Friday, June 30, 2006

Why I’ll never go native

I ran a lovely article on native wildflowers, complete with gorgeous photographs (see above) in the April issue of the magazine, but I find them an inadequate solution for most urban gardens—particularly for a formally designed courtyard garden on a street of Italianate Victorian houses.

And here’s the thing: our gardens—for the most part—are not natural or "native." They aren’t swamps, meadows, or woodlands. (Read Christopher Lloyd's description of his tortuously-maintained "meadow.") They are highly artificial constructs where plants that would never be seen growing near each other are forced into close proximity, and then pruned, divided, and cultivated into submission. So to say that using flowers native to your area is somehow better than using any other flower doesn’t make much sense to me. Our models for gardening come largely from the 18th and 19th century British master designers—and none knew better how to bend a landscape to their will. Indeed, it must be from them that we’ve gotten our obsession with emerald green lawns (not that I share that obsession).

So in my garden you’re much more likely to see this

than this

The tropicals speak to the Victorian obsession with the exotic—appropriate, I suppose, for the days when the sun never set on the British empire.

(This was supposed to be posted from Italy, but I didn't get to it.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The subject is roses

It took me about three years after we moved in to ruin a perfectly good rose garden. The previous owners had established a small bed, surrounded by a fiendishly constructed fence made out of rebar run through layers of bricks, topped with wood. The roses were white Meidilands, a Double Delight, some nameless little pink thing, and a truly magnificent red climber whose dark, winy red clusters lasted forever.

I thought I was doing the right thing. I sprayed, I used systemics, I made manure tea, which I stored in the garage, and I fed the foliage with an even fouler-smelling seaweed potion. I fought the good fight against rose midge, an insect that looks like this

and does this

All to no avail. After a few tough winters and several seasons of well-meaning incompetence, the white roses dwindled to nothing, the red climber died back almost to the ground, and I tore out the DD and the mildew-ridden pink one in disgust.

Now, four years after the major casualties, I’ve made my peace with the rose garden. I’ve planted some different varieties, I’m nursing the climber back to health (a few more mild winters should do it), and I’ve retained one of the original whites. I’ve also mixed perennials throughout , including many lilies, Japanese anemone, clematis, and a few tall annuals like canna and verbena bonariensis. We’ll see if the evil rose midge returns this summer (no sign yet), but I’ve stopped spraying everything but the occasional insecticidal soap. I’m also not bothering with malodorous brews—just some semi-organic food now and then.

If I could figure out how to lower the stupid fence, the air ciculation and sun exposure would improve tremendously, but it was clearly built by a lunatic. Any attempt at partial deconstruction would lead to certain disaster.

The roses I enjoy the most are three big container plants that sit next to each other and can be interplanted with annuals. One is Blush Noisette, the other (above) is some nondescript pink one, and one is supposed to be Gloire de Dijon, but is not. They work though, because they intertwine with each other and the annuals frame them. (They are also out of reach of the dreaded midge.) I am hoping that I can get the roses and perennials in the bed to interact in a similar way. We’ll see.

(This was supposed to be posted from Italy, but I didn't get to it.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Tearing myself away

Why do I do it? Every summer, just as the first trumpet lilies are popping, as the martagons come into bloom, as the annuals are finally filling out, and as countless other growing things need my full attention, I leave for almost two weeks.

This is so wrong. But it happens every year because, for reasons wholly unrelated to the garden, we must take a vacation in the summer. And it must be now, just as the beautiful weather begins, and I would be able to sit outside every day after work, sipping, reading, and getting up to deadhead or restake every few minutes. (Having a garden full of oriental lilies means constant tying, staking and splinting. Pathetic really.)

Sure, the guy comes every day to water. Invariably he ignores a container or two and then acts all innocent when I come home to the casualties. And the weeds. And the unchecked insect incursions.

Most of all, I mind the gap in the timeline. Gardens change every day, sometimes dramatically and half the fun is watching the changes unfold. This is especially true in a short season like Buffalo’s. A lot can happen in ten days.

Who knows what will greet me upon my return.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Days of wine, roses, and rain

Very high on my list of events where one needs to drink for the cause is the Garden Walk rally, usually held on the last Sunday in June. This is when gardeners on the Walk pick up their signs, T-shirts, posters, and maps; they also eat, drink, socialize with their fellow garden exhibitionists, and get psyched for the July event. I am usually in charge of liquid refreshments.

