Getting Two Seasons of Interest from One Area
Seeing this area of our garden come into full maturity has been very gratifying, although speaking of any planting as "mature" implies that it's finished, which is never the case.
Constant change, evolution, mutation... these are the qualities of all plants, and therefore of all gardens. Which is why I'm often amused by the drawn plans of garden professionals whose carefully thought out and beautifully rendered placements of each perfectly circular plant should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Plants grow and increase. Or they dwindle and die. They invade, overtop, weave about, pop up unexpectedly. They can smother their neighbors, or grow up through them in a mutually beneficial arrangement that you never thought of facilitating. In short, they move. That's why in my talks and classes I point out that garden design is more like choreography than it is like painting. The elements of time and change are always present.
Designing our plantings so we get two peak moments from each part of the property is an ongoing goal of mine, and I think it's achievable for many home gardeners. We call this area the dry terraces, because they're on the south side of the house in full sun, and our soil is light sandy loam. When we bought the house it was a weed-infested bank too steep to mow safely, so we carved out three levels of beds and built our own low retaining walls and steps. It seemed the perfect place to grow sedums, lavenders, verbascums, and lots of other plants that like to bake in the summer. Almost by accident I discovered that tulips also thrive in those conditions, so the opportunity presented itself to make a bright spot in mid-spring.
Here's almost the same view as the photo above, taken in late August. Completely different textures, density, and color scheme from what happens at tulip time.
Looking up the terraces in late April . . .
. . . and the same view at the end of summer. Everything here is perennial; in this photo there's Lavender 'Hidcote', Calamintha 'White Cloud', Allium 'Millenium', Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), Sedum 'Lemonjade', Salvia 'Berggarten', Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition', Sporobolus 'Tara', and various small creeping Sedums.
By mid-April, most of the perennials have emerged and the earlier tulips are blooming. The carpeting plants, like Sedum 'Angelina', Sedum 'Voodoo', Veronica 'Tidal Pool', and Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) all play a large role in filling the gaps between the crowns of the larger herbaceous plants.
You can see grasses and alliums emerging here, among the earliest tulips. I plant a mix of species tulips and large-flowered hybrids, set deeply in the fall to encourage them to perennialize. Even so, I only get about half to settle in for more than one year, so adding a few more of my favorites every fall keeps the display going.
Dotted throughout are plants of my favorite spring perennial, the Red Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Rubra' (lower left). Its charming wine red flowers are followed by fuzzy, decorative seed heads. They self-sow here and there, in favorable years.
My go-to species tulip is the easy and reliable Tulipa orphanidea 'Whittallii'. Its coppery orange blooms have a center of olive green, black, and gold... an unusual and striking color combination. They're relatively inexpensive so I've planted them generously, poking the bulbs right down into the mats of Sedum 'Angelina' and the other carpeting plants. The Creeping Phlox is one I've had for many years, 'Oakington Blue Eyes', and I love the way it contrasts with all the warmer tones of the tulips and sedums.
In addition to the small species tulips, I also plant a few varieties of the large standard hybrids, my favorite being this one, 'Brown Sugar'. They are less reliably perennial, but you can't beat the impact they have with their large flowers in delicious, rich colors. Here you can see a clump of Allium 'Millineum' emerging with its fresh dark foliage, and silvery Pussytoes coming into bloom just behind.
Another favorite is this vintage 1911 variety, 'Dom Pedro'. Its flowers age from a deep plum to coffee brown, and it's been reliably perennial. Behind it you can see fresh mounds of Calamintha 'White Cloud', and the vigorous foliage of Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, which will become quite a large feature in summer.
Other darks come at the end of tulip season, like the popular 'Queen of Night', and overlap with some of the late daffodils.
By the end of summer, the stone retaining walls are almost obscured by the perennials that thrive in the perfect drainage and hot sun. There's actually a large range of plants that like these conditions, so it's been a challenge to limit myself to a palette that allows for sizeable clumps and repetition throughout the three levels. At the top, a large old Rose of Sharon and a compact Buddleia 'Butterfly Heaven' provide some woody heft.
Over the years these plants have settled in, merged, and meandered to completely cover the soil, allowing little space for weeds to sprout. 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".
Most of the flower power of this second peak is provided by the late alliums. They're less familiar to most gardeners than the large spring-blooming varieties, but don't have the annoying habit of dying foliage just when the blooms are at their best. The purple balls of Allium 'Millenium' and its vigor and reliability make it one of my favorite perennials of the last twenty years. I also love the white Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, for its height and willowy stems. It must be relentlessly deadheaded after flowering, or it will seed everywhere, but I think it's worth that trouble.
Although most of the plants in these beds are under a foot in height, I've planted a few taller species to provide some contrast. Here, in the lowest terrace, are a few large clumps of Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, and a favorite Switchgrass cultivar, 'Ruby Ribbons'. In the lower right corner you can see a couple of the vibrant magenta-rose flowers of Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata. From a parsnip-like root, it throws out long trailing stems covered in flowers that light up the terraces in June and July. All three plants are natives which have evolved to tolerate our hot American summers that often have lengthy dry spells.
I have a few more areas of the garden where I'm trying out this two-seasons-peak idea, but I'll save those for another post. Meanwhile, I hope you're inspired to try some double-dipping yourself, horticulturally speaking. It's fun to find plants that fit into this scheme, and gratifying to see them thrive and provide interest for more than one moment in the gardening year. So try it yourself . . . I think you'll enjoy the challenge.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.