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Kyrnan Harvey

Plant heavenly bamboo (Nandina) for deer-proof cheer all winter.

By Kyrnan Harvey

A deer tragically impaled itself last month on the spears of a metal fence — way west in Glen Cove. But perhaps fences are not the best strategy to deter the white-tailed herbivores, especially if your fencing is that ubiquitous and regrettable closed-top black aluminum or only 4 feet high.

Nandina graces a front door all winter.

The first 25 years of gardening for me were mostly further west of Glen Cove, but even in my gardens in Oyster Bay and Huntington Bay deer were then not a problem. If your backyard is enclosed all around by 6-foot stockade fencing, then you can reliably garden with a fully free hand by planting aucubas, rhododendrons and azaleas; hostas, roses and hydrangeas; and tulips, daylilies and coralbells.

But, if you are like me and see fresh deer hoof prints and droppings every day, see deer gracefully browsing at dawn or dusk once a week, and can’t plant a tree without its trunk getting destroyed by rutting bucks, what deer-proof planting strategies can you employ if you really still want to have a garden?

Let’s begin with plants that establish the structure of the garden, plantings that, when all else is bare from November through March, articulate garden spaces and dictate how we walk through the garden and that enhance and enliven the winter landscape.

Privet for screening hedges: Only semievergreen at best, but privet is 100 percent deer proof, whereas arborvitae and yew and euonymus will be heavily browsed, Japanese holly moderately. Plant privet close (12 to 18 inches apart), and in a few years it will be dense enough to obviate penetration and tall enough to prevent jumping. Add gates where desired.

Boxwood, for low hedging, rhythm and winter green, is 100 percent deer proof. Avoid the dwarf English boxwood Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ of yesteryear, beautiful as old billowing plants can be, because of boxwood blight. There are numerous other options, and I will elaborate in a future column.

Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is a fine, dark-green leaved alternative to Japanese holly, looser, less stiff and less dense, and thus more casual than boxwood too. Deer do not touch it.

American holly (Ilex opaca) is a tree, with the spiny leaves (don’t plant it poolside!) and red berries (on female plants only). These will self-seed, even in shade, and are, unlike other large-leaved hollies like the beautiful “blue” hollies and the English and Chinese hollies, 100 percent deer proof.

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ is a deer-proof broad-leaf evergreen.

Osmanthus is in the olive family but is mistaken for holly because of its spiny leaves. There is a variegated Japanese cultivar called ‘Goshiki,’ which translates as “five colors” and which has recently become readily available. It is a useful broad-leaved evergreen, the gay coloration of which (creamy- gray- and yellow-green with new leaves of pink) is not as gaudy as it sounds and thus a welcome presence to any garden setting in all seasons — and unappetizing to buck and doe alike.

Clump-forming bamboo (Fargesia) by definition does not run and is not invasive. It is much less tall but with the distinctive evergreen bamboo leaves. These will, in just a few years, present a dense, substantial, voluminous mass of deer-proof greenery.

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is a member of the barberry family, unrelated to the graminaceous bamboos. Its leaves only superficially resemble them, and it bears huge trusses of bright red berries. Birds do not touch them, and they last right through the winter.

Ornamental grasses do well where there is an abundance of sun. See my first article in this space (Sept. 12, 2017). Where there is shade, the wonderful Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa does well. Granted grasses are not evergreens, but they provide winter interest, so I don’t cut them down until March.

Well now, there are actually quite a few excellent deer-proof plants for the winter garden. Why do I complain?

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

All photos by Kyrnan Harvey

Euphorbia characias can be grown on Long Island with winter protection. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

By Kyrnan Harvey

Alas, the allium are pretty well sold out, daffodils too I am afraid to report, from my mail-order sources like John Scheepers and Brent & Becky’s. However, if you still have the urge to invest some effort to procure some deer-proof color for spring, try the garden centers and the box stores. Possibly some choice varieties are still available, but be sure that they are not shriveled dry from a couple months of indoor heat.

With the leaves finally down, I make sure they are blown off the lawns. Lawn grasses thrive in cooler weather, so you don’t want to deprive them of a few weeks of prosperity with smothering damp leaf cover. Moreover, there is a modest pleasure derived from seeing your lawn all uniformly green again after gazing for weeks over the leafy litter, a refreshing counterpoint, more especially now, to the barren limbs of trees, the naked stems of deciduous shrubs and to the straw-colored ornamental grasses.

