Garden

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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Friends or Enemies? No, Just Plants.

“Peach-Leaf Bellflower, Garden Enemy #2” is one of my most-viewed posts. It was written in a fit of pique after I stabbed a hyacinth bulb while engaged in a heavy session of digging up peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) that had spread by runnng roots. I have since relented in my harsh judgement of that plant.

Partly it’s because I’ve decided there are plants even more apt to spread and harder to control. To wit: Oregon grape, snowberry, periwinkle (both Vinca major and V. minor), achillea, bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), and certain daylilies. I’ve fought more desperate battles with these than I ever waged against the bellflower (which is rather attractive just now, in its first flush of bloom).

It’s dumb of gardeners to blame plants for being themselves, bestowing upon them unkind epithets such as “thug” or “garden enemy.” (Not that the plants give a damn). I’m the one who decided to plant peach-leaved bellflower, Oregon grape, and snowberry in my garden, thinking them good choices because they are drought-tolerant, or native species, or both. Thing is, they succeed in our local conditions precisely because of their deep-rooting, runner-producing tendencies.

A recent reading of Noel Kingsbury’s excellent book, Garden Flora, gave me a new perspective on this — grouping or classifying plants by ecological habit, as well as by habitat or anatomy.

In looking at the longevity and persistence of plants, some are called “clonal” and others “non-clonal.” The first group includes those that spread by rhizomes, roots or stolons, and others that stay in one place but increase in size. Non-clonal plants are generally short-lived, but produce lots of seeds to ensure persistence. Both types are represented in my garden. The spreaders and seeders are the ones that give me grief, and on the whole, the seeders are easier to deal with. Deadheading is a lot easier than digging up Mahonia roots, let me tell you.

Kingsbury says the non-clonal plants tend to be pioneers, moving into an area and flourishing briefly, only to be supplanted by clonal competitors, whose roots, whether running or expanding in place, allow them to dominate their environment.

Learning about the science of things is a good antidote to the human tendency to personify. Plants don’t run or produce zillions of seeds just to bug gardeners, but as a survival technique. If gardeners were aware of these habits before they introduced plants to their precious patches of earth, much physical exertion and gnashing of teeth could be avoided, or at least minimized.

It would be helpful if writers of advice for gardeners included this aspect of plant performance in their writings. I’m sure if I had read something like “this is a tough, drought-resisting native plant, but gardeners should be aware that it spreads vigorously in conditions that meet its needs,” I would have avoided some plants, and situated others more carefully.

Beguiled by fervid descriptions of a plant’s flower colour, reliability, or the fact that it’s a native adapted to local conditions, I have rushed out, bought one or more, and installed them in my small patch of land. They took hold and flourished. Fast-forward a few years to see me whine and swear at colonizing shoots metres away from the original plant, often in the middle of some pampered darling that’s trying to make up its mind as to whether life is worth living. By this time, of course, the original plant has grown large enough that removing it would be a major project of the back-breaking variety.

The gardener mutters and swears. The clonal plant clones. The planet rotates. The gardener digs, chops, mutters, and swears.

Innocents, take note!

June 11, 2016

The Hori-hori Knife — essential weapon for battling suckers.

Foxglove Falsehood

I know I read somewhere that the flower colour of a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) plant can be predicted by the colour of the leaf stems (petioles). Foxgloves are biennials; they flower in their second year of life, and then they die. Their normal flower colour is a reddish purple. It’s fairly attractive, but not nearly as elegant as the white form. Fussy gardeners who prefer the white form would therefore want to know which of a batch of seedlings would be likely to produce white flowers the following year.

If the leaf stem shows purple, I understood, the flowers will be purple. Plants with pale green leaf stems are more likely to produce white flowers. Going by this, I picked out a number of seedlings several years ago and planted them around the place. A few of them did turn out to have white flowers, but not all. Some produced blooms of a pale, washed-out pink with nothing to recommend it, and some were just the ordinary purple shade.

