Monday, June 23, 2008

"Staycation" 2008

Due to economic reasons, family concerns, and a lack of prior planning, we're having a "staycation" this summer, and I have to say I'm loving it so far. Except for a couple of short trips, one to Pittsburgh to visit family, and another to North Carolina to see a play, we will be staying in town this summer. One benefit of this has been rediscovering some of the pleasures available in Tidewater to those with time to invest, especially during the spring, summer, and fall. Informal dinners with friends, walks around Busch Gardens (which takes the "gardens" part of its name very seriously - nothing exotic, but tons of spectacular foliage and floral display executed flawlessly), going to local theater productions and ballgames; all of these are great, inexpensive fun. Just having the time to choose riding bikes for a couple of hours over using the more efficient elliptical trainer, or to chop real onions rather than cheating with frozen ones when cooking, is a treat.
Not free, but certainly worthwhile, and the high point of my summer so far, was a sunset kayak tour around and through the Norfolk Botanical Gardens the other night with our adventurous friends Bonnie and Dave. It didn't hurt that the weather happened to be perfect (for once), but it also opened my eyes to the fact that our local garden has come a long way in the last few years. No longer simply a display of azaleas and camellias, this is now a spectacular series of gardens which is designed for four seasons of interest. My favorite part of the trip was paddling through the main canal of the garden, which is now planted with hardy(ish) "tropicals" including oleander, musa basjoo, crinums, colocasias, and other unusual plants suited to the microclimate afforded by this protected site. Being in a kayak allows one to see these plantings from a perspective unavailable during a regular garden visit, especially now that the garden's fleet of tour boats has been grounded for the season due to structural issues (the vessels do strongly resemble the "African Queen", and I think they're of approximately the same vintage.) The kayak tours are only available one Thursday evening per month, from May through September, and I highly recommend this enjoyable experience.

