Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Garden Stars of a Long Hot Summer

It is 3 am as I sit down to write this. An ungodly hour to be up, even for my early rising self. The stomach flu has swept through our house this past week, finally claiming me as a victim on Thursday. After sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, I feel remarkably restored and grateful that we all seem to be getting back to normal.

There is not a lot a girl can do at 3 am especially with a husband snoring softly away on the couch, himself in a state of recovery.  Tip-toing, I brewed some fresh coffee and made my way to the back deck. It is -3 C outside, but not too cold and the sky is brilliantly clear, a deep black cloak bejewelled with stars. The snow still lies a foot deep, the steam rises from the mug in to the clean country air. Somewhere to the southwest the coyotes are wailing in their eery sing song voices.

So much to be grateful for.

I am often guilty of planning so many projects for myself that I tend to feel overwhelmed even before I have started. These projects are then quite often interrupted by a sudden burst of inspiration that takes me off in a completely different direction. My problem really is that I am a problem fixer and I sometimes forget to appreciate all that is right.

So at 3 am this morning, surrounded by a dark and sleeping world, clarity crept in as I let my thoughts wander to the heroes of last summer's gardens...the plants that amazed me, that stood up to the drought with surprising fortitude. There were so many lessons and some pleasant surprises. I am grateful that as gardeners we have such a multitude of colours to paint with, that with a little research, creativity and a freshly sharpened spade we can create a truly personal masterpiece in any part of the world.

Here is a short list of a few plants that I could not live without, that offer beauty with a strong mix of tenacity and tolerance. As I wrote this, I realized they all have similar traits...drought tolerance, interesting texture and scented foliage.

 Nepeta Walker's Low (divisions from my own garden) creates a striking border for a butterfly garden at a school in Kingston. Looks completely natural planted with echinacea, rudbeckia and perovskia. This was an enormously gratifying project...You can read more about the garden here on our website.

Nepeta: I have two varieties, Walker's Low and a border of the more diminutive Blue Cloud. This is one of the first perennials to show life in early spring. At first a soft green mat appears that belies the size it will soon take. Walker's Low flowers in late spring to early summer after which it is cut back for a second show that carries through until the fall. This darling perennial has so many virtues. Very drought tolerant, requiring little extra water. The soft grey-green leaves have a wonderful mint like fragrance which deters insects, but the flower is a huge attractor of the good ones - bees and butterflies love it!

It is cloud of soft purple when in flower, making a casually elegant hedge or a beautiful specimen. I have found it is beneficial in deterring insects from neighbouring plants as well, helping to reduce maintenance in the beds.

Nepetas are what I like to call a "bang-for-your-buck" plant, reaching full size within 2-3 years and very easy to divide. From my original mother plant I have created dozens of offspring. The mature spread is approximately 3' with a flowering height of 18-24". They rarely look good potted up in the nursery, but don't let that deter you, once it has room to grow it will quickly fill out to its full glory.

Hardiness: Zone 3-8

The first flowers of the Nepeta are almost ready to bloom (bottom left)...the timing is perfect with lupine, peony, and iris. Geranium alba (front) provides a nice textural contrast, echoing the rising green spires of delphinium in the background. Picture taken 2009.
And here is a mature nepeta clump as it appeared early September 2012, you can see it survived the drought quite nicely. I can't say that about the rudbeckia which looks surprisingly stressed out. A column of Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' is backed with the remarkable hardy and self-seeded annual Nicotiana alata or night-scented nicotinia.

Caryopteris: Also know as Bluebeard, this hardy shrub provides late season interest, bursting into a cloud of blue in late summer and early fall. I have a small hedge of three beside the patio where I can run my fingers through the scented foliage that is an alluring minty sweetness. Likes the sun by I can report that mine have done nicely with some afternoon shade.

Beautiful grey green foliage adds a softness to the garden, mine is offset with the deep rich green of climbing hydrangea behind, and boxwood in the front. My favourite combination is with Gaura lindheimeri, the airy white whirling butterflies create the illusion that the bluebeard is in flower all summer, a happy planting accident that created a stunning effect. Once in bloom, the plant is alive with bees, who I think must be grateful for such an abundant food source so late in the season.

Hardiness: Zone 5-9. In my zone 5b garden, the plant is treated more like perennial and I cut back the foliage from 6-8" in early spring.

I have the hardest time trying to capture this shrub just right...but here it is, my lovely caryopteris beside the patio. just past its prime. If you look closely you can see the small white flower of the gaura mingling in the background.

And here is a picture from Longwood Gardens...what a stunning display the long borders of caryopteris make!

And for this post I will end with just one more....

Geranium macrorrhizum: I love, love, love this ground cover! This amazing perennial, also known as Big Root Geranium, stands up to extremely tough conditions, like drought, shallow soil, and dry shade. It will grow virtually anywhere in any soil conditions.

Though it spreads quickly, it is not one of those dreadful garden is very to control the size and direction you want the clump take. As the plant matures and spreads it performs as a wonderful weed suppressor - I have yet to pull one unwanted invader.

I find this geranium performs better with some shade as mine have displayed burnt leaves in full afternoon sun when the UV warnings have been high. Lovely magenta flowers in do not have to deadhead unless you so desire as the new growth covers the seed heads nicely.

The foliage is strongly scented (some would say pungent) be honest I cannot decide if I like it or not. I find the leaves to be somewhat spicy with a strong hit of lemon. This of course helps repel insects, and I have never had a problem - it also seems to help keep slugs away from the neighbouring hostas.  

Hardiness: Zone 3-8

Geranium macrorrhizum in the shade garden at Utilities KingstonWater Conservation Garden. I divided and potted up over 80 divisions to create the border in this part of the garden...very rewarding!
Another shot of the Utilities KingstonWater Conservation Garden.
After one season this pretty river of geranium is already filling in...
the roots of the large silver maples have not hampered its efforts in the least.

These are but a few of the plants I truly adore...I would love to hear what some of yours are!

Until then I wish you love, light and peace...and take a moment to reflect on what you are grateful for. As gardeners we tend to be too critical of our work, embrace the beauty you have created in your part of the world.

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