Miss Floribunda: Garden guidelines

The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil, by Claude Monet,

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Although my neighbors say they approve of my native-plant garden because it provides a haven for pollinating insects, birds and other creatures, they have made some snarky little jokes that disturb me. For instance, one of them watched me work and asked, “Who else would go to so much trouble to turn disorder into chaos?” His wife laughed and said, “They should make a movie about your garden called, Sloppy Sections.” Another neighbor potted up some columbine that migrated from my garden and returned it to me with a quip about it “running away and seeking sanctuary.” I haven’t really tried to make my garden disorderly. What happens is that some of the plants have self-seeded where I least expected it. In other cases, I have found out about a plant that attracts a certain pollinator and run out and bought it without knowing the best place to put it. Furthermore, over the years I’ve gotten most of my plants at the Hyattsville Elementary School native plant sale or at plant exchanges. At sales like this, the plants come in tiny pots that give no idea of eventual size. Over time, I’ve gotten some real surprises, especially with Joe Pye weed that has grown to the size of a small tree. I feel helpless and humiliated. 

Eating Dirt on Decatur Street

Dear Eating Dirt, 

Probably when you first started collecting plants, those wonderful phones that instantly access data were not yet available. At plant swaps, you couldn’t have checked out what a plant was going to look like later unless someone told you what to expect. The Hyattsville Elementary School sale, on the other hand, always posted photographs with data to help the buyer make decisions, but sometimes the crush of many customers kept them from being readily noticed. It would have been a good idea when you researched plants favored by your pollinators to have written down the color, height and spread for future reference. That being said, let’s figure out what you can do now. All your plants can be moved, though you will want to wait till the largest ones are dormant to dig them up. The best time to dig out and move them is late February after the soil thaws but before the plant wakes up for spring. Quite a few could be moved this fall, after flowering, and after a few days of rain. Keeping them well-watered is the key to their survival. 

You have the rest of the summer to think up a good design. The usual garden guidelines apply. For example, tall plants in a mixed border look best in back, with the lowest-growing placed in front. Creeping plants, like wild stonecrop, make a nice edging along a path or sidewalk. If you have a circular bed, the tallest plants should be placed in the center. Care should be taken to always have several varieties in bloom at any given time. Be sure something lovely is blooming during every season from spring through fall. In winter, plants with berries provide color as well as the lovely flutter of feeding birds. Make a list of what you have and draw charts rearranging them. You might find you want to add new varieties to create the effects you want. 

If you have no lawn left at all, you can create coherent patterns through the use of color harmonies. Placement of plants with different colored foliage or flowers should not be haphazard. My redoubtable Aunt Snapdragon used to sniff indignantly whenever someone would say it didn’t matter what colors were planted outside because Mother Nature makes everything beautiful. She’d retort, “Mother Nature has a better eye than you have, and you are about to put her eye out.” If you go out for a long drive in uncultivated country, you will observe different stands of wild plants blending with other groupings to create beautiful drifts of color. In nature, color is influenced by many variables, but consistently so. Deeper greens occur in dark forests, bluer greens in desert and near the sea, yellow-greens in sunlit meadows, emerald greens in places with much moisture, such as tropical countries or the British Isles. No matter how dramatic the color contrasts may be, they all share color value and intensity. 

The great Impressionist painter Claude Monet gave careful study to how he arranged his color schemes in his garden in Giverny — not only in his formal garden and his water garden, but also his meadow of French native plants. He greatly admired the sense of continuous distance in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and used this expanse to lead the eye of the viewer beyond the confines of the other gardens. At the end of his life he declared, “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”   

Closer to home, there are other beautiful gardens you could get ideas from. The Smithsonian’s pollinator garden located on the east side of the Museum of Natural History is a good place to start. Close by, next to the Museum of the American Indian, is a native landscape that includes such trees as pawpaws, as well as native flowers, grasses and food crops. A stone’s throw from Hyattsville, the National Arboretum includes an area it calls “natural settings” in Fern Valley and its meadowland. The United States Botanical Garden has a pollinator plant section in its National Garden. These are only a few suggestions and I’m sure you can get guidance from the staff at these gardens about other places to visit.

After viewing these gardens, go home and look at your garden with new eyes. Be ready to make  changes. For example, every pollinator garden includes milkweed, so I’m guessing you have included some in yours. If you have only the rangy and drably colored common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), you might consider adding the pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and/or the lower growing, more compact yellow and orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). All three of these plants attract the endangered Monarch butterfly, and having a blend of height, shape and color increases visual interest. There is no reason you can’t also add a few colorful non-native plants that pollinators favor. Foxgloves in spring; cosmos, zinnias and hollyhocks in summer; dahlias in autumn; and hellebores in late winter all widen the color spectrum. 

You can also use birdbaths, sundials, and bird, bat and butterfly houses on poles to create focal points in your garden that you can surround with patterned beds or paths. You can make or purchase trellises and obelisks to both highlight and contain potentially sloppy (and invasive) vines such as passion flowers. Use interesting stones, marble slabs, large seashells, even broken ceramic tiles or plates as edgings. There are even whimsical toad houses available that add fairy-garden charm, if you like. 

For more clever ideas come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17. Your hosts will be Julie Wolf and Corey Twyman at 4008 Hamilton Street. 

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