Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Angel Of The Equinox

The paths in our garden are roughly like a wheel and spokes; a circular path runs around the outside of the garden, and five paths run from the circle to the center of the garden, where they converge on a big old red cedar tree on a small hill, with an almost life-size angel underneath it; the angel looks almost straight west, out over the pond. For most of the year, the angel (named Hernia, for what I got moving her 300 lbs.) sits in the shade of the cedar tree, but just at the fall equinox the sun, as it sets over the west ridge, lights her up like she's on a stage... a nice sight as you come up the path in front of her, which runs between two long perennial borders, backed by hedges of weigela. The only odd thing is that I've decided her face bears an uncanny resemblance to George Washington.
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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Plants That Make You Feel Warmer...

As the sun drifts southward, its light and warmth blocked more and more each day by the ridges on either side of our valley, the certainty of approaching winter weighs heavily on this intrepid gardener. It's a day to go look at the different plants of Arum italicum growing in our garden. They have just unfolded their startlingly tropical leaves, which will somehow persist through our bitter winter; easily the most incongruous sight in our fall garden, looking like so many hot house philodendrons (a genus which is in the same family as arums).
If I were in California, I'd be writing about how to get rid of them, as they are terribly invasive in that Mediterranean climate, which mimics their native haunts. Here in not-so-balmy Iowa, they are docile pussycats, growing very slowly into showy clumps. I garden about as far north here in the midwest as arums will tolerate, and many gardeners in my same zone have lost them. Good drainage on our hill, and a southern exposure favor them here. Oddly, out of the half dozen states where Arum italicum has naturalized and is considered invasive by the USDA, two of them border Iowa; Illinois and Missouri (though I'm sure we're talking the very southern portions of those States). Still, I find this quite odd; why these two states and not dozens of others further south? It must be something in our soil.
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Monday, October 29, 2007

Party's On!

It's odd; the robins all disappeared for about a month, but now they're back with a vengeance. Every shrub and tree seems to have an orange breasted lounge-about hanging from it... eating, eating, and eating some more, stripping every berry from the garden. They flop and flap about, getting drunk on ripe fruit so that they just don't give a hoot about robin decorum. It's only when the pantry's bare that they finally realize begrudgingly that they are, after all, supposed to be migrating and showing a little majesty of nature by flying in a straight line and just in general getting on with it.
I've always thought robins are probably somewhat the dull blades of the bird world; I've never met one yet that dazzled me with a display of native wisdom or resourcefulness. I'm probably not on their A list anymore either, ever since I kidnapped a baby robin. One cold, rainy spring morning I found the remains of a robin nest under the spruce tree in our backyard; the nest in question looked like it had been constructed in a slapdash manner by a bird not overly skillful in nest making (I could have done better with one hand tied behind me). Unfortunately there was one baby robin already dead from exposure, and another shivering in the rain, with temperatures close to freezing predicted for that night. With no nest to put the baby back into, I didn't know what else to do than take it into my den, where I put it in a warm box filled with tissue. Liz called the animal shelter for advice, and it happened they had a volunteer who was a whiz at raising baby birds (I assume she had a recipe file full of worm recipes). Anyway, the little robin was whisked off to the animal shelter. Well! The two parents somehow knew that their baby was in the back den, and even after it was gone, they chirped and chirped from a low branch right outside the den window, then began pecking and beating on the window itself, and kept it up for two weeks before finally giving up. How they knew their baby was in an enclosed box, not visible in any way from the window, is still a mystery to me.
So, maybe I am, after all, underestimating robins, but this is not their finest time of the year.
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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Queen For A Day

This week, the monkshoods have become the queens of our garden; certainly there's not a ton of competition in the category of very late fall, big and silky blue flowers, but the monkshoods would stand out even in May. Usually there is the added bonus of having these giant flowers contrasting with the fire engine red fall foliage of the Japanese maples, but our very wet, mild weather this year has slowed the coloring of the maples.
When I was young and footloose, I spent a lot of time backpacking and lollygagging about in the mountains of Wyoming, and will always remember bright sunny days rambling down cool, wet canyons filled with fields of monkshoods taller than my head. The clumps of aconite in my garden are a little piece of Wyoming mountain sky, here in the flats of Iowa.
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Friday, October 26, 2007

