Friday, February 27, 2015

The James Bond Garden Tour

My garden is frozen solid under a lumpy blanket of ice and snow. With the exception of a single overachieving hellebore, there are no signs of spring. To cheer myself up, I'm reposting one of my favorites. This was originally published 8/26/2012.

Several years ago I decided to treat myself to a garden tour of England. As with most things I do, my tour was a bit unconventional. I could have chosen as my guide a famed landscape designer or horticulturalist but I wanted a different perspective. By hiring James Bond I never had to wait in line for anything and was able to travel by jet pack and Aston Martin. Since Bond is an expert on almost everything, it came as no surprise that he is an excellent gardener, too.

Are there any plants in this picture? I hadn't noticed.

Our first stop was at Barnsley House Gardens in the Cotswolds. Created to be a personal garden by a world renowned horticulturalist, this lush garden covers three acres and includes a knot garden and potager. I swooned over the fullness of the plantings and lounged around the beautiful pond.

As it neared time to leave, I noticed Bond was nowhere to be seen. I snuck quietly around corners and looked behind bushes to see if I could find him. Worried how I was going to get a martini and a ride to the next garden, I finally found him standing by the cabbages. His sleeves rolled up and dirt smudging his handmade Italian suit, a small razor edged cultivator poked from the tips of his expensive shoes. Digging the cultivator into the weeds surrounding the vegetables, he ripped the roots from the soil, retracted the cultivator, and walked coolly by. 

Cerney House Garden

Our next stop was the Cerney House gardens, also in the Cotswolds. Described by an English gardening magazine as "not for those who like everything tickety-boo", I worried that James might not love the garden as much as I did. "James, " I ventured, "Aren't you coming or do you like everything tickety-boo? Is the garden a bit too exuberant for you?" He stared off into the distance while slowly unscrewing the headlight from his Aston Martin. A long narrow headed spade emerged from behind the light, a pair of gardening gloves tied tightly around the handle. Slipping the headlight back into place, he walked slowly toward me, and whispered in my ear, "I love it when you say tickety-boo."

A large organic garden, Cerney House features a meadow, orchard, and a walled garden surrounded by mature trees. Richly layered elongated plantings tumble over each other to create a relaxed garden paradise.

Our last stop before I jetted back to the States, was a stop at Beatrix Potters Lake district home. Long an admirer of her brilliant children's stories, I'd wanted to visit her home and garden for years. Tempted to cozy up to Bond whispering "tickety-boo", I restrained myself and wandered her vegetable patch. Once again he disappeared as I watched for naughty rabbits and talkative mice. Alone in the garden, I took photos and hummed to myself. As I bent to take a closer shot, a grizzled hand thrust suddenly into view, a small rabbit dangling from its grip.

"Drop the rabbit, McGregor". James stood behind the old man, a saber protruding from the handle of a metal rake. "He's been eating my garden! I want rabbit stew for dinner tonight.", the man complained as he loosened his fingers. "I wouldn't recommend it", James responded, his voice detached and icy. "Why?" McGregor asked. "How do you like your rabbits?" "Shaken but not stirred," replied James. "No one eats Peter."  

He lowered the saber as the rabbit ran under the melons, the old man cursing and kicking, clay pottery in chunks at his feet. I stood to the side, in shock. Where had he been hiding the saber rake and where could I get one? Doubtful I be able to sneak a shoe cultivator, headlight shovel or saber rake past airport security, I made a mental to note to ask him if the British government could ship them to the States.

The visit over, I headed back to the car. Pausing by the hedge that ran along the side of the garden, I noticed James up to his elbows in an overgrown shrub. Grasping the severed limbs, he thrust his pruners up his sleeve, and threw the branches to the ground. He tucked in his shirt and sighed deeply, "Gardening is so therapeutic."

Pruned by James Bond

The Ultimate Master Gardener

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Madness Monologues

When I was a kid my mother, who was a nurse, kept a copy of the Merck Manual on her desk. At over 4,000 pages, it housed a diagnosis for everything that ailed you. If your problem   wasn't in the Merck, it was all in your head.  But even the Merck has its limits. Despite reaching epidemic proportions every winter and spring, Geospatial Gardening Disorder has yet to be included.

I suppose tying the children to the roof instead of the plants would be considered poor taste...

As defined by me, Geospatial Gardening Disorder is diagnosed by the delusion that you actually have room in your garden for all the plants you've purchased. Symptoms of full blown GSGD manifest themselves through pacing about the garden with plant/seed catalogs or a laptop in tow and frustrated muttering that if only the afflicted were able to move the property stakes over an extra 40 feet or so, they could annex their garden for free. Missing chunks of lawn and numerous large boxes marked Live Plants! signal the severity of the disease. But be careful! Should you stage an intervention and attempt treatment without the help of a trained professional you risk angering a person well equipped to use a shovel and dig large holes. Chances are, no one will miss you. Consider yourself warned.

Resistance is futile. 

Having gone undiagnosed for years, I've developed a variety of coping skills to help me deal with this fabulous affliction. But the only one that is mildly effective is the employment of the Voice of Reason. I do not like the Voice of Reason.

