How to Design a Perennial Border


rhododendron_occidentale2.1600When I visit my best friend’s house I park next to the perennial border that lines her driveway. At any given time of year there is something blooming, flowers filling the air with fragrance and juicy apples hanging on the tree for picking later in the summertime. She has some California natives as well as traditional cottage garden plants all mixed in together. Originally from Illinois, she loves a garden filled with lush green and color but has designed the space with plants that can use less water than you would expect and still look spectacular.

What makes for a successful border? You see DIY articles in the gardening magazines showing lovely combinations with rules to follow but they always seem to be for a different climate or location. We often have borrowed scenery from the mixed woods and some of their ideas just don’t work well here. Here are some tips for planting a terrific perennial border in our neck of the woods.

Some of the key players in my friends perennial border are natives like Western azalea, kerria_japonica2hazelnut and flowering currant. These are large, woody shrubs that add height, texture and year round interest. They provide the backbone or structure to the border throughout the seasons and even in the winter. She also has a weeping bottlebrush which is evergreen and provides nectar for the hummingbirds as does the flowering currant. An apple tree and a persimmon tower over all the other plants creating a canopy for the shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. You could also plant spirea, weigela, cornus and viburnums to provide structure to your border.

My friend’s border is planted so that there is something of interest every month during the growing season. The persimmon tree is the star of the late fall garden with bright orange fruit that hang like ornaments on the tree. In the spring I can’t take my eyes off the kerria japonica whose graceful shape is covered with double golden, pom pom shaped flowers. The vivid, new foliage of the Rose Glow barberry complements the stand of Pacific coast iris with similar cream and burgundy flowers blooming next to it.  Under the bottlebrush a sweep of billbergia nutans or Queen’s Tears is flowering with those exotic looking, drooping flower clusters. They make a great groundcover under the tree and also are long lasting in a vase.

ompholodes2.1600Mid-sized filler plants that thrive in this border include Hot Lips salvia, daylilies and polemonium to name just a few. Daffodils and tulips have naturalized throughout the space. Groundcovers grow thickly to shade the soil and prevent precious moisture evaporation.  Lamb’s ears like their spot under the flowering currant and the omphalodes have spread throughout the border. This little plant looks and blooms like the forget-me-not but the delicate deep blue flowers don’t produce those sticky seeds that plague both our socks and animal fur.

This border get morning sun and mid-afternoon sun until about 3pm. If you have a situation that calls for all sun lovers you could try asters, shasta daisy, grasses, coreopsis, achillea, echinacea, gaillardia, sedum, kniphofia, lavender, liatris and rudbeckia.  Perennials that work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds include monarda and my personal favorite, cardinal flower.  Both have long, tubular flowers in bright colors such as red, orange and yellow. it’s easy to have the birds and butterflies coming all season when you plant perennials with overlapping bloom times.

Perhaps some of these plant combinations would look great in your garden, too. Just don’t worry too much about the “rules” of perennial borders. Mix it up. You don’t want the border to look like stadium seating. The idea is to have fun and create a border that makes you happy.



Gardening Projects and Ideas for a Rainy Day


As I looked out the window at the rain coming down I thought of all the things I should be doing in the garden. “Where does the time go”, I thought to myself. “Why did you frolic in all that sunshine last month instead of transplanting and moving plants to better spots”?  I could tell from the conversation going on in my head that I needed some inspiration so off I went to visit a local garden store. I knew I was in trouble as I explored and wanted to buy nearly every cool plant I saw. Here are some of the plants that really caught my eye.

tillandsia_on_apple_branchLast month for my birthday a friend gave me a collection of tillandsia attached to an gnarled, mossy apple branch that had fallen from a tree in her garden. There are many kinds of these bromeliads or air plants as they are sometimes called and they can be displayed in lots of ways. At the garden store, I saw miniature hanging terrariums that looked awesome with several tiny tillandsia specimens, glossy pebbles and moss bits arranged inside. The humidity inside the glass as well as the bright light from a window is just what they like.

