by Kyle Billadeau, Chaska, MN
The daylily collector’s garden is full of eye candy. Bold colors, wicked forms –the daylily is without question the prima donna in our yards. I can’t count the number of times I’ve received directions to a daylily garden that concluded with the words “and then you can’t miss it.” Yep, we kind of stand out in the neighborhood like the floozy who dropped in at the local church ladies’ Bible study. The neighbors smile and compliment the beauty, but privately they shake their heads at our gaudy excess.
So, how can we make our gardens more memorable… but not in a bad way? Well, just as every diva needs good backup singers, the allure of our gardens depends on more than pretty flowers. It’s all about depth – combining the leading lady with the right supporting cast to create a pleasing ensemble. And one way to do that is to focus on texture in our choice of daylily companions.
Texture is rarely the primary reason for selection a daylily companion plant. Size and color are probably first, followed perhaps by bloom season. Texture is a more understated element, somewhat like the character actor in the troupe. The sidekick, the scene stealer, or just the bit eccentric – you can find a plant with the texture to fit all manner of roles in the daylily garden.
All surfaces have texture. Many times we think of texture as roughness, but smooth is a texture too. Foliage can be fine or coarse. Leaves may be bold or delicate; plant habit can be airy or dense. Texture can be inviting, yet repellent. One of my favorite companion plants, Eryngium, is just such an example. The flowers and stems are the most intense shade of blue, but both are sharp and spiny. Yet I wish I had room to plant an Eryngium next to every daylily clump in my garden, because the contrast is so visually appealing.
There are two types of texture – tactile and visual. Tactile texture is the feel of a surface. Google the phrase ‘sensory garden’ and the most common plant you’ll find mentioned is Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantis). Fuzzy plants are wonderful, but if you stopped there you’d be missing out on many gratifying ‘touch-me’ plants. My containers are filled each summer with plants just begging to be touched – such as ‘Asparagus Meyeri’ (Pony Tail Fern), and various curly sedges with their deliciously tangled mop of leaves.
Out in the garden, you’ll find me pinching the succulents, marveling at their waxy substance, or lightly brushing the fine, soft needles on my Japanese larch. I confess that unless it’s a member of the thistle family, I’m not content just to look; I’m drawn to touch the plants. Late each winter, when I can’t wait any longer for spring, I visit a local greenhouse to walk the rows and run my fingers along all the plants. There are few flowers at that point, but the smell and feel of the leaves rustling as I brush past leave me uplifted.
Tactile texture is intrinsically related to visual texture. Think about Lamb’s Ear for a moment. Imagine closing your eyes and touching Lamb’s Ear. How would you describe it? You might say fuzzy, soft or silky. Now imagine a photograph of Lamb’s Ear – what words would you use to describe the texture? Probably the same – fuzzy, soft or silky. Visual texture conveys how the plant feels. Lighting can change the visual quality of plant texture. Bright light erases texture, making surfaces appear flat. Angled H. ‘Dashing Paramour’ (Schaben–g., 2006) contrasts wonderfully with the spiny Eryngium H. ‘Abundance of Riches’ (Rice–J., 2005) set off by the purple flowers of Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ by Kyle Billadeau Chaska, such as morning or evening light, reveals the texture details that were hiding behind the bright colors that engaged your eyes at midday. Consider the recently introduced Tiger Eyes™ Sumac. On a bright, sunny day Tiger Eyes™ is bold, gold, and dramatic. But walk by in the early evening, and layers of texture become apparent. The leaves glow chartreuse against the reddishtipped branches, and the eye now catches the jagged edges that were dulled by sunshine.
Texture is not just for close-ups. The texture of some plants is more interesting with distance. For example, Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root) has plain, green foliage with simple white flowers when observed up close. But viewed in the landscape, the soft spikes of Culver’s Root are an airy, vertical counterpart to the daylily clumps. The texture of this versatile perennial combines well with just about anything.
Texture is an important design element, even in the large landscape. As an example, look at the above photos of a seedling bed at Springwood Gardens. The original photo (top) has a row of arborvitae in the background, adding a billowy texture that enhances the composition. The altered photo (bottom) with the arborvitae removed, becomes an image without a focal point. The arborvitae may be plain and green, but they provide the perfect touch of contrast to the mass of daylily blooms.
So the next time you visit your local nursery to choose a companion plant, consider texture as you make your selection. Go ahead, touch the merchandise! There’s no need for a total makeover, but do squeeze in a few textural accents to balance out all your prima donnas. In truth, the daylily collector’s garden will probably always be a bit ostentatious in most neighborhoods. That’s all right, it gives the neighbors something to talk about.
Following are some plant recommendations for adding texture to the daylily garden. There is not enough space to list the hundreds of perennials enjoyed in my garden, so this is a short list of the plants most commented on by garden visitors. All are hardy perennials grown for years here in zone 4, with the exception of Milk Thistle (an annual here). All are fuss-free and deserving of a spot in any daylily garden.
