himalayan native that made its way with a little human help to North America in the early 1800’s. Purple jewelweed and its relations (orange and yellow) are prolific self-sowers, as each plant produces hundreds of seeds that are explosively released from its pods to ensure they are distributed as far as possible away from the mother plant. Jewelweeds are considered invasive because they spread so quickly, taking over the habitats of native plants.
I was pleased that the next flower I looked up is a native. The Smooth Aster, (Symphyotrichumlaeve), is one of the 180 species of asters that are native to the US and is a sweet periwinkle blue, the perfect accompaniment to perennials and annuals of almost any color. They and other North American asters are commercially available and grow best in full sun. Smooth Asters attract various butterflies and grow 2-3 feet tall, so are good back-of-the-border plants. Pinching them once or twice early in summer will make them lower and bushier so less likely to need staking. Just to confuse everyone, in 1994 experts determined that North American asters differ from asters found elsewhere in the world and so changed their classifications and Latin names.
Just as many plants brought to North America have “gone native”, some so completely as to have become invasive, many North American perennials have done the same in other parts of the world. Once established in far-away gardens, they have naturalized in fields or marshes or woodlands, growing wild where they find conditions conducive to their specific needs. It is the nature of things: “Like a true nature’s child, they are born to be wild”.
Purple is a great color – regal, royal, romantic, and more. No matter the time of year, whether it is purple kale in winter or purple irises in summer, you can’t go wrong with purple. The exception is when it comes in the form of small ripe cherries splatting down from the cherry tree beside the patio where they smear when walked on, are tracked into the farthest reaches of the house, and are digested and copiously excreted by birds overhead.
The weeping cherry tree on my patio, dazzling for a week every spring -- sweet white petals profusely cascading down its long, pendulous branches -- turns into an unbelievably messy tree by early summer with a malevolence that reminds me of the transition of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. It has just finished four weeks of dropping its amaranthine fruity load onto chaise lounges, the white market umbrella, and unsuspecting people. As the hard green cherries began to ripen, squishy fruit and violet-white bird poop rained down vigorously, especially when squirrels and birds were dining. In short order, the flagstone terrace looked like a poor imitation of a Jackson Pollock canvas, and violet splats covered every surface beneath the tree’s benign-looking canopy.
The point is that there are good trees for small gardens and terraces, and there are messy trees for small gardens and terraces. Most complaints about are evergreen magnolias that drop large leathery leaves, mulberry trees that drop large sticky crimson berries, and female ginkgos that drop delicious nuts encased in foul smelling plumy fruits.
And weeping cherry trees. Lately I have been fantasizing about chopping that tree down. After all, if George Washington can do it, then so can I. I would replace it with something beautiful and well behaved. A Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) might be a good choice. An Asian native, it is a fast growing tree that will reach up to 30-40 tall and wide, but can be pruned to keep it in check. One of its attractions is that it blooms in summer when relatively few other trees are blooming. Panicles of small, bright lemon-colored flowers appear in July and August and morph into clusters of brown seed pods in fall that persist into winter when they provide texture and interest. Its leaves are comprised of small leaflets arranged along a center stalk that become a good yellow-orange in autumn. Golden Rain Trees do self-sow so its seedlings need to be pulled each spring.
A smaller alternative would be the American native, the Fringe Tree, (Chionanthus virginicus), which George Washington actively sought for Mount Vernon. Fringe Trees grow slowly up to 15-20', to it is ideal for a small space. Its flowers are unusual – bouquets of long, fringy white flowers that exude a delicious fragrance -- and appear in late spring. In summer the flowers become loose clusters of blue olive-shaped berries (not toxic) that birds relish and in fall its leaves fade to gold. Fringe Trees are low-maintenance trees prefer that fertile, moist, well drained soil, and will tolerate full sun or part-shade. It is interesting to note that there are male and female trees, though they are not usually labeled as such as hollies often are.
