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Ilga's Garden Blog

 
Being Ilga's occasional thoughts on her garden and gardening in general.
April 6, 2009

With this crummy weather, what is a gardener to do? One: go out there and slog through it all and be a noble sufferer. Two: rush out during the good moments: no rain, so snow, no hail, no sleet, no radical winds...Quick, NOW! Or three:  hide in a tower-studio and draw pictures of flowers, vegetables, and fruit. I've chosen the last option.  Last week, it was an artichoke, this week it's an apple. A month ago it was home grown shallots.

Ilga's apple drawing
 
Today, I am going to be speaking less of gardens and more about "process." As a background, once upon a time, long, long ago, I used to draw and paint. We're talking twenty or more years ago. The many matters of life and work and even the love of gardening and my textile hobbies have taken me away from drawing. For the past several years, I have been saying (EACH year as a New Year's resolution):  I will work on botanical illustration this year. But then, I didn't do it. The usual excuses came into play:  too busy with the garden and events, I just don't have time; I don't have a place setup to do it; I can't start yet ANOTHER project---all of the usual excuses.
 
Last year, I read about little cards that artists make to trade with other artists (a movement that started in Switzerland). What struck me was the size of these little pieces of art: 2.5 x 3.5 INCHES. That's the size of a sports trading card. These miniscule bits of art are called: Artist Trading Cards (ATC's). (You can go to Ebay or Google and search for ATC and ACEO (Art Card, Editions and Originals) in the Art category and you will find loads of "little" art for sale. There ARE purists who say that the point of ATC's is NOT to sell them but to PERSONALLY trade them. That is not the discussion here.)
 
Ah-ha, I thought. This is something I can do. I can make a drawing or painting that is 2.5 x 3.5 inches with a minor commitment to materials or time. I was sure I could "squeeze" , a drawing or painting that is the size of a credit card into my day. And so, starting last February, that is what I did. I made a vow to make an ATC every day. Just ONE. At least until gardening season came upon us hot and heavy. I hesitate to show some of the early attempts. Though, I do think that it is instructive.
 
Ilga's early ATCs
 
A couple of weeks ago, I took a 2-day workshop in Portland given through the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon:  Botanical Illustration. It was a short jaunt, a chance to visit with my friends in the area, AND go to Powell's Books. I brought my "Sports Card" collection book (I think it's for football cards or many baseball cards...very classy, blue plastic with sihouettes of sports guys on the cover). It contains my ATC's....all 170 of them---from the beginning ....and BOY, can you see the progress. 
 
So many people came up to me during the workshop and told me what an inspiration this was, making my little Art Cards, that I thought I would share this here. It CAN actually be applied to the garden as well. There ARE times, on this big place, where just walking out the door can be a discouraging experience. OMG, there are waist high weeds in the beds, dandelions growing through the cobble walkways, the roses look ragged, the lawn needs mowing, trees need planting, etc., etc. It CAN become overwhelming. Time to step back, make a "do-able" plan and then just start. We'll "do" THIS half of the path today. THAT half tomorrow. One little chunk at a time. It IS surprising what can be accomplished in small steps.
 

 

March 30, 2009

Check on the new daily photo blog!
 

Random Spring Thoughts --- Getting back into writing.

 

Color changes dramatically in plants, an obvious change is autumn foliage changes, but consider winter colors of sedums, saxifrages, bergenias and sempervivums, often very spectacular. Another consideration is the red growth on some trees and shrubs in the spring. These can be used to great advantage to show off blooms of another plant. Even the much maligned (in the Pacific Northwest) photinias!

 

I have read that the reason plants put out those dramatic red new leaves is to fool the predatory insect into thinking that it is dead. Apparently, many insects see red as black or dead...and pass on by rather than lay their eggs on something that is likely not to provide good vegetable lunches for the emerging larvae. On the one hand, I love learning things such as that. On the other hand, I am vaguely disquieted that it isn't for MY enjoyment. We humans aren't even a twinkle in the eye of that insect or anywhere in the periphery of that plant's strategy. But, as they say, get over it and go out there and look around.

 

 There is emergence in the air . There are the "snouts" of hostas and the ruffled petticoats of aquilegias tantalizing  underfoot while overhead, the exquisite engineered buds of trees and shrubs are stretching and pushing their way into the new year.  I am just struck dumb by the delicacy and precision of the buds on the Acer tegmentosum. Or the virtually antlered rhus branches....for all the world looking and feeling more animal than plant.
 

