Out in the garden after a nice spring rain, I found a mixture of small delights.
First, a group of tulips I have no memory of planting. I doubt if I would have picked this variety. The petals are white with pink edges. They look as though most of the colour has been bleached or faded away. Did they come from self-planted seeds? Tulips do produce seeds, but I don’t think I ever let mine do that. Or maybe stray bulblets? But in that case, where are the originals? Anyway, there they are, and quite picturesque too. I’m certainly not going to remove them. More about these tulips at the end of the post!
These bergenias grow really close to the trunks of those two big Norway maples I complain about all the time. For some reason, they’re blooming really well this year.
Epimediumx perralchicum “Frohnleiten” is one of the most dependable plants in the garden. I cut the old foliage down a few weeks ago, and now it’s in full bloom with fresh, bronze-tinted foliage emerging. The leaves will expand and grow green and leathery as the season progresses.
At risk of being boring, I’ll just mention that hellebore flowers are almost past their best, with seed structures expanding and colours morphing into the subfusc. (Actually, I added this bit about the hellebores just so I could use that word. While normally it’s applied to British academic dress, garden writer Ann Lovejoy uses it to describe plant colours. So I can do that too.)
Finally, another look at one of the surprise tulip flowers. Close up this time.
The really strange thing about these tulips is how they look just one day later.
Even after decades of gardening, plants can still surprise me.
Watering is necessary in this garden. Most of my perennial beds are near or right under big maples that suck up a lot of water. I’ve whined about them many times on the blog. In 2011, I wrote an entire post about watering (“Being Aquarius”). From June to September, I have to supply water, because I can’t count on any significant rain in those months. Predictions are for even drier, warmer summers.
My usual way to water has been with sprinklers — either an oscillating fan of water or a stationary circular spray. Each one is deployed for a two hour session in each area at least every two weeks. In especially hot periods, I increase the frequency to weekly. This routine has to take into account the local watering restrictions in force from May through September. I actually keep track of watering sessions in writing.
The water dispensed through my sprinklers is potable municipal water. It’s piped miles from a reservoir, treated, and metered. It’s quite expensive — and so it should be, since it’s intended for human consumption. Even worse, a significant amount of it is lost to evaporation, especially on windy days.
There has to be a better way.
If I had another option, such as watering with stored winter rainwater from a cistern or giant tank, I would use that, but installing such features on my patch of paradise isn’t practical (or legal, come to that). There’s also “grey water,” but utilizing that involves plumbing-type installations I’m not keen on. So my water source for much of the gardening season is the giant storage facility known as the Sooke Lake Reservoir.
Many gardeners here have installed some form of drip or spot irrigation, with a network of plastic water lines, flow regulators, emitters, and mini-sprinklers. Over the winter, I actually thought about setting up one of these, but the idea of assembling all those bits and pieces doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the prospect of puncturing, crushing, or cracking a water line while digging a hole for a new plant or digging up an existing one to move or divide it. Digging is sort of unavoidable in gardens, so it seems dumb to install a bunch of stuff that could be damaged thereby.
Enter the soaker hose. Again.
Soaker hoses are made to ooze water from tiny holes along their entire length. The water drips onto the soil and soaks into it, becoming available to the roots of the plants in the bed. Altogether, this seems to be my best option for responsible, efficient watering.
Confession time: I used soaker hoses years ago, but grew disenchanted with them and stashed them in the shed. Why did I abandon them and resort to sprinklers? Trust, or rather, lack of trust. Maybe because I didn’t see water spouting into the air, I didn’t believe the soakers were delivering enough of it to the plants. Soakers are subtle. They don’t produce fountains. They don’t leave the puddles or dripping foliage that follow a sprinkler watering. I could see that the soil near the soakers became visibly wet, but I couldn’t be sure the water was penetrating far enough or spreading widely enough to meet the needs of all the plants. So I started supplementing the soakers with water from cans or even sprinklers, which eventually made me wonder why I was bothering with the soakers at all. To the shed with them!
