Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Gardening Commandment

I don’t like rules, sometimes masqueraded as “advice.” I have to try most everything for myself before I’ll believe it to be true. I think it makes me adventurous, but Mike thinks it’s just stupid.
I’ve pooh-poohed many a gardening rule and succeeded anyway. I planted tulips much too early (September) and still had a fine showing the following spring. Conversely, I’ve planted lily bulbs in May and they also lived. I (*gasp*) don’t plan on winterizing my pond or even cleaning it out till spring (nothing living in there anyway). Rules, schmules. All those gardening tenets get in the way of my experimentation. I knew I had found a fellow dissident when I first read Sign of the Shovel’s Manifesto. Her #1 principle: “Add manure. There. That’s the only advice you’ll get from me.”

As much as I hate rules, I have unwittingly created my own, through experimentation. (Isn’t that the scientific method? Observation -> Hypothesis -> Experimentation -> Rule? ) If I listed my self-developed principles, I think #1 would be: “Thou shalt not garden in a straight line.”

I didn’t just make that up, either. You’ll find garden design references full of advice to create sweeping, swooping borders. Still, I had to do my own thing when I started creating borders. I’m efficient and I know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Therefore, I created straight, 5-foot deep borders along the fence lines in one corner of the backyard. The result: phenomenally boring. After the inspiring June garden walk in the Licking Riverside Historic District, I went home and added scallops to one edge. I then cut diagonally across the corner with a small paved area. Finally, I connected one straight run to a nearby half circle border, so that the final result was the undulation suggested by the experts.

I initially did the same boring thing around the deck. I surrounded it with a skimpy two-foot perimeter of plantings. Hated it! While I’m limited to a thin border on one side to allow for traffic, I’ve added a generous curve to the front and have big plans to add more bulges and bumps to the other side. Suddenly, the deck looks less artificial and less stark and more like an integral part of the landscape.

I thought I was liberated from the straight line, but, alas, my fight was far from over. Once upon a time, some other “efficient” person like myself created borders with poured, concrete curbs around nearly the entire house. You guessed it; the curbs form a neat rectangle around our neat rectangle of a house. Some of the borders I can do nothing about. The front bed is bounded by a sidewalk, poured parallel to the house, so, without ripping up the walk, I’m stuck with its shape. I did, however, add a sweeping border on the other side of the walk (eating up some lawn) and the result is much more organic than the original, geometric border-sidewalk-lawn combination. The shade beds are also bound by poured concrete. Again, I’ve created free-form borders on the other side of the curb, leaving a small walkway between the curb-bound border and the blobs. One hardly notices the boring rectangles anymore.

By far, the worst travesty is the yard-wide sunset bed, along the northwest side of the house. Those same garden experts who advise curvy borders will also tell you that three feet is far to slim for a border, but I suppose it made sense to someone to make the border the same width as the stairwell. I’ve finally found plants that will work in the harsh, northwestern exposure, but I was so bound by the damn curb that I planted them in straight little rows, with the poor butterfly bush (buddleia weyeriani) smashed up against the house. The silly thing is, the curb is so badly eroded in this bed, that it’s as if there wasn’t a border at all. I could garden right over it, and no one would know. (In fact, the henbit and mock strawberry make regular forays from the lawn into the garden bed.) So, I’ve tortured the poor buddleia for nothing. Next spring, I plan to extend the bed out into a semi-circle as if there were no curb at all. (The red line on the photo is the proposed new edge.) The butterfly bush will get the room it needs and the rectangular bed will no longer stick out like a sore thumb among the garden’s exuberant curves.

So, that’s my gardening rule: no straight lines. I will do my best to resist the parallel influences of the house, the fence, and the sidewalk. I will fight my tendency to be efficient and give in to the urge to be extravagant. It can be oddly freeing to follow the rules once in a while.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Such a Thing as Too Much Red?

I really like red. I color my hair red, wear red clothes, and drive a red car. There is no shortage of red in my garden. It is one of my favorite colors.

