Oh Gentle Readers, I’m sure most of you will agree that 2020 is a year we’ll be happy to see pass into history. Pandemics, fires, hurricanes, elections… well, you know. On top of which I’ve had some difficult challenges in my personal life that absorbed most of my free time. So despite good intentions, my ability to write about plants and gardening here has been severely curtailed by lack of time, energy, and focus.
But the gardening itself has been a great source of solace for me throughout, as it has been for so many others. More time at home has meant more people discovering, or rediscovering, the pleasures of growing and caring for plants. Nurseries, it seems, are one of the few businesses that had a banner year. Looking back at my own photos from 2020, I’m reminded of the high points, discoveries, revelations and just plain old comforts that my garden has given me. So to wrap up the year, a few thoughts about plants and plantings that inspired, charmed, or surprised me, and kept me going through the last growing season…
Our first flower of 2020 was the little rock garden Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’, always a welcome surprise to see emerging from the leaf litter and debris that I haven’t yet cleared so early in the season. It’s the embodiment of the hope of spring and renewal, with its delicate, bird-like markings of indigo and soft yellow. A hybrid of two reticulated Iris with unpronounceable Latin names that I won’t bore you with, it’s also a very vigorous and reliable cultivar that increases for us year by year and is readily available from most mail-order bulb houses. There are other good Iris reticulata cultivars to try as well, in vivid shades of blue, violet, and magenta, but Katherine calls for a setting of her own, away from her gaudier cousins.
Most of my garden’s successful combinations have been accidents, but I’ll give myself credit for this one because it was intentional. I grew these plants separately for years before realizing that their bloom time overlapped perfectly and their contrasts of color and form worked well together. The hybrid Trout Lily ‘Pagoda’ is as tough as it is charming, returning reliably every year from its strange, fang-like tubers with clumps of fresh and juicy foliage that’s attractively mottled. Following soon after are multiple scapes of nodding, lily-form flowers in softest primrose yellow. The dark Hellebores are mostly ‘Blue Lady’, with some unnamed dark seedlings thrown in, and a clump of the fine double-flowered ‘Onyx Odyssey’.
The increased popularity of Hellebores (they’ve become something of an “IT” plant) means the market is flooded with varieties from many hybridizing programs. I’ve tried lots of them, and in my experience those developed in the US do better in our harsh northeastern winters than some of the gorgeous cultivars that are coming out of England and Holland. ‘Onyx Odyssey’ is just a really good variety, bred in the Pacific northwest, and part of the Winter Jewels series that includes singles and doubles in many beautiful shades.
I don’t plant many trees these days because our property is already shadier than I’d like… a grove of huge Silver Maples, most of them on the neighbor’s property to the south, hang over us and cast just enough shade to make it tricky finding a spot for sun-loving plants. But we wanted to plant something special in memory of our beloved German Shepherd, Max. I stumbled on this Magnolia hybrid, ‘Genie’, that I was unfamiliar with but sounded promising, and it’s turning out to be a fine choice.
Of course, as with many of the spring-blooming Magnolias, you’re always playing a game with late frosts. Rather than see it spoiled, and because it’s still smallish, I went out of my way to wrap it for a couple of freezing nights in mid-April. It saved the buds and also had its own curious appeal, something like a Noguchi lamp outdoors!
There are other Magnolias in this deep color range, but the thing about ‘Genie’ is that every part of the cup-shaped blossom is this lovely burgundy shade, even the inside of the petals (technically tepals). A little research reveals that this is a cross between Magnolia x soulangeana and Magnolia x liliflora, developed in New Zealand and said to mature at around 10 to 15 ft. Ours is already nearly that tall and shows no signs of stopping, so we’ll see how it develops. Whatever size it turns out to be, we love it and consider it a fitting tribute to our Max.
A couple weeks after the Magnolia bloomed, the Tulips moved the show to another part of the garden, in this case our south-facing dry terraced beds. The area was originally an unmowable, unmanageable bank of weeds, so we cut it into terraces and built informal stone walls that step down from the house level to the lawn below.
