Garden

Lily-flowered magnolia "Susan" in April 2014

The Rites (and Wrongs) of Spring

Spring has settled in and I’ve done the usual things associated with the season: edging the perennial beds, distributing enriched compost, cutting the grass, seeding tomatoes (indoors), cutting down old dead stuff, and, of course, pruning. Pruning is always a challenge, often involving ladders, rose thorns, and holly prickles. Then there’s disposal of the trimmed off stuff — more thorns and prickles.

But now all that’s done, and the deadheading and watering phase hasn’t started. The garden is looking pretty good (except for certain spots to a discerning eye). Time to list the good and the less-than-good (i.e. bad) things I’ve noticed so far.

The Bad

  • poppy pagoda to protect blue poppies from winter rainAll except one of the blue poppies (Meconopsis) perished over the winter, despite (or maybe because of) being transplanted to deluxe quarters in half-barrels last autumn. Even the specially built roofs on legs, intended to protect them from winter rain, didn’t do the trick. I think my mistake was the pea gravel mulch, which kept the soil too moist through the winter. The sole survivor looks a bit feeble, but I’m letting myself hope it will survive. Local nurseries don’t as yet have any plants in stock, but I plan to give this fussy species another try.
  • The reliable-as-furniture ferns (Dryopteris species and others) haven’t unfurled their fiddleheads yet. Usually by mid-April they are well under way. They’re alive but dawdling. Why? The past winter wasn’t that harsh. Could it be because I cut down last year’s fronds too early, before the last hard frosts?
  • A potted delphinium has, like the blue poppies, succumbed to root or crown rot, probably because I didn’t repot it into fresh, uncompacted soil last year. Delphiniums need that near-mythical combination of “moist but well-drained” soil. If they’re grown in pots, the gardener needs to keep in mind that the soil becomes dense and less well-drained over two or three years. The next winter administers the kiss of death. Goodbye, delphinium.
  • A couple of tulips appear to have “tulip fire,” a disease caused by the fungus Botrytis tulipae. They will have to be dug up and disposed of. This problem is new to me. Those particular tulips have occupied their spots for years — which, I understand, is the problem. The longer they remain undisturbed, the more susceptible they are. If I decide to replace them, the new bulbs will have to be planted in different locations.

The Good

  • The winter massacre of crocuses (most likely by rats) wasn’t as bad as I thought. Some areas escaped completely.
  • A potted hosta I thought was a goner after it was dug and dumped by some creature (probably a raccoon) has sprouted out nicely.
  • The pretty blue* bindweed relative, Convolvulus sabatius, has survived the winter well, unlike other years when it didn’t show above ground until June. I also have hopes that Gaura lindheimeri made it. I still don’t know why this plant, supposedly hardy to Zone 5 or 6, has a habit of dying here in Zone 8. My soil is sandy and well-drained, which is supposedly what it needs.
  • Daylily “Hyperion,” which I dug up and divided in February because it seemed to be in decline due to pushy maple roots, appears to be doing well, both in its old spot (from which I removed a lot of roots) and the two new ones.
  • Clematis armandii foliage and flowers in holly bush

    Clematis armandii and holly

    I managed to prune both Clematis armandii and the holly that supports it without inflicting major unintended damage to the clematis. It tends to grow in loops and figure eights, so if pruning is needed (best done as its blooming period ends), you can’t just snip anywhere. My rule is never to make a cut unless I can see the end of the thing being cut. There’s nothing worse than seeing a whole section of the plant wilting a few days later because of a blind cut.

  • After a dry March, we’ve had an abundance of rain in April. The real test, of course, will be June, July, and August. At least one of these months will be rainless. If it’s two consecutive months, there will be groaning and gnashing of teeth by this gardener.
  • The pink magnolia is blooming heartily. So are forget-me-nots and bluebells. And gentians, which are intensely blue.*
  • The apple tree and lilac have obvious plans to bloom soon. In general, the garden looks fine.
Back garden spring 2018 birthday birdbath

Part of the back garden, featuring the birdbath that was this year’s birthday present. A few birds have actually used it for bathing purposes.

