The Fall Planting Window is Open

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IT’S COOL, IT’S WET, IT’S FALL, as of this morning at 5:05AM — and it’s prime time for planting and moving things around. Now’s our big chance to improve on the design of beds and borders, without stressing plants in excessive heat. I’m out at my cottage in Springs (East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y.), doing just that. I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of color in my main perennial beds, but the lespedeza (bush clover), above, is trying to make up for that. Planted last year around this time, it’s a perennial that gets cut back to the ground each year, like butterfly bush. It was very late to come up in spring, and I was sure it was dead, and that I had killed it. But then it began to grow…and grow… four feet across in a single season, and it’s been in luxuriant purple bloom for the last two weeks.

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I moved the hakonechloa at the top of the photo above from another part of the garden to balance the group at right, which greets me at my front steps and always looks terrific.

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The boxwoods I bought for screening my next door neighbor’s driveway, above, are settled in nicely, and I consider their staggered placement an aesthetic success. Maybe I’ll even remove the red nursery tapes someday;-)

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Above, three types of ornamental grass brought from upstate: fountain grass, pampas grass, and switch grass, eventually to range from 2 to 5 feet tall. Inspired by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Monocot Border, I decided to group them all together in a relatively sunny area of the yard that was bare but mulched and ready to go.

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The idea is that this all-grass garden be visible from the blue chaises on my back deck, above, where I frequently perch to survey my domain.

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This is the view from the deck, with the grasses arrayed and ready to go. To the left of the contorted pine in the foreground are three old, never-blooming azaleas. I’m planning to move them to another part of the yard and redouble my efforts to protect their flower buds from deer. That will have the dual effect of silhouetting the specimen tree (which was there when I bought the house and with which I have a love-hate relationship) and opening up the view of the new grass bed from the house and deck.

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Above, 27 pots of grasses laid out with the taller ones to the rear and back, and the shorter, 18-24″ mounding fountain grass in front.

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Above, they’re in and being watered. Yes, it was a big job, fortunately accomplished yesterday before the rains came. In the foreground, another frontier — the free-form island bed being colonized by ajuga (bugleweed), which I plan to replace or supplement with liriope (lilyturf), after a bed I saw somewhere that looked spectacular. I’m on the hunt now for discounted liriope, and I’d better act quickly, because the perennial planting window closes in less than a month.

Late Summer Garden Challenges

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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?

Made in the Shade: Tips from the Experts

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Margaret Roach at last weekend’s shade gardening workshop, above

LAST WEEKEND, along with a few dozen other garden nerds, I attended a half-day shade gardening workshop in Columbia County, and took 8 pages of notes.

We started at Margaret Roach’s lovely, hilly two-acre spread (she being the garden blogger I most admire, and author of a forthcoming dropout memoir about leaving the city for a more serene life in the sticks — I can relate). Our second stop was Loomis Creek, a nursery known for unusual offerings and stunning display borders. One of Loomis Creek’s owners, Bob Hyland, presented the second half of the workshop, and shared the news that the nursery will be closing for good Columbus Day weekend, when Bob and his partner de-camp for new adventures on the West Coast. Great bargains there in their final close-out; I came away with a car-full.

When asked why we were there, one woman spoke for many: “Because I don’t have any SUN!!!” Despite what I hoped when I first came to my Long Island cottage in May ’09 — south-facing backyard and all that — I have NO full sun anywhere on my half-acre. It varies from part to deep shade throughout, and I’ve been gravitating toward plants that don’t have to struggle. Also, almost all my gardening knowledge to date comes from books. I wanted to see how real gardeners actually handle plants (I may never plant a quart nursery pot again without tearing it into several pieces, as we watched Bob Hyland do with a  pot of ajuga).

Here’s some of what we learned last Saturday, beyond the basics (the basics being ‘plant in multiples of 3,5,7,9; in drifts or waves rather than rows…’):

