I finished the hillside garden near the end of May. In my post, "Phase I of the Garden: The Bare Bones," I laid out the structure of the garden with shrubs – many of which can be considered groundcovers.
Groundcovers by definition can be as small as less than an inch in height, to about four feet tall. They can be herbaceous or woody, clumping or spreading. Once they are established, they require little maintenance in comparison to turf, prevent erosion, enrich the soil, and cool the air. They can be mixed, with attention given to their growth habits. Pairing plants with incompatible growth rates will result in the more aggressive spreader taking over slower growing plants.
With the shrubs planted, the garden is ready for the other groundcovers: the perennials. Perennials can be purchased in different sizes – everything from tiny plugs up to 3 gallon pots. They can be planted at any time, with the exception of plugs, which shouldn’t be planted in late fall. The roots of these small plants won’t have time to establish themselves in the soil, and the freeze and thaw cycles of winter can actually heave them from the ground. Because the garden is a large vista, I chose quarts, and 1 to 3 gallon-sized plants – anything smaller would have got lost in the expanse, and left the garden looking naked.
A common mistake when landscaping is choosing plants too small for the landscape in order to save money. Smaller plants will fill in, of course ... eventually. But until they do – especially in foundation plantings around a house – the garden will look out of proportion. When the scale is large, it’s best to budget for one or two larger plants and a few of the smaller sizes, rather than a bunch of little plants.
I mentioned in “Phase I,” that the garden is comprised of poor soils and will receive infrequent watering once the plants are established. As I did with the shrubs, I had to choose perennials that will survive these conditions. There are many plants that will tolerate dry shade and are low maintenance.
I used a mix of native and non-native perennials. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when gardening with native plants. Remember that just because a plant grows in the wild in your area, doesn’t mean it’ll grow in your garden. Soil and moisture conditions must be taken into account. Always purchase your plants from reputable sources. Digging a plant from its native habitat can disturb the ecosystem, and in many cases, these plants are protected; taking them from the area can result in fines. The natives I included are wild ginger, false Solomon’s seal, Christmas fern, and mayapple. The mayapple is an experiment; I know it normally likes a more humus-rich soil, but I wanted it for nostalgic reasons; it reminds me of walks in the woods with my Dad who showed us how to lift the umbrella-like leaves to find the flowers, and “apples” hiding beneath. For this, I broke my rule of not using soil amendments, and added compost and worm castings to enrich the soil.
Shade and drought tolerant non-natives I chose are sweet woodruff, some of the more durable hosta varieties, Chinese astilbe, crested iris, barren strawberry, lily of the valley, lady’s mantle, and corydalis lutea. Corydalis lutea is a good choice for low maintenance gardens, and can be used in a variety of conditions. Its delicate leaves and tiny flowers are deceiving; it’s extremely tough, flowering from spring to frost in both dry shade and moist, sunny areas. It reseeds freely, but is easily kept under control.
Another low maintenance choice is the ever-versatile daylily. Is there a more forgiving perennial? They require little attention, growing vigorously in most soil types, in full sun to part shade, with excellent tolerance to hot, dry weather, and come in nearly every color but blue. I’ve put a lot of varieties in this garden, some divided from other areas of the yard, and some purchased. ‘Ice Carnival,’ a heavy flowering fragrant white, is a variety I purchased for a number of reasons. First, the four pots were full enough to divide, leaving me with eight good sized plants. White is also a good choice for shade; white and yellow stand out and brighten dark areas, when the deeper reds and purples blend in and get lost.
The last reason is continuity. Whether a garden is large or small, continuity is an important element. White splashes throughout a garden pulls a large landscape such as this together, and gives the eye somewhere to rest in a smaller, busy garden.
To pull things together further, I planted the same variety of Chinese astilbe, and divided hosta that I have in the shady birch garden kitty-corner from this garden. Most perennials benefit from being divided in spring or fall every few years; daylilies and hosta division can be done at anytime during the year.
The sunny area of the garden received drought tolerant plants such as sedums, asters, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, ‘Biokovia’ perennial geranium, lamb’s ears, goldenrod, yarrow and, of course, more daylilies.
The final planting consisted of planting three good-sized American Spice Bush. The change in grade of the slope resulted in a small swale in an already low spot of the ravine. Rain water collected here, turned stagnant, and the soil became anaerobic – it stank to high-heaven. Even a trench I dug from this area to the creek didn’t alleviate the problem. The swamp-loving spice bush did the trick.
Though the planting was done, the garden was not yet complete. It wouldn’t be one of my gardens without some Good Junque in it. The heavy spring rains resulted in a swift moving current in the ravine’s creek. The rush of water unearthed an old discarded clay drainage pipe that had been buried by silt for who-knows-how-long. I dragged it out of the muck, and topped it with a similar colored birdbath top.
I’ve been eyeing a much larger discarded drainage pipe on the banks of the nursery’s pond for years, wondering how I could use it. The answer came when Keith built a new fire pit; one of his spring projects. (When he reads this, he’ll be pleased I’m mentioning it’s the “Mother of all firepits”; he’s as proud of it as I am of the garden.) The rusted lid of the old metal firepit with drainage holes drilled into it, tops the larger pipe, and became a planter.
Both the birdbath and planter sit at the two path entrances to the garden. Old bricks gathered from construction sites line the path. Stacked in a pile on the side of the garage for years, I knew I’d someday find a use for them.
The steps I started with a foundation of concrete cinderblocks in “Springtime Days with the Family” is done, completed with nearly all salvaged materials. Five pieces of flagstone and the gray concrete patio pavers that cap the concrete blocks are the only purchased products. Broken pavers, brick, and rocks I collected from the beach make up the rest of the stairs. In between some of the crevices, I planted creeping sedum, which I’m hoping will drape over the edges once it grows. That, and other perennials planted near the base of the blocks should soften the hard look of the concrete when they fill in.
I like the finished look. The stairs were built without plans except the vision I had in my head, and without measurements except eyeballing. Though nothing is plumb or square, it doesn’t matter to me – I was going for rustic, and that’s what I got. I tackled the garden the same way; I knew what plants would grow in the conditions I had, but there were no plans other than placing them where I thought they’d look good. I wanted a natural-looking landscape, and that’s what I got. It’s a process that would make professional contractors and landscape designers cringe, but it works for me. For folks who are methodical and prefer organization, having a plan on paper is a good idea whether it’s done by a professional landscaper or as a do-it-yourself project. A landscape plan gives a visual impression of what the garden will look like before installation begins.
Choose the method of planning works best for you; it’s your garden and should reflect your personality. The result should be something that looks aesthetically pleasing to your eye, is within your budget, and fits the amount of work you’re willing to put into it. After the soil was brought in, I did every bit of work myself; it was my project, and I’m pleased with the results. I started out with an ugly, broken down, concrete retaining wall ...
…and ended up with this.
There’s still a lot of work to be done – there’s all that bare ground just begging to be filled with plants. It’ll have to wait though; I’ve already spent as much time and money as I can afford this season. Perennials currently used in some of my planters and divisions from other gardens will be added in fall, but I’m finished for now. Except ... look at the gorgeous wine color of this yarrow we just got in at the nursery the other day. Paired with sunny yellow ‘Happy Returns’ daylilies, how could I resist?