Just the flax, ma’am

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I’ll admit it; I’m a gardening snob. I tend to look down my nose at those seed mixtures that companies sell: “shade mixture,” “sun mixture,” “cutting-garden mixture”–you know the type. This is really stupid and short-sighted of me, because I’ve discovered some of my favorite flowers through growing seed mixtures.

When we first moved to this house, 17 years ago, I bought several packets of “all-purpose mixture” seeds and sprinkled them out in the new, empty garden beds I’d created out back. While I made a lot of mistakes that first year–including painstakingly transplanting tiny tufts of crabgrass INTO my beds–I also learned a lot. One of the flowers I learned about was flax, a.k.a. linum. It’s a lovely plant, airy and light in foliage, sort of like ‘Moonlight’ coreposis, only shorter. And the flowers are blue, a lovely clear sky blue. And I do love blue flowers.

But beyond all that, I love to grow flax flowers because “linum” is what we make linen out of–still. It had to be one of the first plants humans used for fabric-making purposes. And I imagine it happened something like this: Women picking the flowers because they’re so pretty noticed how strong the stems were, and braided them together to make string or rope. Or they idly picked the stems apart and noticed they were made up of fibers like hair, and braided those together. I like thinking about how much time early humans had to ponder, and to try things out, and to innovate, without such distractions as People magazine and reality TV and the Internet. I do realize they had other things to occupy their time, such as trying to find food and avoiding predators! But there also had to be a lot of what my husband’s dad calls “wool-gathering”: just wondering about the world around them, trying to decipher patterns, endeavoring to make life easier, day by day.

Speaking of which, you know how when the movies or Geico commercials show “cave people,” they’re always wild-haired? I bet cavemen and cavewomen were better groomed than that. I bet a lot of those hours of downtime were utilized in braiding hair and decorating it with feathers and flowers and such. And I’ll also bet it was hair-braiding that led to fabric-making.

Growing flax in my garden makes me think about such things!

Photo by Dr. Hagen Graebner. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.

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Sweet Alyssa

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That has to be the plural of sweet alyssum, doesn’t it? Or is it just an Allman Brothers tune? The long, slow last days of summer always uncover the alyssum in my garden. They’ve been there all along; they’re one of the first annuals to bloom from seed every year, and they self-seed, so even if I forget to buy seed, I always have a few white drifts appearing in early May. But then the showier poppies and phlox and petunias and nasturtiums overgrow them, since alyssum, a.k.a. Lobularia maritima, is a ground-hugger, never growing more than a few inches tall. The flowers are teensy, smaller than your pinky fingernail, but there are so many of them that they make pretty drifts of white … once their neighbors start to brown out in these dog days.

Alyssum always look fresh and crisp and bright, never tired or dowdy. And in autumn, the reason for the “sweet” part of their name finally becomes evident. For some reason, I can only discern their scent in the fall, never in spring or summer. I have lots of flowers that only smell at night, but alyssum is the only one I know whose scent is seasonal.

Last spring, Proven Winners sent me a sort of hopped-up sweet alyssum on steroids. I put it in a pot on the front-porch steps. It looks exactly like regular old alyssum, except the flowers are marginally bigger. And I do mean marginally! Maybe being pot-bound has held them back? Anyway, I don’t see much reason to pay for the fancy version when the seeds are dirt-cheap and reliable, too.

Photo of Lobularia maritima ‘Snow Crystals’ by Pharoah Hound.

The elephant on the porch

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You know how there are plants that every year you mean to make sure you get, but then you don’t? I’m having a year like that. And since it’s almost (yikes!) Labor Day, I guess it’s too late for me to have any zinnias? What happened with me and the zinnias this summer? I always grow zinnias. I love zinnias. I usually have a big bouquet of them on the kitchen table from July through September. But this year, somehow, the zinnias fell through the cracks. They didn’t have the kind or the colors I liked when I was annual-shopping (I like tall ones that aren’t cactus-flowered; I’m usually able to find ‘State Fair’ but not this year), so I guess I kept thinking I’d find some the next time I shopped … but I never did. The result is a nagging sense that something’s missing out back. I bet they would have done well, too, this past month. Bummer.