After doing a bit of research on soakers, I’m ready to try them again. Last week, I hauled them out, flushed them out, and laid out two of them in a couple of perennial beds. I also bought two new soakers, fairly expensive ones made of polyurethane, said to be superior in many ways to the old ones, which are made from used tires, and thus not recommended for use near plants intended to be eaten.
Ideally, I would have prepped the beds and laid out the soaker hoses back in February, before plants sprouted. Even light, manageable hoses can’t be squiggled among tender new shoots without inflicting some damage. (Not to mention the feet of the gardener tromping around.) But we got a blast of winter in February, including snow. Spring was postponed, along with the Soaker Hose Project.
March swept in with sun and warmth. While I was getting organized, making lists, and going shopping for soaker hoses and magic dust (organic fertilizer), plants leapt out of the ground. At least one iris was snapped off and some tulip shoots roughed up while I was wrestling the hoses into place. Advice says soakers should be no farther than 18 inches apart on sandy soil. Mine are about two feet apart. (Hey — perfection is elusive.)
Once the soakers were in position I connected each one to the supply hose and turned the tap a modest one-sixth turn. A satisfying dribble of water appeared along the length of each hose. Right now, supplementary water isn’t needed. The real test will come in late May or early June. At that point, I’ll turn on the tap for a couple of hours and observe what happens. With luck, the hoses will weep and the gardener will rejoice.
These plants aren’t your run-of-the-mill hellebores, like most of the ones I already have. They are hybrids specially developed by breeders looking for striking effects and unique colours.
First, Helleborus x ericsmithii “Pirouette”,a lovely soft pink with lime green nectaries and cream-coloured stamens that look like stars.
Next, Helleborus x hybridus “Winter Jewel Black Diamond”. This is about as close as you can get to a black flower. It’s really a dark purple-red with a greyish bloom on the petals that gives them that nearly black look.
Finally, Helleborus x hybridus “Winter Jewel Ruby Wine”. This one looks gorgeous with the flowers and leaves backlit by sunlight.
The featured image at the top of the post shows “Ruby Wine” with “Ivory Prince” in the background. “Ivory Prince” has lived in a big blue pot near my front door for years. Now it has “Ruby Wine” for company.
While I was taking pictures of the new plants, I noticed this youngish plant of the Corsican hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, self-seeded in just the right place.
Lastly, not a hellebore at all, but a photo of the Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, that grows against a weathered cedar fence at the back of the garden. Years ago, I saw a photo similar to this in a calendar and determined to reproduce the effect in my own garden. Unlike many horticultural intentions, this one has actually succeeded.
Our recent snowfall is almost a memory. We’ve gone from this…
It’s still unseasonably cool. The therapeutic effect of warm temperatures and sun hasn’t arrived, although the patient plants are trying to pick up where they left off in January. The garden has that battered and squashed look produced by two bouts of strong northeast winds, days of below freezing temperatures, and almost a foot of the white stuff.
Today I went looking for photo-worthy sights in the garden and didn’t manage to find much. The old stuff looks tired and beaten-up, and the new stuff hasn’t really started.
Now back to making lists of things to do: cut down old stalks, tidy up beds, prepare mulch, distribute mulch, seed tomatoes, foxgloves, and verbena, set out new plants, work on the soaker hose revival project, finish pruning… Rush to get it all done before summer arrives.
It’s hard to get excited about the garden in January, but February is really the start of spring here on southern Vancouver Island. Even in a mild winter such as this one, though, cold and snow aren’t out of the question until the end of March. I see a 30% chance of snow flurries predicted for us later this week.
For the past few weeks, I’ve done some pruning projects — apple tree, magnolia and hollies. The most challenging was the hollies, since it involved both ladder-climbing and prickles. Even the clumsy and ill-designed pole pruner was useful for holly branches near the tops of the 20-foot-tall bushes. Then came the painful process of gathering up the prunings and lugging them to the growing brush pile.
