This Garden, this Spring
Every spring is different. Now that I’ve gardened this same patch of ground for nearly 30 years, I think I’ve experienced the full range of variations. Except that with a changing climate, there may be shocks and surprises along the way.
This has been a slow, cool spring, quite different from 2021 (the year of the Heat Dome). Last spring was dry, with April temperatures in the 20s (degrees C; that’s 70s F). This year we’ve had more rain than normal (and that after an extremely wet fall and winter), and below normal temperatures. On April 12, wet snow fell for several hours. Strong winds from all four directions (on different days) battered plants and scattered twigs.
But late April and most of May are the best months in this garden. Spring bulbs are in bloom and there’s lots of fresh foliage. Things are green and juicy. The cool weather means tulips, narcissi, and other flowers have remained in good condition for weeks.
A few months ago I was unhappy about my hellebores, which seemed to be suffering the effects of excessive autumn wetness followed by severe cold at the end of December. I am happy to report that they shook off the doldrums (assuming hellebores can get doldrums). Most bloomed as usual, and are now approaching the stage where I remove the flower stems to prevent seeding.
Inevitably, there are a few disappointments. The pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) that used to bloom together with white candytuft and flowering currant seems to have vanished from the scene. It appeared to be in decline last spring, so I thoughtfully dug it up and reset it in improved soil. Either it didn’t appreciate that treatment, or the June heat wave did it in. For whatever reason, there is no sign of it this spring, which is both sad and annoying.
On the other hand, the gentians (Gentiana acaulis), which sulked last spring, are doing really well. Half a dozen flowers opened this week, with twice as many buds still forming. (I sometimes berate myself for counting buds and blooms, but do it anyway.)
This is really the best time to be a gardener here. Cleanup and mulching are done. The miserable business of pruning is finished and the tyranny of the hose and watering can hasn’t yet arrived (although soaker hoses are in place and ready). The hardest job is mowing the grass, which looks deceptively good right now. The gardener strolls around, admiring and self-congratulating. Even common, weedy plants look good.
Whether because of the excessive heat last June or some other reason, huge numbers of laburnum seedlings have appeared. I must have pulled up hundreds of them by now, and I see more every time I visit certain parts of the garden. Some of Nature’s excesses demand intervention by the gardener. Others are to be invited and celebrated.
One plant that’s doing better than usual is the Bleeding Heart (now called Lamprocapnos spectabilis by botanists, although I still think of it as Dicentra spectabilis). Mine has always bloomed on disappointingly short stems, but this year it looks more or less as it should. When I see its dangling little heart-shaped flowers, I always think of garden writer Henry Mitchell’s description of them: “Like Valentines hung out to dry.”
When I’m feeling grumpy about the look of the garden after hot, dry weeks in August, I should look at this post and tell myself it will be like this again.
Last chance to pre-order my latest novel, She Who Returns. It launches on May 1st!
New and Different: Garden Changes
I think it’s time to get away from book reviewing and rule quibbling. Whatever else might be happening, there’s always the garden.
It’s fall in the garden. Rain and imminent plant dormancy eliminates the need to water (except for a few pots). The gardener is energized. Plans are made and a few are carried out.
Nurseries put plants on deep discount at this time of year, rather than carry them through the winter. So I bought a rather nice hosta (called “Stained Glass”) for half price. Its leaves are a translucent yellow with blue-green margins. It complements the other hostas (dark green with white margins and medium green with yellow margins; you can see them in the featured image above). I also got a late summer/early fall blooming gentian (Gentiana septemfida). If it settles in and blooms well, I’ll have glowing blue trumpet-shaped flowers at both ends of the season, since I already have spring-blooming Gentiana acaulis.
A few days ago, I weeded the pond. Yes, ponds need weeding at times. I’ve had an oxygenating water plant (Elodea canadensis) in the pond for years, but for some reason there was way too much of it at summer’s end. There’s also duckweed (Lemna minor), a small, lime green surface floater, which can be sort of pretty, but not if it’s wall-to-wall. So I hoicked out masses of both and added them to the compost pile.
I have two compost piles. By mid-October I have to make room for the leaves that are about to descend. Usually I stack the old pile of not quite finished stuff on top of the current one containing fresh material. By the following spring it’s all pretty much rotted down enough to be distributed among the planted areas. But this year’s old compost (mostly last fall’s leaves) looked so finished that I decided to spread it around immediately, at least in spots where that could be done without damaging plants still in good shape.
The Boulevard Project progressed well this summer. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace looked great together and several clumps of California poppies bloomed and produced seeds, and therefore more plants. A couple of them are an unusual creamy pink colour; the rest are the usual bright orange. I happened to obtain seeds of two native plants — consumption plant (Lomatium nudicaule) and seaside rein orchid (Habenaria greenei) — and scattered them around before a week of rainy weather. If they take hold, I think I’ll dig out some of the chicory and QAL. My original idea was to emulate a country roadside, but I think it’s better to encourage plants that belong here, rather than hearty imports.
The other day, I pulled out the last of the soaker hoses, rolled it up, and stashed it in the shed. (Wrestling hoses can be an exceedingly trying process; don’t do it if you’re feeling crabby or are in a rush.) Were the soakers effective as watering devices? For perennials, I would say yes. But not so much for shrubs.