If you employ a lawn service, leaf blowers will typically trod over, through and onto eyes of Baptisia and peonies and Amsonia hubrichtii (commonly called blue star), blasting every scrap of humus and last May’s mulch out of the beds, exposing the naturalized and nestled-in forget-me-nots to killing exposure. In naturalistic and ecologically correct gardens it is preferable to leave fallen leaves in planted beds and where there is no lawn or paving. I even blow them into the beds, within reason, as nature’s natural mulch.

My diktat to clients, to pass onto their gardeners, is “Don’t blow the leaves in (else they will blow all of them in)” and “Don’t blow them out — of my plantings.” True, some leaves will be blown out by those arctic gusts into the lawns, and come spring cleanup you will have some work to do, removing leaves by hand where they have accumulated, but it beats the alternative of clodhoppers crushing the dormant crowns of coneflowers and columbines. I get many self-seeded perennials; but if you let your gardener blow out your beds, chances are they will blow out the baby with the bathwater.

Recently, my 10-year-old RedMax blower, a lightweight, handheld, gas-powered tool, developed carburetor issues. Rather than spend the money to have it fixed (or not), I bought a new Stihl, available at Ar-Jon Outdoor Power Equipment on Comsewogue Road in East Setauket. Very light, good power, $140.

While landscapers use the much heavier and noisier backpack blower, the Stihl is perfect for the homeowner, as indispensable to the lady gardener as to the lazy teen. If you have under a half-dozen oak trees, this is all you need. Gardeners should prefer control over leaf removal. If you have an incipient woodland garden, for example, blow all the leaves into it; they will prevent weed seeds from germinating and in two years will be earthworm-loving humus. Or blow them under the arching stems of the forsythia and into the hydrangeas.

Leaf mold is a most excellent compost. You could pile all your leaves in a hidden, out-of-the-way corner and start a large compost pile with which to annually amend your organic kitchen garden.

I have had, in a protected corner of a client’s garden, a Euphorbia characias. A common sight in sophisticated English gardens, it is an evergreen spurge native to the Mediterranean and thus not very hardy here. A year and a half ago I scattered its seeds in my home garden. Last spring they started germinating, albeit in an exposed location. The deer haven’t touched them because of the sticky sap. And this past month I have blown leaves into them, providing much needed insulation.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

A clump of wild onions is an easy target in the gardener’s off-season.

By Kyrnan Harvey

In the avid gardener’s off-season, from Thanksgiving through February, if the temperatures are above 40 and the ground is not frozen, nor too waterlogged, I like to layer-up and head outside to pull up onions.

Wild onion (Allium vineale), or wild garlic, disfigures beds and lawns, more especially at the end of winter before the landscape begins to green up. The bluish-green grasslike leaves emerge in fall and remain in view all winter, the more so when our lawns lose their verdure with the cold temps and our beds are bereft of show. An old clump can be a foot tall, growing from a tight-knit congregation of a hundred bulbs.

The forged-steel hand fork is the best weeding tool.

I use a hand fork, similar to a trowel, but with three tines instead of a blade, and I am not talking about the three-tined hand cultivator. This is a tool few gardeners seem to use, or even know, but along with the steel-shafted spade and the Felco bypass secateurs is one of the indispensables. Many years ago it was easy to find forged steel ones (the defunct Smith & Hawken), in which the tines did not get bent out of alignment in tree-rooty soil. Avoid these cheap ones. There is one from Holland (DeWit Forged Hand Fork) that costs 20 bucks.

This tool is ideal for lifting out small plants — or a clump of bulbs — and teasing out the roots from the soil. Obviously, if you pull up weeds without their roots, they will surely grow back, often with increased vengeance. Nor do you want to remove too much soil with the roots, else your five-gallon bucket will get heavy real quick. And don’t dump that bucket in your compost, the bulbs won’t rot.