March 19th is “compost day” this year — the one day per year the municipality picks up twigs, branches, roots, and other garden by-products. Otherwise, we have to lug that stuff to the municipal yard ourselves. It’s always an adventure because the “yard” is a rather confined space at the top of a steep little hill. It can be a challenge to jockey around all the other vehicles and people who just want to dispose of stuff and get out as quickly as possible. In terms of disposal, right now is the best time for major pruning projects, although plants such as lilacs, Oregon grape, and ceanothus have to wait until blooming is finished in June or so. No doubt I’ll then post a complaint about the Oregon grapes (which are almost as bad as hollies to prune).
There really is a lot blooming now, even in the middle of winter: snowdrops (some are already finished, in fact), yellow crocuses, Algerian iris (a mass of startling lavender-coloured flowers near the front steps), the small purple Iris reticulata, rosemary, hellebores (Corsican and Oriental), winter jasmine, winter honeysuckle, Japanese quince, spurge laurel (its Latin name, Daphne laureola, is much more elegant), and dark purple sweet violets. Indoors, a scarlet amaryllis is at its dramatic best, especially gratifying as it’s a repeat performance.
I’ve seen some posts recently about counting birds. Here some folks do a Christmas bird count, for which there are guidelines and procedures. I’ve never managed to participate, but since I put up feeders in the back garden a few years ago, I now have a good idea of who visits them. The “regulars” in winter are dark-eyed juncos, house finches, chestnut-backed chickadees, bushtits, several different kinds of sparrows (white-crowned, golden-crowned, fox, and house), rufous-sided towhees, starlings, and northern flickers. Occasionally a red-breasted nuthatch shows up, and I’ve seen both a male and a female downy woodpecker. We haven’t had any Steller’s jays this winter; last year there were a lot of them around here, screeching and going after suet. Their beautiful blue colour makes up for their unmelodious voices.
Anna’s hummingbirds are year-round residents and several visit the hummingbird feeder many times a day. So do chickadees and bushtits at times, much to the dismay of the hummingbirds. American robins don’t care for either seed or suet, but they pretty much cleaned all the berries off the cotoneaster a few weeks ago (and then pooped orange pulp all over the car in the driveway).
I’ve heard Bewick’s wrens making their buzzing and bubbling sounds in shrubs, and occasionally I hear one or another practicing his spring song. The male hummingbirds are doing their parabolic dives that produce a sharp whistle through the tail feathers, and chasing each other around while making sizzling sounds. Crows sometimes knock chunks out of the suet (much to the delight of juncos and sparrows on the ground below). Gulls, bald eagles, and ravens cruise by far above. Altogether, there’s a lot of bird activity around here.
And I admit all the photos for this post are from former years. The plants and birds look the same, so why not reuse them? One of these days I should learn how to take decent photos of birds.
I’ve been a gardener for thirty-five years, during which I’ve learned a few things. These thoughts recur regularly as I work in the garden, so I decided to write them down, in case other gardeners may find them helpful.
When in doubt, clip the lawn edges. Nothing spruces up a garden (at least the lawn-plus-perennial-beds kind) faster than this. Even a “yard” with a lawn and a few sad shrubs can be made to look like a garden in the making by defining some edges and fluffing up bare soil. Spreading compost around is the finishing touch.
Before stepping into a bed or planting, decide exactly where to put your feet. Those size 8s can snap and squash innocent plants. Pick spots where they’ll do the least damage, both to plants and your body, especially if you need to hold a position while tying, digging, or pruning. Balancing on one foot while twisting yourself into a pretzel shape is not recommended.
In summer-dry places, delay watering as long as you can, to encourage plants to grow deep roots. Once you do start watering, make a schedule and water each area regularly, abiding by local watering restrictions. Keep a record of what area was watered and when.
