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Blue Intentions

In small gardens, a few feet of ground mean everything. This is not whining, merely observation. (Gardens, unfortunately, never respond to whining, but only to cold, clear-eyed observation.) I had some blue intentions for spring for the main garden border in back, which were necessarily whittled down to a couple 4-inch pots of the alkanet Anchusa capensis ‘Blue Angel,’ brought home a week ago, a tough plant for this sunny bit of garden that will tolerate dryish conditions. This alkanet will grow to about a foot. I grew one of the larger alkanets a couple summers ago, Anchusa azurea, hoping to get it to reseed. Nothing so far. I love typing that word, alkanet. Thank goodness I have no more children to name, or they could be saddled with the nickname “Alkie.” Great name for a pet, though. Borage is a friendly word too. These anchusas are members of the Boraginaceae.

Like echiums and brunnera, anchusa also goes by the common name bugloss, glossa Greek for “tongue,” as in tongue-shaped leaves, which can’t possibly apply to the heart-shaped leaves of brunnera, but all three do have blue flowers in common. (Bugloss would not be such a good name, for child or pet.)

Here’s the little charmer, Anchusa capensis, unbranched and still a little dumpy.

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Finding a spot for these two alkanets amongst the kniphofias and grasses for summer and amongst the shrubs I love for winter was a squeeze.
But seeing their energizing effect on the spring greens and bright golds of the garden brought about the bitter realization that a couple more splashes of blue would be far superior to this piddly compromise of just two.

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And since there was not a bit of ground left to plant, a bitter compromise it remained until today, when a large clay pot of this Lobelia valida I’ve had for over a year was discovered to be budding up amongst a group of pots and in strong growth after a recent rains. (Such a group of potted plants in reserve is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “pot ghetto.”) I bought my lobelia locally, but Annie’s Annuals sometimes carries it.

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All winter the lobelia looked most unpromising, leaves yellowing, which is why unfamiliar plants now spend some time in the pot ghetto first, to suss out strengths and weaknesses, an invaluable strategy for small gardens. No more taking a chance on losing a whole season by including plants with no intention of joining in the summer festivities or that become exhausted by the briefest of appearances. Gardeners must be skeptics. Catalogues can deceive (sometimes unintentionally).

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So this potted lobelia from South Africa, bursting with newfound vigor, was transported to a position on the brick patio, directly in front of the variegated yucca, to make a threesome of blue, just to the right and in front of the little alkanets growing behind in the garden. This kind of synergy between pots on the patio and the garden behind is constantly exploited, a great ploy for the small garden. The lobelia may be inclined to bloom for only a few weeks, in which case it gets whisked back to the pot ghetto. Seeded into the bricks spilling around the pot and nearly hiding it is some Haloragis erecta that’s often sold as ‘Wellington Bronze,’ a compelling reason on its own to add some blue nearby.

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The eye now satisfyingly ricochets from one, two, three pools of blue, the third one deep in the garden bed.
(Taking a brief moment to recite the gardener’s prayer, most effective when chanted while flinging handfuls of bone meal: Please grow and thrive.)
That three-or-five rule for flowering plants can seem so tyrannical in a small garden, but three does speak to intention. One is definitely the loneliest number.
No reason it has to be three or five of the same plant, though. Sometimes the same color is enough.
Apart from such considerations, I should have noticed sooner that the yucca and this tallish South African lobelia were clearly intended for each other this spring.

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The Occasional Daily Photo

MB Maher’s 4X5 portrait of musician Frank Fairfield (banjo, fiddle, guitar), who has another album coming out this year.

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(Debuting a fluid, non-binding category of miscellaneous images.)

Polygonum aubertii ‘Aureum’

The Silver Lace Vine. Or, as this one is called, the Golden Silver Lace Vine.
The new growth in spring bears colors more often seen with Japanese maples.

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Shrimp-pink stems, lemony-tart leaves. Tangy. (Guess I’m still hung over from Sunday brunch.)
Also goes by Fallopia baldschuanica.

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For a few years this polygonum has grown into a Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, all puffy clouds of fluttery white flowers in spring.
The vine was to add its foamy trusses of tiny white flowers for late summer and fall, or such was the plan, but by summer I’ve completely forgotten the vine exists, so completely and stealthily has it infiltrated the tree’s canopy. Vine and blooms are high aloft and out of sight by fall. My neighbor on the other side of the fence, the east side, has the best seat for the show. I see nothing, unable to get a decent vantage point in this tiny garden. Occasionally, in late summer, I’m startled by the sight of it as I drive home from the east. Would you look at those flowers pouring out of that tree! Oh, right, that would be my fringe tree and fleece vine.

So this year I’m inquiring if the vine wouldn’t perhaps mind growing tangled on a trellis at eye level and not beat feet into the upper reaches of the fringe tree.
I’m asking very politely. You don’t want to make a knotweed angry.

