Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Roses with French Names

Roses are pretty and cottagey, but it is the fragrance that attracts me. In June, my Terese Bugnet covered itself in blossoms perfumed with the perfect rose scent. It’s continued to bloom sporadically and delight my nose over the course of the summer. I have enjoyed its perfume so much that I’m currently researching other, heavily fragrant roses to add to my garden. I welcome any suggestions! (Yves Piaget is a heavy contender for the new rose bed.)

Friday, August 26, 2005

Black-Eyed Susan Vine

I grew black-eyed susan vine from seed this year. The vine is no relative of the traditional black-eyed susan, Rudbeckia, but a warm season, annual vine. I ordered the “Blushing Susie” variety from Park’s and planted all 10 seeds in a rectangular planter.

In March, as I waited for the seeds to sprout, I found full grown BES vines for sale at a local nursery. They were already clambering up the small trellises inserted in their pots and covered in cheery flowers. I smugly noted the $12 price tag and congratulated myself for being clever enough to grow 10 for $2.50.

Seven of the ten seedlings sprouted in late spring. Once we were safely past our last frost, I set the container outside and adorned it with a large trellis. I was underwhelmed by the growth rate. At last, by July, one of the plants had climbed halfway up the trellis and began to bloom. Quite unlike the vine pictured on the Park’s website, my single vine showed only a bloom or two at a time. (They also failed to “blush.") Disappointed, I vowed to never plant this vine again.

Meanwhile, I had become disgusted with the morning glory I had planted in a birdcage on the deck and ripped it out. In its place, I transplanted a black-eyed susan vine, plucked from the end of the row of plants in the original container. It took off, quickly covering the cage. It is now blooming almost as profusely as promised.

The vines in the original container have reached the top of the trellis. There are no more blooms. No vine, other than the first, has shown a sign of flowering. Now, though, I think the fault is mine.

I was so eager to create a lush, flower-covered trellis, that I did not observe the plant spacing as directed on the seed packet. Because I over-planted the container, the vines were too crowded to develop properly and bloom. The plant that I removed and gave its own pot is proof of how much happier this vine is with more space. It grew faster and is blooming more heavily. I may grow black-eyed susan vine again, but I will be sure to follow the spacing instructions next time.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Not Chinese Lantern

Besides the occasional corn or bean plant grown for a science class, this winter was the first time I grew plants from seed. I followed the winter-sowing advice on Gardenweb, but I planted my containers a little late, in February. Nevertheless, everything but the delphinium sprouted. Although I used a top-grade potting soil, I also had quite a few weeds sprout. In some containers, it was hard to tell which seedlings were weeds and which were my desired flowers.

My Chinese lantern container was a wild success. It was full of green growing things. I picked out the oddballs as weeds and nurtured the remaining plants. In the spring, I transplanted them into a pot sunken in my sun bed. (Chinese lantern, Physalis, can be very invasive.) Only two plants survived the move. They were ugly cusses, but I held on to the vision of gay orange laterns brightening my Halloween porch. When the blooms appeared, I became a little suspicious of the plants' identity, so I looked up photos of Physalis blooms online. It turns out that I've been coddling a couple of weeds.

Quite serendipitously, my neighbor invited me over last night to identify a plant with "balloon flowers" in her yard. I recognized it as Chinese lantern. True to its invasive nature, it was a pest in her yard. I told her of my failure to grow this very plant from seed and she immediately yanked one up and gave it to me. If it lives, I'll have some fall color on my porch after all.


I was weeding my sun bed when I caught a familiar scent and was flooded with memories of summers at my Grandma Cookie's house. I followed my nose to the bloom of a butterfly bush. The panicles have a dusty, faintly floral odor. Then, I realized that the bush I had always thought of as a lilac in my grandmother's backyard was a butterfly bush - a name I had never heard until this spring, when I began my gardening adventure.

Putting a new name to my grandmother's flowering bush made sense of my memories. First of all, the "lilac" bloomed in July, when we were visiting over our summer vacation. Second, I don't believe I've ever smelled an actual lilac until this May, when Miss Kim knocked my socks off. Had Grandma Cookie's enormous butterfly bush been a lilac, the whole neighborhood would have been saturated in its perfume.

