Shock phlox

Years ago, I had a wonderful aunt who used to give me and my sisters gift certificates to White Flower Farm every Christmas. White Flower Farm, if you’ve never done business with them, is a big mail-0rder plant company based in Connecticut that’s famous for its droll catalog write-ups, supposedly penned by the folksy Amos Pettingill. But I digress. One Christmas, one of the plants I ordered from White Flower was a white Phlox paniculata called ‘David.’ I’d never grown phlox before, but ‘David’ made me a believer, with big, long-lasting heads of pure white flowers with a sweet, soft scent.

Alas, the scent seemed to attract my mutt Homer, who made it his mission to piss on ‘David’ first thing every morning. After three seasons, ‘David’ gave up the ghost. I’d liked him so much that I contemplated replacing him. But before I had a chance to, the company I trial-garden for, Proven Winners, sent me another phlox, ‘Flame’ purple. Purple–not my favorite. But … whatever. Free plant. I put it where David had once shone and pretty much forgot about it. I don’t remember it blooming more than a tiny bit the first year, or the next.

Ah, but this year! This year, that little phlox is far and away the star of my border. It’s huge, about three feet wide and two feet tall, despite the fact that the company’s own literature says it should be only a foot high and a foot wide. Clearly, this phlox is on steroids. It gave me one big, wonderful flush of bloom in June, and now, in late July, after only a brief rest, it’s covered with flowers again. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nor have I ever seen anything like those first few seasons of utter unprepossessingness followed by pure glory.

Proven Winners notes that bunnies “may find phlox very tasty.” That could explain the mystery of why I have all those bunnies in my yard this year! And if they’re nibbling my phlox, let them keep on doing it, because clearly, they’re only helping it!

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,


The smell of marigolds in the morning

I’m like most gardeners, I think, in that most mornings, the first thing I do—even before coffee, and often before a shower—is go out back and visit my plants. There’s the usual fluttering of birds I’ve disturbed at the feeder, and often the white flash of a bunny’s rump disappearing into the tomato patch. (The bunnies are breeding like, well, bunnies hereabouts this year. I’ve never in my life seen a baby bunny before, and this summer, I’ve seen three. Or maybe the same one three times?) I water the hanging baskets, which are always dry as dust, check the contents of the feeder, pick a handful of tomatoes (hooray!), and do a bit of desultory deadheading. It’s a wonderful way to begin the day.

Now that a lot of the midsummer plants are fading—the larkspur are done for, the evening primrose has given up the ghost, and the poppies are on their last legs, though I do seem to have grown myself some poppyseeds in the seed capsules of my big, beautiful Pepperboxes—the late-summer and autumn flowers are peeking through. Petunias I haven’t seen in months are shyly extending their heads above the dried foliage surrounding them; portulaca, with room to finally spread out, are putting on a show. And the marigolds are coming to the forefront. I’m torn about marigolds. Generally, I prefer my plants a little less … well, common. Any danged fool can grow marigolds, so what’s in it for me? But every time I get on my high horse and think I won’t plant them, I remember how steadfast they are in the bleak heat of August, and how they never say die until Thanksgiving rolls around. So I stick some in.

What I forget when I plant them is the scent they have on steamy summer mornings when I snap off spent blossoms with my (green-tinged, broken) fingernails. Nothing else smells like marigolds. They’re pungent, musky, sharp, halfway unpleasant, halfway alluring. And the scent always brings with it a flood of memories. Back when I was in grade school, we had an annual harvest festival kind of thing for which we were encouraged to create flower arrangements with materials from our home gardens (because of course back then, everyone had a home garden). My mom, a practical woman with four kids, grew a lot of marigolds, I think because she could count on them to still be blooming when the grade-school harvest fest rolled around. I spent a lot of time, back when I was seven and eight and nine, poking marigold stems into different containers—vases, plastic-bag-lined boxes, even hollowed-out eggplants and cabbages. Being awarded a blue ribbon from our teacher-judges was a huge thrill.

I doubt there are school districts anywhere that run those sorts of contests anymore. Busy working moms and dads don’t have time even to grow carefree marigolds. Of course, they do—they just don’t realize how truly carefree marigolds are. We also used to start seeds in school and bring them home in Dixie cups for our parents to plant. Maybe I’ll find a way to make sure some schoolkids get a chance to start marigold seeds next spring.

Photo by Drprasadraj.

