2009 was the worst growing season in about a decade. Here in the Northeast, it started out as “the year without a summer” and then became “the year with the summer we wish hadn’t come after all.” After a long, ultra cool and rainy spell it became stiflingly hot and humid practically overnight. Only in September did it become tolerable, but it remained erratic.
While I don’t want to see another year like 2009 any time soon, difficult weather years provide good opportunities to learn valuable gardening lessons. Weather, of course, has a big influence on garden beauty (or ugliness) mostly because of its impact on plant health. When plants struggle, gardens don’t look good. 2009 was a year in which lots of plants struggled.
Mostly it was a matter of disease. If it was fungal, we had it here in the Northeast: powdery mildew, late blight (along with every other kind of blight), rust, rust and more rust, and rots I couldn’t begin to identify. At one point I heard informally that commercial plant growers were spraying fungicide at unheard-of rates. It wasn’t hard to believe. I, too, sprayed things I’ve never sprayed before in hopes of nipping diseases in the bud, but many normally reliable performers succumbed. The undersides of Hydrangea arborescens leaves became a mass of orange pustules before dropping off prematurely. Snapdragons bloomed half-heartedly and then rotted at the base. Even hostas, normally great performers, were a total loss—not because of disease, but because 2009 was also a record-breaking slug year!
So, what was still looking good at the end of that horrendous season? In the shade department, Hellebore, Epimedium, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), Geranium macrorrhizum, Rodgersia, white wood aster (Aster divaricata), Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’, wild ginger (Asarum), ferns and (in light shade) astilbes and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla) were some of the best performers among perennials. That’s what I’d expect. These plants always look good. Any shade garden designed for long-term low maintenance and long-season interest in the Northeast (as long as it’s not a native plant garden) should be made up primarily of plants like these.
Among sun-loving perennials, many North American natives really showed their strength. Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), turtlehead (Chelone), tickseed (Coreopsis), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Helenium, Rudbeckia fulgida and Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) all sailed through summer. Phlox maculata ‘Rosalinde’ proved once again why it’s superior to every other phlox out there.
Among the non-natives, catmints (Nepeta), daylilies (Hemerocallis) and betonies (Stachys) of all kinds seemed no worse for wear, as did some lesser-known perennials such as burnet (Sanguisorba). Grasses showed a lot of resilience, although some didn’t attain their normal size because of the extended cool spring (most ornamental grasses need sun and heat to develop). The story is the same here as for shade plants: the ones that looked good at the end of 2009 were the ones that always look good.
So what’s the lesson here? To fill your garden with plants that are naturally disease resistant. They are the only ones capable of looking good whatever the weather delivers, and 2009 was the proof of that pudding. It’s fine to have some plants you just like a lot, even if you know they’re temperamental, but a garden full of them will eventually disappoint.
This winter, if you’re thinking about making additions to your garden in 2010, my advice is to pay careful attention to the invisible qualities of plants, like disease resistance. They’re the equivalent of a great personality in a human being—they may not be what you notice first, but they’re what you’ll grow to appreciate in the long haul. And with that thought in mind, here’s to some easier gardening years in the coming decade!
Here we are at the start of June. By the time summer arrives in three weeks, the majority of perennials in northern shade gardens will already have finished blooming. Is that surprising? You may never have realized it, but most shade tolerant perennials bloom in spring.
Think about it: hellebore, lungwort, violet, nodding mandarin, epimedium, Solomon’s seal, old-fashioned bleeding heart, most primroses, globeflower, Siberian bugloss, twinleaf, woodland phlox and many other shade standards are already done flowering. False Solomon’s seal, rodgersia, columbine, spotted geranium, bigroot geranium and mayapple are in bloom now, but they’ll be finished by late June, too. Foamflowers are fading (although if deadheaded they’ll put up more flower stalks), and the fruits of baneberry and goldenseal are already fattening up! Yup, flowers in the shade are mainly a spring thing.
What’s left to please the eyes of shade gardeners through the coming months? Goatsbeard, astilbe, hosta, bugbane, Japanese anemone, toad lily and woodland aster are all yet to come. There are more, of course, yet the fact remains that most shade perennials bloom very early in the year. I’d guesstimate 75% of them have wrapped up their flowering by the summer solstice.
There’s a good reason for that, of course. We tend to forget that plants don’t flower to please us. They have their own agenda: reproduction.
