Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sprout season

We’re entering the part of the year that I think of as sprout season. The ground is now erupting here and there with little green points. Some plants, some snowdrops in particular, are already blooming. For the next two months the weather will be up and down, back and forth, unpredictable and mercurial. Although spring itself does not begin until the end of the third week of March, much of what we think of as the spring garden flora will bloom during this period. The locally native flora in general waits until April.

The next two months will see snowdrops, winter aconites, the early squills, glories of the snow, reticulate irises, crocuses, the earliest tulips and lots of odds and ends blooming.

We don’t have a term in English for this season, but Karl Foerster used the German term Vorfrühling to name it. This is the season of hybrid witch hazels. In the garden today, Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ is in full bloom. This was named for Jelena de Belder over a half-century ago; she died as recently as 2003. Also in bloom today is Hamamelis ‘Feuerzauber’. There are others in the garden, and these will come later if they are going to bloom this year. The witch hazels here tend to alternate between years in which they flower very freely and years in which they flower little if at all. For instance, ‘Pallida’ this year has very few flowers; last year every twig bloomed.

Helleborus foetidus is now on the verge of full bloom: the earliest blooms are open, but the best is ahead of us. The inflorescence of this plant is a vivid, tender, pale green which is improbably lively for this time of year. To my way of thinking, of herbaceous plants which bloom at this season it’s the best.

This morning while walking Biscuit I noticed the really handsome effect produced by the low, early sun on the densely budded masses of Magnolia stellata branches. The buds of this species are gray and hairy: they catch the light beautifully. The gently mounded outline formed by these plants really lights up nicely under the right conditions.

The zoysia lawn was mowed about two weeks ago; this was done to keep it tidy looking. I cut it very low, and the dense, neatly cut brown stubble is very handsome now. In some lights it has an unexpected orange-brown tint. Zoysia is an acquired taste, and I’ve definitely acquired it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Real gardens

This blog in effect duplicates a posting I made today to the PBS (that's Pacific Bulb Society forum).

Another member of the forum had pointed out that many of us seem to be very focused on rare and difficult plants, focused to the point that we might forget what gardens really should be.

Since my recent posts to the PBS forum seem to go on and on about my protected cold frame and its progressively more obscure contents, I wanted to distinguish myself from those who make rarity or difficulty the most important criterion in the selection of garden plants.

I post frequently about the cold frame because that's where the excitement is for me right now. Ten years ago I never thought I would be growing most of the plants in that cold frame. If nothing else, that cold frame provides me with the opportunity to get those plants out of my system.

You might never guess it from my postings to the PBS list, but growing "rare" or "difficult" plants is only a minor aspect of my gardening activities. But two circumstances give it disproportionate importance: for one, during the winter the outdoor garden provides no other source of flowery interest in our climate. And for another, it's a chance to grow plants which in the recent past I assumed were outside my reach. But here's how to put it into perspective: the lot on which I garden is approximately a quarter of an acre in area. The protected cold frame I've been describing has an area of exactly two square yards. That two square yards is the hot spot in the garden from October until sometime in late winter or early spring when clement conditions return.

The rest of the garden is given over to my other horticultural interests.
And since garden design is my paramount interest, my garden is a real garden. You can't imagine how many times I've been taken to see the garden of a "great gardener" and found myself wandering around some backyard plant factory. If they're a dahlia specialist, there are neat rows of dahlias. If they're a (fill in the blank) specialist, there neat rows or paddocks of whatever their specialty is. I've seen whole lots given over to this sort of thing. To my mind, these are not gardens: they are exercises in urban agriculture. And that describes the well organized ones. They seem to be inspired by ever dimmer recollections of farming practice. Has the family really come up in the world because they now plant "gladiolas" instead of cabbages? The disorganized ones are simply an exercise in hoarding.

In my view, it isn't the type of plant grown which separates the sheep from the goats. It's how the plants are grown. All those "gardens" managed with an emphasis on productivity and the demands of the show bench - those are not gardens in my book.

In our time, the word garden has come to mean anything one wants it to mean.
As real gardens have largely disappeared, the word now usually refers to flower beds or borders - in the same way real landscape has come to be supplanted by what is ludicrously called "landscaping". To each his own; I just want to be sure you understand that it's not for me.

Anyone who knows the etymology of the word garden will share my sense of perplexity to see the word applied to a bed of annuals (or if you prefer, orchids). Some of us would insist that there must be some sense of enclosure. Some will retort that the enclosure may be metaphorical. I'm not trying to convert anyone else to my point of view; I know I'm in the minority. But as in so many areas of life, just because we use the same words does not mean that we are saying the same thing.

