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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Little Feng Shui Fighting

Early morning on a recent day, the soft light fell just right on the four-panel screen depicting a mesmerizingly calm scene – trees, water, mountains. Two people walk toward a home where another stands in the window.

Staring at this idyllic setting hanging on the wall was transporting, taking me to a place of perfect feng shui – and recalling my introduction to it years ago.

While this ancient Chinese art of placement has principles that apply generally, I discovered that every principle does not fit every perrson; a certain way of placing furniture or plants, for example, might promote harmony and the flow of chi, or positive energy, in one person but not in another.

Learning that while interviewing an expert in feng shui (literally “wind” and “water”) in the 1990s helped me get over my disbelief at Lyn’s not loving the rug I brought home with such great expectation. After hauling the 4 X 6-foot Oriental rug home on the Atlanta subway, I toted it a few blocks to our home and proudly unrolled it onto the floor, noting how well this carpet style would fit our Victorian-era house.

Lyn begged to differ, explaining it just “isn’t right.”

I briefly tried to change her mind, but I knew that would make no more sense than it would if she walked through my garden and asked me to move a Japanese black pine because it was “badly placed.”  I rule the garden, but Lyn's the chief of indoor style. Usually. We still laugh about this early feng shui surprise.

Disagreements on feng shui (pronounced fung shway) are rare with us. We both like furniture on angles; our bed placement must allow us to see the doorway; our doors cannot open with a stairway right in our faces; we want our kitchen to catch morning light, with the living room getting sunset. All these prefererences help promote the flow of chi in both of us. Ironically, these were our likes before we learned about feng shui.

But the rug is an example of how individuals do feel differently about certain objects and placements. The feng shui practioneer I wrote a newspaper story about explained that these differences are determined by a number of factors, including date, hour and place of birth.

Undaunted by the rug dispute, I came home another day with another piece for the house. It had good feng shui for both of us. Still does. After hanging on a wall of our Atlanta home for several years and here in Connecticut for another 11, it continues to be right.

Which in the end is what feng shui is: knowing something is right when you feel it. And you can’t help but feel it when the soft early morning light falls on it just right . . . .

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Patch of ThymeMumSedum

Here in the time of mums, I appreciate these plants for more than their fall colors; chrysanthemums helped me salvage a design gone bad.

Ten years ago, I fell in love with woolly thyme and planted many plugs in a sizable swath close to the front of the house, a space roughly 8 by 20 feet. Over time the little thyme plants grew together and made a beautiful groundcover, one that encouraged  many of us to walk barefoot in it, enjoying its fragrance and feel.

As soon as it was just right, it did what woolly thyme does: Despite my careful planting in fast-draining soil, it began to die in patches, as it suffered from too much moisture during some of our many hyper-rainy seasons.

Not willing to abandon this open area that’s free of shrubs or trees (I grow no grass), I began mixing in ‘Elfin’ thyme, which tolerates more moisture. But the woolly was dying fast enough that I needed to cover more ground faster.

Sedum, with 'Elfin' thyme

That’s where chrysanthemums came in. Each autumn, I had began adding a few mums, some of which returned the next year. Next came aster, the hardy New England favorite that I began adding two years ago. Last year, the patch got yet another groundcover – sedum, like hens and chicks, below.

Chrysanthemum, with woolly thyme
Now, what started as a woolly thyme patch has become a thyme-mum-aster-sedum patch, an evolution I had not intended but embrace just as much as if I had planned it. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When Bloom Time Is Off-Time

Last week, at Town and Country Nurseries in nearby Haddam I noticed a rhododendron unlike any of mine: low-growing, small leaves. But most surprising, it was in bloom. Still is. It’s mid-October, and it’s . . . still . . . in . . . bloom.

Lauren, my enabler at the garden center, was as amazed as I was. As we talked, we examined the plant more closely and discovered buds promising more pink blooms. I suppose they’ll open fully in November. 

This late-bloomer is not some strange cultivar; it’s Rhododendron ‘Wilsonii’, not one I’ve grown before but certainly no stranger in the rhoddy world. Nothing I’ve read about it says anything about fall blooms; it usually blooms in spring like it’s larger cousins.

So what’s going on?

