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THIS IS NOT my East Hampton garden’s finest hour. I came back after two weeks in the Big City and a hurricane — no, a tropical storm, but still — to find it looking…well, shvach. That word comes to me from my grandmother: it’s Yiddish for ‘lacking, underwhelming, disappointing.’

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The only real color in the front perennial beds is the ligularia, which puts out rich yellow spiky flowers right about now. I was conscientious about my Deer-Out regimen in spring and early summer, but as the season progressed, “SPRAY!!!” moved farther and farther down my list of things to do. So the cranesbill geranium ‘Rozanne,’ for instance, which is supposed to bloom till frost, is bare of flowers.

One of the accomplishments of the season was the extension of my perennial border another 30, maybe 40 feet, to the left of the path below. It’s all mulched [thank you, Barbara!] and ready to go — if only I could think what to plant there. To the right of the path, the shadiest area is home to ferns, Korean boxwoods, pieris, epimedium…green, all green.

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It’s not unusual for gardens to lack color in late summer and fall. They needn’t; it’s just that people tend to start out all gung ho and buy out the nurseries in spring, then rest on their mountain laurels and more or less forget about planning for later in the season. That’s not entirely my problem — it’s more about the challenges of excessive shade and deer.

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On the plus side, the recently pruned rhodies, above, are happily sending out fresh new growth. Below, the miscanthus are satisfyingly full at the end of their second season. I’ll probably be dividing them before long.

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Perennials will be on sale in a few weeks, and I’ll try to pump up the late summer color quotient for next year.

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An old clump of chelone, or turtlehead, above, pre-dates my 2009 arrival. I moved it from under my about-to-be-built deck to a spot way at the back of the perennial border, where it is a  standout. Ought to get more of that stuff, come to think of it.

Below, still no decision on what to do with the amoeba-shaped island bed in the middle of the back lawn. Ajuga (bugleweed) is colonizing it, and I see no reason not to let that happen.

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Then there’s this vast empty area along the western property line, below, a fairly sunny spot where I might create a fenced cutting garden, or plant a variety of ornamental grasses. There’s an baby Eastern Redbud tree toward the back; I’m looking forward to it filling out and blooming pink next spring.

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Below, the wrath of Irene. A huge — no, I mean, huge– oak keeled over toward the back of my property. Actually, its trunk was on land belonging to the Town of East Hampton.The first five feet of it fell on Town land; the other 70 feet on my land. I’ve made the phone call and been told someone will “take a look.” Uh-huh.

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Trees and shrubs go on sale around here tomorrow. I’ll be exploring the local boxwood selection. Boxwoods are tidy, shade-tolerant, deer-resistant, evergreen, classic. They provide screening and structure. Yay, boxwoods. What could be bad?

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THIS FROM Fine Gardening magazine’s website…I’m going to Montauk to eat lobster. Happy 4th, everyone.

Q: I just moved into a house built in 1740 and was hoping to put in some annual and perennial beds that reflect that era. Could you recommend some historical plants that would fit with the character of the house? 

A: Dr. Denise Adams, a landscape historian and horticulturist in Dillwyn, Virginia, responds: A 1740s garden in Connecticut would have emphasized plants of a utilitarian nature, as opposed to strictly ornamental flowers. Herbs with decorative flowers or foliage performed both functions, such as chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Discussing the vagaries of New England weather 80 years earlier, John Josselyn reported that “lavender is not for the climate.” Roses were also grown. Some very early varieties include the sweetbrier rose (Rosa eglanteria), Rosa ‘York and Lancaster’, and the Four Seasons rose (Rosa ‘Quatre Saisons’).

Among perennials and annuals for mid-18th-century New England gardens, you might use single hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), money plant or honesty (Lunaria annua), gillyflowers or pinks (Dianthus plumarius), double balsam (Impatiens balsamina), native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), gasplant (Dictamnus albus), fleur-de-lis (Iris pseudacorus), sweet iris (Iris pallida), Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), white lily (Lilium candidum), and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis).

For spring beauty, American colonists relied on bulbs, as we do today. Eighteenth-century selections include the diminutive hoop-petticoat daffodil (Narcissus bulbocodium), poet’s narcissus (N. poeticus), Van Sion daffodil (N. ‘Van Sion’), “muscary” or grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides), crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis).

~ SOURCES FOR ANTIQUE PLANTS ~

Old House Gardens – Heirloom Bulbs
536 Third St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
734-995-1486
www.oldhousegardens.com

The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
PO Box 316
Charlottesville, VA 22902-0316
804-984-9821
www.monticellocatalog.org

Perennial Pleasures Nursery
PO Box 147
63 Brickhouse Rd.
East Hardwick, VT 05836
802-472-5104
www.perennialpleasures.net

Select Seeds – Antique Flowers
180 Stickney Hill Rd.
Union, CT 06076-4617
860-684-9310
www.selectseeds.com

Pickering Nurseries, Inc.
670 Kingston Rd.
Pickering, Ontario, Canada L1V 1A6
905-839-2111
www.pickeringnurseries.com

Illlustration: Jennifer Blume

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A few days ago in Springs

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES in the garden. Have you heard this about perennials? First year they sleep… second year they creep… third year they leap.

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Same view, one year ago this week

Well, I’m only in my second year of real gardening at my Long Island cottage, and frankly, I’m already a little worried about what year #3 may bring.