To my point of view, most American gardens are turned inside-out. The house becomes the centerpiece in an elaborate and expensive attempt at exterior decorating, the resident's primary investment surrounded by his cattle or gold jewelry or whatever it is which says status. I know I'm not the only one who has seen an expensive automobile parked on the front lawn - while space on the street goes begging. And I would not be surprised to hear that someone out there is replacing the plant labels (the ones which identify the plant) with large print price tags - the better to assert their social status.

Real gardens can be achieved with a minimum of plant material. Plant people are apt to poke fun at those professional landscape architects who design gardens using the same repertoire of ten or twenty plants. But those landscape architects are on to something. An abundance of plant material only makes it that much less likely that a real garden will ever emerge.

Monday, January 21, 2008


I think I’ve loved boxwood all my life. At an early age I became aware of the special status it has among gardeners. I was not “to the manner born” with respect to boxwood: we didn’t have it in the garden where I grew up, and such box as existed in the neighborhood was insignificant. But I knew about box from an early age. My father was from Virginia, and my mother (from Philadelphia) often tells the story of her early visits to meet her future in-laws. One of those visits was to the home of Uncle Arthur; he owned the local bank and soft drink bottling plant in the small Northern Neck town in which he lived (Northern Neck is a local term describing the long finger of land bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south; it’s George Washington and Robert E. Lee country). To hear my mother’s account, Uncle Arthur lived in a home right out of Gone With the Wind. She remembers the boxwood lined driveway, and that no doubt was the source of my earliest introduction to boxwood. Years later I saw the house as an adult: it was nothing like what my mother’s aggrandized description had led me to expect, but still it was a substantial, solid country house of its time. And the boxwood were still there lining the driveway.

A clipped, box-lined walk: that's just too much work. Nor am I particularly fond of anything clipped or trimmed unless the work is done very well and the result fits into the general feel of the garden. I very much like dwarf box in its natural form, i.e. wide, squat, billowing. Trimming them strikes me as idiotic: why not plant common box instead if it has to be box? Or why not plant privet?

My bedtime reading last night was the chapter “Box Edgings” from Alice Morse Earle’s 1901 Old Time Gardens. The one hundred and six year old book is beginning to show its age; and as I read, crumbles of brown binding material fell out into my lap. In this chapter, Mrs. Earle reveals herself to be very much a person of her time. She has something interesting to say, but her expression is hampered by an inability to express things sensibly – and so she resorts to fancy. It’s tempting to dismiss much of what she has to say in this chapter as delusion. She seems to believe things which most educated people today would dismiss as certain fallacy. In particular, modern readers are apt to be put off by her fervent belief that we inherit memories of the past, that we are born with the knowledge of things experienced by our ancestors.

Rather than dismiss Earle, I prefer to translate these things she seems determined to believe into modern form. Today we don’t have any trouble believing that it’s likely that we inherit certain capabilities from our ancestors, and if we share capabilities with our ancestors, then isn’t it all the more likely that we will express those capabilities in ways similar to those of our ancestors? Not everyone finds the scent of box pleasing. If we descend from ancestors who found it pleasing, isn’t it more likely that we will find it pleasing, too?

Well, perhaps it’s not that simple. But Earle was trying to express the deep affection which some of us have for box, and whatever its origin or causation, it’s real.

Just as real for some people is the aversion it evokes. As a child I found the scent of box curious: certainly not floral or sapid, but somehow appealing. It was not until much later in life, as the opportunity to be around big old box with a commanding presence presented itself, that I became aware of the feline quality they have – and which so many people dislike. But I couldn't disagree more about the scent of box. And I should add that I'm not a cat lover (although I don't dislike them, either). In front of the house is an arc of ten now forty year old dwarf box which have never been trimmed. Every ten or fifteen years I moved them to give them room, but otherwise that's it as far as care is concerned. They are now big enough to be a presence in the garden in several senses: obviously in the visual sense, under some atmospheric conditions in the olfactory sense, for those who can't resist "petting" them in a tactile sense and in gentle wind in an auditory sense.

