How to balance garden desires

Spring 2015 was a very good year in the garden. Plenty of rain and sunshine both. How to Balance garden desires.

There comes a time in every gardener’s life when she realizes she can’t grow it all. Gardeners by their very nature fall in love with most plants, especially new ones, and cottage gardeners like me? We have no self-control.

Acer palmatum 'Shindeshojo' and a peak at the garage border.
Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’ and a peak at the garage border.

That’s probably how cottage gardening started. The lady of the manor had more than enough plants, and her gardener took home some cuttings to grow in his own vegetable patch. I like to think so anyway.

Phlox divaricata and Chinese fringe flower in the shade garden.
Phlox divaricata and Chinese fringe flower in a shady bed.

With all the bountiful goodness out there, how does one balance their love of all things green and growing with the physical limitations of time and space? Further, how does the gardener make editing decisions in a garden that’s matured into middle age? These questions buzzed about my mind yesterday as I cut back ornamental grasses and perennials for the first time this year. Oklahoma’s weather is unseasonably warm this week–in the 60s and 70s–so I thought I’d start early on some chores instead of killing myself in March, April and May.

Purple chairs and Berberis thunbergii 'Orange Rocket'
Purple chairs, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ barberry help balance this view. So does the American coral honeysuckle on the arbor.

Who am I kidding? I will still kill myself in March, April and May. As I played under the gentle January sun though, I mused about what I want from the garden now. I’ve finally realized growing one of everything just creates a jumble. Repetition of form, color and texture unify a garden space.

Rosa 'South Africa' is one of the best new plants I've bought in recent years.
Rosa ‘South Africa’ is one of the best new plants I’ve bought in recent years.

I still want one of everything though.

Balancing the desire to grow it all with the realization about space, climate and time is one of the great challenges for any gardener. Even with room to expand on a rural acreage, my aching left shoulder, knees and back let me know I can’t make the garden ever larger. I need to work smarter, not harder.

Panicum 'Northwind' Garden Bloggers Bloom Day
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ with sunlight showing through. It grew too large for its space, but now it’s divided and moved.

As I stood in the garden with my clippers at hand, it came back to me how unprepared I am physically for garden work each spring. Running and walking on the treadmill keeps me from gaining weight, but it isn’t strength training. I should add in weights next winter because gardening is the very definition of strength training.

I have several ornamental grasses that need dividing starting with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ because it fell into the path. It took me thirty minutes, but I dug it up and used my DEWALT Cordless reciprocating saw to divide it into four pieces. I then replanted these at the end of each long garden bed. ‘Northwind’s’ height and color should entice visitors to look down the length of the garden. There’s that repetition factor again. It also rustles when the wind blows. There’s hardly any other plant that charms our ears as much as ornamental grasses. As I struggled with the beast, I began thinking about swathes of plantings to simplify my garden. I also thought about how much I was going to hurt last night, and hurt I did.

The back garden in June. Not as much blooming because we had a lot of rain and no sun. Now, things are dry.
The back garden at the beginning of June 2015. Very green because of the rain. Daylilies are just starting to bloom.

You see, the gardener is not only limited by physical space. She is also limited by time, and what time does to her body. I am fifty-three, and I work very hard outside. I find aching muscles a pleasure, but I am careful with my joints. Surgery is difficult to recover from, and I’m postponing it as long as possible. Digging up large ornamental grasses is hard work.

'Becky' shasta daisy with Rainbow Knockout rose and Black Lace sambucus.
‘Becky’ shasta daisy with Rainbow Knockout rose and Black Lace sambucus.

