January 2, 2010

Sleep Well

The garden is soundly sleeping under about 15 inches (and counting) of snow. There have been holidays, work schedules, some rambling about here and there, and the gardener has been disinclined and uninspired to put pencil to paper and create a blog posting these last couple of months. Having written about the garden for one complete year, four seasons now, the story of it seems, for the time being at any rate, to have come full circle and to a full stop.

Apologies, dear readers, but this winter it just seems repetitive and unenlightened to address, yet again, the weary topics of garden catalogue browsing, bird feeding and watching, "structural" plantings for winter garden visual interest, or the other subjects to which garden writers turn during the dormant season to flesh out their columns. Can there really still be anyone, anywhere in the gardening world, who doesn't know what to put in a bird feeder?

Plus, maybe it is the curmudgeon in me, but my personal opinion is that the best looking objects in the winter garden, other than the dark and handsome evergreens, are all the things that are not plants -- rocks, tree trunks, snow drifts and dunes, bird houses, benches, garden art. Ornamental grasses, thistles, sedums and other plants and seedheads widely recommended to be left intact into winter to add attractiveness to the garden landscape look, to my eyes, simply dead and dessicated. Grey or brown or blackened with frost, they just aren't an appealing feature of the winter garden, and detract from rather than enhance its winter wardrobe. Winter is not the season for showcasing plants in the garden. They are somnabulant, and just ought to be left in peace.

And, for now, Michigan Garden Muse will also be left in peace. Perhaps the gardener will return next month, in two months, next spring. Until such time, a very happy, healthful, good cheer and glad tidings New Year to all, and to all a good night.

November 11, 2009

Green Theology

What is a garden? It could be acres of tailored woods and meadows, pathways, ponds, topiary and pergolas. It could be a tapestry of wildflowers in a seam of formerly neglected dirt along a schoolyard fence. It could be herbs and tomatoes, lettuces and broad beans, sunflowers and marigolds in a big city tenement backyard. It could be a haiku of cherry blossom, peony, arched laquer red bridges, swans and raked sand. It could be fat wooden barrels of impatiens, snapdragons, daisies and English ivy standing sentinel at the doors of a firehouse. It could be clay pots of jade, aloe, sempervivums and fountain grass strung shoulder to shoulder along a high rise balcony. It could be teacups of African violets capturing the sunshine on a kitchen windowsill. Or it could be, as in my garden, a small village lot quilted with old-fashioned country garden stalwarts and favorites.

We've now come full circle of one whole year in these writings on the garden. Winter has come to call once again, drawing down the window shades on the sun and icing closed the gateway to the garden. This year, watching the big-bellied snow clouds somersault across the sky, I think of tropical islands and the desert Southwest, Hawaii and the Florida Keys. Places where gardening goes on all year long.

The English landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, posited, “A love of gardening is a seed that, once planted, never dies.” Her sentiment is a perfectly accurate summary of my emotional relationship to the fine art of gardening. Every year, as incremental knowledge and skill in the practice of this art are sought after, obtained and heightened; as thrilled acquaintance is made with previously unknown plant species; and as the garden in my keeping grows ever more populated, multicultural and mature; so also grows apace my love of gardening. It's fair to say the fruits of my gardening labor – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual – provision me with the greatest happiness and fulfillment of any m├ętier I've turned my hand to since parenthood.

Gardening is as definitively an artistic pursuit as painting, composing music, choreographing dance or writing novels. Earth is the artist gardener's blank tablet, upon which a uniquely individualized creation is constructed, layer after assiduous layer. Like any work of art, the garden can never truly be declared a fait accompli, can always benefit from a smidgen more fine tuning, another wash of color, sowing actions better suited to the setting.

Given the seminal position gardening holds in my heart, mind and way of life, why do I dwell in a northern, wintry clime? Sometimes we choose a place to live, and sometimes a place chooses us. Lake coastal northwestern Michigan chose me. Wooed me, petitioned and cajoled me here, and it does not look fit to let me go anytime soon. We get wed to a particular place because it (or somewhere closely resembling it), was the landscape to our childhood, which we all ache to recapture in some ways; and because the place shelters family, friends, neighbors with whom we want to keep close proximity; and because the physical attributes of the land, the colors and contours, stones and waterways, flora and fauna, quality of light and darkness, act upon us as balm and inspiration, soothe us and stimulate us like nowhere else we've hung our hat.

Hence it is that whenever a gardener finds herself to have, in the fullness of life, put down strong rootstock, be it in city or country, in groves of buildings or of trees, studio apartment or suburban tract or log cabin, in that place of her belonging she will ply her chosen craft and make a garden. The definition of a garden has no fixed size, shape, locale or cultivars. It is not any list of characteristics, however lengthy or broad, but rather is a testament, sworn in seed, soil, moisture and light. Here I am, it states, here shall I abide, find a handful of earth, plant, nurture, believe in tomorrow, and raise up life. A garden is a womb, a faith, and a hope.

October 22, 2009

The Contumacious Gardener

The bulbs put into the ground for the fall planting season over the last couple weeks: dark purple Dutch iris; windflower anemones; double-blossom mixed yellow and white narcissus; cherry vanilla double-blossom tulips; Thalia snow-white narcissus; and hyacinths. All these bulbs enlarge upon the existing colonies of their species already in place in the garden, building its repertoire for a broader, bolder and longer yield next spring. The anemone and tulip bulbs, which are to deer, rabbits and squirrels what hot fudge sundaes are to the gardener, once placed in the ground and before covering over, got sprayed to soaking wet with garlic and egg liquid deer repellent, to improve their chances of staying in their beds and not being precipitously dug up for a critter dinner.

