Saturday, August 20, 2011

Building a Beautiful, Low Maintenance Garden in the Sun

Recently, a friend and I journeyed to two gardens influenced by the work of Roy Diblik, a Midwestern grower and Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer. We are looking for ways to create gardens that are low maintenance, drought tolerant, and densely planted enough to inhibit weeds. Pretty much, Diblik's philosophy, really, but we wanted to see it in action. First, we visited Diblik's Northwind Perennial Farm, just over the border in Wisconsin on a blistering July day as part of a tour offered by the Landscape Design Association. The sunny gardens are magnificent. If you get a chance, it's worth the drive up. The shade gardens are still in development, though. Diblik experiments with new plants on his grounds, so many things are in process. The idea is to create sustainable landscapes that offer four-season beauty and feed wildlife. Not all of the plants are natives, but many are incorporated or cultivars of natives are used. And there's goats. Who doesn't love a nice goat?

Nicely mulched paths run through the sunny gardens. One thing that strikes me especially about these designs is the softness. You just want to run your fingers through the plants. It's hard to capture the movement inherent in these groupings, but I think you can imagine it.

I really love the textures that interplay in these gardens. It's very subtle, but very sophisticated.

Here you see one of Diblik's favorite plants for long lasting color - Stachys monieri 'Hummelo'. The upright pink blossoms bloom for weeks and the tidy green foliage forms a nice, bunny-resistant mound.

Admittedly, it is a lot of pink, purple, and white, but there are lots of ways to add a dash of yellow or orange in these gardens too. We were treated to goldfinches, wrens and swallows swooping overhead as well as too many butterflies to count.

And there's the man himself as we slowly melt into sweaty puddles. These designs are perfect for the hot, sunny site, but there was not a whole lot of shade!

Next, we headed to the far west suburbs to visit the headquarters of Midwest Groundcovers. Midwest is primarily a wholesale grower, although they do have a small sales yard. We successfully controlled our pocketbooks, but not easily. You can also see a similar effect at the Lurie Gardens at Millennium Park.

These gardens are designed by Piet Oudolf and are meant, again, to be four-season interest in full sun with minimal care. Oudolf has used ribbons of plants here so you have a feeling of rhythm.

The soft, needle-like foliage is Amsonia hubrichtii which will turn an amazing golden orange in fall. The little yellow flowers are a threadleaf coreopsis cultivar. I think the stiffness of the echinacea is a wonderful foil for the wispy texture of the other two.

Again, I'm struck by the softness.  Here you can see the ribboning of the echinacea through the bed.

Here we have Allium tanguticum 'Summer Beauty' in the foreground.  It has finished flowering, but as the seedheads form and dry, it still has a stiff texture. The grasses are beginning to flower so you have an almost cloud-like effect in the background.

The white flowering plant in the foreground is Calamintha x 'Montrose White'. This calamint stays put and flowers for about four months. It has spicy fragrant foliage, so the bunnies don't eat it and in full sun emits a nice scent. Insects adore it! You can't tell here, but it is crawling with bees, wasps, flies and other pollinators. These gardens were filled with butterflies and birds, too.

This picture just makes me want to plunge my hands it and pet it. The lavendar flowers are Limonium latifolium or sea lavender. It has broad basal foliage that is a deep green and glossy. When interplanted with the amsonia, the delicate flowers are held upright. Otherwise, the blossoms tend to fall over. This plant is often grown as a dried flower for bouquets.

These two gardens are almost no maintenance, but it will take probably about four years of weeding to get them established. I think they are much more beautiful than a sterile swatch of lawn, don't you?


  1. I am sitting here throwing around the idea of ripping all of the grass out of my front yard this spring and these photos just inspired me to think more of the texture than just the height and colors. I want a yard that people want to brush their hands through! Thank you for the late winter inspiration!

  2. These gardens look good year round, but I'd probably add bulbs for a dose of spring color. I love running my hands through grasses except for Miscanthus! Miscanthus has sharp edges and can cut - ouch!