A matchmaker in the garden
I'll never have a perfect garden, yet I keep working toward moments of perfection.
For me, growing individual plants is very satisfying. I love to watch 'Golden Ghost' pine grow taller each month in a large ceramic container right outside my office window. The golden-striped needles shimmer all year round.
I enjoy the way a division of 'Stained Glass' hosta, a gift from friend Marian Kuch, has become a dazzling prima donna. Over time, it's filled out a big black pot so completely that you can hardly see the container any more.
But my greatest delight is dreaming up combinations that grow companionably together to form beautiful vignettes. This comes as close as I can get to painting a canvas. I have a lot less control than an artist - a plant might suffer from extremes of heat and cold, or any number of plagues: slugs, aphids, black spot and rust. Bloom periods can vary from one year to the next so that the flowers don't bloom simultaneously. Still, when everything comes together as planned, it's a peak moment.
Blooming all at once
After plenty of editing in an island bed last fall and this spring, summer has brought the rewards. Looking back, I remember all the prep work. First, I dug up a summersweet (Clethra) that had colonized in the center of the bed, growing so huge it overwhelmed the picture. This took a mattock, a spade, lots of sweat and ultimately some extra muscle from a helpful young man.
Next, I reamed out thugs like valerian and masterwort (Astrantia major). Over a course of several days, I dug out every shred of their roots, then renewed the area with homemade compost.
I saved what was healthy and beautiful nearby - a white-edged hosta, a 'Scarlet Medilland' rose, a deep red daylily, a red hardy fuchsia called 'David' and a white-flowering culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum). Then I pictured how a few 'Rozanne' cranesbills would pull it all together with a mass of billowing blue-violet flowers. Yes!
As the season progressed, another volunteer popped up - an astilbe with mauve-pink flowers, probably one of the seedlings of Astilbe taquetii 'Superba' that I'd planted in this bed long ago. I let it stay. I bought a burgundy 'Tanna' burnet (Sanguisorba) at a summer plant sale and plopped it in beside the astilbe. Tanna's burgundy bottlebrush flowers and the astilbe's pink plumes are a great match. The island was starting to look lush.
What makes it all so satisfying? Everything blooms at once, so the color is intense, and the flowers hold up for months. The upright bloom spikes of the hosta and the culver's root echo each other, setting up a rhythm. The blue-violet and white flowers are soothing while the red ones add just enough punch to enliven the picture.
Contrasting foliage shapes make the vignette interesting before and after flowering periods. The hosta's leaves are bold tongues, the culver's root's narrow leaves are distinctively whorled around the stems, while the burnet foliage is ferny.
Thriving in a new location
You may wonder how a hosta, usually described as a shade lover, can coexist with the sun-loving rose and perennials. This island bed gets full morning sun, which this particular hosta likes. Also, I give it plenty of summer water. If you visit Sebright Nursery (www.sebrightgardens.com) you'll find quite a few hostas growing in some sun. Their catalog even lists hostas 'with full sun tolerance potential,' although they do say that the ideal conditions are morning sun and high-filtered afternoon shade.
I only wish I still had the name of this particular hosta to share with you, but the label is long gone. If you'd like to experiment, try dividing an established hosta this fall and planting it in varying degrees of light, and see where it's happiest. I've been amazed over the years how a plant that's sulking in one area of the garden, once moved somewhere else, takes off into vigorous growth. Plants can't move on their own, but we can haul them here and there until they're happy.
If you're trying to match flower colors to get satisfying combinations, here's another tip: Take a flowering stem of your perennials or shrubs to the nursery when you're seeking compatible companions. I'll always remember my friend Megs taking a canna lily flower with her when we went daylily shopping. She went all around that nursery holding the canna flower next to various daylilies, looking for a good match, until, bingo, one daylily with similar tints made the cut.