Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Algerian Iris

The tradition of making lists of plants blooming on Christmas or New Year’s Day is one which has never really caught on in our climate. Winters here have generally been too severe to make it worthwhile. Yet recent winters have more people giving the garden a careful look during the holiday season.

This year the garden has given me an utterly unexpected gift: late this morning I noticed a newly opened flower of Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris. This particular plant has been blooming since sometime in November. It was obtained in the summer of 2005, planted against the house wall with a SW exposure in the rain shadow of the eaves – and then forgotten. It first bloomed in late November of 2006: that first flower (shown above) was improbably big for something blooming outside at that time of year.

This area is not Algerian iris country. English writers from Gertrude Jekyll a century ago to those of the present have celebrated this beautiful plant, and many American gardeners have tried to grow it. I certainly did several decades ago; but that trial, although it resulted in healthy, robust plants, produced not one mature bloom. There were buds, but never a flower. The buds always froze before they opened. I eventually gave up on the plant.

Then another local gardener had a repeat of my luck: he tried the plant and it never bloomed for him. He dug the plant, divided it up, and offered the pieces at a meeting of our local rock garden group. I was not the only person to take a piece, but as far as I’m aware I’m the only one who has reported success with it. The very mild weather has a lot, maybe everything, to do with it.

Now that I’ve seen what this plant can do, I might make room for it in the protected cold frame. That way, if typical winters return, I’ll still have these amazing blooms to brighten the shortest days of the year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A small pond in late autumn

I think I enjoy the pond more at this time of year than any other. By now I’ve gotten used to the lack of lively vegetation and flower interest in the garden. The pond has been tidied up a bit, rank growth trimmed back and the various stuff floating on the water surface either removed or much reduced. With the surface clear, the pond now reflects the sky much better. The water in the pond is a warm brown now; it reminds me of tea. This is the perfect background for goldfish, and this time of year is the peak goldfish viewing season. The fish here are so-called feeder fish, fish sold to be fed alive to other animals. They cost about 12 cents each, and every so often I release a few dozen into the pond. Birds (kingfishers and herons are often seen in the neighborhood, but I’ve never seen either at the pond although on two occasions I did see herons in the garden), cats and raccoons take some, maybe most, of them, and eventually they disappear. Then I add more.
The fish are still active, and the ever changing patterns they produce in the pond are an invitation to relax. On a day with sunshine, no wind and air temperatures above freezing, the benches on either end of the pond are very inviting, and it’s surprising how quickly the time passes when you’re absentmindedly watching the schools of goldfish.

A holiday present for the birds

We enjoy lots of light in our small house due to several sets of sliding glass doors. One set of these doors is placed exactly opposite to a large window on the opposite side of the house. You can see right through the house due to the placement of these windows. When the crepe myrtle is in full bloom, the red glow suffuses several rooms. Visitors walk into the front door and get a sliver of a view of the back garden and the light pouring in from that side of the house. Unfortunately, birds also seem to think they can fly right through the house. I’ve often wondered how birds aim themselves when flying. Evidently many simply fly into the light, and thus the great danger to them of a pane of glass between them and a light source.
It’s not unusual to be sitting and reading and to hear the unnerving thump of something hitting the glass door on the back side of the house. I can remember only one occasion when a bird hit the glass and died on the spot. By the time you get to the glass to investigate the thump the bird is gone.
The bird might be gone, but to judge by what they leave behind it’s hard to believe that they are not injured. In the right light one can make out the oily impression of wings and bodies on the glass. Sometimes there are feathers at the scene. Two days ago I was sitting near the glass when a thump much louder than usual interrupted my reading. I looked up to see a big bird making a bee line for the woods. I’m not sure what kind of bird it was – I saw black and white, maybe it was a woodpecker. When I examined the glass I was heart-struck: there was blood on the glass. To be injured is bad enough, but to be injured going into the winter strikes me as a death sentence.
I went out and bought and today hung a 7’ x 20’ piece of a product called Bird-X along the eve of the house. It hangs about two feet from the house wall, so any bird hitting it will almost certainly not crash hard into the glass. Bird-X is made to protect fruit and vegetables from bird damage: this installation will protect the birds from themselves.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Vita Sackville-West Rediviva

More YouTube adventures: last night I stumbled on another incredible voice from the past. This time it isn’t an opera singer, but the voice of someone whose name every gardener knows: Vita Sackville-West. She is reading from her poem The Land.
Here’s a link to the recording:


What does the gardener do during the winter?

What does the gardener do during the winter? Even as recently as five years ago, the answer would have been very different for most of us. Now, it's easy to kill hours with email,
Wikipedia, Google, blogging, web site design and You Tube. I spend a lot of time checking out You Tube music videos. Amazing things turn up now and then. For instance, a few months ago I stumbled on a audio/film fragment which had me high as a kite for days: in this brief segment one hears and sees Luisa Tetrazzini singing along with a Caruso recording. Tetrazzini made plenty of acoustic recordings early in the twentieth century, mostly before the First World War. But I was not aware of any electric recordings. When listening to the old acoustic recordings, the question which immediately arises is "what did they really sound like?" Tetrazzini was one of the great vocal miracles of her time, maybe of all time. Who wouldn't want to hear that voice as it really sounded? So this brief fragment is precious. It catches Tetrazzini late in her life, at her "retirement" after a career which was fabulous and flamboyant but ultimately left her a ward of the state.
Years ago in the liner notes to a set of reissues of Tetrazzini's recordings I read the story about some fans who visited her in old age. Curious about the state of her once famous voice, they discovered that it took little prompting to get the once famous singer to go to the piano and sing a scale topped with a rousing high C. Tetrazzini is then reported to have triumphantly proclaimed: "I'm old, I'm fat, I'm ugly, but I'm still La Tetrazzini".
The film clip opens with Tetrazzini, obviously fat, probably old but hardly ugly, listening to a Caruso recording. The first time I heard this I experienced incredibly acute anticipation: Tetrazzini does not sing at first, and you can see her making the sort of movements which singers do before singing. And then suddenly that voice...she still had it in abundance.
Here's the link to the Tetrazzini film clip:


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Real biscuits

To the extent that frequency of consumption is a criterion, biscuits must be my favorite food. There can not have been many weeks in the last forty years of my life when I have not made biscuits at least once. Although it takes only a few minutes to make them, and you can attend to other morning things while they are cooking, they really are not suitable to work mornings. A good biscuit deserves generous treatment, both in the matter of accompanying spreads and in the time allotted to their enjoyment.
As it turns out, there are several schools of biscuit making. The prevailing school demands soft flour, minimal handling of the dough, buttermilk and baking soda. I’m not an adherent of that school. My biscuits are made with butter, milk, aluminum-free baking powder and unbleached, all purpose flour (a flavorful flour can make a world of difference). They get a lot of handling: they are, in effect, a variation of what is sometimes called rough puff pastry. The dough is kneaded until it is very tight. If I’m preparing them for company, during the last few minutes of kneading the dough is not folded: the rolled dough is cut in half, the resulting halves are neatly stacked, and then the rolling and stacking is continued until I’m satisfied. If I’m making them for myself, I sometimes omit the stacking step. The biscuits in the image were not stacked. In either case, for the final rolling the pastry board is sprinkled with white corn meal. This seemingly minor detail adds an unexpected and delicious element to the finished biscuit. After this final rolling, the block of dough is cut with a knife into squares or rectangles.
The biscuits are then arranged on a baking sheet sprinkled with more white corn meal and cooked in a hot oven (in fact, typically in the gas grill outside at maximum heat) until they begin to smell delicious. Typical recipes call for ten or so minutes: that’s fine if you like raw dough. I’ve been known to cook them until the edges begin to show minute black flecks.
The biscuits in the image show a frequent variation: they were topped with grated cheddar cheese before being baked.
A plate of these biscuits makes a wonderful way to fuel up before a busy day of garden work.

