Saturday, August 27, 2011

8.27 Before the Storm

The neighbors are discussing storm preparations.
We decide to cut some flowers to bring indoors. I am apologetic walking among the beds of the back garden, half believing, though still really disbelieving, that hurricane force winds will flatten all the plants and strip all the blossoms. I tell myself that the roots are strong, most of the plants have been in the earth for some years now.
Hot and sticky; occasional flashes of sunlight in the morning, that strange light that water-soaked sky sometimes permits.
I gather what I find in the mostly played-out vegetable garden; the squash and cucumbers are gone. I take some oddly shaped tomatoes and some immature peppers, fearful they won’t survive. Bees are active, particularly the sumo-wrestler size which work though the tall phlox here in late August. Grasshoppers jump away as I come to near without seeing them; bumper crop of them this year. But no sign of the squirrels or birds. The cat demands to go outdoors this morning; so much for this species’ shrewd weather instincts.
I pick another handful of deep purple-black blackberries too; complemented by a dozen or two late bright red raspberries.
I decide that the zinnias, my best annual crop this year, should sacrifice some head blooms to furnish the indoors. Some of the plants, transplanted too close together, no doubt, have tangled; it’s not always easy to tell which stem goes to which. I take some new blooms where they are most abundant; I cut off a few others that have blown as the English would say (faded) and toss them on the mulch. And I cut a few more to display that are mostly faded but still show some of the character of the way they were. I think there’s an autumnal beauty to this faded beauty.
Then I pick some of the violet tall phlox, being careful not to dispossess the great harvest bees which crawl in and out among the blossoms, making the world of flowers as they provide sustenance for the future generations of their collective selves. Who can comprehend the lives of bees? So selfless, so utterly unindividualized, yet so determined. Nature’s finest statement of altruism.
Yet, of course, we don’t know how plants think either. Do tall phlox want so much to make more tall phlox that they have fallen on the happy expedient of making abundant attractively colored blossoms so we will assiduously plant and cultivate and breed and disseminate them over the earth?
The strongly colored phlox flowers are the dominant color of the garden in the last week of August. Their presence is echoed by another variety, a light pink blossom on an attractively bi-colored leaf, which I acquired though some happy accident I can no longer remember.
I wanted to take a rose of Sharon bloom as well. But all the white ones, blossoming freely for the last month and a half, were part of little clusters of buds. I hate picking a branch with unopened buds unless I have a good reason, generally reason, to believe the new buds will open as well. I moved over to the pink rose of Sharon, where only flower was open; but no unopened buds were sharing the same twig, so I clipped it, discovering only then a slender, yellow-flecked bee creature hanging around inside. Not like any honey bee I knew, so I didn’t feel too bad about dispossessing him. If he’s looking for an attractive shelter from the storm he should try the white ones next door.
I will arrange the flowers indoors, as we make our own shelter from the storm. Anne gets batteries, candles inside of glass, and remembers to take a plastic bag of matches (which we use only outdoors on the charcoal grill) in from the shed. Unlike the bees and the flowers, we have roof over our heads and a fair distance from the sea. But a storm is an act of nature, and somehow I think the green world will still be there when the storm is over.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

