There are some plants in my garden that just demand to be viewed together. In my front garden bed is a Fire Flame Tree Peony that for years has bloomed at the same time as a perfectly color matched azalea. Together they light up their niche in the world for a week or two each year if I’m lucky.
These Fire Flame Peonies blooming in my May garden along with the azalea inspired my original painting.
Keep the rain away from the peonies and the heat away from the azalea & I’ve got a perfect vignette. I love the way the focal points shift around my garden all year when either color takes prominence or form, as it does in winter.
I think of my garden as a theater production where spotlights guide your eyes around the action on stage.
If you want to extend the season of the colorful joy of these planting combinations you should consider buying one of my pieces of Art. Visit my Art Store to see your options. You won’t be disappointed!
Fire Flame Peony – Available in the Mary Ahern Art Store
This large vase-shaped hosta emerges slightly behind some of my other hostas such as ‘Blue Cadet’.
This slug-resistant architectural specimen is a commanding presence in my perennial garden. Though planted in full sun with absolutely no sunburn effects, I plan to divide it in the fall and put a portion of it in the woodland near the Hamamelis. I think their V-shaped structure will echo each other offering a nice rhythmic change of scale and will tie the two plants together.
The distinctive vase shape of the Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’
I’ve put that project on my to-do list for the fall. The spreadsheet keeps growing. Soon I’ll have to employ a Gertrude Jekyll type labor force to keep up with all my ideas.
I bought this plant in the early 1990’s from a mail-order house that I don’t think still exists. At least, they don’t have a web presence at this point in time. I still remember the excitement I felt when a box with the plants showed up on my deck.
It was my first plant mail order purchase. I’d worked so hard to pick and choose varieties of hostas with different leaf shapes and colors. I was still in my newbie phase of disdaining variegated plants so all my purchases were solid greens and blues.
Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’ in the perennial garden
I remember how horrified I was when those straggly roots came out of the package. I felt so robbed. I’d never seen or even heard of bare-rooted plants at that time. Was I ever that young and naïve?
Well, I planted them all and they all lived. But over time many of my plant labels were lost or destroyed or misplaced so I no longer can easily identify some of them. The Krossa Regal is an exception since it has such distinctive charisma.
I have designed a rather informal garden with meandering paths using a variety of materials. At the end of, or just around the corner of each path, is some type of focal point, which draws you forward, in eager exploration. My garden is about moving through and around rather than sitting in one location and observing the whole.
The irregular bluestone pavers serve as the path to bring you from the front entrance, around the deck, and under the aging mountain laurels. The azaleas to the left are rather dense so you don’t see the deck but instead have the sense that you’re walking through a woodland. The path is narrow and the laurels create a ceiling of sorts until you emerge into the openness of the front garden.
Oak Tree focal point as you emerge from the mountain laurel path
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the ceilings in his houses to give the same effect of enclosure and expansion as you walked from room to room. Variation of space enhances the experience of the individual as they explore the design.
This giant oak serves to keep the garden and deck cool all summer and feed the squirrels all winter with it’s abundance of acorns. In the fall you need to sit on the deck with an umbrella over your head since the acorns come down with such determination.
I am an Artist so color, texture, scale, focal points and other factors drive much of my garden design. My son gave this Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’ to me many years ago. Not knowing the eventual size of the tree I placed it right by the deck where I would be able to enjoy the delicate filigreed leaves all summer.
For a few short weeks in May this wonderful, almost stage setting display of cool pink azaleas blooms as a backdrop to set off the wine colored purple leaves of the maple. The azaleas were already on the property in this location when I bought the property in 1989 though they have certainly grown and expanded.
Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ or commonly known as Creeping Jenny with dandelion
As a ground cover underneath the mounding maple, I planted Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, commonly known as Creeping Jenny. The bright, almost chartreuse yellow offsets and lightens the ground underneath the purple leaves of the maple lightening an otherwise potentially dark corner. Happily, both the maple and the nummularia retain their vibrant colors the entire summer.
I would like to take credit for the whimsical placement of the dandelions in front of the maple but alas, that was the creative idea of Mother Nature.
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy felled 4 large Oak trees in my woodland garden. We were lucky that was the only damage we suffered in that severe storm other than loss of electricity. Instantly my garden went from full shade to sunshine a dappled shade. What a transformation for it and for me.
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
After a period of mourning, I started rethinking, planning and studying what to do with this newfound daylight.
Oak tree stump with new birch tree
One of the mighty Oak trees was left with an interesting sculptural remnant which I originally planned to keep in remembrance of what had been. As usual, I changed my mind as I started designing and replanting. I change my mind all the time as I work in my garden.
I decided to plant a Heritage River Birch, Betula nigra “Heritage” in memory of my Uncle Teddy who introduced me to gardening. As a child visiting him in Schenectady from my treeless home in Brooklyn, he one day found me peeling the bark from one of his many white birch trees. When he asked me to stop as I was pulling the “skin” from the tree and hurting it, I looked around and realized that the entire garden was alive. I was transformed!
So this tree is for him, Theodorus Hendrik Gerrits, 1914 – 1991. Thank you!
Recently I was asked about replanting trees after the destruction of Storm Sandy. I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue since my garden lost 4 large oaks which were living here before I moved into the shade they kindly provided me.
Following the storm, my arborist Ron Strauss of Tree Believers, (631-864-5514) sent his newsletter , “The Root of the Matter”, with recommendations of what to and what not to replant. Here is what he said:
We recommend that you do not re-plant using the following species of trees (all commonly planted in LI landscapes) that did not endure the storms well.
