Gardening

Adrian Higgins: Tired of the Rain? Your Garden Isn't.

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 25, 2009

We have just been through one of our wettest springs in memory, with about four more inches of rain than we normally have at this point in the year. For many people, the sheeting rain and absent sun have become a crushing slight from nature. Quack, quack, I say.

Gardens look beautiful in the rain. Everything becomes more lustrous, the flagstone is bluer, the brickwork redder, the leaves greener. I have a crape myrtle whose cinnamon-colored trunks glisten a ruddy brown when wet. There is something meditative and soothing about sitting on a porch and watching and listening to the rain.

But we've had a lot of rain, and even gardeners are complaining about it. Some of the gripes are legitimate: rotting seeds, rotting sandals and unworkable soil. But the grousing from plant lovers is mostly a front. Inside, we all know that our gardens are lush, verdant, unstressed, and we are basking in the reflected glory.

When plants were stirring in early March, the soil was alarmingly dry and cracked. I was anticipating with dread a repeat of 2007, a year in which it basically stopped raining in May. Given the choice between drought and flood, I'll take the latter. An even rainfall might be preferred, but the moisture has saved a great deal of time that would have been spent watering plants.

The time saved has been taken up by the need to cut things back. This task, however, is pleasant, even therapeutic, because I know that an established plant with a large root system will bounce right back. In many cases, it will also return bushier and with more flowers.

The first on my hit list was a thicket of winter jasmine planted 15 years ago as three little sticks behind a retaining wall. The jasmine fulfilled its role of cascading down the wall, but it had become a mass of tangled stems. I knew that trimming it, as I had done in the past, would not be enough, so I cut it to the ground in April. The chore took three solid hours. The shrubs looked dead for a few weeks but have now put out new shoots, helped no doubt by the rain. The jasmine may not flower much next winter, but I regained control of it.

In mid-May, the joe-pye weed was about four feet tall and I cut it back to two. Given all the rain, I knew that come July it would flop without this intervention. I gave the same treatment to the butterfly bushes, which are now back up to five feet and could do with another trim. This will delay flowering a bit but assure a prettier display.

The rain, you will have noticed, has pushed a lot of growth of not just perennials, but shrubs and trees as well. I have found myself doing a lot of trimming to keep these plants from elbowing one another. Bringing definition to a shrub without ruining its natural look has proved deeply satisfying.

I have two handsome ground covers that overflow in rainy spells, and shrivel and retreat when it gets dry. This year, they are over the moon, or the steppingstones at least. The mazus loves partial shade, rich soil and all that rain. The other is the golden form of creeping Jenny, which has spreading stems that root, bearing buttonlike leaves. One stand I have has probably doubled in size this spring and stretches 15 feet or so at the top of a hill.

If you have lost, say, a boxwood or a yew to constantly wet soil, don't replace it with a boxwood or a yew, or at least not without first raising the bed and adding lots of organic matter. Sometimes the answer is to add drains, often incredibly laborious to install yourself and expensive if others do it. The alternative is to put in plants that like wet soil.

In a wet area of my garden -- it seeps after some of the deluges we have had -- I have put together a collection of such swamp lovers. I started with a little grove of dawn redwoods, now 30 feet high. These deciduous conifers grow large and rapidly in such a site. The native baldcypress offers a similar effect but grows at half the rate of the redwood.

About 20 feet away, I put in a black gum, another native flood-plain tree. The creeping Jenny grows beneath it, and, downhill a bit, the Siberian irises are gargantuan.

Next to the irises, a patch of peppermint has spread beyond its boundaries. It may have met its match, though, in a new bedfellow, a gunnera related to the giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) often seen growing on the side of ornamental ponds in Britain. That perennial, unbelievably, can produce leaves that are six feet or more across. By comparison, my G. tinctoria will have leaves between two and four feet wide, depending on how happy it is.

My mini-marsh is completed with the dappled Japanese willow (Salix integra Alba Maculata), which has fresh growth that is variously green, white and pink. Left alone, it would grow as a 15-foot shrub, but I cut the trunks back to about one foot in late winter. It grows to six feet by midsummer, at which point it can be cut back hard again for a flush of fresh foliage in the fall.

Meanwhile, the rain has brought about a splendid blooming season for two plants that love moisture. The bigleaf hydrangeas are coming into flower. The lacecaps, in particular, are so elegant and lovely. The Southern magnolia has been in bloom for a couple of weeks. I have two whose waxy blossoms fill the air with the scent of lemon. Peering into this ivory chalice you see the true flower, a tower whose pistils form a magical repeated pattern, like minute tilework. Even the faded blossoms this year seem prettier, not a deathly brown so much as a glowing tan.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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