Friday, December 29, 2006

Gardening roots, Part II

Prune off those lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians, and my father sprouted from a farming tradition.

His grandfather from Aschbach, Alsace, was listed as a farmer on the manifest of the ship that brought him to New York in 1868 and again on the 1880 marriage license that united him with a Prussian farmer's daughter in Edwardsville, Illinois.

The narrow wedge backyard of the home that they built is now overrun with ground ivy. Who knows what it looked like a hundred years ago?

On another branch of my father's family tree, here's what my great-great aunt Annie had to say about how she and her sister, my great grandmother, Lillie, handled lawn care in 1880's Edwardsville:

Most of the home place was in bluegrass, especially the front yard where it grew high at times. Then it was mowed with a scythe. No lawn mowers then. On one occasion after it had been mowed, a number of spears of grass were left standing here and there. This was very disorderly according to my notion, and I resolved to remedy it. Securing a hatchet and Lillie’s aid, I began. The hatchet was dull, and the spears of grass were tough, so we took turns about, one using the hatchet and the other holding the spears of grass taut. When it was Lillie’s turn to wield the hatchet her force was better than her aim; consequently she nearly severed my big toe. We were both barefooted. The blood flowed freely, and we both ran into the house, Lillie doing most of the screaming as she thought she had mortally wounded me. The only thing else that I remember of this incident is that I sat with my foot in a wash-bowl of water all of the afternoon and that I chafed at the confinement and at the interruption of my interesting task.

Perhaps the two gardeners are just visible in the upstairs windows of the home place in this 1880's tintype.

Twenty years later, in 1907, their nephew, Billie, was pushing a reel mower around that Edwardsville lawn.

And in 1913, my one-year old father was wading in a midwestern sea of grass.

While the children were tackling the lawn, the adults busied themselves with flowery pursuits. Sometimes, it was difficult to untangle the two, as my great great aunt, Annie, wrote:

Papa once had a special flower bed and he threatened to whip the next child who trod on it. The next day, when Mamma left the print of her foot in it, he didn’t know what to do. At dinner he said, “Mamma, after all my trouble, Alfred has stepped on my flower bed.” Mamma had to own up, since Alfred, our [hired] . . . man wore about number 13 shoes.

Here is my great grandmother, Lillie, inspecting her floral namesake with her dainty-footed mother, Piety (on the right).

Strange to think of these off-hand comments about gardens that no longer exist from people long dead.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gardening roots, Part I

When winter arrives, I'm not one of those people who happily turns to domestic tasks. I hate to cook. I don't knit. And I sew only on an "as needed" basis.

But I am fascinated by genealogical research and could happily spend hours organizing papers, entering information in a computerized family tree, and poring through census, civil, and parish records.

So I got to thinking, what about other gardeners in my family? And before the concept of gardening had trickled down to the common folk, what about the plain old farmers--the cultivateurs, labourers, and Bauern--among my ancestors? Here's what I dug up.

In 1634, my eighth great-grandfather settled an eight-acre homestall in what was then Watertown, Massachusetts. His plot, about a half-mile from where I now live, today lies under suburban housing.

Later, he acquired land in the area of Beaver Brook

and Rock Meadow.

There is no record of what he farmed, but presumably this low-lying land served as pasturage. His will, written in 1685, mentions his house, meadow acreage and a barn in Cambridge Farms.

Fast forward about 300 years to my mother, a passionate tiller of her own back quarter acre. Her love of gardening may have grown from spending summers at her aunt's Connecticut house, where daily tasks included picking sweet peas and gooseberries growing next to the barn.

Years later, my mother marveled how it was that ever more flowers and fruit were waiting each morning. I think that realization somehow connected her with the potential of earth, sun, and rain.

Back in her Maryland community, both she and her own mother belonged to the local garden club. Well into her eighties, she could be found spending six or more hours a day in her yard.