The garden has three large round mats of dianthus plantings which have increased their diameter annually and resemble a plush green carpet all spring, summer and fall. They're aged approximately four to five years, and this past spring, for the first time, produced only a scant smattering of flowers during bloom time in late May and June. With these, and the creeping phlox whose spring display also was diminished this year, composted cow manure was dug into their root stock and layered around their crowns. Hopefully the fresh, rich soil will feed them up over the winter sufficient to bring back their profuse bloom habit.

After cutting down the yellowed, floppy leaves of the Siberian iris and daylillies, the long leaf blades were sheared into lengths of three inches or so, and layered back around the plant cores. Thus do the leaves get put to use as green mulch, warmth, and protection to the soil and plant roots from erosion by the rains, or freezing and thawing and heaving from winter temperature fluctuations. The chrysanthemums, some of which are still doing their beautiful work of fall flowering, are not going to be cut down to the ground this year. Several gardening professionals have mentioned in recent writings that mums do better through winter in cold climates with their leafy, woody stems left intact to shelter the plant crowns from the weather. As they finish flowering, I snip off the dead flower heads, and trim the leafy torso of the plant down only half way, leaving it three or four inches above ground until next spring's advent of more gentle fahrenheits.

Other trimming, tidying up is ongoing, but the bulbs no doubt mark the last gardening (as in actually planting something) to be done this year. There is an old saying that one can bury a lot of troubles by digging in the dirt. Certainly that is true for me, heaven knows the soil of my garden is laden deep and wide with truckloads of troubles, worries, melancholia, and fears worked out and into it over the years. Gardening is the most potent, immediate and efficacious treatment for unhappiness I've ever come across. Getting the hands dirty out of doors and sowing possibility and hope, witnessing and tending to the physical fruits of one's labor, beats the pants off any pharmacopoeia or counseling on offer to the sore of heart. And so it is with sadness and feelings of dread that the gardener downs tools and watches the inexorable advance of the season of dormancy and death across the meadows, hills and forests.

The trees are emptying of leaves, autumnal gales and rainstorms rudely tumble the afternoons away. Frost falls down at night, the sun offers only a cold shoulder to the days. Any gardener who claims to like the wintertime is surely, at the least, disingenuous. Yes, the woods boast wonderful hot-coal colors in late October, shiny chestnuts and sweet, beanie-capped acorns can be gathered, but to the gardener, all this brown, gold and flame-orange means death is coming creeping, gnawing relentlessly away at the green, the alive. As autumn marches on toward a frozen, still-life tomorrow, the gardener can do nothing except bundle up self and garden against the walloping cold a northwestern Michigan winter invariably delivers.

Preparing the garden to withstand the slings and arrows of another winter, and laying in bulbs to better clothe it in resplendent color and output next spring, hasn't been enough, this year, to tranquilize my discontent and woe that summer is finished, another year of gardening has ended, winter is nigh. The turning of the seasons is part and parcel of living in a northerly climate, and necessary to the existence of many of my favorite garden dwellers – the lilacs, the peonies, the forsythia and high bush cranberry. And yet, and yet, maybe it's the too short, too cool summer we were allowed this year; maybe it's the bittersweet knowledge that the penny-candy pink and pale apricot mum flowers sitting so prettily in china jugs on my tabletops are the very last flowers I will be able to cut from the garden this year; maybe it's that the top third of the quaking aspen tree has already been burgled of all leaves by the windstorms, even as the leaves hold their shimmering gold final fling with color – but I do not, this year, go gladly into the long garden goodnight of winter. I don't want it, I don't like it. I go to the Lake Michigan shore, take off my moccasins, and wade defiantly up to my knees in its pellucid 50-degree waters. I contemplate going for another swim (insane idea), and exhort the temperature gods to go against all odds and rise, rise.
It will probably take nothing short of the first big blizzard to put a halt to this feckless, childish, contrary behavior. Until those furbelows of snow come swooping into the garden, the gardener will probably persist in impotent resistance to Mother Nature's procession down the ancient, necessary pathways of the seasons, in all their tempests, wisdom and power.

October 5, 2009

Think and Think Again

This year the foundation border under the front living room windows flagged around mid-summer, taking on a peaked and slightly famished appearance. Every season one or another spot in a perennial bed or hedgerow grouping or flowering border will do this, suddenly becoming anemic or revealing under-populated areas, plantings that are growing more feeble instead of more fecund, and calling out for re-invigoration. Once the columbine, bleeding hearts, delphiniums and bee balm began winding down in late July, this south-facing border sported more vacancy than arresting occupants.

Much of the blame for the under-employment of this very visible sunny patch falls to the holly bush. Meant to anchor and fill up the back of the border with high gloss, leafy, spreading branches and clusters of red berries, the blue-girl and blue-boy holly couple had not grown above knee high in six years of residency. More distressingly, despite the arranged match-up of a male and female of the species for pollination purposes, the missus had never grown even a single berry.

The location is a hot one, getting sun nearly all day long, although the river birch and Cleveland pear centered in the front yard have matured enough in the last couple years to alleviate the sunbath somewhat with shade. Still, the strong summer light, heat and dryness seemed to be undermining the holly's prospects for vigor and expansiveness, and forcing the conclusion that it was simply uncongenially sited. So more accurately, the gardener who placed the holly there because she wanted green and red bushiness splayed picturesquely against the front house wall, is in fact really the culprit who must bear the blame.