I actually went out to Home Depot yesterday, thinking they’d have a few flats of petunias or something that I could stick in some holes, especially the one in the big urn on the front porch. They didn’t. All they had were chyrsanthemums (blech) and … pansies! Gad, it can’t be time for pansies yet, can it?

But all was not lost. They also had a couple of elephant ears, a.k.a. colocasia or taro, which is another plant I always mean to put in but usually forget to. When I had a city garden, I loved to grow these, for the contrast in scale between my tiny walled-in garden and the huge elephant ear leaves. The one I bought yesterday is a dwarf elephant ear, but that made it just the right size for the hole in the front-porch planter. Its stems are a deep burgundy and the leaves are light, bright green, which makes it perfect in the planter with the two kinds of sweet-potato vine I have planted there, which are light green and burgundy, respectively. So even though I was thinking more along the lines of petunias, I’m happy with my ears. And if I remember to take the bulbs out of the planter before frost and store them in the basement–and, more importantly, remember to retrieve them in the spring!–I can have them again next year.

Sometimes it’s the small things that make me glad.

Photo of Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’ courtesy of Proven Winners®, http://www.provenwinners.com.

Gifted

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My husband and I aren’t terribly romantic. We don’t surprise one another with presents for birthdays or holidays; we’ve found it works much better when we just tell each other what we want. Sometimes it’s something as prosaic as a frying pan; sometimes it’s socks. But sometimes I ask him for plants that I’m too cheap to buy for myself. That’s how I got my datura plants. Eight or nine years ago, I saw a photo of them in a catalog. They were practically trees–bushy arching plants covered in huge trumpet-shaped flowers. In the photo, one was white, one was yellow, and one was orange. They were (by our standards, anyway) incredibly expensive, a true luxury. And they were a highly unusual lust object for me, since it said right in the catalog that they weren’t hardy and would need to come inside in the winter here in Zone 7.

But the catalog also said they had a heavenly fragrance. And I am such a sucker for heavenly fragrance.

They arrived. They were … unprepossessing. All three of them looked alike: middle-green leaves, big and oval-shaped, sort of like an avocado plant, if you’re ever grown those from the seed inside an avocado. I put them out in the garden and waited. And waited. And waited. One year went by. Two years went by. Nothing. No flowers. The plants got a little bigger, but in no way did they resemble those bushy trees in the photograph. In the autumn, I’d bring them inside and put them in a corner in the unheated attic. All the leaves would fall off. In the spring, I’d set them on the patio and wait some more.

I’m not sure how many years went by until one day I noticed something on one of the spindly, unattractive plants. It was a bud. A really BIG bud. A bud that had to be eight inches long. I watched and waited, and in two days’ time, the big bud slowly opened into a pure white trumpet that smelled … well, the only way I can think to describe it is a mix of almond and orange blossoms. That single flower perfumed the entire neighborhood. The fragrance wasn’t overpowering, but it was sweetly haunting. That summer, I got two more flowers on that same datura plant. I made the husband and kids come out to smell them. Another of the daturas up and died, I guess in retaliation for its mate having flowered. So I was down to two, one of which hadn’t flowered, ever. Well, that was six or so years ago, and it still hasn’t. Unless the two of them are alternating blooming, just to confuse me. 🙂

I never get more than three or four or five flowers in a summer. They last for two or three days, tops. But I think I’m stuck now bringing those pots in every autumn and putting them out in springtime for the rest of my life (since I can never be sure which of the two it is that flowers). Can four lousy flowers really make up for that much trouble? Yes. They can. When they smell so heavenly. Oh, I almost forgot: Datura are poisonous. Don’t be seduced if you have small kids. (Though I was, and my kids never ate them.)