In the case of wild onions, you must remove from the soil the miniature onion bulbs themselves. There is another, similar, bulbous weed called star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). Their leaves have a white midrib, and they lack the bluish tint — and, most obviously, the odor — of onions. Not native to North America, they have pretty flowers and an evocative common name, but they seed themselves everywhere and have become a major nuisance where once they were planted as an ornamental.

Bulbs — the lovely tulips and daffs and bluebells, as well as their weedy relatives — go dormant in summer, their leaves browning and melting into the soil. Many a time have I dug into soil to plant a shrub or perennials and have had the blade of my spade slice through daffodil or hyacinth bulbs.

Wild onions emerge in a newly graveled patio.

If you are digging in midsummer, colonizing a frontier of the garden, you might unearth a hidden clump of wild onion, or star of Bethlehem, now dormant without leaves visible. In this case you will, in effect, be dividing a compact clump of bulbs and “splintering it into a thousand pieces.”

Later, in fall, each of these bulbs will send up their monocotyledonous leaves in a now-wider area of your planting bed. Weeds are visual noise in an otherwise harmonious garden setting, an irritant to a conscientious green thumb because experience dictates that they will only increase exponentially. A window of opportunity to remove onions and Ornithogalum and other cool-season weeds presents itself in the balmier days of the long months of winter.

To reward yourself, if you have already gotten started on this meditative chore, or to incentivize yourself if you haven’t, order 25-50 deer-proof Allium ‘Gladiator’ to plant willy-nilly in and among your established — and, er, weed-free — plantings (provided they get enough sun). More on this next time.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

All photos by Kyrnan Harvey

The white petals of Large-Cupped N. 'Roulette' are a perfect foil for the orange and yellow frilled corona.

By Kyrnan Harvey

No need to panic, there’s plenty of time to order bulbs. True, some varieties might be sold out, but the importers ship through December and bulbs can be planted as long as the ground isn’t frozen. I have, in the past, gotten away with planting after New Year’s.

Above, fragrant Narcissus ‘Kedron’ (jonquilla class) naturalized with other daffodils and myrtle

 

I once had a garden with soil on the sandy side, enriched in the early years with wood-chip mulch, which eventually decomposes into humus. Here many kinds of tulips were naturalized. They need good drainage, and no excessive irrigation, in the summer months when they are dormant, or else they will rot. If I had planted five of one variety in 1998, by 2008 bulbs had increased with offsets that were flowering size. Tulips growing informally through forget-me-nots and among many other spring flowers and shrubs — as opposed to a stiffly formal throwaway mass display planting — are incomparably charming. But they are said to be caviar to deer.

Daffodils though are 100 percent deer proof. Nor do squirrels dig for them as they do for tulips. I like to plant them in a similar style: many different varieties, each segregated from other varieties. I don’t like daffodil “mixes” — five or 10 bulbs, spaced a few inches apart, randomly arranged (meaning asymmetrically, nongeometrically). In two or three years these bulbs will have a dozen or more flowers. Daffodils increase and naturalize far more reliably than tulips.

There are many more varieties of Narcissus than will be seen at Home Depot or a garden center. Thirty years ago, when I was employed as a gardener at Mrs. Whitney’s Manhasset estate, we participated in a flower show at Macy’s Herald Square. The head gardener, my boss, presented an instructional display with examples from each of the 13 divisions of daffodils, as established by the Royal Horticultural Society: trumpets, large-cupped and small-cupped N. triandrus, N. jonquilla, N. poeticus and so on.

Above, the charming Narcissus jonquilla ‘Kokopelli’

You can find, via numerous stateside bulb importers (Brent & Becky’s, John Scheepers, White Flower Farm), splendid cultivars from any and all of these classes. Moreover, within each division, there are many variations of form and diversity of color: white perianth (the petals) with yellow or orange or pink corona (the cup, or trumpet); yellow perianth/orange cup; white perianth/white cup. The rims of the cups can have different colors too and the cups and petals can have various forms.

It is easy to fill your garden with many different long-lived daffodils, each of which has its own distinctive charm and all of which, when viewed collectively in the vernal garden, harmonize with their compadres. You can do better than merely more ‘Mount Hood’ and ‘King Alfred.’ Many are delightfully scented, which is not, by the way, the cloying odor of the florists’ tender paperwhite narcissus. If you plant a dozen varieties this year, in five years you will be able to fill vases with bountiful, perfumed bouquets.