Although the garden and greenhouse will be fending for themselves for six days next week, I've learned that preparation for an absence of this length is much easier than doing so for a long stretch. I don't worry about finding somebody to water (which hasn't worked very well in the past, anyway - it's just impossible to teach people to do that properly unless they themselves are seasoned gardeners), and I just keep my fingers crossed that there'll be a nice, solid rain somewhere during that time frame. I do plan to spend a large amount of time this week pulling everything out of the greenhouse which might suffer from a week without water and getting the last of the 4" pots either potted (I've resorted to grouping things together haphazardly in big plastic pots, at least temporarily; some of these end up looking better by the end of the season than anything I consciously plan), planted out, or given away. I also need to do some cutting back and outright removal of Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue"; it is a great perennial here, attracting hummingbirds far better than feeders or trumpet vine (which I do allow to grow on the back fence - at this point it's providing some structural support as well), but it's already 4 feet high. It usually gets whacked back by half several times each summer. I also grow the standard species, which has green calyxes rather than "black" (it's pictured here with one of the perennial Lathyrus species), and the very attractive pale blue "Argentina Skies", which does very well despite being driven over (it's next to the driveway) a few times each year.
Staying home is also giving me a chance to enjoy a lot of the flowers I miss when we go away for extended periods. It also helps that things are ahead of schedule this year; lilies and daylilies are just about at their peak now. Above is the first bloom of a seedling Regal lily in accidental combination with the gigantic Arundo donax - a great, if precarious, combination. Below is the only decent Hemerocallis hybrid I've produced from a batch of seed sown in 2006; I crossed lots of different varieties, mostly spiders, with "Milk Chocolate". I do kind of like this one, and there are plenty of places to use the "rejects". As Frederick says in "Pirates of Penzance", "How exceedingly lovely is even the plainest of them!"
Other stars of the summer garden this year are such uncommon plants as Phygelius, which should be grown more for their foliage and spikes of bloom. New colors are becoming more available, and in a warm winter, such as this last, P. capensis remains evergreen. Interestingly, P. aequalis 'Moonraker' (below), with pale yellow blooms, always dies to the ground in winter but rebounds in spring. 'Trewidden Pink' is actually a dark salmon at best, and a bit more trailing than the others. I'm trying a couple of new varieties this year, one of which has a white bloom, and 'Sunshine', with leaves which are a bright chartreuse and should provide a contrast with the tubular scarlet blooms when they appear. These relatives of Penstemons and Antirrhinums seem to handle heat and humidity better than most other scrophs, as long as moisture is available. They also provide a nice counterpoint in bloom shape and structure to the daylilies with which they bloom concurrently.
The area beneath the Magnolia grandiflora in the front yard, long a wasteland carpeted by huge, indestructable leaves and deep, dark shade, is working out well as a location for my plunge bed - kind of a "jewel box" garden for delicate things that might otherwise be lost. Rather than trust things like seed-grown hardy Cyclamen in the open garden for the first few years, I put them in 4-6" clay pots and surrounded these with compost in order to keep soil moisture more constant. The ones that go dormant in summer are traded out for gesneriads which are grown in similar pots but stored indoors for the winter. C. purpurascens, however, stays pretty much evergreen and is in bloom right now, which is kind of a cool thing. This is the first bloom for most of these seedlings, and I'm really enjoying them, especially in combination with two hardy begonia varieties which have become naturalized (they spread via bulbils formed in the leaf axils) among the small pots. The orange one is B. sutherlandii, a South African species, and the white is a variety of B. sinensis (which may itself be a smaller, early blooming subspecies of B. grandis) called "Shanxii White". The fencing in the photo is there as a deterrent to ducks and boys chasing model airplanes, frisbees, etc. I spend lots of time fishing their toys out of trees, shrubs, and garden beds, but they're nice kids, very respectful, and always interested in what I'm up to.
Fuschias are not usually recommended for our area, since they tend to crash in our heat and humidity, but two varieties have done fairly well here for several years. F. magellanica 'Riccartonii' behaves as a hardy perennial, but I always keep a few cuttings in reserve, since it sometimes succumbs to either drought or overwatering. I suspect more varieties could be grown here with perfect drainage and a practiced hand at watering, but I don't have the attention span for that. The problem is that they, like impatiens, hydrangeas, and many other plants, will wilt during the heat of the day without necessarily being in need of water; when one DOES water in response to this behavior, fuschias rot, whereas other plants are more forgiving. The scarlet "Gartenmeister Bonstedt" is not winter hardy here, but, being derived from the heat tolerant F. triphylla, it blooms through all but the steamiest part of the summer, and I keep several large pots of it in the greenhouse to bed out every year.
At the "bottom of the garden" are bog plants and grasses, rather than fairies, and they're really coming into their own right now. Crinums will flower off and on throughout the season - C. bulbispermum has been going strong for over a month now, along with "Carolina Beauty", and below is C. "Walter Flory", in full bloom after a couple of good rains.Finally, one of my Venus Fly Traps (Dionaea muscipula) produced three heads (racemes? cymes? umbels? - I can never sort those out) of buds, and I couldn't bring myself to remove them, as all the carnivorous plant afficionados suggest. I won't let them set seed, but if a plant goes to all that trouble, we should at least let it bloom. If it turns out to be monocarpic, our local big box stores are full of others waiting for good homes.

All in all, I'm really enjoying our "staycation" - the only advantage to going away might be the ability to sit and read for a while without the constant whining of plants needing to be fed, watered, sprayed, pruned, and repotted. As hectic as our lives are for 10 months of each year, staying at home for a few days is tantamount to renting a villa in Tuscany, and a darned sight less expensive. We have tomatoes, basil, and oleander, Italian cypress, and even a potted olive tree (grown from a seed I got in a salad in Provence in 1991) - all that's missing is the tile roof .

