Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The good, the bad, and...well, you know how it goes.

Yesterday I noticed the Crocosmia 'Lucifer' in the island bed starting to put out its first flower spikes. They probably won't put on much of a show this year since they were greatly reduced last fall, but it made me realize how much all the plants in this bed have grown since I first came back home in April and I decided it was worth sharing. Besides, my mind has been agonizing over ideas to improve this bed since I moved back and I need an outlet to air my criticisms and hopefully realize a few redeeming points.

I was really pretty disappointed with how this bed looked in early spring. What I realized later, though, was that I was seeing it at possibly its absolute worst time. The early bulbs were past, the heathers had only recently been cut back and it was a year to cut them back hard, the ornamental grasses had recently been cut back, several plants had suffered damage over the winter, and the perennials and deciduous shrubs had yet to fill in for the season. The deer have gradually acquired a taste for grape hyacinths, clipping back the winter foliage. In the beginning I didn't mind, because they didn't seem to care much for the flowers and generally left them alone aside from accidentally nipping a young flower spike with the leaves, but it's progressed to the point where they keep the foliage so well-sheared that most of the emerging flower spikes are clipped off in the process. The grape hyacinths, in turn, had grown so thick that they simply looked like ugly patches of fleshy-leaved grass. I promptly removed as much of the grape hyacinth as I could, though I know it will be an ongoing battle as I certainly didn't get them all. Frankly I'm relieved to have made the determination to eradicate them. I never was that happy with the floppy winter leaves, and after the deer decided it was a buffet the aesthetics were not improved.
The "island bed" in early April. The heathers are poor little sheared things and there are lots of dead Carex comans, a sedge that lasts only 2 or 3 years in this bed, though it reseeds. Add the carpet of weeds which thankfully isn't too visible in this picture, and the whole thing just had a sad, dilapidated feeling to me.

The Rhododendron impeditum were hit especially hard this winter. These two were cut back to within a few inches of the ground and have resprouted vigorously. The others required only a little trimming to remove the dead branches. I'm surprised they were damaged in this manner, as this rhododendron is supposedly hardy to USDA zone 5, but then these plants have been damaged both by unusual winter events and summer heat before. The lavender behind the rhodies looks terrible.  I planted lavenders in this bed after getting really fed up with the deer destroying everything and I just wanted something they would be sure to leave alone. Lavender is one of the few plants that can truly be called deer-proof. Except for one, though, I'm just not happy with them. They need to go.

I suppose it doesn't look too bad from this angle, but the ball-shaped heathers rankled me and the empty area behind them screamed out for something. The big patch of brown is a huge swath of lime thyme that wasn't sheared back properly, resulting in this die-back. Just goes to show: mind the thyme, lest it get away from you.

A closer view of the ugly dead thyme and such. Ugh.

At least the foliage of Allium siculum was doing a fair job of filling this space, along with the emerging blades of Molinia caerulea 'Variegata'.

The one thing I really like about this bed in the winter is that you can see the carpet of Asarum caudatum under the red Acer palmatum var. dissectum that is the centerpiece of the bed. The green carpet really makes the maple pop, and the maple provides an annual mulch of leaves and shade from the summer sun for the Asarum. I wish my plant combinations were always so inspired.


The sad dwarf conifer in the center of this photo is Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold'. Originally there were three spaced around the bed to contrast with the maple and 'Crimson Pygmy' barberries, but the other two died years ago and weren't replaced. Between the deer clipping off the graceful fern-like branches that give this cultivar its name and the dense inner growth continually turning ugly and brown from lack of air circulation, there was no longer any point in prolonging this lone survivors misery. 

It wasn't all bad in April. Geranium 'Dark Reiter' was beginning to unfold its gorgeous purple leaves, though I had to quickly apply slug bait before the slugs devoured it. 

This space is one of three patches of Crocosmia 'Lucifer', which really should have been reduced sooner. Sneaky little devil has a habit of getting away from its gardeners.

Another view, again, just not very inspiring this time of year. 

 Now, in June, things have filled in and the sheared heathers have put on lots of new growth. It's the exuberant mass of color I intended, a centerpiece that greets you as you drive up to the house. It still has a lot of work that needs to be done, though. I need to relocate some of the heathers, as they simply do too well here and are getting much bigger than expected. There is an imbalance both in quantity and distribution of evergreen and deciduous plants that needs to be remedied (if I only knew how). Basically things need shuffling around, editing, adjusting, etc. In other words, gardening.

