The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


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Building Garden Interest with Texture

DSCN4963The elements of texture and form, shape and garden occupy my thoughts more and more as I add plants and the garden matures. I really like the textures of plants in the shade bed, but the main bed along my patio is starting to look a bit messy. I’m not sure if it’s because the dwarf blue spruce is so slow to grow unlike the grasses, which are getting very big and therefore the balance is off, or because there are so many spillers in the garden and that’s creating some visual chaos. Either way, I’m exploring the themes of texture, balance and color as I consider moving things around next year.WWW Cacophony3I never thought much about texture until I started gardening. Texture creates interest and interplay among plants. In the world of texture, contrast seems to be key, and there are a couple of ways to achieve texture in garden design.

  1. Placing plants with contrasting leaf shapes near each other.
  2. Placing plants with contrasting bloom shapes near each other.

Properly combine fine, medium and coarsely textured plants in the garden and you’ll get visual interest. Too much texture and you can end up with visual chaos. And there’s both tactile and visual textures to consider.Yikes. (When I initially started planning my gardens, this overwhelmed me, not to mention other considerations of size, shape and color.)DSCN4968Most plants have medium texture. I typically use coarse and fine textured plants as a great way to achieve accents.Then I try and spice things up through complementary or contrasting colors of plants. The finely textured leaves from Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) complement the medium-textured leaves of rudbeckia. The bloom shapes from all three are small, medium and large. And the grayish-green Russian sage also provides a color contrast to the green of the other plants. DSCN4976Proper texture pairings provide lots of interest and result in pleasing vignettes. This is not as simple as you might imagine. It’s probably one reason why gardeners move plants around year after year.

Balance combines with texture and creates unity. I like the balance in my shade bed, achieved by repeating astilbe, hosta, fern and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) throughout its linear shape. The  astilbe’s bottle brush-shaped bloom lends coarse texture in contrast to the smooth leaves of the Japanese forest grass. Visual interest if further achieved through contrasts in color and leaf shape.

In the combination below a trifecta of color, shape and texture unite to create a pleasing vignette at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The coarse brown center of the yellow rudbeckia and the soft, finely textured brown plume from an ornamental millet pair up, as do the daisy-like petal shape and the contrasting shape of the brown plume. And last but not least, brown and yellow make a complementing color contrast. bes and milletWith so many varieties, succulents are a great way to add texture to a container. Soft rosette shapes combine with coarse texture, and the grayish hues of all the plants create color harmony in a succulent display at the Toronto Botanical Garden last summer. I love the fuzzy texture of the echeveria next to the crassula princess pine.DSCN2996 (1280x960)How important is texture in your garden? And what plants are you incorporating for textural variety?

 

 

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The Understory Story

Larson park (1280x960)Understory trees, shrubs and flowers may play a supporting role to the landscape most of the year but not in spring. For a few brief weeks each year, they put on show as their flora awakens a sleeping landscape. And you don’t want to miss this show. Here in St. Louis the understory has come alive and is bursting forth with magnificent color.

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It’s Piddling Season

St. Louis weather in February can best be described as variable. We have days that feel like a reprieve from winter–like today’s 70+ degree temps–and we have clear signals that it’s still winter–like last week’s soppy snow shower. So garden time is sporadic at best.

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The grasses plumes drape gracefully under the weight of a wet snow.

2016 budding rhodo

The rhododendron will bloom soon, a sure sign that spring is near.

Sunday’s warm weather was accompanied by gusty winds and the ground is very soggy still. I take advantage of these sorts of days to piddle. I rake up a couple of trash cans of sweet gum balls, cut back the tall ornamental grasses and generally enjoy a nice day. Tempting as it was, I resisted raking the leaves out of the beds. I thought about edging some of the beds but it’s too wet. This piddling around allows me to begin to stretch my back and take stock of what really needs to be done once the weather begins to warm in March.

How do you take advantage of a warm day in later winter?


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An Urban Garden Oasis

St louis brick (480x640)My sister Nancy lives in the midst of music, mayhem and madness in the shadows of the vibrant Loop in St. Louis city. Yet her yard is a true get away in the midst of city living. Yes, you can hear the drum circle at the Shell gas station a block away. Police and firetruck sirens blare down Delmar Avenue at a fairly regular pace. A rotating “moon” atop the Moonrise Hotel can be glimpsed from the deck. But all that is just a sideshow. The main event is the oasis she has created on a small city backyard lot. Center stage is a large pond full with fish and surrounded by lots of ground cover such as carpet phlox, creeping Jenny and vinca; trees and shrubs such as Japanese maple, lemon thread cypress, Mary Jane magnolia,and oakleaf hydrangea; perennials such as hosta, grasses, salvia and liriope; and annuals to fill in. Large rocks give structure to the pond shape and provide a platform to gaze at the fish and maneuver around the pond.

Urban Oasis 2 (1280x960)If you’ve ever wondered if pond water is good for the garden, wonder no more! Her oakleaf and roses appear to be on steroids!

pond lettuceOf course the pond has aquatic plant species such as water lily, water hyacinth, water lettuce and bog plants. What Nancy lacks in plant knowledge “I don”t know that plant is,” she makes up with an unerring eye for color combination and layout. There’s a balanced interplay between citrus hues (lemon thread cypress), cool tones (a blue dwarf weeping cypress) and shocks of color (the pink Knockout roses). Touches of whimsy, such as this painted frog, let you know the garden is for enjoyment. This frog is an example of her talent in  painting.