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bloom Day, June 15, 2008

It would be easier right now to document what isn't blooming - things are completely out of hand, out of control, and screaming to be pruned, so it's hard to even have time to notice what's out there. Hundreds of daylilies, early this year (even the late varieties are putting up scapes already) are out there every day, and the hydrangeas have never looked better, although they're sagging in the heat by afternoon. This is Asclepias curassavica, the tropical version of butterfly weed. I like it better than the perennial, since it blooms continually and gets taller. It does require replanting every year, but usually seeds itself around. The only drawback is that it will be stripped bare by monarch caterpillars when they show up in August, so I start a few plants early to ensure a good show (and enough food for them) before they get here.
I don't keep track of Hemerocallis names very well for some reason - I'm meticulous about this with other plants, but I've kind of given up on these. I'm just swamped with garden work by the time they start blooming, and labeling is something that goes by the wayside. Anyway, here are a few examples. One of my goals for this summer is to discard clumps of varieties I don't particularly like, chief among them 'Stella d'Oro' - I think it looks like squash blossoms - but finding homes for them without 1)expending a lot of time and effort and 2)losing valuable garden soil and pots, since no one I know wants to deal with bare root plants, is a pain. I would just toss them on the compost, but I know they'd start growing there, too. Above, I think, is "Heart's Afire"; below (again, the id. is iffy), "Medea". Below is "Milk Chocolate". I love this one, and have a couple of dozen seedlings beginning to bloom now from crosses I made with it and various spiders (another favorite type). "Red Ribbons" "Mynelle's Starfish" "Red Twister" "Green Dragon" - love this one, too. Another spider variant with a lost label - great pink, though.Okay - enough with the daylilies. There are plenty of specialist growers out there with photos and info far superior to anything my mixed bag could provide, but I do really enjoy them.

This is an interesting combo - Alstroemeria psittacina pushing up through Gardenia "August Beauty", blooming in June. These are in deep, dark shade, having been completely overtaken by Nandinas, Photinia, and a massive climbing rose, "Buff Beauty". The gardenia, especially, amazes me with the sheer number of flowers it produces under these conditions - it's literally covered, with the tall (it's pruned to be vertical, and is 6 feet high now) branches sagging across the narrow pathway under the weight of the flowers.

Arisaema candidissimum always waits until very late to show itself, but I'm still waiting on A. consanguineum and A. fargesii (which is at least beginning to emerge)- I always give those up for dead before they surprise me and start to grow.
All of my clivias waited until late spring to bloom this year, including this yellow one I started from seed about 10 years ago. Not sure why the delay, but it's nice to enjoy the flowers out in the garden, rather than in the house. I move these into the unheated garage window for the winter.
One last iris, an ensata that I inherited from my aunt many years ago. It's growing in a boggy place next to the pitcher plants. Opuntia ellisiana, the "thornless" prickly pear, growing in the dry front bed along with pink evening primrose, a nice filler that's really a weed, and Sinningia tubiflora, pictured below. The cactus fights it out with an enormous Lantana "Miss Huff" every summer, and I usually defer to the lantana because of its blooms and the insect life it attracts. The cactus really would like more sun, so its bloom is limited, but still attractive. A couple more sinningias; I've been collecting and testing these for hardiness. S. sellovii, below, has been reliable for several years, and a seed-grown group shows a lot of variation in coloration; some of them have yellow tips on the tubular flowers and look like candy corn.These Sinningia speciosa are seedlings I grew from a wild collection of the original species which was bred to produce the florist gloxinias. I stored these bulbs dry in the garage last winter, but probably will leave them out this year to see what happens.
Last, but not least, pink Nerium oleander blooming in front of (actually blocking) the front entrance to the house. This will probably be removed after it blooms - it never dies to the ground anymore, and even the regrowth in one summer becomes too big for its location against the hot bricks in front of the house. It's a tough call, but the mail carrier will thank us for taking it out.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Orchid Bug

(My favorite tropical orchid, if I had to choose just one - Laelia purpurata 'Werkhauserii')

I have to smile when I walk into Trader Joe’s and see a huge display of orchids for sale, because there was once a time when one really had to work to find them for sale around here at any price. I remember begging my dad to take me to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens when I was a kid, not to explore the azalea collection, but because they carried Cattleya seedlings in their gift shop for the (then) princely sum of $5. Occasionally Smithfield Gardens, a few miles from my childhood home, would receive shipments of orchid plants, and we would take a trip out there just to see them. In my teens I discovered Berryman’s Orchids, a small, private greenhouse located on route 17 in York County, and would lobby hard to be driven there on special occasions. Ironically, I now live less than 5 miles from this location, but it’s now covered by a Walmart parking lot. It goes without saying that I was a strange kid, in more ways than one; I wish I could say that I outgrew those quirks, but that would be disingenuous to say the least.

