Time To Rethink

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. may-3-2009-063-3
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?


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19 Responses to Time To Rethink

  1. Susan says:

    Why, I believe a trip to the nursery might be in order???? Or is it just me that looks for ANY excuse to go there??

    It’s hard to admit defeat (?) on something that works so well for someone else. This is the year I FINALLY admit that Phlox is just NOT working here. Everyone raves about their Phlox. Try this mildew resisitant strain, try that one. Well, we don’t GET moisture in the summer—it’s dry as the desert here. And still the bottom 2/3 looks terrible. I give up on it. I don’t know yet what I can substitute–hence a trip to the garden center (cheap excuse!!)

    Hi Susan, thanks for adding in to the conversation here. You are exactly right, when is NOT a good time to go to the nursery? It is like a fix for the addict and must happen at regular intervals. I hear you on the Phlox, we are also dry to the bone during its blooming. The species, a passalong from a neighbor blooms well enough, but you are right about the bottom portion looking dreadful. Daylilies are one answer here, the strappy foliage hides the appalling parts well.

  2. Me thinks your rethink is right. And, indeed, SHOPPING. H.

    Thanks Helen. I am trying to be good with the shopping, really. We have so many plants here to borrow from already, but the hunting and gathering gene is strong within me! HA

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    That pretty blue/white fescue would look great flowing through that patch. It is odd that I can’t get that blue fescue to grow here. I always thought it was too dry. Obviously it is some other problem I have. Hmmmmmm What ever you do I know it will turn out beautifully.

    The blue fescue is a pretty thing, especially in spring. Summer heat gets it ratty looking, but it comes bac as temps cool. It does have to be divided every few years to look its best, but so do most of the grasses. I have found that the timing of the division matters with all the grasses. Earliest spring or fall planting is best. They don’t like to be planted during the heat.

  4. I think the fescue would look very nice, but I think that you might just want to go visit your prairie nursery. Prairie plants are admirably adapted to drought/wet conditions, with their deep root systems. Prairie dropseed would probably serve your purposes admirably, being a moderately sized grass with some of the airiness you appear to want (as evidenced by the scintillating prose vis a vis the Deschampia). http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SPHE

    Hi Hands, thanks for the suggestion and so nice to see you here. I am acquainted with the dropseed, love it! But it will be too tall for underneath the azaleas, I fear. Perhaps it could be used elsewhere, though…

  5. Darla says:

    Seeing how I really need to rethink some of my gardens, I am of no help for yours. I do know whatever you come up with will be spectacular!

    Thanks for that vote of confidence, Darla. Sometimes we are better at giving advice than figuring out what to do in our own spaces. Your gardens are spectacular!

  6. I have been taking stock of what is working and what is not, As I proceed with my garden clean up, I am always concerned when I see that certain plants have taken over others. I have Little Kitten Miscanthus and am still evaluating this grass, very slow to fill in but is beginning to develop plumes.


    Thanks for that, Eileen. I love the look of the flowers of the Miscanthus clan and Little Kitten is a slower grower than some of the larger ones, it’s true. Whatever goes in this space has to be able to not get swallowed up by daylily foliage, that is a tall order, yet not get too big under the azaleas.

  7. Frances, I do the same thing every fall. This year, many plants will go due to the extreme heat and drought. Lessons learned again. Do you have trouble with garlic chives reseeding everywhere? I do. I couldn’t get rid of them if I tried. Love the azalea walk.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks for visiting. The extreme weather conditions are hard on the plants, those that survive are being duly noted. Those that don’t are composted, like the Deschampsia. I do have to deadhead the garlic chives, I learned that the hard way. They are unkillable, but such a good plant and tasty, too!

  8. I like the Festuca glauca personally. My problem is even worse. We are almost all shade here, plus summer drought. Top that off with Georgia clay soil. And those storms? Only an inch of rain last week. I need to offer plants something- either good sun, good water or good soil! I’m amazed that anything is blooming. My garlic chives are troopers. Do you ever dig them up to cook with the bulbs? I need to thin mine anyway and thought I’d try using more than the leaves.

    Hi Jill, thanks for your preference. The fescue is a beauty, that’s for sure, and I have a ton of it. I have found the blue fescue to grow well in full, dry shade, too. I use the leaves all the time on the garlic chives but never the bulbs, they are so tiny, it would take a long time to clean them. I am lazy like that.

  9. Layanee says:

    Love blue fescue en masse. Fall is a time for reorganizing isn’t it?

    Hi Layanee, thanks for that. The color on the blue fescue, especially in spring is joyous. Now is the time to get to work in the garden, now that the heat of summer seems to have subsided. Lots here that needed renovating.