As long as we are talking about native species that George Washington collected, we should mention dogwoods (Cornus florida). It is difficult to think of another species of tree that is more perfect for small gardens than the dogwood. My regular readers know that I prefer trees and shrubs with multi-season interest, and dogwoods fit the bill perfectly. In winter, the black alligator bark stands out sharply against snow and sky and the delicate twigs bear little knobs that turn into large flowers (actually small clusters of flowers with large colored leaves called bracts) in mid-spring. In summer dogwoods produce cheery red berries (non-staining), and in fall their leaves turn deep maroon to cherry red. I find their fall color combined with their bright red fruits just as beautiful as their spring displays. Dogwoods are susceptible to anthracnose, a fungus, but there are several resistant cultivars, both pink and white, available. As is true of all trees, a properly planted dogwood, located in full or part sun with adequate air circulation and in good soil, will thrive.
While evergreen magnolias are too large and messy for small gardens, their native cousin, the semi-evergreen Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a drought-tolerant charmer. I was first introduced to this tree at the National Arboretum and it was love at first sight. I’ve never had a good spot for one, but I managed to persuade a neighbor to plant one once, and I made a point of visiting it (and her) when it was blooming just to drink in the classic magnolia scent from its waxy ivory flowers. The flowers are reminiscent of those the evergreen magnolia but are smaller and appear sporadically from mid-summer to fall instead of having an intense, one-time display like some of its deciduous spring blooming cousins. Sweetbay Magnolias will reach 15-25 feet, developing a pretty rounded shape, and can grow in a variety of soils as long as it doesn’t dry out. Its foliage is semi-evergreen during warm winters and in fall, its red berries, arrayed on cone shaped spikes, are a great food source for mockingbirds, catbirds, bobwhite, and your pet wild turkey.
Chopping down that cherry will give me enough sun for a Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia), native to India and other parts of Asia. Though available in shrub and dwarf forms, I prefer the tree form, especially when they have not been over-pruned into nubs as they too often are. Crepe myrtles seem especially ubiquitous this time of year, so it might be too obvious a choice, but they make excellent specimen trees that meet the multi-season interest test. They do not begin to leaf out until late in spring, but are otherwise splendid the rest of the year. The real show begins in summer when dense bouquet-like clusters of crepe-papery flowers emerge. The flowers last into well into fall, an advantage over trees with shorter bloom times, but that means you must select a color of which you do not tire easily. I would plant a white one, rather than one of the varieties of pink, red, and lavender because white is easier to work with in my garden. Crepe Myrtle leaves are quite small and tidy, and turn radiant shades of orange and red in the fall. In winter, the cinnamon colored bark exfoliates giving it a mottled appearance, and its dark brown seed heads add interest, especially when snow or ice-covered. Mildew can be problematic, so look for a cultivar specifically bred to be mildew resistant like “Hopi” or “Zuni”.
Choosing the right tree for a small garden should not be hard, which makes me wonder who’s bright idea it was to plant that cherry. The trick is, as always, to determine the conditions and size of the space and to work within those parameters. Height, spread, seasonal interest, sunlight requirements, soil conditions – all are important features you should take under consideration when you select a tree. The one thing that is different about trees for small gardens is the messiness factor. A messy tree will make you see red. Or purple of the not regal, royal, or romantic kind.
I have the blues. A raccoon has been roto-tilling my garden in search of late night snacks – worms, presumably. Several times a week I find my garden in a state of upheaval with plants that have been pulled up and dirt that has been dislocated by this unwanted intruder.
On the advice of friends and neighbors I sprinkled coyote urine granules (yes, you read that correctly) around the garden, thinking that might foil him but it seemed instead to have served as an amuse bouche. Generously distributed mothballs have not deterred him either. So, blue, I sat down amidst the mess and closed my eyes, my thoughts drifting to my trip to the 2014 Chelsea Garden Show.
Thinking about Chelsea was soothing for many reasons, not the least of which was that the immaculate display gardens were weed and, more significantly, raccoon free. Not a petal out of place. No dirt strewn thoughtlessly on paving or plants lying at precarious angles. And, coincidently, this year there was a lot of blue. Yes, blue - a multitude of shades from sapphire Siberian iris to indigo lupines (peaking along the coast of Maine just now) to cobalt columbines and more.
