Thursday, July 26, 2007

Begonia masoniana

Begonia masoniana caught my eye today: it’s blooming again. It’s been decades since it last bloomed, yet as I recall it was at about this time of year that time, too. The flowers briefly produce a sweet scent late in the day but at other times seem scentless.

Houseplants here generally have one thing in common: they quickly die. Perhaps that should read “they are quickly put to death”. There have been a few exceptions, most of them being desert plants which survive dry atmospheres and dry soil. There are some Stapelia, Huernia and Gymnocalycium which have been here so long I’ve forgotten their sources.

But as a rule, “soft” houseplants don’t have a chance here. In this case, the exceptions to the rule are improbable: some Selaginella and the Begonia masoniana. These, too, have been here so long I forget their sources. They are neglected as shamelessly as the succulents, yet for decades they have thriven. They get watered perhaps three times a year. How can that be?

They are still here because they grow in big ornamental glass jars. Both jars are about sixteen inches in diameter, one with the begonia is pear-shaped, about twenty-two inches high, the one with the Selaginella is about sixteen inches high and squat. These jars have openings five inches in diameter which make it easy to get a plant in but not so easy to get a freely-growing one out. But talk about care-free: other than pouring in about a cup of water two or three times a year, that’s it! And this has been going on for decades.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The copper beech

The copper beech was planted back in the early '60s, probably 1961-1963. I'll bet if I dug around I could find the receipt. It came, through the mail, from a once famous source of trees in New England. It was supposed to have been a weeping copper beech, and for the first two seasons I still believed it. When the soft new growth spurted into growth it arched gracefully downward for a few weeks. I was obviously in deep denial. Like almost everything else in this garden, it's been moved at least once, although it's been in its present position for over forty years.

When the garden was designed about fifteen years ago, one of the paths was positioned to allow a clear sight line from the fireplace room to the the base of the beech tree. This is one of my favorite views, especially during the winter.

The vernal leafing out of a big copper beech is one of the really dramatic events in a garden. The huge space occupied by the branch work changes over a period of maybe two weeks from a frettwork of pewter to a commanding presence of dark maroon and garnet. The newly emerged foliage is very dark, dark with saturated color. As the summer advances, the red tones in the color fade leaving brown with golden highlights.

When I look back on my years of gardening, I recognize the planting of the copper beech as one of my good decisions.

The image shows it in early May as it begins to leaf out.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cherry Clafoutis

My niece and her hubby spent two weeks in Provence recently. While they were off enjoying the real thing, I was back home trying to get in the mood with Provencal cooking. Sweet cherries were in season, and the recipe for cherry clafoutis sounded just right.

Here it is, right from the oven. Something like this has a half-life of about an hour in our house.

Eating well is an important part of gardening, isn't it?
More yummies at:

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Franklinia alatamaha

There are several themes in my garden which might not be apparent to visitors. One theme is fragrant flowers: given a choice between a fragrant rose and a showy but scentless one, the fragrant one is the one which gets a place in the garden. Another theme which is not at all apparent is one based on the plants illustrated in Audubon's Birds of America. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Audubon himself often did not paint these plants. A reproduction of the plate showing Franklinia alatamaha and the Bachman's warbler hangs in our kitchen, a room which overlooks the garden and our own Franklinia. Since we're unlikely to ever see a Bachman's warbler here, we pretend that the bird in the picture is a goldfinch: we see plenty of those! Audubon wrote that the Franklinia was painted by a Miss Martin, the sister of the Reverend Mr. Bachman for whom the bird is named.

The Franklinia in the garden is enormous. Even people who know Franklinia from other sites are often puzzled by it. Many stare at it awhile and then ask, haltingly, if it is some kind of magnolia. The responses I get after identifying it are typically " I didn't know it got that big" or "Isn't that usually a shrub?".

The plant owes some of its size to an accident early in its history here. When purchased it was a thirty inch stick with three short branches. Shortly after being planted, something happened to it: the main stem was damaged about a foot above ground and the remainder of the stem, still attached, lay on the ground. I left it there, and eventually the branches - still attached to the main stem - rooted. To this day, if you examine the trunk you can make this out.

How big is it? I haven't measured it, but it seems to be about forty feet wide across its widest dimension and perhaps twenty-five feet high, maybe more. Across its widest dimension it's mostly not very deep: the plant forms a sort of natural fan.

This is another plant with multiple seasons of interest. It blooms heavily during late July and much of August, and an occasional bloom will appear right up until hard freezes. The foliage colors spectacularly. The fragrant flowers suggest those of Paeonia japonica or P. wittmanniana even to the one slightly deformed petal which most flowers have.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Homage to Gertrude Jekyll

When I was a teenager, I was lucky to have several mentors who pointed me in directions which were to greatly enrich my life. One introduced me to the joys of used books and the dealers who sell them. In particular, I was introduced to the late, much lamented firm of Wheldon & Wesley. W&W were the source of most of the really “important” books in my collection. I don’t know if anyone else would consider them so, but I hope my executors give them their due.

Among my early acquisitions were several of the works of Gertrude Jekyll. This was before most Americans developed the current overweening interest in gardening. In other words, I luckily beat the crowd and began buying when the competition – especially the competition from deep-pocketed university libraries – was more gentlemanly and less driven.

I’m perplexed when I hear Jekyll written off as a designer of flower gardens. Haven’t the people saying this read her works? There is so much more there. And with that “more” in mind, I’ve chosen to commemorate her with this photo of the exposed roots of a neighborhood tree. She did the same in her Home and Garden. Somewhere else in her writing she describes getting up and out at 4 A.M., so eager was she to try out a new toy, the camera she had just acquired.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Bougainvillea of the Upper South

A long time ago, decades ago, well back into the last century, mom took a bus trip down to the pottery factories near Williamsburg, Virginia. It wasn’t pottery she was clutching when she got home: it was a small potted crepe myrtle. And it had a name, too: watermelon pink.

Now fast forward nearly fifty years. It’s late July and we’re sitting out on the deck. We’re sitting under a thirty-foot wide pink cloud of vibrant, fragrant flowers. If some gene splicer of the future decides to insert some tree genes into garden phlox, he might get something as nice as a crepe myrtle. Does it really have any competition for consideration as the best flowering tree for summer? The flower colors are summer colors, party colors. And they are produced so freely that they give the same effect as bougainvillea.

The name “watermelon pink” is not an official crepe myrtle name. In the past, “watermelon pink” has been used for the cultivar officially named ‘Watermelon Red’. That cultivar is an older cultivar and is described as having large, fluffy panicles of watermelon red color: sounds like our plant! See this link for more:

Crepe myrtle is one of those plants which doesn’t have a down season: there is something of interest about it all year. Of course there are the summer flowers. Our plant also has spectacular fall foliage color: the fall foliage display is every bit as good as the flower display. When the leaves are in full color, they reflect a warm red-orange glow into the house.
Once the leaves fall, there is the bark and branch display. The mottled bark is beautiful when seen close up, and the growth habit of the tree is itself handsome and clean. It’s one of those trees which makes a good winter appearance.

If I had a place in the country, I would have a crepe myrtle garden. Modern cultivars come in sizes which could be stepped in a mass planting: small three-footers in the front and so on up to the really big thirty-footers. The color range is still narrow, but it’s also better than ever. There are four basic colors: white, red, pink and a sort of grayed grape-juice purple. But that simple description of the colors hardly does them justice: some of the reds and pinks in particular are wonderfully vibrant.

Have you ever noticed that many plants, even those with a comparatively wide color range, have colors which are peculiar to themselves? We can describe colors simply as red or pink, but most of us realize that the red or pink of, for instance, the genus Salvia is different from the reds and pinks in, for instance, daylilies. And sometimes when we see colors which seem particularly well matched, it’s because the plants in question are related. I see that every year in my garden when the crepe myrtle blooms: nearby there are two lythrum cultivars. Most people would not say that the lythrum are the same color as the crepe myrtle, but there is a sort of family resemblance. And crepe myrtle and lythrum are members of the same family, the Lythraceae.

At the beginning of this piece I described the flowers as fragrant. Very few books mention this, and very few of my gardening friends seem to be aware of it. But our plant is definitely fragrant, and I’ve come to look forward as much to the fragrance of the flowers as to their color.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Karl Foerster

What a life Karl Foerster must have had! He was born in 1874; for comparison, consider that Caruso was born in 1873, Rachmaninov in 1873, Jekyll in 1843, Bowles in 1865, Wilder in 1878. His early works appeared when the works of Jekyll, Bowles and Wilder were still appearing. He outlived them all by decades and died in 1970 – and what is more remarkable, he outlived them in spite of the fact that his home and garden were in the suburbs of Berlin (Bornim bei Potsdam). What should have been an old age full of the honors due the most prominent voice of early twentieth century horticulture in Germany was instead spent behind the Iron Curtain: in the English speaking world, probably only those who remembered the old days knew of him. It wasn’t until after his death and the unification of the divided German state that those who remembered began to pick up the pieces. His numerous publications now have the wide audience they deserve – at least among those who read German. His house is still there, and so are the remains of the garden. I’ve seen recent photographs of both in German gardening magazines. With a bit of imagination and the help of a photograph such as the one above, one can make out in the pattern of depressions and rock heaps something which suggests this once famous garden. (After writing that, I Googled some more and discovered that the garden has by now been largely restored).
Generations of Americans have looked to England for gardening ideas; the time might have been better spent looking to Germany. Few locations in North America approximate the English climate. The continental climate of Germany produces gardens more like those seen in North America. Although I want an “Engliish” garden, my climate gives me a German garden instead.

The two pictures given above are taken from Foerster’s Vom Blütengarten der Zukunft . The one depicting the garden appears in both the first edition (published by Furche Verlag in 1917) and second edition (published by Foerster’s Verlag Der Gartenschönheit in 1922). His Verlag Der Gartenschönheit was to prove to be the source of so many handsome publications until the darkest days of the Second World War, including the magazine named Gartenschönheit.
The second picture first appears in the second edition. This domestic scene appeals to me greatly. I know almost nothing of Foerster the man, but it is known that he passed with honor the cruelest test of his generation. I don't know if he was a religious man, but if he was, I like to think that as the rest of those at the table bowed their heads and prayed for peace, he prayed for peace with justice.

If you Google “Karl Foerster” and confine your results to English language hits, you’ll get endless references to his grass cultivars. Confine your search results to German language hits and you’ll hit gold.

As it turns out, the older generation had the opportunity to know one aspect of Foerster's work well: Louise Beebe Wilder's The Garden in Color might better have been titled "the best of Gartenschönheit". The book is a collection of color plates with commentary by Wilder. Nowhere is it mentioned that the plates are from Gartenschönheit. The date of publication, 1937, explains that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Cathedral

The back of the garden is bordered by Rock Creek Park. Several dozen yards and a drop of maybe twenty feet separate the garden from Rock Creek itself. On the other side of Rock Creek is Beach Drive. Beach Drive ends nearby; in the other direction Rock Creek and Beach Drive eventually run right through the city (“the city” here means Washington, D.C.). The creek empties into the Potomac River, and Beach Drive ends somewhere in the area of the Watergate and the Kennedy Center.

If you hike the woods along the creek, you’ll notice that beech trees are common in many areas. Is the name of the road misspelled? Should it be Beech Drive and not Beach Drive? Beach Drive it is, and although the beach commemorated in the name still exists, it’s been decades since any but the adventurous have used it as a beach.

Was the original Beach Drive simply an access road for the beach? The road through the park was built to allow viewing the scenic beauty of the park. Those tender ideals were crushed long ago, and the road is now a commuter route. For an unnerving glimpse of the consequences of this, take a walk along Beach Drive very early in the morning after an overnight rain in the late winter or early spring: the road will be littered with the mutilated carcasses of various small forms of wildlife. I try to be an optimist about this: if there are so many dead ones, the local populations must be very healthy; furthermore, the local foxes and other scavengers won’t let any of it go to waste. When the dead are the likes of frogs and toads, it's easy to rationalize it that way. When the dead one is a box turtle, I can't help asking myself: is this the last one in our local woods?

It’s when I’m having thoughts like this that I appreciate the view above. This shows a stretch of Beach Drive very close to my home. I call it The Cathedral. When I drive slowly through The Cathedral, it’s as if the stress is being gently combed out of my life. It works every time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Corn Poppies

Two years ago a local realtor mailed out an advertisement which was accompanied by a packet of poppy seeds. Ordinarily I toss seeds received in this manner into the mail pile and forget about them. But at the time I was contemplating some changes in a part of the garden, and I knew there would be some open space. Sometime in the early fall I scattered the seeds in the garden; a month or two passed before I noticed a few seedlings. As I recall, there were three. One of these grew lustily, and went into the winter as a six-inch rosette of bristly foliage. At this point I was resisting the temptation to count my chickens…corn poppies for me have never been reliable about surviving the winter.

But this plant did survive the winter and go on to grow very well. It quickly dwarfed its two companion poppies, and was eventually much larger than any spring-sown poppy. Most accounts of sowing poppy seeds urge that the resulting seedlings be thinned ruthlessly. My isolated plants had no competition to speak of, and the big one went on to teach me a good lesson in poppy culture. It grew to be about the size of a peck basket, had dozens of flowers for literally months and provided plenty of seed for the next year.

