Tuesday, September 02, 2014

I love living in a blue state . . .

. . . and I'm not limiting myself to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. No, I mean the blue--or almost blue--tones of late summer flowers. Sadly, I've got the blues this year from some of my favorites' failure to thrive: the larkspur has been effectively eliminated by rabbit predation and the blue flag iris sent up only a single flower.  But other cultivars have fared fair better.

    Salvia farinacea "Victoria Blue"

Spiky clumps of annual blue salvia flourish just about anywhere they are planted.  They look great--even when menaced by storm clouds--at the front of a mixed bed.

Phlox paniculata "Blue Paradise"
 
This garden phlox, "Blue Paradise," continues to bloom into September.  The individual flowers change color depending upon light conditions: a deeply saturated blue violet at dawn and dusk, a paler purple at midday. The petals stripe and blotch and cloud with different tones.
 
Great Blue Lobelia Lobelia siphilitica

I need to cleave out more space for this Great Blue Lobelia Lobelia siphilitica, which is busily colonizing the inner angle of the rain garden. The fellow was picked up two years ago from Bartram's Garden outside of Philadelphia. Yes, its growing habit is uncouth and its flower heads are large and coarse--but, oh, that color!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sweet end of summer

Cool temperatures this past week have stirred up conversations about an early fall.  The plant world, too, seems to be pushing the seasons forward.

The end of summer is sweetened by the sight and scent of the appropriately named Summer Sweet Clethra alnifolia "September Beauty." Because these natives flourish in damp, acidic soils, several are sited adjacent to the rain garden and another next to a down spout. This time of year, they are over-loaded with intoxicating pure white racemes. Bees and butterflies flit, land, and sip like reeling, happy drunks. No complaints from that corner.

Clethra alnifolia 'September Beauty'

Even though they are hardy to Zone 3, I don't see Summer Sweet growing in gardens around here. Local gardeners may be put off by the late leafing out of these plants--in New England, a habit that translates into bare branches until well into May. But what handsome leaves to wait for: deeply colored, glossy, and neatly serrated.

Because Summer Sweet blooms on new wood, I wait until spring to prune. The seed capsules, which look like little peppercorns--and give the plant its other moniker, Pepperbush--are also best tidied away in the spring.  I've read that over-wintering birds enjoy these seeds but can't say that I've ever noticed any avian diners. After a harsh winter, Summer Sweet definitely needs to be cleaned of broken and frost-killed twigs. This clipping clean-up and a good tailoring of the bushes' expansive, sloppy style are on my spring agenda.

Peppercorn-like seed capsules

Last week, I figured that the perfume of these flowers would fill a room, so I cut a handful of racemes, added some stalks of northern sea oats, and plonked the whole handful into a ceramic vase. Immediately, the air was saturated with their sweet, sweet scent. No complaints from this corner, either!

Natural air freshener
 

Friday, August 08, 2014

Geraniums: celebrating the commonplace

Until a couple of years ago, I had always lumped geraniums into that group of trailer trash flowers--carnations, impatiens, petunias--that Big Box stores and uninspired landscapers inflict upon horticulturally sensitive souls. With such diversity of plant life available, why bother with geraniums? They are boring and clich├ęd. And they smell funny.

But then I went to France.  Specifically, I went to Alsace, the eastern region of France that borders the river Rhine.  This is the country of geraniums, half-timbered buildings, and Riesling wine. Geraniums could be found in every window box: sometimes the classic red flowers, other times shades of pink, coral, or white.  There were grand blossom-loaded shows as well as more modest displays.

Clockwise from upper left: Colmar, Abbey Mont St. Odile, Riquewihr, Abbey Mont St. Odile, Colmar, Hunspach, Colmar; Center: Colmar

And the bounty was not limited to private houses.  In the Alsatian countryside, even farm wagons, cemetery crosses, and memorial chapels deserved a decking out.