Other tillandsia were mounted on bark, some on driftwood, some in table top terrariums and some displayed in beautiful baskets. Tillandsia, like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas for landscape plants that might be perfect in an edgeworthia_chrysanthaupcoming design. Often what is needed to complement a house or view from a window is a plant with interesting foliage color or  branching pattern and bark in the dormant season. Showy, fragrant flowers make a welcome addition to the front entry at any time of year but I found one new to me and it’s blooming now.

Tucked among other plants with soft yellow and green foliage I saw my first Edgeworthia or Chinese Paper Bush. Also called yellow daphne, this daphne relative is grown mainly for its flowers. Tubular, bright yellow flower clusters fade to creamy white. The showy display is memorable. They definitely possess that weird appeal that collectors love. In China this plant is used to make paper and medicine.

Edgeworthia chyrsantha are hardy to 10 degrees and prefer half day sun or afternoon shade during the hot summer sun. They grow to about 6 feet tall and a bit wider. The tropical looking foliage is attractive during the summer but it’s the overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers that will make you want to grow this shrub in your garden. I’m looking forward to planting it next to a fragrant daphne.

pittosporum_tenuifolium_Irene_PattersonAnother plant that caught my eye was an Irene Patterson pittosporum tenuifolium. With speckled frosty green leaves this shrub will really light up a dark area. It can take full sun but it’s the shady areas I have in mind. Hardy to 15-20 degrees it will survive our winters and is adaptable to most soils. I think it would look great paired with the variegated huge green and white leaves of ligularia argentea.

I was also inspired to plant up my own succulent garden after seeing the display planted in recycled wooden boxes, old tins, antique cheese boxes and weathered boots. Whatever you have on hand with a drainage hole will look   succulent_garden2great with a succulent or two planted inside. Succulents in containers can be moved out of winter frost and rain which increases the variety that can survive in our area. I have a vintage Swift’s Silverleaf pure lard tin that’s just waiting to provide a home for some new succulents.  I’m looking forward to going back to the garden store to choose just the right specimens for his special container.

It’s fun to have some gardening projects that I can do indoors. There’s lots of time to plant those new landscape plants that caught my eye on a rainy day.



Winter Flowers that Use Less Water


In our neck of the woods we could change the iconic saying inscribed on a New York Post Office that reads  “Neither snow now rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”  to “neither drought nor freeze nor wind can stay the coming of spring”.  Spring is everywhere whether we are ready or not. The birds are announcing their presence in anticipation of the breeding season. Early blooming Saucer magnolia are covered with huge pink and purplish flowers. Daffodils are already opening.

There’s not a more important time of the year to have flowering plants in the garden. The restorative benefits of growing things is astonishing. They soothe the soul and refresh the spirit. Here are some plants I like to plant in my own garden as well as recommend to others.
clematis_armandii4
Scented flowers are nature’s way of rewarding pollinators with nectar and people with smiles. One such plant blooming now is the vine, Evergreen clematis or clematis armandii.  Most books say it can thrive on occasional summer water, defined as every 10-14 days during the dry months, but I’ve seen established vines bloom in spots that receive no supplemental summer water at all. The vanilla fragrance of the creamy white, star-shaped flower clusters is fabulous, their heady scent filling the air. This vigorous, cold hardy, evergreen vine has foliage that emerges bronze colored and then matures to a glossy dark green. It’s a great choice for filling a large space.

We’ve had a little rain but I still think it’s a good idea to concentrate on plants that need only daphne_odora_Aureomarginataoccasional water during the summer months or drought tolerant species that can thrive with water 1x per month. A good plant choice that fits the bill is Variegated Winter Daphne. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is evergreen and wonderfully fragrant. This deer tolerant shrub is good looking year round and does well under the shade of small trees. Although many daphnes are tricky to grow, this one is adaptable and easy to please. During the summer water it as infrequently as the plant will allow. Little or no water in summer will reward you with clusters of fragrant purple flowers that start opening at this time of year.  Cut them to bring inside with hellebore and euphorbia for a pretty bouquet.

