Pretty pink lady

When I was a child, there was a cocktail with the appealing name of “Pink Lady.” It was made with gin, applejack, grenadine, lemon juice, and a raw egg white (yeah, I know), shaken with ice, and it was electric pink. I mean, it was really, really pink. I thought of it out of the blue today when I was perusing ornamental grasses on the U.S. National Arboretum website. What, you didn’t know we have a national arboretum? You betcha we do, and it’s in Washington, D.C. But you can go on virtual tours of its many parts, including the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. All righty, then! Cute lil’ plants they are.

But what led me to the arboretum was researching some ornamental grasses. I’ve become more and more fond of these big, strong plants the more I see them. I especially adore them as a replacement in foundation plantings for the incredibly dull and stupid small evergreens that surrounded every single suburban home in every town I ever lived in. You know the ones I mean? Those dumb little shrubs that have to be sheared into unnatural shapes? I hate those things. They’re stiff and static, and the complete opposite of ornamental grasses that way. Grasses are graceful. Grasses move. Grasses are different every time the angle of the sun changes. Birdies love grasses. So do I. Here’s my current favorite: Melinus nerviglumis ‘Pink Crystals.’ C’mon, now. Isn’t that prettier than any shrub yew ever saw? 🙂

Photo courtesy of the National Arboretum.


Refer madness

My sister called the other day to ask what catalog I order tulip and daffodil bulbs from. This raises an interesting question for me. I still get a lot of different bulb and seed catalogs in the mail, but over the years, I’ve actually become less adventurous when it comes to ordering from them. Or maybe I’ve just gotten cheaper, and don’t like paying the (increasingly exorbitant, in my humble opinion) shipping/handling fees from more than one place. (And what the hell is a “handling fee,” anyway? Is that what you’re charging me for picking a bag of bulbs or a packet of seeds out of one box and sticking it in the box you’re going to mail to me? That’s not “handling,” you guys. That’s your freaking JOB.

But I digress. I’ll be frank here: I like catalogs with photos, rather than sketches. They just seem … richer, somehow. Maybe I don’t have much imagination? And I like low prices. So, yeah, I guess I am cheap. And I like it when the bulbs arrive on a Friday, so I can plant them over the weekend. And you know what I don’t like? Scary warnings all over the packaging that say “LIVE BULBS! PLANT IMMEDIATELY!” I’m going to plant them when I can get to them, yo. Get off my case.

So anyway. I’ve ordered from a lot of different bulb companies in the past. I should warn you up front, I’m not fussy about customer service. I’m not like my friend Ruth, who, God bless her, if something doesn’t come up assumes it’s the supplier’s fault, and calls and gets her order replaced (which, by the way, the companies always seem perfectly happy to do). If something I plant doesn’t come up, I blame it on me. But with bulbs, that doesn’t seem to often be the case. They really are easy-care. And yes, I always order a bag of bone meal or whatever kind of bulb fertilizer they offer along with my bulbs. I do compost faithfully, but I don’t do any other feeding, even of stuff like roses. My feeling is, you want to live with me, plants, you tough it out.

So. This year I’ll be ordering from John Scheepers. They have pretty pictures. They have nice, unusual narcissus. And they don’t nag me too much. I’ve also ordered in the past from, among others, their sister company, wholesaler Van Engelen, which has better prices but has a minimum order that’s too much for me to handle alone.

And yes, though I do this every year, I always get seduced into buying those five- and eight- and 10-packs of bulbs from the grocery store and Home Depot. It never seems like I’m spending much money, but the bulbs I order through the mail are always MUCH healthier.

Gudoshnik tulip photo courtesy of John Scheepers.

Now that’s what I call grass

One of the plants my friend the landscape designer recommended for my son’s Eagle project was switchgrass, or Panicum virgatum. He had us put this in at the ends of two signs that are in really, really crappy-ass soil. I’d never heard of switchgrass, and frankly, I didn’t think much of the plants we planted. They were truly unassuming clumps, partly green, mostly dry and brown. And unlike the other grasses we put in at the other signs, these ones haven’t gotten nice fluffy pink seedheads on top. They’ve pretty much just stayed green and brown—more brown than ever as the summer ended so dry and hot.

So when I ran into my friend at his daughter’s soccer game, I asked him: “Is that switchgrass gonna be okay? It looks like it’s dead.” He assured me it would be fine. After the game, I came home and looked switchgrass up online. It just goes to show how interesting some things get when you find out a little more about them. Switchgrass is native to North America, and it once covered most of the Midwest, back in the days of the Great Plains. In fact, its decaying roots helped create the especially rich soil that could once be found there. Because of its dense root formations, it’s valuable in fighting soil erosion. It can be used as forage for cattle, and also to make hay. Animals love the dense cover it provides from predators. It can be made into “fuel pellets” that can be burned to heat homes. And it’s being studied as a feedstock for ethanol, because it costs much less than corn to grow. Who knew? Certainly not I!