When I consider fall color, red, again, comes to mind. I disregard fall foliage color described as yellow, pale green, or *ugh* brown. I want scarlet, maroon, and flame. While Mike and I vacationed in Gatlinburg, I repeatedly stopped to stare at backlit vermillion leaves. However, gazing at the multicolored hillsides, it began to occur to me that what made the red so beautiful was its juxtaposition against the yellows, greens, and *ugh* browns.

Quite coincidentally, while soaking in the outdoor hot tub one morning at our Gatlinburg chalet, I came across the chapter in Henry Mitchell’s Essential Earthman on color in the garden. He paints verbal picture of a garden with nothing but red flowers in “Red, Red, and Still More Red”. Initially, it sounds as if it might be a carmine lover’s dream, but the result rather resembles a slaughterhouse. As much as I adore red, it is best used as an accent color, rather than a base. (At least, outside. Red is the primary color in our bedroom, with accents of gold, brown, and cream.)

Gatlinburg seemed to be a bit ahead of Cincinnati on fall color, but our show is heating up now. As my euonymous, viburnum, and dogwood begin their flaming displays, I am enjoying their contrast against the surrounding foliage, rather than wishing everything was similarly ablaze. Next time I read that a plant I’m considering has fall color in a shade other than red, I’ll consider it. I could use more yellow and orange fall foliage, but you can keep the *ugh* brown.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Window View

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that a particular plant or tree or shrub or garden ornament should be “visible from the house” or “placed along walkways or seating areas” so that one gets full enjoyment. If I followed this advice, the house would be suffocated under a mass of plantings. Occasionally, though, I do plant things where they are visible from a window or where they scent the deck and I have to admit that the effect is pleasing.

I hung my last birdfeeder from the sweet gum tree. It really wasn’t visible from anywhere but the seat of the toilet, if the window was open. (We have no bathroom fan – so the window is often open.) While bird watching from the throne was certainly entertaining, the raccoons discovered the feeder’s location and repeatedly ripped it apart. I finally gave up.

I hung the new birdfeeder in the front yard, from a holly tree. I’ve learned that the birds will destroy any plants beneath a feeder in their search for spilled seed, so I hung it over a path. Of course, I’ve hit my head on it repeatedly. (If I hang it any higher, I can’t reach it to replace the seed.) The location was also strategically chosen so that the birdfeeder is perfectly framed by one of the den windows. On Sunday mornings, I can curl up in the recliner with my tea and book and watch the birds flitter to and from the feeder. A second recliner, close to the window, provides a perch for the kitties to also watch the show. The cats make funny little grunts of frustration and I thoroughly enjoy the scene.

So, all those stinking garden writers were right. I’m enjoying the birdfeeder much more where I can comfortably view it from the house. I do like a garden that requires you to enter it to fully enjoy it, but having a few treasures visible from the windows is a good idea. I suppose a few of those "rules" are worth listening to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bulb Irritation

I went bulb shopping last night and the experience reduced me to a raving lunatic. No, there was no bulb shortage. I didn’t have to fight with other shoppers. I wasn’t even shocked at the price (I had mentally steeled myself). I was brought down by bulb dust, probably from the hyacinths.

I’ve read that hyacinth bulbs can irritate the skin of some people, but I’ve never had a problem handling them before. As I dug through the bins and sorted through the misplaced bags of bulbs, I stirred up a mighty dust cloud. My neck and the underside of my jaw were evidently coated in bulb dust, irritating the tender skin.

The itch quietly began as I finished my selection. Absentmindedly, I rubbed at the sensation, rather than scratching, and compounded the problem as I smeared myself with the irritant. By the time I reached the register, I was going mad with the need to scratch myself raw. I tapped my nails impatiently as the clerk prolonged the transaction ahead of me to chat with a child. I surreptitiously abraded my neck as she scanned my merchandise and filled my bags. I didn’t want to look as if I had some communicable disease. As I walked through the parking lot, my full hands prevented me from finding relief. Once in the car, though, I tossed the bags aside and scratched my neck and jaw with abandon, reveling in the sensation. The itch was so strong that I even checked myself for hives. All I had to show for the experience was a series of angry red stripes from my nails.