Daffodils tolerate full sun and part shade. The pink-cupped ones prefer the latter because it preserves their color. Deep shade and water-logged soil must be avoided. Cut the spent flowers but the leaves must be left uncut, unbent, and unbraided for weeks after flowering is finished. Finding companion perennials that disguise this unsightly phase of the growth cycle — and that won’t be chowed by deer! — is a finer aspect of horticulture best left to another day.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

All photos by Kyrnan Harvey

Japanese maple seedlings in a woodland setting have the best fall colors. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

By Kyrnan Harvey

“It’s fall, right?” my 7-year-old just asked. And I was like, “Um, yeah?” Notwithstanding a few weeks of unseasonably balmy, if not muggy, days, it is October and the first noticeable autumnal tints are seen in the American dogwoods that grow along the margins of the Laurel Ridge-Setauket Woods Nature Preserve on Belle Mead Road.

You needn’t be a gardener — nor ferry up to New England — to enjoy the weeks of glorious colors in the maples and the oaks in random woods and suburban roads: the yellow Norway maple, the red-orange of sugar and red maples, the russet-reds of the oaks.

There are many kinds of shrubs too, of course, that present fall color. These typically color up best in sunnier locations, but the native spicebush (Lindera benzoin), ubiquitous in our woods because the deer leave them alone, are beginning to yellow even in heavy shade. Last Saturday I was driving on Mt. Grey and West Meadow roads in Old Field, where homes are nestled into our native oak woods. Naturalized in the understory are the native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, and planted rhododendrons that had grown massive before the deer population exploded.

If you live under a high canopy of oak trees, but want some great fall color, Japanese maples are a superb understory tree: They prefer some shade and will color up well despite it. Japanese maples are not limited to the popular weeping lacy trees. They are primarily Acer palmatum, but they also refer to Acer japonicum and Acer shirasawanum.

Japanese maple seedlings flourish in a woodland setting. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

The grafted cut-leaf Japanese maple is justifiably popular but not inexpensive. These are propagated vegetatively, i.e., not by seed; they are called cultivated varieties (cultivars, in the trade), meaning they have specific genes; and they are identical to one another in leaf shape, size and color and also in rate of growth and habit, by which is meant the shape of the crown, whether pyramidal, weeping or columnar.

The spectacular cut-leaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum), red-leafed or green, is better used singly, as a specimen. Mature tress will get to be 15 feet in diameter, so do not make the common mistake of planting it too close to your driveway or front path or up close to your house. It is always a shame to have to restrict with pruning the natural form of these.

If you have the opportunity to plant a grove of Japanese maples, maybe for screening or to start a woodland garden, then the most expedient way would be to find a source of random Acer palmatum seedlings. Young trees, cheap. Don’t overly favor the showy red-leaved ones; select if you can a mix of green and red. In Joe’s garden, a client, there were three or four mature Japanese maples. We had many dozens of seedlings, offspring from the mother trees, growing out of the compost of years of leaf-blowing.

Many years ago Joe and I potted up a few of the younger ones, from 3 to 7 years old, and on a sunny Saturday morning in late October loaded them into the 8-foot bed of my ’68 Chevy. We parked on 5th Avenue in Park Slope in Brooklyn and presented a sidewalk sale. They were gorgeous in their variety of fall reds, oranges and even yellows. Fifteen years later and there are many dozens more seedlings, I just can’t bring myself to pull them up and throw them in the compost pile.

True, the deer will nip them as long as they can reach the branches. It is worth the effort to spritz a little deer repellent, especially in April, May, and June, for the first couple years until the branches are up and out of their reach. There is a blight on them, a soil-borne fungus called Verticillium wilt, that causes branches to die. Cut them back to the trunk. Sometimes the whole tree dies. If you have a dozen or more trees, as I recommend, and they are seeding themselves around, then it’s easy-come-easy-go. You don’t have to mourn the loss of a tree if there are many more healthy ones about.

It’s okay to start with unnamed seedlings of Acer palmatum. They are always gorgeous, leafing out in spring with their iconic leaves, or changing color in fall, they are never out of scale in the garden and comport well with companion shrubs and perennials. You could order a dozen and supplement them with a few choice named cultivars that you gradually collect at the garden center or through mail-order sources; or you could start right off with the choice varieties.