Over the intervening years I amassed an orchid collection which numbered into the hundreds, mostly Cattleya alliance meristems and seedlings, interspersed with a few species and oddities, all tropical. In 1994, when we moved to our present house, the first order of business was the construction of a “greenhouse” (really a ramshackle fiberglass structure) to house the plants. All was well for several years, until an insidious infestation of scale began to claim my treasures, one by one. At present I have about 5 of these originals left, and even these are harboring insect populations. No amount of spraying, scrubbing, dipping, or brushing has eliminated the problem, and it’s probably just as well. Most tropical orchids have lost their appeal to me since they are now so readily available. It’s kind of sad to see these plants reduced to florist gift status, to be tossed aside after blooming or left to languish in saucers of water on countless kitchen windowsills. All that having been said, I’m still intrigued by orchids, and growing them has served me well as an introduction to perennial gardening, since the growth habits of sympodial species so clearly illustrates classic rhizomatous growth and its implications in terms of propagation and growth cycles. Growing up as an aspiring grower of epiphytic orchids taught me well about the need all plants have, to varying degrees, for proper drainage. I still grow lots of orchids, but my attention has now turned mostly to the terrestrial species, and particularly to those which are considered to be hardy in our climate.

As mentioned in a previous post, my attraction to growing the “hardy” orchids can be traced back to childhood adventures in the woods with my grandmother. The flame of the obsession was fanned, however, with the acquisition of some books which, I now realize, are completely evil. “Hardy Orchids”, along with two of the Kew monographs, one on Pleiones and another on Cypripediums, have tortured me from the minute they hit the shelves of my considerable collection of gardening books with pictures and descriptions of the varieties of orchids which are considered hardy, at least in the more temperate areas of England. Never mind that our climate does not remotely resemble that of England; every year these books find their way to the “front burner” of my primary reading stack (located, of course, in the bathroom), and every year I find myself fabricating some new scheme to attempt growing the ungrowable. This sickness was relatively harmless, if frustrating, in pre-internet days, but now almost all of these orchids can be had (for a price) by anyone with a modest ability to use a search engine. They can all be killed, too, and much more quickly than the “plastic” Catts and Phals available on every corner.

As also detailed in an earlier article, Bletillas are one of my favorite genera, and can (in most cases) be grown outside here in Tidewater. I am still learning how to grow the evergreen Calanthes; these are Asian woodland orchids which want that classic oxymoron – moist, well drained soil – and to be kept cool in summer. Maintaining these conditions here in July and August can be a tall order, as is keeping the dormant (but still green) plants between 28 and 50 degrees or so in the winter in order to maintain dormancy. At present I’m growing them in deep, gravelly raised beds which are covered throughout the winter with cold frames. This is more life support than I’d like to provide for a “hardy” plant, but I try not to apply logic to my gardening projects too often – it just makes my head hurt. The plants are growing well, but bloom this year is sparse, perhaps an effect of last fall’s nasty drought and my fear of applying too much supplemental water to this fungus-prone genus. Among my failures are many of the Pleiones – beautiful bulbs shipped from the Pacific Northwest decline over one or two years until they’re tiny, non-flowering nubs which are incapable of producing blooms. I have a few bulbs of P. bulbocodioides and limprichtii left, and I’m trying them in a “plunge” bed this summer – I’m hoping the osmotic effect of this setup will result in evaporative cooling of the planting medium without creating the temptation to overwater.
The Cypripediums are another story, and success varies widely for me within this genus. This probably has to do with provenance, since species range from C. kentuckiense, which is reported to grow as far south as Louisiana, and wild populations of which have been reported growing on Virginia’s Northern Neck, only a bit colder than Newport News in general. Not surprisingly, kentuckiense and its hybrids have been most successful for me as garden subjects. I grow all of my cyps in large (half barrel-sized) containers, in a mix of perlite, fine fir bark, and crushed granite; feeding is accomplished with applications of osmocote a couple of times each year. Too much organic matter is a sure invitation to fungal infections, apparently, as is anything less than perfect drainage. The closely related C. pubescens is much less dependable for me, frequently succumbing to a stem rot which is indicated by the sickening leaning of the plant against the interior of its wire growing enclosure; I can spot this situation from a distance by now. C. reginae grows well enough, provided it does not burn in the summer sun; unfortunately, the amount of light necessary for bloom production is also likely to burn the foliage here in summer. C. japonica and formosana seem to do fairly well, but their early emergence from dormancy (often during one of our “false” springs that occur in February) makes their hardiness questionable here; they usually end up as cool greenhouse subjects by spring. C. acaule, the pink lady slipper of my childhood, is a perpetual failure for me, even growing in media “imported” from the sandy, acidic Southampton County soils which it colonizes naturally.