Is there any plant in the garden which gives so much pleasure for so little expense? Those red poppies are as beautiful as anything I grow, and as they were among the first flowers I grew from seed as a child, they keep me in touch with my horticultural beginnings. It’s a real pleasure to come out in the early morning and watch the buds open: in one of the images you can see such a flower, still in its crinkly stage. The developing buds on their gracefully arched stems are a sort of loveliness of their own. To see the hairy stems backlit by the rising sun is another early morning pleasure. And then there is the red color of the flowers: poppies are exciting! The sun soon lights up the bowl of the flower and the petals glow like colored glass, and a gentle breeze causes the blooms, blooms so improbably large in proportion to their wire-like stems, to bob and sway. Soon the insects find them, and the greenish-yellow pollen soon musses the formerly neat interior of the bloom; by then, the petals have stretched out to their full, smooth-surfaced extent.

Every child should have a garden of poppies.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Noisette roses

Although I’ve known about Noisette roses for decades, the concept of “Noisette rose” has proved to be elusive. My introduction to the group came from books. My introduction to the actual plants of this group, the group in its nominal sense, came through the widely revered old cultivar ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. Another early acquisition, since lost, was ‘Champney’s Pink Cluster’. I think I can make a good argument that neither is really a Noisette rose.
In the case of ‘Champney’s Pink Cluster’, it’s the parent of the Noisettes and thus not a Noisette itself. It preceded the hybridizing work done by the Noisettes (the people, the family who did the early work to develop this group) themselves.
In the case of ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’, let’s just say she is for her time a very modern lady not about to be bound by the conventions of her class. She is, in fact, better understood as a modern, large-flowered climbing rose. She has Noisette in her ancestry – Noisette and a lot more. That those promoting her have chosen to emphasize the Noisette side of the family is perhaps understandable, but it’s also misleading.

Redouté painted one the roses raised by the Noisettes. To my eyes they look like what you might expect to get if you crossed Rosa multiflora with dwarf China roses. These original Noisette roses were quickly supplanted by better roses: better in the sense of more colorful and with larger flowers. It is said that much of the early breeding work in this group used the then widely grown tea roses, and the best Noisette roses are generally agreed to be the so-called tea Noisettes. It’s also generally agreed that these tea-Noisettes are not roses for us here in zone 7 eastern North America, although old books often contain descriptions of the lengths gardeners of those days went to grow these plants in the open. That they are cut back severely in our winters is only part of the problem; the other problem is that they are potentially huge plants, not easily protected in the winter.

The Noisettes in the accompanying image are two, although you would have to have very sharp eyes to realize that. They are ‘Alister Stella Gray’ and ‘Claire Jacquier’, and they look so much alike that I have spent a lot of time convincing myself that they really are distinct. These roses have a characteristic, light and very pleasant fragrance. It didn’t take as long as you might think for them to go to the eves of the house and then arch out gracefully over the garden.

All three of the roses mentioned here were raised in the late nineteenth century, long after the Noisettes as a group had moved from center-stage. Curiously, ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’, the least typical of the group, was the earliest of the trio to make her debut (in 1879 according to G. S. Thomas).

The image shows them at peak bloom in late May. This soft yellow color is lovely in the garden. In my experience, these roses never bloom again later in the season.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some lavenders

I tried lavenders now and then when I was younger, always without long term success. Occasionally I would see a seemingly thriving plant in a local garden, and it must have puzzled the owners of those gardens to see a young man standing there for a long time and peering down at the plants. Eventually I gave up on lavenders and wrote them off as unsuited to our climate.
Years passed, and one year I decided to build a dry brick wall and plant it with wall plants. Among the plants tried were several Lavandula × intermedia cultivars. For several years these did surprisingly well. It quickly became apparent that they would be too big for the space allotted to them.
The question of what to do about these big lavenders was solved one cold winter when the wall heaved and collapsed. I had no regrets, and was glad to have learned that at least some lavenders would do well here if well sited.
Two years ago, in re-doing a portion of the front garden, a long raised bed was built in full sun. Several lavenders went into this bed on trial. The “as-purchased” names are ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Provence and ‘Grosso’. ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’ are Lavandula × intermedia cultivars. It has been said that material distributed under the names ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ is generally wrongly named. All have grown well and ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’ have grown quickly into handsome rounded mounds.
I was showing these lusty plants to a friend recently: they were in full bloom and were everything I have wanted in a lavender. I was praising the rapid growth of the Lavandula × intermedia cultivars, saying in effect that I had finally arrived as a lavender grower. But she shook her head and told me that no, they don’t last, and the robust growth which impressed me so much would eventually be their downfall when a bad winter would break open the centers of the big bushes and spoil their appearance.
We’ll see what happens.
That's Lavandula × intermedia 'Provence' in the photo.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Life under a pergola

When I redesigned my garden about fifteen years ago, I took the bold step of installing a pergola across the main longitudinal axis of the garden. The garden is sixty feet wide, and the pergola is forty feet long. In crossing the main axis, the pergola divides the garden into a section of approximately one third of the garden’s area and another of approximately two-thirds of the garden’s area. The smaller area is the one nearer the house and forms what I call the pool garden.

