Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Long Bed – Reds and Yellows

Let’s return to my long flower bed, whose theme is primarily one of ‘hot’ colors such as yellow, orange and red, but with some cooler tones, primarily on the shadier right end (covered in an April 29 post). I do want my young children to be pleased as they walk through the U-shaped path, with flowers on either side, so I have made it a little on the flamboyant side for a perennial bed. So far I’ve succeeded with my “best” critic, as my 19-month-old son runs down the grass path yelling “flowers!” upon seeing a patch of daffodils, or “poppies!” when glimpsing anything red, even the picture on a plant label.

With writing, as with a garden, one has to consider one’s audience. I assume that people searching the internet for gardening blogs are already capable of looking up plants and varieties, and so I intend to focus on my experience with plants and groups of plants – what’s worked and hasn’t worked for me, culturally and visually – rather than broader information that may be of use for people in other climates, but would just reflect my regurgitating other stuff I’ve read, or the sort of information you’d likely find on a plant’s label.

The photo above focuses on the front bed, near the right-hand side, just next to the Tradescantia and Verbena I mentioned on April 29.

What’s in it?

At front left in this view, Nicotiana ‘Nicki’ is a popular annual. It performed fabulously, its red and pink flowers blooming through the summer as one expects from most annuals (I did deadhead it almost daily with my fingers). But unlike most annuals, which turned to mush in our October 6 frost, the Nicotiana remained healthy, like most of the perennials – and even flowered into early November, as I recall the only thing to do so except for my miniature rose ‘Starina.’ I expect I will soon get the same plant for this spot.

Next to it is Potentilla ‘Gibson’s Scarlet’ – its flower stalks sprawled a bit more later in the summer, but the flowers also became more abundant. The small, dark red blooms are not as outré as some of their neighbors, but they do show up better in person (under daylight conditions) than in this photo. It also has pretty foliage. The plant is today (May 2, 2005) a beautiful mound of foliage already about 2/3 as wide and half as high as in this photo.

Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’ (speedwell) didn’t flower or grow much in 2004, but hey, it was a first year perennial. It’s already as big today as in this photo, and I expect to see its blue-purple spikes this year, especially as it’s described as “deer resistant.” I’m hoping that the slightly bluish pink of the lily behind it will allow it to gracefully fit into this composition.

What appears to be a blank space to the Veronica’s right held a tiny seedling of hollyhock (Alcea) from the Fordhook Giants Mix. The plant grew larger last year and is already an attractive clump of about 10 leaves as of today; it may bloom pale yellow, pink or dark red, judging from the seed packet photo. (I have a dozen of the same strain in the back row, behind the grass path and all of the plants discussed here.)

At front right, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ is smaller than the more popular ‘Hidcote’ and probably more bluish in hue (both types of English lavender are often sold by name despite being raised from seed, and are reported to vary in color and form). I should probably move this plant to the sunnier side of the bed and raise it up a couple inches with some added grit; it was sluggish and floppy last year, and seemed to have some powdery mildew. But perhaps with the infected multiflora roses and brambles removed from the nearby slope, and some chemical steps taken (such as baking soda in water, as I want to minimize the use of more toxic chemicals), it can flourish here in just over half sun, especially if we have a drier summer.

In general I have not been especially careful to segregate plants by water needs, figuring that in a dry year some plants will do well, while in a wet year others will; and under typical conditions, I can water, say, my Siberian Iris, while the daylily beside it will do alright with its seepage. So far, I think my only total failure was Verbascum pulverulatum (elsewhere in the back row of this bed), which flowered weakly and died before even setting seed. If I have the time to start some new raised beds in the sun, I will try Verbascum again, and move or divide other lovers of dry soil into this bed, which I will amend with grit or gravel and sand.

Second Row

At left, Asclepias currasavica ‘Silky Gold’ (a butterfly weed or milkweed, which Monarchs are attracted to). Since nothing has come up from its rather woody stump this spring, I googled this plant today and learned it’s only hardy to Zone 8b, but is often consciously grown as an annual – well worth it, in my opinion, for its large size, clean foliage and long-flowering habit. (Its milkweed pods filled with parachute seeds were also interesting, but I deadheaded most to limit self-seeding and, I thought, keep the plant strong.) So I have another place for a plant, and an improvement. Perhaps I will plant another butterfly weed, this one or the more common Asclepias tuberosa (hardy to Zone 4), and in either case will likely choose one of the more golden-orange flowered types over this yellow-gold cultivar. The yellow plant was, on its own merits, quite perfect last year, but for the fact that it was right next to Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm,’ which had, to my eye, exactly the same shade of yellow.

Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm.’ It seems that everyone who has any perennials has ‘Goldsturm’ – which is the only drawback of this excellent, long-flowering, deeply colored, vigorous and healthy cultivar (and a common problem with many cultivars which are head and shoulders ahead of their siblings, such as ‘Happy Returns’ daylily, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ and whatever that pale purple rhododendron is that’s first to bloom each spring – like right now). Once you’ve seen a few of one of these ‘All Stars’ you can drive down a country road at 40 MPH and identify the plants from peripheral vision alone. It’s enough to keep me from putting a half-dozen ‘Goldsturm’ next to the street, but it won’t keep the plant entirely out of my beds. It has returned this spring, looking healthy, but is still quite small compared to the mounds of Potentilla and Veronica in front of it.

Lillium ‘Stargazer.’ True lilies may be the most important genus of hardy flowering plants that many experienced gardeners in my area have given up on. Their mortality problem is due primarily to the lily beetle. So I am not going to go hog-wild for lilies, thinking that the more I have the sooner they will find my garden. (Unfortunately, they also eat Fritillaries.) I saw no sign of damage last year.

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (Fountain Grass). I don’t want to have a lot of ornamental grass, but I think this was one of the finer touches in this bed, keeping its deep red color until frost. This plant is only hardy to Zone 9a, so I dug it up in November and put it in a pot in the stairway down to my basement, not knowing if this would be warm enough. So far no sign of life this year.

As you may have noticed, the bed looks a bit sparse in this photo, with considerable “bare” soil covered in mulch. Viewed more horizontally, as most people do, the multiple rows of plants filled the apparent space fairly well, but I’ll concede they’re far from filling the bed to the sort of lushness most of us hope to achieve.

I do expect that many will be ready for division this fall or next spring. They have already multiplied considerably in their one season of growth. Indeed, many were bought in quart or 4” containers, and most of the plants in this section were put in the ground in late June or July, and were thus in the ground only about a month when this photo was taken. I credit double-digging and a pickup truck load of 2-year-old cow manure.

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