Friday, September 29

Braving the Inferno?

In a recent post, Colleen over at In the Garden Online talked about love for lawns--and her lack thereof. I always enjoy reading her gardening thoughts, but one partial sentence in this post really snagged my attention: "...and I don't know if I am brave enough to try to garden in my two hell-strips."

As I read that line, my stomach dropped at the same time my brain said, "Oh wow... just like me!" It was one of those moments when you awaken to the knowledge that you have a certain, um, problem that you have been in denial about for a long time.

See, on a certain level I come across as being very brave and capable. Maybe a little headstrong. And if you ask certain people--like my boyfriend and my Mom--you might even get the mistaken idea that I can be a little stubborn sometimes. ;)

I'm an interesting enough person, I think. I've been brave enough to do things like paint my stairwell and upstairs hallway monk's robe orange. So you can imagine that the realization that I have not even made plans for planting my hellstrip simply because I'm chicken did not really sit well with me.

I want to garden the... well, hell... out of my hellstrip, I really do. I want a hellstrip with interest, like the ones that Susan showed over on Garden Rant. I want one as bursting with color, as tapestry-like, and as xeric as the Inferno Garden over at High Country Gardens.

I am absolutely fine with people wondering why the crazy lady down the street would replace her "treelawn" grass with plants that people might walk on. And frankly, nobody would walk on mine much anyway because the city in its infinite wisdom planted a too-large tree in the middle of my hellstrip. It prevents people from opening their passenger doors when they park between my driveway and my neighbor's.

Other people in my suburb have planted their hellstrips with everything from scads of annuals to herb gardens. My suburb is old enough, and the yards small enough, that nobody has ever considered instituting any kind of constricting neighborhood covenant here... so planting my hellstrip would be neither illegal nor unprecedented.

Did I mention yet that I'm really a brave person? But apparently not quite brave enough to plant my hellstrip just yet. Can somebody please explain to me why that is? I'll pull up a couch, lay down and listen if you have the time...

Wednesday, September 27

September Blooms

I went out into the garden today to see if anything was still blooming... and was pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of color. I didn't take pictures of everything, because I was rapidly losing sunlight, but I did get a few to post: 'Old Spice' dianthus allwoodii, amaranthus caudatus viridis, pineapple sage, verbena bonariensis (backed by hollyhock and artemisia foliage, and Coco feet), an unknown variety of anemone, garlic chives about to bloom in front of 'Dragon's Blood' sedum, and toad lilies.

Also blooming in my garden but not pictured are: 'Hillside Black Beauty' cimicifuga/actaea (what a knockout scent!), 'Vodka' wax begonias, 'Paprika' achillea, 'Copper Sunset' nasturtiums, the calendula that I so ruthlessly cut to the ground in late August, borage, 'Matrona' and variegated tall sedums, 'Carmine' gomphrena, and 'White Swan' echinacea purpurea.

Oh, and I have some lovely grass "inflourescences" as well, from 'Sioux Blue' sorghastrum nutens, 'The Blues' little bluestem, miscanthus sinensis strictus, and 'Hameln' pennisetum.

There is definitely beauty to be had in the garden in late September. It's just becoming a different beauty as winter nears. Summer's vivid, flamboyant color is bookended by the fresh, clean colors of spring and the quiet beauty of fall blooms...

Winter Garden Book Club List

Carol over at May Dreams Gardens is compiling lists of suggested books for a winter gardening book club. If you want to submit your own list for consideration, see what others have suggested already, or join to review, visit her page to learn more.

Carol, if you already have enough "hosts" for each month that's great. If you find yourself in need of another host I could do any month except December or January--I'm just too busy with work then to commit to having anything up in a timely fashion! And here is my suggested list:

Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space
by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
(my all-time favorite gardening book so far in terms of turning my planning/thoughts around)

Dear Friend and Gardener
the correspondence of Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto
(haven't read it yet, but am fascinated because of the two personalities involved)

Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden
Beth Chatto
(only read excerpts of this so far at Borders, but this always intrigues me because of the thought and planning that went into the garden's construction)

Wild Fruits or Walden
Henry David Thoreau
(the former is a collection of unfinished essays published posthumously... and the latter needs no explanation but I haven't read it since high school and probably should again)

That's it... I'm game for anything, though, so I can't wait for my "homework list" on this one!