This year they provided another treat. During the late summer and early fall, while it was still unseasonably hot, I slept as often as possible (i.e. when the humidity allowed us to turn off the air conditioner) with my bedroom windows open. The wall outside those windows was at that time covered with blooming Passiflora incarnata. I never thought I liked the scent of that flower, but on the air and in combination with the scent of the box it was oddly hypnotic - I mean that literally because I looked forward to a late afternoon nap as long as this pair kept it up. I had some of the best dreams during those naps! One was particularly vivid: I dreamt that I was somewhere in Persia in a very big room in a wooden building; the walls of the big room were pale pink and crafted of sandalwood. The room was hot and had a dry, dusty summer scent in addition to the scent of the sandalwood. There were roses, the scent of roses...

Today Wayne sent me an article on asparagus (culinary asparagus)and the varying ways it is metabolized by different people. Some people experience strongly scented urine after eating asparagus, some don't. No one seems sure if it's a matter of the asparagus being metabolized differently, or if it is a case of the results being interpreted differently due to varying olfactory capability. Some people don't notice anything, some people find the result noxious, and then there are people like me who find it, well, interesting. To me it's a sort of vulpine, mustelid odor, a lot like the scent of the bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis.

When I was a young gardener I enjoyed the works of Constance Spry: at that time in my life I regarded her as a sort of guide in the ways of horticultural connoisseurship. I remember the first time I read her account of the crown imperial, and I remember the sort of anxiety that reading provoked: as I read on, it was apparent that she was about to hurl an opinion about the scent of the bulbs of that plant. I braced myself for a put down - and then was delighted to read that she counted herself among those who found the scent interesting (not her word; I don't remember right now exactly how she described it, but it was not negative).

The point of all this is that I don't have any trouble understanding why some people find disagreeable things which I enjoy.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Agave the Illustrious

The new Heronswood catalog arrived the other day, and I noticed that they are now offering nicely spotted Agave virginica. I’ve collected this species in a small way for years, always for preference picking out forms with spotted foliage. The plant is also called Manfreda virginica, and it hybridizes readily with Polianthes tuberosa. That they hybridize suggests that the nomenclature needs some adjustment. The three genera Agave, Manfreda and Polianthes evidently are very closely related, so expect some nomenclatural shifting.

We Americans generally pronounce (i.e. mispronounce) this word Agave as ah-GAV-ee or ah-GAHV-ee something like that. Sometimes I hear ah-GAV, too. But those pronunciations don't come close to the original. It’s a classical Greek word which means "noble" or "illustrious" (thank you Liddell and Scott); transliterated it’s agaue or agave. Why the variation between u and v? Whenever there are three vowels in a row, something is likely to give. It’s too hard to articulate three vowels one after another without intervening consonants. In this case, it’s really more a case of one diphthong (the au) followed by a vowel (the u, which it should be pointed out is not the “vowel” we call u in English but rather the sound oo as in moon). What happens in this case? One of the vowels, the “weakest” one, takes on the qualities of a consonant. This typically happens with the vowel i which becomes its consonantal avatar, j, or u which becomes its consonantal avatar v. To understand this, you have to keep in mind that the i, j, u and v sounds in question are not the sounds represented by those symbols in English, but rather the sounds they represent in classical Greek and Latin. The j represents the sound of the y in yellow; the v is the w sound.
Purists will note that the classical Latin alphabet does not have a letter j, nor strictly speaking did it have a letter v for much of its history. Those characters came into use as a shorthand way of indicating that what linguists sometimes call a “glide” occurs where an i or a u is sandwiched between other stronger vowels. Those of you with a love of language should take a look at the previous sentence. It’s a good example of why it’s hard to explain these things in everyday speech. I wrote “where an i or a u is sandwiched”. Should I have written “where an i or an u is sandwiched”? Obviously, when I first wrote it I was thinking in English, and so wrote “a u” rather than “an u”. But after I wrote it I realized that the sounds I was talking about (and this is all about sounds, with the consequences for spelling of secondary importance) are the sounds of Latin. So thinking in Latin this time, and with a tweak to make that clear, the phrase is “ where a Latin i or an u is sandwiched…” That won’t make any sense to you unless you pronounce the u in "an u" as “oo”.

And so how do I pronounce Agave? How about ah-GAH-way?

The image above shows one of the rather ordinary plants now in the garden.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Morning Glories

This is the time of year when I begin to have vivid daydreams about morning glories, nasturtiums and poppies.

Today I collected seed of the small-flowered purple morning glory which has self-sown itself in this garden for years. I don’t know the origin of this plant. It just appeared one year, and since then it has made itself at home here and there in sunny places in the garden. Left to its own devices it’s weedy, but it’s easily controlled.

One of these years I want to plant a wall of this morning glory with cleome in front of it. There was an accidental close approach to this planting in the garden several years ago – the cleome and morning glory were both volunteers. The colors harmonize beautifully.