After this experience, I didn’t bother with systematic seedling selection. I simply let a few plants produce seed, and left a few of the resulting seedlings where they came up, in spots where a foxglove would be an asset to the scene.

Right now, I have two foxgloves with white flowers. The biggest and most impressive one has dark purple leaf stems. So does the smaller one.

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Clearly, the idea that leaf stem colour predicts flower colour is dead wrong.

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Just for fun, I checked the leaf stems of a rather impressive purple foxglove also in bloom now.

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Its leaf stems have only a slight tinge of purple. If I had looked at them before the plant bloomed, I would very likely have predicted pale or maybe even white flowers.

So much for that notion. Consulting that fount of info, Wikipedia, I find this in the article on Digitalis purpurea:

The colours of the petals of the Digitalis purpurea are known to be determined by at least three genes that interact with each other.[6]

The M gene determined the production of a purple pigment, a type of antocianin. The m gene does not produce this pigment. The D gene is an enhances of the M gene, and leads it to produce a big amount of the pigment. The d gene does not enhance the M gene, and only a small amount of pigment is produced. Lastly, the W gene makes the pigment be deposited only in some spots, while the w gene allows the pigment to be spread all over the flower.

This combination leads to four phenotypes:

  • M/_; W/_; _/_ = a white flower with purple spots;
  • m/m; _/_; _/_ = an albino flower with yellow spots;
  • M/_; w/w; d/d = a light purple flower;
  • M/_; w/w; D/_ = a dark purple flower.

If I could understand the above and make practical use of it, I might be able to predict flower colour in foxglove seedlings. I’d probably get more white flowered plants from my self-sown foxgloves if I pulled up any purple types before they reached full bloom, so as to keep their pollen out of circulation. But I am constitutionally incapable of pulling up (i.e., killing) any plant that is vigorously growing and about to bloom. I even have trouble dispatching certain weeds. So I’m not likely to go around “roguing out” any purple flowered plants if they look good.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the blooms I have, and let the white one (which, according to the above, is the white with purple spots phenotype) produce seed. Foxgloves seed like crazy. I’ll harvest a small quantity of seed and sprinkle it around the garden, and in 2019 I’ll see the results.

Update: another, rather small, foxglove plant has since bloomed with white flowers. These are pure white, and without spots of any kind. And the leaf stems are very pale green, without a trace of purple. So now I’m wondering if the leaf stem colour is somehow linked to the colour of the spots within the flower. Observing stuff like this makes gardening — even with common plants — interesting.

Amaryllis

I’ve had a couple of amaryllis bulbs languishing in pots in a south-facing basement window for years. A purchased bulb bloomed and then split into smaller bulbs, which I dutifully potted up. Most of the time they do nothing but grow leaves now and then, but several weeks ago, to my surprise, I noticed one of them was developing a bud. Great excitement! I brought the plant out of exile to a prime spot on the table in an east-facing bay window.

Two big red flowers opened in due course, and lasted for a full two weeks.

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I’m pretty sure this isn’t the usual time for these plants to bloom. I associate them with late winter, but maybe that’s because they are sold around Christmas time, and are often given as gifts. I recall occasions when mine (probably different manifestations of this same plant) bloomed in September. I reasoned that they may somehow have known it was spring in the southern hemisphere, since their place of origin is South Africa.

Out of season or not, I enjoyed the company of these gaudy and impressive flowers. Now that they have withered, the plant’s new leaves look rather elegant, so I’ll delay its return to the basement.

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The trick now is to manage the plant so it will repeat the performance some day. I won’t even try to guess when that might be.

A Noteworthy New Garden Book

 

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury.

Next to gardening, reading about gardening is a unique pleasure. But finding truly readable garden books is not always easy. Reference-type books, with how-to-do-it instructions, or descriptions of plants and their preferred growing conditions, may be useful, but are not entertaining to read. These are books I consult standing up, with garden gloves stuffed in my pocket and a project of some sort half-done outside.

Readable garden books are to be savoured in winter, or when it’s too dark to do real gardening. They are written by dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners who are also good writers. Like the best fiction books, they become reliable friends.

