Monday, July 30

Capturing the Glow

When I arrive home after work every day, I park my car as close to the garage as possible. As I walk back toward the house, I am often struck by the way this corner of the front garden looks in the slanting rays of late afternoon sun. It tempts me with jewel-like colors, inviting me to rush into the house and run back outside with the camera...

But my efforts to take a picture that does this corner justice have all proved futile. Maybe these plants just don't want to look too pretty. Maybe they all know that they were placed here for their toughness so they're afraid to ruin their image. Whatever the reason, it frustrates me.

In the best of these insufficient pictures, you get a mere hint of the rich ruby embers provided by the 'Purple Knockout' salvia lyrata, a taste of the hearty amber glow of the carex buchanii, and a suggestion of the smooth silvery backdrop of sea kale leaves.

What I really want to know is this: Is my camera failing me... or do my eyes see this bed through "gardener's glasses"--similar to rose-colored glasses, but showing the whole garden in a full, lush state of what it was intended to be?

Sunday, July 29

Gardening With Birds and Dogs

After a second year in which I did not get nearly as many blueberries as I knew were produced in my garden, I decided that certain measures needed to be taken. As my blackberries began to mature, I put up some fruit netting to foil birds, chipmunks, neighbor kids, and all other manner of fruit-stealing varmints. The netting is easy for me to get up and under, but it's going to be heck to remove from the shrub later--I was in too much of a hurry to build a proper frame for it, which would have made removal much easier.

Right now, though, that's the furthest thing from my mind. This morning, I harvested my first ripe blackberry! Well, okay, so it was almost ripe--not quite as sweet as it would have been had I waited until it was ready for me, but I was certainly ready for it. (For the record, the first two actual ripe blackberries went to the little girls next door this evening. Fruit netting does not help protect the harvest from a softy gardener.)

A less combative coexisting-with-animals story can be found in my front garden. When we're in the front yard I hook Coco up to one of the infamous lions with her 6ft. leash. She checks out the new smells and then usually lays down in a spot that allows her to survey the street while I putter. If someone has the audacity to walk down our side of the street, or if Another Dog appears within sight of the house at all, Coco must immediately jump up and investigate. Her front paws generally land within a 3ft by 18in semicircle as she barks a few times, then strains to get her nose close enough to the interloper to get a good sniff. As you can imagine, this semicircle is a tough place for any plant to live.

Coco has been trained pretty well in terms of staying out of the rest of the garden--except when she steals tomatoes and beans to eat--but frankly I don't mind her letting people know she's here with one or two barks. I don't want to hook her up to anything else, either. If I put her up on the porch, she'd be out of range of the occasional ear scratch or tummy rub as I walk past... where's the fun in that?!

So I took a flat rock from the backyard and placed it in the part of the semicircle where she tends to land most often. Then I dug out several chunks from the golden oregano that I've been using as groundcover in other parts of this bed, and used it to fill in the rest of the area. Golden oregano seems to spread in a rather mannerly way for me in this western exposure, and its bright acid yellow spring color gives way to a nice fresh chartreuse in the summer.

The golden oregano is working out wonderfully there, as it has now spread to fill in its little area and easily handles the occasionally trampling by my 90lb. dog. As a bonus, when she does crush a few leaves underfoot the lemony smell of golden oregano perfumes the air.

And if a parade of dogs should happen to march down our street, and cause her to completely ruin the clump? Well, I have more to dig up and replace it--but if I didn't, then it would cost me all of $2 at my local garden center to buy another pot of golden oregano next spring. And I get to have my gardening assistant at my side while I mess about in the front yard. In my mind, you can't beat that deal any way you look at it.

As I write this post, I can't help but think that I should be taking a look at using more herbs--maybe in more unconventional ways--in my garden. They're already go-to plants for me in many situations, but I'm sure that there are other design and decorative uses that I have yet to dream up. If you're reading this and you have used herbs in particularly imaginative ways, please share! I would love a few more ideas... especially if they could relieve me of having to deal with fruit netting. (I know. Pipe dream there. But it's a lovely thought, isn't it?!)

