Sunday, July 27, 2008

My "Fifteen Minutes"

I think I've recently come as close to a brush with greatness as I ever will, which, admittedly, is pretty sad; however, when one's personal aspirations aren't very high, little achievements mean a lot. I've mentioned before that I really enjoy listening to, watching, and teaching with many of the podcasts available these days on my trusty ipod, especially while gardening and working around the house; through this medium Ken Druse and Vicki Johnson have become two of my favorite "gardening buddies". Through their podcast (which is actually broadcast on one or two radio stations in their region), "Real Dirt with Ken Druse", they entertain and inform me every week as I water, pull weeds, and hack back the trumpet and cross vines which would eat our entire landscape if we allowed it. Ken has long been one of my favorite garden writers and photographers, and Vicki is a great gardener, environmentalist, writer, and photographer in her own right, so I was honored when they asked me to help them test out their new setup for integrating remote interviews into the weekly broadcast. Vicki was delightful, kind, and easy to talk to, which made the process at least enjoyable. The technical aspects must have worked reasonably well, since they used my stammering, rambling thoughts on yesterday's podcast; I hope I don't come across as too big an idiot.
Vicki and I talked about lots of things, including family connections to gardening, my haphazard approach to garden design (due mostly to space, time, and laziness), and the challenges of integrating botany (among many other subjects) into elementary music instruction. We also discussed my main reason for starting this blog, which was initially for weight maintenance - I can't type and eat at the same time! It was really a fun conversation, but knowing that it was being recorded somehow increased my tendency to hem, haw, and stammer; I guess that's true for most people in similar situations. There's no "backspace" or "delete" button when you're talking, and pausing to think translates into dead air, which is every bit as bad as it sounds.

I highly recommend giving Ken and Vicki a listen; you can do this at the computer without even going through the process of downloading itunes (though how life is possible without it is beyond me) - just visit this link

and follow the instructions available there. My somewhat flaky, but well-intentioned conversation with Vicki is included in the broadcast titled "Good Gardening and Blogging".

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With Apologies to Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, and Jean Shepherd...

CBS Evening News for Friday, May 19, 1972

Headline: Roadside Garden
(Studio) Surrey County, Virginia, has unusual traveler's rest point. REPORTER: Walter Cronkite
(Surrey County, Virginia) Picnic tables laden with flowers, fresh tomatoes, with 13-acre garden nearby. Walter Mizenheimer, former nurseryman, creates wayside stop in woods next to his house. [MIZENHEIMER - does this to make world a better place. Offers to give site to state, but is refused.] REPORTER: Charles Kuralt

The above abstract, gleaned from a website run by Vanderbilt University which apparently hosts a repository for ancient news videos, is the only reference I can find to an event which surfaces annually in my personal memory. If I wanted to pay $37, I could own a copy of the original story, but since that seems exhorbitant for 4 minutes of footage, I'll fill in the blanks myself.

Scents can most definitely trigger memory, and so, I find, can flowers. This week the first of the Lycoris species, a probable sterile hybrid currently called L. squamigera, began blooming, and it brought back to mind an episode of family history which must have occurred almost exactly 36 years ago. One common name for Lycoris squamigera (shared with Amaryllis belladonna, which doesn't grow well here, although its hybrid, Amarcrinum, does) is "Naked Ladies", but neither these trustworthy bulbs nor any of their names was familiar to my grandmother Birdie, aka "MaMa", who ran a very exclusive camp for several weeks each summer (only her grandchildren were invited).

Most days the entertainment options included working in the garden, shelling butterbeans and peas, helping to pluck chickens for dinner, dropping ripe watermelons to break them open and eating them where they fell, and making fanciful creatures (MaMa called them "cukie dolls") from the oversized cucumbers and squash that we'd missed picking when they were edible. Other activities included emptying the five gallon bucket that served as our toilet on the nights when we slept out back in the old country store (it was operated by my great-grandfather before any of us existed) which had been converted into a "clubhouse" for our use; and the traditional Sunday morning wallow in the mud puddles created by tractor tires in the fields. This usually occurred about 10 minutes before we needed to be dressed and ready for church, having been carefully scrubbed and groomed the night before. About once each week, however, we took a field trip, usually ending up someplace "educational".

This particular July day found us crammed into the Delta 88 with my Grandmother at the wheel and her sidekick, cleaning lady, and assistant kid-wrangler Mary Daniels riding shotgun. We were fixing to go to the newly opened Yorktown Victory Center (my grandfather was a concrete construction foreman and had supervised the building of all the curbs in the complex), by way of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center, which is now the Virginia Living Museum. I don't remember much about this trip, other than eventually posing for pictures next to the curbs which Grandaddy "built", but I do remember what happened when we stopped for lunch.

