Attempting to Age with Grace
"Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art."
A quote usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, although her grandson and biographer claims she never said it. Whoever did, though, was correct... to project beauty, dignity and refinement as the years pile on requires effort and yes, artistry.
I think of my own Great Aunt Ellanor, one of the many talented gardeners in my family, gone for many years now but a formidable presence in my youth. Born in the 19th century, she still carried a hint of the northern English brogue inherited from her hard-working immigrant parents, who had somehow ended up settling down in a small town on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Early photos of Aunt Ellanor show her following the fashions of the day, as any young person would, but by the time I came along she'd pared down her taste to a dignified minimum, and I can only remember her wearing black or navy blue dresses that set off her beautiful snow white hair, always pinned up in a twist at the back of her head. And though her face was a roadmap of creases, her clear blue eyes never missed anything, and her wit remained sharp until her last days.
We should all age so well, and a huge movement is underway now in the world of horticulture to create gardens that age well also. Gardeners everywhere are learning to look at plantings more holistically, and accept cycles of growth, decline and renewal as each having a beauty of its own. At this time of year, when flowers are long gone, it's tempting to retreat indoors until the first spring bulbs emerge, but if we only open our eyes a bit there's still much to be appreciated in the structure of branches, seed heads, grasses and so many more plant forms that reveal themselves once the garden's palette is reduced to near monochrome. And as Piet Oudolf has remarked, "Brown is also a color."
Striving to extend my garden's seasonal interest, I plant more grasses, fruiting shrubs and structural perennials every year. Morning light enhances the sculptural quality of many grasses, like this Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii 'Windbreaker'), here backed up by the golden fall coloring of Amsonia hubrichtii.
Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' glows in the low winter light, and is sturdy enough to stand upright through most of our snowstorms.
Pairing tall grasses with evergreens, like this native Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) provides food, cover and wind protection for birds and other small wildlife.
Even the smaller grasses, such as this Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold', take on interesting colors after a hard frost, turning from its usual chartreuse to a beautiful silvery green.
Leaving some perennials standing and allowing them to develop their seed heads provides food for many birds when snow covers the ground. These porcupine heads of Echinacea purpurea are a favorite of Goldfinches.
Many perennials that bloom after midsummer develop interesting and decorative seed heads. Left to right: New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveborecensis), Agastache 'Blue Fortune', and Ligularia japonica.
The fruit on my Viburnum dilatatum 'Cardinal Candy' must go through several more cycles of freezing and thawing before they sweeten enough to be palatable to the birds... then, in a matter of hours, they will be stripped and gone.
A few years ago I planted a row of seven Coral Bark Willows (Salix alba 'Britzensis') at the back of a shrub border to screen our neighbor's house from view. An annual pollarding in early spring keeps them dense and promotes colorful new shoots each season, at their brightest in late winter.
We tend to think of fall color only on trees, but many perennials put on quite a show before they drop their foliage, like this Epimedium 'Freckles'.
I plant the non-hardy Pennisetum 'Vertigo' every year to enjoy its bold, deep purple foliage all summer. After the first hard freeze, it collapses into a spooky frozen waterfall that I find equally appealing, and provides good shelter from winter winds for small birds.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be included in an outing to a garden I've long wanted to visit: James Golden's 'Federal Twist', in central New Jersy. The visit was organized by the wonderful Peter Bevacqua and included fellow garden pros Betty Grindrod, Heather Grimes and Kurt Parde.
Prior to our arrival, James had expressed concern that there would be little left of interest so late in the season, but we were far from disappointed. The two acre garden is intensely planted, with no lawn and meandering paths that lead through the dense, layered plantings, some so tall that they astonish in an Alice-in-Wonderland way.
Grasses are the leitmotif here, especially Miscanthus species and cultivars, but also Panicums, Pennisetums and Schizachyriums.
Rudbeckia maxima and other giant forbs blend and weave among the grasses on the wet clay site, while smaller plants carpet the ground underneath.
Heather collects seeds from a white Baptisia. This is the time of year to gather pods, cones and seedheads for wreaths and winter arrangements.
The stark black stems of a frosted Eupatorium stand in contrast to the arching grasses, still holding onto a bit of summer green.
At the bottom of the garden, a black pool reflects the November sky.
This is an enchanting place, a testament to how beautiful a garden can be even so late in the year, and well worth a visit at any season. To learn more about the garden and be apprised of upcoming open days, subscribe to James's excellent blog, "The View from Federal Twist" at federaltwist.com.
Restraint, discernment, an appreciation for subtleties... all marks of maturity as a person and as a gardener. I value these qualities more every year, and strive for them in my plantings. And as another birthday approaches next month, I hope for them in myself.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.