Thursday, July 26

The Bitty Garden

I admit that I have a little crush--the harmless schoolgirl kind--on Frank Ronan. The columns that he writes for the back page of Gardens Illustrated often leave my wheels spinning in circles... and I will always have a soft spot for a man who makes me think. In the June issue, Frank related the experience of having an (unidentified) expert visit his garden. As this guru walked around, one of his compliments sent Frank into a tailspin. To his horror, he realized that what the gentleman meant was that his garden was bitty. Bitty. You know, "A little bit of this, a little bit of that..."

Well, reading Frank's words put me into a tailspin of my own. Could my garden be bitty, too? Even thinking the word made me irritated because of its stingy connotations, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Frank had put his finger on the reason I have been largely unsatisfied with some areas of my yard. And why "thickly planted" wasn't always translating to "lush and generous" as I had wanted.

For the past couple of years, since moving to a small urban plot, my aim had been high contrast. I figured that I needed to maximize the impact of every individual plant in the yard by showing off the leaf texture, habit, and flowers of each against a foil. Some plants were repeated throughout the garden in an effort to achieve some sense of rhythm and continuity, but always they were surrounded with different, contrasting colors and textures.

After chewing on its implications for several weeks, I reread Frank's article last night and then walked around my yard. My dawning understanding that combining areas of high contrast and areas of low contrast are... well, a good contrast... made me want to make at least a few minor adjustments yet this year. I tried to think about it in terms of allowing some plant combinations to be the main attraction, and making others lead your eye to that painting--or at least serve as a complimentary mat around it.

One of the first things that I did was a relatively easy fix. The retaining block wall that I had built planting pockets into this spring had a jumble of things planted on its upper edge. The gray creeping germander and the wooly thyme are at least the same shade of gray-blue, but there was also a green sedum between the little bluestem grasses and a cascading rosemary smack dab in the middle of the wall. These greens interrupted the repetition and line of the brick wall and just kind of felt awkward and jumbled.

So I relocated the rosemary and the sedum, moved the germander over in front of the little bluestem in spit of my concerns about too much of the same color there, and filled in the rest of the space with more wooly thyme. The second picture was taken when I was midway through the project, but I think you can already tell that it is going to be an improvement.

Then I went over to the driveway bed, which I had optimistically been thinking of as "a funky riot of color, Pacific Northwest style." Yup. Definitely lots of bitty going on there. A solitary 'Brise d'Anjou' jacob's ladder was moved next to a scaly Brackler fern to echo the leaf shape, and was thus made to seem more "unique" and less "orphan." Two of my cimicifugas were sited about three feet apart, but the third was located about 8 feet down the same bed... now all three are living more closely together, with room in between for a couple of large leaf plants (maybe green brunnera or hardy begonia) of the same kind to tie them together.

As the sun started to set, I quickly pulled out all of my 'Whiskey' wax begonias for one last fix. Instead of planting them in drifts or clumps, I had used them singly to fill in empty spaces. Eek. This might have worked better with a spreading plant like petunias that would eventually give the impression of groundcover, but with wax begonias it just made the garden look... well, you know. So after they were all out and laid neatly in a row on the driveway, I went back through and found a half dozen places were I could clump 3 or 4 of them together, then replanted. You can see three of those clumps next to the fern and polemonium combination in the third picture.

There are a few more things to move, and a few more things to think about moving before I actually go at it again with a shovel. There may be things that I decide not to move at all, to keep some repetition in the garden and make sure I don't lose all of the contrast. But I have a good feeling that my efforts thus far--and just keeping in mind that I want to avoid being bitty--are going to help the garden look much better in the long run. It may take another 3 or 4 years and quite a few more mistakes, but I hope to get there.

Tuesday, July 24

Corporate Landscaping

Generally, when I think of "corporate" or "public" landscaping I think rows of Japanese barberry and burning bushes, with tons of daylilies--mostly Stella D'Oro--stuffed in for summer color. Recently, some places have gone a bit trendier and started to mix in ornamental grasses as well. But a few places I haunt in the Cleveland area have really put some thought and imagination into their landscaping, and I admit to being inspired.