The Chinese Witch Hazel (to the right of the bench in the featured image at the top of the post) showed drought stress from early summer. Its leaf edges began to turn orange-brown as early as June and it once again has no plans to bloom. It really isn’t a suitable choice for this climate, unless planted in a naturally damp area or given deluxe irrigation. I haven’t been able to bring myself to remove (i.e. kill) and replace it, though.
A much better choice of shrub is Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), which I recently planted in one of the mixed beds. It’s a native plant of the region, a graceful, early summer blooming shrub that’s definitely at home here. It should outperform the witch hazel without any extra help once established (but unlike the witch hazel, it doesn’t bloom in January with an enchanting perfume — but then, neither does my witch hazel).
Speaking of failures, I’m declaring 2020 the Last Chance Year for Meconopsis (blue poppies) in this garden. The two plants I purchased in March bloomed well in May, but dwindled and died in August. I thought crown rot in winter was the main hazard, but it turns out that powdery mildew is another. It strikes in hot, dry weather, despite diligent watering. Although these prima donnas didn’t even last the summer, they did produce seeds before they turned up their toes.
That gives me a chance for one last shot. In January, I will deposit those seeds on damp, sterile, seed-starting mix and keep them at indoor temperature for a week or so. Then I’ll cover the pot and set it in a safe spot outside for exposure to frost and cold temperatures. Seeds should begin sprouting by March. I’ve had fairly good luck with this process in the past, even to the point of a dozen or so plants in bloom (a glorious sight!). After that, the trick is getting them through the following winter. Or even, it seems now, the following summer. One last try.
This year I finally got around to growing sunflowers. I had seven or eight plants. They were okay, I guess, but not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. In rich soil and full sun, with adequate water, a sunflower grows branches that develop buds, resulting in something like a tree. In soil that’s poor, sandy, and often dry, they stick to one skinny (although tall) stem with a single flower. (Guess which kind I had.) They did produce enough seeds to attract chickadees, who diligently pecked them out and ate them.
Some plants are totally reliable without any extra effort at all, like these hardy cyclamen. They’ve increased well over the years and now form nice carpets of pink flowers that mingle with other plants and the falling leaves. Their own beautifully patterned leaves are starting to emerge and will last into next spring.
A Gardener is a Plant Referee
Wandering around the garden, I found myself nudging aside foliage of vigorous plants to make sure less hearty subjects weren’t being shaded or squashed. That got me thinking about what I actually do in the garden and what roles I play. I’m no sports fan, but it could be the current playoffs (hockey and basketball) and new season (baseball) have influenced my metaphor-maker.
A gardener is…
A referee, who makes sure everyone plays nice and no one gets hurt. Except sometimes that means someone has to get
A coach, who puts plants into the right spots, so they’ll grow well and look good.
A trainer, who snips, prunes, and stakes, encouraging everyone to get into optimal shape.
A doctor, who designs preventive regimens, diagnoses ailments, and applies tonics and nostrums when needed.
A chaplain, who ministers to the dying and performs the last rites at the compost heap.
A general manager, who decides what changes are going to be made for success next season.
Which means all those plants out there are a team.
My home team is looking pretty good right now, but its season is just getting under way.
Green and white ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta) looks good with pink tulips. It’s a quick spreader, though, so eventually some management will be needed.
Ferns have finally unrolled their fiddleheads. Dryopteris filix-mas looks fine with the intense yellow-green of the ornamental grass Milium effusum.
One of the huge tribe of coral bells is Heuchera “Green Spice.” It does fairly well in dry shade, and the subtle shades of purply-red and greeny-grey invite artful colour combinations.
Another Heuchera, this one with the rather awkward moniker “Dolce Key Lime Pie,” lives in a big blue pot with the hellebore “Ivory Prince,” whose flowers are taking on shades of green and pink as they mature.
Those blue gentians again! Gentiana acaulis is doing its thing next to the front walk. I suspect the plants need to be dug and divided every few years, because this newer patch is doing much better than the original, which has been in place for almost 20 years.
Wallflower Erysimum “Bowles Mauve” is at its best right now. The magenta of the flowers and grey-blue-green of the foliage are a magical combination.
Recent visitors to the garden include two pairs of American goldfinches, who spent much of an afternoon loading up on sunflower seeds. A deer rested in my neighbour’s garden and stopped by here later to nibble on the lawn.
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.
- All 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 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.
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.
* 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.
Spring in the Garden
Spring hit really early this year on southern Vancouver Island. I’m still trying to catch up.
Things in the garden are racing ahead. I saw a note in my garden and weather book from April 24, 2013: Apple tree starting to bloom. This year, the apple tree has finished blooming. The flowers have faded and leaves are growing (as yet uneaten by little green worms).
A couple of weeks ago, it looked like this. So we are three to four weeks ahead of schedule (assuming nature has a schedule, which is doubtful).
The garden is almost through its blue-and-gold period, now that the daffodils are finished. Blue is still dominant, what with bluebells (Scilla), forget-me-nots and abundant rosemary flowers. But the star of the show for me is the single blue poppy (Meconopsis), a triumph after no blooms at all last year.
There is one more bud. The other blue poppy plants don’t seem to have any plans to bloom, but with blue poppies you are grateful for whatever you get.
The so-called “neckless” gentians (Gentiana acaulis) are more dependable. I suspect the buds of my main planting were nibbled by deer, but these young transplants are performing well.
And I’m happy to report that the great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) are also in fine form, showing lots of buds. One especially tall plant is already in bloom.
And there are roses! Roses in April! (And blackspot starting too, I see. In gardens, perfection is to be sought but rarely attained).