ON SUNDAY, I WENT TO HEAR THE IRREPRESSIBLE GARDEN DESIGNER/WRITER DEAN RIDDLE speak at Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack. I’ve been a fan of Dean’s since his ‘Dean’s Dirt’ column in Elle Decor some years ago. His 2002 book, Out in the Garden, about his creation of an exuberant planting scheme (and life, in the process) at his rented bungalow in the Catskills, has been on my night table since I moved here.
I’m writing about a glorious garden Dean designed near Woodstock, N.Y., above, for the July/August issue of Garden Design magazine. After his slide show, which ranged over several gardens he’d designed upstate and his recent trip to Japan, my head was swimming with visions of billowing perennials.
Dean’s a guy after my own heart: resourceful, down-to-earth, and budget-conscious. He’s encouraging and enthusiastic; he makes you feel you can do it. One of his trademarks is the extensive use of self-sowing plants like verbena bonariensis and echinacea, whose random appearances over time, he says, “weave everything together.” I also love his use of boxwood as a “rhythmic evergreen presence” (the boxwood ball at my front door has cheered me all winter long).
Dean began his talk with a “Garden in Four Days,” a 4-square plot he’d created for an upstate client who wanted to pretty things up in a hurry. Birch logs were used to edge the beds and Dean created a ‘cobblestone carpet’ (another of his signatures) with stones salvaged from a nearby stream. They planted 175 one-gallon perennials all at once — approximately 35 each of just 5 different plants.
So naturally, when I visited Spielberg’s nursery in East Hampton on Monday for some composted manure to improve my still lacking-in-nutrients soil, and went out back “just to see what they had,” I couldn’t resist buying a bunch of last year’s leftover perennials at 50% off. I came away with 23 plants for my ‘curb appeal’ beds, above, on either side of the gravel walkway from my new parking court to the front door (with the 10 bags of compost, it all came to under $200).
The plants don’t look like much to an untrained eye – just brown sticks with a few baby green leaves among them. But I know from experience what they’ll look like – if not this year, then next, and bought pretty much all they had of mostly shade-tolerant, deer-resistant stuff:
- 5 blue-violet ‘May Night’ Salvia (Dean mentioned it, so I grabbed, and will put it in my sunniest spot)
- 5 Bronze Sedge, a reddish-brown foot-tall grass said to work in part-sun
- 5 Alchemilla Mollis ‘Auslese,’ chartreuse ladies mantle, one of my all-time favorite edging plants
- 3 Digitalis (foxgloves) of two different types, on the theory that if one surprised me by blooming in the woods last spring, they like it here
- 3 Ligularia ‘Osiris Cafe Noir,’ 20″ tall, dark-leaved, good for shade
- 2 Aquilegia (columbine) in ‘origami yellow,’ which I know self-seeds abundantly, works in shade, and is difficult to transplant (so even though I can take columbines from upstate when I go there next month, I figured I needed the insurance of already potted specimens)
Now, of course, I have to put them all in. Started last night by dumping my 10 bags of compost and placing the plants more or less where I think they’ll flourish. Then I picked up my pointed shovel and found, once more, that my so-called soil is compacted and rockier than imagined. I didn’t get far before nightfall, and it’s raining hard today.
So I get a temporary reprieve from digging. But at least my dreams of perennial borders are underway.
Now, this shade-challenged area, below, is crying out for some foundation plantings:
And here’s a barren spot, below, if ever there was one. The Roses of Sharon, which I “hard pruned” recently – just as the books say – is an unattractive bunch of sticks, and I believe it’s late to leaf out. Any suggestions as to what I can do in these areas? They’d be most welcome.