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I’m joking, of course. Despite their fearsome reputations, there do exist well-mannered knotweeds. This golden-leaved, sterile form is surprisingly tolerant of the dryish summer conditions under the fringe tree. Morning sun is best so the leaves won’t burn, deciduous, cut back to about 4 feet or so in December or January here in zone 10. The ropey, corkscrew stems have been recruited for holiday wreaths or, as in here, twisted around succulents baskets. Just too cool to discard.

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This vine may be sneaky, delicately wending its way into the recesses of the fringe tree, but rampant it is not. Still, now in its third or fourth year, this scheme to confine it to a 6-foot trellis may be a bit naive. And what self-respecting vine would prefer a dinky garden trellis to embracing its destiny on the limbs of a sturdy tree?

(Edited to add: This vine was consolation for banishing the golden hops vine, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus,’ capable of unimaginable feats of garden thuggery.)

Tulip Porn

Tulip ‘Brown Sugar’

It would push me over the edge to have to write catalogue descriptions for tulips.
A groundwork of deep apricot etched in grenadine feathering reaching just shy of the margins, emanating from a central upward brush stroke of cerise pink.
Try doing that eight hours a day.

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The Tree Collard

Just another brassica, right?

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Let’s read the label, shall we?

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(Plant label: “Tree Collards. Evergreen. 8-10′ tall. Old American heirloom. Very nutritious, high in protein. Excellent steamed or boiled. Full-part sun, water regularly.”)

No, that was not a typo. That’s 8 to 10 feet, with anecdotal reports of 20-year-old plants reaching heights of 20 feet! (And I’ll take mine braised, thank you very much.)

Brassica oleracea var. acephala, the mighty Tree Collard, a perennial. I ask you, who knew?
I’m envisioning an edible cussonia, although the tree collard may possibly fall short of a cussonia’s good looks. And will need to be staked.

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Image of Cussonia paniculata from Tower Hill Botanic Garden

And if you’re savvy enough to be asking yourself, “What’s the difference between Tree Collards and Walking Stick Kale?” Michael DiBenedetto elucidated this distinction in a 5/2/09 Gardenweb post. The whole thread can be found here.

Continue reading The Tree Collard

Agave ‘Cornelius’

When I got home last night, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was streaming from Netflix. (Sidebar: TV is amazingly complicated these days.)

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First thing this morning, I was of course snapping photos of the Agave ‘Cornelius.’
Or “Corneeleyoos,” as Mila Jovovich croons the name throughout the movie, swaddled in ribbons of cloth designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

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I once got into a heated discussion with a video rental clerk (another blip in the continuum of extinct employment categories) over the merits of the movie, now a fond memory every time I read heated “discussions,” really one-off opinions, in the online Netflix movie reviews. The clerk thought it the best thing since Citizen Kane, and I thought it was gorgeous fun, and so we parted ways with our original opinions intact.

This agave is, no debate, flat-out gorgeous. And that’s despite its other moniker of the Quasimoto Agave. Reputed to be a cultivar of Agave americana, now in tissue propagation and more generally available. Mine was bought by a friend at a sale from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. There’s some slight damage from my garden snails to lower leaves, as can be seen lower right, but it’s pushing out pristine new leaves.

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The little poppy, P. setigerum, has sown itself in the crevices around the porch, just showing buds, nestling up against the agave’s pot.
The back porch has been one of the sunniest spots all winter, and little Corneeleyoos has done wonderfully here.

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Foliage Follow-Up February 2011

This Salvia canariensis var. candissima from Annie’s Annuals is furrier than the species and has been incredibly difficult to photograph. Ever since I read a recent trashy news story on how beauties like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe shaved their faces of any peach fuzz for the camera (Huffington Post here), that photographic challenge now has some context and makes a little more sense to me. The dusky pink blooms and bracts have a similar character to Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. I moved it so many times last year that it never bloomed, so have dedicated quite a bit of sunny garden this year to this salvia, which will inevitably become ginormous.

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I’ve found extremely fuzzy plants difficult to capture, for example, as opposed to succulents, which practically photograph themselves.
(Unnamed graptopetalum.)

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Ligularia tussilagenea ‘Argentea.’ This ligularia/farfugium would seem to be pushing variegation to an unhealthy extreme, with some leaves in total photosynthetic denial, possessing no discernible pigment at all.

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Brachysema praemorsum ‘Bronze Butterfly.’ Far Out Flora visited the Santa Cruz Arboretum’s Australian section and gives some background on this Australian shrub, which grows in my gravel garden among agaves, phormiums, grasses, and succulents. It’s past time for brachysema to be reintroduced to nurseries again. A tough, mid-sized shrub that never looks disheveled.

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Melianthus major ‘Purple Haze,’ recently planted from a gallon.

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I love the way this tetrapanax wants to join in the conversation, almost climbing into the chair to take a seat at the table.

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Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan.’ There are so many variegated varieties of E. characias now, it’s hard to recapture the excitement when the ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ roared into nurseries then pitifully mewed and faded away in gardens. This ‘Silver Swan’ has been a very strong grower so far.

