Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

High Summer

July 29, 2016

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The soft, undulating surface of the Miscanthus bank opening toward the sky contrasts with the mixed textures in the rest of the garden.

It’s late July and I haven’t posted on the garden’s progress for over six weeks. So much for my garden diary … After a drought of several weeks, we’ve had a long period of frequent, often violent, thunderstorms with torrential rains, mostly lasting only 20 or 30 minutes, but certainly stressful for my structural perennials and grasses. So different from those light mists and showers I remember in England last summer. Another reason why American gardens are different from English gardens, I suppose.

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A “complex” snag.

Perhaps another reason, cultural and practical, American gardens differ from English gardens–snags. We give the name “snag” to standing dead trees and leave them up for the many woodpeckers living in the woods, and as homes for smaller living things. This one, dominating the top of the bank near the house, isn’t your usual snag. It’s rather baroque, having begun life as a weeping Japanese cherry half a century ago when the house was built. A line of tall Inula racemosa appears to be marching from it down the hill and gathering with a bunch of prickly teasels at the base.

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Apart from its dominant sculptural form, the snag has a candelabra-esque shape that echoes many of the vertical plant structures in the garden below.

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Looking across the canal pond to a row of immense Silphium perfoliatum lining the main path across the garden.

I think you can see conditions are stressful. The day I took this photo the temperature was well above 90 and humidity was high. There’s plenty of water from those thunderstorms, so plants are growing fast. Many tall plants are teetering on tip-toe, as if daring a stormy gust to push them over. It will happen, really already has to some extent. The Silphiums are flowering robustly this year, so are top heavy and want to lean this way and that. I leave them to it except where they block the paths.

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I hate staking and am considering just cutting many of them out, though I’ll probably work out a compromise.

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Of the three Silphiums in my garden–perfoliatum, laciniatum, terebinthinaceum–the latter two are my favorites. They flower less robustly and, more important, their forms and structures add a magical effect–the extremely tall, leaning laciniatum (below) with its giant lacy, deeply cut foliage, and terebinthinaceum, with slim, elegant, leafless flower stalks topped by tight, hard green buds, and with huge spade-shaped basal leaves.

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And note the white Veronicastrum virginicum. It’s proving itself to be vigorous enough to compete successfully in the tightly planted garden. It’s taken me years to see this, and now I want to add more colonies to increase diversity and visual pleasure.

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Not all the tall yellows are Silphiums. I have a lot of Rudbeckia maxima (and Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, but that comes later). I’ll admit–in case you haven’t guessed–that yellow isn’t my favorite color. But the ecology of my site gives me very narrow choices and it happens that these yellow-flowering behemoths are what thrive here. So, in compensation, I enjoy the structures and forms of the plants. The flowers, after all, soon fade and change into seed pods that offer far more interest, as you can see with the Rudbeckia, which as a bonus has glaucous blue foliage and a Dr. Seussian form that always delights.

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But in late July, the yellow flowers are so profuse I often seek out parts of the garden with silent green space and other kinds of interest, somewhere I can put distance between me and the yellow cacophony, think about how to introduce clay-tolerant plants in other colors, but with vigor similar to the large Silphiums (there are few)  …

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… quieter areas like these banks of green grasses …

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… this plain of Petasites below the house …

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… the path I humorously call “the outer circumferential walk” …

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… the path by the canal pond …

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… or the Carpinus Corner …

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… and its serpentine wall.

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For another experience entirely, I can walk the Immersion Path, which cuts across the middle of the garden and, on cool days, makes a private, almost invisible place to sit and talk.

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But there are wildlings and other things to provide diversion from the yellows too. Here teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) adds its prickly character until I have to pull it out in August (so as not to have several million teasels next year). I do leave one or two small plants to keep the biennial supply going.

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Pycnanthemum is a tough plant and powerful insect attractor, and it gives the span of the garden a sparkle nothing else can. On hot days they buzz with hundreds of bees and other pollinators. Its most striking features are the silver foliage and fragrant white blossoms that cover the plants from early summer on. I have several–muticum, flexuosum, tenuifolium; really, I’m not sure which is which. There are marked differences in form and flower. (I could use an expert.)

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Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium, now Eutrochium) helps balance the yellows and I’m constantly on the look out for those with deeper, more saturated purples and mauves. I’ve seen ‘Riesenschirm’ being used in UK and Dutch gardens for years …

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…but it’s almost impossible to find in the US, other than from a select few mail order nurseries. (I did get a few from Digging Dog, a blessedly wonderful nursery, though it’s unfortunately 3000 miles away from me and shipping costs are high.) Here I could easily go on a rant about the poor selection of plants available from commercial American nurseries in general, but I won’t. I’ll let it go with saying we have an extremely limited range of plants available at local nurseries. (I don’t include the many, large wholesale nurseries that provide an astounding array of plug plants for garden designers. They’re great, but the highly competitive conditions in my garden call for large plants if they are to survive.)

