Grow Write Guild #3: A change that does me good

The Grow Write Guild’s third assignment is to describe the garden at present; stop, observe, and enjoy.

My garden is presently divided into rooms. Some are fairly well-kept, some are being refurbished, and alas, there are some on which the door had better be kept shut.

But everywhere I look, the scene is lush with fresh shades of green: lime, olive, emerald, forest, apple, bronze, blue. In a single week the garden has transformed. A week ago, I could stand at my back door and see perfectly clearly the Carrot Lady‘s house. Continue reading

A few of my favorite things

Latest plants sown include:

My gardening philosophy, if I have one, is of the pasta-pot variety: Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. (This is not to be confused with seed bombing, which in my opinion is much more charming and probably more effective than what I do.) But in my bit of Arcadia, with its heavy, sticky clay, absurd summer heat and humidity, unpredictable water, and nutrient-sucking oak trees, I have been reduced to nine years of trial and error.

What’s worked for me? Here are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

white hellebore flowering

Flowers of Helleborus orientalis bloom in winter and early spring, and are deer-proof.

Helleborus orientalis: Passed along by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (right now!), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in theway of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage. They reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in. I will never willingly be without these plants again.

Gardenia jasminoides. I have a hedge of these that I planted in 2004 as quart-sized shrublets. Today, they’re well over 5′ tall and flower gorgeously in May and June, when they perfume the entire garden. Their foliage is glossy, their flowers voluptuous, and so far, I’ve not had any problems with insects or disease. Sometimes, if I’ve pruned intelligently, I can get a second flush of bloom in late August.

Iris tectorum 3

The bloom of Iris tectorum, Japanese roof iris.

Iris tectorum. Why did I wait so long to buy this plant? It’s 2 feet tall and bulletproof. It seems to be easy to propagate by seed. The clear, blue-purple flowers are charming and it blooms well in dry shade. Now that I think of it, it might make a nice combination with another favorite,

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum.‘ Delicate-looking, but absolutely tough as nails (perhaps you are detecting a pattern in my affections by now).

epimedium in winter

Epimedium in winter

Its heart-shaped leaves are evergreen here, though they turn a rusty bronze in winter. It blooms for me for several weeks in spring, with dainty yellow flowers dangling on a wiry stem. I have a clump about 3′ in diameter sitting smack on top of the roots of an oak, and it never complains or looks puny.

winter honeysuckle flower

The blossoms of winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, are lemon-scented.

Lonicera fragrantissima. Fragrant winter honeysuckle grows as a large shrub or small tree. Mine copes happily with hot afternoon sun between (you guessed it) two large oaks, and smells heavenly when it blooms in late February or March (though with all the warm weather we’ve had lately, mine started blooming last week). I admit it looks a bit worn at the moment, but it’s suffered a bit of neglect this fall. In the spring after a light dressing of compost, it will fill out marvelously with abundant, rich green leaves. It would probably be even more glorious if I gave it a more sympathetic home, but it does what I ask of it, and earns my admiration in return.

Iris ‘War Chief’

Three years ago, I dropped by a local garden center and discovered that my gardening life would be meaningless unless I brought home Iris ‘War Chief.’ The first year, I enjoyed the single bloom from the pot that enticed me to bring it home in the first place.

The second year, it did nothing. Fearing the iris borers that had munched their way through my other iris, I performed emergency surgery on it. It turned out to be a wise decision. I salvaged two pieces from the original tuber and planted them again, nursing them along.

They bloomed for the first time again on Monday morning.

Iris time: Bearded iris care and culture

When we bought the property where we now live, we inherited perhaps five hundred bearded iris, most of them with rhizomes about three quarters of an inch long, and none of which bloomed. Everything I read said how easy bearded iris were to grow. It is true that it doesn’t take much to make them grow. They will grow in any utterly neglected condition, as was the case with our property (it had belonged to a widow who was in poor health and liked the “natural look.”). They were limping along, dignity barely intact, in our dense, highly acid clay soil. In deep shade.

To make them grow well, and bloom profusely, requires slightly more attention. It is important, first of all, to make sure the rhizomes are healthy. Mine had apparently gone through a cafeteria service of iris disease problems, acquiring helpings of iris borer, bacterial and fungal leaf spot, and bacterial soft rot, which had left the foliage unsightly and all but a smidge of rhizome gnawed, rotten, and mangled. So the first step (after, of course, obtaining a soil test to determine the pH and nutrient analysis of the soil) was to dig them all up and cut off the diseased parts of the rhizomes. It is important to disinfect one’s tools during the process, or risk transmitting any virus or bacterial infection to the healthy rhizome. I played iris surgeon for a day and removed and threw away (do not compost!) the damaged bits, disinfecting the entire rhizome at the end of it all. I dipped both my tools and the post-surgery rhizomes in a solution of 1:10 bleach:water. I also trimmed back the healthy foliage to about 6″ in length (unhealthy foliage goes into the garbage).

The next step is to replant them appropriately. Bearded iris like to bake their rhizomes in the sun. This preference can make things difficult when the iris are planted in a mixed border that wants mulching. The key is to mound up little hills for the rhizomes to sit upon. Then, spread the roots around the hill, similar to the practice of planting a bare-root rose. Cover up the roots but leave the rhizomes uncovered. Mulch around the rhizomes but not on top.

Rain invariably washes my mulch, which is typically finely shredded leaves from the oak trees on my property, over the rhizomes, so when I’m doing my rounds pulling weeds or inspecting the troops, I try to remember to brush the mulch off any covered-up rhizomes.

It has taken about two years for the patients to recover, but I think the rehab is complete. What do you think?

The view in the soup

Venturing down into the backyard swamp, though, I can get a good look at Hyacinthoides hispanica, Spanish bluebells, that are just starting to bloom.

They look great next to the unknown euphorbia my neighbor Martha gave me when I had little more than mud and weeds to cope with (I thought for a long time it might be the variety commonly known as “graveyard spurge,” which is an invasive species, but to my relief, it’s not. It will spread like the dickens, though.)







And Iris ‘Eco Easter’ is starting to unfurl. Its petite, pale blue flowers are sweet looking even when weatherbeaten by the recent heavy rains.

It grows about 12 inches high for me and spreads rapidly in the loose soil of this bed, but is quite manageable. I’m glad to have plenty of it to play with. I do hope to manage it effectively this year, and create clusters rather than long, thin ribbons of plants. I have many such tasks on the to-do list, though, and I am better at rearranging the furniture later on than avoiding the mess in the first place.

Still no sign of Arisaema triphyllum, jack in the pulpit. But Halesia carolina, Carolina silverbell, is leafing out charmingly. I’m looking forward to watching this beauty grow.