Sunday, December 31

New Year's Resolutions

Subtitle: Three Things I Would Like to Change in the Garden This Year... But In All Honesty Probably Will Not

Everyone wishes that they did things a little differently, in one area of life or another. I am as well aware of my shortcomings as the next girl, but that doesn't mean that I feverishly scan the self-help aisle of my local bookstore on a daily basis. Instead of agonizing over them, I tend to embrace my faults as mere... idiosyncrasies.

Although I very rarely actually keep them, I feel obligated to list resolutions every new year anyway. Maybe I do it to keep myself humble, maybe there's some small part of me that actually holds out hope that I might work on them, who knows. But here are the resolutions that pertain to my garden, in no particular order:

In 2007, I resolve to allow plants to actually grow in the spots where they are planted.

This seems like a no brainer, doesn't it? Isn't the idea to plant things, give them time to grow, and enjoy the beauty as they mature? Somehow, I find it darn near impossible to do, as these pictures show. The first picture is from the fall of 2005, just after I planted and mulched the orange-berried pyracantha.The second picture is from late summer 2006.

At first glance, I'm not doing too badly--the pyracantha and the iris are still there, right? The 'Chocolate Chip' ajuga, variegated hosta and zebra grass moved to new homes. 'Hopi Red Dye' amaranth, 'Mainacht' salvia, peppermint, Japanese bloodgrass and a few types of sweet potato vines entered the picture. (I should confess that the SPVs took the place of some cerinthe and 'Detroit Dark Red' beets that had departed of their own accord by August.)

Now check out this picture of the same spot, taken this week. Only the pyracantha--which is being trained against the wall--and the rhododendron are still in the same places right now. Various other types of ornamental grasses, some groundcover sedums that I would like to see cover the wall, a blueberry, garlic, goatsbeard, and several other plants have joined them.

Oh, and remember that variegated hosta in the first picture? It was split into 3 plants earlier this summer, with each of those 3 plants being moved individually several times as well. Two of them are no longer residents of my garden at all. Shameful.

In 2007, I resolve to finish one project before I allow myself to begin another.

Ah, who am I trying to kid. Scroll down to my Gallery of Shame post from June 13th and look at those unfinished projects. Of the ones listed, I have only completed #4--and I added a few more unfinished garden projects later in the year as well. This is one resolution that is never going to come to fruition... but a girl can dream, right?

In 2007, I resolve to preserve more of my garden's bounty.

This one actually has a chance of happening. I ate all of the peppers I grew last year, but there were not nearly so many in 2006 as you see here in a picture from 2005. I failed to harvest even half of the cherry tomatoes this year, the dog ate more beans out of the garden than I did, and not enough of my zucchini was transformed into bread before it went bad.

This year, I am planning better. Less green beans, more peas and yellow squash so I have more variety. More plum tomatoes so I am more inclined to put them up as sauce or salsa--and basil, for the same reason.

You know, now that I have a blog I just may be more accountable about things like New Year's Resolutions. After all, when I sit down to write my resolutions for 2008 I will probably revisit this post to see how far I've come. Maybe I'll even have finished the projects in my Gallery of Shame!

Six Weird Things About Me

Girl Gone Gardening just tagged me with a meme... I am to post 6 weird things about myself, and then tag 6 other people to do the same. I like to think that I'm a good sport, so even though I'm reluctant to tag others I'll play along with the posting part!

6 Weird Things About the Blackswamp Girl:

When I am intently reading something, I tend to rock back and forth as if I am sitting in a rocking chair. Sometimes I catch myself doing it, but most of the time I have no idea until someone else walks in the room and starts laughing.

2) My grandmother slips a small can of mushroom slices into my Christmas stocking each year, because I sometimes ate an entire can of them out of her pantry while staying with her for a weekend.

3) My brother and I have a standing date to sing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" together the next time we find karaoke. We each surprised the other with Neil Diamond CDs for Christmas, and he often calls me when he's on the way to visit his girlfriend in Columbus and Neil comes on the radio. When I come home to find a message that consists only of a whole minute worth of "Cracklin' Rosie," I know who left it on my machine!

4) Some of my planned occupations when I was a kid included: Gypsy dancer, reclusive writer, and feature singer in a large gospel choir.

5) I enjoy cold coffee--not "iced coffee," just regular morning coffee that's gotten cold by the afternoon.

6) One of my favorite things about living in a city is trashpicking. Coco and I arrange our nightly walking route around the trash pickup schedule, so we can see what people are leaving out--once it's on the treelawn, it's fair game!
I have so far trashpicked: A grandfather clock, an old sewing cabinet from 1913 (complete with working machine, wrought iron legs, etc.), two or three old silvered mirrors that I want to use in the garden, a carved-top end table with four panes of glass, several wooden rocking chairs that I am refinishing for use on the porch this summer, a half dozen interesting table bases that are being turned into plant stands, a papasan chair, a perfectly usable but old wheelbarrow, and two metal trellises.

Like I said, I'm not tagging anyone else... but if anyone who is reading this wants to play along, feel free to make your own post and let me know!

Saturday, December 30

Not-So-Typical Winter Day

Today dawned bright and clear, with the slanting rays of winter sunshine adding a low glow to the garden. After a little bit of sleeping in and a long, long walk with the dog this morning, I headed outside... to mulch.

