Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From the Garden Bench . . .

"You should have seen it last week." "You should see it in October." "You should see it in April." I can't count the number of times I heard such declarations when I wrote newspaper gardening columns for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I'd assure gardeners I was visiting and writing about that I never wore white gloves to gardens, never inspected spaces the way army officers had inspected my lockers and equipment. That usually drew smiles and understanding that whatever condition a garden is in is the condition it's in; there's something notable about every garden, always a plant or feature or practice that helps you know the gardener who tills the space.

Now, years later, I make those same assurances to myself, as I enjoy another year of speeches – and visits to my garden, including one next week from a magazine photographer who is scheduled to make images for a piece I'm writing on pruning.

Timing's everything. Not too long ago, rain was bountiful, temperatures were comfortable for gardener and garden, and staying out was easy to do long hours of grooming and moving and planting.

Lately, however, Connecticut, like so much of America, has been suffering brutally hot weather (Friday's temperature of 103 was the highest ever recorded at Bradley International Airport, near Hartford). The heat has been punctuated only by occasional breezes that feel like camel's breath, rainless skies and humidity that keep you soggy after hours of weeding and watering. And, through it all, there are the mosquitoes and deer flies bent on eating me alive.

Not able to spend as much time as I'd planned to make my space "perfect," I'm tuning up my you-should-have-seen-it-last-month speech.

That recalls the time years ago when Better Homes and Gardens was here to photograph the garden, and I was whining about how much needed doing to make my garden look its best, how there'd been too much rain, how the photog and his camera should see it next month. The editor managing the production looked around, smiled and assured me: "Nothing to worry about; we have a magic camera."

If all goes well this week, the photographer from Living the Country Life will bring the magic camera.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Excess, Thy Name Art Hydrangea

Big Blues: Lacecap, 'Endless Summer'
Gardeners often can be likened to plants. You know, prickly people are like cacti, and solid, stately people stand like oaks. The analogies go on and on. Perhaps you’ve thought about this and have your own comparisons.

This time of year, another one comes to mind: A certain kind of gardener always makes me think of the mophead hydrangea, which is peaking in my garden.

What kind of gardener? Well, one like me. Excessive. Never buy one of anything, when several more can be had. Often, I see, I like, I buy – even if I don't have a clear idea, no, not even a clue, where I'll put the load of plants I just had to have.

This excess includes hydrangeas, of course. At last count, I was at about a dozen, including lacecaps, paniculatas and the severely dramatic mopheads. Most dramatic is the cultivar 'Endless Summer,' which lives up to its name; I've even seen it bloom in November, and when cut and put in water indoors, the blooms are so endless, their stems have rooted during winter months.

Like mopheads in general, this one has blooms with large, nodding heads that make you smile; they turn a brilliant blue, lighting up any shady spot. Amazing, this hydrangea is so excessive, I need only one; it grows on a slope in back of the herb garden, its intensity shouting to anyone within earshot.

As many hydrangea growers know, mopheads not only look dramatic, they also fill the air with drama, swooning when the sunlight and temperature rise, sending gardeners to the watering can and hose.

Years ago, I visited a gardener who, with a mixture of art, cleverness and practicality, fashioned umbrellas for his mopheads, raising the colorful swoon preventers at midday, then lowering them when heat subsided.

While I saluted his creativity, I'd never pamper my hydrangeas that much. And, while I admit to sharing the excessive nature of hydrangeas, I avoid falling down or out on hot afternoons. At least, so far.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making a Move – Better Late . . . .

Location, location, location. That's elementary in real estate, yes, and of course it's a basic principle in gardening, too. Knowing that, you might wonder how I could have let my Japanese stewartia languish six or seven years in a bad location. Especially, as I usually have no qualms about moving plants; mine get moved so much, they ought to be on wheels.

In this case, my failure to move must be because I was moving and planting too fast to notice that this appealing little tree was just sitting there – outside the kitchen window. I enjoyed looking at it and idly wondered why it hadn't bloomed. It looked happy, good-looking foliage, good growth, but not even a bud, ever.
At Long Last, and Worth the Wait

 Last year, I began questioning whether, despite its appearance, there might be just a bit too much shade for the plant; the spot got sun but less after we added a room to the house. And, while the literature includes partial shade as OK, I began questioning whether it depends on what you mean by partial.

