20 July 2009

Ceci n'est pas un jardin

Poet Laureate Alfred Austin once said, "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are." It's been fascinating to watch our student gardens grow and to note how much they reflect the personality of the designers. Since I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm no designer, my ornamental garden has been more of an experiement. A collection. A non-garden, if you will.

When faced with 225 sq. ft. of nothing I did what any intelligent non-designer would do; I procrastinated! Consequently, my garden is lagging a bit compared to my esteemed classmates' gardens but then I'm the only one from west of the Rockies and my sense of when to plant what in zone 6b is slightly askew. So, after much dithering on the lawn, I finally set about making my garden.

The beginning: a square, some brick, a container, and a tree. I was rather pleased with my 'draw bridge', which is nothing more than a long stone slate set ever so slightly outside the boundary of the garden. The sharp edging forms a slight depression under the stone where I hope a friendly bad-bug eating toad will condescend to make his home.
Initially I thought it would be fun to have a distinct theme in each quadrant but that light bulb in my brain refused to fire up no matter how many times I flicked the switch. The other issue was the bounty of plants generously donated by Longwood in the form of production extras or plants past their prime and not fit for display in the public gardens. Not being one to refuse free plants, the idea of a theme had to be chucked out the window because I couldn't count on receiving a collection of, say, ornamental grasses gratis. I could, however, put an exclamation point in each quad with the plants coming my way.

The southeast quad is home to what I hope will be a towering Cardoon. Since I planted it late and the weather's been slightly left of normal, it's not shooting up as quickly as I thought it would. I anticipated it to take up quite a bit of space, hence the bareness around it. Salvaging yet another rebar tree, I started seed of a Thunbergia alata 'White-Eyed Susie' to grow on it, thinking the white blossoms would glow in the moonlight and be a soft backdrop for the jagged leaves of the Cardoon. Below the tree are planted some Caryopteris ‘Inoveris ‘ Grand Bleu ™, a gift from one of Longwood's Mum experts, Yoko, in the nursery. In time they will become a nice little hedge with misty blue flowers.On the southwest side, another nursery gift, the Cercidiphyllum japonica, takes center stage. This tree will eventually reach 40' - 60' in height and width. We saw a jaw-dropping specimen at the Morris Arboretum that could easily house a Swiss family of Robinsons. It is reputed to have spectacular fall color and the scent of caramel or cotton candy. Since this tree was unknown to me until I came to PA, I can't wait to find out!

Also in this quadrant are some Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro' from my friend and future boss Gavin, some green zinnias I grew from seed which came from my housemate's garden in suburban Philly, a couple of Phlomis tuberosa 'Pink Flamingo' (one isn't doing so hot - I suspect it got trampled by a nocturnal critter with evil intentions), some Shasta Daisies and a Sulphur Buckwheat. The Phlomis and Shastas are also taking their sweet time but should fill up quite a bit of space once they decide to get on with it.The northwest lot is the wild child, which I tried to keep somewhat contained with a boundary of Marigolds.
The Verbena bonariensis is going gangbusters and the Asclepias plugs from the nursery are starting to compete. They're also beginning to attract aphids but I refuse to spray with anything because there are also Monarch caterpillars in residence (oh, sorry, forgot my entomology training already - Danaus plexippus larvae). There are Easter Lilies planted along the rear border that should be trumpeting this time next year as well.
Some Ratibia columnifera 'Mexican Hat' and Tanacetum coccineum 'Robinson's Dark Crimson' lend a meadowy feel, while I was pleased as can be to watch two humming birds duke it out over the blue Salvia.

You might notice the forlorn little stem in the center. That was supposed to be the Exclamation Mark. I started some Heirloom Titan giant sunflowers from seed that would have reached up to 12' tall...until Bambi invited some friends over for supper. It's a goner, so in its place will go a nice Pennisetum from Gavin's collection. There are three other sunflowers behind the herb bed and so far they haven't been nibbled but next year they're getting planted with some sturdy lengths of bamboo to hold them up. The storm that rolled through last week really did a number on them. Don't even get me started on what it did to my corn!Probably my favorite corner is the Herb Garden. Surrounding the container garden are a variety of herbs, some of which I'd grown before, some not.
The Borage were a gift from my new friends the Rebers, and had self sown in their garden. Now that they've filled out and are bedecked with lovely blue flowers, they absolutely throb with bees. The Fennel was intended to attract butterflies and their larvae but I've yet to find any. Meanwhile I enjoy the feathery texture and sunny blooms.
The Chamomile is in full bloom and the Stevia is happy as can be. I've been using Stevia powder to sweeten my coffee and tea for ages, so I'm interested in learning how to harvest the plant for its sweetening abilities.In the container, the smoky foliage of the Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' plays well with the two Datura (one dark, one light) and the Salvia discolor. A couple of container tomatoes succumbed to the deer but the variegated silver Thyme has moved in to fill the void.
One of my favorite ornamentals, which is actually in the veg garden, is this Mina lobata, also called 'Firecracker Vine' or 'Exotic Love Vine'. I first saw it at Great Dixter in England and knew right then and there I had to have it. I bought seed from Dixter's shop and voila! A bit of England in my garden. The inflorescence starts off with the colors of the sunset that fade to pale cream as the flowers mature. The hummingbirds adore it, but so does Bambi and friends.
As the student gardens are meant to be teaching as well as learning gardens, labels are a mandatory accessory. The only rule was that we had to have them, what we made them with was entirely up to us. Shannon used pieces of cork, Gavin used seed pods from the Kentucky Coffee Tree and a silver Sharpie, Steven paid exhorbitant sums for fancy copper labels, Suzanne made hers on the computer and laminated them. I recalled the black plant labels I saw in the garden at Coton Manor and how sharp and sophisticated they looked. They also blended into the background during the winter months and weren't as obtrusive as glaring white labels. Another bit of England I had to have! Apparently, only England sells them because I couldn't find a US distributor so I did the next best thing and bought a can of black spray paint. Several painted wood stakes and a white paint pen later, I had labels!
So, my garden is limping along while I learn more about the climate here, how plants I know behave differently than in zone 10, how plants I don't know behave period, and what I enjoy growing. Just between you and me, I'm getting such a kick out of being a first time farmer that the ornamental garden tends to get short shrift. Which is why I'm already planning for next year. In the meantime, I'm still in awe of how quickly things change - every week it's a new garden! And I get a kick out of watching the variety of birds and how they immediately made themselves comfortable on my steel trees.

The thing I'm still unsure of is what, exactly, my garden says about me (other than I'm a schizoid non-designer plant geek). I wonder what Alfred would say...

No comments: