how texture and variegation beat august’s garden lull, with ken druse

KEN DRUSE called the other day to say that he and his garden have the August lulls—the sort of annual dog-days experience when it’s way past spring, and still way before fall color. When maybe even some of the annuals you potted up or put into your beds in May for summer color might be starting to look less perky, too.

“What holds the garden together in such a moment?” he asked as we chatted, and as he looked out the window at the scene above.

Texture, primarily we agreed. And at Ken’s, especially some refreshing splashes of variegation and definitely the freshness of some white flowers. Using all of those effectively is our topic today, along with some favorite plants (like his Hiba arborvitae or Thujopsis dolobrata, below, a conifer with great texture and intricate markings) and ideas on juxtapositions.

You all know Ken Druse as a regular visitor to my podcast, and author of 20 garden books and longtime friend. When he’s not managing the antics of two troublemaking but gorgeous canines, he manages his extensive garden in New Jersey.

Read along as you listen to the Aug. 16, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

the power of texture, with ken druse



Margaret: How are the canines, Ken?

Ken: They’re sleeping, thankfully.

Margaret: Of course. That’s good. No ruckus.

Ken: Of course. They sleep all morning and then at 8 or 9 or 10:00 it’s all hell.

Margaret: So before we get started, I wanted to say that you and I have been talking on the phone even more than ever lately because we’re brewing a new collaboration called the Virtual Garden Club that we’re about to debut.

Just super-quick, it’s a live online kind of get together twice a month that people can subscribe to, where we’re going to do presentations, as well as do something we can’t do here on the podcast—which is answer reader and listener questions in real time. A lot of people have been writing in and asking what’s cooking, but I just need to know one thing since we’re almost ready to go live with that: Are you ready to become the Answer Man [laughter]?

Ken Druse: Yeah. I am a total foliage freak and you made me remember that. I look at the garden, and you’re right. There’s some Hydrangea paniculata, white flowers, and that’s about it [laughter].

Margaret: Yeah, yes, yes.

Ken: There’s white rose of Sharon called ‘Diana.’ It’s one that’s sterile, so it blooms for a really long time.

Margaret: I mean, right now I have in terms of the white flower thing—which I’m always really relieved by at this time of year—I have all these self-sown nicotianas, the flowering tobaccos.

Ken: Oh, right.

Margaret: Even though they’re small, sort of thigh and knee level, the lower-down part of the garden, I’m relieved to see their little fresh bits of floral display. And definitely the paniculatas, the panicle hydrangeas [above forground, at Ken’s]. It’s like “Oh, thank goodness.”

Ken: Thank goodness.

Margaret: Yeah. So you have the August lulls, and maybe we both need more zinnias and whatever next year, ha-ha. But what do you think the backbone of getting through the late-summer period is? What do you think is the main device that you rely on?

Ken: Well, the texture is a little more subtle than the color, because I have a lot of variegated plants. What my eye goes to is the white leaves, and then the gold leaves, and then the green leaves with the white splashes, and the green leaves with the white stripes on the edges. I know I’ve met so many people over the years, and especially in the past, who would say, “I hate variegated plants.” [Makes a funny voice.]

Margaret: Is that how they sound, exactly?

Ken: “They’re like the clowns of the horticultural world.”

Margaret: [Laughter.] I know. Variegation was often described as clownish, and I thought that was funny. Yeah.

Ken: Those people, when they meet a plant that’s variegated at the nursery or garden center, especially if it’s a plant that they have at home in green, then they see it variegated, it starts. The flood gates open, and then they want to know everything that’s variegated that comes with stripes. But there are so many variegated plants. They’re just spectacular.

Well, I’ll tell you a story really quickly. When we started this garden 27 years ago, we first made a nursery bed. Then we filled that up, because we wanted to grow the plants on while we were clearing multiflora rose and honeysuckle shrubs, bushes.

Then when that filled up, I started making splinter nurseries. That’s what I call them. Little nurseries in tucked-away corners. In one splinter nursery, I would put everything that was variegated white on green, and ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea. Then when it came time sort of to move those plants, I realized that that splinter nursery was looking pretty good. So it became what we call “the cloud bed.” It’s filled with variegated plants.

Margaret: The white flowers of the ‘Annabelle’?

Ken: Yeah. Well, and now it has the lime green Hydrangea paniculata. It’s sort of a chartreuse-to-white story with so much texture.

Margaret: Right. So, let’s talk about texture; let’s back up from variegation for a minute, because I know you have quite a collection of variegated things. And I have many fewer, but they’re in key spots. So we’ll go back to that.

But let’s just talk about that sort of textural thing. Last week on the show, I talked to someone that you know, too, about ferns, Uli Lorimer at Native Plant Trust. We talked about native ferns, of course, but we were saying how one thing that we’re really happy for at this time of year, and all times of year, even when they first open, the ferns. The texture that they add is delightful and especially juxtaposed against other things. But there’s lots of ferny things besides literal ferns, and there’s lots of other textures. So maybe let’s start with texture a little bit.