Learn how to deadhead the plants in your garden and do it regularly. Deadheading extends bloom time and prevents excessive self-seeding. It also forces you to pay attention to the forms and structures of your plants.
Learn how to propagate plants from seed, cuttings, and divisions. These are cheap ways to increase desirable plants, and doing this stuff is a great way to really know plants, way more than buying nursery-grown specimens.
Learn how to prune. It’s not brain surgery (since plants don’t have brains, and you do). If in doubt, cut less. You can always cut more, but once you’ve cut something, you can’t stick it back on. When in doubt, stop, look, and think.
If a newly-acquired perennial or shrub shows suckering or vigorously spreading tendencies (I’m looking at you, Mahonia aquifolium!), decide right away if that’s okay with you. If not, either remove the plant and get rid of it, or make an effective management plan. Hoping the plant will change its ways isn’t an option.
Don’t try to change your garden into something it isn’t. You’re stuck with the fundamentals (climate, soil, topography), so you may as well live with them. If you’re determined to turn your sandy seaside garden into a mountain meadow, be prepared to labour endlessly. (Gardening involves enough labour as it is.)
Accept that the garden will change, no matter what you do, and not always as you intend. That 2010 picture at the beginning of the post is a good reminder of this truth. Some plants will die out and others will thrive. Not always the ones you want, of course.
Don’t believe all the advice you read, even this post books and articles by writers you esteem. Every garden is different, and gardening is a hands-on business. Learn by doing. On the other hand, reading about other gardeners’ thoughts and experiences can be a comfort and a joy.
Keep in mind that your garden is a place in which to engage in gardening (i.e., digging, planting, weeding, deadheading, edging, watering, and gazing in wonder). It’s not a status symbol, contest, or race. But your garden is also a home for various creatures — birds, squirrels, insects, etc. Think about that before making drastic changes, such as tree removal.
Cultivate the habit of noticing beauty, no matter what happens in your garden. Even in the bleakest, deadest, driest seasons, even after the windstorm, there’s something beautiful to be seen. You just have to find it and recognize it.
I admit I’m not a good photographer. I use a ten year old point-and-shoot camera, many of whose features I haven’t bothered to learn about. I take a bunch of pictures, look at them with the Windows photo viewer, keep the ones that look okay, and use some of the best ones in my posts. I almost never enhance my photos.
Here are some of the best from the past year.
Ornamental grass and species tulips
Asters “Pink Cloud” and “Monch” with rose campion and purple toadflax
I’ve just been looking over some of my old posts tagged “fall.” Many of the same scenes that struck me as photo-worthy just a few weeks ago also did a few years ago. It’s easy to forget, because every year some combinations of colour and light seem to be the best ever. So there’s no harm in revisiting them.
The featured image at the top of the post shows “plumbago” ( Ceratostigma plumbaginoides ) foliage turning red, with a few fading blue flowers, and silvery grey Santolina foliage.
I’m pretty tolerant of our urban deer. Even though I thought I had their preferred plants figured out, I was surprised to find most of the yellow chrysanthemums eaten. And even geranium (Pelargonium) flowers, despite their earthy smell.
When something in the garden catches my eye, I grab the camera and run out to capture it before it’s gone. Light effects, like this one, are especially fleeting.
Then I race around snapping whatever else looks good. Like this foliage combination.
And just so this isn’t all “same old,” a surprise visitor this fall was this single Amanita mushroom, lurking behind the bench near the pond, at the foot of the weeping birch.
Summer in the garden is now a fading memory, but gardeners may be planning for next year, considering new plants for their gardens. In this fortunate part of the world (Zone 8 or 9 to those familiar with the USDA climate zones), winter flowers are starting, with more anticipated. For gardeners lucky enough to live in similar climates, here is a short list of plants that bloom between November and March, most of them with delightful perfumes.