Lounging About In The Garden

Gardening is supposed to be a relaxing, pastoral hobby... and then there's MY garden. The soil (to use the term loosely) that nature bestowed on our little hillside is a peculiar and frustrating jumble of sand, orange clay, and an odd, finely grained dark gumbo that hardens to a cement-like consistency when dry; apparently the hill we live on was a dumping ground for the last glacier that went through here... all the leftovers that were of no use elsewhere were piled up here. Of course I then come along and want to grow rhododendrons, which are chancy at best in this climate even in good soil. Therefore, I made the wise, the logical, the obvious choice... I dig up the present soil in big swaths and haul it away, and replace it with a mix of peat, sand, composted bark, and leaf compost (all done by hand).
At top is a bed in the making: four feet wide, twelve feet long, two feet deep (rhodys are shallow-rooted... some of the other beds for deeper rooted plants are three feet deep), surrounded by my super fantastic black plastic mole and root barrier... in the second picture it's filled in, ready for the rhodys. I always remember on the original Victory Garden show on PBS, the host, James Crockett would take his bare hand and easily thrust it right down into the soil to pull up a rutabaga or something... I just wanted to slap him! Well, this soil mix is almost that good; but if you take a garden walk with me, please don't comment how easy it must be for me to grow so many different plants because of the great soil we have here.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Puff Of Smoke...

When I want to find something snippy to say about a particular flower bulb, there's no better source than the late Dicky Graff. She skewered many a little flower with her pen; her comment on the fall-blooming Crocus kotschyanus (shown above) is that it "is reticent to the point of being almost invisible. The flower is lilac, so pale and muted that a patch in full bloom has no more impact than a drift of wood smoke." Other writers have commented that as soon as it opens, a little rain shower inevitably comes along and shatters it. It has been called floppy, shy-blooming and even non-blooming in spite of the fact that it seeds all over the place. One gardener writes plaintively that he thinks his bulbs must be infected with a virus, because in spite of lots of foliage he never sees a flower.
My bulbs of Crocus kotschyanus came into this garden riding with a hosta that I dug up from my first garden eighty miles to the north of here; unfortunately that hosta was planted here in a very shady spot, guaranteeing poor blooming for this little sun-loving crocus. When it first started showing its foliage in my hosta bed, I knew it was a crocus, and watched for it to bloom in the spring: nothing. It kept multiplying and spreading, but still no blooms. Finally, one dark fall day, I spied these wispy little blooms, as grey and windswept as the day itself, sheltering underneath a hosta. Now each fall I get perhaps a dozen straggly blooms from about a hundred bulbs. The flowers come, then rapidly go, almost unnoticed and unlamented, in a few days. I dimly recall that when I first bought this bulb quite a few years ago for my first garden, it was called Crocus zonatus... like so many other plants, its name has mutated into an unpronounceable jumble of consonants. I intend to take a trowel out and dig up a few to place in a sunny spot to see if I get a better effect from this little wanderer from the rocky wilds of Turkey.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Small Passion

In our garden in late fall, I can do an entire garden walk just looking at the cyclamens, for they are like snowflakes; every one is different, with leaves that can almost look too perfect to be real, especially against a backdrop of dead tree leaves on the ground. Above is Cyclamen coum, and below is hederifolium. The tiny, ethereal flowers (hederifolium blooming in fall, coum in spring) are a bonus.
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Monday, October 22, 2007

Tricyrtis Eco Gold Spangles

This toad lily is a hybrid between Tricyrtis flava and bakeri, released by the Eco Gardens Nursery in Georgia. The yellow flowered toad lilies in general all start in our garden with wondrous foliage in early spring, and then things go somewhat downhill from there so that by the time the interesting flowers appear in fall, the poor plant looks like its been beat up with a stick, which doesn't make for a pleasing setting for the flowers. I imagine it's primarily a matter of water (not enough, that is), since I do very little supplemental watering. I'm thinking of setting up a special spot just for some of the toad lilies; a spot that would stay wetter. Many of the toad lilies are very unforgiving of dryness; one dry, hot spell, and the foliage is trashed. I know what toad lilies need to make them happy and to grow well... the problem is, it's Seattle.
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Sunday, October 21, 2007

From The Other Side

This is the view of the small ravine I showed a couple of days ago, looking back from the other side of the bridge. I've been doing a lot of work in this area this fall, and will be developing it much more as part of the garden next spring, when some hydrangeas, hostas, rhododendrons and japanese maples will be going in. It's a nice, quiet spot, with a good view of the pond at the bottom end of the ravine.
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Saturday, October 20, 2007

If I Gardened in California...