8.19 Best New Plant of 2011

Some changes this year. Best pick of 2011 in the new plants category: The purple verbena in the so-called “purple room” of the garden. The leaves have a purplish tint and the tufted blossoms are filled with tiny purple florets. It was good for months and got really good in August. Constant color, very cheering. We’ll need to find it again next year, because the plant insists on being an annual.
I transplanted some zinnias into this area too, to fill in. They’ve blossomed, but I’m still hoping they’ll produce some new buds before the first flower fades and dries up. Also new in the purple room we planted another dark, purple-tinged leaf plant called a “beard tongue dark towers” Penstemon hybrid. That’s a lot of name. It showed some nice violet blossoms, but the flower stalks did not produce any new ones after these faded. And no new stalks either.
Two first-year red blue star Amsonias, acquired from different places, planted across a brick walk from each other in the purple neighborhood. Same story. Initial wave of buds, nice color, but no follow-up despite dead-heading. Have to learn the ways of these new residents.
In the rear of the purple room, where the purple theme stops and give sway to plants like stonecrop sedum and the ornamental lilies which blaze in July and attract a horde of bright red beetles, we planted a largish “summer snowflake” Viburnum, based on its reputation. The round, healthy shrub was purchased by a birthday gift certificate and planted in a spot where Anne had cleared out a thick patch of northern sea oats (which she doesn’t like). Given some bare ground, I dug a hole and sank the big new shrub, which positively hated July and displayed its displeasure by allowing leaves to wilt and turning its white blooms brown.
You’re supposed to get blooms all season – and scent – from this variety. Not this year. Is this one of those plants which earned high marks in a milder, more even-tempered climate? I hope it does not require, as we say these days, “high maintenance.” This is New England, we do a lot of “sink or swim” gardening here.
At the end of the brick path in this direction – kind of a spoke sticking out from the circumference of the tree circle (is there a name for this pattern?) and going as far as it can until it runs into the neighbor’s fence – I piled a few leftover blue granite paving stones in a sort of representative diorama of a stone wall. The stones are heavy; they stay put. I use them as staging for a rock garden motif, but it’s a challenge to keep enough dirt between and beneath the stones to keep “alpine” rock garden plants alive. We have an Iberis (white flowers in spring); a stonecrop, growing fat, a “Hardy” companion to the slender Stan Laurel iberis. This year I planted some white-flowering plants that have largely done the job, staying alive all summer through damp times and dry ones. One is opal innocence, which we’ve had elsewhere in the past, one a copa (actually “Bacopa”). And the catch is – once again – they’re annuals.
Across the brick walk from the purple room is a planting bed I call the “peony room” because the peonies are the biggest plants on that side. It’s colorless at this time of year, and I notice that one of the green groundcovers has run right over the top of another low green groundcover, a small-leaf euonymus, a plant whose tiny, dark-striped leaves are attractive all season. I don’t want it covered over; and I do want more color. The solution: dig up some of the other spring-blooming groundcover and replace it with – yet again – more annuals.
I set to work, the sunny sky clouds over, and in less than three minutes it’s showering hard. I’ll be working in wet ground (good for transplanting) later today.
The moral I guess, is that you have to keep trying new combinations and learning from experience. Which, I also guess (or perhaps conclude), is like any other activity, anything else in life, worth doing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

8.12 An Annual Celebration

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, as I tell the valet parking attendant at the hospital. His smile has endured all summer, more reliable than the weather. The plants in the containers outside the hospital, red petunia and yellow marigold annuals, seem to smile as well.
In fact, it’s a great time for annual plants. Gardens need them now more than ever, since while most of the perennials have shot their bolt, many annual varieties are just beginning to mature. Such is the case with the zinnias I started from seed outdoors in May and transplanted when I got around to it, most of them already on the leggy side by then since I neglected to thin the seedlings. Thinning seedlings means killing plants that have already performed the miracle of germination, moving from inert, lifeless seed to green growing biota. I hate to be the one to cut short their journey.
Every living thing is a wondrous accomplishment. To know intellectually that living things grow from seeds is one thing; to have them unveil their mysterious selves from your own seeds is quite another.
Spaces appear these days in the perennial garden where old flower stalks have faded and both leaves and blossoms decayed. The strong color of annuals, if they’re healthy enough to keep renewing their blossoms all summer, shines through those spaces.
A month ago I slipped some of the zinnias (grown from a multicolored seed packet) into a few of these holes. They’re just beginning to flower now. Out front I do the same thing with purchased cosmos – much less successful this year – and snapdragons.
I’ve worked to naturalize my crop of snapdragons, planting new ones in pots and then transplanting them into the soil in September. Some of these survive the winter and start blossoming early the next season. They go through the typical so-so annual flower process of blooming from stalks that have to be cut back or deadheaded in order to produce new blossoms. It’s stop and start color all season.
The alyssum on the other hand, also purchased, are a complete disappointment. Still alive, they just sit where they’re put for months, quietly doing nothing. Consider the lily? It may neither toil nor spin, but it sure produces something worth looking at. The nursery-grown alyssum? Not so much.
Fortunately, August is also a great month to buy some new annuals, so long as you can find a garden center with late-arriving stock, so the plants aren’t quite beaten down to scrawny, root-bound adolescents crammed into kindergarten outfits, as is so often the case with unsold annuals.
Even better, if you do find six-packs of flowering annuals still in good shape, they’re quite likely to be on sale because at this time of year only fanatics like me are still looking to buy summer annuals.
I am ecstatic when I find packs of annuals on sale for $1 at my favorite South Quincy plant center. They are my new toys. I want to take them home and play with them.
New color spots, new voices in the choir, now sing in the places where the stalks and leaves of last month’s perennials have died away. Somebody’s swan song is somebody else’s opportunity. The lilies will be back. But for now their air space is filled with blooms of red salvia.

