Garden

snow, Christmas 2017, magnolia

The Midwinter Garden and Plans for Spring

I heard somewhere recently that we’ve hit the midpoint of winter. Quite appropriately, a foot of snow fell last week.

front garden, snow, Christmas 2017
front garden, snow, Christmas 2017

Full disclosure: these photos are from 2017. Somehow I didn’t get around to taking pictures of this year’s snow. But trust me, it looked just like this!

It’s all melted now, and there are hints of spring. I saw a couple of crocuses budding up today. Yellow ones; they’re always first. I heard a Bewick’s wren trying out his spring song. The Algerian iris, whose first two flowers were buried in snow, is sending up more bloom stalks.

When I lived in a place with real winter, snow came in November and didn’t melt until March. During those months, the garden didn’t exist, except as a memory and a future hope. The only garden-related things to do were read books about gardening, peruse seed and plant catalogues, make plans and lists, and dream.

In the mild climate of my present garden, winter comes and goes. Or rather, it takes different forms, from mild and wet to cold and snowy. The ground is almost always bare of snow. It’s not possible to disengage from the garden entirely, but a kind of not-caring sets in, especially when the weather is cold, wet, and/or windy.

Mild winter days are perfect for certain types of garden work, however. Pruning can and should be done while shrubs and trees are dormant. Today I finally got around to cutting down last summer’s long (20 feet/3 metres) growths of Clematis vitalba, otherwise known as “old man’s beard.” It’s another of my self-inflicted semi-weeds that’s made itself at home here. By now I can recognize its seedlings and pull them out, but there are still three vigorous specimens in different spots. I diligently cut down each summer’s growth in fall or winter, but this year I left it too late and ripe seeds have been distributed far and wide. (On the plus side, I’ve seen dark-eyed juncos eating them.)

Every year I end up growing (or trying to) a few plants from seed. This year it’s the blue camas, a prized native plant of our region, and Lomatium nudicaule (known as wild celery, bare-stem desert parsley, and several other common names). And, of course, my final attempt to grow meconopsis, the captivating and capricious Himalayan blue poppy. Their little seed pot spent a couple of weeks on top of the hot water tank and is now in the garden shed, where it should experience a variety of temperatures over the next couple of months. I’ve had success with this technique in the past. With luck, a few or maybe more than a few (!) plants will result, giving me something to fret get excited about for a season or two.

Garden Cleanup: Less is Better?

I’ve had this post in my drafts file since fall (aka “autumn”) but just had to write posts about other things first. Books, more books, and book cover images. After all that stuff, it’s about time for a garden-related post. So here it is.

I like the look of a tidy, tended garden. Leaves raked, edges crisp, dead stems and stalks cut down to bristly little stubs. It has that “been there, done that” look at the end of a growing season. Now it’s resting, waiting for spring, when sprouts will sprout, buds will bloom, and the gardener will bustle about dispensing magic dust and fresh compost.

I also like raking leaves, piling them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for a short trip to the compost heap, where they’ll eventually become compost. In spring, I load compost into the wheelbarrow for a short trip back to the perennial beds where the leaves landed after falling off their trees.

Does anyone detect a wee bit of absurdity in that last paragraph? Raking up leaves, carting them several yards/metres and several months later — when they’ve decomposed — lugging them back to the very same spot.

Maybe it’s better to let them rot in place. That’s good enough for Mother Nature, after all. You don’t see her busting her butt with wheelbarrows. (But then, she has all the winds of heaven at her service.)

This past autumn, I thought I would try something different. I raked leaves off paths and pavements, but let most of them lie where they landed on beds and lawn areas. I didn’t leave as many on grass as in the perennial beds, and I made sure there were no thick, smothering leaf mats anywhere.

Dead leaves and new green shoots

The idea is that earthworms will drag those leaves underground and… do whatever they do with them. Eat them, I guess, and poop out the remains in the form of worm castings, churning up the dirt in the process.

I’ve also resisted the urge to cut down all the withered perennial stalks, even after they’ve lost their charm and just look dead. I’ve read that they provide cover and feeding opportunities for birds. Supposedly, bugs deposit eggs in the dead plant material, and whatever hatches out is appreciated by foraging birds. I certainly see them hopping around and scratching among the dead leaves, so maybe there’s something to that. (Of course, the big attractions at my place are feeders full of seeds and suet.)

Front garden perennial bed with dead stalks past its best

I’ll let this scene persist until we’re back to double-digit temperatures (in degrees C, of course), whereupon I will cut down the dead so the living may flourish.