The city of Brecksville, which is near where I work, does interesting containers like this one. Orange celosia, Non-Stop begonias, variegated geraniums, and orange-edged acalypha stuff this container full of warm color. Its two smaller companion pots feature a bronze cordyline, more of the celosia, and silver trailing lotus vine. I like how the fine textures of the lotus vine and the asparagus fern used as filler in the larger center pot echo each other nicely.

It's not just containers that the Brecksville public works department does well, either. In their town square they have annual beds featuring dark-leaf cannas paired with ornamental grasses, bronze- and purple-leaf dahlias, and even "lowly" marigolds and salvias. Similar combinations grace the ends of long berm beds that split several 4 lane roads through town. In between the annual beds these berms still show 3+ seasons of color thanks to a low-maintenance mix of euphorbias, Russian sage, spring bulbs and various grasses.

Another place that does annual color well is Crocker Park, and upscale "shopping community" in Westlake. Some of their great containers include large bronze-glazed ceramics planted with just one type of orange- and yellow-flecked coleus, and huge pots with forest-worthy stands of dark-leaf cannas underplanted with enough cascading pineapple mint to keep me in tea for a decade.

The adjacent (and older) Promenade shopping center has long boasted wonderful landscaping in small beds that had been inset in the sidewalks, as well as a large burst of color in the fountain area that separates my favorite Borders bookstore from a large cineplex. Hardy hibiscus, various roses, and large mugo pines have formed the backbones of this area for the past few years, but the annuals really make the area special during the summer months. (You can click on any of the pictures to see details.)

In the first picture you see the hibiscus tucked in amongst a red-flowering, red-leaf celosia and a red-and-yellow flowering lantana. The silvery carpet underneath it is 'Silver Falls' dichondra. In the second picture, you see another bed with hibiscus and red celosia, but this one includes white geraniums, dark purple angelonia, and the refreshing combination of 'Cerveza 'n Lime' plectranthus and blue fescue.

A nearby bed goes more for the cool end of the color wheel with blue fescues, bronze cordyline, white petunias, Mexican heather, some kind of dark purple alternanthera, yellow-variegated grass, and 'Black Pearl' ornamental pepper. The black-eyed susan appears to be a self-seeded accident at first glance, but it adds some much-needed height there and a great leaf contrast as well so I believe that it was an intentional addition.

See the yellow coleus edging the separate bed further back in picture two? It compliments the yellows and purples in this front bed so nicely, and also leads your eye past the edge of the bed and over the sidewalk into the next area of color. That's another thing they do particularly well in this maze of beds around the fountain.

I am learning a few tricks from both of these public landscaping examples. From Brecksville, I am learning how to work with annuals that have interesting leaves and artfully combine them. From Crocker Park, I am learning to better use annuals to fill in my regular planting beds. I don't really know why, but I tend to keep my annual color in containers instead of putting them directly in the ground... now I see what I've been missing!

And from both, I'm getting ideas on how better to echo the colors and textures of key plants to make for a cohesive look in the garden. Hopefully learning these lessons will help keep my garden from being too "bitty"... but I'll have more thoughts to share on that score tomorrow.

Friday, July 20

Drought Effects

Allow me to preface this by saying that I am relatively mean to my plants. The vast majority of them--especially those which do not produce food for me--exist here on a "survival of the fittest" agreement. During a plant's first year, I will supplemental water it as it gets used to its new home and not being on a nursery watering schedule. I begin with several good soakings a week that gradually taper off to once per week, and the latter only happens when Ma Nature fails to pitch in and water it for me.

This summer, I did have to break my own rule and water a few extra things--namely, the 'Hillside Black Beauty' cimicifuga and the lobelia cardinalis in the full shade bed. They were sprawled horizontal across the mulch and neighboring plants when I came home from work one day, so I thought that was probably a sign they needed some water. (I don't miss a thing, do I?!) Since our drought this year is fairly extreme, I'll give them a second chance before I do any shovel pruning on these two. But I do have a little black mark against them in my mental plant Rolodex.

There are many things chosen for their toughness that have gotten along fine without any extra water from my hose, however. Take this golden variegated sage that brightens up my front bed. I don't use it for eating (the traditional silver culinary sages taste much better, IMHO) but I love its coloring so I have a few clumps of it. It seems oblivious to the fact that this summer's conditions are stressing many plants in my garden. If you look hard enough, though, even these plants are showing some drought effects.