See, I never did completely use up the mulch I had delivered in the spring. It was this new mulch called Sweet Peet, and I really like it because it is fine-textured, dark, and breaks down quickly. I can never find as much compost as I would like to use as mulch, so this is an acceptable substitute.

Mulching really did make a difference to the looks of the winter garden. Adding that rich dark brown as a foil makes the tans of pennisetum and the light greens of thyme and golden oregano pop in a satisfying way. It also highlights the light-colored bark of the Japanese maple and the doublefile viburnum.

While working in the garden--in just a sweatshirt and jeans--I noticed a whole lot of symptoms of this winter's El Nino pattern. For one thing, in normal winters my oreganos are mere twists of wiry stems by year end. Right now, origanum vulgaris looks just as full and lush as it did in September. O. vulgaris aureum is retaining at least 3/4 of its leaves.

The rose bush that Brian surprised me with last year is still mostly covered with glossy green leaves. Its legs are a little bare, but even the shortest canes are still light green. Right now I'm kicking myself for leaving it where it is--it is slated to move to new home in the spring because I didn't think it would have enough time to settle in there this fall. Little did I know.

I did want to chop down some of the tallest canes because our winter winds and sometimes heavy snows can do some real damage to rose canes that are not supported on a trellis. It's so mild right now, though, that I have to wait for fear of unintentionally stimulating new growth.

My drumstick alliums and every single variety of garlic I planted this fall have sprouted. The tallest of the sprouted garlic are well over 6 inches, as are the drumstick alliums (allium sphaerocephalon). At left you see the latest of the garlic sprouters, which are just about 3in tall now.

In the rest of the picture, you see the yellowed grassy foliage of Siberian iris and a sunken pot of oakleaf hydrangea that still retains its dark purple leaves. The short reddish purple foliage next to the mowing edge is either 'Voodoo' or 'Fuldaglut' sedum, which lost all of its leaves and has now sprouted the new little ones that you see in the picture.

The one plant that really surprised me with its sprouting, though, is the variegated Jacob's Ladder, 'Brise D'Anjou' polemonium caeruleum. It has multiple leafy shoots are coming up from the base, entwined with last year's dead stems.

On the bright side, this plant has a reputation for not coming back reliably in zones 5 and 6, so it was nice to see it reappear. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see whether the sprouts will survive whatever weather conditions El Nino will bring us between now and spring.

Thursday, December 28

Fungus Friday

Alright, I admit it... blog memes like Green Thumb Sunday and Thursday Thirteen really do exist, but there is no such thing as Fungus Friday. I just made it up, purely so I could post a picture of this cool tree fungus that we found on Christmas Eve. :)

Monday, December 25

New Christmas Traditions and Observations of Nature

Last year, my boyfriend and I found ourselves with just one shared day off during the holidays. I had worked literally every day in December, so I was physically and mentally drained--I didn't care about missing Christmas dinner, I just wanted to sleep in for once.

We kicked around a few ideas on how to celebrate Christmas Day together, and the one we kept coming back to was a winter hike. We've gone hiking together many times before, and we liked the idea of being able to incorporate the dog in our plans. It turned out to be one of the most relaxing, invigorating, and fulfilling ways to spend a quiet holiday together.

This year, both of us were lucky enough to have both the 24th and 25th off, so we planned to join my family for the holidays. Since we were both lamenting the lack of opportunity to do another Christmas Hike, we decided to do a shortened version on Christmas Eve morning before hitting the road. After a quick breakfast, we set out for the Rocky River Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks.

The woods always looks different to me each time that I go, even when we walk the same trail. I find berries and leaves to identify, exclaim to Brian over jack-in-the-pulpits and mayapples, and spot many birds and small woodland creatures. We occasionally spot larger creatures, too, like this beautiful Great Blue Heron that we scared from his fishing grounds into a tree across the river. (You can click on the picture to enlarge it and get a better view of him.)

I love that nature is rarely stagnant, but this time the woods felt different in a very large way. Our feet stepped on softer, more vulnerable ground. The trees looked more abused than our mild December should have made them appear--like a glancing blow that leaves behind an inexplicably large bruise. It wasn't until I noticed the way the leaves were clumping around the stems of shrubs and fallen logs that I realized what I was seeing: The effects of late fall flooding.

Rocky River remains high from the melting of early snows plus recent heavy rains. Small waterfalls still pour down the layered shale cliffs commonly found in our area. Patches of river rock, worn smooth, were deposited in various areas along the riverbank--or exposed through the removal of the layer above them, I'm not sure which. The softness that I noticed in the forest floor was sand and silt that had been left behind when the floodwaters receded.

I found myself admiring the stark beauty of roots left exposed to the open air by rushing waters. Of a forest floor cleaned bare of the protective leaf cover it usually sports through the winter. Of pools of gravel interspersed amongst sweeps of sand.

And while I was drinking in the beauty, I was also wondering: How will this flooding affect the future of this quiet woodland? What native plants and seeds will have been buried--or unearthed to sprout and bloom come spring? Will the sleeping plants make it through the winter without protective cover, or suffer from a loss of nutrients as the leaves decompose elsewhere?

