Simpson Gardens Roundup: A Season of Renovation

by Christa Watters, Extension Master Gardeners

Have you ever looked around your yard and thought that it was time to shake things up and reinvigorate the garden? Maybe you will benefit from the experience of the dedicated team at one our demonstration gardens, who have spent the last year working hard on renewal of the garden.

July view of the renovated Berm Garden in progress.
Photo © 2019 by Christa Watters

Last fall, after Simpson Gardens celebrated its 25th anniversary our team of regulars took a look at the future. The Waterwise Garden at the entrance to the area where we garden was dedicated in 1993. The other beds that now represent the majority of our garden were begun in 1997–98. Not surprisingly, as the gardens matured, they changed, as did the principles of gardening taught to and by Master Gardener Extension volunteers. Some of our beds were overgrown and overcrowded – plants had become too large, or natives planted with good intentions had become overly aggressive and taken over. Other beds were increasingly shaded out by tree growth, so we needed to reevaluate what would succeed there. Our crew of Extension Master Gardener volunteers decided it was time to review and renew.

Planning and Preparing

We decided that the Berm, the large bed centering the main garden, was the first place we should tackle.  Anne Lassiter, who has been gardening at Simpson since 2005, took a lead role in helping to decide which plants to remove, how to organize those plants saved for color massing and garden structure, and what new plants to add for color, texture and pollinator health.  Given a limited budget and a large garden, we needed to make use of as much plant material as we could from the existing garden as well as to solicit plant contributions from Master Gardeners.

Asclepias incarnata, in the Berm Garden.
Photo © 2018 by Christa Watters

We started digging and moving late last fall. We had masses of Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ (beardtongue). A native of the prairies, it was named “Plant of the Year” by the Perennial Plant Association in 1996, and while it is reliably durable and beautiful, it is also a fairly aggressive spreader. It was time to thin it out radically. While digging, we also clustered all the Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), a native plant and Monarch food) in one corner of the bed, backing them with several Boltonia asteroides (false asters) we assembled from here and there on the far side of the bed. We divided the native Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhlygrass), into three smaller clumps. We moved and divided the Kniphofia uvaria (red hot poker plants) and grouped daylilies and iris to enhance color massing. We thinned out the stand of Silphium perfoliatum (cup plants) and its cousins that had seeded out prodigiously and moved individual Lobelia siphilitica (blue cardinal flower), grouping them in a different bed. By the time winter arrived, the Berm looked a bit bare, but we were hopeful, and Anne was making plant lists for spring.

A New Leadership Team

During the winter we also reorganized our leadership team. Audrey Faden had retired for health reasons and Beth Tindal had moved away. Carol Kilroy and I stepped down to become a little less involved. Denise Dieter stayed on and Susan Bruns stepped up to lead the new team. Anne Lassiter is our steady source of design ideas and horticultural knowledge. Catherine Barry took on tracking our finances; Edna Mancias became our archivist; Roberta Randolph agreed to send out the weekly work party announcements and other critical e-mails to MGNV’s listserv.

The Berm, the Pollinator Garden and the Waterwise Garden

When we began working again in late winter, we first tackled the Berm.  It had always been difficult to work in because of its size, slope, and density.  It needed access paths.  When spring arrived, we bought and placed stepping stones that made it much easier to work and also provided some logical divisions and clustering for the bed.  We continued reorganization of the bed, adding some new perennials and shrubs to ensure a succession of color and blooms throughout the season.  The Berm is not yet complete but major progress has been made, and we expect to complete it next year.

Small groups tackled the big pollinator bed, thinning out aggressive natives such as oat grass and invading vines and weeds.

A few of us (kudos to Denise Dieter and Pat Collins) also spent several work parties pruning back the spreading older shrubs, grasses, and herbs that had spread aggressively over 25 years in the Waterwise bed near the park entrance. Our work revealed the original stone borders and other stone focal points that had been overgrown, and we cleaned up the nearby flagstone bed.


Revitalizing the Scented Garden, and other beds

As warmer weather came, Edna Mancias and helpers, including intern-turned-new MG Elaine Kramer, tackled the Scented Garden, thinning out or replacing overgrown shrubby plants and perennials, clustering the new annual herbs with rich colors and scents, and thinning the iris after bloom.

Sweet fern with baby in the Scented Garden.
Photo © 2019 by Christa Watters

Our Comptonia peregrina (sweet fern), which we’d been nursing along since its infancy, finally made the leap this year, becoming sizable and beautiful and creating an offspring plant.

Lorraine Fishback has taken primary responsibility for renovating the bed under the Princess Diana serviceberry tree and the diverse little spaces under the adjacent crape myrtle. Gerry Smolka regularly works there and in the Scented Garden.

Looking to the Future

Much remains to be done. Over the coming winter we will plan further improvements to the Pollinator Bed and its smaller extension behind the kiosk. Catherine Barry has vastly improved the large Tufa Bed, but the small one at the front will require our attention next spring. We need to find better ways to accommodate the increased shade in the shade beds. While some parts of the garden are rich in spring blooms, other parts lack early color, so this fall we added over 200 new bulbs. We want to increase the ratio of natives, while retaining some of the more unusual plants in our collection as both curiosities and teaching points. The garden recognizes the need for plants that provide structure and focal points as well as food for the many birds, bees, butterflies, and other insects who live and visit there.

Simpson Work Crew in November.
Photo © 2019 by Roberta Randolph

Because the garden is in a park next to a playground and numerous playing fields as well as adjacent to a YMCA, we get a lot of foot traffic. Almost any time one of us visits, we have contacts with neighbors and other visitors asking questions about gardening, or sitting on our bench and just soaking up the quiet and beauty.

Simpson truly fills the function of serving as a demonstration garden. We are grateful to the many volunteers who make our work parties so productive. Come join us next season and get more ideas for renovating your own garden.

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