March was soggy and cold, a grey month punctuated by short-lived wrenchings of the jet stream that forced the temperature up randomly but which seemed out of tune with the backdrop of naked trees and dun lawns. The rain filled Brawley’s* Lagoon, the small lake that forms in our backyard whenever we have persistent precipitation. We named it, affectionately, for our contractor Joe Brawley*, who built the retaining wall that straddles what was originally a steeply sloping back lot. Joe graded and filled the area behind the wall, following my plan for a small central lawn bordered on all sides by raised beds, evergreen screens and a potting shed meant to imitate a weathered but not-too-shabby Carolina outbuilding. A towering pecan shades the northeast corner, while the exposed beds to the southeast are haven to heirloom roses, bearded iris, peonies and herbs. To the southwest, lightly shaded by an existing dogwood and a couple of native hardwoods, I am growing hydrangea, Japanese maple, camellia and deciduous magnolia.
On the northwest quadrant of the ‘New Garden,’ as I call it, some original plans had to be revised after it became clear, almost as soon as the grading and wall construction were finished, that the leveled garden was draining more slowly than the original slope. Joe and I had prepared for this inevitability, we thought. He had filled the concrete block walls with gravel and had channeled plastic pipe under the lowest and highest wall on the pecan’s end. Run-off flows harmlessly out the pipe there and down the lower half of our lawn on its way to the ditch and eventually to Doolittle Creek. But because of the way the hill is contoured on the lots above us, the infill behind the western side of the wall collects more water in heavy rains and leaches it out much more slowly.
Joe dug out a drain at the lowest part of the lawn here (and it's a good thing he didn't mind being closely supervised by a cat). This eased the problem slightly, but I realized that I would have to modify my plans for this area and convert it into a Rain Garden. Luckily, I know what plants do well in wet areas, having previously landscaped a garden devised to slow and retain storm-water runoff from two drainpipes. But in that garden I was working with mostly shady conditions. This bed is exposed to full sun for twenty-four hours a day, twelve months out of the year.
I planted the obvious choices first: bee balm and coneflower. A passalong division of ‘Goldsturm’ rudbeckia went in there too – black-eyed Susan is so unfussy it will tolerate damp soil or dry. On a trip to Roses Unlimited in Laurens two springs past I picked up a 1-gallon swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, the only rose I know of that likes wet feet. At maturity this American native can be quite large (and this specimen has already quadrupled in size), its arching canes spreading out about ten feet. Like most species-roses it only blooms once, in April, but if happy, the shrub will be smothered in single pink flowers for two to three weeks.
In the lowest and wettest part of the bed, where the drain forms a shallow seam under the soil, I planted several varieties of my favorite perennial, the iris. While bearded iris require dry, alkaline soil (that’s why my bearded varieties ‘Afternoon Delight’, ‘Gypsy Romance’ and ‘Lemon-Lime’ are all planted in the high gravel garden in the southeast bed, among the chives and rosemary), beardless iris, including Siberian (I. siberica), Japanese (I. ensata), Louisiana and species types, tolerate a great deal of moisture and heavier soil. In fact, Louisiana iris and Iris virginica, the Southern blue flag, will thrive in standing water so long as they have sunlight, so clumps of these were tucked into the wet clay.
|BEFORE: the New Garden|
|AFTER: The New Garden 5 mos. later|
(L to R: ginger lily, Black-eyed Susan, Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock,' bee balm)
Many of my irises are gifts or swaps from gardening friends I made through my years as a member of the Charlotte Iris Society, and it’s a bonus of gardening that you are reminded of these people every time you tend the plant that passed from their hands to yours. I obtained the Louisiana iris ‘Red Dazzler’ this way, from Pat. R., as well as the elegant Iris versicolor selection, christened ‘Swords of Murex’ by iris fancier and hybridizer, Barbara A. This plant’s parent was found growing beside the Santee River, and belongs to a group of water-loving iris known for the brilliant purple coloring at the base of their fans. Its navy-blue flowers are poised on purple stalks.
|Louisiana iris 'Red Dazzler' with |
Loropetalum chinense 'Ever Red'
In this wettest part of the garden I also planted clumps of the southern favorite, ginger lily, which doesn’t seem to get growing until summer rains have fed its foliage, and makes us wait until September for the deeply fragrant flowers. The white-flowered species, Hedychium coronarium, is the hardiest, but just for contrast I planted it beside ‘Pink Flame,’ a hybrid ginger that boasts sunset-toned blossoms dripping with a scent like fresh grapefruit.
|Ginger lily, Hedychium coronarium, in bloom|
What this bed truly needed as an anchor, however, was a tree. A large tree would have been out of scale, but it needed to be sizable enough to make a focal point that could be appreciated from the kitchen, where I spend hours standing at the sink looking up the slope at that part of the garden. It didn’t take me long to settle on a willow, Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock,’ to be exact. It stays small, unlike its giant weeping cousin, and before the leaves emerge its branches sport woolly catkins dusted with yellow anthers that offer visual interest when it is most welcome. I ordered this one from Kline’s, the very good nursery outside Shelby, NC, and it has thrived in its damp, sunny bed, striking a Dr. Seuss-ish note of whimsicality in that corner. If I could just prevent our adopted dog Alice from tearing off its pliant branches and Miss Billie the cat from sharpening her claws on its tender trunk, it may yet survive.
