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Unexpected Pleasures: Happenstance in Sun or Shade

The gift that keeps on giving
Abby Jane Brody

   Gardening, so it is said, is the manipulation of nature. However, some of the most electric, as well as subtle, compositions within a garden can occur through happenstance: The gardener introduces a packet of seed or a seedling given by a friend and nature takes over, often for decades afterward. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

    The golden California poppies in a sunny area in Calista Washburn’s East Hampton garden, for example, originated from a packet of seed scattered years ago. Throughout the summer they give a burst of color, hopping over the walkway to bloom along with purple catmint. This season she added a packet of seed from a darker poppy, and hopes that they will not only reseed, but also hybridize with the others to create an array of shades in future years.

    Whether you have a sunny or shady garden, there is a nearly infinite number of plants that will provide you with unexpected pleasures. In my own garden are deep plum opium poppies (Lauren’s Grape) that make unplanned appearances throughout it, always in beautiful association with more permanent plantings in both sun and shade.

    They were dazzling in early summer this year among the white mopheads of an Annabelle hydrangea cousin, and also across the way in a patriotic red, white, and blue vignette, with purple hydrangeas and white deutzias. All this from a single packet with about 20 different varieties of seed from the Hardy Plant Society that I purchased about 10 years ago for the munificent sum of $12.

    A grouping of very frilly, very double, pink poppies dominated a portion of Jim Jeffrey’s East Hampton garden in late June and early July. Jim’s brother told me they had originated in their mother’s garden and Jim had kept them going in their flamboyant forms over the decades.

    Spires of delphiniums are the stuff of gardeners’ dreams, but in our region they remain only dreams unless you treat them as annuals and replant every year. Thanks to the friend of a friend who visited her garden back in the mists of time, but who sent a thank-you envelop of seed, the dream has become reality in Ms. Washburn’s garden. The seed was from larkspur, an annual delphinium, and her beds are filled with an army of floral spires in a much coveted purple-blue.

    If you garden in shade, digitalis are excellent candidates for this school of happenstance gardening. Nothing is more romantic than to see a mass planting of white foxgloves lingering in the deepening dusk of early summer.

    Thirty years ago I bought a six-pack of mixed seedlings of the biennial Digitalis purpurea. They return in random locations, some years in great abundance, but in others, only a paltry few. It isn’t as easy to develop pure seed strains of digitalis as it is with poppies. I’ve tried to save seed of plants with pure white, unspotted flowers, hoping they would dominate the seedlings, to no avail. This year a strong, clear pink cropped up, and I’m positive my friend and gardenmeister Juan, who adores brilliant color, scattered its seed abundantly. We’ll see what happens.

    Two other perennial digitalis are well worth adding to a shade garden: Digitalis grandiflora (also called D. ambigua) with soft butter-yellow flowers and D. ferruginea (rusty foxglove) with tall tightly packed spires. D. grandiflora combines beautifully with everything and flowers over a long period. The rusty foxglove, on the other hand, wants to be on its own in a partially shaded area. Once you see an imposing grouping, you, too, will want it.

    The best part of growing these two species of foxglove is that they cross-pollinate and perennial hybrids in various shades of apricot appear.

   Digitalis is deer resistant, as I’ve discovered to my delight from the odd plants that have made homes for themselves in the open garden alongside my driveway.

    The great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), an East Coast native, has three-foot-high spikes. You have only to get a plant once and it, too, returns year after year. Not too many, but enough scattered throughout the shade to cast a fresh spot of color in the late-season garden.

    A casual walk through my garden last weekend turned up other welcome self-seeding regulars: Verbena bonariensis, perilla with its invaluable deep purple foliage, columbine in all its species, and nigella (love-in-a-mist). 

    Anyone with stone walls ought to have Corydalis lutea Alba, which has mounds of evergreen ferny foliage and small white flowers with a dot of yellow. The tiny seeds germinate in any shady cracks and make a fern-covered wall or pathway. If left to their own devices, they can make a groundcover in shady areas, but plants are easily removed.

    Volumes could be written about C. lutea Alba, native to the Alps. It softens hard edges, is almost always in flower since new plants are continually reaching maturity, and not least, adds fresh green color to the garden in winter.

    I was surprised to learn it has an eastern North American cousin, Corydalis sempervirens. This has somewhat leggy, bluish, ferny foliage and pink and yellow flowers. The flowers are what command attention, and to see them is to want a plant. It is mystifying why it’s not seen more frequently.

    All of these plants are easy to manage. After scattering the seed or planting the original gift seedling, the gardener becomes editor, deadheading most flower stalks after blooming, or even yanking out the plants, and in spring removing or transplanting unwanted seedlings.

    Add enough of these self-seeding treasures to your garden and you, too, can have unexpected surprises next year when they create fortuitous combinations that you could not have even imagined. 

    A word to the wise: We take the debris from the finished plants to the dump. Even so, some seed ends up in the compost, which we spread throughout the garden during the winter. We think that’s a good thing.

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