Compare the picture above, taken this evening, with the picture on the left that shows the entire front bed just after planting last year. In the 2006 picture, you can see that this same clump of golden sage (the one to the right of the blue sea kale foliage, behind the lavender) was already as tall as the path light by early June. In comparison, Golden Sage version 2007 has another inch or so to grow in order to reach that benchmark. It is also not as wide yet as it was last year in June.

I also noticed that the sage leaves are more compact this year. That makes sense, as less leaf area = less loss of water due to transpiration. There is not a good closeup of last year's leaves, but even at a distance you can tell that there is either 1) A lot less golden variegation, or 2) More pronounced, darker green on the inner part of each leaf this year. I wouldn't have guessed this one, but it may either be a drought coping method or a reflection of how a higher number of sunny, no rain/no clouds days can bring out different coloring. Anyone know which it could be?

Whatever its coping methods are, I'll take them. It's definitely nice not to have too many prima donnas (as lovely as some of them are) that need constant attention with the hose... both for environmental and practical reasons. And when they not only cope but look as full and happy (at first glance) as this golden sage does, I suppose I can't really ask for more.

Saturday, July 14

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - July

Well, there seem to be more blooms in July than I managed to scrounge up in June, but I've come to the realization that it's still all about the foliage and texture in my garden, anyway. Now I need to embrace that instead of just living with it... maybe I'll get there by the August version of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day?

In the meantime, here is one of the lovelier incidents in my garden right now. Remember the 'Hopi Red Dye' amaranth that captivated me last summer? This year, I edited out all of its green progeny as well as any burgundy-hued plantlings that appeared in rather inconvenient spaces. I was hoping for some good contrast between the rough-textured amaranth leaves and the fine-textured Russian sage...

...but I completely underestimated the synergy that the two would have if they were in flower at the same time. Wow. This picture was taken on an overcast day, when these two plants really pick up on the blue tones in each other. I will have to take another picture to show you on a sunny day, when weird things happen--the burgundy reads red and the blues turn a warm silver in this bed when the sun shines on it!

A list of other plants in bloom:

Canna 'Wyoming'
orange annual cosmos
various peppers and tomatoes
'Ichiban' eggplant
'Caradonna' salvia (for the third time)
'Voodoo' sedum
teucrium aroanium
'Paprika' yarrow
'Margarita Banana' portulaca
'Yubi Red' portulaca
origanum vulgare 'aureum'
salvia lyrata 'Purple Knockout'
'Sykes' Dwarf' oakleaf hydrangea
red snapdragons
'Rotstrahlbusch' panicum virgatum
'Shuttle' lilies
'Samobor' geranium (must be confused?)
unknown variety of dianthus
'White Swan' echinacea
annual fuschia
curry plant
'The Watchman' black hollyhocks
asclepias tuberosa
drumstick alliums (almost done)
silene maritima
purple verbena
'Whiskey' wax begonias
'Lady' lavender

In bud, and highly anticipated:
atriplex hortensis var. 'rubra' (flowers are not showy, but I like the candelabra look of the flowerstalks)
'Red King Humbert' canna

Wednesday, July 11

5 Random (But Garden-Related) Things

In the past few weeks I've been tagged more than once to do a Five/Six/Seven Random Things About Me meme. (I've also been given two Thinking Blogger Awards, one by meresy_g at edge effect and one by Colleen at In the Garden Online, but I'm still a bit astounded by both to do them justice in a post just yet.) One twist I've seen on these memes is that each gardener has to relate every random fact about themselves to gardening. I enjoy thinking about things like this, and so I'm playing along. Each random fact below is followed by the gardening tie in:

1. You wouldn't know this to look in my closet, but I do know an awful lot about what's going on in the fashion world. (Learn how to tie a babushka for this winter!) In fact, my friend Jess and I have a standing agreement to buy each other something from a high-end fashion house if either of us should ever happen to win the lottery. (She will probably pick out something Missoni, and I will likely choose a sexy dress from Alberta Ferretti.)

