potted plants

Hitchhikers and Freeloaders

I grow a lot of plants in pots, because the dry, rooty soil of my garden (about which I complain frequently) is not hospitable to the delicate and needy. So delphiniums, lilies and even tomatoes live in big pots parked along paths and driveway.

As I water and fuss over these potted prima donnas, I often find seedlings coming up in the pot soil, everything from lamb’s ears to chervil to infant peach trees. Tiny and delicate, they are easy to ignore, and as they grow many of them look really good (the beauty of youth). They display the very qualities of leaf shape and colour that made them welcome in the garden to begin with. Sometimes these self-sown interlopers pair so well with the legitimate occupant of the pot that I don’t even think of yanking them out. (I actually have a problem yanking out any plant that’s healthy and attractive — which explains a lot about this garden).

Sometimes the pot seedlings are useful plants. All my Verbena bonariensis died last winter, so I’m happy to see a few popping up in the tomato pots and will transplant them into their own pots and eventually to spots in the garden beds. A kale plant that came up in one of last year’s tomato pots continues to thrive in the pot and furnishes a few kale leaves for salads and stuff.

But there is a Dark Side. Unchecked, the little seedling grows and grows, eventually overwhelming the legitimate occupant of the pot. I stupidly left a rose campion in one of the 2-gallon pots occupied by a “Stargazer” lily, and a plant of lamb’s ears in the other. By the time I got around to wondering why the lilies didn’t look like blooming as they had done for several summers, it was too late. An emergency repotting job only gave the lilies better quarters in which to die.

Then there was the young mullein that almost did in a bright orange lily that had lived in its pot for years. It survived, possibly because the lilies had gone dormant (but dormant looks a lot like dead, so I wasn’t sure until the lily sprouted out this spring).

September 16, 2013

Think about it — a pot contains a finite clump of soil. It’s usually improved, enriched soil, but there is only so much of it. A plant like a lily may thrive in that situation because it’s the exclusive tenant of the pot, with all of the nutrients and water available for it alone. But when a vigorous plant like a rose campion takes over, it hogs all the goodies — with predictable results.

It’s amazing how a gardener with decades of experience can ignore something this obvious. Even now — today — a self-seeded forget-me-not prospers and blooms in a pot prepared for a purchased clematis (“Pink Fantasy”). But see how pretty the tiny blue flowers are, like little stars…

June 28, 2014 I will have to harden my heart and extract the forget-me-not. They grow all over the place, but there is only one pink clematis. It did quite well this spring and I would like to see it bigger and better next year.

Finally, here are some hitchhikers that can’t possibly harm their host.

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

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Thugs, Prima Donnas… and Mulleins

When I began making this garden in 1992, I didn’t have a lot to spend on the project, so I was happy to fill up the space with pass-along plants from other gardeners, waifs and strays of unknown provenance and tough, easy-to-grow self-seeders. Many of these are still with me, prospering despite the sandy, tree-root-infested soil and dry summers. I’ve written about them here already.

Like most gardeners, I’ve also wanted to grow more challenging plants — refined roses, delphiniums, oriental lilies and (the gardener’s supreme challenge), Himalayan blue poppies. For several years, I pored over the catalogues of a nursery located in the Fraser Valley, and every year brought home a selection of their offerings. I ordered seeds of carefully-researched perennials and successfully raised seedlings. Some of those acquisitions are still with me, and a few are doing well.

Geranium "Anne Folkard" and Clematis integrifolia

Geranium “Anne Folkard” and Clematis integrifolia

 

Dictamnus albus

Dictamnus albus

But. (There’s always a “but”).

My garden is now bursting full. If I want to try something new, something has to be removed. Quite a few of the purchased and grown-from-seed plants are long gone, remembered only from a sad collection of labels in my garden shed. Cosmos atrosanguineus, Gaura lindheimeri “Siskiyou Pink,” Lamium maculatum “White Nancy,” R.I.P. Farewell, Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam,” Trifolium repens “Dragon’s Blood” and Cimicifuga racemosa.

