I wish we could say we were brilliant and actually planned this little bit of heaven. Like everything else in our garden, it simply evolved.
It happened this way. Several trees, their structure internally damaged by Hurricane Isabel, had to be cut down. In their after-lives they became edgers for paths, but their departure created an unexpected patch of sunlight.
This particular plot is an irregular rectangle about 15 by 25 feet that slopes down to the dock in our backyard and is best viewed from the gazebo. It is divided in half by a small path of pavers set in river rock. To maintain the path, we have barricaded the plants on either side with sturdy, unobtrusive concrete edging.
We had lavished compost, peanut hulls, potting soil and sand on this shady nook, hoping it would become a showpiece. And it was. Hydrangeas, hosta and fern had flourished here, but in hot sunlight they fried. It’s not pleasant to look at crispies while you are eating breakfast. We dug them out, pruned them back, and put them in our pot ghetto. Don’t worry, we said reassuringly, you’re among friends, you’ll be comfortable here, and some day we may even find a spot where you might be happy.
This left empty space, abhorrent to a plant addict who lives by the motto No Idle Real Estate.
We began by relying on our standard inventory of propagated workhorse plants — quince, spirea, carpet roses, dwarf crepe myrtle. . .
Ho hum. . . . .Couldn’t we do better with that sunny spot?
Just as she was stifling a yawn, this addict read about the annual native plant sale at the North Carolina aquarium in Manteo. What timing! New blood! New blood! she cried, she who needs at least one of every plant rated for Zone 8, and, for good measure, as many from Zones 7 and 9 as is unreasonable and impractical.
In the next few years the addict began collecting plants and playing. Baptisia, skullcap, little joepyeweed, Turk’s cap hibiscus, woodland sunflower, swamp sunflower, cutleaf coneflower, mullein, boltonia, stokes aster, rose mallow, rudbeckia, New York ironweed, salvia black and blue, a roadside aster, shrubby St. Johnswort, amsonia hubrichtii, and amsonia blue star.
She soon made several discoveries. For one thing, deer ignore these plants (zippetydoodah!). For another, buzzers have their own monopolies. Mostly, they follow the sun, but sometimes only bumblebees work a plant, a day later wasps might take possession, another day moths will hover, or maybe solitary bees. All of them have one thing in common: they revel in large groupings of the same plant. Masses of blooms are easier to find than the lonely solitaire, and once buzzers are accustomed to a flower’s architecture, continually ripening banquets offer feasts for days.
For added interest, the addict threw in some non-natives, Tatarian daisy (aster), a quince with multi-colored blooms for spring interest, a couple of roses, perilla that dropped in and decided to stay, daylilies and chrysanthemums from friends, a couple of kinds of spireas, a couple of kinds of azaleas, a couple of kinds of hydrangeas. (I know, I know, we’d just dug them out, but the old crabapple that had been whacked by a second hurricane was growing back and giving some shade.)
If you are not already aghast at the sheer numbers I’ve listed, you must be suspecting some pretty vicious warfare in this bed, including the dreaded tottering, flopping, and sprawling. You would be correct. In my defense, not all of these plants occupied this site at the same time. There was constant rotation.
Furthermore, some in this inventory chose to barge in without my permission. Being a softie, I gave them leave, which always tends to complicate matters. Also, this was a second go-round for some plants that had not previously survived extreme soil (see Beach Sand…Clay Pots), so you must forgive my misplaced enthusiasm for compensating their descendants. Tenement conditions, yes. Unhappy roots, no.
Finally, not to be negative, but I am always surprised when plants live, so I over-compensate by over-planting. When this sunny patch opened, my priority was not planting for wildlife. (Except maybe for deer by default.) My priority was filling space with plants that would live. Memories of struggling to find workhorses that would survive in foundation plantings were still too fresh to ignore.
Digression: For the not-yet-glassy-eyed, here is still another list, this of those early survivors in pretty much pure clay with peat moss rototilled in: nandina, gold coast juniper, glossy abelia, Manhattan euonymus, dwarfs Burford and yaupon hollies and pittosporum, crabapple and crepe myrtle.
Let the records show that two decades later, these plants were still thriving, until we chose to eliminate certain ones because they had become bed hogs, were threatening to bury the house, were too rangy, or were perennially buggy.
Please forgive the gloating, but we are still smarting from the fact that we never caught on to the weedy wire grass that was steamrolling over the lovingly planted fescue until it was too late. As lame compensation, we planted winter rye one year, which caused the wire grass to go into a sulk, which then allowed crab grass to invade and conquer. We surrendered. It is green, it covers the septic field, and we do not wish to be drawn into the dreaded grass wars. End of Digression.
I hope you did not skip that list of plants above; I had a reason for giving it. (Which list? you ask, somewhat addled. The survivors’ list, two paragraphs above, thank you for asking.)
Some of those plants — burford holly and crabapple that buzzed in spring, and glossy abelia that buzzed in summer — nudged us, ever so gently, into creating a little way station for wild honeybees. But the nudging didn’t work until that sunny patch opened up.