It would be preferable to have some of these splendid cultivars because some of their offspring seedlings will carry their desirable traits. Japanese maples are prolific self-sowers, so you might want to plant two or three of the great, well-known varieties: Invest in a few large trees, sourced at a nursery. Have them planted in locations that establish the structure and articulate the paths of a new woodland garden, underplant them with perennials and start looking out for seedlings next year!

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

Cerise mum, second year.

By Kyrnan Harvey

This year the deer have left our chrysanthemums alone. So far. This is our third year in the Three Villages, and the assumption originally was that aromatic plants are passed over by the white-tailed browsers. Wishful thinking.

 

Old-fashioned Korean mums naturalized

Last year, the mums were left alone all summer, until the buds formed on the flower stems, which apparently are a delicacy for discerning deer in the know. This year, we sprayed deer repellent once on the cerise mum near the driveway entrance but none on the ‘Dark Bronze Daisy’ or the unnamed Home Depot orange mum. And who knew? These latter two are a square yard untouched and flowering beautifully for a month already and the cerise one is just now popping.

This morning, while pulling up unwanted goldenrod volunteers, I became reacquainted with a gorgeous white one, very tall and promising in bud now, that I had plucked last year from the florist shelves at the market.

As a garden designer favoring naturalistic plantings, I generally eschew the seasonal mum installations. But I do love the colors; who doesn’t? There are many varieties grown, often two apparently identical colors are actually merely similar colors, subtly different varieties. Usually you will find a small label with a cultivar name on it, like ‘Plumberry Purple’ or ‘Flamingo Pineapple’. Every year one or two colors at Home Depot or Stop&Shop or my myriad wholesale sources catches my fancy. I am often asked “Are they perennial?” “How do you know which ones will come back next year?”

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’

In years past I would answer that the “old-fashioned” single ones, formerly called Korean mums and rarely seen in garden centers, are reliably hardy and perennial. There is a charming single pale apricot must-have called ‘Sheffield Pink’ that is absolutely perennial and that flowers very late. But I am now convinced that the brilliantly colored doubles will naturalize too and need not be regarded as throwaways. I buy just one piece (as the nurserymen say) and find a suitable location for that color.

I cannot account for the gustatory vagaries or the culinary whimsies of our graceful quadripeds, but here is how to get “dem” mums to survive the winter and to increase in girth. Don’t plant them too late and don’t let them dry out.

Don’t buy a pot in September for your front door, neglect to water it three straight sunny 75 degree days, and then not plant it outside until Thanksgiving.

Typically chrysanthemums are root-bound in those green plastic pots. Root-bound means they dry out quickly and watering can’t penetrate the density of roots. The good independent garden centers have staff that know how and how often to water them to keep them from drying out — not so at the box stores. There is a point of no return, if left unwatered for too long. Haven’t we all seen inventories of mums fried and roasting at the edge of the parking lot, wilted to a crisp? It’s okay to decorate the porch for a couple weeks, but put saucers under them and if they’re in the sun err on the side of too much water.

Chrysanthemum ‘Dark Bronze Daisy’ third year

Another common pitfall is to assume that once it is planted and you have thoroughly drenched it, you are done. Not necessarily the case, never more so than the past few weeks when it has been unseasonably warm and it hasn’t rained. We did a large mum installation at a client’s temple for the holidays. No automatic irrigation, and we watered by hose two times a week for a couple weeks. Checked in after a long weekend and sure enough a few of the 70 were wilting. Even where there is automatic irrigation, hand water if there are no good soakings from mother nature.

When planting out your mums, they will want, like most daisies, a sunny spot if your intention is for them to perennialize. Also needed is good, loose soil that’s been dug free of tree roots and soil compaction. Water in well at planting and as necessary for a few weeks, so that they will root in to their new soil. This is the key; this is what determines whether they survive through to next year: Are they established in the garden well before the hard frosts of January? I usually leave the unsightly spent flowers uncut until March. My sense is that these provide insulation from winds to the basal foliage, visible even in a flowering plant, upon which the plants’ future depends.

