Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Busy As

After the long, hot, dog days of summer, the crispness of these last few days is a relief, and a tonic to my flagging interest in garden work. Plans that were shelved in July, once again seem attractive, and my old, black wheelbarrow is again trundling up and down hill, hauling in bags of peat and topsoil. The bees and I are both busy, but there is also a faint sense of urgency to our work. I see the songbirds starting to form small flocks, flying to and fro, and chattering in the brush, and butterlies are everywhere in the meadows. At first light this morning, you could see wisps of fog filtering through the treetops in our valley; as sure a sign as there is, that summer is giving over to fall. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Slouching Toward Autumn

As Autumn looms, the garden gets, let's face it, round-shouldered with age. The flower clusters of the white hydrangeas, so pristine and proudly upright in July, are now succumbing to time and gravity, giving the garden a somewhat sad aspect on a gloomy, misty day. However, as the flowers of summer slide into senescence, the garden stage welcomes one more set of stars; in a shady garden the flowers of fall are more demure than their predecessors, but more valuable by appearing in the final act. Tricyrtis Ohsumiense, shown below, is the first of a whole lineup of toad lilies, which will end with the exotic blooms of Tricyrtis macranthopsis; it's waxy yellow flowers with red spots usually have to be protected from frost, until a hard freeze in early November brings it, and the gardening year to a close. Posted by Picasa

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Three Gates And A Fountain

When we first moved to our present house, and I started (naively) gardening, I was soon introduced to the critters that came with the place, and called it home. One of my first purchases was a half whiskey barrel, which I plopped down on the back deck, and filled with flowers, which in retrospect was akin to ringing the dinner bell. Within days the plants were being chewed off, and stomped down by something that was obviously climbing up in the planter for lunch. A few days later, from an upstairs window I spied a groundhog up in the barrel, chewing placidly on a marigold. I ran pell mell down the stairs, but by the time I blasted out the back door, he was gone. A week or so later, I again, from an upstairs window, spied him in the barrel, ran downstairs, and he was gone. I looked everywhere, and couldn't fathom how such a slow, lumbering animal could get away clean. I spent hours looking for his burrow on the nearby hillsides, and never found a thing. It was only a few years later, when we tore off the old decking to replace it, that I found his burrow snugly placed right under the deck.
Well, after many false starts, I finally came to a compromise (read: surrender) with the resident critters. I've fenced off one acre in back of our house for our garden... the rest of our land is for the wildlife. There are three gates from our backyard into the garden, which we can see from the back door: the main gate is pictured above, and the other two gates are shown below. It does very much make for a "hidden" garden. When you enter the main gate, it's as if you entered another, shadier world. We've placed a fountain right by the entrance, shown below, which gurgles to greet you. Hidden gardens always sound very romantic; what they don't tell you is what you're hiding the garden from! Posted by Picasa

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ugly Is As Ugly Does... Hackelia Virginiana

I get along quite nicely with most weeds, figuring there should be a little room on the bus for all of us, but one woodland weed that I just have it in for, is Hackelia virginiana, the stickweed. It is just an ugly, hulking thing, sitting there like a malevolent spirit. It's flowers are negligible, it's leaves coarse and rough, and it's fruits... well they are a nasty bit of work. Just brush against stickweed in the fall, and huge clumps of its barbed fruits end up clinging tightly to you, and I'm always pulling them out of our cat's fur. In otherwords, Hackelia should not expect an invite to our Friday night barbeque and croquet party. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 25, 2006

Happy Trails

In our woodland garden, we have an interconnecting, meandering system of trails, which were originally grass (of sorts), but as the garden has become more and more crowded with plants and shrubs, mowing these trails became a groaner of a job, so I've been gradually converting the trails to bark chips, and just finished this section. Grass is beautiful in the spring, but low maintainance is nice. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Safe Obsession... Pollia Japonica

I recently trumpeted my firm intention to sharply curtail my new plant purchases, realizing (and I am probably the last person in this neck of the woods that came to this realization), that I already have a few plants past complete horticultural insanity. Well then, Pollia japonica is now blooming... a new addition this year, it has very shiny, ginger-like leaves, and modest white flowers on stalks. It is amazingly vigorous; being stoloniferous it is already throwing underground stems all over the place, obviously planning on taking over a major part of its flower bed, much to the consternation of its plant neighbors. It will have dark blue-purple berries in the fall. I had never heard of this genus before, and it's not even listed in Dan Hinkley's marvelous book, 'The Plant Explorers'. I have learned, however, that there are close to forty species of Pollia, mainly native to Nepal, China, and Japan, and Pollia hasskarlii is a stunner, with much larger flowers than my pollia. I could easily be ensnared in yet another plant obsession, but fortunately japonica seems to be the only species that I can find that is available in this country... a close call.Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 21, 2006