I will likely never know the answer to my questions. I have not been walking this particular woods long enough to have built up any knowledge base of it, for one thing. But of course I have to ask the questions. And I also have to appreciate the contrast between this beautiful wild place where nature is free to act upon the land and my own little artificially engineered suburban backyard utopia. All gardening is artificial... but at times like these, I really feel like I am cheating.

Friday, December 22

My Favorite Plant?

When the Garden Bloggers' Book Club picked "My Favorite Plant" by Jamaica Kincaid as the December selection, Carol announced that if we didn't have time to read it we could instead post about our favorite plant. Knowing that the seasonal business in which I work would keep me too busy to read at this time of the year, I was happy to have an alternative... but the thought of picking out a "favorite" anything filled me with dread.

Ask me what my favorite color is and I'll say something like, "Blue. But the right shade of blue, just before it gets so dark at night that the sky might be considered black instead. Or maybe an electric cobalt. You know, a rich cinnamon brown is good, too, now that I think about it..." Ask me for a Top 5 albums of all time list, a la High Fidelity, and I'll cheat and throw in some boxed sets. It's not really indecisiveness, because I have a good idea of what I like and don't like. It's just that I like a lot of things.

True to form, I have found that I cannot pick just one plant as a favorite. Instead, I'm taking 2: Sage and Bergenia.

Just saying "sage" is cheating in and of itself, because the genus salvia has so many species contained within in that entire books have been written on salvias. So let me clarify that my favorite sage is salvia officinalis. I like its soft, felty leaves, even when those on the underside of the plant start to yellow and die, and I appreciate its irregularly mounding habit. The only cultivar I really don't care for is 'Tricolor,' for some reason.

I also appreciate it steeped in a mug of hot clear water with a little bit of local honey... and I like it burning and crackling in the firepit... and I like brushing up against it "accidentally" for a good whiff of clean, bracing sage-scent as I wander around the yard. You get the idea.

Bergenia just makes me smile whenever I see it. When I found out that its common name, "Pigsqueak," came from the sound you get when you rub its thick, glossy green leaves between your thumb and forefinger, I was hooked. I regularly stoop down and make my bergenia squeak when I walk past it. And yes, I then grin like a 4-year-old who just discovered that he can make embarrassing noises by squishing his hand in his armpit and pumping his arm up and down. There, I admitted it!

In terms of garden design, you can't ask for much more than its handsome foliage that tinges red in the fall and turns dark purple in the winter. The dark leaves set off early spring flowers like crocus amazingly well, and add wide, chunky texture to summer and fall vignettes. Unlike some evergreens that ask nothing of you at all, you get to pull off dead leaves from the bottoms of the clumps every now and again. That sounds like a silly thing to include in a list of assets, but I firmly believe that there's nothing like taking a bit of care of a plant to help you form an attachment.

So there you have it. After 20-some days of careful consideration, I managed to narrow my favorite plant down to two. That is, the two that are my favorites this month. Well, for this winter at least--I forgot how nice the blueberry leaves looked in November, now that I think about it. And how could I have chosen between all of the grasses I like, really? Hmm...

Wednesday, December 20

Winter Solstice, Winter Sowing

The term solstice translates roughly to "sun standing still." It is used to describe the two days during the earth's yearly journey when its poles reach the furthest point as they tilt--one away, one toward--the sun. We tend to think that it is the sun, not the earth, that is moving so much in the sky. If the solstice gets any press at all, it is as the day in each year with the least amount of daylight.

There are many ancient traditions associated with the solstice, from building roaring fires to making blood sacrifices to holding large feasts. Most are aimed toward engendering peace and prosperity in the coming seasons. In a similar vein, the winter solstice is the day when some people who practice winter sowing get started, aiming for an abundant garden come summer.

What is winter sowing? In a nutshell, you make little mini greenhouses from recycled cartons and containers, covered with plastic. Inside them, you sow seeds... then you throw the whole shebang outside, checking them occasionally to make sure they haven't dried out and see if anything is sprouting but otherwise ignoring them.

The freeze/thaw cycles of late winter and early spring work the seedcoat off of the seeds and eventually you get sprouts. The air holes in the top layer of plastic are added to or enlarged until eventually you have more spaces than material; at that point, the seedlings have hardened off and you can remove the plastic entirely and plant out your sprouts if the weather allows.

Last year, I started cautiously with winter sowing. The old saying that "if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," kept running through my head... it just sounded too easy. I decided to try it in limited quantities--a test run, if you will.

I planted a few perennials, like 'Black Watchman' hollyhocks, blue fescue and asclepias tuberosa, in early March. A week or so later, I planted some annuals that I had failed to germinate inside previously: 'Hopi Red Dye' amaranth, atriplex hortensis, and sweet peas. Later, I tossed in some sunflowers and verbena bonariensis for good measure.

All but one type of seed sprouted for me--I can't remember which one right now, just that it was an odd annual from a seed packet marked 2004. I plan to expand my winter sowing efforts this fall to include more perennials like echinops ritro, sempervivum, crocosmia, and agastache. I am going to wintersow some red coleus, more atriplex hortensis and verbena bonariensis, and a whole flat of dark purple alyssum.