It helps that I waited until evening to shoot these photos, but it really does look so much better than it did in April. The maple in the center needed some pruning that none of us got to. It's developing that unfortunate red haystack look.

Origanum 'Kent's Beauty' has grown up to cover the fading foliage of spring bulbs, Salvia nemorosa 'Ostfriesland' (East Friesland) contrasts beautifully between the bright heather and variegeted Molinia.

The Molinia has filled in, the thyme is recovering, the barberries are (as always) growing out of control, and the heathers are loosening out of their sheared domes. My father and I both have trouble letting plants grow together, everything must have space between it. We're considering joining a self-help group.

Another view, towards the house. 

The lime thyme creates pools of light between the darker heaths and heathers. The yellow in the middle of the picture is another heather that turns orange in winter. Unfortunately the other heathers are putting the squeeze on it and it doesn't look too good close up.

Here the lime thyme even had the kindness to cascade over the retaining wall. By the end of summer it will probably have reached the bottom of the wall and be attempting to take over the driveway.

While I like the thyme for contrast, it does grow quickly and requires reining-in to prevent it overtaking everything else in the bed. The stems grow into surrounding plants and elongate, popping up in the middle of a heather or Rhododendron impeditum. It also dies out in large patches, which can be mostly prevented by regular shearing, but not completely, so occasionally I have to dig clumps from the edge to patch the holes.

Another unfortunate bare patch which is especially weedy.. The two lavenders in the middle of this photo really aren't doing it for me here and need to go. But what to put in their place? I just noticed looking at this picture how nicely the chartreuse heath contrasts with the light blue-green leaves of Oreganum 'Kent's Beauty'. At least that's something positive, though that heath needs to be rescued from the barberry next to it as it gets shaded out.

This is another area that is an ugly void in winter, and it's not much better now. The bearded iris, nodding onion, and 'Dark Reiter' geranium simply don't fill this space, and being deciduous they allow lots of weeds to grow over winter. At the edge of the bed is a slowly expanding patch of Hutchinsia alpina, one of my favorite ground covers. It only gets 2-3 inches tall, so it doesn't swamp delicate spring bulbs or grow up into the larger plants like lime thyme can. Once this patch matures a bit more (and if I remember to keep up with the slug bait) it will have beautiful white blooms almost all year on delicate stems about 4 inches tall. The slugs don't bother my other patch in the Stump. St. Helens bed. It's true what people say: location, location, location!

The void in this picture is where that Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold' was. I'm considering my options to fill this space, among them moving the gold heather on the right over to make more room for it and the salvias. That would fill the space, but the heather would be lost behind the barberries when viewed from the house. I'm also thinking of buying 3 Erica arborea 'Estrella Gold' to recreate the three gold counterpoints to the maple and barberries. The latter idea has the added benefits of adding some much-needed taller evergreens in the interior of the bed and providing profuse flowers with a powerful, wafting vanilla scent. Huh, kind of sounds like I've made my decision, doesn't it?

The crocosmia has been further reduced to create tighter clumps, though wayward sprouts continue to appear several feet away at the former perimeter of the patch. The Molinia has really filled this area. I wish it didn't leave such a void when it goes dormant, though in truth the dead stems last for most of winter. Somewhere on the other side of the closest barberry is a couple more lavenders that I will happily remove to make room for one of the three new Erica arborea 'Estrella Gold' (or whatever golden trio I decide to buy).
I'm really looking forward to watching this bed as it progresses over the summer. There are many more plants that have yet to bloom, some of which I've never seen bloom in person since I've never been home when they bloom. I know it probably doesn't look nearly as bad as I think it does (keep in mind most of the pictures make it look A LOT better than it does) but there is definitely room for improvement. I've been looking at evergreen ground covers to fill in some of the spaces that look empty in winter. Some of the candidates are: Veronica liwanensis or hybrids such as 'Tidal Pool', Acaena 'Blue Haze', and shorter cultivars of Ajuga reptans. Currently I'm favoring the Veronica and Acaena. The asarum under the maple has reseeded in the lower level of the planter, making me see that it would make a lovely ground cover on the north side of the maple "bastion" and maybe I'll let it run and reseed where it may around the other plants. It is one of my favorite natives (and, dare I say, one of my favorite plants) and is evergreen and deer-resistant. The slugs like it, but I already have to apply slug bait everywhere anyway. The asarum would also provide some alleviation from the majority of fine textures. 