Unwilling to give up on the mistreated holly, and the capacity I am sure still lurks suppressed within its woody loins for putting forth a bird-feast of red berries, a remedial relocation was undertaken forthwith. A new home along the east side of the house, shady and cool in the afternoons, was chosen. A day before the move, a trench was dug with a shovel down two feet or so, in a circle around the shrub and a couple feet out from its trunk, to sever the roots and telegraph to the holly that changes were in the offing, thus giving it a day to get used to the idea and to ameliorate the physical trauma attendant upon being dug up out of the ground. The following day, a large hole was excavated in the new domicile, thoroughly soaked with a couple gallons of water, and lined with bedding bottom and sides of composted cow manure. The holly was then gently unearthed and moved, with as much of its root ball intact as possible. Well watered in and kept watered bi-weekly since then, to all outward appearances it seems to have taken quite blissfully to the transplantation, even after just two months shining green and glowing and, methinks, more flush with health.

The gaping wound in the front border was sutured up, the same day, with a new clethra summersweet ruby spice shrub. This newcomer is an upright, fan-shaped bush, that flowers from mid-July through summer's end with bottle brush candles of flowers in soft pink. The flowers give forth a rich, incredibly sweet fragrance, which one hopes will waft through the front windows and infuse the rooms of the house with one of summer's headiest perfumes. Flowering occurs on new wood with a clethra, so future pruning for shaping can be done at will, spring, summer or fall. Butterflies and hummingbirds find its nectar irresistible, and in a conducive setting, it can grow six to eight feet tall.

A summersweet shrub is an augmentation to the garden I have specifically coveted for quite some time, since being introduced to its munificent flowering talent and almost decadent, intense scent in other gardens and along country lanes and creeksides. The garden can always use more summer into autumn bloomers, as well. This shrub makes an excellent foundation plant, according to the information sheet printed out from the Ohio State University extension service website, after the clethra was installed in its new dwelling and I decided to do a little investigation into the finer points of its personality. For preference, the information sheet went on, clethras incline to moist and shady soils. Uh oh.

And hence begins another campaign by the gardener to encourage and raise up an adoptee in a less than optimal, poorly thought-through situation. Maybe the annually widening, deepening shade of the birch and pear trees will offer adequate, compensatory canopies to offset the gardener's shortcomings in advance planning and research. Maybe – no, certainly – the gardener has dimwittedly consigned herself to hours of auxiliary watering down the next few years of hot summer months to come. Maybe the shade and extra watering, taken together, will be just the ticket to stimulate the clethra to live up to its name, and be a big, bushy helping of summer sweetness in the front border. If not, then yet another re-think and revision to the border will, one future day, need to be done.

The garden is never entirely what the gardener envisions and wishes it to be. Plants don't always like their placement. Pest deterrents are never one-hundred percent fail-proof. Weather isn't always kind, seeds are not always fruitful. With even the best will, intentions and assiduous labor, not all garden components will prove their mettle and grow up well and successful. Reinvention, rejuvenation, relocation and other forms of change, flexibility and adaptation are unavoidable concomitants of the pursuit of a bountiful garden. The gardener's lot in life is to be a constant copy editor of her creations. Especially when, as with yours truly, garden design is directed more by desire and impulsiveness than careful, cross the t's and dot the i's forethought.

September 20, 2009

Garden Schooled

Water, water, water. So has read the garden duty roster over the past few rainless weeks, thereby countermanding one of the core tenets of my gardening philosophy. Water is a cherished and finite resource on this green planet, and a guiding belief in building a garden has been that its plant life shall be capable of becoming, upon maturity, largely self-sufficient, self-propagating. A garden should co-exist harmoniously with nature rather than combating it, harming or depleting it. Yes, well – chance would be a fine thing!

The reality, of course, is that aside from maybe a prairie wildflower meadow or a desert cacti bed, there's no such creature as the autonomously thriving, no-maintenance garden. Whether it be taking measures to fend off omnivorous deer, rabbits, aphids and other critters who view the garden as their personal banquet hall; or schlepping and shoveling mulch, compost and other soil-enriching and protective materials; or broadcasting runnels of fresh water up and down the garden when clear skies rule the heavens for days on end; or any of the score of other cossetting, supportive, laborious chores that perforce must be completed – a healthy, lively garden can be sustained only with the continual attention of and intervention by the gardener.

All the 25 shrubs and 11 trees planted over the years in my garden are native to Michigan, supposed to be well-suited to growing robustly in the particular kind of environment on offer here. They also number among the more feisty, hardy contenders of the plant world, rather than hailing from the squads of the fragile and easily perishable. The lilac, forsythia, American high bush cranberry, red maple and oak, aspen and river birch, and the other species are, indeed, often found growing old and going strong in deserted farmyards and untended forest land throughout the state.

While I celebrate whatever happy circumstance of micro-ecosystem maintains such wilderness dwellers, the fact remains that none of the trees or shrubs in my garden came here by choice or natural selection of just the very spot where they could flourish into a ripe old age. All were brought to their garden location by my hand, all are still in the childhood of their possible lifespans. And although it contravenes my desire and intention, goes against the grain of how I believe one should garden in the best of all possible worlds, these youngsters need watering when it doesn't rain.

I feel responsible to and for the trees and shrubs in the garden. To leave them to their own resources come hail or high water, after purposefully adopting them and bringing them home to new lives in the garden, does not seem right nor fair (not to mention being spendthrift foolish). The trees and shrubs would likely survive without supplemental water, but if they get less than a couple certain inches per week, they will toil and gasp their way through winter, their viability will be weakened, and I'm persuaded they will never thereafter be as strong or as capable of longevity and fullness as they could have been with a modicum of gardening care. Evidence of the dangers of benign neglect is currently on view in most of the (unwatered) curbside trees throughout the village, whose leaves are already largely dry, curling at the edges, and burnt reddish brown, while those in gardens and by watercourses hold their vibrant green over 95 percent of their foliage.

