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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in perennilas (4)


Geranium Psilostemon, the Species, is a Traffic Stopping, Weed-Smothering Perennial

The exotic-looking Geranium psilostemon first attracted my attention when I saw it, years ago, used repeatedly in the photo illustrations of Tony Lord’s book, Best Borders. Its flower, a bold shade of fuchsia pink, with a riveting black center eye, was staged in several eye-catching perennial combinations. Those images became an inspiration to hunt for what became an elusive perennial, because no nursery in my area had ever heard of it.

Thinking back to my college years when information came only from print sources, I began to search for it in gardening catalogues, a process that took several years. From those publications, I learned that the most interesting perennials were also the least known and rarely used. Upscale mail order houses, catering to discriminating gardeners, defined themselves by offering plants that were out of the ordinary. It was among the glossy pages of a lushly illustrated catalogue, that I found my special Geranium  priced to reflect the luxuriousness of the publication. By the time I located the supplier, acquiring the plant had become such an obsession that its high cost was not a deterrent.

After recklessly purchasing this outrageously priced perennial, and finally adding it to my flowerbed,  I noticed that the sharp black center eye, so prominent in print, was slightly less powerful in a real and unstaged setting; I cannot reproduce that intense blackness with my digital camera. Another surprise was the realization that it is a monstrous, sprawling, climber and groundcover. Weeds cannot survive in its dense, smothering path. No wonder no nursery sold it. Urban gardeners cannot consider it unless they mentally prepare themselves and physically arrange the garden so that the plant is free to consume the entire flowerbed.

As one can see in the long view above, my psilostemon, placed at the back of the border as a weed suppressant, has climbed up a four-foot fence and spread across a flowerbed six feet deep. Moreover, did I mention that this is the sixth generation of the original that I once planted? The polite aggressiveness of this perennial [it maintains a clump-like composure at its base], allowed me to lift and transplant it many times until I found an appropriate spot for it to perform. In addition, with every transplanting, a few small clumps would fall away from the mother plant but, other than my own flowerbeds, I could not find a home for them. No gardener that I knew could handle such a formidable plant.

About 15 years after acquiring this gentle giant, several local nurseries introduced a variety of the species called Patricia. The new G. psilostemon, has the same intense pink color and black center. However, the breeders were unable to eliminate the sprawl because Patricia’s messiness and spread is only 50% less than the species. That is still too much for the urban gardener.

Although, I planted a few Patricias in clients' flowerbeds, within a year I was asked to remove them. No homeowner was able to deal with the overpowering presence of this dramatic Geranium. In my own garden, I continue to derive pleasure from the original, awesome species. In spite of its chaotic personality, the intense color makes me happy, [especially when combined with blues or lemon yellows], and its long blooming period is a delight.


Puny Perennial Packs Powerful Punch

When can a very short, pale flower make us stop for a second glance? When that plant is Tiarella Spring Symphony!

It didn’t take much convincing to add it to my shopping cart when I first saw it in bloom at the nursery. Although, the fragrant flowers eventually paled in my sundrenched garden, it added needed color and gentle foaming bottle - brush texture at the beginning the season when most other perennials are not yet ready to bloom. When moved to a shadier spot, the pale spikes were transformed into glowing baby pink candles. Another striking feature is its multi lobed olive foliage painted black along its mid ribs. The visual detail of this plant when it is not in bloom is dramatic.

A bonus is the fact that Tiarella Spring Symphony flowers longer than most other plants. Although it is sold as a spring perennial, its initial bloom period can span an entire month and, if deadheaded, it may continue to re bloom until August. This is of enormous significance to flower bed designers.

In my test garden, the plant has proven to be a very reliable work horse in spite of its diminutive size. The foliage mounds up to only 6 inches in height while the flowering spikes add another 10 inches. The plant has stood up to excessive heat, blazing sun, and very cold winters. I have even planted it in dryish soil that was totally inappropriate and it didn't complain. Best yet, T. Spring Symphony, also recommended as a ground cover, doesn’t spread. This variety of Tiarella is neat and compact. Each mature mound will displace only 10 inches in diameter. For that reason, some gardeners prefer to plant Spring Symphony is compositions of three. When I used it in a collage, I planted only one but made certain to repeat it three times across the span of my design.

Adding this plant to a shade garden composition is like turning on a lamp in a dark room. I can only imagine how it will perform if used as ground cover.


The Music of Foreshortened Flowerbeds.

