Friday, July 20, 2018



            If you're not in a hurry to leave after visiting my azalea garden, we could wander over to the work area on the side, littered with pots.

            Not empty pots. Pots with azaleas, hosta and Japanese Maples. Pots with potential. Ladies in waiting. Some are for the future garden. Some don't make the cut because they're burdened with unattractive flowers. Some don't grow well, or they have few flowers, or they displease me (their master) for some inexplicable reason. Those pots become giveaways to visitors, put on the plant exchange table at club meetings, or exiled to Siberia (the far reaches of the yard where the soil is poor and my hose doesn't extend). They will fend for themselves, surviving on the whim of the god of orphans. While I haven't composted any, that is still a threat I hold over their branches when they fail to justify themselves.

            After four or five years, they are keepers or are expelled. Keepers find a place in the garden, often replacing a plant I found inferior. Then I've got to find a place for the original owner of that plot. Musical chairs, played to the hum of mosquitoes.

            Potted plants face an array of dangers. They are always threatened with being tipped over by wandering critters. Looking for acorns or mice, the wild ones can tear out the whole plant and leave it gasping on the ground, roots exposed, hoping I'll notice and come to the rescue. Plants dry out faster in the pot than if they were in the ground. Being portable encourages moving them frequently, sometimes cracking the plastic.

            There are so many problems that one wonders why a better system hasn't been invented. Some think a better system is to take each plant out of the pot when it first comes home and plant it immediately. Good idea, except space is limited for most of us and we plant them really close together “temporarily.” Years later, the survivors are a tangled mess, cheek-by-jowl, impossible to separate. Yes, you've got me: I am speaking from personal experience.
Pots left in ground for years (not mine :) )

            I've seen gardens where the holes at the bottom of pots aren't for drainage but are escape routes for roots. Plants in pots can be decades old and the size of trees. My pots are often watered by submerging them in buckets of water, never getting to develop those huge root systems. Of course, one must remember to take them out of the buckets. Hmmm … yes, you've got me again: I am speaking from personal experience.

            Still, each year my plan is to give away many more pots than I take in and shrink the collection, easing the problems of watering in the summer droughts. And each year, people whose gardens I visit give me a bunch more. And I can't say, “No.” They are gifts. Of course, the same works in reverse, but I never seem to make progress toward my goal of having just a few to evaluate and care for.

            I'm sure that when they carry me out the house feet-first, a perfect plant will be waiting in vain for its master to come, drop it out of its plastic prison and into happy decades of life in a soft, moist bed, just outside the picture window. Will there be a Rescue Plant organization, screeching to a halt, sirens blasting, to save that doomed, perfect plant as I'm hauled away? I would start that organization, but then I'd end up caring for those pots and there I'd be: watering even more and shrinking my collection backwards.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Planning Ahea

Nobody starts their gardening life with a plan, but if they stick with the hobby then ideas come to them, unbidden.

Casual planting comes from having a plant in hand and putting it in a spot because the spot is empty.
Planning requires a little time and thought. Are you going to put the plant in a bed dedicated to a single hybridizer? Or one featuring only those created in you county? How about putting together all of those that bloom at the same time? Or all of the red ones in a separate bed? Or those that have white flowers with colored borders, separate from the “selfs”, which are single color flowers? Or all the short ones together? Or a mix with tall ones at the back and short ones at the front? Have you tried having tall ones in the middle, then medium sized in a circle around them, then short ones around the border resembling a mountain?

A decision might be made between getting primarily those of a type, for example late blooming Satsukis, or enjoying a wide mix of types. Those who collect a single type will smile as you give them something else, but will be immediately thinking about re-gifting.

Which makes me think of the decision to be made when a plant has to go. Maybe it is growing poorly, maybe you don't like the flower, maybe there aren't enough flowers on the plant, maybe it looks like a million others and is just taking up space. Should you shred it? On the one hand it's nice to have a gift plant for a visitor. Maybe they will like it. But, if you don't like the plant should you give it to someone you also don't like? Alternately, the compost pile awaits, its jaws almost audibly clicking. Is that a little drool I see coming out of the side of the stack?
Variations of texture and color make a nice shade bed, June 2018

Decisions, decisions. But I think that it is better to have decisions to make than to put plants in a space simply because you are standing there.

Visiting other gardens starts the inspiration explosion! Should all the plants be in shiny, colored pots? Some in the ground and some in pots? A mix of sun and shade suggests plants that love one or the other.

What are you going to enjoy in August when the azaleas and daylilies are spent? Late daylilies like 'August Flame', some Fall Aster (invasive!), Black-eyed Susan and Ligularia (in October) give me something to look at when it is hot and dry.

Some people look for plants that still look good in the dead of winter: their remaining foliage or branch structure giving the frozen garden some character. Rohdea Japonica, arum and, of course, hellebores.
Crocus' in the snow, February 2007

Will anything announce the spring while they (and you) fight through the last snow? Winter Jasmine, snowdrops, and crocus' will remind you that spring is coming and you'd better start planning ahead!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Keep Your Friends Close

We're always making decisions in the garden: plant this over by the fence or in front of the tree; put that by the patio or in the glazed pot.