For as many years as I can recall (back to around the mid-1900s), a reliable annual component of Michigan's weather calendar has been the onset of a brilliant course of Indian summer weather on or about Labor Day weekend. It generally persists for at least a couple of solid weeks, and some years holds its ground right through the month of September. It features flax blue skies, hot sunny days that bring the crops in the fields and orchards to harvest-ready perfection, and scant to no rainfall. Occasionally the odd early frost or sudden deluge breaks this annual pattern (as well as the corn, pumpkin and apple farmers' hearts), but that is the exceptional year, not the rule. Indian summer in Michigan can be counted upon probably nine years of out each decade to usher in a wonderful hiatus to the onward march of autumn toward winter, a bonus few weeks of summer weather wherein the gardener gladly swaps weekly hours of watering for the opportunity to bask in sunshine, warmth and a few more swims in the untroubled lakes and rivers.

Weather means a lot, means more to you when you garden. This heightened mindfulness and cognizance of weather is but one of the sundry ways that cultivating a plot of earth connects the gardener closer to the natural, living world. To garden conscientiously makes one a student in the lifelong curriculum of nature. It is a course of study that can never be completed, but always has new lessons and a further wisdom up its sleeve. Gardening is a kind of schooling in which the door never closes, the mind keeps getting the gauntlet thrown down to open wider and take in more knowledge, and no final bell of dismissal ever rings. And thank goodness for that!

September 8, 2009

Best of Autumn

In ancient China, where the earliest known chrysanthemums (called Chu) were cultivated as a flowering herb as far back in the mists of time as 1,500 years before Christ, the plant was believed to hold the power of life. The flower petals and sprouts were eaten as salad greens, the leaves brewed as a tea, and an infusion of the roots championed as a cure for headache. Brought to the western world many centuries later in the mid-1700s by Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus, he it was who christened the plant with the name chrysanthemum, from the Greek words for “golden flower.” Golden and one of the most glorious forms of life in the autumn garden it assuredly remains in the present day.

If springtime means the portal to the garden is swinging open upon the magical, tantalizing cornucopia of all the wonders to come, in autumn the doorway is slowly narrowing toward its close. The sophisticated, finely tailored, stately-paced chrysanthemum places a well-shod foot into the garden doorway and holds it firmly ajar for another month or two of color, scent and bloom, when nearly all the other plants are discarding their bib and tucker, and turning with drooping eyelids towards the long winter sleep.

Because chrysanthemums keep us in the company of flowers during September and October, they number high on my fairly brief list of favorite features of the autumn season. Their sedate, regal progress through the cycle of growth and bloom mirrors the slowing, more peaceful pace that is a second gift of the season. The garden ceases the mad dash that characterized it in spring, as well as the busy, dawn-to-dusk endeavors of summertime, and grows more quiet, contemplative and serene. Resting on the laurels of its high season accomplishments, it envelops the plants, the birds, the bees, and the gardener in welcome respite from continual toil. In autumn the garden folds us to its ample bosom, encourages repose and reflection among its languid and leafy bowers, whispers and hums lullaby-style in place of its bravura choruses of spring.

The colors autumn dons are another of its treasures. Jubilant pink, exclamation-point white, buttercup yellow and bold-boy blues give way to warm, firelight, harvest tints, the tawny garments of the garden wardrobe. Autumn is the color of honey, of burnished copper along the fringes of the peony and red oak leaves, and lavender-mint shading in the bird's nest baskets of the closing Queen Anne's lace flowerheads. The colors of spring are youthful exuberance which cannot wait to flaunt itself before our gaze, the colors of autumn are mature, mellow, gentle on the eyes, and reveal themselves in a long, decorous meander across many dappled weeks.

Spring bestows heady rejuvenation in the garden, autumn gives us time. It takes our hand and strolls us unhurried along its dense banks of stippled dune and fountain grasses, rust-red cattails and cabernet sumac, and day by day, layer by measured layer, it delicately paints the deciduous forests through months of sumptuous, molten color. The tree color tour in the northern Midwest is never an event of a single day, weekend or week. It isn't one of nature's all-in-an-instant, cataclysmic occurrences, such as a volcano, earthquake, tornado. The changing of the leaves takes place as a gradually developing acquaintance, beginning with just a brushing of the tree's fingertips at the outermost edges of the crown, then moving downward and inward at a snail's pace across the limbs of the tree. Each day the friendship with color advances by wee increments and deepens, until the ultimate culmination is reached in the tree's full-flung love affair with autumn's brushed reds, golds and chestnut browns.

Weather is the last best facet of autumn for the gardener. Once St. Bartholomew's “cold dew” comes falling nightly round about August 24, even in drought years the garden reclaims a green cast to its foliage and is refreshed. Cool nights averaging in the forties typify September and October, perfect for sleep and windows left open to the freshening air. The days awaken misty, with thin shawls of fog on meadows and hillsides, then warm rapidly into hot, sun-filled afternoons exactly right for dawdling down the shady rows of an apple orchard, plucking the ruby-ripe fruit.

Autumn brings regular, dependable, sometimes quite spectacular rain showers and lightning storms, nature's unequalled fireworks that burn across the long, open horizon of the big lake. Few pleasures can match that of a Great Lakes mighty thunderstorm rolling in, its waterfalls drumming against the rooftop and windowpanes whilst the gardener sits snug and warm at the hearthside, knowing the trees, shrubs, and flora are drinking their fill, soaking up the fresh water that is the garden elixir of life. Autumn weather is the gardener's able assistant, recharging life in the garden and refueling its stores for the months ahead. Thus in its unassuming, slow, lustrous way, autumn returns like a comfortable old friend, bearing its special gifts and making itself very welcome.

September 1, 2009

Two Tomatoes

Two tomatoes, four radishes. Therein is the sum total of fresh produce yielded to date by the small vegetable patch put in this summer. The patch was sown in early June with one row each of seeds of sweet green pepper, radishes and cucumbers, and two six-inch high Early Girl tomato plants. Then along came, according to weather records, the coolest, most rainy Michigan summer in about one hundred years.

