Friday, June 05, 2009

Garden Diary: What the rain can do

We're had so much rain this spring - gentle, consistent rain over two or three days at a time - that I'm thinking this must be what an English spring is like. The perennials are larger than usual for this time of year. My garden - a wet prairie - develops slowly, starting as almost a blank slate, progressing through a green rubble phase, then gradually developing distinguishable shapes and colors as the large perennials add height. All the rain has accelerated this process. I'm hoping there won't be a down side to this: floppy plants that will get too tall too fast, then fall over. I don't like staking.

The quality of light that comes with this weather is just about perfect for garden viewing. On these cloudy days, some plants literally glow against the dark background of the woods. Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' is especially beautiful with its jagged leaves like shards of bright green that catch what little light there is, working some internal refractory magic, and transmitting it to the eye as a strange chartreuse ... almost radioactive, with the glow of Vaseline glass, given an unearthly radiance by addition of uranium oxide. You can see the Filipendula above and below with Iris versicolor.

The garden's a study in green possibilities this year. Here the big floppy glaucous leaves of Rudbeckia maxima in the foreground contrast (clash?) with the Filipendula. In a few years, the row of Thuya occidentalis behind will make a dark screen to hold the exuberance of the garden planting.

Iris pseudacoris and Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker' below... This image was taken in light rain; note the blue reflecting off the upper surfaces of the Lysimachia foliage. Nestled beside it is a Sanguisorba canadensis, which will take over in late summer when the Lysimachia tends to collapse.

Last year a few Coreopsis grandiflora appeared on a small elevated area the original owners used as a vegetable garden. I leave this uncut to develop as a meadow, cutting it only after the wildflowers have gone to seed. It's working; there are many more Coreopsis this year, and probably other self-seeded rovers to come.

In these two views across from the back of the wet prairie you can just make out the Coreopsis in the far left corner. The large tussock-shaped grasses - mostly Miscanthus - are beginning to add more visual interest and color to the scene. The verticals of Silphium terebinthinaceum and Inula racemosa 'Sonnerspeer' will be visible over the next two months, as will tall Panicum 'Cloud Nine' and 'Dallas Blues'.

Stepping a little further back, a planting of Miscanthus 'Silberfeder', a hybrid Petasites, and Pycnantemum muticum (not yet visible) comes into view. I 'stole' this combination from a photo of an Oehme and Van Sweden design I saw in a book, and I'm very pleased with it so I give them credit. Here, again in the Petasites, is that screaming green of the Filipendula.

Moving around to the opposite end of the garden, the Thuya hedge to be, like the stroke of a pen, contains the wildness. The center area is filled with Filipendula, though the resolution of the photo doesn't clearly show that. Click on the photo to enlarge and you can see it.

In the next view, you can just make out a circle of six red logs (from a fallen walnut tree). This is intended to be a reference, a memorial if you will, in memory of the Lenni Lenape, the native Americans who inhabited this area over the past several thousand years. You can see it better if you enlarge the photo. I wanted this feature to be subtle enough to fade into the background, but I also want it to be visible enough to lead a visitor to ask, "What is this." I have some anecdotal evidence most visitors get the point. The red color also makes a practical focal point.

Next a photo of Angelica archangelica (bought as Angelica gigas; beware labels), which I hope will seed and make a colony. You can also make it out in the photo above.

One final note ... I took these photos in the rain yesterday. Today it's still cloudy but the rain has stopped, and the colors are not nearly as brilliant as yesterday. I've always known gardens look good in the rain. What I didn't realize is that the rain actually changes the quality of light and color


  1. Wow!

    James, what beautiful and inspirational pictures! I loved the red logs and the reason behind them. My 4th grade son is learning about Lenape and I am sure this picture will give us much to talk about.

    Rain has definitively been generous around our area and is sure giving us such an "English" Spring. Let's enjoy it while it last!

    Thanks for sharing your garden and more.

  2. Thank you, Maria. I'm happy that you like the red logs. I've moved them several times trying to find a place where they work visually. I think this is it.

  3. GORGEOUS! I always amazes me how out of this barren void comes so much lush green. A question: my miscanthus are all pretty much dead, and can't figure out why. We are in a bit of a drought. We're talking the species, and japanese (?) and zebra here. I might just put i blustems instead next to my panicums.

  4. I've never lost a miscanthus, but mine obviously get a tremendous amount of water. In fact, I've been surprised they do so well in such wet soil. If you're having a drought, I'd guess lack of water is the cause of their demise. Little bluestem, which I can't grow (too wet), sounds like a good way to go for your conditions. I also have good luck with panicums in the wet, though they are much slower to develop than the miscanthus.

  5. Hello James;

    Your photos are especialy inspirational as I am in the middle of planting a 3000 square foot shade garden right now. You have some plants pictured which I can use on the perimeter. It's with some reluctance that I am still going to plant some petasites in sunken contaniers to add some largeness to some adjacent Astilboides tabularis and eventually some rhubarbs. I'm always looking for extra large zone 4 plants if you have any new ideas.

    George Africa
    The Vermont Gardener
    Vermont Gardens
    Vermont Flower Farm

  6. Hi, George -
    Ligularia japonica has fabulous foliage, if you don't know it. I have three from Tony Avent's Plant Delights nursery. I recently saw some in Hudson, NY that have grown to about five feet wide. They make beautiful mounds of finely cut large leaves. A real spectacle. And they appear to be Zone 4 hardy.

    Do you know any hostas that will grow in heavy, wet clay? The ones I've tried survive, but just sort of languish.



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