Many years ago a philosopher named Danny Hillis proposed making a clock which would run, almost maintenance-free, for 10,000 years. He called it the “Clock of the Long Now.” One of his intentions was to develop long-term thinking in people, rather than their normal focus on the next few minutes or, if you're in finance, the next quarter. As I understand it, the clock is being built though, in keeping with its concept, it will be a long time before it is finished.

Have you thought about the difference between planting for “now” and planting for “later”? I know several gardeners who have.

A couple of them have planted their azaleas far apart with the idea that they will look great in 5 or 10 years. Neither of them were pre-retirement when we talked and one said that he expected to live to 100. The good news is the gardeners are still doing well, as I write this, and the plants have indeed covered up a large portion of the mulch around them. Congrats to them!

One of the above gardeners keeps his individual plants in large, 55 gallon drums. These are too big to move and not too close to each other, but the tops have started growing together and, from a little distance, they look fine. An interesting side note on those drums: they have drain holes on the sides near the bottom. The roots of his oak trees will not grow up into the drum and compete for resources.
This bed of early blooming azaleas, shown from May 4, 2018, demonstrates my idea that mulch should be used, but rarely seen.

I don't like to look at a bed and see a pile of mulch with a few plants, whose lives are all promise. A bed of plants, with maybe a little mulch showing through, is preferable. My view is that I am planning for now and later. It's true that this requires more work, but spread out over a period of years, it isn't really stressful. Azaleas should be planted relatively close together, and when they become closer than you wish, simply dig them up and move them apart, or move them elsewhere, or eat them. Your choice. [You know that's a joke, right? Right? Please don't name me in a wrongful death suit.]

Many azaleas look fine with their branches mixed through their neighbors, so they don't have to be moved the instant a branch touches the next plant. Azaleas, ferns, heucheras and hosta are relatively shallow rooted and can be transplanted easily. It takes occasional attention, but your garden can always be ready for the show!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Opposites Attract?

      If someone told me, when I woke up that morning, I'd be watching an ad for a Chinese dance show over and over, and listening intently to the Chicago song “25 or 6 to 4”, I'd have said, “Yeah, could be. Why not?” I lead a quiet life, but it does get strange sometimes.

      To clarify, I was walking through a nearby mall and a kiosk was set up to run an ad for a Chinese dance/acrobat show, showing short clips of people jumping, thrusting with swords and throwing things in the air. Simultaneously, the mall muzak was playing the above mentioned song, which I like. The weird thing was: the phrasing and emphasis of the song were in exact sync with the video. I watched the tape run at least three times and the timing was precise. It was really neat to see, though the cultural basis of the two items were as different as [insert your own simile here]… And, yet they worked together.

      Married couples? Classic “opposites attract”. Not always for always, but sometimes for always.

      What could be more different than twisted hunks of metal and soft, growing plants? I just saw a picture of a fine garden in Delaware. A copper sculpture of a heron twisted elegantly upward before a set of soft Japanese Maple leaves. They do go together.

      Garden gnomes have been overdone, but a small statue of a smiling frog, in the lotus position, was great in a shady garden on a recent Azalea Convention tour.
The Neckel Garden in 2015 demonstrates how plants and human constructions can go well together.

      On the counter-example side: we are so used to seeing suburban houses that we don't think of them as piles of brick, wood, aluminum siding and shingles. In the old days, my days, the metal bars of TV antennas were the flag of the ugliness troops, but now there are just some satellite dishes on the lookout, which don't look quite as bad. And yet, we set out a small collection of trees and bushes all around, then declare the constructed piles “attractive”. Maybe, if the houses were made by Frank Lloyd Wright my sneers would be misplaced. Everything else is just a rectangular pile with a triangular pile on top.

      The 'burbs are so much a part of our psychological landscape we think the plants and construction mass are a happy pair. No. Foundation plantings are just a desperate attempt to hide … foundations. And, what is it about asphalt and asbestos covered triangles perched above our houses that stir the heart's aesthetics?

      Not all opposites attract. Most houses and their plantings are thrown together by the fates, hoping to coexist for a time, as cheek-by-jowl commuters on a Japanese subway. Anything a gardener can do to ease the strain will lower the world's tension. Maybe, raise plant societies to the Ambassadorial level??

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gardens You Might Miss On The Spring Tour – II

While we enjoy visiting the gardens of friends, and may go on organized tours, you must realize that you are missing out on the wonders that that approach may skip. Continuing your education on the surprising varieties of design, we start Part II with:

The Politician's Garden

An Open House! Come and enjoy the chicken and hot dogs on the grill. Beer and soft drinks in the coolers! And flowers all around. She even remembers your name. And your children's names. And the fact that you put in a hosta bed last year. How is it, by the way? Oh, that's great! She's always smiling. Have you seen her back lawn? A little ratty looking now but she has wonderful visions of it for the future. Could you spare a donation for it? Would you like her to have some more camellias on the left? Could you spare a donation? Your vision could become hers, no matter what it does to the garden, the neighborhood, the state ... Could you spare a donation? My, you've lost some weight! Could you spare ...

