Irises

House with foundation planting of shrubs

Foundation Plantings: Big Mistake?

Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a house’s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment. I remember reading instructions for these plantings in “how to garden” books from the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow, I thought both foundation plantings and foundation garments* had become passé, but no. The internet is full of advice on design and plant selection for foundation plantings.

My advice? Don’t do it. You know why? Because those shrubs and perennials will be forever in the way of anyone doing any kind of maintenance to the house. Moreover, they will likely sustain damage in the process. One article I read actually recommended a variety of holly for a foundation planting. Can you imagine squeezing between house and holly bush with paintbrush in hand?

On three sides of our house (whose foundation isn’t visible because the stucco ends a couple of inches above ground level), there’s pavement close to the walls, except for 18 inch wide beds between the concrete walks at the back and one side. There are a few plants in those narrow spaces, but they’re short and manageable. These areas present few access problems.

Not so at the front. Soon after we moved in, I planted an artistically curved mixed bed there, 8 feet wide at each end and 4 feet in the middle. It’s occupied at one end by a couple of shrub roses and a large cotoneaster with a clematis growing through it. At the other end are a spirea and a flowering currant. Between and in front of these shrubs are perennials, mostly asters and irises, along with an acanthus, several peonies, and some self-seeded fillers.

In 2017, we had the roof reshingled. This summer, we had the house painted, including the wooden window frames and ornamental strips. Some stucco repair was also needed.

I suppose it’s not realistic to expect roofers, stucco dudes, painters and other tradespeople (tradesmen, in my experience) to be careful around plants. They’re being paid to apply shingles, stucco, or paint, and that’s what they do. Despite my efforts to tie plants back and indicate paths to the spots needing to be worked on, plants sustained some degree of damage.

The irises below two of the windows whose trim was painted bore the brunt — stomped on, broken, mashed and trampled. Okay, they were in late summer decline and didn’t look great, but still… Luckily, this is the right time of year to divide irises and move peonies, so I’m telling myself this disaster is an opportunity in disguise. When I replant, I’ll build in a buffer zone.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
What’s left of these irises are now refugees awaiting repatriation.

My advice for anyone designing new plantings would be to leave a generous buffer zone between the house and any substantial plantings. It should be at least 3 feet/1 metre wide and either paved or planted with lawn, tough groundcover, or expendable annuals. Keep larger shrubs (anything taller than 3 feet/1 metre) even farther away from the house, at least 8 feet. (And that means the farthest outward growth of the shrub or tree, not the main stem or trunk.) Whoever has to wash, repair, patch, or paint will be grateful. So will the plants.


*It seems foundation garments are now called “shapewear.” That’s quite a different thing from the power girdles and conical bras of past decades. (I’ll bet they’re still uncomfortable.)

Featured image from Pixabay

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Back garden overview June 2019 with kale tree in bloom

The Marvels of May

May is over, but here is a bouquet of sights from my garden gathered during that month. It was a great year for irises. Two managed to bloom that had not for years, probably due to shade and dry conditions. And I have blue poppies once more. I can’t take any credit for them as yet; if they survive the next winter to bloom again, I’ll have something to brag about. The mass of yellow bloom on the right side of the featured photo is a giant kale plant, almost a tree.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
These irises (names unknown to me) have always been here. This year they’re blooming better than normal.
Pale yellow irises
Dependable pale yellow iris, type and name unknown to me. They’re increasing nicely in the dry shade of the back garden.
Bearded iris, white with blue edge
Surprise iris (not it’s real name). I vaguely remember it in bloom many years ago. I moved it to a better spot a couple of years ago; it must be happy there.
Purple bearded iris
Another surprise iris, a big purple one this time. No idea when I planted it. It must have languished bloomless for years, until now.
Primula auricula in bloom with tomato plants and potted dahlia with blooming thyme in background
Primula auricula. I have two plants, which both bloomed well this year. Small tomato plants in lower left corner, sprouting dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” above.
White foxglove with thalictrum behind
Volunteer (meaning self-sown) foxglove. It’s right at the front of a border, but I’m glad I didn’t weed it out.
White foxglove spotless
Close up of the foxglove flowers. It’s totally spotless; a plant elsewhere has purple spots inside the flowers.
Urban deer
Trouble in paradise — plant-nibbling urban deer. They cruise by regularly and sample the garden buffet. On the plus side, I’ve seen them eating bindweed.
Mixed foliage in the front garden with "Pink Panda" ornamental strawberry flowers
Mixed foliage in the front garden, with a few flowers of ornamental strawberry “Pink Panda”

Here are four photos of the two blue poppy plants I bought a few months ago. Their labels call them Meconopsis sheldonii “Lingholm” (grandis).