 
Acer tegmentosum buds

 

 
 

Though the pussy willows are distending, dusting their hairs with pollen (yellow on the gray pussies, dramatic red pollen on the black), the magnolia buds are still soft and will retain their fuzz until they burst into flower later this spring. The only magnolia in the garden currently bursting open its buds and showing an alluring bit of flower is "Wada's Memory." All the others are still being secretive and mum about the treasures they have to show.

 


 

Magnolia "Wada's Memory"
 

-----------------------------

 

There is such a pronounced switch in the seasons. Just as there is a day in September when you wake up in the morning and you know it's fall...so it is in the spring: one day, you KNOW it's spring. I was just reading a (rather silly---but archaically pleasant) book called: "Of Flowers and a Village" by Wilfred Blunt (1901-1987). The conceit is that a godfather is writing letters to a goddaughter during her convalescence in Scotland---mainly gossiping about his garden and the odd characters in his village. There are observations which redeem some small part of  the time invested to read it. The one which comes to mind now is:

"This morning I woke to autumn---a warm autumn morning rather than the cool summer morning of yesterday. It's like the difference between a fiddle and a 'cello both playing middle C: the same note, but another quality."

It's something Mike and I comment on each year. TODAY it is autumn. TODAY it is spring. No matter that the temperatures are the same. This Sunday it turned to spring. Even though we have freezing temps this morning  and a freakish snow on Saturday. Spring is most assuredly here, cold though it may be. With spring, however, comes the realization of how much work is out there to do...and also an assessment of the winter damage in the garden.

For those of your outside the Pacific Northwest area, we had (what we call) a hard winter. Now, by the standards of MOST of the continental USA, we live in a gardening paradise, but we are still assessing our damage in these parts. We had a spectacularly beautiful autumn last year...warm and colorful...70 degree days and 45 degree nights, just enough rain, but not too much---inspired me to put in an autumn photos button on our website.

Then, WHAMMO, in mid-December, we had a 16 degrees one night and it stayed FROZEN  for well over a week. Wow! Hard on the people and the plants. Since then, we have had a record cold winter....and a pretty grim early spring. The hellebores are splendid and bulbs seem happy, but the hebes, eucalypts, loropetalums, pittosporums, and many other borderline plants may or may not have a future. We'll have to see if it was root kill or just down to. I am sad about the eucalyptus trees. There is one with thin-willow-like leaves that looks pretty unlikely as well as the BEST scented one in our garden hasn't a leaf on it.
 
Of course, though I may bemoan the losses right now, and swear that my days of "pushing the zone" are over: No more marginal plants. Yet, I KNOW, that next weekend when I go to the Rhododendron Species Garden sponsored  plant sale, I will eye those eucalyptus, and think, maybe we should give hoheria or Erythrina x bidwillii another try, and touch the photos of the hedychium in the displays and think, what will autumn be like without their fragrance around the patio and that holboellia was just in too drafty a place. Sigh.... there we go again...pushing the limits, gauging the "warm spots" in the garden, crowding the southern walls and fences with "just maybe" plants. Just incorrigible, I guess.
 
Cunninghamia tree showing new growth

New growth on a cunninghamia.

 

January 9, 2009

Happy New Year! The blog is on vacation for January, we will chat with you next month. We hope the start of the year is a good one for all of us!

 

December 14, 2008

We only have a few ducks on the pond at this time of year. The geese have gone. It seems our geese are the kind that haven't forgotten that they are supposed to fly south for the winter. With the extremely cold weather of these past few days, we have been keeping our fountain going continuously (usually, it's on a timer for the daylight hours). This protects our koi by keeping the water from freezing solid across the top and diminishing their oxygen. The side-affect is that we are one of the few small bodies of water in our area that stays unfrozen on these especially cold nights. During the night, even with our precautions, the pond has a frozen edging. We go outside and see the ducks walking around on the ice in full view and plumage.