My mother was a yes-or-no kind of person, and her garden celebrated that same lack of nuance. She tolerated a few perennials and adored her roses, but through out the summer subsisted on the brightest of brilliantly colored annuals: petunias, salvia, marigolds, zinnias, and dahlias. Her garden was splashed with primary colors, particularly hot pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows. There was no subtle juxtaposition of contrasting textures, shapes, and colors--plants earned a place while in bloom and were expeditiously rooted out upon their decline. Unsentimental, cheerful, and practical. You can learn a lot about a person from looking at her garden.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nature's celebration

To take a break from gift wrapping, wreath hanging, and card writing, I went out for a walk this afternoon through one of the town's conservation areas.

The landscape, decorated in subdued tones, was a welcome balm for the intensity of seasonal demands.

I couldn't entirely clear my mind of holiday activities: I saw nature's tree-trimming efforts draped in garlands of bittersweet . . .

. . . dangling seed pod ornaments . . .

. . . and a spouting profusion of stars . . .

. . . while back at home, human hands were busy decorating the Christmas tree.

Inside and outside, happy holidays to all!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Down and dirty

This weekend, a little late season neighborly fence construction had me and DRS back in the yard.

This thicket of bushes, originally a stand of mock orange, offered asylum to errant maple seedlings and invasives such as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). It sloped down over underground springs. Birds nested inside the mess of branches.

However, in order to put up a fence, the thicket came down. An expanse of root-riddled muck and a single mock orange remain. DRS and I dug up quanties of fibrous stumps, slipping down the muddy bank as we pulled and pried. It was one of those afternoons when the notion of a lady of leisure cutting perfect flowers from her bountiful garden is very much at odds with the down and dirty reality. Come spring, DRS and I will be back to rooting out the last vestiges of the invasives and, eventually, to planting a row of water-loving summersweet (Clethera).

Come spring, come spring . . . the first snowfall of the season came this morning.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Fall's last light

Fall's last light in the last field falls now--
A yellow butterfly. A yellow leaf . . .
Nothing we haven't lost before.

"The Garden," David Daniels

Over the weekend, we put the garden to sleep. Perennials were trimmed, herbs were transplanted, pots were washed and stored, compost was scattered over the flower beds and cow manure over the lilies of the valley, acid-loving bushes were fertilized with HollyTone, and the lawn was raked and mown.

Thanks to the blessing of mild weather and the harnessed energies of a teenage boy, both garden and gardener eased comfortably into the season's end.

Monday, November 20, 2006


With the shortening of days, overcast skies, and tumbling temperatures, fall gardening often receives short shrift. Who wants to be outside in that weather scrubbing pots, rolling up hoses, and raking rotten foliage? I do. Personally, I find that the physicality of these tasks steers me away from seasonal gloom. Not quite as pleasurable as ironing, perhaps, but putting the yard in order does bring deep satisfaction.

Among my activities this weekend was tying up wayward rose canes. On windy days, they have been flailing like attenuated green octopus tentacles. No suckers but watch out for thorns! Even though climbers bloom on last year's wood, I did have to prune back just in order to create canes with which I could work. The laterals also were trimmed back to a few inches. Then, movable canes were tied to the trellis.

Other tasks that were accomplished: raking leaves, clawing in bonemeal around the peonies, and cutting down dead foliage.

Putting a garden to bed is slightly melancholic task. It's all about life being over--or, more accurately, one moment in life being over. Even if you don't change a single plant between one year and the next, the garden itself will evolve: some plants will increase and other will fade away. Any garden is lived solely in the experienced moment . . . irretrievable, unrecreatable . . .

So maybe that's part of my pleasure in working in the garden in late November. That, and the tiny knotted promises for next spring.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Fall of the dahlias

On Friday night, a good frost blasted the succulent foliage and melted the crayon-bright colors of the blooms. So, it was time to intensify my somewhat wary relationship with the dahlias.

On Sunday, I used a garden fork to raise the lumps of tubers. What knots of incestuous plant life!

A rinse with the garden hose took care of most of the dirt covering the clumps. Everything that I'd read focussed attention on the dahlias' eyes: the plants should be lifted as the eyes are swelling (quite the x-ray vision trick for the novice dahlia gardener, as the eyes are underground), each viable cutting has to have a least one, and the plant stems must be trimmed off as close as possible to them.

