Garden

Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.

Advertisements

Sharing Winter Iris

A while ago, I received a request for permission to use one of my garden photos — the one of Iris unguicularis you see above. That was perfectly fine with me. I said “Go ahead,” and thought no more of it.

A few days ago, I received an email from the writer of the Regarding Gardening blog, with a link to an informative and interesting post about this winter-blooming iris species, also known as the Algerian iris. My photo of the plant is featured at the top of the post, which is also studded with links to other worthwhile resources. One I intend to look up is E.A. Bowles’s book My Garden in Autumn and Winter. It’s described as a masterpiece, but somehow it has eluded my notice, even though published more than a hundred years ago.

Aside from feeling chuffed that someone found one of my photos useful, I thought the post, and indeed the blog itself, is worth a visit.

Ironically, that very same iris plant is completely bloomless so far this winter, even though it looks perfectly healthy, with lots of new growth starting. I hope its fame hasn’t turned it into a prima donna.

snow, Christmas 2017, magnolia

White Christmas in Victoria, BC

Apparently the chance of a white Christmas here is 15%, but on Christmas morning, we awoke to a couple of inches (4 cm) of white. It was a nice, polite snowfall, starting late evening Christmas Eve, and mostly gone by Boxing Day.

front garden, snow, Christmas 2017

The view from my front door about 8 a.m. December 25th

front garden, snow, Christmas 2017

Looking the other way…

back garden, snow, Christmas 2017

And around the back.

Can’t complain, really.

Solstice and Christmas

Here is a poem from a few years ago. It’s not really jolly-holly, but I think the featured image above makes up for that.

 

The Gardener In Winter Night

Cold rain drips from branch and twig,

Winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

Sullen,

Slow

From edge of roof.

Yellow jasmine lights went dim at dusk,

The garden cloaked in absence and night.

The sky flattens,

The soil accepts.

Ailanthus

The eye sees black.

Pond water steeping leaves,

Tree shapes flat against grey sky.

The gardener in negative space,

Opposite of summer’s exaltation,

Contemplates…

Snowdrops soon to raise their elfin spears,

Violets wet and secret within dark green,

012

Crocus and tulip bulbed in earth,

Honeysuckle buds held tight by leaf to stem,

Blue poppies crowned in tattered leaves,

Rose canes studded with ruby nubbles,

Moss velvet green between reposing stones.

Remember snow,

And hope.

Consider sleet,

Believe.

Return to rest.

cosmos

Image from Pixabay

Into Winter

November departs and winter approaches…

Front garden late November

Goodbye, November!

Persicaria foliage with garlic chives seed heads

Brown foliage of Persicaria with starry seedheads of garlic chives.

Cotoneaster with berries December

Cotoneaster bush full of berries.

Yellow chrysanthemum and Cineraria foliage

Chrysanthemums and Cineraria foliage.

Euphorbia and fallen seed head of Allium christophii in front garden

Euphorbia and fallen seedhead of Allium christophii (plus all kinds of other foliage, fallen leaves, etc.)

Sunset December 9, 2017

Winter-ish sunset.

Christmas lights on house

Lights in the darkness.

maple leaves, orange leaves, yellow leaves

More Autumn Glories

I couldn’t resist posting a few more photos from the autumn garden…

autumn crocus, fall crocus

Autumn crocuses among fallen maple leaves and hellebore foliage.

 

smoke bush, cotinus, fall foliage, senecio foliage

Smoke bush and Senecio foliage.

 

Pennisetum alopecuroides "Little Bunny" ornamental grass in autumn

Pennisetum alopecuroides “Little Bunny” and old stalks of Digitalis lutea.

That’s it for now — we’ve had some cold winds and even a taste of snow (!). All those coloured leaves are on the ground, and the season is shifting toward winter.

 

tall purple aster fading

Final Flowers

The last blooms of the season…

Purple delphinium

Purple delphinium (although it looks blue in the photo). Grown from seed last spring.

