Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2005
Regional Report

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Well-sited azaleas and rhododendrons are usually long-lived elements in the landscape.

Inspired Design

Some of my favorite garden scenes or vignettes involve flowering trees and shrubs artfully set off by a visual carpet of complimentary ground cover. In addition to looking terrific, these are long-term, low-maintenance plantings, too.

When I take the time to study these groupings, it always surprises me how simple they are. The trees provide a ceiling for us, bringing a sense of scale to the landscape. The shrubs provide structure in both summer and winter and offer another layer to the scene. The underplanting is usually done in an uncomplicated, broad, sweeping line to draw our eye into and through the setting.

Sometimes the edge of the planting area is a walkway, or it may adjoin an open lawn area. But the unfussy sweep of line makes the edge easy to mow or trim along, and at the same time it also enhances the visual excitement and allows for a sense of serene but deliberate movement.

Usually, the woody plants are surrounded by a perennial used as a ground cover and allowed or encouraged to colonize the area. The perennial companion may or may not bloom at the same time as the shrubs or trees, but to provide ongoing interest it will have a complimentary foliage, either by its texture or by coloring.

Vignettes That Work
Imagine a sea of ethereal, pale blue woodland phlox surrounding white-flowered azaleas beneath a pink-flowering dogwood; or a carpet of violas beneath a shrub rose with a backdrop of tall yew or boxwood; or a sweep of ferns gracing the feet of a bold PeeGee hydrangea, in turn set off by a brick wall covered with Boston ivy. Or a quiet bed of pachysandra shimmering beside giant hostas set beneath a grove of silvery trunked Magnolia soulangiana, in turn sheltered from the hot afternoon sun by a tall oak.

The secret is in a restricted palette of plants and in selecting plants that thrive in the same growing conditions, meaning the same type of light and similar soil. This makes the scene look like it has always been that way, magically recreating itself each spring. In some cases, this is close to the truth.

Well-chosen plants can be nearly self-sustaining for decades. This means the gardener can spend more time enjoying the garden and less time working. If you see a scene that you love, and it is growing successfully in a site similar to your own, why not copy it? Imitation is, after all, the best form of flattery.

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