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.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Rain Garden Party

I'd been thinking of making a rain garden for a while, and a couple of weeks ago I stopped thinking and got busy. The spot I chose was at the bottom of my scree. These chunks of stone simulating material that breaks loose from a mountain tumble down a gentle slope behind the house, coming to a point.

During rains, water flows down the slope, so I dug a semi-circle around the tip of the scree and made a berm to capture and hold the water. This would become my rain garden, or vernal pool. At only about 6 inches deep, this is not hard labor. 

Now, for the plants. Ideally, native plants that love growing in water would just show up and grow happily ever-after. But, until the ideal comes along, I assembled a collection of water-loving plants from local nurseries, including cattail, sedge, rush, chameleon plant. Too, I'll go hunting in my woods.

My thought is, many other plants, not necessarily bog plants, could thrive in this space. Small trees, shrubs, wildflowers, perennials.

After planting what I had bought, I scavenged from myself, digging out pieces of black mondo grass, horsetail reed – and then some mosses for the top of the berm – to prevent the hard-packed dirt from eroding. Annnd, after watering, done.

Well, done in a way. Plants must grow and fill in spaces. More important, notice there's no water in the rain garden. The last time it rained was more than a week ago, when I was in the middle of this project. As a friend joked: "Great timing for making a rain garden, Lee."

Days later, when it still hadn't rained, she said, "I'll do a rain dance for you." I'm still waiting. These gardens are not necessarily wet all the time, of course, but they are called *vernal* pools because they're spring-seasonal.

OK, it's spring, and I'm anxious to see rain fall on the rain garden. Now, I  certainly don't want to resort to hose-watering this rain garden. So, today I'll dance, too. Everybody out there – come on, dance with me. And send me your rains. Let's get this party started.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Looking Back at My Future

My garden is alive with triggers, plants that evoke memories from long ago. Lately, it's my redbud that's reminding me of how I went from writing news to writing gardening.

Every year when I walk through the front garden and see the tree putting on its show, I think of a news assignment 23 years ago, when I was driving through Virginia to cover a violent coal miners strike. Looking into the woods, I saw a shock of pink that mesmerized.

That scene is what I focused on in one paragraph of the story:

It is such an unlikely war zone. Spring has dressed the mountains and hollows in pearly dogwoods and rosy redbud, and the poplar and locust trees are greening. Here, in the southwestern toe of Virginia, warm, wet days give way to cool, foggy-patched nights under brilliant stars.

Similar references found their way into other stories – camellias and seafood, for example, in a piece about Gulf War I emptying a town of its Navy personnel. Recalling these stories tells me I was headed for garden-writing even as I wrote news. 

It would be three more years before I transitioned to gardening and food columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

During those remaining years years of covering nine Southern states as LA Times Atlanta bureau chief, I drove more than I flew because that allowed me to stop along the way and load my car with plants and thoughts of digging in the dirt. Which helped me shake off the detritus of bad news in sad places.

And, now, the redbud trigger takes me back, but it's to my own space in Connecticut – where, fortunately, I can enjoy the rosy show without the gunshots.

Monday, April 23, 2012

OK, So You Can Climb. But Can You Bloom?

One of my reliable failures is the climbing hydrangea. Not Hydrangea anomala petiolaris, which I've grown on a brick wall where its lateral branches dragged into bloom after five or six years, grumbling all the way.

No, my un-bloomer is a relative of that one; it's Schizophragma  hydrangeoides 'Moonlight'. Or, Japanese hydrangea vine. Many years ago, I saw it growing up a tree in a South Carolina garden. I had to have it; I needed that plant and its saucer-size creamy white blooms that lit and perfumed black nights.

So, a decade ago, I planted one here in Connecticut. And, I waited. And waited. No blooms. Not one have I seen. I haven't even heard rumors of bloom on this really healthy-looking vine that now has climbed more than 30 feet up a tree.

Over the years, I've tried fertilizing it, not fertilizing it. After about five years, it occurred to me that it must not be getting enough light. (Slap head here.) In early spring, there's light aplenty. But, later, all these trees will leaf out and close in, like those in the Kurosawa movie, Throne of Blood.

So, what I have here is a vine, just a vine. I stand under it and look up at certain times of the day, when the sun is directly overhead, and it's appealing even without blooms; streaming light and rustling breeze make leaves glitter and shimmy.

Yes, blooms would be even better, adding value to this fine vine. For 10 long years I've waited. And, in each of those years, when summer comes, I've wondered if this could be the year.

Of course, I'll be looking closely again this year; the ritual has become a metaphor for hope, persisting – perhaps defying reason, certainly battling heavy odds.

But, then, this is not an unfamiliar condition for anyone who gardens; hope is what we thrive on.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Daphnes Not Always Sweet

Hard to believe I'm saying this, but: Daphne is being sweet.

There was a time when Daphne was a heartbreaker; she'd bloom sweetly . . . until. Until I could hear her say, like a lover in the middle of the night, "I'll be right back, Baby; I'm going out for a pack of smokes." Never to be seen again.

