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Hydrangea macrophylla

When you have a small garden and you are trying to make it sparkle for more than the oh-so-brief month of May, it is necessary to blend a thoughtful assortment of annual, biennial and perennial plants that can pull double and even triple shifts with flowers and/or foliage well into November.  As we approach the end of September, I look around my garden with a critical eye and can see the need for a bit more of this thoughtfulness, and a bit less of the impulsivity that has characterized my last few visits to garden centers and their evil clearance racks.

A small garden is a small garden.  We simply can’t lay out a quarter acre for the luxury of a spring ephemeral woodland which can then be ignored as our guests stroll through the summer Shakespeare garden. So, accept what is and what (sniff) is not, and try to create rooms that pop during a certain season, but hold their own during the other three.

Some of us are going to be more successful at this than others, specifically, those of us who rent greenhouse space at our in-laws’, own a nearby nursery, or are making deals with a higher power that may or may not involve eternal damnation.  For the other 99%, it is essential that you realize that the garden is not going to be perfect – what you are striving for is constant interest, not necessarily constant wow.

A. tabernaemontana playing around with an Easter Egg Iris

Shrubs are the first place to start.  Consider the following three, currently rubbing shoulders as the points of a triangle in my sunny border.  Amsonia tabernaemontana, Hydrangea macrophylla and Hypericum idunnowhatum.  Amsonia is a late spring bloomer.  Willow-like stems emerge from a woody center creating a gentle three foot ball, and are tipped with light-blue stars peaking in late May.

At the same time, hydrangea and hypericum are putting all of their energies into strong green foliage and new buds; the hypericum wavering on the side of dainty chartreuse, the hydrangea taking a more masculine approach with large rugose leaves and thick stems.  By the time the amsonia has finished her show, the hypericum unfurls flowers in the brightest of waxy yellow – which continue for several weeks.

But the hydrangea is not far behind, and now tops everyone at the beginning of July – arraying itself with large, tight heads of clustered blues and pinks that will stay lovely long after the fire pit has been pulled out against rapidly cooling evenings.  Each year it gains a few more inches on its bedfellows, earning its place in the background.

So far so good.  In a space of approximately twenty square feet, I have bloom from May to September – March to September, if I count the tiny tête-à-tête narcissus and muscari that lie at the feet of this lovely trio.  But we’re not finished yet. Amsonia rivals most maples when it comes to fall color.  As the hypericum foliage starts to deepen into ruddy green, and the papery pink hydrangea heads dry in situ, the amsonia shines one more time, erupting into a ball of golden splendor and perfectly setting off the reddening foliage of a dogwood not five feet away.

Hypericum from a cutting taken from my mother's garden

By that time it’s late October and I’m home free.  Guests are running for the warmth of the pellet stove and rarely have time to notice the window box much less the chaos going on in the border.  But the thing is, for those six to seven months, a hoity-toity amsonia from Forest Farm, a Home Depot hydrangea and a hypericum whose true identity has been lost in the mists of time come together and make me feel like I know what I’m doing.

Finding these combinations can be tricky and takes a lot of observation, a good deal of reading and sometimes, just plain dumb luck – but boy is it worth the effort.  Adding a smattering of annuals and bulbs tailored to height and color requirements can further jazz up the scene, but one must be careful in a small garden that the canvas isn’t crowded.  It’s so easy to do when the clearance racks go out at the end of summer…