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is in its first flush of bloom in my garden. I love the way it hangs down the trellis, displaying its bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. The buds are yellow with red tints, and should keep opening at least until February, unless we get brutal weather. Sadly, despite its name, which suggests fragrance, winter jasmine has no scent at all. But Anna’s hummingbirds, who are year-round residents here, visit the flowers regularly. The plant is easy to grow and to propagate, as stems that touch the ground form roots at the point of contact. In fact, I have to keep an eye on it to prevent unwanted rooting.
The common sweet violet (Viola odorata) is one of those near-weeds that moves in and makes itself at home. I’ve had to thin it out in a few spots to keep it from overrunning other plants. But on relatively warm winter days, its perfume wafts around and reminds me why I’m happy to have this plant in the garden. It pretty much takes care of itself. Deer nibble it sometimes, but it’s tough and regrows. It’s even moved into the lawn, which is fine with me.
Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis and hybrids) is described thus in one gardening manual: “… one of the most uniquely beautiful of winter-flowering shrubs when its vigorous upright branches are set with its spidery, bright yellow, richly fragrant flowers.” I couldn’t resist that, so resolved to plant one of these marvelous shrubs in my garden. The book says witch hazels “…thrive in deep, well-drained soil, preferably sandy loam enriched with plenty of leafmold or compost. They prefer light woodland conditions, but do well in full sun, especially if given ample moisture during the growing season.”*
My witch hazel is situated in conditions similar to those, so it should thrive, meaning bloom, but mine hardly ever does — only once or twice in 25 years. I suspect the problem is insufficient moisture in summer. Our increasingly warm, dry summers don’t bode well for future success, and in fact my plant looked less than happy at the end of last summer. But its shape is elegant even without blooms, and it sometimes has good fall colour. I know of several plants in the vicinity that bloom regularly, exuding their wonderful fragrance on January days, so I live in hope.
Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) really is a weed shrub, an undesirable alien that has invaded woodlands in this region. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who gardens near woods that are as yet without it (sort of like ivy, which has overrun most natural parks around here). However, it was already present in this garden when I arrived, so I’ve kept a few plants. Needless to say, it grows well in dry, rooty soil, and its leathery black-green foliage looks good in dark corners at the edge of the garden where not much else will grow. The black berries don’t seem to appeal to birds, so the seeds tend to sprout close to the parent plant, which makes the seedlings easy to find and pull up. Its best feature, as far as I’m concerned, is the haunting perfume of the little green flowers. I catch whiffs of it on February nights, when I’m checking the max/min thermometer on the back porch. The scent induces a nameless nostalgia, to the point that I worked a mention of it into one of my novels.
Sweet box (Sarcococca species) is a shrub I don’t have here as yet, but having read that it “tolerates dry shade,” I’m thinking about where I might plant one. It’s strongly perfumed, as I know from encounters with it on walks in my neighbourhood. It’s a broad-leaved evergreen, 3-4 feet (1 metre) tall, with flowers that look like those of witch hazel, except they’re white. One of the species (S. hookeriana) is said to “spread easily by underground stems,” which raises a red flag for me. I already have too many shrubs with that tendency. So perhaps S. confusa or S. ruscifolia are the ones to look for.
Winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is a shrubby plant (unlike the climbing honeysuckles). It can get quite tall (15 feet or 5 metres) and almost as wide, but can be pruned as hard as needed to keep it within bounds. It’s a semi-evergreen, which means it sheds weirdly yellow-grey leaves practically year round. Some of the previous year’s branches wither in summer and look seriously ugly, screaming to be pruned. On the plus side, it blooms in late winter and early spring. The flowers are white and sort of semi-transparent, so they don’t look like much, but they produce an intensely sweet lemon scent, especially on still, damp evenings. For that I’m willing to forgive its ugly duckling qualities.
*Quotations from Trees and Shrubs for Coastal British Columbia Gardens by John A. Grant and Carol L. Grant. 2nd edition, 1990.