Thursday, September 21

Filling Spaces

The new shrub definitely went in a whole lot easier than the willow came out! It's rather hard to see in the slanted morning sun, but the plant I chose for the featured corner of my "back bed" is a purple ninebark, physocarpus opulifolius. This particular cultivar goes by several different names, including 'Diablo,' 'Diabolo,' and 'Monlo':

I've admired the purple ninebarks for a couple of years now... and when I saw one darkly glowing behind a fun piece of garden art over at Empress of Dirt, my admiration was further inflamed into desire. My only problem was figuring out where I could put it in my small yard, especially since my google searches turned up wildly different reports of mature size.

Where it is, it can get to its largest reported size of 8-10ft. tall and wide if it wants. It can also stay closer to the smaller reported size of 6ft. without ruining the look of the garden. It adds the dark foliage that I love to play with, and I can handle the pinky-looking flowers for a short time since they mature into lovely reddish clusters.

I have it underplanted with the same hellebores that I pulled out to get to the willow roots--we'll see if they survive or if they're as fussy as reported. There's a panicum virgatum 'Rotstrahlbusch' planted on the other side of it, as well as 'Little Spire' Russian sage, a rose, a few 'The Blues' little bluestem, and some dwarf Siberian iris. I hope that the dark foliage of the ninebark will help the lighter purple/blue plants really pop.

I need to figure out a good trailer for the front edge of that circle, though. I've already used thymes under the Japanese maple in the front, so I would like to find something different... something with a nice dark green that will complement the purple ninebark leaves. If it could be something that flowers in the summer (after the dwarf iris in front if it is done) that would be great--and I'm not married to the idea of using a perennial.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 20

Good in Theory, That's Me

I sometimes think that my middle name should be "GoodInTheory" because that curse has followed me around for most of my life. Having good plans go awry happens to me often enough that you'd think I would learn my lesson... but that just hasn't happened yet. Latest example: The Willow Tree

I inherited this variegated "dwarf" willow when I bought the house. After spending a summer getting smacked in the face by branches as I mowed--and wondering whether a machete would more efficiently hack back the limbs that constantly shot up around the phone line 15ft overhead--I decided it had to go.

This spring, I attacked the boring retaining wall bed surrounding the willow tree, taking out sections and blending the original bed into the new beds in front of it. Then I turned my attention to the willow, removing the smallest trailing branches first and methodically stacking them for kindling.

By the time I got down to just the trunk and a few shortened limbs, I was starting to admire the sculptural effect. "Maybe I could leave it as a focal point," I thought to myself. Then reason kicked in: "No, it's a willow. It will just keep sending up shoots and drive me crazy." So I pressed on until I was left with just a trunk and small limb stumps.

At that point, my friend Amy stopped by. As we chatted, we messed around with the willow trunk... and discovered that the bark came off easily. And that it was fun to peel, like a sunburn. Heaven knows what the neighbors thought as they watched two women in their late 20s (okay, okay, so I'm 30) gleefully peeling bark from a tree, but it didn't take us too long to completely de-bark the willow. Rain drove us inside shortly thereafter, and I ended up having a couple of days to look at the nude tree before I could get back out to it.

Extra time to think... therein lies the danger! By the time I got back to the willow tree project, I had convinced myself that since we stripped the willow of its bark the tree would be rendered fairly helpless. I plotted to further ensure its demise by painting it a nice sculptural color (the red stain didn't look right, so that was covered with grey paint) and driving nails into it.

Lest you think I'm a brute, I have to point out that the nails had a legitimate purpose. They were to serve as the support for a purple clematis (probably a jackmanii) that I had moved here from the old house. I envisioned the willow trunk hosting a tower of purple blooms in the summer and providing an interesting piece of garden sculpture in the winter. As you can see from the single purple bloom at the base of the grey-painted trunk here, my plans were working perfectly.

Perfectly, that is, until the willow started throwing out shoots. Many of them. From every spot near the base of the trunk where I had not sealed it with paint. They shot through the hellebores, made a nice base of light green to show off the red amaranth, and tangled themselves up in the poor clematis.

