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Winterhill Front Garden Update


Dahlias and non-blooming hydrangeas singing along in one of the front borders.
Dahlias and (non-blooming) hydrangeas singing along in one of the front borders.

Our first summer in Connecticut was a beautiful one with mostly mild days (although the handful of heatwaves were blistering) and plenty of – perhaps too much a times – rain. While our cucumbers bit the dust sometime in August, the front garden borders thrived and that's where I've focused most of my attention this year. Here's a rundown of what I've been up to with the front garden borders at Winterhill.


Removals

We are so lucky that our home came with a bevy of healthy, mature evergreen shrubs beautifully sprinkled throughout the front borders – namely Ilex crenata and boxwood – and I'll be keeping all of them.

The front borders at Winterhill are punctuated with 20+ year old evergreen shrubs including Ilex crenata and boxwood.
The front borders at Winterhill are punctuated with 20+ year old evergreen shrubs including Ilex crenata and boxwood.

However, the borders also came with a few other massive and less desirable woodies which I've begun digging out and will wrap this up by the end of the calendar year. These include barberry, Euonymous alatus aka burning bush (both invasive), spirea "Little Princess" (I think) and several Hydrangea macrophylla whose cultivar – whichever it is – only blooms on old wood and just can't handle our winters (it had not bloomed last year when we moved in and it did not bloom this year).

Two of the seven gigantic Hydrangea macrophyllas that aren't hardy enough to regenerate on old wood (and thus, never bloom.)
Two of the seven gigantic Hydrangea macrophyllas that aren't hardy enough to regenerate on old wood (and thus, never bloom.)

 

My general rule of thumb for keeping versus removing plants is based on the following:


  • Is it invasive? If so, it goes.

  • Even if it's not my favorite, could it serve a useful purpose? If so, it stays as this cuts down on waste and keeps more mature plantings in the mix – both good things in my book.

  • If I'd never buy it myself and it can't serve a purpose somewhere it goes. The spirea is a prime example of this and I just can't justify giving it any real estate.

 

Additions

In general, I would consider myself a disciplined person, but there's one place where time and time again I struggle to stay on-task: my local plant nursery.

Limelight hydrangeas and Aster "Purple Dome" crammed into the back of the car after a quick visit to a local nursery.
Limelight hydrangeas and Aster "Purple Dome" crammed into the back of the car after a quick visit to a local nursery.

I've declared numerous times that I would be completing the new planting plan for the front borders before adding anything to them and while that's still true – I am working on a new planting plan – I've also already added dozens of new plants. My working theory is that I know I'll want these plants in the final plan and they can get a head start on growing while I work out the details. In essence, the front borders have been serving as a plant nursery this year. Here's a list of what's found itself newly planted at Winterhill this year:

  • Iris germanica "Invitation"

  • Iris versicolor "Purple Flame"

  • Asclepias incarnata "Cinderella"

  • Asclepias turberosa

  • Veronicastrum virginicum f. caeruleum

  • Dicentra spectabilis

  • Lavender "Munstead"

  • Nepeta "Walker's Low"

  • Iberis "Alexander's White"

  • Achillea "Sunny Seduction"

  • Centaurea "Amethyst Dream"

  • Anemone nemorosa "Royal Blue"

  • Astrantia "Ruby Stars"

  • Aquilegia chysantha "Yellow Queen"

  • Aurinia saxitilis

  • Sidalcia "Elsie Heugh"

  • Hydrangea paniculata "Limelight Prime"

  • Aster cordifolius "Avondale"

  • Aster "Purple Dome"

  • Baptisia australis

  • Eupatorium maculatum "Gateway"

Bruce the vizsla inspects the mixed perennial and shrub border of the garden.
The front borders have served as both gardens and a plant nursery this year while I work out the details of the final plan. (Bruce inspects the plantings.)

I have honed in on an overarching design for the front borders and this will be heavily inspired by English gardens: neatly clipped evergreens in varying sizes with densely planted flowering perennials and bulbs throughout. As always, I'll be focusing on succession planting with a substantial portion of the palette being devoted to native and pollinator-friendly varieties.