In order to kill any clinging bacteria, I soaked the trimmed tubers in a mixture of one gallon of water and a third of a cup of bleach for 15-30 minutes. The darker tubers in the bowl will likely not bloom again. These "mother roots" were severed from their other family members and tossed into the trash. Tubers that I'd accidently skewered during digging or broken while handling were also discarded. No pity here.

Here's the final cull of pink and yellow tubers laid out to dry.

After drying the tubers for two days under a desk in my study, I packed them in bags of peat moss. They felt slightly spongy. Hope that's not the beginning of a rotten end! They are spending the winter in the attic where temperatures will hopefully hover at 32-50 degrees. Rather frighteningly, I read somewhere that dahlia growers lose about 10% of their over-wintering tubers.

But my father-in-law says to keep whatever I want! That's assuming that there are survivors come spring.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Errr . . . excuse me . . . did you know it's fall?

The end of October, and the garden performs as if time was moving backwards towards winter through spring.

How else to explain these exuberant clusters of roses . . .

. . . the joyful labor of these sweet peas . . .

. . . or the stray blooms of sweet william, phlox, and ladybells?

Even next summer’s larkspur has set itself in!

We have not even had a killing frost yet. Sure, there are signs of the season: golf ball-sized dogwood fruits, fallen leaves, and autumnal winds.

I generally believe in letting nature take its course. Plants, like people, should not be hastened to their inevitable ends but rather allowed to find their way at their own pace. Foliage, in time, ripens, turns color, and dies. Those brittle and brilliant yellow fronds of astilbe, amsonia, and hosta deserve to stand undisturbed. (Although, last weekend, my horticulturally cultured sister-in-law did give me a gentle lecture on the need for good garden hygiene--as she cleaned my columbines of leaf miner.)

So although DRS and I did do some clipping and cutting today, I’m waiting until next weekend . . . or maybe the one after . . . to face the season.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The minors

The front yard is a black hole for minor bulbs: again this year, I planted 200 yellow Iris danifordiae, 200 white Iris reticulata "Natascha," and 50 fuschia Allium ostrowskianum. Because of their small size, about eight bulbs slip into each hole. One hour later, it's off to the races!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Homage to Japan?

Botantical intervention continues along the side of the house. DRS removed the privet stumps a few weeks ago. Last weekend, I dug in 4 cubic feet of peat moss and 240 lbs of composted cow manure and, with a late-season prayer, set in some 70 plants of Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). Thinking of the wild hostas in the alpine meadows on Dewa Sanzan, this weekend I added a few of their very domesticated North American cousins. Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia "September Beauty") will anchor the front.

Could this be my homage to Japanese gardens?

No, that would incorporate undulating lines of Japanese summersweet (Clethra barbinervis), Pieris japonica, and irises reflected among the koi and lotus blossoms of a mirror-like pool. This is just a low maintenance foundation bedding.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Yellow dahlias

These yellow dahlias, mixed in hosta and peppermint foliage, light up the garden.

I am hoping that my generous, kind, thoughtful, charming father-in-law will offer me a couple of rhizomes before I turn the parent plants back to him this fall. (Will that work?)

Friday, September 29, 2006

Halt! Drop your weapons!

Imagine the shock to discover that one of America's Most Invasive was mounting sneak attacks throughout the garden! Nice. Not.

Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) has a sweetly demure true-blue blossom and a frighteningly aggressive habit. It had blanketed a portion of the back property line, insinuated itself into a phlox growing next to the house, slipped around behind the hollies, and generally eased into any available patch of bare ground.

When a few plants popped up at the end of last summer, I recognized them as members of the spiderwort family but figured that just as with their purple wildflower cousin (Tradescantia virginiana), peaceful co-existence was possible. What I didn't know, however, was that asiatic dayflower's promiscuous propagation--by seeds, roots, or just a length of broken stem setting in the ground where it fell--meant that it was not good at keeping to itself. Should it be a surprise that asiatic dayflower is used to extract heavy metals from contaminated soils?

