hostas

Familiar scene of rustic bench near the pond in autumn (fall) with hardy cyclamen and hostas

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.

Hosta "Stained Glass"
Hosta “Stained Glass”

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.

Gentians, Gentiana acaulis
Flowers like these, only in fall.

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.

Compost area half empty with removed blue fescues
Compost area awaiting the annual deluge of leaves. Those blue fescues on the left are awaiting composting. I removed them from the main path, where there were too many of them.

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.

Chicory flower
Chicory flower

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.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Gone but not forgotten. Not yet.

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.

Sunflower and chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee going for sunflower seeds.

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.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves
Hardy cyclamen flowers, a spring-like sight in fall.

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.

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Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

tree-309046__340

This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.

October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.

Remaking a Perennial Border

I suspect most naive gardeners (even those with years of experience) think that a perennial bed or border, once made, is a done deal. Plants may come and go, but taking the whole thing apart and reconstituting it is unthinkable — sort of like rebuilding a house. But of course a perennial border is a collection of living things, so it’s bound to change. Over time, the tough and hardy plants muscle out the weak and fussy. Some inevitably become dominant in the picture, while others disappear.

Consider these two views of my back garden:

Back Garden, Fall 2010

Back Garden, Fall 2010

 

Back Garden, September 2015

Back Garden, September 2015

 

The same scene, obviously, but details are different. Some plants have grown bigger or more numerous, while others have declined or disappeared. Superficially, though, one could say it still looks fine, despite the addition of dog-excluding fences in the 2015 scene. But I know it was lusher, fuller and better-maintained five years ago.

I plan to retire from my job next spring. Near the top of my list of post-retirement projects is an overhaul of the garden, yanking it out of its present state of decline. Over the years I have whined about the effect of tree roots on perennial beds and vegetable patch (now the Ex-Veg Patch). I have vacillated between accepting the inevitable (substandard beds and borders in dry, rooty shade) or doing the heroic (and expensive) — tree removal.

Now I wonder if there is a third option — rebuilding the border. I remember reading a description of how English perennial borders (the ne plus ultra of this form of gardening) were taken apart, re-dug, enriched and replanted every few years. This was (still is?) a routine procedure, intended to keep the border at a peak of perfection.

Something like that — which I admit sounds pretty heroic, if less expensive — may be the answer, especially as I’ll have more time but less cash.

So, a plan is needed. What plants to dig up and return to refreshed, de-rooted soil. What plants to dig up and discard. What plants to leave in place because they are too difficult to dig up. And I have to decide just when all this digging is to take place. The usual seasons for planting and dividing perennials are spring and fall. A rough rule is to divide spring bloomers in fall, and summer and fall bloomers in spring. But I think this operation is best done in spring, or even earlier — mid-February to mid-March, which I think of as “pre-spring” here on the fortunate west coast. With some care I’ll be able to extract the plants to be kept with enough soil around the roots that they won’t even know what’s happened.

As for the final configuration of the beds, I’m considering fewer large and medium plants and more low groundcovers, such as variegated periwinkles, which are not as pushy and vigorous as the plain types. I’d like more hostas, but I’ve come to realize they really don’t do well in rooty soil. The only way I can grow them well is in pots. Therefore, a combination of large ferns (Dryopteris species) snuggled up to potted hostas (the ferns concealing the pots), with some white foxgloves in the background, and the stalwart hellebores, of course… Too many large plants already? Well, I’ll work it out.

The best gardens, of course, are those in the gardener’s imagination.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring that this small area near the pond, right now, looks a lot like this picture, also taken in 2010.

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010