After much hemming and hawing, I've decided to forgo any ornamental grasses or deciduous shrubs in the front borders, but will certainly make homes for those plantings in the subsequent garden areas to come. I've also decided I'll use a full range of colors for the blooms with plenty of vibrancy and saturation. This decision comes because our property is very large and open (formerly farmland) and our house is off-white. I realized that going with a more subtle or limited color palette (e.g., whites, purples and greens in soft pastel tones) could feel a bit washed out and frankly, dull. The house aside, Winterhill's setting is reminiscent of the English countryside, so if any place could handle a horde of colors and not look cartoonish, it's this space. So I'm going for it!


Dahlias

Every fall, right around this time, something magical happens. I open up my inbox and see a message from Swan Island Dahlias. I click on it and immediately enter a sort of fugue state where my mind becomes riddled with visions of a dahlia paradise a la Floret Flowers. Selections are made, payment information is input and about 6 months later a hefty box of carefully wrapped tubers shows up at my doorstep.

I planted out the dahlia tubers on May 3rd.
I planted out the dahlia tubers on May 3rd.

In the spirit of "the garden is a nursery" this year, I had no real plan for the dozen or so dahlias I bought last fall. So when it came time to plant them out I did little more than arrange them in the sunniest, barest spots throughout the front borders and waited to see how they would do. Some pairings look gorgeous together and others look silly and totally out of scale, but it's been fun! Here's a briefing:


  • Bee Happy: Late to bloom, medium-sized, good stems for cutting, so-so bloom production, the bees do really love it

Dahlia "Bee Happy"
Dahlia "Bee Happy"

  • Cornel Bronze: First to bloom, big/tall, so-so stems for cutting, tons of gorgeous blooms

Dahlia "Cornel Bronze"
Dahlia "Cornel Bronze"

  • D. Sorensenii (Wild Dahlia): Middle-of-the-road to bloom, very tall and leggy/delicate, elegant and feels like more like a perennial, bees like it

Dahlia Sorensenii (wild dahlia)
Dahlia Sorensenii (wild dahlia)

  • Golden Hour: First to bloom, small/medium and good bushiness, shorter stems aren't great for cutting, unique bronze-y coloring

Dahlia "Golden Hour"
Dahlia "Golden Hour"

  • Jason Matthew: First to bloom, medium/tall, prolific bloomer, great for cutting

Dahlia "Jason Matthew"
Dahlia "Jason Matthew"

  • Lights Out: Later to bloom, shorter and bushier than expected, beautiful deep color reads closer to black in-person and indoors, pretty good stems for cutting

Dahlia "Lights Out"
Dahlia "Lights Out"

  • Make A Wish: First to bloom, small/medium and good bushiness, adorable and prolific star-shaped flowers, bees love it, good stems for cutting, but I actually always leave them

Dahlia "Make a Wish" (white), Dahlia "Lights Out" (dark red) and Penny the vizsla.
Dahlia "Make a Wish" (white), Dahlia "Lights Out" (dark red) and Penny

  • Rock Star: Middle-of-the-road to bloom, big/tall, unique foliage shape reminds me of arugula, flowering has been disappointingly weak

Dahlia "Rock Star"
Dahlia "Rock Star"

  • Benjamin Matthew: Middle-of-the-road timing to bloom, medium/tall, on the leggier side and somewhat weak, short stems aren't great for cutting, but the color is beautiful and vibrant.

Dahlia "Benjamin Matthew"
Dahlia "Benjamin Matthew"

  • Chick A Dee: Very late to bloom (first flower is opening today), small/medium, short stems aren't great for cutting, we'll see how it does the rest of the season!

Dahlia "Chickadee" making it's debut on September 29th
Dahlia "Chickadee" making it's debut on September 29th

  • Debora Renae: First to bloom, big/tall, prolific bloomer, great for cutting

Dahlia "Maarn" (orange) and Dahlia "Debora Renae" (deep crimson)
Dahlia "Maarn" (orange) and Dahlia "Debora Renae" (deep crimson)

  • Maarn (Free Gift from Swan Island): First to bloom, big/tall, prolific bloomer, great for cutting, a fabulous surprise!


All in all, it's been a delightful first summer of gardening at Winterhill with plentiful moments of success (dahlias) and failure (herbs and veggies), inspiration and experimentation.



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