Somehow (it now seems obvious that she had seen the news story referenced above), MaMa had heard about an amazing picnic spot in Surrey which was owned and cared for by a Mr. Mizenheimer. Sure enough, when we pulled off what I now realize must have been route 10, which hugs the southern bank of the James River all the way to Richmond, we spotted a neatly planted garden full of azaleas (I could identify them even out of bloom, despite my being only ten - that should have been a warning to somebody...) which were punctuated by spectacular clumps of the pink lilies which I many years later discovered to be Lycoris squamigera. My grandmother hopped out of the car, opened the "boot", and displayed remarkable willpower as her eyes fell first on the gorgeous blooms, then on the shovel that lived in the trunk of her car and served to dig up anything and everything she found desirable growing along the roadside. She was tempted, I could tell, but must have thought better of committing larceny in front of her grandchildren, since she reached instead for the first of several big cooking pots which had been stowed in the trunk.

My grandmother was never one to travel with sandwiches, chips, etc. - her picnics were pretty much the same as the meals she served at home, only outdoors. Consequently we never left on a trip of any duration without an entire country ham or a "passel" of fried chicken, along with a big pot of butterbeans, in the car. It was a production, but somehow she and Mary Daniels wrestled everything out of the car and over to a clean, shady table, on which had been left about a dozen homegrown tomatoes and a bucket of fresh flowers. Granted, we were probably the first visitors ever to leave more tomatoes than we found (we had brought our own from my granddad's endless supply), but we appreciated the thought, nonetheless. We finished lunch, and as MaMa and Mary Daniels (she was like "Cher" or "Beyonce", only the opposite - we never said one name without saying the other), were gathering things up, out of the "jungle" ambled Mr. Mizenheimer himself.

The affable old gentleman - he walked with a cane, which to us signified that he was really old - and my grandmother immediately struck up a conversation, and after some not-so-surreptitious prodding by Mary Daniels, we thanked him profusely for providing us with such a lovely place to eat lunch and play for a while. Things didn't begin to go south until the conversation turned to gardening, as was inevitable, given the casting. MaMa had complimented all of the plants she recognized, though, its being July, there wasn't much in bloom; Mr. Mizenheimer then, quite innocently, as it turns out, asked, "And what did you think of all my naked ladies?"

My grandmother stiffened and instinctively grabbed as many grubby little hands and elbows as she could gather up. "Well, we have a long trip ahead of to get going. Thank you so much." She had gotten all cold and formal, and I'd never seen her walk backwards with such purpose.

Mary Daniels began grumbling under her breath, "Old goat...done taken a shine to Ms. Birdie...old goat..." and herded us into the car. This may be only the imagination of memory, but I think the tires screeched as my grandmother floored the Oldsmobile. She was obviously flustered, and Mary Daniels continued to carry on about that "old goat" trying to "move in on" my grandmother. We didn't talk much about it again, since we were all embarrassed on so many different levels.

Many years later, I was given what would become one of my favorite books, "Passalong Plants" by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender. I learned an incredible amount from this fun, informative guide to southern flora and folk art, but it also served to vindicate Mr. Mizenheimer long (I'm sure) after his passing. I tried to explain the situation to MaMa, and even gave her a copy of the book, but due to a combination of factors - her greatly impaired hearing, for which she steadfastly refused any treatment, her foggy memory, and, most of all, her need to be right, she never, to my knowledge, took the poor, would-be philanthropist off of her own personal sexual predator registry. I think of him every year when my own "naked ladies" start to bloom.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bloom Day, July 15, 2008