I resigned myself to the fact that this time, it really had to go. As soon as all of the amaranth were cut back, removal of the willow tree began again in earnest. On Monday after work I began to dig, cutting through roots almost as thick as my wrist with an old pruning saw as I worked my way around the tree. Dig... saw. Dig... saw.

I was so close to finishing the tree off that I could taste it. I rocked the trunk back and forth, throwing all my weight against it and then pulling it back with my arms. It felt like a loose tooth, so I moved 90 degrees to the left and started wiggling the tree again. Finally, the willow emitted a final gasp and fell limply to the side.

I would have preferred that it cracked and howled with defeat, but I was covered in sweat and mud and very tired. I would take my victory any way the willow wanted to hand it to me and just be thankful that I had managed not to fall down and bruise my tailbone during the battle royale.

Wouldn't you know... at precisely that moment, as I basked in all my glory, I heard my boyfriend's car pull into the driveway. I suddenly realized that my jeans were covered in mud, and I probably smelled like a pig farmer from all of that earth and exertion. Rain was on its way, and chunks of hair curled and waved around my face Medusa-like. I was acutely aware of how ridiculous I looked as I triumphantly towered, shovel in hand, over the dead willow.

Needless to say, he exited the car with a smirk already on his face as he asked me if I was having fun. "Of course," I grinned. Then I needlessly pointed out: "See, I took out the willow tree!" Good sport that he is, he came over to brave the mess and give me a victory kiss. He even put up with me asking, "Guess what I did today," multiple times that night, and constantly humming the theme song to Rocky.

So the great trunk-as-sculpture experiment will go down in The History of Kim as yet another thing that was good in theory, not in practice. It's not quite as bad as the time I decided that since baby oil after a shower made my skin soft, it should do the same for my hair... but it did set that part of my garden back a little. Ah well, I enjoyed it while it lasted and might figure out a better way to incorporate tree corpses into the landscape someday.

(For the record, I was EIGHT when I came up with the brilliant baby oil scheme. My Mom, who will probably laugh at me for it all over again when she reads this, French braided my hair to hide the greasiness and save me from certain embarrassment at school as there was no time to rewash my hair. Thanks, Mom.)

Stay tuned... I plan to fill up the empty space sometime this week!

Monday, September 18

The Ghost of Gardens Past

While nosing around on the computer today, I found a couple of pictures that were taken at my old house... the place where my first feeble attempts at gardening occurred.

I made a lot of mistakes in that garden. Some in plant choice, several in plant placement, and still more in garden logistics and maintenance. I must not have taken any pictures of the more spectacular errors--or at least, I didn't save those pictures--because the ones I found weren't too bad. Not great, but not too bad.

It's interesting to look back on these and see that even while I was starting out I seemed to gravitate toward contrasting plant colors and textures. For example, 'Golden Tiara' hosta was underplanted with sedum 'Chubby Fingers' in front of the large rock that dominated the small bed near my front stoop.

Already the melding of form and function was underway, with cut flower plants like echinacea purpurea mixed in with golden oregano and golden sage in my herb garden, backed by a trellis that supported a jackmanii clematis. The planting softened the chimney wall, provided some good flavor for weekday suppers and even filled vases to dress up the kitchen counter.

I found that I had played around with odd combinations of color and texture, like lavender mixed with 'Red Dragon' persicaria and dwarf Siberian iris. I admire my willingness to play with color, but cringe at my lack of consideration for plant habit. I also obviously wasn't paying attention to the big picture or I would have noticed how the persicaria leaves get lost against the nuggets of pine bark mulch.

I thought about saving these pictures to post in winter while my new garden sleeps. However, today would have been my 7th anniversary had my ex-husband and I lasted that long together... so somehow it seemed more fitting to go ahead and post them now. Not for any maudlin reason, because I have no sadness or remorse attached to the relationship, the anniversary, or even the way things ended. But it seems a fitting time to reflect.

I left behind some beautiful plants, like this stand of great blue lobelia, because I knew that they would not fit well into my new sandy-soil garden. I brought with me many more plants--stalwarts like alchemilla mollis--that had reinforced their worth and validity to me over the years.

