In the Garden:
New England
January, 2011
Regional Report

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'Bluebird' smooth aster, shown here with 'Fireworks' goldenrod in my garden, is a definite keeper because it never gets mildew or loses its lower leaves like so many other asters do.

New Year, New Resolutions

While age has tempered many of my resolutions as a new year again unfolds (I know I'm probably not going to lose 10 pounds or give up cookies), I am still susceptible to making gardening resolutions. So this year, I'm resolving to pay heed to one of Thoreau's famous exhortations and "Simplify, simplify!"

Like many avid gardeners, I'm a sucker for the new, the unusual or simply what I don't yet have. A visit to a plant nursery will find me coming home with not only what I went to buy but all sorts of interesting impulse purchases as well. I'll find myself seduced by yet another hosta or campanula or Siberian iris (well, how you can not be seduced by any Siberian iris is quite beyond me) -- so many forms and colors, so little garden space! An odd name may be all the encouragement I need. Dunce Caps (Orostachys iwarenge) enticed me last summer with its silly name and arresting description (small, round, silvery sedum-like leaves and conical 4-inch spikes of creamy flowers), in spite of its also being described as marginally hardy and in need of good snow cover. I'll have to wait until spring to see if it's survived the cold.

While experimenting with new plants is a great deal of the fun of gardening, the downside is that, from a design perspective, it's easy to end up with a garden that looks like a visual jumble. When I think of gardens that really catch my eye, I realize that large drifts comprised of many plants of the same kind have the most impact. Setting at least three individual plants of any one kind together is a good design rule of thumb, but when space is limited and you're consumed by plant lust, it's an easy rule to disregard.

One strategy to help me simplify and strengthen my garden design is to be ruthless about those plants that are not top performers in my garden. This is tougher than it sounds. I have a daylily I bought at least five years ago. It wasn't in bloom when I purchased it, but the description on the tag sounded wonderful. Alas, it didn't live up to its billing when it flowered; "delicate peach pink with a deep red eye zone" appeared to my eye as a rather uneasy juxtaposition of dull orange and maroon. Did I toss it onto the compost pile? Of course not! I just keep moving it to more and more inconspicuous spots!

So my resolution is to increase the plants that really earn their keep and reduce the amount of real estate devoted to those that under-perform or are maintenance headaches. Plants that look good all season long, in and out of bloom, like Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost,' with its lovely, frosted leaves, will be divided and increased. Many of my dayliles look great in flower, but their foliage declines dramatically after they've finished blooming, necessitating constant "dead-leafing" to keep them presentable. Those whose flowers are only so-so, like 'Rosy Returns,' will get the boot; the large, vivid orange blossoms of 'Rocket City' are dramatic enough to earn it a reprieve, in spite of the need for daily removal of faded flowers and yellowing foliage. The ornamental grass Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' has been a four-season standout in my garden and will definitely gain territory; golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'), sadly, only limps along and either needs a new spot in my garden or a new home in someone else's. (Here's where a neighborhood plant swap helps.)

Accepting the actual conditions in my garden is also a path to both good design and healthy plants. Like it or not, I have sandy soil that gets dry. In this lean soil above a stone retaining wall in my backyard, a Japanese garden juniper flourishes, and dwarf bearded irises and sedums happily romp. So why am I always trying to include plants that I know will languish, like astilbes that need rich, moist soil?

Then there are those plants that like my garden conditions too well and seem intent on taking over the world. I love the color and form of Salvia 'Caradonna' , but unless it's deadheaded religiously, seedlings pop up everywhere -- and they shoot down a tap root that makes pulling them up difficult. That lovely cottage garden favorite, mallow (Malva alcea 'Fastigeata'), falls in the same category -- in fact, with this one, a wooden stake through its heart may be the only solution!

Putting my resolution to simplify into practice will give me a garden that not only looks better, but is more trouble-free and easier to care for. I know I'll do it. But wait... the catalogs are arriving -- look at that amazing new daylily, and I've never grown Dactylorhiza fuschii, and that tree peony is to die for... and I can always resolve anew in 2012!


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