Monday, August 25, 2014

Sweet end of summer

Cool temperatures this past week have stirred up conversations about an early fall.  The plant world, too, seems to be pushing the seasons forward.

The end of summer is sweetened by the sight and scent of the appropriately named Summer Sweet Clethra alnifolia "September Beauty." Because these natives flourish in damp, acidic soils, several are sited adjacent to the rain garden and another next to a down spout. This time of year, they are over-loaded with intoxicating pure white racemes. Bees and butterflies flit, land, and sip like reeling, happy drunks. No complaints from that corner.

Clethra alnifolia 'September Beauty'

Even though they are hardy to Zone 3, I don't see Summer Sweet growing in gardens around here. Local gardeners may be put off by the late leafing out of these plants--in New England, a habit that translates into bare branches until well into May. But what handsome leaves to wait for: deeply colored, glossy, and neatly serrated.

Because Summer Sweet blooms on new wood, I wait until spring to prune. The seed capsules, which look like little peppercorns--and give the plant its other moniker, Pepperbush--are also best tidied away in the spring.  I've read that over-wintering birds enjoy these seeds but can't say that I've ever noticed any avian diners. After a harsh winter, Summer Sweet definitely needs to be cleaned of broken and frost-killed twigs. This clipping clean-up and a good tailoring of the bushes' expansive, sloppy style are on my spring agenda.

Peppercorn-like seed capsules

Last week, I figured that the perfume of these flowers would fill a room, so I cut a handful of racemes, added some stalks of northern sea oats, and plonked the whole handful into a ceramic vase. Immediately, the air was saturated with their sweet, sweet scent. No complaints from this corner, either!

Natural air freshener

Friday, August 08, 2014

Geraniums: celebrating the commonplace

Until a couple of years ago, I had always lumped geraniums into that group of trailer trash flowers--carnations, impatiens, petunias--that Big Box stores and uninspired landscapers inflict upon horticulturally sensitive souls. With such diversity of plant life available, why bother with geraniums? They are boring and clich├ęd. And they smell funny.

But then I went to France.  Specifically, I went to Alsace, the eastern region of France that borders the river Rhine.  This is the country of geraniums, half-timbered buildings, and Riesling wine. Geraniums could be found in every window box: sometimes the classic red flowers, other times shades of pink, coral, or white.  There were grand blossom-loaded shows as well as more modest displays.

Clockwise from upper left: Colmar, Abbey Mont St. Odile, Riquewihr, Abbey Mont St. Odile, Colmar, Hunspach, Colmar; Center: Colmar

And the bounty was not limited to private houses.  In the Alsatian countryside, even farm wagons, cemetery crosses, and memorial chapels deserved a decking out.

Clockwise from upper left: Aschbach wagon, Oberroedern cross, Aschbach chapel 

So I kept this celebration of the commonplace in mind when I was setting up my containers this summer.  By the back door--the private area that's just for friends and family--I tucked together a big pot of zonal geraniums. A deep red glazed planter now holds a load of Tango Salmon geraniums. Somehow, this tidy, hard-working, and proudly unimaginative display feels right (and, dare I say, stereotypically Alsatian).