I paid little or no attention to garden plants when I was young, but I am surprised by how much I remember of my grandmother's yard. Besides the butterfly bush, the back yard was also home to an apple tree that yielded a crop of wormy apples each year. I was always struck by how ugly that tree was, with its secondary branches extending straight into the air from the limbs, as if it were a frightened cat. Outside of the front door, which we rarely used, an enormous holly occupied most of the yard. It persisted in growing over the sidewalk and scratching any pedestrians who dared pass by. Most of all, though, I remember the patch of mint and lemon balm she grew beneath the kitchen window. I often plucked a lemon balm leaf, crushed it, and inhaled its lemony fragrance. She grew the mint to deter ants, but they made their highways through her kitchen anyway.

I haven't been thrilled with my butterfly bush this year. Until it matures and gains some height, my garden looks a little lopsided. Rather than attracting hords colorful butterflies, I've seen only cabbage whites. I was hoping for a fragrant bloom, but the scent is very faint. However, now that I recognize its kinship with my grandmother's "lilac" bush, it has endeared itself to me. Every time I smell its dusty fragrance, I recall plucking blooms from my Grandma Cookie's bush and placing them in tiny vases on the kitchen windowsill. I imagine the ache from a day spent riding horse with my best friend, Melissa. I remember the smell of the annual burning of the mint fields. I relive the many summers I spent in Junction City, Oregon. Some plants have a place in our landscape simply for the memories.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Plants By Mail

I’m by no means a veteran of mail-ordering plants. This spring, I ordered my first plants from Park’s. I’ll admit, I had visions of a Park’s van pulling up to the house and unloading 1-gallon potted plants from the back end. Go ahead and laugh, I was hopelessly naïve. I’ve now placed and received, two orders from Park’s and one from Mulberry Creek. The following is a plant-by-plant review. None of them arrived in a nursery truck.

Clematis jackmanii: ordered from Park’s. It arrived via USPS in a cardboard box, cushioned with styrofoam peanuts. The three plants were in 2 inch pots. The plants themselves were between 3 and 8 inches high. The tall plant (8”) lost its top half from the shipping trauma. I planted them in the early spring. Two are doing well, between 3 and 4 feet tall now, and one is much smaller, but it looks healthy. I bought these from Park’s because I was impatient and the home improvement stores/nurseries didn’t have clematis yet (March). I was sorry when all the 1 gallon clematis started showing up for little more than the price of a 2-inch pot! Bottom line: be patient and buy all of your clematis locally, in one-gallon containers.

Trumpet vine “Indian summer”: ordered from Park’s. It arrived with the clematis and also in 2 inch pots. They looked like dead sticks with roots. Because there were no leaves, there wasn’t much to be damaged. I planted them with the clematis. They didn’t leaf out until May or so, but have taken off like gangbusters since then. I’ve seen trumpet vine only rarely in the nurseries and it has always looked bedraggled. Bottom line: I’m very happy with my trumpet vine from Parks. Maybe it will bloom next year?

Elfin Thyme: ordered from Mulberry Creek. It came via USPS. Each of the four 3-inch pots was cushioned inside a cardboard tube. The plants were very healthy upon arrival. The nursery included a helpful, and amusing, sheet on adjusting my new babies to life outside the box. The thyme is in the ground and spreading. It surprised me by blooming this year. The price was also good ($4/each). Bottom line: Mulberry Creek makes me wish I was more of an herb gardener.

Heliotrope: ordered from Park’s. It arrived via USPS in a box cushioned with accordion folds of cardboard. The plants were not in pots, but rooted in a growing sponge (1 ½” diameter). The plants looked extraordinarily healthy and two were even blooming. A note from the grower (not Park’s, which is a distributor) was included on the proper care and planting of plants grown in a sponge. The health of these plants was a great contrast to the delphinium I was to receive next from Park’s (alas, must have been a different grower). Bottom line: I was silly to buy an annual online. I could have bought heliotrope at the nursery that was three times the size and the same price. I should have shopped around first.

