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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Roses and Riverbeds: The Accidental Rain Garden

I once read an article about a garden that banned the colors pink, yellow, orange, and red. Every plant was chosen for its foliage and white, blue, or purple flowers. Despite its limited palette, the garden was beautiful and well designed but it seemed odd to me that only certain colors were allowed. I had recently extended my garden just to include a Graham Thomas climbing rose, a vigorous yellow climber I had been lusting after for years. I imagined its rich golden blooms draping gracefully over my fence and was determined to find a spot for it despite the obvious lack of available space.

All winter the same ridiculous conversation played itself out in my head, "I have nowhere to put this rose, so where am I going to put it?" With no space available, the only solution was to rip up a swath of grass and extend the garden. The only problem with my solution to the previous problem lay in the fact that my newly proposed bed lay at the edge of the swale that directed rain water away from my basement and towards the storm drain at the front of my property. I was hoping to create a mostly moist, sunny bed that would water my rose and give my dry, shady garden more light-filled planting space. 

To deal with the occasional gully washer, I added a dry riverbed through the new bed, bisecting it into two halves that would help absorb excess water while also watering the plants.  I'm not sure if it was the sheer will driving me to finish the project before spring break ended or the emotional release of physical labor directing my thoughts away from the recent death of one of my dogs, but it never occurred to me as I created the new bed that I was creating a rain garden. The more I dug, hauled compost and rocks, and planted, the less I openly grieved. The function of the garden became less important than the process of creating it.

Tropical Storm Alberto dropped almost 5 1/2 inches of rain on the casa this week, the mulch pounded with such force grooves like waves appeared over night, odd grassy corners filling with detritus. The riverbed flooded, the French well at the end filled, and the compost absorbed the rest. I was able to minimize the amount of water gushing though my storm drain and into the Chesapeake completely by accident. It was wonderful!

Digging up the sod

I used bricks leftover from my neighbors patio to help create the riverbed. Composted leaves and thatch removed from the lawn were used to build the raised berms.

I added a barrier to the area between the fence and the garden to help slow down the invasion of grass from our neighbors lawn.

I used a weed barrier made from recycled plastic bottles to form the bottom of the riverbed. I held it in place with salvaged bricks. 

The bulk of the riverbed was filled with
 cheap bags of pond rocks from Lowe's.

The first riverbed was too short and the soil level wasn't high enough.

I extended the riverbed to the fence and raised the soil level. I dug a French well, which is an intelligent way of saying " a big deep hole full of rocks" at the end of the riverbed to keep my water from rushing into my neighbor's yard. I took this picture after Alberto hit and the water had drained. The riverbed is still full of mulch.

Small boulders were strategically placed to slow down the force of the water. 

A trumpet creeper vine grows along the fence behind the rain garden.

Granite mini- boulders

Trailing lantana attracts butterflies

I love this pot and wanted to find a use for it after it started to fall apart. I sunk it into the garden to function as a toad house. 

Because this garden will be dry more often than wet, I added plants that  could withstand dry conditions. Dwarf gaura only grows to about 16". 

I love the new red foliage. 

Pennisetum 'Piglet' and a red creeping sedum were planted near the gaura. The pennisetum is on the side closest to the riverbed to take advantage of all available moisture.

'Peter's Purple', a xeric monarda, is planted near the fence. One of the plants was butt-pruned by one of my dogs. Pink coneflower seedlings grow between the monarda and the birdbath. I added a water wiggler to the birdbath to discourage mosquitoes.

A 'Graham Thomas' climbing rose and a 'Happy Chappy' ground cover rose grow along the fence. This area is close to the hose and a rain barrel and will be easy to keep watered. 'Pink Grapefruit' yarrow and a dwarf agastache grow between the roses and the gaura.

I couldn't resist a rose with yellow, apricot, and pink roses all on one small bush anymore than I could resist its cheerful name.

Sedum 'Atumn Joy' divisions as well as Persian cornflower seedlings and a yellow yarrow fill in the gap between the mums and the riverbed. I was worried the sedum would rot in so much rain, but they're thriving.

I love the curving path the new bed helped create. The deutzia is almost done flowering. 

Flax (linum 'Appar'), dwarf rue, and prairie dropseed grass are also planted in the rain garden.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Crazy Happy Clematis

'Baltyk' clematis blooms profusely in late spring.

After a soaking from Tropical Storm Alberto

Every time I took a picture of this huge clematis, it was either too bright or too dark. It climbs up a column in my front garden and has devoured two pots, a small spirea, and a birdhouse hanging from a shepherd's crook. After it's done blooming, I'm going to cut it back just enough to launch a search and rescue mission for everything that's gone missing.

A bit of creeping bramble that's managed to escape the clutches of the clematis.


Red knautia macedonia pops up between the day lilies, phlox, and fading daffodil foliage.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Worth the Wait

Deutzia 'Pink a Boo' blooms every May, hundreds of blossoms covering its leaves. 

It's underplanted with lamium.

Dwarf sweetspire 'Little Henry', a fragrant shrub that smells like honey, blooms at the same time as the deutzia. Both shrubs are favored by bees and are often so covered with pollinators they seem to hum. 

