Gardens can have brio: use imagination
By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Special to The Messenger
There are plants that offer a certain mien, elan — brio (what a word!) if you will — to your garden that lift it from the mere prosaic to something altogether higher. They will have your visitors yelling for more.
Many — no, most — are seasonal, to be sure. In fact, you wouldn’t have it any other way. All that brio might wear off after months on end.
Well, there are cannas. Hate ’em or love ’em, there they grow, splashy leaves of green, bronze, red, nearly black, chartreuse and every combination of all that. A bed of fine foliaged plants (as the bulk of flowering things are) is easily elevated, literally and figuratively, by a clump of cannas that spears above lesser ingredients well up to eight feet in the case of some, such as Intrigue.
Then, take lilies. Not daylilies, but the tall (to six feet or more) kinds of true lilies that bear their often large blooms with such attar they can overwhelm the olfactories at close range but beguile them at some distance.
Formosa lilies, Lilium formosanum, make a particularly notable contribution to your garden’s capacity for escape from the ordinary. Formosa lily stalks can reach eight feet, with a strength some lilies fail to exhibit. Established clumps of them can have 25 stems with each bearing a dozen or more long white funnels of fragrance. Sheer numbers of flowers guarantee a bloom period of weeks, not days.
There are other gifted lilies, but none that I know of that are as dependable, showy, long-lived and full of zest as Formosas.
A lot of ornamental grasses can be notable accents in a mixed border, but for the most panache for your money, it is variegated arundo. The botanical monicker is Arundo donax Variegata. Long referred to simply as cane in these parts, variegated arundo is a more decorative form of a plant that is a pernicious weed in Florida orange groves and other southern locations.
When variegated arundo springs from the earth in late March, its blades are white. They begin to elongate and then take on a green striped effect, but at a distance the effect is of the white. Our old clump grabs more notice when it is at this stage than any other plant in our garden at that time.
As summer progresses the strong stalks grow and grow ... and grow, until by fall they can reach 15 feet. The variegation is lost by mid-summer and seed heads a foot or more long form. These are not particularly attractive but are effective.
At the other end of the grass spectrum is muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris. While it grows to only four feet or so and is fine textured, that in no way keeps it from qualifying as a brio provider.
This muhlenbergia is native to areas to our south. It is nothing most of the spring and summer, but in September the fireworks crank up. It begins to bloom with the frothiest filiamentious pink haze with such fine a texture that there are indeed capillaries of stunning effect.
When our muhly grass is abloom in our front rock garden there is a cacophony of camera clicks when a group of garden devotees visits. Backlighted, the pink glows like neon, and the picture effects are spectacular.
We have it sited right at the front of the rock garden, with other things, some smaller, behind. This is all right, since the grass acts as a transparent scrim and the other ingredients are not blotted out, but are actually enhanced by the muhlenbergia.
The late, great Christopher Lloyd of the south of England, the finest garden writer of the 20th century and maybe of all time, had a book, The Adventurous Gardener, in which he advocated an escape from the ordinary by using plants, or combinations of them, that would take the viewer into another, sometimes surreal, world of adventure. Before his death a couple of years ago, he had converted his garden, Great Dixter, from simply spectacular to spectacularly spectacular by his expertise in just such an adventure.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 4.8.08
Garden Path, Jimmy Williams