Saturday, April 04, 2009

Garden Diary: Homage to suburbia, minus lawn

I've always disliked Arborvitae (Thuya occidentalis). For me, it epitomizes the unimaginative, dreary US front yard of unbroken lawn with a few accent shrubs and "foundation plantings." But I'm forced to try to love what I thought I hated. I want evergreen winter structure in my garden, at least near the house, and Arborvitae is my only option considering my extremely wet clay soil. So I'm playing with the concept, turning the American front yard on its head, so to speak, making a parody of it, by using one of its most popular cliches in an entirely different way. In this case, making a rather formal hedge at the edge of a naturalistic wet prairie planting. There is grass, to be sure, but no lawn in any sense of the word.

This photo from last July shows Salix alba 'Britzensis', a colorful willow (colorful in winter, that is - brilliant orange-yellows) in the large yellow box. The smaller box highlights Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), with its silver mid-summer foliage. I point out these two plants because they are important components of a big change at this end of my garden, nearest the house.

I've planted a row of Arborvitae across the view you see in the photo above, with the willows on the far side of the Arborvitae (see previous post). Actually, there are two layers of Arborvitae, eight larger ones nearest the willows and, at each end, several smaller ones about 30 inches behind (closer to your viewing point).

I've also added, as you can see below, two others in the mid-distance to give a sense of visual depth to the flat background of the garden.

The layers allow opportunity for planting perennials in and around the hedge to better integrate it into the wild summer garden, yet leaving a permanent framework in winter - a structure of hedge, willows, and long-lasting perennials.

Below is the first row of Arborvitae, planted two weeks ago, with the brightly colored willows in front (cloudy day, so not so bright appearing here).

My intent is to add many more Salix a. 'Britzensis' in front of the hedge, as well as some behind it, and to fill in with the Pycnantheum muticum around the smaller shrubs and other areas needing added visual interest. But this first attempt seemed too piddling. I needed a grander gesture, and thus the additional shrubs.

So here is the final arrangement, sans perennials, which are all still dormant.

Returning to the summer photo, you can see many plants have to be moved, especially a vigorous planting of rather invasive Prairie cord grass (Spartina pectinata 'Aureo-marginata') on the right. Since I'm adding more salix a lot of reworking of the area will be needed. I'm rooting cuttings to make the new willows, so I can take my time if I just take care to provide room for the new shrubs to grow.

With hedges and stone walls, perhaps other plantings, eventually I hope to have a structural frame - made of many parts - to hold the wildness of the central prairie planting - my own bit of anti-suburban front yard (mine is behind the house).


  1. The second picture almost looks photoshopped - the green really stands out against the grey. I'm also not a fan of this plant but it will be an intersting accent in the garden and I'd love to see it in contrast to your beautiful prairie style planting this summer.

  2. I'm trying to get over my prejudice. I grew up in the south, where Nandina was so common I came to dislike it intensely. Now is seems exotic, and I love it.

  3. Was it Beth Chatto who said that it's not the plant that's most important but the way it's planted? Maybe it was more like: "there are no bad plants just bad planting"? Hmm. Either way, I think she was completely correct. It's true. A painter can blame the paint or the technique all he wants but in the end what matters is the clear evidence of that elusive 'Ingredient X'.

    I'm so curious to see what you do with the Arborvitae at the other end of the playing field. And how the herbaceous plants react to these rather formal newcomers. The play of light and contrast will make for some lovely photos, I'm sure.

    This is quite a can of worms you've opened...but so far so great.


  4. Peter,
    I'm hoping that the salix will act as a buffer. I'll also move back and rearrange some perennials. My thought is to lower the height of the perennials immediately adjacent to the williows and Arborvitae to give them some breathing room while also intermixing some shorter ones such as the Pycnantheum muticum. But this certainly has "can of worms" potential.

    I can always pull out the Arborvitae. Or they may die if it's too wet!

  5. A can of worms, indeed. I very much like the willows in front of the hedge; more will be even better, as they'll soften those formal lines. As for the summer view--wow.

  6. Kate,
    Unfortunately, it make take two years or more before the new willows are large enough to make a difference. But maybe I'll get lucky and they will grow faster.

  7. The colors are gorgeous. I get a good sense of the willow's hue in the second photograph. Can't wait to see how it all turns out!

    I wish I could plant Nandina in my part of the world. My sister sent me a picture of a really nice specimen she had seen a few years ago near Washington, DC. Too cold for us, unfortunately.

    I agree, though, that there are no bad plants, just bad plantings.

  8. J, I know I see Nandina growing in my area, but the two I planted last fall may be dead. I'm waiting to see if new growth emerges. It's all a crap shoot.



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