Plant know-it-alls

There’s a fine line between knowledge and obnoxiousness, and I try not to cross it. I’ve been writing about plants and studying them for a long time, and you pick up stuff along the way. Example: Last week, my husband and I visited my old friend Barb and her husband Michael in Massachusetts, where they have a new house and new garden. Barb asked me to walk through the garden with her and identify some plants she didn’t recognize, which I was more than happy to do despite the fact that the mosquitoes on the seacoast of Massachusetts are the size of grizzly bears and twice as ravenous. I was able to help her with names for a few things, and that was that. I didn’t feel I was showing off, because she’d asked.

But on our way back home from Massachusetts, we stopped to eat at the S&J Oyster House in Mystic, Connecticut. It was hot, but we chose to dine on the patio, because it had a lovely view of the river, a nice breeze off the water, and some really gorgeous plantings, including the huge pot shown above. I instantly recognized the plant at its center because last summer, the company I trial-garden for, Proven Winners, sent it to me. It’s a papyrus, and it’s a very pretty thing.

So there the husband and I sat, he dining on seared scallops followed by day-boat cod, I on a salad followed by whole wheat linguine with vegetables, and both of us happy as clams, when the three women seated at the table next to us began to avidly discuss what, exactly, sort of plant the papyrus might be. “It’s some sort of ornamental grass,” one said. “It doesn’t look like a grass,” another said dubiously. “Maybe a water plant?” the third one ventured. I sat and chewed my linguine in silence, thinking of that part in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall where a couple is standing in line, arguing about the work of Marshall McLuhan, and suddenly Woody Allen produces McLuhan, who tells them they understand nothing about his work. It’s a fantastically funny scene because it points up how we all think we’re experts all the time. We thought that when Annie Hall came out in 1977, and if anything, we only think it more now.

So even though I knew perfectly well what that plant was, I kept my mouth shut. Nobody likes a know-it-all. And I just would have felt like a showoff had I leaned over and said, “Excuse me. That’s papyrus.” I do hope the ladies aren’t still wondering.

Just perfect

A few years ago, when I’d worked for 10 years at the magazine, management offered to fete the occasion by buying me a gift–any gift I wanted that cost $250 or less. This, obviously, was back in the days when magazines still had ads. I was pretty excited at this largesse, and spent several happy days pondering what my gift might be. With input from my husband, I finally settled on a pair of pretty butter-yellow Adirondack chairs from an Internet company.

At the time, my daughter was dating a charming young man from El Salvador. He couldn’t read or speak English, but when my butter-yellow Adirondack chairs were delivered, he very kindly offered (via my daughter, who speaks Spanish) to assemble them for me. He did so promptly and efficiently, and I set the chairs on my back patio, where they made me happy every time I looked at them.

For a while. Marcy and her young man liked to sit in the Adirondack chairs, and it didn’t take long before they started to … well, to put it frankly, fall apart. Bolts disconnected; slats came free; seats wobbled wildly. Marcy’s young man was horribly embarrassed. To make him feel better, I got a bunch of nails and nailed the hell out of those chairs, until they stopped wobbling and falling apart. They’re still out in the backyard, and you can still sit in them, though it’s bloody hell to get up out of one. (I will say, though, that they are definitely not the lifetime purchase I assumed they were. Caveat emptor!)

The butter-yellow has faded to cream over the years, but the chairs still look pretty. Last year, for Mother’s Day, my mother-in-law gave me a very pretty planter planted with red geraniums and blue scaevola and white alyssum. I set it in between the two Adirondack chairs, and it looked gorgeous all summer, though of course over the winter its contents withered away. I spent a lot of time pondering what to plant in that same planter—it’s a pale gray-cream straight-sided crock, like an old-fashioned butter crock—this year. For some reason, I got the idea fixed in my mind that the way to go was an elephant ear, a.k.a. Colocassia esculenta.

So I bought an elephant ear bulb–actually, a tuber, also known as the root vegetable taro, a major food source in Hawaii and Africa. And you know what? It took forever to get started, but now that six or seven leaves have unfurled, it looks spectacular. Something about the yell0wy-green of the stems and the blue-green leaves makes it just the thing to have between my no-longer-butter-yellow chairs. And I’m still so happy every time I look at them.

Photo by Kahuroa.

