Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Serendipity in the Garden

Serendipity. One of my favorite words--it somersaults off your tongue and leaps out into the air with a little tune. It's impossible to say the word with a frown or in an angry tone. We all love these little accidents of good luck, but I think gardeners in particular understand the meaning of this word.

A perfect example of serendipity occurred a few months ago when my friend Beckie and I were returning from an afternoon out and just happened to see a falconer off the road giving his bird some exercise. Beckie, being a new blogger at the time, saw the perfect opportunity for an interesting post and quickly pulled off the road and whipped out the camera she always carries with her, resulting in some great pictures.

You have all experienced serendipity, too, in the garden-- that plant you bought by mistake or the one you substituted for the plant you really wanted and then find that the new plant is a perfect addition so you buy it again and again. Over the last few years I have found a few plants I can't do without each year, and I wanted to share three of my serendipitous finds with you.

My first attempt at creating a new perennial bed was just six or seven years ago. (I told you I was a "late bloomer.") I had been admiring mass plantings of echinacea, the common purple coneflowers, for some time and decided that was going to be the main planting. It was a small flowerbed, so I just wanted something to plant in front of it. I looked at various catalogues and websites and decided on the perennial purple salvia, probably "Maynight." But it was a rainy spring and I was busy, so by the time I got to the garden center to buy some salvia, they were all sold out. The salesperson recommended the annual salvia which they had in stock. I decided for my first season I would try it. I purchased several packs of "Victoria Blue" salvia that year, and I've never looked back! I have since planted "May Night" as well as "East Friesland" salvia in my newer garden, but there are several places where only Victoria will do.

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of my garden from previous years to show how these flowers look when mature, so I can only describe them to you. You can see from the tag that the flowers grow upright to a height of 20-24" and turn a bright blue-violet. Other gardeners have mentioned that they prefer the annual to the perennial, and I have to agree. While my perennial salvias are a nice purple addition to the garden, the annual Victoria Blue is a bright, bright color that really stands out in the garden. It provides a nice complement to the purple (actually pink, of course) coneflowers in my roadside flowerbed as well as to the yellow Stella D'Oro daylilies in front of a large boulder in my front yard. The wonderful part about these salvias, though, is that they begin to bloom in early to mid-summer and continue to keep their blooms until frost. They survive heat, drought, and neglect in general. As if that weren't enough, they often self-sow, and I find little seedlings in odd places each spring. What more could you ask from an annual?

Over the years I have become better at container gardening, rather than just plunk a few geraniums in a pot. I have been following the "thriller, spiller, filler" formula for some time, though I didn't know those terms until recently, I must admit. I have tried various trailing plants, or "spillers," but two years ago I happened upon a small pot of helichrysum and have been smitten with it ever since.

Helichrysum goes by different common names, such as licorice vine or mouse ears, and comes in several varieties. My favorite is the licorice vine pictured above, although I've used the smaller leaf variety as well. It doesn't flower, but it certainly grows and spreads, "spilling" out of a container nicely. I use Ipomoea in several containers, but no matter how much I pinch it, I find by the end of the summer the sweet potato vine has twined itself around my pots. The helichrysum, on the other hand, grows out rather than down, so that it seems to "float" around the container. Its foliage is a silvery green, and even in winter the dead silvery leaves are rather attractive. You can see I just leave them in their pots over the winter; I think they have a sort of ethereal effect.

The same summer I found the helichrysum I also found the perfect "thriller": Strobilanthes dyerianus, "Persian Shield." Originally I was looking for some heliotrope, which I had previously used for a purple accent, but couldn't find any, so when I stumbled on the persian shield, I thought I'd give it a try. This one doesn't flower, either, but its velvety variegated purple foliage is the beauty of this plant. The tag says it grows up to 48" tall, and I can believe it--I keep pinching mine so that they don't get too tall for the container and so that they spread more horizontally. I always plant this at the center back of the container (including the urn above) to provide a striking backdrop for whatever filler I've used. It can be used in sun to part shade, though all mine so far have been planted in full sun. In fact, here's another great thing about the persian shield: unlike heliotrope, which can dry up quickly if not watered frequently, this plant doesn't mind neglect. I've gone out in the morning to find this drooping as if it were about to die. A good watering, and in an hour or two--poof! it's standing up straight and tall once again!

Do you see a common thread here among all these plants? That's right--low maintenance! As much as I have come to love gardening, I know me. A couple hours of weeding and other gardening chores, and my knees remind me how old I really am. And while I enjoy those beautiful sun-kissed days of spring and early summer in the garden, the hot, muggy days of July and August in Illinois make me want to view my garden from the window in my air-conditioned living room. I need plants that are forgiving, and these three have been very understanding.