Rosa glauca, red-leaf rose, blooming in the rain
Rain-washed leaves and flowers of the red-leaf rose, Rosa glauca. The inch or so of rain was most welcome.

I’m looking forward to June, but sorry to see the end of iris time.

Iris Time

Henry Mitchell loved irises and grew a lot of them. He often wrote about them too — their colours, their beauty, the challenges of growing them well.

On my patch of rooty ground, I grow sixteen different irises, with varying degrees of success. I’m sure Mr. Mitchell would not consider them very impressive. But as each of them passes through its season of bloom, I am enchanted, indeed. Sometimes the fact that one or more of my irises chooses to bloom at all is a thrill in itself. A number of them have never bloomed. This year has been exceptional. Several plants produced bloom stalks with (gasp!) five or six buds.

In order of appearance:

I. unguicularis, the Algerian iris, opens the annual parade, as early as January, and lasts until March. Its tough, grass-like foliage grows to 3 feet and overhangs the front walk until I cut it back in October.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

I. reticulata blooms in February. Its numbers have declined somewhat over the years, but there are still a half dozen plants near the pond, that send up vivid blue flowers only a few inches tall.

Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata

In April comes Iris cristata, another small type, icy blue with a touch of lavender, that has spread modestly through a perennial bed under the infamous Norway maples. Sadly, I have no picture of it.

May is Iris Time proper, when the large-flowered, showy bearded irises bloom.

The earliest of my bearded irises, name unknown.

The earliest of my bearded irises, name unknown.

My bearded irises are old varieties whose names are unknown to me. A dark purple-blue one is the first of this type to bloom, followed by a small-flowered pale yellow. Then a large dark yellow and white, a dark red/maroon and sometimes a large medium blue. This year, all except the medium blue (which was taking a year off) outdid themselves. Even plants that normally sulk bloomlessly under the maples put out multiple buds.

Dainty pale yellow iris, also early, name unknown.

Dainty pale yellow iris, also early, name unknown.

 

Maroon/pinky-red bearded iris, name unknown.

Maroon/pinky-red bearded iris, name unknown.

 

Large yellow and white bearded iris, name unknown.

Large yellow and white bearded iris, name unknown.

 

Another view of the yellow/white iris, from 2012.

Another view of the yellow/white iris, from 2012.

Another iris that blooms in May and June is Iris foetidissima, the Gladwin iris, invaluable for dry shade although not much to look at in bloom. Its claim to fame is ornamental orange seeds that appear in early autumn, and of course result in multiple seedlings the following spring. The yellow pond iris (I. pseudoacorus) has formed a small colony along the edge of the pond. These plants are descendants of an enormous specimen that threatened to take over the entire pond. Extracting it some years ago was a big struggle that resulted in about 20 pounds of rhizomes lugged to the municipal recycling yard. The local raccoons invariably rough up these irises in July, fortunately after they have bloomed.

Iris foetidissima

Iris foetidissima

The variegated foliage of Iris pallida is attractive even without blooms, but the lavender-purple flowers, which smell like grape bubble gum, are definitely an asset. My plants did not join in the fun this year and refused to bloom.

Iris pallida foliage

Iris pallida foliage

 

Iris pallida blooms, 2010.

Iris pallida blooms, 2010.

I haven’t had much luck with Iris sibirica, due to poor siting in dry shade, although every now and then one manages to put out a flower. I was surprised to see one last week in a struggling group situated between a Norway maple and a flowering currant shrub. I should really move a few plants to a better spot. Siberian irises are slender and elegant, with bright, intense colours — definitely worth the effort to grow well.

Iris sibirica, one single bloom (and not a great picture either).

Iris sibirica, one sad bloom (and not a great picture either).

Finally — usually in June, but like everything else, early this year — are the Dutch irises, I. x hollandica, the consolation prize of the would-be iris grower. Mine are 100% reliable, a slowly-expanding clump of brassy yellow. There is also a plant with blue and yellow flowers that seems to be lying low this year.

Dutch iris

Dutch iris

I have two plants of yet another iris that should bloom in early summer — late June — with elegant yellow and white flowers. I have seen its flowers elsewhere, but never in my garden, although the foliage (narrower and a brighter green than that of the large bearded irises) comes up reliably every year. And every year I watch for the swellings of buds among the leaves, but so far, no luck. This may be another candidate for a move to a sunnier spot in soil free of maple roots. That so many of my irises stay alive in sub-optimal conditions, instead of giving up and dying, motivates me to help them out.