Zinnia mania

Tomato days are also zinnia days. Is it just coincidence that my favorite vegetable and my favorite (okay, one of my many, many favorites) flower both reach perfection at the same time of year? I don’t think so! So–what is it about zinnias? Well, for one thing, they’re nothing like their official garden name, Zinnia elegans. There’s not one darned thing elegans about them—not the foliage, not the colors, not the flowers. They’re big and bouncy even when they’re little, and they made so much impact in a border regardless of their size. Today I picked my first bouquet full, and it is a hot mess of reds and pinks and yellows and oranges and purples and colors like that.

Zinnias just scream “Summer!” at the tops of their lungs. You can’t make a bouquet of zinnias look fancy. They belong in pitchers and water glasses and old mason jars. There’s no point spending a lot of time “arranging” them, either, because they look best in a big, blowsy mass.

Maybe that’s why they’ve come to symbolize summer for me–because they’re so low-maintenance. They’re not fussy like my sweet peas (hey, guys, you know I love you, but really–having to cut the flowers every other day?). They go with cut-off shorts and old t-shirts and sandals on my feet. They bring the sun inside, hold it in their masses of petals and reflect it back again from your kitchen table or mantle or wherever they land. Summer wouldn’t be summer without my zinnias. They make me happy every time I see them, indoors or out.

Photo courtesy of Applewood Seed Company.

Tomato days

The tomato onslaught has begun in earnest. I picked about seven yesterday and three more today. For lunch I had my first BLT of the season, with a bread-size slice, at least half an inch thick, of a Burpee ‘Brandy Boy.’ I’m not sure that size really matters (!), but I do like my tomatoes big. And this one was a beauty, pinky-red in that Brandywine way, very meaty, small seed cavities. I’ve read that cold is the mortal enemy of tomatoes, but I like the tomatoes in my BLTs well-chilled. Then all you need is white bread (sorry–I know, I should be eating whole grains, and I do, except for the BLTs!), lettuce (I used romaine, but I do love iceberg in these sammiches), the thickest, biggest slice of tomato possible (because if you use a lot of smaller slices, they slide right out because they are well lubricated with …) and mayo. Hellman’s, please, and nothing less, though I do use the light kind. And this year, I made another concession to health, by buying nitrate-and-nitrite-free bacon. It was delicious! So maybe now I can relish my summer sandwiches without guilt.

For dinner, we had corn on the cob (of course), some goat cheese, some fresh mozzarella, a couple different kinds 0f hard Italian sausage, semolina-sesame bread, and … tomatoes with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. I love summer, and I love me my tomatoes!

Best of all: While I was in the grocery store getting fixin’s, the heavens opened and we had the most wonderful deluge of rain—so much rain that I won’t have to water for a week!

A secret garden

I very daringly drove up to New England this week to visit a very old friend who’s just bought a home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, a venerable seaside spot first settled in, oh, 1643 or thereabouts. (“Daringly” because I left at home two teenage children and a garden badly in need of rain, and failing that, watering, or there looked to be real trouble.) Duxbury is full of breathtaking old clapboard homes surrounded by tidy cottage gardens. Especially in evidence in mid-July were blue hydrangeas, as blue as the sky and the sea.

This is my friend’s first summer in her new home, which is an old converted barn with big, airy rooms and windows galore. And of course, there’s a garden. And I had the pleasure of going through the (vastly overgrown) garden with her to try to ascertain what was weed and what was worth keeping. So while we pulled out entire armfuls of nasty creeping things and huge stalky things, we kept uncovering treasures: the prettiest tiger lily I’ve ever seen, orange striped with pale green; a heuchera whose leaves were a gorgeous coppery color; swaths of sweet woodruff; lilac bushes; banks of white-spiked tiarella (a.k.a. foamflower, and pictured above); and plenty of stuff that has yet to be identified. It was especially fun because when we began, it didn’t look as though there was much of anything but weeds in that garden; only when we got to work and looked beyond the obvious did we discover how much there was.

We also discovered that mosquitoes love lurking in old gardens, and we now both look very blotchy indeed.  If anyone out there has a surefire way to take care of lots and lots of mosquitoes in a yard, please share! Meantime, back home, neither teen was able to tell me whether it had actually rained. But I picked seven tomatoes, including a huge Brandywine, and nothing appears to have died. Hip-hip!

Photo by Raul654 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

If mint were worth a mint …

I’d be a billionaire.

Plants are very mysterious. When I moved into this house 18 years ago, there wasn’t any mint in the yard. There wasn’t any mint in the yard next-door, either. But now, oh my Lord, is there mint. It’s spearmint, a.k.a. Mentha spicata, and I don’t care what anybody says, it’s a freaking weed. I didn’t plant it, but if I could find out who did, I would sentence that person to be rolled in mint leaves until the smell made him or her pass out permanently.

