Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pansies and nasturtiums

Yesterday I bought some pansies to put in one of the new cold frames for winter bloom. Pansies sometimes survive the winters outside here, but when we have severe winters the plants are obliterated. The popularity of pansies among the casual gardener crowd thus fluctuates over the years. When pansies in the open are good, they are very good; and when they are bad, they're apt to be on the verge of death.

To get around this uncertainty, I like to have a few in the cold frames during the winter. They provide both color and fragrance, and they bloom so profusely that the flowers can be cut for the house without any concern for the plants themselves.

I bought these particular pansies because among them were some with flowers in shades of brown beautifully blended with violet and rich purple and with the occasional flare of yellow. These are colors I associate with some of the most richly colored broken tulips.

Now let's be nice to ourselves and step back about a century. You've cut a small bunch of these pansies, and you've put them on your favorite reading table. The room is quiet, the chair is comfortable, the book is absorbing, and as you relax you begin to notice the scent of the pansies. It's a scent which combines the sweet and the pungent; with eyes closed it might be confused with the scent of some of the edible crucifers. After you have finished reading, the pansies can accompany you to your writing table; and when the call for the evening meal comes, they can join you at the dining table; and at the end of the day they can be your companion on your night table. Pansies are companionable.

While I was thinking about the pansies it occurred to me that in some ways they are similar to, and in other ways compliment, nasturtiums. Both pansies and nasturtiums have forms which bloom in a rare range of colors which combine red, orange and brownish tones. And they both have a fragrance which while sweet has an undertone of something sharper. And they both are worth growing simply to provide cut flowers: pansies for the cooler months, nasturtiums for the hot months. With a bit of luck, it should be possible to have a little bunch of one or the other throughout the year. I intend to try to do just that.

Aconitum carmichaelii

Late blooming plants are always welcome in this garden, not only because they extend the season so nicely, but also because my birthday occurs in late October. I think of these plants as blooming to help celebrate my birthday. The one shown here is Aconitum carmichaelii (it has other names) and is one of the few members of its genus which really thrives under our conditions. The small cluster of blooms is hardly in proportion to the five foot stems; on the other hand, if the flowers are cut for the house, most of the stem can be left on the plant.

This plant is one of several I brought from an abandoned nursery over thirty years ago. A friend and I were taking a bicycle tour of rural parts of the county, and we passed a recently abandoned nursery. This place was a real nursery where the plants sold were actually grown on the site; contrast that to the retail "nurseries" which most of us now know where plants are brought in and sold like dry goods.

The nursery was called Perennial Place, and I eventually met a relative of the former owners. She invited me to help myself to the plants which were left. The plants were all growing in the ground, each type in a bed of its own of several square yards extent. This was before the big boom in perennial plants in the 1980s, the boom which brought a bewildering array of plants into our gardens - at least briefly.

At Perennial Place I remember seeing in particular autumn anemones, epimediums, hostas and this aconite. I returned later with the car and dug and hauled as much as I could. The place was about to be razed, utterly obliterated. I drove by years later and could not even identify the site of the former nursery with certainty.

This abandoned nursery made a profound impression on me: I still dream about that place, and I daydream about the things which I saw there, things which only another gardener would notice or understand.

Crocus longiflorus

Most gardeners seem to be vaguely aware that autumn crocuses exist, but few seem to realize that they have a long season of bloom; in mild years they bloom right up into the season of the earliest of what we usually think of as winter blooming crocuses. Some forms, such as Crocus laevigatus, have forms which seem to straddle the distinction we try to make between autumn and winter flowering crocuses. With a bit of cold frame protection, it’s possible to have an unbroken succession of crocuses of various sorts in flower from late September until well into February or early March.

