Late Summer Beauty

I attended a lovely event the other night at the Redfern Arts Center on the campus of Keene State College and something caught my eye. The event was The Sentinel’s Extraordinary Women celebration and aside from the incredible ladies that were being honored that night, I saw a couple extraordinary gardens that drew me back two days later for closer inspection.

I try to visit my alma mater every year at least once for the sole purpose of wandering the campus arboretum to see the plantings. I usually go in spring when all the mass-planted tulips are putting on a show, but I hadn’t done it this year.

The two gardens that really caught my eye were right at the entryways of the ‘80s-built Redfern building that sits on the bank of a small pond. The first was a series of three raised beds constructed of big shaped slabs of concrete and they were a terrific exercise in a well-balanced mix of annuals and perennials.

The tallest of the grouping was some type of ornamental red maple — perhaps Japanese maples —surrounded by layers of coleus, sweet potato vine, a small yellow daisy-like bloomer and then accented with a light hand by pretty red dahlias. There were three of the substantial rectangular planters flanking the main exterior staircase that leads up to the theatres. Quite striking and a reminder that yes, you can keep a bed of mostly annuals looking spectacular throughout the entire season if you feed them well.

It’s easy to think that annuals planted in a good, often fortified, planting mix will only require watering throughout the season but time and again, I’ve learned that’s just not so. In order to keep those constant bloomers producing, you’ve just got to keep hitting them with plant food or they simply exhaust all the nutrients in the soil and look less and less impressive as the season progresses.

I use good old Miracle Gro soluble granules with one of those hose attachments that sends that shower of miraculous blue water to a plant’s roots. I just saw the other day Miracle Gro even comes in an organic recipe, but I’ve been using the blue stuff so long, I’m hesitant to switch it up. I feed all my annuals in containers at least once a week, sometimes twice.

I’ve been thrilled this year in particular with my combination of dwarf Cleome, Rosalita and Black and Blue Salvia. So have the hummingbirds. The salvia is so big and boisterous, even when a recent thunderstorm broke off a large chunk, it still looks stunning.

The other garden I noticed at Keene State was a lovely shaded bed of giant elephant ears — Colocasia. That’s it, just Colocasia, but probably about twenty individual plants. It was striking and I immediately made a mental note that I’d like an entire bed of it. Maybe next summer!

Several hours after my walk, here as I write this, I’ve toned down my ambitions to perhaps a couple oversized pots of elephant ear next year. What I don’t need is another garden to establish and maintain and the individual bulbs of Colocasia are fairly pricy.

Gorgeous oversized plants, they’re worth the investment of at least a half dozen. They’re a tender perennial (like dahlias and glads) and you’ve got to lift them and store for the winter in an above-freezing spot.

I wandered about a quarter of the campus and I’m kind of glad I did it late season this year. The registered arboretum of trees is enough to draw your interest throughout the entire campus, but these seasonal, institutional-sized annual gardens are the wow factor.

I also found a nice bed of Datura, also known as angel’s trumpets. Datura is the upright form and I’ve only grown the tree version of their cousin, Brugmansia, with its intoxicatingly beautiful, pendulous blooms.

Again, another tender tropical perennial, they have to be protected indoors in the winter. The Datura was a double trumpet, white with deep purple swirl throughout. Gorgeous.

Maybe another investment for next year.