My new push mower

I started mowing the lawn today, but the mower didn’t make it. I have an old push mower–I know, I know; it’s a relic–and last summer the handle snapped in the middle. I taped it up with duct tape and some spare tent spikes for support, and somehow I finished off the season. But when I dragged the thing out this year, it seemed awfully shaky. I managed to finish mowing the past three weekends. But today I’d already done a ton of gardening before I got around to mowing–weeding, digging up the tomato beds, digging in compost, planting sunflower seeds and Acidantherus (peacock lily) bulbs–and I was hot and cranky even before the handle started bending again. So I ran down to Sears, where I found a $99 push mower on sale for $59 and promptly bought it. Stuck it in the backseat of the Honda, drove it home, and gave it a test drive. LOVE IT! It’s so much sharper than the old one. Why do I always let things go so long before I replace them? Because I’m cheap, cheap, cheap.

I’m the only one on the block who uses a push mower, even though we all have postage-stamp-size yards. It really does seem silly to fire up a full-size gas-powered monster when 15 minutes with the push mower covers it. Besides, I always feel so green!

So the yard looks very pretty indeed at the moment. I snapped this photo of my ‘Dordogne’ and ‘Renown’ tulips on my way to work yesterday. That’s ‘Dordogne’ in the foreground. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I love, love, love the way these two look together!

A sweet, shy lady

This is Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane,’ and she’s a good example of downsizing. Even though I know in my head that when a catalog says a tulip only grows 10 inches tall, the flower is going to be smaller than the big ol’ Darwins in my garden, I somehow can’t help my heart from thinking the flowers will be big. Huge. I mean, they look so pretty in the photos, you know?

But species tulips are shy, and ‘Lady Jane’ is a charmer. The flowers are only about the size of my thumb. The colors aren’t flamboyant; the white is creamy, the red shades a little to purple. It’s not the sort of flower you stand up and take notice of. Rather, it’s the sort you admire for its grace, its sense of proportion, the way those smaller flowers fit so perfectly with the scant foliage and slim stem.

It’s hard to figure out how to use species tulips, because they are so unassuming. I’ve kept them to my front garden bed, amongst other short stuff, like the grape hyacinths that are blooming right now and a tulip called ‘Sorbet’ that’s white with soft yellow stripes–or is it the other way around? I keep the colors muted, so nothing gets blown away. And I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again–if your garden is public, or rather, open to the public (mine butts right up against a sidewalk where hundreds of kids walk on their way to school), these little gems are a lot less likely to get broken off for kicks than their bigger, bolder brethren. It’s one of the reasons I keep growing such shy little ladies.

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

Tulip explosion!

I went away for the weekend. I came back, and I’m drowning in tulips. I can’t imagine a more lovely way to die. Something about the crazy weather has everything opening up at once–the parrot tulips, the Giant Darwins, the little tardas, the lily-flowered, the single late (not so late!), all busting into one big huge tulip symphony. I think they’re the most cheerful flowers that ever lived, with the possible exception of gerbera daisies. Oh, and sunflowers, which also always make me smile.

I’m counting myself extremely lucky, because we had wild thunderstorms last night, and it’s easy to lose tulips in heavy rain. Alas, the day is turning extremely hot, which means the show won’t last long. Altogether, a mixed bag. But I must say, the explosion is most impressive! Those are ‘Rococos’ in the foreground and ‘Gudoshnik,’ one of my all-time faves, in the background. ‘Gudoshniks’ come up anywhere from pure yellow to yellow striped with red to red striped with yellow to pure red. They also, for me at least, tend to live a little longer than most tulips do.

The tall buds are giant allium. I have so much giant allium! Every autumn I divide and replant, and I’m starting to be a little overwhelmed by them. But the kids next door get a huge kick out of those big purple balls of flowers. Also? They dry beautifully, though the dried flower heads are delicate.

So rococo!

You’ve got to love parrot tulips. I mean, what’s not to love? Sure, they’re totally over-the-top, silly, one might even say pretentious, with all their ruffles and curls. But they make me laugh when I see them in the garden; they’re like goofy, oversize-shoe clown-flowers, or women dressed in Victorian corsets and bustles and lace.