So next year, I will have to be scrupulous about eradicating this intruder.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A matter of scale

Timing may be everything, but scale also counts. The privet hedge running along the west side of the house has suffered from problems of scale for the past several years.

1. (noun) a distinctive relative size, extent, or degree

Growing as high as eight feet at times, the hedge obscured the dining room windows and presented a pruning challenge of immense proportions. At the uphill end, its large size encrouched on the path into the backyard and squeezed passersby into the spirea.

2. (noun) any of numerous small prolific homopterous insects (superfamily Coccoidea) that have winged males, wingless scale-covered females attached to the host plant, and young that suck the juices of plants and some of which are serious pests.

Despite spraying with noxious chemicals, pruning out deadwood, raking up old leaves, and fertilizing, the privets have been suffering from a blight of scale insects for at least three years. Some years the insects were at one end of the hedge, another year, they'd be at the other end . . . and this year they were all over, resulting in enormous leaf drop and a plant whose bare branches looked like hair standing on end. Quite alarming! I can't say that the hedge was probably planted at the time that the house was built, over 70 years ago, but it certainly looked aged.

This weekend, it came down. Next weekend, DRS and I will start digging out stumps.

Now what to plant instead? This piece of ground poses some challenges: less than full sun, considerable drainage from our uphill neighbor's strategically-placed downspouts, and that charming PVC piping peeking up from our own system. I am thinking about a long line of pachysandra with a water-tolerant spring blooming shrub at the front corner. Pussy willow? (But they have water-seeking invasive roots.) Red-stemmed cornus? (But vulnerable to scale.) Witch hazel? Forthysia?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Still sweet peas

Mid-September and the sweet peas are still throwing a few blooms. This crimson "Old Spice" variety is certainly heat-resistant, having somehow survived the summer.

Usually by late July, the sweet pea vines have bleached to straw and the blossoms ceased, so what a pleasant surprise to find these at the top of six-foot high vines now.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Pinks and purples

The end of the summer brings an imbalance to the garden's color wheel around here. A few lingering white phlox and hostas and a luscious yellow dahlia have tried to weigh in, but the balance is very much tipped to the side of pink and purple flowers. In addition to reblooming--in shades of pink, of course--roses and dianthus, this glorious pale fuschia dahlia from VPS, Sr., is going full throttle.

I never figured out how to stake these dahlias but they indulged my horticultural ignorance nevertheless and spralled into bloom.

Old reliable sedums, "Autumn Joy" and "Vera Jamison," stake out the structure of the fall beds. These have to be divided every two to three years and, beginning in early summer, supported with a metal ring--jeez, did I forget to do that, too?--or the plant flops wide open.

The sedum "Autumn Joy" mixes with blue--well, bluish-purple--Salvia farinacea. These annuals, which I bought just as filler for a container, have proved to be this year's miracle worker, making all their neighbors look better than they should.

Even a line of no-name hosta joins in. These fellows seem to have forgotten that they define garden-variety.

Okay, enough. I need to identify some late season acidic yellow flowers to cut through all this sugary sweetness.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Drops in a bucket

I returned home from a week on the road to find the garden essentially unchanged. It must not have rained a single day! Now drought, before flood.

This was a challenging year for container plants. The sedums have happily survived the summer's fluctuations in rainfall, thanks to a well-drained clay pot.

However, an iron planter of Salvia farinacea "Blue Victoria" never had an opportunity to flaunt its drought tolerance, being totally flooded out in early summer. Wetter and wiser, I switched to clay pots, just in time for this change in the weather.

Surviving on the front step is this pot of purple fountain grass Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum," assorted coleus, fuchsia "Gartenmeister Bonstedt," and the barely in control sweet potato vine Ipomoea batatas "Margarita."

I have very strong opinions about what plants belong in containers--no, nyet, nein to the cliche of red geraniums or big blossom petunias. Don't get me started. The growing season is too short!