Thursday, September 22, 2011

Designer Pants? Or Designer Plants?

Did I mention I have a weakness for designer plants? It’s true.

If I had to trace this tendency back to some starting point, I’d probably end up in high school.  Maybe even junior high.  That’s when I realized that brand-name clothing was cool, and that my closet was conspicuously devoid of it.

Remember that iconic Jordache horse?  Never galloped its way onto my teenage derriere. I longed for, but never wore, Esprit’s breezy horizontal lines. And that Guess question mark ever lent my 80s-era outfits that certain je ne sais quoi . My parents simply didn’t go in for that sort of rubbish. They had other, weird, grown-up priorities like paying the mortgage and figuring out how to get three meals out of one chicken.

 No matter. Now that I’m grown-up, too, I understand my parents’ priorities, and I also can’t help compensating for those early deprivations in little ways. I don’t buy BCBG dresses or Prada sunglasses. No, I pamper myself with ‘May Night’ salvia, and ‘Hot Summer’ Echinacea.
But most of all, with David Austin Roses.

Oh, those David Austin roses. I don’t know what it is about them. At the risk of sounding like a paid advertisement, they are, for me, the floral embodiment of abundance. The blooms evoke generosity, and warmth, and plenty. When I see pictures of them on the David Austin website, it makes me wish I were small enough to curl up inside a fluffy bloom and have a nap. 
St. Swithun

Lady Emma Hamilton

Princess Alexandra of Kent
See what I mean? Unlike the stiff, pointy, hybrid tea roses I grew up around, Austin’s English roses have a lush, blousy decadence that recall antique roses-- without the diseases and short bloom period that often accompanied them. For some, they may recall grannies and kittens and doilies. For me, they are pure cottage garden charm.

What happened to my devotion to drought tolerance, you might ask? Dear reader, I ask you to permit me this deviation (and perhaps a few others down the road). You’re right. Roses are, as a rule, a little thirstier than my beloved gauras and yarrows. But what they require in water they give back in wanton beauty and pure work ethic.

In fact, many repeat-blooming roses will grace your garden with color and fragrance, almost continuously, from early summer until frost. You could say they have an exceedingly high Wow to Water ratio. So I make an exception. Or, more accurately, I just can’t help myself. Roses must have a place in my garden.

The first David Austin roses I bought were a yellow variety named Molineux. Here are two of them lining the walk of our old house, back in 2008.

Unfortunately, the above photo  doesn’t capture the rose’s captivating habit of becoming suffused with delicate pink as it ages.  Here’s a better photo from 

Though I can’t remember how much those beauties cost me, today it’s hard to buy an Austin rose at a nursery without swiping at least $45 onto your card. So when I received their catalog in the mail this year offering bare root roses for closer to $22, I placed my order for three shrubs.

One, naturally was a Molineux, for a spot near the backyard fence. For the plot of earth against the back of our house, right underneath our living room window, I chose two in contrasting shades of pink. One is named Benjamin Britten (after the British Composer).

 A David Austin rose.
Courtesy of

The other is called Strawberry Hill (named after a Gothic revival style house in the U.K.).


 The roses should grow tall enough to offer a glimpse of blooms through the window, but not so tall as to crowd the glass.  After placing my order back in April, I cheerfully awaited the arrival of my shrubs.  The box didn’t disappoint.

But I imagine anyone unfamiliar with bare root plants may have been shocked and disappointed with the contents. To be blunt, bare root roses look like the Ugly Stick we hear about people being hit with. 

Planting these babies required some preparation and effort. First, soaking for several hours in water.

Then intense digging, since the bud union-- which is that bulb you see where the branches meet the “stem” of the rose-- needed to be at least five inches below ground to protect it from our cold winters. So I dug, and dug (and yes, I removed that very large rock myself, thank you very much).

 Then I dropped the plants in, perching the spray of roots on a pyramid of dirt and compost at the bottom of the hole.

Once they were tucked in, there was almost nothing left to see. Here is Sir Benjamin Britten:

Pretty stark, right? I, too, had my doubts as to whether these sticks were going to wake up. But then…about six weeks later…TA DA!

That’s the Strawberry Hill with his baby bottle drip line. Here is Benjamin Britten taking off.

And here are some of the blooms we’ve gotten so far.


Strawberry Hill

That one doesn’t look much like the catalog pictures yet, huh?

And here’s a pair of pictures of Benjamin Britten, first partially open, then in the final stage of bloom.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

 Here are Sir Benjamin and Strawberry Hill with the 'Ivory Halo' variegated dogwood bush I planted in the center of the bed for contrast.

Finally, here are the three roses in our full-color garden scheme with arrows pointing to each one: M=Molineux, B.B.=Benjamin Britten, S.H.=Stawberry Hill.

