Wednesday, September 19, 2018



      Surprises engage our memory and attention as routines can not. They almost seem to alternate between good and bad. For example:

Turning around mindlessly and suddenly facing a mass of color from an azalea swarm.

A long drought where you suddenly realize that the whole garden needs watering. NOW!

A late snow on newly opened flowers; an attractive juxtaposition, photo-worthy for remembering years later.

A deep, heavy snow that breaks tree limbs and the branches of bushes, leaving visible scars years later.

Azaleas with flowers in November or December, when those plants were expected to go to sleep.
Tripping while jogging or slipped while gardening.

Photographing a giant, colorful garden spider with a dew-covered web in the first rays of the sun.
Discovering last night's deer damage.
What's that weird thing? Surprise! It's a Luna Moth hanging upside down under a rose bush leaf!

A large dragonfly warming up in the morning chill, resting on a favorite plant.

A squirrel running up my pant leg while avoiding the charge of another, sharp claws digging in, unaware I'm not a tree until I bend over and scream at it.

Finding a garter snake, harmlessly wrapped around the roots of a small azalea being transplanted, both ready to share their sleep through the winter.

Planting some Japanese Maple seeds and, two years later, still waiting for them to emerge. A slow motion disappointment.

Receiving a free plant in the fall called 'Boring Pink' and discovering the next spring that its flowers are bright white with red flecking exploding all over. Like being asked to move from coach into First Class to “balance the plane”.

      Photographs delude us, pretending we well remember people and places from our past. Surprises create true memories, recreated in detail. For a moment, we are in the experience: cold wind, warm sun and all.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Garden of the Future

The Garden of the Future

            I wish I could sprinkle some magic dust on a seedling in the morning and have a 12' plant, beaming with flowers, by afternoon. I wish every plant in the garden were impervious to disease, drought and predators. I wish there were special glasses to make every flower look great to the observer, no matter who was wearing them or what his favorite colors were. I wish vegetables were grown to taste, such as bacon-flavored cucumbers or mango-infused corn. Those wishes won't be answered for a long time.
            The following thoughts, though, involve improvements that could be available now given the total dedication in finances, manpower and time of the government. Worthy endeavors all.

            RFID chips for rapid identification: It would be great to just point a wand at a plant and immediately know everything about it. I actually looked into these a few years ago after I discussed the idea with someone at a convention. While the expense was manageable, the hassle of programming for each plant, creating the chip, and burying it deeply enough to discourage squirrels, but shallow enough to be read easily by a wand, was too much. Also, setting up the database with easy entry of plant info such as name, hybridizer, flower and habit characteristics, date of planting, transplanting history, etc., was complex. In fact, it would be great if I could just pass the new plant in front of my hand-held DNA analyzer, discovered yesterday as a prize in a box of cereal. The data would be automatically loaded and backed up to the cloud. This is likely to be available sooner than other tools, below.

            Virtual Reality tours: Video games let you wander through an imaginary world. Let's create that world as your garden looks, at its best. Record every aspect, turning in every direction from every spot and then, when cold January comes around, July for Aussies, simply strap on your headset and view the garden in color with stereo vision and stereo sound. Tilt the joystick to move any way you wish at any point in the yard and remember how it was, and will be again. Look up to see the Cardinal among the crab apple blossoms, or the Red-shouldered Hawk enjoying the clouds. Look down to see the heucheras, ferns and hosta. Would it be too extreme to also breathe in the spring perfumes?

            Compact explosives to dig holes: Given some of these shaped charges, I would make my holes deeper and wider than I currently have the energy for. In fact, the grassy areas of my shady yard would quickly become a memory as those poorly growing blades would be replaced by shade-loving ground covers and larger bushes. But not English Ivy. I couldn't find any county permits for exploding one's suburban back yard.

A table-top Cyclotron at Houghton College. Photo by Tim Koeth from
            A Table-Top Cyclotron: Casually wander into your garden shed and irradiate piles of seeds or pollen. Who knows what mutants will be produced from this? Such machines already exist, and would be great to get one from Amazon for $79.99 and start a mad-scientist eruption of hybrids in your back yard. They all would be different than your neighbor's plants, and a few might even be keepers. Getting a license for a nuclear reactor on your workbench might be the obstacle here. I should try to get a license for the compact explosives first.

            Genetically modified plants that glow at night: Why enjoy our flowers only in the daytime?  How about taking genes that control bio-luminescence from lightning bugs or fish and put them into our plants? I've seen videos of lightning bugs in the Amazon filling many trees and all flashing in sync. Wouldn't it be great to have your whole yard flashing that way? Or different beds flashing in their own rhythms? Or choreographed to music? And the colors change with the rhythm? That's all done now with Christmas lights. I want my azaleas to do that, too!

            Hunter-Killer Drones: Each of 100 sub-miniature drones in your yard would be equipped with an audio detector for seeking out mosquitoes, and a laser for shooting them down. After clearing the yard of those pests the drones would be reprogrammed to hunt down flies. It would take a little more engineering to zap ragweed pollen, but that's just a simple matter of programming.

            None of the above are physically impossible and could be implemented with sufficient political muscle. We need to encourage the governments of the world to fund the pleasures of creation by forming the Garden Party and electing our own bed of candidates!

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!