Fine, fine celandine


I moved in with my husband Doug, back in the olden days, because his house had a garden. It was a tiny garden, in the city, surrounded by weed trees, but still, it was a garden. He doesn’t know it, but he and the garden were a package deal. Back then, pre-kids, we actually used to do things like go on trips to visit parks and nature preserves, and on a visit to one, we ran across a native plant sale. I don’t remember everything I bought, but among the purchases was something labeled as “Celandine Poppy.” I brought it home and put it in the ground, and was rewarded a while later with beautiful clear yellow poppy-shaped flowers. (The actual name of the plant is Stylophorum diphyllum; it’s also called “woodland poppy.” There’s a cheap imitation form, known as “lesser celandine,” that blankets forests and parks around here in early spring. It’s pretty for about a week. Steer clear of that one.)

Wildflowers, ironically, always did really well in my city garden—maybe because it was super-shady from all the trash trees, maybe because the soil was so wan and poor. Now that I live more “out in the country,” I never think to put native plants and wildflowers in (unless you count my disastrous experiment with Queen Anne’s lace, see below!). But I’d love to have a celandine poppy again, both because the flowers were so lovely, and because I think “celandine” is such a pretty word. Maybe I should have named my daughter Celandine!

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Photo by Phyzome. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.


Sweet potato pied


It’s funny how new plants somehow seem to appear out of nowhere. A few years back, I started to notice plant catalogs and magazines touting something called “sweet potato vine.” It was mostly used in hanging baskets and containers, and strictly for its foliage; I don’t think it flowers at all. What was striking about these plants was their color. They came in two shades at first, a clear, bright chartreuse and a handsome deep purple. I bought some and stuck them in hanging baskets and my front-porch container, and they performed well for me. They didn’t exactly set my soul to singing, but they were pretty filler. Besides, I would have felt so unfashionable if I hadn’t used them; they were the plant du jour.

I kept buying them in following years—the chartreuse, especially, was seductive—but I always felt they hadn’t quite fulfilled their potential. This year, though, Proven Winners, the company I trial-garden for, sent me a new type of sweet-potato vine. It came in a chartreuse version, ‘Emerald Lace,’  and a purply-burgundy version, ‘Midnight Lace,’ but the foliage wasn’t heart-shaped, like ordinary sweet-potato plants. Instead, it was finely cut, almost feathery. It reminded me a lot, in shape if not in color, of weeping willow trees.

I put a plant of each color into my front-porch planter, along with a gorgeous purple Wave petunia, a yellow petunia (yellow petunias are my favorite petunias, but they’re always more delicate and never seem to make it through a summer for me), and a bright pink impatiens with dark leaves. It’s quite eye-catching, if I say so myself. The other two plants, I didn’t really have room for. But a hole developed in my large bed (as they so frequently do) after Homer, the dog, sat on a patch of petunias, so I stuck the sweet-potato vines in to replace them. And they’ve been an absolute revelation there.

They’re thick and bushy and just gorgeous, having grown into big mounds of colors that contrast so beautifully. I would never have thought of sweet potato vines for bedding, but I’m going to be sure to use them there again. I never do really use foliage plants in my beds, unless you count the stupid vinca that cannot be eradicated; I’m too fond of flowers. But these plants are making me forget that they’re never gonna bloom!

This photo is courtesy of a blogger named Bill Cary who also trials Proven Winner plants; his website is at

Phlox rocks


Phlox is one of those plants I knew nothing about before I stuck one in the ground. The variety was ‘David,’ and I ordered it from White Flower Farm with a gift certificate, seduced by the promise of rich scent, long-lasting bloom and mildew resistance. (I wasn’t sure what mildew was, but resistance seemed a good thing.) I planted my phlox in the spring, and in late summer, it threw up a panicle of pretty white flowers—nothing showy, but a bright, clean sight in my garden bed. I had to get my nose right up in there to note the fragrance, but it was lovely, too.

