The Last Days of Summer

It sure has been a hot August. Records have been broken this summer. Mid-nineties this week. At least the days are shorter, the mornings and evenings cooler. The grass has crisped in areas with poor irrigation management.

The fall garden ends up being more about texture than color. I struggle with fall color and have been meaning to put in some Zauschneria for the last few years and for some reason have never gotten around to it. By the time I think of it, the garden centers are out of plants. I need to make a note on my calendar to look for them in the spring.

The nasturtiums struggle to even bloom this year. Even the vegetables are not doing that great. The Russian sage is starting to fade.  The deer eat the garden phlox the minute it blooms.

Sunflowers and false sunflowers continue to bloom. The goldfinches are back as the seeds start to set. A bit of purple globe thistle does better with some extra water.  The remnants of ornamental oregano still attract bees.


grass stalks in foreground and purple leaved sedum about to bloom in background

Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ about to bloom amid sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)

Rabbit brush, one of my favorite fall plants, about to bloom and attract bees galore.

PART II: Creating a Module

So… how to create a module that mimics a natural plant association that thrives at a much higher elevation than where we would like to plant it.

We could take a look at the south facing plant community described in Part I where Artemesia spp. is the dominant shrub. The soil is rocky probably with better drainage than found in much of the valley landscapes.

Or, should we choose the snowberry? The native mountain Symphorocarpus oreophilus might be available but the larger S. albus is probably more widely found in Garden Centers and does well on clay soils.

What plants would you substitute?

Keep in mind that these plants will need supplemental water in the hotter valleys.

  • A multi-branched single petal sun-flowery type plant; one of those damn yellow composite (DYCs)
  • A tall cultivar of deep purple Larkspur
  • Perhaps a paler blue/purple cultivar of lupine (Lupinus spp)
  • Might be able to find some sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) or pink cultivar of cranesbill (Geranium spp)
  • What to sub for the giant nettle leaf hyssop? (horsemint) maybe Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop)?
  • Not sure what could sub for paintbrush – bright RED
  • What grass to use?
  • Common yarrow or a cultivar? (Achillea millefolium)

1-2 matrix plants: either snowberry or sagebrush? Or, is there another plant that possibly is not very visible amid this mix? I need to go back and take a look
5+ cluster species, see above list
1-2 anchor or structure plants

drawing showing shapes of where plants will go

My first crooked not very well thought out 10×10′ module (1″=10 feet) – no species indicated

PART I: The Matrix

What is the Matrix?

Landscape Architect Thomas Rainer, in his blog post How to Create a Planting Module, discusses a different approach to configuring your planting design.

1-2 matrix species:  clump forming grasses and some perennials
2-5 cluster species: slowly spreading rhizomatous or stoloniferous species
1-2 structural species / visual anchors trees: large shrubs, certain perennials

If I were to design a module using these natives (below), what is the matrix? The only grass appears to be the inconspicuous Mountain brome (Bromus marginatus). The matrix might likely be the dominant shrub species.  What is the structure species? These are wide-open meadows. Is it the Douglas fir on slopes at the margins?

Two places above 9,000 feet.

One: north-west facing, morning shade, mid-day/afternoon sun.

mix of colorful wildflowers

Mountain snowberry matrix

The other: south-facing, full sun, very late afternoon shade (pretty much full sun) about 200 feet higher in elevation than One.

photo of colorful wildlflowers

Artemesia matrix

The cluster plants are similar in each place but the shrubs are different.  One is Mountain snowberry (Symphoricarpus oreophilus), the other is a species of sagebrush (Artemesia spp).

Clusters include lupine, larkspur, asters, paintbrush, little leaf (?) sunflower, Giant Nettleleaf hyssop (Agastache urticifolia), clematis, at least three species of Penstemon.

I am no expert on native plants but I love to see how they grow together in associations.  The explosion of color and texture delights the eye. Bees and hummingbirds are a constant sound throughout.

So, let the matrix be a low shrub species.

I love reseeding plants… until I don’t

It is fascinating to watch how plants reseed; where they germinate. Reseeding annuals give a nice burst of long lasting color. I tend to prefer the bee attractants.

Annual larkspur, borage, even the biennial common mullein (shown below), attracts lots of insects and an occasional woodpecker on the hunt for those insects.

The common mullein can grow very tall and their flower spikes can take on weird twisted shapes. It is also super drought tolerant. This adds a structural element to the landscape, albeit a strange one.

There is a reason I will no longer let them reseed and neither should you. They have about 100,000 babies and can readily overrun meadows and open woodlands.

a dead mullein spike next to pink and white annual larkspur, and a sundial and other plants in the foreground

A common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) stalk from 2016 becomes a structural element, albeit a strange one. Also, annual larkspur; pink, white, and purple, chives, and culinary sage. PHOTO CREDIT: Susan Buffler

I love to see how seedlings move around year to year.  I love manipulating them for different effects; pulling out the excess and keeping seedlings where they might look nice and fill in some gaps.

A different planting design every year where there is no parent plant hogging the scene.

I like things a little messy.

Most people I run into want their gardens to stay the same, year to year, frozen in time and space.  That is quite an interesting phenomenon and of course mostly impossible.

Are they unable to tolerate change? Unable to tolerate impermanence?

Four years later

Four years later, Thomas Rainer has written a book with Claudia West Planting in a Post Wild World (highly recommended if you are interested in designed plant communities) and I continue to work on the garden or what I call my Outdoor Plant Lab.

That is the only way I can look at it. Otherwise, I go crazy imagining the insane amount of work keeping quack grass and bindweed at bay. But I am starting this blog. Finally.

planting bed with a wide variety of plants

Late June 2017. Still no designing. Looking at what needs to be moved, what isn’t working. PHOTO CREDIT: Susan Buffler





An Inheritance

An Inheritance
(I wrote this in 2013 and never posted it)

Where to start? My inspiration came from Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design post, Pleasure Garden.  Thomas is a landscape architect from the Washington D.C. area and until recently had been reticent to talk about his own yard.

I am also trained as a landscape architect (MLA), although I do not make my living at it. I despair that I too am falling into the “non-planning / non-design” mode as the landscape threatens to overwhelm me.

To make matters more complicated, we “inherited” this garden just over three years ago.  Originally designed years ago by well-known local botanist Art Holmgren, the landscape is replete with shrubs never pruned, behemoth junipers, and overly shaded shrubs leaning toward the sun.

Floating island perennial beds are mounded above turf.  Water-wise and non-water wise trees and shrubs are flood irrigated together with the turf in the back yard. Deer prune different plants each year.

But… there are “good bones here”, a former coworker once mentioned.  Did I mention that the property is 0.82 acres?

Surprisingly, most of the plants are fairly drought tolerant.  The former owners; after the botanist and before us, tried to be true to his vision. I am not really sure what that was, but I think it might have been to include plants from different parts of the country in each bed. Hepatica, Jack in the Pulpit, and other under-story forest plants attest to an “East coast” mentality.

Odd onesies are discovered here and there. A Heuchera tucked in a border, a Cupid’s Dart on an inside edge, a Campanula perched on an outside curve and a goldenrod in the wrong irrigation water zone.  A Purple Loostrife with its metal ID tag.

Divide, remove, transplant.

garden beds with birdbath

Center bed in backyard Fall 2011 – PHOTO CREDIT: Susan Buffler