The Sidewalk Border: A Herbaceous Report Card
About seven years ago I dug up an L shaped length of turf, with the longer section along the front sidewalk and the shorter one along the property line with the neighbors. The result was a border in almost full sun, 4-5′ wide and about 25′ long. The soil was rich and moist, even before I started adding organic matter.
I wanted something that passing neighbors would enjoy while walking past, that would have a cottage garden feel but not too wild. Over time I’ve made adjustments, adding and removing plants to see what worked best. Here’s a report cards on some of the plants that are or have been in this bed.
Plant: Salvia (Salvia xsylvestris ‘May Night’ and Salvia nemerosa ‘Blue Hill’). Grade: A-
After being inspired by the River of Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I pulled out the Geranium maculatum that I had originally planted and replaced it with Salvia. While not comparable to Lurie, they have done very well and have provoked admiring comments. Long blooming, good for pollinators. My only criticism is a tendency to sprawl. Next year I’ll try cutting them back to prevent this.
Plant: Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana). Grade: A-
This is a lovely plant with star-shaped sky blue flowers in spring. Nice fine textured foliage. Only thing is, don’t underestimate how big it gets! I planted this one too close to the sidewalk, so I’m always struggling with staking and cutting back by the middle of the summer. Also, the fall color for me is not nearly as dramatic as advertised.
Plant: Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus). Grade: D
The seed heads, evocative of amber waves of grain, are nice. However, the plant is just too floppy, at least in rich soil. This guy is also an aggressive self-sower. I took it out after a few years and replaced it with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’. I am happy with ‘Northwind’, which is very upright. However, since it is planted to the south of the Salvia, which is planted along the sidewalk, I am a little worried that it will eventually throw too much shade. (Note to Jean: sorry I advised you to plant this, I’d just get rid of it now.)
Plant: Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). Grade: B+
This is planted between the clumps of ‘Northwind a’long the back of the border. Clusters of tubular white flowers on upright stems (though I usually have to do some staking). It’s fun to watch bees climb in and out of the flowers. ‘Husker Red’ has red/purple foliage and more pinkish flowers.
Plant: Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Grade: B+
Flat topped umbels of golden yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. A very easy plant that takes shade. May need to be cut back. Supposed to be a host plant for swallowtail butterflies but I have not seen any caterpillars to date.
Plant: Short’s Aster (Symphiotrichum shortii). Grade: A-
Very floriferous light blue aster. Tall, mounded shape – responds well to cutting back. Does not need staking. Self-sows, but not obnoxious about it.
Plant: Bee Balm (Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine). Grade: B+
Striking raspberry red flowers in summer. Resistant to powdery mildew, but still got a mild case in this bed by late summer. For the back of the border. Great for hummingbirds and polinators.
Plant: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Grade: B
Wild Bergamot is more subdued than its cousin Beebalm, with smaller lavendar flowers. I find it quietly charming, however. It does tend to grow tall in my garden, up to 5′, and may need cutting back.
Plant: False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). Grade: D
This plant could possibly earn an A in another location. Sunflower-like yellow flowers starting in June and lasting through the season. Only problem was that it was just too tall and bulky for a bed along the sidewalk – even with aggressive cutting back. Some neighbors feared that wild animals were hiding in its bushy inner depths. Heliopsis also tended to smother smaller neighbors. I ended up pulling them out and replacing them with the much more demure Penstemon.
Other plants in this bed: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).
As you plan for the coming year, have you been giving grades to the plants in your garden?