West Newbury Park is a great proving ground

Have you ever wondered how new perennials will perform in your North Shore garden? The experimental garden of Plants Nouveau is located in the neighbourhood.

Angela Palmer knows what an experimental garden looks like, and that’s not what she wanted surrounding her North Shore home. When I moved to West Newbury in October 2011, the new plants were already up and running. Plants Nouveau is Palmer’s plant supply company originally based in Baltimore. They don’t sell plants, but they help breeders bring their products into the public arena. To perform this function, Angela Palmer needs to experience plants where she can keep her finger on the pulse of their performance. What better place than around her house? But straight rows weren’t what she had in mind for the three-quarter-acre riverbed soil. Trained as a landscape designer, she wanted a real garden to frame her home.

Her arrival on the North Shore gets off to an exciting and perilous start. Angela immediately realized how fickle the weather was in New England. The day I moved in October 2011 coincided with a particularly dramatic and catastrophic weather event that will go down in history as one of the region’s strangest and most devastating disasters. “Literally, the minute the movers finished unloading our furniture and shut down the truck, it started snowing,” Angela recalls. Because the trees were still completely covered in leaves, they collapsed under the weight of the accumulating snow. “All the large trees on the property were lost, and the silver maples, red maples and ash trees were down, crushing the hydrangea paniculata and walnuts,” she recalls. “We were left with a completely blank slate.”

Although the abstract scene was initially devastating, it allowed Angela the freedom to create a new design. I planned for the shade. Now she has the sun. However, the main challenge it faced was the soil underneath. She was surrounded by an ephemeral swamp filled with skunk cabbage, royal fern, spirea, and quantities of jewelweed, and she knew drainage would be an issue. But her degree in landscape design proved invaluable in creating the right environment. Instead of fighting the soil beneath her feet, she went with the flow, planting moisture-loving trees and shrubs such as Cornus mas, Fothergella, Winterberry, Stuartia and Cleithra. Her focus was to nurture as many native populations as possible with an emphasis on fast-growing plants that would fill in quickly to form the backdrop for her experimental perennials. As a unifying factor, she wove a herringbone European beech fence.

As for perennials, I have found that septic-loving heleniums fail to thrive. What worked instead was moisture-loving bee balm, coneflowers, mountain mint, garden phlox, and ornamental grasses. The result was a robust July garden that needed a boost to extend the bounty period. Here experimental plants become especially valuable. Given the “Cold Zone 6A” in the Merrimack River Valley, her property has the distinction of being “the last place the snow melts in the neighborhood.” She needed workers.

Angela Palmer

For early season splendor, I turned to a new lungwort, Pulmonaria ‘Lisa Marie’ with a spread that extends 3 feet wide, much larger than the faithful old plants on the market. “I’ve never been excited about lungwort before,” she admits, “but this introduction doesn’t skip a beat. And the watermelon-red flowers are so large that even bumblebees get lost in them. Plus, they’re resistant to mildew. She’s also connected Stokesia ‘Mels Blue ‘, with huge 4-inch periwinkle flowers on long stems suitable for cutting, and its more compact sibling Stokesia ‘Mini Mels’ that reads like an early-season star covered in blue blooms.

To fill out the shrubs, I turned to Leucothoe axillaris ‘ReJoyce’ for its long, graceful leaves that blush wine red late in the season. Another late-season performer is the oak-leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowcicle’ with long cone-like racemes of double flowers. Unlike most oak-leaf hydrangeas, ‘Snowcicle’ forms a denser branching plant, which lends itself well to growing in containers.

Late in the season, interest turns to houseplants, and Angela describes several plants that can jump from the width of a porch to the inside of a windowsill when temperatures drop. Her personal favorite is the rex/rhizoma hybrid begonia ‘Sterling Moon’. This luxuriously leafed performer adapts to life on the balcony during the growing season but is equally happy indoors where it remains resistant to mildew. Likewise, it hosts the newly introduced Alocasia Masquerade ‘Mayan Mask’ and the newly introduced Colocasia ‘Pharaohs Mask’ which do double duty outside in the summer and indoors as houseplants during the winter. They both boast “look at me” heart-shaped leaves. Plus, she can’t resist collecting cacti and aloe vera. “It’s my passion, and I’m really a plant lover,” she admits.

A true gardener at heart, Angela’s home garden goes beyond just work. Down the road, she created a gravel garden to grow plants that prefer a well-drained environment, and filled it with purple and white plants like mint, lavender, alliums, and agastache. Planted in the array pattern that took Europe by storm, they look nothing like your typical experimental garden. This is where Nepeta’s band ‘Summer Magic’ performs non-stop throughout the New England summer, “without any downtime needed.” How do you know? Because she’s testing it in her garden on the North Shore.

For more information visit plantnouveau.com.

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