Tuesday, August 29, 2006


We received a production schedule for the Garden Walk publication last week and it was horrifying for all involved. They want files by September 7. Although they seem to be demanding an inordinate amount of time for printing and binding, we must obey. Or at least come close to obeying. Now, this isn’t a big-time opus for me; the pictures will, I’m sure, tell most of the story. I am merely providing some vignettes of selected gardeners and gardens, some sidebars, and an intro. No biggie. And I’m almost there. (The designer reads this blog, so I have to say that.) I don’t know how the DVD people are doing.

And now, for something more pleasant. Here’s a nice little slide show with sound put together by GW visitor and professional photographer Mike Groll. It’s quite delightful, though it encompasses only a tiny part of the Walk. Three of my North Pearl neighbors are heard on the soundtrack and there are some nice shots of my henryis and Casa Blancas.

Mike Groll’s GW slideshow

You must click on the little arrow thingie to start it. There is audio, so speakers should be on.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When do you pull the plug?

Some plants inspire a tenacious refusal to let them go, even when there’s every reason to pull them out or cut them down.

Such is the case with my nicotiana sylvestris, about which I’ve recently bragged. It first came into bloom about a month ago: beautiful candelabras of nodding tubular blooms on five-feet-tall plants. Since then, the bloom has been gradually slowing on the tallest branches and deadheading has become a twice-daily routine. Even more problematically, tiny bugs are increasingly drawn to the sticky blossoms, so insecticidal soap applications are also necessary.

And it’s getting very boring. Now I’m not one for the “low-maintenance” garden and I honestly don’t think such a thing exists—at least such a thing that could still be called a garden. Gardening means maintaining— but we all have our limits.

I suppose the fact that this is a species plant, which hasn’t been domesticated for the home garden, may be a contributing factor. The Buffalo in Bloom gardeners who visited my space told me that they’d had to stop planting it in public spaces, because they couldn’t spray.

I think I’ll stick with it for now. Today we took a long walk, and I saw the sad fading and browning of many of the city’s most beautiful gardens. The hideous autumn joy sedum is on the rise—always a death knell for the gardening season. So I’ll keep my big-fat-pain-in-the-ass nicotiana; like other gardeners at this time, I can’t afford to lose the flowers.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Zinnias, part II

Clearly, there are many zinnia enthusiasts out there.

First of all, thanks Tim, for your very thorough and enlightening advice on growing zinnias. I’ll give it a try, but my chances of starting seeds indoors with even a modicum of success are slim to none. I do, however, know a master seedsman who may be able to help me (i.e., start them for me in his own greenhouse set-up and do all the work). We’ll see.

Second of all, there was a question about the Georgian Bay location of the colorful varieties you see in the image above. All I can tell you is that it is in Parry Sound in the Sans Souci township and the flowers are grown by René’s wife. I don’t think she sells them. René ferried us to the island and I believe he own the marina/LCBO/grocery/filling station of which I spoke. It is my friend’s island that we visited; this is why I am so sketchy on details. I was in it for the canoeing and the negronis. Oh, and the margaritas. And the wine.

To a certain degree, the oasis of color we discovered did make a pleasant change from the normal flora of this section of Georgian Bay. Basically, you’re talking fir trees, wild ferns, sumac, and poison ivy. However, we did see, in calmer inlets, some beautiful water lilies, and, growing along the shore in profusion, gorgeous bright red wild lobelia. There were other wildflowers I could not identify (this not being my area of expertise) and I am sure in other seasons there are different varieties to be seen. I have heard that as you go further out into the bay, it becomes more and more rocky, with less and less greenery. Although the rock strata here are beautiful for their own sakes.

The cottagers of Georgian Bay had a lot of very artful container (also above) and window box action going, which we enjoyed as we paddled around snooping, I mean, absorbing the scenery.

Thanks, fellow zinnia enthusiast and friend Cheryl Jackson, for the photos.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Zinnias—who knew?

My faith in the late summer garden was renewed during a recent trip to Georgian Bay. The proprietor of the local LCBO, marina, filling station, and grocery had surrounded most of her property with containers of the most vibrant zinnias I have ever seen. There was also a small garden tableau featuring zinnias and other plants, as well as rocks, gnomes, and other decorative elements. Not my thing, but it worked for her.

