Saturday, August 16, 2014

When "seeing red" is a good thing

Yesterday, it hit me that it was the middle of August, and I had not checked on something.  When I moved here 41 years ago this month, I came into a whole new world.  I grew up on either five or six acres (how I wish I'd written this down) in the little town of Palmetto, Georgia.  Our house was old - Mother always said it dated from 1852, and that the bricks had been made in the front yard.

I don't know if this date was accurate, but judging from the super-wide floorboards in my room, the 12-foot ceilings, the thick walls and the wavy glass in the huge windows, it could have pre-dated the Civil War.  We had lots of trees - 13 large pecan trees, to be exact, plus a number of oaks, and in back, what we called a cottonwood tree (Paulownia tomentosa).  This latter tree shaded a sandy parking area where I played many a game of hopscotch.

We also had lawns, one we called the big lawn for obvious reasons and the smaller lawn right in front of the house.  There were also huge vegetable gardens, an apple orchard, pear and plum trees, and plenty of sun or shade to be in, depending on your mood.  It was an ideal place to grow up.  However,   we had no woods to speak of.

So, when I married, I moved onto four acres, but it was totally different.  There was a tiny 1927 cottage on the back of the property.  It was surrounded on all sides by deep woods.  There wasn't so much as a foot of full sunlight.  Tall trees loomed overhead.  A square patch of weeds and moss was the only thing you could possible refer to as a "lawn."

By that time, Mother and Daddy had moved out to a farm they had bought in 1957.  They had built a house my senior year in high school, and we left what will always be in my heart and mind my "homeplace."  The new house was sitting on top of a hill in the blazing sun.  There had been elm trees around, but they died, one by one, victims of Dutch elm disease.

Meanwhile, up here in Atlanta, I tried to grow things that needed full sun.  I had no success.  Someone had once had some "gardens", with a couple of brick paths and a little concrete pond.  There were also a few boxwoods around the cottage and some azaleas.  Mostly, though, it had been neglected, and with so much shade, there wasn't much I felt like I could do.

But, as time went by, I began to appreciate a few bright spots.  Someone had planted a lot of jonquils on a hill behind the cottage.  And, around that little pond were some red spider lilies.  In spring, tons of snowdrops would pop up.

Our driveway wasn't paved (and still isn't).  It was 1/5 mile from the street.  That first August, I was walking along, and something red caught my eye.  I looked over where, at that time, there was a creek and saw these bright red flowers - a large stand of them - all along the water's edge.

It wasn't until later that I knew that they were wild cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  I can only assume they were native to the spot.  Or, it's quite possible that someone who had lived on the property  had planted them.

Every year, they surprised me.  It would come the middle of August, and I would look over into the creek bottom, and there they were.

But one year - I think it was about eight years ago - we had a terrible drought.  Already that creek had dried up due to someone building a 20,000 square foot house on the ridge up the hill from me.  Even though the water had quit flowing (there's an old stone cistern on my property, and there's still some water in it), the area where the cardinal flowers are is still mushy, especially when it has rained a lot.

That one year of the drought, I couldn't see any flowers.  I went down into the dry creek bed and found only a single plant with one spindly bloom.

But then, to my surprise, the next year one plant came back.  Every year since, I've looked down, crossing my fingers that there would be red flowers.  I have not been disappointed.

So, yesterday, I walked out onto the back terrace, holding my breath.  I was so relieved when I saw the bright red glowing in the filtered sun.  I think there is an additional plant this year.  I will definitely put on my long boots and go down there and investigate.

It is amazing to think that a perennial could come back for 41 years.  I can't say if these are plants that have re-seeded or if the root structure has been there all along.  Either way, they've endured, even with the introduction of deer over a decade ago (seems to me I read that the plant is poisonous).  I am especially happy to have these flowers, as the deer have eaten all of the native arborescens hydrangeas and every single hearts-a-bustin'.

It's a happy feeling to look out on an August morning and see red.  I hope the cardinal flowers will come back for many more years, maybe brightening someone else's day in the far-off future.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Excited about my garden on an August day

If you had told me yesterday at this time that I would be outside reveling in the fresh, cool breeze, bright blue, cloudless sky and warm dry sun, I would not have believed it possible.  But here I am in mid-August, out studying this relatively new (last September) garden and trying to figure out what to do next.

If you could have seen what this looked like before, you could scarcely believe the change.  And, it was brought about so quickly that it might have qualified for one of those fake shows where they take a yard in the morning, and by the end of the day you have the rough beginnings of (to my mind) a not-so-attractive garden.   Only in my case, even the day after it was "finished," I could make photographs with just a bit of pride.

So, let me back up.  This morning I was sitting at my desk in the den, looking out the window at the volunteer Rudbeckia triloba that must have come from the compost, or either it migrated from the opposite side of the house, where it did not re-seed.  At first I was irritated at this intrusion because it was blocking the sun from a struggling climbing rose.  However, since I am having to rethink the whole climbing rose situation (the summer sun did not go where I thought it would), I resisted pulling up the two large plants.