Clockwise from upper left: Aschbach wagon, Oberroedern cross, Aschbach chapel 

So I kept this celebration of the commonplace in mind when I was setting up my containers this summer.  By the back door--the private area that's just for friends and family--I tucked together a big pot of zonal geraniums. A deep red glazed planter now holds a load of Tango Salmon geraniums. Somehow, this tidy, hard-working, and proudly unimaginative display feels right (and, dare I say, stereotypically Alsatian).




Monday, July 28, 2014

Re-location, re-location, re-location!

Summer construction is underway across campus: parking lots are being torn up, buildings knocked down, and new foundations dug.  Yes, here we're partying like it's early 2008! In the midst of all of this activity, a few weeks ago I noticed a mournful clump of Variegated Solomon's Seal wedged between an asphalt roadbed and a chain-link fence. I asked folks working in the area if I could help myself to these orphans. "No problem" was the response. 
 
On site: Variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum falcatum "Variegatum")  
 
Last week, I pulled up a half dozen stems of Solomon's Seal. The leaves were tattered, yellowed, and coated with construction debris.   
 
Leaves coated with construction debris
 
Although the rhizomes attached at the end of the stalks were firm and well-colored, the roots were desperately dessicated--they looked like old twine. So I stuck the rhizomes in a big bowl of water for a day, hoping to rehydrate all those parched parts.
 
Soaking the rhizomes

I'm not sure what effect, if any, that bath might have had, as the plants appeared the same after their spa treatment as they had before.  But at least they didn't look any worse.

Under water

I had been looking for some shade-loving plants to join a jumble of hostas under a spreading yew, so I knew just the bed for these Solomon Seals. After digging in forty pounds of composted cow manure, the rhizomes were planted to three inches depth and watered in.

Re-located
Right now they look pretty scrappy and not at all like the elegant cultivar they're touted to be.  I'm hoping that spring will bring a crop of fresh foliage and dangling flowers. Just imagine those white bordered leaves waving hello from this shadowy spot.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Boundary issues

I have boundary issues. Not as in a lack of any boundaries--quite the opposite. I like boundaries. I like clearly marked property. I like name tags, monogrammed stationary, and signet rings. I like knowing what belongs to me and what doesn't. Don't even think about asking me to share my dessert.  It's not going to happen.

Garden boundaries not only mark off your bit of turf from your neighbor's, but they also organize all that green stuff into visually comprehensible blocks of lawn, bed, and hedge.

A line of privet separates one portion of the front yard from our neighbor's lot.  This hedge is homely, dead boring, and purely utilitarian, as all privet is.  Every few years the privet needs to be cut back hard in the spring in order to keep it from becoming tall and leggy.  Last weekend, it was snipped down to about a foot high.  Fertilizing, top-dressing, and edging are needed before it looks presentable.  Some new shoots and leaves would be helpful, too.

Pruned back privet

Yes, about edging. Using a half-moon edger, I try to border beds twice a year.  Nothing makes a garden look better tended (particularly if it is not) or eases the challenge of mowing along the border of a bed more successfully than a clean cut edge. And, visually, a bit of tidy edging brings into focus the break between a lawn's green even roll and the patterning of a flower bed.

Curving border along front walk
Received wisdom suggests that plants should sit anywhere from a few inches to a foot back from the edge of the bed.  I have found adherence to this rule to be a secret weapon in my mission to continually expand the size of the flower beds.  The plants grow larger so, hey, what can I do but cut a wider bed?  And, so, ugly patches of lawn are gobbled up.  In other words, not only will I refuse to share my dessert, but I'm likely to sneak a bite of yours!

Edging creep: the secret to silently expanding your flower beds
Sometimes a plain cut edge isn't enough, and the boundary needs to be marked more forcefully.  My parents used to call upon metal hoops and aluminum sheeting for this task--and I well remember the snarl of rusted junk to which those accoutrements inevitably decayed.  I've nevertheless considered resorting to sheet metal edging in order to stem the march of lilies of the valley from the back bed, but I'm not quite that desperate yet.  In the meantime, I limit myself to natural materials. Granite cobblestones, picked up at a local stone yard, add a line of contrasting color and texture to this bed of Siberian irises.

Granite cobblestone border
Good fences may make good neighbors, but they also make a person feel good herself. Dessert helps, too.