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The Path Well-Traveled
By Melissa Ozawa
In her romantic garden in rural New York, Page Dickey makes room for happy surprises in the form of self-seeders -- charming flowers that sprout up unannounced, unexpected but rarely unwanted.
For the walkways in the herb garden, Dickey uses gravel, a material she loves for its affordability and porousness. Plus, “a little less lawn is a good thing,” she says. While she allows plants to spill onto the paths, she does rein in what she calls “thuggish” plants -- those with a tendency to spread and overwhelm a bed. To prevent chaos, she is careful to thin out comfrey -- a perennial herb with clusters of blue or pink flowers -- apple mint, fern-leaf tansy, and bee balm. Otherwise, they could take over.
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In the flower garden, adjacent to the herb garden, Dickey grows butterfly bush, yellow lysimachia, white valerian, the purple catmint ‘Six Hills Giant,’ and single-flowered white peonies.
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Page Dickey sits with her Norfolk terrier, Roux, in the flower garden. She has begun work on her next book, on self-seeding in the garden.
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Shake It Up
“I haven’t planted a foxglove in decades, and never in the woodland,” says Dickey. But each year the tall spires of bell-like flowers arrive, thanks in part to their love of the humus-y wood chips that make up the path. In order to encourage more of the white variety she favors, she coaxes the seeding process: She waits for the foxgloves to go to seed, and when the seeds are ripe and ready, she cuts off a stalk and “shakes it like a pepper shaker” in the desired area.
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A Bird’s-Eye View
The entrances to the herb garden are flanked by boxwood balls “so wonderfully big that you have to squeeze through to get by,” Dickey says. This play with scale is echoed in the array of selfseeders in the garden. They range from low-growing Johnny-jump-ups (violas) and creeping thyme to tall shoots of mullein and foxgloves. Additionally, large, blowsy shrubs of old damask and gallica roses burst into flower in June. Dickey and Schell are careful not to mulch in the main gardens, “simply because I want things to seed,” she says. They fertilize only with compost and occasionally manure when needed, such as for the roses.
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Land of Plenty
Dickey tries to keep the corridors of the vegetable garden free of seeders but makes an exception for some larkspurs and poppies. The main path is surrounded by a double border of pansies that goes from yellow and orange to blue and white. “The border is my homage to Gertrude Jekyll,” she says, referring to the Victorianera English landscape architect who designed palettes that ran the spectrum from warm to cool.
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Page Dickey’s Favorite Self-Seeders
“This variety just showed up one day—it obviously came as seed with another plant. It is a tall double maroon-red flower, and quite dark, and it seeds mostly in the gravel paths. Columbines are charming, winsome, short-lived perennials that act more like biennials. I am always happy to see their scalloped leaves wherever they decide to appear.”
2. Nettle-Leaved Mullein
“Here’s another short-lived perennial that seeds around the garden. I love its bold clusters of leaves and tall spears of yellow flowers with redviolet stamens at their throats, for they bloom just after the foxgloves and provide nice verticals in the borders.”
3. Shirley Poppy
“The Papaver rhoeas ‘Angels Choir Mixed’ turns our vegetable garden into a charming fantasy for a week or two sometime in June. A few years ago, I sprinkled a couple of packets of seed in the cutting beds, and now hundreds of papery single and ruffled double cups crop up in every hue of pink, lavender, red, and white.”
“These flowers bloom with the roses in the herb garden in June. Their baseball-size, intricately patterned lavender spheres are a welcome contrast to the pink-petaled damasks and gallicas. They seed about modestly, popping up here and there in the gravel paths or in the kitchen terrace below.”
“A charming annual, loved for its balloonlike seed heads almost as much as for its delicatepetaled flowers. I was given seed of the common sky-blue sort, called ‘Miss Jekyll,’ years ago by a dear friend, and I can count on its appearing every late spring in the gravel around the herbgarden beds. It comes in white and almostblack, both of which I grow in the vegetable garden for cutting.”
“Probably the longest blooming perennial I have in the garden, along with its relative, the yellow-flowering C. lutea. It is a small, fragile thing, growing in clumps of deeply cut glaucous leaves, seeding in crevices in our rock walls and in the gravel terrace where there is shade. Delicate racemes of creamy white flowers appear in early April and continue to flower into November.”
“Foxgloves are beloved by everyone who has ever read Beatrix Potter or driven down a country lane in England in the spring. They are quintessential cottage flowers, romantic and charming, and I thrill to their presence in the gardens at Duck Hill. They seed about obligingly if I leave some stalks standing after the flowers have faded.”