Delphinium: Ordered from Park’s. It arrived via USPS in a box with the styrofoam peanuts and in 2-inch pots, again. Upon unpacking, two plants looked dead (no foliage) and two were on the verge of death. I planted all four and the last two promptly died. I complained and Park’s gave me store credit. Bottom line: I was grateful for the Park's guarantee, and I may try again, as the local delphinium selection is very slim.

I’ll soon have more plants to review. I’m waiting on a few shrubs (hardy gardenia, mock orange, and two varieties of hydrangea) and a vine (hardy jasmine) from Park’s. I should also mention that Park’s has had some problems with its suppliers. The heliotrope was delayed a few months and the jasmine, although ordered in March, isn’t scheduled to ship until September. The Park’s delays prompted me to try a new mail order nursery, Van Dyck’s. I’ll have updates on the Van Dyck’s plants this spring.

Although I’ve been disappointed by the bruised or dead plants I’ve received, it is pretty amazing that they live through the postal service at all. From what I’ve seen, some sort of cardboard bracing protects the plants best. I still think a superior product would come from the back of a dedicated truck, but I suppose it is a long trip from South Carolina (Park’s Garden’s home) to Cincinnati, OH.

I Like 'Em Bright!

My neighbor has a lovely garden. The front is themed in pink and purple. Her front yard is semi-shady, and the pink, purple, and white flowers look cool and creamy against the green. I, on the other hand, favor carnival bright colors and combinations. It isn't just my yard that is full of bright colors. My favorite colors in my wardrobe are fuchsia, lime green, and red (but not all together!). My wedding colors were fuchsia and orange. You can imagine how thrilled I was when my friend announced that her colors would be fuschia, orange, and lime green.

I threw her a shower in late June. For party favors, I planted terracotta pots with plants in her colors. Unfortunately, in my haste to make the other preparations for the party, I didn't get a picture of the potted masterpieces, but I did take a photo of the plants before potting.

After creating the favors, I had extra plants (mostly non-blooming) and I potted them up for myself. Prior to this project, I never would have bought annuals. I considered it a waste of money to purchase plants that would only last one season. However, I am enjoying the shower's leftovers so much, that I'm considering many more containers of annuals next year. I adore the their free flowering habit and the eye-popping colors!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Shopping Spree

I love catalogs. I save them to "reread" again and again. When I'm feeling particularly naughty, I dog-ear the pages with my selections, go online, and embark on a shopping spree. It used to be that these sprees took place at the Gap, Old Navy, Delia's, and Victoria's Secret websites. I've since lost much of my obsession with personal appearances. Instead, I send my money to the online gardening catalogs.

Ordering merchandise has its drawbacks. You can't touch it, feel it, or smell it before you buy it. Shipping costs are sometimes outrageous. However, there is no match for the convenience. Just now, I browsed the paper catalog on the bus and then ordered my plants while dinner was in the oven. I was also able to find a few hard-to-find plants that have been on my wish list.

As you may have deduced, I am fresh from a shopping spree and still feeling a little high. Mr VanDyck will be sending me:

English Bluebells
Hardy Cyclamen
Checkered Lily
Iris pallida 'variegata'
Oriental Poppy 'brilliant'
Foxtail Lilies

Finally, the best part of shopping online is the thrill when your packages arrive. When they contain clothes, I put on an impromptu fashion show. In this case, you'll see me excitedly pacing the yard, making final planting decisions and imagining my new purchases in full bloom.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The North Corner

The north corner of the back yard is particularly ugly. It is very shady and the heavy soil is nearly soaked all year. Needless to say, no grass survives there, but even the weeds are having trouble. I've gone through a few schemes to renovate the corner. I first considered installing a pond, but most pond plants need bright light. I was also warned against putting a pond in the lowest corner of the yard because the runoff would make it difficult to keep clean. I next considered taking advantage of the area's naturally boggy conditions with a rain garden. Again, though, rain garden plants need light. Another problem with both a pond and rain garden is that I want some height in the corner to obscure the fence and the view of the neighbor's yards.

My latest brainchild is to limb up the trees and build a raised gazebo, surrounded by a shade garden. Then, I'd have the height I desire without worrying about the muddy ground. However, a gazebo requires either a lot of money or my development of some serious carpentry skills (or both). The project is on hold until at least next year, so there is no rush to decide. I have time to gather new ideas or win the lottery.