Rock, paper and scissors give up for the day.  

I recently became convinced my overstuffed garden had room for a giant pincushion flower (cephalaria gigantea). However, the Voice of Reason, a nasty beast if there ever was one, did not agree. Much arguing commenced and after a few frustrated shouts of, "Giant is not Swahili for 'Yes, this will fit in your garden' " I reluctantly accepted defeat. But during a recent daylily buying bender, I turned the voice off and went shopping. Unsupervised is not a wise choice for me.

However, by the next morning, I had some explaining to do.
VoR: I can't believe you bought more daylilies! These are on your Do Not Buy list because you have so many. As a matter of fact, you gave away arm loads of them recently. 
Me: Because they're orange and purple and fragrant and have cool names.  
VoR: Please tell me you didn't buy these because of their names.
Me: Imagine the entire US/Canadian border crowded with people yelling ,"Halt! I have a daylily!". I had no choice.

Early October 2014

I should have armed my less vigorous plants with spears and burning torches to fend off the mighty mist flower invasion but then resistance would have been feudal. 

But occasionally, I'm able to persuade the Voice of Reason that a purchase isn't just necessary, but absolutely vital. When part of my rain garden became engulfed in native blue mist flower and tiny frost asters I knew salvation lie in ripping out swaths of blue fluffy flowers and replacing them with rudbeckia seedlings, actea 'Black Negligee', and pink lobelia 'Monet's Moment'.

From left to right - Actea 'Black Negligee (cimicifuga), rudbeckia 'Goldsturm', lobelia 'Monet's Moment', blue mist flower, and pink chelone 'Hot Lips'. I love my mist flowers so I saved a chunk growing near the chelone.

As I paced the garden muttering to myself, I negotiated moving the native asters to another spot and filling the empty hole with as much lobelia as I could. I could feel the opposition rising like bubbles to the surface as the Voice of Reason countered my move.
VoR: That's a lot of pink. 
Me: That's the point.
VoR: At least it's not a giant daylily.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Love a Gardener: A Guidebook

I'm convinced most gardeners see the world a bit differently than others. We all know real love is announced through all the small things that are - or are not - done through out the year rather than a single grand gesture on a manufactured holiday. But if you wanted to woo your favorite gardener, how would you do it? Rest easy and follow these steps. You are guaranteed to make an impression.

When the gardener is covered with compost and sweat, avoid statements such as, "What the hell happened to you? Were you hit by a a manure truck?" and "Sweet Mother of God, you smell like a goat." Instead, while they're showering find a way to make dinner magically appear, quickly pay the delivery person, and open a bottle of wine.  

Instead of traditional chemical-laden roses and cheap box of candy, consider this approach, "I've hired David Austin and his landscaping crew to dig up the rest of the lawn and personally select a dozen of his most fragrant roses for you to enjoy all summer. When I told them I was trying to romance you, he suggested I buy the 'In the Mood' package." 

Hey, baby! The landscapers are here!

Instead of telling the gardener the pink things by the yellow flowers next to the bushes look good, try Latin. "The planting of silene and tulips near the osmanthus 'Goshiki' is beautiful" just might help you get lucky. But butchering the Latin and telling them the "sireen and tulips by the gohsweeki are really nice" is probably better than nothing.

But if you really want some lovin', snuggle up close and whisper in his/her ear, " I cleaned, sharpened, and organized all your tools."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Name Game

When I was pregnant with my first child I received the advice to take what ever name I was considering and shout it across the house. If I could bellow it repeatedly and still like it, it was a keeper. Such wisdom ended with my children being given solid, traditional names that no matter how much I yelled, I still liked.

'Tipsy Imperial Concubine'

The same advice should be given to plants. Perhaps before a plant is named, the name should be blasted across a garden center or neighborhood fence. I can only imagine how funny it would be to hear the horticulturalists at your local garden center calling out to add a few more 'Homeplace Kissy Face' daylilies to the delivery truck or to overhear your male neighbor bragging about his 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine'.

"She's a beaut, Hal! This is the best 'Concubine' I've ever had. She's double cupped and turns a bit pink but even the wife likes her. If you hurry over you can get a sniff before she closes for the night."
There's no conceivable way I could hear that and not think my neighbor was a little kinky. But even normal plant names seemed to have been developed by deranged five year olds. My dwarf spirea are named 'Little Princess' while my deutzia is a 'Pink a Boo'.

Priced at $50+, Erotica should come with a copy of the Kama Sutra and a bottle of wine.

But some plant names are the entire reason I buy them. I once had a penstemon named penstemon whippleanus but it died. What an asshole. A clump of 'Red Velvet Elvis' iris was purchased just because the name was so irresistible. As for the 'Erotica' hosta, I don't own one but it's on my wish list. I'd much rather yell, "Hey, come check out my 'Erotica'!" than whisper, "My 'Pink Poodles' are blooming."

'Pink Poodles' coneflower

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Everything That's Right

I keep waiting for the Keebler Elf to pop out of this house.

New birdhouses

This was handmade by garden blogger Rebecca Nickols.

