Down to earth — memory lapses

Originally published January 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I can hardly believe it’s a new year already. It feels like mere days rather than twelve months since I waxed rhapsodic about visiting greenhouses and using candlelight to cozy winter’s dark nights. And I remember bemoaning the lateness of spring as if summer never happened. Time seems to stretch in winter like a rubber band cocked at spring. And then doesn’t it go flying? Come spring we can hardly help but be in a mad rush to enjoy every last second. Right up until the band hits the wall of the holidays with a resounding thwack and flops to the floor.

Which is why writing notes about the garden and taking a few pictures through the season is as necessary as planting and weeding. Taking the time to mark the best—and worst—moments puts the stretch in the elastic of time. And looking back at those records now helps me recall that not only did summer happen, it was long and glorious (so was fall), and has plenty to teach about the coming year.

Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Eva') For instance, reading my notes from May, I am reminded that just because something looks dead doesn’t always mean it is. The roses I thought were goners after cutting them back before April’s deep freeze (winter truly was interminable last year) bloomed into November. I also expected to lose what was left of my Black Lace elderberry but evidently its disgusting infestation of borers went to the dump along with the deadest branches. The remaining trunk might be oddly lopsided but its wonkiness was hardly noticeable under a healthy arch of deep purple foliage and berries.

My Clematis ‘Roguchi’, on the other hand, never made a comeback. And, as far as I can tell from photographs, its replacement didn’t live past July. Since losing, two years ago, a C. tibetana that had bedazzled my arbor for a couple of Octobers with sprays of citrus peel flowers, it’s beginning to sink in that clematis might only come to my garden to die. I’m sure it’s nothing personal. I’ll chalk it up to acidic soil (they prefer it sweeter), close quarters (their roots want cooling shade but also some room to spread out), improper siting (wet feet through the winter is deadly) and neglect (I should have watered during drought). Lucky for me and my garden, the non-vining C. heracleifolia, which has lovely indigo-blue fairy cap flowers in September hasn’t proved nearly as picky or needy, spreading instead with a moderate amount of enthusiasm.Clematis heracleifolia

I’m glad for the reminder that my garden wanted more blue, a little earlier in the season, after the forget-me-nots and before the clematis. The only hiccup is the distinct memory, which I never even wrote down, of a visiting friend’s suggestion that there might be such a thing as “too many plants.” A criticism she knew I’d disregard with a guffaw. And you should too if anyone has dared call the plantiful-ness of your garden into question. Diversity is key to sustainability and amusement.

I plan to take advantage of the opportunities presented by death to fill some of those vacancies with blue-flowering perennials. I’d be tempted to try delphinium if I were up to the challenge. I’m not and it’s nothing personal. Just that I learned more about them this summer and made note that my garden bears little resemblance to Siberia. Turns out, contrary to popular belief, delphinium are extremely cold hardy; it’s our hot, humid summers and comparatively mild winters that do them in. On the other hand, the butterfly magnetic blue spikes of native North American hyssop cultivars such as Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Black Adder’ should be better suited to my garden’s climate and conditions.

The upside of a faulty memory is how easy it is to picture the changes I want to make. Because it seems for all the world like the garden was in full bloom just the other day.

How’s your memory of the past year in the garden? What were the high and low lights?

Down to earth – fashionably late

(Originally published September 4, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

Since the first witch hazel flower unfurled and crocus poked out of the ground last winter I haven’t for one minute been bored with my garden. I’ve been frustrated by it, challenged, thwarted, and enthralled by turns. It has given me plenty to fuss over, weed out, wish for, and has taught me endless lessons about my own preferences. And as a bonus, it’s coming into its own now, fashionably late and bursting at the seams with my favorite colors and activity.

Caryopteris (right) echoing the cerulean of my wire chairs.I wanted to see more blue and for awhile, when the balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflora) was blooming, I did. Unfortunately, its flowers looked more purple than blue against the cerulean of the chairs I spray-painted to fill the void. Now though, bluebeard, Caryopteris × clanodensis ‘Summer Sorbet’, is beginning to bloom an exact match in clusters up and down stems of variegated chartreuse and green foliage.

Caryopteris is a true-blue, late-blooming, bee-friendly shrub in the mint family that doesn’t run like a mint, though it sometimes self-sows, and prefers full sun and the holy grail of well-drained, moist soil. In my garden it seems to tolerate drought just fine, and in any garden, benefits from a hard whacking back in early spring to its lowest sets of leaf buds.

After last winter’s cold I despaired of seeing marginally-hardy hummingbird sage (Salvia guaranitica) rise from the dead, but it came back with vigor and is, at long last, putting heart and soul into flaunting skinny cobalt studded spires. In a recent New York Times article, Anne Raver sang its praises for attracting hummingbirds like a magnet and being a complementary dance partner. Everything looks great with blue.

Clematis heracleifolia and Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'Clematis heracleifolia, a spreading non-climber with palm-sized leaves and indigo-blue banana peel flowers in whorled intervals along its stems deserves applause right now too. It would be a little gangly looking on its own but in my garden it dances like Fred Astaire with Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).

Except for about six months in the third grade, purple was never my favorite color. As I write this though, my bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’, transplanted from a too-tight spot and about to erupt in hot-pinky-purple flounces of tiny pea-flowers, will make me change my mind entirely. Bush clover wants plenty of space to twirl its skirts: a good six or eight feet around will do. Being a legume-family nitrogen fixer, it’s not particular about soil fertility but wants a little moisture, please, and full sun too. Like the bluebeard, be sure to prune its stems to the ground, or very close to, in early spring or you’ll have a monster in your garden.

I probably should have whacked back my towering clumps of ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) in spring too, as they were beginning to shoot skyward. No matter. Their tall stems are sturdy and upright for the most part, and their height, particularly when their electric purple flower clusters are topped by a hungry swallowtail butterfly, looks great against the backdrop of my carpenter’s shop wall. Because this gorgeous native wants moist soil, and isn’t too picky about drainage, I planted it where it receives the soaker hose drippings from one of my rain barrels. Periodic downpours this summer seem to have been great for the ironweed. And everything else.

I wish I had time and space to rhapsodize about all of the other late bloomers in my garden such as bright yellow Helianthemum ‘Lemon Queen’, the exotic-dancer (native) spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), and legions of tender perennials. Stay tuned. Summer may be coming to end for some but this garden is just getting its groove on.

Yours too?