Garden

An Inspiring Post from a Compulsive Gardener

Here is a wonderful post that speaks eloquently of taking the long view as a gardener. It expresses interesting thoughts on moles and oak trees, and includes some beautiful images as well.

We are all custodians of our little patches of earth.

At the end of the day, whether we own them, rent them, or just work on them, we will not be here forever. I hear people talk about gardening legacies, and it strikes me how short a legacy can be: vast structures disappearing in a matter of decades, to be rediscovered like treasure troves just a scant generation or two later, or the sprawling cities of the ancients, just a few feet beneath tangled jungle.

Read more at Notes From a Compulsive Gardener

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The Boulevard Project in August, featuring chicory

Boulevard Project Update: Success!

Three years ago, I decided to do something different with a scruffy patch of weedy grass on the municipal boulevard next to my driveway. The actual grass was losing the battle with weeds I didn’t like — dandelion (Taraxacum) and hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata ). It occurred to me to introduce a better class of weed and make the spot look better than bad. So began the Boulevard Project.

Chicory and Queen Anne's Lace on boulevardMy plant choices were inspired by the plantscape along my cycling route to work, a bike path parallel to one of the main highways into Victoria — chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, beach pea, and St. John’s wort. These plants in bloom made the roadside quite ornamental in July and August, with no watering at all. So far, I’ve established only two of them on my boulevard — chicory and Queen Anne’s lace. Beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) now grows in a couple of other spots in my garden (not sure how that happened). I’ve harvested seeds from those plants, and will make a better effort with it on the boulevard next spring. I didn’t manage to collect viable seed of either the clover or St. John’s wort. However, white clover has established itself quite nicely. I have to admit the flowers of hairy cat’s ear on a neighbouring part of the boulevard provide the same shade of yellow as St. John’s wort. (I’m pleased to say my dandelion tool and I have succeeded in keeping hairy cat’s ear out of my patch. Impressive when you consider the mass of airborne seeds those nearby plants produce.).

Chicory flowerChicory (Cichorium intybus) is definitely the star of the show. It’s amazing to find such beautiful blue flowers on a plant that’s an utter weed. I’ve noticed some chicory plants have dark red stems, while others are green. They seem to vary in height too, and harmonize nicely with Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). My original intention was to cut the chicories down to six inches or lower, and force them to flower near the ground. So far I haven’t had the heart to apply this brutal treatment, but now that the plants are established, I think I’ll do that next year, at least to those growing close to the public sidewalk.

Chicory flower and green bee

Chicory flower visited by a small green bee.  Apparently these are called “sweat bees.” not a very flattering name. Why not “emerald bees?”

Establishing the chicory was a little tricky, because the nonflowering stage of this plant, called a “rosette” in botany — looks a lot like common dandelion and hairy cat’s ear. I had to pay close attention when extracting dandelion and hairy cat’s ear not to extract the young chicory plants by mistake.

Both plants will need to be cut down before they seed wildly and form thickets. I want to retain the idea of grass supplemented with flowering weeds, not a solid weed patch. Let’s not forget that this adjoins a suburban sidewalk, not a rural lane. Every now and then I go out and do some snipping to show that yes, this is a cultivated spot, not a neglected one. I’ve even had one or two compliments from passers-by.

Chicory and fennel on boulevard

A plant of bronze fennel has established itself at the edge of the driveway.  I’ve been tossing California poppy seed pods onto the boulevard, and one tiny plant actually bloomed this summer. I’ve seen a creeping form of broom (Genista species) growing in all sorts of exposed spots, such as highway medians. Perhaps I’ll manage to work that in as well. And I must not forget the aster mentioned in the original post.

The project continues!

 

 

 

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium, achillea, blue fescue on Pond Bench. Dead flowers.

End-of-Summer Wreath

This is what I did with some of the dead plant parts featured in a recent post, adding a few fresh items and attaching everything to a base of old Clematis armandii vines I made years ago and have used many times.

Wreath made from dead flower stalks

 

Daylily "Kwanso" showing lots of wilted leaves

End of season foliage of daylily “Kwanso”

I’ve discovered that wilted daylily leaves (from the variety called “Kwanso”) are perfect as ties, sort of like raffia. Not as robust, but surprisingly tough in the short term. I’ll have to experiment, braiding them together to make “rope.” It will be interesting to see how well it holds up when completely dried out.

 

Wilted daylily leaves useful as ties

Wilted daylily leaves can be used as ties for wreath-making and other rough-and-ready garden crafts.