After blooming, both shrubs will be cut back by half in order to guarantee flowers next year. Next year's flower buds will form on the new wood that grows this year. 

White columbine and sweetspire grow in the light shade under the dogwood.

Three sweetspire anchor the dogwood garden. A second sweetspire grows just past the blue cranesbill geraniums near the gate.

Sweetspire grows near monarda and geums.

This side of the dogwood garden faces the patio. Pink swamp milkweed, phlox, white trumpet lilies, campanula 'Summertime Blues' yellow columbine, and kalimeris grow near the sweetspire. Self-seeded impatiens have started to sprout at its base. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fixing the Big Uglies: The Iris Incident

This is the first in a series of posts I'll publish randomly throughout the rest of spring and into summer. They'll detail the garden makeover I began last fall and completed this spring. Each new post will begin with the phrase Fixing the Big Uglies and show before and after pictures.

When I was younger I was one of those irritating and always slightly grimy kids who wanted to know why everything happened the way it did. As I grew older I was able to find my own answers about the physical and natural world and changed my fascination to why people acted the way they did. As curious as I was about the motivators of the people around me, it was my own tendency to stick the wrong plant in the wrong spot that was the most intriguing. Despite my best efforts, I had become a master of misplacement and was forever moving plants from place to place, with the hopes that I would finally get it right. I underestimated the growth potential of trees planted in holes full of compost and the ability of water loving plants to render a wet spot a virtual desert to other plants also competing for moisture. While I may have been interested in the behavior of others, I couldn't even figure out my own.

Several years ago when my massive river birch was but a strappy sapling, I created a bed around it and filled it with hosta and Siberian iris. Were these shade loving iris or sun loving hosta? Nope. I justified the planting location on the rationale that the hosta were planted on the side of the tree that was also shaded by an equally smallish crepe myrtle and therefore would receive more shade while the iris were planted on the side that opened to grass and sunny skies. Did it occur to me that my river birch had branches on both sides of its trunk that would grow long and lanky like a hungry teen in its moist, fertile spot, creating a swath of shade large enough to pitch a small tent under? Nope. As a matter of fact, I felt a bit smug in the juxtaposition of the garden layout and was sure lines of gardeners would form at my gate to see the sun loving iris growing so happily next to shade loving hosta.

The line forms here:

 Aahh! Such beauty! Cramped, anemic hostas in a tiny bed and a sea of iris collapsus,
 the newest shade hating cultivar. 
Refund, please!

Thanks to the water sucking super power of my 'Heritage' river birch, 
this once wet area now rivals the Sahara for sheer dryness.

Fast forward to fall 2010 - The iris have been dug up and the hole filled with compost. In a moment of brilliance, it has finally occurred to me to plant the sun and moisture loving iris in the moist, sunny bed across from the river birch. Extra iris are given to a friend and I wait out winter wondering if the transplants will survive. 

Summer 2011 - The iris poke from the ground like green spaghetti, limp against the sweetspire, shocked at the sun and confused by the moist soil. They grow, weak and flaccid, but do not bloom and I spend the summer avoiding them, choosing to remember the one blossom filled spring before the birch began to race toward the skies, its branches filling the garden with speckled shade. 

Fall 2011 - Perhaps it was the cooler air or time needed to settle their roots, but by fall the iris were erect and tall, sabers of green next to the rotund abundance of the sweetspire. They hadn't collapsed and died but were thriving. If I could make them happy, perhaps I could finally see my garden as it was instead of as I imagined it to be and create the changes that were overdue. Out came the shovel, away went the grass, and a new river birch garden was created.  

Spring 2012

Siberian iris

It was windy when I took this picture but after a week of overcast skies, I went ahead and took a few pictures while the sun was out. This bed, known as the dogwood garden, is across a grass path from the river birch garden. White trumpet lilies, heliopsis, sweetspire, Siberian iris, 'Johnson's Blue' cranesbill geraniums, 'Rotkugel' oregano (in front of the wind blown yarrow), and many other perennials fill this moist, sunny bed.  

Part of this bed receives high filtered sun, while the edge of the bed (not shown in this photo) receives full sun. Phlox, rudbeckia, daylilies, blue mist flower, hosta, balloon flowers, catmint, Persian cornflowers, and variegated iris and sage pilfered from around the garden last fall, are just a few of the perennials that fill this bed. 

I have a family of blue birds nesting in this house. They rarely approach the bird house if I'm on this side of the garden but I'm hoping the babies aren't as shy as the parents.

The river birch is over 30 feet tall. Our yard's natural flood plain begins just outside its drip line. By expanding the garden over this plain, I was able to create a moist, sunny  bed that receives filtered afternoon shade. The area to the right of the birch is filled with plants that can survive dry shade such as epimedium, Bowman's Root, and euphorbia. Two small Peggy Martin climbing roses are beginning to clamber up the fence in the sunniest part of the garden near the gate. 

I added two more hostas this morning. 

Bowman's Root and thalictrum

Dogwood garden and part of the river birch garden