Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Getting the ‘Abundant’ Look in Small Gardens

I have a ‘no bare earth’ policy when it comes to my garden. I don’t want to see the soil – just lots of billowing mounds of color and interesting textures. My excuse (as if I need one) is that the weeds aren’t a problem as you either can’t see them or they’re 3’ tall when finally spotted so I don’t even have to bend down to yank them out!
'Graham Thomas' rose acts as a trellis for this clematis. 
A second, later blooming clematis could also be added to
extend the flowering season still further.

Getting this look is easy in deep borders where there’s lots of room to plant in tiers but what do you do in small spaces? The answer is in layering; either under or snuggled up close.

Spring bulbs are so welcome after months of grey skies. Sunny yellow daffodils and jewel toned crocus brighten up the garden for sure but leave a gap when they have finished blooming - or worse still their dying foliage is visible for all to see. It’s easy to solve this by planting other things directly on top of these bulbs or just slightly to one side. These bulbs will easily push through fine root systems of most grasses and perennials creating a multi-layered effect. 
Japanese forest grass hides the spring
blooming grape hyacinths as they
become dormant.

Crocus and grape hyacinths (Muscari) naturalize freely in garden borders and their sweeps of color can be spectacular. Plant these underneath the cascading Japanese fountain grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) for example and just as the bulbs fade the grass begins to grow, hiding the yellowing leaves and allowing them to go dormant naturally. A bit like sweeping the dust under the rug!

Tulips can be a little trickier as depending upon the variety they may bloom quite late in the season. I get around this by placing them next to perennials with large foliage. When the tulips finish flowering I cut their tall stems by half and then allow nearby perennials to grow up over the rest. ‘Princess Irene’ tulips work well with ‘Peach flambé’ heuchera as there is a perfect color echo between the rich coppery tones of the tulip flowers and heuchera foliage, while the glaucous tulip leaves provide contrast. As April turns to May the heuchera put on new growth so quickly divert attention away from the spent tulips as well as covering the last of their stalks.

Perfect color partners; Princess Irene tulips
and 'Peach flambe' Heuchera

I love to grow bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) in the shade garden and their arching wands of delicate pink and white flowers bring joy every spring. The lacy foliage is reminiscent of ferns but sadly only lasts until mid summer. For a few months however they will make a lovely companion to bolder leaved hostas which in turn will eventually fill the gap left behind by the bleeding hearts. Make the most of their brief association by using a green and white variegated hosta such as ‘Francee’ which will repeat the white of the flowers.

Ornamental onions explode like fireworks from a carpet
of white 'Biokovo' geraniums.

Ornamental onions (Alliums) have spectacular spherical flowers followed by equally beautiful seed heads. Sadly their foliage is already dying by the time the flowers open and the ugly yellow leaves don’t add much to garden design! Cutting them off looks even worse as the allium globes look like top heavy lollipops. The answer is to give them a carpet through which to grow such as a groundcover or low growing perennial. I pair geranium ‘Biokovo’ with 'Globemaster' alliums. The alliums look like purple sparklers held above a froth of white flowers. When the alliums go to seed and the stalks dry I snip off the spheres and set them directly on top of the geraniums to add a fun and unexpected accent – rather like adding garden art.

Magic waiting to happen

Another option is to grow them through the front of a small shrub such as a barberry. This taller variety of ornamental onion look like minarets against the golden foliage but the real magic will happen when the buds open, providing exciting color.

One of my favorite oriental poppies;
the frilly orange-red  'Turkenlouise'
Early blooming perennials can really leave a big hole by mid summer. Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis) are magnificent with their oversized blowsy flowers in shades of white, pink, red and purple definitely making a statement in the garden during late May and June. When planting these add a group of coneflowers (Echinacea) or black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia) immediately adjacent. These don’t really get going until after the poppies have finished. Cut back the ratty poppy leaves and allow the other plants to hide the stalks, adding fresh color and a new look for mid-late summer.
Since coneflowers bloom late in the season
they are ideal candidates for filling in the
gaps left by earlier stars.

In a small garden everything has to earn its place and there is no room for part-timers! Witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis) is at its peak during fall and winter but doesn’t contribute a lot other than a green backdrop during the main summer season. I got around this by fronting it with the 5’ tall Joe Pye weed ‘Gateway’ (Eupatorium maculatum), ‘David’ phlox (Phlox paniculata) and a large fountain of green and white variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegata'). As these grew they hid the witchhazel  from view all summer. By the time the perennials were past their best I could cut them down (in the case of the grass to about 2’ but the perennials were taken to the ground) revealing the yellow and orange fall colors of the witchhazel.

Make the most of taller plants and grow climbers through them. Roses and clematis are a classic combination or use a rose to support an annual climber such as sweet peas. Double the fragrance and twice the color from one small spot. When planting containers I often joke that if there is room for one more plant, I’ll add two. This is a similar philosophy. Go under, in front of or snuggle up close and you’ll have multiple plants and season of interest from the smallest patch – and no room for weeds.

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