Sunday, December 31, 2006


One of the more interesting aspects of having a blog, is perusing the search engine topics that people type into their computer, who then end up getting shuffled over to An Iowa Garden (much to their surprise). Many bloggers apparently make a point of trying to use key words in their blog postings ( like such and such a movie star) that will be picked up by search engines and show up on Googlers' search lists. I've contrarily tried to avoid this; I'm just naturally crusty, and anyway the people who show up looking for pictures of Elvis touring our garden tend to be somewhat surly when they discover they've come up empty. I therefore should have known better when I recently did an innocent little piece on the bark being stripped off one of our cherry trees, and used the term "squirrel sex" in the title, and referred to "fat squirrels waddling". All I've got to say to the unusual folks who have shown up unexpectedly in our garden this last week, is "Welcome, sorry about the squirrel story... and, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves!"
The blog will now be undergoing steam cleaning.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Polemonium Stairway To Heaven

Midwest gardens, for the most part, have a certain sameness in terms of the plants that are present; daylilies, hostas, peonies, iris, and annuals abound. It is not so much that gardeners here lack imagination or initiative, but rather that gardens are winnowed every year by our climate, to the bones. Our garden is a bit protected, and I've been pretty adventuresome (some would say reckless) in trying new plants, so we do have some unusual plants growing here. It's always fun to see the reaction of people touring the garden when they find things like wild orchids, Japanese maples, and primroses; yet the plant that most often causes people to stop and stare, and declare "I can't grow that!" is a modest variegated Jacob's ladder. Well, actually I can't grow that either... that is, I can't grow Polemonium Brise d' Anjou, which is the plant that died in their garden; it also turned up its toes here. Brise d' Anjou is a variegated clone of Polemonium caeruleum, the European Jacob's ladder; it abhors hot weather, and if it dries out a little, it's gone. I kept it for about five years, but eventually it just disappeared; I don't clearly recollect whether it was our hot, dry summers or cold, often snowless winters that did it in. Part of the trouble may also be that it gets woody, and needs to be divided. The variegated Jacob's ladder that thrives in our garden now is a different critter; it is Polemonium Stairway To Heaven, a variant of our hardy, native Polemonium reptans, and appeared in a tray of seedlings at New England Wildflower Society. It has lovely, light cornflower blue flowers, and foliage that is silvery green, with cream edges that in cool weather develop areas of pink color. I should go change the label to Brise d' Anjou... while I'm at it, I'll plant some divisions of my plant around the mother, so I can complain it has become a real pest in our garden. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Six Glove Year

As the year winds down, I always do a garden walkaround to measure what I accomplished... if there is snow on the ground (not a problem this year) it can be difficult to appreciate. However, every year it still gets harder; as the garden gets more mature, small improvements tend to blur into what's already there. I therefore have to rely somewhat on a more subtle measuring stick; you see, this was a six glove year... that is, I wore out six gloves (three pairs). That would be a middling year, but I'm in a middling time of life; no more dawn to dusk workathons for me, hauling rocks the size of wheelbarrows, and dragging railroad ties through the woods. I would say, though, that I buy better quality gloves these days, so they last longer. Still, I do notice that my jeans wear out in the seat now, not the knees. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Party Lights After The Solstice

