Starting from Scratch

This is the first time I’ve started a garden with a blank slate. We had a back yard of grass with a postage size concrete patio. We only stepped outside to cut the grass. It seemed as though we were letting a good place go unused especially since it had a very nice view. Being near water is being hyper-watched by county officials. There are many things they don’t let you do. Decks have to stay within very restricted perimeters. We needed a deck to transition to the yard but were only allowed a 10 by 12 footprint. Permits, surveyors, county inspections were necessary. We complied and got a nice little place to sit and watch the boat traffic.

That was step number one. The real transformation would be the installation of a patio, but how big and what shape. I looked for help where I usually do, in books. Susan Morrison’s the less is more garden was helpful. When working with one of her clients she said:

 “Designing the patio with a gracefully curving shape helps de-emphasize the boxy feeling of this long and narrow backyard. Not only does this soften hard edges, but the double curve subtly distinguishes one side from the other, further interrupting the impression of one long continuous space.”

Her words spoke to me. A curved patio it would be. Our sloping yard required a short wall to hold it in place and keep it level. To me that was a bonus. I could plant on the upper level within the wall and below it for a two tiered effect.

 The hardscaping decided, I still had major decisions – what to plant. It was back to the books. Fine Gardening, a respected gardening journal came to the rescue. Their collection of articles, Beds & Borders; Design Ideas for Gardens Large and Small gave me plenty to think about.

Observe before you design and embrace what is good about your site the first article said. I already knew the view was important and had to admit that the site was wet at times. So I needed to shy away from anything tall enough to obstruct the view and had to choose plants that could tolerate sogginess.

Another article said to create unity in the garden. I am among the plant lovers who return from every nursery visit with a new plant I can’t live without. Such habits can produce a garden that gets quickly out of control and unsettling to view. The author had a three part solution. Establish a backbone plant, integrate and repeat color, create flow with water.

I wanted winter interest, so evergreens would be my backbone. I chose boxwood (Boxus) and false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) for the upper curves of the patio because the soil there was not soggy. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) would surround the lower perimeter because this native can withstand more water. Making sure to plant at least three of each plant I chose water-loving Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). I’m hoping Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) can take some sun while lining the gravel path. It mimics flowing water so beautifully. As far as a color palate, I will repeat the blues, yellows and whites of the front yard.  I have already planted three David Austin Litchfield Angel shrub roses. Their pale blushing cream will work with any color. My son-in-law kindly constructed a curved cedar arbor to compliment the curves of the patio. Next summer another creamy rose, a David Austin climber, Claire Austin, will grace it.

There is so much more garden design to digest. But isn’t that the pleasure of gardening. There is never an end to learning. A garden can always change and get better and so can a gardener.

Summer Love

Many plants performed well this summer. The African lily (Agapanthus) with its strappy bright leaves sported spikey blue flowers. Wintering it in the garage was just the ticket.

 The combination of blue salvia, Bandana Lemon Zest Lantana and Diamond Frost Euphorbia thrived in pots in part shade/afternoon sun.

On a very dry, sunny slope Helen von Stein lambs ears did well alongside Denim ‘n Lace Russian Sage. Coral bells in the same location unfortunately fried to a crisp. I should have known better.

But two plants stole my fancy. One was a David Austin shrub rose, Litchfield Angel , named after a limestone sculpture from the 8th century discovered in Litchfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, UK. https://www.davidaustinroses.com/  They arrived bare root at the end of May and quickly put out an abundance of leaves and bloomed in the softest blushing cream. I will never get tired of looking at them in the garden or in a vase. The David Austin Handbook of Roses is available for free every spring. It’s a little book full of beautiful photos of roses and heartfelt descriptions of everything to do with roses. In the 2021 edition David Austin describes the company philosophy:

“This past year has been unlike any other, presenting challenges for us all, customers and businesses alike. However, if nothing else, it has served as a welcome reminder of the importance of our gardens and outdoor spaces. It is in these peaceful enclaves that we nurture, nourish and enjoy the fruits of our labors. It is here that we find reassurance in the reliability of nature to bloom once again and create beauty and fragrance around us.”