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After more than a week of relentless rain, and the frequent application of Deer-Out, my beds are already crowded with plants eager to take over the spaces occupied by their neighbors.

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You know me by now — can’t just relax and enjoy it, for godssakes. Nope, I’ve got to fret and fuss and imagine what could go wrong, notwithstanding something I remember a wise lecturer saying at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: there are very few true emergencies in the garden (it’s not like Nurse Jackie, my new favorite show).

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My chief fear is specifically discussed in the just-reissued classic Envisioning the Garden: Line, Scale, Distance, Form, Color and Meaning by Robert Mallet (Norton), with lots of pictures from Le Bois des Moutiers, a famous Normandy garden, and textbook-like diagrams illustrating various principles of garden architecture.

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These words jumped out at me: “A flower bed devoid of forms cannot be seen properly. This is the effect we find in gardens containing a lot of ground-cover plants when they have been left to their own devices for too long; they sometimes turn into a sort of soup, and everything has to be uprooted and replanted to form separate groups again.”

That’s what I’m afraid of: garden soup. Mine was minestrone from the beginning, and I can see it becoming puree.

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Those silly snapdragons should go into a container, methinks

As my friend Lula said, “Hmmm… you’ve got so much here.” Yes, too much, perhaps. I’m upstate at the moment, where I gardened for several years, and which always reminds me how quickly things can get out of hand without constant vigilance.

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Last year, my garden was just getting started. This year, it’s full and lush (note to self: ENJOY IT!) Next year: the garden that ate East Hampton?

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After a week

ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I PLANTED UP the two boxes attached to the front windows of my garden-level apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and I’m pleased with how they turned out.

I had planned to shop a local plant sale, but couldn’t wait: I ended up going to Lowe’s “just to see” what they had, and buying everything I needed there, a monochrome mix (white flowers only) of perennials and annuals.

The centerpiece of each box is a plant I’d never seen before: Juncus effusus or ‘Big Twister Rush,’ a perennial ornamental grass with some straight shoots and some corkscrew ones. They’re real eye-catchers. Here’s what else is in each box:

  • Variegated hostas (‘Minuteman’ in one, ‘Wide Brim” in the other)
  • Chartreuse Sedum ‘Angelina,’ for textural variation
  • Pansies – white with a touch of purple
  • Bacopa, with tiny white flowers which will trail
  • Variegated vinca, another trailing vine

That’s it, except for stuffing a white impatiens into one corner that looked empty. The pansies will last until July or so (they’re cool-season annuals), and then I’ll replace them with something else. I re-used the old potting soil that was in the boxes, topped up with some fresh, and mulched everything after planting to keep things moist. They’ll need daily watering when it gets hot, and I admit to using a weak solution of Miracle-Gro in my city containers.

Cost of each box: about $25.

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Upon first planting

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I HAVEN’T POSTED in a few days because I got home from Spain and was hit with a bad case of ‘What now?’ I walked into my lovely Prospect Heights pied-a-terre, now fully furnished, decorated, and organized, and had nothing much to do. It would be different if I had a job, say, or children at home. Then my next steps would be clear.

I felt empty, lost. My apartment was silent, except for the raindrops and NPR. I usually crash a bit when I come home from a trip, physically and emotionally. This wasn’t a total crash, just a malaise, exacerbated by jet lag, gloomy weather, and a low-grade fever. I watched two seasons of Californication in 3 days.

This morning, though, dawned sunny and cold. I drove out from Brooklyn to my cottage in Springs in the company of a friend, which made the trip fly. I arrived to find my garden, especially the four beds around the front door, covered with brown leaves, looking wintry. Brooklyn’s daffs and forsythia are starting to bloom; here at the end of the Long Island, we’re weeks behind.

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One thing that is blooming spectacularly: an old pieris

I made some lunch, procrastinated a bit, and then, for the first time since last fall, got my work clothes and rubber boots on. I went down to the basement and brought up the wheelbarrow, two rakes, a trowel for digging frost-heaved (deer-heaved?) perennials back into place, a pruner, and a grass shears.

Then I spent a couple of hours doing early spring chores: chopping dried four-foot-tall miscanthus (ornamental grass) down to the ground, cutting last season’s shriveled foliage away from salvia, catmint, and other perennials, raking fall leaves off the beds and carting them to the compost heap in the woods. The deer had done a lot of the cutting back for me, saving me the trouble altogether with the liriope (lilyturf).

I took note of casualties. There have been a few in the shrub department, for reasons unknown, including an abelia ‘Little Richard’ I really liked. My memory is another casualty, apparently. I can’t recall what was where and what things are called. For this garden, I haven’t kept obsessive records, though I do have a Zip-loc bag of plant labels which I will consult as the season progresses.

On the bright side, I discovered underneath the shriveled foliage, the tiny green leaves of emerging catmint, ladies mantle, ligularia, and other things the deer find completely unpalatable. A sign that things are happening as they should.

Below: Catmint, ladies mantle, pulmonaria

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As I worked, the sun moved across the sky and into the woods. I kept going until it dropped behind  the fence of the neighbors next door and my fingers were frozen. At which point I noticed I had gone from enervated to exhilarated, and had stopped worrying about my ‘next step.’

Garden therapy does it again. I’m happy to be in Springs, happy it’s finally spring.

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