I am not, however, going to start sowing on the solstice. Much as I like the idea and the symbolism, in reality we have received January thaws a little too frequently in the past few years for me to be comfortable getting an early start. I don't want to have to baby sprouts that come up too early, or even worry about them--after all, the ease of it all is one of the main reasons why I love winter sowing!

Monday, December 18

Walking the Edging

UKBob has a fascinating blog... whenever I think about how idyllic it must be to garden at a manor in England, I visit Gardener to the Big House to read his daily tasklists and come back down to earth. (And then I read about the fun he has ordering things like fan-trained cherry trees and I'm back to drooling.) That Bob chronicles his interesting side trips and hikes, and is always good about putting on a pot of tea in the potting shed when you want to chat, is even more reason to visit.

A comment he made on my recent winter interest post got me thinking about the issue of edging. That my front bed should have been better edged (and shaped) is not at all in dispute. That Bob does a wonderful job of edging, and that his edging looks great along this stone wall is not in question, either.

What I wonder is about the issue of edging in general.

I tend to not be so neat as Bob. I purposely plant sages, thymes, dianthus and even hellebores near edges where they can cover the nearby hardscape. At the sharp corner where my retaining wall meets the driveway in the back, I sprinkled 'Chubby Fingers' sedums throughout the cracks to soften the edges.

Red sedums 'Fuldaglut' and 'Voodoo' mingle with chives and silver sages, but even they don't spread quite quickly enough for me. I want them to threaten the cement, not just wave to it from next door! I love the idea that the plants are taking over, exhuberantly escaping their boundaries.

Are gardeners born in just two categories: Neat Edgers or Natural Spillers? It could be genetically hardwired, like the preference for a tidy desk vs. the ability to thrive in organized office chaos. But then if that were the case, my Natural Spiller self would probably not appreciate crisp edging like the one near Bob's manor wall quite as much as I do.

Maybe, then, your take on edging is a reaction to your natural environment. Maybe gardeners who have large gardens to tend, like Bob, want to neaten the plants while city gardeners like me want to obliterate the squared-off lines and ubiquitous hardscape that surrounds us. That makes a little bit of sense to me, as I love the way Bob's wall looks but find it hard to even imagine such crisp edging in my own garden. In his, it looks amazing against all of the organic forms of plants and stone. In mine, it would be just one more line.

I know, I should be doing something more constructive right now, like wrapping my Christmas presents. But seriously, I wonder about these things! Any thoughts from fellow gardeners? Any of you want to talk about why you prefer one type of edging over another, and whether your thoughts on the matter have changed over the years?

Is this just a phase I'm going through, and one day I'll wake up and realize I need to clean up all of my edges? Hmm... something to think about over a bottle of Christmas Ale...

Sunday, December 17

Evaluating Interest - Early Winter

The calendar says that winter has not yet begun, but the garden has weathered a good month of early-winter rollercoaster. I have only lived here for 7 years now, but that's long enough to realize that there is no such thing as "typical" seasonal weather here in Northeast Ohio. I awoke to an entirely unexpected 4 inches of snow on the driveway two weeks ago, for example, but now we're back to wearing sweatshirts!

Since today dawned sunny and bright, I decided to go out in the afternoon and take a few pictures to evaluate the level of winter interest in my fleldgling garden. Let's start with a picture of the front beds, most of which were created late in 2005 and planted this year:

As you can see, nothing has attained much height yet. Even the ornamental grasses are quite small. What does jump out are the purple and red plants: purple culinary sage in the near right corner, three unnamed heucheras in front of the sidewalk, 'Bressingham Ruby' bergenia next to tan-colored rocks just in front of the porch.

There are two major failings that I see in the bed in front of the sidewalk. One is the lack of a definite edge between the bed and the grass. I admit that I've been lazy about that, mostly because I have long planned to expand the bed to change that curve--I already purchased a 'Sykes' Dwarf' oakleaf hydrangea to use as part of that expansion.

The other downfall is the large patch of bare earth where three crambe maritima, aka sea kale, will be emerging in the spring. (You can see them during the growing season here. The crambe are the glaucous foliage that you see behind the orangey spires of digitalis parviflora, to the right of the first purple heuchera.)

The crambes tend to sprout late and I have a few groupings of early tulips planted in between them, but that doesn't help much at this time of the year. So I am making a note to add some of the groundcover sedums that you see near the sidewalk on the left side of this second picture.

'Chubby Fingers' is the name of this cultivar, and I brought fistfuls of it with me when I moved to my new house. Both in the old clay soil and in the new sandy soil, I have found it to be a vigorous but polite spreader. It stays mostly evergreen, and sports taller shoots with white flowers in the early summer. It should provide a nice carpet of green in the crambe area during both winter and tulip-time, without bothering those sea kales during their growing season.

Besides the bed expansion, there are already a few other improvements planned that will change the winter look of the front garden. For one, I plan to paint those three pieces of siding--and the weird darker beige trim piece--that are below the level of the porch floor. They have irritated me since I moved in, because their light color makes them appear too important. Painting them a darker color should help them fade into the background.