The next summer, Homer sat on the phlox just as it was on the verge of blooming. The stalks were only half snapped through, so I tried, as I so often do, to pretend nothing had happened, sort of straightening them out and propping them up on nearby evening primrose (the sturdiest plant I know next to sunflowers). But it was a no-go. I forgave Homer—he doesn’t know—and hoped for better next  year. Next year came, ‘David’ got just to the point of bloom, and Homer sat on him again.

The thing is,  you can’t blame the dog; he’s just doing what dogs do. Every year, that mutt costs me tulips, lilies, poppies, peonies. He snaps off snapdragons. He squashes squash. If I’m in the yard with him, I shoo him out of the garden. But he has a favorite spot to lie in when it’s hot, in the shade beneath my forsythia. He has a nice dirt bed dug there, and he’ll stir the ground up a little with his paws before he settles down, to cool it off.

A few years back, ‘David’ got weary of being sat on. Spring came, and he never showed up. I liked my him’ so much, though, that last summer, I replaced him. And this year, the new ‘David’ got just to the point of bloom when—you guessed it. Smooshed flatter than a pancake. Gardeners must be the most optimistic creatures in all of creation—or the looniest. What is that old definition of craziness? Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result? Guilty as charged. 🙂

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Keeping up


Why does the word “upkeep” sound so daunting to me? Probably because I tend to let things go too long between attempts at keeping up. I hadn’t mowed the lawn for a couple of weeks, first of all because it kept raining, and second of all because the grass wasn’t growing as madly as it had been earlier this summer, I guess because it’s been so hot. But today I dragged out the (non-motorized) mower and got to work. Of course I soon discovered that the crabgrass was back in force, so that had to be pulled out, and the tomatoes needed weeding, and there were a lot of weeds coming up in cracks in the pavement to dig out … you get the idea.

But I’m proud of myself for one thing. There was a big-ass cleome coming up in the front of the big bed out back. Cleome is much too big a plant to let come up in the front of a bed, but in past years, I’ve let too-big plants have their way, sort of on the theory that at least something is growing there, and even a big-ass cleome is better than plain dirt.

Today, though, I pulled that cleome out. I thought about perspective and proportion and how the cleome was swallowing up a nice white petunia and a couple of poppies that were hiding behind it, and I got my gloves on (cleome are surprisingly prickly, which I always forget until I grab the stem of one) and yanked. And you know what? The garden looks a lot better for it. Sometimes you just have to be ruthless in this life.

GFDL Photograph by Shoinard. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this photograph under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Subject to disclaimers.

Holy crape


I spent the past few days taking my soon-to-be-a-high-school-senior son Jake to visit various colleges. I took the Southern leg of his college visits; tomorrow his dad takes him North. I chose the Southern route on purpose. I went to college in North Carolina, and there’s something about glimpsing Southern flora that still feels like coming home. There are a few Northern schools we’ve visited that have this same vibe—the University of Delaware felt Southern to me, as did Monmouth University, in New Jersey. And sure enough, their coastal proximity means a more sheltered eco-system that allows trees like magnolias to flourish.

To me, a Southern school also means brick buildings, and crape myrtle. I’m never sure whether crape myrtle is a tree or a bush. I only know that when I see it—when we arrive at a latitude that supports it—my heart rises up and sings. It’s no prettier, really, than a butterfly bush, no more exotic than smoke tree or bottle-brush. But it says “South” to me with all the winsomeness of my long-gone college years, the irresponsibility and responsibility, the best friends made, the parties attended, the professors’ approval sought, the hockey games played … all that bright future Jake is just on the verge of, those golden years.

Decades later, when our kids were teenagers, we began visiting the Outer Banks each summer. The highlight of the drive down for me came when the route began to be lined with crape myrtle trees (bushes?), and makeshift nurseries alongside the road would offer the plants for sale. It was tempting, but I never bit. Twenty or more years ago, when I was young and fearless, I ordered some crape myrtle seeds from Thompson & Morgan and started them. I wound up with three seedlings, and gave them all away to friends, since our house in Philadelphia at the time had no yard. I’ve since lost track of two of those friends, but the third seedling went to my sister Nancy, and that crape myrtle still blooms in her front yard in Princeton each year. I cite this accomplishment as my bona fides when smack-talking gardening with kindred souls: “Yeah, well, I once started crape myrtle from seed!” Is it any wonder I have a fondness for the plant? 🙂
This photo was taken by Dave at Dave’s Garden. Released under the GFDL, as documented here.