So am I thrilled? Well, Yes. And no. Sir Benjamin has been developing a discoloration problem on his leaves which my local nursery tells me is a nutrient deficiency, but which our organic fertilizer is not remedying.

 The Strawberry Hill, so far, has a rather odd growth habit, with some stems heading straight up, and all of the flowers ending up face down in the mulch.

Ah well, it's early yet. With a little luck, the photos I post next June will chase away my current doubts and worries. If not, we’ll just have to enjoy the ‘Pierre de Ronsard,' a.k.a. 'Eden,' climbing roses I found at a nursery shortly after I purchased the D.A. roses. This rose was introduced in France by Meilland in 1987. Here's ours, while still in its container:

Ahhhhhhhh... Nap, anyone?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poo for You, Too, & The Beard of Jupiter

My good friend Patti says if you're a parent of very small children, your real job isn’t raising kids. It’s managing poop.  Specifically, keeping poop where it’s supposed to be (in the diaper or the toilet) and out of the places it’s not supposed to be, (the toilet seat, the bathroom floor, the carpet, the bed, the walls, the car, you name it). If the previous sentence horrified you, I’ll guess you don’t have children. Any parent who has seen a child through diapers and potty training knows exactly of what I speak. They’ve seen it, they’ve cleaned it, and then they’ve eaten a big plate of meatloaf afterwards. No sweat. New parents deal with poop.  A lot of it.

It goes without saying that when my twin boys graduated out of diapers, I believed that my days of being up-close-and-personal with poop were through.

I was wrong.

Whilst tucking new plants into the garden beds this season, I’ve had a realization about organic gardening. I see, now, what it’s really all about. You guessed it:  managing poop.

Now you composters out there will beg to quibble with me, and I get it. If you’re creating your own Gardener’s Gold out of kitchen scraps and grass clippings, then I commend you. And I envy you. Because you don’t have to deal with poop.

But if you’re like me, and you’re purchasing organic soil amendments and fertilizers at the nursery, then you’re dealing with the dirty stuff. It doesn’t matter what they call it: worm castings, bat guano, chicken droppings, cow manure. It’s all poop. And if you want to get your plants off to a really nice start (without chemical fertilizers) you’re going to have to get your hands in it. Or at least your gardening gloves.

Which is why, if you’d been eavesdropping on my gardening efforts recently, you would have heard me murmuring  the strangest  incantation as I christened some freshly-dug planting holes.  It went “Here’s some poo for you….and here’s some poo for you… and here’s some poo for you, too!” 

My favorite poo sources this year have been Gardner and Bloome Starter Fertilizer, whose first ingredient is “dried poultry waste.” 

(Though this product has little smell, if you leave it out in the rain, like I did, there is no mistaking what's in it. Don't try it at home.)

Then, to amend the soil I return to the hole-- because our soil in Northern Nevada contains lots of clay and doesn't drain-- I’ve used Kellogg All Natural Garden Soil (containing the powerful triumvirate of “composted chicken manure,” “worm castings,” and “ bat guano.”)

Both products above are OMRI listed (by the Organic Materials Review Institute) which means they are certified for use in organic food production.

So, what have I been planting since the yarrow and gaura adventure? Well, one of my favorites, actually. A fantastic perennial called centranthus ruber. Luckily, most people call it red valerian, or, even more poetic, jupiter’s beard. Here it is in all its cosmic loveliness:

Attributes? It’s fairly drought tolerant, for starters, though it does bloom more profusely with a bit more water. The blooms, as you can see, are large and showy. They're also long lasting, and boast a color somewhere between hot pink and cherry red (unless you get the white variety). Butterflies love them. Here is a photo I snapped of a lone, full-grown plant at a local restaurant:

Here it is growing with catmint in our former garden:

And here it is, cheerfully cohabitating with California poppy. 

 My favorite thing about this perennial, if you must know, is its long, long season of interest. For you non-gardening types, that means it looks great for months. You see, there are lots of other summer bloomers that will put out nary a leaf until May around here. Jupiter’s beard, however, starts making a nice green mound around March, and is usually in full bloom by late April. Amazingly, the blooms continue through May, June, and even July and August if it doesn’t get too hot (as in, over 100 degrees).

Now, one caveat: you must deadhead, or remove spent flowers, to keep this plant blooming through the summer. Truth is, most plants simply won’t go through the trouble of making new flowers once their flowers have set seed. So your job is to thwart the seed-making process at every turn, snipping the flowers before they dry. Deadheading also prevents jupiter’s beard from spreading itself about your garden willy-nilly, which it is known to do. A jupiter's beard bloom is ready to snip when you start to see a lot of its yellow skeleton, which looks like this:

Those white fluffy things in the photo are seeds, so this bloom was probably left a little too long. When you snip, you'll notice the plant usually has two baby flowers waiting to put on a show once the parent bloom is gone (like kids throwing a party when their parents leave the house). Here is a picture showing the parent bloom and the two babies waiting in the wings.