This morning, we had an added pleasure: a Eurasian widgeon and his mate were apparently traveling with a flock of the common American Widgeons. The distinctive Eurasian has a fine red head vs. our own who have green-banded eyes. Both communicate with soft whistles. They are nowhere near as noisy as the Mallards. Those guys tend to wake me up at sunrise during the spring and summer with wild bursts of quacking that sound as though they are laughing hysterically at their own jokes. The widgeons are congregating on the lawn west of the pond where the sun is melting the grass. They graze on land and dabble for pond weeds in the water.

I am still just learning about all the marvelous water fowl that come to visit. In the spring, we have seen the odd Wood Duck and its mate hanging around for a day or two as though checking out the real estate for a nesting site. We built a nest box and can only hope that they might take that into consideration some year. Other short term visitors have included American coots, Hooded Mergansers, and Horned Grebes (which always calls for a "where's the camera???" clamour).

The big pond has brought us all sorts of delights over the seasons and years:  an eagle "taking" a trout from the pond one summer afternoon, pairs of Cedar Waxwings that nest and hunt for insects around the pond, the kingfisher coming round for a look-see, or the Killdeer nesting in the labyrinth (Though the neighbor's new cat has probably precluded THAT from happening again in the near future), or the Osprey hovering above the pond (while I cross my fingers that all the koi are down in the depths). Our previous pond was much more of a showcase for our koi, while this more unruly pond with all it's weeds and debris is a showcase for wildlife. Here our koi disappear for weeks on end...with barely a glimpse or a spot of color on a cool day. But then a really warm day brings them out to sun themselves in the shallower water and we enjoy our "living jewels," as they are called in Japan.

There are, of course, mammals that are attracted to the ponds as well. Raccoons footprints are evident in the mornings and bats seen in the evening sky. I imagine our little bats are hibernating somewhere warm now since the insect population is a bit sparse right now. A couple of years ago, a pair of coyotes found some dog marrow bones out on the lower lawns, We watched from our living room window, as they played "hockey" with the bones on the solidly frozen frog pond to the east of the house. There was definitely a "brave" one and a "wary" one....as they experimented with how far onto the pond they could venture.

Even though our thin coating of snow is disappearing in the drying winds, this whole week promises to be cold, so our eyes will be peeled for the occasional rare visitor. Meanwhile, it's time to return to trimming the house with festivity.

 

December 7th 2008
 
Just the other day, I found notes that I put together for an informal talk about gardening on steep slopes. We, here in the Pacific Northwest, have plenty of gardening opportunities (and challenges) to garden in areas where beach lines, drainages, rivers, or slumps have created a difficult garden topography. Even though I am now gardening on a property that has plenty of flat land (which harbors plenty of issues in itself), I did spend considerable time working on a very steep ridge...so here are some suggestions for not going down a slippery slope! It’s harder to work---but the rewards can be great, especially in the DRAMA that is inherently contained in altitude changes.   
 
One of the biggest considerations is accessibility. I'm not talking about making your mountain-goat garden wheel-chair accessible. I'm simply talking about getting around and being able to do the maintenance in the garden. Be sure to make paths, especially “main” or oft used paths as comfortable and accessible as possible. Use switchbacks to minimize altitude gain. they may be longer, but are definitely easier on the knees.  This may not always be possible, but it’s a good aspiration.  Another thing to think about is break up steps into small sections. Rather than forty steps all at one time  (remember this isn't a pilgrimage route)  split up the steps into small sections. Five flights of eight steps each are A LOT EASIER!  
 
As for ANY garden, make the major paths much, much wider than you think you need.  This is such a difficult directive. EVERY garden writer and designer says it...but it takes several years of gardening to finally BELIEVE it. Oh gosh, you think, I don't want to WASTE all that space in paths. After all,  I could plant so many more plants along those side spaces. Ah, therein lies the problem. Those edge plants will grow...and likely flop all over that path. What WAS a three foot path, after being encroached from left and right by six inches is now an two foot path...and NEXT year, those plants will be encroaching a foot on each side...and you are left with a goat path at best. Trust me on this.
 
Remember maintenance!  It IS best if you can actually "get there from here!" Wherever  possible, leave wheelbarrow accessibility, unless, of course, you really LIKE hauling stuff up and down in buckets.  If you have extremely steep areas with steps, see if you can weave a side path that won't be too obvious for a wheeled conveyances.  One of my favorite tricks is to embed some “stepping” stones in very steep hills among your plants, so that you  have little places to stand on a slope when weeding and don’t slip and slide or mangle your plants during maintenance...you can just stand on your hidden platforms..