The one shown here, Crocus longiflorus, has long been a favorite here. It’s known for its fragrance, a quality it shares with many other crocuses. Fifty years ago, when I was first learning my crocuses, this plant was not readily available, and my eventual acquisition of a few corms was a highlight of my gardening year at the time. At the time I grew Crocus speciosus, C. sativus and C. kotschyanus; I regarded the acquisition of C. longiflorus as a big step into the seemingly ever widening world of lesser known crocuses.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The palm grove

The image above shows what I jokingly call my palm grove. Two species of palm are shown: Trachycarpus fortunei and Rhapidophyllum hystrix. The former is native to western China and the latter comes from the southeastern US. In our climate Rhapidophyllum is widely regarded as the hardiest palm.

I first tried the Trachycarpus nearly forty years ago. That first plant survived for many years but eventually was lost in a particularly bad winter. A second trial did not last as long. The current plant in now bigger than any of its predecessors, big enough to be handsome and attract attention - and big enough to be vulnerable to a bad winter. Trachycarpus is easily protected with a pile of leaves when it is young, but once the trunk emerges from the ground there are basically two choices: elaborate protection or taking chances with an unprotected plant. I have not made any effort to protect the plant in the image above for years, and it's doing well. But recent winters have been abnormally mild.

The Rhapidophyllum is a more recent addition to the garden. It has never been protected during the winter.

The companion plants in the foreground are interesting, too. Most of what you see are Ruscus aculeatus, the European butcher's broom. Mixed among them are one of its close relatives, Danaë racemosa, the Alexandrian laurel. Most people are surprised to hear that both of these plants are monocots related to asparagus. I'm also sometimes asked why I write Danaë with two little dots over the e. Those two little dots (the dieresis) indicate that the a and the e are to be pronounced separately; in other words, it's a three syllable word.

This planting is one of those groupings which changes very little from season to season: other than the bright red fruits of the Ruscus and the Danaë during the winter, what you see here is what you will see at any time of year. These plants are now large enough that I might give in to the temptation to raid these plants for winter greens for the house. There is a long tradition of using both the Ruscus and the Danaë for that purpose, and there is an international trade in the cut branches. To this day I occasionally see branches of Danaë (with the fruits removed) in local butcher's cases. The Ruscus most often appears dried and spray painted for holiday decorations. It's a firm, even hard, spiky plant when alive and growing; when dried it is especially disagreeable.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Variegated yucca

As a rule, variegated plants do not do much for me: I can take them or leave them. Many of them have the look of virus infected plants. Yet some of them certainly have just the combination of novelty and beauty to not only catch your eye but to bring on a real bout of acquisitiveness. The variegated yucca is one which caught my eye and came home with me years ago. I had just dug out a long established clump of a non-variegated yucca, Yucca flaccida. That experience should have warned me off yuccas forever. Why in the world did I bring another one into the garden?

The variegated yucca (if it has a formal name, I don't know it) seen in the image above has grown on me over the years. It's one of those plants which looks about the same year round. In fact, it might as well be made of plastic. It always looks clean and fresh: it does not have a down season. The foliage sometimes shows tints of pink in addition to the green and the white. About the only change to be noticed is that it slowly grows bigger each year.

It's also long suffering: until this week, it had spent most of the summer hidden under a dense blanket of porcelain berry vine. When I freed it of its oppressive mantle, I had to admit that it was unexpectedly handsome and hale. It's a keeper.

Beauty in the beast

We gardeners have a lot to answer for. And the plant shown above is a good example. Take a look at gardening books of a century ago, and you will have no trouble finding authors singing the praises of the porcelain berry vine, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata. This much is still true: it's certainly very beautiful when it's festooned with those blue fruits.

That beauty was its passport into gardens all over the Eastern United States. That it proved to be adaptable and easily grown were pluses. It was also easily propagated. And as time told, it was very good at propagating itself. It is now a serious weed in this area. It has made itself at home in the local woodlands (where we already have native species of Ampelopsis). In my garden it has made itself very much at home. I spent hours the other day cutting it out. And that is only part of the solution because this plant sprouts readily from any substantial piece of root left in the ground. The battle will be continued next year.