 

Cerinthe Pride of Gibraltar

The Magical Colours of Cerinthe

A few years ago, while riding my bicycle, I saw a plant with an exciting combination of blue, green, and purple. Those are my three favourite colours. Blue and purple especially — the colours of magic!

Some investigation revealed the name, or rather names, of this plant. In scientific Latin, it’s Cerinthe major, variety atropurpurea. Common names include honeywort and “blue shrimp,” which certainly describes it when in bloom. But I prefer “Pride of Gibraltar,” which has a certain grandeur and mystery, quite in keeping with this plant’s magical qualities.

Cerinthe Pride of GibraltarWhy magical, you ask? Because of the colour changes it undergoes. I grew a number of plants from seed this summer, in pots. That allowed me to keep a close eye on them and observe their development. Last summer, I grew them in the chaotic mess of the “Ex-Veg Patch,” where they soon disappeared among the jumble of herbs and arugula. I managed to harvest seven seeds and resolved to make good use of them.

When young, the simple, entire leaves of cerinthe are a pale green with faint white blotches. I worried about those blotches, but I think they’re normal. Once the plants branch out and prepare to bloom, the foliage colour deepens to a unique blue-tinged green. Flower buds form, and the ends of the stalks droop as the flowers open.

The flowers themselves aren’t all that spectacular. They’re narrow purple tubes less than an inch long, peeking out from the small terminal leaves. The magical thing is the colour of those leaves. They’re dark blue, sometimes with purple and bronze flushes. The combination of blue-green, pure blue, purple-blue, and purple is a delight to the eye. And chances are a bumblebee will show up. As it burrows into a flower, the bumblebee’s buzz grows more intense, probably because of the tubular shape.

Cerinthe Pride of Gibraltar close-up, blue leaves

Cerinthe Pride of Gibraltar close-upPride of Gibraltar cerinthe is an easy-to-grow annual. The seeds are about the size of peas, so are easy to handle. I can imagine all kinds of clever colour combinations in beds, borders and containers. Definitely allow seeds to form and ripen so you can experience the magic again next year.

More information on the genus Cerinthe here; on “Pride of Gibraltar” and obtaining seeds here.

We’re experiencing that weird, smoke-induced orange light here again. Some say it’s going to be the “new normal” for our summers. Air quality the past few days has been too poor for garden activities more strenuous than admiring the flowers of summer’s end, such as cerinthe “Pride of Gibraltar.”

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.

 

My Tough Plants #3: Olympic Mullein

The first two plants in this series could be described as medium-sized. They don’t look like much from a distance. The Olympic Mullein is different. It’s big and striking. It’s architectural. I’ve seen mulleins more than 10 feet tall. Even so, it’s relatively skinny for its height, making it a perfect “statement” plant in a bed of shorter subjects, a visual exclamation point.

May 17, 2014

Mullein rosette from above

Most mulleins, including the Olympic one, are biennials. They spend their first year as a “rosette” of large fuzzy leaves radiating from a centre point at ground level. This rosette can take up a fair bit of space — up to 3 feet in diameter. The big leaves can overwhelm any small, delicate plants nearby, so keep that in mind when siting mulleins.

 

 

May 31, 2014

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the second spring, drama begins. A single bloom stalk emerges from the middle of the rosette and rises skyward. You can see it lengthen from one day to the next, shooting out lush leaves topped by a vaguely phallic structure consisting of the immature flower stalks. By the time this unfolds into a glorious mass of yellow, the plant attains its full height, anywhere from six to ten feet. Bees love the flowers. A plant in full bloom on a hot July day buzzes with their activity.

I must have grown my first Olympic mulleins here from seed, back in the early 1990s. Since then, I haven’t needed to buy more seed or new plants. At some point, I acquired a plant of white mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’). It’s smaller and daintier (if you can call any mullein dainty). It has a single spike of flowers, rather than the broom-like structure of the Olympic mullein. The flowers, of course, are white and the stamens are purple, unlike the Olympic mullein, whose flowers are entirely yellow. After a couple of years I began noticing smaller plants with single bloom spikes and yellow flowers with purple stamens. The two types must have gotten together and hybridized. Plants do stuff like that. Unlike their Olympic cousins, the white mullein and the yellow + purple hybrids are perennials.

White mullein, Verbascum chaixii "Album" with bee

White Mullein with Bee

Another noteworthy mullein I’ve seen in other gardens is Verbascum bombyciferum, silver mullein. It’s not quite as big as Olympic mullein, and its leaves are heavily felted with white fuzz, a distinctly attractive feature. I’ve never managed to find a spot for it here, but I mention it because it was a favourite of that estimable gardener and garden writer, the late Henry Mitchell. He claimed the Latin name meant “carrying a bomb,” something I’ve never felt the need to verify.

