garden design

Blue Siberian irises, orange poppies and Libertia grandiflora, May 2020

This Was May…

Before May of 2020 fades into memory, here are a few memorable images from my garden, along with a thought or two.

As a new gardener, I read a lot of books and articles about garden design that suggested using plants as an artist uses pigments to create stunning colour combinations. In fact, I recall the term “plant palette” being tossed around. After years of striving to do this in reality, I’ve decided it’s not a realistic goal, outside of “great gardens” with staffs and resources. For the small gardener, failure and fits (apoplectic and otherwise) are guaranteed. Plants aren’t pigments. They won’t all bloom at the intended times. A key component of the design will die or rampage through the planting. Something else will creep in and introduce a clashing colour. But delightful conjunctions do happen. My best combinations are happy accidents, not carefully selected groupings. The thing is to see and appreciate them when they happen.

The header image shows a happy combination of Siberian irises (finally blooming well here), with orange poppies (Papaver rupifragum) and the white flowers of Libertia grandiflora in the background. I planted the Libertia a couple of years ago. It didn’t bloom last summer, so I was beginning to think the conditions here didn’t suit it (it’s a New Zealand native), but it’s performing beautifully this year.

Orange poppy, Papaver rupifragum
It would be tempting to use flowers like this as pigments. Papaver rupifragum, otherwise known as Spanish, Moroccan, or Atlas poppy, looks great against the grey foliage of Senecio “Sunshine.”

While “painting” with flower colours is a dubious proposition, it is possible to create effects of contrasting and harmonizing forms and colours with foliage. Leaves, after all, are present throughout the growing season, whereas flowers are fleeting whims.

Foliage: hellebore, hosta, variegated grass, and Chinese witch hazel, May 2020
A happy combination of leaves: Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis) at the top, with hellebore, variegated grass, and hosta below.
Japanese painted fern in Chinese jar, May 2020
And then there’s this fern — Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum). It’s a colour combination in itself, with shades of greenish grey, silver, and maroon.
Creamy yellow rose
A rose is perfect on its own. I have no idea what this one’s variety name is. I grew it from a cutting, so it’s on its own roots, not grafted. It’s blooming well this year, wafting fragrance all over the front garden.

The garden and environs are home to a number of wild creatures. Birds are the most numerous. I’ve come to recognize quite a few different ones since I began hanging up feeders in 2015. A couple of days ago, I saw a family of red-breasted nuthatches near the pond, and the following morning there was a family of Bewick’s wrens in the lilac bush. Sadly, I think one of the nuthatches is no more; today I found clusters of small grey feathers that match one of that species’ colours. I have seen Cooper’s hawks here from time to time, and I know they prey on small birds. So do crows, for that matter; I’ve noticed one visiting the bird bath recently.

Buck visiting the garden next door, May 2020
This guy was one of a group of four (a mini-herd!) visiting the garden next to mine. (Photo is blurry because I took it through the potting shed’s window.)
Slime mold on compost pile, May 2020
A rather bizarre “visitor” came after rain in mid-May — a slime mold that showed up on top of the compost pile. This one might be the type known as “dog vomit” slime mold. My first thought when I saw it was “Who puked on the compost?”

May really is this garden’s best month. June also, if there’s enough rain. By July, grass starts to brown off and the spring bloomers get that tired look. Of course, there are the drought-tolerant stalwarts, the “tough plants” I’ve mentioned in quite a few posts. And the gardener (that’s me) racing around frantically with watering cans and hoses, ministering to plants that aren’t so tough.

My Less-Than-Perfect Patch

This winter I will have to decide whether to keep my vegetable garden (actually more of a vegetable patch) or re-purpose it. It has become too shady and infested with tree roots to be a suitable piece of ground in which to grow vegetables, apart from peas, lettuce, spinach and scarlet runner beans (which are surprisingly tolerant of difficult conditions).  Tomatoes, cucumbers and anything else that requires full sun and fertile soil have been a total failure the past two or three years, despite dutiful digging-in of compost, manure, lime and other goodies.

It’s such a bad time to give up on growing vegetables! What with the “hundred mile diet” and the craze for locally grown food, vegetable gardens have become fashionable. (Garden fashions — a topic for a future post). Having had a vegetable garden — or at least a patch — for the past 25 years, it’s hard to throw in the trowel.

The trouble is that there are few things sadder than a sad vegetable garden. It’s a total contradiction. Vegetable gardens should be orderly, prosperous and lush. A perennial or mixed border grown in less than ideal conditions can be attractive despite its lack of perfection (I know this because I have such borders), but a vegetable garden of runty, struggling, unproductive plants is an offense to the eye.

I have two exemplars of perfection when it comes to vegetable gardens, both featured years ago in Horticulture magazine. The first is (or was) the garden of Peter Chan, in Portland, Oregon. The article’s title is “Peter Chan’s Perfect Patch,” (Horticulture, May 1985) and perfect it was, although clearly more than a “patch.” The garden was framed by wonderful paths made from stones dug up in the course of its making, and the raised beds were separated by narrow walkways of packed earth. The rows of plants were arrow-straight, weedless and healthy. Bean and pea trellises were solidly constructed, not shaky makeshifts cobbled together from assorted oddments. The whole place was groomed and managed to perfection, practical and beautiful in its orderliness.

My other ideal when it comes to vegetable gardens is that of Rosemary Verey, as written up in the July 1987 issue of Horticulture. Influenced by the jardin potager at the Chateau de Villandry, it features stone walls and an intricate layout of square and triangular beds separated by paths of brick and tile radiating from the centre of a 60 by 60 foot square. The vegetables were grown in blocks, artistically combined with herbs, espaliered fruit trees and the occasional clipped shrub. Details such as alternating red- and green-leafed lettuces and ripening onion tops arranged in parallel lines put the final touch on perfection.

I had a better situation for growing vegetables in my first garden, in the 1980s. The soil was a fat clay loam, difficult to dig but richer than the lean sandy loam of my current garden. Shade and tree roots were not a problem. One year I had a wheelbarrow full of carrots and every year a freezer full of green beans. Tomatoes brought indoors before frost lasted until Christmas. Those were the days.

Here I did at least attempt a layout of my 15 x 30 foot patch a la Ms. Verey, dividing the space into two diamond shapes and six triangles. But my brick paths are too narrow to be practical, due to a shortage of bricks. Then there’s the awkwardly placed apple tree and all the volunteer and spreading plants that I have failed to discipline over the years — various mints, mulleins, violets, Corydalis lutea and Echinops ritro.  There just isn’t a lot of space left for vegetables.  And I use part of the patch as a temporary storage area for finished compost. The shade and tree roots are the final blow.

 

Less-than-perfect vegetable patch

 

This year I grew my tomatoes in big pots parked in a number of sunny spots around the place. This was a success (or would have been if not for a late, cold spring and cool summer) and I intend to do it again next year. I will probably grow peas, lettuces, spinach and the tolerant runner beans again, but I admit that my vegetable growing aspirations have been considerably scaled back.