The tomato plants gained only about six new inches in upward growth all summer, and each managed to generate only one tomato. These fruits are still smaller than a tennis ball and still green, though one began to show tracings of a pink blush this week, so they should ripen enough for consumption by mid-September. Truth be told, the minimal yield and growth probably cannot be blamed solely upon the weather, although that did play its inauspicious part. Three doors down the block, my neighbor's tomato plants stand a much healthier four-feet high, with lots of tomatoes, albeit also small and still stubbornly green. The neighbor fertilized her seedlings, I alas did not, mistakenly trusting in nature and composted manure to feed them sufficiently, and having a reluctance to introduce and use foreign chemicals, even organic ones, in the garden.

The bell peppers sprouted, and tiny sprouts they remain to this day, apparently having decided this was all the maturation they could or would accomplish under the cool, cloudy skies. The cucumbers initially showed great promise, sprouting within a couple days of seeding and developing into a leafy, healthy row of young plants with plenty of yellow flowers. Beyond the surge of those first weeks they simply stopped, and nary even a single cucumber has emerged.

As for the radishes, the plants bounded up, green and thick with leaves, put forth a sweet display of soft pink flower heads, and then bolted straight into seed production while the nascent radishes beneath the soil got no bigger than a fingernail and no wider than a pencil. My guess (and that's all it is since my agriculture know-how is obviously sorely lacking), is that the row should have been thinned rather radically at the sprout stage to give those left more elbow room, as it were, and as advised on the seed packet instructions. I'm cowardly and disinclined when it comes to culling eager young sprouts, and did not do so. The four little radishes salvaged, cleaned up and eaten had a great, pungent and pronounced flavor, but taken together added up to not even a whole mouthful. As far as this first foray into vegetable gardening goes, let's just say it's very fortuitous farmer's markets abound in these northern Michigan parts.

Every year without fail or hesitancy, Mother Nature redesigns the garden laid out for the summer, sometimes in ways to the gardener's liking, sometimes decidedly not. In the present season, besides stunting the vegetables in their infancy, her less favored, wholesale, scatter-shot propagation ran to invasive ground pine throughout the plot, from woodchip-covered unplowed ground to flower beds; the apparent assassination of half a dozen of last year's hardy (ha!) chrysanthemums; spotted knapweed, white campion, common mullein and tough-as-nails weed grasses everywhere; and the self-seeding replication of one variegated sage into a half-dozen new plants, volunteering round and about the flower bed that formerly housed most of the chrysanthemum victims.

On the plus side, to give her due credit, Mother Nature took kindly to the bunches of extraneous lavender flowers pruned off last August and spread about the yard as green mulch, giving the garden this summer a dozen or more new, surprise lavender plants now on the go, and viable enough for transplanting to any bed or container which could use filling out. Likewise, nature brought the garden random new outcroppings of pretty little snow-in-summer and violas; ten or twelve big, confident, flower-bedecked stands of the always beguiling, olden-times evocative Queen Anne's lace; a half-dozen or so plants of the late summer showgirl, black-eyed Susan; and a real plethora of decorative hoary alyssum and ox-eye daisies. A watchful eye does need to be kept on these wildflower volunteers, as given their breeding habits they are but the thin edge of the wedge, and allowed half a chance and a free hand, will gladly migrate and reproduce throughout the whole yard, becoming a bit too much of an otherwise mostly good thing.

The British gardener and writer Hugh Johnson has said, “no two days are the same in one garden.” To forestall disappointment, a similar expectation really ought to inform our approach to each new season in the garden, wherein the standouts and fond companions of last year may or may not return for another fine go-round in subsequent summers. The garden is, after all, just a microcosm of the beautiful, ephemeral, temporal Earth we inhabit, nothing here is permanent nor certain except constant change. Every summer surely brings losses to the garden, false starts and failures. Fortunately for the gardener, it just as surely bestows gains, surprise packages and unexpected success stories. And that's what keeps the gardener pulling on the tattered old straw hat, hitching up the dungarees, and heading out to get down, dirty and atwirl with nature, year after year.

August 20, 2009

Pack Mule Season

It is only the middle of August and it's already begun. Truthfully, it goes on all year except when the garden is under snow, but August through November marks the apogee. Summer's end days up to first snowfall is the season when the gardener's job most closely resembles that of a pack mule.

Cutting back and away the greying lavender blooms, spent Shasta and Ox-Eye daisies, yellowing stalks of phlox, delphinium and daylilly, seeded heads of coreopsis. Loading up the wheelbarrow with all the wilting detritus, and trundling it through several trips across the uneven ground of the neighborhood green space to a wild woodlot where it can be dumped out of sight among the thickets of brush, and maybe start a wildflower patch in a spot that actually is wild. Re-loading the wheelbarrow with sacks of composted manure to feed and replenish the beds where bulbs, peonies, iris and creeping phlox are gathering strength and nutrition for next year. Trucking fresh mounds of cypress mulch to smarten-up bare patches and give protection to the soil cover of perennials. The larger and more productive a garden is, the greater will be the number of gardener's hours of slog and hack and haul, from summer straight through the autumn.

Clearing away and fall bulb planting just do not confer anywhere near the same measure of enjoyment as do the laying in and sowing of spring and early summer. The latter is a labor of love, the former a drudgery carried out with an achy-breaky heart. The payoff that end-of-season garden work will yield (apart from a more spic and span appearance), is in the far distant future of next year. The gardener is embarked upon a rather melancholy reduction of garden companions, a long-drawn series of goodbyes for another whole year to each species as it finishes its turn before the footlights, and segues from glowing energy to a bedraggled demise. The best days in the garden – the childlike optimism of spring and the cornucopia bounty of summer – have waned, the prospect of the garden's annual disappearance into winter hibernation looms upon the horizon.

