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.


Cosmo said...

Welcome home! And what a nice welcome home presents--rain and the beautiful Crinum. We spent part of June '07 in Northern PA, and I, too, experienced some mild jealousy when I saw the gorgoeus hosta and elegant conifers. But I agree with you--it's always wonderful to return to the chaotic growth of the Tidewater. By the way, I've had pretty good luck with Green & White hosta here (not sure of the Latin name)--mine gets pretty big and the leaves stay pretty healthy. GObama!

Les, Zone 8a said...

Great post! My brother lives in eastern PA north of Philly. There are so many conifers and tiddy stone mulched landscapes. I agree with you - I want my lush broadleaf evergreens, crapes, camellias and hydrangeas. I like my tropicals used as annuals as well.

BTW the only hosta I have not killed was one I pulled from the compost pile at work. Not knowing where to put it, I set it down and forgot it was there. It has now rooted in and thrives while all others are passed.

I went to the Eastern Shore this weekend and during the 4th of July parade there were many Warner stickers but not one Gilmore. It did my heart good.

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