 

When cutting paths into side of hills, remember that the soil on the up side of the path will slip into the path and the soil on the down side of the path will slide away. Reinforce with rock or barriers to minimize path maintenance. Don’t clear steep slope areas. It’s not legal, for one. We inter-planted garden plants (shrubs and ground covers) with natives…or even invasives (We temporarily  left blackberries in many areas, for example).…until the garden plants were robust enough to hold the bank. Agricultural Extension programs have information about good slope maintenance plants.  You want to have plants that create robust and deep root systems to stabilize soil movement and run-off. Walk around in your own immediate area. Look at the native vegetation on the steep areas. Note what seems to be holding on at seemingly untenable angles.  Get those plants; that's always a good place to start.

 

In our Pacific Northwest climate, try not to use slippery materials in especially steep areas.  Particularly in locations where you need to take a step DOWN. Avoid making anyone have to land  onto  a slick-when-wet surface or rock.  At Ridge Garden, we had to change out many of our beautiful blue stones on our paths to the safety of smooth gravel surfaces, because  perilous descents. They were beautiful paths, but way too hazardous Even with the best of planning, we sometimes had to spread sand as temporary measure to "roughen up" some rock surfaces in wet weather On our many railroad tie steps, we nailed down 3-tab roofing material (without the tabs) to add more traction. I liked to use dark colors that didn't show very much, but contrasting colors might be interesting as well.

 

One last practical matter: Watering on a slope is very difficult. Grow as many plants that don't need watering and don’t plan on a drip watering system. The bottom will be well watered, but the upper regions will not be. Sprinklers, especially small area emitters will work better for distributing water and minimizing runoff.  Do as many lateral lines as possible, to prevent upper dry areas. Water does have a tendency to head downhill!
 
Working on a "difficult" sloped plot, gives you great opportunities for showing off plants. Put downward facing flowers on the upslope so you can look into their faces. Other plants look great from above, put them on the downslope. Many plants thrive when their roots are anchored between rocks. Search out those plants and use them---rock gardeners will drool.  Drama is much easier on a slope. Switchbacks provide lots of peek-a-boo sites where you can surprise your garden guest with something wonderful and unexpected. Our elevation from street to house at Ridge Garden was the equivalent of eight or nine flights of stairs. We put little patios with different themes and styles as well as and sculptures or features to surprise and entertain the garden guest as they ambled up the hill. A slope provides lots of “hidden” areas that invite exploration and prevent visitors from seeing the whole garden all at once. It’s a gift, optimize it!

         A path on a steep slope                 Statue hidden in bamboo

A patio hidden in the woods A shrine in the woods

 
December 1st, 2008
 
This weekend, I purchased a new digital camera. I'm not going to get into a big treatise on cameras, but suffice it to say it is an SLR digital with a well-known pedigree. A few weeks ago, I was expounding the usefulness of using the digital camera to help you design your garden, make intelligent choices about where to put plants, and to document your progress. Today, the discourse will be about the sheer joy of LOOKING.
 
In some ways, getting a new camera at this time of year, when the garden is a bit ragged with mushy hostas and denuded branches, with sticky mud and leaf strewn paths and brown flower beds, is a bit disheartening. I want to go out there and take thousands of pictures. I want to explore how the wider lens will give me new vistas, let me take in broader scenes. Oh, and the better close-up capabilities, the new expanded details of flowers: the veins, the pistils, the pollen-dusted  anthers. Can't wait.  It's all so exciting --- until you consider that this is the end of November and the weather was foggy or rainy all weekend AND the manual is over 200 pages!
 
After the obligatory pictures of dogs sprawled on couches and images of the forbearing husband at his computer, after the oohs and aahs of the LONG view across the dining room taken after dark with just a few light bulbs on, it became obvious that I had to explore the great outdoors. Time to read the manual in bed and wet or not, slosh around in the morning. Out comes the rain hat (with a wide brim, more to protect the camera than me), I'm ready to brave the barren garden.
 