Gettin’ leggy wid it

This is the time of year–early fall, end of baseball season–when everything in the garden seems to stretch its legs, as though trying to reach the sun whose warmth is already trying to fade. My cleome are even more gangly than usual. Coleus give rise to spiky stalks of flowers that make them even taller. The stalks of lilies, yellowing but still tough and strong, careen through the landscape. And the chrysanthemums, which I try so faithfully to pinch back “three times by the Fourth of July,” are just completely out of hand. I still can’t fathom how some people keep mums under control–not just under control, but trained into nice compact globes of blossoms. Mine are always four-foot-tall banks of really, really leggy blooms. They’re better that way as cut flowers. And I’m not the sort of gardener who likes to have things just so. Still, just once I’d like to have chrysanthemums that weren’t such enthusiastic ramblers that I can’t get through them  to open the gate to the side yard!

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

A shy blue guy

There are some flowers that are so, well, subtle that you tend to overlook them. I was reminded of this today when I strolled past a garden that had a border of nierembergia. I’ve grown nierembergia before, in containers and hanging baskets, and it’s always been a terrific, long-lasting performer for me. But it’s just not the kind of flower that sticks in your head. It’s serviceable, not flashy. And though this is the time of year when you treasure serviceable plants, the ones that aren’t fussy and keep on blooming straight through drought and heat and all the other stresses of late summer, I had to admit to myself that when I’d been plant-shopping in the spring, I’d completely neglected nierembergia, a tobacco relative.

Maybe the trouble is that mouthful of a name. It needs something non-Latinate, something snappy. (Interestingly, the genus is named for a 16th-century Spanish Jesuit priest and mystic, Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, whose writings remained popular into the 17th and 18th centuries.) One of the most popular cultivars is this one, from Proven Winners, called ‘Blue Skies.’ That’s a pretty name for a plant! Is it too late for us to resume naming plants the way our ancestors did, after their attributes, more or less whimsically? (Think of Dutchmen’s breeches, or lady’s slippers, or sneezewort!) Is all the humor and romance gone from botany?

I herewith announce the formation of a movement to rename nierembergia as blue skies, or failing that, blue sails.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,

Snug as a slug

I really feel that this photo should be accompanied by screeching Psycho theme music …

My marigolds have been suffering. Normally, marigolds are as tough a plant as you can grow, but this autumn, my plants have seemed weak and prone to breakage. And the flowers don’t seem to last as long as they should. Granted, I hate deadheading, but even with that caveat, my marigolds just have a flimsy look to them.

Today while I was poking in the garden, I got a clue why. I peered directly down into a plant and saw … the unmistakable slime traces of slugs. I hate slugs. I don’t think there’s anything on this earth as ugly and disgusting as a slug. I used to be diligent about fighting them off with diatomaceous earth (which slices their gross little slug bodies to ribbons) and pans of beer (which fill up with dead slugs, which actually prove that there IS something more disgusting than a slug, and that’s a drowned dead slug). But I guess because this summer was so dry in these parts, I haven’t noticed a lot of slug damage. Well, not until now.

I almost don’t mind the slug damage as long as I don’t have to see the slugs. The absolute worst thing in the world is to head out into the garden on a beautiful sunny morning and … step on a slug. In your bare feet. Blech!

In reading up on slugs this evening, I discovered that people get parasitic menangitis from eating raw slugs. To which I say–if you’re gonna eat raw slugs, honey, you deserve what you get.

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

The garden of regrets

Things are definitely winding down outside in the yard. Oh, there are still tons of zinnias, and lots of tomatoes on the way, and I’m about to be drowning in chrysanthemums. But the garden has that unmistakable air of autumn to it, when there’s more browned-out foliage than you’d like, and lots of deadheading that you know you’re never going to get around to, and if a week goes by without any rain, well, you just might not drag the hose out this late in the  year.

This is the time when I get garden regret–when I think about all the stuff I didn‘t grow this year but wish I had (seeing as all of us only get so many summers in a lifetime). I’m missing sweet alyssum this year, and its characteristic musky end-of-summer scent. It always, always self-sows for me every year, and this year it didn’t, and I never got around to planting any. And now, I wish I had.

Then there are the beguilers, the plants I’ve fallen victim to in the past but then wish I hadn’t. The top of this list for me is always arctotis, a South African beauty also known as African daisy. It has pretty gray-green foliage and flowers that are just outrageous combinations of colors, like the one above, which is from Proven Winners, and is called ‘Hearts ‘n’ Tarts,’ of all things. I love arctotis, and it’s a rare year that I don’t end up planting them right in the front of my long bed. What I invariably forget is that as pretty as they are, the flowers only open in sunlight, which means they’re not open for most of the time I’m actually around to enjoy my garden.