I don’t know the name of this morning glory, and I can’t match it exactly with pictures in seed catalogs. Among the candidate names are ‘Star of Yelta’, ‘Grandpa Otts’, ‘Kniola’s Black’, ‘Kniola’s Black Knight’, ‘Kniolians Black’


I'm beginning to wonder if I need an eye exam.

This evening I had some time to kill, so I ducked into the local Borders book store and wandered over to the gardening section. There I found a bewildering array of books, about most of which I knew nothing. My eyes glazed over as I scanned the shelves. I kept looking for something to peek into for a while to help pass the time. And then I saw them, three compact little volumes with mauve pink covers. I thought the title said "bulbs", and so I pulled one out to take a look. As soon as I got it out from the shelf I realized I had made a bit of a mistake. The title didn't say "bulbs", it said "buds" , as in marijuana buds. I sort of furtively looked around to see if anyone was watching, and quickly shoved the book back into its lair. Then I noticed that it had lots of companions: a good foot of shelf space seemed to be devoted to this topic.

Years ago I had a coworker who had heard about my interest in gardening through the grapevine. Every once in a while he would come over to talk gardening. He was interested in only one thing: growing plants under high intensity lights. I think I know what he was trying to grow. Maybe I should go back to Borders and buy that book for him. Come to think of it, maybe I should check that book to see if he wrote it.

The would-be "buds" in the image above were photographed in the parking lot of a national park. Let's reconstruct the crime scene: nearly exhausted or at any rate bored driver pulls into the lot, parks, notes the view, opens the car windows, starts to roll a joint, picks out the seeds, tosses the seeds out the window...Now fast forward several months. I drive into the same lot, equally exhausted and bored. I open the car window. I don't have any joints, so I think of something else to do. I scan the surrounding vegetation for something interesting. My eyes hit on some suspicious looking leaves growing at the very edge of the lot. Can it sure is.

Months later I come back to the same lot and try to find the same parking place and the suspicious plant. It's gone: there's no trace whatever, not even a stump. Evidently I'm not the only field botanist with a well trained eye who uses that parking lot. Actually, I prefer to imagine some poor kid working as a lawn mower for the summer to save money for college hitting some unexpected pay dirt.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

For the last several years our house has been selected by brown marmorated stinkbugs, Halyomorpha halys, as an ideal wintering place. These bugs (and they are true bugs) are harmless to humans, although in some areas they are pests of plants grown in agriculture. The stink is not always apparent, and it is not aggressively offensive when it is. But it’s not an odor you would want around food or filling a room.

As explained in the attached links, this is not a native species and has probably been in the area for only about a decade.

Since they’re harmless and we’re not growing soybeans in the garden, I leave them alone. There is something oddly satisfying about having live bugs in the house during the winter. It’s akin to the satisfaction I get from pets and house plants. And it reminds me of Gilbert White's rather detached observations about the crickets and "Blattae molendinariae" which swarmed his hearth. It's interesting that he referred to crickets in English, but used Latin to describe the other; furthermore, he describes the war waged against the latter, but mentions no such activities directed against the crickets. This suggests that our aversion to the "blattae" is an ancient one. Pest species are not welcome, but others such as jumping spiders are. Jumping spiders and stink bugs share a seeming lack of concern for the presence of humans. And they both are apt to position themselves where they can look right at you. They are largely inoffensive as housemates, but that lack of fear is apt to result in close encounters. The jumping spiders seem to specialize in window sills. But the stink bugs get around. One night I was reading while eating a bowl of popcorn; I crunched down on something which was not popcorn, and my mouth filled with the distasteful stink of one of the bugs.

Stink bugs move slowly as a rule and when disturbed fly. They fly at night, too, as I discovered recently as one kept dive bombing my head during the night. Some people will pay hundreds of dollars to fly to Mexico during the winter for the privilege of eating and sleeping where insects are active. We’ve got our own, and they’re free.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Plants of interest on New Year's Day

Crocus ochroleucus

Crocus pallasii

Dryopteris sieboldii

Polystichum polyblepharum

Helleborus cf. torquatus

Arum italicum

Arum italicum

The New Year began pleasantly enough. When I walked Biscuit this morning the sun was warm on my face, and the air had a bit of the scent of fallen leaves. Here and there patches of grass were still brilliant green in the low slanting light. The weather forecast had called for a progressively colder day, but even now at about 3 P.M. the temperature is agreeably above 50º F.