Mulleins are trouble-free plants, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, utterly reliable, at least in my garden with its sandy soil and dry summers. Even the maple roots and shade don’t faze them, although they do best in the sunniest spots in the garden. They don’t need staking.

Olympic mullein, Verbascum olympicum, second bloom

Dependable mullein with second flush of bloom

Like many other tough plants, mulleins are prolific seed producers. Before I figured out a management method, a lot of seeds were deposited in my garden. That seed bank, probably supplemented to some extent by the odd stalk that escapes deadheading, has kept me in mulleins for a quarter century. They seem to form new buds even as the first lot of flowers fades, so I’m often surprised to see fresh flowers on a plant I thought was finished blooming. I suspect this is a way to fool the gardener into delaying deadheading and giving the plant time to ripen seeds from the earliest blooms. Anyway, once they truly are finished blooming, all you have to do is decapitate them. Cut the main stem just below the cluster of bloom stalks. Snip — done. It’s probably best to dispose of the spent stalks somewhere other than the compost pile, unless you don’t mind mullein seedlings popping up from the compost. Young plants are easily transplanted while small enough to dig up with taproots intact. Move them in spring and revel in their gorgeousness the following summer.

November 2012

Maple Leaf and Mullein

The decapitated plants cheerfully put out a fresh crop of bloom stalks, smaller and shorter than the original ones, and eventually a new batch of flowers for late summer and autumn. I’ve had mulleins in bloom as late as November. Eventually, though, it’s all over. Like all biennials, Olympic mullein plants die at the end of the second year. Once the leaves are dead and the plants look ugly, I cut the stalks at the base, using a small saw, because they are quite thick and woody. But I know there are half a dozen young plants waiting to do their thing the following year, and mullein seeds lurking in the soil.

 

June 29, 2013

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium on Pond Bench, dead flowers

Beauty in Death

A macabre title for something innocuous. The other day, I cut down flowering stalks of perennials that were past their best, as part of ongoing garden maintenance and cleanup. There were lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), delphinium, mullein (Verbascum olympicum), blue fescue grass, achillea.

Bundling them together, I noticed how beautiful the textures and colours still were, in these technically dead flowers. I laid them on the cedar trunk bench, which contributed to the photos with its own colours and textures — the grain of the weathered wood, the dry moss and lichen growing on it.

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium, achillea, blue fescue on Pond Bench. Dead flowers.

This seems a fitting entry into August, a month when the garden becomes dry and rattling, brown around the edges, but still with its beauties.

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria white form with lavender, pale pink achillea and foliage of Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff"

My Tough Plants #2: Rose Campion

Rose Campion… Sounds like a good name for a romantic heroine. But no, it’s one of the common names of a plant, another tough, almost-weedy one that does well in my garden.

Lychnis coronaria Rose campion with Linaria purpurea Purple toadflaxThis common name, although charming, doesn’t really suit the white-flowered form (see the featured image at the top). Maybe that’s better represented by “Bridget-in-her-bravery,” although that’s quite a mouthful. I tend to call it Lychnis coronaria, or simply lychnis. That’s not quite right either, since (according to Wikipedia), the official Latin name is now Silene coronaria. Wikipedia also cites other common names: mullein-pink, Bloody William, and lamp-flower.

This is another relatively short-lived perennial that seeds heavily. Fully grown, it’s between one and three feet tall (30-100 cm). The growth habit is basal clumps of grey-green leaves with a sort of suede texture, similar to lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) but not as fuzzy. In spring they send up flowering stalks and bloom mainly in June and July. The flowers come in two main colours — bright magenta-red and pure, bright white. I’ve read there are pink forms and a white-with-pink-eye combination, but I’ve not seen either of those.

Deadheaded flowers of Lychnis coronaria Rose campion

This is the result of an hour’s worth of deadheading. That’s a 750 gram yogurt container.

As with purple toadflax, to get the best from this plant, you have to deadhead. And unfortunately, deadheading rose campion means snipping off each flower individually, using scissors or small clippers. Each plant produces dozens of flowers, so weekly deadheading sessions are needed. That keeps them blooming into late summer and prevents copious seeding.

Close-up of deadheaded flowers of Rose campion Lychnis coronaria

Spent flowers (and potential seed pods)

The spent flowers go through a limp stage and then quickly become knot-like seed pods. Left to their own devices, the pods ripen over several weeks. When mature, they open up at the top, like tiny urns poised to spill hundreds of seeds.