It's not even midsummer, but due to our very early spring this year many plants are blooming well ahead of schedule. Many of the daylilies have already closed up shop, and Sedum "Autumn Joy" hasn't gotten the memo about its name here - it's in full bloom. Gardens around here would be pretty dull in the summer and fall without semitropicals which tend to behave as herbaceous perennials, as well as several members of the Amaryllis tribe, including the clumps of Zephyranthes grandiflora in the pots above. These are hardy in the ground here, but I've had these potted for at least ten years now. They're stored bone dry in the attic all winter, then rehydrated in spring to start again. Below is Vitex rotundifolia, a sub-shrubby species which is reputed to be invasive - I'm watching it carefully, but I like the silvery foliage and muted color.
Achimenes 'Purple King' - a gesneriad which has been totally hardy here for three years and is becoming a happy weed throughout the garden. I save a few rhizomes in dry vermiculite every winter, just in case.
One of the rear window boxes, replanted for summer with orange nonstop tuberous begonias (this is the only place I can manage to grow these, probably because the roof overhang protects them from overwatering and there's very little direct sun in this spot); Kohleria "Red Velvet" (not hardy, but dead easy to overwinter via cuttings); and Coniogramme japonica (somewhat hardy evergreen ferns which I grew from spores). The Achimenes kind of planted themselves, but the purple will complement the orange when they bloom.
Another hardy gesneriad (these have become a special interest of mine lately), Sinningia x"Butter and Cream" (S. tubiflora x aggregata).
A Phygelius new to me this year, "Sunshine". Its distinguishing feature is its bright chartreuse foliage, ironically not too apparent in this picture because of
A very early Lobelia cardinalis, backed up by the first Hedychium blooms of the season (I think this is H. greenii; I got a great new book on the ginger family for Christmas, and one day I plan to key out all of the species and hybrids I've day) and Arundo donax, a giant, variegated grass which is reasonably well behaved.
Another Lobelia (although this classification is in dispute) called "Candy Corn", for obvious reasons. It also survives the winter here, and one even did so in a large pot.
We have tiger lilies in both the single and double forms, and I can't bring myself to eradicate them, despite their reputation as vectors for viruses. The singles are from my paternal Grandmother's garden, and the doubles have spread from bulbils throughout the garden. The orange and purple theme seems to predominate in the summer here - it wasn't planned that way, but I really like it.
Kaempferia pulchra, another member of the zingiberaceae which performs as a perennial in dry shade. It's slow to get started in summer, but it beats most Hostas by a mile once things heat up around here. This clump is about three feet across now. The flowers are fleeting, but add great color contrast.
Hamelia patens is a subtropical shrub which has survived four winters here as a dieback perennial. I grew my first one from a cutting which "fell" from a planting in the garden of our hotel in Disney World several years ago and was subsequently smuggled home in my suitcase. As you might surmise, the blooms are really attractive to hummingbirds.
Haemanthus (aka Scadoxus) discolor, one of the many South African amaryllids which have been hardy here and bloom in the summer. This one usually puts out these floral fireworks in time for July 4.
I like this combination of Habranthus robustus with the purple Tradescantia, the blooms of which (if you can catch them) perfectly match those of the rain lily. Habranthus blooms attach to their stems at an angle, while those of Zephyranthes are vertical; otherwise, they're pretty much the same.
Gloriosa rothschildiana, another South African, this time in the lily family.
Another South African bulb, Galtonia candicans. The miscanthus has to be watched to keep it from overtaking the galtonias, but I find the grasses help support the bloom stems naturally; I suspect this happens in nature, as well.
Eucomis pole-evansia, not yet in full bloom or full height (it'll top 6'), but I wanted to photograph it before the roof workers arrive this morning, since it may not survive the day.
Cyclamen purpurascens in my "plunge" bed, one of about a dozen I grew from seed supplied by Seneca Hills Perennials a couple of years ago. They're hardy, but I have them in pots for protection right now, and they've been in bloom for nearly a month.
More unexpected are these blooms from a pale form of C. hederifolium - they're not supposed to come until September, and this is not the only such plant in my garden with buds or blooms right now.
Summer wouldn't be summer without crape myrtles. I love them, but I only grow two (this one is "Yuma", and in the back I have "Cedar Red".) Luckily, almost every other available cultivar is growing somewhere in the neighborhood less than a bike ride away. This is Canna 'Panache' duking it out with Tetrapanax papyrifera (no, I never did move it...) I got them both at the great plant shop at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria a few years ago.
The latest of all the Arisaemas, A. consanguineum, also purchased from Ellen Hornig at Seneca Hill many years ago. She specializes in this species, and I can understand why.
Clerodendron bungei- a suckering shrub, considered smelly by some. I got it from a neighbor of my parents years ago, and have always liked the smell (like peanut butter, in my opinion.)
An enormous white wax begonia (probably a form of B. cucullata) which is being marketed in the trade as "Barbara Rogers". I got it from my grandmother over 25 years ago, and it has come back every year to form bushel-basket sized clumps in locations it likes.
Hymenocallis "Tropical Giant" - I know, it pales in comparison to the one in front of Tony Avents's house.
One of the many crinums which do so well here and bloom through the heat. This one's an heirloom often called "Twelve Apostles". Scott Ogden writes that it's probably a cross between C. asiaticum and C. bulbispermum.
A parting shot of the driveway garden, which is a sea of lantana, salvia, coleus, and various and sundry other heat lovers. Summers like this are great, but they make me so spoiled that going back to work at the end of August gets more difficult every year. But then, somebody's gotta pay for all the compost (not to mention what it's going to cost to heat my tiny greenhouse this winter!)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garden of Plant-ly Delights

