Round Robin: Backyard Beauties

Lansing, New York–Now, in the quieter days of August, I can think back on the hectic days of spring. It rained and snowed so continuously through March and April that we were unable to get out in the garden until well along in May. Because of autumn’s rains, I hadn’t managed to clean up the border for winter, and by May it was a formidable undertaking. The perennials were surrounded by last year’s weeds and debris as their new green shoots struggled up through the hard, dry stalks of last summer. Water had stood so long on my usually well-drained border that many of the Mediterranean plants, such as lavender and santolina, had simply given up the ghost, and the soil between them was cracked and barren-looking, reminiscent of photos of flood devastation in the National Geographic.

I trotted around like a frantic gerbil, trying to repair the damage, hauling wheelbarrow loads of my favorite mixture of old cow manure, grit, and silage and forking it in as fast as I could. I grieved only briefly over lost plants; as I bade them an affectionate goodbye, I welcomed the opportunity to move in some of the many plants waiting in the wings (that is, the holding beds) ready to take their turn on the stage. This year there was a white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), some new artemisias, and a campion (Lychnis flos-jovis ‘Hort’s Variety’) in two shades of pink, not to mention new campanulas and some exotic coral bells.

Despite last winter’s losses of plants that usually survive, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’–which usually dies–came cheerfully through the floods. So did the silver tansy (Tanacetum niveum), which I thought would surely perish, I suppose because its lovely, lacy green-gray features somehow look too fragile to make it through an upstate New York winter. But that’s a silly notion: lots of plants, even New York natives, appear delicate but are very tough indeed. Dutchman’s-breeches is a good example, as is maidenhair fern. It’s not necessary to look like a burdock to survive our wild winters.

I have a new plant that I’m hoping will do exactly that–Calamintha cretica. Another calamintha, C. nepeta, has been circulating in the trade for several years and is a wonderful addition to the garden, with its invigorating scent and its froth of tiny gray-green leaves and pale lilac or white blossoms. It blooms for so long and looks so lovely that it deserves a place in the front of the border–just where I’ve put my new calamintha. It’s an adorable, low, tufted creeper whose 1/2-inch rounded opposite leaves are so hairy that their green looks quite gray, and the leaves at the tips of the stems are even furrier and appear to be white. The flowers are a very pale pink, and I can’t imagine anything prettier. I don’t yet know whether it’s hardy here–I’ll let you know next April. In the meantime, I’m going to take cuttings.

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