Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More on the Eastern Shooting Star

I am very excited to have ignited some interest in shooting stars with my photos of the specimens blooming in my shade garden. I hardly need more of an invitation to rave about this little gem.

My first encounter with the genus (Dodecatheon) was working for the National Biological Service in Yosemite National Park. I participated as a research assistant (through the SCA) on a number of ecological studies, including one on the impact of livestock grazing on the alpine meadows. Dodecatheon jeffreyi (a pink flowering species) was one of the many lovely wildflowers growing in the study sites. This was my first encounter with shooting star and I found them absolutely enchanting. I loved their delicate nature and swept back petals. After the all-too brief alpine spring passed, the blooms disappeared, but I grew very familiar with its fleshy, basal foliage as the summer progressed.

After studying botany on the west coast, eastern wildflowers (and native eastern plants in general) are a whole new ballgame for me. I had no idea that shooting star grew on this side of the Mississippi, and was even more surprised to find that they were white and fragrant. Dodecatheon meadia, Eastern Shooting Star, can actually be lilac, pink, or white. They are in the primrose family and have a fibrous root system. They can be propagated by seed, but you’ll have a long wait (3 years) to see blooms. A better method of propagation is by division. Although my alpine shooting stars grew in the open meadow, under blazing, high-altitude sunshine, the eastern shooting star prefers some shade. The foliage does die back in the summer, so I’ve companion planted with mini-hostas (courtesy of Pam), this year.

I was lucky enough to receive my shooting stars for free, from a portion of Tim’s yard that he plans on renovating. I believe they were self-sown from a plant or two he collected from privately owned land. (Correct me if I’m wrong, Tim.) Many states list the shooting star as rare or endangered, so they should not be generally collected from the wild. It seems that very few nurseries carry this plant. If you find a reputable source, though, I highly recommend it!

*Another reason I love this plant is that the genus name, Dodecatheon, reminds me of the stupid Dodecahedron in the Phantom Tollbooth movie. In fact, that’s how I remembered the name for the meadow study.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Dirty Girl

I’m so stinkin’ dirty. Spring means the dirtiest gardening work: digging and grubbing in the earth. I expect the dirty fingernails, but today, I went to the bathroom at work and discovered a big smear of filth on my bare calf. How can anyone take me seriously when I resemble Pigpen?

I refuse to wear garden gloves, so I constantly have dirt jammed beneath my fingernails and soiling my cuticles. I prefer my flip flops to garden clogs, so my toenails look no better. I actually ended up barefoot for a while yesterday because the wet grass made my flip flops to slick to stand in. Ever try to get dirt out of the rough spots on your hands and feet? I think my calluses are just naturally brown (or they are now). Kneeling in the dirt ensures that my knees and lower legs get nice and muddy. During the day, as I wipe away sweat and brush back errant hairs, I transfer the sticky clay from my hands to my face and neck. I’m pretty sure that I resemble some kind of mud monster with my dirt smeared body and crazy, humidity-frizzed hair.

I really don’t mind the dirt, as long as it stays in the garden. I try to hose off outside and always take my shoes off before stepping over the threshold. What I can’t wash away, I conceal, with closed toe shoes or dark nail polish. I hide my hands at work, and apply regular doses of cuticle oil, hoping to work the last bits of dirt out. In the end, though, I suppose I should wear my dirt proudly, as a gardening badge of honor. It’s just that it’s sort of embarrassing at the monthly staff meeting.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Wildflower Gardener

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about my neighbor, Tim, before. Among the many things I admire about him, is the wildflower garden he maintains in his backyard. It is a wooded, shady plot planted with native wildflowers, from trillium to jack-in-the-pulpit to bloodroot. A visit to Tim’s house almost always involves a trip to the shaded grotto to see something new blooming (and me leaving green with envy).

He obtained much of his stock from the land he owns near Lexington, KY. After hearing endless stories about the property’s charms, I finally got to visit the famed Kentucky get-away over Easter weekend. I left Tim’s land with a newfound appreciation for his dedication to wildflower cultivation.

I thought Tim’s home garden was impressive, but his Kentucky garden is even more so. Yes, Tim’s entire 75 acres of land, from sandstone ridge to limestone rise, is his personal wildflower cultivation zone. I have to admire the patience and fortitude of someone who would pay for wildflowers and then plant them in the middle of the woods, two-and-a-half hours from his house. Unlike the plants that I plant next to my front stoop to visit and coo over daily, Tim may or may not ever see his dainties in bloom again. He takes the gamble in order to perpetuate these natural beauties whose habitat is slowly being eroded elsewhere. The rewards, seeing a population of twinleaf take off and dozens of lady slipper orchids in bloom, must be worth it to him.

