Garden news: June 14

Summer is really here because I’ve lost the will to mulch anything else. I mean, I have a huge pile of mulch so I will keep spreading it, but I mind. The borders have been weeded, edged, and mulched. Only the hard stuff is left (the veg patch, which is more of a weed patch at the mo, and the shade garden, which is up a hill).

I’m ready to shift into summer maintenance mode: Watering Wednesdays, Feeding Fridays, Supplemental Sundays, and pick things over when I feel like it.

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Stuff is coming out of the garden regularly now. We’re eating lettuce and chard as fast as we can (seriously, I have 15 chard plants and we can’t keep up), I have picked a couple handfuls of strawberries, and yesterday I cut the first big bouquet of the year out of peonies that had flopped all over (to do: order peony rings) and saponaria.

It is also time to cut some things down. The columbines are finished so their flowering stalks need to go, and the Siberian iris and roses need deadheading. I think I will cut off the flowering stalks of my hardy geraniums, too. Last year I did it, which produced a pleasing tidy mound of foliage, but the one or two stalks I missed continued to form new flowers at the tips all summer–so I thought I’d let them all do that this year. But now the plants are just obscured by a haze of mostly-dead flower heads and it’s ugly. So I will cut them back.

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I have a couple of topical discussions for this entry. First, border design. Second, bouquet fillers.

Border design–the selection and arrangement of plants in a flower bed, for the other Americans here–has started to worry me, and I think that means I’ve leveled up. I’ve put in the beds and planted them and kept stuff alive for a couple years, and now I’m figuring out that that doesn’t necessarily mean they look good. I’m refining my color palette, for example: stark blues like nepeta have been ousted in favor of plummier hues like purple sedums, various Spanish lavenders (holy cats, I think I am collecting those), and dianthus. I added a touch of peachy-pink in the form of Georgia Peach dianthus and I think it’s good. White, plum, and peachy-pink is the color scheme I’m aiming for.

Then there’s the problem of making the borders look full and happy. This is partly a matter of letting the plants mature so I see how big they get, then moving them into final places. I have another theory, though: a flower border needs a good solid front and a good solid back. If you have that, you can flub the interior a little.

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By “good solid” I mean solid, as in leafy and green and unmistakable at a distance. Lighter foliage is better than darker foliage for this, and fluffier foliage better than plants on tall thin stems.

My best front-of-the-border plants right now are various dianthus, with their silvery foliage that forms a solid mat and can’t be missed, pale sedums that form tidy mounds, and saxifrages, which provide less in the way of foliage but lots in the way of starry flowers, which are a nice interlude to the other stuff.

My best back-of-the-border plants are globe thistles for sure, and hollyhocks maybe. The weather here isn’t as warm as hollyhocks like it, and rabbits much on them, but the ones that survived last year are growing up tall this year, and they’ll be good. They’re also easy to grow from seed and in my experience many are true perennials.

The globe thistles are a reality I am coming to grips with. They are thistles, and they are huge and spiky and rather horrible in a very thistly way, until finally–in late July or even August–they bloom, and then everyone is impressed with them. I am still not convinced that their flowers make up for the monstrosity of their foliage but they do get tall and solid, they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and I don’t have any better ideas. So I am growing lots of Star Frost (ie white-blooming) globe thistles.

The interiors of my borders won’t change much. Taller sedums, Siberian iris, foxgloves, peonies, gaura, and various tough Mediterranean things: salvias, lavenders, veronicas. And then there is the question of dahlias.

My husband left his dahlias in to over-winter. Over that winter, his garden flooded and we had a night go down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit, which is unusually cold for here. The dahlias at the soggiest end of the garden died but the rest lived, so I now feel confident that there’s no need to dig up my dahlias every autumn–which means I need to select my favorites and put them in permanent spots.

They get tall enough that they should go just in front of the back-of-the-border stuff. They don’t start to peek above the soil until May though, long after I’m usually busy burrowing around and mulching things. So how to mark them?

With bulbs. This fall I’ll put them in, and plant circles of tall alliums around them. The allium foliage comes up early, and will mark the dahlias’ places. The alliums will bloom while the dahlias are still putting on foliage. Then the alliums will die back just as the dahlias come into their own.

I really feel that I am rather clever for thinking of this.

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Moving from the perennial border to the cutting garden: the question of bouquet fillers.

Listen, darlings, I have no taste or sophistication in the way of flower arranging. I’m happy to plunk a fistful of dahlias into water and call it done. But in the interest of expanding my horizons, and because Johnny’s pictures of all their flowers are so delicious, I experiment with growing bouquet fillers.

Last year I tried Sweet Annie and it was a failure. The plants grew tall and skinny, bloomed like weeds, and didn’t smell all that great. I ripped them up. Likewise this year the Persian Cress, which has already grown and been ripped out.

Successful fillers are saponaria, which looks like a cross between Baby’s Breath and Rose Campion and has the added bonus of actually acting as a surfactant if you want to wash your hair with it, and atriplex, which I still have in plugs but which has grown as lustily and beautifully as I’ve allowed it to.

Honestly, though, my two favorite fillers aren’t listed as fillers at all: cosmos and ammi. Cosmos is ridiculously hardy and easy to grow, and while it makes a profusion of attractive flowers, it also makes a riotous mist of greenery just perfect for tucking in between other things. It self-seeds like mad (because one can’t possibly deadhead all those flowers) so if you’ve bought seed once you can have it forever. Ammi requires a little more care, but also provides clouds of feathery foliage. The darker shades of Dara are absolutely killing and of course the white varieties look nice with anything.

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