Savoring Success, Embracing Failure
We had our first killing frost last weekend, an event that marks time for every gardener in the temperate zones. As the growing season winds down, I try to assess each area of my garden, making notes and obsessive lists of what to move, divide, replace next year… which plants thrived and which were disappointments (or downright disasters). I take a lot of photos too, not just to remember the beauty of things at their moment of perfection, but also to document the gaps and the flops, and to record the process and progress of newly planted areas.
Failures are inevitable, and one of the things I admire about most really experienced gardeners is their ability to take disappointments in stride, to soldier on through inclement weather, plagues of disfiguring insects, epidemics of fungus and various other afflictions that descend upon those of us who’ve chosen this avocation. A lost plant is an opportunity to rethink and replace, and except in the case of very old or rare specimens, seldom mourned for long.
We lost this Spruce over the summer. It predates our ownership of the house by many years, and I never even bothered to research what type of Spruce it was (evergreens just aren’t my thing). But it formed part of the canopy over my shady area of early spring plants and later, ferns and hostas, so it was always welcome and taken for granted. Of course my first instinct was to cut it down and replace it with something more glamorous, but my husband pointed out that it looks pretty cool as it is, and has a certain dignity and sculptural quality even in death. So we’re letting it be, and seeing what happens.
Underneath, the planting has never looked as lush, given all the rain we’ve had, and the Spruce’s branches, now growing lichens instead of needles, provide enough traveling shade to keep the plants from scorching, at least for now.
Nearby, another shady area is maturing. The variegated Pagoda Dogwood, Cornus alternifolia ‘Golden Shadows’ is finally tall enough to escape deer predation, save for a bit of browsing on the lowest limbs. It’s one of the last plants I bought when Loomis Creek closed, so I’d hate to lose it.
In the same area, a great selection of the native Woodland Phlox, ‘Blue Moon’, has finally achieved critical mass and put on a nice display for the entire month of May.
Over against the house, another area that’s matured is the sunny terraced bed that steps down to our little south lawn. Here, a tapestry planting of Sedums, dwarf Alliums, Pulsatillas, creeping Veronicas and other small scale, reliable sun-lovers covers three levels and provides continued textural interest, and a carpet from which, in early spring, dwarf Iris and species Tulips emerge. The grass is Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’, a native of the western high plains that struggles with our wet winters, but seems to have found its happy spot here in the baking, well-drained terraces.
Below the terrace beds and adjacent to the south lawn is an area I call my Dark Garden… it’s given over to Fritillarias and Opium Poppies until they finish in June, and then I plant it up with annuals and tropicals to finish out the season, all in shades of orange, black-red and deep purple. For the last several years it’s been a highlight of the property, but this year I was preoccupied with other plantings and didn’t give it the thought and attention it usually gets, so it turned out a mess. The Cannas and Castor Beans didn’t get in soon enough to make a good showing, I failed to grow the Tithonia I like from seed, I allowed too many volunteer Perillas to remain, and I decided to plant Persian Shield as a filler instead of the usual Coleus, and they didn’t get enough sun to really do anything. A couple of days concentrated thought and effort would have set it on the right path to success, but the window was missed. In gardening, timing is everything.
And attention must be paid! I finally was able to buy a plant I’ve been coveting for the last four years, the gorgeous white version of Sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridus ‘Venus’, for a new area I’m developing, but I sited it for maximum visual impact instead of paying enough attention to cultural requirements. Then came our late summer rains, and a damp area became a wet area which became a waterlogged bog that never dried out all through August and September. By the time I noticed the telltale drooping, yellowing foliage, my Venus had drowned.
Whatever the weather, every growing season has plants that falter and others that thrive. This summer must have been perfect for the three above, which have never performed better in my garden…left to right: Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ (Silver-Leafed Fountain Butterfly Bush), Ligularia japonica (Japanese Ligularia), and ‘African Blue’ Basil.
Sometimes an abject failure can evolve into something like a success, as in the case of the area at the back of our property we’ve dubbed “The Wilderness”. It was originally meant to be a perennial meadow on damp ground, but it was my first foray into naturalistic style planting, and I thought I could just stop mowing part of the lawn and plug in vigorous natives that would hold their own against the weeds. THAT was a delusion… probably ninety percent of the things I so thoughtfully planted never made it past the first summer, swamped by weedy grasses, Goldenrod and head-high Jewelweed. By the second summer (above), some toughies like Monarda fistulosa, Echinacea purpurea, and Persicaria amplexicaulis were making headway…surviving at least.
This summer the balance finally began to even out… there’s still lots of Jewelweed, but the Echinaceas made a strong showing, and the more desirable Goldenrod varieties (like my favorite ‘Fireworks’) are claiming more space.
And I’ve discovered that one secret to planting into a weedy patch is to use towering perennials that grow early and fast (like Coreopsis tripteris and Vernonia altissima ‘Jonesboro Giant’ above) They can get up above the Jewelweed before it has a chance to smother.
Sometimes I conveniently forget that some of the best effects in my garden are accidental. I was really pleased with this July trio of Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, Patrinia villosa, and Verbena bonariensis. Then I remembered that the Verbena had arrived on its own last summer, just a couple of random seedlings that I very nearly pulled out. Mother Nature thinks outside the box, even when I don’t.
My biggest and most ambitious project of the season has been phase one of a three-part meadow-style planting. I actually laid it out over a year ago, and put in a few things last fall, but the vast majority of the planting was done this spring and early summer, and mostly from landscape plugs. If you’re not familiar with these, they're essentially well-rooted mini plants that come in flats of 32 or 50, and they’re used in landscape installations where large quantities of plants are needed, and planted close together to get quick density. Sort of the opposite of the “Let’s-see-lots-of-mulch-around-every-plant” school of landscaping.
The area is the lowest corner of our property, often too wet to mow, and sunny most of the day. These are conditions that suit a wide range of moist meadow perennials, so the design challenge was more about limiting my impulses to plant too much variety. But after lots of obsessing and revisions I came up with a plant list of about thirty different perennials, biennials, grasses and sedges to fill the space. That still sounds like a lot of variety, but there’s a succession of interest, and because each species is used in quantity, the effect isn’t spotty at all.
The landscape plugs establish and fill in quickly, and by late summer the area looked well-furnished and full of seasonal interest. The tight planting also discouraged weeds, as did the initial 2-3 inches of composting mulch through which the plugs were planted. In spite of all the effort it’s already given me so much more pleasure than the boggy, weedy lawn that was there before. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will fill in even more, and evolve, in a year’s time. And I’m already working on the plant list for phase two!
To tell the truth I’d actually delayed starting this project for a whole year, talking myself out of doing it altogether at one point. I had just turned 60, and was thinking how absurd to launch such an ambitious planting plan at that age. But gardeners are never entirely governed by logic (thankfully) so I thought what the hell, carpe diem, courage, forge ahead, excelsior!!!
Designing plantings is often compared to the visual arts…”painting with plants” or “making garden pictures” are phrases one frequently comes across. But a stroke of red on a painting will still be virtually the same a hundred years from now, whereas a patch of scarlet Monarda has changed within days, weeks later will have a completely different effect, and by the next season might have doubled in size or be gone altogether. Gardening is an ephemeral, constantly mutating art form, more akin to dance or music. That’s what makes it so challenging and, when it works, so exciting.
Embracing your failures, large and small, is all part of the process of garden-making. Creating them is the thing, so as my 62nd birthday looms, I’m carrying on with my ill-advised, imprudent and over-ambitious project. Gardens are never really finished, and that’s as it should be, because they never really outlive the gardener for very long. I’m enjoying every bit of it, success and failure, now.
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Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.