Month: May 2011

A Gardener’s Blues : Growing Meconopsis

In an essay entitled “Blues” in her book Green Thoughts : a writer in the garden, Eleanor Perenyi says this:

“Still, they [other blue-flowering plants] can’t be classified as total disasters. I reserve that category for, first, Meconopsis betonicifolia, the fabled Himalayan poppy, the color of a summer sky, with golden anthers — and my abominable snowman. It grows in England but I have never seen it — not the tiniest shoot having come up from repeated sowings. (Nurseries don’t carry it: poppies of this type are notoriously difficult to transplant). I would give anything for a glimpse of it, even in somebody else’s garden. … What I can’t understand is why, if it is practically unknown in the U.S, the seeds are sold by a number of companies. Somebody, somewhere, is cultivating this elusive blue papaver. It is clear I never will.”

I took this as a challenge, a kind of Olympics of the gardening endeavour. I would grow blue poppies from seed. I ordered some from Thompson & Morgan, and failed. That was when I lived in Saskatchewan and gardened on clay soil, so it was probably just as well. After I moved to Victoria, B.C., things had changed — you could buy plants of Meconopsis betonicifolia. I acquired one and saw it bloom. It produced seeds. When I tried again with those, I got results. Spectacular results. In the summer of 2001 I had about ten plants blooming vigorously in a little bed I had fussily prepared just for them. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, because I expected them to bloom again the following year. Ha. The fussily prepared bed was close to an Ailanthus, the Tree of Heaven. Need I say more?

From these experiences and some reading, I have learned the following about growing blue poppies: Only the freshest seeds will germinate. (I have described my method in another post). The plants are apt to die after blooming — not immediately, but unless they develop little offsets, don’t expect to see them the following spring. Even in good conditions, they are often short-lived. And they have no tolerance for tree roots.

A year or two later, I acquired another Meconopsis — a variety called ‘Lingholm,’ which apparently is a sort of botanical freak, a fertile hybrid arising from a sterile one when its chromosomes were somehow doubled. Don’t ask me any more about this, but you can find out more here. Its origins aside, ‘Lingholm’ is lovely — more vigorous than M. betonicifolia and its seeds germinate more readily. And in my experience, its colour is a purer blue than that of M. betonicifolia, which often has tints of muddy mauve.

Meconopsis 'Lingholm'

My next experiment, begun several years ago, was to grow blue poppies in pots. I produced a batch of seedlings (seeds mostly from ‘Lingholm’ but some from M. betonicifolia) and in late summer planted each one into a gallon sized or slightly smaller pot, in a nice, peaty soil mix. No tree roots, easy to maintain moisture — how could this fail?

Well, it hasn’t, but it it has not been a screaming success either. The trick is to get the plants through the winter. Their natural habitat, I understand, is alpine, with relatively dry conditions in winter (under snow). Good drainage is, of course, essential, but it appears that in pots it is hard to achieve. I keep the pots close to the house wall in winter but even so, losses are common — the plants begin to grow, then succumb to wilt and rot.

The other problem is that they are not eager to bloom in pots, at least not those of the size I have used. It’s possible that they would do better in larger containers. I did have three plants of M. betonicifolia that grew and bloomed quite happily for a couple of years in a large ceramic pot. I have plans to provide better containers for the plants (seedlings and others) I have on hand now. I am also trying to find a suitable spot for another blue poppy bed — not easy in a garden as crowded as mine.

This spring two of my pot-grown specimens bloomed. The seeds came from my purchased plant of ‘Lingholm,’ but in the case of one specimen at least, the family resemblance isn’t quite there. A distinctly pink tinge has crept into the blue. Who knows what might be going on in those chromosomes? Maybe there were genetic contributions from M. betonicifolia.  It will be interesting to see what colours other seed-grown plants might produce — yet another incentive to induce bloom, aside from the sad fact that these plants aren’t terribly interesting when not in bloom.

'Lingholm' + offspring

In addition to the children of ‘Lingholm,’ I do still have a couple of plants of M. betonicifolia descended from my original plant. (One great feature of these poppies is that if you can get them to bloom they produce seeds in abundance). They are both in pots and one obviously has plans to bloom in the next couple of weeks. So the experiment continues.