Whether you buy roses or not this treasure of a handbook is worth reading. I do not wish for a bigger garden because what I have is all I can care for, but I do wish for more roses.

The other plant that caught my heart this summer was Eskimo African Marigold. At only a foot tall its orange and gold faces are so bright and engaging. The seeds came from John Scheepers, https://www.kitchengardenseeds.com/, a very reliable old firm in Connecticut.  I must get more for next year and place them where they will nod at me every day.

Litchfield Angel shrub rose and Eskimo African marigold are my two summer loves this year. Next summer I will still be fond of them but will surely find other plants to take my breath away.

The Flower Arranger’s Garden

I’m not anywhere near an expert at flower arranging, but I do love bringing greenery and flowers into the house, especially in the dark months when we’re spending so much time inside. That leads me to wonder about the best plants to grow for that purpose.

I recently saw an article on poet’s laurel (Danae racemose). It made me think, in the true manner of the compulsive plant accumulator, that’s something I must have.  It’s a slow growing, elegant, glossy green evergreen, native to Turkey and Iran. Currently Italy supplies most of the branches to the florist trade. Florists love it because it is graceful and long lasting. It’s good for the small garden as it stays petite with a weeping habit, can take deep shade and has orange red berries in the fall. It’s hardy to zone 7. This is the plant the Greeks and Romans used to weave the laurel crown reserved for victorious athletes. Hence the saying, “resting on one’s laurels.”

Another plant I wish to accumulate for indoor arrangements is Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avallena ‘Contorta’). It’s a filbert that has contorted branches making it interesting in winter when its non-descript foliage has fallen. It’s named for an early 20th century Scottish comedian who used a branch as his walking stick.

Of course if you accumulate, like me, there’s Winterberry and Beautyberry, Aucuba and Nandina, Juniper and Boxwood; all useful in winter arrangements. Don’t forget all the other laurels: cherry and mountain and sweet bay.

Walking around the winter garden, when only shy hellebores turn their pretty faces toward the earth and a few brave pansies hang on, eyes are opened to the quiet beauty of bare branches, grasses dancing in the wind and stalwart evergreens. Of course, looking closely, one gets a peek at the stubby tips of bulbs about to flourish in another month or two.

Reclaim, Repurpose, Reuse

Linda Vater filmed a YouTube video on ten things to hunt for at Thrift Stores. I like watching her and I found that I’m already doing what she suggests. Now, of course, one shops at thrift stores to save money but let’s put an ecological twist on this habit. We are repurposing things that no longer serve the person who gave them away.  New life springs from old things, creative juices surge and something is loved again for a different purpose than it was loved before.

Among her suggestions are baskets. This one was about two dollars, was painted white and contained dusty fabric flowers. After painting it navy and fitting it with a plastic pot it did a beautiful job of displaying a delicate maidenhair fern. The pedestal it sits on was also resurrected from a junk store and repainted.

 Another pot I value was repurposed from holding a lot of wax with three wicks. After melting out the wax it was painted white and graciously holds a thriving peace lily.

This rectangular pot was another thrift store find that now holds two dwarf lemon cypress that were on sale at Wal-Mart for Christmas table decorations.I plan to put them in larger pots in the spring for outdoor display.

Other things Linda suggests to look for are saucers for under pots, coasters for the same, metal stands to elevate display pots or dishes, small bowls as containers for gift giving, wooden boxes, lanterns and candlesticks. The list goes on.

Linda adds t-shirts for gardening. I would recommend pants. It seems to make more sense to pay two-fifty on half-price-day for a pair of pants you are going to subject to the dirt rather than use the pair you plan to wear to your sister-in-law’s dinner party and paid over a hundred dollars for.

Linda just added another thrift store video here.

Skywoman

Winter is the time for storytelling. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a unique storyteller; she’s a professor of environmental biology and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Her bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants combines scientific facts with the wisdom of the naturalist that resonate as true and honest. I’ve only read the first chapter and I’ve come away thinking why didn’t somebody tell me this before?

Skywoman Falling is the creation story of the Iroquoian-speaking people of North America. It’s a lovely, empowering story and interesting to compare with the Adam and Eve creation story that Western Civilization has long told.

