Sunday, July 30, 2006

Measure at midsummer

With the summer half over, it's time to consider the big picture in my small garden.

Angle of repose: the old side garden does indeed like to spill out of its bed. Here, a week or so ago, the lilac blue of catmint, ladybells, and hostas alternates with the white of shasta daisies and, in time, phlox panticulata "David."

However, this bed is best viewed obliquely rather than dead on, especially after deadheading. Ouch! Only the phlox is left to pull through the rest of the summer.

Across the yard, the new bed is looking decidedly . . . new. So much bare soil is practically indecent.

And along the back of the house, the usual suspects are behaving in their usual ways: the phlox is coming into bloom, the sedum is preparing for its autumn show and, at the far end, the rose is climbing over its trellis. While the larkspur, in the center, heads towards seed, its stems embrittle and turn pale. I need to mask this skeletal sight--but with what?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Good growing--for weeds!

After several consecutive weekends of garden absence due to travel, illness, and bad weather, it was overgrown with weeds, weeds, and still more weeds. Happily, today bore the perfect conditions for tackling these pests: rain in the morning to loosen roots and cool overcast weather in the afternoon to ease the gardener's labors. Three yard bags of crabgrass, yew clippings, and deadheaded flowers (note to self: next year stalk the shasta daisies to the height of four feet) later, the yard looks slightly more tidy. Next weekend, it's on to the animal pests--wasp nests under the shutters--and trimming foundation plantings.

One plant that's new to me this year is foxglove. Dreaming of a pastel shade garden last year, I planted several of the variety Digitalis purpurea "Apricot Beauty." After about a month, all had entirely disappeared. My horticulturally cultured sister-in-law, SW, observed that the yellow foxglove, Digitalis grandiflora, is hardier in our New England climate. This spring, I tucked three nursery plants into the new bed with happier results. The stand of pale flowers offers a graceful vertical element. And I love that all parts of this plant are poisonous--but, nevertheless, it's used to treat heart ailments. What does that say about the craziness of our existence?

Now, my challenge is to ensure that I have plants for next year. Figuring that the greatest success will be met by following the course of nature, I plan to direct sow seeds in the fall . . . and again in the spring . . . and then maybe head for the nursery. Trust, but verify.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sweet peas, a recompense

Living in New England, I find myself missing the joys of my southern childhood garden: the aroma of boxwoods under the hot sun, the electric explosion of crape myrtle blossoms during the dog days of summer, the sight of pansies blooming in the errant snowstorm . . . but for these losses, there are certain northern compensations.

Chief among these is the ability to grow those cold climate plants that fail where the summer light is scorching and the weather unrelentingly hot and humid, day and night. Yes, there's a perverse pleasure in growing the flowers that your mother never could--even if it's the gardener's climate rather than her talents that are responsible for the success.

A special gratification comes from sweet peas. I raise a row of these on a trellis kindly built for me by VPS, Jr. Although the flower bed should be dug in with composted manure during the fall, this instruction is invariably forgotten until a week before spring planting. As long as I remember to soften the hard seed shells by soaking for 24 hours before putting them in the ground, I’m doing well. Planting is always on St. Patrick’s Day—or as soon as possible thereafter, if we are still being battered by winter storms. The seeds are buried about ½ inch deep, steadily watered—and inevitably, impatiently supplemented with a few nursery-bought plants. The crucial part of the sweet peas' care comes later: the blossoms have to be diligently picked in order to stimulate continued blooming. What happy labor!

This year, I planted seeds of "Old Spice," a heat resistant variety, and purchased plants that are now bearing these deep purple blossoms. The blooms have a richly saturated color and a glossy sheen almost like an animal’s pelt.

(Okay, it's no Jane Wentzell photograph, but it captures something of these sweet peas' charm.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Daylilies ("They also serve . . . ")

Why is it that we are so often unappreciative of those among us who are loyal, dependable, and capable--and who ask for no recognition?

"They also serve who only stand and wait," wrote Milton. In the botantical realm, I nominate daylilies for a place in God's kingdom.

The row of daylilies running along the side of the house withstands all sorts of insults: lime leaching from the concrete foundation, water washing down from a misaligned gutter, and weeds encroaching from the lawn and compost pile. If I remember and have the time, the bed gets tossed a few handfuls of a balanced fertilizer in spring and summer. And still it blooms gloriously in July . . .

Yes, the daylilies look lovely en masse, but the individual blossoms deserve their due, too. As well as Stella d'Oro, this bed includes a mix of tetrapoid varieties.

Although this bed was planted soon after we moved into the house, I was only able to look past daylilies' utility a few years ago, when first-half-cousin-once-removed Bill M., SMS, and I saw this stunning spread at a farmer's market in Edwardsville, Illinois.

These spectacular midwestern blooms, arrayed in their long rows, had me reconsider daylilies. Why do we prize the flowers that demand just the right soil conditions, or so much water and no more, or the correct amount of sun . . . or shade . . . or air circulation . . . or staking . . . at the expense of those stalwarts who require a minimum of effort and yield a maximum of beauty?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Going, going, gone . . .

Well, at the height of its glory, it's difficult to say what I like least about this hollyhock 'Nigra' (Alcea rosea). Could it be its grotesquely large size? The fuzzy, sticky buds that it drops? The blistered rust that the discolored foliage develops? The way that the lower leaves drop off? And, yes, even the dark blooms which promised to look so exotic just read visually as strange blobs.

Upon returning from Honduras, one of my first tasks was the removal of this eyesore. It's outta here!