GNU head Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.

What a croc


There’s a house in my town, a beautiful red-brick Victorian with white gingerbread trim. It sits atop a steep hill, with long stairs leading up to the front door. Its yard is a nightmare, a series of steep stretches of grass and, closest to the sidewalk, a garden bed that’s practically perpendicular. Every year, I eye that garden—it’s on my way home from the grocery store—and think how glad I am that my beds are dead flat.

Then midsummer comes, and I’m dumbstruck, because that impossible garden bed becomes a blaze of fire, thanks to the bulbs of crocosmia the owner has planted. Every year, I’m surprised to see them flare up on that hill. And every year, I wish to hell I’d remembered to order some crocosmia bulbs for my own garden. They’re not particularly expensive. But they look much better in person than they do in their photos (like many people I know!). I don’t know why I put off ordering them. Well, yes I do. When the bulb catalogs come, along about this time of year, I get seduced by my old favorites, the lilies and tulips, and since I’m trying to adhere to a budget, there’s no room on my order form or in my garden for more exotic bulbs.

I’m going to change that, though. There are so many under-the-radar summer bulbs that I love—gladiolas, tuberose, tuberous begonias, and the wonderful acidenthera, also known as butterfly gladiolas (more on these in a later post). Crocosmia come in yellow and crimson forms. And I am making a vow, right here and now, that next summer, I’ll have some of their delicate, intricate beauty in my garden. That way, I won’t have to kick myself every time I drive home from the grocery store and say, “Damn! I forgot to get any crocosmia again!”

Phonto by Forest and Kim Starr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Lilies of the Field

I’m so, so fond of lilies. I love their scent, the thick, waxy feel of their petals, even the stamens that smear insoluable, unable-to-be-removed STUFF all over you and your clothing. It never fails to amaze me that there are bulbs you can stick in the ground and proceed to pay virtually no attention to, and yet you’ll be rewarded with tall stalks of unspeakably elegant, impossibly fragrant flowers. I think of this now because my Oriental lilies are blooming, including several rubrum lilies, which may be my favorite. (Oh, I know the modern taste is for a shorter, blockier lily, but I like them tall.)

My sister Jan, when she got married, wanted pristine ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies in her bouquet, and was outraged when her florist instead used gloriosa lilies, which are red and yellow and spectacular. I pretended to share her outrage, but I much preferred the glorisas; I adore their spidery-ness, therecurved shape and vibrant colors. Granted, a bride should get what she wants on her wedding day. But everybody has ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies in their bouquets. How many have red-and-yellow spiders?


Gloriosa lily by J.M. Gung; This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License.

Old and new

This weekend, Doug and I were lucky enough to go on a getaway, on the magazine’s dime, to Bedford Springs Resort, a newly opened renovation of an absolutely breathtaking old hotel in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. While we were there, I got my first-ever fly-fishing lesson, from a marvelous guide named Ernie Blough, who was so kind and patient with me. Our room in the resort was unspeakably luxurious; the food was wonderful; the Olympic-sized pool filled with mineral water from the springs that give the place its name was strange and yet familiar at the same time, the water heavier, less transparent, yet still water in the end. The hotel is filled with the most marvelous fabrics and rugs and wallpaper, all specially designed and in a series of color schemes, because the entire place is more than a quarter-mile long, from one end to the other!

Everything about the Omni Bedford Springs was perfectly glorious … except for its gardens. There’s a big formal garden right in front of the central portion of the hotel, and as gardens grow, it’s about as boring as anything I’ve ever seen. There are patches planted with dumb pink landscaping roses, patches planted with yellow marigolds, patches planted with orange marigolds, a lot of blowsy hydrangea, and some germander. Germander?!? This was what finally gave it away to me. It seems the hotel’s garden designers have been as faithful to the “re-creation” vision as the architects and engineers; they’ve only used plant materials that were available during the resort’s heyday. Well, I think that’s a mistake. Strict adherence to the past in a garden isn’t of much interest to gardeners, who love finding new things. You could even say that it’s the drive to discover new plants that has shaped our world. Think of what the tomato has meant to Italy, the potato to Ireland, the breadfruit tree to Captain Bligh.