For May fragrant flowers try daphne burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ which is also easy to grow and requires only occasional water as does daphne transatlantic ‘Summer ‘Ice’. Summer Ice produces sweetly scented flowers for an extraordinarily long time. Flowering begins in early April and can continue as late as November.

helleborusHelleborus is one tough plant. Also called Lenten Rose this extremely cold hardy, deer tolerant perennial blooms in the dead of winter. It looks especially good planted under winter and early spring flowering deciduous shrubs like witch hazel, viburnum, red or yellow twig dogwoods. Cut foliage to the ground in December so that flowers are displayed unobstructed.

Other drought tolerant plants in this family include the Corsican hellebore which is the largest of the hellebores. Creamy, pale green flowers float above leathery, evergreen foliage. This hellebore is tough and long lived if left undisturbed. It will grow in sun or shade and prefers a well drained or sandy soil but will tolerate clay if drainage is good. Once established it is fully drought tolerant.

Helleborus foetidus is also called Stinking hellebore but don’t let the name fool you. Only if you crush the leaves or stems do you get a strong chlorophyll smell which makes the plant unattractive to deer. The flowers last throughout the winter. This unique plant is the only plant discovered to date that uses yeast to produce heat.

Rounding out the short list of low water use, winter flowering plants are vine maple, berberis thunbergerii, euphorbia characias wulfenii, iris pallida, ribes sanguineum, huckleberry, forsythia, witchazel, azara microphylla,  western wild ginger and rosemary.



What to do in the Garden in February


flowering_plum.1024The unusually warm January weather has made the early flowering trees and shrubs bloom even earlier this year. Actually it’s not so unusual for us to have a warm streak around here in January. What is unusual is the prolonged dry and stable conditions we have encountered. The high pressure system that blocks our usual winter rains does not usually last more than 2-3 weeks even in the heart of the rainy season. The persistent ridge has not behaved in a typical manner. We can only hope the ridge breaks down in the next few months and brings us more than a smattering of rain here and there.  What should a gardener be doing in February?

Prune fruit trees. Smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. quince_red.1280Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open. Do not spray 36 hours before rain in predicted. Be sure to spray the ground around each tree.

I recommend keeping winter pruning to a minimum and prune again in the summer time. Winter pruning is invigorating to fruit trees and there will be excessive vertical rebound growth, the witch’s broom-like riot of growth that emerges after a tree is given a haircut. Such growth is often dense and doesn’t bear much. A lot of the tree’s stored energy issued to produce all these unwanted branches, leaving much less for the production of fruit.

quince_red-closeup.1280Due to our unusual weather some low-chill fruit tree varieties like Fuji apples, many apricots, peaches, nectarines and pears such as Comice and Seckel, might break bud and flower earlier because of the winter freeze and then warm weather. Plants that flower prematurely risk losing those flowers if night temps plunge but the long-term health of the plant probably won’t be affected.

Strawberries are oblivious to the weather. Blackberries and some raspberries are another story. Like some fruit trees, their chilling requirements may have already been met, their buds are swelling and they’re ready to take off. A rapid chill could freeze the buds and the canes might begin to die from the top down. But even if the entire cane dies, healthy new canes will emerge in spring. The early summer berry crop could be lost but fall berries will be fine.

Prune woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia cut them down to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim. You won’t be able to know for sure, until perhaps early summer, if the freeze killed plants like Coprosma, Echium, Tibouchina or lantana so be patient.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven’t already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kind to your soil and the beneficial soil microorganisms.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  Cut some branches during flowering to bring in for bouquets.

Prune roses and rake up any debris beneath the plant to eliminate overwintering fungal spores. Remove any old leaves that still cling to the plant. Spray the stems and bare ground with a combination organic horticultural oil and a dormant spray.

Prune established perennials later in the month if you might get frost that could damage new foliage. Giving your maiden hair ferns a haircut now allows the new growth to come out fresh. Prune winter damaged fronds from your other ferns.

Divide perennials before new growth starts. Agapanthus, asters, coreopsis, daylilies, shasta daisy and liriope are plants that tend to become overcrowded and benefit from dividing.

Mother Nature knows how to adjust to changes in the weather- slowing down when it’s really cold and catching up when it’s mild.

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