Friday, November 30, 2007

Woodland groundcover

Helleborus foetidus (see previous post) brings to mind a highly imaginative groundcover I photographed on the New Hope garden tour three years ago. The day was rainy, but mostly of the gentle kind that reflects light from the sky and highlights color and detail. On a wooded hillside, almost hidden from view behind a screen of evergreens, this striking combination of Helleborus foetidus, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum') and Epimedium had merged into a subtly mixed carpet of shapes and textures.

I've wanted to duplicate this planting since I first saw it, but time passes and there are just too many things to do in a garden. And, to be true, I'd need several hundred dollars to get this kind of effect quickly.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Helleborus foetidus

One of my favorite perennials, the Stinking - or Bear's claw - hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is coming into its own as the night temperatures drop into the 20's. Plant it where you can easily see it from inside the house, and watch as it comes into all green bloom in winter. It may appear to suffer in extremely cold, harsh spells, but will amazingly resurrect itself on warm days.

I put this one just outside the sliding doors to the terrace. It will get morning light on bright days, plenty of water from the drip line of the roof, and good drainage since it's planted in gravel. If past experience with this plant proves true, it will self seed, forming a colony in a year or two.

And it does not stink at all.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Garden Diary: Fullness

Already late November and autumn still shows in seed, stalk, tussock, falling leaf... brown, gold, russet, almost black.

The dirt is wet and cold and growing colder. Sun is low, barely clearing trees encircling the garden and light is broken almost all day long, hardly ever straight on and bright.

This is the season of seedheads and dry grasses still anchored in the earth, stirred by occasional wind, hinting return next spring or in more distant summer. Rain, snow will fall, ice form, rarely crystalline ice that makes jewels of empty seed pods and broken stems. Dark clouds, fog, dreary days, night.

Then with a tilting earth, a higher sun, warmth will return to bring back green larger and more numerous.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Garden Diary: The Front Garden

The "front" of our house on Federal Twist - the facade facing the road - is actually the back. It presents a simple wall to visitors. The real front of the house is at the back, where an unbroken wall of floor to ceiling windows gives onto the main garden, and surrounding it, the woods.

The choice of where the front garden would be was predetermined by a barren gravel circle at the front entrance. The house is about 165 feet from the road, with open woods in between, so screening wasn't absolutely necessary, but added privacy was desirable since none of the windows are covered. Even more important, I wanted to create a focal point and add visual interest. The photo above is the front garden, still in progress, this past summer. The second photo shows the original front "garden" when we purchased the house in fall of 2004.

The house is a simple, shed-like structure, at least viewed from the side facing the road. The only notable front views out are from the kitchen window and sliding doors in the dining room. The original view out was onto a circular graveled area about 28 feet in diameter, with a mostly dead crab apple, a couple of scraggly burning bushes (Euonymous alatus), a line of arborvitae, and two Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' eaten to the ground by deer. To the side were two rotting, frequently amputated Japanese cherries.

Looking out toward the road, the view of the woods was not without interest but also not particularly notable. We needed something to look at from inside the house, to provide additional screening in place of window and door coverings, and to make the facade facing the road more welcoming - something that would screen our uncovered expanses of glass, providing privacy, while signaling a greeting to visitors and giving clear direction to the house entry, which was hidden at the far end of a dark porch.

After we cleared most of the area, the first plant to go in was a large Ravenna grass (Saccharum ravennae), which I split in two - a discard of our friend Roberta, who found it overwhelming in her small Lambertville garden (I had put it there). This was in May of 2005. You'll have to click on the photo to see the two grasses in the wide expanse of gravel.
In the top photo you can see how, once the grass matured, its fountain-like shape and large size made it a welcoming gesture to anyone turning into the drive.

Planting continued through that summer of 2005, and by August was essentially finished. I used several Miscanthus (Gracillimus, Yaku Jima, Adagio), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway'), Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail', catmint (Nepeta m. 'Walkers Low'), Sedum 'Matrona', Bluestocking monarda (Monarda d. 'Blaustrumpf'), a small lilac (personal request from Phil), Pennisetum a. 'Moudry', a few Japanese Blood Grasses (Imperator cylindrica rubrum), Aster laterifolius 'Lady in Black', Lychnis coronaria, purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'), and an inkberry holly (Ilex glabra) to anchor one corner. I scattered seed of Verbena bonariensis and bronze fennel, and I kept two of the arborvitae, the legacy Sedum 'Autumn Joy', and self-seeded Eupatorium rugosum (a really invasive thug I'm now trying to eliminate). The first year planting looks scraggly but by the next spring it had filled out well, as you can see in the next three photos taken in late June 2006.

In 11 months, the Miscanthus, Joe Pye Weed, and Saccarum had grown into substantial islands of graceful foliage and the Nepeta 'Walkers Low', just passing its early prolific bloom, had relaxed into the contours of its surroundings like an old hand.

All of this was working on the large scale, creating a new space and transforming the house on Federal Twist into a place with a little more mystery than before.

On the smaller scale, details of flower and foliage shape and texture began to add interest - monarda busy with bees and butterflies ...

Purple smoke bush graced by the magenta of Lychnis coronaria ...

and the smoke bush again, with cat mint and Sedum 'Matrona' against a hedge of burning bush.

Under the gravel is clay, same as everywhere else at Federal Twist. Unlike the main garden at the back, this one is raised above the surrounding grade, so drainage is much better. Though it makes a very heavy planting medium, the clay is rich and, after only two years, it looks like some of the grasses will need to be divided next year.

To finish, a couple of views from this past summer ...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Garden Diary: Slow Gardening

This garden is slow to take shape. I have to compare photos from 2006 and 2007 to realize the progress. The first photo from late June last year shows a rather desolate area, with the spot where I burned debris from tree felling clearly visible at back.

This year, with a deer fence up, another year's growth, and another long season of planting, the picture is dramatically different.

Closer views show the plant matrix clearly emerging and, for the first time, giving a substantial show of texture and color. (Click on the photo above to see the detail.) The Joe Pye Weed, Rudbeckia maxima, water irises, and Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker' have come through two seasons with great tenacity in this difficult environment...

while the monardas (Blaustrumpf and Jacob Cline) and Liatris pycnostachya are new and only next spring will tell how they survive or thrive.

Think of the garden as the bottom of a bowl, with surrounding dark forest - a darkness that seems to "swallow" color. Brightness is needed to stand out against the dark trees, and the monarda do that well, especially the red Jacob Cline.

Even better for contrast against the dark are Rudbeckia maxima, with bright yellow blossoms on 6-foot stalks. And their large glaucous blue leaves are a plus. I added 14 more this fall. If the Silphium terebinthinaceum, planted as plugs 18 months ago, flower next year, they should add to the mid-summer brightness.

The lysimachia 'Firecracker' thrives, and I believe can outcompete the most aggressive weeds (not the rushes!) so I plan to add a substantial new planting next spring.

Here it contrasts with rudbeckia stems in the foreground and various panicums further back. All of this in heavy clay, wet for 10 months out of the year.


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