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Confessions of a Gardener

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A perennial favorite, this is the blog where I “dish the dirt,” or rather, confess my horticultural missteps. I long ago found that in formal gardens it is more difficult to hide mistakes, so I seem to have plenty of topics. The solutions or resolutions offered up are for this growing zone (6B) and our micro-climate here, at Parterre. A year from now one solution may not have worked, so please take this for what it is–one gardener chatting to another…no guarantees!

I’m a devoted tree lover, so I’ll start with a new specimen addition to the property–the rare and difficult-to-locate Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, beloved for its layered branches effect (the reason it is also referred to as the “Wedding Cake Tree”). Our original Cornus (now fifteen years old) is on the lawn near the dovecote and is named Coco.

Our new one, the “heir and a spar” nicknamed Coco Puff, is across the lawn. The deer discovered her the afternoon she was planted. The solution? A quick scramble to put up staked deer netting. Since it will need to be in place for at least four to five years, we have dressed up this netting configuration with painted 8′ stakes in a large cut corner square that will accommodate growth as well as lawn mowing needs. Recent under plantings with the evergreen ground cover, ‘waldsteinia’, will fill in the dirt area.

We have many varieties of hostas, the vast majority of them in shaded areas throughout the property. Loving them as I do, I tried to identify a cultivar that would work in the sun, in my fave shade of yellowy chartreuse to add pop to a narrow, high-profile bed (on the left).

No go! Pretty while they lasted, but they soon became burnt and crumply. The solution? Pivot! Next year we shall give up on the bright chartreuse version and plant a delicious hosta’ Blue Angel’ that shows off its yummy shade, even more with sunlight. Stay tuned…

Why can something so gracefully tall, so charming with its small shell pink flower, be so invasive?? Japanese anemone, also called “wind flower” for the way they sway in the wind, are known for invading other adjoining flower beds and literally suffocating their neighbors (like rose bushes). We dig them out in the masses each year and they insist on returning the following year.

The solution? Plant them in pots and then cut them for arrangements in the house. They may not last long but they make an elegant statement, greeting me as I come down the stairs in the morning.

Euonymus in all its myriad selection of leaf size, color variations and evergreen nature, was a staple of our original plant list twenty-two years ago. For all their aesthetic variety, they are not very accommodating, or perhaps it was that we had stretched the boundaries of their use, employing them as design features (euonymus ‘Gaiety’ for hedging in the Orangerie parterres).

The solution? Accept the fact that they are a vine (that bear unattractive galls) and doesn’t shape well. While euonymus have worked well trained on a 10′ fence in the Fountain Garden, we’ll be substituting variegated boxwood for the borders in the four Orangerie beds.

Heuchera is another plant I’ve grown to love (much to my frustration). Each year, the plant world creates yet more yummy shades to entice me. But even its handsome leaf shape cannot make up for their temperamental nature. Too much rain…they get soggy; too much sun…they burn out. And who knows what each winter will add to their disappointing performance. Given the large swaths in which they are planted, it’s becoming an expensive exercise to keep replacing large chunks each summer in the Green and White garden’s design spirals.

The solution? Keep the ‘Black Pearl’ spiral in the other herbaceous border but switch out the ‘Plum Pudding’ spiral (above) for the deep bronzy purple astilbe ‘Chocolate Shogun,’ a particular variety known for its ability to withstand more sunlight in cooler climates than other astilbe.

Who doesn’t love clematis? And especially this beauty. But sometimes we forget two abiding lessons about clematis…they like their feet warm and their heads cool; they also don’t love growing in pots. ‘Piilu’ is one of my faves, but communicated its dissatisfaction with its placement by dying off in the middle of the summer.

Photo Credit: Vibrant Optics for Private Newport

The solution? Be wary of overhead water sources, like a roof overhang or gutter.

I started with Coco Puff and the deer problems; I’ll close with a love story. The site for the original Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (looking lace-like in the setting sun)…

was chosen to help disguise the very large, bare trunk of a hundred and fifty year old gingko on the edge of the woodland. Fifteen years later, that exposed twenty foot high trunk has sprouted seventeen branchlets, each of them reaching out in Coco’s direction.

At last sighting, they were holding hands. I love this confirmation, right here on our property, of the premise in the book, The Hidden Life of Trees, that trees do, indeed, communicate and have “feelings.”

In closing, yes, I have to confess that where we get in trouble is stretching the boundaries of normal usage–which we’ve been doing from the start. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We have enjoyed myriad successes over the years that you have a chance to see on the posts as well as Instagram…and frankly, thinking outside the box is more entertaining and exhilarating!!

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About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

29 thoughts on “Confessions of a Gardener

  1. I can’t believe you have a problem with deer. We are on Easton Point and rarely see deer. They never hang around long enough to do any destruction. We lived in NJ where our yard was ravaged by deer so I know the frustration. Fencing is the best solution.

