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From the Garden: Landscaping for delight, texture or to cultivate the wild

Posted: July 12, 2013 - 12:07am
One of the loveliest native wildflowers is the creeping dogwood or bunchberry, a great groundcover in the  garden with white flowers blooming now, then becoming bright red berries and the whole plant turning scarlet in the fall. Plant in rich organic soil and it will spread rapidly.  Courtesy of Valleybrook Gardens
Courtesy of Valleybrook Gardens
One of the loveliest native wildflowers is the creeping dogwood or bunchberry, a great groundcover in the garden with white flowers blooming now, then becoming bright red berries and the whole plant turning scarlet in the fall. Plant in rich organic soil and it will spread rapidly.

Everyone has a favorite flower.

It might be a dark red “Hansa” rose, redolent with the scent of cloves, or a “Charles Joly” deep purple French hybrid lilac. Or there’s the bright pink Cattleya Astilbe, which lots of locals love — it’s not quite opening this week, by the way, but it seems every so ready. Then there are the peoney-lovers who swear that the old fashioned “Sarah Bernhardt” is the champion, while clematis fanciers love “Nelly Mosier” or “Etoile Violette.”

We learn about these plants and flowers from our friends, or from visiting display gardens, or in the yards of our relatives, but we make them our favorites only after growing them and learning how they respond to the care we give them.

It’s hard to love a plant that will not thrive, but much easier to feel affection for one that flourishes under our care.

Learning to be comfortable with a species, and recognizing it’s requirements and it’s dislikes is like a courtship, the acquaintance becomes a friend and then a companion, then an intimate. Humans form bonds with other humans; we also form those relationships with places, with music, with pets and with plants. Some are reciprocal, some are like a one-way street, but from the view of the lover, the loved one is as much a participant in the relationship as the originator.

Take the gloriously flowering rhododendron, for instance, that has bloomed reliably over a decade under ones care. This plant must be happy and it must feel great to the gardener when the plant erupts into glory each year. The careful regimen of feeding, protecting and pruning needed to care for the plant is obviously appreciated, and through blooms and vitality the plant shows its joy.

Learning the ways of the native flora can also cultivate apprecation among gardeners who observe and tend to the needs of those plants. By becoming familiar with the surrounding plant communities, individuals may find themselves more and more appreciative of the beauty and importance these wild things can contribute to the spaces we enjoy.

Landscape designers, whether professional or amateur, successfully incorporate native species into their projects only after they become comfortable with the ways of the plants. The easiest way to incorporate native plants, is to work with what’s already at the site. Learning how to incorporate the exotics into the wild is much easier than the reverse, since the cultivated species have been our partners for centuries.

We already know how to coax perfect flowers from roses, for instance, or ensure success with delphiniums, and they too are only vaguely reminiscent of their wild ancestors having been selected and bred for performance and reliability by a hundred generations of clever and devoted humans.

Learning how to work with new species is another thing altogether.

Integrating Sitka spruce into the suburban yard, for instance, is like training a volcano to heat the living room, the spruce wants to be a forest giant, whereas the human wants a manageable hedge. Yet the success of the few yards where it has been managed is spectacular. Using an existing creek lined with 6-foot skunk cabbage as an emphasis for a collection of peonies and ligularia calls for some boldness, and highlighting nagoon berries as a flowering groundcover is a traffic stopper when they bloom.

This week the arrival of containerized Blueberries and Huckleberries from the dominant native plant nursery in the Pacific Northwest will allow local gardeners the opportunity to use these, and a few other native species, as landscape elements in their creations. Delicately flowering blueberry shrubs contribute so much in terms of seasonal color, wild bird attraction and winter delight that it is a pleasure to be able to include them. Red huckleberries, trained as a 3-foot hedge behind a flower bed, give all the foliar density and complex tonal arrangement one could desire.

Labrador tea, which is one of the hundreds of rhododendron species, makes a sprawling, evergreen groundcover that blooms every spring, and changes color with the seasons. There are two species of this shrub that grow here, one is heavier and the other has smaller, lighter leaves, but they both look very graceful.

We landscape to make our spaces more comfortable, to provide visual delight, to have fruit and flowers right at hand and to make ourselves feel at home. Using native species in the created spaces is a guaranteed way to have the garden spaces integrate into the larger world, and to make these creations part of the greater community in which we live.

• David Lendrum is a Juneau resident and longtime local gardener who, with his wife Margaret Tharp, has been in business for 30 years as Landscape Alaska. They can be contacted at landscapealaska@gmail.com.

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