A fresh metaphor has found its way into the world of gardening. It may not be fresh to the intrepid, well-read, gardener, but for bloggers, it is big news. It is about gardening as music. Yes, music! Some gardeners have a jazz combo playing in a corner of their back yard made up of a few esoteric plants, namely a tall bass player, a medium height guitarist, and a squat drummer. Occasionaly, one will place a chamber orchestra in an island garden where several unusual plants get together to create sensible but fascinating music. Some gardeners grow flowers that sing to them. Others, like me, have a symphony orchestra playing in a 60 foot mixed border. Sadly, the sound of music in that flowerbed is not as rich as I had hoped.

On occasion, I have referred to a garden bed that runs along the width of my back yard. I have remarked how the floral compositions run horizontally from left to right and vice versa. Most of the strategy of combining color, texture, height, and even repetition is lost because one can never view the flowerbed design in its entirety. What ought to be an exhilarating visual experience is not. An instantaneous admiration does not take place because I can never see my garden with one glance. The size and shape of the back yard does not permit the viewer to get a foreshortened perspective and long shots are impossible. I suppose that if I climbed into the center of the left corner of the bed and aimed my camera  at the right corner in the distance, I might get the picture I was looking for; but that is not a sensible allocation of time when there are so many clients’ gardens to be tended.

The criteria that I use to determine if a garden perspective is making beautiful music is based on the breathtaking photographs that I found in coffee table picture books that feature English gardens. Most of the images were captured on large estates, where photographers’ long shots and perspectives are abundant. The best musical images result from flowerbeds that run at right angle to the viewer’s line of vision because, according to the optical phenomenon of foreshortening, the viewer sees all of the plants, colors, height, and textures at the same time. This visual experience creates the most exquisite music that any flower orchestra can produce. Imagine listening to a passage of a symphony when practically every instrument is playing. It is a sublime experience.

Recently, while stumbling and scrolling through more gardening sites than I should, I came across a site titled Gardens of a Golden Afternoon, posted by the astute gardener, Hermes. This horticulturalist collects stunning garden images and shares them with visitors. Here is an image posted on October 30, 2009. It is a perspective of twin flowerbeds, planted with mostly Nepeta and Geraniums, that run at right angle to the viewer’s line of vision. This is beautiful music. Thank you, Hermes, for the concert.


The Gardener's Color Palette: Book Review for

The Gardeners Color Palette, paint your garden with 100 extraordinary flower choices Tom Fischer & Clive Nichols, Timber Press

The title says it all. Designing with flowers is an art and many gardeners with a penchant for creative expression report that planning flowerbeds is akin to painting. Imaginative gardeners will be pleased that the contents of this book are arranged by color, like a box of watercolor paints, making the planning and execution of a floral color composition in the garden a much easier task.

The book is divided into ten color-based chapters: Red,  Orange-Peach, Yellow-Cream,  Green-Chartreuse,  Blue,  Lavendar-Lilac-Mauve,  Pink-magenta,  Deep Purple-Maroon-Plum,  Brown- Bronze- Copper, and  White-Ivory. Within each of the ten color chapters, are photographs of ten flowers, including perennials, bulbs, and flowering shrubs. Some are popular and well known and some are uncommon flowers such as Fritillaria, Corydalis, and species Lilies. Every plant is profiled with its Latin and common name, a pronunciation guide for the Latin name, its classification as perennial, bulb or shrub, the height and spread at maturity, bloom time and hardiness zone. In addition, each profile includes clearly identifiable care symbols for light and moisture requirements. Most impressive, however, is the wealth of information encapsulated into a few lines of expert advice that accompanies each plant’s profile. Mr. Fischer writes beautifully; each paragraph is a gem, like each breathtaking image that accompanies his text.

Some of the plants included in this book are hardy from zone 6 and up and are, therefore, new to me because I garden in Zone 5; that does not make them any less admirable. Of the 100 plants featured, here are a few that I have added to my wish list:- Red Helenium Rubinzwerg, Orange Helenium Wauldtraut, Yellow Helianthus Lemon Queen, Pulmonaria Blue Ensign, Purple Veronicastrum virginicum Apollo, Pink Sanguisorbia obtuse, Purple papaver orientale Patty’s Plum, and White Actaea matsumurae White Pearl. I am indebted to the author not only for introducing me to some new varieties of plants but also for reminding me about some forgotten old favorites.

Since a garden book is only as good as the collaborating photographer, it is a delight to discover Clive Nichols’ exquisite close-up photos of the 100 flowers. Selecting Mr. Nichols was one of three wise decisions made by the publisher. Another was to have asked Mr. Fischer to write the book, in the first place. Moreover, the best decision of all was to market this book at a price so attractive that it makes an excellent party favor, get- well present, or Christmas gift. If I were hosting dinner, I prefer that a guest bring this book rather than a box of chocolates. If I were a bedridden gardener, I hope someone would send me this attractive publication to cheer me up. When Tom Fischer first sat down to write this book, I’ll bet he never imagined he would be creating the ultimate hospitality gift.