Sept. 16, 2004
Carpets of color
by AMY STEWART
I USUALLY FROWN UPON SHORT LITTLE DULL BEDDING plants, particularly if they are annuals that have to be ripped out and replaced every year, but the fact is that there are some places in the garden where only a short plant will do -- along a walkway, for instance, or around the feet of a lanky shrub (where they are sometimes called "socks and shoes plants"), or in a flower bed where their job is to fill in the gaps after the bulbs finish their show. And don't forget lawns -- if you're ripping out your grass (and I hope you are), a carpet of low-growing, flowering perennials is a great replacement.
I'm about to plant a wide expanse of just these kinds of flowers in the backyard. We're building a chicken coop in one corner, and I want to be able to see across the yard to the coop when I'm looking out the window or sitting on the deck. But the chicken situation is only part of the reason. There's also the bulb situation. I just ordered another 100 daffodils from White Flower Farm. So this new space in the back yard will have to hold plenty of bulbs in spring, and fill in the gaps with blooming perennials in summer and fall.
[Photo of Lady's Mantle by Amy Stewart]
My top priority will be heathers. I know, heathers like their soil on the acid side, and most bulbs certainly do not, but compromises are a necessary part of life. I fully expect the heathers and the bulbs to reach some sort of accord on their own. The thing is, I want something that blooms steadily on the wettest, coldest months of winter, so heathers it is. I'd tell you precisely what heathers I'm planting, but I have no idea what they will be -- I'll just stop by Glenmar Heather Nursery's stall at the Farmer's Market and ask them to set me up with some winter bloomers.
The trick with these low-growing plants is to mass them together and create broad sweeps of long-blooming color. So once I get some heathers in, I'll move on to hardy geraniums. Now, here I'm talking about true geraniums, as in, Geranium himalayense or Geranium sanguineum. These are lovely clumping perennials that bloom almost non-stop in colors ranging from purples and blues to pinks and magentas. (Just to confuse people, pelargoniums are also called geraniums, but they are not. Unfortunately, if you call that charming red or pink-flowering plant in your window box a pelargonium, people will think you're a snob, so you're allowed to keep calling them geraniums.) Anyway, they come in so many colors that you could plant an entire garden with them, designing intertwined masses of color that move from true blue to deep maroon to brilliant pink.
The only problem with the geraniums is that they don't offer much in the way of yellows, oranges and reds. Fortunately, yarrow does the trick for this color range. Massing them by color offers another advantage: They tend to bloom in waves. In my garden, the yellow `Moonshine' cultivar blooms first, followed by the peachy-orange color that I pulled out of a `Summer Pastels' mix, and, at last, the brilliant red `Paprika.' Grouping them together means that bright spots of color will move through your garden as the year wears on, and fortunately, even the spent blossoms look pretty good on the stalk, so there's no need to rush to deadhead them.
To keep the color going into fall, I'll probably put in some low-growing asters like `Purple Dome,' which resists mildew and spreads up to 30 inches wide. If you like that daisy shape, another long-blooming option is fleabane, also known as erigeron. It's quite drought-tolerant and is rumored to repel fleas. You will have to divide these every two or three years to keep them from getting woody, but with fleabane, it's quick and easy work.
Catmint is particularly useful around bulbs because it prefers to be cut back to a tight clump in winter, and it doesn't really get going in spring until the daffodils are finished. It divides easily and tolerates a wide range of conditions -- it will put up with sun or shade, damp or dry. It pairs well with lamb's ear, a soft, silvery plant, that looks particularly good with pinks and blues. And if you want to add a more subtle yellow to the mix, you can go crazy for lady's mantle, as I have lately. The foamy flowers are great in floral arrangements, the plants reproduce like crazy, the leaves have that interesting habit of holding water in brilliant bead-shaped drops, and in the coolest coastal climates they will do just as well in sun as they do in shade.
That's it -- that's my entire plan for what I am already calling the chicken yard. As soon as the rains start, I'll begin planting. And next spring, I'll be able to enjoy generous sweeps of color and an unobstructed view of the coop. If I'm lucky, there will even be an egg under those hardy geraniums from time to time.
garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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