Mind, the garden isn't ALL that barren. The hydrangeas have their unique muted colors as they age into the winter. The fuchsias are still holding on with nodding flowers. The Knock Out roses and Hot Cocoa roses are still staggering through a few more buds and blooms. But, these are just ghostly reminders of their summer glory. It is hard to get too ecstatic about the slightly ragged end-of-season flowers. I have wonderful images of these things. It would be faded beauty at best to capture them now. The excitement they hold is the mere fact that they are there at all, not that they are the best representatives of their kind. 
 
To be sure, a few viburnums are opening their sweetly scented flowers and the Arbutus uneda are coming into their own as are the Schizostylis coccinea, but the last day of November is hardly the height of flashy floral display. I started out with a picture of the odd rhododendron blossom here, a Verbena bonariensis there, an early Hamamelis virginiana in bloom, a pretty leaf here, a little bark there....and I ended up on the crab apple lawn. We have over a dozen distinct flowering and fruiting crabs. Many are already stripped of their fruit by the migrating birds (The bigger ones are already pickled and served with Thanksgiving turkey.)....but looking closely, there were still loads of tiny crab apples dripping with foggy dew. Ah, here is my subject for the day, along with the nearby rosehips---at least the ones that haven't ended up steeped in hot water. Laced with a little honey, rose hips make a lovely (AND good-for-you) tea on a cold, wet gardening day.
 
As I gazed through the lens of my new camera, it was miraculous. How had I failed to notice all of that variety? Some hips with little buttons, others with little depressions, varieties of scarlets, oranges, and yellows, all waiting to be investigated. Once I got started, I couldn't help myself. LOOK, some Callicarpa japonica berries still left...and the wonderful marvel of viburnum and arbutus sporting flowers and berries simultaneously. Even the wrinkled hypericum berries are on glorious magenta stems. I was pretty wet by the time I was through glorying in those tiny facets. This is not to say that I have never NOTICED the berries, seeds, fruit and hips in the winter garden. After all, I did plant these very plants for their "winter interest."  But this was a completely different level of appreciation.
 
This is the time of year when you "drive by" the garden, so to speak. When chores beckon, you bundle up, get out there, get it done and get back inside. It's more fun to look out the window than really explore. Not the time of garden tours and outings. Go out there with a mission, with your camera, and really LOOK at the details right now. Today, I think I'm going to explore BARK!
 
 Winter-time berries

 

 
November 21st, 2008
 
I was chatting with a new acquaintance of mine and invariably the subject of gardening came up. "Oh I only put poisonous plants in our garden. I research every plant thoroughly to make sure it’s irritating or deadly." I was a bit taken aback. Immediately, I had visions of dire motives gleaned from reading one too many murder mystery. Perhaps my friend was preparing venomous potions in her kitchen . What sort of nefarious plot was she up to?? Get a grip, Ilga, this woman is a soccer mom! Turns out the suburban neighborhood where she lives is a haven for deer. She's forsaken tasty rose buds, hostas and tulips for monk’s hood (Aconitum), caster beans, and colchicums.

 

Gardens ARE a great attraction for wildlife. However, we  need to remember that does include the curse of the creatures we disdain along with the delight of the rare and beautiful creatures we crave. As with most garden activities, the good comes with the bad.  

 

We have been blessed by NOT having deer in our garden. Even though we do have 32 acres, most of our hillside is covered with Himalayan blackberries (Rubus discolor) which seems to be impervious to almost everything except rabbits, mountain beavers, mice and other rodents. Some of their predators do manage to dine there:  coyotes, weasels, and raccoons. (Oh, and skunks we know this because, our old dog, Issa, tangled with one―but that's another story for another day.) And we are GLAD for those predators, believe me, the rabbits would over run us completely. The blackberry terrain must inhibit the inquisitive deer. It's pretty hard trekking for anything that doesn't crawl underneath. And, I am sure, that two German Shepherds can't hurt, either.

 

The attraction of prey and predator is something that often comes as a mixed blessing. We made mason bee homes for our native northwest bees  (Osmia lignaria)  They are solitary bees, living naturally in holes made by beetles in soft wood. We drill ¼ in holes in thick cedar chunks to attract these early predators. What we didn’t realize was that we had also make woodpecker feeders. Interestingly, Mother Nature has accommodated for just such a calamity. The female bee lays the females deep inside the hole and the males at the entrance. Only one male needs to survive to pollinate many females, so the outside eggs are sacrificed as woodpecker food. One must resign oneself to the fact that both the birds and the bees need to make a living.  