Another plus to this approach is that it’s less work. I just hope I’m not creating a perfect environment for plant-eating larvae and fungi that will cause damage next spring and summer. I don’t think those organisms understand the concept of karma.

Fallen maple leaves and Geranium "Anne Folkard"
Mystery mushroom; turned out to be Battarrea phalloides, July 28, 2019

Mushroom Mystery Solved!

Remember that strange mushroom I posted about back in early October?

After searching the internet, I concluded it was an Amanita that had been parasitized by another fungus. Rationale: it had a volva, like many Amanitas, but the spores were rusty brown, not white. And Amanita muscarii has appeared in my garden nearby. Searching the internet, I read that Amanita can be parasitized by a species of Hypomyces. That had to be it, I thought.

About the same time, I saw a poster announcing a mushroom show for the general public by the Southern Vancouver Island Mycological Society on November 3rd, with experts available to help with mushroom identification. It wouldn’t hurt to get another opinion, so I went, with phone photo of the mystery mushroom in hand.

It’s been a great mushroom season here, due to lots of rain in September and October, so many different specimens were on display, including a truly impressive King Boletus, more than a foot tall, with a cap nearly a foot in diameter. I didn’t know they could get that big.

Giant specimen of Boletus edulis at SVIMS Mushroom Show Nov. 3, 2019
The star of the mushroom show: a giant specimen of Boletus edulis, aka cep or porcino.

I had interesting chats with various fungophiles. After looking at one of the photos in my blog post, one of these folks concluded that it was a specimen of Battarrea phalloides, also called the scaley-stalked puffballsandy stiltball, or desert stalked puffball. The description and photos here match my specimen exactly.

Battarrea phalloides mushroom, July 2019
My specimen of Battarrea phalloides in July.
Mystery mushroom, Battarrea phalloides, October 10, 2019
And in October, dug up for inspection.

According to Wikipedia, it grows in “dry, sandy locations throughout the world.” That certainly describes my place, especially in July. It’s also found among sand dunes on the west coast of North America. Someone at the mushroom show mentioned that one had turned up on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

It’s not a zombie mushroom after all, just a weirdo.

So while the internet may be useful for identifying mushrooms, it’s always best to ask an expert, especially if one is foraging for edible specimens. In case you’re wondering, Battarrea phalloides, while not poisonous, does not appear to be edible.

Dahlia (variety name unknown) amid autumn messiness

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Autumn Sights

I love fall, so I probably take more pictures of the garden as it goes through autumn than any other season. The first eight photos are from former years; the four at the bottom of the display were taken a few days ago, including the ones of the Amanita mushroom* and the dahlia.

*This is not the mushroom I wrote about in a recent post. It may be a relative, however!

Mystery mushroom; turned out to be Battarrea phalloides, July 28, 2019

Mystery Mushroom

In July, a big mushroom popped up close to my garden shed. That was weird, because July isn’t a month in which mushrooms are expected. While not as dry as usual, this July wasn’t exactly rainy, and this fungus was in an especially dry spot. I never water this area and it’s under the shed’s eaves so isn’t exposed to rain. There are odd bits of lumber stashed under the shed, and who knows what might be buried underground. (I know for sure there’s a dead crow a couple feet over and down. I buried it there after finding it one morning. But that was at least ten years ago.)

Looking the mushroom over without disturbing it, I thought it was some kind of Boletus. I saw no gills on the underside of the cap. When I tapped it, rusty brown spores flew out. I checked my mushroom ID books but failed to pin it down to a specific Boletus. I took a picture of it on July 28th (the one at the top of the post) and left it alone.

Usually, mushrooms last a few days and vanish. Not this one. It has remained, looking much the same for more than two months. Finally, a few days ago, I pulled it up. Weirdly, the stipe was attached to a great big cup (called a volva by mycologists) that had been lurking below ground level.

Mystery mushroom, possibly Amanita infected with Hypomyces hyalinus? October 10, 2019
This is how the poor thing looked when I pulled it up on October 10th. Note the cup at the bottom.

Well. This really made me wonder. I wasn’t aware of any Boletus that starts out with a universal veil, a kind of egg-like covering from which some mushrooms grow. The bottom half remains in the ground as a volva and the top part sometimes forms white spots on the mushroom’s cap.

White spots on the cap. Everyone’s seen red mushrooms with white spots, if only in storybooks. Last fall, I had one in the garden, under the birch tree nearly 50 feet away from the shed.