I took some plants like 'Hillside Black Beauty' actaea that may or may not work for me in the future, but I learned that I appreciate--no, need--to feel challenged in gardening as in all aspects of my life. I know that it's okay if I have a few small failures or make a few mistakes along the way as long as I keep my eye on the big picture and am always working on improving the garden and keeping it healthy and productive.

You could go back through those last two paragraphs and substitute "dreams" for "plants" and "relationship" for "garden"... the parallels are not hard to see. I appreciate the opportunity to start fresh in a new place, with new resources and a positive environment. I hope that the lessons I have learned--and am still learning--will keep turning me into a better gardener, and a better partner.

Friday, September 15

Garden Serendipity: Fall Edition

Last weekend, I moved a few of this year's container perennials, like the salvia lyrata 'Purple Knockout' at left, into more permanent homes. As I was planting, I had to rip out some tired nasturtiums, cut back some ratty calendula, divide some golden oregano, and move a few other plants to accommodate the newcomers.

The net result of all of this action was that I would end up having some pretty bare spots around my small perennials for the rest of the fall... but it's getting close to the end of the season and the plants need to have time to settle in, so I resigned myself to ignoring the bare spots for a month or two.

Also included in my plans for that day was dismantling a large urn from the side garden. It contained 3 carex buchannii (brown sedge) that needed to be planted out, as well as about a dozen 'Vodka' wax begonias that I'd added in when they went on sale during the summer.

The begonias never did get very big, and I learned from Janet, a fellow blogger, that the reason for my begonia failure was likely my tendency to overwater them. (I will not make the same mistake next year!) I realized that my container was going to look rather plundered without the carex, so the plan was to unplant it entirely.

I had a little line of dug-up begonias sitting on the cement in short order, and I couldn't help thinking what a shame it would be not to see their lovely red leaves as longas possible. It took a while for things to compute--I didn't have coffee that morning--but I finally had the eureka moment:

Empty garden spaces + extra plants = Garden serendipity!

I was just going to toss the begonias anyway, so I really wouldn't lose anything but a few minutes by planting them around the lyreleaf sages and next to the carex buchannii.

I was so happy with the effect that I took a couple of the 'Vodka' begonias that had been planted in the driveway bed and moved them between the other salvia lyrata and the silvery culinary sage.

Then I plopped a couple of clumps of dwarf Siberian iris into the front bed--those will have to be moved sooner rather than later, or actually planted--and went searching for a little color to add in between them. A grey pot filled with red coleus, dragonwing begonia, yellow creeping jenny, and tuberous begonia fit the bill perfectly. I love how it sets off the brown sedge in front of it.

This front bed will look completely different next year. I'll talk more about my plans for it later, as that seems to be a good subject for a winter dreaming post... but I'm very happy that a little late-season annual shuffling means that I can keep enjoying it for this season as well!

Wednesday, September 13

Lesson Learned: Containerized Perennials

For me, plant selection is a fairly extensive process. I make countless google searches, sketch out possible combinations, and check every one of my gardening books for reference to said plant and its habits while considering it for my garden. I also determine at least two places where it might work both logistically and aesthetically before I plunk down cold hard cash for it.

When I do buy, I look for the smallest pot size offered--unless the perennial is a notoriously slow grower, like hakonechloa--because I find that the younger plants establish more quickly and easily. They also often catch up to their pricier, larger counterparts in a season or two... and frankly, I feel like I ought to be able to wait that long for a plant to come into its own. (I really must exercise patience if I want to earn the right to be thought of as a gardener someday!)

Once I have a plant, I often find myself moving it around a few times to find the "perfect" place for it. As an example, check out the small carex buchannii in the center of this picture. It will (I hope) look great surrounded by golden sage, golden oregano, coral bells, asclepias tuberosa, digitalis parviflora and a few annuals when they all grow up... but this spot wasn't even on the radar as a possibility when I bought it!

In light of my penchant for moving plants, I decided that this year I would treat my spring Bluestone Perennials order a little differently. I would work the plants into container combinations, observe them over the summer, and then plant them out in the fall--all in the hopes that I would plant them in the right place to begin with, saving myself the work of moving them again next spring.

