Down to earth – the sun needs catchers

(Originally published October 16, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Thank goodness for dahlias. I planted them late, sometime in July, just before their tubers gave up trying to grow in the dark. I tucked them into random gaps in the front and back yards and then didn’t give them another thought. Or much water, poor things. Good thing it was a rainy summer because now most are blooming, catching the long fall light like stained glass. Mid-morning light is gorgeous this time of year. Blinding if not for the brim of a hat but warm and entirely without glare. Even so, I can’t help wondering if I would have even noticed it if I didn’t work daily in a still-blooming garden. The sun needs catchers. Sadly my own garden isn’t situated quite right to catch the morning sun and I’m rarely home then to appreciate it anyway. Good thing afternoon light is nice too and even sweeter for being golden. sun caught in the gaura, Boltonia 'Nally's Lime Dots' and a weedy asterBut apart from dahlias, wand flower (Gaura lindheimeri) spreading itself throughout my front border, a few blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), random patches of flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) and a fallen sideways Agastache ‘Heatwave’, my garden is not the shimmering, shifting kaleidoscope of color it could be right now.

Every fall I remember that I don’t have enough ornamental grasses. Most gardeners rave about how grasses toss about gracefully in the slightest breeze but I want them for the way the light slides along their blades and gets caught in their flowers. I do have two enormous maiden grasses (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’) and I enjoy their wands of luminous pink and cream inflorescence but wish that the recently divided clumps, round as sea urchins, weren’t already the size of Volkswagens again. Proper scale is something I struggle with.

My clumps of switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) are more appropriately sized for my garden but ironically, not quite big enough to divide and redistribute wherever the blood red tips of their 4-foot tall upright blades and delicate sprays of seedheads will be backlit. My other fall flowering grass, purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), is too low to the ground to do much sun catching in my tall garden but makes up for that by wearing dew like diamonds. Always good to have a little bling in the garden here and there.

Even though next fall is a whole season away, we can be on it. I know looking out at my garden what I want it to look like when the sun shines slantwise and will start making those changes now. To begin with, I need to make some room. Gaps in which to plant more late blooming tender perennials like raspberry red Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’, velvety purple S. leucantha ‘Cislano’, and pineapple sage. Places for 5-foot tall July-sown zinnias, a fat clump or two of annual feathertop grass (Pennisetum villosum) and maybe even a patch of love-lies-bleeding. (Proper scale be damned.) I could always use more dahlias.

This is the ideal time to make some room because, I don’t know about you but I’m feeling much less sentimental about my plants today than I will in spring when they’re full of potential. Now I’m over them. Out with moldy summer phlox. Out with more purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans than one tiny garden should ever boast. Out with some of the milkweed—carefully checked for Monarch butterfly caterpillars first.

I’m also writing notes to read in spring that will remind me to divide; to drastically reduce the size of overgrown clumps of Shasta daisy, beebalm, and those ridiculous maiden grasses. That will be easier to do in spring when I’m craving the exercise and the garden, which all cut back and tidied won’t poke me in the nose as I dig. After following through on those intentions there will be plenty of room again in my garden, and I will only need to remember, as spring flowers tempt me, that I have plans for a fall kaleidoscope.

What’s catching the light in your garden? 

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