And there are still flowers in this New Year’s Day garden: one of the Camellia sasanqua is still full of shapely, colorful bloom. And in one of the cold frames, Crocus ochroleucus and C. pallasii are blooming. The latter is a surprise. Although I check the cold frame in question daily, I did not see this one coming. Crocus pallasii is not one of the more prepossessing species of Crocus; it’s a member of the saffron group, and as it usually blooms here it has a stringy, skinny look about it. But the plant blooming today has produced a fine, well rounded bloom which has the characteristic fragrance of its group.

In a season such as this one, marked as it has been by relatively mild temperatures, one would expect snowdrops of one sort or another to be in bloom. There is one clump of Galanthus elwesii in advanced bud; but the flowers, already hanging, have not actually opened yet.

Flowers are not the only source of interest today. Several winter green herbaceous plants are worth a look. The very unusual fern Dryopteris sieboldii will generally get the attention of garden visitors. It’s one of those plants which does not look real. First of all, it does not look like what most people expect a fern to look like. Then there is the texture of the plant: it looks as if it might have been made of plastic or rubber. It’s a good garden plant here, and that continues to surprise me. However, it never seems to have more than two or three fronds at a time.

Another fine fern now is Polystichum polyblepharum. This one looks like a typical fern, and has the added advantages of being evergreen and having a seemingly lacquered finish. I’ve seen more than one garden visitor reach down to touch it – to check if it is real?

Many of the hellebores are in fine shape now, too. Shown here is one bought as Helleborus torquatus. Many hellebores are worth collecting entirely for their foliage, and this one and similar forms are good examples. Another hellebore well worth having for its foliage is Helleborus multifidus; the forms I grow here have good foliage but do not seem to stand up to the winter well – and thus no image today.

This is peak season for the Italian arum, Arum italicum: the foliage has not yet reached its maximum development, but it has already reached that most improbably lush phase which makes it hard to believe that it can be a hardy garden plant. This is another plant well worth collecting for the variations in its foliage. Two forms are shown here; there are others in the garden.

The mystery chirper

I've never advanced much beyond the commoner birds in terms of identifying them by sound, and today the garden gave me a real workout.

I was heading out to the N end of the pond to check out some potted bulbs there. As I approached the area, I heard a sprightly chirping. I stopped to listen. I could not make out where it was coming from: was it from the boxwood bush about six feet in front of me? Was it coming from the tangle of roses on the pergola? Was it a bird? And if so, what kind of bird was it? Whatever it was, it kept it up as I got closer. And the sound varied - no two calls were alike exactly. The more I listened, the more confused I got. The sound had the timbre of a grackle or red-winged blackbird sometimes. But the song was so varied that I was convinced that it had to be a mockingbird.

I carefully approached the boxwood: the sound continued, but intermittently. I started to pish to get it to come out - to no avail. The sound died down awhile, and then it started up again. It was surprisingly loud and clear, like a wren's call but without the suave sound quality. Was it a distress chirp? Was it an injured bird which had survived a hawk attack and was now hiding in the boxwood? I moved around to the other side of the boxwood to be near the N end of the pergola, to be able to triangulate in on the sound. From there I realized that the sound was not coming from the boxwood bush. It seemed to be coming from the roses on the pergola. The chirping continued: again, whatever it was it was not at all bothered by my presence. The sound would go on for a while, then stop. Sometimes it was loud and continuous; sometimes it was softer and less frequent.

I carefully scrutinized the roses on the pergola, expecting to see a fat mockingbird gorging on rose hips. But no mockingbird was to be seen.

As I stood there just under the N end of the pergola looking for the mystery chirper, it started up again. This time it was only a foot or two from my right ear. The sound was surprisingly vibrant, an almost melodious assortment of chirps, trills and crude scales.

And then I saw it. At the end of the pergola, where the long beams had come down with their burden of rose canes, one of the long beams had fallen into the grasp of a vine otherwise tightly coiled around one of the pergola piers. And right there was where the sound was coming from. Right from that little tangle of vine, long beam and pergola pier the mystery piper continued to produce sound. Then the wind stopped and the sound stopped. I waited a bit, and then the wind started up again. And a new burst of chirping sound gushed out. I stood there quietly for a few moments, watching it carefully. It was hard to believe that this little nothing could be making so much birdlike sound. There it was, at most two or three inches long: a spot where the long beam cradled in the vine rubbed against the pergola pier and produced this sound every time the wind blew.

Even Biscuit seemed puzzled by it.