This is how I positioned the three jupiter's beard in my garden bed before planting:

And here they are after I planted them:

(Ignore the little purple sage in the lower left corner, we'll get to him later.) Finally, let's return quickly to our garden map to see where we've arrived. Here is the complete plan:

And here are the three jupiter's beard within the scheme:

Here are the plantings I've posted to date, including yarrow (light pink) and gaura (white). Our water feature is in black.

And on we go.

Up next: designer roses.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Let's Get this Garden Party Started

Okay then!

Today’s post officially launches phase 2 of our grand gardening effort. The effort began when we turned this:

Into this:

And this:

Into this:

Now we will turn the above view into something resembling this: 

The last photo, for you new readers, is of the tiny but terrific garden my husband and I built at our first house, between 2004 and 2009. (We loved it. But we couldn’t, unfortunately, have conversations in it because of the volume of traffic behind that wooden fence. )

So now we’re back to square one. Let’s review our mission as long as we’re here: to build a high-desert cottage-like garden that is crazy colorful without guzzling water.  Color Palette? Purple, yellow, and pink. (With some chartreuse thrown in to help yellow and pink play nicely.)
And since every epic journey requires a map:

This drawing depicts our backyard. The sections with crosshatching are patio. The guitar-shaped section is grass and the “hole” in the guitar is a raised fire pit. The horseshoe shaped feature on the right side of the main patio is a raised tree planter, and the pie-shaped feature in the left top corner is our raised vegetable garden. All the colored circles around the edges of the grass are shrubs and perennial flowers.

Which shrubs and flowers? I’m glad you asked. Time to introduce our cast of cottage-garden characters. Let’s start with the one I planted first: yarrow, or achillea.

This is ‘Apple Blossom’ yarrow, to be exact. Do you love her? I adore her. At least, so far I adore her. This is actually my first time planting yarrow, and it was only after planting that I discovered that the pink varieties-- known as achillea millefolium-- can be “vigorous to the point of weediness” according to my plant encyclopedia. Since “vigorous” is usually a euphemism for “invasive” I’ll have to let you know if this one turns into a thug as time goes on. For now, I’m in the honeymoon phase of the relationship, and I’m focusing entirely on her attributes.

Attribute number one: yarrow is drought-tolerant. So much so that, after planting, mine were looking sad and wilty until I backed off on water. They perked right up.

Two, this yarrow blooms a lovely deep pink but, as you can see in the photo above, each bloom changes to pale pink, and then to white, as it ages. The color variation between different blooms on the plant creates an effect similar to adding highlights to your hair: depth, dimension and interest.

Three, because of its nice flat shape (called “umbel” if you’re dying to know) yarrow is a magnet for beneficial insects including tachinid flies, lacewings, ladybugs, and the like.

 I planted a row of three yarrow, and each of them should grow to be roughly 2 ½ feet tall and wide. Here they are after planting.

They look quite prim and polite, right? Let’s hope future photos don’t show them swinging nunchucks and threatening neighboring plants.

It could happen. Fingers crossed.

Here is the map with the yarrow on it in pink:

Next plant: Gaura lindheimeri .

If fairies had a favorite plant, this would be it.  I purchased the above variety of gaura called ‘Whirling Butterflies,’ and you can see why. It looks like a cloud of white butterflies, especially when the wind blows. The photo above is from Here's another lovely one from Paghat's Garden.

Here's a photo I took of my baby plant where you can see the butterfly shape of the bloom:

Though I’ve heard this magical plant referred to as “wand flower,” around here, people use its Latin name, pronouncing it “GWAH-rah”. 

I planted four behind our cast iron fountain near our wrought iron fence. I chose this plant not only because it’s drought tolerant, but because of my love for contrast in garden design. Since contrast generates intensity, what better plant to position behind a cast iron fountain than the delicate, whispy gaura? I also wanted a plant that wouldn’t completely block the view behind the fountain, which includes distant houses scattered over the hills. Here is the view of the fountain from our main patio with the view of distant houses in the background:

Now, work with me here, and remember that these are baby plants. Here are my four gaura after I planted them.

I know, I know, you can't see them even with the yellow circles around them. This is one of the troubles with photographing an infant garden, especially when the plants are delicate. Work with me here. Use your imagination and try joining the first photo of a mature gaura with the photo of the fountain.

Can you see it? Isn’t it outrageous? By this time next year we should have a photo to knock your garden hat off.

Here is our map with the fountain in black and the gaura in white:

Anyone else have any experiences with achillea millefolium or gaura lindheimeri they can share?

Stayed tuned for more planting!