Sounds like a perfect plan, right? Well... sort of. On the bright side, I was able to concentrate on planting the veggie garden and various winter sown annuals without tripping over the small Bluestone plants--or, worse, forgetting to water them. I had plenty of time to watch them grow and think about where exactly I should try them first in the garden, as the placement of the brownish red sedge shows.

However, I did also learn a lesson: Conventional container-planting wisdom (planting so that the container looks full from day one) just doesn't help small perennials get off to a good start. If you crowd them too much, they will not grow like they would given more room to spread out. Comparing the one alchemilla mollis that I planted in the ground with the two that were tossed into containers definitely proves that point.

So maybe the answer next year is just to pot any small perennials up into one of the numerous 8- or 10-inch terracotta pots that I have, and cluster them around my larger containers. Once the perennials start to fill those pots and need to be planted out, the frenzy of spring planting should be over, and they would look okay in the meantime.

Any other ideas on how to address this issue, other than A) making a holding bed, or B) having a space prepared well in advance of the plant's arrival? Frankly my .11 acre lot completely eliminates A as an option... and although the first paragraph may make me sound ultra-organized and analytical I really am too right-brained for option B!

Sunday, September 10

Fall Color

I really need some more fall color in my garden. Some rich, warm fall color like this accidental combo of orange pyracantha berries and purple sweet potato vine.

In the red category, my Japanese bloodgrass is showing nicely, as is the 'Rhubarb' Swiss chard. The nasturtiums are starting to peter out but the pineapple sage looks like it's ready to flower any time. 'Vodka' wax begonias are still going strong.

Not counting the pyracantha berries, the only true oranges I see in the garden are asclepias tuberosa and 'Copper Sunset' nasturtiums. I have a couple of late 'Cappucino' sunflowers that are adding a rusty brown-orange as well.

In purples, the foliage is carrying the day: 'Blackie' sweet potato vine, 'Purple Knockout' salvia lyrata, 3 inherited heuchera, the Japanese maple, 'Hillside Black Beauty' cimicifuga/actaea, 'Dragon's Blood' sedum, 'Othello' ligularia and various coleus. I do have purple flowers, too: My 'May Night' salvia is STILL blooming! I'm amazed, as it's easily been flowering for 14 weeks now.

So now I'm looking around at other people's gardens and thinking about what I can add to give me some color at this time next year. Frankly, I don't much care for mums or asters, as they don't seem to carry their weight for the rest of the year. With a small garden, I require at least 3 seasons of interest--or 2 seasons of spectacular interest, plus being bearable the third season.

I'm thinking that I need to add some more colorful foliage in general, like pennisetum rubrum and more coleus. I might want to refrain from deadheading things like iris that will form interesting seedheads. I've learned that if I cut back my amaranths when they are younger, I can get a stouter multi-branched plant. That will hopefully allow me to keep them in the garden longer instead of having to clean them out when they get top-heavy and succumb to the wind.

Next year, some of the smaller pots of grasses that I planted last year--'The Blues' little bluestem, 'Hameln' pennisetum, carex buchannii, and 'Rotstrahlbush' switchgrass--should come into maturity and add more interest. They look good now, they're just so small that they don't make as much of an impact as they will at full size.

Fall is my absolute favorite season. I love the crisp air, the warm colors, the sense that the plant world is going to take a much-deserved rest after putting all of its energy into being green and growing for months on end. It might sound kind of silly to be planning for a beautiful fall garden when that's the time that most people are "putting their gardens to bed,"but I would love for my favorite season to be my favorite time to view the garden as well.

Tuesday, September 5

At Laaaast....

I don't have audio on this site--and frankly never will, because it's annoying--but I feel like sharing a song today. So turn on your mental radio and cue up some Etta James for me, if you would.

"... you smile
oh and then the spell was cast
and here we are in heaven
for you are mine, at last..."

Most people don't look at sweet peas as being Etta Jamesworthy. I normally wouldn't, either, but these flowers have been a long time coming for me so I am a little besotted.

I planted sweet peas a couple of times at the old house, and tried them here at the new house last year. I generally had no luck getting them to germinate and/or flower... and the one time I got flowers on them I discovered that not all sweet peas have scent. An understandable rookie mistake, but an extremely disappointing one nonetheless!

