Garden Notes: The Sunny Place

An escape off-Island for garden getaway.

—Susan Safford

Taken from “A Pattern Language” (Christopher Alexander et al., Oxford), No. 161 is the sunny place: “Of course, if the place is really to work, there must be a good reason for going there: something special which draws a person there — a swing, a potting table for plants, a special view, a brick step to sit upon and look into a pool — whatever, so long as it has the power to bring a person there almost without thinking about it.”

Patios, terraces, decks: They become indispensable with barbecues, guests, too-small homes, or hot weather. Along with that of many Islanders, my focus falls upon the outside living spaces. At this time of year here in my own garden, triage rules: Standards inevitably meander downhill and fall.

So — it looks as if the One Big Idea of my garden this year is going to be strategically placed pots of geraniums, borrowing from the Sakonnet Garden with its statuesque pots of tulips. If a magnet or razzmatazz is needed and time is short, pots of geraniums work. I brought them outside and let them acclimate to sun by spending time around the corner in shade. Done: They brighten the terrace and beckon me there, or may be shifted out to beds later.

Garden getaway

The Sakonnet Garden ( open garden was a quick mainland getaway. I appreciated the break on the holiday weekend. Specialist nurseries from the larger region manned stalls and sold some of the same desirable plants to be seen growing inside the garden. I bought an Oregon grape holly, a plant I had hoped to acquire somewhere, sometime, Mahonia x media ‘Arthur Menzies,’ from Broken Arrow Nursery.

The winter’s less than ideal weather challenged the Sakonnet Garden as well as the rest of us, and serious damage to larger trees and hedges, although since repaired, was evident throughout. Some of the hedging that creates the garden rooms is very slim in depth, and vulnerable to huge weights of heavy snow, or the force of winter winds.

The stunning garden rooms showcase original use of color and plant material to produce novel effects. Walls and hedging seclude them, each from the others, in ways that enlarge the acre into a seemingly vaster space. For the garden open days, extensive in-ground plantings and enormous pots of tulips, prepared the previous fall, are strategically placed for drama to enliven the subtleties of the highly worked topiaries, foliages, and turf.

New since my 2015 visit: a handsome stone-based barn, a well-designed house addition with adjacent lawn, and a walled and fenced garden. The development of the Pollinator Plus garden and meadow walk is continuing and exciting.

This latter is a garden of common weeds and wildlings interspersed with architectural alliums, planted in precise formal beds and bounded by closely mown turf, upon which stand sculptural carved staves. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the five-star (pollinator) hotel, and the two beehives, off in a quiet corner? The contrast between the enclosed garden rooms and the freedom and movement among the grasses and weeds under the wide-open sky is breathtaking.

I was almost certain the margins of the driveway into the property had been augmented with transplanted “weeds,” but upon checking, only the cranesbill geranium had been transplanted. Plants such as plantain, buttercup, and tansy are as important to pollinator populations as the showy things we design into gardens.

Potentially an oven, a sunny bed behind substantial granite paving on the south side of the house is ground-covered with culinary salvia ‘Berggarten,’ interspersed with narcissus, verbascum, and other yellow- and chartreuse-flowered plants. Heavily mulched, it transforms into a handsome, easy-care feature. Go here for more images:

Not neat

Holly trees drop their older foliage in late spring, giving them a sickly-looking couple of weeks. The ground beneath them looks messy too. This past winter, through the vicissitudes of weather, the more tender ones, such as English hollies, Burford hybrids, and ‘Nellie Stevens,’ lost much more foliage than normal.

Fortunately, holly has great regenerative powers; most of the lost foliage will be replaced naturally. However, plants will appreciate topdressing with mulch and adequate moisture.

Scale insects may take advantage of plants’ stressed states and proliferate, excreting honeydew that leads to the sooty black mold that coats foliage and interferes with photosynthesis. Scale may be difficult to eradicate, but is controlled with dormant oil; or try sprays of insecticidal soap, applied early in the day or when overcast.

This applies not only to hollies but also to yews and other trees and shrubs with their own specialized scale pests: The most commonly encountered is cottony camellia scale, but most scales are generally similar in effect. It is less important to know the exact species on your tree or shrub than it is to be alert to its presence and take action to control it.

Rose sawfly season

Speaking of pests, as rose season opens, it is also rose sawfly season. After pupating in soil near rose bushes, the adult rose sawfly lays its eggs on the undersides of rose leaves, and when the little worms (also called rose slugs) hatch and feed, they skeletonize the undersides of the leaves. Plants generally do not suffer lasting harm from the damaged foliage, but it is a good idea to cultivate, feed, and water them.

As with other immature sawflies, such as those of hibiscus and dogwood, they are caterpillar look-alikes, and this leads to their being easily mistaken for caterpillars (sawflies are in the Hymenoptera, not in the Lepidoptera).

Learn more about sawflies and their control here: Since this is the time of much insect activity in gardens, use of horticultural oil, insecticidal soaps, or neem oil should be sparing.

Polly Hill Arboretum

“Looking Together” Tours at the arboretum take place on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month from 2 to 3 pm. Free with $5 admission, and for PHA members.