Saturday, May 07, 2011

Spring meadow evolving

The garden on Federal Twist has always been a summer and fall garden--until the last couple of years. I've been making an effort to extend its interest into spring. There will always be a quiet, empty time from the cutting down and burning in early March until the first week of May, but this year, for the first time, I see real potential for developing spring interest too.

One of the signs of this is the evolving shady meadow in the wettest part of my woodland garden at the end of the house. From this distance, you can't tell much is going on, but a closer view reveals an emerging community of plants, some indigenous to this area, some not. I can see the need for stepping stone paths through here for close-up viewing.

Senecio aureus (Golden ragwort) has been on the property since we moved here, so I added more last year. Though it's not a refined plant, it does spread and self-seed, and it adds bright spots of color at this time of year. Later, if the grasses get too high, it takes a high cutting with ease. The yellow also blends well with the dandelion flowers, which I've decided to adopt as wildflowers.

Blue Ajuga is rather prominent at this time of year. It's a legacy of the Howeth's, who built this house in 1965, and had been its only residents until we moved in in early 2005.  It too has spread far and wide, and adds to the weed-suppressing matrix of plants so I'm encouraging it to spread. The white flower appears to be a native wildflower. At first it was to be found only in the wettest areas, but now it too is spreading. It's graceful and quite delicate, easily crushed by wayward steps (thus the need for stepping stones). I wish I could identify it, but I haven't yet discovered its name.

That large plant in the photo above (and larger below) is an Arisaema triphyllum (Jack in the Pulpit), a common wildflower here. It seems to pop up everywhere.

The Galium odoratum (Sweet woodruff) is another legacy plant from the Howeth's. I forms attractive colonies but, considering it has been here for 45 years, it shows no sign of becoming an excessively rampant grower. I added the Pulmonaria 'Samouri' three years ago. It's done so well, I'm adding several new Pulmonarias this year.

Ferns, too, are a natural for this shady, very moist area.

Another view of Ajuga reptans, both blue and white, and a few Tiarella cordifolia. The Ajuga is really only noticeable when in flower in early spring, but the small spires of color are a pleasant addition at this time of year. Here, with Mattuecia struthiopteris.

On the other side of the path through the woodland garden, I apply leaf litter every year. This is a much more "natural" area where, to the present, Podophyllum peltatum thrives. I collected seed of the grass Hystrix patula (Bottlebrush grass) from the roadside, and it's successfully growing here now.

I'm also adding plantings of Helleborus foetidus, Carex appalachica, Epimedium, and Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum' to try to achieve a tapestry groundcover I saw several years ago in a woodland garden across the river in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Of course, this area needs plants for the summer too. The ethereals pass, but some plants last through the summer. Symphyotrichum cordifolium (known as Aster cordifolium when I planted it) has taken up vigorous residence in the drier areas around tree trunks, and is also seeding about, adding to the late season interest in this area.

Last weekend, I bought ramps from the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. I've seen photos of wild garlic in British gardens. I don't know if our ramp is the same plant, but its foliage looks the same, so I'm giving it a try in the wetter parts of the woodland area. Perhaps it will reward me with white blossoms next summer.

I haven't mentioned bulbs. Daffodils do well here. At the front, near the entrance gate, is an area of several hundred unnamed Daffodils left by Edith Howeth. They're in sore need of dividing, and I hope to get to them this summer, and replant them throughout the garden. Perhaps I'll also add Leucojum aestivum "Gravetye Giant', perhaps Camassia and other bulbs that can adapt to the conditions here.

I suppose I'll mention a major change I still have in mind--building a raised, rocky berm, over near the right hand path, planted with a few sculptural Japanese maples. (I have to credit this idea to Peter Holt, a garden designer in Nova Scotia.) We'll see.

For maintenance, this area will get a selective early summer cut, leaving the plants with late season interest, then a final cut at the end of the summer. It's important to use perennials that can compete with the very vigorous grasses. So far, most of these can do that. Some, like the Ajuga, virtually disappear into the undergrowth for most of the summer, but they retain their strength and are ready to go again come next spring.

