Category Archives: Gardening

The Stubbornness of the Oaks

The tree depicted here is not one of the offenders. It is the Chinese dogwood, and this specimen has grown into a show-piece of our front yard. It has a beautiful background, as Andy has brought the lawn back from an embarrassing and barren stretch of pine-tree-riddled dust, transforming it to a richly-verdant carpet of fluffy grass. Onto that soft bed falls the leaves of the dogwood, and whatever strawberry-like fruit (in appearance only) remains from the birds and the chipmunks.

But this post is not about the beautiful dogwood parade before you. This is a lament for the oaks, who have held onto their leaves until now, when it’s too cold for Andy to properly dispose of them. They will have to wait, which is not the end of the world – it simply means more raking in the spring to keep the lawn looking healthy.

Come February, I will be dreaming of the ability and weather conditions to rake, so I’m not entirely upset about the notion of doing it. In fact, a memory that also looks ahead is my favorite kind of memory to make. 

As for the oaks, they remain sight unseen in these parts. It’s enough to know that they’re there – high in the sky, beyond our roof, beyond the top of this dogwood, beyond the years it took to build the neighborhood. That magnificence deserves respect, and their stubbornness is to be admired. 


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Oats of Sea and Fall

They rise and arch like a summer fountain, scaled with green until the very end of the season, when they turn salmon and rust like amber waves of grain. The seeds of the Northern sea oat have become a bit pesky in the garden, spreading their beauty a bit further than I’d like, but it’s still a handsome plant. 

Emblematic of the harvest, they wave and flutter in the slightest breeze – all elegance and simplicity and a lesson of life in one glorious visage. There comes a time when we must reap what we have sown, when our preparation and actions come to fruition and judgement. Who among us can stand up and own the fruits of our labor? In the garden it’s the goal – whether fruit or flower or simple miraculous survival. In the rest of our lives, it gets a little trickier. 

I think I prefer the straightforward, no-nonsense game of the garden.

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The Paws of a Lion

You’re gonna hear me roar, because I have nothing but accolades and excitement to report on my first season growing the lion’s paw plant you see in these photographs. Scientifically christened ‘Leonotis leonurus’ – oh what a beautiful bit of Latin alliteration! – the more common name for this beauty is the lion’s paw, based on the fuzzy petals of its monarda-like flower form. (It’s also called the lion’s tail plant in some circles, but I find the paw reference more fitting and accurate.)

I saw it in the corner of a Faddegon’s greenhouse earlier in the year and read about its size and orange color. For some reason, with the notable exception of a self-seeding butterfly weed (Asclepias) I have a hard time getting orange into the gardens. (I’m not a fan of marigolds.) The small photo on the plant marker promised that would change. It also promised a big, bodacious, space-filling annual that would astound in a single growing season.

I planted it in full sun, as was its listed preference, and waited. And waited. And waited. Slowly, it grew taller. Then wider. Then taller again. Finally, in the last couple of weeks, it flowered, and it was well-worth the wait. I took these photos in the late afternoon sun, and hopefully you will get the lion’s paw resemblance.

What I didn’t manage to capture, and therefore can’t completely convey, is the size and stature of this plant. It stands at a good five feet tall, and sprawls out just as wide. It’s a doozy of a plant and deceptively appears rather inconspicuous until the floral fireworks begin. That’s also where, at least for this season, things got the slightest bit problematic.

This specimen didn’t get going until late September. Luckily for us, we’ve had an extended run of summer weather so we were able to enjoy it, but for most years such gorgeousness would have been lost to the cold and frost. I’m not sure if its super-late-season blooms are normal, or if the spotty summer had something to do with it. From what I’ve read it enjoys a hot and dry atmosphere, similar to its native Africa, so perhaps our relatively rainy early summer set it back.

Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few of these again next year. I was going to see if I could capture some seeds, but I fear the frost will arrive before they have a chance to ripen. We shall see. Until then, you’re gonna hear this roar.

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Spiked Beauty

A number of years ago I saw my first castor bean plant. It’s not something one easily forgets. It was fall in Ogunquit, and my parents were staying at the Anchorage. That establishment always does an amazing job with their landscaping, particularly in their fall displays. Gigantic pumpkins lined the entrance, and the garden nearby was filled with these spiky scarlet seedpods. They rose high into the sky, and their vermillion brilliance popped against the deep blue of a fall day. At the time, they were an interesting sight to behold, but not something I particularly wanted for my garden at home.

Tastes change. Appreciation evolves.

Their dramatic structure and immensity began to haunt me. The fascinating armor of their seedpods was more interesting and colorful than many a flower. The burgundy leaves lent a compelling contrast to the world of green that is summer. When I went on a seed-buying spree for my Dad earlier this year, I bought a packet of seeds for myself.

I read that they liked a sunny spot, so I offered them some choice real estate right in front of our house. The noon sun hit that area directly, and with a slow-growing Japanese umbrella pine still working on its expansion, there was room for three castor beans to grow. After a rainy start (which had me worried that they might rot) they stretched their wrinkly first leaves into the spring air. Only when it turned hot did they truly take off, and then there was no stopping them.

