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Plants I’ll be repeating through my dry meadow area: assorted bearded iris, moody dark meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’), and bright red penstemon (P. cardinalis).

Because I moved across the country and chose to design my new garden rather than hiring a local landscape designer, the process is slow but interesting. Choosing the plants has required a multi-year period of growing a wide variety of plants in order to learn which are adapted to specific sites and can thrive without spreading outside their allotted area or producing so many offspring that managing them outstrips my time and energy.

This year marks the third year for several areas of my new garden, and it begins a difficult period for me: The Winnowing.

Over the past few years, I’ve planted a wide (and wild) array of interesting plants, many of them new to me, and I really like the diversity — the ecological richness of it, the idea that it is more likely to attract diverse animals, the sense that discoveries can be made wherever one looks closely. However, now I’m ready to add more visual legibility, and to reduce the time spent caring for this landscape so I may spend more time appreciating and exploring it.

I’ll probably end up segregating this lovely but dense-growing duo — blue dune grass (Elymus arenarius) and seafoam artemisia (Artemisia versicolor ‘Seafoam’) — and relocating their smaller, smotherable companions like the yellow Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ at the lower left.

The Winnowing is a time for selecting plants that have proven themselves and multiplying them for better visual impact. It is also a time for steeling myself to say goodbye to plants that are dying or limping along, as well as those that have vanquished too many neighbors for my comfort — a subjective measure, to be sure.

Luckily, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West recently opened my eyes to a planting strategy that may satisfy my yen for diversity. Even as I clarify my garden’s different moods and scenes by simplifying its roster of structural plants and amplifying its impact with seasonal signature plants, I will be enthusiastically fostering diversity in the understory. I’ll be counting on those (perhaps unremarkable) groundcover plants to do the many jobs of diversity: bolstering the natural community’s stability, providing habitat to insects and other wildlife, and adding ecosystem services like erosion control and runoff infiltration.

Perhaps most importantly for this gardener, I’ll look to that diverse understory to round out my planting areas in delightful and surprising ways, to keep the mystery in the garden.

Here’s The Seep in early summer. it has the most diverse understory in my landscape; I couldn’t name all the plants I’ve added to it, and I like that about it.

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on September 7, 2016 at 1:51 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes.


  1. SO GLAD someone besides me is facing this situation. I’m dealing with umpteen projects (some on hold till two nests of yellowjackets are eliminated), hoping I don’t get cited for the woodchip pile that’s been in my driveway for a month, wanting to plant some fall greens, hoping I don’t dig into my irrigation pipes (for about the fifth time this season.)

  2. Exactly, Fred. Those wild lettuces fill up with goldfinches, and I can hardly bear to cut them down. And don’t get me started on all the great wildlife attracted to thistles

  3. Lovely. And now I feel so much better about my tendency to cram plants in everywhere, see what thrives, see what needs moving… My garden makeover of the last two years looked complete when the plants were brand new, I’d put plants in that densely. Now I have to figure out what to do with the overgrowth, the rescues, the excess. It’s a good sort of problem to have.

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