Saturday, May 30, 2009

Phlox divaricata

I've long loved wild Sweet William, the woodland phlox whose Latin name is phlox divaricata. Growing just 8" to 10", with a sweet fragrance and blossoms that sway in the early-spring breeze, this phlox is as easy as its name is complicated. I prefer 'London Grove Blue', which cheerfully spreads each year in my semi-shaded Main Garden. It blooms in concert with Bleeding Heart, just prior to the bearded iris, and lasts a couple of weeks.

But for years I kept purchasing new plants in order to increase the stand. I hadn't taught myself to recognize its seedlings and so was mulching over them or ripping them out as weeds. This spring I forced myself to slow down long enough from garden chores of edging, cleaning out the fishpond, transplanting baby trees, potting up material for the Garden Club Plant Sale, etc, and get nose-to-nose with my phlox divaricata.

Eureka! I figured out which were the choice 'London Grove' seedlings and thus worth saving. I deliberately did not mulch around them, leaving the 2-3" babies in solitary splendor, the easier to later transplant.

One of the best ways for a gardener to own more plants is to coddle her own seedlings. I've always advised students to learn the seedlings of one new plant each year. Too bad it took me so long to recognize 'London Grove'.
But I've got it now!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I admit it, I have a thing for old-fashioned flowers. It's the heritage, the sturdiness, the fragrance (sometimes), the ease, the fact that generations of gardeners have known and loved certain plants.

Forget-me-nots fall into this category. I purchased my first myosotis 20 or more years ago when we lived in New Jersey, and carted one plant to Connecticut where they've dutifully propogated themselves and bloomed enthusiastically in my garden ever since. Mostly they produce the familiar tiny blue flowers with yellow centers, but occasionally they surprise me with pink blooms.
But I manage my myosotis. They may not realize it, but I do. Since they're self-sowers, it's imperative to edit. I allow them to bloom pretty much wherever they wish in my mostly shady garden; as an edger, in the midst of the azalea bed, among the emerging hosta and astilbe. They prefer moist locales, but it's interesting where they'll pop up. I love the wash of blue they impart to most of my beds and the fact that they'll bloom their ever-loving heads off for three to four weeks, depending on weather.
But then.....I murder them.
Because, once past bloom, forget-me-nots become downright ugly. They turn into black, moldy, unsightly lumps in my beautiful gardens. So out they come. Yep, I rip 'em right out of their dandy little growing spots and compost the hideous things. The trick is, I wait until they're finished blooming to dispatch them. That way they've had plenty of time to cast seed and guarantee their appearance next spring.

As you can see from the picture, forget-me-nots add an ephemeral beauty to the garden. I wouldn't be without them.
But I'm the Boss.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mulching Miracles

Here's 5 good things about mulch:
  1. It keeps your good organic soil from washing away.
  2. It keeps moisture in.
  3. It keeps soil temperatures steady.
  4. It suppresses weeds.
  5. It beautifies your landscape.

Of course, the negative thing about mulch is that it has to be applied! Witness the mountain of mulch that still blocks my driveway. I had 8 yards delivered about three weeks ago, and with much hauling, cursing, mumbling and some strong teenage help, I've gotten maybe half on the garden. Now deep into May, I begin to feel I'm NEVER going to get finished. As I lug the buckets (I can't use wheelbarrows due to the steepness of the property and the thickness of the plantings) I generally find something that has to be done before the mulch can be put down. Weeds to pull or behead, a chlorotic rose, slug damage, a transplant Necessity, etc. So I'm delayed. But I like to think the garden benefits as a whole.

Those of you who read my weekly News-Times column know I like the dark, organic mulches, such as Sweet Peet and Agrimix. I don't use dyed material, and I don't use stones, rubber or peat moss. I want a product that will not only enhance the garden but improve it as well. By the end of the season an organic mulch will have mostly melted into garden soil, enriching it. Of course, that means that mulching is an annual chore, but oh well.

This year I've set June 1st as my Finish-the-Mulch goal. Let's I hope I get there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Transient Beauty of Spring

The colors and blooms of spring are often fleeting, and in the shade garden this is particularly true. Such plants as bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, lunaria and bleeding heart make a dashing appearance and then dash away, not to be seen again until next year. But oh, the impression they make while visiting! To flaunt their beauty, they take advantage of the dappled light available at this season before deciduous trees fully leaf out. Scattered about on the floor of the shade garden, they, along with tiarella, phlox divericata, ginger, pulmonaria, and lingering hellebore brighten the gardener's heart. Gardener's whimsy in the form of early botanical tulips sparks further interest.

But what happens to the deeply-shaded garden once these beauties have passed? It's important to have "bones" to carry intrigue through the next five months. These can include, as above, such structural items as the picket fence, blue birdbath, and fieldstone path. Japanese painted and maidenhair ferns lend structure and pique curiosity. Areas in the shade garden which receive more sun can support bright hosta such as 'June'. Azaleas, deutzia 'Chardonnay Pearl' and rainbow leucothe also help. The varied leaves of heuchera stay the season. And of course, plantings of shade-tolerant annuals in clumps throughout the bed assist in maintaining interest.

Many of the spring ephemerals are self-sowers. If you wish to increase their stock for next year, refrain from mulching until the ginger, lunaria, Virginia bluebells, phlox and bloodroot have had a chance to cast seed.

A shade garden is often the kindest imitation of Mother Nature, who plants in groups on the forest floor and whose tranquil, soothing scenery calms the weary soul. With planning, your garden can reflect the best our Mother has to offer.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Rules for Watering

There aren't any hard and fast rules, of course. But there are wise practices. As the earth warms and water becomes ever more precious a resource, we must husband what we have. In fact this sping we here in Connecticut are 8" under so far for moisture. Shocking, isn't it?

Here's some suggestions on how to utilize what we have:

  1. Purchase an attractive watering can, one of substantial size (maybe 2 gallons). It should balance well in your hand, have a removable rose, and be presentable enough to live in the garden. (I love my French Blue from Gardener's Supply in Burlington, VT). Keep it filled at all times, especially as you leave the garden at the end of a workday. That way it's always handy to employ on a moment's notice.

  2. Obtain a good hose, keep it coiled and ready to use. If your's is a large garden, having one in each section is smart. Invest in hose guides so that as you use the hose across yard & garden it doesn't smash your lovely plants. (my hose guides are dark brown metal, ornamented with little birds, and they stay in place all season long)

  3. Set up a rain barrel. These are widely available nowadays, and are a direct descendant of the wooden barrels our grandmas had under the downspouts of our childhood homes, catching all that soft rainwater. One or two of these, hard at work snagging all the free water sheeting off the roof will go a long ways towards conserving water.

  4. Irrigate early in the day, if possible, to avoid evaporation in the midday sun. Try not to water in the evening; that promotes fungal disease.

  5. Refrain from watering your lawn. Instead, keep your lawn soil rich by using a mulching mower; dusting with a thin layer of compost; and incorporating clover into the seed mix. Grit your teeth in times of drought; the lawn may go dormant, but it'll come back!

  6. Keep your garden soil organic and therefore able to retain moisture. Dig in that compost!

  7. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Use an organic product such as Sweet Peet or Agrimix. Mulch helps the rainfall to soak into the garden; it keeps soil moisture from evaporating; it beautifies your garden; and it prevents erosion, just to name a few of its attributes.

Wise use of water befriends Mother Earth, upon whom we all ultimately depend. Do your part.