The flowers and seedpods appeared earlier than I anticipated, then continued to come as summer turned into fall. Our late stretch of hot weather lengthened the growing season, and added to their already-impressive height – so much so that they almost overwhelmed their space. As it is, they soar above our little roof, and it’s only a matter of time before the squirrels and chipmunks realize they have a new ladder with which to ascend and wreak havoc. Next year, if these seeds ripen as I hope they will, I’ll see about planting them further away from the house, in the sunny side bank where it’s too difficult to mow. The ground is less fertile (these benefited from the amended soil and regular fertilizer that our front bed provides) but even at half this size they would make a dramatic statement. They are also said to deter moles and voles and other critters – a boon to our beautiful lawn that is in constant peril of one sort or another.

A word of warning if you are contemplating trying these out: every part of this plant is extremely poisonous. If you have curious kids or animals that feel the need to nibble on everything in their path, be very wary. A single seed is said to have killed a person; their spiky form is a telling warning label, as pretty and exotic as it may appear. Personally, I like a little danger in the garden. It wards off the ignorant and unwanted.

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The Japanese Stewartia

My new obsession for acquisition: the Japanese Stewartia. I stumbled happily upon these trees at both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where they offered a bit of cooling shade on a warm July day. At the former, they made up a shaded corner of a Japanese garden, while in the latter they assembled in a small forest on one side of Ms. Stewart’s magical haunt.

In both instances they formed handsome clumps of foliage, with gorgeously mottled bark and delicate day-long flowers.

Upon researching the Stewartia, I discovered they may be hardy enough in our Zone 5 locale to try, though at their price point I may wait a couple more years until global warming gets us into a safer Zone 6 designation (hey, it’s no joke – we used to be Zone 4, and the only thing that’s changed is the weather).

I read a little further until those insipid comments started, and I saw that people were complaining about the flowers. “Insignificant” and “simple” seemed to be the general consensus of complaint, as if either was horribly insidious. I then remembered my cardinal rule not to read comments by the anonymous public. If someone has a problem with the simplicity of a bloom, or the thrilling fact that each only lasts a day in hot weather, then they cannot be counted on to understand the intricacies of true beauty.

Further proof that I need to be out in the world experiencing the flowers rather than reading snarky comments about them.

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A Prickly Predicament

It’s that time of the year again, and as usual I almost missed it. This bloom would have gone unnoticed had Andy not alerted me to the fact that he saw it when mowing the lawn last week. It is the blossom of the prickly pear cactus that has survived on our South-facing bank for a number of years. There it receives full sun and dry sandy soil and little to no pampering or care. Somehow it still throws out these pretty blooms, often to a complete lack of notice.

It’s another instance of where I need to focus more and maybe build up their space since they do so well there. It’s a tricky spot that Andy has bemoaned having to mow in the past. Sometimes solutions present themselves in flowering pricks.

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Pretty Clem

This classic clematis was planted soon after we moved into our home, which makes it a decade and a half old. It’s trained, rather loosely, to climb the lamp-post in the front yard, but I’m afraid I tend to let it flop and run rather than tying it up so it climbs higher. Still, it performs, even when it gets mown down (as it did a few times before a spreading sedum was put at its base to shade the roots and offer a buffer to the wrath of Andy’s mower). This year it’s especially floriferous, so I may coddle it a bit for next year’s show. Preparation for a comeback always starts early.

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Chartreuse Heaven

This gorgeous hue is usually the stuff of late spring, fading quickly before the high heat of summer. Creeping Jenny retains this lovely shade for the duration of the season, echoing the sweet potato vines and their lime-like lightness. It’s one of my favorite colors in the garden, partly because it doesn’t often last. There is beauty in the fleeting, that tantalizing temporal limit that makes certain colors seem to matter more.

Here, Ms. Jenny softens the concrete surrounds of the pool, complementing the aqua of the water in thrilling fashion. The bottom stalks of a papyrus complete the rest of her pot; both enjoy exceedingly wet environs. To achieve this, I line the bottom of their home with a plastic garbage bag with just a few tiny holes in it. There’s drainage, but not much. The wetter the better.

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Pink vs. Blue

The battle for blue hydrangeas has been the bane of my gardening existence since I first planted a pair of ‘Endless Summer’ beauties in the front yard a decade and a half ago. Back then, before I knew any better, I envisioned billowing bunches of blue blooms, echoing the sky or some pool of the bluest water. When they finally deigned to bloom (after a season or two of bloom-killing winters and too-short summers) they were a light purple, which veered into pink territory in the right (or wrong) light. A far cry from the magnificently over-saturated vibrant hues of the ones that seemed to grow with such easy abandon on Cape Cod.

Undaunted, I offered them endless coffee grounds from Andy’s unending supply, stuck their soil with rusty nails and screws and every bit of rotting metal I could find, and watered them with an acidifier all in an effort to bring the pH to a level that turned the flowers blue. It worked, but only a little, and only for a season or two. I didn’t have the resilience to keep up such a front. They’ve largely reverted to pink, with the occasional purple stalk coming through.

