I love verticality in the garden—the strong statement that a spire of verbascum  or tall stalk of hollyhock makes. It seems to me, though, that the taller a perennial grows, the shorter its life—sort of the way big dogs don’t live as long as small ones. I’ve tried for years to grow the yellow fig-leaved hollyhock in my garden, but no luck. I’ve also planted various types of hollyhock seeds, and they never come up. But years ago, when we first moved in here, a run-down house nearby had an even more run-down garage behind it, and beside the garage grew a tall stand of beautiful, frilly pink hollyhocks. I waited until they went to seed, then stole a handful of seed pods. I’m glad I did, because new renters soon ripped out the plants. I scattered the seeds over my garden, and a few came up. And while the plants don’t tend to come up again for me, they do self-seed, though not always where you want a six-foot spike. Still, I’m always glad to see them.

Burpee sells seeds and seedlings for some beautiful verbascum. These are those plants you see on the sides of roads with a rosette of fuzzy gray leaves and a tall spire of yellow flowers springing up from it (above). Burpee has refined the plant somewhat—its versions aren’t as tall as the wildflowers, which can tower over six feet—but it still, even in miniature, has a charming bohemian look to it. I loved Burpee’s “Southern Charm” variety enough to buy it twice, but it never self-seeded for me, and the originals died out. True, they were situated right where Homer likes to park his large, shaggy butt. Maybe I’ll try again when … you know.


Paper Chase

Papyrus_plantFour years ago, because I was writing about gardening for Philadelphia Magazine, I was invited by a company called Proven Winners to become a test gardener for its plants. Of course I instantly signed up. Free plants! How cool would that be? And it has been very cool, even though they tend to send me too much stuff. Three years ago, they sent a hydrangea that I think is finally going to bloom this year for the first time. I already had one hydrangea, a pretty blue lacecap. Still, two hydrangeas seemed okay to me. But then, this year they sent me two more hydrangeas. I can only fit so many hydrangeas in a yard this size. Fortunately, I do love hydrangeas (the blue bloomers more than the pink), especially cut and brought indoors. But I’m at my limit now, Proven Winners. Let’s stick with the annuals. They have sent some very cool annuals, and at least I don’t have to feel guilty when those die. Last year they sent pink Silverbells petunias that were just fantastic. They spread out for about three feet and bloomed their heads off all summer long.

This year, along with the hydrangeas, they sent two papyrus plants. Oddly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen papyrus plants before, but I knew that’s what these were as soon as I opened the box. I guess I’ve seen them in Egyptian art. I was very excited and making plans to craft my own paper from them once they were established. Then I read the instructions that came with them. EACH one of the papyrus plants, the directions say, will grow to six feet tall by six feet wide.

That would take up just about my whole garden out back!

I palmed one of the papyrus plants off on my Best Gardening Friend, Ruth, though she was highly suspicious, and said, “It’s not going to be like bamboo, is it?” I found out later she chickened out of planting it and gave it instead to HER friend Sue, who has a pond. Meantime, I planted my papyrus on the side of the house, figuring it’s so dry there that the poor thing will never make it. Well, thanks to our gloomy English spring, it’s thriving. It’s got four stalks crowned with the prettiest sort of bright green curly-haired heads. They’re nowhere near six feet tall yet, but they’re two feet, I guess. I love my papyrus; I love how it looks, and I love the thought that ancient Egyptians were growing the same plant that now grows in my little suburban garden.

Check back in a few years and we’ll see how I feel about my potential papyrus monster then!

Capering along


As usual, I bought more seeds than I planted this year. The spring was so cold and wet and generally uninviting in the garden that I ended up with about six packets–mostly stuff I was supposed to plant “once the weather is reliably warm”—still sitting on the kitchen counter. After my giant allium (not so giant, actually, this year, but I dug them up and replanted, hoping more space would lessen the number but increase the size) fell over, the earth beneath them looked kind of bare. So even though it was well into June, I stuck some nasturtium seeds in there. I pretty much forgot to check on them until yesterday, when I was mowing the lawn. Lo and behold, they were six inches tall and well leafed-out. Unbelievable how fast things grow when they put their minds to it.

These are the low-growing nasturtium. I planted the sprawling kind in the back of my largest bed, to bedevil my next-door neighbor, who can’t stand things that climb or trail along our shared fence. 🙂 Those are already blooming. I adore the colors of nasturtium, the molten gold and red and orange. I love to cut a bunch of them and put them in a small vase on the kitchen table. So sunny and bright! I’ve learned to check them for aphids, though. I know they’re edible and I could use them in salads, but mine are always full of aphids when I cut them. They rinse off easily enough, but still, it’s not very appetizing.