    1. Really?? We actually seldom have a problem here, but I wasn’t taking a chance with my new Coco…xB

    1. How beautifully put, Ellen…and as a former NY resident, I can appreciate your perspective. B

  2. Very interesting….have a similar Euonymus issue – and been puzzled about it.
    The pic. of your deer fence is helpful too!

    1. Hi ho, so glad you have a euonymus story also…of course I guess it does sound a bit nutty to try and make low hedging out of vines…xB

  3. Your gardens are so beautiful. I love the “love” story of Coco and her gingko. We had a maple at our last home that had a profile of a lady’s face on her trunk. I know it sounds strange, but you could easily see her eyes, nose and smile! My daughter-in-law nicknamed her the Lady Tree and surprised me with a beautiful black and white drawing of her for Christmas. I, too, believe that nature is full of personality and surprises if you are willing to see them. I love seeing your gardens!

    1. Thank you, Ellen, for passing along your tree story…I now feel emboldened to share more of mine. Nature is both bountiful and full of beautiful surprises!
      And what a lovely surprise your daughter’s Christmas gift was…xB

  4. Just absorbed every word, nodding my head. The lacy Coco tree reminded me of the dress my granddaughter-in-law wore to her garden wedding last year and I love all those love stories. I planted five Japanese Anemone bulbs in a small patch of my garden twelve years ago. I think I would change “invasive” to “rapacious!”

    What a wonderful way to kick off my Thursday with “dessert first”- Bettie’s blog!

    1. Thank you for absorbing every word….and now I’m looking up the definition of the word “rapacious” so I can absorb it! (“especially grasping, ravenous, voracious”).
      Happy not to be proven wrong. xxB

  5. Not being acquainted with the Japanese Anemone “Wind Flower”….I am quite taken by its delicate beauty. If indeed you are pulling some up soon alert me!
    I will rush over to get the overgrowth! I have many places to try & see if this lovely plant can take the salt winds we get battered with. Thank you for your expertise in garden beauty.

    1. My dear, a wonderful excuse for a stroll with me in the garden…let me know what works for you next week. xB

  6. After reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” I was both surprised and enlightened by their “personalities” and abilities to protect each other. Now that I am residing in the Pinehills of Plymouth I am so fortunate as a tree hugger to live among the trees especially the “horticultural skyscrapers” (the enormous pines). A walk along the trails is instant meditation and relaxation…who needs yoga?!!

    Cheers, Evie

    1. So true, Evie, who needs yoga with trees to walk among!! Wasn’t that a touching, hope-inspiring book? xB

      1. Good Morning, Bettie ~ Yes…It certainly was. I loved that book. I read it after watching a BBC interview with Dame Judi Dench when she spoke of her personal “relationships” with all of the trees located on her 6-acre garden property behind her home. She has loved trees ever since she was a little girl and truly believes, as you do too, they communicate with each other. She spoke of how every time she lost someone beloved and special in her life she would plant a tree on her property and name that tree after them. So she thinks of her trees as her extended family. You can watch this interview on YouTube. It’s called “Judi Dench…My Passion for Trees”. It is an hour-long video but oh! so worth watching. As a fellow tree hugger I know you would thoroughly enjoy listening to this very sweet and lovely woman speak of her “extended family”. Blessings, Evie

  7. Loved all your wit and insight into garden design. My only wish is that it worked in my zone 9 beach home. With 8 acres I’m constantly looking for inspiration and wisdom. Now if only I can fine a classic local gardener…

  8. I love love this post!! and need to visit coco and her neighbor on my next visit. I am fascinated by and love trees, especially here in Newport!

    1. Leila, PLease come by anytime on one of your walks; she’s at the head of the driveway (in fact you saw her when you were here for the Pets party).
      Thanks again for your yummy cherry tomatoes. xB

  9. Bettie,
    I absolutely adore your blog! I can’t wait to open your email when your name pops up. Having gardened here in Atlanta for 50 years (as well as being a dear friend of Ruthie Watts) never once have I had a deer in my garden. But this year they made up for lost time and set to devouring my Annabelle hydrangeas, my Phlox, my hostas and probably headed to everything else that was green. Not to be denied all my hard work I found a solution that I want to share with you. It’s a spray called Liquid Fence. It’s not poisonous nor does any harm to the plants. Just smells horrible for about 10 minutes then disappears The deer never returned! Next spring I’ll start earlier! I hope this helps and that you will be able to remove the netting. Good Luck! Happy Gardening! Martha

    1. Thanks for passing this along, Martha (and coincidentally, I just spoke with Ruthie today).
      I think we’ve tried Liquid Fence but I’ll check with my gardener. Any and all suggestions are appreciated!! xB

  10. Good Morning Bettie!

    I love your wedding cake tree Bettie

    I’m wondering where I might be able to order one online do you have a recommendation I’m from the West Coast! No luck finding one out here.


    1. Susan, I would suggest a deep dive into the Internet; I’ve been surprised at what I can find with a few hours of time spent.
      It is a difficult tree to lcate. We bought ours at Olivers Nursery in Westport, CT. Give them a call. xB

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