This year’s rally was held yesterday at the Unitarian Church on Elmwood, a stalwart community center with lovely gardens. I offered attendees:

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva
Owned by the ubiquitous Freixenet, I think this Spanish sparkler (or cava) is superior to the black bottle we all know and put up with at bargain-oriented New Year’s parties. It was by far the wine of the afternoon, though I warned them they were drinking it too fast and would all have headaches. (Nothing like a cheap champagne headache.) I stopped mentioning the cava at a certain point, so that Rally volunteers who were waiting until the end of the event to imbibe could have some.

2005 Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc Reserve
You always get value from Chile. This SV is very light, citrusy, and refreshing. Perfect for a hot, muggy day, as most seemed to agree. No leftover bottles to snag here.

2004 La Vieille Ferme Côte de Rhone
I didn’t sample this, but it’s a generally reliable red and people were coming back for more all afternoon. There is a rosé and a white from this series I’d also be interesting in trying. Screwtop!

I had pulled a 2001 riesling spatlese blah blah blah (god, those names)—anyway a good German riesling—from the cellar for me and a couple friends to have afterwards. By then, the heavens had opened and those who had strolled or biked from their properties to the event were looking at a very wet trip home.

And so we’re off—the GW madness has officially begun. There are 260-plus gardens this year. We think it may be the largest in the country.

(In the vase above: gleanings from the GWI property)

Friday, June 23, 2006

The name of the lily

Many find their use pretentious, but there is a reason for latin botanical names. They make it very clear exactly which plant you are talking about. I started using the latin names almost exclusively about a year ago. For me, it cleared up the confusion. And it still does. Perhaps this is the influence of Sister Leonarda from my 8th grade latin class.

Here are my common/latin name pet peeves:

True lilies and daylilies are very different. Let’s acknowledge that by using the correct names for each. I too often hear daylilies referred to as lilies. It’s like confusing double impatiens with roses. They are completely different plants. Then there are the other misuses of “lily,” like calla lily, canna lily and trout lily.

Many use the name cranesbill for true (perennial) geraniums, but it is still vexing. And, again, the two plant families are very different. Too bad we insist on the confusion. I love both species, but they have very different uses and culture requirements.

Honestly, I don’t mean to sound pedantic. But I do feel these and many other name variations in garden plants create real confusion, particularly for novice gardeners. Of course, it doesn't help that plants are often reclassified. Yet, it's all we've got.

Latin? Not a dead language, as far as gardening is concerned.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Talking to Ellie, Marilyn, and Anne

Someone commented recently, “I always expect to see elves coming out of the cottages on 'Little' Summer.” I know what he means. These are the houses for which the word “darling” was created. This year, as a result of bribery, arm-twisting, death threats, and I don’t want to know what else, Summer is contributing fifteen gardens to Garden Walk. Now, this is a little winding block of, for the most part, tiny cottages. What you find out though, is that it’s actually easier—all caveats admitted—to have a lush, colorful garden in a small space. It takes less design and hardscaping than it would to, say, turn half an acre into a terraced English garden. This is why so many of the people who visit Garden Walk say they have large properties, but their main plant is grass. There’s a whole different mindset going on here—though I’ve noticed it’s changing.

Anyway, Ellie has a lush bed in front and in back an amazing array of trees, vines, shrubs, and perennials, all in pots or raised beds on concrete, with a flagstone path running through the plantings. Hmm, there’s a way to control tree roots—keep all those monsters in pots. I think there’s some kind of pruning system she uses to keep it all under control.

In an area very close to downtown, the gardeners of Johnson Park are arranged around a sizable central green space. Marilyn and Anne have a brick Victorian on the green, with a largish back yard, once the home of partially buried shopping carts, hypodermic needles, broken beer bottles, and other urban detritus. Now it looks like this:

There are also sizable beds of grasses, herbs, and other perennials. This is another garden (like mine) very focused toward Garden Walk. Anne and Marilyn described a week-long “bootcamp” ordeal of weeding, filling in gaps, trimming, mulching, and edging that goes on to get the place in perfect condition for the Walk. I kind of got a headache thinking about it.

