In the Garden April 2016

By Rhiannon Allen

Recently I picked up a magazine with a lovely photograph of a planting in front of a house much like mine.

How much better that planting would look than the mad scramble of Japanese Anemone and Linaria purpurea that choke my front garden!

The photograph revealed an orderly arrangement of grasses and autumn-flowering Rudbeckia. This led me to think about redesigning existing garden spaces, and the thought that must go into a redesign.

I looked long and hard at the photograph, mentally superimposing the photograph on my existing garden space. Would the photographed design really work visually in the space? I decided that it would.

Would the colors work? Well, that was an enthusiastic “Yes!” The green and gold colors featured in the photograph would work much better with our brown, green, and cream house than the purple flowers that currently occupy the space.

The second question I asked myself concerned what I would need to remove or save from the existing garden. Gardeners working with an undeveloped space may have brambles or grass in the area they have to develop.

In my existing garden, I wanted to save all my herbs because I need them for cooking, and my spring bulbs because they shouldn’t be moved at this time of year. That meant making decisions about whether to relocate plants or consign them to the bin.

A third question was whether I should use the exact plants depicted in the photograph, or make alternative selections. The design I wanted used Rudbeckias for autumn color. Those would work fine, and should be readily available. They tolerate the full sun and summer drought conditions of the bed I am redesigning.

The grasses shown in the photograph were another matter altogether. One of the two different ornamental “grasses” might be variegated sweet flag (Acorus gramineus “Ogon”). I already grow this short, bright, charming grass-like plant.

Unfortunately, in a dry spot, these plants sulked for years until I relocated them to a place that catches irrigation water. However, online, I also read that this plant is tolerant of summer drought once it is very well established. I wondered if I might be in luck.

A trip to Phoenix Perennials in Richmond solved my dilemma. There they were: beautiful healthy sweet flag plants in large, one-gallon pots, boldly marked as “drought tolerant.” They were already larger than the tiny sweet flags that I had bought and planted years ago. A phyto-sanitary inspection later, and I was good to go.

Their cheerful golden-green arching leaves will really bring some “pop” to the planting bed. I’ll water them well the first summer, just in case, but after that they should be fine with minimal watering.

The larger ornamental grass featured in my desired garden plan was a different problem. The plant looked like it might be a young Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) or one of its lookalikes. These plants were recently placed on Whatcom County’s noxious weed list because they escape cultivation and invade coastal habitats.

These popular and striking ornamental grasses are certainly drought-tolerant but their inclusion on the weed list makes them a no-no for me even if I could obtain a division. In all fairness, they’d probably grow too large for my space anyway, and I didn’t want the nicely sized plants in the photographs to grow into tenacious, sharp-bladed monsters.

So what would work? This was going to take more research. Finding a drought-tolerant, medium height, preferably clumping, non-invasive ornamental grass with color planted firmly in the non-blue end of the spectrum was my goal.

Fortunately, years ago, I had attended a talk on ornamental grasses by Ewan MacKenzie, and had kept my handouts. This was a great place to start because one handout was “grasses for specific conditions,” which yielded a generous list of drought-tolerant grasses.

Checking his list against websites and a copy of Timber Press’s Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses borrowed from the library yielded a number of candidates. One is the Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster” that MacKenzie raved over.

This meter-high grass and its smaller cousin “Overdam” need watering only every two weeks once mature, which is a task I can handle. So I think I’m set.

Will the design work spatially? Will the colors work? What will work for my growing conditions? Will those plants cause problems? If so, what can I use? I think this thought and research will pay off.

I’m ready to go once I remove the old plants from my garden and refresh the bed with a load of that garden soil Nielson’s Building Supply trucks in about now.

Make sure to attend the Point Roberts Garden Tour No. 14 on Sunday, June  26  to see how nine local gardeners have worked to realize their visions of everything from curb appeal to secret walled gardens.

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