 

When we installed our ponds and waterfall features  in our previous garden, , it was with the intention of providing our koi with a new home. Imagine our awe as we watched a great horned owl come to investigate the sound of running water on the evening we started the pumps for the waterfall. There was not a return visit  for the many years we lived there, but that one silent flight only feet above our heads  and the ten minute perch in our maple was such a thrill.  Here, at Edgewood, the Osprey with their amazing hovering technique, come to check out the koi and the trout. Imagine the amazement of watching a bald eagle snatch a trout out of the water in your own front yard. Now, THAT was exciting! Even if I do fear for my koi.

 

Water features are a great attractant for creatures. I remember the excitement of having frogs finally find the pond we designed for them. We are not very near any natural ponds so I had spent a couple of spring introducing tadpoles. No luck. Then, when I abandoned the effort for a couple of year, resolving just to enjoy water plants, they arrived. We enjoyed the sightings, sitting on water lily leaves or eyes and noses drifting among the Azolla filiculoides,  an aquatic fern. Then one autumn day, the kingfisher arrived and dined on them for an afternoon until every frog was gone.   Here in our current garden, the "lower pond" as we call it is a haven for frogs. The din of the Pacific tree frog, Hyla regilla, can be heard through the evening with all the windows and doors closed. Mind you, I am NOT complaining. The first year we lived here, we had have a red-legged frog (Rana aurora) that came into the living room with some impunity. "Oh, there's that frog again!" as you bend down to scoop him up and deposit him in the more appropriate surroundings of the garden. Though there is a new fungal disease that is killing our native Pacific Northwest frogs, fortunately, we seem to have a pretty healthy population.

 

Each autumn and early spring, we watch in trepidation as the young herons stalk our fish. Each year, at least one is convinced that he has found the ultimate feeding ground. They carefully walk the stream, or perch on the edge of the water pondering the koi.

 

At Ridge Garden, we live quite near to a large heronry, so we designed our koi pond with the fish’s health and longevity in mind. Our pond  was constructed with steep, straight sides that went down to the un-heron-friendly depth of five to seven feet, depending on which end of the pond you are measuring. Nonetheless, there is always a bit of fear that perhaps THIS bird THIS year has come up with a successful plan.  Here, at Edgewood Garden, we have our share of herons as well, but with a half acre pond, one can only cross one's fingers and hope for the best.   

 

We did have a regular visitor this spring---quite bold  actually. I  stood, coffee cup in hand, and watched  him from our front porch,   for several mornings. Finally, I stealthily opening the side door, gingerly tiptoed out and stood very still. He looked at me with one eye and then twisted his head and stared with the other, gave a yawn, and resumed his koi stalking. Apparently, I wasn’t as interesting as the prospect of breakfast.  Eventually, he left the pond to contemplate the Asian Garden. He didn't even seem to mind that I went back inside, came out again with a camera and snapped his picture.  Either this same handsome fellow become completely emboldened or he brought a friend that started coming up to within five feet of our front door to eat the tiny koi babies that lived in the two concrete ponds on either side of our sidewalk. That necessitated our removing the youngsters and tossing them into the big pond to make their way in the wild. Talking about all this makes me think, perhaps I should go outside right now and see who's dining in our  garden this evening!

 

 Great Blue Heron in the garden

 

November 15, 2008

I was reading an article from an old (really old, as in December, 1975) gardening magazine and came across a wonderful phrase. The author said, "All the plants in your garden should look as if they are having a wonderful time." The author's phrase was such an 'aha' for me, and so succinctly stated my philosophy of gardening, that I couldn't resist making it my topic.

By the way, after finishing the article, I happened to glance back at the first page noticed that it was by Christopher Lloyd. Why didn't I guess that?

But, getting back to the quote, I believe generally that if the plants look as if they are having a good time, the garden will look beautiful and pleasing. There are, of course, exceptions. I doubt that most bonsai look as if they are having a good time, but that is more like a regal pose. I rarely think of the Queen of England as having a wonderful time, but the pomp and circumstance has a beauty of its own.

There are three things which make a plant look as if it is having a good time. One is good health, a second is growing in a relaxed and natural way, and the third is blending well with its companions. I think that good health is obvious, but achieving that sometimes seems so very difficult. My single most important suggestion for this is: plant the plant in the habitat for which it has developed. Make the niche match the plant.

