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 .


Cosmo said...

What a brilliant site (thanks, Les!) I'm a local gardener, too, though I hesitate to use the word around someone who can grow a tree from an olive in a salad! Your photographs are beautiful, and your plants are amazing. I have to say, I love black and blue salvia, but with all the ground I have to cover, I tend to like prolific plants--it's nice to have a free crop every Spring. I very much look forward to reading your blog, and I'm glad to know about another Tidewater gardener. Happy Staycation--Cosmo

Jeff said...

Hey Cosmo-

Thanks for checking in; I'd love to hear about your experiences, growing conditions, etc. My posting has gotten pretty sporadic, since I'm gardening more than writing these days, and right now I'm visiting family in PA. I need to try to be more organized if I'm going to keep at this. As far as growing things, including olives, from seed, it's mostly dumb luck. I use the "shotgun" approach - if you plant enough seeds, cuttings, etc., something's bound to grow occasionally. I just enjoy the experimentation as much as anything else. Good to hear from you!