Finally, I’ll mention a Meconopsis that is utterly easy to grow. Once you have it you have it forever, without any effort at all. The effort that’s needed is to control or get rid of it, because it’s actually a sort of weed, similar to toadflax, campion and all those other tough plants. It’s Meconopsis cambrica — not blue, but a bright cheery yellow (with the occasional orange specimen). It does combine well with dark reds or purples, as here with Cotinus ‘Royal Purple.’ I have it in abundance. Too bad it isn’t blue.

Meconopsis cambrica

Winter Losses: a garden “In memoriam”

Despite a slow start, spring is sufficiently advanced that it’s time to declare dead any plant that hasn’t shown signs of growth. In my garden there have been two surprising deaths — Verbena bonariensis and Gaura lindheimeri.  The verbena is supposedly hardy to Zone 7, which I understand to be 0 to 10 degrees F.  The gaura is rated to Zone 6, so should survive a low of -10 to 0 degrees F. Last winter we had a couple of instances of -10 Celsius, which is 14 F. Therefore I am somewhat miffed that these plants gave up the ghost. Both were utterly reliable until then; in fact, the verbena threatened to become a weed, with its prolific seedlings. The gaura also self-seeded, but not as vigorously. Its primary fault was a sprawling habit that could become annoying in plants that weren’t well-placed, which is why I got rid of all but one.

Now both the verbena and the gaura are gone, and their faults have receded into the background. I will miss the verbena’s slim, trim profile that permitted it to squeeze into a crowd of other plants and hover over them with its clusters of purple flowers. I remember the elegance of the gaura’s white flowers fluttering in the dusk of late summer evenings. It’s a pity that it died just when I had learned how to manage it too — cut the stalks back by one half before bloom to achieve a bushier, less sprawling form. Maybe it resented that treatment and decided that death was preferable.

Fortunately, the pink form of the gaura survived — two plants are sprouting, although somewhat feebly. And of course, plants (unlike deceased people or pets) can be replaced. A quick trip to the nursery or, for those with more patience, growing new plants from saved seeds, and all is well until the next harsh winter.

Also deceased, but not as a result of winter weather, is a plant I thought of as something of a rarity, although I suspect it isn’t really — Saxifraga fortunei, dark-leaved, fall-blooming, with panicles of little white star-like flowers. I had it growing quite well in a pot (my solution when something appears to be struggling in my rooty ground). In fact, last September it bloomed better than it ever had. Then one day, it wilted. Investigations revealed an evil gang of little white grubs, which had devoured the roots. I sacrificed the blooms, got rid of the grubs and replanted in fresh soil — to no avail, as it turned out. It didn’t help that a squirrel dug it up a short time later, because I had forgotten to put rocks on the soil surface to discourage such depredations. I suspect that what really did it in was losing its roots just after it had expended a lot of energy in blooming, followed by the onset of cold weather a month or so later.

Saxifraga fortunei, RIP

On the other hand, I had a pleasant surprise this week when the dahlias sprouted. I have only three plants — one planted in the ground, a pinky lavender with great big flowers, and ‘Bishop of Llandaff,’ with scarlet blooms and dark red foliage. My two plants of the Bishop are both in pots. I wrapped them both up in November, but until sprouts appeared just a few days ago, I had given up on them and was castigating myself for not bringing the smaller of the pots inside during the really cold weather. So with this small miracle, maybe the Bishop will bloom again here.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

A Good Read for a Flood Year

The news about flooding in the lower Mississippi and the opening of the Morganza Spillway prompted me to dig out a book I remembered as highly interesting when I read it years ago — The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (1989). The book contains three lengthy essays or prose documentaries about the interaction of humans with natural forces. The first of them, entitled “Atchafalaya,”  is particularly apt. It describes how European settlers began to “manage” the Mississippi in the late 18th century, an endless process that continues today under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the context of an inspection cruise by members of the Corps, McPhee depicts the primary problem of the Mississippi — it wants to go westward, to yield its substance to the Atchafalaya, a phenomenon called river capture that has been going on for millennia, and which built the Mississippi Delta. Until the 1950s, when it became unacceptable to commerce and transportation, and the Corps of Engineers came forward to stop it by building the Old River Control Structure. McPhee’s article lays out the consequences of this and other efforts at Mississippi management in brisk and agile prose. Reading about what has happened to sediments around New Orleans, I thought about Hurricane Katrina. Reading about the floods of 1973, the only other time the Morganza Spillway was opened, I think about right now. In the late 1980s, McPhee asked several knowledgeable people about the possibility that the control structure might fail despite the immense efforts to strengthen it, and the Atchafalaya would capture the Mississippi after all. It seems that question is still out there and still unanswered.

