It’s that time of year again when the garden’s drab greens and browns are more than a little depressing. Ornamental cabbages and pansies are tired and worn looking, and most evergreens seem as though they are gasping for a warming sun and longer days. A sad state of affairs. A little like the state of the union? Perhaps it’s best to leave sleeping dogs lie.
Garden catalogues and magazines are somewhat cheering but this year they are not enough to get me out of a mid-winter funk. Playing hooky from obligations and chores, I found myself flipping through my garden photos instead, trying to find the most colorful garden I’ve photographed in the last year.
I knew what I was looking for so it didn’t take long to find it. It was an award-winning exhibition garden I saw at the Chelsea Garden Show last May built by the Irish garden designer, Diarmuid Gavin. Sponsored by Harrods, his design was quirky, even gimmicky as the garden was populated with topiary that, every fifteen minutes, began to rise, twirl and bob, lifted by unseen levers and computerized pulleys, as a pair of mechanized pruners seemed to sheer a revolving tree. Adding to the visual cacophony of moving parts was an actual band playing an English folk song.
The special effects were not what I found memorable, however. What stuck in my mind was Gavin’s bold color choices and textures.
In theory, there were two planting schemes though one seemed to flow into the other. The first included white, orange, chartreuse, pink, and yellow perennials interspersed by clipped boxwoods – and the dancing topiary. I especially loved the way the plumy orange-creamsicle colored foxtail lilies (Eremus ruiter “Pinocchio”) punctuated the beds as they stood just above many of the surrounding flowers. With good sun exposure and well-drained soil these tall, elegant, spring-blooming perennials are supposedly easy to grow and will even naturalize. Even better, they also come in white, soft pink, and a sweet soft yellow.
I also loved a more classic fusion of chartreuse euphorbias with fuchsia beardtongue (Penstemon “Garnet”). Penstemons are native to the US and thrive in full sun and medium dry soil. They also attract bees and hummingbirds and bloom from summer to fall. They wouldn’t normally bloom at the same times as foxtail lilies, but it’s Chelsea, where a little artistic license, like combining spring and summer blooming perennials, is a good thing.
Gavin’s second planting scheme was stronger still – a combination of sapphire blues, rosy pinks, regal purples, cerise reds, and lemony yellows. It sounds gaudy and so it was, but tasteful just the same. Combining red and blue salvias with pink shrub roses is a trick that I’m not sure I could pull off but somehow it worked in this eccentric garden.
Looking at my photos was definitely cheering. It’s hard to look at pleasing images and stay somber but the question remained: How to make my garden colorful enough in deep winter to avoid these mid-winter blues?
As it happens, my garden has become quite shady over the past couple of years, presenting me with an opportunity to replace roses and other plants that no longer bloom with plants that make winter seem brighter and still complement summer flowers. I’ve long wanted to plant Oregon grape-holly (Mahonia aquifolium), a plant I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest. It’s sharp, spikey dark green leaves will serve as a contrast to my camellias and ivy, and its late-winter racemes of small round cadmium yellow flowers will brighten any winter day. The blue berries that follow won’t be especially noticeable, but they will nourish birds like the cedar waxwing.
The mahonia’s flowers will look especially good with the variegated euphorbias (Euphorbia x martini) I planted last summer because their cheery narrow leaves are edged with creamy gold and tinged with just a hint of copper. I really love this euphorbia because constantly catches my eye. I didn’t plant enough of it, however, so I think I’ll planted a good deal more. I have a feeling that they could be stunning if combined with purple crocuses and crisp, white snow-drops and I’m looking forward to their lime green flowers in late spring.
And my final addition will probably be winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’).
Its leaves are also tinged with a creamy yellow and will complement both the yellow mahonia and euphorbia. It’s small clusters of tiny rose-colored flowers, which emerge in early spring, are deliciously fragrant which is another reason to plant them – there is nothing like it’s perfume on a warm early spring day. Unfortunately, daphnes are notoriously fussy, but it’s worth the effort of trying to make them happy by keeping them moist but not wet, and making sure they are sufficiently mulched and kept out of full sun.
Variegated leaves, of course, fall far short of the color feast in the Gavin’s display garden, but will improve the looks of my winter garden significantly and should help minimize those winter blues.
If only fixing the state of our union was as simple ...
On a warm Sunday morning last August, I found myself deadheading roses at Denmans, the garden in England that belongs to my friend, John Brookes.
A well-known international garden designer and author, John has gardened at Denmans since 1980. At 82 (he turns 83 on October 11th) he still works in his garden every day and that particular morning I found him outside, secateurs in hand, piles of branches and weeds mounded around the terrace, and that euphoric look in his eyes that gardeners get when they are in full gardening mode.
