This edition of the quarterly is in a new format. Our webmistress is on holidays so here it is as a blog:
The garden has been giving a huge amount of pleasure all year. But this summer it has been outperforming itself. This is what I see from my dining room chair of what I thin of as my Designing Chair. It looks perfect. But in the back of the garden us was another story.
I feel like I’ve been in a blanket of water and mud until this past week when, finally, we solved the hydrology of the garden. Well, we think we have. John who works for Marjorie Harris Gardens is very enterprising and I dumped the problem in his hands. I live on a flood plain, have an underground stream running through the property (including the house). I survive on sump pumps. Somehow John has made the French Drains fit in with the loose and romantic sense of the garden. They are surrounded by plants so don’t seem too, too obvious. I’m now waiting for one of those horrendous rainstorms where the rain is so thumpingly hard, it barely stays in the ground, to test all these waterworks. So far two trees have drowned and I solace myself with moving things around. One thing about soggy soil: the plants love it at first. It’s when it continues for months that death occurs. What I had been doing with this part of the garden was adding plants that can cope with lots of water. Grasses, barberries, daylilies, various evergreens and gingkos. A few weeks ago before the holes, the stones and so on it looked like this:
The grasses will sop up a lot of the water and though I did plant a small Japanese maple (A. p. ‘Shiraz’ barely visible among the grasses), it’s not there permanently. And also added Salix candida for a whack of silver among the gold and magenta. It’s another moisture-loving deciduous tree. This is still my Jardin de Refusé and I love it more than ever.
I recount this story because it’s a tale I’ve heard too often this year: death of plants, woe and despair with diseases and weeds. We’ve had two dreadful winters, and in parts of the country such as BC there’s a drought. Nothing seems to be right in the natural world. Things truly are changing.
In this shot you can see a dead tree in the background. It was a 15-year resident In Chiononanthus virginicus; . The slender tree on the right is the liquidambar
We gardeners have to garden defensively. This year I have not used some great plants such as Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Fastigiata’ because they’ve arrived dead or dying from the growers. As a garden designer I don’t get a guarantee so I’ve had to replace trees out of my own pocket (and sometimes my garden) which is not good business. Redbuds: unreliable now in our city. Some came out with the familiar blooms in spring and have lots of leaves; others stumbled and staggered through spring and are just now putting out leaves.
Derek Welsh, my go-to guy on trees, says to leave them alone. Prune them back in August and they will probably be much tougher trees in the future. We have to put up with a little ugliness if we want to keep these plants. I am, however, not inflicting them on anyone else. And a great looking Serviceberry called ‘Autumn Brilliance’ which we picked by hand in the spring, arrived at the gardens hit by a late frost looking terrible. They will recover but meantime people are not very happy about the way the plants look.
We are going to have to be very very careful about how these go into the winter this year. Perhaps we have to lower our expectations about how perfect our plants should be. Perhaps we have to be more patient with them, they are after all living creatures with individual DNA and we should respect those differences. Plants are going to have a hard time keeping up with climate change. It may take some species longer than others to adjust, but our job is to help them in the best way we know how: with loving care.
Right now is a great time to do some serious nipping back:
* Cut back perennials that are getting way too tall. They will sulk a bit, and then come back to bloom furiously in autumn. Asters, mums, most prairie plants and anything that looks out of bounds.
* Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ is one of my favourite deciduous shrubs. But boy does it grow: way more vigorously than anyone let on. This is a monster plant and worth the space but watch where you put it. It’s now blotting out a gorgeous Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’ and I’m a tag reader but this is crazy. I should have given it the Chealsea chop in June but failed to do so voilà
* This is a perfect time to prune shrubs. You can take off spring blooms, remove dead stuff. And though you read this all the time—check crossed branches—take it seriously. Down the road it leads to an inarticulate mess.
* Japanese maples respond magnificently to skillful pruning. My place was given a hair cut of such supreme beauty that you cannot see it’s been done. The plants looks the same or better than a few years ago when they were photographed for Gardenista. Monique is a master at this and along with variegated dogwoods, viburnums nothing was safe from her pruners. I can now see through the garden and appreciate the varying layers of colour and density.
*And don’t be afraid to nip out brown spots from evergreens. You may end up with some odd looking Bonsai shapes but the plants will grow and who knows, perhaps be even lovelier.
* I like ground covers a lot but am not mad about Sweet Woodruff. It’s sometimes a bit adorable, but mostly it spreads like a wildfire and looks completely wrong with many of the woodland plants my garden favours. Out with it into deep shade somewhere else. Ditto the endless machinations of lungwort, Pulmonaria officianalis. It seeds. It spreads by rhizomes. It grows in between the roots and branches of other plants. It is indomitable. Therefore it has to be out of my garden. Love love love Pulmonaria ‘Excalibur’ here it is out of bloom and it looks superb. Has never budged from this spot even though that would be fine.
- If you are having problems with rain or lack of, it’s a good time to water deeply and then add a nice thick layer of mulch to keep the temperature down and weeds at bay. Hand water what counts (newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials). Leave the grass alone (in BC people who water their lawns are called Grassholes)
- If you’re plagued with rain, digging drains does help the water flow away from plants and gives it a chance to re-distribute itself. But maybe we will be looking for garden umbrellas like the farmers who covered their strawberry crops with plastic trying to save them for a few sunny days and then to market.
Keep thinking up ideas on how we can protect our gardens in these parlous times. Defensive gardening may be one part of the salvation of our gardens. If you come up with great solutions let me know here. The next newsletter will be in its usual format when the redoubtable Anna gets back from her holidays and we will carry on with signing people up who would like to read this. Marjorie marjorieharrisgardens.ca will show what we’ve done in the past. If you would like us to renovate your garden just push the contact me button and I will respond quickly.