PowWow Wildberry coneflower seedling

Happy seedlings

Old dogs with young hearts

Friday, January 23, 2015

Omnivore's Delight

How do you decide what plants to add to your garden? My friend John Magee designed a garden with only straight species native plants. Over lunch last summer he described the garden as a 'vegan' pollinators paradise. No cultivars or hybrids fill the beds or spill from containers. If the plant isn't native to the North American southeast, it's not in the garden. I was intrigued by this idea but quipped that if a native garden could be considered vegan, then mine would be an omnivore's delight. I don't know where my roses, campanula, geraniums, or daylilies are native to but it isn't Virginia.

Even though Verbena bonariensis isn't native to the southeast, adult monarchs love it. But milkweed is the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

Orange milkweed (asclepias tuberosa) is easy to grow in dry, sunny, well drained spots. You can also grow it in a pot since it only reaches about 18" high. All pollinators love it. Whorled milkweed (asclepias verticillata) is another excellent choice for dry, sunny spots.

My garden is full of native plants but it's also full of hybrids and cultivars. 'John Fanick' phlox was moved next to euphorbia corollata last fall while spigelia marylandica thrives next to a hosta whose name I forgot. But when a nonnative plant is introduced to the garden, it must conform to the ethos of "Do no harm". It must support the ecosystem within the garden and cater to the needs of local pollinators. If it doesn't attract wildlife, it needs to be a problem solver like the epimediums that laugh off dry shade and rarely require extra water.

Southeastern native spigelia marylandica brightens a partially shady corner.

But sometimes we are innocently duped and add plants that not only harm our local pollinators but are contributing to their decline. Tropical milkweed, asclepias currassavica, has been shown to alter the migrating behavior of monarch butterflies, leading to fatal infections of OE (Ophyryocystis  elektroscirrha), a parasite that eventually kills monarch and queen butterflies. Instead of migrating to Mexico after they've laid their eggs on native milkweed, they stay and overwinter in warm areas where tropical milkweed is plentiful in home gardens. 

Monarch caterpillar on orange milkweed. 

Cheap and readily available, tropical milkweed blooms long after the natives have gone to seed. In our eagerness to help our beloved monarchs we've actually done more harm than good. After reading an excellent post on Southern Meadows describing the disastrous affects of tropical milkweed on monarchs, I quit growing it and began filling my garden with native orange milkweed and swamp milkweed.

Pink swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata) is much taller than orange milkweed and likes moist, rich soil.

But all is not lost. While clean, pesticide-free milkweed may be a challenge to find locally, it's easy to find online. The following nurseries carry many varieties of milkweed that have never been treated with pesticides. Many are available as seed as well as plants.


(Asclepias does well when winter sown. See my Winter Sowing page to learn how.)

Terroir Seeds
West Coast Seeds - Canada
Wildseed Farms

Tropical milkweed (asclepias currassavica) is also known as bloodflower or silky butterfly weed. Please don't plant this.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Trouble in Tomatotown

I'm done growing tomatoes. I'm done dealing with all the tying, staking, and supporting. I'm tired of furry, rat faced, bastard squirrels that take a single bite of a perfect tomato before flinging it to the ground. I can tolerate the tomato hornworms because I fill my platform feeders with them so the birds can feast. But I am absolutely fed up with all the damn diseases and plant problems that plague these vegetables. 

So I've kicked them out of the garden. I have no desire or compulsion to grow a water hogging, squirrel magnet, disease sponge of a plant when the Jamaican Tomato Man at my favorite farmer's market will do it for me. But don't think I haven't tried.

I grew my Mortgage Lifter plant from a disease resistant seed strain and had high hopes for absolute tomato amazingness. I shared the extra seedlings with friends.

By September it was so wretched I ripped it out. Despite keeping the bottom stems bare to provide strong air circulation, blight kept killing off the leaves from the bottom up.

When the Jamaican Tomato Man told me his Mortgage Lifters were as underwhelming as mine, I was relieved but all desire to continue growing tomatoes had been squeezed right out of me. Instead, I took home a variety of tasty, delicious fruit sold at his stand.

One of the few Mortgage Lifter tomatoes I harvested this year. This plant couldn't have paid the mortgage on a birdhouse.

To ensure absolute tomato perfection, I grow them in pots to avoid soil borne diseases. But of course, this means I need to water them constantly. The tomato plants slurp up water like an elephant at a watering hole while the squirrels hide in the trees waiting to dine. Squirrels are jerks.

To guarantee our sometimes stormy summers don't knock the plants over, I stake them to giant 6 ft tall poles that have been plunged deep into the depths of the giant pots they're grown in. To support the heavy fruit and long branches, I ensconce the entire plant - that I've grown from seed -  in giant, heavy duty square cages purchased from a fancy gardening catalog. But of course the branches far exceed the capacity of all this rigging to bend and break at the cage edges. My only recourse is vengeful pruning and snarky side glances.

But I will miss buying the tomato fertilizer Mater Magic, simply because I no longer have a valid excuse to ask my family, in my best deep country slang, "Anybody seen my Mater Magic? I need it fer my maters!" Ignoring the fact that the word 'mater' makes my skin crawl, it always made for a bit of fun.