Something else that’s hard? Pruning roses in spring if you have a lot of them. As I walked around yesterday, I spied two Rainbow Knockouts® in the lowest tier of the borders next to the deck. I will dig and replace them this spring. Digging up roses is hard work, but I’m getting good at it. I haven’t decided on their replacements yet because my attitude toward roses has changed. Where they once were the shrubby backbone of the garden, they are now its spring stars here and there. I once thought the answer to our changeable weather and climate was to own more disease resistant shrub roses. While that wasn’t a bad idea, Rose Rosette Virus plays no favorites, and disease resistance doesn’t matter. I and the garden grew older, and now I’m not so willing to scratch my skin from head to toe pruning over 100 bushes. I find that pruning the few roses I have left is much more pleasurable. Once again, it’s all about balance.

Rosa 'Abraham Darby' in the border on the East side of the house. --Dee Nash--Red Dirt Ramblings
Rosa ‘Abraham Darby’ in the border on the East side of the house.

Not trying to grow every new rose cultivar freed me to think about where I wanted to take the garden now and in the future. One conclusion is that if I buy a new rose, I’m still going to look for disease resistance, but blooms and scent are also paramount. The Rainbow Knockouts® bore me to tears. I’d much rather have an heirloom like ‘Madame Hardy’ with her green button eye, or newer David Austin English rosesThe Lady Gardener‘ or ‘Olivia Rose Austin.’ That’s if I go the rose route again. I’m just as likely to pick a smaller native shrub to replace the Rainbow Knockouts®. It’s all about deciding what works with the space, sun exposure and soil moisture I have. When I remove these roses, I’ll only have the White Meidiland® left in the lowest tier and ‘Heritage’ in the middle tier. The top tier of the border still has my mystery climber, ‘Abraham Darby’ and one other heirloom rose.

I remember hearing older friends at garden clubs discuss putting in more shrubs to reduce work. My thirty-something self thought that was sad. I now see the wisdom of replacing some high maintenance plants with shrubs and small trees, especially evergreen ones. Faced with two vegetable gardens and twenty-seven herbaceous borders I am doing the same. Although it’s not a shrub or tree, one of the best choices from last year was planting Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, along the edge of the concrete borders in the lower garden. This perennial grass softens the concrete edge, and by using so many plants I got the feathery look I wanted. Mexican feather grass is a great dwarf grass for Oklahoma gardens. It’s not invasive here, and is so pretty. Mine is even still green after a mostly mild winter.

Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, planted along the edge of a border softens the concrete blocks.
Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, planted along the edge of a border softens the concrete blocks in last summer’s garden.

Another plant group we should grow more often are the hypericums, St. John’s worts. There are several varieties available from shrubby St. John’s wort, H. prolificum, to prostrate forms. I have mostly the shrub type. What wonderful natives these are. They don’t attack you like roses, and the bees gorge themselves in summer. In a mild winter they sometimes stay evergreen, and Oklahoma has sore need of evergreen plants other than the Eastern redcedar menace. Because they’re native wildflowers, I’m linking to Gail at Clay and Limestone for Wildflower Wednesday this month. You should hop over to her blog to see more native plants people grow.

Hypericum prolificum, shrubby St. John's wort.
Hypericum prolificum, shrubby St. John’s wort.

I think the best way to balance our craving for new plants and bigger gardens is to realize our limitations and work within them. I’m speaking in Seattle at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show next month, and I’ll probably bring home a couple of hellebores to add to my collection. However, I’ll also likely dig up a few non-performers. Instead of being diverted by a pretty face, I now plant more of the same plant. For example, I dug up my ‘Alaska’ shasta daisies this morning, and I’ll replace them with the cultivar Chrysanthemum x superbum ‘Becky.’ ‘Alaska’ has always flopped, and I’m tired of this weakness.

I’ll listen to other gardeners about plant performance before I shell out more money on something new. I’ll be brave and rip out plants that die, or don’t perform as expected tossing them on the compost pile unless they are diseased.

I’ll also work diligently, but not try to do everything in one day. I’ll spread good performers like Phlox divaricata and P. paniculata about the garden like fairy dust. This will make the garden ever more simple and beautiful. I promise to work with what works and limit my plant purchases. Really! I am out of room.