The Tweed Months

It’s not just the shift from daylight savings time which distracts me at this time of year. There is something else going on, something a lot more subtle. Each year at this time my aesthetic sensibilities undergo a change. Sometime in November, when the oaks begin to color, the autumnal perspective begins to prevail: I think of this time of year as the Tweed months. The broad spectrum and varied intensities of summer color and early fall leaf color are replaced by a palate which is much narrower in scope and generally much more subdued in intensity. Summer is an ever changing piano, early fall a harpsichord, and these weeks before the arrival of really brutal weather a clavichord. And each year it surprises me that these diminished means have the power to evoke such intense feelings. This is the beginning of my favorite part of the year. The improbably lush greenness of Italian arum makes such a fitting contrast to the newly fallen oak leaves, especially after a wet period when the leaves not only take on a richer color but also yield their sweet fragrance. All of my life I’ve loved the fragrance of damp, newly fallen oak leaves. If heaven has a fragrance, this is it. It’s a fragrance which is nearly duplicated in the flowers of Camellia sasanqua, and since the camellia blooms when the oak leaves are falling, the comparison is easy to make.
Just those three elements – the Italian arum, the oak leaves and the camellias - work together to form a seasonal garden as deeply moving as any. The appeal of this combination is not merely visual. You can certainly place those three plants so that they fulfill whatever design aspirations you might have. But that’s not the point. The oak leaves and the camellia flowers have the ability to move me on a much deeper level, as fragrances often do. And there is something very uplifting about the camellia and the arum at this time of year: as the days grow shorter and other plants are closing down for the season, they seem to be defying the general trend by surging into growth or bloom. They are doing something when the rest of the garden is dying. It’s this doing something which makes the difference: there are plenty of evergreen plants both herbaceous (such as Rohdea japonica) and woody (Skimmia and Sarcococca are favorites here) or neither one nor the other (Ruscus and Danaë) which are lovely at this time of year. But they are not doing anything right now (unless you count the static fruiting of the Ruscus and Danaë ). If you look around carefully, you’ll see lots of other little odds and ends which are wintergreen and have taken on a renewed glow as the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the light levels, overall dropping quickly, actually increase under the deciduous trees. Suddenly it seems there are tufts of vivid green mosses and liverworts. Surely they weren’t there all summer?
It’s when I begin to notice these things that I realize that I’ve finally made the transition from summer into late fall successfully.

Gardening in the cold

The transition from summer into fall is often an awkward one for me. First of all, there is the need to adjust to the change from daylight savings time to standard time. This throws me for a loop every year: it takes me weeks to get used to this. And there is a double whammy involved with this: the days are rapidly getting shorter at this time of year, and for weeks I wander around the house at 6 P.M. looking out at the surrounding blackness and wondering if it’s time to go to bed. Oh, it’s only 6:30? I guess I’ll force myself to stay up longer. What, it’s only 7? What can I do to stay awake for a few more hours? By 8:30 it hardly matters what I’m doing: I start to nod off. It’s now early December and I’m still struggling with this.
The other challenge at this time of year is to make the daylight hours pay. The mornings are cold, and if the day is cloudy and there is no sun, it takes real will power to get out there and address the cold, damp earth. As long as I’m dressed properly, once I get started I’m usually happy. But getting started is sometimes a problem.
And then there is this: somewhere I read a story in which one character upbraided another character for his decision to hire a sixty-five year old gardener: “he’ll never get anything done” the one said. Well guess what? I’ve hired a sixty-five year old gardener. He’s the only one I can afford. He’s got good intentions, but to tell the truth he works very deliberately, does not take instruction well, is very stubborn and can be a bit cranky when things don’t go well. On the other hand, he’s very versatile, and if the outdoor work gets him down, he simply comes in and starts to write blog entries or waste the day drifting from one You Tube music video to another.

Witch hazel two-for

I was standing in the kitchen the other day absentmindedly looking out over the garden. An unexpected cloud of yellow caught my eye: hundreds of soft yellow witch hazel flowers were blooming. The yellow was unexpected because the witch hazel which grows in that position is the orange-red cultivar ‘Feuerzauber’. What I was seeing were some maturing sprouts from the stock on which the named cultivar had been grafted.

If someone had told me about this happening in their own garden, I probably would have suggested that the yellow flowers were those of Hamamelis virginiana, a species sometimes used as a stock for choice cultivars. But now that I’ve seen these in my own garden, I wonder. Hamamelis virginiana as I know it as an element in the local flora has much smaller flowers than the ones I’m seeing on the plants now in bloom. But what other Hamamelis would be blooming at this time of year with plain yellow flowers?

Aeolian Woes

Last weekend I toured the garden checking for things to do before the ground freezes. The pergola caught my eye, and it occurred to me that the hurricane season had passed for this year without any wind problems. My forty foot pergola is built on the gravity principle: gravity is the only force holding it together. The strong wind yesterday revealed once again the limitations of that system. Today, all of the long runners and cross beams of the pergola are on the ground, blown down one by one in yesterday’s winds. The pergola piers themselves are still upright and wreathed in the collapsed tangle of climbing roses. This happened once before as the tail end of a hurricane passed through. I’ll be working alone as I attempt to put everything right, and past experience has shown me that it’s rough, painful work. As all real gardeners know, gardening is a blood sport. I’ve got enough to keep me busy for the next few weeks without the pergola problem, so the roses might very well spend the winter on the ground. If so, I’ll have to get them up before the buds for vegetative growth start to swell: once that happens, they will be too fragile to successfully withstand the rough work involved in pushing the canes back into position.

Monday, December 3, 2007

What happened to November?