Yes, the old Daphne would just check out on me, without warning, no matter how much I did. I gave her good drainage. I planted her "high," mounded atop dirt inside a roomy hole. I didn't water too much. Despite all that, I'd go out one morning, and she'd be gone for good.

The new Daphne has been with me for seven long years, and she's never even looked like she wanted to leave. She blooms happily; I've even enjoyed that sweet, sweet intoxicating perfume wafting above the snow.

And, for the last several weeks, Daphne has put on the show of shows, covered with elegant little purply-white blooms, producing fragrance so strong, it lights up the whole garden. And, attracted my first tiger swallowtail of the season.

What's the difference? The only one I can figure is all my previous plants were Daphne burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie', green leaves with golden edges. Daphnes with bling. My current ones are plainer: Daphne odora, or winter daphne. No bling, just blooms amid narrow leaves that are all green.

There's a lesson here: Beware of a Daphne tarted up with gold. Sometimes plain is also sweet and pretty. And, stable.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Camellia Update: More blooms, a Lil' Bud

When I wrote recently about the surprising camellia that survived the winter and began blooming this spring, some readers wanted to see what the plant would look like when more blooms came from buds that have been on the shrub since last summer-fall. Here's an image from this week:

And, after my warm-weather-assisted success, I uncorked a camellia bonsai and planted it near its taller sibling, complete with its own tree – whose heat may warm the newcomer in winter. The bonsai bloomed indoors during winter.

Now, here's the big camellia's lil' bud (not a marketing name).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Buying Plants, Selling SEX

As I put new plants in the ground and add their name tags to my collection, I marvel at the size of the pile. During the 10 years I've gardened on this land, I've amassed more tags than at any other garden.

Rifling through the pile is like connecting with friends and relatives, past and present. Too, it amounts to a journey through my Connecticut gardening history, a history that began in November 2001.

Randomly thrusting my hand into the pile, I come away with a crumpled, mud-stained tag for a weeping larch (Larix decidua 'Pendula'), which I planted on a rainy autumn day, eight or nine years ago. A prize plant from the first, this larch continues to star in the front garden.

As does the 'Endless Summer' hydrangea, aptly named for its continuing bloom, into November, zaftig, beautiful. And, as blue as a robin's egg.

While those two, and countless others have become dear friends in the garden, some have come and gone in a heated rush, barely remembered as I rifle through the tags.

Take the Ice Angels series of camellias I tried; they were bred and sold to push hardiness limits. They didn't. Whether they died because the voles ate their roots, or whether they just weren't up to my Zone 6, I don't know.

Only subconsciously had I noted how clever, how kicky are the names. They get your attention and sometimes puzzle. Referring to my 'Bob Hope' camellia, my blogging friend Laurrie (My Weeds Are Very Sorry) was amused that "a beautiful fragrant flower" was named "for a goofy-looking comedian."

Poring over my pile of tags graphically demonstrates how plant marketers work  to inspire buyers' passions; how deliciously named was my now-departed 'Raspberry Ice' bougainvillea.

Many of the marketing names are downright titillating. 'Black Lace' is the elderberry I planted five years ago. Hosta 'Striptease' and a rose called 'Erotika' are among examples I got from gardening buds.

Names of roses seem to be the . . . hottest.

Anna Davis, respected rosarian and a proper Atlantan, listed some of her favorites: 'Bubblicious', 'Anytime', 'Crescendo', 'Mesmerized', 'Hot Tamale', 'Light My Fire'.

Anna's too accomplished a rosarian to buy only for the name, no matter how much fun it may be; for her, the quality is the thing. And, to be fair, these names are open to interpretation.

My interpretation: In the plant-naming meetings, somebody's thinking sex sells. Whether it's a car or a plant.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Squirrels Then and Now

Talk about time bringing tolerance: Years ago, I used to rail against squirrels when I wrote about them in my newspaper gardening column, calling them names like buck-toothed bandits because they had a knack for swiping tomatoes juuust before I could pick them.

The name I most often used to describe these destructive rodents was "bushy-tailed rats." Which explains why a sympathetic, empathetic reader sent me this drawing, entitled: "Bushy Tailed Rat."

While I had no interest in shooting squirrels, I certainly got some vicarious pleasure from the sinister details in the drawing.

Ahhh, how far I've come since those intolerant days in Atlanta. Now, here in Connecticut, the squirrels seem less destructive, following the code of people here in the Land of Steady Habits; they eat their acorns, have a little walkabout, admire the plants, take a nap. Or, maybe they just have more space to spread out than their city kin had. In any case, my anger has subsided, allowing me to not only shoot this picture, but to enjoy the squirrel's calm pleasure.

Tolerance goes only so far, however. If today that artist changed the subject from squirrel to deer or volemole, he'd have me laughing out loud.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Anticipation, Sweet and Dangerous

As with each year right about now, spring has sprung enough to make anticipation rise high and mightily; young, fresh leaves and blooms cause visions of lushness to  dance in gardeners' heads.

How sweet anticipation is. There is something exciting about this time of year, something reassuring too, as our sleeping gardens and gardening passions awake – again.