I started experimenting with parrots a while back, but it wasn’t until I planted a batch of ‘Flaming Parrot’ last year that I became infatuated. I followed up this year (the ‘Flamings’ haven’t come back, which is one reason I stopped experimenting) with a patch of Tulipa ‘Rococo,’ shown above.  And I’m in love again. Who would go about breeding a flower that’s maroon, red, black and green? I mean, does it sound attractive? Not particularly! And yet I can’t wait to go outside every morning and see these frilly, silly beauties, shining in the sun. Next year, I’m going to go really crazy and order ‘Blumex,’ a parrot that’s orange, yellow, purple, green and blue, all on the same crazy flower!

And you really never know with tulips. Fifteen years back or so, I planted a bunch of ‘Monte Carlo’ tulips all over the garden. They’re a big, blowsy yellow double tulip, and I gave them a try because I’d heard they were fragrant. At the same time, I planted a dozen or so ‘Angelique’ doubles–a really exquisite pale pink and white type. Today, I have one bulb of Monte Carlo that faithfully comes back and flowers for me year after year, and one bulb of Monte Carlo. I must have gotten those bulbs in at just the perfect place!

Photo courtesy of Van Bourgondien bulbs, dutchbulbs.com.

Not tarda at all

This tulip isn’t tardy; it’s Tulipa tarda, also known as Tulipa dasystemon. It’s a species tulip, and one of the first to rear its head each spring in my garden. Only it doesn’t rear it very far. One of its suppliers calls this tulip “elfin,” and so it is, hugging the ground with its sunshine. I love the bright contrast between the golden center and the creamy white tips.

Unlike its bigger brethren, this faithful fairy comes back year after year, only increasing in number even in my extremely rocky and barren-soiled front bed. It blooms at the same time as my grape hyacinths (Muscari), and their colors set one another off perfectly. I want to get more Muscari into that bed.  The problem with them is they’re so cheap and unassuming. I should look at that as a plus: “Look how many grape hyacinths/Tulipa tardas/Iris reticulatas I can get for five bucks!” And then I don’t, because, well, we all have that instinct to shun what’s easy and familiar and keep trying to grow the exotic and unfamiliar instead. Silly gardeners! Buy more grape hyacinths!

Cactus flowers

Years and years ago, I bought my son, who was then very small, a couple of cacti for his bedroom window. The window doesn’t open, so it gets very hot; I think that’s why I thought cacti would be appropriate. The cacti stayed on the windowsill long after he moved out of that bedroom and into a “big boy” bedroom on our third floor. His old bedroom became my office, and that’s where the cacti still live.

They haven’t gotten much bigger over the past 15 years or so. In fact, they haven’t done much at all (except fall over once in a while when I’m watering them, which I only remember to do every few weeks or so). And yet every year, this little puppy puts out a little crown of white flowers to enchant me. I’ve never fertilized it. I’ve done the opposite of pampering it. I love its unexpected faithfulness. No matter when it blooms, it brings hope to my heart.

Shy guys

This is the time of year for species tulips, shy little guys that I grow more fond of every year. If these bloomed a month from now, when so much else is up and out, no one would ever notice them. They’re small, and they hug the ground, and their colors tend to be a little more muted than those of their big, husky brothers.

But because we’ve just been through another hard winter, any sign of renewed life and beauty seems extra-special, even if it’s tiny. Against a backdrop of dark earth and the occasional foliage, small flowers stand out perfectly. And the forms on these babies really are lovely. They open up to show petite stars, and some of the color combinations are striking, even if the shades themselves are sometimes muddy. The star above is Tulipa aucheriana. Some other favorites of mine are Tulipa dasystemon, bright yellow with a white eye; Tulipa clusiana, white striped red on the outside, and very tall and slim; and Tulipa humilis ‘Persian Pearl,’ purple with gold. Also in their favor, species tulips come back year after year for me. So while the show may not be as impressive, it does go on!

Photo by Bernd Haynold  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Needing weeding

I spent a good part of this afternoon digging up larkspur seedlings. It kills me to thin out seedlings. Every one of the little plants I uprooted could have grown into a big fat larkspur, if only it hadn’t self-seeded a quarter inch away from 1,500 other larkspur seedlings. Poor dears. And it’s not even worthwhile to transplant them, because just about every inch of my back garden is thick with larkspur seedlings–at least, the inches that aren’t covered with self-seeded calendulas.