Skywoman fell through a hole in the sky to an earth that was all water. As she took her long flight through the atmosphere the animals watched and prepared to catch her. She carried nothing with her but a handful of seeds and plants she had grasped as she fell. Swans cushioned her landing with their feathers and a turtle offered his back for her to stand on. Some animals gave their lives diving to the bottom of the water to bring up soil. She danced on the shell. The more she danced the more land she created. Then she planted her seeds to begin the lifelong give and take between humans and the land.

“Children hearing the Skywoman story from birth know in their bones the responsibility that flows between humans and the earth.”

Eve has a different story, but also with a garden. She was banished from Eden for eating the forbidden fruit and ordered to pay for her sin by toiling in this world until death released her from the wilderness. Her story gives far different instructions that look suspiciously like those of a ruling class seeking control.

Skywoman was the first immigrant to our land. We are all immigrants. So, how are we to become natives?

“For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”

The author says plants are our oldest teachers. They live under and above the earth making food from light and water and then they give it away. She awakens us to this simple fact in a sweeping, scientific and sacred way.

Here is an interview with Kimmerer on her belief that ‘people can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how.’

A Gamble Worth Taking

This month the Lower Shore Master Gardener group was treated to a talk on growing native plants from seed. Now is the time – January when there is not much to do in the garden. Now is the time to order seeds, pot them up and carefully set them outside to burst forth in a few months.

It’s a gamble. They’re not like the seeds you get from commercial nurseries that have a 90 percent germination rate. Rather, it’s nature where thousands of seeds are produced each year and some of them actually become plants. But you do it because you’ve gathered the seeds for free or someone shared them with you. Or, you’re growing hard-to-find varieties. Maybe you have scientific curiosity, or you like the idea of promoting genetic diversity. At any rate, it’s a fun project in January. Maybe you want to share the experience with children to peak their interest in botany. Just remember, like nature itself, the results are unpredictable and patience is required.

The Maryland Native Plant Society is a big help in deciding what to plant on the Eastern Shore and where to get seeds. I found that most native seed sellers serve the wholesale market and this covid winter has cancelled many of their native plant sales. But the Society’s list of native plant vendors included Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. They sell little packets for $2.00, just right for a small garden. I bought cardinal flower, blue lobelia, white phlox, monarda and New York asters. All are happy in wet gardens.

The seeds like to have a cold start as they do in nature and they like to forgo the competition of weeds. I bought seed starter mix, which is much finer and fluffier than standard potting mix, and sand. That’s all that’s needed to get the little guys on their way to sprouting. Now they’re in pots, moistened and protected by plastic from heavy rain which would drive them way too far into the soil. They sit on the driveway, waiting for the warm spring weather. And I wait too, hopeful in anticipation. I can cut a few limbs from overgrown dormant shrubs and take a look at winter flowering plants. Daffodil tips are pushing up and I see the hellebores are budding as is my glorious camellia “pink Perfection.”

What I Learned in the 2020 Garden

A pandemic is conducive to gardening. You can spend hours outside and never run into a crowd.  You can stretch and bend and lift heavy loads without going into a gym. You can limit your runs to the grocery store by picking produce in the back yard.  Gardeners as a group were probably most able to endure the imposed solitude this year has demanded.

I’ve picked up gardening wisdom in three ways this year. First, the make-a-mistake method. It’s hard to forget your colossal mistakes like mulching over landscape fabric. When I planted a hedge of inkberry on the edges of my property, I dug the plants into a grassy area. Not wanting to go to the trouble of digging out the grass, I spread landscape fabric around the shrubs and pinned it down with staples. Then I spread mulch. The bed looked neatly planted at the time and the grass perished. A year went by and weeds popped up. They quickly made a tangled web in the fabric, impossible to pull out. Cardboard would have been a better choice. In my soggy landscape the grass would have been smothered and eventually composted and no knotty fabric mess. Putting landscape fabric between vegetable rows might work. That is the only good use I can think of. Maybe someone can tell me of other good uses.