I spent a good hour yesterday in the hot sun ripping spearmint out from around my venerable old azalea, which was drowning in the stuff. The branches–what are they, anyway? Not exactly branches–stems, I guess—were six feet tall. The plants spread underground via rhizomes and are impossible to eradicate. I rip and rip and rip, and because I happen to miss one tiny bit of root, by next year my azalea is drowning in spearmint again.

I don’t even like mint. I mean, I don’t like it in iced tea, I don’t like it in mint juleps, I don’t like it at all. Except in toothpaste. (Colgate regular, if you must know.) I don’t even chew gum. So far as I can tell, there’s no reason on earth for spearmint to exist. (Although there’s been some interesting research suggesting that it suppresses testosterone in women, and thus can help eradicate unwanted facial and bodily hair. But I digress.)

After I ripped out all that mint yesterday, I went around for the rest of the day smelling like a candy cane. My daughter kept sidling up to me and catching sniffs. She likes spearmint. I guess it’s good someone does, because glory me, I don’t.

Photo by Jonathunder licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Going to seed

Okay, all right, this is it—the point in the summer where the stuff that needs to be deadheaded gets ahead of my ability/willingness to get out there and deadhead it. For one thing, it’s 100 degrees in the shade AGAIN, for about the 534th day in a row. (I exaggerate, very slightly.) For another, deadheading is shredding my fingernails. The really satisfying way to deadhead is to take the seedhead between thumb and forefinger and snap the lil’ sucker off–click!–and then toss it back into the garden. Alas, calendula heads are very, very loath to relinquish their life, and the fingernail of my right thumb is permanently discolored green from forcing my will on them. I’ve actually taken to going outside with a pair of scissors—the ONE pair of scissors in my house that will still cut stuff; what, oh what do my children use scissors for that permanently blunts them?—and snipping the dead heads off that way. But there’s SO much out there that needs it. What, for instance, am I to do with all that drying-out larkspur? I WANT that to set seed; I had such a glorious stand of larkspur this year. But leaving it there makes a big ugly brown patch in the garden. Sigh. And despite the awful heat, my danged sweet peas just bloom and bloom, and you know they have to be deadheaded every other day or they set seed instantly. Really, it’s amazing how quickly the spent flowers turn into pods. Inedible pods, I might add. Must have been men in charge of the naming for us to wind up with two kinds of sweet peas, one poisonous, one not.

The heat is making me cranky. I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to clean. I don’t want to work in the garden. I don’t want to write. All I want to do is sit in a pool of water up to my chin!

Searching very hard for something positive to say—the first of the sunflowers are blooming. I haven’t got any big ol’ monsters like I usually have, though. The flowers are smaller this year. Even sunflowers don’t like this heat.

Photo by Bruce Fritz

First tomato of the year!

My tomatoes are being terrible teases this summer. There are SO MANY big, beautiful tomatoes on the six vines I planted. And every dang-blasted one of them is green. Well, I do have one that’s half-red so far, but it seems to be taking FOREVER for these babies to become ripe! (Meanwhile, naturally, the basil is getting all long and gangly, because of course it wouldn’t do for my basil and my tomatoes, which go so beautifully together, to both be perfect at the same time …)

Every morning, first thing, I go out and check my tomatoes. And really, this is no easy task, because in addition to the tons of green tomatoes, there are tons of foliage in the tomato garden. I’m reminded of two summers ago, when everybody around this part of Pennsylvania was absolutely rolling in tomatoes. Last year was a total bust; the cold early summer doomed us to blossom end rot and all sorts of other woes. But this year seems to be shaping up well … IF I can wait.

Well, this morning, when I was checking the tomatoes, they were STILL all green. But one of them actually looked more yellow than green. That’s when I remembered that I’d planted one Burpee ‘Yellow Boy’ tomato plant. I really enjoy yellow tomatoes; their taste, I think, is a little smoother and rounder and less acidic than that of their red cousins. Generally, I do think tomatoes should be red, but I make occasional exceptions.

Anyway, I slipped my palm underneath the yellow tomato and just sort of cupped it, and sure enough, it fell right off the vine and into my hand. That means it’s ready! (And that’s it up above.) And just yesterday, I bought organic bacon. (I know–organic bacon? How organic can bacon be? But no nitrites or nitrates, and we love the hot dogs this same company makes …) So you know what that means: the season’s first BLT for lunch tomorrow!

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