I winter sowed sweet pea seeds this year, but didn't get the plants in the ground as early as I should have. Frankly, they were planted so late that I figured my terrible luck with sweet peas was continuing this year and it would be entirely my own fault.

So these two blossoms, the first and maybe only flowers on the 5 'Cupani's Original' plants that germinated from seed for me, smell all the more sweet now because of my past issues. Seriously, the fragrance is absolutely heavenly on this antique variety--and the flowers are pretty too.

I think that next year I need more of them. :)

Sunday, September 3

"If Only..."

I can't find his original post on the subject, but Stuart asked his fellow gardeners an intriguing question a while back. I'm paraphrasing, but the main point of his question was: "If you could change one thing about a particular plant that you otherwise love, what would it be?"

I never got around to answering that question at the time, but I tucked it away in a corner of my mind. Sometimes I would be mentally cursing a particular plant, and the question would pop up. "Would Plant X be in my answer to Stuart's question?"

Then I would determine that no, Plant X had more than just one fault. Or that no, it didn't really have any faults, it was just being tended to by a subpar gardener. Or that no, it had only that one fault but didn't really have any redeeming qualities so I didn't want to mention it. (That last realization was often the beginning of the end for that particular plant!)

Today, my answer finally hit me: Sedum 'Matrona'

Matrona is a very handsome sedum most of the year. The bluish succulent leaves and plummy stems keep it looking good all season. You can pinch it repeatedly to keep it compact and short, and you can use that method to shape it around its neighbors or step it up to a short wall like I've done here.

Its foliage has a good vase life if you take a whole stem and add it into a small arrangement to compliment something more airy--say, verbena bonariensis. It flowers in the late summer/early fall, and its dead flower stalks look wonderful poking out of the snow in the winter.

But the picture above shows exactly what I would want to change about it. When it does flower, the blooms are pink. Baby, bubblegum, cotton candy PINK! Why not purple, or burgundy, or a lovely wine-red to compliment the stems? No, none of those... only pink. Argh.

In case you haven't caught on to this yet, I really don't like pink in my own garden. I admire it in other yards, but I can't figure out how to use it well in my own. Fate--or natural order, or something--had long ago determined that I would be better associated with and more suited to things that are "interesting" rather than things that are "pretty." I'm simply inept with the latter!

Well, for the 99% of the year that Sedum 'Matrona' is more interesting than pretty, it's going to stay in my garden. And for a few weeks, until the flowerheads start to turn darker and get closer to a decidedly more interesting shade of brown, I'll just turn my head when I pass her!

By the way, Welcome Back Stuart!!!

Saturday, September 2

A Fleeting Combination

I admit, Mother Nature is often a better garden designer than I am. The whole point of gardening is to improve on the natural beauty that Ma provides... but sometimes she finds a way to improve on a gardener's improvements.

Latest case in point: A few more of the huge 'Hopi Red Dye' amaranth toppled over in windy storms this week. They look so good spilling into the iris, though, that I haven't had the heart to cut them back yet.

Their red flowers and dark foliage are doing a nice job of tying together the red-tipped Japanese bloodgrass, the purple 'May Night' salvia blooms, and even the 'Blackie' and 'Tricolor' sweet potato vines.

You can see how they add movement to the vignette by directing your eye from plant to plant, too. The upright bloodgrass, salvia and iris lead your eye upward, the cascading amaranth sends it back downward, and the sweet potato vines--along with the lines of the retaining wall block--bring you back to the bloodgrass to start the circle all over again.

When they were upright, as you see in the second picture, they were more of a foil than anything else. They set off the iris foliage and the intermingled yellow flowers of the bronze fennel nicely, but they didn't direct movement back around and through the garden.

I liked them as a spiky accent, but their newest incarnation has brought to my attention the need for more directed movement in my garden. More plant combinations that lead the eye around a vignette and then to the next area I want to highlight.

Thanks, Ma, for this week's lesson... even if you had to break a few amaranth to get me to pay attention. (Ask my real-life Mom and she'll tell you that I seem to learn best "the hard way!")