rose campion

dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

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Campion Cull

I have often mentioned the rose campion, Lychnis coronaria. It’s one of the easiest of garden perennials, practically a weed, in fact. It resists drought, tolerates shade, comes in white or what I call “magenta” (a dark purplish red, anyway), and seeds mightily.

That, of course, is why my place has more than enough of this plant. In the first flush of summer bloom, the white form is visually dominant in the back garden.

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Multiple clumps of white-flowered campion

The thing is, I find it impossible to yank out or dig up a plant that looks healthy, especially if it’s in full bloom. L. coronaria manages to look too good to kill most of the time, especially if deadheaded. This extends the bloom season and delays the onset of seediness. By July or August, deadheading 3 dozen or more plants gets to be a pain, especially those that are hard to get at. I resort to cutting the flowering stalks down or removing them altogether. That minimizes seed production, but does not eliminate it. Which is why I have so many plants.

This winter has been relatively tough, and one effect of that is that the campion plants look distinctly shabby.

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Noticing this, I seized the opportunity and a digging tool, and did a bit of a cull. Of course, there was no way to tell which plants were white-flowering and which were magenta, but I concentrated on spots I recalled as having way too many of the white form.

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Results of the massacre — a pile of pulled up campion plants.

At its best, the white-flowered form is as cool and elegant as many difficult perennials.

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Euphorbia.

 

After the massacre, I started feeling some regret at the number of plants I had removed. Looking around, though, there is no shortage of Lychnis coronaria in this garden. And if I feel there is, all I have to do is let a single plant produce seed and scatter it around. Repopulation is guaranteed.

July in the Garden: Planning and Plant Management

July isn’t a month for starting new garden projects. It’s not a good time to move plants around, too early to plant bulbs, too late to start vegetable or annual seeds (except for winter vegetables, maybe) and too hot for serious digging, sod-stripping and other labours.

Maintenance is the thing now: keeping an eye on everything, making sure water is supplied as needed, lawn mowing, edge clipping, and deadheading. While engaged in all that, the gardener inevitably notices Things That Must Be Done. Just not now. All these tasks and projects are written down in the Garden Notebook.

Garden Notebook

Garden Notebook

 

For example:  Blue irises have crowded out the blue Veronica in the Old Front Bed; and Geranium “Johnson’s Blue” and Limonium latifolium are in too much shade. Must remove some of the irises OR move the Veronica, Limonium and Geranium to sunnier spots. I hesitate to rip out the irises, because they bloomed so well this past spring.

An old lavender in the New Front Bed is on its last legs and scheduled for removal. That will free up a spot suitable for “Johnson’s Blue” as well as some of the Siberian irises now struggling along in deep, dry shade near the driveway. The Veronica can go into a spot a few feet to the west of its present location, currently occupied by a rather pushy Sedum that has taken over more space than it deserves. A small, sunny spot in the New Front Bed near Saponaria “Max Frei” is perfect for the Limonium, or at least can be made perfect by judicious removal of other things, keeping in mind that “Max” is a bit pushy when in full bloom.

Sometimes I think gardening is like running a hotel for the fussy and infirm.

On the other hand, there are plenty of plants that need “managing” rather than cosseting. One that does almost too well here is good old Lychnis coronaria, the Rose Campion. Now that I have time, I have managed to keep up with deadheading my dozens of plants, even though that means snipping off each faded flower individually. It helps that most of them are between knee and waist level, and I can get at most of the plants without acrobatics. But it is a seriously tedious task, one best done in a “Zen” frame of mind.

Rose Campion and deadheading equipment.

Rose Campion and deadheading equipment.

Another reliable plant that seeds prolifically is the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica (had to include that Latin moniker, of course!). Years ago, someone gave me a plant of the basic orange form. Then I bought seeds of a strain called “Thai Silks,” and a few years after that acquired seeds of a white or cream-coloured form. These have mixed and mingled, with bumblebees moving pollen around, so every year there is a different proportion of colours.

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California poppies in 2010.

California poppies in 2010.

The only problem with these easy-going plants is that by mid to late July they lose their looks — floppy, too many seed pods, not enough flowers. The thing to do at that point is harvest some of the seeds by snipping off almost-ripe pods, and then cut the plants to within an inch or two of the ground. They quickly put out fresh growth and are blooming again in a few weeks, much to the delight of gardener and bumblebees. Oh, about those seed pods — when ready, they split and spew seeds all over the place, so put them in a glass or a jelly jar to contain the explosions.

Pink California Poppy and Lemon Thyme.

Pink California Poppy and Lemon Thyme.

And now, back into maintenance mode…

 

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Tools of garden maintenance (except the rock, of course).

 

New Front Bed in July.

Part of New Front Bed in July.

The Garden in Early Summer, and Life in the Shoe

Technically, summer is just beginning, but after a warm, dry spring it feels more like late July than June. Happily, the seediness of mid-late summer has not yet set in.

The area near the pond looks deceptively lush. I’m delighted that the calla lily bloomed quite well this year.

Calla lily by the pond

Calla lily by the pond

The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.

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The rather feeble potted rose “Fragrant Cloud,” grown from a cutting (and thus on its own roots, not grafted) managed to produce three luscious blooms. Here are two of them.

Rose "Fragrant Cloud"

Rose “Fragrant Cloud”

 

More "Fragrant Cloud"

More “Fragrant Cloud”

The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…

The back garden in full bloom

The back garden in full bloom

Note all the campion (Lychnis coronaria), mostly white but some magenta. The ideal way to treat these plants is to remove each spent flower individually — an impossible task with this many plants. They seed extravagantly, which is why there are so many.

Remember the Shoe Bird? The shoe is now full of little Bewick’s wrens, with the parents busily bringing in bugs and removing waste. I wish I had a picture of this activity, but they come and go so fast they’re gone by the time I pick up the camera. It was easier during the incubation period.

Bewick's wren on nest in shoe

Bewick’s wren on nest in shoe

What with the wren family, a gang of sparrows in the garage birdhouse, and raccoons methodically flipping rocks over at night, the garden is full of life.