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury lives up to its subtitle: “the natural and cultural history of the plants in your garden.” It presents a lot of information in its 368 pages. It is arranged by genus, in alphabetical order, but each section is an essay, covering genetics, evolution, distribution, botanical characteristics, and history in cultivation. This last includes discovery, medicinal and religious uses, breeding, cultivars and fashions. Kingsbury’s informal writing style delivers facts in a congenial, readable manner. It was a revelation to me that the genus name Alchemilla derives from Arabic for “alchemy,” because of the way water droplets cupped in the leaves shine like mercury. Apparently, medieval alchemists believed this water to be especially pure and gathered it for their procedures.

The book’s extensive introduction includes valuable information about plant classification, evolution, ecology, habits and habitats, as well as a history of plant cultivation from ancient and early historical times (dubbed “before glass”) to the modern era (“after glass”). Another surprise for me was how many varieties created by plant breeders have vanished from cultivation over the years, after falling out of fashion, or because growing them became too troublesome or costly. Perhaps we are in a sort of “post glass” era?

Illustrations are drawn largely from botanical art and historical nursery catalogues, which are interesting and/or charming, but the pictures I appreciated most are those of plants in their natural habitats — hostas and daylilies growing wild in Japan, delphiniums in Kyrgyzstan, colchicums in Turkey, lupins in Washington State.

This is a fairly large volume, almost a coffee-table book, and quite heavy. It doesn’t pass the bath-bed-bus-beach test, but the depth and richness of its contents make it a book I will be content to sit down at a table and read, now and for years to come.

Roofing

The title of the post just before this one is “Rooting,” so it’s a piece of luck that this one is appropriately titled “Roofing.” Sometimes things work out perfectly.

After twenty years, the shingles on our roof looked a bit eroded, so we arranged to have them removed and replaced. The job took about a week, and the company we hired did a fine job. So did the fellow who came afterward to install new eavestroughs and downspouts. No complaints there.

But…

A few things for gardeners to think about before workers arrive:

  1. Not everyone cares about plants the way you do. That includes spouses.
  2. In order to get the job done promptly, heavy equipment and men in size 12 steel-toed boots may be stomping on your green babies that have just pushed their tender shoots above the ground.
  3. Plants growing close to a work zone will be perceived as obstacles.

After the house was roofed and downspouted, the professionals departed, and work began on re-shingling the garage. My husband was keen on doing that job himself. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but was dragooned to assist nevertheless. So I’ve spent a good portion of the past week lugging shingles up ladders and moving said ladders from one spot to another, and then back again. A certain amount of shouting and muttering has occurred, especially following the radical pruning of a winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera X purpusii or possibly Lonicera fragrantissima) that was declared an obstacle. The plant has shown a fair bit of vigor after previous butcherings prunings, as well as last winter’s icy winds, so I hope it will recover.

January 27, 2014

Winter Honeysuckle

In the meantime, the garden carried on with spring.

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Tulipa batalinii and forget-me-nots

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Unidentified double tulip

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Primula and Chinese egg jar

Indoors, I continue to beat out the first draft of my work-in-progress, a novel to follow the Herbert West Series. Every month since January, I have committed to my critique group to send out another 6,000 words. That self-imposed deadline has worked so far; by mid-May I expect to hit — or at least get within hailing distance of — the 30,000 word mark. I’m finding this a tough job, tougher than writing my other novels, but so far I’ve managed to keep at it. Sort of like getting the roof done, shingle by shingle.

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The manuscript

 

Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

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This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.

Wordless

The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.

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A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Potential Plants

Reasons gardeners grow plants from seed:

  • They need a lot of plants at once
  • They can’t afford to buy plants
  • They’re purists
  • They’re snobs
  • They can’t help collecting seeds and finally decide to do something with them
  • All or some of the above.

After 35 years of gardening, I have a lot of seeds — packets bought for ambitious projects years ago, tail-ends of vegetable and herb seeds from before my veggie patch became the ex-veggie patch, and assorted envelopes containing seeds gathered from my garden or from road- and trail-sides. Most of them are neatly filed away in a three boxes, one labelled “Perennials,” another “Annuals and Herbs,” and the third “Vegetables.”