  • Shade plants grow slowly. That’s why they tend to be more expensive. It takes a nursery 2-3 years to nurture seedlings (hellebores, epimedium) along to salable size.
  • When transplanting/dividing plants in fall, pre-soak the ground. I’d always just sprinkled perfunctorily, but Margaret recommended a few hours a day for a few days in advance. And wait for cool, overcast weather to do the deed, if possible.
  • September is THE time to transplant and divide perennials (in Zone 5, anyway; here in Zone 7, we can probably go into October). October’s the month for planting new trees and shrubs.
  • A lot of woodland (shade) plants have shallow root structures, so their roots freeze easily if you move them too late. They are adapted to live in small pockets of soil between tree roots. “Pocket planting of baby seedlings may be more effective,” said Margaret, than buying larger nursery specimens. “It’s nature way.” That requires patience, not my strong suit.
  • Think “opportunistic” gardening on a shady property — that is, create gardens for beauty in March through May, before deciduous trees leaf out. Identify your seasonal opportunities and make the most of them.
  • An easy kind of shade garden (well, it’s all relative) is creating a “skirt” around deciduous trees, with early bulbs and primulas, trilliums, Jeffersonia, and ‘dolls eyes’ aceta (cimicifuga) — none of which I’ve tried — especially near the house, where you can view them through a window in March and April.
  • The best way to design: “Look out the window.” Especially in winter, that’ll be your most frequent vantage point.
  • Group containers full of high-impact, long-lasting plants, such as ‘citronelle’ heuchera, hostas, begonias, and hakonechloa to welcome visitors into a shade garden.
  • Spanish bluebells are “good for the back 40” – sweeps of ground cover visible from a distance.
  • Note to self: get some petasites! They’re dramatic, huge-leafed, pre-historic-looking things.
  • If you want to special-order annuals from a nursery for next year — if you need a large quantity or want something unusual — do it now.

GARDEN VOYEUR: Foolproof Plants for Brooklyn Backyards

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THIS IS WHERE I cut my gardening teeth: the 21’x35′ backyard on Verandah Place in Cobble Hill where we lived for twenty years, above, as it looked in May/ June.

We inherited a graceful Japanese maple, a stand of honeysuckle (abelia ‘Francis Mason,’ I later learned), and climbing hydrangea that served to disguise a rusted chain-link fence. There were a few slabs of slate on the ground, which we gradually expanded to a good-sized patio, with pieces salvaged from vacant lots in Red Hook and contributions from friends (I remember one summer night being surprised by a delivery of bluestone slabs from a friend who saw them going begging someplace).

We added a small wrought iron balcony and steps going down into the garden from the parlor floor, and had some old-school masons build steps and a landing with bricks and railroad ties — nothing elaborate — leading down to the well area.

Little by little, through trial and error, I learned how to create a garden. The main challenge: excessive shade. Though south-facing, sun was limited by gargantuan ailanthus trees in the neighboring yards.

A couple of the principles that served me well:

  • Use variegated foliage – that is, shade-tolerant plants that don’t flower showily but have green and white foliage to bring light to dark corners of the garden, e.g. ‘striped’ hosta, caladium bulbs, variegated lirope (the festive-looking silver stuff in the left foreground below), vinca and ivy – anything at all that comes ‘variegated.’

Below: The white feathery plumes on the right (there’s a purple one too) are astilbe — shade-tolerant, reliable, ironclad.

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  • Limit color for cohesiveness. I stuck to a palette of blue, purple, pink and white. Very little orange, red or yellow, a situation partially dictated by circumstances; most hot-colored flowers require a lot of sun.

Most satisfying: oak leaf hydrangea along the back line of the property. Three plants (expensive at the time; about $50 each) grew in a couple of years to create three-season glory, with huge, neat, colorful leaves and massive white panicles from June until frost.

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See below for more plant suggestions. Any and all of these are recommended for Brooklyn backyards; they’re foolproof and readily available.

Below, left to right: chartreuse andromeda, Japanese fern, ‘money plant’ (those purplish flowers will turn to dry, translucent, coin-like things come fall), the blue spikes of ajuga, all under a climbing hydrangea, soon to flower white.

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Below, a deep shade corner, with (left to right) the round glossy leaves of European ginger, Japanese fern, small leaved ivy and small-leaved chartreuse hosta, and yellow-tipped houtonia — pretty, with white flowers, but invasive — you have to be prepared to pull it out where you don’t want it.  The cardboard is from a package of caladiums, to remind me where I planted them (they don’t show up till July).

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Below, my favorite afternoon reading spot. Left to right: pink creeping phlox; white ‘starry eyes,’ a sun-loving groundcover; the remainder of some pink bleeding heart (easy, showy, great for shade); small white flowering bulbs (the name escapes me  – anyone?); variegated hosta; blue wood hyacinth in the background.

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This last picture, below, is a bit earlier in the season — late April. The hostas are just coming in. The fuchsia azalea was too gaudy for me; I got rid of it. In the foreground, you can see brownish huechera (coral bells), more ‘starry eyes,’ yellow-flowering lamium or dead nettle, and some tiny hybrid tulips on long thin stems — ordered early on from a bulb catalogue, they came back year after year, providing great pleasure.

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Mind you, these are all perennials, not annuals. They don’t flower all season, just for a few weeks. But you plant them once and have them for years with no additional effort or expense. Perennials are the way to go if you’ll be staying put for any length of time. You can divide them in spring or fall to create more of the same, and take some with you if you move.