So—I still think those gardens could be better and still be historically accurate. I’ll look into it.


This image or media file contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain.

Oh, snap!


There are plants I go back and forth about, and snapdragons are one of them. On the one hand, I have such fond memories of snapdragon battles with my sister Jan when we were kids. We’d sever a few dragonheads from Mom’s garden bed and lunge and snap at each other with them. Is it my imagination, or were snapdragon flowers more “snappy” when I was a kid than they are now? The ones I’m currently growing seem sort of soft and and nonviolent; when you press your fingers to make them snap, they just sort of … flop.

On the other hand, snapdragons do self-seed, at least in my garden, and as you know by now, faithful readers, that moves a plant way up in my ladder of estimation. I also like some of the wild color combinations snapdragons have, and the sort of sunset hue they can have en masse, with their bobbing heads of crimson and gold and yellow and white and orange.

They do have to be deadheaded or they’ll just peter out, so that’s a downside. No wonder I go back and forth. But at the moment, I’m pleased with my snapdragons. I don’t always plant them–they’re not alway easy to find in the nursery—but some always seem to come up anyway. The ones I planted this year are really too short for the job; they’re only about 10 inches tall and are being swallowed up by taller neighbors. But I did put several snapdragon plants in an old, decrepit planter that used to be shaped like a turtle (now it’s a turtle minus its tail and head, which is a little scary), and they’ve mounded up beautifully into a sunset-colored mass.

I have a lot of gardening books, and in one of them, one of those wifty male Brit gardeners—you know the type—waxes on and on about the characteristic scent of snapdragons and what a turn-on it is for him. Maybe it’s a guy thing, because I’ve never smelled any scent on a snapdragon!

“Antirrhinum_majus_orange.jpg” by Kristian Peters. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation

Playing favorites


Whenever my father would buy my mother flowers for a special occasion, he always got her yellow roses. I assume there was some reason for this. I don’t know that Mom was a big fan of roses; her taste was less mainstream than that. She loved gaudy colors, oranges and reds and purples, and she didn’t grow roses in her garden (though there were a few holdovers from previous owners). But yellow roses it was, for anniversaries and birthdays, regular as clockwork, and she always told my dad they were beautiful.

I thought of this last May when my 16-year-old son Jake was getting ready for the junior/senior prom. We’d ordered his tux, after going to the home of the girl he was taking—let’s call her Carly—to see her dress, which was a bright deep yellow. (It also had no back and no sides in strategic places, and very little front for that matter, but whatever; who am I to judge?) Jake and I then headed for the florist, to order Carly a wrist corsage. On the way, I told Jake, “Call her and ask what’s her favorite flower.”

So he dialed her up and asked. I could hear her burst of laughter right through his cell phone. “She says she doesn’t have a favorite flower,” he reported, once her laughter had stopped. His tone clearly indicated that he thought I’d made him out to look like an idiot in Carly’s eyes for posing such a stupid question.

I found that sort of sad. Even if Carly didn’t have a favorite flower, she should have picked one, said something. But perhaps I would have just laughed, too, if someone had asked me that question when I was 17. At any rate,  Jake didn’t have an opinion, either. So we got Carly roses, deep yellow roses to match her gown (what there was of it), accented with glorious delphinium of the deepest, clearest cobalt blue, with a few sprigs of baby’s breath and white and yellow ribbons. The florist did a spectacular job. And maybe Carly liked it enough that the next time someone asks her her favorite flower, she’ll say, “Roses. Yellow roses.”

I kind of doubt she’ll say “Delphinium.”


“A Yellow Rose” by Flemming Christiansen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0.

“Delphinium elatum hybride 001.jpg” licensed by Viewx jardin botanique de Gottinger under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.

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