The pergola now supports large plants of several climbing roses which during rose time produce a roiling, fragrant foam of white which covers the pergola. When the atmospheric conditions are right, the garden fills with the scent of roses.

The pergola fulfils several functions. Its main purpose was to be a support for the climbing roses I wanted. Its placement gives it a major role in shaping the garden. It also serves as a path from one side of the garden to the other. Once the roses had grown up into place, something else became apparent. The area under the pergola is a garden room of its own, the most conventionally defined such space in the garden. At night, when the space under the pergola (the interior of this garden room) is softly illuminated by candlelight or even with the reflected glow of a spotlight, there is a sense of enclosure which is uniquely satisfying. This is produced by an effect comparable to that produced by a scrim in the theater: the light reflecting on the leaves of the vines which clothe the sides of the pergola produces the illusion of walls defining the space. The rest of the garden disappears, and the viewer is left with the impression of being in a comfortably big, green-walled hallway or room. It’s an enchanting effect. The sense of seclusion this produces is wonderful. It's a favorite place for reading at night, even on mild winter nights.
For more views of the pergola see:

Friday, July 13, 2007

Echinops 'Platinum Blue'

Years ago I grew “generic” Echinops ritro in a big planting of perennials. I liked it, but over the years I lost interest in it. For one thing, I had seen much more handsome Echinops in other gardens; these were more compact, had much better color and the spheres of flowers were larger.

Two years ago I bought three Echinops ‘Platinum Blue’ from Bluestone. They didn’t bloom the first year but slowly put on size. When they bloomed this year, they made a big, favorable impression. So far it has remained under thirty inches high.The color is an intense blue, just the thing to liven up the relatively dull color of Echinacea purpurea ‘Razzmatazz’ which grows nearby.

Now that I’ve actually seen these plants in bloom and in full growth, I’m beginning to get ideas about how to use them more effectively. The only other garden flower which looks anything like this is Allium caeruleum, but the Allium is shorter, blooms a bit earlier and has smaller flower umbels of a less intense but still very lovely blue.

The surpassing delight of all flowers

This native plant, Passiflora incarnata, made it to England before there were permanent English settlements in the State of Maryland. In Parkinson’s Paradisus of 1629, it is called “Maracoc sive Clematis Virginiana. The Virginia Climer”..."the surpassing delight of all flowers". For decades I searched in vain for wild local populations. Then a friend tipped me off to a local population in a public park in a nearby county. Those plants were probably introduced. I collected some fruit there, and from it grew several seedlings. I nurtured these most solicitously and hovered over them for the first two years: I wasn’t taking any chances with my Maracocs. Finally they took off and started to put on good growth. Two years later I was pulling the stuff out by the yard. The ones I have now are from a later acquisition. Each year I pull most of the sprouts out and allow only a few to grow: that way it covers only a few square yards of space annually. This plant is often praised for its scent. Parkinson wrote "these flowers are of a comfortable, sweete sent, very acceptable..." Now, nearly four hundred years later, when I put the flower close to my nose, the scent is disagreeable, very disagreeable. But when the vines are blooming freely on the wall outside my open bedroom windows, the scent which drifts in is something else again – and very pleasant. One of life’s simple pleasures is to take a nap on a warm summer day when the maypop is blooming and mixing its scent with that of the nearby boxwood bushes –that indeed is a surpassing delight.

Where does a blog fit into the life of a busy gardener?

I'm taking a big step here in starting a garden blog. The reason won't be at all apparent to readers, so let me explain. For over thirty years I've kept manuscript garden journals; in these my successes, failures, hopes and dreams for my garden are recorded. Will I have the energy to maintain both the journals and the blog? Will the blog eventually supplant the journals? Are blogs the new diaries?I can already see one potentially significant difference between my journals and a blog: my journals are full of rhetorical questions. I hope the topics I broach here will elicit lots of responses from readers. Let's see what happens over the next few weeks.