Photo by Clinton and Charles Robertson. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Why I garden

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This poem by Jack Gilbert really gets at why I keep planting seeds and pulling weeds—why I care about the elusive beauty of a flower that will only last a day in a world full of war and horror and despair. I love this poem. And my dad, who didn’t really like any poetry written since, oh, 1865,  liked it, too.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Photo by Daderot. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. I

Roses by other names

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Readers of this blog must know by now I’m no fan of impatiens. I find it common, bland, overused, and uninteresting in just about every way. Except! I am a big fan of double impatiens. In my experience, they tend to be more frail and less floriferous than single impatiens. And of course, the flowers are much smaller than real roses. But they are just like miniature roses–petite, frilly, feminine, in a lovely range of red and pink and white shades. I’ve had good success with them on patios and porches, in containers. They never get out of hand, and if you water faithfully, you’ll have mini-roses all summer long. I’ve never started these from seed, and they tend to disappear quickly from garden centers, so if you see any in your travels next spring, for heaven’s sake, snap them up! The above is Impatiens walleriana ‘Rockapulco Appleblossom’ from Proven Winners (who have not, so far, sent me any double impatiens. Hint, hint). That’s right–that is NOT a rose. It’s an impatiens.

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Another plant that’s often described as looking like a rose is what we used to call lisianthus but is now known as eustoma, except in bridal circles, where apparently “lisianthus” is thought to be more elegant than “eustoma.” Whatever. I actually think lisianthus/eustoma are more interesting looking than most roses (though there are roses I adore); I especially love the coiled buds, which you can see clearly in the photo above. I’ve grown these from seed without too much trouble, but it was back in the days when I started seeds indoors. There are double forms that are lovely, but I think they all look more like exotic California poppies than like roses. I notice in perusing the bridal mags that they’re frequently paired with roses in bouquets; they’re much less expensive. And what makes them truly terrific as cut flowers is that they last for weeks in the vase. Yes. They really do. Last for weeks. In the vase. You have to change the water every few days, but you can get as much as three weeks out of a bouquet of these. So grow your own, or if you see them at the flower shop, invest!

Impatiens photo courtesy of Proven Winners® http://www.provenwinners.com.

Eustoma photo by Andrew Dunn. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

No glory!

Morning-glory-flower

I used to love morning glories. I used to buy them every year and plant them, and look forward to the way, come August, they’d finally untwirl their gorgeous blue flowers and cover my fences, clamber over my roses, weave their way up sunflowers and through tomato plants. I was an idiot. I haven’t bought sunflower seeds in at least eight years, and yet every summer, I have morning glories everywhere, twining through my garden, choking my tomatoes, weighing down my roses, mutilating my sweet peas, self-seeding and coming up all over the yard, in the grass, in every nook and cranny, keeping me busy yanking them out and yanking them out and yanking them out again. I spent an hour today going through my beds and ripping out morning glories. They’re the most pernicious, detestable plants on the planet, and I wish I’d never bought a single seed.

The flowers are pretty, though. 🙂

Do not disturb

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Shhhh! Can’t you see me curled up on the sofa, with the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging over my knee? In my right hand is a pencil, in my left hand is a stack of bulb catalogs, and on my lap is my notebook, in which I’m trying to figure out which of the $397 worth of spring bulbs I have marked off as “must haves” I really must not have after all.

It is so hard to make these decisions. I have a much harder time with bulbs than with seeds. When I order seeds, they seem so cheap (150 seeds for $3!) that it’s easier to keep my purchases to a manageable total. Plus I know from experience that I’m simply never going to get around to any seeds that need to be started indoors, which knocks out about three-quarters of those on offer straight away. But bulbs cost a lot, especially lily bulbs, which are my true love. No, actually, tulips are my true love. But naturally, it’s daffodils that I can count on to come up year after year. And then I get seduced by lesser-known bulbs. There’s one right now, an allium called ‘Hair,’ that’s calling my name. It has green flower heads with spiky, curly green threads hanging down all around it. No one would call it beautiful, but it is unique. The John Scheepers catalog describes it as looking “a little like an alien life form.” That’s a photo of it up above. I want it! But it’s $9.75 for 25 bulbs, so it becomes a question of, do I want it more than I want 12 “Renown” tulips, which are maroon with a blue and yellow star at the base?

So I’ll sit here on my sofa all weekend, watching the occasional Phillies game and trying to decide: the Fragrant Daffodil Mixture, or the Pastel Asian Lily Mixture? Which shade of tiny Iris reticulata can’t I live without? Should I get more ‘Angelique’ tulips, now that I’m down to just one of the 12 I planted eight years ago? And I’ll be asking myself: Why in the world would you even consider buying Dutch iris bulbs when you’ve bought them at least 20 times and never had a single damned one come up?