Lauren and I could only speculate that last winter’s warmth may have disrupted the bloom cycle. That seemed likely to me, as my big rhoddies did not bloom this year, and only one has buds now. The way the year is going, it might bloom in December. 

This big little Wilsonii surprise makes up for the un-bloomers. And to extend the pleasure, I’m not messing with it at all: I’m leaving the yellowing leaves where they are. And I’m not going to repot it until spring. When, for all I know it might bloom again. Ahhh, climate change.

No matter how much my social conscience reminds me that plants gone haywire, blooming off-time, should not be cause for celebration, I look at these flowers, which may be the canaries of our overheated planet, and I can't help loving what I see.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sweet Tea Olive Comes in From the Cold

My tea olives are like many other New Englanders; they go to warm places for the cold season. After months outside in my Connecticut garden, these little shrubs with the big perfume have come in from the chill. 

I never would have known the tea olive (aka sweet olive, aka Osmanthus fragrans) would live happily indoors had it not been for the owner of an Asian art gallery in Atlanta. Years ago, I admired the sweet little olive plant inside the gallery she and her husband owned. Assuming it was indoors temporarily, I asked how long it had been inside the building which was geting medium light.

“Five years,” was the surprising answer.

That very day I dug two from my garden in Atlanta, where they were hardy, potted them and grew them indoors until we moved to New England seven years later. During that time the fragrance from the plants covered a lot more air space than the tiny white blooms would indicate.

Here in colder climes that has not changed; with only one or two blooms, the living room is lit sweetly, especially in the morning when temperatures shift from low to higher. As the season goes on and that overnight shift becomes more dramatic, so will the bloom production – and the perfume.

How welcome it will be as the unnaturally heated air enjoys less and less recycling. Sweet olive, along with other fragrant bloomers, will bring a good dose of nature’s good smells to the house, along with a natural soothing.

What this plant is is aromatherapy. I’m sure glad I can get it here because wintering in Florida is not an option.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Begonia Born to Be Art

The hardy begonia, which I recently wrote about here, is the plant that just keeps on giving.

Carol Pruitt, one of several friends to whom I passed along this popular plant, makes art – in photography and flower arranging. (That term is too restrictive, as she uses more of nature than just flowers in her arrangements.) A while back I featured some of her creations in this post.

Now, she is using the hardy begonia’s blooms and leaves to create art that is not only exquisite, but also evocative of autumn’s bountiful harvest. Take a look:

All photographs by Carol Pruitt


Recently, Carol bought a new container, using it for the arrangements below. The container "inspired me," she says, because "it allows for a larger, bold statement." That statement includes dahlia blooms, whose strong colors contrast nicely with the begonia's delicate ones.

Begonia grandis, in pink and white, has one of the longest shows in the garden, even though it dies all the way back in winter, and its leaves peek from the ground later than many perennials.

Once it gets going, it sure makes up for lost time. Impressive blooms, colorful, heavily veined leaves light up many a garden.

With autumn aflame and winter clearing its throat, soon the seed pods will dry and rattle when brushed. Then, the elegant images of Carol's arrangements will be all that is left of this grand begonia.

What a way to go.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Crape Myrtle of the North

When I moved to East Haddam, Connecticut, 11 years ago I tried and failed at growing crape myrtle, a tree I had loved in my Southern gardens. I saw one crape myrtle in town. After several years it was gone, apparently cut down or killed in a winter too cold for this iconic little tree. I'm told it grows in towns along Long Island Sound, where the water keeps temperatures a bit warmer.

Location, location, location.

In my garden, 20 miles north of the Sound, I compensate. I grow what's known as crape myrtle of the North because of its exfoliating bark. More familiarly it is seven-son flower or Heptacodium miconioides. When I planted mine about five years ago, I almost turned it into a single-trunk tree. I'm glad I didn't.

By any name, it's a pleaser, starting in late summer with little white flowers, followed by fruits and red sepals. All understated.

The big show is the bark, whose shreds stir with the breezes.

Soon, all the leaves will freeze and disappear, the fruit and sepals, too – revealing the showy bark as a reminder of gardens in another time, another place. This is not crape myrtle, the ones I grew in the South – big-bloomed, Southern style. Still, it's close enough. I'm loving the one I'm with.