I lived in the San Francisco area for six years (three in Berkeley, three in S.F.); there is a time of year when I really wish I was back there gardening, but it's not in the middle of winter like you'd think, with the ice and snow blowing across the plains... it's now, in arguably the most beautiful time of year here in Iowa. For, when summer's heat has cooled, and fall rains soak the garden, all kinds of cool little plants like primroses put up new foliage. If my garden was in northern California, this would be the first unfolding of the new garden season. Here in Iowa it is a false spring; a prelude to death and destruction.
As a result of our brutal winters (plantus interruptus), many little plants like primroses just basically persist at best. I think our cat Sadie could sit on the largest primrose, without a single leaf showing (admittedly Sadie is rather generously proportioned; I call her a 'puddle cat' due to her configuration when laying on the floor). Nevertheless, the point stands: our winters are brutal, nasty, and uncalled for. I always thought that whole white Christmas thing was a crock, and my garden agrees.
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Friday, October 19, 2007

Mystery Toad

I don't have a name for this toad lily... well, I do, but it's just "that really cool toad lily with the dynamite spots that's planted by the elm stump". I don't know why it bothers me so much when I lose the label to a plant. I've gone from those little thin plastic labels that invariably disappear, to wood labels, to now aluminum labels attached to a strip of plastic, mounted on a metal rod that is plunged deep in the ground... these labels will still be here years after I and the garden are both gone. But, what's the big deal anyway... I could just make up a name, and probably nobody would know the difference. So, let me introduce you to Tricyrtis 'Spotty Mystery', a very new hybrid that you'll not find in the catalogues.
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Thursday, October 18, 2007


Why I've got no flies in the garden...
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Construction Zone

This is an area of the garden under construction; eventually a babbling stream will run downhill at the bottom of this ravine, emptying into the four acre pond that fills the bottom of our little valley, then water will be pumped back uphill. This stream has been in the "conceptual planning" stage for so long, that it's become somewhat of a joke amongst regular garden visitors. But, it's getting closer; I can almost hear the water running now... or is Liz just doing a load of laundry?
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Leucosceptrum Stellipilum

Now, this is the real Leucosceptrum stellipilum: pinkish-mauve flowers (check!); large, coarse leaves (check!); spelled right (check... it's not leucoseptum, stelliperum, or stellipillum). I like the day-glow electric blue anthers; a nice touch on a bright raspberry flower. The bees like it too.
So I do bring you accurate plant information on this blog... just not always right away.
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Monday, October 15, 2007

No Sweet Deal

Regular readers will recall my story a few weeks ago about Liz getting stung by a yellowjacket while walking in the garden, which led to the discovery of what was obviously a very large nest of these very territorial wasps in the ground right next to the path in question. I decided to just fence off that section of path rather than destroy the nest, since, though I have a somewhat prickly relationship over the years with yellowjackets, they are useful predators, and I never like to destroy any part of nature without some semblance of a good reason.
Unfortunately, my message about being good stewards of the woods has not apparently gotten around to all the local critters: last night a raccoon dug up the nest and devoured all the larvae, leaving piles of empty debris. The original nest must have been the size of a dishpan, with thousands of yellowjackets. The colony is scattered and homeless, and I don't know if the queen has survived. The garden may be a quieter place next spring; last year when the snowdrops bloomed I could actually hear the bees and wasps buzzing before I opened the gate. It's no sweet deal.
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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Toads In The Rain

It's been raining steadily all morning; one of those cool, misty rains of late fall that my Mother used to call "equinoctial rains". These late fall rains are always very welcome as they soak in completely, but it makes for a quiet inside day, while I putter around cleaning the greenhouse to get ready for winter, and Liz is absorbed in a murder mystery involving an ax and a malevolent pharmacist (it does concern me, when at intervals she exclaims "So that's how it's done!" I've been rather conservative about life insurance on myself, always feeling it's asking for trouble being worth more dead than alive.
At any rate, it was a good morning also to take photos of two toad lilies: Kohaku at top, and macranthopsis below it. Kohaku is a wonderful hybrid from Japan that is a cross between the species Tricyrtis hirta and macranthopsis. The latter is sometimes called "Chinese toad lily"; it is yellow with red spots. Kohaku inherits two good traits from macranthopsis: yellow at the base of the petals, and thick petal substance. It also inherits two iffy traits: a very pendulous plant habit, and very late flowering... these latter two habits require that some thought be given to plant placement; a spot which catches some late fall sun to hasten flowering is excellent... if the spot happens to be on a berm where Kohaku can tumble down over a large rock to keep it off the ground, so much the better.
I would love to see more crosses between hirta and macranthopsis; one would hope that a hybrid could be produced with yellow flowers and purple spots.
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Friday, October 12, 2007

Speaking Of...

