Garden Muse

In 1986 when I first moved into a small house on a generous lot, the back yard was a field of chest-high grass, punctuated by several neglected fruit trees, and a dozen grape vines leaning on rotting wooden posts. A sawdust path ran down the property like a freeway.

The worst eyesore was a big bald patch; smack in the center was a wooden post bearing an electrical outlet. Neighbors explained that an old RV had been parked there. What could I possibly do with that mess?

A couple of ideas fell into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I wanted to reduce the lawn, and here was a grass free area, ready made. After a recent visit to Alan Bloom's Bressingham Gardens in England, I longed to make my own island beds. He had more than 40 islands, packed with dazzling perennials - neon orange pokers, ornamental grasses, blue bellflowers, pink penstemons. … Weeping willows and flowering dogwoods formed the backdrop, while an ancient stone hut and bridge were straight out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

A tall man with long white hair, bushy eyebrows, two gold hoop earrings, and a fierce look in his eyes, Bloom reminded me of a pirate. He also collected old steam locomotives, and our group rode around the perimeter of the garden on one of those big black beasts, belching smoke. I skipped the ride, wanting the time to photograph his island beds.

Back home from the tour, contemplating that barren ugly space, I thought, 'Why not turn this into the first of several island beds?' Yes! I removed more grass, shaping the irregular bald patch into a circle. I prefer curves to straight lines, so this step began a garden signature: rounded islands overflowing with perennials. Each year, I'd carve out another island, erasing more lawn.

At first, I was so in love with perennials, I didn't mind the work. Staking, deadheading, dividing, fertilizing, watering - I did whatever it took. I stuffed that first island with delphiniums, speedwells, lilies, moss campions, cottage pinks, cranesbills, penstemons, lamb's ears.

Color was enough at the beginning, but over time, I knew something was missing. Each island sat alone, smack in the middle of the grass. As I walked around the perimeter, every plant was visible, with no place for faded flowers or tattered leaves to hide. Frustrated at the messy look of my first island, I experimented further.

Attractive Foliage First

Flowers bloom for weeks, or months at best, but leaves last for seasons. Good leaves keep island beds interesting longer, especially those with varied tints and striking shapes. Coral bells (Heuchera), for example, with a fabulous range of colors - 'Lime Marmalade,' 'Obsidian,' 'Plum Pudding,' 'Georgia Peach'- also have bold, maple-shaped leaves. Similarly, orange-flowering Geum 'Fireball' and red-flowering Potentilla 'Monarch's Velvet' have shapely leaves as well as long bloom periods.

Evergreen Bergenias, with leathery, ear-shaped leaves, make year-round accents in an island bed. Succulent sedums, especially gray 'Matrona' and burgundy 'Xenon' add texture and color. In shade, hostas of all sizes - some tiny as teacups, others big as serving platters-also provide a huge diversity of leaf color, including green, blue-green, gold and variegated.

Frame Your Island For a Prettier Picture

Without a frame, island beds blur into the lawn like a smudged painting. I like to frame them with visually strong plants on the edges, both for looks and to keep weedy grasses from sneaking into the bed.

Dwarf English boxwoods are traditionally planted to frame beds. I prefer evergreen box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), kept clipped to a low hedge, or low-growing hardy evergreen hebes, such as 'Red Edge' and H. glaucophylla, both with gray leaves.

Architectural Elements

Adding sculptural elements helps ground island beds - otherwise they seem to float in the lawn. Ceramic birdbaths or large ceramic containers, or even medium-sized shrubs with good bones, placed toward the middle of an island, serve that purpose.

Check the Light

Especially when part of an island is shaded, I've learned to pay attention to the amount of light. Two of my islands are in both full sun and partial shade. On the sunny side, I concentrate on daylilies, sedums and low ornamental grasses. Where it's shadier, I continue the flow of daylilies (they can take half shade) for unity, and add shade-loving hostas, ferns, and saxifrages.

If I were starting over again, I'd raise the island beds up a couple of feet, adding compost for fertility and crushed rock for drainage. Then I'd arrange to be born in England, into Alan Bloom's family. Just imagine, Barbara Blossom Bloom!

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