I love visiting Plant Delights Nursery, just south of Raleigh, NC, even though my Visa account doesn't care for it at all. Based on Tony Avent's catalog rants about planting "drifts of one" and lack of planning "on paper", you'd expect to find a sort of "plant zoo", and you wouldn't be disappointed. However, as the garden has grown (I've been attending the infrequent open days off and on for the last ten years or so), it's clear that there IS a method to his madness. I usually take tons of close up pictures, mostly to aid in plant identification and to formulate future wish lists, but this time I decided to photograph broad vistas. This can be a little depressing upon returning home to our quarter acre (PDN now encompasses more than 20), and it's a test of my photography skills (or maybe my camera), but it's good for me to remember that even a consummate plant collector does think about design occasionally. Because it was a hot day, I deposited three friends at a movie theater in Raleigh; sadly, summer movies don't tend to be as long as the January Oscar contenders, so my time at Juniper Level Botanic Garden was limited.

I have to apologize that I'm not displaying much creativity in my blog posts lately, but this is taking up prime gardening time, and the summer is beginning to dwindle already!

Above is a spectacular allee of Golden Dawn Redwoods (cv."Ogon", I think?) which flanks a walk just above the relatively new sunken garden (below), built for utilitarian purposes, but functioning artistically as well.
Another planting designed for waste water management is the original bog, which demonstrates sarracenias in their natural habitat, supported, but not overrun, by sedges and other plants. I spend a lot of time weeding among the pitchers of mine, but the symbiotic benefits of leaving a few companions is very much apparent here.
Along the walkway in front of the Avent's house is this mix of tropical and temperate perennials; love the purple phlox growing with the Hymenocallis and Colocasias.
A canna which has been on my "wish list" - a selection of C. iridflora called "Ehemanni". PDN doesn't list it, but I have recently found a couple of sources, so I may have to break down and get one (where is it going?)
I didn't do a great job of showing scale in this picture, but the Agave in the center is easily as large as a Volkswagon Bug.
Sabals and Hedychium in the tropical garden...
I'm not particularly a "maple person" - I like them, but haven't really gotten into growing more than the one I have. This one, however, is incredible.
Lots of humor in this garden, as one would expect from reading the PDN catalog.
This is an enormous clump of Hemiboea subcapitata, a hardy gesneriad which I grow as well, though my clump is nowhere near the size of this.
Crinum test beds and some of the production hoop houses at the rear of the retail area.
Name this plant! Every summer I enjoy seeing it, am confounded by trying to identify it (not everything here is labeled), and forget to ask anybody what it is. My best guess so far is that it's a Schima (wallachii perhaps?), a member of the camellia (tea) family allied to the Gordonias, Franklinias, and Stewartias. Anybody know if that's correct, or of a possible source? PDN has never listed it for sale, and neither does anybody else, from what I can tell (which makes me want one even more...go figure). [Note added 7/17 - According to the folks at PDN, it's Schima argentea.]
This picture speaks to me on so many levels - it might ultimately be the best use for a computer keyboard (inorganic mulch?) The internet has brought me so much information; opened doors to communicating with other gardners, writers, and experts; made available plants I never could have purchased before; and enabled me to chronicle my hobby in ways I never imagined. It has also eaten up hours and hours which I could have spent weeding, pruning, and improving the health and lives of the "inmates" in my own garden. I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bloom Where You're Planted