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Even this native, the short-lived Verbena hastata, is difficult to find in nurseries. I got it at a special local nursery, Paxson Hill Farm, which offers many plants I’d never find in surrounding commercial nurseries. (I make regular visits there.) I’d like to have many more, but I’ll have to rely on seed, which I’ll order from a native seed supplier and broadcast this autumn.

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Also a mail-order plant, Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master), a native …

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… seems at home here and is seeding itself about year by year. It’s a nice partner to the Pycnanthemums, so I hope it will develop into thickly growing colonies.

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These plants–Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’ and Petasites x ‘Dutch’–have been here almost from the beginning, and they are reminders that I have to select plants for function. I grow in unimproved, heavy, wet clay, so many common perennials simply die. Clay is rich, and it can promote weedy growth, so it’s important to cover the ground with a thick layer of plants. My garden is only ten years old, but these stalwarts have been here from the beginning, performing their ground-covering function well, and beautifully. Of course, they were mail order plants too.

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I’m not a rare plant collector–my concern is with the broad effects of the garden, its atmosphere, feelings, not with ditzy specimen plants–but I do prize these two Zenobia pulverulenta I found at the Millersville Native Plant sale several years ago. Its foliage is an extraordinary glaucous blue and I’d gladly have more but I’ve never seen another one for sale.

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They add a remarkable complexity to the ground layer, especially if cut back every other year, which promotes fresh, new foliage color. They also give a blast of red in autumn.

True to my blog’s name, this post has really been a ramble, so I may as well finish it with another discontinuous thought. I love pollarded willows. This is a pollarded Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ started from a cutting several years ago. Though cut back to the main stem only two months ago, it’s grown into a giant, elevated ball of foliage. It’s true value will come in late winter and spring when the bark begins to glow orange. I’ve started several more as non-floral ornaments that will brighten the winter garden.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Cindy at enclos*ure July 30, 2016 at 3:05 am

It’s interesting that yellow is so often the flower color of the toughest plants (then purple, I think). Why, I wonder? (Or does yellow have an outsized impact, making us think there is more of it than there is?)

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James Golden July 30, 2016 at 8:50 am

You raise an interesting question I wish someone with a scientific background would answer. All these yellow plants do attract large numbers of pollinators. They literally buzz with life.

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lindaB July 30, 2016 at 5:38 am

Thank you for the tour! I still keep thinking that I will get up to Federal Twist from DC one of these days, but… I think I need to plan more carefully. I do like yellow in Summer. Masses of common Rudbeckia are a lovely sight. So cheerful and optimistic and the birdies can find those seed heads in the abundance of greenery without any trouble. Pinks/reds for the butterflies, yellow for the birds. I don’t see bees much on sunflowers, etc. More on pinks/whites/blues.
And thank you for the mentions of various nurseries who might stock with a view to more variety. Yes. They are hard to find and need our support.

Wishing you well this Summer and beyond.

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James Golden July 30, 2016 at 8:53 am

If you like yellow, do come in late July, and come with a empty trunk. You may want to visit Paxson Hill Farm (a very short distance away) to load up on plants you can’t find anywhere else.

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Peter Hobbs July 30, 2016 at 6:06 am

This garden is stunning… You should be very proud….I can only hope to emulate something approaching its quality here in Australia…thank you.

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James Golden July 30, 2016 at 8:55 am

Thanks, Peter. I was in Australia a couple of years ago. My favorite garden by far was Wigandia, William Martin’s extraordinary garden in Noorat, about three hours from Melbourne. Unfortunately, he has closed that garden and moved on. I have photos of it somewhere on this blog.

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Diana Studer August 14, 2016 at 2:29 pm

oh. Has he moved on to a new, and equally interesting garden?

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Denise Maher July 30, 2016 at 3:37 pm

I agree that the yellow composites are almost too generous in color. I have enjoyed my trial of Rudbeckia maxima this year and think I’ll keep the two clumps — incredibly tough plants, great architectural lines when in bloom, and the paddle-like green-grey leaves are as much an asset as the flowers, which I enjoy for being relatively sparse! It is a shame Verbena hastata isn’t more widely available. I know now it needs more water than bonariensis, so I’d give it a stock tank to grow in, or sink it in a container in the garden. I love reading your musings on your garden, James. What’s become familiar to you is still a wonder to me. I’ve visited Digging Dog a few times –you’d love it. Plan a trip to Mendocino!

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James Golden August 1, 2016 at 7:00 am

I like your description of the yellow as “too generous,” Denise. A gentle way to put it. I’ll certainly put Digging Dog on my list for next year, when I hope we will do a cross country drive, though I wonder about how I can bring plants across the US. Maybe I’ll have to rent a trailer!

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Pat Webster pat@siteandinsight.com July 30, 2016 at 3:47 pm

James, the garden is looking wonderful — lush and delicious. I’m not a huge fan of yellow either, much preferring white for a burst of colour. Citrus tones of green work well in our climate and light, but the yellows always seem coarse some how. Except for Rudbeckia which I love when mixed with prairie grasses.