When we began planting, we saw butterflies dropping by. And we heard that familiar happy buzzing. This from harmless bees and wasps sipping nectar and gathering pollen. Our native pollinators were visiting and liking what they found. It seemed that in among the woods, they had found a little bit of heaven.
So here’s another list for you. This, I promise, is the final list of the final choices in the final planting. They are mostly natives, and they were chosen for pollinator appeal and robust growth that is non-scraggly (though opinions could differ on this) and dense enough to keep weed seed in its place – underground. Occasionally during the summer, as plants fall out of bloom, or just plain fall over, they will need bushwhacking, but I try to leave the seeds as long as possible for goldfinches and groundfeeding birds.
Here’s the list —
Little Joepye weed: a star in lavender, but hardly little at 6 feet, one of the best buzzers and a rich source of seeds for birds as blooms fade. I stake single stems when necessary and leave blooms until they look haggard, then add them to a brush pile in a hidden corner of the yard.
Shrubby St. Johnswort: an interloper sprung from some long-ago plant purchase, buzzes at about 3 feet; bright yellow puffy brushes seem to come and go forever, followed by hard, smooth decorative seed capsules. Spent blooms, though small, can be distracting, but they supply welcome seedlings which I pot in case the plant decides to check out, usually during a wet winter. A close relative, Golden St. Johnswort with bluish foliage, blooms earlier, is tidier, longer lasting, but I am not sure if its appeal is as strong.
Salvia black and blue: a non-native, aggressive in good soil, excellent salvia for the South, sharp contrast to bright yellows. I like to watch bees work the base of its tubular flowers from the outside. Maybe they’re claustrophobic and don’t want to poke around inside this typical mint-family bloom.
Woodland sunflower: tall and wandery, jovial, splashing clear yellow over the bed; easy to pull when it gets too tipsy but can be a bear if it roots where you don’t want it.
Boltonia: tall, sturdy, and expansive, its tiny daisy-like flowers create a poof of white, provide snacks when other blooms are fading
New York ironweed: an interloper, yes, but basically a loner, strong grower and floriferous, small purple flowers calm the bold yellows, attract hummingbirds, too, I cut stems early in season for lower bloom (when I think of it).
Starry white aster: my name for this roadside transplant, an explosion of froth in fall when bug vittles can be scarce; its airy leaves are fillers in a border bouquet but it does not mind being cut back during the growing season. Recently some creature has been gnawing at it: deer? rabbit? woodchuck?
Tatarian daisy: unlike my roadside white aster, is a sturdy solid tall mass reminiscent of stern Victorian nannies. Its pale lavender daisies could be sprigs in an Easter bonnet. Like starry white aster, it blooms late in the season and, bless its heart, it never needs staking.
Turks cap: not a true buzzer, but a sweet, three-foot-high hibiscus whose small red flowers look like pinwheels from above. Its long red pistil sticks out its tongue (enticing hummingbirds?). Nice nestled among starry white asters
Hidcote St. Johnswort: simple striking blooms in late spring, stems grow up quickly in summer to become a handsome shrub when pruned that brings order to the territory. Seems to age poorly after several years.
Mr. Crookneck, the Tall Mullein: just one, just for fun, permanently frozen in an erratic lean created by my erratic staking.
As for the also-ran natives, spring-blooming amsonia and baptisia took up too much real estate in a summer border. Rudbeckia, swamp sunflower, native hibiscus, and green-eyed coneflower, great buzzers, live elsewhere in my garden where their aggressive natures can be ignored. Stokes aster, a nonentity with little personality, is tolerated. And two heavenly buzzers, large, white-blooming shrubs, ti ti, a plant of pocosin swamps, and clethra, or summersweet, a plant of moist wood edges would add stature and mass, but need too much space and would shade out smaller natives.
Daylilies’ range of oranges and reds, especially the tall red along the edge of the dock, compliment the natives, and chrysanthemums add tight mass, so they have a place here, though by fall,daylily foliage can scarcely be found.
Roses and azaleas, on the other hand, lured deer, so they were out. The quince has to be disciplined, but it gives cheer in spring and, unless some animal(s) steal its fruits, it provides the makings of jelly for a friend.
Perilla has hutzpah. It barges in annually, luring me with its deep purple pizzazz. By the end of summer, even if I manage to pull selectively, it is quite comfortable upstaging plants past their prime. I know I should trim them, uproot them, do something, but their insignificant, not particularly attractive bloom spikes attract so many different kinds of pollinators and nectar-sippers that I hate to cut the party short. With that attitude, I will always have plenty of perilla.
Recently I added a double reeves spirea with the plan that its profuse white blooms would compliment a flambuoyant show of late-spring daffodils that have been quietly multiplying.
Today it is being smothered by summer madness, but I know it won’t take that knocking about for long. In fact, it could even muscle out the buzzers. Hmmm, I will have to think on this. I notice too, that blue mist flower, uninvited, is ready to explode into soft blue blooms that buzzers and butterflies love. I’ll wait to pull it till after it sets seed. Then I will have some next year. . . .
Oh, I said this was a final list, didn’t I. . .