In our mostly deciduous temperate forest, the woodland is a full sun environment from November through April when the leaves aren’t on the trees. Most of that time, it’s too cold for perennials to grow, but in March and April, it’s just warm enough for them to shoot up quickly and do energy intensive things like flowering and setting seed while there’s plenty of sunlight to fuel the process. When the trees leaf out in May, many woodland perennials are winding down and looking forward to doing what we all would do if we could get away with it: lounging about all summer.
The tendency of woodland plants to flower in spring is the main reason why shade gardeners are often advised to stop focusing on flowers and instead rely heavily on exceptional foliage plants: ferns, hostas, sedges, and variegated plants such as (to name just one example) Brunnera macrophylla ‘Variegata’. Flowers will come and go in weeks, but foliage is season long.
Annuals can also help keep color going through the warm months, but the choices for shade in the north are severely limited. Begonias and impatiens are two obvious answers, and they’re readily available at low cost. Gardeners who have grown bored with wax-leaf begonias can try the dragon-wing types for some variety. These grow larger than wax-leaf begonias, are extremely floriferous and make more of an impact, but they also cost more since they aren’t available in 6-packs but have to be purchased in 4-inch pots.
Caladiums are another great choice for summer color in shade gardens, although once again the color is coming from leaves, not flowers. Caladiums are not cold hardy in the North and won’t survive winter in the ground, but they can be dug and stored, dormant, and regrown the following year if you have a bright, warm spot to start them indoors beginning in February or March. Be sure not to put them in the garden too early because they are very sensitive to cool nightime temperatures. Even here in southern New England, I’ve learned not to plant them outdoors until the first week of June. If you do get ahead of yourself with caladiums and they get whacked by an extra-cold night, they should spring back quickly as the weather warms even if their foliage dies back completely in the interim.
Don’t forget that lots of those spring blooming shade plants I mentioned earlier also have great foliage that will contribute to the beauty of your garden right up until the first frost. Rodgersia, epimedium, hellebore, Solomon’s seal and twinleaf are just a few examples of plants that would be worth growing even if they didn’t flower! So, when designing your shade garden, consider each plant’s total contribution to the effect through the whole growing season, not just the loveliness of its flowers, its most ephemeral aspect.
Cottage gardens possess an allure unmatched by any other kind of garden. Maybe it comes from being the horticultural equivalent of a woman with an hourglass figure, or maybe it’s just because they’re packed with such a variety of plant life that they’re never the same two weeks in a row, but whatever the source of their mystique, cottage gardens draw people like bees to nectar.
This spring I’m giving a series of lectures about cottage gardening, focusing primarily on a very particular cottage garden I designed and built starting in 2000. At nine years of age, it’s had plenty of time to mature and evolve. Many good gardening lessons can be drawn from it, and I’ll be sharing them with you over the coming months.
If you’re in (or plan to be in) southern New England this spring, check out my lecture schedule to see if you can’t fit one into your plans. Most of them are free, and you can’t do better than that!
To get things started, I’ll just say a few words about what a cottage garden is. The origins of the cottage garden go back hundreds of years to a time when most people grew a significant amount of their own food and made a great deal of their own household products—from soaps and dyes to medicines—mostly from plants. Cottage gardens are named for the country cottages around which they were found. Although cottage gardens as a phenomenon certainly weren’t restricted to the British Isles, we did inherit the cottage gardening tradition primarily from the British by virtue of our shared history.
Several things characterized the traditional cottage garden. It was on the small side, informal and not “designed” in anything like the modern sense of the word; it was a garden belonging to a person of modest means; it was a mix of flowers, vegetables and herbs (although the word “herb” meant something different then—more on that later); the plants in it were procured cheaply, usually in the form of passalong cuttings, divisions and seeds from friends and family; and it was densely packed with plants in order to maximize the productivity of a limited space.
Today’s cottage gardens are often strictly ornamental, vegetables and herbs now having their source at the local grocery store. They can be large, upscale and filled with the most fashionable of exotic vegetation, or they can be spaces where every resident plant carries an association with a loved friend or relative who gave it as a gift. Despite these differences, cottage gardens still look a lot like their ancestors—a testament to the adaptability of a loosely defined garden style. In fact, the only real requirements for a cottage garden are that it have a blowsy, freewheeling look and a lot of different flowering things.
That’s all for now—I hope you’ll join me over the coming months as we look in depth at how to make captivating cottage gardens.