Pleasant and not-so-pleasant surprises

I have been in Boston at a conference the last four days or so, so of course as soon as I got back I was knee-deep in plants: snipping, deadheading, rearranging, and checking out the activity. Things are getting busy—busting out all over, as they say, though my garden is mainly planned for July. And I must hastily add that I will never, ever be able to show a photo of a huge backyard border packed with structure, texture, and color. A courtyard garden simply does not lend itself.

But we do have:

Martagon lilies (shown above): These actually do very well in dappled shade, never need staking regardless of how tall they get, don’t seem to care about drainage, and have an interesting whorled leaf form that keeps its appeal throughout the summer. Most of my orientals look like crap after they’re done and I cut off as much stem as I dare. The martagons smell kind of…odd. Not unpleasant, but not the usual rich lily fragrance.

Unknown ramber: I thought this was dead, but it’s making a very interesting comeback, more as a climber than its original bush form. I love the peppery fragrance, and there is rebloom. The blooms also fade to shades of pink as they age. I have no idea what it is.

On to the bad news: gloire de Dijon? I think not. What I got were some very pleasant buff/light peach roses, but clearly of modern derivation. Damn them! (I mean the nursery; you shouldn't really blame the plant.) They do leave rather attractive little seed heads—almost like a clematis. Sorry, no pics on this one.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Gardening on paper

The next two weeks will be a whirlwind tour of some of the best gardens in Buffalo, as I frantically finish all the interviews required for the Garden Walk project. Truth be told, the word “finish” is being used rather creatively here, but I’ll get it done. Then the photographer and videographers do their thing. As usual, the writer gets screwed with the earliest deadline.

I’m loving the gardens though. This is the time for roses, peonies, clematis, campanula, foxgloves, and, well, roses: the early, fresh colors and scents of June. I reveled in some heavenly deutzia and mock orange while talking to Lucinda today.

Many of the gardeners on the Walk have always complained that it takes place too late in the season, and they have a point. If you don’t have heavy-duty annuals going and some late summer perennials (lilies are the best), you'd better have amazing design and some waterworks. I have little patience with such bitching though. Late July in Buffalo pretty much assures us of decent weather and it’s less busy, social calendar-wise, than June.

What I will bitch about is this: As I sit with my little notepad, inhaling the beauties of other gardens and politely listening to them brag about their outdoor dining pavilions, their rare pink dogwoods, and their man-eating koi, I know that, back home at the GWI property, weeds are slowly enveloping my treasured shades-of-pink rambler, that the gap near the side door has yet to be filled, and that if I don’t get going on the front annual beds, I’ll never find any of the plants I need.

All I can do is come home and look around in the half hour of light remaining, which has its own rewards, such as—oh joy!—the realization that, after three years, the front rhodos are finally in bloom (above).

Talking the talk: Martin

I first met Martin during Garden Walk 2004; we were having the usual post-GW festivities chez my patio when a couple of invitees came up to me and said, “We really want you to see what’s going on at your neighbor’s place.” Turns out they were friends of Martin’s, who had recently moved here from Atlanta, and was in the middle of restoring a huge, partially-trashed Victorian down the street. I and many of my equally nosy neighbors had checked this place out when it was up for sale; all of us had shuddered at what would be necessary to bring it back.

But when, drinks in hand, we all trooped over to Martin’s house in late summer, 2004, it already looked amazing. He had removed tons of asphalt siding, repainted, fixed all the windows, restored the wood floors (which he later lightened), and beautifully finished the walls and ceilings. Even the garden had a good head start—he entered it in Garden Walk the next year. This year, however, he is taking it to a new level. During our conversation for the GW book, Martin explained plans for his back garden that will literally blow every other pondsman in Buffalo out of the water.

Unfortunately, I am unable to reveal those plans at this time. I can say that visitors during GW 2006 will walk into a back garden where water is used in almost every way possible, going considerably beyond the basic pond idea. (Of course, I can't even get one of those going.) During our conversation, we spoke about the difficulty of translating Atlanta gardening to Buffalo gardening, how best to start elephant ear, and how to create a refuge that at least partially shuts out the often less-than-desirable urban sounds and sights that surround both of us in our neighborhood. But we also talked about how we loved Allentown, Buffalo, and its amazingly intact 19th century built environment. Then we took a look at the roses and foxgloves he had growing around the house—and wondered about this giant green-headed thing that neither of us could identify.