The questions got louder, and in mid-summer, when I should have been seeing those white camellia-like blossoms, I dug stewartia up and moved it to a sunnier spot.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cleaning Up, Sparing Down, Feeling Lighter

It all started with the living room. The pine floor needed a deep cleaning and a good waxing, Lyn said. Once we moved the furniture to one side of of the room, it became clear that a new rug would be a fine complement to the kicked-up floor.

After that decision, there was no stopping us. We had jumped into a let's-lighten our-load zone.

Down came the Victorian bird cage that hung over the dining room table. It had been interesting and appealing for about 15 years, five of which had been in our  Victorian home in Atlanta, where it was perfect. But that was then. Now it just looked . . . dated. I joked that in its place I could hang a fern in a pot cradled in a braided rope. Lyn was not amused, pointing out that she was not ready to go back to the '70s.

I got serious and joined the sparedown, identifying a victim: The nice little wrought-iron piece, vertical and narrow, made a good tchotchke stand, but we were bent on paring down little objects with little value. So, out went the stand, to the garage with the bird cage, soon to be joined by a portable writing table and several little vases. Each piece, it seemed, led to another.  Once you acknowledge that you can let a few pieces go, something clicks in your mind, allowing you to let more and more go. Pictures, urns, wood carvings all got the boot.

All this sparing down of furnishings inspired me to start putting house plants outside.

First to go was a split-leaf philodendron (speaking of the '70s). Then a parlor palm, which had never been happy indoors anyway. A nice camellia that I had nursed into bloom for several years had to go.
First-Out, Philodendron Now in a Better Place

The way I was moving out plants, it might as well be spring. The difference: I don't plan to bring them back indoors in the fall. I unpotted them and put them in the ground, where I will enjoy them as tropicals until the weather turns New England. Some smaller plants went directly to the compost. Even a teak bench that I used to display house plants now lives outdoors.

By the time we stopped clearing out during several days,  we had relieved the living room, dining room and reading room of a surprising number of furnishings and plants.
Sad Palm May Get Happy in the Ground

The sparedown was both liberating and visually appealing.

Like many people old enough to have collected more than we need, we often talk about "getting rid of stuff we don't need." To simplify. Well, this was a continuation of our ongoing effort. And, as always, it felt good to shed unneeded possessions, some of which we've already given away, including plants that I did not put in the ground or compost.

With fewer plants and furnishings, those that remain get better display, standing out in bolder relief now that they're no longer part of a huge mass. Speaking of display, we moved some plants and objects to different spots, which in some ways made them seem fresh and new again.

The lighter load makes the space feel not only spruced up, but also energized. Too, I no longer have to weave my way past several plants to get to the one that needs watering. Nor does Lyn have to avoid them when running the vacuum cleaner (We have a deal: She does not garden; I do not vacuum). Funny how attitude changes; I used to enjoy that feeling of making my way through my "indoor jungle." No more.
And to think, it all began with a floor-waxing. I can only imagine how much of a sparedown would come with a new coat of paint on the walls.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

From the Garden Bench . . .

What heady days these are. Gardenia and Southern magnolia are both in bloom; it might as well be paradise right here in New England.

Many blossoms are fragrant, but for me none feel as evocative as those two.

Billie Holiday, tortured, talented lady of the blues, must have gotten some slight, sweet relief from her life's demons by wearing gardenia in her hair. And, we who grew up where gardenia is hardy, and the nights are hot, know and love that  heavy, heady Southern fragrance as the symbol of summer's divine decadence. The senses race, while life slows; that's gardenia time.
Gardenia, Symbol of Divine Decadence

Nourishing that recollection is, perhaps, why I work so hard to grow gardenias. In Connecticut. In winter.

In January I bought two potted plants that were filled with buds. I misted them daily and watched as they held on through the spring, still budded tight. I barely got them outside before they were run over by spider mites and the sheer oppressiveness of being cooped up for months.

It was not until June that the buds began to open. And, once they started, they released a flood of good smells that continues at this writing.