I don’t cut back most perennials. This is why.

Perennial border in snow. North

There is a movement, increasingly popular, to use perennials and grasses year-round, even when they are not in flower.  The mantra seems to be “Brown is a color too”. Well yes, brown is a color–but it isn’t as colorful as blue and purple and red and yellow—or even green.

And I certainly don’t plant perennials for their winter brown color.  Like most of us I plant them for their cheerful, subtle, happy summer colors. That is how I choose them. For their color combinations and compositions.

I also choose them for their forms, the contrasting leaves and heights.

But, yes, I  leave most of them up until the end of winter.  And I do that for the masses and shapes that a varied perennial border can give to a garden.

For me, for this garden, the purpose of the perennial border is not just color.  It is to give shape to the whole garden.  And now is when that technique is so effective.  We had about 5” of snow, a pure white canvas on which the form of the young garden shows up beautifully.  And this perennial border is a destination, which shows itself better now than it ever can in the colorful, lively height of summer.

There are delicate seedheads, silvery in the sun.  Masses of frozen (yes, brown) leaves.  Icy stems.  They don’t look that pretty when you are close up.  In a smaller garden, where you are always close up, I might not do this.  But in this garden, when you are usually 50’ or so away, ( with the temperature at about 15F,  it is not a time for a garden stroll) the border is simply mass and shape.  It helps define the garden, the now-white paths, and helps give a reason for the location of the leafless trees and shrubs.

I know a lot of my friends are longing for spring.  I, on the other hand, am enjoying what I have now. I am enjoying the peacefulness and structure that a tidily deadheaded garden could never have.


When nature gives you water…pay attention

When I started Timshala, I had no idea what the conditions here were like.  And of course, I should have known. I could have known.  If I were advising a client who had just bought a new multi-acre site and needed a design, my advice would have been:   live with it for a year; learn about the site, the soil, the climate, the wind.

Well, I didn’t follow my own advice.  I made a gorgeous plan.  I did take into account the soil (did a soil test) which is somewhat alkaline.  I knew the zone was 5b.  But grades, water, wind, drainage? I ignored them.  I turned into an amateur.  I could not wait the year.

And the result is I don’t exactly have water, water, everywhere…but when there is rain I sure do have a lot of it.  More than the plants I planned for could live with.  More than my plans can live with.  So I’ve changed a lot of the plantings I had planned, trying to keep the forms I had in mind originally, but changing the plants.

And now, finally, some great successes: Weeping Willow  (Salix babylonica),  Button Bush (Cephalanthus oxidentalis) and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice) .

Willow. Buttonbush. Clethra June 2019

The Willow went in two years ago, a small tree about 8’ tall.  Now it is a gorgeous, 20’ tall weeping background for the flower border and the Button Bushes.

The Button Bushes were planted bare root, about 18” high, two years ago, and are flowering this year for the first time.  I love the white “button” flowers on the coarse leaves, and particularly the contrast with the delicate Willow leaves.  They look wonderful together, and both can happily take some standing water.  The Clethra also were bare root, about 18” high, and actually flowered their first year. They like it moist, though not quite as wet as the other two, not standing water; they should be luxuriously pink in a few more weeks.

And if I had been a better client, I could have started with them and had a lot less heartache.


The Best Laid Plans vs. the Best Habitat…or Why I am Putting in a ‘River’ of Siberian Iris and Golden Carex

I’ve been trying, really I have,  to stay with the plans I laid out a year or so ago.  Perennials here.  Red border there.  Groundcovers over there.  These shrubs in this place and those trees in that.

But I’m discovering, now that we’re here all the time, that some of the ideas don’t work as well as I planned. The land itself isn’t cooperating.

For example, there are some low-lying areas that have standing water for a day or so after a heavy rain and since they are in an irrigated zone, they don’t ever get very dry.  The lawns or groundcovers I planned just won’t grow there.  But you know what will?

Siberian Irises. Iris sibirica

And Golden Carex. Carex Bowles Golden..


So I’ve developed a plan for a ‘river’ of gold Carex ‘Bowles Variety‘  instead of lawn, with  swathes of Siberian Irises ‘Caesar’s Brother‘ down the length of it for their deep purple bloom in June.  And their grass-like leaves the rest of the summer will contrast with and complement the golden leaves of the Carex.  This ‘river’ will run across the perennial border, from the Orchard all the way into the Woodland – several hundred winding feet.  It will not only be suitable planting for a wet area, but by tying two distant areas together it will actually be an improvement to the design.  I had initially planned a stone path for that purpose — but I think this planting will do a better job.   Later, if I like, I can still put in the path, but the ‘river’ will give the path a reason for being.

I am an on-paper designer…


I have met people who are able to design a garden without drawings… on the ground so to speak.   They walk around a site and can create something right there on the spot.  They know just where they want to put a flower border, trees or shrubs, a patio, a walkway.  I can’t do it that way.

I plan everything out on paper (or, nowadays, on the computer).   I start out taking measurements and photographs of the site.  And then I start to sketch out my ideas on paper.  I see the result of the ideas in my mind’s eye as I work…and sometimes as I’m creating spaces and paths, in my imagination I become a tiny person walking through the garden.  I feel as if I can reach out and touch the trunk of a tree, walk down a stairway, through a pergola, see what the view is in front of a bench or on a patio.  So I guess in a way I am testing out the design ‘on the ground’… but if something doesn’t work I can change it as go.  I redraw and take another walk.

That’s the stage I am at with the gardens at Timshala.  The design – verysketchy – is on paper and ready to be fleshed out.

 First Schematic Design

I’ve laid out areas for a Woodland Garden; a Crabapple Orchard; a Grassy Meadow sparkling with red poppies in the spring; a Perennial Border; an area for Winter Color to be seen from the bedroom window; an Herb Garden; some Rough Lawns; a Shade Garden on the north side of the house.

I’ve also laid out the paths that wander through the different areas…a woodland walk, a mown path through the meadow and the orchard, stepping stones connecting the house to the major paths.