We visited too early for the lady slippers, but the crested iris, anemones, chickweed, columbines, violets, and phlox were in bloom. Black and blue cohash were steadily unfurling from the forest floor. Trillium were excitedly carpeting the hillsides (and trails). The buckeyes and umbrella magnolia were in bud. Over all this, the redbud and dogwoods spread their pink and white canopies.

I don’t know how Tim does it. Not only does he expend the effort to plant in the middle of nowhere, but he also manages to leave it all to come back to the city. I nearly grew roots and planted myself there.

Tim’s Kentucky Hideaway photo set

Friday, April 21, 2006

My Favorite Spot, April 21st

I love my spring shade garden. It is mostly ephemeral. The bleeding hearts, shooting stars, and celandine poppy will completely die back by mid-summer, but, in April, they are freshly green and brightly blooming. They steal center stage while the ferns and hostas are merely emerging nubs. The delicate flowers’ fleeting appearance warrants a nomination as my favorite spot of the week.

As I tucked my newly acquired mini-hostas among my spring delights, the task serendipitously brought me close enough to my shooting stars to detect a light, honey fragrance from the little gems. Not only is this scene pretty, it smells nice!

Adding to the nook’s charm, is the fact that many of the plants were gifts. I am reminded of my gardening friends as I gaze upon my treasures.

The garden will be dominated by hostas, ferns, and toad lilies by summer, but I have an annual reminder of spring’s beauty, fragrance, and generosity.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Cherokee Brave in Bloom

You may remember me grousing about the prices for a Cherokee Brave dogwood last July. I’m sure you’re dying of anticipation to find out whether I purchased one or not and, if I did, how I like it. In fact, I KNOW you’re curious about this tree, because one of the top hits on my blog is “Cherokee Brave dogwood,” second only to the hits for “pictures of girls with hairy legs and armpits.” (I am, unfortunately, not kidding. I actually got fan mail for this posting of an old college essay.)

The follow-up story: I waited until Moeller’s Greenhouse held its “Moeller Days” last August, during which I could redeem the “Moeller Bucks” I had earned over the season. I had 27 Moeller Bucks, which is a telling indication of how much money I spent there last season. (You get $1 for every $10 you spend – and I didn’t get the bucks every time.) I was hoping my tree would be on sale, but it wasn’t. I was committed to buying it, though. I was with my neighbor, Mary, and her SUV and my Moeller Bucks were burning a hole in my pocket; I couldn’t, and didn’t, leave without it. That tree was the single most expensive thing I bought all year. I hoped it would be worth it in the spring. (Perversely, the greenhouse held a big 40% off sale the next weekend. Live and learn, huh? I comfort myself by thinking that the dogwoods were all gone by then.)

All winter, I suspected that the thing was dead. When spring arrived and the temperatures warmed up, I saw no sign of leaves and the flower buds remained tightly closed. By mid-April, I was ready to take the tag back to the nursery for a refund. Over the weekend, I visited my neighbor Tim’s land near Lexington, Kentucky. The dogwoods there were brightening up the woods with their starry, white blooms. It made me sick to look at them thriving while my tree was a dead, rotting, expensive stick.

We returned from our Kentucky trip with trilliums and crested iris from Tim’s property. (The trilliums were growing in the trail and would have been trampled over the season.) I potted them up in the garage and carried them around to the shade on the back deck. As I was moving back and forth, something light caught my attention in a back corner of the yard. This sounds cliché, but I literally did not believe my eyes. I moved closer, and, YES, my dogwood was alive and blooming.

Once I recovered from the shock, I eyed it a bit more critically. Up close, the blossoms are streaked with red, but from a few feet away, this fancy variety does not look much different than the species form of Cornus florida. If anything, the flowers look more yellow, than white or pink, en masse. However, the difference between white and pink flowering dogwoods was only $6. I don’t begrudge that small amount. I’m just so glad that it isn’t dead, so that I don’t feel like a total fool for spending $100 on a single tree.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Rainbow Ends in Ludlow, Kentucky

You can find some very scary people through the internet, but you can find some genuinely nice ones, too! Like any prudent person, I’m wary of meeting people who’ve contacted me through my blog. When Pam wrote me and offered to share some plants, my greed and curiosity got the better of my caution. She turned out to be a sweet, generous, and knowledgeable lady with a heck of a backyard garden.

When I arrived at her house, Pam beckoned me through the gate into her fenced backyard. It was like entering Oz. It is only April, but her garden is already bursting with sparkling Technicolor. The late afternoon sunlight glinted off the pond and highlighted the jewels tucked among rocks and under trees. The center of the garden is occupied by a large apple tree, listing charmingly to one side and wearing the remains of its spring blossoms. To complete the Oz-like effect, garden trolls are hidden throughout the space, peeping at the strange visitor in pink flip-flops.