November passed without a single blog entry: what was going on? Part of the explanation is that this year we experienced the most abrupt transition from summer weather to autumnal weather: over a matter of only days the heat and humidity ended and the rains began, rains accompanied by a roughly twenty degree drop in the daily temperature high.
In recent years November has emerged as the busiest and most important month in my gardening year. October used to be the most important, but in recent years October has in effect been a summer month: hot, humid and frost free right through the month. The prolonged heat and drought we experienced this year only exacerbated this trend. I like to wait until daytime temperatures don’t top 70º F before I take on the heavy work. As a result, none of that got done during October of this year.

In fact, it was well into November before I really got in the mood for gardening. Mail order bulbs have been on hand for months, but I had not the least interest in them. Now I’m pushing hard to get everything done before the ground freezes – if it does.

Are we witnessing the Mediterraneanization of our climate?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Birthday plants

I celebrated my birthday this week. Over the years I've added a number of plants to the garden which bloom on my birthday: these are my birthday plants. Two are near the top of my list of favorite plants of any season: Crocus speciosus and fall-blooming Camellia sasanqua. In recent years another improbable one has emerged: Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'.

Crocus speciosus is virtually a wild flower here. It seeds itself around a bit, comes up here and there, and I'm never sure where I'll see it each year. Although this plant gives the impression of being as nearly permanent as any crocus in our climate, it's not. For years I watched plants reappear and bloom in the same places in the garden. This gave me the impression that it was capable of surviving over the long term under our conditions. Encouraged by this, years ago I planted them by the thousand in the lawns. For the first several years these plantings were spectacular. But over the years they have thinned out to the point that the viewer would never guess how many there once were. A big part of the problem is that when densely planted, the pickings are easy for the squirrels and probably voles, too. I've seen the squirrels dig them from the lawn. I've never actually seen a vole eat anything (in fact, I've actually seen voles only a few times).

The camellias here have a history which makes me proud: I raised most of them from seed. Nearly forty years ago I visited a local public garden with an extensive camellia planting in October. The plants were full of seed, seed being enthusiastically collected by squirrels, chipmunks and rats. I asked permission, got it, and filled my pockets with fresh seed of Camellia sasanqua, C. oleifera and C. japonica cultivars. Back home, I built an impromptu cold frame, sowed the seed, and then mostly forgot about it. The years passed, they accumulated into decades, and eventually the camellias began to bloom. Most are Camellia sasanqua, a few are clearly C. oleifera, and three or four are C. japonica.

The Camellia japonica have few-petaled flowers of a sort of pink-red. When a snowstorm catches them in bloom, the effect is very poetic. The C. oleifera seem to be typical examples of that species: white fragrant flowers on plants with foliage distinct in small ways from that of typical C. sasanqua.

The Camellia sasanqua are one of my birthday plants. The flowers, in various pinks and white, have only a few petals and an unusual and very agreeable scent. I esteem them more for this scent than anything else. When the bushes are in full bloom, they enliven their corner of the garden; but it's the scent I crave.

In recent years I've added another plant to my birthday list. This is the improbable one. Who would have thought that Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi' would have survived outside 24/7/365 for nearly a decade in this garden? But it has, and each year it goes up to seven or eight feet high and then, with each full moon of late summer and fall, produces its prodigiously fragrant flowers. These start out pale yellow orange and mature a rich pumpkin orange if the weather is cool. It's in bloom today in the cool rain.

The rain: finally it's raining. I won't complain if it goes on for another week. But the overcast sky means no pictures for now: I'll post photos of the Crocus, Camellia and Brugmansia later. I hope 'Charles Grimaldi' waits.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hyacinthus orientalis 'Borah'

Garden hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis, have been in this garden as long as I have. I've always liked them, and I wouldn't want to be without at least a few every spring. However, they are all pretty much cut out with the same cookie cutter, and other than color the group varies only within very narrow limits.
I've long cherished a clump of Roman hyacinths, but other than those and the score or so of typical cultivars I've grown (both single and double), I've never looked much into the variation in cultivated hyacinths.
Last night I picked up an old paperback bulb book from 1975, Rob Herwig's 128 Bulbs You Can Grow. And in reading the account of hyacinths, I was both reminded of something I had forgotten about and also prompted to think I might be understanding something in retrospect which I didn't fully understand before. Herwig discusses the hyacinth cultivar 'Borah', aka Fairy Hyacinth. What, in the greater scheme of things hyacinth, is 'Borah'?
Evidently it is not one of the so-called Cynthella hyacinths marketed during the first half of the twentieth century (Cynthella is presumably short for "hyacinthella" - "little hyacinths" and not to be confused with the genus Hyacinthella). Cynthella hyacinths were nothing more than small bulbs of the same cultivars sold as garden or forcing hyacinths. They produced smaller inflorescences than those of full-sized bulbs. As far as I'm aware, hyacinths are no longer sold in the Cynthella sizes.
Several years ago, a new class of garden hyacinths called Festival Hyacinths appeared on the market. These are not Cynthella hyacinths. They are hyacinths which whatever their bulb size produce only multiple, relatively few-flowered stems which mimic those of the old Roman hyacinths. The Festival Hyacinths are marketed in colors, as Festival Blue, Festival White and Festival Pink. I assume these are clones.
Here's where I'm going with this: is that old cultivar 'Borah' a member of the Festival group? Is 'Borah' the plant now sold as 'Festival Blue'? Or is it a precursor of the Festival Hyacinths, derived from similar breeding lines?
And finally, is 'Borah' still in commerce under that or another name?

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Wayne was moving pots on his patio the other day, and this head popped up to say hello. Luckily he had his camera handy. Wayne's garden is right beside Rock Creek Park, too, so we get some of the same visitors. It's been so dry this year that very few toads have been seen. That's true for slugs, too, although I can't imagine anyone regretting the lack of slugs.

Of all the woodland sprites which occasionally visit our gardens, for me toads are the most welcome. They congregate in the lily pool yearly to breed. There will come a time, usually in April, when there will be dozens of them clumsily splashing around in the water. The males will be singing, some hidden in waterside vegetation, some right out in the open. This goes on for several nights, and then in much smaller numbers for weeks. Soon the pool swarms with tiny black tadpoles, and then the day comes when the ground in the garden is alive with what at first glance look like hopping flies. I try not to go out into the garden during this time because it's just about impossible to move without stepping on a baby toad.

One of the pleasures of late winter is to sit in the garden on a mild night and listen to the toads moving slowly up through the garden to the pond. You have to listen carefully because all you'll hear is the occasional leaf moving. The males seem much less cautious than the females, and typically they arrive at the pond first. Nor do the females seem to linger at the pond as the males do.