I often wonder about the names growers bestow on their introductions. I remember asking Barbara A. how she came up with the name ‘Swords of Murex’ for her iris, not having grasped the Biblical allusion. She explained that it’s a nod to the blue dye extracted from murex shells found in the seas that lapped ancient Tyre (from Ezekiel 27:7, “…blue and purple from the isles of Elishah was that which covered thee”). A name isn’t everything, of course, but the right one can enhance the fortunes of a plant, or a child, while a poor choice can be hard to overcome. In the garden a badly named plant isn’t snubbed by its fellows nor by good fortune, but it does give less pleasure, somehow. I was glad when the arborvitae ‘Smargd’ was re-named ‘Emerald,’ for instance, because I grew weary of repeating the German name (and mangling it badly) whenever garden visitors asked me what the vigorous green shrub was called.
|Iris ensata (species type) 'Emotion'|
in Rain Garden
I especially like literary names in the garden, because they’re easy for me to remember and they evoke my second favorite pastime after gardening. For my birthday last year my husband ordered me one of the David Austin roses (which I’d sworn off as being unfit for southern climes, and which I’m constantly being lured back to by catalog promises of blowsy cabbage roses and ethereal fragrance). ‘Jude the Obscure’ has an angular habit and a stiffly self-conscious presence, much like what I imagine Hardy’s tragic protagonist possessed. And with apologies to Shakespeare, I believe that the rich citrus fragrance of Jude’s apricot blossoms is sweeter in my nose because of the rose’s name.
I especially approve of my dwarf willow’s name, Salix c. ‘Kilmarnock,’ which lends the curious little tree some dignity, and what I mistakenly assumed was Hibernian provenance. Checking the tree’s cultivation needs on the internet one day, I followed a small link and ended up spending time I could not spare descending ever deeper into the history of the Boyd family in Kilmarnock, Scotland, not Ireland. The Boyds had nothing to do with this willow, that tree having originated with a botanist named James Surra who lived early in the 19th century at Monkswood in Ayrshire. It was Surra who sold one of his willows to a nurseryman named Lang, and Lang got the ball rolling, horticulturally. However, by the time I sorted this out I had already mixed up the willow’s poetically pendant habit in my mind with the tragic plight of the 4th Earl of Kilmarnock, William Boyd.
Boyd was beheaded in 1746 after being captured by the British at Culloden. He had time enough to repent of his treason in supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the throne of George II, a lapse of judgment which was either due, depending on whose story one believes, to the influence of his wife or to “one of those generous impulses peculiar to his nature”(Buchanan 47). This plucky Scot left behind three sons, one of whom was captured on the same battlefield as his father and who was exiled for twenty years before his eldest brother could arrange his return, as his father begged him to do. I read of this in a letter the Earl entrusted to his factor, a Mr. Robert Paterson, on the eve of his execution.
Mr. Boyd must have been a very decent and principled man, his treason notwithstanding, given how he fretted over the necessity of finding cash enough to pay off Scottish shoemakers who had been left holding the bag for seventy pairs of brogans issued to Jacobite troops under his command. And his concern for his wife is achingly contemporary, considering how many years ago he begged Paterson to break the news of his execution “by degrees, and with as great tenderness as the nature of the thing will admit of…You will take all pains to comfort her, and relieve the grief I know she will be in… she is what I leave dearest in the world, and the greatest service you can do to your dead friend is to contribute as much as possible to her happiness…” (50).
However carefully Mr. Paterson may have endeavored to deliver the news, along with the letter, his efforts seem not to have softened the blow. When the countess learned that her cheerful husband’s head had been lopped off, that her 18-year-old son was banished, and that his brothers were in peril of having their titles stripped and their ancestral home seized by the crown in forfeiture for the family’s betrayal, she went into deep mourning from which she could not be retrieved. In a park on the former grounds of Kilmarnock House, where the family lived after Dean Castle was gutted by fire in 1735, there is apparently a trail named “Lady’s Walk.” It honors the path Anne Boyd wore into the ground, day after day, trying to tramp out her grief (and guilt?) beneath the trees beside Kilmarnock Water. One year after her husband’s beheading she died from a broken heart.
|The Kilmarnock dwarf willow in March|
I am trying hard not to let such deeply tragic associations turn me cold to the little willow, which is struggling to survive a spring that seems better suited to Glasgow than sunny South Carolina. I have driven sharpened bamboo spikes into the earth around its tattered skirt, hoping to keep the pets at bay, but Alice chews the spikes to flakes with her piranha-sharp teeth, a blissful grin on her face. Everything in the garden looks tattered at this time of year, so I must remind myself to see it as the tax assessor apparently did when he drove past the property last summer. When our combined tax bill from Tomahawk County* and the town of Traveler’s Joy* arrived in September last year, we were stunned to discover that our rate had increased by 814%. Thinking there must have been a clerical error, my husband called the tax office. A staffer checked the records and informed us that no, there was no error. The assessor had noted on his report that in the last year the owners had installed a ‘new wall, plantings and outbuilding’ which had increased the value of the property eight-fold.
It pleases me on some level to have our hard work recognized. But I hadn’t foreseen in what an unwelcome context this “appreciation” would arrive. All my research on the Boyds of Kilmarnock has inspired me to lay down a path this summer. It will make a complete circuit of the New Garden, leading strollers past the dusty shed and the rabbit den burrowed beneath the fire-pit, taking in the fig tree cordoned off with chicken wire from Alice’s teeth. They will be regaled with the loud buzz of the commercial ice machine on Tomahawk Road before finally traversing a set of stepping stones that will wind around the pussy-excoriated pussy willow and pass through the dampest part of Brawley’s Lagoon. I plan to call this trail “Tax Hike.”
|Tiny Alice and Miss Billie watch for the tax collector|
Buchanan, John. Interesting Relics of the Last Earl of Kilmarnock: Beheaded on Tower-hill, 1746. Glasgow: James MacNabb, 1870. Print.