I generally deadhead flower-by-flower into August. By then, the plants are slowing down. They produce fewer buds and the bloom stalks start to look thin. At this stage it’s best to cut them down at the base, leaving the basal clump of leaves to finish out the season.  In spots with a bit of moisture and/or shade, it’s possible to cut the stems by half in August for a fresh batch of late flowers in September. Because of the rather tedious deadheading requirement, I recommend keeping the number of plants relatively small (no more than 10) and situating them where you can get up close to trim off the flowers as they fade.

Here, rose campion looks fairly good all winter, although older plants may have quantities of dead leaves that resemble chamois leather. At my place there’s no shortage of rose campion, so I don’t hesitate to yank out any that are past their best. It copes well with the occasional snowfall and winter temperatures of -5 to -10 C (10-20 F).

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown (to me) Euphorbia

Lychnis coronaria performs best in sunny spots, but is quite tolerant of light or partial shade. It doesn’t mind dry conditions, sandy soil, and competing tree roots. The white flowers are rather insistently bright, so a large number of plants in one spot can be too much of a good thing. The combination of white flowers and greyish foliage is elegant, especially with the sharp chartreuse, such as that of euphorbias.  The magenta form looks best with other strong colours, rather than pale pastels. The two colour forms look fine planted together.

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria, magenta and white formsRose campion is of no interest to deer and needs minimal watering. I suspect it prefers well-drained soils, although I’ve seen references to it growing well in clay soils. You can find them here (see the comments) along with more info about rose campion.

Linaria purpurea flowers

My Tough Plants #1: Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea)

My garden, as I’ve said many times, is a 50-by-120-foot suburban lot with the usual house, driveway, garage and paved walks. Among those elements are half a dozen beds or borders containing combinations of shrubs, perennials, and self-sown annuals. There are also small areas of grass (sometimes called “the lawns,” although that sounds rather grand).

The soil is a light sandy loam, with good drainage. The climate is semi-Mediterranean, which means mild wet winters and dry summers. Recent summers have been drier and warmer than normal. Most of the plantings are affected to some extent by four large Norway maples, a big birch and a medium-sized Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

In this difficult situation — dry, rooty shade — a few reliable tough plants perform quite well, because they are tough and almost weedy. Properly managed, they can be quite ornamental. I plan to write several posts this summer about how I use these plants in my garden.

First up is Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Apparently, the leaves resemble those of the flax plant, which explains the “flax” part of the common name and the “lin” (linum is Latin for “flax”) in the genus name. I’m not sure where the toad comes in.

The plant grows between 1 and 3 feet  (30 cm  to 1 metre) tall. In shade, it can reach 4 feet. It’s somewhat slender, so inserts itself easily among other plants without crowding. Most plants have between 4 and 10 stems. The stems are stiff and never need staking.

Linaria purpurea foliage and flowersThe individual flowers are like tiny snapdragons. They cluster in spiky racemes at the tops of the stems. The standard colour is medium to dark purple. I’ve had a few plants whose flowers are purple and white, but they’re rare. Pink flowers are more common than the bicolours. They’re a fairly pale pink, though; their main interest comes from being different from the norm. The standard purple is a fine colour, contrasting well with the grey-blue-green of the slender leaves.

Linaria purpurea flowers with bumblebeePurple toadflax is of no interest to deer. It grows well and blooms reliably in dry, rooty soil and shade. It thrives in sunny spots. Bumblebees love it.

What’s not to like? Well, I did say it’s a quasi-weed. Left to its own devices, it blooms in May and June. The flowers are succeeded by seed pods that look like tiny green beads. At this point flowering stops. Seeds ripen by summer’s end and scatter when the plants are disturbed. The following spring hundreds of seedlings emerge, producing more toadflaxes than anyone wants. An untended patch of toadflax is reminiscent of gravel parking lots, not garden borders.

Linaria purpurea fall foliageRigorous deadheading is the way to curb the plant’s weedy tendencies. Clip off the spikes of bead-like seed pods as soon as they form. You can either cut each thin side-stem or wait until the whole raceme has pretty much finished flowering and cut the main stem just beneath the flower cluster. The plant will put out new flowering side-stems and keep blooming all summer. A bonus of this process is that the foliage of plants growing in sunny spots turns interesting shades of pink in autumn.

The trick is to deadhead before the seeds ripen. Inevitably, a few plants escape my notice. I discover them when I’m doing fall cleanup, by which time the tiny seeds scatter far and wide. A desperation measure for this situation is to carefully clip the seed-bearing top of each stem and transfer it into a pail or similar container, preventing seed scatter. I suspect semi-ripened seeds are able to finish maturing in the compost pile, so it’s best not to compost them unless you’re sure your heap achieves temperatures high enough to kill seeds. Mine doesn’t.

This is why I know how well toadflax blends into plantings. I don’t remember ever actually planting it. I go through the beds in spring and remove excessive seedlings and badly-positioned plants.

Toadflax is a short-lived perennial. Individual plants persist for two or three seasons. Eventually, they get woody at the base and perform poorly. By that time, though, there are more than enough young plants to replace them.

I wouldn’t recommend purple toadflax for mass plantings. The skinny, diagonally placed leaves produce a visually tedious herringbone tweed effect. Besides, this mass planting effect is what you get when you let toadflax self-sow with abandon. I like them best among other plants with contrasting leaf shapes.

More info about Purple Toadflax is available at the Missouri Botanical Garden site and Wikipedia.

 

pink watering can

Managing

Compost in progress, last fall's leaves

Nearing the bottom of Bin #2

One of the big garden jobs that actually got done in May was Compost Management. This means: 1) Shovelling out the remaining bit of finished compost from Bin #1 (the smaller one). 2) Building a new heap from all the accumulated stuff in Bin #2 — cut down perennial stalks from last summer, last fall’s leaves, old stalks cut down in fall and spring cleanup, and fresh material from recent tidying jobs. All this is layered and arranged in Bin #1, new material on the bottom, old on top, dampened down, and allowed to mellow until next spring. 3) Meanwhile, new stuff will be deposited into Bin #2, where it will pile up through the rest of the summer, the coming fall, until next spring. Whereupon the job will be repeated.

Compost heap flipped and moved

Bin #1 full, #2 splendidly empty

What happened to the former contents of Bin #1, i.e., last year’s compost? Most of it was distributed around the garden this spring with supplements mixed in to make a “feeding mulch.” Some was used to make soil for potting up tomato plants in May. The last wheelbarrow full is sitting in a neat pile near the shed, until needed for mulching or mixing.

Lost tool found in compost heapAt the weary end of forking and shovelling the half-baked brown stuff (mostly leaves and fern fronds), I discovered a tool I’d been missing — a three-pronged cultivator with a wooden handle. I must have inadvertently dumped it into the heap along with a bucketful of garden debris. It doesn’t show much damage from its year in the heap, only a bit of rust. Painting the handle red might be a good idea to avoid reburial.

Watering anxiety and rain envy begin now. Our very dry May hasn’t had visible effects on plants here, but it has affected the gardener. I’m apprehensive about the next two or three (maybe four) months. If the trends of the past few years continue, we may see almost no rain until late September. Water from the end of a hose is a poor substitute for rain, which has the great advantages of even distribution and no cost.

Ceanothus, California lilac in bloomFor the past month, whenever I exit the front door of my house I’ve been getting a visual treat from the ceanothus or California lilac, its branches almost solid with puffs of tiny flowers of a magical blue. They’re really popular with all kinds of bees.

California poppy rosy pink colourYears ago, I bought a packet of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) seeds. They were called “Thai Silks” and featured colours  other than the standard bright orange. I recall one plant, long gone now (they’re annuals or short-lived perennials) with double lemon yellow flowers. Even now, some of the unusual colours persist — cream, cream with pink or red flushes, different shades of pink, and extra-dark orange. It’s a surprise every year to see what colours show up.

California poppy red and yellowI don’t know about other gardens, but here plants fall into three categories — those that struggle and eventually die, those that grow ferociously and try to take over, and some that prosper in a quiet, reliable way. Guess which one is predominant. Well, to be fair, the pushy plants attract more attention so it seems there are more of them. But they do need to be managed, i.e., pruned, restrained, or dug up.

The next Big Garden Jobs on the agenda involve pruning. That lovely ceanothus has a habit of growing sideways, which means it ends up overhanging walkways and getting too friendly with people who use them. And the Oregon grape you can see behind the ceanothus is frighteningly vigorous. I wrestle with it every year, trying to keep it shorter than 12 feet and digging up suckers. It’s almost too late, though; I should have tackled it right after it finished blooming in April. Well, there’s always next year…

Allium christophii blooms and Phlomis foliage

Allium christophii and Phlomis fruticosa foliage

When I’m not deadheading, edge-clipping, checking on recently-planted things that might be getting overwhelmed by the incumbents, or lugging cans of water around, I do stop to admire plants that are performing as expected.

Ornamental grass Stipa tenuissima, Penstemon blooms and Lambs' ear stalk

Ornamental grass Stipa tenuissima, Penstemon glaber flowers, a lambs’ ear bloom stalk, and a few remaining forget-me-nots.

 

Clematis "Pink Fantasy" in bloom

Clematis “Pink Fantasy”