After a shower on a mild late winter or early spring evening, parts of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park will be littered with dead and dying toads. Don't drivers ever look down at the road?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sansevieria kirkii

Years ago, probably at least twenty-five years ago, I was touring a local garden when I spotted a plant which stopped me in my tracks. At the time, I was growing some of the older Cryptanthus hybrids with large leaves in leaden colors. There in front of me was a plant I couldn't place. It sort of looked like one of the Cryptanthus, but then again it didn't. It sort of looked like a bromeliad, but not really. What was it? I asked, and the answer surprised me more: it was a Sansevieria, in particular one known as S. kirkii pulchra. I was so intrigued I forgot my manners and immediately begged a piece.
It's as easily grown as the other common members of the genus, and here it blooms almost yearly in autumn. The plant stays outside all summer, and in most years is still outside in November. I keep it outside as long as hard freezes don't occur. More than once the developing flowers have been frosted: that's not good! If the flowers are fragrant, I have not noticed it yet. I keep checking them at various times of day, but so far no fragrance.
Two of my high school teachers had the coolest rooms in the school. Miss Cross, the music teacher, had a second floor suite of rooms all to herself. All of the windows on the long side of the largest room had planters of Boston ferns. Miss Boyer, the biology teacher, had a big room with a massive old aquarium bigger than a bath tub. That room also had Sansevieria, the familiar S. trifasciata. When I returned to school after the summer break, I would notice the dried scapes of the Sansevieria: they had bloomed during the summer when the school was closed. I assume they sat there dry and neglected all summer.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More asters

Here are two more asters; these bloom in early- to mid-October. The one in the top image is 'Raydon's Favorite', a cultivar of Aster oblongifolius (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). The lower image is of Aster cordifolius (S. cordifolium). Both of these were photographed in late afternoon light when the sun was already low in the sky: this enhances the cool colors.
Aster cordifolius seeds itself around in this garden, for the most part inoffensively. The colors of the original stock were pale mauve, but the seedlings seem to be getting bluer over the years.
The late blooming asters are my favorites. Hmmm.....didn't I already say 'Bluebird' was my favorite? Any aster in full bloom is my favorite!
While looking at 'Raydon's Favorite' yesterday it occurred to me that the flowers look like those of Anemone blanda. Now I think of this aster as the Anemone blanda bush.
If you are not a botanist, you will probably be surprised (or simply confused) to hear that what we call a flower in an aster is in fact a much compressed branch with dozens of individual flowers of two types arranged in a flower-like formation. That's why the members of the greater group to which asters belong are called composites: what looks like a single flower is in fact a group of many flowers, a composition as it were.

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Mossy-cup oak

Virtually all of my life I've been lucky enough to live in close proximity to oaks. To this day I remember the important oaks of my childhood. The most massive trees in our area are apt to be oaks, and there is an oddly satisfying pleasure to be had in viewing them. Or at least there is for some of us. I had a neighbor in the past who never saw a tree he didn't want to saw down: the bigger the tree, the greater the challenge. A magnificent white oak grew on his property, and he wasn't happy until he had taken it down.

The very existence of such massive living things, things which have been there for decades - sometimes centuries - suggests that the world, if we give it a chance, is more stable than we are apt to give it credit for. At least some of us take satisfaction in that thought.

The tree shown above is the still magnificent Elkton, Virginia mossy-cup oak. The acorns shown in the lower images are from trees growing in the home garden. Botanically, the plant is Quercus macrocarpa - the macrocarpa part is a reference to the big acorns, reportedly the largest of any North American oak.

I first saw this species in the wild in central Texas about forty years ago while I was in military service. But by then I had already become aware of it from the trees which grew along the old Olmstead Walk on the grounds of the National Zoological Park. It was there that I first noticed the comparatively huge acorns with their fringed cups. Sometime in the 1970s I collected some of these acorns and planted them in the garden. Two grew, one of them much more rapidly than the other. They are now big trees, the larger one in particular. This provides some solace for the fate of the parental trees: they were cut down several years after I collected those acorns. Why?

They fruit here only erratically. This year the acorn crop is very heavy. The last heavy acorn crop here was well over ten years ago.
I've called this species mossy-cup oak in this account; the name bur (or burr) oak is more widely used.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Asters and colchicums

This composition was photographed last autumn. In addition to colchicums and asters there are hardy ageratum, morning glories and sedum. The colchicum is the one sometimes named 'byzantinum album' or 'Innocence'. For our climate it is probably the best large, white-flowered colchcium. The morning glories have been in the garden for so long I forget their source or their name. They self-sow freely. They are very attractive with garden cleome, too.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Some of the bulbs of autumn

Some of the colchicums and sternbergias are in full bloom now. Their colors don't do much for one another, but this old planting has given carefree color and interest for years. The ones shown in the image are the colchicum often sold under the name 'Giant' or 'The Giant' and the familiar Sternbergia lutea. Both of these grow well here, last for years, and have never failed to bloom yearly.

The name of the colchicum is in doubt. Bowles places 'The Giant' among the hybrids which resemble C. speciosum and do not show prominent tessellation. But the plate prepared for Gartenschönheit shows a pale but obviously tessellated flower. Whatever it is, it is a big one: in fact, it's has the largest flowers of all the colchicum I know.

The sternbergias produce foliage as the flowers fade; this foliage does a good Liriope imitation during the winter. Years ago I saw a bed of Sternbergia lutea about thirty feet long and perhaps six feet deep. It was in full bloom when I saw it and was a wonderful demonstration of what this plant can do.

Asters, yet again

Aster 'Bluebird' is a butterfly magnet. In fact, several sorts of nectar feeders are swarming the flowers today. The butterflies are getting all of the attention from passing humans, but the most exciting sighting on the flowers today goes mostly unnoticed: we have honeybees again, and apparently lots of them! Someone nearby must have set up a hive lately. It's been a long time since honeybees have been abundant in this garden.
The butterflies shown are all common ones; but if you don't know that, and maybe even if you do, they are still fascinating and beautiful. Top to bottom, the visitors are: buckeye, pink-edged sulfur, honeybee, skipper, bumblebee and variegated fritillary.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Asters again

My introduction to asters came about thirty years ago when my mother and I, returning home from the grocery store, slowed down to admire a field of goldenrod. The "field" was a soon to be developed construction site not far from what is now one of the busiest intersections in a very busy part of the county. We stopped to pick some goldenrod, and then saw a spot of purple-blue: it was a robust plant of the New England aster, Aster novae-angliae (aka Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). I came back later and dug the clump. It's hard to say if that plant survives in the garden now: over the years, there have been so many seedlings that it's hard to say which are pieces of the original plant and which are seedlings.

Incidentally, that natural pairing of goldenrod and aster is easily reproduced in the garden. The goldenrod 'Fireworks' makes a particularly good companion.

Other New England aster cultivars have been introduced to the garden, too, and these have crossed with the original plant to produce seedlings in an array of silvery pink, rich pink, dull purple-blue and saturated wine red. The cultivar 'Alma Potschke' provides a color unique among the New England aster cultivars, a vibrant, intense pink-red unlike any other color I know in the genus.

This species is characterized by rough, sometimes clammy, scented foliage. Plants are typically four or five feet high, sometimes more. They begin to bloom in August, although the early flowers are not numerous or conspicuous. They are still blooming in October. Left to grow without attention, they form thick clumps of rigid stems. The counsel of perfection is to divide them annually, spacing each plant about eighteen inches from its neighbor. Don't ask me if I've ever done this.