It used to be that, from this same window, I looked out at the gray trunk of an enormous white oak tree.  It was well over 100 years old.  I won't go into the particulars, but it finally had to be taken down.  I had the stump ground and let the sawdust sit there for a couple of years.  I spent a good bit of time staring at the area, trying to figure out what to do.  There was no shape to the earth there; it sloped a bit down to a crude path I'd made leading to the back of the house.

When I walked into Perry Walker's wonderful nursery in Jonesboro (Walker Nursery Farms) last spring and saw a black iron arch, I knew immediately what I wanted to do.  Perry had only one in stock, but he ordered two more for me.  An amazingly talented person who works for a high-end garden designer brought cobblestones from the farm (part of the 4,000 I used to have in my front parking area here) to build retaining walls.  He then installed the three arches and set them in concrete.  I had bought 14 Korean boxwoods for the church, but we didn't use them, and I couldn't return them, so I already had material for a small hedge.

I did plant climbing roses, which the deer promptly ate.  My neighbor gave me some Confederate jasmine, so I tried those, since it was too shady for the roses.  The jasmine got fried in the cold this past winter (I need to get 'Madison' jasmine, which is hardier), but one has made a comeback.

Then, my friend Benjie gave me a bench he didn't want.  It is the focal point of the garden.  Actually, that section was done after the part in the foreground.  A "before" picture would reveal a bunch of bricks laid in a haphazard fashion and an awful gnome sitting atop a concrete bowl.  I had also had my bird feeders there for years;  the same weeds kept coming up for years, and I did little about it.  One good thing is that this rectangle was already surrounded on the outer edges by an English boxwood hedge.

Now, as you can see, I can walk on tiny pea gravel (with sharp edges, so that it doesn't roll out from under you) from one end to the other.  Erica Glasener gave me some Louisiana irises, so I divided them and put them on either side of the first arch within the hedges (the amazing builder of the garden brought me some more Korean boxwoods for a second hedge).  I have two ivy topiaries at the entrance.  The tall green clipped bushes you see are a type of Japanese holly.  The "tree" at the left of the second arch is an orange-blooming osmanthus, which sends out a delicious fragrance in September (Erica gave me this, too, years ago).  After it blooms this year, I'm going to shape it up so that it extends over the third arch, but won't come to a point as it does now.  I'll use the clippings in arrangements at church.

What you can't see down at the end next to the bench is a piece of Japanese holly that sprang up and which I am training to become an eventual arch to extend over the bench.  Also, down there in a corner, is a tuteur with a 'Graham Stuart Thomas' English rose.  It does get enough sun, and by next year, it should look good.  Sad to say, I kept it in a pot with scant dirt for over a year, trying to decide where to put it.  It's growing like mad now, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it blooms this October.

There's one odd thing going on here.  The walkway leading to the side door is slanted.  There was nothing to be done about that, but it does throw the space in the middle off-kilter.  All in all, though, I'm pleased with how the garden is coming along, and this afternoon, there is something wonderful to be seen from my desk - that special "light in August" (thank you, William Faulkner) shining on the Boston ivy on the wall of the house and on the just-trimmed Japanese holly.  It is all quite magical.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Colors, textures - a garden in France evolves

When I was in Paris in late June 2012, my daughter Anne and my childhood friend Linda went with me to visit Carol Tessier and see her amazing garden.

I met Carol in the early winter of 1971 at a ski resort near Mont Blanc.  We've kept in touch ever since. Who would have guessed that the two of us would be discussing gardens some four decades later or talking about gardening styles and propagating plants?  At the time we were only interested in adventure.

Carol is from Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up amid gardens.  One of her sisters has a famous garden on a farm in a different part of the country.  Carol's grandfather had a great influence on her.  He had a large garden where she spent hours playing and following her grandfather around.  He had a wonderful collection of hellebores.  She managed to smuggle some of his seeds out of South Africa (this was years ago) and now has descendants of her grandfather's hellebores in her own garden.

Carol's garden is hidden behind her home on a narrow street in Asnières on the outskirts of Paris.  This is a simple description, but she has created tightly packed borders of perennials, shrubs and vines, all artfully arranged as to texture and color (Carol is an artist who worked at the Louvre for years).  The evening we were there. we had cocktails on the lawn with Carol's husband Luc and then dinner in the conservatory.  Sitting outside, we were surrounded by glorious flowers in bloom.  I went around with my camera, trying to capture at least a few of her plant combinations.

Above, you can get an idea of just one little snapshot of a marvelous composition of clematis, what appears to be a giant bloom on a climbing hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides, perhaps?) and pincushion flower in the foreground.  She has a lively mix of evergreens and variegated plants all throughout the borders.  Colorful foliage - yellow, blue, maroon - accounts for much of the visual impact.