I wonder if zinnias from seed would be less susceptible to the mildew that my zinnias have fallen victim to. It’s not terrible, as it mainly affects lower leaves, but it is unsightly. I also wonder if seeds would provide all the brilliant color and shape selections I noticed on her property. Hers were truly remarkable and I hope to upload some pictures soon. (I have to rely on friends’ documentation).

Normally I have no patience whatsoever for seeds. Without an indoor set-up, ours is far too short a season for most of them. Some, such as nasturtiums, morning glories, and a few others work OK here, but I’ve never been too excited about the whole process. It’s fun for kids— the wonder of a large plant emerging from such a tiny source, all that.

But—next year—maybe zinnias will turn me into a seed believer.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Of links, searches, and the garden blogosphere

When I started GWI in April, 2005, I didn’t think there was such a thing as a garden blogosphere. To my knowledge, there was one other gardening blog, 1,2,3, go—garden! (though it was not called that then), and, thanks to sitemeter, I knew I had about 4 visits a day.

What a difference a year makes. Though GWI will never compete with blogs that owe their popularity to their witty and enlightening critiques of celebrities, I now have a respectably higher visitor count and, much better, I have learned about a world-wide network of gardening blogs, many of them collected in gardenweb.com’s Garden Voices. What a great idea that was.

Many gardeners have been kind enough to provide links to GWI—thanks!—and I try to reciprocate, though I’m not really into long blogrolls. The best blogs get lost in the shuffle that way, and I think a link to Voices is probably a better service when all’s said and done.

It’s interesting to see how people find their way to a blog. A good third of the GWI visits are driven by Google, and, ironically, the searchword that invariably leads them to me is “sempervivum,” a plant I trashed a couple months ago. (I still don’t like it.) I also come up in the early pages of searches for “intoxicated,” and, rather unfortunately, “driving while intoxicated” (if typed without quotes). Oh well, hopefully I provide a pause of comic relief for that undoubtedly grim research.

Anyway, all this is to say “Thanks!” to Garden Voices and the other bloggers, and “Cool!” as a general comment on the fun that garden blogging provides—when you know there is a community out there.

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Have you ever noticed that most garden problems can be solved by the simple expedient of cutting them off? This works with hair, too. I mentioned Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s seminal work on perennials a couple posts ago; the main lessons I learned from her book were the essential strategies of pruning, deadheading, and cutting stuff back to the ground. This will not be news to most plant geeks, I know, yet it always gratifies me to see the tiny miracles that can result.

At this very moment, for example, I have reblooms on a sidalcea (barely visible behind the giant nicotiana sylvestris, above, which greatly benefits from daily deadheading). Ok, sidalcea, big deal. But I also have rebloom on several columbine (aquilegia) plants, and I think columbines in August are kind of cool. I have had additional success with radical pruning of several midge-beleaguered roses. The new growth, when it comes, seems more resistant. I now cut roses way back when I cut them, not just to the first 5-leaf node. Other plants that respond very well to constant yanking, plucking, and shearing are lamium, dicentra (the ever-blooming type), and many hardy geraniums.

There is great pleasure in ruthlessly snipping and slicing your way through the garden, and it’s a perfect activity to accompany wine-drinking. Not too much skill is needed and there’s no kneeling or digging. The other advantage of using these mechanical means of getting rid of bad stuff—rather than chemical means—is that nothing untoward gets in your glass.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Literary garden enigmas

A lane in Shropshire, the setting for Mary Webb's novels

Still on the topic of gardening and reading, as I become more immersed in gardening, I’m correspondingly more curious about flower reference in books—references that I took for granted before. These mysteries arise from the fact that I am a rabid anglophile and a huge fan of early twentieth century novels by British women authors (many published by the Virago imprint). I’ve seen co.uk domains when I check Sitemeter, so maybe some of you Brits can reveal to me:

•What in god’s name are cowslips? You rarely see latin names in these novels, so I have no idea what they correspond to on this side of the Atlantic. In the books, the characters are always gathering cowslips, from which the younger ones make cowslip tea, apparently quite a noxious beverage.