This area is the entrance to the garden, so it's really a prelude to the larger wet prairie at the back of the house.


  1. Beautiful photos James. You say the garden on Federal Twist has always been a summer/fall garden, yet your spring seems delightful. I especially like that blue groundcover ( is it the 'Sweet woodruff' in your 7th photo? ). A real woodland.

  2. James, there is literally nothing about this post I don't like! Last season, I had to admit my own garden is really great in summer and fall...but spring is a bit drab. I've been trying to incorporate more spring ephemerals as well to jump-start the growing season. Love your solutions, especially allowing some of the native (and long-term resident) plants to establish themselves. I'm in love with that combination of Pulmonaria and Galium....the contrast in color and texture is really magical. I'm not sure why you don't see Galium used more often, it's such a fabulous plant...and far from being a thug. You are so lucky to have those Jack in the Pulpit as volunteers! Love how it sort of stands sentinel over that part of the garden. Can't wait to see the changes you have in store for the rest of the season.

  3. Faisal, the plant with blue flowers in the 7th photo is Pulmonaria 'Samouri'. The Sweet Woodruff has the finely cut leaves and white flowers. I'm realizing how very different our plants are from yours. I'm totally lost looking at Australian plants (well, most of them).

  4. Scott, thanks. The Jack in the Pulpits are everywhere. The great thing is their bright red berries in the fall, most of which seem to seed around easily. My growing conditions are so challenging, I love finding plants that actually like it here. My goal is to let plant competition carry the weight of garden management, so I only occasionally have to intervene. Not there yet, but getting there.

  5. Let plant competition carry the weight of garden management.

    That sounds to me like the finishing line of a marathon, and I have only just heard the starter's gun.

  6. Absolutely lovely things going on in your meadow, James - so much variety and color so early in the growing season. That white flower you're wondering about: maybe a species of Cardamine? I don't know them well enough to tell them apart, so I'll leave it to you to Google and see what you think.

  7. Diana, it's true. These plants have proven their ability to compete with the grasses. It is a marathon ... in slow motion.

  8. Nan, thanks for the help. I have Cardamine concatenata growing around here (it bloomed a couple of weeks ago), which has very different, dramatically toothed leaves, but the flower is certainly similar. I dismissed Cardamine because of the leaf shape alone, but at your urging, I found another one, Cardamine bulbosa (also known as Spring cress), which I do think is my "unknown" plant.

  9. Thankyou, James...upon further research I see that the blue flowers of Pulmonaria ( lungwort, Jerusalem sage ) sometimes go pink...I'd love to grow it, but I usually avoid pink. Australian plants have had to fit into often harsh's not uncommon to find a single species existing only in a single location...many of them are both hardy and almost frail.

  10. James,
    The meadow looks wonderful. I have a whole stand of Jack-in-the-pulpits beneath a Magnolia seiboldii tree in my garden. When it is happy it seeds readily. It brings back fond memories of the woods where I grew up in suburban Philadelphia. I have never spotted here in the woods of New Hampshire.

  11. Michael, so what you say seems to mean that this area is Jack-in-the-Pulpit territory (I'm near Philly). None in the woods of New Hampshire? They are such delicate plants, I'm surprised they grow so prolifically here. Some are giant (seemingly), two feet tall, perhaps more. Not all, some.

  12. I'd say you have spring interest in abundance.

    I remember wild garlic when I lived in the UK. Each morning I'd walk to catch the tube at the end of the Met line and i'd pass great colonies of them. They're sometimes called 'stinkin' jenny', the leaves were the area of culinery significance. Years ago, I remember seeing them for sale at London's borough market for an absolute fortune.

  13. Rob, your description of it as 'stinkin jenny' seems to clinch the identification. Our "ramps" smell a little like cat pee when they're raw. Cooked, they're delicious. I've never seen them growing, though our green markets have them for sale in abundance. Guess they came over with the English colonists or vice versa.

  14. There is nothing common about that Arisaema.

  15. They're everywhere! They're everywhere!



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