In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
October, 2007
Regional Report

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Expansive masses of color and texture intertwine to weave an autumn tapestry.

Sweeping Beauty

By autumn, ornamental gardens tend to be lush with full-grown perennials, airy plumed grasses, and brightly berried shrubs. A late-season landscape near Wayne, Pennsylvania, recently caught my eye. Sweeps of purple asters, golden Baptisia, seed-topped Agastache, lacy brown fennel heads, stocky sedums, among other beauties filled five beds, large and small.

At the driveway entrance, spiky miscanthus towered over purple clusters of Verbena bonariensis and mounds of puffy pennisetum. Bronzy purple-leafed smoke bush (Cotinus), midsized spirea, and short cherry laurel backed a wide, curvy swath of fuzzy, floppy lamb's ears. The landscape's overall appeal comes from simplicity of design paired with bold masses of contrasting textures, colors, heights, and shapes. It's the Modern American style of gardening.

On the roadside bank, a 5- by 10-foot sweep of feathery, golden Baptisia spilled into seedy fennel stalks planted above a large bed of ground-hugging sedum rosettes in blue-green and burgundy. Purple-pink 'Autumn Joy' sedums leaned into stalwart iris blades. Coarse-leaved oakleaf hydrangeas framed swirls of euphorbia and lavender. Arching Abelia branches were covered with white trumpet flowers or delicate pink bracts. Clusters of reddish blue berries dripped from large viburnums accented with a few scarlet and orange leaves.

This landscape is quite different from many of our informal, hodgepodge gardens. Most of us tend to be attracted to a flower's color, so we buy a promising flat of annuals but only one holly or one favorite hydrangea. Often our garden beds are small and our budgets limited so we're judicious about selection. Occasionally we splurge and come home with a carload of irresistible finds.

The Vision
I've learned in design classes to look at the big picture; to group plants in threes, fives, and sevens. To envision a spit of soil as a painting with drifts of the same plant abutting other mass plantings of contrasting or complementary color or texture. Or both. I imagine an Impressionistic garden a la Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, with color and texture and plants spilling into each other, sharing space naturally. Other gardeners may prefer order, strong definition a la Versailles, where King Louis XIV kept his garden as controlled as he liked his court and subjects. A garden often reflects its owner or designer.

The Wayne garden has a bit of both styles. Shrubs, perennials, and grasses are grouped simply, distinctly, deliberately. The plants, though, are a combination of loosely branched shrubs, wavy-stemmed grasses, and casual perennials set against tightly held iris, lamb's ears, and sedums. The effect, both close up and afar, is pleasing.

From the country road, the broad colorful swaths are refreshing, bright, and semi-orderly compared to the shallow woodlands nearby. Up close, the charm can be subtle. Brown aster seedheads above bright green foliage are fascinating in front of bluish, yellow-eyed asters with yellowing leaves.

At first glance I did not see a sprinkler, drip irrigation tube, or soaker hose. Besides being beautiful, this garden seemed self-sustaining, drought tolerant, and low maintenance -- something to strive for in our gardens.


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