Echinops ritro

Echinops ritro

My Tough Plants #5: Globe Thistle

Tough plants often have common names that suggest they are weeds. Globe Thistle is no exception. Real thistles are prickly, deep-rooted weeds (although some are quite attractive). Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) shares some of their qualities, but escapes true weediness.

This is a plant I can recommend without reservation to anyone with a dry garden. In moist soil it would grow weak and floppy and need staking. It prefers full sun but blooms well enough in my garden with only four hours of direct sun. Deer don’t eat it. Sometimes aphids appear on the developing flower buds, but can be washed off easily by spraying with water. The flowers look good for several weeks and may be dried if cut at their peak. To prevent uncontrolled self-seeding, it’s best to deadhead carefully before the flower heads shatter.

More information about Echinops ritro can be found here.

The flowers are indeed globe-shaped, about the size of golf balls, and a metallic blue in colour. I’ve seen them described as similar in appearance to the medieval mace, but in 2020, a different comparison is inevitable. A fellow blogger alerted me to it in the comments to this recent post.

Echinops ritro closeup
THE flower of 2020?

Globe thistle mingles well with other plants in the garden, especially with grey-leaved, drought-tolerant ones such as Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum). In the dry, warm days of late summer, the foliage starts to morph into shades of yellow and rusty brown, which is somehow appropriate.

Echinops ritro and Helichrysum italicum
Globe Thistle and Curry Plant

Here are a couple of other plants that look good right now

Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) in Chinese egg jar
This Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) has done very well this year. Unlike the globe thistle, it prefers moist soil and is happy in the Chinese “egg jar.”
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) in bloom
The starry, pure white flowers of Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) freshen up the scene in the late summer garden.

The photos in this post were taken on August 21st and 29th, 2020.

Garden shed

August-itis

It happens every August. I decide the garden is a mess, a failure and a burden. The season is drawing to a close, and has not lived up to expectations.

This garden looks best in spring and early summer. Given our climate and the Norway maples that shade the place and suck more than their share (so say I) of water and nutrients from the thin, sandy soil, the August decline is inevitable.

dry leaves, drought
Maple leaves that fall before turning colour are often seen in August

Add to that the fact that many plants have achieved their maximum size and leafiness by now, and many of them look weary. Windy days aren’t unusual here, pummeling the plants and making them lean. Many just stay that way, as though resigned, giving the garden an unkempt look. Yellowing leaves on perennials that have been there and done that add to the effect. The gardener, already tired from lugging watering cans and dragging hoses, says, “To Hell with it,” and goes inside to commune with the computer.

I noted at least three major pruning projects that will have to be done sooner rather than later. The magnolia is a hulking monster, despite annual attention with the pruning saw. The trellis is getting shaky. The pond has a bad case of duckweed. Too many plants, such as Russian sage and Japanese anemones, that are in glorious bloom in other (sunny) gardens, barely manage a meager handful of flowers here. Why bother?

The tomatoes are smaller than last year, both in size and number, because of cool weather in June and early July. The plants are showing signs of late blight, so it’s not likely they’ll produce many more tomatoes. Daylilies failed to bloom this year. Nine tenths of an old climbing rose died after being blasted by cold winds in March. My latest (and maybe last) attempt to grow blue poppies has failed. Why bother?

Plants don’t say “Why bother?” They just get on with it.

August-itis is a disease of the gardener, not the garden. Despite failures of individual plants, the garden itself is just fine, going through its annual process. This is the way it’s supposed to look in August, and in fact it looks better this year than it has in Augusts past. There have not been a lot of faded green leaves falling.

When I allow the ideal of green perfection to interfere with my expectations, I regard that normality as a failure. Looking at other gardens, especially the ones perfectly manicured by hired gardeners and watered by elaborate irrigation systems, only intensifies that feeling.

There’s only one cure for August-itis. The gardener must engage with the garden and do something that improves its appearance, even a little. Something straightforward and not too difficult. Clip that lawn edge. Do some deadheading. Cut down the wilted stalks.

After that depressing tour in the glare of noon that concluded with, “To Hell with it,” I took another look at the place late in the day, when the magical light of near-sunset transforms everything. I did a bit of deadheading and a little raking. I noticed buds forming on the Chinese witch hazel. They will bloom in January. I saw a new frond unfurling on a struggling little fern. I topped up the pond and scooped out much of the duckweed.

I noted plants that are looking good.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass,” a new addition last autumn, has done well.
Blue lacecap hydrangea
This hydrangea is blooming well due to diligent watering and removal of lilac suckers.
Pink dahlia and Echinops ritro
Old reliables–pink dahlia and Echinops ritro.

I’m on good terms with the garden again. For now, I’ve recovered from August-itis.

The Ex-Veg Patch

I used to have a vegetable garden. It occupied a space of about 15 by 25 feet across the path from two perennial beds. It was (and for that matter, still is) laid out in a pattern of diagonally bisected squares I had copied after reading an article about Rosemary Verey’s garden in England. (By the way, the triangular beds that result from this are the devil to dig and plant).

There is an apple tree (Yellow Transparent) almost but not quite in the centre of the back part of the patch. It’s surrounded by different kinds of mint, with a solitary clump of fennel to one side.  A triangle in the middle of the layout is occupied by plants of lavender, hyssop and thyme. Others host rue, oregano, echinacea and more mint, while one triangle is given over to a couple of rhubarb plants. Vegetables (tomatoes, spinach, chard, lettuce and peas) used to grow in the space that remained.

After a few years, I noticed that the tomato plants were smaller every year, and less productive. The soil was always dry. The obvious reason was the two Norway maples 20 feet to the west of the veg patch, and the Ailanthus (“Tree of Heaven”) to the north. These tough, pushy trees were sending roots into the patch and hogging the water and nutrients.

The obvious cure for this unhappy situation was removal of one or all of the trees. Tree removal, however, is costly and disruptive. The trees are still there and the vegetable patch is now the ex-vegetable patch. Self-sown quasi-weeds (campion, toadflax, echinops and mulleins) have moved in, along with plants I’ve moved there for lack of better places, such as spare echinaceas and a big mauve dahlia whose old spot had become inhospitable. I’ve also parked some potted delphiniums and lilies near the feeble (but intensely fragrant) rose “Fragrant Cloud,” which also lives in a pot.

Right now, despite the drought and possibly because of the hot summer, the ex-veg patch looks pretty good.

Potted Delphinium and potted "Stargazer" lily

Potted Delphinium and potted “Stargazer” lily

Transplanted mauve Dahlia and self-sown Echinops.

Transplanted mauve Dahlia and self-sown Echinops.

Second set of blooms on rose "Fragrant Cloud" and new growth on potted Delphinium.

Second set of blooms on rose “Fragrant Cloud” and new growth on potted Delphinium.

The Ex-Vegetable Patch today

The Ex-Vegetable Patch today

What about vegetables, you ask? Well, there are four potted tomatoes, along with all the other stuff. (Of course, tomatoes are technically fruits, but that’s OK).