A climbing rose, 'Dortmund,' will be going in next to the porch. The lavender will move to its new home, replaced by the 'Hameln' pennisetum that is currently biding its time in the backyard. Small plants will grow. Some plants will be divided or propagated and used as fillers. Other plants will be subjected to the gardener's fickleness and be moved elsewhere.

Sometimes I get frustrated because the garden in the photos does not match the garden in my mind's eye... but then I remind myself that I've only lived here since October 2004 and some things just take time. And that I'm learning more about gardening and garden design all the time, so it can only keep getting better as I stop making so many newbie mistakes.

All in all, though, I have to say that I'm fairly pleased with the way things are looking so far. I know that I'm lucky to have some more experienced gardeners visit my page, though, so I would love to hear some feedback from all of you. Any plants that you never expected to interest you in winter but find yourself watching from the kitchen window? Any interesting ways to fill spaces in the winter garden? I'm all ears...

Saturday, December 16

December Blooms!

I was puttering around in the yard today, taking pictures to chronicle winter interest when I found... flowers! This is lamium "Anne Greenaway," and the brown leaves that you see tucked among it are from the neighbor's beech tree.

I know that lamiums have a tendency to spread, but that's perfect for this area--they can fill in space all around the 'Hillside Black Beauty' cimicifuga/actaea, 'Othello' ligularia, red lobelia, and scaly buckler ferns.

And hey, if they're going to flower up until mid-December.... I can't really argue with that!

Monday, December 11

Lake Erie Microclimates and Climbing Rose 'Dortmund'

My gardening friend Dave promised me a magical rose microclimate when I first told him that I was moving to Lakewood. "We don't have any luck with them down here, but they can grow beautiful climbing roses up there by the lake," he remarked. "You'll have to give them a try." When I moved up here, I noticed that he was right... and all this year I have been working around in my yard with an eye toward where I can put one. Or two. Maybe even three.

Thanksgiving Day is not the best day to take photos of roses in Zone 6. However, it had come to my attention that there are some unbelievers in the garden blog world. Those who have the audacity to
snicker at references to my lovely Lake Erie microclimate. And I just couldn't wait until next June to offer proof and urge him--er, them--to repent. So here is a picture of the lovely climbing rose that Coco and I pass every morning on our walk:

From early summer on, it offers repeat yellow flowers and bears golden orange hips in the fall. You could see both flowers and hips better in a closer pic, but remember that I was shooting on the downlow. "I saw my shot, there was no danger, so I took it."

The picture shows what it needs to, in any case. In most of Ohio, which generally qualifies as some degree of zone 5, you just don't see climbers get this tall because there's too much winter dieback. Here, thanks to the magical influence of Lake Erie, we can grow monster climbing roses. The one in the picture above was actually topped off in October, and it's still reaching for their porch roof!

I tend to be mostly methodical in my plant purchases, so I started doing a lot of research on roses. I wanted roses that are hardy, have nice foliage/form/flowers, and are also fairly disease resistent without much spraying. I knew that I wanted a small climber to grow as a pillar rose in the backyard as well as a slightly larger climber for the front porch.

Through various books, I found a small yellow climber called 'Leverkusen' that seemed to fit the pillar idea and also was lauded as "amazingly disease-resistent, for a yellow rose." I had already pretty much decided to give its red, more vigorous cousin 'Dortmund' a try as well when I happened to leave a comment on Barrie's blog, asking his opinion. If you have not yet visited GardenMob, go now. Barrie knows his stuff, and he's entertaining as hell to boot. I was honored that he humored me by posting a review of 'Dortmund' there, and slightly relieved that he deemed it to be a decent choice.

Barrie, Henry Mitchell, and every retail source I've found for 'Dortmund' notes its lethal thorns. I'm with Barrie--I think that they'll just add some interest to porch parties. And I'm a girl who likes a little challenge, anyway. It will be fun to liven up the garden with a little plant adversity!

All of the above is enough to justify planting 'Dortmund' in my front yard, but after reading this glowing (ahem) compliment from Henry Mitchell in "The Essential Earthman," I was completely sold: "'Dortmund,' one of those modern German roses, is sufficiently brilliant to kill the color of any iris yet known to man."

Sweet. Now that I think about it, I have a place next to where 'Dortmund' will go that I bet would be perfect for some iris...

Monday, December 4

"Enjoying the Deep Vibrations"

As a child, you often are fooled into thinking that you love a certain time of the year for the symbols of it that are shown in greeting cards and seasonal decorations. And indeed I do admire the flaming red of the maple leaves and the fields of shifting wheat. Deep piles of raked leaves will probably tempt me to dive in until I am no longer young enough not to care that I'm really too old for such shenanigans.

What really rouses my spirit during this time of the year goes far deeper than permission to pull out my cracked-glass pumpkins, though. The lower slant of the sun's rays draws out the colorful spirit of dying plants for one last gasp. The acrid smoke of bonfires and the bitingly earthy aroma of decaying leaves contrast with the sweet crunch of a fresh Braeburn.

Celtic mythology holds that the veil between heaven and earth is the thinnest during the fall, specifically on Halloween. I don't know about that, but I know that my senses feel sharper. Poets can write all they want about how springtime makes the blood stir... but autumn is when both my body and my mind are more aware. More alive.