While poking about the north corner last night, I discovered a lovely surprise. This ugly, spreading tree has the most enchanting pink flowers (although unscented). It isn't flowering heavily, probably due to years of neglect. If I could identify it, I could try to improve its health or even take a cutting for elsewhere in the yard.

Perhaps the north corner has potential after all.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Itchy and Scratchy

I have contributed significantly to the world’s mosquito population. There have been thousands (perhaps even millions) of mosquito eggs nourished with my blood. This summer alone, despite precautions, I’ve been bit at least 100 times. I know mosquitoes are a valuable part of our ecosystem. Both the males and females pollinate flowers. The fish eat the larvae and birds eat the adults. I don’t mind their buzzing around my face or even sharing a bit of my blood, but the itchy bites drive me mad.

I’m a mosquito magnet. I’ve got sweet, tasty blood. I’ve been pursued by mosquitoes and dealt with the consequences my whole life. When I was young, I developed a special method for scratching mosquito bites without breaking the skin; I’d scratch around the bite. The itch was mostly soothed, and I wasn’t a mess of scabs, like my sister Tabitha. She would scratch them until they bled, but at least they stopped itching. My friend Ryan has another method for dealing with the itch. He drives the end of his fingernail into the bite until a crease is left in his skin. Then, he rotates his finger ninety degrees and makes a second crease, crossing the first, and creating an “X.” He claims that this ends the itch. I've tried it, but remain unconvinced of the cross method. This summer, I am so often covered in marble-sized, itchy bumps, that I’ve given up on scratching around them or making crosses. I just reach down, pull up my pant leg, and scratch away. Yes, it’s is unladylike. Yes, I bleed. I can’t help it. I am just so damn itchy.

I keep hydrocortisone cream at work and another tube at home. I apply it often. The effect is mostly a placebo. I must continue to believe that it works. Even if it doesn’t, applying the cream helps me to stay occupied when the itchies strike. I'd rather rub placebo cream onto my bites than sit rigidly in my chair, biting my cheeks in an effort not scratch myself raw. When I do absentmindedly scratch, I am reminded not to when I encounter the sticky residue the cream leaves on my skin.

The key is not to be bitten in the first place. Staying inside is not an option. Neither is long sleeves, pants, or (horror!) shoes and socks. Every evening, before gardening, I apply my invisible but smelly mosquito shield of bug spray. I apply it in coats, like nail polish, waiting for each application to dry before beginning the next. I am sure to spray skin that might be revealed as I garden, such as my upper thigh and lower back. Still, I’m bitten.

My second level of defense is After Bite. It is a stinky, ammonia solution that, when applied to the bite very soon after it is received, prevents an itchy welt from developing. I carry it with me, in my gardening apron, and apply it almost immediately, with good results.

I usually miss a bite or two, and by the time I’ve retired to the house and began to leaf through a gardening book, they’ve developed into hot, itchy lumps. (I have a seriously unattractive reaction to mosquito bites. They look especially fetching with cellulite.) I keep the hydrocortisone within arms reach and plaster myself with it.

I’m told that this year is a particularly bad one for mosquitoes. Just my luck: a cicada explosion last year and man-eating mosquitoes this year. I suppose it’ll be locusts in 2006. The mosquitoes, along with the humid, sticky weather, make me eager for the first frosts of fall, even though it marks the decline of the growing season. Die, mosquitoes, die!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Saw Master

I’m a fraidy cat. First, I was afraid of my new jig saw, then my sewing machine, then the heat gun. Eventually, I overcame my fears to learn to use each of them and complete projects. In May, I bought a circular saw on Ebay to use in various home renovation/maintenance projects (e.g. the new kitchen counter). After its arrival, the saw sat in its USPS box for weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to open it because I was afraid of the saw. I imagined that, when plugged in, it would take on a life of its own, like the car in Christine. It might leap from my hands, intent on severing a finger or fatally cutting an artery in my thigh. At the very least, I was afraid that I would injure myself through my own incompetence. A visit to showmeyourwound.com only intensified my fears. The saw stayed in its box.