It proved to be the perfect spot for Sedums of all kinds, Lavenders, the smaller clumping Alliums, Pussytoes, Pasque Flowers, Verbascums, and some drought tolerant grasses… in fact, anything that likes a real summer baking is happy growing there. As are Tulips, I discovered, which originally came from places like Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey…climates with cold winters, cool wet springs, and hot dry summers.
I started out planting a favorite species Tulip, Tulipa orphanidea subsp. whittalii, (left above, in bud) a charmer with the unusual color combination of burnt orange, yellow, olive green and black. Another winner is the multi-flowered Tulipa praestans cultivar ‘Shogun’ (right above).
Although Tulips come in every shade of the rainbow, and many gorgeous blends, all tempting, I’ve been keeping the palette to orange, bronze and brownish varieties that complement the bright emerging foliage of the Sedum ‘Angelina’, with a dose of sky blue for contrast courtesy of a good Creeping Phlox cultivar, ‘Oakington Blue Eyes’. That’s Tulip ‘Brown Sugar’ above, with Tulipa orphanidea subsp. whittalli. But this fall I ordered and planted several varieties with deep magenta blooms, so we’ll see how that pans out. I plant all of them super deep, and that seems to encourage them to perennialize.
Before the spring bulbs had finished flaming, the herbaceous plants were well underway in their seasonal growth, providing more subtle but no less beautiful points of interest. Lately I’ve been geeking out on the Sedges, as have many gardeners interested in more naturalistic plantings. These plants, members of the species Carex, are tremendously varied natives that provide a needed grassy texture to shady areas where most true grasses won’t thrive. One of my favorites is the Fringed Sedge, Carex crinita.
Struck by its graceful pendant tassels of bloom on several clumps already existing on the property, I took my cue from them and planted about thirty more from landscape plugs. They’ve bulked up nicely in the three years since, and now hang over the path in our wet meadow planting, flowering along with the bright yellow sprays of one of the Golden Groundsels, Packera obovata.
The Packera is the only bright flower in this area in late spring, but the fresh, emerging foliage of perennials and biennials is plenty satisfying, at least to my eye. Pushing up alongside the Packera and Carex are Angelica gigas, Iris ‘Gerald Darby’, Geranium wlassovianum, and Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’. In a couple more weeks they had knit together to form a weed-resistant tapestry of foliage that flowered later in the season.
This idea of a weed-resistant tapestry or mosaic of plants is one of the foundational principles of naturalistic gardening, a version of ground cover that uses a combination of several plants rather than a monoculture, what garden designer Claudia West means when she says, “the plants are the mulch”. I’ve been experimenting with this idea here in several areas, but especially in what I call the wet meadow, a corner of our property that was always too damp and shady for a satisfactory lawn. One combination I’m using is the photo above, with Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’) rising through a matrix of Palm Sedge (Carex muskingumensis), Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), and Wild Ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum). The Mountain Mint and the Wild Ageratum can be extremely vigorous on their own, so I’m anxious to see how they fight it out. So far, and this will be the third year for this planting, the weed suppression has been very effective and the textural contrasts satisfying.
Adjacent is an even wetter area that I planted with Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida), Marsh Spurge (Euphorbia palustris), Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), and Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis), creating a matrix around and beneath native wetland shrubs like Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium).
The Lurid Sedge is a cool plant, thriving in very wet shade and providing a medium scale grassy texture all season, and these very cute caterpillar-like spikelets in early summer. It’s called Lurid Sedge because the foliage is a little more yellow-green than other sedges, particularly when it first emerges in spring.
If you’ve heard one of my talks around the area, or taken my class at the Berkshire Botanical Garden (which we’ll be doing again this spring) you know that I’ve been working on this wet meadow project for the past three or four years as a learning and teaching exercise. My method has evolved to include larger one- and three-gallon plants interspersed among the small landscape plugs that make up the majority of the planting. These plugs were planted about a hand’s breadth apart, in late May. You can see how different this just-planted area looks from what the typical landscaper’s perennial planting would look like… large, lonely perennials dotted around with yards of mulch in between. Here the idea is to use the smaller, deep-rooted plugs to establish quickly and take off in growth so the ground is covered completely within the first couple of seasons.