April 6, 2016

Gentiana acaulis

* Like many gardeners, I have a thing for blue flowering plants, many of which are hard to grow (blue poppies and delphiniums, for instance). One type of gentian (Gentiana acaulis) seems to do fairly well here, and forget-me-nots are practically a weed. For them I am grateful.

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White daffodil with pale yellow middle near pond

Plant Material

Now that spring is imminent, perennials are poking their noses above the ground, telling gardeners that they are alive and ready for another growing season. Gardeners hover anxiously over spots where particularly fussy or cold-intolerant specimens were last seen, hoping for a sign of life.

003I’ve been hovering over my blue poppies. Late last summer, I transplanted them to what I thought were deluxe accommodations in half-barrels. Excellent soil, no tree roots, and a pea gravel mulch intended to prevent crown rot. Custom made roofs on legs to keep away winter rain. No efforts were spared. The plants settled in nicely and made new growth before they went dormant for winter. So far this spring, things don’t look good. I’m beginning to think the pea gravel was a mistake; it probably kept the top layer of soil moist enough for the dreaded crown rot to do its thing. If all seven plants are dead, I’ll have to acquire new ones and try again.

The white and yellow daffodil in the featured image has bloomed faithfully each spring since the mid 1990s. At first there was only one flower; a few years later, there were two, and the past two or three springs, it’s produced three flowers. So what? Daffodils are planted out by the thousands in parks and even in some private gardens. But this one plant is easily identifiable, and so regular, that I have come to recognize it as an individual.

This picture — of a gardener fussing over a few plants, or even a single one — is completely removed from the way plants are sold and handled on a commercial scale. We’ve all seen hundreds of potted plants for sale, not at nurseries or even garden centres, but at grocery stores, hardware stores, and discount consumer outlets. No one fusses over these units produced by mass propagation. They’re given minimal attention by busy staff, wheeled in and out of display areas daily, get knocked over by windstorms, and finally start to look a bit stressed. Plants that don’t sell by the end of July are put on deep discount and finally trashed. At least they’re compostable.

Then there are instant gardens installed by landscape contractors driving trucks with graphically designed logos on the doors. In a week, the job is done. A multitude of perennials and shrubs has been plugged into the ground in pleasing patterns. The operation has more in common with laying carpets or interlocking bricks than with my kind of gardening. Freshly finished, such gardens look lovely and (on a bad day) make me think mine — the result of a quarter century of earnest digging, planting, watering, and anxious hovering — looks pathetic by comparison. Of course, if not maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing, those installed gardens go downhill pretty fast. I’ve seen it happen.

Those who do large scale garden work seem to have a utilitarian or even disrespectful attitude toward plants. Often, it starts with razing and removal of every growing thing on a city lot — and of the original house too — followed by digging a great big hole, maybe a bit of blasting. A huge house is erected and landscaping installed by a contractor. Another contractor provides an irrigation system, probably programmed and controlled with a smartphone app. A truck pulls up once a week, disgorging fast-moving people wielding power tools who buzz through the place, mowing, trimming, fluffing up the soil and adding mulch. As long as the bills are paid, the place looks fine. In such gardens, you don’t see any shabbily-dressed figures (i.e., resident gardeners) drifting around, peering at plants and scuffling inefficiently, making repeated trips to the shed for yet another tool, a couple more stakes, or a ball of twine.

I want to say that the instant garden isn’t really  a garden, and those yard maintenance folks aren’t gardeners. I suspect this idea may be tainted with irrational sentimentality, but I’m clinging to it anyway. To me a garden is a patch of earth sweated over by someone who knows almost every plant that grows from it, who rejoices when those first shoots appear in spring and mourns when they don’t.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is analogous to the difference between the backyard chicken flock where every hen has a name, and the industrial poultry system. The small, personal garden and the installed landscape are really two different (if related) things. Each has a place, but in me they evoke opposite reactions.

 

 

 

Miniature daffodil, variety unknown.

Garden Restart: Mixing, Mulching, and Moving

Transitioning from the somnolence of winter to the sometimes frantic activities of spring in the garden can be painful. For a few weeks, I kept finding reasons to stay inside, hunched over my electronic devices. Too cold, too windy; oh hey, now it’s raining! I’m staying in.