  10. Donna B. says:

    I’m so happy to not be the only one experiencing this – much re-evaluation of the gardens are in order! Butterfly Weed seems to do fine wherever it’s planted [I let a bunch reseed around the garden, I cannot wait to make a mass planting of that wonderful plant!], and Sedum’s are mostly indestructable. But your last two photos are glorious! And the grasses appear to be thriving!
    Part of my problems was plant placement… My garlic chives [I am envious of yours! Sooo envious! They look delicious!] were in a bed, to which I then planted my cherry tomato plants IN FRONT OF THEM. Gardener Oops there! Hahaha. Died back in the shade… I hope they return next year…

    Hi Donna, thanks for stoppin by here. Lucky you with the butterfly weed, the dry summers have been hard on the plants here, but there is always hope for next year. Placement can be a problem, especially when we aren’t sure how large something is going to get. I promise you, those garlic chives will return, they are unkillable.

  11. ricki says:

    There are two Panicums that I have recently fallen in love with: ‘Heavy Metal’, with steely blue foliage and ‘Shenandoah’, with dashes of red in the foliage. Both gain a haze of seedheads by early August. I eagerly await the time when I can divide mine and begin to spread them about…the only way “drifts” happen around here.

    Hi Ricki, thanks for adding to the conversation. I have Heavy Metal and love love love it. I added Shenandoah and Northwind to our house in North Carolina. These are all fine grasses that stand up nice and straight, natives, too. Our drifts happen with help from the gardener, too, in most cases. Your drift will be fabulous!

  12. I agree with that very first comment…any excuse to visit the nursery…be it grass that doesn’t want to take or the noticeboard that directs or even just lusting for some new plantings…bulbs are on my list!

    Hi Ronelle, thanks for stopping by. It is bulb time, hooray! One can never have enough bulbs!

  13. Racquel says:

    Great time of the year to rethink some things in the garden. Our summers vary so much from year to year that I need tough plants that can survive no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. 🙂

    Hi Racquel, thanks for stopping by. The variation in the weather extremes, with record snowfall last year, even, is really taxing the plants. Any that survive and look good, add more, get rid of the weaklings!

  14. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I’m rethinking at a furious pace, so much so I can’t keep up with myself!

    HA, Cindy, that made me snort my grapefruit juice! I know your weather has been a nightmare, any plants that survive that are truly heroic.

  15. Your garden seems to be in a mega stage, despite the weather. I bought a fescue the other day – just one so it will look a bit lonely!

    Hi Esther, thanks, so nice to see you here. Good deal on your fescue. We have found they LOVE to be divided, maybe your lonely one will have company soon.

  16. We go for the Darwinian approach here too. We vetoed a native sage species earlier this summer after it proved it wasn’t made of tough enough stuff, and replaced it with one that would probably keep growing even if you planted it in pure concrete. Despite the ravages of this summer’s erratic weather, your Asclepias still looks spectacular, and the garlic chives are bomb proof even here. I love how much the bees love their blooms too.

    Hi CV, thanks for joining in here. I agree, things that will grow in concrete are made of the right stuff to withstand the weather ups and downs, we hope! It hurts to pull out living plants, but sometimes it has to be done. I wish the Asclepias looked like that this year, sadly it did not. The shot was from 2008, a year with better rainfall. The garlic chives never have a bad year, no matter the weather. They must be deadheaded to prevent world domination, but they are used in many dishes here and laugh at drought.

  17. Lola says:

    All of mine need rethinking or something. I say more grasses. Love them. Sure hope I can find more Pink Muhly to replace one that didn’t make it.

    Thanks Lola. Sometimes I feel like the whole entire garden needs to be ripped out and started over again. It won’t ever happen, by me anyway, but I know the feeling. Best to do one section at a time, rethinking about how it could be improved.

  18. Carolyn♥ says:

    Aren’t we hard on ourselves and our gardens this time of year? If I hadn’t read your words I would be thinking: “Frances you have amazing gardens!” But alas, I’m like you and when I look, I see more that I can do, should do. That’s why a gardeners work is never done. I agree with Susan… time to go shopping. That always makes me feel better.

    Thanks for those kind words of support, Carolyn. We are hard on ourselves, seeking constant improvement. A work in progress, yes, and I did go plant shopping. It’s nearly viola time!

  19. Lyn says:

    What a great post, Frances! I admire your approach to plants that aren’t working. I do go around the gardens and make notes of how to improve things, but I am really reluctant to get rid of plants, feeling like I’ve failed if they don’t do well. So I hang onto things much too long. I’m learning to be more ruthless. Garlic chives are one of my favourite autumn flowering plants and every year I spread the seeds around to get more. That Butterfly weed is beautiful. It’s a plant I’m not familiar with but i’m going to look it up. I am familiar with Buddleia and have a few, but I’ve never seen a standard one. Is it just a Buddleia trained to one trunk, or is it grafted to the top of something else? I would love to make one of these. Thanks for all the inspiration.

    Thanks Lyn, you are sweet to say those things. Ruthlessness is required here, these plantings have to earn their place for there is such a diversity out there in nursery land, online and locally. Taking notes is crucial, and taking photos even better to show the garden in all seasons. The Buddleia is a regular bush type that has been staked with the lower branches removed as it grows. I don’t have room to allow them to grow full size, although I believe there are now some dwarf cultivars available. Good luck!

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