Of course, you can still plant mums with no expectation that they will provide perennial pleasures. You still have to keep them watered, but you can cram them into crummy builders’ fill under oak trees — as we did at the temple — and do it again next year. But it is really delightful and gratifying to see drifts of sprays of that superb color year in, year out. They actually are carefree and drought tolerant once established. And if the deer one year take a fancy to that color? You’ll live, and next year you will enjoy the show more.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

All photos by Kyrnan Harvey

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Above, the flowers of the black locust tree, a native invasive tree that can wreak havoc to your yard. Stock photo

By Kyrnan Harvey

Do you love flowers and wish you had a garden full of many kinds? Frustrated because the peonies and roses and irises disappoint with few flowers, the phlox is floppy with powdery mildew and even the yarrow craps out? Did you plant a row of rhodies under some random trees, but they are starting to get leggy? Have you despaired because there is too much shade, and even where there isn’t the digging requires too much effort because of tree roots? You can have a garden with many beautiful flowers in light shade, but excessive shade and greedy tree roots are the most prohibitive obstacles to fulfillment for weekend gardeners.

Whenever I visit a new client, I will first evaluate which trees are beneficial assets, which should be removed, and which should be pruned to let in more light, to open up more volumes of airspace for other large shrubs and small trees or to eliminate root competition for water and nutrients.

Above, a sucker from a black locust tree. Notice how it is covered with thorns. Stock photo

I almost always keep oaks — red, white, black — and there are no-brainer keepers like ornamental cherries, dogwoods and magnolias of course. But most properties have trees that are far less desirable: not only native invasives like black cherry, black locust and black walnut, but also exotic invasives, most commonly the Norway maple. I value this last for its yellow fall color, and we have a very old, large one, venerable with bole, trunk and branching structure near our kitchen door. We eat al fresco all summer under the cool of its generous shade, no umbrella needed. I wouldn’t attempt to plant under it and of course the fallen leaves require a lot of blowing and raking, but they do make for a fun leaf pile for kids.

However, Norway maples typically generate hundreds of seedlings every spring. Give them a few seasons to root in and they will require effort to pull up. In a neglected side yard or corner of property these will grow into substantial trees even when still young. I often see groups of five or 10 or more of these “volunteers,” often misshapen and ugly because they are crowding each other, and often they are hosting suffocating vines like English ivy, bittersweet and grape.

Sure, these messes provide privacy from “that” neighbor or a buffer from the road, but, once removed, you will delight in views of the sky and you will enjoy the new light. I always recommend these weed trees be removed, the sooner the better, because the bigger they get the more expensive.

Above, the black walnut tree at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm. Photo from SPLIA

Sometimes one sees a truly wonderful and photogenic old black locust, gnarly in the winter landscape, or a black walnut, such as the one in front of the Sherwood-Jayne House in East Setauket, with horizontal lateral limbs the length of a schoolyard basketball court. But an old walnut will drop soggy catkins on your driveway in June and later many hundreds of green-rinded, golfball-sized nuts that need to be hand-picked off lawns. It had better be a truly awesome tree or else you will hate its nuisances.

The black cherry is especially worthy of contempt. It too becomes very large with inconspicuous white flowers. The leguminous white flowers of the black locust have underrated appeal, but their malodorous roots keep running dozens of yards from the trunk and throw up viciously thorny suckers. This is not an easy root to slice with a spade, because it, like the roots of mulberry (weed!) and wisteria (invasive but worth it), are of some kind of elastic constitution: My sharp steel-shafted spade literally bounces off the roots.

But back to flowers and gardens. Remove junk trees and you will have new opportunities, or “capabilities,” to dream and to plant. Get rid of them, with their beastly roots and unwanted shade and messy litter. You are not being anti-environment, or anti-wildlife, especially if you replace thickets of bittersweet, honeysuckle and Ailanthus from Asia with American dogwoods, or a sourwood (Oxydendrum), or Eastern redbuds, or even a grove of Japanese maples, which are in scale with smaller gardens.