Amanita muscaria mushroom at foot of birch tree
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), fall of 2018.

But that’s an Amanita, not a Boletus. Amanitas have gills, not pores. My mystery mushroom certainly didn’t have gills, and if it had pores, they were invisible. The underside of the cap was pure white and smooth.

Forget the books, try Google. I started thinking maybe this mushroom was actually an Amanita that had been parasitized by another fungus. I was aware of the so-called Lobster Mushroom, which is a Russula infected by an organism called Hypomyces lactifluorum. So I started with that and eventually found Hypomyces hyalinus, otherwise known as Amanita mold. Bingo!

Amanita mold “obliterates” the gills of its host and is described as “pallid when old, or tinged with pink, yellow, or brown.” That certainly describes the mystery mushroom. The strange thing is how it’s managed to retain a recognizable shape for more than two months. Perhaps the invading Hypomyces organism replaces the original structures, turning the Amanita into a kind of fungal zombie?

Nature never ceases to amaze.

Familiar scene of rustic bench near the pond in autumn (fall) with hardy cyclamen and hostas

New and Different: Garden Changes

I think it’s time to get away from book reviewing and rule quibbling. Whatever else might be happening, there’s always the garden.

It’s fall in the garden. Rain and imminent plant dormancy eliminates the need to water (except for a few pots). The gardener is energized. Plans are made and a few are carried out.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass”

Nurseries put plants on deep discount at this time of year, rather than carry them through the winter. So I bought a rather nice hosta (called “Stained Glass”) for half price. Its leaves are a translucent yellow with blue-green margins. It complements the other hostas (dark green with white margins and medium green with yellow margins; you can see them in the featured image above). I also got a late summer/early fall blooming gentian (Gentiana septemfida). If it settles in and blooms well, I’ll have glowing blue trumpet-shaped flowers at both ends of the season, since I already have spring-blooming Gentiana acaulis.

Gentians, Gentiana acaulis
Flowers like these, only in fall.

A few days ago, I weeded the pond. Yes, ponds need weeding at times. I’ve had an oxygenating water plant (Elodea canadensis) in the pond for years, but for some reason there was way too much of it at summer’s end. There’s also duckweed (Lemna minor), a small, lime green surface floater, which can be sort of pretty, but not if it’s wall-to-wall. So I hoicked out masses of both and added them to the compost pile.

I have two compost piles. By mid-October I have to make room for the leaves that are about to descend. Usually I stack the old pile of not quite finished stuff on top of the current one containing fresh material. By the following spring it’s all pretty much rotted down enough to be distributed among the planted areas. But this year’s old compost (mostly last fall’s leaves) looked so finished that I decided to spread it around immediately, at least in spots where that could be done without damaging plants still in good shape.

Compost area half empty with removed blue fescues
Compost area awaiting the annual deluge of leaves. Those blue fescues on the left are awaiting composting. I removed them from the main path, where there were too many of them.

The Boulevard Project progressed well this summer. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace looked great together and several clumps of California poppies bloomed and produced seeds, and therefore more plants. A couple of them are an unusual creamy pink colour; the rest are the usual bright orange. I happened to obtain seeds of two native plants — consumption plant (Lomatium nudicaule) and seaside rein orchid (Habenaria greenei) — and scattered them around before a week of rainy weather. If they take hold, I think I’ll dig out some of the chicory and QAL. My original idea was to emulate a country roadside, but I think it’s better to encourage plants that belong here, rather than hearty imports.

Chicory flower
Chicory flower

The other day, I pulled out the last of the soaker hoses, rolled it up, and stashed it in the shed. (Wrestling hoses can be an exceedingly trying process; don’t do it if you’re feeling crabby or are in a rush.) Were the soakers effective as watering devices? For perennials, I would say yes. But not so much for shrubs.

The Chinese Witch Hazel (to the right of the bench in the featured image at the top of the post) showed drought stress from early summer. Its leaf edges began to turn orange-brown as early as June and it once again has no plans to bloom. It really isn’t a suitable choice for this climate, unless planted in a naturally damp area or given deluxe irrigation. I haven’t been able to bring myself to remove (i.e. kill) and replace it, though.

A much better choice of shrub is Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), which I recently planted in one of the mixed beds. It’s a native plant of the region, a graceful, early summer blooming shrub that’s definitely at home here. It should outperform the witch hazel without any extra help once established (but unlike the witch hazel, it doesn’t bloom in January with an enchanting perfume — but then, neither does my witch hazel).