This seems so obvious that it should be self-evident, but we all ignore the rule at one time or another. Driving around, one sees hundreds of examples of poorly placed plants. The rhododendron long-suffering on the south wall of house, the gangly lilac stretching for light, the parched primroses, the sticks of roses long overtaken by shade. Not only do these plants look like they are suffering from environmental conditions, they also are being attacked by disease. A severely stressed plant is one less likely to be able to mobilize its immune system when under attack by insects or disease. This is not to say that a genetically susceptible rhododendron won't be chewed by root weevils, but it does say that even a genetically robust rhododendron that is stressed will be chewed by root weevils. My waterlogged, poorly placed bergenias are much more likely to develop black spot in the late winter. Cuttings from the same plant in better suited locations glide through till new spring leaves with just a few blotches on a leaf or two.

Why do we NOT plant a plant in the most suitable place? I think for three reasons: An attempt at an aesthetic judgment, ignorance, and plant greed. A very good example of aesthetic misplacement is three lovely Japanese black pine trees that were planted around our former koi pond. They were wonderful as focus points and promoting the Asian feel of that garden. In theory they are beautifully planted. However, there was no regard for their habitat requirements. At most, they received an hour to an hour and a half of direct sunlight in mid-summer. Five years later, these plants were removed due to their severely stressed condition. Happily, they are in a friend's garden basking in the sun by ANOTHER koi pond.

On a less grand scale, I wanted to have some early white flowers as highlights under some trees down in a wooded rockery. I had several white hellebores that I thought would look splendid. I planted them along the edge of the small rockery. But hellebores don't like to be parched. We ended up having to water them constantly during the summer. They flagged daily because of the drainage along the rocks, and the following spring, three of them did not bloom and the other two were dead.

Ignorance is my second reason for making major planting errors. And ignorance can come from laziness or misinformation. Sometimes (I'm sure you've never done this, but I certainly do) you buy a plant because it romances you at the nursery. It's stunning little flowers or leaves or dramatic form beckon you to come hither and buy it.  And home it comes and languishes in a pot on the front porch until in desperation, you just stick it in anywhere so that it won't point a shaming finger at you every time you pass by. If you didn't intuitively place it properly, there's a good chance the thing will be dead or diseased soon enough, and gets a bad name for being 'tricky' to grow.

Misinformation can come in several forms as well. Mislabeling is a good example. You diligently come home with your new treasure and carefully read the tag or look it up in your reference books and plant it perfectly in the conditions that it should like. When it finally sends out some flowers and you realize it wasn't what it was supposed to be, it may well also be sending down SOS or death knells. The other great misinformation can come from friends and nursery staff. Holding your prize, you ask, can I plant it in such and such. Oh sure, they say. And such and such location turns out to be a deathbed rather than a flower bed for your little plant.

And plant greed? Do I really have to talk about that? I used to live on seven acres of high and dense shade and one acre of minimal sun conditions (six hours at most in high summer). What right did I have to lust after yet another Rudbeckia or Kniphofia. It was crazy, but I did. And I bought them and eventually, they languished and died. NOW, I live on a great windy bluff with nearly no protection and I crave those rhododendrons and little treasures I USED to grow. It's a brutal fact of beauty driving us to distraction.

However, if you actually pay attention to your site and conditions and match them to the needs of the plants, you will have healthy plants that look like they are having a good time. Well, you will if you don't then brutalize them. A friend recently made an offer on a house in Bellevue. It has a lovely mature 50 year old garden with lovely magnolias and flowering cornus, wonderful dwarf rhododendrons and towering arborized ones.

But the thing that caught my eye immediately was a pathetic sight. A struggling forsythia trying to bloom. It had obviously been unkempt for a long time, with two and three inch caliber branches that had been chopped and sawed off this winter (probably in preparation for the sale) into a perfect four foot ball. It was a cripple in the garden, obviously NOT having a good time and it took the joy out of the whole setting. It had no grace and no happiness.

How many Pacific Northwesterners cringe at the mention of photinia? Who could possibly love these over used, appallingly pruned, stock plant of strip malls and front hedges? I saw a bank of it along a local freeway that had been left alone and it was magnificent and obviously having a grand time.

