Fall/Winter in the Garden
A hallmark of any Piet Oudolf-designed perennial border is the ability of the plants to endure beautifully through a few seasons. Apart from the seasonal aesthetic, the seeds of these plants often feed hungry birds. In September, grasses and seedheads become as compellingly beautiful as mid-summer blossoms. At front right, we see the flat, brown seedheads of July-blooming 'Walter Funke' yarrow (Achillea) next to lush fountain grass (Pennisestum alopecuroides). Dangling behind are the delicate white racemes of the tall burnet, Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba'. The shrubby plant with chartreuse foliage at right rear is Amsonia hubrichtii, which will turn bright-gold in autumn.
A sparrow uses 'Fascination' Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum) as a perch while nibbling on the tiny seeds of 'Cloud Nine' switch grass (Panicum virgatum).
With its spiky, globe-shaped, ivory flowers, rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) makes a great late-summer partner to the long-flowering 'Blue Spire' Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). A native of the North American tallgrass prairie, rattlesnake master was once used by aboriginal peoples to treat rattlesnake bites.
September in the Entry Garden Walk becomes a serene tapestry of persistent seedheads intermingled with the rustling foliage and feathery flowers of the big ornamental grasses. As Piet Oudolf says in his book ‘Designing With Plants’: “The impression here is the opposite of control; nature seems to have escaped from the gardener. The lush growth of tall perennials and grasses seems to dwarf the human element as it evokes some of the most impressive natural habitats.” Shown here is the big 'Blue Angel' hosta with the remnants of its flower spikes; to its left are the zingy brown seedheads of 'Scorpion' beebalm (Monarda). Behind is reddish 'Shenandoah' switch grass (Panicum virgatum); the tall greenish spikes at top are the seedheads of Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum); at rear are the seedheads of Phlomis 'Amazone'.
A rosy cloud of sea lavender seedheads (Limonium latifolium) picks up the rosy cast of the flowers of 'Cassian' fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).
A moody, late afternoon sky picks up the silvery shimmer of 'Purpurascens ' maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) in the Entry Courtyard. This cultivar has good bronze-orange fall colour.
One of the finest-textured ornamental grasses, tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa) has a soft, kinetic quality in the slightest, late-summer breeze. Here it anchors the copper-trunked paperbark maples in front of the Floral Hall Courtyard.
Even after the magenta-pink flowers have faded to olive-bronze seedheads, 'Purple Lance' astibe (Astilbe taquetii var. chinensis 'Purpurlanze') maintains its rigid upright shape in beautiful contrast to the soft, arching inflorescences of 'Karley Rose' fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).
A strong vertical presence in the bed of ornamental grasses in the Entry Courtyard, feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) has tawny inflorescences that remain throughout winter.
One of the finest "see-through" plants around, 'Moorhexe' tall purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea spp. arundinacea) sends up tall (2 metre), airy flower panicles that wave in the wind and arch invitingly over paths. It’s a must-have for ornamental grass enthusiasts. ('Skyracer' and 'Transparent' are both excellent see-through molinias too.) At front is ‘Senor Rosalita’ spider flower (Cleome), a shrubby annual.
A vivid burst of wine-red colour in late summer comes courtesy of 'Fireworks' variegated purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). Unlike other fountain grasses, this one is tender in Toronto, but well worth growing as an annual for the richness of the foliage.
Labour Day is past and the flush of bloom is mostly gone in the Perennial Garden, but the grasses have come into their own here, too. At right rear is the fine-leafed 'Morning Light' maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), with 'Cassian' fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) on the left. A reddish-pink sedum is at left, beside the mauve flowers ofvariegated obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana 'Variegata'). The tiny, fairy-like, white flowers are perennial gaura or wand flower (Gaura linderheimeri) and the small violet-purple flowers in front of the fountain grass are Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis), a butterfly-friendly annual that usually be counted on to self-seed.
On the Westview Terrace, the Japanese maples are showing signs of changing colour. In the bed beside the water channel, ‘Heavy Metal’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) forms a lush green backdrop to the spiky brown seedheads of dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) and a tapestry of plants at front including a dark-red sedum and a bronze carex. The little violet flowers are the last of the long-blooming 'Jolly Bee' cranesbill or perennial geranium, kept company by a few yellow daylily blooms.
By September, the recycling container veggie garden in the Demonstration Courtyard is producing a fine crop, including a deep-red Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) almost ready to be harvested.