McPhee doesn’t draw conclusions. He describes what he sees and relays the opinions of the experts without comment. He does not use the word “hubris.” But it certainly popped into my mind as I read.

It’s fascinating to read about human-enhanced disaster on an unusually rainy late May morning, during a spring that has been wetter and cooler than normal. A real flood is not likely here in Victoria B.C., but Manitoba is experiencing something like the Mississippi floods right now, complete with a sacrificial dyke breach.

John McPhee also spent a lot of time talking with geologists on the west coast and wrote about plate tectonics, faults, and related matters (Annals of the Former World, Assembling California). An epic flood is unlikely here, but an earthquake is all too real a possibility. Perhaps I should read those books again.

Weeding Part 1: Know What You Are About to Kill

If you garden, you weed. That’s the inevitable fact. Opening the soil gives weed seeds the opportunity to sprout, and since weeds are tough characters that easily out-compete most domestic plants, they must be “managed,” which means removed, destroyed or killed. Weeding season is upon us now, but before seizing their preferred tools and doing battle, gardeners would do well to sharpen their attention and open their eyes.

This may not apply to gardens that are neat and tidy, where the distinction between ‘garden plants,’ and ‘weeds’ is clear and distinct. My garden is a motley situation, a chaotic pluralism whose occupants range from undisputed non-weeds (blue poppies, delphiniums, hybrid lilies) to herbs (which can be surprisingly weedy) to tough plants with tendencies to colonize (peach-leaf bellflower, periwinkle) or seed mightily (campion, mullein, toadflax).

Since the early days of this garden, certain plants have transitioned from welcome and wanted to suspect to weeds. If a plant is to be removed, it’s easier to do it when it’s a mere seedling than weeks later when it has become firmly rooted and requires more effort to extract, or, even worse, when it has bloomed and gone to seed, thus ensuring its presence forever. On the other hand, if you want certain plants in your patch and depend upon seedlings for this, you need to recognize those tiny plants so you will not inadvertently yank them out or mow them down along with the weeds.

For example,  borage is a pleasant herb (however useless in the kitchen), with its clusters of blue flowers over prickly leaves. It seeds enthusiastically, however, which means that you will have way too much of it unless you pull up most of the seedlings. So if you see its solid little leaves emerging in the lettuce patch, you will want to yank them out, but if a couple turn up among other herbs, or next to the scarlet runner beans, you would do well to spare them and let them grow.

I can recognize dozens of plants when they are still infants — maples, laburnums, hollies, foxgloves, mulleins, toadflax, campion, lavender, lemon balm, arugula, lady’s mantle, violets, various euphorbias, hellebores and many others, including definite weeds such as shepherd’s purse, which appeared in the area a few years ago and is probably here to stay. I pull up or hoe out most of them, but not without recognizing them first. “Hello Toadflax, goodbye, Toadflax; hi there, Mullein, OK you can stay.”

Twice, this policy of seedling recognition has paid off handsomely. Years ago I bought a plant of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea,’ a yellow ornamental grass with more substance than Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum.’ I made the mistake of assuming it was as tough and drought-tolerant as Luzula nivea, the snowy woodrush, which borders on being a pest at my place. One April I admired my plant in full bloom, then paid it little attention until July, when I found it brown and dead. Efforts to find a replacement locally failed. One nursery owner informed me that there was no demand for this grass, so they didn’t stock it. I was about to order a plant by mail, but I found what appeared to be a seedling — bright yellow, among a bunch of equally yellow sprouts of Bowles golden, except that this one seemed more robust and perky. Hoping it was Luzula, I moved it to a pot and kept a close eye on it until I was sure. I planted it back into the border and have taken more notice of it since.

A similar story with Salvia regeliana: from one plant, I got several more by self-seeding, and took it for granted. Then all those plants disappeared. I suspect it’s naturally short-lived, like many salvias. But the following spring I found a couple of seedlings that might have been mulleins, but their leaves were darker green and wrinkly, rather than fuzzy. They looked a bit like foxgloves, but not entirely. Could they be offspring of the lost salvias? They were and still are.

All this leads to observations that apply to many things in life, but especially to gardening. Pay attention. Take your time. Don’t take things — or plants — for granted. Gardening is not a sport in which you get points for speed.