Bugs And Me

I've always had an o.k. relationship with the bug world; not that I'd take a cockroach out for a drink, but I have a live and let live philosophy, and even have a certain fondness for insect critters, who persevere in spite of steep odds against them. Therefore we use no pesticides in the garden, and if a wasp or a spider get into the house, they get a gentle trip outdoors, rather than swatted. However, bald faced hornets (Vespula maculata) don't engender any warm fuzzy feelings in me; they are downright scary... they are large, fast, and mindlessly aggressive. Currently they've taken over our hummingbird feeder, and even chase away the ruby throats who dare to try and get a sip. It was apparent that the hornets were all heading off into the west ravine when they had their fill, so I made a beeline in that direction, hoping to find their nest, like the one pictured below found in our garden last fall. However, this ravine is deep and dark, with seeps and only little patches of sunlight penetrating to the bottom. Nobody ever goes in there, so the deer just stared, wondering why I was there. Perhaps it was fortunate that I never found the nest, for one should probably not seek an encounter with nature's more aggressive denizens unless you have a better reason than idle curiosity, or at least you should have a firm exit strategy... this has been shown to be true more than once before on this blog. Since the hummingbirds have been chased away, I'm just going to take the feeder down for the year... as soon as it gets dark.Posted by Picasa

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hello, Mr. Weed!

There are weeds, and then there are WEEDS. The pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), which grows in sunnier spots in our woods, is the latter... a lusty, spectacular weed with a presence. It's four foot tall, with red stems, and the berries (which are poisonous), start out looking like small green tomatoes, turning deep purple as they ripen, then drop off to reveal flamingo pink stems. I don't know why it doesn't get a little horticultural love... maybe if it was called rainbowberry instead of pokeweed, it would get a little respect. Posted by Picasa

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Garden Nose

I've been sticking my nose into the flower clusters of Buddleia 'Ellen's Blue' each time I pass it; though it does have a lovely perfume, my main interest has been trying to figure out just what it smells like. I finally placed it: red sweet clover is extensively planted along Iowa roadways, and when you're zipping down the highway in June with 60's rock blasting on the radio and with all the car windows open, this same lovely bouquet bathes your olfactory senses, like intensely sweet, fresh-cut hay. I've not got a very sophisticated nose, which I've always claimed is due to having it broken not once, but twice! The first time I got bucked off a horse and landed flat on my face on a cinder track. That cost me some sniffing power as well as memories of a couple of my earlier birthdays. The second break came while kayaking. This was a lucky break though, as I had to have corrective surgery, and a nurse with the face of an angel took care of me in the hospital that night... a nurse that I later married. It only slightly lessens the romance of that story to know that I was a physician at that hospital, and none of the other nurses wanted to be assigned to me because they were nervous about taking care of a doctor, so they talked Liz into it. Well anyway, this whole business of saying that a particular flower "has a perfume strongly reminiscent of a hillside of double-flowered giant broomflops in full bloom", has never done much for me. This last spring I read that snowdrops have a smell of sweet honey, so I dug through the cupboard and found our jar of honey. On sticking my nose into the jar, I smelled... nothing. Admittedly, it maybe should be mentioned that the jar of honey in question was of uncertain vintage, so that I had to use hot water and a pipe wrench to get the lid off.Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Low Slant

Our garden lies in a small valley, and there is a time each summer, when you wake one morning, and realize that the sun is now slanting much lower in the sky, so that the woods stays partly in shadow until fairly late. As I go out to look about, my rubber boots squeak through the wet grass, still heavy with dew from the cool night. Gaily patterned butterflies are thoughtfully drying their wings in the few sunny patches in the garden, and many dozens of birds are vying with each other to get a spot at the feeders; their urgency stemming from the enthusiastic energy of numerous new young birds, but also from the subtle premonition of fall in the air. These are bittersweet days; they are days when you feel like holding your arms wide and soaking it all in, as if you could save it all inside. One day soon, I will be driving through town, and the football marching band will be practicing in the field... the summer is far too short. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sometimes Things Work Out

Let's say you're a baby box turtle that just hatched out of a clutch of eggs your mom laid on a hillside. You wander about; maybe you accidentally head uphill, away from the big pond where your mother lives, and you could just end up crawling about in the woods forever, or a sharp-eyed hawk might see you, or you could wander out on the road and get run over... or you could, by luck, stumble onto a goldfish pond in a garden on the hillside that overlooks the big pond; a garden whose owner just might float a branch in that goldfish pond so you could have a nice spot to soak in the warm morning sun every day. Sometimes things work out just right! Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 13, 2006

If I Were A Flower

I've always been somewhat quiet and shy; not pathologically so, but you won't find me wearing those outsized sunglasses and a lime green polyester jacket. I love parties, but you'll more likely find me cruising the edges looking for people with an interesting story to tell, than in the middle of the room dancing the Way-low with the swells. However, if I was a flower, I'd want to be BIG... and RED! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 12, 2006

An Iowa Summer

Summertime in Iowa: it's fresh sweet corn right out of the field, watermelons in a tub of ice water on the porch, and playing croquet in the back yard in the cool evening until the fading light calls the game. Most of all, it's long, languorous afternoons, ideal for wandering the shady paths of the garden, and maybe having a catnap afterwords. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 11, 2006

