John, a friend of mine, has asked me to help him remake his back yard, which lies in full sun between a Chicago-style bungalow and a detached garage. This is exciting, because it is an opportunity to play with more plants. Not as good as an expansion of my own garden, but perhaps the next best thing.
Of course, the downside is that I find it very challenging to suggest plants to other people. Not that I can’t think of options, it’s just that there are too many options.
In most cases, the person asking for plant suggestions just wants me to recommend one plant so they can buy it, plant it, and get on with their lives. However, I usually start listing so many possibilities that they end up wishing they had never asked.
However, this time will be different. I’ll simply say: these are the plants for you, and ONLY if John balks will I offer alternatives.
John is not an avid gardener, but he does want his backyard to look better than it currently does. For this project I am looking for plants that 1) are short to medium height; 2) do not require staking or frequent division; 3) have a long bloom period; and 4) are reasonably tough but well behaved. In terms of color, I’m generally looking for plants in the yellow to orange or blue to purple range, with a little rosy pink thrown in.
What needs the most work is the north side of the garden. The grass has completely overrun what had once been a border along a chain link fence. Within this ex-border you can find a couple of Peonies in need of dividing and a lot of orange Daylilies. There are also three old lilac shrubs planted close together. Finally, there are a couple of half dead old Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius) that John would like to replace.
John likes the Daylilies and the Lilac, so they stay. After the Lilacs bloom they will get a thorough pruning. I’m going to suggest to John that he dig a shallow trench to make a clear dividing line between the lawn and the perennial border. Between that line and the fence, the lawn goes.
In terms of plants, I’m thinking the following:
Spring Bulbs: Narcissi, Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) (varieties to be determined).
For late spring/early summer: Salvia ‘Caradonna’ (Salvia nemerosa), Blanketflower ‘Arizona Sun’ (Gaillardia – continues blooming through summer).
For mid-summer: Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Do you think that ‘Rozanne’ will work as a front-of-the-border plant?
For late summer and fall: Aromatic Aster ‘October Skies’ (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius), Stonecrop ‘Matronna’ (Hylotelephium telephium, formerly Sedum spectabile).
In addition, I’d throw in a couple of ‘Shenandoah’ Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).
Finally, to replace the Mock Orange, some Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius).
On the south side of the yard, there is another chain link fence. Between a newly laid concrete walk and the fence is a narrow border filled with Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata) and more orange Daylilies. There is a wild grape vine that covers the fence by summer. John likes all of this, so I won’t mess with it.
There is a small rectangular bed located where the walk leads to a gate to the alley. The bed contains another Peony and another overgrown Lilac. The Lilac will get a pruning, the grass will get dug up, and some selection of the plants listed above will be put here.
Finally, there is a row of Hydrangeas of some type along the west-facing wall of the garage. John wants to turn this into a small vegetable garden, which should be easy enough to do. Grub out the Hydrangeas (OK, he might want to hire someone to do that), another shallow trench for a dividing line. On the far right there is a Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) that will stay put.
You’ll notice that I am not pushing the native plants too hard, but I couldn’t resist including a patch of Butterflyweed for the Monarchs. Butterflyweed is one Milkweed that is not overly aggressive.
So there you have it: a rough outline of my plans for John’s backyard. Comments? Suggestions?