In the Perennial Garden North, some plants are just beginning to strut their stuff in early September. Here is a beautiful bee-friendly combination: at left, Sedum 'Autumn Fire'; right, variegated 'Summer Sorbet' blue mist bush or bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis), one of the best blue-flowered shrubs.
The sedum or stonecrop family is very large and diverse, ranging from groundcovers that bloom in early summer with yellow or orange flowers to the big fall sedums with pink-to-red flowers. As succulents, they store water in their fleshy leaves so are more forgiving of drought conditions than many perennials. Easily divided, they are excellent bee and butterfly plants. Here is a selection of the tall, late-blooming sedums (Hylotelephium telephium) grown at the TBG: clockwise from upper left, 'Strawberry & Cream', 'Matrona', 'Brilliant' and 'Mr. Goodbud'.
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) has bright-golden flowers at the top of tall, willowy stems and attracts lots of pollinating insects. Though a good native plant, it tends to be invasive in a home garden setting; however, there are many well-behaved goldenrods from which to choose.
September boasts its share of stunning combinations, including these in the Perennial Garden. At left are the yellow, quilled daisy flowers of 'Henry Eilers' sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) paired with the bobbing, wine-red flowers of purple burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Purpurea'). At right, a golden shower of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) lights up the rear, with the light-purple spikes of obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) and the pink flowers of turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) at centre. The goldenrod in the foreground, 'Fireworks' rough goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), is an excellent choice for home gardens.
With the TBG's beehives in residence outside the libary windows, nectar- and pollen-rich plants are vital to sustain the tens of thousands of honey bees inside them. Though the tubular flowers of September-blooming obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) would not appear to be favoured by honey bees, which have relatively short tongues compared to bumble bees, honey bees are smart enough to know that they can access the nectar directly by placing their tongue down the side of the short calyx and poking a hole into the base of the magenta-pink corolla where the nectaries are located. "Nectar robbery" is something many bee species do, but is not a good evolutionary relationship because the bee secures nectar without climbing into the pollen-rich floral tube, cheating the flower out of the pollination that would normally occur when a bee carries pollen from one flower to another.
With their long-flowering, silky blossoms in white, rose and pink, Japanese anemones are among the best late-bloomers for the perennial border. A range of species, hybrids and cultivars extends the flowering period from mid-August through September. Provide rich, moist soil and filtered sunlight. Shown here in the bank of the Garden Hall Courtyard is one of the hardier entries, 'Robustissima' (Anemone tomentosa).
By September, the tropicals, foliage and flowering annuals in the containers alongside the ornamental grass bed in the Entry Courtyard are bursting with rich colour. Included here are spiky 'Red Star' cordyline (Cordyline australis), the coral-and-brown variegated leaves of 'Hoffmanii' copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), the chartreuse 'Indian Dunes' tricolor geranium (Pelaragonium x hortorum) and the trailing 'Sweet Caroline Bronze' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas).
In the President's Choice Show Garden, a tall New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and the spectacular Tiger Eyes or 'Bailtiger' sumac create an eye-catching ensemble. Beyond, the dahlias are are floriferous and beautiful.
Dahlia tubers are planted in late spring and achieve their full potential by late summer, often flowering well into autumn, provided there's no frost. At left in the President's Choice Show Garden is 'Pooh'; at right, a bumble bee nectars on a single-flowered dahlia. (To attract bees and butterflies to dahlias, be sure to select single or semi-double varieties only.)
Shown here with the wine-red flowers of sedum is 'Bluebird' smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), a beautiful selection from Delaware's Mt.Cuba Centre. To create more compact, bushy asters, pinch the top growth back every few weeks once or twice before July 1st; you'll be rewarded with more flowers, if a little later than normal.
A woman walks through a corner of the Perennial Garden in early October, no doubt enjoying the rich purples, blues and clarets of the asters, sedums and Brazilian verbena.
The many containers are refreshed for the autumn season, often with the beautiful ornamental kales and cabbages whose dusky, purple leaves look gorgeous with the green foliage of (left) boxwood, asparagus fern and ivy, and right, golden cedar (Thuja), a small, prostrate golden cypress shrub (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’) and a grass-like carex.
October brings the ripening of colourful berries and fruit in many of the gardens, a jewelled abundance that will endure into winter and provide food for birds and small mammals. In the Terraced Garden, left, are the red berries of rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis). At right, in the President's Choice Show Garden, are the deep-violet clusters of 'Early Amethyst' beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) and the red fruit of 'Winter Red' winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
More beautiful New England fall asters in the Entry Garden Walk, along with the rich bronze foliage of switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah') just turning colour.