By the time I reached home, the itchiness had, thankfully, subsided. I placed my shopping bags on the floor and the cats, as usual, checked out my purchases. Perversely, they seemed intensely interested in the hyacinths and began to rub themselves on the bulbs. I can only imagine how horrible it would be for them to track hyacinth dust onto the couch and into my bed. I immediately moved the bulbs to the refrigerator. When I plant them, I will definitely be wearing gloves. Ten minutes of intense itching was all the warning I needed.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I Don't Look Good in Purple

I’ve often thought that the colors people choose to decorate their homes and gardens reflect the same colors found in their wardrobe. Our clothing is usually in colors we like, and colors that look good on us. It makes sense that we would choose those same colors for our flowers and walls. My theory has fallen apart with purple.

Purple and gray are on my “do not wear” list. Both colors reduce me to a corpse – with waxen skin and dull eyes. I can safely say that there is no gray in my wardrobe (except pants), house, or garden. Although purple looks equally terrible on me (see photo), it seems to have crept into my life.

I have an entire purple wall in the guest room. It was initially an odd choice for me, but it proved to be the perfect foil to bright pink and peacock blue.

In the garden, I find myself constantly searching for other colors to balance all the darn purple! I’ve got purple hyacinths, lavender, sage, iris, and heliotrope. The fall has brought purple toad lilies, hosta blooms, asters, and violets. I try not to place like colors together, but with the exception of a couple red zinnias and an annual rudbeckia, the garden is currently a mass of undulating purple.

I find myself wondering how all the purple got into the garden. Am I subconsciously drawn to the color? Am I making up for its lack in my wardrobe? Or are there just a lot of purple flowers?

Away from my face, it really is a nice color. It is rich and vibrant. It contrasts beautifully with every other color – including blue. It is even striking against simple green foliage. I’m okay with all the purple in the garden, but you won’t ever catch me with a purple nosegay tucked behind one ear.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Eat or Garden

From April to October, I don’t cook. It has nothing to do with the heat. I’m simply too busy gardening to spend time slaving away in the kitchen. We eat a lot of hotdogs and pizza rolls in the summer. Admittedly, even in the winter, I don’t make daily dinners (due to rehearsals), but I’ll cook fairly often.

If I did have time to make a meal, I wouldn’t have any place to put the fresh produce required. The refrigerator is currently off-limits to all fruits and vegetables, because I have bulbs cooling their heels in the produce drawers. The ethylene gas produced by certain fruits and vegetables (I can’t be bothered to find out which ones) can retard flower development within a bulb. We have only one fridge, and it is currently dedicated to gardening (including a few mold cultures), not eating.

Around November, I’ll get on a health kick, cook healthy dinners, and lose 10 lbs, until I fall off the wagon again next spring. Everyone else seems to be on the opposite schedule, eating healthfully, with lots of fresh produce, in the summer and then later packing on the pounds with holiday sweets. Am I the only one out there who sacrifices diet for gardening? I guess I’ll be ready for a winter cruise, even though I can’t be persuaded to put on a bathing suit in the summer.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Gardening is credited with benefits such as reducing stress and increasing physical fitness. I’ve found that gardening not only does these things, but it has also reduced my squeamishness.

For instance, I can now handle worms. Whenever I cultivate a new spot, I try to save the worms from my hoe’s blade. I carefully pluck them from the soil and move them to a safe place. I’ve even come to appreciate a worm’s slimy lubricant. It enables one to grasp the end of a fleeing worm and pull it free of even solid clay. Worms are tougher than you’d think. Much of my squeamishness is related to squishing things and having their insides come out and touch me. (Yes, I have a horror of guts.) Surprisingly, not a single worm has come apart, despite my rough handling. The fatter, juicier worms still make my gorge rise a little, but I just think of all the castings such a worm will make and I feel a little more tenderly towards it.