Each year since planted six summers ago, pruning the lavender plants alongside the front walks has become a more onerous task. Begun as six seedlings, each about the size of my forearm, they have annually grown so luxuriantly as to now form almost a continuous shrubbery on either side of the walk for nearly 20 feet in length, 3 feet in width, 2 feet in height, generating tons of flowers every season. Completely self-sufficient and drought-indifferent since their one-year birthday, each late summer (well before any slightest possibility of a damaging fall of frost), they are pruned back by the recommended one-third of their greenery. This must needs be done to stimulate next year's fresh leafing-out and flowering.

The last couple years, the pruning has been more like half the bushy growth, just to prevent the lavender from totally obliterating the sidewalk and nearby companion plantings. One is not supposed to cut into the leafless “old wood” of the lavender trunks, on pain of possible death of the plant, but the gnarled and thickened wood now stretches up and out about a foot from the ground on these plus-size specimens. Perhaps the season will come when the proportion of woodiness exceeds the foliage and flowers, and they will have to be excised and replaced. I don't believe there is any means of keeping lavender from eventually going this route, as how could one stop a shrubby plant's trunk from increasing in density and size while it is alive and growing?

The rudbeckia Prairie Sun sown in seed in June have attained only about 6 inches in height this cool, rainy year, they may not reach flowering stage before the killing frosts descend. And another source of heartache, the dratted deer passed through night before last and ate all the at-peak flowers and the buds on the hybrid roses and the daylillies. They caught me unawares, after rainfall had washed the plants clean of sprayed deer repellent.

Thank the stars and planets for the Russian sage, ornamental grasses and the chrysanthemums during summer's diminishment. The sage is a 6-foot spray of long, lilac plumage, and bears a honey-spice fragrance more pleasing and less earthy than other sages. From now until winter, the miscanthus grasses, blue oat grass and switchgrass are in their glory, full, covered in feathery fronds, capturing and refracting the watery rainbow shafts of northern Michigan coastal light and shadow. The mums, in tints of ochre, cotton candy, burgundy, eggshell white and burnished gold, are just now beginning to peek open their flower buds. That's why I love chrysanthemums so, the rare flower that holds its promise close to the chest until ready for August-September delivery.

Chrysanthemums are the last chapter in the big, multi-layered, beloved novel of the garden. The revelations and tying up given in this final chapter are savored, but the end page is still approached with the sadness of knowing that soon it will all be over and the cover closed. But for now, even with the bale hauling, the garden is still a very good read.

August 10, 2009

Paean to the Daylilly

This is the summer of the large, completely smitten crush on daylillies. While always appreciated as reliable, hard-working border dwellers, this year they've knocked my socks off and given me new, heightened affection and awe. Perhaps because this year there was no offsite day job keeping me absent during the hours when their blooms spread wide to the sun and look most splendid. Being and working in the garden pretty much daily also meant spent blooms got deadheaded as soon as finished, letting the lillies stay comely and flush with only fresh flowers. And then there is the dizzying number of choice new hybrids.

The tiger lillies initiated my new-found dotage. Halting me in my tracks at the local nursery, three of the striking tall soldiers, with backwards-curving tangerine petals handsomely dotted over in chocolate spots (and why they aren't leopard rather than tiger lillies, I do not know), were promptly scooped up and brought to a new home under my front windows, among a bed of various cousins of the species. At once exotic, warm and impeccably beautiful, their sequentially flowering multiple buds kept up a continuous parade of new flowers from mid-July straight through to last week.

Rewarded daily with the on-going bursts of plush color and perfect posture of the tiger lillies, I was hooked. Subsequent trips to the nursery found me purposefully seeking out the lilly stock, discovering and bringing home several additional new, lovely hybrids – Pandora's Box, Strawberry Candy, Casa Blanca – in mouthwatering tints of cream, buttermilk, plum, peach, raspberry.

The earliest recorded mention of daylillies occurs in the writings of Confucius, some 500 years before Christ. Originally a wild flower of the Orient and Syria, lillies lend themselves so readily to hybridization and replication that there are now tens of thousands of varieties available, with millions of diverse, sumptuous color combinations, from the bold to the gossamer. Some hybrids like Stargazer and Casa Blanca have perfumes so rich and decadent they can waft scent across yards of space. In the first half of the 1900s in the U.S., daylillies were regarded as rather common and called “ditch lillies,” for their sturdy workhorse habit of naturalizing on roadsides, on the banks of creeks and ponds, across fields and untended urban lots.

Daylillies will thrive in a huge spectrum of climates, from south Florida to northern Canada. They are rugged, endlessly versatile, and so adaptable as to fare excellently in sandy soil or clay, inner city or countryside, waterside or in droughty regions. They do best with 4 to 6 hours of sunshine daily, turn their faces toward the direction of the sunlight (something to be mindful of when deciding where to place them in the garden), and welcome a bedding of compost after flowering and in autumn. They don't want fertilizing – which can actually render them more susceptible to disease – are naturally quite pest- and disease-resistant, and don't require supplemental watering once their first growing season is past. Further, they boast the desirable naturalizing habit of spreading at the plant crown, sending up new fans of leaves beside existing ones. The many cultivars offer blooming season that can extend from early summer through fall frosts, as well as everlasting bloom varieties that keep flowering all summer long. Even when not in flower, the hillocks of slender green leaf blades of the mounding-type lilly add attractiveness to the garden.