In a client’s garden we have let many self-sown Japanese maples grow. Now, after a dozen years, they provide light shade and beautiful autumn tapestries of yellows and reds and oranges. It is much easier to underplant Japanese maples — or birches — with lawn or perennial ground covers than it is under mature Norway maples or to remove that suckerous tree of heaven and start planning your little sun-loving kitchen garden of quadrants of thyme and sage, tomatoes and dill, with a cute gate and brick paths.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

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Ornamental grasses add unique texture to the landscape. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

By Kyrnan Harvey

Ornamental grasses add unique texture to the landscape. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

Do you have some part of your property that is all hot and dry in full sun? Maybe at some remove from the house, in the backyard or out at the road, where the lawn grasses perennially compete with crabgrasses and other weeds over poor soil and there is nothing to look out at through your windows?

The next two or three months would be a great time to dramatically transform your homescape with a matrix of ornamental grasses throughout which you could, in time, introduce many different flowers. Now through December is their season to glow, especially in the late summer and autumn sun.

Many landscapers cut down grasses as part of their fall cleanups, but we cut down ours at the very end of winter.

There are cool-season ones (feather-reed grass, blue fescue) that start growth soon after winter and warm-season ones (switchgrass, Miscanthus, fountain grass) that are delayed until the heat of May.

The former bring beauty starting in late spring, the latter from late summer; but all of them bring texture and form that endure for many months, often right through winter. Flowers of grasses are not colorful, of course, but they provide a dreamy complement and contrast to flowers. They catch early and late rays, they rustle with the wind, they glisten with dew, and they are sculptural with frost and snow. The leaves of some grasses are bluish or silvery gray and some have reddish tints. And, most importantly, all ornamental grasses are 100 percent deer proof.

I believe that to achieve the desired effect, a minimum of 400 square feet of garden space is needed, preferably more. One important proviso is that the flopping of these grasses must be prevented. Many prefer lean soil, not too fertile and not too much water. If you have automatic irrigation, create separate zones for the beds. Withhold overhead watering from these beds overnight, which would cause the top-heavy flowers to flop. If you have poor soil or builder’s fill, this could actually work in your favor.

Panicum virgatum

In my garden I have heavy clayish loam and no automatic irrigation. I hand-water with a hose, soaking certain plants, including grasses, if and when they most need it. This is easy and relaxing work, and you know your plants are loving it. Cool-season grasses benefit from extra water in the heat of summer, but many of the best grasses thrive on absolute neglect.

What handful of grasses should you look for and how might you obtain them? There are numerous wholesale nurseries that grow many different grasses here on Long Island, and any independent garden center would be happy to order them.

You will find one- or two-gallon containers at local garden centers, ready for planting; whereas mail order would be much smaller plants. Nowadays it is so easy to go into your phone or computer and see what’s what.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’

For a hot, dry, sunny location, I can highly recommend first and foremost Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather-reed grass) and any of a growing number of Panicum (switchgrass) varieties. Let these two, with their height and verticality, establish structural continuity throughout the planting. Get seven of the ‘Karl Foerster’ and three of the switchgrass per 400 square feet. Plant ‘Karl Foerster’ in drifts or blocks.

It will be highly unlikely you will find a ‘Karl Foerster’ at this time of year without its seed heads cut down. This great plant flowers in June; growers’ daily overhead irrigation causes the flowers to flop, so they cut them down. Plant them anyway and look forward to next year. Scatter the switchgrass, randomly.

 

Scatter or drift Muhlenbergia (muhly grass) in the same proportion as the feather-reed grass. Again, grasses should usually be planted en masse, to create the naturalistic mood, but they don’t necessarily need to be planted as a block.

At this point, minus the feather-reed grass that has been cut down, you will have a significant show already. Instant gratification. Now, if you have the space, you can supplement with a couple more: Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem), best used as scatter plants. You could even drop in a specimen grass, like Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens,’ though it would want that hose in the dry weeks of July.

Although these grasses are very drought-tolerant do not make the mistake of not watering them thoroughly until they are established. Typically they are pot-bound, and these can dry out if they are left unwatered for two or three days. Sometimes if I plant drought-tolerant grasses in June or July, I will keep hand-watering them through August.

When laying out your grasses be sure to leave plenty of room for other perennials and bulbs and even naturalizing biennials and annuals, all of which together will enhance and compliment your new dreamscape of grasses.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

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