I know that feeling. Think runners’ high; a surge of endorphins. There is also something about gardening that is peculiarly relaxing -- your mind can wander freely when your hands are occupied. There’s no list writing or fact checking, and texting is just a bad idea with dirty hands. Gardening permits a steady flow of thoughts to bubble up and be gently pondered against the backdrop of steady physical labor. John’s euphoria inspired me to ditch my computer in favor of deadheading roses -- and pondering.
Deadheading, in horticulture at least, means to remove spent flowers. You do it to encourage a plant to produce new blooms, prevent plants from going to seed and generally to make the garden tidier.
Immersed in my task and not a little pleased with myself, I found myself thinking that deadheading also seemed an apt metaphor for the current political mood in the US and in the UK where voters seem to be intent on removing spent politicians – and that was as far as I got with that line of thinking. The day was far too lovely to dwell on politics.
Moreover, the rosebushes I was tackling (shrub roses called “Little White Pet”) required close attention as only some of their small white flowers needed clipping. “Little White Pet’s” blossoms are arrayed in large airy bouquets interspersed with tight dark pink and white buds so an inattentive snip and half-blown roses or buds are on the ground instead of dead ones. “Little White Pet” is a great rose because it is hardy, vigorous and blooms from early summer through fall with proper care. It has small, glossy dark green leaves and more than the occasional thorn -- another reason to be attentive.
While most roses benefit from deadheading there are others that bloom only once a year and then produce gorgeous rose hips. The dog rose (Rosa canina) is a good example. Its fragrant, five-petaled blossoms, light pink or white, also grow in loose clusters, and are exceptionally delicate. Their sprawling stems, on the other hand, are viciously thorny. The hips that that follow are bright orange and persist through early winter. Tremendously ornamental, they are also high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and are used to make tea, marmalade, and it is said, even wine.
There are perennials that can be deadheaded or not, depending on a gardener’s preference. One of my new favorites is great masterwort, or Astrantia major. Hardy in zones 4-7 and a great favorite with butterflies, this beautiful perennial flowers on 1-3 ‘ stems in part shade starting in mid-summer. Their leaves are dark green and resemble Italian parsley. Showy bracts – colored leaves that pass for petals -- range in color from white to dark pink and remain attractive for many weeks though removing them can promote more blossoms. Easy to grow, the one thing it doesn’t like is to dry out.
And then there are the plants you deadhead when they start looking sloppy. Bear breeches, or acanthus can look remarkably messy when finished blooming. Their long-lasting flowers are usually a lavender-purple or white, almost tubular in shape, and grow along a strong, tall stalk as much as 3 feet high. The seed pods that follow are brown capsules and the flowers dry to a darkish brown – a look that doesn’t work in every garden. I like to remove them before they become unattractive. Fortunately the remaining bold and spiky foliage is a dramatic contrast to just about any other plant you can think of. Its leaves are so architectural, in fact, that they have been sculpted and painted in one form or another for thousands of years – think Corinthian columns.
Putting up with seedpods is unavoidable if you want a plant to naturalize. I am especially partial to yellow foxgloves (Digitalis ambigua, or, as it is now known, D. grandiflora). Its 1-2 foot stalks bear light lemony yellow flowers in mid-spring and when happily established in a moist location – woodlands are perfect – they will self-sow. Unfortunately they look pretty ragged by the time their nut-colored seed capsules finally release their infinite minute seeds. Selectively removing the most obvious stalks or cutting them down by half, leaving the lower halves to be hidden by other plants, helps conceal them. The seedlings take a year or so to mature but unlike biennial foxgloves, they will last for years, forming attractive clumps. It’s wise to remember that like all foxgloves they are toxic (and deer tolerant).
Finally, there are plants that you will want to deadhead no matter how attractive the seed heads because they self-sow prolifically and become a nuisance. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) comes to mind. It is an Asian native vine that resembles a grape vine in its growth habit but its berries ripen to the most eye-catching variation of dark and light turquoise. Unfortunately it is terribly invasive, so it’s environmentally responsible to remove the berries (in this case deadheading the fruit instead of the flower) before birds can broadcast them.
I finished deadheading the roses -- and pondering -- all too quickly that summer morning. Though back at my desk and hard at work, I was relaxed, rejuvenated, and still self-satisfied.
Yes, I thought to myself, gardening definitely produces a gardener’s high.
Earthquakes, disputed convention rules, refugees, and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East: It’s enough to make you stick your head in the sand, or, on second thought, since that “head-in-sand posture” is unquestionably uncomfortable and indisputably undignified, to escape to a desert island.
So, what to take? The British radio program, “Desert Discs” suggests music: Which 8 music discs would you take if you were to be marooned on a desert island? Music schmusic: Which 8 plants would you take – that’s the question. I’ve already made my list.
Some assumptions must be made about the island. Its climate would be temperate. Who escapes to a desert island where temperatures sizzle or plummet below freezing? The bungalow would be perched above the beach on the lee side of the island, facing south with a seating area embraced by a garden planted with my 8 plants. There I would sit, glass in hand, delighted to be listening to the music of ocean waves and not to news about delegate counts and impending Fed rate hikes.