Allium tanguticum ‘Summer Beauty’
If I moved and could only take 10 plants with me, I’d dig this one up in a heartbeat. It has no flaws. None. The shiny flat leaves form a perfect circular mound, while masses of purple globes open midJuly and stay blooming for weeks. Unlike most Allium, it is sterile so will not reseed. Bees and butterflies love it, and so does my camera. Fabulous in front of daylily clumps. 18″ tall by 18″ wide, divides easily, sun to part shade.
Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Willow Amsonia’
Tall blue-green, willow-like foliage, with steel-blue flowers in spring. First year plants may be droopy, but give it another year and it will clump up nicely. Understated, fine-textured background plant. 3′ tall by 18″ wide. Sun to part shade.
Carex carophyllea ‘Beatlemania’
Also known as Mop Head Sedge, this totally pettable ornamental grass is only 6″ tall. It’s a slow grower that forms an arching mound, with green leaves edged in gold, and leaves that curl under. Put it in a waist-high container, so you can tousle it whenever you walk by (absolutely irresistible), then plant into the ground in fall. 6″ tall by 8″ wide, full sun to part shade.
Tickseed – ‘Moonbeam’ is the gold standard for Coreopsis. Known for its soft, finetextured, delicate foliage and butteryellow blooms, ‘Moonbeam’ looks great in the front of the border. The billowy clumps can spread, but just dig out the shoots if it travels too far. Two newer varieties that are promoted as improvements with deeper colored flowers are ‘Crème Brulee’ and ‘Sunbeam.’ 18″ tall by at least 2′ wide at maturity, sun to part shade.
Eryngium ‘Sapphire Blue’
Steely blue flowers last for months in the garden. Flowers open green, then develop to intense blue, and fade to steely grey-blue by August. Sterile, so it won’t reseed all over the garden. Excellent choice as a blue accent plant. Choose its planting spot carefully, because it’s not fun to brush up against, and it grows a deep taproot so cannot be transplanted. 20″ tall by 18″ wide. Sun to part sun.
Eryngium planum ‘Blaukappe’
Tall and lanky as compared to ‘Sapphire Blue.’ Not sterile, but the rate of reseeding is not too bad. Smaller, yet more numerous flowers than ‘Sapphire Blue,’ and it is definitely the bluest Eryngium I have grown. May need some staking. Grows 2-3′ tall by 2′ wide. Sun to part sun.
Larix kaempferi (Japanese Larch)
The soft, pliable needles of this tree call out to be touched. This is a deciduous evergreen with amazing color – light green in spring, deep blue-green in summer, and a golden tan in fall before the needles drop for winter. Fast growing conifer for the large landscape. Grows 50′ tall x 10′ wide, full sun.
Persicaria polymorpha (Giant fleece flower)
Dying back to the ground each winter, this shrub-like plant grows rapidly in spring to top out at 6-7′ tall. Massive white plumes bloom all summer, waving delicately but untouched by gusty winds. A phenomenal background plant; useful for screening the neighbor’s ugly woodpile or even your compost heap. Sun to shade.
Perovskia (Russian sage)
Tall spikes of fluffly flowers look like airy purple clouds. Russian sage needs full sun and drier soil, so it is a great option for a hillside. It may flop, so use a support to keep it off of neighboring plants. Good for the back of the border, but keep it close enough to run your hands through it once in a while to enjoy its spicy fragrance. Cut back to 6″ in early spring. 3-4′ tall and 3′ wide, full sun.
Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ PPAF (Tiger Eyes™ Sumac)
An impact plant that can be used either as a specimen or combined within a garden bed. Open, loose form with branches arching upward, while lacy leaves droop downward. Brilliant orange fall color. Bold, deeply-cut, chartreuse leaves stay gold all summer and turn bright orange in fall. Grows to 6′ tall by 6′ wide, larger in full sun.
Silybum marianum (Milk thistle)
If you like the strange and wacky, then plant a milk thistle. You’ll need full sun and lots of room. I usually find them at one of the herb vendors at the farmer’s market. The sharp, toothy leaves are variegated and deeply veined. Best to deadhead this one before it sets seed, because in most gardens one is more than enough. Can grow to 12′ tall by 4′ wide, full sun.
Spiraea japonica ’Golden Elf’
This dwarf spiraea is a perfect border in a daylily bed. The bright gold leaves provide color well into fall. Can be pruned into perfectly round little balls, or grown close together to form a puffy edger. 8″ tall by up to 2′ wide, full sun.
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’ (Culver’s Root)
Tall spires of white flowers sway above deep green foliage. Goes with absolutely anything. Requires absolutely nothing. The overall effect is strongly vertical, yet delicate. Will grow in either full sun or part shade, 5′ tall by 3′ wide.