My mixed border – perennials, shrubs, annuals, bulbs, tacky art, paper scraps, broken pots, lost tools – extends broadly along the side of the patio seating area and beyond. Much of it has been set for years with plants that don’t move much, at least not easily. I planted things, moved things, killed things until I got it roughly where I wanted. Or at least close enough that I wasn’t going to mess with it anymore.
Not so with the area closest to the seating. Once it was. There was a large Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ that was perfect for the spot. Growing for nearly two decades into a largish, graceful shrub, sweetly scented in early summer, perfectly mounded green and white delicate foliage the rest of the season. I loved that shrub. Then it died. Slowly, over a couple of years, but inexorably.
Whatever soil born disease killed Daphne also attacked a nearby caryopteris, which has been struggling for years but not dying, not quite. I guess it is like some serious human diseases that kill some but only sicken others.
As a result of all this, there is a large piece of that border in a vital spot that after 30 years is still … let’s say “in development.” It’s an area I can play with. And that line between the pretty well set area and the temporarily empty spot is much like the line between yard decorators and real gardeners, between those who want a garden and those who want togarden.
Judging from what is offered on retail benches, the former seem to be winning. Six packs have become four or six inch pots or bigger with fully grown plants ready to pop into the garden for a finished look on day one. (At four bucks each instead of six for two dollars, which might be influencing the trend.) That is like adopting a teenager rather than having a baby. You miss the best part, watching them grow and develop.
Part of the area takes care of itself. For several years I had a Scotch thistle growing nearby. It is an annual, which means it dies every winter, but if you have ever grown it you know that you can count on many, many seedlings coming back the next year. Such lavish self-seeders are an irritation to some gardeners. Not me. Just weed out the ones in places you don’t want them and leave one or two in the back by the fence.
This statuesque giant quickly grows to 6 feet or more with huge silver leaves. One drawback is that it starts to look dowdy after it blooms in July. So this year I have planted red castor beans right next to them. Another very dramatic garden presence, castor beans grow to 7 feet with giant, beefsteak red leaves, but they start out more slowly. They come into their own about the time I want to cut down the Scotch thistle. Perfect.
But that is just the very back of a 10-foot deep border. There is still a big empty spot, but fortunately dahlias multiply, usually to the extent that I have to throw some out each spring. A short (by dahlia standards, a couple of feet tall) red dahlia called Heat Wave is just right. I had one last summer, I have many this spring. Eight free flowering red dahlias set a couple of feet apart is a big statement.
One left over went into a large pot. This size dahlia is a great plant for the sunny patio. And putting it in front of the border draws it together with the seating area. As a fringe benefit, it gives me a spare in case something goes wrong with one planted in the ground.
There is still some space where the border meets the patio with a low wall. I like things that spill over that wall. Petunias work. Or I could scatter seed of dichondra ‘Silver Falls.’ I have some somewhere. But there are plenty of other plants that fit the bill scattered in other areas of the garden, and plants like that are easy to grab a piece and move. Or I can wait to see what goes on drastic mark down in a couple of weeks.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at email@example.com.