Ken: O.K. Well, ferns are kind of feathery.

Margaret: Yeah.

Ken: I was just looking at the Amsonia hubrichtii, which has flowers in the spring and about the best fall color of any herbaceous perennial. But right now I have to use the word cloud again, it’s like out of focus [laughter]. It’s so feathery and soft. So Amsonia hubrichtii is certainly one for great texture. You grow that, don’t you? [Above, at Ken’s, Amsonia hubrichtii.]

Margaret: I have some of it. I have some of the other amsonias that I planted a million years ago. So I think is there a common name, maybe bluestar or something, for their blue flowers—is that right?—in spring.

Ken: Right.

Margaret: O.K. They’re native to certain parts of North America. I don’t even know exactly where. It’s got these long, very long, needle-like, they’re so thin as to almost be like a long needle.

Ken: Three inches or so on 2-1/2-foot-tall stems.

Margaret: Right. So the foliage is extremely linear. Like you say, when you see it from a distance, this mass, this mound of it, it’s like a cloud. When it goes gold in the fall, it’s incredible. But right now we’re in the summer, and the texture is definitely of things like amsonias are really a big help right now. They look light and airy.

Ken: When you’re thinking about texture and arranging texture, I always think of contrast as being one of the elements, something that I can play around with. So I might do the Amsonia with Astilboides, except I can’t grow Astilboides [above, at Margaret’s] for some reason, but I can grow Darmera. So I might have a big leaf with a little bit of texture and a lobe shape or something, with something like a cloudy Amsonia, because it’ll show them both off.

Margaret: Right. So the two things that you just mentioned, Astilboides and the Darmera, they have big, big, big roundish leaves. So the Astilboides can be, I don’t know what, a foot and a half or more.

Ken: For you.

Margaret: Yeah. If it’s happy. I mean, any plant it’s only going to achieve its maximum performance if it’s happy, if it belongs, I guess, where you plant it. I mean, we’ve all had plants that have under-performed unhappily in our gardens [laughter]. So the visual is that there’s this linear, this cloud of these long-needle, linear foliage, the Amsonia against the bold, high impact of the big-leafed thing.

Ken: You mentioned the word mound. Have you ever seen the dwarf river birch sometimes called ‘’Fox Valley’? It has two names, ‘Little King’ and ‘Fox Valley.’ It makes a gumdrop-shape perfectly, without any pruning, but it’s a tree. Mine’s probably 8 foot tall and 8foot wide. It’s just a mound of little leaves, textural. It looks like I pruned it, but I didn’t.

Margaret: Now we’re off on mounds and texture. Mounds and texture. Uh-oh.

Ken: You said mounds.

Margaret: We’ve taken a digression. I’m waiting. I was just out the other day in the far bed looking at the bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii. It’s a perennial that it’s almost like a sub-shrub in a sense. I think in warmer climates, it’s woody, it’s a little woodier, but here it dies to the ground. But it comes up into this giant mound and it’s a legume, so it’s pea-like foliage. If people can visualize sort of, it has this wonderful texture of its own.

So it’s neither linear nor bold, nor exactly feathery, but more in the feathery direction, I guess. But big, it can be many feet across, 6 or so feet across and maybe 4 feet tall or something like that. I mean, it depends on the one you have, the variety you have and how you grow it and so forth, but I’m kind of looking forward to that. It’s going to have purple flowers in September, but right now it’s mounded up and looking very textural. [Above, purple flowers of Lespedeza in the distance at Margaret’s, in front of a wall of giant Miscanthus.]

Ken: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what’s it next to?

Margaret: Well, that’s a good question. So the reason maybe I like what it looks like is because I have a big wall of the giant Miscanthus grass, the Miscanthus giganteus, that I use as a seasonal wall to hide my compost area and my far gate, like the utility gate to the place, two acres away from the house, so at the far end of the property. This wall, this is the backdrop. Then the smaller grasses and some flowers and so forth as well, are in the intermediate level, and then in the front, in the middle of this wall, is the Lespedeza.

So it’s against a linear, but very statuesque backdrop of the tall Miscanthus. So again, leaves, leaves, leaves. There’s no flowers yet. Obviously the grasses don’t have… Well, they may technically have flowers later, but not that kind of flower. So it works that way, too, texturally.

Ken: I’ve got a little section of stone wall and it’s with ‘Graham Blandy’ boxwood and hellebore foliage [above, at Ken’s]. So they’re very different textures, very different shapes, so complementary or contrasty, really. Of course, no flowers, just green. That’s a beautiful combination, I think.