See also: Gordon and Arlan

Monday, June 12, 2006

Time to start whining about Garden Walk

Here I was on Saturday, in a good mood, having just purchased a coolerful of Magic Hat #9 and some batteries as necessary supplies for a delicious country wedding we were getting ready to attend. (More on that in another post.) The phone rings.

“Where’s the Garden Walk map text? I needed it two weeks ago!”

Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god—nobody had been bugging me about this, so I had kind of let it slide. And here we are, a mere two weeks before the rally. The maps have to go to the printer this week. Damn!

So, after the wedding, and after a rather grueling stint shilling for my place of employ at the Allentown Art Festival, I prepared to enter Garden Walk hell. This year, there are over 240 applications; each needs to placed in its street and its description edited for consistency and clarity. Keep in mind, many of these people may be great gardeners, but writers—not so much. Some say too much about what the garden was—weed-choked wasteland, etc.—and forget to describe the attractive changes that have been made. Some proselytize too much about how they live in the city, and how they celebrate city living, forgetting that their visitors may, in fact, be aware that they are visiting a garden in a city. Others, and these are the worst, don’t write anything. That’s when I have to make shit up. One has to be rather cautious about that. In the past, I have attempted to call people to ask them for a few facts about their garden, but it’s hit or miss. Generally, “A bright, cheerful urban oasis characterized by a mix of annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs,” though sadly generic, works out OK.

The Garden Walk map, though it did take about twenty hours of my weekend, and kept me up well into the wee hours last night, is nothing compared to this summer’s real project: the Garden Walk book and DVD.

I just hope I have enough time to get my own space halfway decent looking.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I am…a violet?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love violets, and pansies for that matter, but I have to conclude that something is seriously amiss with the “What flower are you?” quiz posted by This Garden is Illegal. (Ah, a blog name after my own heart. Though I’m not sure it actually is illegal.)

Some of the questions seem relevant, others are vaguely annoying, and still others seem to require more options or perhaps an n/a. In other words, it’s like all these silly quizzes, just for fun. I toyed with pasting the result into my blogger template, but the words “I am a Violet” were rather large in the preview, and I wasn’t sure I’d want to see that all the time. Or that others should. But by all means, use the link above, and check this out. I couldn't resist.

Clearly, I’m not a violet. I don’t know what I am—most likely, some kind of indiscriminate weed.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What is this thing?

Trial and error is my plant-shopping rule. I also make it a point never to learn from any of my mistakes. Sometimes, however, a plant purchased on a whim is surprisingly successful. Take this thing, whatever it is (pictured above). Sold by a local nursery as a “perennial heliotrope”—yeah, I don’t think so either—I bought it in the hope that it might form a nice centerpiece for my big easeway planter.

(These were installed as a block club effort to have continuity up and down the street for Garden Walk and ongoing beautification. However, the plants mandated for these—canna—take far too long to grow and flower in the shade I have.)

Anyway, I took it home, planted it in the container, saw that it was supposed to grow six feet tall (I remember everything from the label except the name), and thought better of it, replanting it in a side garden near the front of the GWI property. I really didn’t think it would survive, and didn’t much care. I am the quintessential consumer, even for plants. Once the initial frenzy has calmed, my interest in my new possessions wanes quickly.

Yet, here it is, apparently thriving (what you see is only one half of the plant). The stingy little white flowers do have a scent faintly reminiscent of heliotrope, but I have white heliotrope: its leaf form is much different than this. And this is quite tall—perhaps five feet at least—and obviously perennial. I rather admire the foliage and the stature of the plant, if not the flowers. It is an interesting counterpart to the martagon lilies planted in front of it (not visible).

So, anyone know? I’m sure I’ll be embarrassed when it turns out that this is some common plant with which everyone else is familiar.

Oh, and sorry for the bad photograph. I am not a photographer; this is not a photo-blog. I blame the camera.

THANK YOU, ANNIE IN AUSTIN! We have our answer—see her comment below. It's all coming back to me now.

Yes, that was it. Now I can buy more and plant a whole grove of it. It's actually nicer than the hideous picture might suggest.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Plant the impatiens and walk away

Arming myself with spade, plants, and beer, I spent some of the early evening yesterday trying to add what color I could to the front of the house. This, as regular readers may remember, is the most problematic area of the GWI property. Although it handles spring bulbs very well, once all the maple trees leaf out, nothing much will flower there. And then there is the root situation, which makes planting perennials difficult. In other words, it is that most dreaded of all garden environments: dry shade. So I make do with hosta, rhododendron, other shrubs, pachysandra, lamium, more hosta...and you practically need a jackhammer to get any additional varieties of those in.