After Christmas, as the winter solstice is disappearing in time's rear view mirror, and the sun is ever so slowly inching towards the Tropic of Cancer which it will intersect at the summer solstice, the days are incrementally growing longer; at first at a snail's pace, then as the sun crosses the equator, at a gallop. I know the days are getting longer because of the Christmas lights. Living in a little wooded valley, filled with solitude and darkness in the depths of winter, we don't go in for flashy Christmas decorations; just a single strand of multicolored lights strung along the split rail fence in our back yard, above the pond. When the holidays have come and gone, Liz won't let me take them down; she calls them "party lights" then, and usually when she finally relents and lets me put them away, I can watch robins hopping about on the lawn while I'm working. The lights are on a timer that turns them on at dusk, then they stay on for a set number of hours after dark; currently five hours. As sunset comes later with the lengthening days, I will have to start changing the timer setting, or else the lights will glow until the wee hours of the morning, further cementing our reputation with the neighbors as being slightly daffy. Fortunately (for all concerned) our nearest neighbor is across the pond-through the trees-at the top of the hill.
Actually, at one time, I used to go in more for splashier Christmas lights; in the front yard I would stand up four large pieces; Santa in his sleigh, and three sets of reindeer. I gave that up, when our friend Dennis, visiting around New Year's asked me why the reindeer were pushing Santa's sleigh... I had set them up backwards. None of the neighbors had said a word. Oh well... so if you visit us, we're the lone house at the end of the road, at the bottom of the hill, deep in the woods, with one small string of lights that go off at night when I say they will. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Queen Of The Prairie

Filipendula rubra, queen of the prairie, has large panicles of soft, pink flowers that here in Iowa in its native prairie fens, float above the prairie grasses like wind-blown smoke, and can be seen from a long distance. When it blooms in mid-summer, the flower heads are constantly humming with insects, at the top of stalks that can be as high as a man. They like sun and moisture, and given these, spread steadily into large patches. It is lovely in our garden, but in a bittersweet way, as it is a reminder of the loss of most of our tall grass prairies, plowed and paved into the dust of oblivion. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Winter Blues

In the winter, my mind turns to the blues... not sad blues, but blue flowers, waving in the warm breezes of June. When the cold settles in for a stay, I'm not a hard sell for most any plant that I don't have, but I'm a complete chump for anything seen in the flower catalogues that is blue. The new Heronswood catalogue (I know, Burpee-Heronswood) shows Iris collettii, a rare iris which was collected "on the moist meadows of the Zhongdien Plateau of China in 2000". While it's described as being light violet blue, it's catalogue picture shows a deep, gentian blue iris with bright golden beards, and it is described as being "deliciously fragrant". Well, of course, at that point I was like a bluegill after a worm, but maybe, just maybe, I'm developing a little garden temperance, with age: I actually spent some time looking up this plant before digging out the plastic. First of all, while Heronswood says it's hardy to zone 5, I note that it is also native to Burma, Vietnam, and India; while a quick search didn't reveal anybody else commenting on collettii's hardiness, these areas of the world would not seem to have a lot of similarity to my back woods. Secondly, another grower describes it as "having no perfume to my nose"; since I have a sense of smell only slightly better than a block of wood, this would not engender much hope in me that this flower would be delighting my olfactory senses. Third, all the other pictures of this flower show a pretty standard blueish-purple flower. The deal-killer though, is that others describe its flowering with the dreaded word "fleeting". It seems its flowers only last a day, and the pictures don't seem to show a ton of buds like you might see, for example on a daylily.
However, if we go to page 22 of the Heronswood catalogue, they are offering the Asian version of our native blue cohosh, covered with dusty, Delft-blue berries...
(If you're wondering, the picture at the top is of a clump of Japanese Iris blooming in June in Shaw's Garden in St. Louis.) Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 23, 2006


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Epimedium latisepalum... The Hunk.

One tends to think of epimediums as being rather delicate; small plants with small flowers, that are sometimes called "angel wings". If, however, you had Epimedium latisepalum in your garden, you might be dissuaded from thinking epimediums are fragile. Here it is, almost the end of the year, and the thick, crinkly leaves of this plant are still fully green and growing. It is classified as an evergreen epimedium, though admittedly it's leaves will get ratty looking if and when we eventually get down below zero, with frozen ground... we've been down to eight above so far, and the ground hasn't frozen solid at any time, so this is not your usual Iowa winter. Still, it's quite impressive seeing this plant in full leaf, and likely to remain so well into the new year. It is an epimedium that was only "discovered" a little over ten years ago, and is sometimes called the Chinese epimedium, with very large, white flowers, in scale with its large, leathery leaves. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 22, 2006