Of course, THIS year, it was so sunny and hot that they would have been blooming like crazy … so of course, this is the year I had enough willpower to resist them. Wouldn’t you know it? Another garden regret.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,

Finally, rain

It’s been so, so dry in these parts lately. Weeks go by with no rain. How dry has it been? I’ve seen stray cats drinking out of my birdbath. I’ve seen SQUIRRELS drinking out of it. Who knew squirrels could even drink?

When it gets like this, neighbors start trying various voodoo methods of producing the precipitation needed by thirsty tomato plants and lawns. Marcia was out today, watering. “It’s supposed to rain,” I called over to her. “That’s what you said the last time I watered,” she said grimly, “and it never did.” I went to lunch with my friend Ruth, who had to rush home, she said, to take her wash off the line. Then she paused. “I should leave it on the line so it will rain,” she said.

Me, I have a surefire method of provoking downfalls. All I need to do is go to the grocery store. When I wheel my overflowing cart back out to the parking lot after I’m finished–there will be a mighty mighty storm a-falling. Never fails. Worked today, as a matter of fact. The rain poured down while I drove home and carried groceries in. Then it tailed off … until I went to a high-school football game, at which point it again poured and poured. So … different routines, but something worked. And hallelujah! We really did need the rain.

Photo by Juni licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Duck (okay, sparrow) and cover

There are so many different kinds of gardeners in this world. There are the kind, like me, who like to let their plants go, let their plants grow, let them reach out and stretch and be FREE to do their own thing. (It’s sort of the same way I raised my children.) And then their are gardeners like my neighbors on both sides, very dear folk all of them, but folk who do like everything just so. And they’re not content to have everything just so on their own sides of our shared fences. They like to have everything just so on my side, too, and clearly can’t understand why I don’t keep my house–yard–in order. And occasionally, they take matters into their own hands.

Take … well, let’s call her Esmerelda, shall we, Marcia? (Marcia lives on the other side of Esmerelda, and is well acquainted with her eccentricities.) Every now and then, out of the blue so far as I can tell, Esmerelda decides my forsythia bush, which backs up against the fence between her yard and my yard, has gotten out of hand. So she shears it down to where she thinks it belongs.

Esmerelda is lucky I’m a forgiving sort of soul. Seriously, there have been shootings over this sort of thing. Where I view the branches of my forsythia as providing essential hiding spots for wildlife in a backyard increasingly filled with danger, Esmerelda sees them as … well, to tell the truth, I’m not sure. As far as I can figure it, she sees them as offensive to her sense of order in the universe. As something that should be controlled, but isn’t. But maybe I’m extrapolating. Maybe she just sees them as a damned mess.

There’s hope for her, though. On the other side of my property, an equally lovely neighbor, Julio, used to attack my trumpet vine, which is against the fence dividing his yard from mine, with a chain saw regularly, every spring and fall. Julio has four kids, though, and as they’ve gotten older, he’s become less obsessed with keeping the trumpet vine in check. This year, he completely forgot to shear it off. Or maybe he’s learned to enjoy the pretty orange flowers, even if they are sort of wild and free?

Alas, Esmerelda’s kids are grown, so there’s nothing to distract her from her attempts to restore order in the universe. Unless, of course, Marcia decides to plant something really wild, like crown vetch, on her side of the fence …

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

Life and death in the backyard

The backyard bunnies were out in force today, nibbling clover and standing stock still and staring at me with big bunny eyes when I’d go out to put watermelon rinds in the composter, or pick basil for a salad. I love the bunnies because it’s like having a little bit of wilderness in my (very) suburban yard, in between the neighbors’ sheds and the different kinds of fencing and the garden ornaments and all that. The bunnies are a reminder that we’re only wayfarers on this Earth, and that after we’re gone, there will still be bunnies placidly munching away.

Only today, I got a little more wilderness than I was bargaining for. I went out back to pick a tomato, and had just straightened up from the vine when–WHOOSH! Something sailed over my head. I looked up and saw it was a mourning dove, moving much, much faster than mourning doves are wont to around here. No sooner had I glimpsed the mourning dove than–WHOOOOOOSH!!! I ducked in terror as a big-ass hawk swooped across my yard. In the second yard over, right by the back steps, he let go a bunny he’d had gripped in his talons! I guess maybe the dove startled him, or maybe the bunny was heavier than he’d reckoned? Who knows? The bunny shot away under the stairs, the hawk sort of shook himself and then whooshed off skyward, and I was left standing there, my heart thumping as hard as the bunny’s no doubt was. Man, it really is a jungle out there.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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