 A painted frog adorns the rocks on the edge of the pond.

A painted frog adorns the rocks on the edge of the pond.

I think ponds provide a sense of serenity and the shade cast on the pond from the trees lends a sense of calm in an urban setting. I am always struck by the fact that the yard is small–a typical St. Louis city lot–and there is lots of city noises around, yet the environment feels set apart from the hustle and bustle.

Original St. Louis accents also lend an authentic city touch to this escape and sets the yard apart from other gardens. The home is in Parkview, an historic St. Louis neighborhood dated back to the early 1900s. Above the bed in front of the garage is a light from one of the old streetlamps in the neighborhood. And the first picture in this post is of an old “St. Louis” brick.

Looking back toward the garage.

Looking back toward the garage. Note the dwarf cypress in the back. Behind this is another planting area that hides the power line and the fence leading to the alley.

IMG_0553Between the garden beds, the deck and the pond, you kind of lose sight that this is really a narrow yard that is not all too deep. That is because the design draws your eye down along the space. A brick path along the side bed with the roses help to pull your eye lengthwise. Still developing is a shade garden in front the garage. As with all gardens, trial and error occurs with plant selection, soil and light. This area receives a good bit of shade and Nancy has struggled a bit to get the right plants to take off. Carefree, foliaged perennials are the name of the game, although color contrast is at the forefront. Hostas thrive in the St. Louis climate. Nancy is planting a variety of hostas, and the bed is beginning to take off. I know, however, that in a year or two she’ll introduce an artistic element to heighten the enjoyment of this bed.

What I have not shown you are the window boxes and containers that overlook the deck. And of course there are the lounges and the hand-painted table umbrella. I  hope you have enjoyed this virtual garden tour. I look forward to sharing other small garden spaces in the near future.

How are you making the most of your small spaces?


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Gardening: It’s a Dirt(y) Business

I have written a little about the clay soil that is prevalent here in Arch City. If you are going to garden, you are going to encounter this very dense, hard to break-through soil that seems as hard as concrete during a hot, dry spell (translation: summer in St. Louis). How do you identify clay soil? Easy. If it sticks to your shoes, attaches itself in clods to your shovel and you have to throw a clump of it across the yard to break it up, you’ve got clay. Clearly, this has not deterred the hardy souls in the area who have the vision and fortitude to overcome this stuff. My strolls in my neighborhood and beyond are testimony to that.

And so is my soil. In my fourth year of amending, amending, amending, I am starting to see the difference. More accurately put, I am starting to feel the difference. Arch City-ites know what I am talking about. When I place the shovel or spade into the ground, the resistance isn’t quite as fierce. In fact, when I was digging into the patio bed to put in “Crazy Blue,” a new, compact Russian sage (perovskia atriplicifolia) my favorite nursery is featuring, the soil actually gave way with minimal effort. I consider this a major break-through.

After three years of adding lots of compost to my clay soil, the structure is finally improving

After three years of adding lots of compost to my clay soil, the structure is finally improving. Digging into the soil is no longer at backbreaking, shovel bending experience–at least in this part of the garden.

Can you spot the clay soil in this sample? Hint: It's the stuff that looks like meatballs.

Can you spot the clay soil in this sample? Hint: It’s the stuff that looks like meatballs.

There are several shrubs and perennials that will bust through this tough, mineral dense soil and there are things clay habitues need to know, such as:

1. This soil is dense, and the roots of many annuals, perennials, and vegetables struggle to make their way through. Many spring bulbs tend to rot over the winter in clay soils discouraging gardeners who must deal with this soil type. However, all is not lost–as long as you improve the soil structure. By that the experts will tell you to add 6-8 inches of organic matter throughout the bed, not just where you are placing your new specimen (yes, I have taken that short cut).

Of course, I continue to add the good stuff to the soil when I layer on mulch on top of all this. And my plants have thanked me for it. I’ve been pleased with the new emergence each spring and have become committed to amending my soil EVERY year.

2. Clay soil is slow draining. In addition to improving the soil structure of the garden beds, I want to improve the lawn where after a heavy rain the water has a tendency to sort of just sit there. I’m not talking about the low areas of the lawn, I’m talking about the slope areas where you’d think the water would be flowing down. Not so much. I do have areas where the water ponds. Those spots will get shrubs that tolerate ponding such as winterberry (ilex verticilatta), ligularia or river birch.

3. It can heave in the winter. Thankfully I have not experienced this with my plants, but I do have a gate that won’t open when the temperatures drop. In fact, I had to move my trash and recycle bins this winter because I could not get them through the gate.

4. There are lots of perennial “clay buster” choices available that thrive in this soil type. Black-eyes Susans, goldenrod, Russian sage, daylily (hemerocallis), purple coneflower, yarrow and canna are among the hardy perennials that can thrive in clay soil.

As I stated more than once, I am about the sizzle. I wasn’t really excited about concepts such as soil structure and amendments. My goal was to plant beautiful flowering annual, perennials and shrubs. I am glad I slowed down and have taken the time to prepare the soil. This annual chore has become a right of passage into spring and it’s paying off.

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