Squirrel Sex: Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

One of the large black cherry trees in our back yard is being stripped of its bark, to the point that I fear for its survival. There is a squirrel nest right next to the area being damaged, so the question isn't so much who is doing it, but rather, why? At first I thought the bark was probably being stripped off to line the nest, but the nest in question is old and appears abandoned... so why, indeed? Googling "squirrels stripping bark off of trees", brings me a wealth of accounts of squirrels doing this, and in fact killing the tree, or at least its crown. Apparently it's becoming quite a problem in some forests, and they blame global warming... in normal winters, up to half of the squirrels die off, but with warmer winters they all survive, leading to a squirrel population boom, and the hungry squirrels may strip off tree bark to get at the sugary cambrium. Well, in the case of our tree, it sits a stone's throw from the birdfeeder, where sunflower seeds rain down all day long; the fat, local squirrels just waddle over and open up their mouths to get fed, so starving squirrels having to eat bark would seem an unlikely explanation here. We then come to the theory that male squirrels chew off the bark to mark their territory, to get one up on other male squirrels, and in order to attract females; in otherwords, squirrel sex. Why is it that whenever something bad happens, it's always blamed on global warming and male sexuality? I must check and see if the authors of that last report were female.Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rhododendron Faisa

In walking about the garden on the shortest day of the year, a day of fog and shadows, the lepidote rhododendrons continue to be interesting to look at, with a variety of leaves and plant habits. One of the finest in terms of habit is Rhododendron Faisa; it's winter foliage is shown in the top picture, its spring flowering in the lower picture. Many of the lepidote rhododendrons, coming from climates where hugging the ground, often under the snow, is essential for survival, have low, widely branching forms. Here in Iowa we have to grow our rhodys in a bit more shade than they would like, due to our hot summer sun, so some of the lepidotes in my garden get a bit... shall we say scraggly? Faisa is a fine exception, maintaining a stiff upright form, with crisp foliage and it is rock hardy here, in both leaf and bud. From its parentage, I'm rather surprised it does so well here. It is a hybrid of R. minus Carolinianum (specifically a selected, compact pink clone of minus named Achiever) and R. polycladum Scintillans group. R. minus is a native of the eastern U.S., with the group Carolinianum being the northern strain of minus; lower in stature and more winter hardy, but then not known for loving hot summers. R. polycladum is a short and very small leaved species from the alpine meadows of Yunan, and is of the subsection lapponica; lapponicas are small rhododendrons from high elevations or high latitudes, with small leaves and small lavender flowers, notorious for their abhorence of hot summers. One would think a hybrid of these two species would melt here in August; I do see some leaf wilting on hot, dry afternoons, but Faisa bounces back nicely (I would also think Faisa would turn up its toes in our winters, because polycladum is rated hardy only to zone 8). However, it thrives here and will grow about four feet high and three feet wide, and its flowers are a hard to describe smoky lavender. Rhododendron fanciers always talk about "good doers"; Faisa is certainly that for me. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Plant Labels

With the large variety of plants in our garden, some type of easily readable, semi-permanent label is a must. Unfortunately early on I tended to rely on the plastic labels which came with the plants; these either faded with time, or were heaved out of the ground by freeze-thaw cycles in the winter, so that a fair number of these plants are now called something like "pretty purple primrose with a yellow throat." I currently use a soft aluminum label, which you can write on with a pen, but these tend to get bent up, so I now glue them to a piece of wood to protect them. I have a lot of very small woodland plants planted close together, and actually these labels can then be a bit obtrusive; some of the beds look sort of like a miniature used car lot, with all the labels fluttering back and forth in the breeze. I've thought about switching to a system of numbering the plants, which would allow me to go to much smaller labels, perhaps even something that would be flush with the ground, but I can envision problems with that, too. Posted by Picasa

