One of the things I have learned over the years, is that I will never master ALL the possibilities. There will always be even commonly-grown plants, that I know little about and have no experience growing.
When I first moved to Maplehurst and began to garden on acres, rather than square feet as I had in Florida, or a few containers, as I had in Chicago, I behaved as if it was my job to learn about every garden plant I had ever heard about. I planted a little bit of everything and was always studying those encyclopedic gardening books that attempt to describe every perennial or every tree and shrub.
But over time, I stopped my ceaseless searching for the next new thing, and I began to focus on bringing more of those plants into my garden that already seemed to be doing well.
Instead, of researching every new possibility for my flower garden, I divided my nepeta and spread it around. By that point, I knew that I loved how little care it needed, how well it covered the ground, how it bloomed in an explosion of purple in early summer, but kept sending up new flowers into fall even as the leaves drooped and took on a silvery sheen. It isn’t the plant for every garden, nor is it for every gardener (I have heard that many gardeners abhor its tendency to spread and crowd out other plants), but it is the plant for me.
Easy to grow and shrugs off heat and humidity? Yes, please!
I recently came across this advice from an experienced gardener: learn how to grow twenty plants really well.
In other words, focus and learn everything you can about a limited number of garden plants, then build your garden with that deep, rather than wide, knowledge.
And I realized: rather than growing lazy, as I had feared, I had been instinctively reaching for that deeper knowledge. And my garden is better for it.
Even if you’ve never heard of “underplanting,” you have probably felt the need for it. Most of us have a tree under which grass fails to grow. We have only bare dirt or weeds in those places, but is there another option?
Well, we could spread a shredded bark or pine needle mulch.
But is there a more interesting option?
There is, and it’s called underplanting.
You’ve probably seen trees or shrubs underplanted with pachysandra or ivy. Neither one is especially interesting to look at, and ivy can be invasive. Better options for these shady areas are hostas, ferns, and ephemeral spring-blooming bulbs. The spring flowers will fill in the space before any perennials grow up and get going. If the soil beneath your tree is especially dry, epimediums might be a good choice.
Here are some tips to keep in mind before you plant:
- Don’t plant only out around the dripline of the tree. You want to fill in the space underneath the limbs, getting as close to the trunk as you can.
- However, you can seriously damage a tree digging around near its roots. It won’t be possible or advisable to plant regular nursery-sized perennials. Try planting small divisions from your own garden plants, small perennials purchased from a nursery, or order “liners” from your landscaper or nursery. These are small plants available from wholesale growers that haven’t yet been potted up and grown large for the general plant-buying public.
- Tools: no shovels or tillers. Instead, use a small hand trowel or a digging knife, often called a hori hori.
The garden writer Margaret Roach has wonderful advice about underplanting trees in our gardens. Look for her blog or the wonderful new edition of her book A Way to Garden: A Hands-on Primer For Every Season.
Purple Fountain Grass ‘Rubrum’ (Pennisetum setaceum)
Ornamental grasses add structure and movement to our gardens.
Even a few grasses tossed by the wind can help bring a static garden to life, and when the sun rises or sets behind grass, the effect is glorious. Even if you don’t have a large garden, you might consider adding grasses to some of your containers.
There are cold-hardy grasses that will be perennial even in northern gardens, or northern gardeners can grow warm-weather grasses as annuals. A little research pays off here, as some grasses can be invasive, especially in warmer climates.
Here are a few varieties to consider:
- Prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepis): A beautiful native prairie grass for home gardens. Great for dry spots.
- ‘Morning Light’ Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensus): Soft and fountain-shaped with fine, delicate foliage.
- ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora): Straight and tall, this grass adds height and structure and looks wonderful even in winter.
- Japanese Forest Grass (hakonechloa macra): A beautiful grass for shade.
- Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima): An absolutely gorgeous grass with wispy, feathery foliage. Adds lots of movement. May be invasive in places like California but native to the mountains of west Texas.
The “My” in the title above is deliberate. Gardening always has a point of view: namely, place. I garden from my place, and you garden from yours. We can be inspired by one another, we can learn from one another, but our gardening practices will always be personal.
These are some of the shrubs I most love to grow here at Maplehurst, and I hope they will spark exploration into the shrubs that might thrive in your garden.
- Viburnum: I could fill out this list with only selections from this family of shrubs. I’m convinced there’s a viburnum for everyone’s garden. Many have fragrant flowers in spring, wildlife-nourishing berries in fall, and beautiful autumn leaf color. Why choose an evergreen when we can have so much seasonal variety in one plant?
- Ninebark (physocarpus opulifolius): This native to the United States has grown in popularity with the introduction of some beautiful purple-leaved varieties. I love the contrast of pale pink flowers against maroon foliage on a variety called ‘Diabolo.’
- Panicle Hydrangea (hydrangea paniculata): A favorite shrub of mine for cut flowers. ‘Limelight’ is very popular and makes a lovely, tall hedge. I appreciate the dark pink-red flowers of a variety called ‘Firelight.’ Panicle hydrangeas are much more forgiving of dry conditions and cold winters than the popular blue and pink mophead types.
- Oakleaf Hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia): A beautiful landscape shrub for the edge of woodlands. Summer flowers and autumn leaf color.
- Bottlebrush Buckeye (aesculus parviflora): A native, summer-flowering shrub happiest in part or full shade. This tall and airy plant looks lovely as filler for the “understory”: that space between our trees and our ground-level plants.