Month: June 2011

Being Aquarius

From now until September, or if I’m lucky, August, I will be the Water-Bearer. Rain is almost unknown here in summer, so for weeks I am the only source of this vital element for the plants in my garden. Many of them are drought-tolerant, but not all, and the overall scene looks better if it gets regular watering.

“Regular” means every two weeks, except for plants confined to pots and certain especially needy individuals, some of which require daily visitations by the person with the watering can. I have divided my garden into seven watering zones, and note down the dates I water each one, to make sure that they all get done on schedule. To complicate things, the regional government allows “lawn watering” with sprinklers only on two specific days per week, either Wednesdays and Saturdays or Thursdays and Sundays, depending on whether your house number is odd or even. Hand watering is allowed any time, even with a device connected to a hose. It’s unclear whether watering perennial beds with sprinklers counts as “lawn watering,” but since most of my beds have adjoining lawn, I just assume it does.

I deliver water in three ways — watering can, hand-held sprinkler and regular sprinkler. The watering can is probably my most heavily used garden tool (if you can call it that) from June (most years) to September. Almost the first thing I do when I get home from work is dip that can in the rain barrel (kept full with the hose!) and race around to all the pots and any plants known to be intolerant of dryness. Relatively small areas can be effectively watered with the hand-held sprinkler, although it is a bit trying to stand there, counting off the seconds with water dripping into your shoe. (I count seconds to make sure I hang in there long enough; otherwise it’s too easy to squirt and run).

I deploy the sprinklers only when the weather gets really dry and warm. It’s a bit of a job to set up the one for the area around the pond. The best place to put it, of course, is right in the middle of the pond, a feat accomplished by laying a special plank across that seven foot wide body of water, and parking the sprinkler on it in precisely the right spot. Once I turn on the water I have to make sure the sprinkler hasn’t shifted and that the setting is correct to deliver water to the entire area. Often a bit of back and forth is needed before it’s right. Then I let it run for the full two hours that I have decided is the minimal effective time required.

People who don’t garden, or who garden in those extraordinary places that get regular summer rain, probably can’t imagine why any gardener would find summer an anxiety-filled season. (Well, maybe they can, but I’ll bet not many do). In July and August I think about watering a lot, I do it a lot, and by the beginning of August I’m sick of it, especially because by that time the garden looks distinctly weary, despite all my efforts and fretting.

Some years we get significant rain in August. This happened in 2010 (if you consider not quite an inch to be “significant” — I do!), but you can’t count on it. Such rain is a gift, no matter how many barbeques and baseball games it ruins. Gardeners rejoice at the week-long reprieve from the toil of the hose and the can.

That’s it for now; I have to go and water.

The Perils of Gift Plants

Every summer I expend valuable time and energy extracting fans of a certain orange daylily from the perennial bed adjoining my pond. The culprit is, I suspect, a variety called ‘Kwanso,’ a descendant of Hemerocallis fulva, which is a tough plant with brownish-orange flowers and a rampaging habit of colonization. ‘Kwanso’ has certainly inherited that quality, which means that if left to itself, it will send out new sprouts far beyond the spot where it was originally planted. In my pond bed, lush growths of ‘Kwanso’ have come up flush against vigorous ferns and threatened to engulf a small spirea, ‘Golden Princess.’ To keep things in proportion (so much of gardening consists of this struggle), I get out there with a narrow bulb trowel and surgically remove the invader from spots where it doesn’t belong.

Now, here’s the thing — I didn’t buy ‘Kwanso.’  It was a gift from another gardener. My garden was new at the time, and underpopulated (hard to believe, but it was). I accepted the gift with gratitude and gave it a prime spot, remembering a fine daylily that I had in my former garden, a big handsome thing with yellow trumpet flowers every summer, possibly an old variety called ‘Hyperion.’ The clump expanded steadily, but did not send out runners. In my ignorance of the daylily tribe, I thought they were all like that, and when my gardening colleague described her plant’s double orange flowers, I was quite delighted to accept the gift. Now that I know about H. fulva, I would be suspicious of any daylily with even a hint of orange.

When someone offers you a generous supply of a plant, ask yourself why they have so much to give away. A diplomatic question may be in order: “Can you tell me something about X? How does it grow?” If the gardener says something about ground-covering tendencies or multitudes of seedlings, you may wish to decline with gratitude.

When you think about it, this matter of gift plants is as much about etiquette as gardening. Gifts in general are a touchy subject. Consider the present that eventually becomes a garage sale item. So what do you say when a gift plant turns out to be a menace that you had to eradicate, and the giver inquires as to how it’s doing in your garden? Or even worse, comes over to admire it? “Oh, it just up and died. I couldn’t get it to grow.” The implication that your gardening skills are inferior to the other person’s may divert them from the suspicion that planticide was committed. Let them bask in the warm glow of superiority for a few seconds, then offer them some seedlings of Linaria purpurea or divisions of Campanula persicifolia.

Setting aside unworthy thoughts of horticultural revenge, here are some precepts to observe when you are the giver of a plant, especially when the recipient is a new, inexperienced gardener. Be up front about colonizing tendencies. Admit that you have periwinkle to give away because it has spread like a weed at your place, and is likely to do so anywhere. Tell her that she had better get out and cut back the campion as soon as its first blooms have turned into seed pods, unless she wants it coming up all over the place. Better yet, give away some really good plants on occasion — spare seedlings of Meconopsis, for example, or divisions of crystalline blue delphiniums. No one ever has enough of those.

What I’m Reading Now

Books I’m reading or have read recently, some new and some old. First the new:

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell.  This is the last of Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is a blend of international intrigue and family relationships, mainly set in the part of southern Sweden familiar to readers of the other books in the series. But as to the conclusion — all I can say is — poor Kurt Wallander!

The School of Night by Louis Bayard. I’ve just started this one. Nice chewy prose — sort of like calamari. Rather self-consciously good, but still a good read, so far.

Now into the past:

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I first read this in the 80s, when it was a new sensation. I remembered it as dark and horrifying and thought it would be a good fictional follow-up to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which I read a couple of months ago. What strikes me now about Sophie’s Choice, however, is a truly odd similarity — probably in my mind alone — between it and a novel by Richard Adams, The Girl in a Swing. The latter lacks the background of the mass murders of WWII, but the sexual anxieties of the narrator, the fascination and mystery of the female protagonist, and the final revelations do have something in common.

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee. I was moved to read this after I finished his The Control of Nature. Few besides McPhee could render the subject of Wyoming geology (interwoven with the biography of a notable geologist) so fascinating. I intend to track down his other books on geology soon.

King Jesus by Robert Graves. If I don’t re-start reading this one, I probably never will. I picked it up after reading The Messianic Legacy by the holy blood and holy grail gang, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. I enjoyed their first book so thought this one would be as intriguing, but got bogged down in too much detail about things that didn’t strike me as terribly interesting. The reference to Graves’s novel did sound interesting, but so far I’ve let myself be sidetracked by other things.

Such as L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft.  HPL is, among many other things, the creator of Herbert West, who became the central character of my own trilogy, so I have a lasting interest in him. In addition to this biography, I am about to embark on H.P. Lovecraft: four decades of criticism, edited by that notable expert on HPL, S.T. Joshi.

All this reading and the garden in the full flush of June is why this is a relatively short posting. And there’s bee-watching to do as well.