Old faithfuls stay by your side all year
After a hot, dry summer, I'm tempted to throw in the trowel. Poor parched pulmonarias lie flat on the ground like panting tongues, and a colony of water irises are so flopped down you'd think the neighborhood cats had slept on them overnight. Lady's mantle's leaves look faded as an old sepia photograph, and day lily foliage is limp and yellowing.
But most heartbreaking is Hydrangea aspera 'Sargentiana.' Early in the summer its large leaves were like velvet, and big silky buds unfurled into mauve lacecap flowers. Too many hundred-degree days in July and August browned the edges of its foliage, and despite heavy mulching and watering, velvet turned to toast.
Still, I try not to despair. I remind myself how wonderful these plants looked during the rainy season, how they stood up to the soggy ground and held their own in the heaviest clay soil.
It's just that after months of heat, even the most faithful watering with sprinklers is not enough to keep these thin-skinned creatures hydrated.
They will recover and return refreshed after our next rainy season. But perhaps it's time to take a look at the plants I can count on, and add more of them to the garden.
Those with gray foliage, deep roots, fleshy leaves and small leaves are holding their own, even after months of hardship. These are the tried-and-true blue friends.
Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) deserves a medal. It grows in a sunny, west-facing bed in my garden, and thrives with neglect. Soft gray leaves just like culinary sage grow on a woody frame to form a 3- to 4-foot shrub topped with bright yellow flowers in early summer.
I like red spears of 'Lucifer' montbretia growing in front with a carpet of nearly black mondo grass for contrast. Evergreen Senecio 'Sunshine' should also get a prize for growing without complaint on the south side of a greedy sweet gum tree, which sucks all the moisture out of the ground.
'Sunshine' spreads about 3 feet wide and grows 3 feet tall - with age it colonizes into a gleaming ground cover. Yellow daisies garnish the plant in summer, but you grow it for its silver foliage.
And now for an ode to the barberry clan. 'Gold Ring' barberry's wine-colored leaves look as fresh as they did in spring. Pale yellow lines edging the rim of each small, spoon-shaped leaf make the foliage sparkle.
Now, in autumn, the leaves turn flame red and tiny bright berries stud the branches. 'Gold Ring' is a medium-size shrub, with arching branches, and I've placed it toward the front of a mixed border, the better to admire the pretty foliage.
It mingles with a neighboring 'Gouchaultii' red-twig shrubby dogwood, with gold, green and peach fall tints in the leaves.
Taller and even darker, 'Royal Cloak' barberry makes a riveting focal point when bright orange-yellow flowers explode below the branches in early summer. Later, when its flowers are spent, 'Lyric' rose opens pink flowers against the sultry barberry's leaves.
Shorter, bronze-tinted 'Red Jewel' barberry forms a skirt at the foot of a willowleaf eucalyptus (Eucalyptus nicholii). The dark leaves and denseness of the barberry are a contrast to the bright blue-green, slender leaves of the eucalyptus.
When you rub the willowleaf's foliage, your fingers smell of peppermint. Vivid red stems accentuate the blue-green leaves, which move in the slightest breeze.
Without any flowers, the eucalyptus and the barberry shine. Both have fared well through heat and dryness.
Urn gum (Eucalyptus urnigera) is another beloved eucalyptus with pairs of round leaves growing opposite each other on the branches for a satisfying symmetry. At its base I've planted shrubby 'Fire Dance' fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) with pink flowers and maroon foliage, repeating the contrast of burgundy with blue-green leaves.
Shrubby honeysuckles should win a trophy for toughness, especially 'Baggesen's Gold' with small, shiny golden leaves that make a great backdrop for red day lilies and dahlias. I've seen it grow 8 feet tall in mature gardens, but I whack mine back in spring to keep it medium height.
Years ago I bought 'Twiggy' shrub honeysuckle, with even tinier golden leaves, after admiring it in a container at Hedgerows Nursery. I followed suit and keep mine in a large terra-cotta pot where it grows happily in full sun with little attention.
Done with pampering fussy plants, I salute the easygoing gems, the time-tested plants that hold their own through the seasons.
• Oregon Garden Fall Festival, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 879 W. Main St., Silverton. Free with $5 admission to the garden, for which children 12 and under also enter free. Children's games, complimentary light refreshments, costumes encouraged. For information visit www.oregongarden.org or call 503-874-8100.
• Leach Botanical Garden offers a gardener's tour featuring tall trees and conifers, led by Garden Steward Scotty Fairchild, 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, 6704 S.E. 122nd Ave., Portland. A $5 donation is suggested. For information, contact Nancy, 503-823-1671, or Katie, 503-761-4751.