Dry, dry, dry, dry, …..wet, very wet, more than wet, drenched. That is the way of it, even though this year has seen the teeter-totter up and down even more exaggerated than usual. It was more dry, not a drop in August, then seventeen and one half inches of rain in three days in early September. Trying times for garden plants, but a good test to see who and what can survive those kinds of extreme conditions. Above shot: Super drought beater, garlic chives, Allium tuberosum.
Each year as the heat subsides, usually accompanied by persistent drought but not this year, and as the temperature moderates, the gardener goes out with clip-board in hand to take notes of what has withstood the ravages of our climate with aplomb. Also, what has performed pitifully, not meeting the criteria we require to be allowed to live in the Fairegarden, will be duly noted. And removed, for this is a Darwinian space, survival of the fittest. Above shot: Sedum ‘Matrona’, a keeper.
First on the list of the doomed is the grass so favored by our hero, Piet Oudolf, Deschampsia caespitosa. Spotted a couple of years ago at our favorite local nursery, Mouse Creek, three overflowing in the pot plants were divided to become a dozen. They were planted in a swath, close together, as is the Piet method. There were high hopes that the tiny seedheads of this grass would make a “Spectacular haze…like a romantic encapsulation of a wild meadow, luminescent with golden light but too vague in texture that the effect is almost dreamlike.” So saith Noel Kingsbury, Piet’s Prophet. It didn’t happen like that here. I should have read the fine print, that this grass thrives in a consistently moist and humus rich environment like that of The Netherlands. Sometimes plants can grow well enough here as to be acceptable with the squinting technique that the gardener employs to overlook the imperfections, as is the case with Astilbes and Hostas. Not so for the Deschampsia. Out, dadburn spot, to paraphrase The Bard. Above shot: the offending area with the Deschampsia artlessly circled.
The area under scrutiny is a section of the Azalea Walk, so named for the row of deciduous azaleas, Rhododendron ssp. planted along a fifty foot curving pathway. At the end of April, this stretch of garden is a joy to behold, outshining all others. Backed by Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Gold Mops’ that has been trimmed to a narrow hedge as the evergreen grew exponentially larger than advertised, the colorful spring blooming shrubs have been underplanted with perennials to extend the interest to four seasons. Flowing mid- sized grasses would have fit the that bill nicely. If only the Deschampsia had been happier, all would be well. Above shot: April 21, 2011 shows the miasma of Azalea colors strutting their cloaks of many hues.
Daylilies and astilbes, tree peonies and butterfly weed, tall phlox and sedums, among others are making the grade in this particular patch. Daffodils and Alliums are doing their share of early season heavy lifting. A grass replacement is needed, one that will not overwhelm the daylily foliage but at the same time not be overwhelmed by it either, while offering the treasured winter interest. Above shot: Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa being visited by Fritillary flutterbies in 2008.
The area had been shaded by a large standard trained butterfly bush, Buddleia ‘Potter’s Purple’ that sadly succumbed to this year’s drought. It is regrowing from the roots, but the space is really too crowded for it now. More light will help all of the plantings and the lower branches of the azaleas can be trimmed as these shrubs have grown larger. Above shot: The butterflies will miss the giant Potter’s Purple, but there are a couple more smaller standards of it in the Black Garden.
It would be ideal if the grass replacement could come from divisions already growing here. Many years of plant collecting have made this garden into a cornucopia of diverse offerings, with many grasses from which to choose. A quick survey of likely contestants has given forth Stipa tenuissima, blue fescue, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Kitten’ and Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’. The last two named are in short supply at the moment, with only three meager divisions of each available.
The Stipa and Festuca glauca are abundant, so they could be more of a mass planting for instant gratification. The fescue is somewhat short, the Stipa can be messy. What to do? Anyone?