This lace-cap hydrangea is actually called ‘Blue Billow’ – and it too requires soil far more acidic than ours to live up to its name, hence the pink hue we have here. I’m not unhappy about this – it’s perfectly pretty – but I may start saving coffee grounds. They make for a scented mulch and compost additive.

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Lavender Pink

The traditional lavender gets a make-over in this pink version of the venerable perennial. In our slightly sandy soil, lavender tends to do well, and in the midst of all the purple these pink blooms are a charming departure. I think it may be time for some lavender martinis. (That recipe can be found here, and you will thank me if you’ve never tried it before.)

Lavender is usually an easy crop – they like sun and sandy soil, and I’ve never fertilized or amended their site with anything. The most I do is cut them back to the ground to keep them compact and tidy. (You may leave them alone and they’ll sprout from whatever growth remains intact after winter – in warmer climates they can get larger and woodier – neither of which appeals to me in the front of the border, where they are located. I also find they don’t put out as vigorous growth when you let them build on top of what has already had its season. You have to know when to let things go.

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A Hazy Hydrangea

The hot and sticky morning received no respite from the previous night. The heat and humidity lingered, refusing to let up even in the pre-dawn hours. In that heavy air, a light perfume sweetly scented the floating molecules. The climbing hydrangea, whose blooms don’t often get the recognition for their fragrance, was the source of the sweetness.

Known more for its form and foliage, as well as the lace-cap elegance of its blooms, not much is written about the perfume it emits. It’s nothing all that special or spectacular, but it’s the perfect summer scent – sweet and light, and irresistible to bees and butterflies.

This particular specimen is at least a decade old, and finally coming into its own. It follows the trajectory of so many vines: he first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.

I love a good leap year.

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Sweetness of Summer

Sweet fragrance, wafting along on a summer breeze, this is the mockorange. With its exquisite perfume as its main draw, this is a favorite shrub – worth growing for its brief but magnificent bloom period. The foliage is unremarkable, but stays green and largely intact throughout the season. Its form is slightly sprawling and unrefined, but manageable with severe pruning every few years. (You will sacrifice some blooms, as it flowers most prolifically on older wood.)

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The Humble Hosta

When discussing possible landscape solutions with Suzie, she soon reached her exasperation limit and metaphorically threw her texting fingers up in defeat, saying something like ‘Why don’t we just plant hostas everywhere and call it a day.’ At first I bristled at the intimation – then I realized it wasn’t a bad idea. Despite its overuse in the mainstream garden, the hosta, when properly cared for and pampered, is one of the most handsome plants in existence, one whose beauty holds throughout the entire season. Most perennials have a month or two of glory, but very few can maintain their luster from spring all the way to fall. A hosta’s foliage doesn’t diminish at any point.

They send up bonus lavender stalks of lily-like fragrant blooms in the middle of summer, though these are mostly subtle afterthoughts – the main draw is their leaves.

Suzie’s cutting remark got me to thinking about my own hesitation in using them, and I realized it’s partly from her childhood home, where a large stand of hosta surrounded a sun-dial in the middle of a circular stone path. They grew cramped and unfertilized beneath the shade of an old elm, and despite their hardy return year after year, they never, to my knowledge, received any additional help. The leaves were variegated but on the small side – quantity giving preference of quality. It was the typical use of them – in difficult areas where they could easily survive but not thrive to their full potential.

I’d become accustomed to putting them in places that proved inhospitable to more delicate choices, but they always rewarded with displays that got larger and fuller and more beautiful with each passing year, particularly when I indulged them with ample manure in the spring, deadheading in the summer, and some simple foliage maintenance throughout the year (the leaves grow so big and broad, they become a catch-all for falling detritus).

This year, even after Suzie’s disparaging comment, I added four hosta plants to a tricky place beside our backyard patio. It’s partly shaded thanks to the canopy, and has, for some reason, proven reliably difficult to successfully curate. Shade loving annuals like coleus and caladium have failed to prosper, and it’s been ravaged by the pesky roots of a weeping cherry standard. We will see if the hosta can fill in and win the day. I’m confident they shall.

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A Mother’s Namesake

This interesting bloom is the Mountain Laurel, which happens to be my mother’s name. I planted it a few years ago on a whim, plopping it into the space outside our fence, which means I tend to forget about it. This year it caught my eye just as it came into bloom, so I quickly snapped a few photos to remind me to take a little better of it.

Given its shady nook and such negligence, it hasn’t thrived, but still it blooms. That’s the kind of determination I admire and reward. I’ll pamper it with a top-dressing of cow manure, the greatest gift I can give to such a recipient.

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Summer Start Over

On this, the summer solstice, we look to recharge from a somber spring, and according to the garden and lawn, things are right on schedule. Beauty has dotted the landscape with these striking accents of rose campion. I planted this solely for that wonderful color, but I’ve since com to appreciate its furry gray leaves and their rosette form, as well as the way the flowers float high above them like butterflies. I even enjoy their pepper-shaker-like seed dispersal containers, like mini poppy seed pods.

As for summer, I embrace it tentatively. Too much celebration is a sure path to disappointment, and we’ve had enough of that lately. For now, a hesitant smile at the sun. And hope.

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