Other asters growing in the garden include Aster cordifolius (aka Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Aster divaricatus (aka Eurybia divaricata), Aster umbellatus (Doellingeria umbellata) and Aster amellus (aka Aster amellus). The names in parentheses here are old names newly revived to express more clearly the interrelationships of these plants.

Aster cordifolius seeds itself around freely and forms low mounds of smoky blue gray in October.

Aster amellus is one of the European asters, asters which have a variable track record as garden plants in this part of the country. On trial now is the cultivar 'Doktor Otto Petschek'.

One other aster once grew abundantly in this garden but was eventually expelled: the frost aster. This is the small-flowered, weedy aster often seen blooming from cracks in streets or sidewalks, or in rough dry waste places. It's not unusual to see plants blooming even in December, and so it would seem to have value as a late blooming garden plant. But once brought into the garden, it quickly sheds its former poverty and waxes lush and overbearing. When growing well, a single plant can form a four or five foot hemisphere of bloom; and at that late season these plants can be a boon to bees and other nectar foragers. In the border they produce a mist-like lightness of bloom which is very beautiful. After such prolific bloom, the borders will be full of volunteer seedlings the next year and for years thereafter. And the parent plants are rhizomatous, too, and get around freely. Eventually it dawned on me: it's high maintenance and too much of a good thing. Now I enjoy these in the local fields.


The plant in the illustration is Aster laevis 'Blue Bird' (aka Symphyotrichum laeve 'Blue Bird'), a current favorite among the garden asters here.
A century ago, when gardens were bigger (and, some might say, the selection of plants narrower), there was big enthusiasm for asters. Books of the time give long lists of cultivars. The photographs of aster borders in the works of Gertrude Jekyll seem to show more space devoted to asters than I have to give to everything in my garden. What a sight those must have been.
It's hard to account for the comparative lack of asters in our gardens now. Yes, the plants are apt to be big, and yes, in our climate they can be a bit weedy. And although many of the modern cultivars are not the same as those grown a century ago, there are many readily available asters which are probably as good as any ever grown.
One reason asters might not be as commonly grown as they were in the past is that the knack of growing asters has largely been lost. Many people who have grown asters will laugh at that statement: what knack, they probably ask, does it take to grow asters? Asters grow themselves and then some. If you've grown asters, you know where that leads. But books of the early part of the last century give copious instructions for growing asters, instructions which include directions for proper spacing of single stem divisions, proper provision for staking, proper pinching, proper soil preparation, proper division in the fall, proper annual replanting...A lot of effort went into the culture of asters in the old days, days when even small gardens sometimes had help. Well grown asters are labor intensive and need a lot of space; need I say more?
I went out this morning to admire the clump of 'Blue Bird' shown above: it was busy with butterflies and huge bumblebees (I call - probably incorrectly - all the big, gentle, rotund black and yellow bees bumblebees). And there was something else moving about among the clusters of flowers: honey bees! We rarely see honey bees in the garden any more, but they are here today, and in numbers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

the grape soda factory expoded

The grape soda factory exploded recently. When I take Biscuit for a walk we pass a spot where I begin to notice it: the pervasive scent of grape soda. That's grape as in Concord grape, as in fox grape. Depending on the weather, the temperature, the time of day or night, the scent can have a sweet edge or a musky edge. I often wonder how many people know what it is. There are no grapes growing in the area, certainly not enough to scent hundreds of square yards.

Where is it coming from? It's coming from the surviving kudzu which grows high up into the trees which grow on a formerly abandoned lot now converted into parkland. Years ago, the kudzu sprawled over the area covering acres of space. When the area was cleaned up and opened as a park, there was an outcry to get rid of the kudzu. Much of the kudzu was removed, then the embankments over which it previously sprawled began to erode as many cubic yards of earth washed out during storms. Once the kudzu was gone, the mile-a-minute vines moved in and successfully occupied virtually every square foot formerly covered in kudzu. How's that for out of the frying pan and into the fire?

Few people are probably old enough to remember when kudzu was grown as an ornamental. One sometimes still sees it shading country porches. Since it's fully capable of completely covering any house, one wonders how much time is spent keeping it under control.

I'm tempted to host a gathering for some of my gardening friends at which I'll serve foods made with some of the less usual products of plants we grow. What will I be able to make with kudzu flour? If I decide to keep to a Japanese theme, there will also be something made with konjac, maybe something made with gobo.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


The plant in the image above is Barnardia, long a resident of our gardens and for just about as long neglected. This name Barnardia is new to most of us; recently the genus Scilla has been re-worked and the old familiar names seem likely to be replaced by new ones such as Barnardia. Generations of gardeners have called this plant Scilla chinensis, S. japonica or S. scilloides (silly scilla?). This is another of those plants which, although generally described as autumn-flowering, in fact flowers during the last weeks of summer. It blooms with some of the Liriope and Ophiopogon, and in some ways it resembles those plants. It certainly doesn't look anything like the usual late-winter, early-spring flowering Scilla of our gardens. As you can see, the flower color is not at all assertive; it takes a big group of these in flower to make much of a showing. The color of the flowers reminds me of that of two other flowers: Cotinus and Muscari comosum 'Plumosum'.

The plants in the image were grown from seed; I simply scattered the seed on the ground, stepped back, and two years later the plants were large enough to bloom. Now that I've grown this plant for several years, I'm beginning to suspect that it has some potential which has largely been ignored. Isolated plants definitely fall into the "curiosity" category: they are not at all showy. But in a large group, this plant has potential. Now that I think about it, it would make a good border for an extensive planting of Begonia grandis. Another nice association is that with Iris dichotoma, although the iris is apt to reach its peak before the Barnardia starts. The earlier colchicums bloom at about the same time and mix nicely.

The Barnardia puts up foliage in the autumn, but this foliage does not persist through the winter.

Although the individual flowers of the Barnardia might remind some of those of Liriope or Ophiopogon, the seed capsules and seeds will not.

Friday, September 7, 2007

the glorie of all these kindes

The plant in the image above is Colchicum variegatum. This is almost certainly the same plant described in the early seventeenth century by John Parkinson in his Paradisus as "The checkered Medowe Saffron of Chio or Sio". His description of this plant contains a passage which is one of the more often quoted passages from the Paradisus: " it flowreth later for the most part then any of the other, even not until November, and is very hard to be preserved with us, in that for the most part the roote waxeth lesse and lesse every yeare, our cold Country being so contrary unto his naturall, that it will scarce shew his flower; yet when it flowreth any thing early, that it may have any confort of a warme Sunne, it is the glorie of all these kindes."

This species flowered here for the first time about seven years ago. That corm had come from an English source (although doubtless Dutch grown); it was small when received, and it took a year or two of TLC to bring it up to blooming size. The year after it bloomed it rotted during the summer. That plant had a much smaller flower than the one shown above but was otherwise similar.