Speaking of failures, I’m declaring 2020 the Last Chance Year for Meconopsis (blue poppies) in this garden. The two plants I purchased in March bloomed well in May, but dwindled and died in August. I thought crown rot in winter was the main hazard, but it turns out that powdery mildew is another. It strikes in hot, dry weather, despite diligent watering. Although these prima donnas didn’t even last the summer, they did produce seeds before they turned up their toes.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Gone but not forgotten. Not yet.

That gives me a chance for one last shot. In January, I will deposit those seeds on damp, sterile, seed-starting mix and keep them at indoor temperature for a week or so. Then I’ll cover the pot and set it in a safe spot outside for exposure to frost and cold temperatures. Seeds should begin sprouting by March. I’ve had fairly good luck with this process in the past, even to the point of a dozen or so plants in bloom (a glorious sight!). After that, the trick is getting them through the following winter. Or even, it seems now, the following summer. One last try.

Sunflower and chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee going for sunflower seeds.

This year I finally got around to growing sunflowers. I had seven or eight plants. They were okay, I guess, but not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. In rich soil and full sun, with adequate water, a sunflower grows branches that develop buds, resulting in something like a tree. In soil that’s poor, sandy, and often dry, they stick to one skinny (although tall) stem with a single flower. (Guess which kind I had.) They did produce enough seeds to attract chickadees, who diligently pecked them out and ate them.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves
Hardy cyclamen flowers, a spring-like sight in fall.

Some plants are totally reliable without any extra effort at all, like these hardy cyclamen. They’ve increased well over the years and now form nice carpets of pink flowers that mingle with other plants and the falling leaves. Their own beautifully patterned leaves are starting to emerge and will last into next spring.

House with foundation planting of shrubs

Foundation Plantings: Big Mistake?

Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a house’s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment. I remember reading instructions for these plantings in “how to garden” books from the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow, I thought both foundation plantings and foundation garments* had become passé, but no. The internet is full of advice on design and plant selection for foundation plantings.

My advice? Don’t do it. You know why? Because those shrubs and perennials will be forever in the way of anyone doing any kind of maintenance to the house. Moreover, they will likely sustain damage in the process. One article I read actually recommended a variety of holly for a foundation planting. Can you imagine squeezing between house and holly bush with paintbrush in hand?

On three sides of our house (whose foundation isn’t visible because the stucco ends a couple of inches above ground level), there’s pavement close to the walls, except for 18 inch wide beds between the concrete walks at the back and one side. There are a few plants in those narrow spaces, but they’re short and manageable. These areas present few access problems.

Not so at the front. Soon after we moved in, I planted an artistically curved mixed bed there, 8 feet wide at each end and 4 feet in the middle. It’s occupied at one end by a couple of shrub roses and a large cotoneaster with a clematis growing through it. At the other end are a spirea and a flowering currant. Between and in front of these shrubs are perennials, mostly asters and irises, along with an acanthus, several peonies, and some self-seeded fillers.

In 2017, we had the roof reshingled. This summer, we had the house painted, including the wooden window frames and ornamental strips. Some stucco repair was also needed.

I suppose it’s not realistic to expect roofers, stucco dudes, painters and other tradespeople (tradesmen, in my experience) to be careful around plants. They’re being paid to apply shingles, stucco, or paint, and that’s what they do. Despite my efforts to tie plants back and indicate paths to the spots needing to be worked on, plants sustained some degree of damage.

The irises below two of the windows whose trim was painted bore the brunt — stomped on, broken, mashed and trampled. Okay, they were in late summer decline and didn’t look great, but still… Luckily, this is the right time of year to divide irises and move peonies, so I’m telling myself this disaster is an opportunity in disguise. When I replant, I’ll build in a buffer zone.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
What’s left of these irises are now refugees awaiting repatriation.

My advice for anyone designing new plantings would be to leave a generous buffer zone between the house and any substantial plantings. It should be at least 3 feet/1 metre wide and either paved or planted with lawn, tough groundcover, or expendable annuals. Keep larger shrubs (anything taller than 3 feet/1 metre) even farther away from the house, at least 8 feet. (And that means the farthest outward growth of the shrub or tree, not the main stem or trunk.) Whoever has to wash, repair, patch, or paint will be grateful. So will the plants.


*It seems foundation garments are now called “shapewear.” That’s quite a different thing from the power girdles and conical bras of past decades. (I’ll bet they’re still uncomfortable.)

Featured image from Pixabay