Honey bees love New England asters, like this one in the Perennial Garden, and rarely nectar on other plants (even goldenrod) when the asters are in bloom.
Among the late-flowering Japanese anemones is the award-winning, double-petalled 'Whirlwind' (Anemone x hybrida), shown here with 'Karley Rose' fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).
A closeup of the centre of the beautiful Anemone x hybrida 'Whirlwind'.
As autumn days shorten and the shadows lengthen, many of the shrubs, trees and vines at the TBG begin to change colour. On the wall of the building, the Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has started to turn bright-red.
At the base of the Spiral Mound, the burning bush hedge (Euonymus alata 'Compacta') also begins to turn bright-red in October.
In years when autumn conditions are perfect (cool nights, abundant sunshine, moderate rainfull), colour change can be quite dramatic. The contrast here of the red Virginia creeper (Parthenocisus quinquefolia) on the wall and the gold of the switch grass (Panicum virgatum), right, and Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrictii) at left, along with the diverse browns, wines and blacks of the other seedheads is stunning.
The crab apple in the President's Choice Show Garden predated the Toronto Botanical Garden by many years, but adds a welcome autumn note when the red fruit ripens in October.
By early November, the paperbark maples (Acer griseum) in the Entry Garden Walk have usually begun to transform themselves from an unremarkable green to a rich orange-scarlet that looks lovely with the peeling, copper-brown bark on the trunks.
The climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris) in the Floral Hall Courtyard turns a rich golden-yellow most years.
Another old tree that was here decades before the TBG is the elegant fernleaf beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Asplenifolia') growing in the Kitchen Garden. On this November morning, its handsome branching is suddenly visible after the golden autumn leaves have carpeted the ground beneath it.
Throughout October and early November, beautiful fall colours adorn many shrubs and trees on the Westview Terrace and the bank of the Garden Hall Courtyard.
In the President’s Choice Show Garden, the violet-purple berries of the ‘Early Amethyst’ beautyberry shrub (Callicarpa dichotoma) persist well into November. They are enhanced by the brilliant red display of the dwarf burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) in the background.
Autumn has come to the little waterfall garden on the Westview Terrace. The 'Heart of Gold' redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are just beginning to turn gold, while the cutleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum) has taken on rich orange fall hues. The big 'Super Stripe' maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) waves aloft the feathery flowers it will wear all winter, even as the bright variegation in its leaves fades to tawny-brown.
In the garden beside the water channel on the Westview Terrace, the 'Miss Willmot's Ghost' sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) has lost the green colour in its foliage to autumn's frigid nights, and now looks more ghostly than ever. An attractive plant in summer with its spiky, silver flowers and bracts, its common name comes from a charming story about Miss Ellen Willmot, an independently-wealthy Edwardian gardener, prickly plantswoman, botanical patron (of Ernest Wilson among others) and famed species rose expert. So the story goes, she loved this plant so much, she took to sprinkling seed in other people’s garden. When the plant bloomed with its unusual colouration, people would say “There’s Miss Willmot’s ghost”.
Throughout November, seedheads continue to form as plants prepare to go into winter. Here are the tall, fluffy heads of 'Gateway' Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) in the Perennial Garden.
Within the protected confines of the Floral Hall Courtyard, a scattering of fallen Amur cherry leaves nestles beside the trough of horsetails (Equisetum hyemale).
Soon, winter arrives in earnest and the first December snowfall highlights the enduring beauty of Piet Oudolf's Entry Garden Walk. Tawny grasses, sturdy seeheads, geometric placements of perennials: all contribute to the charm of the garden in winter.
Though it has proven to be a little more invasive than might be desirable, Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) at left, looks beautiful with its plumes of ecru seedheads, especially contrasted with the silvery skeletons of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) in front of it, and the dark seedheads of 'Vintage Wine' coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) to the right. Note the fluffy seedheads of Clematis tangutica 'Sherriffii' on the steel fence in the rear.
What summer flower is more beautiful or interesting than the fluffy seeheads of maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) after a snowfall. This is the variegated 'Dixieland'.
Colourful stems can also be effective design elements in the winter garden, one that the TBG exploits in many areas of the garden. Sometimes, they don't even need to be "planted" conventionally to add a charming note. Here in the Entry Courtyard, the red stems of 'Cardinal' red-twig dogwood (Cornus servicea) have merely been pushed into the soil to create a dramatic contrast with the snow and the stone of the water screen wall. To be sure of bright-red colour on dogwoods such as this one, which are grown for their bark colour, it's necessary to prune the shrub back in early spring since it's just the new growth that colours so vividly.