The color blue is indispensible in a garden. Blue enhances other colors, there are few colors with which it clashes, and blue-on-blue looks terrific. For example, the combination of blue violas (Viola cornuta) and blue Siberian iris (Iris siberica “Shirley Pope”) in the center of the Brewin Dolphin Garden designed by Matthew Childs, was stunning. Part of what worked so well was the difference in the heights and shapes of the flowers he chose, and part was just the serenity of the composition. Blue-on-blue is very calming. The walkways and other bits of hardscape in the garden were also tinged with grayish blue, serving to pull plant material together harmoniously with stone, pergola, and decking. Despite the informality of the mossy boulder, the simplicity of the monochromatic color scheme lent the garden an almost tailored feel.
The other end of Childs’ garden, on the other hand, was definitely informal, a controlled meadowplanting. Here he combined blue Cranesbill (Geranium phaeum, not to be confused with “pelargoniums” which are commonly called “geraniums”) with pinkish burgundy loosestrife (Lysmachia atropurpurea)and white masterwort (Astrantia major ), both of which have a faint bluish cast. I loved this planting not just for the colors, but for its contrasting textures that really evoked a meadow. My only reservation was that the yellowish-green flowers in the background clashed jarringly with the pinkish burgundy.
The same color, more of a chartreuse, was far more effective when combined with sky-blue bearded iris (Iris 'Blue Rhythm’ and Iris 'Jane Phillips’)and dark blue bugloss (Anchusa azurea'Loddon Royalist’)in the Telegraph Garden, designed by Tommaso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitz. The chartreuse here was mainly woodspurge (Euphorbiaamygdaloides var. robbiae) complemented by fennel. A note on fennel: While my thyme died and my rosemary took a serious hit this past winter, for some inexplicable reason my fennel returned with gusto and looks absolutely smashing among my roses, salvias, and Japanese anemones. I only wish I had planted more of it and next year I will. Both the bugloss and woodspurge are native to northern Europe, including northern Italy, and Italians practically invented how to cook with fennel, so this garden, which was supposed to evoke the Italian Lake District, also suggests that a culinary and botanical sojourn among the Italian lakes may well be in order.
I used to find red-leafed plants difficult to work with until I saw a planting of reddish-purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)and blue mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis) planted side by side in a Connecticut garden. Now it is one of my favorite combinations, so no surprise that I loved the Viking Cruises Garden, designed by Sadie May Stowell, complete with the prow of a Viking ship, runes, and real-life sweltering Vikings in chainmail and those nutty hats. Incongruously, one of the Vikings, with a green plastic watering can, set about watering the white and blue plantings that were meant to bring the sea to mind. The color combination I liked in this garden was made up of red maples and smoke bush behind those blue and white flowers that included white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea alba), white fringed flower campion (Silene fimbriata ‘Alba’ ), and white columbine (Aquilegia‘Green Apples’). Tying the purples, blues, and whites together, was a perennial that I am dying to get my hands on – a purple Queen Anne’s Lace.(Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’). The red maples and smokebushes were actually part of an adjacent garden, but the effect was gorgeous.
Because the red leafed shrubs were in the other garden, this was also a great example of a “borrowed view” or the incorporation of features outside of the garden in a way that enhances what is inside.
The blue theme didn’t stop at plant material. A blue teahouse around the corner caught my eye. A small structure like this in a small garden could be a great asset, especially if it had lighting and an outlet for charging computers and running fans. It could even include a sound system.
On the other side of things, an open-air dining space had been set up that featured blue light fixtures, and other blue touches, creating a very appealing space. Just outside the dining area in the same display, a portion of fence was painted powder blue, carrying the color theme throughout the garden. Blue hostas and other plantings provided finishing touches. This was a reminder that it is always important in a small garden to make sure themes are consistent and continuous or it can quickly begin to cluttered.
My meditation on the color blue has helped dispel the blues, but I still have the raccoon problem. He and his partner are too cute to exile, but there has to be a way to deter them from their wicked ways. I hear dryer sheets work …