•What type of primrose is so common there? It is an early spring flower and is always pale yellow. Thus, when characters have a primrose-colored ballgown, you always know what color it is. Over here, I see primroses of every color but yellow. Confusing.

•Cow parsley?

•Michaelmas daisies? Could these be asters? Rudbeckia? They seem to emerge in the fall.

•Dog roses?

•What, precisely, is a bluebell wood? A group of trees where scilla grow every spring? That would make sense.

Some of these usages may be archaic, and, of course, certain plants are perennial in England and are not here: hence, more confusion. Of course, there is a certain pleasure in accepting the references as part of the bucolic mise en scène that makes these books so enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More on garden reading

I am sorry for stealing this topic from Garden Rant, but it is something I’ve been meaning to talk about, as reading, not gardening, is my primary hobby. (Seems odd to call it a hobby.)

Where the great void appears in garden writing is in a real literature of gardening—and I do mean gardening, not sustainable agriculture. I eagerly picked up a book of essays called Bloom and Blossom recently, only to find that most of the writing was about farming, not gardening, with the exception of a funny essay by Michael Pollan about his father’s refusal to conform to neighborhood lawn expectations. (I appreciated this because I remember my dad getting very impatient about lawn culture as well—he felt dandelions were a decorative addition to the landscape. But this isn’t a lawn post.) The topics taken up in the rest of the essays—including work by very good writers—were interesting enough but they had no place in a book with that title.

Many of my friends have mixed vegetable and flower gardens, but they are, above all, gardens, with an ornamental focus. The tradition of nurturing a garden goes back far enough where you’d think there would be a better and larger body of writing, but there isn’t. I do have a book of essays where the writers each talk about their favorite rose, and of course there are the books I mentioned in the last post, but it’s a slim roll call.

It might be the lack of magazines to nurture the essayists—most food and wine essay collections emerge from that source. Garden magazines are distressingly pragmatic, as much as I enjoy some of them.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Garden books: the GWI canon

Not that anyone’s asked me, but I’ve noticed some posts—mainly on Garden Rant—on favorite or popular garden books, and figured I’d add my mite to the debate/discussion/observations.

Actually, I have been getting a lot of reading done during time that I ordinarily would be gardening, now that the garden is winding down and very little attention is needed. It’s been fiction for the most part—including some historical stuff by Philippa Gregory, who did do a very nice series about an early plant collector in her books Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys. She is trashy, but that’s what summer reading is all about.

Garden books, though. I used books in the early days to help me with plant selection and cultivation, particularly with bulbs and perennials. During this process, I inadvertently discovered the works of the late Christopher Lloyd, whose Gardening Year and Garden Flowers are still well-thumbed favorites. Lloyd is very opinionated, entertaining, and one of the most authoritative garden writers around. I was sorry to learn of his recent death and plan to search out his other titles so I have a complete library. He is to gardening what Julia Child and M. F. K. Fisher are to food, as far as I’m concerned.

Another book I lucked into was The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracey DiSabato-Aust. This is an invaluable go-to for any gardener: no-nonsense advice in an entertaining, lively style. I also get great pleasure reading the encyclopedic Botanica and Flora, just for fun.

Timber Press, which has published many of my favorites, is undoubtedly the gardener’s best friend in the world of books. Until recently, high-quality books on gardening were few and far between, particularly when compared to books on food. We’ve grown used to seeing fifteen titles or more come out every year on the most minutely esoteric of cooking specialties (Doggie Desserts, anyone?) but the world of garden publications has never been as bountiful. That’s why Timber Press, with its 400 titles, is so welcome. The company has now become part of the Workman group, but I am hoping the books will keep coming

Finally, I must once more recommend Beverley Nichols (1898-1983), as my favorite garden essayist (not that there are many in the field). In Garden Open Today and Garden Open Tomorrow, both originally published in the sixties, Nichols (in a rare departure) actually gives concrete garden advice, with many plant recommendations. That is not what is so enjoyable about these essays, and all of Nichols’ garden writings. It is Nichols’ rare combination of irascible humor and keen awareness of the beauty of plants that make these books indispensable for the gardener’s shelf. In Garden Open Today, Nichols has the last word on the importance of water in the garden:
“…I take this opportunity of reminding the reader that every garden must begin with water in some shape or form even if it is only a pool two feet square sunk into a little concrete terrace. If this reader’s retort is ‘In that case I haven’t got a garden at all because I haven’t got any water in it,’ my reply is, ‘Quite. You haven’t got a garden.’”