 

autumn crocuses

Autumn crocus, lavender purple (true crocus, not Colchicum)

 

"Fragrant Cloud" rose fallen petals, fruit bowl, purple African violet

Last bloom from rose “Fragrant Cloud”

 

Moving forward…

cotoneaster leaves and berries

Cotoneaster berries.

 

pumpkin

Happy Halloween!

campion, fireweed and mixed fall foliage closeup

Fall Fever

I love fall. The season of active gardening is winding down, for better or worse. The triumphs and tragedies are in the past, to be fondly remembered or recovered from. It’s too soon to think about next spring. This is a time to savour.

Which is what I’ve been doing, camera in hand, taking snaps of anything that looks even fleetingly beautiful. Actually, most garden beauties are fleeting. A few seconds later, the light has changed. A day later, those leaves have faded or fallen. Now is the time.

We’re moving from early to mid-fall —  60 mm (more than 2 inches) of rain and lots of wind. The garden is changing even as I write this.

So here are the best of my recent photos, carefully “curated” (my first chance to use that word in a sentence):

bergenia

Bergenia foliage turning colour.

 

bergenia, purple asters, front garden, fall

Front garden: bergenias and asters.

 

IMG_2530

Nerines, bergenias, curry plant and senecio ‘Sunshine.’

 

santolina foliage and plumbago flowers

Santolina foliage and plumbago flowers and foliage.

 

pond water dark fallen leaves and duckweed

Reflections, fallen leaves and duckweed on the pond.

 

black mondo grass (ophiopogon) and other foliage

Black mondo grass, lamb’s ears and various leaves.

 

Chines witch hazel foliage

Chinese witch hazel turning colour.

 

pond area, fall

Pond area (the pond is behind the big fern).

 

Western Screech Owl on trellis

This Barred Owl paid a visit one afternoon.

 

maple leaves turning colour

One of the maples coming into fall colours.

 

 

asters, nerines, senecio 'Sunshine', fall

Poppy Pagodas And Autumn In The Garden

Now that the seven remaining blue poppy plants have been rescued from maple and magnolia roots and given deluxe accommodations in a couple of half-barrels, I thought they should also have protection from excessive winter rain.

In their native environments (Tibet and the Himalayas), rainfall distribution is exactly the reverse of Victoria’s — wet during the monsoon season (May through October) and pretty much dry from November through March. Here, the dormant poppy plants are bathed in rains during the winter months, which often results in crown rot and death, even in my sandy soil.

The solution? Poppy “pagodas” — charming little roofs on stilts that fit over the half-barrels.

IMG_2481

They’ll remain in place until next spring, making sure the soil around the precious poppy roots is damp, rather than sopping. If it seems to be drying out, I’ll dribble in a bit of water.IMG_2480

After all this fussing to accommodate them, I have great expectations of these plants. We all know where that can go, however, so I’ve reserved a bit of cynicism, just in case.

Otherwise, the garden is going through its usual autumn process. I wouldn’t call it “decline,” because I love fall, and because from certain angles, the garden looks better than it did a few weeks ago.

IMG_2471

Aster “Pink Cloud” living up to its name.

IMG_2485

Pink nerines finally blooming well.

I’ve hung the hummingbird feeder out again. Back in May it became obvious that the hummingbirds were more interested in flower nectar than the sugar water in the feeder (and why not?), so I removed it for the summer. Now they are visiting again, and this morning a crowd of bushtits showed up. They don’t have the right sort of beaks to use the feeder, but seem to get something from it, so good for them. Dark-eyed juncos are back in town after spending the summer elsewhere, and I’ve heard robins calling in the evenings, a particularly plaintive song that seems right for this time of year.

It’s the first full moon of autumn tonight — not to be missed!

super-full-moon-2016-1826416__340

Image from Pixabay

 

dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

IMG_2457

The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

June 2010 019

Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

005

Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

IMG_2463

Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

IMG_2464

Aster frikartii “Monch”

IMG_2467

“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.