Margaret: Right, right. So, I guess what we’re really just saying is that if right now everyone’s looking around and they’re feeling like, “Oh, things are pooped.” It doesn’t have to be. Or if they’re thinking “Let’s add more annual flowers next year.”

Frankly, I think I said in the introduction, I’ve been a little disappointed in a couple of things that I had in pots that were looking gorgeous until maybe the second week of July, and then suddenly decided they weren’t going to do it anymore [laughter]—a couple of new petunias that I had never tried before. I was sorry because they were so prolific and so consistent, sort of self-cleaning, and didn’t have to be deadheaded. Not that I have beds of petunias, but you know you have some accent pots here and there, and it’s nice. It ties it together. And I was kind of disappointed.

So when that happens and your sort of eye-catching annuals let you down at a certain point, it’s great to have these other visual attractions, like we’ve been mentioning. So any other texture ones you want to kind of point out?

Ken: How much time do we have [laughter]?

Margaret: Six or seven hours. Yeah.

Ken: If you say bamboo to any gardener, they just look at you like you’re insane. But there’s one genus of bamboo that is cold-hardy and doesn’t run, because that’s the problem with the cold-hardy bamboos is they run. I’m sure everyone’s seen a whole area taken over by that golden bamboo. But I grow Fargesia. The one I grow most is Fargesia nitida, which is kind of small. Very easy to grow, very feathery and really good for backgrounds because it can become pretty big in time, but it can form kind of a wall of soft texture. It’s always moving in the breeze. So I really like that for its texture.

Margaret: I don’t have any bamboo at all. That’s a clumping bamboo. Maybe once a million years ago I tried one and it didn’t do it up here. It’s too cold, I think.

Ken: Yeah, you’re a little cold.

Margaret: Yeah. But one thing I start to really look forward to as it shapes up is the view from a lot of the house, looking out the back of the house, of this sort of meadow. I use that term loosely because it’s an unmown area, kind of a big island of unmown wild things, and a lot of little bluestem and so forth. Even before it starts to color up, before the bluestem gets its fall coloration, before all the goldenrods, which are just starting to come in, and some of the asters do their thing a little bit later, I still like the texture.

I like the sort of jumble, that sort of look of a field or a meadow in nature. I think you just said something about movement and it’s the movement, it’s the action, the activity of butterflies flitting in. You know what I mean? It evokes that kind of texture of nature of a big open field or something, even though in my case, it’s a small version of that.

Ken: You were talking about some things that get tired.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Like me?

Ken: No. Well, you know how lungwort, which can be very variegated with silver splashes and stuff, Pulmonaria, it flowers and the leaves sometimes turn black?

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: I discovered that if you cut the flower stalks off, and you can even cut the whole plant back to about two inches, it’ll push new growth that lasts through the whole season.

I’ve got a remarkable variegated plant that’s a real showstopper. I’m back to variegation, sorry [laughter]. But it’s a Symphytum uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold’ [above at Ken’s], which I first saw when Marco Stufano planted it at Wave Hill. Now you can find it to buy. Then it was so rare, because it’s a little tricky with propagation. But it throws up flower spikes, and it has insignificant flowers and then the plant turns black. But if you cut off the flower spikes and, or cut off the leaves that are black, it pushes complete new growth and lasts the rest of the season all lush and luxurious. So I don’t know if that’s going to work for your petunias. Maybe you should try, cutting back.

Margaret: The reason I didn’t, I used to with these sort of old-fashioned, older petunias back in the day, because they would. They’d get kind of stringy and you have to kind of give them a haircut and then they’d start again. But this one, it was as if it was self-cleaning, like it just did it itself. I was so impressed that I think I let it go too far, because it was doing such a robust job itself. But can I just ask about that Symphytum, whatever it’s called, Symphytum ‘Axminster Gold.’ Is that a comfrey? What is that?

Ken: Yeah. It’s a comfrey.

Margaret: It’s a comfrey. So it’s a variegated comfrey.

Ken: The leaves are almost 2 feet long.

Margaret: So speaking of bold texture and also the variegation, the color of the green and gold, yes. It has both things.

Ken: It has sort of a gray-green and a gold color on the leaves. It’s really showy. Very spectacular. Do you grow Arctic willow?

Margaret: I do.

Ken: That’s a great texture. And color. Salix purpurea ‘Nana.’

Margaret: Purpurea ‘Nana,’ right. The foliage again, linear almost a little tiny needle thing. It has a bluish green cast. It’s on the bluer side. Yes?

Ken: Definitely. I grow that next to—this is really odd. There is a sapling of a giant red-leaf maple, so I always prune the Arctic willow, which maybe you do, too,; I shape it in the spring. And I cut the red maple at the same time. The red maple is a shrub, and the Arctic willow is a shrub. The color of the deep ruby red with the silvery-blue Arctic willow, that’s great [laughter]. I love that. [Above, the pairing of plants at Ken’s.]