Here's a sampling of what's starting to lively up in my garden:

– Japanese maples, whose leaves and form are stunningly beautiful. Which helps explain my helpless love for them – all 25 or so.

Japanese maple 'Bloodgood'

Coral bark Japanese maple ('Sango Kaku')

Long branch of threadleaf Japanese maple hugs stone
 – Spring flowers abound, in various stages of becoming:

Azalea pressing stone
'Miss Kim' Lilac
Buckeye, getting ready to burst into red
Winter daphne, small blossoms, huge fragrance
Doublefile viburnum, wide and tiered

Nutmeggers chose mountain laurel as state flower
Cat Bette admiring flowering almond

Ahhh, anticipation. Where would we be without it? It is a mark of passion. When we no longer look forward to something with so much hope that we can barely stand it, we have lost that certain something. Passion once so sharp that it cut, has dulled.

Amid this spring excitement, there is of course a possibility of danger. Plants that stick their tender faces out of the ground before cold is past risk ZAP! – losing their heads.

How much like life this is: So much sweet anticipation is fraught with danger – or at least the fear of it. Still, we leap, faithfully, into pleasures. At least, we should.

This gardener is betting that this year's anticipation will not turn into disappointment. Betting that the heat of passion surely will keep the cold away.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pushing a Camellia to the Limit

Today's the day I scored a personal best in the gardening game of pushing limits; a camellia bloomed – the camellia I took from indoors last July, along with several other houseplants, and planted in the ground.

Hardier than the other castaways, the camellia survived. Nope, it's not one bred and sold as especially cold hardy. Years ago, I tried a couple of those, and the voles ate them down. I'm sure other gardeners this far north routinely grow regular camellias outdoors, but this is my first time, and it sure feels special.

To celebrate the occasion, I put my nose close to the bloom, inhaling the light, heady fragrance of earth and honey. If this doesn't put a smile on your face, you have a hole in your soul.

I had expected all the exiled houseplants to die, but when the camellia was still standing in January, I began thinking it just may have a chance to bloom, albeit later than its usual winter blossom time.

Like many gardeners, I have always pushed limits, trying to coax life and blooms from plants that "aren't supposed to grow" where we're gardening. In Atlanta, growing Spanish moss was a triumph, as I lived 70 miles north of the moss line in Macon. (The American Camellia Society was founded in that Central Georgia town, by the way.)

But pushing the moss line pales by comparison to growing a Camellia japonica 'Bob Hope', whose hardiness ends at Zone 8 or 7, depending on your source. Well, with help from an usually warm winter and the fact that camellias can't read, this one beat the odds here in Connecticut Zone 6.

Fact is, we who push limits know they often are like rubber bands; they stretch, but if you're fortunate, they don't break.

To be sure, this push was a struggle, demonstrated by this first bloom's slightly rumpled appearance. After all, blooming this late is akin to bread staying in the oven twice as long as usual. Filled with buds since late summer-early fall, the confused camellia expected to get back indoors in the fall as it had for about five years. When it did not, the buds hung tough through snow, wind, freezes, thaws.

Seeing hope, I began photographing the 4-foot tall plant last month, creating a sequence of bloom progression, ending with today's opening.

March 26

April 1

April 3
This afternoon, I stood back and looked at the camellia, planted snugly behind a tree to protect it from west winds and maybe to provide a little warmth. Stones and pieces of a broken pot surrounded the plant's base, again for warmth.

In some ways, the moment felt surreal. Wind gusts exceeding 25 miles an hour rocked the little shrub and blew the blues, my most kinetic weather instrument, like a mad jazz pattern. Nevertheless, all the unopened buds stood firm, swaying but noticeably more open than they'd been a few hours earlier.

Is a full display of camellia blossoms sometime soon too much to hope for?

Should I unpot my bonsai camellia and plant it near its mate in  Big Momma's Garden? 

Ready to go in the ground?
 The possibilities intrigue; this could be the start of a Connecticut camellia patch.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Gotham's Street Plantings Rock

When I lived in Manhattan in the early 1970s as a hard-working graduate student, the last thing on my mind was its sidewalk plantings. These days, living in Country Connecticut, 120 miles from the city, I make up for that youthful blind spot by paying lingering attention and homage to the living architecture that looks good, feels good and adds a calming touch to one of the busiest cities in the world.

Here's a sampling of what Lyn and I saw recently as we walked from Grand Central Station, west to 10th Avenue, and back again, zigzagging as we went.

Man and baby out for a stroll could very well be heading for the nearby plaza filled with people enjoying midday sun – and plants, including Lenten rose.

At the Signature Theatre, our destination, we were greeted by this eye-catching display of birch trunks snuggling pussy willow branches all budded up.

When we lived in Atlanta the city's proud nickname was City of Trees. New York certainly has bragging rights too, starting of course with Central Park. Then, there are the smaller parks filled with trees. Some, like the ectomorphs below, strain and stretch to reach the sun, to break free of surrounding buildings blocking the light.

Trees planted in sidewalks are particularly welcomed – for their springtime blossoms, and as places to sit a spell and watch the passing parade.

No visit to Gotham is complete without a touch of mystery.