Henry Mitchell has never really been on my radar in terms of garden writing--and probably still would not be, except that the Garden Bloggers' Book Club chose him as their November selection. As I worked my way through The Essential Earthman, I had mixed reactions. Occasionally, I rolled my eyes. More often, I smiled in appreciation of comments like: "More gardens are rendered dull by timidity than are rendered vulgar by excessive daring. Be bold."

While going back through the book to figure out what exactly I wanted to talk about in my review, I kept stumbling over "Reflections on the Cycle of Life" within the chapter on autumn. It struck me for two reasons.

First, it explained so well a few things that I have long felt in my heart. Mitchell notes with a bit of disdain that, "There are people who want flowers magically appearing for the time of their bloom and then whisked away, to reappear next year only when they are at a climax."

I, on the other hand, am utterly fascinated by the entire life cycle of each and every plant that I grow. In fact, I have a tough time explaining to friends who are not gardening nuts why I take as many pictures of things like the fuzzy leaf-buds of the doublefile viburnum as I do of random flowers.

Not that there is anything wrong with flowers at all. Finding the first showy, fragrant bloom on a rose is exciting--and even more sweet when you've been watching the buds for days. Since flowers are a sexual display, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to consider the plant's buildup to flowering as foreplay--or at least some good old-fashioned teasing.

And frankly the fall decline of fall foliage wouldn't really be quite as fascinating if we did not know the summer flowers and the vibrant green foliage. Sometimes the declining foliage is spectacular for its own fragile beauty, sometimes it merely fascinates for the stark contrast between it and our memory of the plant in its prime.

Mitchell points out that, "In the garden there is always life, right through the year, and gardeners are merely those people who, while admiring the sex of plants as much as or more than anybody else, go on even beyond, and admire as well the bones and skin and guts and all the rest of it, and who admire more than anything the totality of it in all seasons."

And that leads me to the second reason I kept coming back to this particular essay. I have been gardening now for over six years, and have never really felt that I had yet earned the right to call myself a gardener. Sure, I could say that I enjoy gardening, or that I have a garden at my house... but proudly declaring that I am a gardener? I didn't feel worthy.

By Mitchell's definition, particularly in that essay but really throughout the book, I finally feel that I might qualify for the title. I tinker. I am fascinated by the minutiae. I have enough of an artistic ego to think that I can better Ma Nature--and enough of a sense of humor to smile and acquiesce when she proves again and again who is boss.

Most of all, I "enjoy the deep vibrations" of it all... of being A Gardener. And I appreciate both the introduction to Henry Mitchell and the connection that the internet is providing to other gardeners. And to myself.

Sunday, November 26

November Blooms

It has been a beautiful weekend--we got our "Indian Summer" after all, just a little later than usual! I spent a good amount of time outside today, cleaning up peony and hosta leaves and spreading mulch. Yes, I know it's too early for winter mulching, but the rest of the pile had to go so we could get our cars inside this winter.

Most of the fall foliage colors are fading, but I was surprised to see so much in bloom around the yard. Next to the side door are my potted 'Goodwin Creek Grey' lavender and a 2-year-old 'Arp' rosemary that are enjoying some cold snaps before they come indoors for the worst of winter. The lavender pot is too heavy to move more than once, but I brought the rosemary out front--near the 'Bressingham Ruby' bergenia, which is sporting its winter color already--to better show off its pale flowers.

In the backyard, a few valiant little calendula plants were still offering cheerful blooms. I had cut them back late in the summer to their basal foliage when their scruffiness really started to get to me. They all gave me rebloom at their new shorter height.

Last but not least, my alpine strawberries are still blooming like crazy. There are no fruits for their labor, but since I walk past them to get to my car every morning I appreciate them nonetheless.

I have a few other pictures to share, and posts brewing... but I will be out of town until late Tuesday night and then have tournament games for our indoor 4's volleyball league on Wednesday night. So I hope to squeak in a post on Henry Mitchell sometime Thursday, to make the November Garden Blogger's Book Club deadline!

Wednesday, November 22

2006 Annual Review - Part 2 (Edible Ornamentals)

In early March, as I cut milk cartons and leftover plastic bags to make more winter sowing containers, I thought back through previous seed sowing adventures. In 2004, I had been excited about direct sowing Love-Lies-Bleeding (amaranthus caudatus) as well as a hybrid amaranth called 'Hopi Red Dye' that was reportedly used by the tribe as a ceremonial coloring for cornbread. None of the seeds had germinated.

On a whim, I dropped my scissors and pulled out my old seed packets. I did find some seeds in the bottom of the 'Hopi Red Dye' packet, so I prepped a couple of extra containers and scattered them across the top. All of the amaranth containers showed germination a few weeks later, and I planted out more than a dozen hunks of seedlings in the late spring.

By the time the iris were done blooming, the amaranths had started shooting up out of their seedling clumps and some were even forming flowerheads. I pinched out the green ones but left all of the darker-foliaged seedlings, figuring that the weakest ones would die out on their own. That did not necessarily happen, as I ended up cutting down thick individual stalks growing a mere inch apart during fall cleanup.

My one regret with my 'Hopi Red Dye' is that I did not fully explore its culinary uses. The plants were so fascinating ornamentally that I simply sat back and enjoyed the show. The iris appeared to help keep them from tumbling down onto walkways, and they fraternized freely with everything from miscanthus zebrinus to bronze fennel.