As for Michael Pollan: he’s a good writer, but a bit too preachy. No doubt, all he says is right, but it has little significance for my personal relationship with gardening.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The nose knows—sometimes

When I wrote the last post, I was aware that I was on very shaky ground making absolutist comments about the fragrance or lack thereof in a certain flower.

Some people pick up fragrances that are totally non-discernable to others, and many love fragrances that others hate.

During Garden Walk, some women walked by and pointed to a lily, saying “Oh, there’s that stinklily.” (I found this not exactly rude—perhaps a bit uncouth.) Then they commented that they weren’t smelling the “stink,” and wondered if it had “worn off.” I didn’t bother to explain to them that they were thinking about Stargazers, which I don’t have. Most people around here are convinced that every pink spotted lily is a Stargazer, but I stopped growing them, largely because of their lack of height. Some find their smell unpleasant; I don’t, though they’re my least favorite of the Orientals.

There have been many interesting discussions about fragrance on Gardenweb over the years. Paperwhites are widely detested, but there are some cultivars that have a milder scent. Some people don’t like hyacinths; I find their scent fresh and totally springlike. Tree peonies are wonderful in spring too.

Of course a few flowers just smell bad, or close to bad. I don’t like astrantia, dahlia foliage, chrysanthemums, and martagon lilies (the pink). I can’t think of too many others; I love almost all fragrant flowers and avoid those that lack it. My big dream is to maintain a couple of citrus trees, so I can have lemon and orange blossoms in season.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The statistic is that of all the Oriental lilies I have in my garden, including Orienpets, ninety-five percent of them have a mild to strong fragrance. I guess the one with the deepest scent is the L. auratum, followed perhaps by the Casa Blanca hybrid. The yellow trumpets are also quite powerful. Every year, however, I wait with great anticipation for the last to bloom, the L. speciosum rubrum , and every year I am disappointed.

Nothing. Yet, this is described by The Lily Garden as having a “spicy fragrance,” and by John Scheepers as “fragrant.” Old House Gardens is typically over the top, asking, “Is this what heaven smells like?” and then describing the scent as “lush, complex, and never too much.”

What in god’s name are these people talking about? Sucker that I am, I’ll probably order some s. rubrum bulbs from Old House this fall, though I’ve never been deceived by anything I’ve purchased from The Lily Garden. I have to give it one more shot though. They are very pretty.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The last great splurge of 2006

I wasn’t drunk when I bought all this stuff, but the lack of judgment and restraint these purchases demonstrate might lead one to suppose intoxication. Still, how could I resist?

At a time of year when most nurseries are sad, empty places, once more the domain of houseplants and chochkies (no talk of those today!), this place out in West Seneca was bursting with color. Mostly common annuals, to be sure, but there was also a nice selection of perennials and some very reasonable mixed containers. I bought a magnificent one (above), mainly foliage, that I hope will provide some interest through September, as well as some verbena, sunflowers, galliarda, and butterfly bush. Oh yeah, and two big hanging plants. I’m not sorry, though; the garden looks refreshed, and I won’t feel quite as depressed as the season draws to a close.

I must have thanked the proprietor for having plants a dozen times.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Full disclosure

Before I continue with the taxonomy, it might be best to admit to what’s been allowed to creep into my space. After all, none of us are immune. The power of the garden object is strong.

Art (fine):
I wonder if I should count the mural on the (unused) garage door—the door is there whether it’s painted or not. Then there is a largish sculpture partially shown below. It could also count under Functional in that the heads can be rung, but only if you push on them. There is an abstracted flower sculpture that is rusting away nicely between the hostas and the ferns, and a traditional cast bronze nude is documented in the Flickr shots.