A few lilies have managed to hang in there—I do admire the resilience of bulbs—but their stems are long, thin and always need propping. It¹s kind of pathetic how they stretch this way and that, looking for the sun that is just not there.

Anyway, the only way to add some cheerfulness is with shade annuals. They don¹t spread as they would in a sunnier situation. (As I have commented before, most shade plants merely tolerate shade; they don't prefer it.) So I jammed the plants in there, in a sort of random pattern, and got the hell out of the area.

At this time of year, I turn with great relief to the side and back gardens, which despite their many and various deficiencies, are still filled with scent and color for most of the summer. It¹s a whole different world on the other side of the gate:

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The names of my roses

(With no apologies to Umberto Eco, either—after all, I’m merely demonstrating the use of the floating signifier.)

Yes, I have roses. And I often ask myself why. Every summer, around mid-July, I make plans to tear out every bush and replace them with:

a. A pond.
b. Sun-loving perennials such as delphinium, phlox, lavender, eryngium, poppys, and other plants that could only be grown in the space where the roses are.
c. A rock garden.
d. A summer bulb garden: including dahlias, canna, clivia, agapanthus, and the existing lilies.
e. A tropical garden (to be greenhoused in winter).
f. A tiki lounge.
And I’m sure I could come up with g, h, i, j, k, et al.

At this time of year, however, all the roses are in bud, and many are in bloom. The air is filled with promise and, often, with scent. I’m able to overlook the awkward habit of the bushes and close my eyes to what might be the beginnings of blackspot or some more exotic disease. I show my roses off with a certain amount of pride to my friends and neighbors. But more than any of that, I think it’s the romance of the flower—in history, in literature, as a universal icon—that keeps the shovel at bay. And the names have a lot to do with that.

When we first moved into the GWI property, there was one Double Delight, a bunch of white shrubs (White Meideland, I think), a red climber, and some kind of pink polyantha. The Double Delight was a blackspot magnet that produced one or two blooms per season. The pink polyantha was blanketed with mildew most of the time. Out they went, and with them most of the White Meidelands, which—though rather nice—lost a lot of their canes during a severe winter. I became entranced with the idea of old roses, both the really old ones and David Austin’s reinterpretations.

So now I have Charlotte, Abraham Darby, Louise Odier (shown above), Gloire de Dijon, and Blush Noisette. But I still think I love the idea of them more than the botanical actuality. More than any other plant, roses invariably fall short of the promises made by the verbiage in catalogs and nursery labels. At least they have for me. The diseases, the inactivity during midsummer, the need to keep some in pots for overwintering inside, the untidy form, and most of all, the rose pests (I am tormented by midge) present yearly reasons to tear all of them out. But how can I get rid of a plant called Gloire de Dijon?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A loss for all of us (corporate bastards strike again)

After taking it over in 2000, Burpee has closed down Heronswood Nursery, a legendary plant resource and showplace in Kingston, Washington.

I have saved all the Heronswood Gardens catalogs I’ve ever received since I first heard of the nursery five years ago. These fascinating, highly literate publications are worthy additions to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about plants and gardening. I think I only ordered once: a geranium phaeum "Samobor" whose delicate, reflexed flowers are in bloom as I write this. Maybe a few other plants that year.

Of course, I’ve never been there, but that has only added to the romance of nursery director Dan Hinkley’s stories of gathering unknown cultivars from the high Himalayas during his regular collecting explorations. These essays punctuated the listings of every catalog; in 2000, the nursery published an anniversary book including essays by Jamaica Kincaid and other writers. There were never any photographs in the Heronswood catalogs; the prose was enough to get you excited about their offerings of unusual geraniums, hellebores, campanula, peonies, and other plants.

We hear now that Burpee considered that the catalog had too much reading and too many offerings; in fact, they introduced an abbreviated catalog with the usual garden porn photographs a couple years back. The old Heronswood catalogs are now sold as “books.”

What a shame. A defeat for literacy, romance, and the availability of truly unique plant cultivars.

(I learned about this while browsing Growing with Plants.)