Thankfully, the apple tree flung no apples at me and the Wicked Witch didn’t fly in from behind a dark cloud. I spent a peaceful hour with Glinda, touring her paradise and loading my laundry basket with divisions. She gifted me with enough mini-hostas to addict me to collecting the diminutive shade lovers. We talked of favorite plants and noxious weeds. We have much in common (e.g. we’re both lazy composters and Outlander fans). I could have stayed much longer, sniffing the evening stock, but I was exhausted from the holiday weekend (and didn’t want to overstay my welcome!). I cheerfully loaded the plants, clicked my heels three times, and headed home. And, yes, I’m still working on getting all those plants in the ground!

Thank you, Pam!

(Click the photo for a tour of Pam’s garden.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Gardening Birthday

Today is my gardening birthday. I’m one year old. From the snobbish way I speak of plastic plants and annuals, you’d think I would be older, but I guess I’m just precocious.

I’ve been interested in plants for as long as I can remember. Over the years, I’ve grown a redwood from seed (it didn’t live long), started wildflowers in ammo boxes (again, didn’t live long), and maintained oodles of houseplants (lived a bit longer, when I didn’t chop them up in a berserker rage). My undergraduate degree is in botany. I spent a summer identifying meadow and forest plants for the National Biological Service in Yosemite. Strangely, though, I’ve never actually “gardened” until last spring.

When trying to determine the actual day I was “born again,” I wasn’t sure which event to use. Did I become a gardener the first time a contemplated a landscape plan? Was I born when I sowed seeds last winter? I made a somewhat arbitrary decision to choose the day that I first planted something in the ground, April 17, 2005. On this day, I planted a sweet bay magnolia and a gardener was born.

I had no idea what I was doing. I did have the wisdom to place the tree at least five feet from the sidewalk and driveway, in anticipation of its future spread. I did not, however, amend the soil. I chopped the dirt up into golf-ball sized chunks (as directed by Gardening in Ohio), but was not yet aware of the need to add manure and peat moss to the heavy clay. Thankfully, I chose a tree that is tolerant of clay soils. It survived the winter and looks as if it will bloom again this June.

Happy Birthday to me!

Friday, April 14, 2006

My Favorite Spot, April 14th

I have to admit, I am still enjoying the front stoop. The hyacinths’ perfume is absolutely intoxicating. I’ve had the good fortune of digging and planting just downwind of them, so I pause every now and then in my heavy labor to sniff and appreciate. Hyacinths aside, it’s time to move on to another favorite spot in the garden.

Like last spring, I’m enchanted by the green freshness of the strip of garden along our garage. The hollyhocks are lush, the sedum is diminutively charming, and the lysmachia is still in tidy purple clumps. Little did I know, last fall, as I tucked the free bulbs that accompanied an order into the only bare spots in the bed, how lovely pale yellow tulips would look against lavender foliage. (I could have sworn that the free tulips were red, but the yellow is serendipitously lovely.) No sign of life yet from the tall coreopsis or echinacea that is planted behind the lavender, but I won’t give up yet.

I pass by the garage bed as I travel between the front and back yards. I nearly always slow down to appreciate the early growth and poke around in the bare spots for emerging shoots. It’s my new favorite spot in the garden.

Monday, April 10, 2006


I’ve been on an historical fiction jag. It started with Outlander and The Other Boleyn Girl and continued with the rest of the Outlander series and more Phillipa Gregory novels (Wideacre, Earthly Joys). An unexpected side effect of my reading has been a newfound appreciation of being a property owner. Unlike the characters I’ve read of, I’m not a serf, I’m not indigent, and I do not live in the middle of political upheaval. I’m a landed lady, exactly as the women in my novels aspire to be.

Last week, we had one of our first sunny, warm days in a long while. By the time I left work, my fingers were itching for garden dirt. I had a pleasant bus ride home, reveling in the feeling of sunshine on my neck and the smell of spring in the air. As we traveled up Vine Street, I saw many of the area’s residents out on corners, stoops, and sidewalks, likewise soaking up the sun. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a very poor way to appreciate spring. Besides the weather, the change of season was nowhere evident: no bulbs peeking up from the earth, no trees cloaked in a haze of green, no amorous birds scuffling in the leaves. Instead, the view was of the unchanging dirty streets, oppressive buildings, and belching traffic. Most, if not all, of the people I saw taking some air, rent cramped apartments nearby. They spend day in and out within the cityscape. Spring means nothing more than a change of wardrobe and bills. Again, I felt grateful to be a home owner, with our small plot of land in which to revel in the earth’s yearly resurrection.