When a stiff wind felled some of the more top-heavy specimens, I discovered that they made great garden decor and were a favorite of the birds in the early winter as well. A few branches are still hanging in my kitchen, adding some interest to a plain green wall and the doorway to my basement stairs.

I will be growing the amaranths again in 2007 for sure... but right now I have my eyes on trying the gorgeous, golden 'Hot Biscuits' instead of doing the 'Hopi Red Dye' again.

"Ruby Orach Mountain Spinach" was another winter sowing success story. Really atriplex hortensis var. rubra, the young leaves taste best fresh. I tucked in wintersown seedlings here and there in the garden, nestling their reddish purple leaves next to 'Paprika' achillea, grasses, and a variegated hosta. The leaves were particularly fun to check out after a rain, as the water beaded on them like it does on alchemilla mollis.

I've heard that you should cut back the flowerstalks before seed can set, because atriplex hortensis has a reputation for reseeding prolifically. I followed this advice in the front yard but let the backyard plants go for the most part.

I wouldn't mind some reseeding there anyway, and would gladly add more to my spring weeding chores in exchange for having enjoyed their bleached, wheat-colored skeletons all fall. I may buy some additional seeds this winter just to ensure that I get a few plants... even if I have to overlook how they turned a distressingly bright pink in the late summer.

One last favorite in this category is 'Rhubarb' Swiss chard. All summer, the leaves caught the sun and glowed a bright golden green. The thick rubbery leaves provided good contrast for everything from the grassy foliage of dianthus to the soft, fuzzy silver of 'Newe Ya'ar' culinary sage.

I feel like I should think of this as an "ornamental edible" instead of an "edible ornamental," though, because I ate a whole lot of it this year! 2006 was either a good year for chard or I have been guilty of underestimating it.

I frequently sauteed it in a bit of olive oil and a lot of garlic, and served it over whole wheat pasta with some asiago cheese for a quick supper. By the end of the summer I had acquired a taste for eating the younger leaves raw while puttering around in the garden.

I had plans to harvest the remaining chard at the end of the season and follow Patrick's advice on dehydrating it for later use. But I so enjoyed the leaves as they turned a dark inky green in the fall that I never did get around to picking it. I am definitely growing some type of chard next year, though--maybe one with yellow/white veins. And if I don't like the way it looks, well... that just means I'll have to eat more of it!

2006 Annual Review to Be Continued...

Pssst... Hey Christine...

See what you can do with the pink and purple Peeps, after a little softening in the microwave? ;)

I was thinking about how you used the Easter Peep to rig "forsythia bloom" evidence as I went through my garden pictures this afternoon... because I found a picture of my own rhododendron blooming last fall!

You know I'm teasing about the Peeps, but I'm not kidding about this picture of my rhodie in bloom. I took it on 10/11/05... I had forgotten that it bloomed that late last year when adding to the conspiracy theories on your post. Maybe having spring shrubs rebloom sporadically in the fall is more common than we think? I wonder if anyone has research on that? Hmm...

Monday, November 20

2006 Annual Review - Part 1 (Background)

I put in a lot of smaller perennials and shrubs in the fall of 2005, mainly good deals from a local garden center that was going out of business. Like a good gardener, I dutifully planted at the proper distance, ignoring the fact that some of the plants looked quite forlorn and stranded that way.

The more I looked at the new plantings, the more apparent it became that there was plenty of room for annuals in the garden. I had lots of temporary spaces to fill.

My resolution to add annuals this year left me with a little trepidation. I had always put together some wacky combination of annuals in a planter or two on the porch, but mostly shied away from using annuals in the garden beds.

See, designing a garden with herbs and veggies is exceedingly easy in one respect: Anything you do to make it look less like a farm and more like a landscaped bed is a huge achievement in the eyes of the general public. Most people think of those things as mere edibles, so showcasing their ornamental qualities proves you're clever.

Including unusual perennials like digitalis parviflora, aruncus sinensis, actaea/cimicifuga, tiarella cordifolia, and crambe maritima in your garden keeps you pretty safe from criticism, too. People cannot identify that that you're growing, so they assume that you must know what you're doing. (Even if you rip out an entire bed later that year because you decide that the sea kale is too insipid next to golden foliage without anything darker nearby... but that's a whole other post!)

When you step into the wonderful world of annuals, though, you're treading on thin ground. Everyone and their brother knows what marigolds, sunflowers, begonias and even coleus are... and, worse, they all have their own ideas about how these plants should be used by good gardeners.

I clearly needed to do some homework in this area, so each time we went to the bookstore I made a point of leafing through books and magazines devoted to the use of annuals and color in the garden. There were some great ideas in these resources, but mostly I yawned at the overused combinations, the old standby annual plants, etc.

It was probably mid January when I decided that if I was going to do annuals in the garden, I was really going to DO annuals in the garden. I resolved to use big annuals. Colorful annuals. Things I never would have grown in my old garden for fear of the "jungle" jokes and raised eyebrows they would undoubtedly earn from my former husband. And then the real research--and fun--began!

To be continued...