Opening The Presents Early

Our unusually warm early winter has had one more consequence that takes a little explaining: it will leave me with less to look at in the spring in the garden. To me, one of the more exciting parts of gardening is that when you plant something new in the spring there is always some apprehension about whether at the end of the year it will make it through our (usually) harsh winter and reappear the following spring... I therefore love to go about when the ground has just thawed, and brush back the fallen leaves to see if anything is peeking up from these plants; it's rather like opening up Christmas presents. Well, this year I've opened up almost all my presents early; most of the new plants are already peeking up. I often will wait until spring, until I'm sure they will come back, to make a permanent label for new plants, but this year all but a handful are already jauntily sporting their shiny new markers. Above is Adonis amurensis, which blooms very early, with ferny green leaves and bright yellow, buttercup-like flowers. Below is a cultivar of Ranunculus ficaria, the lesser celandine, a very small member of the buttercup family; this particular one has flowers that are more orange than yellow. Posted by Picasa

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stumping The Readers

It has been brought to my attention that the appearance sometimes of odd pictures on this blog, with no accompanying explanation, has puzzled some readers. One of the best rewards for writing this blog has been meeting a number of nice people: two of the nicest are Janice and Jay, who live on a beautiful piece of wooded land west of here, with their house looking over a large pond. We've traded garden tours, and last Saturday, we went together to an Iris Dement concert (the concert, incidentally, was quite charming; it was as if we were all sitting around somebody's living room while they sang for us... it's not everyday that you see a performer on stage ask somebody in the audience to go buy them a bottle of beer). Anyway, Janice mentioned that she still reads the blog, but is quite puzzled by the occasional mysterious presence of strange pictures, with no accompanying story to tell what they represent; she mentioned specifically one picture of a pile of dirt or something (I had a sinking sensation that she was talking about a picture of my prized rock garden, but I didn't say anything). Well, there is an explanation for these pictures: it's all Blogger's fault. For those not on the working end of Blogger, let's just say it is quirky... I hate to seem ungrateful for a service that is, after all, free (I personally think Google is missing out on jillions of dollars of revenue by not offering a system of subscription upgrades with an easy way of converting your free blog to a professional web-site... I'd pay in a flash). What I've run into with Blogger, is that when I transfer pictures to my blog from my computer, occasionally they disappear into cyberspace. If I've appended a long piece of writing to it (like this), it disappears too. Therefore if I plan on an extensive accompanying story, I upload the picture first, then add the text, so during the time I'm typing, the pictures sit there on the blog without a clue as to what they show; usually the gap is short, but occasionally during this time, things come up that require my immediate attention... like Liz coming home from the store with a bag of cookies.

Monday, December 18, 2006


It's almost Christmas, and there's a lot of confusion around here due to the warm weather; the chipmunk who lives under the birdfeeder is awake and out and about, cadging for sunflower seeds; the garden doesn't know whether to go to sleep for the winter, or to get ready to party; and the intrepid resident gardener is up in the air about where this will all lead... to an early spring, or to disaster. I think back to when I was young; my mother was well versed in all manner of folk wisdom ( she made me jump about three feet when she once looked out the window and screamed; a bird was looking in the window, and this meant someone in the family was going to die). When we would have remarkably mild early winters like this, she'd always say that we'd pay for it later; I would picture some ancient scribe up in the sky, keeping track of all of this, making sure nobody got away with anything. So, we'll see how it all plays out; in the meantime, walking around out in the wooded garden to do my usual winter pruning and cleanup, is rather tricky, as there are thousands and thousands of flower bulbs poking up everywhere, so you constantly have to watch where you're stepping. Below are shown some snowdrops, with the one on the left almost ready to open up; it is to remain mild the rest of the week, and it may decide to go ahead and bloom. Posted by Picasa