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.

Compost, steer manure, and alfalfa pellets under soy meal and lime, waiting to be mixed up.

Two weeks ago, I shook off the excuses, made a Things To Do In The Garden list, and got going. I visited my local feed, seed, and garden supplies store and bought a bunch of stuff. I cut down old plant stalks, removed some plants entirely, and moved others to better spots. Having been somewhat negligent about soil improvement the last few years, I scattered 6-8-6 fertilizer around. Then I wheeled out the wheelbarrow, grabbed a spade, and mixed up some feeding mulch.

Feeding mulch and trowel.

Feeding mulch ready to use.

Feeding mulch, otherwise known as “top dressing,” is something I discovered in Further Along the Garden Path, a book by Pacific Northwest gardener and writer Ann Lovejoy. You mix up a bunch of mostly organic plant nutrient materials and apply them to your beds and borders. The basic ones are alfalfa pellets, aged manure, and compost. Extras include dolomite lime, bone meal, kelp meal, and soy meal.

The compost I made last year turned out exceptionally well — nicely rotted down, black and crumbly. To half a wheelbarrow of this, I added half a bag of steer manure, an ice cream pail of alfalfa pellets, another of soy meal, and half a small coffee can of lime. This year I didn’t have bone or kelp meal, but I’m hoping it won’t matter.

Feeding mulch in wheelbarrow with spade and trowel.Mixing up the stuff is sort of like combining the dry ingredients for muffins, on a grand scale. I use a spade, turning the mixture into the centre, rearranging and turning again until it looks uniform. Then I deposit about 2 cm (1 inch) uniformly over the soil of each bed. The idea is to sprinkle it evenly, avoiding damage to plants. Sometimes I have to flap a hand gently through foliage to shake the stuff down. Five wheelbarrow loads pretty much did the trick. I’m self-congratulating that I managed to get this task done early this year, before most plants have made much growth. There’s nothing like damaging delicate new growth by dumping mulch on it. Oh, the irony.

Another must-do-it-now thing is pruning, largely because of “Compost Day,” which is the one day per year when the municipality picks up fallen and pruned branches, twigs and other garden debris. This year it’s March 20th on my street, so any ambitious pruning has to be done before then. I already have the usual huge brush pile, but will add to it once I psych myself up, don a suit of armour (actually an old yellow rain jacket), and cut out the deadwood from a massive old climbing rose that’s grown into a maple tree and neighbouring hollies. Yes, rose thorns and holly prickles. Oh joy.

I’ve already pruned the magnolia, the photinia and another climbing rose, a plant of “New Dawn” that graces a rather shaky pergola in the back garden. And I’ve lived to write about it, despite racing up and down ladders and wrestling thorny rose canes. Not to mention dealing with the terrible finality of pruning — once you cut something, you can’t put it back. My rule: if in doubt, cut less rather than more.

Toadflax (Linaria purpurea) foliage turning colour in fall.

Linaria purpurea plant last fall, now dispatched (by me).

Speaking of terrible finalities, I actually made myself yank out three magnificent specimens of toadflax, Linaria purpurea, one of my favourite near-weeds. They looked great all last summer and into fall, when the foliage turned an interesting pinkish shade. They were all set to do it again this year, but alas, they had planted themselves in a spot I’d never intended for them, where they threatened to hulk over a couple of groundcovers. So, out they came. I hate killing healthy plants, even if there are way too many of them; part of me still regrets the deed.

Surviving purple crocus, dead fern foliage.

Crocuses protected by dead fern foliage.

On the plus side, quite a few crocuses have survived this winter’s massacre, although some of the survivors have been nibbled by deer. At least deer nibbling doesn’t kill the plant outright. Having their corms dug up and eaten by some pesky rodent does. Crocuses growing under other plants have been overlooked by both diggers and deer.

OK, I’ve checked off a whole bunch of items on my TTD list, and I’ve re-engaged with the garden. The weather is improving (but let’s hope the rain doesn’t stop altogether; we need those April showers). These days, I’m finding reasons to stay outside rather than in.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers

Corsican hellebore and variegated periwinkle with swollen alfalfa pellets visible in the feeding mulch.

 

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.

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!