I do, indeed, feel lucky that Mike and I were in the financial position to buy our house and its surrounding land. The bank owns a good chunk of it, but we feel as if it were all ours. I am also thankful for the fact that we live in a time and country in which we can feel secure in our ownership. I fear no political unrest will unland us. As long as we can keep up with the mortgage and property taxes, we have a place to call our own. Our hold may be somewhat tenuous, but I feel secure, fortunate, and connected to the earth.

Friday, April 07, 2006

My Favorite Spot, April 7th

Right now, I could sit on my front stoop all day long. All sixteen hyacinth bulbs I planted last fall are blooming and the air smells incredibly sweet. The pots of enormous, white hyacinths I forced during the winter add to the perfume. The moss phlox is greening up and preparing to bloom. The asters, while sure to be raging monsters by August, are presently demure, green clumps. I recently added mini roses to the tableau. Their fiery blooms will not appear until June, but the fresh, rosy new growth is welcome after a long, brown winter. When the rest of the garden frustrates me with sucking mud and bare mulch, I retreat to the porch steps to survey the bit of my domain that is presently pretty as a picture.

*My intent is to feature a weekly photo of my current favorite area of the garden. It can’t ALL look good at once, so I might as well revel in the pleasing patches while they last.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

100 Crocuses Is Not That Many

Last fall I planted 100 crocuses along our front path. I anticipated a knock-out spring show in shades of yellow, white, and purple. Beginning in February, I paced the walk almost daily, searching for crocus shoots amongst the grass. As luck would have it, Mike, not I, spotted the first dark green blades emerging from our winter-worn grass. Weeks after the established crocus had begun to bloom, my new bulbs put forth flowers. The effect was underwhelming.

Each bulb puts up a single flower, maybe two. Despite the number of plants, there are only 20 or so in bloom at once. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the display altogether.

My plan was visionary, but I neglected to realize that it would take more than one season to get the effect of walking on a carpet of flowers. Left undisturbed, my bulbs will multiply into small colonies that will bloom profusely, but that will take time. If I really wanted an impressive show the first year, I probably should have planted 500 bulbs. As it is, I’m impatient and will probably plug another 100 along the path this fall.

I don’t have a flower carpet, yet, but I’m still cheered by the spots of color in the drab lawn. The blossoms have even inspired me to continue setting the pavers: eleven down, eighteen left to go!

(Unfortunately, you only see the “unset” pavers in the photo.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Temporarily Overwhelmed

My first plant order arrived yesterday. I excitedly open the box and sifted through the treasures. Goodness gracious, did I really mean to buy TWELVE Siberian Iris? (The answer is “no,” I thought I was buying six.) Uh-oh, this bag of Alstroemeria has no roots in it, only peat moss. And how did they fit so many plants (roots) into such a little box! After the initial excitement wore off, I started to worry: Where am I going to plant it all? My goodness, I’m out of room. Too many plants! What about all the WS seedlings? Where will they all go? Overload! I expressed some of this to Mike, who simply replied “I told you so.”

To calm myself and inject some rationality into my hysteria, I went outside and measured the full sun bed that will take the bulk of the new plants (both purchased and sown). The Magnolia Bed (named after the sweet bay magnolia that started it all) is new. I smothered the grass with layers of newspaper, straw, and leaves only last fall. It holds a few shrubs and perennials, but is mostly bare. I carefully transferred the bed’s outlines, measurements, and current inhabitants to graph paper. Then, I drafted a list of possible tenants (with color and size noted) and began inserting them into the design. This is another hot colored bed (like the Sun Bed), so I want to juxtapose bright colors wherever possible, but temper with a little white. Wouldn’t you know it, I quickly exhausted my plant and seedling selection. I found that not only did I NOT have too many plants, I didn’t have enough! I finished the session by penning a short shopping list of common perennials I’d like to add for their height and color.

So, the evening started with me fretting about too many plants and too little space, and ended with a trip to Home Depot to pick up two Firewitch Dianthus. Isn't it ironic?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Spring is When...

those mad, mail-order purchases made in the depths of winter start arriving. Van Bourgondien's has emailed me to tell me the following is ON THE WAY!

1. TRADESCANTIA MIXED (62960) Qty : 1
3. DAYLILY STELLA D'ORO (64785) Qty : 1
4. HARDY PHLOX MIX (62819) Qty : 1
5. LILIUM TENUIFOLIUM (60677) Qty : 1
6. ALSTROEMERIA 'SWEET LAURA' PP #10.030 (64861) Qty : 2