Watch that you don't prune just for convenience. How many people don't end up loping off plants just so they can see through the window. If possible, move it or if necessary remove it and plant something more appropriate. If you want a Chihuahua don't buy a Great Dane. If you are not an inveterate mover of plants, try to match the size and habit of the plant to the location. Think 10 years from now. Or steel yourself to removing it later.

Better a fresh new plant than one that looks brutalized and unnatural.

Having good companions is a whole other talk in itself, so I'll save that for another time. But I hope that we can all work to making sure that our plants are having a wonderful time in our gardens and I'm sure we will party along with them.

 

November 10, 2008

 

This morning, while sipping my coffee at the window, I mused at how long our autumn color is lasting this year. I always hesitate to say: those black pussy willows (Salix gracilistyla var. melanostachys) are late this year,  my Wandas (Primula x pruhonicensis)  are blooming early or  the Hot Cocoa roses are tardy---even though I KNOW in my bones that this is the case. Could I be misremembering that, again? Could be. So much of the garden just seems later or earlier THIS year. Not a problem, I have a surefire way of checking.

 

No, I’m not Thomas Jefferson with his garden diaries. (You can find a facsimile here: http://www.thomasjeffersonpapers.org/cfm/doc.cfm?id=garden_1

It’s fun to peruse. He recorded every peach blossom date, the day that he planted four Koelreuteria paniculata aurea, when the squashes were harvested from the asparagus bed or when the Anemone pulsatilla (now: Pulsatilla vulgaris) blossoms emerged. I’m afraid that I simply don’t seem to have the time, energy, or temperament to carry around my notebook and pencil nor can I be that methodical.

 

Then again, I’m in the 21st Century…and have a quick, easy tool for that sort of documentation (and much more fun): my digital camera. When we first engaged in creating this garden, I started taking my camera out every few days to document progress. Now, I still take scores of photos, not great art masterpieces, just snapshots of areas in transition, a particularly pretty bed, and whatever else attracts me. What I find interesting is that some days, I go out there and pore deeply into the soul of every flower; other days, the long sweeping views become my focus; sometimes, when conditions are right, the light and sky and ambiance become my subjects. I can’t tell you that I do this on a particular day each month…just when the mood strikes me, but it does average out to about twice a month.

 

The greatest benefit, other than reveling in the beauty of plants, is that I have a very helpful plant guide. When contemplating where to plant those lily bulbs or that twig that will be lilacs in the spring, or the stubs of Rudbeckia, I can check the bloom dates and make a guesstimate about compatibility in the garden, and plant accordingly. Nothing, of course, is perfect, and it’s still easy to mismatch the bloom times, but unmitigated disasters of that dinner plate magenta Dahlia in the sea of yellow Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ is averted. Having photos of spring bulbs is a great deterrent to those shovelfuls of halved Narcissus bulbs. I’m always contrite and apologize for their mutilation. Yes, I do talk to my plants. Not the way many people do, to make them grow or be happy. I figure they’re generally OK on that front. But I do apologize to them for deadheading the wrong branch or digging them up accidentally….or….fatally chopping them in half.  

 

My pictures are arranged by month. Each of the twelve directories has a list of years and within each yearly directory, there are sub-directories for each month-day-year which contain the days pictures. Spring is always the great excitement…I’m out there, it seems, every other day with camera in hand snapping every bud, sprout, and (oh, joy) blossom. As the summer progresses, I seem to take fewer and fewer pictures, usually petering out by September (when I seem to take the fewest photos). Then comes the autumn color and I am back at it again.

 

As a gardening tool, I can’t say enough about my camera. It makes me really LOOK at things, it helps me from destroying dormant plants, and it helps resolve color disputes when I am placing new plants in existing beds and also tells me when something has “disappeared” over the winter, especially if the tag is long gone. I highly recommend taking regular photos in your garden. 

 

Oh, about that “late” color this year? I checked my photos. Here are two pictures of Acer palmatum 'Okagami' taken on November 10th in 2007 and 2008!

     

Acer palmatum 'Okagami'        Acer palmatum 'Okagami'

Acer palmatum 'Okagami' Nov. 10, 2007                        Acer palmatum 'Okagami' Nov., 10, 2008

 

 

     

                               

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