Emerald Green Arborvitae
Norway or Crimson King Maple
Now to the question of planting recommendations his list included:
Green Giant Arborvitae
For our smaller gardens, trees that I recommend and have or will be planting are:
Dogwood ‘Stellar Pink’ (this is one of the disease resistant Rutgers hybrids) 15-30’ ht & spread. Pink flowers in early summer.
Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana. Quite slow growing 30’ht, 20’ spread. Decorative bark. White flowers in early summer. Single or multi-trunk.
For the past 25 years I’ve cultivated my woodland gardens. For the first decade I cleared the tangled woods, studied the indigenous plants, planned paths and materials. I worked on creating a natural looking shade garden focusing on the large oak trees and Kalmia that inhabited this spot of land before I showed up.
A lot of thinking and sweat went into this garden. I selected what shrub trees, like the untold numbers of small cherries, that needed to be removed. Purged, or shall I say, paid someone to purge the thick growths of poison ivy. Fought and pulled, yanked and grunted bales and bales of ivy from the trees and ground in a continuing war for dominance.
When the bones were clear I began to plant. The lists of shade tolerant shrubs and perennials read like a who’s who of my garden. Mistakes were made. Shade is not shade. Lessons learned. Successes were savored. Learning that gardening in shade reduces the need for weeding, plus you perspire less. Perfect!
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
But Sandy decided she knew better and redesigned my garden. She blew in and knocked down three large oak trees and a beech thereby instantly transforming my beloved woodland shade garden into a sun-splashed mecca. Thousands of weeds instantly rejoiced by dancing in the new sunshine, prancing in the beds and mulched walkways. Ivy rebounded with a vengeance of superiority, eyeing triumph. Scores of broken and battered kalmia, enkianthus, leucothoe, rhodi’s, azaleas, viburnum, hammemelis, and andromeda wept.
And now?? Lessons begin again.
Looking for low-maintenance in the sunshine? Remembering our club trip to the Highline designed by Piet Oudorf, my Dutch hero, I’m creating new plant lists with sunshine in mind to cover the time for my new gingko to grow and spread. Shade my grandson will perhaps enjoy in case I miss it.
Amsonia, salvia, achillea, aster, coreopsis, Echinacea, eremurus, liriope, persicaria, rudbeckia, sedum, helianthus, and grasses, yes many textures and heights of grasses. I’m excited now that my period of mourning has passed. Excited by all the new possibilities in the sunshine.
Sandy came to visit and in a fury broke, smashed and tore away some of my garden friends. These huge and venerable trees were here before I moved into their space many decades ago. They’ve provided me with the backbones of my woodland garden. They helped me design the paths I carved out of the thickets. They offered the strong verticals of a towering garden design.
These old oaks shared their shade keeping me cool in the summer. This shade offered me the opportunity to explore the great variety of plants and shrubs that thrive in their speckled light. Shredded oak leaves of these generous trees have been the basis of the garden mulch that nourishes my woodland garden.
I am mourning the loss of what was.
But now I’ve planted bulbs where the oaks once stood.
I look forward in the spring to enjoying their sunshine.
My garden doesn’t go into the winter season all tidy & neat. I enjoy seeing seed heads popping through the snow. The visual treat of shadows cast about by the wind, dancing along the walls seen from the windows of my warm home.
From my dining room window, the seed heads of tall grasses are seen swaying in the breeze with the floodlight of the pure winter sun behind them.
From the kitchen window the afternoon sun gleams through the slivers of peeling bark of the Acer griseum, wisely named Paperbark Maple. Tissue thin decorations provided by nature.
What a joy to watch teensy birds land on the seed stalks of last summer’s Echinacea, barely bending them. My winter garden provides them a smorgasbord of treats so they keep coming back for more. We have an agreement.
The evergreen stalwarts of my woodland garden, the hellebores & Polystichum acrostichoides (what a fabulous name for a Christmas fern), help to delineate the pathways once the snow has fallen. They’re markers keeping me on the right track. I need that help quite often.
The hellebores serve another important service. They are the harbingers of spring. As I enjoy the subtle visual treats of winter I can’t help but poke underneath their large leaves seeking hungrily the buds signaling the beginnings of a new season of visual excitement.
Chasmanthium latifolium. Northern Sea Oats gracing my winter garden
One of the ways I plan for next year’s garden is to take a look around, make notes & gather ideas from other gardens. This is particularly helpful in planning the fall garden.
I look for what plants have continued to hold their own & still look beautiful into this time of year. I avoid looking for suggestions at the nurseries & gardening centers because those plants have been coddled, fed, trained, trimmed & produced specifically to entice you to buy them as your own garden fades.
Instead, I look at the gardens of my friends. Which plants are in bloom & in which colors? Which have stood the ravages of a long season of pests, fungus & weather to still look stunning? Which plants have resisted the need for staking & other high maintenance gardening chores?
Here are a few of the choices you’ll find in the fall garden:
Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'
Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’
This cultivar is a bit shorter than the Chelone oblique & the pink color a bit brighter. It needs no staking & reliably blooms for weeks on end. The dried heads look stunning in the winter sun as they’re popping up through the snow.
Angelica is a sturdy biennial, which reseeds conservatively in the mixed border.
This chest high specimen blooms on tall stalks with purple broccoli like flowers adorning them for weeks on end. Just be careful not to lose them by being to earnest in your springtime weeding or you’ll miss out on this fall wonder.
This 4’ tall and 4’ wide no maintenance fall blooming plant sports pearl like buds of yellow flowers in the shade garden. No staking, no pruning, no pests. Just sturdy, reliable performance.
Call your friends. Visit your neighbors. See what’s blooming in their gardens as you plan for next year’s fall extravaganza.