Finally, growing conditions would be perfect for each plant – a little leeway (pun intended) as this is, alas, a hypothetical exercise.
Structure first: I’d want a tree to provide shade on those long, lazy, sunny days. I’d choose the white form of redbud (Cercis canadensis “Alba”), a tough shade-tolerant tree. That the common name is redbud makes sense because the species, a native, has early spring fuschia or pinkish purple pea-like flowers that cling along its dark stems and trunk well before its leaves appear.
Very pretty, but ‘Alba’ is beyond gorgeous with its pure white flowers that make blue spring skies bluer and brighten gray days, too. Redbuds are rounded and spreading in shape, growing up to 30 feet tall with a 15-20 foot spread. In the fall, when its pendulous, heart-shaped leaves turn a gentle yellow, pea pod-shaped seed cases hang long and dark, persisting through early winter.
Redbuds are deciduous, so next on the list is reliable evergreen material: I’d take the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This is not my favorite evergreen tree, but its columnar shape would be the right contrast to the redbud’s spreading form. A “columnar” shape can be formal, but the soft, loose sage-green texture of the red cedar offsets its formality and so
would suit this beachy setting. It is easy to grow, and its berries attract birds at the end of winter when there is little else for them to eat. These junipers also self-sow, so I’m apt to have several of them in varying sizes if I stay on my island long enough…and given the current state of American politics and the world, it might well be a while.
Still thinking “evergreen” but now looking for a different texture, Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) would be next. Its slender arching stems are a good grass-green all year, even after its small, serrated leaves yellow and drop in autumn. It spreads into a well-formed 4-6’ clump that can easily be divided, and it’s branches form more of a screen than a solid mass. In early spring it flowers prolifically, producing bright ruffly yellow flowers you can see from miles away – just the sort of cheery sight one wants at the end of winter.
So, these comprise the bones of my garden: The decidous redbud, an upright juniper, and the arching evergreen stems of my kerria.
Now for the flowery bits. I like white in summer, so my next pick would be mullien (Verbascum
chaixii ‘Album’) for the sunny parts of the garden. They’d bloom May-August, bearing tiny white flowers with pink centers all along its vertical 2 foot stems, above broad rosettes of fuzzy gray green leaves. Being biennials, they’d die after a year or two, but they’d also self-sow prolifically, soon naturalizing in places that would suit them best. I could always yank the ones that settle in places I’d prefer them not to.
In a damper spot, I’d have to have blue vervein (Verbena hastata). I have always wanted to grow this elegant native because I love its loose clusters of short purplish spikes that appear in mid-summer, borne on tall, slender stems. They sway gently with breezes and attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators which will likely prove to be very good company on a deserted desert island. Blue vervein does well in full sun and partial shade, likes moist organic soil, and grows quickly. It also self sows, so would blend with the other plants along my secluded shore. Its form would contrast nicely with the upright mullein.
Speaking of contrast, I’d include the stupendously eye-catching Red Hot poker (Kniphofia rooperii), a South African native. I find the color orange hard to work with in spring and summer, but love it in the fall when the overall landscape yields the intense greens and bright colors of summer to the reds, oranges, yellows, and earthy browns of fall.
This kniphofia fits right in to the autumn scene, its 6-8 inch upright clusters of reddish orange flowers looking every bit like a flaming poker at the top of sturdy 3-5 ‘ stems. It is hardy, and forms 2-3 foot evergreen clumps of long, slender, dark green leaves that look terrific in a winter landscape and provided excellent texture in summer. It would look fabulous beside the furry long, broad leaves of the mullein and the wavy vervein. Not a self-sower, I’d have to divide the clumps from time to time as I waited for the world to calm down.
Having filled the sunnier spots, I’d want something shade tolerant, a soft groundcover, for the spaces beneath the trees and in the shadow of the bungalow. I love false lamium (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), a fairly tough little plant that spreads very quickly by sending out runners that take root and form new plantlets. Its pointed green and white variegated leaves grow on 8-12 inch stems that bear little clusters of lemon yellow flowers in late spring. It’s doesn’t die back in winter, and in fact looks as good in the winter landscape as it does the rest of the year, and because it is variegated, false lamium brights up shady places, looking as though it is reflecting sunlight, even on dreary days.
Finally, I’d pick something grassy, no more than 2 feet tall, at the edges of my garden to blend my imported plants gently into the surrounding landscape. One of the shorter fountain grasses (Pennisetum) would just do the trick. While they do best in full sun like many grasses, fountain grasses also tolerate a bit of shade and somewhat damp soil. The medium to dark green grassy leaves will yellow in fall, helping to amplify the red hot poker before fading to a beigey brown, the perfect foil for my evergreen material.
So that’s the plant list. All I need now is the island.