It’s funny — there are plants I take pains to prevent from seeding (Lychnis coronaria), and others I cajole and pray over, hoping they will produce even a few seeds (Meconopsis, of course, but not M. cambrica — that one is in the deadhead a.s.a.p. category). Then there are those with rare or atypical colours — pink, cream-coloured, and tawny California poppies, for example. I can’t resist saving their seeds. Maybe this colour won’t ever appear again, I think; better get ’em while they’re here. So I end up with half a dozen envelopes — California poppies, 2010, 2011, 2013, etc.

Eventually, the obvious becomes inescapable — there’s no point in collecting seeds for their own sake. Each seed is a potential plant, but that potential will not be realized inside the seed packet. Soil, water, warmth, time, and luck are necessary before that tomato, delphinium, or poppy grows and blooms in the garden.

Unlike wine in the cellar, seeds do not improve with age. There’s no point in hoarding them. Yes, there’s that story about 3,000-year-old viable seeds from Egyptian tombs, but they’re the exception. Most seeds retain viability for only a few years — perhaps five years at most. Tomatoes appear to be an exception; I successfully grew plants from seeds almost 20 years old. Seeds of the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis), on the other hand, must be sown the winter following harvest. A year later is too late.

I’ve grown hundreds, if not thousands of plants from seed. Back when I had a lot of bare earth to cover, I set up a plant factory in my basement — fluorescent lights, a heating cable, lots of suitable containers, and bags of sterile seed-starting soil mix. I made “paper pots” using a clever wooden device called a Potmaker to roll and fold newspaper into pot-like shapes two inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Packed together in a wooden or plastic flat, these “pots” lasted long enough to nurture annual seedlings until they were ready for life in the garden, at which point pot and all could be planted. Much cheaper than peat pots, and a “green” option as well.

Growing some plants from seed is dead easy; others are long-term projects often doomed to failure. Some seeds need exposure to freezing temperatures to induce germination. Others (Romneya coulteri, the California tree poppy, for example) germinate best after fires — not easy to do at home. Then there’s double dormancy, which may require two years before a sprout is seen. Many gardeners give up before that happens, or simply forget what’s supposed to happen in that pot and repurpose it. Working with challenging seeds requires dedication, labels, record-keeping, and space, as well as a good supply of patience.

The emergence of sprouts is always a thrill, no matter how long it takes, and especially if it takes a long time. A few years ago, I managed to sprout four seeds of Lilium columbianum, a native yellow lily. As I recall it, the sprouts emerged the second spring after planting. They went dormant for the summer, at which point I thought they had died, but last spring two tiny plants appeared. (I guess the other two decided to stay permanently dormant). One of the two survivors was cut down by slugs (probably a single slug, actually, because the plant was less than an inch tall). The other persisted for a couple more months, then vanished. Dead or dormant? Imagine what a thrill it was to see a lily-like sprout emerge last week, and a second one today! If I manage to foil the slugs, it’s possible I’ll actually have two plants taller than one inch by summertime, and who knows — maybe in a couple of years I’ll see at least one of them bloom. And if it produces seeds, I can do the whole process again — if I’m up to the effort.

As for all the old seeds I have stashed away in envelopes, pill bottles and other containers, the best thing would be to sort through them and get rid of any that are more than five years old. They don’t have a future, except as sad mementos of plants that have vanished, or that never progressed beyond the seed stage.

As a last-ditch effort in some cases, I could do germination tests — spread a sample of seeds between layers of dampened paper towels and see if anything happens. Unlike other unwanted items, disposal of old seeds is easy — mix them up and cast them to the winds. If any of them manage to sprout, I’ll consider it a gift from the garden gods.

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Tomato seedlings

A Slow Spring

Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.

And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.

Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of  leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.

This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.

Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.

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These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.

I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).

In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.

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Euphorbia myrsinites

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Iris unguicularis

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Arum italicum

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