In any garden there are difficult areas, poor soil, too dry, soggy, too many roots, sun baked, or dark as a dungeon. In my garden I have spots with some of all of these, often with a combination of issues that makes plant selection tricky. Mostly through trial and error I’ve discovered trees, shrubs, and perennials that are successful for me in the worst conditions, some that even flourish despite an inhospitable environment and a lack of care by a gardener who plants and forgets.
I take my role evaluating plants seriously, if a plant can make it in my garden it can make it anywhere. I don’t intentionally abuse plants, but my wife will tell you that I have too many, and most survive quite nicely with a minimum of intervention on my part, so if that helps prove a plant’s value this is a good thing. Right?
In horrible dry shade or standing water I’ve found treasures to recommend, a few that are blooming today. One of the most valuable performers for dry conditions is the highly variable euphorbia, or spurge (above), which includes some varieties that to my untrained eye look like cactus, and also trees and tropicals (Poinsettias), but others that are cold hardy and lovely perennials. Through the years I’ve planted a handful of varieties, probably more, and though I haven’t a clue what the names of most are, I’m certain that they are quite common if you’re shopping where euphorbias are sold, and I would recommend each one that you can find that is cold hardy enough for your garden.
That is, except Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’, which I don’t see for sale these days, but after a splendid first year in my garden when it was introduced it has proven to be intolerant of humid conditions, and it succumbs to mildew by mid June, disappearing until the following spring. It has seeded itself about the garden, not in an unpleasant manner, and I don’t mind its temporary stay, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone plant it.
Now in its second or third spring in the garden since its introduction, ‘Bonfire’ euphorbia (above) has quickly proved to be carefree and dependably cold hardy in my Virginia garden, and quite beautiful with emerging leaves that turn quickly to red in early April and are followed by golden-yellow bracts that persist for many weeks. Mine is planted in full sun, and I would presume that the stunning contrast is more suited to more sun rather than less.
Another euphorbia that I would figure to be best suited to sunny locations, ‘Shorty’ (above) has a similar contrast of emerging red foliage and yellow blooms, but the leaves are needle-like, and the bracts smaller than other spurges. After flowering the foliage turns a soft blue, and remains attractive despite the worst of summer’s heat. ‘Shorty’ spreads moderately around granite boulders in my garden, through river washed gravel, between the stone slabs of a patio, and through the lower foliage of yuccas and any other plant in its path, but not in an aggressive manner, and the spreading plants are easily pulled if they have strayed too far.
I have planted ‘Bonfire’ and ‘Shorty’ in close proximity, and with a nearby weeping blue Colorado spruce and a dwarf ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple, the contrast of gray boulders, blue spruce, and red maple leaves is nearly more exciting than my old heart can manage. I have never paid attention to charts that decorators put together to help the uncivilized amongst us with color combinations, but I’m quite certain that bright blues, reds, and yellows would be frowned upon. In the garden I have found this to be very satisfying, perhaps because foliage colors are more muted than paint or fabric.
On the other end of the garden spurges flourish in the deep dry shade of mature maples and poplars where the primary difficulty was finding a few inches between roots to dig a hole for the new plants eight or ten years past. Here Euphorbia robbiae (above) has spread at a moderate pace, surely a wonder in competition with thirsty, shallow maple roots. Chartreuse flower bracts rise on stalks above the foliage in early April with the color lasting for months. For this most difficult environment Robb’s spurge has proven to be the ideal plant, with a few small plants spreading to cover an area that was several hundred square feet of barren ground and surface roots.
Another favored plant blooming in the late April garden is columbine (Aquilegia). I doubt that the original plants have survived since columbines are short lived perennials, and don’t care, for columbines seed themselves about, though they are not thugs and play nicely with their neighbors. Their flowers are uniquely formed and beautiful, but even following bloom the soft foliage is attractive. In my garden they were planted in nearly full sun, and they grow without a bother, but they have seeded into some open spots that are part shade and this is their preference.
I have a soft spot for perennials that seed themselves (yeah, free plants!), and particularly when they get along well with others. A perennial geranium, or cranesbill (though I’ve never heard anyone call a geranium by that name) that grows in the garden has a neat, mounding habit and slightly reddish, purplish foliage. I have long ago forgotten its name, but it blooms from mid April into May, and then stops, but the foliage remains fresh looking throughout the heat of summer, and a few seedlings grow here and there, almost as if someone with greater design skill than me had placed them. I suppose I have pulled a stray seedling, but not many, and now I have a nice collection of eight or ten nice, mounding plants with reddish foliage that bloom for a month in the spring and then fill gaps, with foliage as fresh as new, and that slowly seed themselves into open sunny and partially shady spaces. What more could I ask for? And free.
There is hardly a plant that brings more color to the shady garden than the variegated forget-me-not, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (above), with variegated foliage that highlights a dank, dark bend in a gushing stream that leads to a small, shady pond. The clusters of tiny blue flowers in April are icing on the cake. Brunneras are reputed to be difficult, and I don’t believe that this is one to consider for dry shade, but in this spot along a stream, and another along a deeply shaded stone path, they are highly valued in this garden.
Nearby, but in closer proximity to the Robb’s euphorbia in horrid dry shade, the arching branches and small hanging white bell-like blooms of variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) add color between the spring flowering camellias and brightly colored aucubas with leaves splashed with gold. The blooms are subtle, best appreciated from close range, and definitely not visible from more than a few paces away, but they are interesting and the green and white striped foliage is pleasant and fresh through the heat and drought of summer.
And of course there is more blooming today, but April is ending, so we’ll call this a day, and when we embark on our next journey through the garden May will claim those flowers as her own. For this week’s end I will have some planting to do, a few annual flowers, a few shrubs, and perennials from the garden center, and a a few oddities acquired through mail order. The dahlia, elephant ear, and banana roots that have been packed away in a cooler in the garage, and the large agaves and other tropicals overwintered facing every sunny window in the house in pots, will be taken outdoors and planted or set on the deck and patios. This is really not so much work as it sounds, and it will be nice to be able to get around the house again.
Perhaps in the next week I’ll get around to updating on the five ponds in the garden, and also the annual update on Japanese maples is a must, so there is much we need to catch up on.