I also grow several Paphiopedilums mostly species and hybrids of the parvisepalum group; kept in a cool greenhouse over the winter, on the dry side, these are much easier to manage than the Cyps., which is kind of ironic. Phragmipediums have not been as successful, but I have a couple which bloom only occasionally.

Other completely hardy orchids I grow with varying degrees of success are Spiranthes cernua (widely available, easy to grow in moist soils, but not very spectacular);
Calopogon tuberosus (good as companion plants for Sarracenias); Habenaria (Platanthera) ciliaris (this invariably blooms while I’m on vacation, so I usually only get to see the buds and spent bloom spikes - last summer I happened to be at home); Aplectrum hyemale; Epipactis thunbergii, and Habenaria (Pectelis) radiata. I would classify all of these as interesting, but not particularly showy (with the possible exception of the Calopogons) in a landscape situation. Below is Dactylorhiza fuschii; I'm still learning to grow this one, and it's beginning to flag during our current heat wave. I may have to resign myself to the fact that this is one orchid which needs to live in a cooler climate.
Recently I’ve begun collecting orchid species which, though tropical in origin and requiring winter protection, produce the bulk of their blooms when placed outside for the summer. Given some winter warmth, Spathoglottis species and hybrids are among the longest blooming and easiest orchids I’ve ever grown, requiring only heat, light, and moisture to put on a spectacular show for over a month each summer. I know this goes against my “if they sell it at the big box stores, I don’t want it” philosophy, but I purchased my first plant of S. plicata for $3 on a clearance table at Walmart – it had no blooms and no label. Bletias (tropical American counterparts of Bletillas) are likewise semi-terrestrial, producing pleated foliage in the greenhouse all winter which drops as the bloom spikes begin to form in late spring. These can placed around the garden as the weather warms to bloom for an extended period, and summer drought hardly affects them at all, since their dormancy naturally occurs then. Beautiful but fleeting are the Sobralias, whose blooms resemble those of Cattleyas but last only a day each (below is S. xantholeuca, or leucoxantha, depending on your source of information). Thunia alba bears graceful blooms which last for a few days, produced in clusters at the ends of the pendulous, biennial pseudobulbs. These drop their leaves in fall and can be stored in a cool (but not freezing), dry place until spring, when they’re hung outside and triggered into growth by warmth and moisture. After blooming, the pseudobulbs can be laid sideways on moist sphagnum, where they will produce sturdy plantlets at the nodes along each stem.
Some of the “miniature” cymbidiums have been successful as “drop in” plants, blooming outdoors during our long, warm autumns, although the plants have now gotten so large that moving them in and out can be a hardship. C. goeringii is hardy in this zone, but I haven’t found a location that provides enough light and drainage to coax it into bloom as a garden plant.

There are even a few epiphytes which I’ve come to think of as garden plants. The reed-stemmed Epidendrums have become almost weedy; last fall, having run out of time but not wanting to leave them to the frost, I gathered a dozen or more keikis (small plants produced along the stems), tossed them into a plastic basket with no medium, and hung it in a corner of the greenhouse. One small plant of Broughtonia sanguinea alba (really a pale yellow) has grown for years on no medium – it’s tied to a wire hanger with its roots completely exposed – and faithfully produces a bloom spike that blooms throughout July. Numerous other twig epiphytes use almost no space, parked among the branches of shrubs during the warm months. The only cultural difficulty they present is remembering to bring them in before the temperatures plummet in November.

I know it’s cheating to consider most orchids viable candidates for inclusion in the mixed border, but I have enjoyed figuring out ways to integrate them into my “jungle”. For a few months each year, at any rate, they, along with various palms, aroids, and “temperennials”, give us a cut-rate approximation of a trip to the tropics. Now if only we had room for a pool…

(This is C. Valentine 'Coerulea' parked in a tree for the summer.)