Another learn by experience episode this year was the beware-of-a-neighbor- buying-cute-ducklings-for- Easter to entertain the children. While the children soon lose interest, the birds grow quickly to opinionated swaggerers who have no respect for property lines. Don’t put out little annuals on their side of the house. If they don’t nibble them to the ground they will sit on them. Wait for your neighbor to find a suitable home for the ganders; then put out the annuals.

Pruning was another learn-by-experience habit brought home this year. Fall flowering perennials thrive with aggressive pruning up until the Fourth of July. Asters, mums and Autumn Joy sedum don’t grow leggy and fall over if they’re nipped early in the season. Their flowers may be smaller, but they sure will be bushy, prolific bloomers.

The second way I picked up garden knowhow was from two of the many garden YouTube stars. P. Allen Smith shared his gorgeous Little Rock garden. He planted fragrant white Thalia narcissus intermixed with Leucojum (which, by the way I’d never heard of) and overplanted with reblooming daylily ‘Happy Returns’ for summer blooms. I copied him and am waiting impatiently for April. Another YouTube gardener is Linda Vater. She has a beautiful Oklahoma City garden that she generously shares. Her penchant for topiary is contagious and she taught me how to muck up pots. I found that cheap plastic pots can be covered with quick drying cement to look definitely pricy. It’s a messy project but with interesting results.

My third and most serious way of learning in 2020 was to take the Maryland Master Gardener Program. What an incredible system we have. Every state works to educate the population on environmental best practices through the Extension program at the land grant universities.  Over the years they have let loose thousands of volunteers to spread the word. Their 600 page manual is too bulky for bedtime reading, but it has taught me how much I don’t know. I didn’t know the most abundant element in soil is oxygen. No wonder soggy soil is problematic. Who knew only ten percent of insects are pests. Probably more than ten percent of people are pests. Anyway, it is humbling to know that all the birds and bats, flowers and fungus, insects and earthworms could happily go on without us, but we could not survive without them. So much for “Masters of the Universe.” The good news is we know this and our world is full of knowledgeable people who are committed to helping all of us understand the” interrelationships between soil, air, water, plants, and animals.”

Happy Gardening in 2021!

The Plump Purple Clumps of the Autumn Garden

Could there be anything more lovely in the fall garden than Beautyberry? It’s unique. People frequently stop to stare. I’ve often heard, “What is that?” and “Where do I get one??

The name beautyberry is delightful, but its Latin name, Callicarpa, is lilting on the tongue. It literally means in Greek callos – beautiful and carpos – fruit.

Another plus is Callicarpa americana is native to the southern United States and well adapted to native fauna and climate conditions. Birds and butterflies feast on them. The brilliant amethyst of the plump clumps of berries can be spotted by song birds from great heights. Added to that, the berries persist long into winter after the leaves have turned yellow and fallen.

 I bought ten bareroot plants two winters ago from a grower in Tennessee. Ten little whips were shipped through the mail. They were stashed in pots until the weather warmed and went gangbusters when set out in the early spring. Berries appeared their first fall. To keep them on the small side I cut them back to six inches in late winter.

 Volunteers appeared this summer which were promptly transplanted to the native garden at our public library where they will get more amazed looks and surely thrive.

.   Plantsmen have been busy working on cultivars with pink berries and white ones. There are Callicarpas native to Asia (Callicarpa bodinieri – China, Callicarpa japonica – Japan and Callicarpa dichotoma – China, Japan, Korea). But our Master Gardener class has opened my eyes to the importance of choosing natives.  Beautyberry shows in spades that natives excel in low maintenance. If they’re comfortable where you put them nothing much more than a shovelful of compost in spring is needed. They will reward you and your yard by supporting pollinators and wildlife; they will contribute to the ecosystem; they will preserve biodiversity. If you can, stick to the native Callicarpa americana.

Taking a Stand against Crepe Murder

crepe myrtle7It’s the middle of August and the crepe myrtles are at the peak of their 100 days of bloom. This ‘lilac of the south’ is in its glory, showering little crepes over the landscape.

In my front yard it has sprinkled the Alberta spruce with a candy-pink garnish; it has carpeted the ground around it with fluffy pink blooms.