Margaret: Again, it’s not all about flowers, even to get color.

Ken: No flowers.

Margaret: The foliage. I’m staring out the window up the hill, above the meadow and one of the plants I planted in the earliest years here was small and I dragged it up the hill with help from a neighbor, is a copper beech. So it’s purple. Now it’s this massive old tree and whatever. So every day that it’s in leaf, it gives me a lot of color in that direction, which is kind of fun.

So your variegation thing, let’s just in these next few minutes… I only have a few key variegated plants. One on sort of an axial view at a distance from the backyard. So you’re in the backyard and if you look in one direction, you see it kind of beckoning.

And it’s a variegated, a grafted Aralia [Aralia elata ‘Silver Umbrella’]--a spikenard that’s grafted. It’s white and green, this kind of crazy thing. It gets fruit and whatever. I have a gold, and goldish and I don’t know, pale green variegated version in the front yard. So when you come in the driveway, you sort of see that as a beacon in the nearer distance. Anyway, those.

Then I love the variegated Cornus, the dogwood, the shrub dogwood with gold twigs called Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold,’ a long-time-ago Mt. Cuba Center introduction from Delaware. A native shrub, but with a variegated leaf, and then of course the gold twigs in the winter.

But I don’t have a lot of other variegated plants, some hostas and so forth. You have a lot more. So just in these last few minutes or so I want to hear a little bit about some real stalwart, ones you wouldn’t live without kind of, because it can get to be a little much like a crazy collection. Do you have some?

Ken: Well, I’m thinking about that looking out and I guess if you have a couple of things, maybe it seems odd, but I have a lot of things and they just sort of blend in. There’s a redbud, a Cercis called ‘Silver Cloud’ that has almost white leaves. It’s a tree with, they’re almost white. The leaves are amazing. I’m a distance away, my eye goes right to it. I have a lot of Brunnera [above at Ken’s]. We’ve talked about that. It seemed to be your favorite.

Margaret: No, it’s not [laughter].

Ken: But it grows in dry shade and self-sows and has sex, and there’s all different ones. But I do have one that I planted a couple of years ago called ‘Alexander’s Great’ that has silver veins. I’m in love with a tree that is crazy. It’s a kind of white mulberry Morus alba, and it has a name. It’s called ‘Snowflake Lobed.’

You’d never see it for sale, ever, except for one place, which is Glasshouse Works. I got it and it was about 4 inches tall and that’s a long time ago. Now it’s a tree and each leaf is different. It’s very deeply lobed. The variegation, which can be dark green, chartreuse, yellow, and white at the same time, is very graphic. It’s in angular, geometric shapes.

I can see why it’s not a popular plant, because it reverts. I don’t mean the whole plant, but it pushes out big green leaves on stems through the whole season. It seems to be getting worse [laughter]. I cut them off because it wants to be a big green tree, I guess. I think it took a long time because the initial cutting must have been from a side branch, because it just didn’t want to grow for a decade, but the leaves are remarkable. I show it to guests when they come. Sorry.

Margaret: So it’s a mulberry, is that correct? You said Morus alba, is that right?

Ken: Right.

Margaret: It sounds like the leaves that are desirable, the variegated ones are almost like a stained glass or something. You said geometric sort of sections of color?

Ken: Yes. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe it. Especially the shape. People know what lobed is, but they think maybe of an oak. It’s very deeply lobed. It’s like a kid’s drawing or something [laughter].

Margaret: Those are some favorites. We have a minute. Anything else you want to show?

Ken: I love my horseradish [laughter].

Margaret: Yes, you have the variegated horseradish.

Ken: People come and everybody wants to grow food and they say, “Do you ever harvest it?” I know if I harvested it, I wouldn’t have it anymore. Of course, it’s probably gigantic now. There’s plenty, but how much horseradish do you need?

Margaret: Not much.

Ken: A tablespoon? I’m not going to sacrifice a big plant for that.

Margaret: Speaking of edible texture, I have a big, big, big patch in a key spot, of rhubarb [above]. Everybody wants to know why, “You must have so much rhubarb to eat in the spring.” And I’m like, no, because I wait until way past the perfect, tender time for eating the rhubarb because I just love this giant mound of giant leaves. It’s about 9 feet across and gets, I don’t know, 4 or 5 feet high. Then it flowers at like three or four feet above that. So it’s a wonderful thing.

Ken: You’re not supposed to like the flowers.

Margaret: I know. I know, but I love them. So anyway, we have to stop but we’re just saying to everybody, it’s not just about flowers, especially to get through times like this in the season. It’s about leaves, leaves, leaves, texture, maybe variegation, some color and so forth and juxtaposing them. So thanks. It’s good to talk to you and I’ll talk to you later, O.K.?

Ken: Thanks, Margaret.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 16, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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