Monday, November 13

Fall: Beginnings and Endings

Tonight was relatively warm and the wind was surprisingly still. My head was too full of thoughts in that way that only physical activity can alleviate, so after a quick supper I ventured outside to rake leaves.

Coco quickly settled into her favorite front yard spot to survey the other goings-on in the neighborhood. There was a surprising amount of activity on the street for after dark: Random comings and goings, dogs being walked, and an impromptu game of keep-away with a football down the street. It briefly occurred to me that I would like to have a digital camera that takes better pictures at night, to better chronicle the easy feeling of such an evening in photograph form.

The fallen leaves of the Japanese maple carpeted the ground below its gnarled branches and spotted the thyme plants with crimson and red. I left them in place as I worked my way around the rest of the plants... meticulously cleaning around things like lavender and sage that hate winter moisture but giving other plants just a quick once-over with the rake.

Between an unnamed heuchera and a golden sage, my rake got stuck momentarily. I heard my voice say, "What the...?" at the same time my brain thought, "Uh oh... that's the butterfly weed!" My arms stopped pulling and I bent over to more gently untangle the tines and make sure I hadn't pulled the plant out.

That's when the light caught it: A seedpod, impaled on a tine, with white silky threads bursting out of its seam. I had stalked all of the butterfly weeds, which I winter sowed this spring, but recently gave up on being able to harvest any seeds from them. I figured that I was just lucky they all had bloomed in their first year. I carefully picked up all the seedstuffs that I could find, and deposited them safely inside before resuming my task.

It was such a lovely night that I went back out after my work was finished and tried to get a few shots with my digital camera anyway. None of them turned out--my hand is simply not steady enough to overcome the camera's shortcoming--but I did find a second pleasant surprise when I went to download the pictures:

Almost a week ago, we caught site of the spider fixing his web in the afternoon sun. It would be the last work he would do on it, as a lack of food and continuing cold temperatures were the end of him before the weekend... but it provided the first and only good picture I was able to get of him. You can see his markings and even make out that he was minus one arm on his right side, if you click to enlarge the shot.

I'm not exactly sad that he is dead--not because I'm cold hearted, but just because that is the natural cycle of life. The optimist in me appreciates fall's endings even as I collect seeds and envision the new beginnings that await in the spring. Luckily, I have a long Cleveland winter's worth of time to make a few decisions about next year's growing season. I will need that long to decide whether it would be completely silly for me to take that storm window off again next summer, just to see if we can attract another spider to observe... and whether even that would stop me from doing it anyway.

Monday, November 6

Saving Grace: Silvers

If I had to describe my approach to color with one adjective, I would probably use a word like quirky. Or experimental. Maybe nontraditional. I like rich, dark colors but would not call myself avante garde, trendy or flamboyant. I don't jump for every new color introduction but I do like to raise some eyebrows with unusual plants--caramel-colored sedges, anyone?--or plant combinations.

Sometimes I wonder what keeps my garden from becoming a riotous mess of color (in a bad way) with the purples, blues, reds, and oranges all tucked into a relatively small space. I think that one thing that saves my garden from garishness is my affinity for silver-foliaged plants.

Silver plants function in my garden much like a neutral matte used on all of the pictures that hang throughout a home, providing a sense of cohesion through the repetition of neutral color. Silver--really grey or grey-green--foliage tones down hot colors and brightens cool shades. Unlike white flowers or variegated foliage, silver does this without adding to the "noise level" in the garden or calling undue attention to itself.

I would love to say that I'm such a brilliant gardener that I had planned to use silvers for the above reasons all along... but that's not true. If you had asked me this summer what I thought of silver plants, I would have immediately thought of the often-overused annual, dusty miller. My inner plant snob would have answered, "Ugh," not even realizing that plants like santolina and sage were quietly taking up residence in my garden as I opined.

How did they sneak up on me? First, I'm a self-professed lover of contrast who grows many plants with purple and red foliage, so it was hard to resist using silvers as foils for the darks. Even humble plants like 'Newe Ya'ar' culinary sage and red-veined 'Rhubarb' chard can look like dramatic events when grown side by side.

Second, many silver-foliaged plants are either drought-tolerant, aromatic, or both. Tough plants work well with my survival of the fittest gardening philosophy, and I am also more apt to select an herb or edible than a "mere" ornamental plant to fill in a space. In a small garden like mine, plants really need to do double- or triple-duty!

Lastly, I would like to think that I somehow knew--or intuited--that silvers would knit a garden together so well. I'm really not sure that I can claim an artistic eye, though. It may very well have been merely a happy accident.

In fact, if silvers didn't combine so well with browns, tans, and reds in the autumnal garden, they might still be flying under my radar. I started thinking about what they do during the rest of the year after the freshness and elegance they add to the fall garden caught my attention. Now that I've noticed them, though, I will have to be more intentional about including them in my garden plans for the future.

Any gardeners out there have a favorite silver plant--annual, perennial, or small shrub--that I might not have tried but should? In addition to herbs like lavender, santolina/lavender cotton, curry plant, and sages, I have grown 'Jack Frost' brunnera, licorice plant, and 'Silver Falls' dichondra. I would love to expand my silvery horizons next year... and maybe even torment my inner plant snob by finding a cool way to use that darn dusty miller!