Monday, August 15, 2011

8.11 Perfect Day, Gracious Month

A spectacular morning in August, the most serene of months. It’s been raining much of the time over the last five days, heavily on a few nights, with occasional flashes of later summer brilliance. Now the thing is here for good, the polished gold of late summer, the serene well-tempered August light.
The earth needed the rain, so I can put aside for the time being the endless mid-summer debate over how much watering I need to do to make everybody happy.
Walking through the perennial beds in the morning shine, light breeze, perfect temperature, the layers of the green world fall into place.
The purple flowers on the butterfly bush look good, finally. The plants have a sleek, well-watered look, leaning against each other as if to make sure that everybody is standing straight, present and accounted for, doing their best for the good of the team.
They follow, one two three in a row, sometimes, though rarely, more, those golden gracious days of late summer.
For now it’s a beautiful day, an unbeatable day, in the season’s most graceful month. Forces that have nothing to do with my desire for new garden toys have done all the heavy lifting. Sun and earth and rain. The tilt of the earth’s axis. A few billion years of plant evolution. The bacteria that break down humus in the soil. The worms that wriggle through the most heavily cultivated patches of soil. The bees that crawl over the surfaces of the blooms, puzzling out the hidden elixirs.
The forces that have made my garden have made me too. As they have all of us. They have trained us to do such things as plant flowers, harvest tomatoes, scatter seed, eat fruit, poop seed, feed birds, spread more seed, sing praises.
That’s our role, finally, I sometimes think. We are needed to sing praises. Somebody has to pay attention. Somebody has to see and know and be conscious of beauty.
At day’s end a golden signboard from eternity hangs over the western sky, where the sun has been slipping out of our ken. It’s a piece of forever land, where we go when we– well, let us say when we’re ready to leave our current performance: the place where everything is explained.
We walk the neighborhood, beneath this perfect sky, on this perfect day, under this golden sky-capping palm from ever-ever land that turns each block into its own small village where folks sit on their porch, enjoying an evening from another century. (This last folkish detail requires some imagination.) Each aspect of earth below and sky above complete in itself, unruffled, at peace, composed. The perfect day turns time into forever.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Late Summer Early

Suddenly late summer. Before the end of July, the late summer flowers have begun blooming. Now that it is August I wonder how long they will last.
Blue balloon flowers grow in close circumstances with black-eyed susans on the far side of what we call the flower island. It’s a dry spot, because I can’t reach it easily with a hose. Around this time of year I usually give in to my worries about drought turning the ends of leaves brown and the soil below gray, and turn on the sprinkler. So far this year I have resisted.
Both the balloon flowers and the black-eyed susans were late summer flower when we started growing them a half dozen years ago, most of them waiting for August before they blossomed. Now they begin blooming early in July. The balloon flowers have spread themselves through the garden, and I let them, expecting them to add a spot of color here and there in August, but most of their blossoms are gone or fast fading now.
Other typically late season bloomers have made strong showings in July. The tall phlox, most them with dark pink blossoms that are almost violet, have been with us for a couple of weeks too. A big stand of them grow up in front of the bi-colored leaves of the dogwood tree.
The cone flowers, light violet petals around dark centers, grown in a couple of places including the tree circle, have been up for weeks as well.
Queen Anne’s Lace, the exuberant white-topped wildflower (or country lane weed), made a big comeback this year. They cover the front walk with fountain flows of long, white weeping flowers, an extravagant and unconventional face to present to the world. They too are beginning to fade – the blossoms close at night, knitting themselves up into small fists, and fewer return each day – just as they do on the borders of the marshes on the Quincy shorefront or along the country roads in the Berkshires. A new succession of wildflowers will take their place in the woods and beside the marshes, but our resources are fewer here in the haunts of civilization.
Grasses, both weedy grasses, the kind of plants that grow all season, and the varieties we plant, are working steadily to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, the daylily foliage dies away with conspicuous speed, leaving us to look at a patch of seemingly dead plants or requiring some sort of emergency redecoration. I’ve been trying the latter course in recent years. I planted the pink guara this time last year to distract the eye. Red lobelia is blossoming in front of one patch, and plumbago – another newcomer last summer – is making quiet little blue flowers that may eventually make an impression but probably not this year.
Through one thing and another, we still have a good show of color and variety in the August garden. In addition to the plants I’ve mentioned we have a very dark orange daylily in a shady spot, big floppy white rose of sharon and a more decorous pink one (both already in bloom), the big pink hibiscus blooms of an annual plant growing in a pot on the patio, and a stand of delicate light pink anemones, my September flower. (What are they doing out so early?).
But this is the point in the annual growing season when I grow restless to try something new, especially something that will flower now – and now, and now, and now.
I don’t expect to resist that urge very long.