I got a second chance last year with a corm imported from Janis Ruksans. This one too was small and did not bloom but it did grow well. During the summer I was careful to keep it dry. When checked for the penultimate time in mid August, it seemed fine. When checked again a week ago, I was crushed: the corm had shrivelled badly, leaving only a small bit of living tissue. That living scrap is now in the refrigerator in a zip-lock bag. It seems to be recuperating.

The flower shown above came as a corm in mid-August from JMcG, my source of choice for intriguing bulbs. This one has a flower about three inches in diameter - more if it's flattened out - and is everything I've been hoping for from this species. It is indeed "the glorie of all these kindes."

Bottle Gentians

For local gardeners, the genus Gentiana divides neatly into two groups: the ones we want and can't grow and all the rest. OK, it's not really as grim as that; among the ones we want to grow there are several which do well here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. The one in this group which I would recommend in particular is Gentiana scabra. If that one does not satisfy your gentian cravings, you might want to give consideration to the possibility that there are other things going on in your life which need attention.

Firmly lodged in the "all the rest" category are the bottle gentians. We would probably appreciate these much more if some of their overweeningly beautiful relatives did not exist. But the bottle gentians are like those people who exist in the shadow of a deservedly celebrated sibling: the best they can hope for is a bit of reflected glow.

I would not want to be without the bottle gentians. For one thing, they have taken care of themselves in my bog trays for years. The earliest ones are blooming now; there are others which do not bloom until late October or early November. The soft blue, curiously shaped flowers are always a pleasure in the late garden. I've never noticed a fragrance, but the local bumble bees seem to be obsessed with the flowers.

Most gentians have an elegance of bearing and form which is characteristic of the group. The bottle gentians share this: long before the flowers show color, the developing buds are very interesting. Years ago, I had a pot surfaced with one of the local mosses. In the pot grew some bottle gentians and the little Japanese orchid called egret flower (Pecteilis/Habenaria/Platanthera). The orchid and the bottle gentians didn't bloom together, but for months that little pot was the source of keen interest and pleasure.

Sweet Autumn Clematis

It certainly is sweet, but it doesn't bloom in the autumn: how about sweet late summer clematis?

What induces flowering in this plant? A few weeks ago, while I was visiting in western Virginia, I saw this plant blooming freely in local gardens. I'm pretty sure the plants at home were not even showing flower buds at that time. The area in question is south of here. You would think that the farther south you went, the later the plants would bloom, not the earlier.

And how can the scent of the flowers be described? It's a complex scent, one of those scents which elicits different descriptions from different people. To some it smells like vanilla, to others almond, to others like both of those but with a bit of lemon added; a neighbor recently mentioned that one she once had smelled like ginger.

If you are as old as I am, for decades you knew this plant as Clematis paniculata. If you get the same catalogs I do, perhaps you remember the same confusion when you read about hybrids of Clematis paniculata which, as you read the description, sure didn't sound like the plant out in the garden. That Clematis paniculata is a New Zealand species. The plant in the garden has had many names over the years, but is now generally called C. maximowicziana.

In nearby northern Virginia, on the drive down to Alexandria, one passes areas where what seem to be acres are blanketed with a white-flowered, late-summer blooming clematis; is it this species or is it C. virginiana?

Summer in the greater Washington, D.C. area

I have no desire to be out in the garden during July and August. Outdoor gardening during those months for me consists of two things mostly: mowing the grass as infrequently as I can get away with, and quick, early morning tours of the garden before the sun comes over the trees. Here in Maryland,the overnight temperature is often in the 80s F; add to that high humidity and lots of pollution from vehicular traffic. I walk the dog early to beat the heat, but the rush hour traffic starts before 7 A.M.; on still days the exhaust from the autos pools in low lying areas - sometimes I feel dizzy after walking through such areas.

On the other hand, there is plenty to do inside in setting up databases for printing labels later, web site stuff, blogging stuff and things like that.

To me it has always seemed so odd that so many people look forward so much to summer. You can have it as far as I'm concerned. I'll never understand why anyone would take their vacation during July or August unless they are leaving this area and heading for somewhere with conditions fit for human activity. Instead, a lot of people in this area leave the metropolitan areas and head over to the ocean beaches where the conditions are even worse. Who in their right mind wants to walk on scorching sand in their bare feet during the summer? Who in their right mind would leave the areas regularly sprayed for insects and explore the marshes, the marshes which are so poetically beautiful in November but which in July and August reek of dead fish and rotting algae. Years ago I went on a bird watching trip to one of the Atlantic barrier islands. The night was still. We slept in tents. In the morning, I opened the zipper of the tent fly just enough to get my hand out and grab the outer zipper. Within seconds, the back of my hand was black with ravenous mosquitoes. What great choices: stay in the stifling tent all day to avoid the mosquitoes, slather yourself with toxic mosquito repellents, suffocate under protective clothing. The one sensible choice -decamp to the nearest McDonald's - was nixed because we hadn't seen the birds we had driven for four hours to see. I didn't mention those four hour drives to get to the beaches, did I: why does any sane person endure that?

Add to those miseries those elicited by the introduction of the Asian tiger mosquito and the upsurge in deer ticks: summer is for masochists, or at least for people in deep, very deep, denial about what's really happening around them. And what's so great about the summer flora? All those coarse, weedy, daisy things and grasses and impatiens and petunias rolled off the bolt by the square yard and vines which might inspire a new version of Laocoön statuary: I can see it now, a struggling Laocoön and his sons wreathed in bindweed and dodder, their skin lacerated by festoons of mile-a-minute plant. I would just put a trowel in the hand of one of them and re-title the statue The Gardeners Of Summer.

And then there is the dilemma of air conditioning. Generally speaking, I hate it. During that fortunately brief period when the temperature is well into the 90s F late into the evening, I sometimes give in and run the air conditioner. But is a summer being forced to stay in an air conditioned building different than so many other kinds of imprisonment? How are we supposed to hear the cicadas and katydids through tightly closed windows and over the incessant hum, rumble and whirring of the condenser and fans? Where is the sense of relief which comes with the evening and its sometimes cooler temperatures? Lightning bugs are not the same viewed through the house windows.

Summer also stinks, literally. When the neighbors have a crab feast and decide to dump the aggressively odoriferous evidence over the back fence,the entire neighborhood wakes up to vibrant reek which only a raccoon could love. Forget to cover the garbage? Want to wake up fast on a summer morning?Lift the lid of the formerly uncovered garbage can and try to suppress the retching as you count the zillions of lively maggots ravening the garbage.

And need I mention that after an hour or two of trying to slug it out on a hot summer day, I’m not about to be confused with a Sweet William myself? I’ll bet I’m not the only one who makes a bee line for the shower as soon as the lawn mower is put away.