The Doctor's Garden

I know he told you to meet him in the driveway at 10:15 but he's running late. There's an emergency. A squirrel knocked over a pot and has to be cleaned up (both the squirrel and the pot).
At 10:35 one of his gardeners comes out to the driveway and calls your name. “Yes,” you answer. But then you're pulled off the side and must fill out a questionnaire. “Why did you come today?” “Have you been here before?” “Is anything bothering you about the garden?” “Do you have insurance? (The stepping stones can be slippery).” “Which company?” The gardener takes the completed form and goes around the back of the house.
At 10:50 another gardener approaches and invites you into the garden. But you have only 10 minutes. He says that that is enough. Well, be sure to make an appointment to come back next year and we'll do this all over again. Did the first gardener collect your copay for seeing the grounds? No? That's OK, we'll bill you. You'll hardly notice the processing fee.

The Teacher's Garden

Don't be late or you'll have to show her an excuse. And who's signature is that? Is that your mother's handwriting? Never mind.
Visitors must wear a badge.
Flowers are all laid out in neat rows, alphabetically. One droops but the teacher's stick raises it up. Aggressively.
At the end of the Spring, plants are given grades: “Spectacular” means primed for success, “Average” – good for filling in the gaps, “Shows Promise” – must try harder next year, “Failure” – needs to be given away to people she doesn't like, and, the lowest grade, “Compost Pile”.
A true, real life fact: the latter is a grade I lusted after when I was teaching but could never get the school board to approve.

The Appalachian Garden

Ah, a garden with sculptures! Let's chain up the Pit Bull then walk around. Over here's a Ford F150, up on blocks now but someday it'll hit the road. That rust don't matter none. Sitting by the front door is a cherry red Dodge Charger. There's some kind'a bush crushed under it which was just in the way. Off on the left side of the double-wide is a '65 Mercury. The vinyl roof is a little ratty, but the moss growing on it sure looks nice. Ma loves greenery. The ditch by the mailbox has daylilies and cattails, lookin' might fine! The '55 Chevy next to them, with the multi-flora rose coming up by the tail lights, might be gone one day. A guy in town said he might be interested. Mighty interested. But, ya know, the place wouldn't be the same without it...

The Late-Night Huckster's Garden

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Gardens You Might Miss On The Spring Tour

Gardens You Might Miss On The Spring Tour

            I'm aware that my little shade garden is not the only environment you would want to visit.  Habitats have been designed for sunny areas, droughts, deserts, all native plants or rain forests.  I think I've seen all of those.  Some I haven't seen you might want to inquire about:

The Wrestler's Garden
            A wrestler would want to test his strength against a plant.  Nasty vines would be pulled with ferocity.  Low branches would fight back by slapping him in the face, almost putting out an eye.  Rose thorns would punch through his gloves but lose in the end with the branch on the compost pile.  Turning that pile, if it was 5' high, would be a major strain with loud roars accompanying each thrust and lift of the garden fork (from the legs, not the back).
            Bringing home bags of soil and mulch, this aficionado would take out several at a time from his pickup, drop them on his shoulders and jog to the back yard puffing “hut-hut”.  Each time he made the round trip his wife, in a bikini, would hold up a sign with his total number of round trips.

The Mortician's Garden
            Plants would be in somber, dark colors.  Respectful, not delightful.  A few lilies would be allowed.  Tasteful, of course.
            The name of each plant would be clearly marked on a little tombstone nearby.
            Going to the work area in the back would require passing through a creaky, wrought iron gate, then digging up the items from casket-like boxes.
            The tool shed would reek slightly of formaldehyde.
            And we don't want to know what's rotting in the compost pile.

The Gymnast's Garden
            Vines are old, heavy and hang low.  How else would you be able to swing from place to place?
            Holes would be dug by exploding upwards off a vault then sticking the landing.
            Fertilizer would be spread by putting a dollop on the hands and then clapping them together, forming the traditional dust cloud which would settle over the beds.
            The neighbors would be sick of the constant, upbeat music accompanying the gardener's bounding around the back yard.
            And that idiotic Russian judge would always be taking off points for dandelions.

The Seamstress' Garden

The Librarian's Garden
            Your first thought would be that the plants would be alphabetized, but you'd be forgetting the Dewey Decimal system.
            Your questions should be in hushed tones.
            If you want to know where a plant is, check the computer catalog on the patio.  But remember that other people are waiting to use it, too.
            Do you really like a plant you find?  You can take it!  But return it in 3 weeks.

The Klingon Garden
            No pansies here.  Tough love.  The barks are rough.  Many of the plants are treacherous.  None should be trusted.  Those that seem soft and docile have almost microscopic thorns to catch the unwary (such as on the fruit of prickly pear cactus) or will smear on a rash that drives you crazy (poison ivy).
            Of course it's not just the plants themselves.  In the crevices lurk Black Widow spiders.  Ticks hang off the ends of leaves waiting for you to pass.  And that pit viper in the grass is looking for a meal.
            The color palette will be largely a grayish monochrome.  Tulips are for wimps!
            If the gardener finishes the day without spilling blood then it would be an embarrassment.
            And you can't read the plant labels.  Or pronounce them.