We’ve been visiting this week with Ron’s mother and sister, who live in the Churchill area of western Pennsylvania, located between Monroeville and Pittsburgh. They have a beautiful home (which happens to be on the market – Lorraine changed teaching jobs a couple of years ago and is now commuting back and forth across the city every day) in a subdivision which prides itself on its landscaping. Much more tasteful than my garden, these yards are, for the most part, beautifully manicured, with perfectly trimmed shrubs and grass which would make any golf course superintendent proud. My only problem in staying here is that I have a hard time getting in my daily workout, since my elliptical trainer is too big to haul up here; we brought our bikes, but I haven’t mastered the hilly terrain. I find myself either walking my ancient ten-speed up a hill or careening down the other side without pedaling, neither of which provides much aerobic benefit. (Note - I did learn before leaving, thanks to some research, how to shift gears enough to ride on the nearest thing to a level course I could find. This was about a half-mile stretch that went partially around the same block repeatedly - I know those homeowners got sick of seing me as I did my 12 miles daily in front of their homes!) The only real alternative has been walking, which takes more time than I’d like to spend on exercise, but also affords me the best view of a variety of beautiful and interesting gardens very different from ours. Missing are the temperate camellias, crape myrtles, crinums and gardenias, none of which I would ever, under any circumstances, want to do without, but there are other plants which grow to perfection here while they struggle along in the flat, sweltering plots of Tidewater Virginia. Hostas are gorgeous here; at the base of the hill approaching Lorraine and Mitzi’s street is planted a huge specimen of “Sum and Substance”. In my yard, for whatever reason (bad gardening being the most likely culprit), this plant throws out one rosette of average leaves and sits there for the summer, but here it looks as if its purpose in the landscape is to stop runaway vehicles from plowing through the owner’s home. Fully five feet in diameter, with each leaf spanning a foot and a half, it’s like a piece of sculpture. Other cultivars grow in profusion, with none of the burned edges or stunted growth I expect at this time of year from my own plants. “Great Expectations” even does well here, living up (for once) to its name and reputation. I go home every year determined to plant more and more Hostas (where - on the roof?), despite my very mixed experience with the two dozen or so I already grow. I’m finding that most of mine do best in pots where I can provide them with more water (except, of course, while I’m away visiting their healthier cousins); the challenge is to find frost-proof containers (at least, for this genus, “breatheability” of the container isn’t a big issue) which are proportioned correctly to complement such a low, spreading growth pattern.

The very hills which hamper my cycling provide excellent drainage and necessitate the building of handsome retaining walls, most of which are decked out with an array of sedums, ferns, mosses, phloxes, and other crevice plants. Many yards are terraced to provide space for gardening; poppies, delphiniums, monarda, and a host of other classic “summer” perennials spill over ledges and face down masonry staircases around every corner. The hybrid clematis are in full glory right now – every yard seems to have at least one scaling a light pole or mailbox. Long borders of peonies are past their bloom now, but still provide hedge-like anchors along paths and driveways, showing none of the burned foliage that ours develop by this time of year.

On the other hand, tropicals and “temperennials” are not much in evidence. There is one garden (the owner of which, I suspect, is a bit of a social pariah because of his unorthodox choice of plant material and liberal use of nursery pots around the entryway) which sports a small clump of Musa basjoo , several Oriental persimmon trees, and other assorted “exotics”, but most here stick to dependably hardy shrubs, trees, and perennials, with annuals such as begonias and impatiens for summer color. A curbside container planting of Streptocarpella saxorum dwarfs mine, partially due to the fact that I haven't repotted it in years and almost never feed it, but I'm sure the cool nights and lower humidity help a lot, too. Southern gardens, I realize, have come to depend on tropical and marginally hardy plants to provide bloom and foliage after the more conventional perennials do, since by now our peonies, shasta daisies, and iris are a distant memory. Here the gardening calendar is truncated, bounded on either end by the possibility of frost almost eight months of the year, but the actual growing season boasts slightly more daylight, less heat and humidity (cooler nights are particularly beneficial ), and more consistent rainfall, which percolates happily through the rocky soil.

Some plants are much more in use in PA than at home, probably due to the simple fact that they are hardy and do well here. Spireas are everywhere; these grow just fine in Newport News, but they (along with numerous other spring-blooming deciduous shrubs) are supplanted by the ubiquitous evergreen azaleas (and who can blame us for that?) Ostrich ferns and Lysimachia clethroides are grown here in profusion (I think that's the only way the gooseneck loosestrife ever grows) and look stunning.We're home now, having returned in the midst of a blessedly torrential rainstorm. I still feel guilty about the weediness and rank overgrowth of my garden, but passing the exuberance of the cannas, lantanas, crinums, and oleander on the way into the garage, I realized that I definitely wouldn't trade gardening here for anything other than a temporary home in a cooler zone. Crape myrtles, gardenias, and camellias are pretty much deal breakers for me in terms of where I want to live, period. This is Crinum "Carnival", blooming now at about its northern limit of hardiness.There was one crop which grew much more abundantly in western PA than I expect it ever will here; more's the pity.