Art (craft):
There’s much more of this than there should be. A rusty abstracted squirrel is hiding out somewhere. (Hey—I haven’t seen it in a while.) There’s a kind of steel Zen thing on a steel stick that’s pretty unobtrusive—this could also go under Religious. A neighbor gave me a flat twisted wire figure that he brought from Atlanta, and then I have two distressed stylized buffaloes (above) that people seem to like. Most of these would also have to be cross-referenced under Animal.

Unless you count trellises and fountains, that’s it. Now I do have a courtyard space with large paved areas, so stuff like this is less obtrusive than one might suppose. Though people can get kind of freaked by the body/heads sculpture. I hear many witty comments about it during GW.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

My next project

I've thought about it, and the garden stuff topic can't be disposed of in a couple of posts. It's a book, maybe even a series of books. Serious research, thoughtful explication, all that.

I’ll have to wait until I have the time to really devote to this. However, in the meantime, I could record some notes for…

Categories and sub-categories for a taxonomy of garden objects, including:

“Found” faux)
“Art” (fine)
“Art” (craft)

There's more, but you can see how complex this can get.

“Religious,” for example, is a big category and one that foreshadows many of the icons we see in contemporary gardens. I would suggest that the Virgin Mary was once very common in gardens, but has since been replaced by sculptural images of St. Francis of Assisi.

“Mythological” is very interesting, too. What is there about a garden that implies fairies and dwarves (surely the precursor for gnomes)? And then, why only fairies and gnomes? Why not Aphrodite and Adonis—Adonis's blood is said to have created the anemone? Much more interesting, I would think, though the prospect of commissioning an Adonis/Aphrodite statue is somewhat daunting.

Indeed, nineteenth century garden designers and their ancestors did think in grand mythological terms. Today, we’ve boiled it down to a group of vaguely evocative mass-produced objects.

But I digress. On to the taxonomy!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Garden objects, part I

Don’t try this at home. Garden gnomes in their native habitat (Dunster, GB).

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

First, it was the frogs. “I have 8 (eight) frogs in the garden,” she said. “I ask the kids if they can find them all.”

Then there were the boots. “I have 8 (eight) boots hidden in the garden,” she said. "I ask them if they can find them all.”

OK. But why must it be eight? Why must it be frogs? Why must it be boots?

Before I can answer those questions, I first have to know:

When you have a garden that’s filled with scent, color, design, and amazing feats of horticultural prowess, why, in the name of god, why, would you feel it necessary to top it all off with a sculpture of an insipid girl child, holding out her arms as if to assume responsibility for all the beauty created and to gather it all in.

I don’t get it. If at all possible, we should try our best to keep our gardens free of inanimate creatures and extraneous objects. We don’t though.

It’s a fine line.

More on this later.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Gardens with attitude

It’s rare that I run into GW gardeners who say they’re in it because they love gardening. More often than that I hear “It shows people who live in the suburbs that we can have beautiful gardens, courtyards, and patios in the heart of the city,” or “Creating urban gardens and participating in Garden Walk helps revitalize neighborhoods,” or “I need a quiet, secluded place to a) get away from it all, b) meditate, or c) drink with my friends."

(Most coyly say they like “relax “ in the garden; drinking is usually not directly mentioned. Though I did see a few emptys around. And one guy offered me a glass of wine at 10:30 a.m.)

Anyway, there is an extent to which I am down with this. Undoubtedly, creating attractive front yards improves the look of a neighborhood, and, indeed, may shame those who neglect their properties into cleaning up their acts. It is also certainly true that Garden Walk brings the suburbanites in—and I’ve seen many of them taking great interest in whatever “For Sale” signs they see along their way.

Where I stop playing along is when I see people pretty much forcing their neighbors to be on the walk, or signing them up without their knowledge. And though I appreciate the generosity and hard work of those who create gardens for others, I don’t see it happening on our block. To me, a garden will always be an individual thing; it should express your personality, aesthetic, likes, dislikes. (Another problem with the whole “native” thing. Wouldn’t everyone in a certain area be growing pretty much the same stuff? Boring.)

Gardening, like everything, is to some degree a political act. And the personal is political, like the sixties-era feminists used to say. But for me it will always be more about expression, creating an environment that expresses my aesthetic, and having fun messing around with plants.