Finally, our immovable attic access doors became so annoying that Mike and I unpacked the saw and attempted to put it together. (After the carpet was installed, the access doors no longer had enough clearance to open.) The blade had been removed from the saw and shipped with it. With no instructions and no prior experience with circular saws, we attempted to install the blade. After much arguing about the direction in which the blade should spin, we managed a test run on a piece of scrap wood. I was surprised by how much noise it made, and wary should the saw become demonically possessed and veer towards my limbs. Deafened, but whole, we moved on to trimming the access doors and almost finished the first one when we realized that we had not correctly installed the blade and spacers. Consequently, the blade was cutting far to the right of the guide (and the saw was emitting nasty sparks). We corrected the blade’s positioning and completed the cuts. Feeling quite empowered, I danced around the basement singing “I am the Champion” (after carefully unplugging the saw – you can never be too sure!) A few of the attic doors are crooked or ragged at the bottom, but they open now.

My next project with the saw was to “repair” the bottom of the garden gate. The bottom edge of the gate looked as if a dog had tried to chew its way out. Cleo, positioning herself under one of the larger bites, could slip under the gate. While Cleo is allowed to roam freely, Tibbs is not. I imprisoned him in the backyard by setting a line of bricks under the gate. This kept Tibbs in, while allowing the gate enough clearance to swing. However, I must have tripped over the bricks dozens of times, stubbing toes in the process.

My solution was to purchase two fence boards and trim them (with my not-so-evil-after-all circular saw!) to the width of the gate. After two coats of white paint, Mike and I screwed them to either side of the gate. The boards conceal the chewed bottom and extend the gate down an inch or so. Taking advantage of a little slave labor, I had Pixie and Mike give the entire gate a final coat of white paint. It looks great and Tibbs is still (mostly) trapped. (He’s recently learned to climb the fence posts and then jump over the wire fencing, but he only does that if I’m on the other side.)

I feel like a heroine with my recently acquired saw mastery. I’m also one step closer to continuing the kitchen renovation. Now, if I could just get over my fear of tiling

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Not Monkshood

Another of my gardening friends gave me “white monkshood” this spring. She has a surplus in her yard and yanked several for me. The plants were nearly rootless and, despite daily and twice-daily waterings, sprawled limply on the ground for the first two weeks after transplanting. They finally took hold and recently sent up flower spikes. As expected, the flowers are white, but they do not resemble monkshood.

Granted, I’ve only seen wild monkshood. From experience, I’ve learned that the garden version of a plant can look vastly different from the wild form (e.g. delphinium). However, I’m fairly sure that these are not aconitum. The flowers lack the distinctive hump that forms the “hood.” Additionally, this plant’s leaves are lance shaped, while monkshood leaves are deeply lobed.

My best guess is that the monkshood is actually a type of penstemon. Just for kicks, I plan on trying to roughly identify it with a plant taxonomy book. (However, the book is for native flora of the Pacific Northwest.) Does the flower look familiar to any readers?

**Update 8/7/05**

The verdict from my post on gardenweb is that this is obedient plant, and probably one of the less invasive varieties. I'll be moving it to the candy cane garden this fall. (It is too short and does not show up against the white house in its present location.)

Daisy Death

I've really enjoyed my Shasta daisies’ bloom. A fellow gardener gave me three plants this spring. I placed them by the front walk where I could view their cheerful blossoms. The plants have bloomed in succession, giving me a long flowering period. Unfortunately, the first two began to die soon after they reached their bloom peak.

When the first plant started browning, I thought I had under-watered it. When additional water didn’t help, I was afraid I had over-watered it. Later, I became convinced that the roots had been fatally disturbed by a mole. Now, the second daisy has begun to die and I've seen no evidence of mole activity. I'm at a loss. The plants seem perfectly happy until they begin to set seed. They exhibit no obvious symptoms, such as pustules, bug infestation, or mildew. They just look like they are drying up.

I my gardening frind and he says it may be a fungus. I’ll admit, I haven't carefully inspected the plants and could have missed a fungal inspection. He says that this summer has been particularly good for fungus (bad for plants).

My third plant is blooming now. I’m afraid that it will also wilt and die soon (like the plant in front of it). Perhaps this picture holds the clue. Has anyone else had a similar experience with Shasta daisies?