Winter garden design can include temporary (and movable) eye candy like these two stunning containers filled with conifer boughs, southern magnolia leaves, winterberry, pine cones, coloured dogwood branches and other lovely elements. Though winter planters will often develop sun-scorch by late winter as the boughs eventually dessicate, it's always lovely to have something "green" to gaze on in the long cold season.
No four-season garden is complete without colourful conifers to catch the eye. Here, a beautiful trio of dwarf conifers in the President's Choice Show Garden, from left: 'Gold Spangle' falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera var. filifera); 'Aurea Fastigiata' mugo pine (Pinus mugo); and 'Glauca Compacta' blue Rocky Mountain fir. If you're interested in dwarf conifers, note that although their growth habit is generally much slower than regular conifers, they will eventually outgrow very small spaces.
Winter garden design also benefits from the inclusion of trees with architectural branching, like this beautiful 'Crimson Queen' cutleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum) with its cascading branches and wine-red twigs. Even in a small garden, such a tree offers a beautiful winter focal point, especially with a blanket of fresh snow.
The Beryl Ivey Knot Garden is a perfect example of skillful use of coniferous and broadleaf evergreens to create year-round structure with plants. The carefully-clipped boxwood parterres "paint" sinuous green lines and flowing shapes which enclose plantings of white-flowered plants through spring, summer and fall. But in winter, the shapes themselves are the story, standing out vividly against the snow.
Two varieties of boxwood (Buxus) are used in this lovely spiral in the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden: 'Green Velvet' for the hedging and 'Green Mound' for the centre. Both are hardy hybrids of Korean boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana) and European boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). The success of this design relies on regular shearing to maintain the precise shapes.
Berried shrubs are a vital part of the winter garden, and none is better at adding colour to the landscape than 'Winter Red' winterberry (Ilex verticillata). A deciduous holly, winterberry is a dioecious shrub, meaning the sexes are on different plants. Since berries are only produced on female varieties such as 'Winter Red', at least one male shrub ('Southern Gentleman' is normally used) must be planted in proximity to one or more (up to 10) female shrubs so the spring flowers are pollinated and the plants bear fruit. In nature, winterberry is often found in swamps, giving a clue as to its preference for moist to wet soil. Once winterberry has gone through a few freezes, the berries will become more attractive to birds, which will often strip the shrubs clean in short order. Until that time comes, it is a wonderful eye-catcher in the winter garden.
Some small trees have unusual peeling or colourful bark that shines in winter when the leaves are gone and the tree is reduced to trunk and branches. Two of those are shown here: at left is paperbark maple (Acer griseum) in the Entry Garden Walk just ouside the Floral Courtyard; at right is river birch (Betula nigra) in the garden between the Garden Hall Courtyard and the Kitchen Garden.
Sedums are sturdy enough to last throughout winter, their flat seedheads supporting a fresh January snowfall in the President's Choice Show Garden North.
When Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden first championed the use of masses of certain ornamental grasses and perennials in the "new American landscape" of the late 80s, not everyone understood why that would become a brilliant trend. But when you see ornamental grasses like this switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) still standing tall in March as winter comes to an end, you appreciate how important enduring herbaceous plants are in the aesthetics of four-season garden design.
The curly leaves of 'Morning Light' maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) in the Perennial Garden North in March.
Beside the Spiral Mound is a row of copper beech trees (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea 'Cuprea') that acts as a living wall, permitting a glimpse in winter through the branches to the masses of switch grass (Panicum virgatum) on the other side. Beeches and oaks have high concentrations of tannin in their foliage and often do not lose their leaves until spring, when new ones begin to appear.
Even in March with its dearth of colour, there is a lovely and vivid juxtaposition in the President's Choice Show Garden between the wonderful evergreen sedum 'Angelina' (Sedum rupreste) with its orange-green winter colour and the prostrate Japanese shore juniper 'Blue Pacific ' (Juniperus conferta).
In Nature's Garden, there's a little genius in the placement of this Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) so its branches and silver berries extend over the rugged boulder beside it. Native to open forests from Newfoundland west to Ontario and south as far as the Carolinas, the waxy fruit can be used to make bayberry candles (that is, if the songbirds don't get to it first.) Bayberry prefers slightly acidic soil and, like the hollies, it is dieocious, requiring a male plant to fertilize the female flowers in order to produce fruit.
In Nature's Garden in March, the blackeyed susans, asters, purple coneflowers, little bluestem grass and the other native plants have stood through the winter, feeding the birds and adding texture to the gardens. Soon, they will be cut down in preparation for another season.