At about 25 feet, its multiple, mature trunks have begun their annual peeling. The old cinnamon-brown bark falls off to reveal the mottled lighter next-year bark underneath. It has a silky feel and a beautiful look.crepe myrtle9

Crepe myrtles are native to China, Korea, Japan and India. Carl Linnaeus named them Lagerstroemia to honor his Swedish fellow-countryman, Magnus von Lagerström, a plant hunter who brought them back from his voyages. In 1790 French botanist, Andre Michaux planted them in his garden in Charleston, South Carolina. They thrived and our cultivars come from his original stock.

Zone 7 is favorable to crepe myrtles so we see them everywhere in their late-summer glory. But November will soon come and the flowers will be long gone. These deciduous trees will let go of their colorful autumn leaves. In the case of the one in my yard, the lovely limbs of the vase-shaped tree will stand elegant in the winter landscape.

crepe myrtle murder2But in many yards ‘crepe murder’ will begin. There is some notion, long debunked by gardeners, that crepe myrtles must be cut off at the knees to produce flowers for next year. This is practiced so universally here that people think it’s got some plantsman wisdom behind it. It doesn’t. Yes, in spring the branches will grow back with flowers on the ends, but they will be spindly branches that will dip toward the ground with the large flower weight in wind or storm. Not to mention there will be ruination of the crepe myrtle’s graceful natural shape. Those ugly knobby knees will peer up at the sky all winter long. It should be a capital offence to attempt ‘crepe murder’.

crepe myrtle5Tall varieties of crepe myrtle are great street trees if there are no overhead wires to require pruning.  The breeders have been busy. Many new hybrids are available. Some bred to thrive in colder zones. It’s great to have a vigorous large shrub or small tree, whichever you want to call it, that’s disease resistant and flowering in the heat of August.

The Tree Center has an extensive discussion of crepe myrtles: their history, varieties, care, landscape uses, proper pruning and possible problems. Just hold off on the murder impulse.

My Sensitive Sansevieria

snakeplant trifasciataI used to think diehard and tough were the best things you could say about Sansevieria, aka snake plant or mother-in-law tongue. Years ago snake plant (along with philodendron) was the plant most people had in their homes and offices. They were there because they’re almost impossible to kill, especially if no attention is paid. That’s generally what happened. They got dusty, shoved in corners, rarely watered. But they thrived on neglect. They were the quintessential ugly plant. I never thought I would buy a Sansevieria because I like pretty plants. But I now have two: the Sansevieria trifasciata (with a yellow border) and Sansevieria zeylanica (without a yellow border.)  Now they’ve grown on me. They’re attractive in an architectural way and contrast the leafy, spill-over plants with a tall, noble grace. Maybe one reason they’ve gained favor is they came out among the top air-purifying plants in a famous NASA study. And, they do it at night; collect carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They deserve a special place in the bedroom.

My daughter said she would like some houseplants and I thought I’ll share some with her for free. After we divided an aloe vera and potted that up, I thought why not take part of a snake plant. We unpotted the Sansevieria zaylanica and sliced off a section with my trusty bread knife. She went home with her new plant and called a few weeks later with the news. “There’s a flower stalk on that snake plant.”

“What,” I said and took a closer look at mine. Darned if I didn’t also have a flower stalk. I went to the internet. Turns out, snake plants rarely flower, but mild stress may cause it to happen. A bread knife slice must qualify as mild stress. I can go with that.

But Sansevieria flowers and fragrance, really? Yes, my Sansevieria zeylanica has sported lily-like flowers and lovely nighttime fragrance.  The plants are native to Madagascar and Africa, so there must be a moth somewhere in Madagascar or Africa who goes about at night searching for the sweet fragrance, because the scent isn’t there in the daytime and the flowers are closed up. How complex are these plants, knowing just what to do and when to do it.

Sansevieria honors Italian scientist and inventor Raimondo di Sangro [1710–71], Prince of San Severo.

Apparently the plant was found in his garden and so named for him. It has since been moved to the Dracaena genus. I prefer Sansevieria since the prince was a colorful man: inventor, alchemist and scientist with lots of rumors about nefarious activities.

snakeplant13So because of my bread knife and the desire to share a free plant with my daughter we both got to see and smell the rare Sansevieria lily. We may never get that opportunity again.