Another of my garden related fears was the possibility of unearthing a dead body. I admit to a general “dead body” phobia. I’m especially frightened of finding them in bathrooms. When I was younger, if I had to use an otherwise empty public restroom, I would pee as fast as I could because I was sure that, in the stall next to me, a murdered woman was propped up on the seat. I tried to finish my business before that body dislodged from its precarious position and tumbled to the floor, flinging bloody parts beneath the partition. While I can now use public restrooms without qualms (at least, dead body qualms), I still check the bathtub in strangers’ houses for bodies. A drawn bath curtain always arouses my suspicions.

The leap from dead bodies in the bathroom to dead bodies in the garden isn’t as great as you may think. It started after I read Tracker, by Tom Brown Jr. In the (true) story, the boy starts a campfire in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the winter. As the fire’s heat thaws the surrounding ground, the stiffened hand of a corpse (mob hit) emerges, frightening the boy and forever haunting my imagination. That story, combined with my existing, bathroom corpse fears, convinced me that ground everywhere was teeming with rotting bodies. (I’ll admit, watching Night of the Living Dead didn’t help either.)

I’ve gone on about dead bodies far longer than I meant to, but I think I’ve properly established the background for my corpse phobia. As I dug my first few holes in the yard, I worried that I’d hit the putrifying body of an animal, if not a person. Hundreds of holes later, I haven’t unearthed a single body part, with the exception of a steak bone, probably buried by a dog. I have, though, buried a few bodies myself, leaving a surprise for future gardeners.

I wish I could say that gardening had cured me of my fears of slugs, grubs, cicadas, and spiders, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m taking baby steps. I can now calmly observe these creatures, if not touch them. Bear brought a cicada into the house and I didn’t go into hysterics. (I did tell him, quite sternly, that cicadas belong OUTSIDE.) Yesterday, I pushed aside my revulsion at finding a slug and knocked it into the pond for the fish to eat.

I wish I wasn’t such a girly-girl about creepy crawlies and rotting things, but I get a bit better every day. Spending time in the garden relaxes me, strengthens my body, and gives me a chance to commune with the wiggly worms and rotting corpses. Can you claim such benefits from another activity?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Five Annual Vines

I really like annual vines. I use them to dress up the bars on the basement window, decorate a trellis, and festoon my twiggy teepee. I grow them for scent and color. They add a little sparkle to the staid background of perennials and shrubs. Annual vines are the accessories of the garden world; they can be mixed with your basics to create a new look with no commitment. Presented here, is a review of the five common annual vines I grew from seed this year.

Sweet Peas. I had a little trouble getting the seeds going. Those I direct sowed did poorly. For successful germination, I soaked the seeds overnight and then sowed them in containers. Once they had a few true leaves, I transplanted them around the base of the teepee. The twiggy structure was too coarse for the pea’s tendrils to grasp, so I had to tie them to the branches with strips of pantyhose. As I was anxiously awaiting my first sniff of sweet pea perfume, the vines seemed to grow oh-so-slowly. By June, they had reached about 2.5 feet and began blooming. The scent was absolutely as promised and the bright colors were a bonus. Although I did not deadhead, and I’ve read that sweet peas have a horror of hot, humid summers, they furiously bloomed until late August. The vines died with the last of the flowers in September. I collected plenty of seeds for next year. I will definitely grow sweet peas again for those three months of incredible blooms.

Black-Eyed Susan Vine. I grew a variety of black-eyed susan vine last year (Blushing Susie) and was underwhelmed. The flowers were small and sparse. This year, I planted the species and it was much more vigorous. I had success with both direct sowing and starting seeds in containers. I direct sowed some seeds along the wire fence on the NE side of our front yard. With only four hours of direct sunlight and no care from me, they did very well. The cheerful flowers both climbed the fence and scrambled along as a groundcover. I also grew a few plants on the teepee. Although they grew to greater heights and had more sun than the flowers along the fence, they did not flower as profusely. I’ve seen this vine absolutely smothered in flowers in other places in the city, so I believe there is some culture trick that I’m missing. I may try growing BES vine through my butterfly bushes next year, so that the golden yellow flowers contrast with the plum plumes.