I read avidly about garden "fashion," too.... new and (sometimes) improved plant cultivars! This season I've managed to resist a lot of "hot" plants but have picked up a "designer" portulaca called 'Yubi Red,' fell hard for the orange-y leaf heuchera trend, snagged two 'Midnight Reiter' geraniums on clearance, and used a 'Red Sensation' cordyline as my (container) accesory of the year.

2. Although my hair has darkened and turned me into a brunette, I was a tanned towhead of a kid and worked the blonde/blue eyed California Girl look all through high school. Yes, I even went tanning before my junior prom... and I shudder every time I think about it.

Older and wiser, I now wear a floppy straw hat and long pants/sleeves while gardening. I also religiously slather on my favorite sunscreen: Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch. It comes in SPF 55 and SPF 70! As my slightly acerbic--and wholly amusing--friend Alli says doubtfully, with a resigned shake of the head, "Well, you look like a ghost now but I suppose you'll have fabulous skin when you're 60!"

3. I have a special affinity for the water. I spent countless hours during my childhood summers swimming in my grandparents' pool and waterskiing at my family's cottage at the river. When I found out that my maternal grandfather's family came from a Welsh seaport, that felt incredibly appropriate to me. I have had multiple dreams where I have died by drowning, and yet they have never been sad or scary--they felt more like "going home." I have been skinny dipping several times (always in a natural kind of setting, never really in an overtly sexual one.) And I love nothing more than to body surf in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

My affinity for water is one reason why I enjoy incorporating so many water-related and seaside garden plants in my dryland garden. I've posted pictures of my sea kale, crambe maritima, many times. Most recently, I added some catchfly, silene maritima, as a groundcover.

4. I used to paint and draw, and wanted to go to art school until my senior year of high school. Why I stopped producing my own pieces and destroyed most of my old work is a sordid tale of teen angst and young love (translation: it makes me look like an imbecile so I'm not telling it!) but I still have a deep love of art and devour books, museum exhibitions, art shows, and the like.

I have a sneaking suspicion that even if you deliberately abandon the regular tools of the artistic trades, art does not take its leave of you so easily. I sometimes wonder if my garden has become my canvas... but then I also wonder if I have delusions of (artistic) grandeur.

5. At one time, maybe 7 years ago, I weighed almost 80 pounds more than I do right now. I still cringe when I hear people make judgemental comments about obese people such as, "How could that person let himself get like that?" Getting "like that" certainly wasn't a conscious decision for me. I had always been athletic and mostly fit, so discovering I was overweight really surprised me. People are generally disappointed when I tell them how I lost the weight--no magic pill, liquid formula, or denying myself a taste of cheesecake if I was jonesing for it. The weight came off over the course of a year in which I concentrated on walking every day and made fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods a priority.

This is when I actually started to garden. I couldn't believe the price of "fresh" herbs in the grocery store--or how wilted they looked--and I knew how much better tomatoes tasted sun-warm and right off of the vine. In the beginning, there was "just" a veggie garden, but then an ornamental bed was created to add some color to the shady front bed of my north-facing house. At some point, I had an epiphany. Maybe mixing the edibles and the ornamentals would give me the best of both worlds: A beautiful garden that nourished both my senses and my stomach.

And thus the golden variegated lemon thyme came to live under the Japanese cutleaf maple and spills over a short retaining wall into the Japanese bloodgrass... and now the eggplants are sited where their leaves will add some chunky texture into a bed, contrast with the tall zebra grass, and compliment the purple tones in some self-sown amaranth... and so the fun (at least for me) continues...

Thursday, July 5

Round Two

Yesterday, I spent the whole day in my garden. It was so wonderful to finally have a day to do that (my first since March) that I want to type it again:

Yesterday, I spent the whole day in my garden.

Aaahhhh.... :)

Sometimes I forget how restorative it is to just immerse yourself in the yard. How many problems you can solve--or at least make peace with-- while you are weeding and mulching and moving plants. The parts of your brain that hum along while you work with your hands in such a way must fuel the thinking parts of your brain in a magically synergistic way.

Speaking of humming, I was very happy to see so many bees busily working away at the flowers in my yard. They seemed particularly fond of the drumstick alliums and the 'Caradonna' salvia.