I mentioned deep denial above; summer is the season when even the most optimistic among us in this area abjures the word "alpine". Yes, it's a thing much to be desired. Just the thing to include in your vacation plans. But for those of us who stay put, summer invites us to wake up and smell the coffee, the roses, or more likely a gag-inducing whiff of the now-well-scattered remains of the small mammal which inauspiciously took shelter in that lawn mower.

Ever heard of aestivation? I recommend it highly.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Darlow's Enigma

The patch of white at the top of this image is a group of flowers of the rose 'Darlow's Enigma'. Some of you are perhaps thinking to yourselves as you view this "I can't see the roses". That's partly because the roses are not meant to be seen. 'Darlow's Enigma' is nothing to look at; it's grown for it fragrance and long season of bloom. And its fragrance is one of those rose scents which is very free on the air. When I selected roses for the pergola, freedom of fragrance was the main consideration.

I don't know who Darlow is or was, but I can partially explain the enigma. There has long been controversy among rosarians about the identity of the so-called musk rose. At the end of the nineteenth century, there still existed a rose which had been grown in British gardens for a long time, perhaps centuries, and was known as musk rose. Under British conditions, this rose began to bloom late in the season, sometimes not until August. One of the puzzles of modern horticulture is whether this plant still exists. There is a plant making the rounds which seems to fit the old descriptions; evidently it is not reliably hardy here in the greater Washington, D.C. area. This is one of the parents of the Noisette roses.

My guess is that 'Darlow's Enigma' was a candidate at one time for consideration as the true musk rose. Do any of you know the whole story?

Several years ago, an internet friend, Joe, was in the area and came by to see the garden. As we took the tour, I was pointing out things here and there; as we passed under the pergola, Joe offhandedly said "Oh, I see you have 'Darlow's Enigma'!" I was dumbfounded. First of all, as roses go, 'Darlow's Enigma' is rather nondescript. I would be reluctant to identify it in another garden. For another, I doubt that many people grow it. How in the world did he even know about it? It turns out that in an earlier incarnation he had managed an antique rose collection.

The chrome-yellow flowers in this image are one of the "yellow" forms of Campsis radicans. Catalogs often illustrate a bright lemon yellow campsis, and if such a thing exists, I would very much like to have it. The color of this chrome-yellow form is a disappointment to me.

A peek out onto the deck

The weather has been very agreeable lately, and that means meals out on the deck. This morning it was cool until the sun came over the trees. Then the umbrella was brought out. I was sorting Fritillaria bulbs for about an hour and making plant labels.

It just happens that the colors of the umbrella harmonize nicely with those of the crepe myrtle which can be seen in the background.

While so many others were battling heavy traffic to get to expensive, crowded holiday sites, I was reading the paper and enjoying the varied vocalizations of the Carolina wrens.

Milkweed bugs

The little guys shown above in their Halloween colors are milkweed bugs. And yes, they are true bugs. The photo was taken last year in October, but I was reminded of it when a friend who gardens in nearby northern Virginia sent me a photo of the ones in her garden. So far, there is no indication that we will have them in the garden again this year. In the photo above they are shown on the seed pods of Asclepias tuberosa, the so-called butterfly weed.

Salvia guaranitica

The realization that Salvia guaranitica is hardy in our gardens was a great day for me. Among easily grown garden plants there is nothing like it: the flower color is unique among the easily grown, hardy perennials of late summer. The intense cobalt blue of the flowers is a real treat when seen in combination with many other colors other than most of those called "blue". Right now a big patch of Eupatorium coelestinum is blooming beside some of the salvia: after seeing this, you won't call the Eupatorium blue any more.

Hummingbirds and bumble bees give Salvia guaranitica a real workout.

Impressive as the intense flower color is, it disappears when the plants are viewed from any distance. And it takes a lot of flowers in this color to make much of a splash. But there is a real sense of satisfaction to be had in viewing such a vibrant blue in the garden.

It has taken a while for me to become comfortable with the idea that this is a reliably hardy perennial in our climate. But local gardeners have been growing this plant for at least twenty years that I know of. If we go back to having severe winters, perhaps we'll lose them; but for now, I'm using this plant freely in some of the borders.

The one shown in the image above is the one called 'Black and Blue'. I also grow the form with a green calyx and the same intense cobalt corolla color. The pale blue of 'Argentine Skies' is a lovely color, too, but it does not move me the way the cobalt-colored forms do.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Monarch caterpillars

So far, this does not seem to be turning out to be a great year for monarch butterflies locally. I've seen two or three adults, but so far there are no caterpillars on the milkweed. The photo above was taken in early September last year. A day or two after the photo was taken, the caterpillars disappeared.
Casual visitors to the garden are generally clueless about plants grown to provide food for insect larvae or birds. They freak when they see a milkweed covered with caterpillars. If they are the really effete sort that faints at the sight of black-eyed-susans, they probably don't know the connection between the ragged flowers of the susans and the local goldfinches. They don't realize that there is a reason that the fritillaries are circling around the foliage of the violets.
There are those who would doubtless say that I can't have it both ways: the garden can't be both an old world pleasaunce and wildlife habitat. I can't bring myself to kill an animal just because it's a pest in the garden. And frankly, a thriving batch of caterpillars is sometimes interesting on a much deeper and more satisfying level than a bunch of plants.
However, I am about to pull up the welcome mat for deer and rabbits. But bunnies will be allowed - sometimes.

Vesper iris

The vesper iris, Iris dichotoma is blooming now. Traditionally it was thought of as the last of the irises to bloom, although the widespread availability of re-blooming bearded irises now puts the vesper iris right in the middle of the iris season. There isn't a month of the year now in which some sort of iris might not bloom, especially in gardens where they are carefully sited to take advantage of sun and wall warmth in the cold months. A cold frame will make winter bloom a certainty.

But let's get back to August and the vesper iris. It's been placed in the genus Pardanthopsis in the past, and back in the days when the blackberry lily, now Iris domestica, was called Belamcanda chinensis, the two were hybridized to produce the "bigeneric hybrid" ×Pardancanda norrisii, sometimes called "candy lilies". The "×" (strictly speaking, the multiplication sign, as in "times" or "cross") before the name Pardancanda indicates that it is a so-called nothogenus. Nothogenera are, to put it plainly, phony genera. Nothotaxa are used in horticulture to name man-made groups which do not exist in nature.

Now that the vesper iris and the blackberry lily are both placed in the genus Iris, what should the candy lily be called? Iris × norrisii maybe? That would make it a nothospecies.

I don't see the vesper iris in local gardens very often. I like any plant which comes into bloom late in the summer: they bring freshness to the garden scene, a mid-summer reminder of the vernal profusion. And the vesper iris is beautiful, useful and interesting in its own right.

This plant is often described as a perennial, although some plants die after flowering and producing lots of seed. So keep an eye on the seed pods and hold some seed just in case. They are relatively quick and easy from seed.