Another common thread, of course, is that these are all annuals. I tend to mull over gardening catalogs and try to envision a plant in my mind before buying a perennial. Rarely do I buy a perennial on a whim, probably because they are more expensive and my frugal nature keeps me from taking too many financial risks. I need to loosen up here, I think. But when it comes to buying annuals for my many containers, I go in with a carefully prepared list but get so overwhelmed by all the luscious colors and textures that I often forget what I came to buy! I'll see something I just have to have, with no idea where I will plant it. That was the case with a purchase I made on a recent plant shopping trip with Beckie.

I've never seen this plant before. It's a "Bourbon Street Acalypha," and according to the tag it is a "winner from Louisiana." It is supposed to grow 20-30" tall and perform well in extreme heat and humidity, which we certainly have here in the summer. The photo doesn't capture its color as well as I had hoped, but my eye was drawn immediately to its interesting bronze and green foliage. We'll see if it holds up well this summer and turns out to be another example of serendipity. If so, I'll be back to buy it every year!

And so, I wish you all some serendipity in the garden this summer. And I'd love to hear of your examples of serendipitous finds--after all, learning from the experiences of other gardeners is much better than depending on a stroke of good luck!


  1. A lovely post Rose and my mothers favourite word. You are definately a planner with your garden, its good to be that way.
    I am most definately not, I garden with a whim and a fancy. As long as the wildlife like it thats fine. I choose plants that frequently colour clash, or just won't fit in with my planting schemes. But somehow, it works here, it all gets lost in the size of the garden, and once there is lots of buzzing, birdsong, and butterflies wings, then this girls happy.....welcome to my world of chaos.

  2. Hi Rose, your choices are excellent ones, your containers should be fabulous this year. The persian shield roots easily I believe and if you stick your cutting into the soil under the shade of the larger plants, you will have more to plant out in the garden, like coleus and the alternathera. I have planted the sweet potato vine as a spiller this year and fear it will do as you say and eat the other plants. Maybe need to look for the licorice plant. Thanks for reminding me about that problem with it.

    Frances at Faire Garden

  3. Cheryl, Chaos is good! You'll soon learn that I am a person who wants and tries very hard to be organized, but usually fail. I start out with a plan in the garden, but after awhile I abandon it.
    By the way, I should have also mentioned the Victoria blue salvia also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and is deer resistant. I've tried as much as possible to plant flowers that attract the butterflies and hummingbirds. Many of them also attract the bees, which I didn't know at the time.

  4. Frances, Thanks for the tip on the persian shield. I am really going to try to save more cuttings of my annuals this year to keep over the winter. I spend way too much money on annuals! I love the sweet potato vine; I just forget to pinch it often enough. In fact, I found a newer variety I can't wait to plant--it's a variegated pink and green.

  5. Thrill, fill, spill ... a great formula for containers, Rose. Each year I try different combos, some thrill and some don't. As for serendipity in the garden, this was a great post. Often mistakes become heartwarming gifts.

  6. I love so many things about this post, rose ..

    first, the 'thriller, spiller, filler' idea (I hadn't heard that before) will definitely stay with me!

    second, I love the bit where you say you 'know yourself' .. I think this is so wise! I have ME so need to be careful not to get carried away with over enthusiasm in spring and then find I'm not up to the hard work of tending the garden later in the year. Being able to enjoy your growing within your own parameters is so rewarding as it then adds to your health and wellbeing rather than the reverse.

    And third, I love the serendipity idea (this is a very big word which I will now add to my vocabulary, lol!).. I don't know if this counts, but my soapwort turned out to be a sycamore tree this spring (!) and I couldn't be more pleased!

  7. Joey, My combinations don't always thrill, either:) But I enjoy experimenting and trying something new each year.

    Hedgewitch, The thriller, filler, spiller phrase came from some gardening expert's book. I learned about it from reading blogs, of course:)
    Your soapwort turned out to be a sycamore? Now that's serendipity!

  8. I love salvia. They remind me of cottage gardens.

  9. My neighbors have the most gorgeous hardy geranium growing between spaces in their stone steps. I just discovered that some of it has seeded itself in my yard! I'm very excited and plan to move the plants to the perfect spot. Serendipity!

  10. I love your post here. The name of my garden is Serendity Garden, one of my favorite words too. I am planning on putting up a sign to announce it to everyine as they enter. :)

  11. Great choices for your containers Rose. I will be looking forward to seeing those Salvia blooming up a storm.


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