Because gardeners are optimists, remember? And to hand an optimist a stack of bulb catalogs is a dangerous thing.

Photo courtesy of John Scheepers, Inc.

Magic wands

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I go through periods when I read lots and lots of gardening books, and then periods where I think, “Man, am I tired of reading about some other person’s garden,” and I don’t read any at all. I do find gardeners’ enthusiasm contagious, most times. And different people have such different plant-loves. I wrote a while back about the British guy who was so enthusiastic about snapdragons that it sounded downright sexual! It may have been that same dude, or another, who first brought wandflowers to my attention. I’d never even heard of them before. The genus is Gaura, and as he described them, they grew up through bricks on his patio and sent long, slender arches of flowers into the air, which sounded quite enchanting.

Lo and behold, a couple of years ago, Proven Winners sent me a couple of Gaura plants. I put them on the north side of an out-of-control rosebush (when I planted that rose–my son Jake picked it out–it was a very neat and controlled rose topiary. Within two years, it had reverted to the rootstock, a wild red rose that’s extremely enthusiastic but only blooms for about a week and has no scent) (it’s been a while since I did one of those out-of-control parentheticals, and I thought you deserved one). I sort of forgot they were there after that. And then, lo and behold, a few months later, I noticed these slender arching stems reaching out from under the rosebush, into the air. Before long, they’d opened up into wandflowers, just like in the photo above–one pink, and one white. I loved them. Alas, I’d put them, it turns out, right where Homer liked to take his first leak in the mornings. They only lasted two summers before disappearing from the face of my earth. But I’m going to keep an eye out for them now that Homer’s gone. They have an unusual grace and delicacy, and they were lovely when they nodded on the breeze on a hot summer day.

There’s another flower sometimes known as “wandflower,” Sparaxis tricolor. I’ve grown this as well, from bulbs, and can’t imagine why it’s called wandflower. It’s a short little thing with a harlequin-esque three-toned flower, kind of like a tulip. It’s the sort of thing I used to buy at the Philadelphia Flower Show every spring because the samples the vendors had looked so cool. But then they never came up for me. Also in this category? Anemone bulbs and tuberoses. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to grow tuberoses and got nothing but foliage, no flowers!

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®, http://www.provenwinners.com

Hello, yellow?

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You know how I was waxing all irate a while back about breeders trying to fit square pegs into round holes, and create new versions of plants when there are other plants already that will do the job? I’d like to take it all back, because I really need a good yellow petunia.

By default, petunias have become the backbone of my beds. It all started about five years ago–I guess just about the time when new petunia hybrids were taking off. I bought a flat of 12 or so white petunia plants, and man oh man, they just bloomed and bloomed all summer long. They were so nice and bright and clean and perky that even Doug noticed them (a rarity) and said how nice they looked. Up until that point, I’d sort of scorned petunias as common and easy to grow. But now I’m buying more of them, seeking out great colors and those wonderful “Wave” hybrids that cover, like, three square feet with one plant. I had a gorgeous velvety magenta this summer, and another favorite that was deep pink with a navy blue throat.

And I always buy at least a couple of yellow petunias. I don’t know why I do it. The plants are never as robust as the white or purple or pink petunias, even going into the ground, much less after a summer of sun and heat. Petunias just look to me like there should be a yellow. The flowers are always so pretty … until the plants die on me. I have great luck with every color of petunia but yellow.

And really, this shouldn’t bug me. There are so many great yellow plants–marigolds, marguerite daisies, verbena, lantana. Still, it’s yellow petunias I want. This is proof of the perversity of the human spirit, of that chord within us that insists on climbing the mountain just because it’s there. And that’s admirable, I suppose, in a ridiculous sort of way. If we were all satisfied with the status quo, no one would have bothered to discover electricty, or to invent air conditioning, or for that matter volleyball. So I’ll keep searching, and keep buying, and one of these days, I’ll find that elusive yellow petunia, the one that works for me.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® http://www.provenwinners.com.

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