Crape myrtle of the North in stony "groundcover."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Garden Fades But May Come Back a Star

Soon, my garden will go dormant. Much of what I see now will disappear, collapsing into a heap of leaves, stems and twigs.

No, not my garden of weeping conifers and colorful maples. Nor my
garden of ornaments. But the latter *is* nearby.

The garden that is fast going, going as the sunlight shortens and the nights lengthen and chill – that fading garden – is my compost garden. I've often talked about how plants sometimes do well after being tossed onto the compost, how I've put plants there with the intention of getting them to grow, then removed them and planted them in the larger garden.

Now, the compost garden has become more permanent, an established part of my gardening life. Two spaces, each about 4 by 6 feet, make up this garden: Compost 1 and Compost 2.

This year has seen a bumper crop of compost plants as I spared down, shedding excess. Especially container plants that want constant watering in the brutal heat and drought. Some, like elephant ear, went to the compost way back in May, starting as tubers and growing with abandon. Now it's a race between the appearance of a hard freeze and a spath; the plant sure looks vigorous enough to produce a spath. I'm counting on the peppers (in the image below) to come back from seed next year. They'll certainly be more successful in the compost than they were in pots; their pods were not worth eating.

In Compost 1, peppers and elephant ears grow better than when in pots.
An agapanthus that used to be a container star in my summer garden wound up in the compost last fall, as did a cymbidium orchid. Both had failed to make the cut as I edited out many container plants. These two survived the warm winter and grew fine and healthy through the summer, but they will be in a poker game with the weather again. Will they beat the odds and survive two straight winters in the compost?

In Compost 2, agapanthus (right) and cymbidium await autumn leaves for winter insulation. 

Compost 1, left, continues to expand. A nun's orchid (foreground left) and a coffee plant wound up here because of non-performance; they didn't bloom after years of excellent care in pots indoors. This move might be just the inspiration they need.

The compost amounts to an eclectic group, including the ill, the dead, the excess, the un-bloomers. Some  may live long. Some might not. But for those that survive and thrive, there is a special bonus.

For a while, I have thought about – and discussed with other gardeners – the idea of making compost heaps visible features of the garden. Some of us wonder: Why should compost be relegated to the back of the property? Hidden from view. I enjoy looking at what's happening in these piles of plants, leaves, food scraps and such.

So, here's the deal: If the current compost plants get through the winter, I will make sure to offer every visitor to my garden up-close looks at Compost 1 and Compost 2. Shopping for passalong plants will be optional.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cue Nat, Cue Sinatra: The Falling Leaves . . .

. . . drift by the window

The autumn leaves of red and gold

I see your lips, the summer kisses

The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I'll hear old winter's song

But I miss you most of all my darling

When autumn leaves start to fall

When I hear Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra sing Autumn Leaves, I feel autumn just as strongly as when I look out my window and see the maples and the birches so colorfully marking the change of seasons. This view from my front window shows the leaves just starting to fall.

The two images below show Japanese maples – a fiery red threadleaf and a coral bark with leaves of golden glitter. I photographed both in November 2010. Last year, they were not even close to being this brilliant, and for all I know they may never be again. All the more reason to celebrate every season fully; its riches do not necessarily come again.

Though vibrancy like this comes only in autumn, for some the season signifies loss and emptiness.  Loneliness and longing – in gardening and life. As the season wears on, so do those brilliant hues, eventually fading away. And that's when the sense of emptiness afflicts some gardeners.

Rose-colored and red-hot, summer gardens do not admit even the idea of emptiness; something, if only weeds, will fill every nook and cranny. Blooms explode constantly, leaves tightly hug trees and shrubs, filling our hearts and minds.

But as the days grow shorter, for some they grow longer because the garden spares down, leaving empty spaces in many gardeners' days; it's as if the garden – or a huge part of it – has gone away, leaving haunting memories of loss.

But there is much life and joy to celebrate. Blooms like the harvest mums and the falling leaves help make autumn the flip side of spring, bold and bright and in the sharp-angled light somehow . . . more energizing, crisper, edgier than spring's pudgier presentation.

With scores of autumns behind me, I have learned to appreciate the falling leaves, the spaces. And, always, the song. Once more, Frank. Sing it again, Nat.