George and Theresa Rebersky enjoy growing an assortment of colorful annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and gigantic pumpkins in their suburban Worth backyard. But along the driveway leading to their detached garage was a triangle of lawn that separated the drive from the sidewalk. It ran 13 feet on two sides and another 6 feet wide along the patio. There was no connection to the rest of the garden, which has a large arbor, raised beds and a spectacular collection of dahlia flowers and hanging baskets. “The triangle was a dead spot,” George says.
Inspiration for a change took hold while the couple was on vacation a few years ago. “We stayed at a hotel in Petoskey, Mich. and saw that they had dug out an area and made a great triangle of flowers,” Theresa said.
When they got back home, George removed the grass in their triangle and made a raised bed with cedar boards. “You want a good bed; otherwise the plant roots have nowhere to go. You want to add as much organic material as you can and get your hands down 5 inches or so into the soil.” He mixed in mushroom compost, peat moss and topsoil to build up the raised bed.
The new triangle is a focal point as visitors approach the backyard. “The cannas and cockscombs in the center are very eye-catching,” Theresa says. “I think George does a good job with the colors. We fill in the outside borders with marigolds – they’re like neon – and other brightly colored flowers.”
“The number of plants in the space is minimal,” George says. Five rose-colored canna lilies tower over 16 ‘Safari Yellow’ marigolds, 16 ‘Victoria Blue’ salvias, a sprinkling of cockscomb (Celosia cristata), 12 blue ageratum and three SunPatiens (Impatiens hawkeri), a New Guinea impatiens that thrives in sun or shade. All of the planting beds, including this one, receive drip irrigation. “Having the irrigation saves us about 100 hours of hand-watering during the summer,” Theresa says.
Some of the plants are purchased and transplanted, while others, like the cockscomb are grown from seed. “I just scatter the seeds after the last spring frost (usually in mid-May) when the soil is at least 55 F.”
Before planting, George adds a granular systemic product that promotes blooms and protects the plants against several types of insects and diseases. “Japanese beetles will chew holes in the rolled up canna leaves before they open up. Right off the bat I put the product down and it takes care of them.”
A few cannas reached 10 feet tall last summer but his canna care is simple. “I dig a hole, put (the tuber) in the ground, water it and walk away. Cannas love water. Add water and fertilizer and they just go nuts,” he says. He also uses a water-soluble fertilizer (marked 15-30-15 on the label), which helps promote flowering. “Pretty much any brand of water-soluble fertilizer works just fine,” he says. “I usually use it at least once a month.”
A canna seed sprouted in a space between the driveway and patio, so he dug it up and wintered it over as a plant along with elephant ears (Colocasia), which he grows indoors all winter and brings outside come May. Some of the elephant ears are 6 to 7 feet tall.
“It’s been a work in progress,” George said. “I thought it was spectacular last year and I’ll probably plant the same things. The new space gives us a place to grow up instead of out.” He credits his father, George Sr., a dahlia specialist, for his good fortune with flowers. “I obtained my knowledge from my dad who gardened for 75 years.”
He keeps detailed notes each year of all of the plants and how they performed. After a fall frost, he digs up the canna lilies and dahlias and stores the tubers. “That one clump of canna tubers filled up a bushel basket and weighed 40 pounds. I’m going to grow them as long as I can pick them up.”
The couple spends as much time enjoying the garden as possible. “It’s relaxing and you don’t get frustrated. It all lasts until about mid-October,” George says. “It’s not work if you love what you’re doing. It’s better than golf.”
Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science. firstname.lastname@example.org