The lawn visible below those allium flowers and baptisia foliage is approaching a prairie/wheat hue... beautiful, but very inappropriate for a fescue mix. I don't know the statistics off the top of my head, but I don't need numbers to tell me that we are very dry. The pictures say it all. I refuse to water my lawn, though. Watering is reserved for the newly planted--and things that show obvious signs of distress, like the cardinalflowers and cimicifuga that I found lying horizontal yesterday.

In addition to some emergency watering, I did get a few other projects accomplished. I built a small retaining wall and mulched the bed where the baptisia reside. I harvested the rest of my garlic and hung it in bunches downstairs to cure. That left me with several holes in "the canna bed," as you see in the second picture... to fill them I planted everything from clearance dahlia roots and gladiolus corms to pepper plants and beet seeds.

Sometimes I think that my blog title, "A Study in Contrasts," sounds too artistically snobby or grandiose. And then I wonder what else you would call a blog by a crazy gardener who grows tropical cannas, wooly thyme, native grasses like little bluestem, and brussels sprouts all in the same garden bed. (Well, okay, so you might call it a riot or a mess... but I guess I like to look on the bright side!)

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I contain multitudes.)"
- Walt Whitman

Today was my longest day at work this week, an 8am-10pm marathon. But if I just get through the next three days, round two of our big weekend events at work will be finished. The nicest part about the finishing is that three comp days will be waiting for me on the other side of this weekend, and then I can go out and drink in the joy of gardening... really and truly gardening, not just throwing my attention to one or two little necessary tasks here and there in an evening... once again.


Sunday, July 1

Delayed Gratification

In comments left on an earlier post of mine, MrBrownThumb mentioned that he was sad that his hollyhocks--he has a double black variety!--were already done blooming. That reminded me that I meant to make another post about a little experiment of mine.

As you can see from the first picture, the hollyhocks I had included in my "Notes to Self: June" post are over 7 feet tall and almost done blooming. (The artemisia in front of them is looking pretty sad, but that's more of an indication of the dryness of our summer and the water-stinginess of its caretaker.)

Most of these are going to be ripped out next week to make way for a raspberry bush and a few other items that I need to get planted. But that doesn't mean that I'll be without hollyhock blooms. In fact, some of my hollyhocks are just now beginning to bloom!

This spring, I read that you can effectively deadhead hollyhocks by cutting back the entire flower stalk after they bloom, which may encourage rebloom on shorter flower stalks. At the same time I came across this tidbit, I was also reading the new version of The Well Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy Di Sabato-Aust and getting some ideas on "managing" the bloom time of various plants.

Having planted more hollyhocks than I had planned (because the seed surprised me with great germination) I found myself with plenty of subjects for experimentation. And so I went out into the backyard and cut back the flowering stalks on two of my hollyhocks before they even got a chance to grow many buds.

The cutback plants looked terrible for about a week (I wish I had taken a picture) but then they put forth a flush of new leaves. Their foliage has held up much better than that of the taller untouched plants--most of the latter had gotten so ugly on the lower 2 ft of the plant that I de-leafed them and left the plants with bare legs instead. As you can see in the second picture, the cutback plants have just a few messy leaves but otherwise have good full foliage. They are just now beginning to bloom.

At this point, I'm not too sure what I think about the results my experiment overall. I love that the foliage on the cutback plants stayed nicer after that initial shock period, and that they are very full. 3-4 feet is a more manageable border plant to be sure, so the height is nice for the location where the cutback plants reside.

On the flip side, I'm no drama queen, but... okay, I have to admit that I planted black hollyhocks partly for the excitement factor, and cutting these plants in half greatly reduces that for sure. I find myself looking at them and saying, "Oh, that's nice," instead of the "Wow, check these out!" that their taller brothers and sisters inspired.

I'm not really sure that I'll ever grow hollyhocks again. Some of my other perennials are finally starting to fill out, and there are other interesting biennials and tall perennials to try. (Verbascum, here I come!) But if I do have hollyhocks again, I doubt that I will cut mine back-- unless maybe I plant one right in front of the other, and cut back the one in front so its pretty foliage hides the wreckage of the other one. Hmm... now that I thought about that, it doesn't sound half bad...