Speaking of Plectranthus, as I was when writing about Rabdosia longituba, here is a member of the former genus; namely Plectranthus kameba. The great majority of the plants in the genus plectranthus are quite tender (as befits a group commonly called tropical mints). However, a few are borderline hardy, including Plectranthus kameba, which hails from the mountains of Japan. It is a large plant, up to three foot tall, with equally large, mint-like leaves. Its flowers are a bit on the smallish size for the foliage, but the color is an ethereal deep, purplish blue; quite striking in the late fall shade garden. I have this plant growing at the back of an azalea bed now, but I mean to move it right next to a path, where the flowers can be closely examined, and I'm thinking of planting Arum italicum around the base, with its large variegated leaves of green and white just unfurling now.
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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Debutante Toad

Tricyrtis hirta is an elegant and graceful plant; tall, with lovely, arching foliage and nicely proportionate and well-spaced flowers. Mine-no-Yuki, a Japanese-bred hirta hybrid, is especially beautiful; pristine flowers that remind me of a white-gloved debutante, with pink anthers and a light dusting of purple spots. My plant is growing in a spot that is too shady by half, under a dogwood tree; this would give most hirta types a severe case of the flops, but Mine-no-Yuki is more sturdy and upright than its sisters, and stands tall, flowering nicely even in the gloom. Its summery white and pastel flowers glow against its dark green foliage.
If I had a Japanese garden this would be the one toad lily I'd have in it for sure.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Garden Catalogue Speak

Garden catalogue prose is sort of a language unto itself; like a doting grandmother trying to put a positive spin on everything her wayward grandchildren have done, catalogue writers attempt through their descriptions to spiffy up the resume of their potted charges, to get them out the door. Two notable phrases I've always looked out for, are "airy flowers" and "unaccountably neglected by gardeners"... the former (in English) means "tiny flowers with lots of space between them", and the latter means, "gardeners won't buy these plants, and I'm stuck with a whole greenhouse full of them".
Rabdosia longituba has the distinction of having both of these phrases hung on it in the catalogues, and I bought it anyway. I guess (rather, KNOW) that I'm a sucker for plants that are completely unknown to me that grow in some far off, exotic spot (in this case, the lush mountains of Japan). Rabdosias are supposedly called trumpet spurflowers, but a plant that's as little known and grown as this doesn't usually really have a common name... I've forgotten a lot, but I'm absolutely certain I've never been in anybody's garden and heard them make a comment about their patch of trumpet spurflowers.
Rabdosias used to be in the genus Plectranthus (which I actually have heard of); the genus Plectranthus is fairly well known; they are sometimes called tropical mints. It must have been a hodge podge of a genus originally, as creeping Charlie used to be in the same genus (a plant with tiny flowers that most of us "grow" whether we like it or not).
I will say that in its second year now, I'm coming to like my rabdosia; while the flowers are small, there are a lot of them, and anything that blooms in a soft pink this time of year is worth a small spot in my garden. However, be warned: objects in my photographs may appear larger than they actually are... I'm being kind when I call the flowers small: they're tiny. This species I also see offered now in white and bluish purple; the latter I've heard is very pretty, and I think I have a spot for it in a shady ravine. I can't imagine that the white flowered form would make much of an impact; whatever the color, rabdosia is not exactly a border plant, and will never be the anchor of the cutting garden. Since it is in the mint family, I must go out in the garden and see if there is any fragrance to the leaves.
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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tricyrtis Key Lime Pie

Yet another Tricyrtis affinis clone that grows in a shady part of our garden is Tricyrtis Key Lime Pie. This plant also primarily is grown for its foliage, as the flowers are a small afterthought, but the foliage is quite something: light green with a jagged darker grey-green stripe down the middle of each leaf, and green spots. It grows two foot tall here and three foot tall for others (this particular affinis selection seems to struggle a bit with winters here). It's rather stiffly upright, so could use some thought in placement, which I haven't provided it, since my plant is growing next to a silver-leafed pulmonaria, which it towers over... maybe there's a reason Fine Gardening magazine has never called about doing a photo spread on our garden.
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Monday, October 08, 2007

Tricolor Toad

As mentioned, the foliage of the different commercially selected clones of Tricyrtis affinis can be very different from each other; only the spots give them away. Perhaps the most striking is Tricyrtis affinis Tricolor, shown in spring dressed in stripes of pink and creamy white on a bright green background, sprinkled with what look like water spots. The flowers, in typical affinis fashion, are somewhat of an afterthought, being a modest terminal cluster... tellingly, I have no picture of this plant flowering.
However, if ever a plant in the lily family needed no flowers to be worth growing, this is it.
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Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Different Toadie

Tricyrtis hirta is what most gardeners think of as a toad lily; tall, arching foliage with numerous spotted flowers. There's another species though, Tricyrtis affinis native to Japan, that is quite interesting, if not arresting. The foliage tends to be more upright (to the point of stiffness compared to the graceful arching of hirta); the leaves are interestingly spotted, but other than the shared spotting, the several named clones of affinis that I grow in our garden are amazingly different in appearance. The flowers, while pretty, are much sparser and smaller than hirta types; their one advantage being that they are very upright on stems, so they are easily appreciated.
It's the interesting foliage though, that got these plants in through the garden gate: here is Tricyrtis affinis Lunar Landing, shown in early spring at the top, and below when blooming recently.
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