Nasturtium seeds are pickled to make capers, which we’re very fond of. Perhaps this year I’ll try to unearth a capers recipe and make Christmas presents. Come to think of it, though, my nasturtium don’t ever seem to go to seed–probably because I cut them all!

Vine Time


Today I noticed that the trumpet vine (campsis radicans) is blooming at last. It’s grown from a tiny cutting I got from a friend, who’d gotten it from another friend but who didn’t want to plant it because it grows like topsy. My friend actually passed along two cuttings, but I was wary of planting both. So I stuck one in, right beside the composter, and that baby must love her some compost, because she grows and grows and grows. I’ve had gardening friends complain that their trumpet vines don’t bloom. Mine does, and has for years. The succession of neighbors across the fence—the vine grows right up against and through it—hasn’t been as fond of my trumpet vine as I am, and they regularly take a chainsaw to whatever comes up on their side. Doesn’t bother the trumpet vine one bit. (In fact, I think the brutal pruning might help.) The blossoms attract hummingbirds—not exactly in profusion, but I see at least one every year, and the anticipation inevitably builds through the summer months. (Which is odd, because hummingbirds are really just like extremely large bugs, and I hate large bugs. But there’s a sort of status in saying you have hummingbirds in your yard.) Yeah, she’s big and gangly, and yeah, she self-roots everyplace, so you have to be careful to yank out wayward shoots. But I think she’s beautiful.

The first year she bloomed, I looked out from the kitchen doorway and saw this big orange splotch in the branches. “The kids next door must have lost a basketball in there,” I thought, and went out to get it and throw it back to them. It wasn’t a basketball, though; it was a big, blooming burst of trumpet-vine flowers. They’re the exact same shade.

Throughout the summer, between the trumpet vine and the climbing roses against the garage, the composter gradually becomes less and less accessible. I know it’s time to get pruning when I hear Doug cursing as he takes a load of corn husks or melon rinds back there.

Lavender and, uh, larkspur

Here they are, in that order:



Hello world!


Why a gardening blog? Well, it starts with a dog. Actually, it starts with the garden I had before I had the dog. That was a beautiful garden, lush and flush and perfect in every way. (See photo above.)  Then we acquired Homer (named, in a fit of whimsy that should have been repressed, for the opposite of “Rover”), and the garden never was the same. Homer grew into a 120-pound behemoth, a collie/shepherd/husky mix who sat on salvia, peed on peonies, lay down on lilies, and generally wreaked havoc in my small suburban yard.

He’s old now, nearly 12, which is ancient for a dog his size. He likely won’t make it through the summer. (He may not make it through the week now that it’s heated up.) I’d rather have him than the most glorious garden in the world. But I’m a gardener, and that means I’m a practical sort. I may as well fill up the time we used to spend exploring woods and parks together with a blog.

Why “Lavender & Larkspur”? This blog is named for one plant I can’t grow and one I can. In our 16 years in this house in Eastern Pennsylvania, I must have planted lavender 10 different times. Expensive lavender from White Flower Farm in Connecticut, bought with Christmas gift certificates. Cheap lavender from Home Depot. English lavender. French lavender. Spanish lavender. Lavenders of the freaking world. I tried them in bright sun, in part sun, in the boggy parts of the garden and in the dry. And how many of them came up again the year after they were planted? None of them. Zero. Zilch. I’m a lavender murderess.

Now, larkspur, on the other hand … my larkspur grows six feet tall and sprawls all over the place. My larkspur self-seeds in breathtaking shades of pink and deep blue and dark purple. It turns up everywhere; I actually have to thin it out (which breaks my heart). I love it immeasurably—its vibrancy, its delicacy, the baby-sweet blush of the pink and that rich royal blue.

So you’d think: Good for her! She’s got larkspur! Why does she even bother trying with the lavender? Because that’s gardening’s eternal yin and yang—the comfort of the familiar vs. the draw of the exotic. I love my larkspur, but I don’t really respect it. She’s too easy, if you get my drift. Lavender, however, plays hard-to-get with me. And that only makes me want her more. So I go on trying, and failing, and trying again. Gardening’s good at teaching about failures, and pushing right through them. It’s also good at teaching about eternal hope. That’s what every spring is: another chance, one more opportunity to spend good gift-certificate money on a seductive lady (oh, the historical allure, the centuries of suitors’ nosegays, and sprigs strewn across crisp linen sheets, and the bee-sweet perfumers’ fields of Provence!) I suspect is only going to spurn me again.

So that’s what I’ll be blogging about here: persistence, failure, heartbreak, and the occasional surprising success that makes the rest worthwhile. I hope you’ll stop by by now and again, share your successes and failures, celebrate and commiserate.