I did find a few more poppies that have had the good graces to volunteer themselves again this year. I’m excited about that. And I think the first of the sweet peas is about to poke out of the ground. The mesclun mix I planted has sprouted; I realized it when I saw that half the seedlings growing thickly in the lettuce plot were dark red and half were green. Those would be baby romaines!

I bought a new digger at T.J. Maxx (I know, I know; it caught my eye) and also spent some time uprooting the odd dandelion from the lawn. I then got to work on the wild onions in the beds. I don’t really mind wild onions; they never amount to enough to be troublesome. I let one go all the way to flower a few years back, and it ended up looking like this. Speaking of which, my 80-year-old boss at work was saying the other day that when he was growing up, the last snow of the season was called “onion snow,” because when it fell, the only thing you could see growing above it were the tops of the wild onions.

It’s the most poetic I’ve ever heard my boss be!

The poet’s daffodil

I’ve never wandered lonely as a cloud—or maybe I have—but I’ve got a strange love/hate relationship with daffodils. I don’t like to buy them, even though they live forever and spread themselves out and come back year after year. I prefer to buy tulips, even though my tulips NEVER come back. I guess it’s sort of like not wanting to go out with a boy who actually likes you. Every fall, I plant a bucket of tulips and no daffodils.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have daffodils in my garden, because somebody planted some once, and they do come up forever. I also went through a brief fling with miniature daffodils, which I did/do like because they’re cute as a button and unusual. I think they’re unusual because unlike their taller brethren, they don’t actually come back year after year.

I have a few daffodils in my garden. They’re starting to bloom. They’re ever so pretty. I even have a couple of these, which is known as Narcissus poeticus, or the Poet’s Daffodil. I like its subtle beauty, and I’m a sucker for those little baby coronas. As I recall, I got these because the daffodil I really wanted, Pheasant’s Eye, was sold out. I think I like these better, with the somewhat more muted colors in the center. Some botanists think this is the original daffodil that grew wild in Europe and Asia–the one the vain boy named Narcissus gave his name to when he fell into a pool where he was gazing at his image and drowned. The English name “daffodil” is supposedly derived from “asphodel,” the flower that bloomed in the Greek underworld. Never knew that.

Next autumn, I’m going to buy me some more daffodils. Meantime, here’s Wordsworth

  1.           I wandered lonely as a cloud
              That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
              When all at once I saw a crowd,
              A host, of golden daffodils;
              Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
              Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
    
              Continuous as the stars that shine
              And twinkle on the milky way,
              They stretched in never-ending line
              Along the margin of a bay:                                  10
              Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
              Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
    
              The waves beside them danced; but they
              Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
              A poet could not but be gay,
              In such a jocund company:
              I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
              What wealth the show to me had brought:
    
              For oft, when on my couch I lie
              In vacant or in pensive mood,                               
              They flash upon that inward eye
              Which is the bliss of solitude;
              And then my heart with pleasure fills,
              And dances with the daffodils.
                                                                  1804.
    

My blue poppy

Last of the treats from Longwood Gardens, alas! This beauty is Meconopsis grandis, a.k.a. the Himalyan Poppy, a.k.a. the Blue Poppy, and baby, is it blue! I first saw one of these when I was biking across Scotland with my husband 15 years ago. We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains near Loch Ness. The owner had a small garden in the front of her house–really nothing much to it, mostly dirt with a couple of small, discrete plants, one of which bore a single blossom—a breathtaking blue poppy. I had never seen anything like it, had never dreamed that anything like it even existed–and poppies are my favorite flower. (Well. It’s so hard, isn’t it, to say which is one’s favorite flower? But poppies are definitely in the top five for me.) I even suspected it was fake, and she’d wired it on there to fool a dumb American.

Fast-forward ten years. My assistant at work takes a trip to the Pacific Northwest, and visits a horticultural center there. I’ve happened to mention blue poppies to her, since the Pacific Northwest is one of the few places in the United States where one can actually get blue poppies to grow. Sure enough, she sees them and takes a glorious photo of them for me. I hang it up above my desk at work, like it’s the Holy Grail. And then, the other weekend, on my visit to Longwood, I got to see these beauties for myself, up close and personal. They were even more amazing than the lone little flower I’d seen in Scotland. I’m not ambitious enough to try to grow the fussy things myself, but it’s nice to know I don’t have to go as far as Scotland or Vancouver if I ever want to see them again!