Second Spring

As late summer settles on the garden, with cicadas thrumming in the treetops so that the very air seems to vibrate, and the sky turns milky with fine dust blown in from the short grass prairies to our west, it is a delight to come upon this little cyclamen blooming freshly like it's a brisk day in April... it's Cyclamen purpurascens, a native of Europe, and the only cyclamen grown here that is basically evergreen. It is as if we have been granted a second spring; a gift not to be taken lightly. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Wildflower That Killed Lincoln's Mother

This time of year, our woodland is full of this modest native plant, with a flat topped cluster of fuzzy white flowers; it is Eupatorium rugosum, the white snakeroot. Though one of the commonest plants to flower in the late summer in midwestern woods, it is little noticed, being somewhat weedy and nondescript. Little did I know that it is a notorious killer, and at one time ravaged whole communities with its poison! In the first half of the 19th century, pioneers began to settle what was then called the West, the territories of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. In the first two territories especially, small pioneer settlements began to be visited by a terrible affliction, which came to be called "the trembles", or later "the milk sick". It struck both adults and children, occurring mostly in late summer or fall; many of its victims died, and recovery was slow and often incomplete for the survivors. It was soon recognized that it seemed related to cattle, which often became ill or died at the same time; it was the malady "under which man turns sick and his animals tremble". However, the agent which caused it remained a mystery, and thus there was no protection against it, and while there were folk "doctors" who were called "milk sick doctors", there was, in fact, no useful treatment for it. Milk sickness, which was unknown in the rest of the world, and not recognized even in New England, was the leading cause of death in some small communities in the frontier, killing numerous infants, and many adults; supposedly one-half of the deaths in Dubois County, Indiana in the early 19th century were attributed to milk sickness. It was characterized by lethargy (thus it was also sometimes called "the slows"), vomiting, trembling, and then coma. Most famously, Abe Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of it, on October 5th, 1818. Thomas Lincoln had moved his family to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana two years before. The disease continued to ravage this little community for the next ten years after Nancy Hanks death, supposedly being the reason the surviving Lincolns later moved to Illinois. It only slowly became appreciated that white snakeroot was the cause; Dr. Anna Bixby in the mid-19th century, supposedly followed cows about to see what they might eat that could pass along the disease, and asked a Native American healer about it, who told her about snakeroot. Dr. Bixby then fed some plants to a calf, who developed the trembles. Unfortunately, her discovery was not widely accepted, and it was not until 1928 that the toxin, called appropriately Tremetol, was isolated from white snakeroot, and the scientific community recognized the true cause. Early settlers had only cleared small areas of the forests for pasture, so in late summer they would drive their cattle into the woods for forage, where large stands of snakeroot were to be found. The disease gradually became much less common as the 19th century progressed, not because people really knew how to prevent it, but just because larger areas of forest were cleared to pasture. It may well be that this modest woodland wildflower changed the course of U.S. history, as it caused the Lincoln family to move to Illinois, where Abe became involved in politics, and went on to become one of our most influential presidents.
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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Three Birds In The Garden

Every late summer, this tiny plant pops up somewhere in our garden and woods; it's Triphora trianthophora, the nodding pogonia, also called three birds, I assume because of the three little white flowers on each stalk. It is a miniscule, rather rare orchid, which receives much of its nourishment from soil fungi, so has only tiny leaves, smaller than the nail on my little finger. It is the epitome of a woodland ephemeral; it arises from the ground seemingly out of nowhere, seldom in the same spot year to year, and raises up, blooms, and begins to die back in a few days. You can see why it's called nodding pogonia. It is an oddity, for sure. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Splendid Asarum

Asarum splendens is indeed a splendid asarum; very large, leathery leaves which are dark green, mottled silver, and two inch across flowers, which are dark purple, with a white center. It is a native of China, spreading by rhizomes into a thick clump. The taxonomists apparently want to change its name to Hexastylis splendens... if so, in their spare time they can just darn well make me up a new label. A number of Asian asarums in our garden have just suddenly disappeared; I swear they were there one day, and the next were nowhere to be found (I'm working on a theory about alien abduction of Asian asarums). This asarum, however, is a total survivor; tough, leathery, and lusty. If you are to have an Asian asarum in a tough climate like ours, start here. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 07, 2006

Never Mind

There is and old saying, that those who don't know their history, are forever destined to repeat it... in our garden it seems every year, there are certain things that catch my attention, and either surprise or concern me until I finally remember that it happens that way every year. Currently, Lycoris squamigera, the autumn lilies (which when I was a child, my mother incorrectly called rain lilies, which are a different critter) are starting to bloom. Only a few stalks have pushed up through the dry soil, with their incongruously delicate bluish-pink flowers looking slightly out of place in the hot August sunshine, surrounded as they are by the hot colors of late summer. Each year I think the bulbs must be petering out when only these few stalks start blooming, then a couple more white stalks push up, followed by all the rest. I guess the plant just sends up a couple of scouts each year. Posted by Picasa

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