The good old tough plants are, of course, thriving. Hellebores, toadflax, rose campion, lamb’s ears, lady’s mantle, foxgloves, fireweed and a number of ferns. The fussy, “quality” plants, however, live in pots. No root competition and individual attention from the gardener in the form of fertilizer and water.

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Pots aren’t foolproof, however. I bought this potted lily a week ago to replace two that gave up the ghost because I allowed self-seeded “hitchhiker” plants to take over their pots. Another threat is excessive winter wetness. A couple of my delphiniums perished from that, and it was literally death to my idea of growing blue poppies in pots. Better results may be possible if one ensured really good drainage and situated the pots in a spot out of the rain (and remembered to check for excessive dryness at times over the winter).

For the past three years, my blue poppies have had their own bed near a magnolia. Last year they bloomed; this year they decided to give it a miss, even though they look healthy. I am catering to them with mulches of compost and peat, extra fertilizer, regular watering and shade from afternoon sun. As in farming and hockey, maybe next year.

Tough plants need to be controlled and discouraged. Delicate beauties need to be cosseted and coaxed. Pots aren’t always a solution and there are no guarantees.

But mulleins look great most of the time. I have given over my former vegetable patch to herbs and mulleins — Verbascum olympicum and Verbascum chaixii. Even before they bloom, they look interesting.

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Mulleins seem to know that anticipation is almost better than fulfillment. They take a long time to grow their bloom stalks and look great through the process.

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the end, I have to ignore the distinctions between tough plants, refined plants, purchased or self-seeded. Right now, the garden looks pretty good. Right now. That’s what counts.

May 31, 2014

 

 

Planticide!

A couple of days ago, I did in a plant, a sprawling, hideous monstrosity of a rubber “tree” that had lived in a low-ceilinged, south facing basement room for years. It was deformed by the unsuitable situation I had inflicted upon it, but even so… It was impossible to get to the window to water the other potted plants that sat on the sill without crouching to get under the rubber tree’s branches. Most of the leaves were on the ends of the branches, making the thing look like a somewhat arthritic tentacled monster. There was no way to improve it, so when I managed to air-layer a cutting last summer, I decided to dispose of it.

I find it hard to kill plants that I have watered and otherwise cared for.  In a way it’s like euthanizing a pet animal, except that in the case of the plant, one usually does the job oneself, and it’s doubtful whether one is really putting it out of any misery. Lugging the rubber tree outside, lopping off its branches, finally yanking the trunk out of its pot and hacking up the root ball, I felt like a brutal executioner. Plants don’t scream, but rubber plants bleed latex. Now that the deed is done, however, I certainly appreciate the spaciousness of the room where it used to live, and the unimpeded access to the window.

The rubber plant was an ugly, misshapen specimen, so you can imagine how much trouble I have killing a healthy, attractive plant of almost any sort. Only the worst weeds fail to generate a twinge of compunction. This brings me back to those wretched maple  trees that  dominate my garden. In theory they could be removed quite readily. There are several tree-removal outfits in town. Indeed, one of them cut down yet another maple here some years ago, one that grew in the 12 foot wide space between my house and my neighbour’s. It was so obviously in the wrong place that I didn’t experience many qualms about its demise, and since then I’ve planted a perennial border in that space.

But the two maples on the west side of my back garden present other “issues.” One of them supports a hearty climbing rose of unknown variety (at least to me), that has hundreds of small, fragrant, fully double pinky-white blooms every June and July. I suspect that it would tolerate being cut down and repositioned, but the prospect of doing this doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the general disruption and chaos brought by men and machines to the plantings (such a grand word for my collection of tough survivors!) near the trees. Finally, those trees are homes to other creatures — a gang of squirrels and the local crow family, as well as other birds I hear singing on summer mornings. So I dither and defer, all the while muttering and complaining mightily about roots and shade.