Why is it called vesper iris? The term vespers survived in the English language only because until relatively recently people really did attend late day or early evening liturgical services called vespers (from the Latin word for evening). The flowers of this species do not open until late in the day - around 4 P.M. here - and evidently only last part of one day: there is no matutinal service. They are visited by bumblebees.

The forms I see now are all very much alike, but in the past seed grown strains showing color variations were grown. These included forms with more or less pink and white color. I don't know if these still exist.
If I had a big garden in the country, I would be pleased to have a long border planted thickly with the dwarf and median bearded irises, roof iris, Iris brevicaulis, blackberry lilies, candy lilies and the vesper iris - with maybe some clumps of Lycoris sprengeri and L. squamigera scattered throughout. Some re-blooming bearded iris might carry the display right into the autumn.

Friday, August 24, 2007


The amazing creature above is a barred owl. This one was captured as an injured bird and nursed back to comparatively good health. It's not well enough to be returned to the wild, so it spends its life as a probably reluctant ambassador of its kind to the human population at local nature functions.

Three sorts of owls live in or around the garden. I’ve seen two of these, the barred owl and the screech owl. The third, the great horned owl, I generally only hear as a somber, oddly moving call originating off in the far distance.

For several years a screech owl lived during the fall and winter in a tree near our house. In the evening, it would move into the yew hedge along the north side of the garden. There, it would trill for hours. One night we went out with a flashlight to see if we could see it. It was only about five or so feet from the edge of our deck, and sure enough, we spotted it. It was the rufous phase, a tiny mite not much bigger than a beer can with enormous eyes.

It’s easy to imitate the trill of the screech owls, and they respond to any decent imitation. One night I sat in the garden and did this for perhaps twenty minutes in the gathering dusk. Suddenly a compact bullet of a bird shot low to the ground up one of the garden paths and flew right up behind where I was sitting.

It’s easy to understand the reputation of owls for being supernatural once you’ve been around them under the right circumstances. Years ago I was hiking along the C&O Canal in broad daylight when a slight movement just above my sight line caught my attention. I looked up just in time to see a big bird the size of a chicken take flight. At that moment my hackles rose: instinctively I was responding to the otherworldly quality of what I was experiencing. There was this really big bird only a few yards from me launching itself into the air, and it wasn’t making any noise at all that I could hear. It was as if I were watching it on TV with the volume turned off. That bird was a barred owl like the one shown above.

Last winter our neighborhood became barred owl central for a while. I heard them daily; on my evening walk with Biscuit (our dog) we passed a tree from which on several occasions a barred owl flew as we passed under it. Once one called from somewhere very near my open bedroom window and woke me from a deep sleep. Then in February a pair selected a group of old pines nearby in which to carry on. The sounds they made were amazing, nothing like the appealing woodwind tones we usually hear. Each night for about two weeks I would hear these sounds which suggested a large bird being torn apart, crying and screeching piteously all the while.

Barred owls sometimes come into the garden for a brief stay, especially in the winter. On rare occasions they will sit out in the open.

The call of the barred owl has a very distinctive sound quality: it seems to stroke your eardrum in a way which is oddly pleasurable. It’s easy to do a passable imitation of their call, too. Once while Wayne and I were birding at Huntley Meadows in nearby Virginia, I was bored and decided to call the barred owls. I think this generally embarrasses Wayne, especially when I do it in shopping malls. But sure enough, after letting out a couple of calls, I got a response from the distance. Wayne didn’t miss a beat: he said it was another birder on the other side of the property doing his own owl imitation.

More nudity in the garden

It amuses me that so many people seem to think of gardeners as reserved, dignified slow-laners. Botany in the mid-eighteenth century, improbable as it seems, was all the rage among the fashionable set. It wasn’t the plants which drew the crowd. It was the deliciously salacious nature of botanical terminology – all that emphasis on the sexual organs of plants and their functions, some of it described in language which might with equal felicity be applied to humans.

You might think that no one who has seen the underwear ads in the Sunday supplement to the newspaper would bat an eyelid at what those old books contained, but the authors of those books pursued their topics with a determination and frankness which suggests that even they might have had more than botany on the mind - more, as in political and social reform in addition to the merely naughty stuff.

So, what can we do to spice up our gardens now? I’ve never been invited to a garden party where the host read artfully selected passages from the works of Linnaeus, but who knows, it might happen. But I have planted naked ladies and naked boys, for starters. Among the more upright sorts of gardeners – probably not the ones you want to invite - these are known as lycorises and colchicums respectively. Having assembled your audience, your job is to then relate the many vernacular names in as colorful a manner as your sense of discretion allows. This recitation is best accomplished as a genteel postprandial walk through the oporanthous garden; one points shamelessly to and ogles each of the ecdysiasts as he or she is encountered. They arise tumescent and naked from the ground: there are no apparent stems or leaves to hide their glory. They blush glowingly against the bare soil of the garden.

But they are not as naughty as you might think: the naked ladies almost always depart the scene before the naked boys arrive.
In the image above is Colchicum bivonae 'Vesta', in spite of her name one of the naked boys.

Snakes in the garden

As far as I’m concerned, a garden isn’t much of a garden without snakes. The first garden had snakes, so why shouldn’t ours, too? Of course, the first garden had nudists, too, and I sometimes regret that shortcoming in my garden. In one of his stories, Beverley Nichols describes – in a rather restrained way, given the possibilities – the two strong men he hired for a day to move heavy porphyry urns in his garden. He seems to have enjoyed his supervisory function a bit too much. When he wasn’t ogling his garden help, Nichols was riding around town coaxing Dame Nellie Melba to trill for him.

There are six species of snake which turn up now and then in this garden: black rat snake, northern ring-neck snake, northern brown snake, eastern garter snake, northern water snake and worm snake. I have not given up hope that the local copperhead population still hangs on, but I have not seen any evidence of that in many years. Encounters with the worm snake, a largely fossorial species, are sporadic. The northern water snakes and eastern garter snakes come and go, probably in response to the population density of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The black rat snakes are resident, very literally so – I find their shed skins in the attic. The northern ring-neck snake and northern brown snake are also probably resident. Both are small. To find the ring-neck snakes, turn over any flat objects on the ground. In late August, the young ones sometimes turn up in the basement, often tangled up in a spider web. The brown snakes turn up here and there when I’m down close to the ground or scooping up handfuls of leaves.

I take the presence of snakes in the garden as a sign of its health: the garden supports a population of toads and an occasional frog wanders in and stays awhile. Of birds, what can I say? How about this: we go through several hundred pounds of bird seed a year. Our black snakes enjoy only the plumpest, much pampered birds. No pesticides or herbicides here, thank you. Yes, there are more weeds than most self-respecting gardeners would tolerate. But how many gardeners can expect to encounter six different sorts of snake in the course of the year?

In the photograph, you see what might be birds of a feather flocking together: the eastern garter snake at the base of the dragon arum, Dracunculus vulgaris.