Cardinal Vine. Although they don’t look it, cardinal vine is a close relative to morning glory (both in the genus Ipomoea, along with sweet potatoes and moon flower). I was seduced by the seed packet’s bright red flowers and the promise of attracting hummingbirds. The seeds are germinated just like morning glory: nick the seed coat and soak in water overnight. Again, I had more success with growing the seedlings in a container and transplanting than direct sowing. (I suspect that my clay soil is slow to warm up in the spring.) I grew the vine in a container (climbing a trellis) and up the teepee. I liked the foliage more than the flowers. The leaves have a graceful, feathery appearance. I think they would mix nicely if woven into a coarser-leaved shrub. The flowers were a gorgeous scarlet, but very small and not numerous enough to make an impact. Like morning glories, the flowers faded by late morning. I never saw a hummingbird feed from this vine. (They seemed to prefer the sweet peas.) If I grow this again, I will try growing it through a shrub or mixed with other vines.

Morning Glory. This is the second year that I’ve grown these annoyingly reseeding plants. I wised up and grew a single specimen, in a pot, surrounded by concrete in the basement stairwell (aka the pit of despair). The vine’s purpose was to camouflage the bars on the basement window. It did a nice job and produced pretty blossoms to boot. The plant also proved itself quite tolerant of drought, as I often forgot to water it. I will use it in exactly the same manner next year, but maybe I’ll give it a bigger pot.

Moon Flower. I had a difficult time getting my seeds to germinate. Direct sowing was an absolute failure. When sown in a container, I had only a 50% success rate. Of the two resulting vines, I planted one on the SW side of the front porch and the other on the SW side of the back deck. Both vines grew well with little care. I’ve read online that the wait for flowers from this vine can be long. I wondered if I’d have any at all, since my seeds didn’t even get going until May. On the last day of September, my first flower opened. I missed the actual event by what must have been only minutes, as I spotted the flower in early evening. This is another flower I had grew purely for scent, so I eagerly bent my head over the bloom and sniffed, expecting the heady perfume described by others. Unfortunately, I found the scent very faint, but pleasant. (At least it didn’t smell like Mexican food.) I probably should have sniffed again at midnight, when I suppose its pollinators were abroad, but I didn’t try again until morning, with the same disappointing result. I’ll try the sniff test with the next flower, and I also intend to catch it in the opening act. I am undecided on whether I’ll plant this vine again next year. Without a captivating scent, the plant unfortunately reminds me of another morning glory relative, bindweed (not in the genus Ipomoea, but in the same family).

Overall, I love annual vines. They are usually inexpensive and colorful. I’ll continue to grow them because I’m the type of girl who loves to pile on scarves and dangly earrings. Any suggestions for next season’s garden accessories?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Planting Vacation

Yesterday, I took a vacation day from work because I desperately needed to put some plants in the ground. The dwindling daylight, weather, and rehearsals (Mrs. Bob) have kept me out of the garden. On Monday, none of those things were limiting factors. I planted:

  • 3 lavender
  • 2 roses
  • 6 dianthus
  • 4 black-eyed susans
  • 3 monarda
  • 9 sundrops
  • 10 wallflowers
  • 4 daylilies
  • 3 ladies mantle
  • 6 spider lily
  • 3 forget-me-not
  • 2 honeysuckle

The grand total is 55 plants. Sticking 55 plants in a tilled garden plot is not a great chore. However, when 49 of them are planted in new, unworked beds composed of mostly clay, it can take you a full eight hours. By 4 o’clock, I was pooped and the mosquitoes were ready for dinner. I feel a little bit lazy for knocking off with three hours of daylight left, but I was beginning to hate digging holes.

I still have hundreds of bulbs to plant and dozens of perennials to both plant and transplant. The bulbs can wait until November, but I’ve got to get the perennials in the ground in the next two weeks. With only an hour of daylight each evening and weekend commitments, it will be tight. I haven’t felt this overwhelmed since spring! Right now, I’m sort of looking forward to winter so that I can have a break. I need a non-planting vacation.