The other sure addition that I've determined in writing this post is that I want to recreate the golden trio I originally had in this bed. The intention was to provide evergreen contrast to the maple and barberries in a taller form than the thyme and heathers. The taller form also serves to create a step, of sorts, between the maple and the lower surrounding plants. Without that step, the maple simply juts up from the surrounding bed, especially in winter when the taller perennials are dormant. In winter the golden evergreen foliage provides additional bright color, something that is always appreciated in Pacific Northwest winters. So with these thoughts in mind, I really want to find a 3-4 foot-tall, deer-resistant evergreen to recreate fill that void. While I already have an embarrassment of heaths and heathers in this bed, I really like the idea of the Erica arborea 'Estrella Gold'. Erica is a well-tested deer-resistant genus in my garden and I don't have any of the taller kinds like Erica arborea. And I've been lusting after it since seeing (and smelling) what I'm quite sure was an 'Estrella Gold' at The Barn (click here). Then there are also many yellow dwarf conifers that may be suitable (and more deer-resistant than the Chamaecyparis). I'm also thinking of going silver/blue instead of gold/yellow. So many choices. 

I think half of all the plants in this bed may actually be Calluna vulgaris. At least it seems that way often enough. The reason behind this is (1) it's a tough, deer-resistant plant, and (2) one year after shearing them back I had a carpet of cuttings that rooted by themselves. Among these self-rooted cuttings were a variety of interesting sports (mutations from the original plant), one of the things that got me interested in plant breeding and selection. From only three cultivars that I planted originally, I now have over a dozen different forms, most of which I believe are mutations from only one of those original cultivars. So of course I saved a number of different plants that I liked and planted them around this bed and other places to see how they would develop. I have green plants with bright orange new growth in spring, one with slightly woolly foliage and lime green tips in winter, prostrate forms, and several beautiful smoky blue-grey forms. Unfortunately I really can't keep them all in this bed. Fortunately I have lots of other places to put them.

And those are my wordy, drawn-out thoughts on this bed. If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Happy gardening!

10 comments:

  1. You're right this bed looks much better now than it did earlier in the season. People definitely belong to one of two groups when it comes to the idea of plants touching. I prefer there foliage to intermingle while my mom wants to see space between each one.

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    1. I'm learning to let go a little and allow plants to mingle. It makes weed control much easier. I just need to edit a few plant combos that don't play nicely with each other.

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  2. All beds look wonderful this time of year and provide ample opportunities for fine-tuning. Is any of us really ever DONE? Where will we be then? It's a fascinating story about the Heather mutations. Having this experience provided you with different varieties — a plus in my book. I favor Heath to Heather, and 'Estrella Gold' seem to cover all your bullet points (how often does that happen?).
    A ground cover I'm enjoying is wooly thyme: It's scented, soft, walkable and easy to remove the excess. Do you ever use fine mulch to cover exposed areas? For added visual and weed prevention?

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    1. A gardener's work is never done, nor should it be. I like heath more, too, because of the greater variety, but I have more heathers because of all those free mutations. For all practical purposes I haven't been home for any workable amount of time in the last 6 years, otherwise this garden would be mulched! I finally convinced my parents it is a necessary part of maintaining the garden.

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  3. I think you've made great progress already, Evan. I could already see good structure in the early photos. I don't have a fraction of your knowledge of plants but planning and contemplation (as opposed to the post-purchase ad hoc decision-making I tend to be guilty of) is always worthwhile, even if adjustments may be needed when plants decide to do something unexpected. Good luck with your next steps!

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    1. Thanks, Kris! The flip-side of careful planning and contemplation is the danger of not getting anything done. I'm trying to be a little more decisive.

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  4. I really love the different types of plants you've got in this area. I made the mistake of planting Euphorbia cyparissias 'Fens Ruby' in mine. I love that little plant but it doesn't like to stay put. I should study your photos and copy you. Very nice.

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    1. Thanks, Grace. Just be wary of copying my lime thyme. It's been a bit of a bully to the Rhododendron impeditum and heathers, and without regular shearing it pouts and gets those big dead patches.

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  5. It looks much better now than it was many months ago Evan. You put so much thought into your planting and that's good thing, including the fine tuning later on. Your good base knowledge of plants certainly helps!

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    1. Thanks! I've been so busy with new plantings that I still haven't tackled this bed. Now I think I'll wait until fall after the summer drought is over.

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Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing what readers think and answering questions. I also welcome suggestions for improvement!