Our several mixed borders at Tennessee Dixter have been, and are, a little off this year from past performances. I have been somewhat disappointed in them and have been reluctant to have garden visitors.
There are several reasons for it. One, of course, is the weather. We’ve had some mini-droughts, but not the killers we have expected in the past. Then there were torrential downpours in spring and early fall that washed detritus from here to Springville bottom. Other than the washouts, the effect has been a lot of fungal problems that go with wet and hot weather.
Then there are the ever-present voles, moles, deer, and, in recent years, armadillos, the latter having the propensity to root up plants and soil like hogs, in pursuit, I imagine, of grubs.
These kinds of pernicious entities come and go (mostly come) with relative regularity, but there is yet another factor that has come to the fore that is here to stay. It is my practice, in deference to old(er) age, to have been adding into the mix of my borders, fewer perennials and more shrubs, the latter being, for the most part, of less intensive maintenance than herbaceous things.
Few shrubs offer as much total bloom as perennials and annuals, so a drop-off in color is the sad result of the changeover. Most people naturally equate color, or lack of it, in a garden with its attraction, or lack of it. My suffering has been intense, in equal ratio to that of the frailties of old(er) age.
On the other hand, there are some (few) shrubs that are at home in a mixed border. I have always had them there, but there are more there now than ever before.
Just showing up this year is a bright yellow ligustrum (read privet), ‘Sunshine.’ The foliage is evergreen, but the best part of it all is the fact that it is sterile, with no flowers and resulting berries. Most ligustrums are prolific weeds, spreading via birds eating and dropping the berries. There are whole climax forests hereabouts of wild privet.
‘Sunshine’ ligustrum is outlawed for sale in Tennessee. The powers that be in Nashville or somewhere declared most privets noxious weeds some years ago, ignoring (or ignorant of) the fact that there are some that are not weeds. One of them is ‘Sunshine.’ I got my two specimens in Kentucky, where sale is legal, as it should be.
‘Sunshine’ will grow, rather quickly, to four or five feet or slightly more, and is easily kept lower with discerning pruning. I have one, planted last year, that is now some three feet tall. The glossy leaves are yellow the year-round and pay plenty of rent in the location in a mixed border. It replaced some too-prevalent summer phloxes.
There are many other yellow-leaved shrubs, most of them deciduous. Yellow barberries are good, but not evergreen. And they have those disconcerting thorns.
I have another specimen of ‘Sunshine’, about three years old, pruned into a small tree. It brings a lot of comment, and would bring more if it were an evergreen Japanese maple. Just say “privet” and most people are turned off. I was at first, before I learned the value of ‘Sunshine.’
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.