That late May installation was followed by the hideous drought we had for most of June and July, during which I met lots of my neighbors who were out walking while I was out watering. But I got the baby plants pulled through, and by the time the rain returned in early August they had rooted in well enough to take a huge spurt in growth, as you can see above. This planting is a somewhat drier, sunnier part of the wet meadow, so the idea was more of a flowery mix of grasses and perennials. About 75% natives (I’m not a purist), it includes Asters, Rudbeckias, Geraniums, Winecups, Rattlesnake Master, Salvias, Turtleheads, Joe-Pye Weeds, and several varieties of grasses and sedges.
By late September I was delighted, and a little surprised, to see they had filled in so much, and many of the faster growers were already flowering quite nicely in just the first season. As you can see, there’s already very little open ground left for weeds to colonize. This corner of the planting features a combination of Asters ‘Little Carlow’ and ‘October Skies’, Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’, Agastache nepetoides, Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and Korean Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis brachtyricha).
In another part of the property is an area I call the Dark Border. It’s full of self-sowing Opium Poppies from late spring until the end of June, when they get pulled out and I plant it up with tropicals and annuals in a deep, rich color scheme. Always included in the mix are the Castor Bean ‘New Zealand Purple’, which I grow from seed, dark-leaved Cannas, and the enormous deep black-purple grass Pennisetum purpureum ‘Vertigo’. This tender grass is pricey to buy every year at a nursery, but worth the splurge as it has such height and presence, and none of the purple-foliaged perennial grasses are nearly as dark.
There are several deeply colored perennials here as well, including Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’, Bronze Fennel, and Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’. And a couple seasons back I discovered this beautiful cultivar of the native False Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Bleeding Hearts’. The foliage, buds, and stems are suffused with purple tones, and the daisy-form flowers open in shades of deep red, maturing through burnt orange and fading to golden yellow.
All these various flame shades are displayed on the plant at the same time, an effect some may not like but I find delightful. Heliopsis can be a bit lax and willowy in their habit… some might even say floppy… but that quality isn’t a problem when they’re allowed to weave among strong growers like Cannas, Bronze Fennel, and Castor Beans.
‘Bleeding Hearts’ has a very long season of bloom, and pairs well with other jewel-toned flowers like Drumstick Allium, the strong ruby-red Daylily ‘Frankly Scarlet’, and later in the summer, Verbena bonariensis. As a bonus, the flowers seemed very attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
I especially like it near the multi-hued Canna cultivar ‘Phasion’. This year was only my third year to grow ‘Bleeding Hearts’, so I’m still considering it under evaluation. Some references list it as “short-lived”, but so far it’s returned reliably and remained in compact clumps, showing no invasive tendencies.
Another plant I’m keeping a critical eye on is the Ghost Bramble. It’s a Raspberry relative that sports delicate silver foliage in summer, and dramatic white winter stem coloring. It makes a fine companion to late-season standouts like Salvia splendens and Lespedeza thunbergii ‘White Fountain’, above.
And it provides interest well past frost, when the chalky white coating on the stems stands out against the browns and greys of late fall. I’ve unfortunately lost my original label and record of where I got this plant, about eight years ago now, and my googling only yields more confusion as to its identity. Seems there are several plants sold under the common name “Ghost Bramble”, including Rubus cockburnianus, Rubus lasiostylus, Rubus biflorus and Rubus thibetanus ‘Silver Fern’, which I think is probably the one I have. An experienced gardener I know has grown a version that was far too rambunctious, spreading far and wide by runners, but that hasn’t been the case with mine… it’s only made a couple of divisible offsets in the eight years I’ve had it.
Whatever it’s identity, I like its graceful arching habit, its cool dainty foliage, and especially the waxy white coating that distinguished the bare canes. Like most shrubs grown for winter interest, the best coloration is on young stems, so Ghost Bramble gets cut to the ground annually during spring cleanup.
Out my window it’s bleak… a Bruegel landscape of white, black, grey and brown. Looking back at these photos, I can hardly believe there was so much lush, fresh, green vegetation, and so much color in flower and leaf. But it gives me hope for the promise of another new year, another chance at renewal and growth and gratification. Despite the brutal challenges of 2020, in the garden, at least, there was fulfillment, beauty, and profound peace of mind. May we all find the same in the coming year.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.