Gardens continually evolve

Published 6:00 am Friday, July 10, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Gardens never really stay the same.

Years ago, my grandmother, and many of her contemporaries in rural Virginia, planted forsythia, japonica, roses, lilacs, peonies, daffodils and crape myrtles, plus a few hollyhocks and bright, festive cannas just outside the kitchen window where she could see them while washing dishes.

This particular mix of plants was typical of her era. It allowed her to put flowers on the dinner table and to make a floral arrangement for church on Sundays. When my mother took over her mother-in-law’s garden, she added more irises and scores of azaleas and rhododendrons, massive beds everywhere. She ditched the hollyhocks and cannas because she thought they were gaudy and crass. She preferred soft pastels and white – above all, white flowers.

Email newsletter signup

And then I came along and added hellebores, pitcher plants, bright cheerful daylilies, giant elephant ears and lots more irises. The bright red cannas and deep pink hollyhocks reappeared too. In fact, I even added cannas that had stripped foliage. Every time my mother visited, she commented on the horrible cannas.

My garden has continued to evolve, and I doubt that my mother would approve of some current shenanigans. For the past 10 years or so, there has been a strong quasi social responsibility movement, to encourage gardeners to add more native plants to their gardens. My mother would have called many of these plants weeds, and on some days, I think that she was right.

As part of the gardening challenge that I accepted this spring, I’m trying to extend my gardening season into late fall. The garden and I usually say goodbye to each other at the end of June when the serious summer heat and humidity set in. We don’t reacquaint ourselves until the following February when the hellebores begin to bloom.

Nevertheless, to support pollinators, encourage the use of native plants in home gardens, and extend my growing season, I now have five species of goldenrods, nearly as many asters, some Joe Pye weed, several tall ironweed plants and even some rattlesnake master. Not to mention three species of clematis, some boneset, wild quinine, lyre leaf sage, and, yes, some butterfly weed, or as my mother referred to it, chigger weed, a plant worthy of admiration when spotted along a country road, but not appropriate for the home garden.

Each of these plants is attractive, but difficult to incorporate into a traditional garden space. It’s even challenging in a cottage garden like mine where a jumble of plants is desirable. Goldenrods and asters grow tall and leggy and then flop over creating a very untidy mess. Rattlesnake master is tall, prickly, and angular with silvery green foliage. In the woods, it’s short and shrubby, but in the home garden, it’s five feet tall and skinny. The solution, I’ve discovered, is to plant everything very close together and to interweave species that will support each other. Cutting goldenrods and asters back to half their height in mid spring also produces shorter, sturdier plants. Clematis can be trained to climb through everything, and lyre leaf sage make a perfect ground cover at the front of beds.

Some of my efforts have been more successful than others. Hellebores can be interplanted with spring ephemerals that soften the appearance of the taller hellebores and blend in nicely. Partridgeberry can be planted as a groundcover in shady beds of azaleas. It’s unobtrusive, well behaved, and evergreen. Black-eyed Susans look at home everywhere and are useful for filling in bare spots. Even Joe Pye weed can be added to the back of beds and along fences, but, oh, those asters.

I’m learning, and my garden is evolving. I’ll never give up my peonies, hellebores, irises and daylilies, but I suspect there’s plenty of room for the wild newcomers and their unruly ways. I’m anxious to see how everything will look in late September.

I’ll let you know.

DR. CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener. Her email address is