Returning a Town’s Perennial Border to Lawn? by Susan Harris

Buttresses and bas-relief sculptures seen behind Knockout roses

Of all the historic buildings in my town, my favorite is what’s now the Community Center, so it’s full of artists, dancers, seniors and really everyone else, every day.

I love the Arc Deco buttresses on the front facade. And I wrote here about the bas-relief sculptures between them depicting the Preamble to the Constitution, with the excuse to write about it here that they illustrate “Promote the General Welfare” with someone gardening.

Speaking of gardening, a few years back the City Horticulturist was a real gardener, so of course he ripped up a prominent patch of turfgrass and installed in its place a large border of perennials and roses.

If you’ve started and maintained perennial beds yourself you won’t be surprised to learn that once the real gardener was gone and a regular maintenance crew took over, using power tools only, no hand-weeding or herbicides (after complaints), the garden changed for the worse. The photo above is how it looks after power-weeding and mulching.

More typically, it looks like this. In front of our most important and beautiful building, this drives me crazy.

So, a make-over is clearly needed to make this high-visibility spot look good without increasing the manpower allotted. What would that be?

Let’s start with previous landscaping there. Back in 1937 when the town and this building launched, an all-too-common mistake was made – using evergreens where they don’t have enough space, as they soon didn’t here on either side of the entrance.

Tulip magnolias, easily limbed up, are a much better choice, obvious in this current photo.

Across the front of the building below the fabulous artwork was a row of low (at least originally) junipers, a few flowering trees and lawn. Someone must have recognized another mistaken plant choice – the trees would eventually block the building’s iconic features – because they were removed.

With that review of history in mind (and having consulted the experts at our museum), a group of us gardeners and city staff are meeting today to brainstorm design and plant ideas for this prominent spot to look good with less labor (including less use of power tools, if possible), and to complement architecture and the established plantings on the other sides of the building.

This shady side always looks good with just Abelias, Viburnums and Liriope, though the grounds crew chief tells me it’s a lot of work to keep the windows and sidewalks clear of branches.

The more public side is another story. More Liriope, but here the Abelias are sheared into gumballs and there’s a row of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ for late-season flowering. I wonder how often those gumballs need to be power-treated to stay looking good (if you like that style, which honestly I don’t).

Lawn-bashers should look away right now because one idea that’s been floated is to replace the original lawn panel there, leaving just enough room for a row of low-growing shrubs close to the building (but not too close; bas-reliefs need to be cleaned occasionally).

(Maintenance-wise, adding a bit more lawn to the large one between the building and the street would take just a minute or so longer to mow.)

A quick trip to my favorite independent garden center turned up several plants I could imagine along the front of the building and my favorite is the ‘Grey Owl’ Eastern Redcedar shown above. Known more commonly known as Juniper, it has these qualities going for it: maximum height 3 feet, blue foliage (it would be the blue in the whole landscape), no need to shear, and – drumroll, please – it’s native! Meaning, everyone could be happy with it in this very public spot.

Also promising to me are two plants that would echo shrubs already growing elsewhere around the building: draft Abelia and draft Plum Yew. I sure hope we can count on the mature size stated on these signs – just 2.5 feet – because at that height they wouldn’t need shearing. Yay!

Whatever’s decided, the city plans to have the make-over done in early September after our big Labor Day Festival. Report to follow.

Returning a Town’s Perennial Border to Lawn? originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 8, 2018.


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