The milkweed and butterfly weed in shades of pink, yellow, and orange have begun their dazzling annual two-month magic show at the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden, between Clinton Academy and The East Hampton Star on Main Street.
From the trilliums and other woodland plants of early spring to the asters, goldenrod, scarlet-streaked switch grass, and fragrant yellow witch hazel flowers in the autumn, there is color, texture, and interest in the garden for at least eight months of the year. But this small backyard town garden is at its flamboyant best at high summer.
Calista Washburn created a native plant garden there in 1989 as a community project of the Garden Club of East Hampton, which cares for it. Previously it had been a daylily garden, until too much shade interfered with flowering.
Shade from a venerable and greatly loved beech continued to be problematic, and when roots from the tree began encroaching on the foundation of Clinton Academy, the tree was removed.
Thus in 2003, thanks to a generous gift from the Meehan family, the native plant garden was reconceptualized and replanted. Aside from creating a beautiful flowering oasis in the village, a primary goal was that it be low-maintenance.
Mrs. Washburn passed the baton on to me at that time and I’ve led the team of volunteers for the last eight years.
Within a year the garden had knit together, creating a colorful tapestry. The sunny central island with butterfly weed and milkweed and a rose and sumac at its high point, underplanted with glistening, graceful Carex montana, is the most successful section of the garden.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount working on hands and knees with weeder and clippers in hand. Who would have thought that a single bouncing bet (or soapwort, Saponaria officinalis) could be so invasive that we would have to double-dig twice and essentially sift the soil to eliminate its roots? That’s what preoccupied us for nearly two weeks. The fact that bouncing bet is not even a native plant, but an escapee, probably brought from Europe by early settlers, made this unnecessary toil particularly irksome.
But, it was an opportunity in disguise. Because of the upsurge in interest in native plants, nurserymen are selecting better forms and hybridizing new variants. Last week we finished replanting this sun-drenched area which will showcase some of these new plants: the only hardy verbena I’m aware of, V. canadensis Pink Pepper, a soft but clear yellow Coreopsis Full Moon, spicy scented Agastache Purple Haze, and purple prairie blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya.
The bed has something of the look of a newborn chick, but the verbena and agastache are already flowering and the coreopsis and liatris will soon follow.
Deer have been a horrific problem in the garden. They outright killed some of the shrubs and perennials and grazed others to the ground. Regular spraying helped to a degree, but didn’t solve the problem. More seriously, the deer slept in the garden, littering the ground with turds and perhaps leaving behind deer ticks, which could have infected us with Lyme disease. I became reluctant myself to work in the beds, so how could I ask others to do it?
Fortunately the village was sympathetic and we received permission to install a nearly invisible deer fence around the rear three sides of the garden, and the Historical Society recreated the front gate. So far, so good. Some plants that I thought were gone, like the turtle head, Chelone lyonii, have come back. And we volunteers need have no fears about working in the garden.
Unfortunately it has not proven to be low maintenance. To be fair, after the initial planting, the garden has required minimal watering.
The trees and shrubs require regular, professional pruning. The lovely carex in the central island bed must be cut back every February or March, grueling and backbreaking work. It is so vigorous that it also must be edged and the grasses removed from the adjacent path.
It has been surprising to me how many native plants are so vigorous that I think of them as invasive. Each seed of the milkweed and butterfly weed would germinate into a plant with a deep taproot that is nearly impossible to remove, so we carefully deadhead them before the seedheads mature.
Don’t mention that adorable blue-eyed grass in my presence. I’ve come to loathe Joe-Pye weed, and that is not an exaggeration. Two species, Eupatorium rugosa and E. hyssopifolium, self-seed throughout the garden and unless you see and remove them when they are young, it is very difficult. The third species, E. fistulosum, has grown into a huge clump and I shudder to think of digging it up to separate and replant a piece.
As I work in the garden and daydream about it, I’ve been seeking ways to reduce maintenance. Shrubs and dense weed-suppressing groundcovers are appealing. The creeping phlox P. stolonifera Watnong Purple, from my own garden, is spreading nicely and does a pretty good job of keeping out weeds, as does Chrysogonum virginianum, a contribution with yellow flowers from Mrs. Washburn. I have in mind a variety of groundcovers of varying textures and shades of green to weave a tapestry under and around the shrubs.
Thanks to a recent donation by her family in memory of Mimi Meehan, money is available for both the deer fence and new plants. I’m researching brightly colored and fragrant native azaleas that flower in July for some of the shady areas, a double-flowered oakleaf hydrangea for another, and perhaps a mass of an improved version of the Annabelle hydrangea for the entrance area.
I love seeing the involuntary look of surprise and delight in their eyes when visitors strolling down Main Street step into the garden. What I hope they see is an idyllic spot. Sit on the teak bench on the lawn and feast on the showy mid-summer perennials, or rest on the stone bench in the shade at the rear for a moment of tranquillity and serenity.
“What a beautiful garden,” I hope they think. “And the plants really are all natives? You don’t say!”