As for nurseries and the limited supply of plants: on that score count yourself lucky to live in the U.S. rather than in Canada. With a population 1/10 the size and a climate generally more harsh, the plant supply is even more limited. Even so, specialized nurseries could exist, if gardeners supported them more often.

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James Golden August 1, 2016 at 7:04 am

Thanks, Pat. I’ve reached the conclusion that I need to start removing some of the Silphium perfoliatum. It’s simply too vigorous. It puts on quite a show, and grows with great vigor in my clay, but it’s a little too “present” at this time of year.

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Zem August 2, 2016 at 5:15 am

I really love it! This abundance richness.
Greetings, Zem.

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James Golden August 2, 2016 at 10:13 pm

Thanks, Zem. I’ll be in your country in about a week–on a garden tour.

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Nell August 2, 2016 at 10:04 pm

Woo! Love the Carpinus Corner — so cooling and calm, with refreshing notes from hydrangeas and the acidy-green of bud stalks. A great respite from rampant yellow, and just the right amount of structure.

I badly want to start a couple of Veronicastrum, but am determined to get a form with flowers as white as possible (minimum of pink tinge); they’d be seen against the just-starting-to-flower Joe Pyes at the back of the garden.

We’ve been so lucky with rainfall this year — lots and lots, but only a few of the torrential pounders. Worst was the storm that devastated much of Greenbrier County (two counties west in W.Va.), but here was just a long, hard rain that amazingly soaked in deeply, keeping the phlox mildew-free to this point for the first season I can remember in a long time. (No way I’m watering to that extent on my own — just reveling in the results so I’ll have the memory in more typical summers.)

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James Golden August 2, 2016 at 10:19 pm

We pruned the Carpinus for the first time this summer. It’s taken several years to get tall and thick enough to do that. I hope it develops much cleaner lines by next year. I know West Virginia had terrible flooding. Lucky you just got a good watering. My Veronicastrum seem to be slow to develop. It’s taken several years for them to seem to grow with vigor, but that may be because I’ve moved them several times.

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Nell August 3, 2016 at 1:02 pm

:: It’s taken several years for them to seem to grow with vigor, but that may be because I’ve moved them several times. ::

I bet so. They strike me as similar to Baptisias and some other big native ‘structure’ plants in needing time to build up a serious root system; but the upside should be that once going they’re longer-lived than many perennials. Or so I’ve heard, since I haven’t actually planted or grown any myself.

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Nell August 2, 2016 at 10:07 pm

Those Zenobias are knockouts. Why they aren’t more widely available is a complete mystery to me — silver all season, followed by gorgeous red in fall. Maybe they’re hard to propagate?

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James Golden August 2, 2016 at 10:21 pm

I think I’ve read Zenobia is hard to propagate. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a very popular plant if it were readily available. But they do look messy if I don’t cut them down every other year.

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Mandy Rauch August 6, 2016 at 8:34 am

I do love yellow and I love your garden for having so much of it! There are too many boring pastel gardens out there. I also think you have actually found a very good way of using yellow: with a lot of green around to balance it. It really needs that. Adding white is also a good way to tune it down a bit.
About plant availability: You could buy plugs and grow them on in containers until they are big enough to go into the garden.
By the way, we are having a lot of cloudbursts also here in Europe this year. Stressful weather for a gardener!

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James Golden August 6, 2016 at 7:24 pm

I like the suggestion of using white to temper the yellow. Actually, I’m using quite a lot of various kinds of Pycnanthemum, but I could use a taller cultivar or variety is there were one, which I think there is not. I have also tried growing on plugs in containers, but on a limited basis. I don’t have room for many, but it worked this spring for small Helianthus salicifolius, which transferred successfully into the garden. (More yellow, but I want them for their form and may cut the flowers off.)

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Mandy Rauch August 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm

Hmm, there is a white form of Eupatorium. In a more normal size: white asters, liatris, echinacea. Veronicastrum you already have. That is what I can think of.
Also, the lemony yellow of Helianthus ‘ Lemon queen’ might be easier on your eyes than sunny yellow.

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James Golden August 10, 2016 at 8:14 pm

I do have a bit of the white Eupatorium and I want to have more. I could use more Veronicastrum too, and try a white liatris. Actually, now that the Eupatorium is flowering, the yellows have been ameliorated.

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Amy Murphy August 9, 2016 at 7:12 pm

I share a lot of your thoughts from this post – yellow is not a favorite color of mine, either, and I try to have none of it, except for daffodils, but it sometimes creeps in. Mostly, I bemoan with you the lack of choice from nurseries, even mail order. I, too, have found treasures from Digging Dog, but since I am on the East coast ordering from Digging Dog is not a sustainable choice too often. Glad your garden is faring well this season. Keep on rambling.

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James Golden August 10, 2016 at 8:16 pm

One solution is to remove some of the most prolific Silphium, perfoliatum. I think I’ll do that in the fall. So you’re a fan of Digging Dog too? Great selection of plants, just expensive to ship them.

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