“The Daylily, a Guide for Gardeners,” is a big, thorough and loving volume by John Peat and Ted Petit, from Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. It can school gardeners in all knowledge needed to grow daylillies, it rapidly recruits the reader into the fan club for this strappy, solid, beauteous performer, and the coffee-table size book astonishes with the scores of photos of many incredible, extant varieties in all their undeniable glamor. Present day incarnations of the daylilly have come a very long way indeed from holding the position of drab scullery maid of the garden. Some of the frilled, narrow-petal hybrids, such as Crocodile Smile, Thin Man, and Wild Child, resemble the most extraordinary, sensational of orchids in their colors and elegant shapes.

Evidently, once could go on expanding a daylilly collection endlessly, certain to run out of space long before exhausting even a fraction of possible superb choices. Now there is a thought to warm the cockles of the heart of a gardener in the midst of a summer of daylilly love.

July 23, 2009

How to Look at the Garden

July is the month when a legal guardian or conservator really ought to accompany me on trips to the garden nursery, ostensibly to restock compost and mulch supplies, and deer repellent (which must be restocked with great frequency in northern Michigan gardens). Would that I could make it in and out of the nursery with purchases only of core gardening supplies. I cannot.

In any season, my instinctual response to entering a garden shop is akin to that of a child in an old-fashioned penny candy store, where peppermint sticks and licorice whips, hot-pepper gumballs, slo-poke all-day suckers, sophisticated candy cigarettes, love-bead candy necklaces, ruby red wax lips with soda pop filling, sour lemon drops and other delectables line the shelves in big glass jars. Substitute for the candies arrays of snapdragons, lillies, yarrow, dianthus pinks, convulvulus, and so forth ad infinitum, and essentially I want one of those, and those, and those – oh, what the dickens, just one of everything! Quicker than a skinny minute, I can divest myself of the entire contents of my wallet on plant purchases that, while infatuating, often fall short of being wise.

July is not the best month to buy potted plants. Many will have become root-bound and exhausted from being stuck in pots for a couple of months, many already will have peaked in blooming. It's too early for the penny-wise benefits of end-of-summer price mark-downs. It is the month, though, when the gardener is perhaps most seriously tempted to splurge, because it's when vacancies in the garden plot become most apparent. The fulsomeness of the spring-flowering bulbs is spent, and the high summer season of flowering has reached whatever apex it is likely to attain this year, thus laying bare to the discerning eye whatever gaps, gaffes and failures there may be in the beds and borders.

However large, mature and resilient the garden output may be, it is those disappointing gaps the gardener somewhat obsessively tends to focus upon. The bee balm may have grown to five feet this year, the lillies and iris may have generously multiplied their numbers, the reliable Russian sage has come back for another vigorous outing. But still, last year's alyssum didn't re-seed itself, the columbines returned only thinly and flagging, the limerock coreopsis and several chrysanthemums seem to have disappeared altogether. In the land of Michigan's punishing winters, on a sandy, wind-whipped, lakeshore plot, with nightly visits from forever foraging deer, every summer dishearteningly reveals fatalities and terminal wounds among the garden's rank and file. The garden shop offers so many tantalizing options for potential new plant recruits, so many dreams of more, bigger, fuller, better.

July is the month to keep firmly in mind that nature laughs when the gardener makes plans. And it's the time to look at the garden in its entirety, seeing and appreciating it whole, not just zeroing in on the sore spots. July is the month to revel in how far the garden has come, to touch, smell and really see the successes, decked in their best splendor, to hear the rustle and bustle of dozens of bees in the lavender spires, the back and forth soft tympany of summer breezes at play in the tall quaking aspen.

An excellent means of elevating the sensual enjoyment of the summer garden, and minimizing its flaws, is to sit right down upon the ground in its midst. This angle of repose puts the gardener right at eye level with the garden's best display of bloom and architecture. Seated on the warm earth, the line of sight goes not downward from above, but outward to the surrounding company. To sit right among the plants, shoulder to shoulder, side by side with the flower heads, branches and leafy torsos of the garden is like drawing up a chair at a banqueting table with a large, colorful, engrossing congerie of friends in every direction you look. Remember the feeling of complete, bone-deep contentment you got as a child, when laying in a grassy meadow on a sunny summer day? It's like that. The senses will be filled, the blank spaces barely noticed.

The gardener will still, doubtless, commit the sins of lust and covetousness at the nursery. Plant and garden love is an incurable affliction, once it works its wiles upon the heart. But looking at the garden from a seat at its summer-laden board could help instill a little more restraint and wise choosing into the inevitable purchasing process. One can but hope.

July 13, 2009

Color Scheme

One spring day walking home and, as I approached the house, contemplating and critiquing the front garden as I am wont to do whenever it is within view, I was startled to see that the whole front garden was awash in waves of blue and violet flowers. This startled me because I'd not planned nor specifically plotted a blue-toned garden.

Cool shadings of color are not what come to mind in my daydreams of the idyllic cottage garden. The dream garden is painted in delicate, gauzy cream, butter yellow, pastel peach and apricot, Necco wafer colors, nursery colors, with here and there judicious splashes of apple red. If a blue were envisioned in the dream scheme, it would be an ethereal, barely-there powder blue. Any more declarative blue I'd have judged, in theory, not to my taste, not my gardening style.

Yet there the front garden stood, adorned from left to right in frank, summer-sky blue, teal, navy blue, lavender, lilac, plum and deep purple. A blue-toned garden, planted by yours truly.

This came about because the garden plantings were chosen for their shape, structure, flowering time, scent, deer-proofness, popularity with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, or just plain old nostalgic associations. Nothing was really chosen on the basis of its location on the color wheel, except the Russian sage in the back garden and the roses. The plantings were not all acquired and incorporated at once, either, in a grand and well-thought out design, but rather were accumulated little by little over the years, as money and inclination dictated. Certainly I knew the color of the flowers as each plant was brought home to be enrolled in the garden. Taken individually, the thinking went something like, hmm, a cerulean lupine, not my first choice of color, but how very good-looking!