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Concealing Gardener

I've gone on more tours of gardens than I can remember; large gardens and small, glorious hilltop gardens with quaint cottages, and small, fenced in patches of annuals on busy city corners... and I've enjoyed every last one of them, for I always see something new, or at least see something in a new light. However, there is something common to all of these gardens that I rarely get to see, or at least see well, and that is the gardener's junk pile; that dark corner where all the old bricks, wire, and bags of peat are piled. My tour host always points me in a different direction, and starts talking and walking faster when we near that spot. With all of the years I've been gardening (through four gardens), and with my pronounced packrat disposition, I have, therefore, in our garden the mother of all junkpiles (excuse me, garden resource area)... not really a photogenic background for the rhododendrons. I finally built a wooden fence enclosure for it (you can just see it in the distance in the picture above), using some of those ready-made pieces of wood fencing, then as an afterthought hung a statuary face on the side. It's worked so well that I'm thinking of putting one in the corner of my den. Posted by Picasa

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Rhododendron Mary Fleming

The birds in the deep back ravine were having a chirpathon, perhaps to celebrate our continued mild weather, as I walked along the edge with my camera this morning. I wasn't looking for birds though; I wanted to take a picture of the flower buds on rhododendron Mary Fleming. The bud scales are bright, rosy red, giving this little plant a cheerful, jaunty appearance in winter. I had this rhody in my first garden, and perhaps it was too subtle for me at that age, as I don't remember being very struck by it then... a time when I was pursuing bigger and brighter in the garden. With age has come a better appreciation of quiet loveliness and small details, and Mary Fleming is now much admired as a small plant new to this garden this year. The rosy red buds open in April, as shown below, to two tone flowers, which in their initial, partially opened stage contrast strikingly with the bud scales. The flowers then open further to reveal soft yellow centers with salmon pink edges. It's a Guy Nearing hybrid; Mr. Nearing died twenty years ago this year at age 96... his New Jersey garden was the source of many of our best lepidote rhododendron hybrids. Mary Fleming grows only to perhaps four feet by three feet, and blooms in April.Posted by Picasa

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Wheelbarrow Arrows

Woodland gardens require a lot of winter cleanup, and today I was picking up fallen branches, being especially careful to gather all the limbs that have fallen from the thorny honey locusts. They are like some medieval spiked weapon, lying there, partially covered by leaves, waiting for the unsuspecting gardener to run his wheelbarrow over them. I cannot begin to guess how many trips to the tire shop I have had to make, to repair the punctures from these thorns. There are several of these dark, moody trees in the area of woods that comprises the garden, and on more than one occasion (usually while standing there listening to the air hiss out of yet another punctured tire) I have thought about cutting them all down, but I've always relented, as there is a certain timeless dignity about them; they look as if they have been standing there for ages, quietly absorbing the wear and tear of survival. I have a honey locust, to good effect, backing up our near seven foot tall gargoyle... the thorns of the honey locust seem to make some kind of statement in this setting. As I have previously related, the gargoyle is named Uboughtwhat, as that is what my wife said (with some incredulity) when she first heard what I had gone off and bought. Her reaction may have been understandable, as I think it was not too long before her Mother's church group was scheduled to tour the garden. I've ceased revealing just what the gargoyle cost, as I've inexplicably not found that others share my belief that the gargoyle was a raging bargain at the price. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Breakfast Coffee

Out to the garden early this morning on an unseasonably warm, sunny day for mid-December. The crows on the far ridge were raising a ruckus, so I thought there was probably a red-tailed hawk or a barred owl in the vicinity, but then the geese on the pond joined in, so I then really had no idea what was going on (not a unique situation around here). In walking about the meandering garden pathways through the woods, I was most struck by the shiny foliage on the dark-leaved lepidote rhododendrons; ranging from reddish mahogany to deep black coffee; Ramapo is shown above. I can hardly wait for spring, when their dark foliage will be studded with bright pink or purple flowers, fluttering in the warm breezes like so many gaudy butterflies. Posted by Picasa

Lucy Posted by Picasa

Northern Starburst Posted by Picasa

Brittany Posted by Picasa

Mrs. J.A. Withington III Posted by Picasa

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