Carol's garden is so complex and varied that I was curious about how she makes decisions about where to put plants.  I had written Carol an e-mail and asked several questions.  Here's the answer to:  "How did you decide on the style of the garden?"

"I don’t think that we really decided on the style of the garden. It just seemed to gradually evolve. To begin with, we had very little time for gardening as the house was in a very bad state of repair, and we did all the renovating ourselves. We started by planting a bit of lawn bordered by some flowerbeds. We decided on their shape and curve by laying out the hosepipe and having a look at the result from an upstairs window. The bottom of the garden stayed wild for numerous years, much to the children’s delight. They remember their house in the lilac bushes and the swing that Luc made between two trees. But over the years we gradually conquered the rest of the garden and learnt through trial and error, planting the higher plants in front of the small ones and often so close that they literally suffocated!!! With memories of the large South African gardens, I still try and pack too many plants into ours, and still can’t resist buying new ones, even if there isn’t any space for them. Luc says that he would prefer not to be a plant in our garden!!"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A case of mistaken identity, or rather the author's error

As I wrote yesterday's blog about my mother's yellow perennial, something didn't feel right.  I had thought for years that this flower was Rudbeckia laciniata.  But, I couldn't remember why I thought that.  However, when I looked up that botanical name, I came up with photographs that showed a brown center to almost all the flowers.  There was one that looked like Mother's, but I couldn't see the foliage to verify it.

So, I took out the DVD of Episode 102 of HGTV's A Gardener's Diary, where an identical plant is discussed in a Tennessee garden.  Before I saw that footage in 1994,  I had never seen another plant like Mother's.  I never would have dreamed it could be a rudbeckia (I always think of black-eyed Susans, with some sort of dark or green "eye" in a yellow daisy-like configuration).

In the show, the host indicates that this is a heliopsis.  Sure enough, I looked up images of heliopsis and found an identical flower.  So, why was Rudbeckia laciniata lurking in the back of my mind?  Yesterday, before I looked at the episode, I had thought I'd remembered that it had been identified as such by the show's host and the gardener.  No, they said, it was a heliopsis.

So, I went with that, still wondering where I had gotten the idea that it was Rudbeckia laciniata.  I had been mistaken, I concluded, and went on writing, identifying the plant as likely some form of  Heliopsis helianthoides

This morning, I received this post:

"I think it is possible that your mother's yellow flowers are Rudbeckia laciniata or cutleaf coneflowers — a double variety, possibly ‘Goldquelle,’ ‘Hortensia,’ or ‘Goldenglow.’

This 3′ to 5′ rudbeckia — usually seen with single coneflower blooms — is native to eastern North America. A double variety appeared in 1897 and became popular as an “outhouse flower,” planted to shield privies from view. I have a number of them in my garden here in Rwanda, an import by some previous occupant."

I quickly googled R. laciniata images, and what came up?  Mother's flower - tons of them!  What did I do yesterday that didn't give me the same results?

When I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was a rabid fact checker.  I was terrified of making a mistake.  I will say that I didn't make a whole lot of errors, given the number of columns I wrote over 21 years, but the ones I made were huge.  The worst offense was when I said that a yellow form of Boston ivy called 'Fenway Park' came from the Green Monster within the ball park.  I had read this in a catalog that sold the plant, never bothering to check anything else.  That time, all I would have had to do was to walk into my late husband's library and look at a photograph of him pointing to the obviously devoid-of-foliage wall inside Fenway Park.  I received the most scathing rebukes for this.  The paper had to run a correction.

I am readily admitting that my identification of the perennial was a mistake and that Cindy from Rwanda is absolutely correct.  Of course, I am forever going to think of this as an "outhouse flower".  It would be an excellent one for that purpose, as it is tall and would grab your attention away from the structure.

So, thank you, Cindy, for enlightening me.  I will never know why I rejected my first instincts.  I am hereby avowing that the flower in the bouquet above, taken from Mother's garden years after she was gone, is indeed Rudbeckia laciniata, a native American plant that should be in everyone's sunny summer garden, or at least beside everyone's privy.

Note:  I can't resist telling what is in the background of this photograph.  The mustard-colored pitcher I hauled back from France.  I bought that raggedy painting leaning against the tile backsplash in a Provençal village market where I was practically the only shopper on a Sunday afternoon.  The tiles I bought in southern France (I've forgotten the name of the town!) and hauled back on a plane, along with an iron rooster weather vane (this was when you could do this sort of thing).  The jars you see are l-r:  okra pickles I made.  I burned myself on the peppers and had to sit up all night with my hands in a bowl of ice water. I wore rubber gloves when I made the next ones;  a jar of canned tomatoes with 2001 written in my mother's handwriting on a strip of masking tape.  That meant she was 91 when she grew and canned them;  a quart jar of Mother's soup mix, containing Silver Queen corn, okra, tomatoes and baby lima beans from their garden.  It's not marked, but it likely dates from 2001, as well.