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Pam at Digging hosts the Foliage Follow-Up on the 16th of each month. Branches and bark are welcome too.

Bloom Day February 2011

What was I thinking, sleeping in on Bloom Day?

Getting straight to the point…

Grevillea ‘Superb’

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Pelargonium echinatum

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Abutilon

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Anigozanthus

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Salvia chiapensis

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Ammi majus

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Tulips

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The first flower of Salvia iodantha wagneriana in honor of Bloom Day. Thanks, Carol!

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Second Look (Erodium pelargoniflorum)

Little plants like this erodium, that wouldn’t rate a second look in summer, for a brief time have the field to themselves in early spring.
So many modest spring bloomers like this erodium are described as “charming,” which sounds like a tepid compliment from the politely underwhelmed, but after a mostly flowerless winter perhaps it’s wise to be charmed by degrees, not flabbergasted all at once. Spring is when I’m more than willing to crawl up close to the little charmers, insect-like, to investigate details of bloom. By summer, I wouldn’t enter the gravel garden except on well-shod feet, possibly with machete in hand.

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This erodium is generally described as a perennial for zones 7-9, but its character in the gravel garden is that of a spring annual, blooming and flourishing as long as the soil retains vestiges of moisture from the winter rains, then disappearing entirely in summer. If kept watered, it would bloom and be presentable much longer. Sheets of seedlings re-emerge with a vengeance with the next winter storm, and new plants bloom again in spring. A fierce reseeder, this Storksbill, Heron’s Bill, member of the geraniaceae. Nerines are thickening into clumps nearby for fall, so I’ve kept this erodium’s spread to a minimum this spring.

The palmate leaves are hirsute and sticky debris-catchers.

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I wonder if I will ever outgrow the astonishment stage of gardening, perpetually astonished and glad for the bounty reseeding plants liberally fling about the garden, when they settle in and get happy, when the garden story writes itself and you play more the role of the attentive editor, a kind and patient Maxwell Perkins to the fecund chaos of Thomas Wolfe. (Look Homeward, Erodium!) Gardens with much more moisture might have something to fear, but a couple sweeps with the hoe after winter rains keeps this exuberant fellow in line, the fibrous roots pulling up easily out of the gravel before the larger tap root matures.

A view of the sepals as this little erodium fills in around the base of a large restio.

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Would I bother to buy seeds and sow this erodium every year? Honestly, possibly not every year. Honestly, possibly not at all. There are so many good spring annuals to choose from, countless kinds I’ve tried and then forgotten because they don’t share this erodium’s generous nature. Good leaves, interesting flowers, clumps to about a foot in height, blooming in the earliest days of spring, and managing all this by itself, with minimal intervention from me, all these traits together make up this erodium’s charm. And it’s the perfect complement for wet winter/dry summer Mediterranean bulbs, more of which I’ll be adding to the gravel garden.

I wrote about this erodium last February, but besides the above reasons, another reason to take a second look at this erodium is because it seems to be generally mislabeled in seed catalogues. What I call E. pelargoniflorum may in fact be E. trifolium, which seems to quickly lose vigor and is not reliably perennial, all of which describes my erodium. I’m told Erodium trifolium does not have hairs in the foveole, and if I knew what a foveole was I’d explain further. The salient point I’m making doesn’t change, however, that whatever its identity, this erodium can be grown as an annual, with expectations for it to bloom well the first year after sowing. If anyone wants to try seeds of the erodium I’m growing, send me an email.

Bromeliads in Winter

Bromeliads like this Vriesea gigantea are wintering outdoors in this frostless garden.
Maybe this bizarro winter I should knock wood and say this historically frostless garden.

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This fast-growing vriesea from southeastern Brazil is temporarily kept in a small pot to tuck into larger pots, but its future massive size will require other arrangements. Bromeliads are relatively new to me. Some are grown more for their fantastic plasticine foliage, others for an incredible inflorescence in shapes and colors that bring to mind the plumage of tropical birds. I currently have maybe five, chosen more for foliage, always trying to find them in small sizes since they fetch exorbitant prices when large. They are much more “other” to me than succulents, utterly strange and mysterious, but apart from requiring shade are just as easy on the maintenance schedule, and just as dangerously collectible.

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Most bromeliads are epiphytic, and soil is really only necessary for stabilizing the plant. Soggy roots are to be avoided. The central cup of leaves is kept filled with fresh water. Incredibly easy glamour. The soft light of winter is rarely too harsh for these shade lovers, and I can play with them quite a bit, planting them in the ground among grasses, full sun/overcast skies, for several months, then repotting them again as spring nears. I carelessly left a neoregelia and aechmea in the ground during the rainy month of December, a cavalier attitude that could have had disastrous consequences, but they’re fine.

On a reasonably warm February day in the 70′s, setting this vriesea into the larger container with aeoniums and coprosma conjures an instant scene from summer. Those old cordyline leaves don’t look very summery, but the bromeliad does enjoy the increased humidity from the surrounding plants. One look at my hands would tell you how dry it’s been.

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