Astilbes in the Summer Garden

In 1965, Dr. Charles Richards, while still teaching at University of Maine, purchased a secluded cottage and three acres of granite outcropping in Washington County, overlooking the Gulf of Maine.  He immediately set to work, planting native trees among the sheep laurel and other coastal scrub wherever there was enough soil for roots to take hold, looking ahead to a retirement spent gardening.

Over time, he exposed more of the granite, saving the peat for soil amendment, and filled in the depressions among the rocks with loam and compost to create the foundation of his future garden.  He hauled stones by boat from outlying islands to form garden paths, an enormous task.

Dr. Richards, at 92, now spends most of his days in his garden, leaving it only for the coldest months.  From the window of his den, he can see over the tops of large rhododendrons and conifers, all planted over 40 years ago, to the shoreline and, beyond, to the ocean.

When Marjorie and I walked through the gate of Dr. Richards’ garden for the first time this summer, we were not prepared for the colorful scene that greeted us.  A river of color flowed around tall spruce trunks and granite boulders, dappled sunlight brightening some sections of the stream, deep shade darkening others.

At first all I could see were the plume-like astilbe blossoms held high on tall, stiff stalks, the soft pinks, bright purples, and brilliant whites, but as my eyes adjusted I began to pick out other colors, the yellows and oranges of daylilies, the pink of spirea and deep burgundy red of Japanese maple foliage.  So many astilbes!

Accustomed to astilbes in small doses, I had to ask of Dr. Richards, why so many?  The answer was simple and pragmatic: they will tolerate a lot of shade, they are relatively pest free — deer and slugs leave them alone–, and they will tolerate the thin, acidic soil.  “They do need water,” he added.  “In hot, dry weather, their foliage will burn.”  Dr. Richards drags the hose around his garden during dry spells.

He feels that astilbes are among the easiest perennials to grow.  Just divide them when they grow too large and add more compost to the beds each spring.  The later can be accomplished with annual mulching, using compost or aged manure, but he advises that you also rework the astilbe bed every three years or so, digging up the plants in early spring, adding plenty of compost, then replanting the astilbes after dividing those that need it.

Astilbes will bloom in the shade, but they need some direct sunlight to achieve full size.  The dappled shade in Dr. Richards’ garden moves across the garden in the course of each sunny day, allowing each plant a sufficient measure of full sun.

Adding to the list of astilbe virtues, he is quick to add that the plants stay in bloom for several weeks in summer, slowly fading as they dry.  By early September, their dried brown seed heads give the garden a beautiful autumnal look.

Marjorie and I were both in awe at the swarms of pollinators foraging on the astilbe blooms.  We walked through clouds of butterflies, bees, and hover flies.

Pressed to name his favorite astilbe varieties, Dr. Richards said he was concentrating on the Vision series, a group of low-growing (12 to 18 inches tall) Chinese astilbes (Astilbe chinensis) with lacy foliage topped by dense upright plumes of lavender, red, or white flowers.
He is also growing the Gloria series (Astilbe arendsii), red and white varieties which he feels have exceptionally nice foliage after blooming.  In general, he is working toward a garden with early, midseason, and late varieties, the later coming largely from the Astilbe chinensis varieties.

To  anyone who is new to gardening or who gardens on ledge but has yet to explore the virtues of astilbes, I recommend them.  Part of the fun will be browsing through catalogs this winter, deciding which of the many astilbe varieties to grow first.

Author’s Note:  In my upcoming book, The New England Gardener’s Year (Cadent Publishing), I devote an entire chapter to photo essays of New England gardens.  From the Berkshires to Cape Cod, from Rhode Island Sound to Great Wass Island, Maine, I introduce readers to several diverse gardens and the gardeners who cultivate them, all sharing the common goal of gardening in tune with nature.  The above essay is an excerpt from one of these gardens.  Learn more about The New England Gardeners Yearat http://www.facebook.com/negardener.

So many astilbes!

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)