The plant factory

I'm in the throes of what for me is the busiest part of the gardening year. This seems to perplex the neighbors, most of whom seem to think that the gardening year is coming to an end. No, it's not; it's just beginning.

This is also a prime time for sowing seeds or at least getting set up for the big sowing in late winter. To that end I've been cleaning up what I call the sunny cold frame corner of the garden. Earlier this week I readied one of the frames and soon had it filled with 450 little pots of newly planted seed. That's what you see above. With luck, next week that frame will have a mirror image facing it.

The weather this week has been ideal for getting things done, both outside and, during the rain, inside. The weather people reported record low daily highs this week - in other words, the daily high temperature on some days has been lower than ever before in recent recorded weather history. Right now we're in a period when the daily highs and lows don't move much up or down - we've been staying in the 40s F. day after day. My Scotch ancestors would probably feel right at home - I'm certainly loving it. warming, that was so last year!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Look what's new in the local grocery store

Yes, those are Brussels sprouts, in a condition a lot closer to the one in which they grow than those little green globes which we buy in boxes. They looked so fresh and succulent in the store that I brought a stem home with me. Guess what? Brussels sprouts are Brussels sprouts, on the stem or in the box. We noticed no real difference in taste.

On the other hand, when you walk into the kitchen and see a two foot log of Brussels sprouts, it's bound to get you curious.


Some bulbs have the trick of forming their new bulbs deeper and deeper year after year. In some tulips the new bulb is formed at the bottom of a downward growing growth called a dropper.
Here you see something similar in little Colchicum parlatoris after several years of pot culture. The last year or two it experienced some neglect, and as a result its bulb (in this case, technically a corm) is run down and small. What's interesting to me about this is that the old corm tunics have been preserved. The newest growth was at the left hand side of what you see above - everything to the right is old growth from prior years (and none of it is alive).

After taking the picture, the new corm was repotted in better soil and near the surface. With luck, I'll be repeating this exercise in a few years, but I hope when that time comes the new corm will be back to its normal size. It's shown above on a quarter-inch grid.

This one didn't make it

It's a sad fact that wild animals in an urban setting are more likely to be seen dead than alive. I've gotten used to this, more or less. But I still get upset when I find animals dead on the road, especially close to home. The local populations of small terrestrial vertebrates must be under relentless pressure from cats and cars.

Two days ago, as I was getting into my car (which was parked in front of the house), I noticed something familiar in the street only a few feet away: it was a dead eastern garter snake, a mature male. I see garter snakes in the garden most years, especially in the early spring and early autumn, the two seasons when cool nights followed by warm days bring the snakes out to bask in the sun.

The death of an adult snake means that years of feeding and growth are for naught. Garter snakes are however prolific and give birth to (sometimes) dozens of live young. I can only hope that some of them are lurking back in the garden now.

Too bad they can't be trained not to cross the streets: when they do, they don't have much of a chance around here.

In the images above you see not only the dead snake but also some members of the clean-up crew which quickly took advantage of the situation.

Colchicum 'Rosy Dawn'

All of my gardening life I've had a big interest in colchicums. I've grown dozens of nominally different forms over the years. So many of them are so much alike that I sometimes wonder if I will ever feel confident about their names. Yet there are some which are more or less distinct, and among those are some of my favorites. I like colchicums with big, broad tepaled flowers. The one shown here, 'Rosy Dawn' certainly fits that description. When the flowers are new, they have the shape of a newly opened tulip. And the tepals of this cultivar are particularly broad. The flowers retain their deep cup shape through the initial days of bloom, but they eventually open wider. In this wide-open phase they are less attractive to me, but they are still very showy. In my experience this cultivar is not free-flowering: each sprout rarely seems to produce more than one big flower. The flowers have a proud, stocky poise; and unlike many colchicums they remain upright as long as they endure.