The beginning of the tiered borders that lead into the back garden.
Back garden late spring. ‘Little Zebra’ miscanthus is on the right side. It was young and small then.

That reminds me. I have another grass to dig and divide. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’ is falling into a path. After dividing it, I’m going to place each half at each end of the tiered border like bookends.

Those are my ideas about finding balance with my garden desires. What are yours?

Wildflower Wednesday in Oklahoma

One of my yellow baptisias. I don't know the cultivar.

In honor of the fifth anniversary of Gail Eichelberger’s Wildflower Wednesday meme, I want to share some of the wildflowers I grow in Oklahoma. Over the past five years, my garden has leaned closer and closer to a wildflower pollinator haven. Whenever I must remove a rose because of Rose Rosette Virus, I tend to plant a grass or wildflower in its place. The garden seems happier that way. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on tough roses yet though.

Featured above is yellow Baptisia sphaerocarpa. I have two or three different yellow baptisias, a white one, two blue ones, and even B. australis x B. alba ‘Purple Smoke,’ a seedling from the North Carolina Botanical Garden according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. They should know. In my mid-spring garden, baptisias really shine, but don’t try to move them about. Being prairie natives, they have tap roots. Move them, and they will sulk at best, and die at worst. You’re forewarned.

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' in the Hugh Stout's Garden.
Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ taken in the Stout garden many years ago.

Also, in the mid-spring garden is Packera obovata, f/k/a Senecio obovatus–another victim of taxonomic name change roulette. Although golden ragwort can be aggressive in a wet year, it’s just about the most beautiful thing I grow in spring. Looking at this photo, I think I should spread it about in the garden some more. It takes full sun or partial shade.

Lower bed of heirloom dianthus, Packera obovata and yellow baptisia
Lower bed of heirloom dianthus, Packera obovata and yellow baptisia

With this next one, I’m cheating a little. Joe pye weed is a wildflower, but I grow the dwarf version, Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe,’ a selection from the Conard Pyle Co. I grow it because the larger native would be too large for my garden beds. This one is large enough to sit in the center of a bed anyway. ‘Little Joe’ has plenty of nectar so I think it counts as a wildflower in the truest sense.

Eutrochium dubium 'Little Joe,' a selection of Joe pye weed found at a nursery.
Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe,’ a selection of Joe pye weed found at a nursery.

Another plant I grow that was selected from a native wildflower is Boltonia asteroides ‘Pink Beauty.’ The native wildflower ranges from purple to white. Boltonia needs to be cut back at least once in June so it doesn’t flop, and even then, you may need to stake it. I do. I grow the pink version because I love its bright shade.

Boltonia asteroides 'Pink Beauty' is one of the prettiest native plants I grow.
Boltonia asteroides ‘Pink Beauty’ is one of the prettiest native plants I grow.

Even though Gail and I live several states apart, we grow many of the same wildflowers. This always surprises me. My soil is alkaline. Hers is neutral. She has clay and limestone. I have clay and red sandstone. Of course, some of her wildflowers that won’t thrive here, but many do.

Physostegia virginiana, obedient plant, false dragonhead, is a native Gail loves, and I hate. In her garden, it colonizes beautifully. Here, it is a thug of the worst kind. I would get rid of it, but I can’t. I’ve decided I must bear with it in spite of its thuggish ways, so I pull out handfuls every spring. Obedient plant has a square stem which means it’s part of the mint family. That should tell you a bit more about its behavior.

Physostegia virginiana, obedient plant.
Physostegia virginiana, obedient plant.

Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, hummingbird shrub, is native to west and central Texas, but it’s hardy to at least my Zone 7a garden, which sometimes thinks it’s Zone 6b. I love this shrub, and yes, hummingbirds love it too. It is slow to leaf out in spring, but well worth the wait. It grows about 5′ x 4′ here.

Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, hummingbird shrub
Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, hummingbird shrub

I can’t write a wildflower post without mentioning ‘Annabelle,’ the easiest hydrangea I know. She even beats out H. paniculata varieties, although I grow several. Such a beauty, and a pollinator magnet.

H. arborescens 'Annabelle' with willow aster growing further behind.
H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ with willow aster growing further behind.

Another thuggy native is mountain mint, but I confined it with railroad ties in a corner of a partially shaded bed. There are many mountain mint varieties. I think mine is common mountain mint. I bought it years ago from a nursery at the Ponca City Herb Festival.

Mountain mint with Double Banded Scoliid Wasp (Scolia bicincta) and probably a Brown-legged Grass-carrier wasp.
Mountain mint with Double Banded Scoliid Wasp (Scolia bicincta) and probably a Brown-legged Grass-carrier wasp.

I keep it because pollinators love it. Plus, it’s white, and it lights up a shady spot, although it doesn’t look shady in the photo below. It does get morning sun and is shady all afternoon.

Mountain mint and our house.
Mountain mint and our house.

Why grow wildflowers? Well, they are interesting, diverse and acclimated to your environmental conditions. They often need less water and fertilizer making your life easier in your little garden plot. Plus, they’re beautiful, and if you want pollinators, wildflowers bring them in.

American wisteria, W. frutescens, is a great native vine. Bumblebees can’t get enough of it. I have native wisteria planted on two arbors where I lost roses. Crossvine, Bignonia capreolata, is another native vine that should be planted more often. I planted one last year so I don’t have good photos of it yet. I do have one more spot that needs a native vine. What do you think I should plant there?

Bumblebees are many good reasons to plant American wisteria, Wisteria frutescens.
Bumblebees are very good reasons to plant American wisteria, Wi. frutescens.

St. John’s wort, Hypericum spp., is a great shrub. I don’t know if mine is H. prolificum or H. frondosum. I think it’s the shrubby St. John’s wort. Maybe someone can tell me?

I do know it’s easy to grow, and bumblebees love it. St. John’s wort blooms in spring, and afterward has this great gray-green foliage. Mine is in partial shade, but I think it would be good in sun too.

Hypericum sp., St. John's wort.
Hypericum sp., St. John’s wort.
Hypericum St. John's Wort (1 of 1)
A closeup of an Hypericum sp., St. John’s Wort, flower. Just look at those golden stamens!

Below is Phlox x ‘Minnie Pearl.’ If I understand things correctly, this phlox is thought to be a naturally occurring hybrid of P. maculata and P. glaberrima. It was found by Karen Partlow on a roadside in Kemper, Mississippi. I guess, sometimes, a plant can be a wildflower even if it’s a hybrid. Pollinators, both insect and hummingbird, like it, and so do I. It is completely disease resistant, and I grow it in full, hot sun. You can find it online from Plant Delights Nursery. I bought mine from Bustani Plant Farm a couple of years ago. In growth habit, ‘Minnie Pearl’ reminds me of P. x ‘Wanda’ which I bought at Bustani also.

Phlox 'Minnie Pearl'
Phlox ‘Minnie Pearl’
My two clumps of P. x 'Minnie Pearl' phlox in the lower part of the back garden.
My two clumps of P. x ‘Minnie Pearl’ phlox in the lower part of the back garden. They shrug off disease and heat.

You can see from the photos above that wildflowers often have simple flower structures which make them easier for pollinators to access. Wildflowers often have more nectar than fancy hybrids too–another good reason to grow them.

I have so many more wildflower–I haven’t even touched the non-asters yet–but this post is too long and probably boring you. Today’s high is 50F, but temperatures plunge again into the teens tomorrow. Our weekend forecast has snow, freezing rain, sleet and regular rain–all on separate days. We shall see what actually happens.

Congratulations to my dear friend, Gail, on all of the wildflower posts she’s celebrated over the last five years, and a special “thank you” to her for encouraging all of us to grow more wildflowers for our pollinators and ourselves.