And so it went. Lupines, violas, Canadian violets, alliums, mountain bluet centauria, lilacs, denim blue penstemon, lavender-colored chives, and velvet-robe purple Siberian iris. Stopping on the front walk, taking in the whole serendipitous blue picture painted across the late May garden, I really, really liked it. Part of the affection was simply gratitude to these perennials for continuing to come back to the garden each summer, surviving the tough, long haul through the northwestern Michigan winters, as some of the fairer-complexioned plants (columbines, gaura bee blossom, bleeding hearts, primroses) couldn't manage to do.

There are other colors I thought I'd forbid from my garden. Hot orange, neon pink, sunlight-sharp yellows once daffodil season had passed. Yet orange glows like a fireball from the daylillies at the foot of the white pines, and beneath the front windows reside mandarin-orange tiger lillies I'm currently madly in love with. The shout-pink of the creeping phlox cheerleads the garden into its first slap-happy springtime outburst, and shortly thereafter, a blood-orange and ripe-lemon petalled pyrethrum painted daisy unfurls razzle-dazzle smiles.

The moral of the story of color in the garden is that all colors work together in lovely harmony, for me. In practice, as opposed to best-laid plans, every color brings added visual value to the garden. Tints of every stripe gayly rub shoulders with one another, extending and expanding the interest, the attractiveness, the eye-candy richness of the garden. It seems there's no such thing as colors that clash in nature's paintbox. On the contrary, when it's a question of color in the garden, the more and various, the merrier and more convivial the garden fellowship becomes.

July 3, 2009

Splendid Shrubs for Michigan Gardens

When heavy-muscled storm clouds envelop the blue skies, and rain falls in foggy mists and sweeping showers for several days running, it is a chance to pause in the continual summer chores of the garden and assess how it is getting on. Among the various categories of plants that make up the perennial occupants of the garden, the shrubs flanking its boundaries and softening the front aspect of the house annually bring to the garden more density, height, color and scent. There are seven types of shrub, of the 15 or so I've planted in my garden, that can be wholeheartedly recommended for northwestern Michigan gardens.

Common farmyard lilacs in lavender, pink or white are a low-maintenance, fast-growing choice that never fail to please with their May offerings of wonderfully scented flowers. Lilac hedgerows naturalized into the wild grow all over the fields, country cemeteries, roadsides and former farm homesteads in this region, testifying to their adaptability and suitability for the hefty seasons and weathers. When in bloom, their scent pervades the air for miles through countryside and village. Picking the fragrant flowers for bouquets actually encourages lilacs to develop more flower buds for the following year. In the private garden, the flowers and the healthy forest-green foliage that stays intact late into fall give much benefit with very little care.

Forsythia likewise is exceptionally hardy, shoots rapidly upward once rooted in a sunny spot, and literally covers itself from stem to stern in merry, early springtime, sunshine-yellow flowers. The flower fragrance is clean, light and fresh, smells like springtime itself. The branches can be cut while in bud and forced into bloom indoors, long before anything else in the garden is display-ready. With regularly freshened water, the flowering branches will hold up well for a couple of weeks. If forsythia is pruned for shape and to remove dead or crossing branches after the flowers finish in spring, it redoubles its growth and flowering the next year.

Three types of shrub in the garden share the crown for being absolutely no-fuss, no-muss standout performers. Unlike hollies, bayberry, butterfly bush and elderberry which all have late-arriving, short-lived, summertime-only leafage, these three leaf out in early spring and stay foliage-full and beautiful throughout autumn. Unlike the slowpoke shasta and onondaga viburnums, they grow very rapidly, gaining a couple of feet in height and width each year. They all have lovely flowers and gentle scents. The three queens are the diablo ninebark, with rich burgundy leaves and clusters of seashell-pink flowers; the American high bush cranberry, with beautiful green foliage tipped by dark red that turns to flame-red in the fall, and cherry-red berries much loved by the birds; and the snowmound spirea, with some of the thickest, dark green foliage found anywhere in the shrub world, and cascades of sweet-smelling, late May, snowdrift-white blossoms.

The Chicago lustre viburnum, contrary to its dwarfish, hip-spreading cousins in the viburnum family, is an upright, handsome fellow who branches tall and fan-like. It always appears extremely well-groomed, with or without pruning, due to an unusually orderly, straight up, no-nonsense growth pattern, symmetrically veined and clamshell-shaped, precisely defined leaves, and very tight, neat little bundles of flowers in antique ivory. Not showy or flamboyant, it is straightforward, reliable and sturdy. It finishes off its annual strapping-fellow season with clusters of indigo berries.

Lastly let us sing the praises of the flowering quince. The tapered oval, grass-green leaves grow thick and glossy from first of May – no barren, spindly grey branches here to despoil the verdant spring landscape. The quince grows upward and outward in profligate ardor, very rapidly offering the deep thicket of branches that birds adore for nesting. It's got that unbeatable, hardy shrub resilience which, after the first year, releases the gardener from care and responsibility and does just superbly, thank you, all on its own stock. Best of all, it puts on a perfectly dazzling, citrus-honey scented princess gown of apricot flowers (or cream or cotton-candy pink, depending on variety), in late May, from head to toe. The wealth of bright and frilly flowers are a show-stopper, a fireworks explosion of color joyfully ushering in a new summer.

The landscaper Vanessa Kuemmerle, of Emeryville California, said, “A garden is like having an art museum outdoors, with constantly rotating exhibits and a living palette.” Shrubs raise the backbone and square the shoulders of the garden paintings. They contribute a feast of color to the scene, and strength and longevity in a setting where much else is all too transient and fly-by-night.