Lessons Learned … and Foliage Love

Going with the sandy soil flow-i.e., using more site-appropriate plants like ornamental grasses.

When I moved into my new husband’s place last summer, I committed a classic horticultural error. This is embarrassing for a horticulturist. Dale and I went to the fabulous Catskill Native Nursery in Kerhonkson NY where I picked out some of my favorite plants, including native ginger (Asarum canadensis) and native cutleaf elderberry (Sambucus canadensis ‘Laciniata’).

These are plants that are indigenous to moist to wet woodlands or woodland edges. I also bought the ‘Black Lace’ elderberry, which I’ve used dozens of times in garden installations; like it’s ‘Laciniata’ cousin, it loves moisture.

'Black Lace' elderberry - just not the one in my yard.

I’d failed to take into account the reality that our house sits on a truly horrifying shallow sandy soil fill underlain with impenetrable gravel. The ants just love to make colonies in this sand; there is a 1:1 ant-to-soil-particle ratio (mercifully, very few of the former try to come indoors).

In this sandy, overly well drained environment, the ginger is perpetually pale and the elderberries just kind of sit there, even when I pour the water on. I had gotten ahead of myself when I bought plants before evaluating what conditions I was putting them in. Classic plant shopper’s mistake.

I could remediate the soil by bringing in truckloads upon truckloads of compost, but to be honest, we’re not sure how long we’ll be here, so I didn’t want to shell out that kind of money and effort. It would be more practical to do some better plant-to-site matching.

On the other side of the house, I had a chance to redeem myself. Since the problem with sandy soil is that it doesn’t hold onto moisture or organic matter well, I picked out plants that are super drought-tolerant once established and that don’t have high fertility requirements. Some real tough badasses.

Rugosa roses do great in my junk sandy soil.

The Flora of my Sandy Fill Border: maiden grasses (Miscanthus spp.), big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) and little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’), sedges like Carex lurida, rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa), purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’), parsley for my bunny, onions and a few other food crops that like sand, and hardy kiwi vines (Actinia arguta, one male and one female).

You can see I am a big foliage girl. Like a hipster saying “I don’t even own a TV,” a horticulturist is in danger of becoming a cliche when she says, “I don’t even care about flowers anymore.” I do care about flowers, but I care about foliage so much more. Foliage gives me form and texture and color all summer and asks so little. It never clashes with its neighbors. It doesn’t need deadheading. It provides a superb foil to the flowers I do use.

More texture:

Shallow sedge (Carex lurida) … so lurid!

And on to something tasty:

‘Bright Light’ swiss chard (edible) and ‘Royal Purple’ smokebush

Parsley makes a jaunty ground cover:

Parsley and purple smokebush (what a team player!)

A rush in bloom and a maiden grass: getting all spikey on it!

Rush (Juncus) and maiden grass (Miscanthus)

I still feel bad when I look at those native plants that I plunked into decidedly non-native sandy fill soil. I am gradually giving them away to better homes–that is, gardens with loamy soil that actually works for these babies. I had to relearn an old lesson of “right plant, right place.” The garden on the other side of the house is better aligned with reality; it is rewarding me with graceful foliage contrasts at every turn.

5 Responses to “Lessons Learned … and Foliage Love”
  1. idiadega says:


    This is just wonderful! Funny, informative and so honest. I love it! I am going to read it again…

  2. Lisa says:

    Love this article. Sassy and informative!!!

  3. Irma Elaine says:

    Great article Michelle, I really enjoyed this thank you! Glad you are a contributor to FarmHouse!

  4. Great post! Entertaining even for the non-plant person 🙂

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