It would be unseemly at best and ungrateful at worst to complain about anything related to my upcoming trip to Alaska.
All buds, no blooms, and the clock is ticking.
My "Festiva Maxima" peony is running about 10 days behind schedule. In the past, it has bloomed like clockwork on May 1. This year, its fourth in my garden, promises to be spectacular. It has finally hit a good size and has tons of big fat buds. My best guess is that it will start blooming on Friday.
Unfortunately, I won't see it.
So near and yet so far.
We are leaving for Alaska on Friday and will be away for 9 days. Coincidentally, that is about as long as one can realistically expect a peony to bloom down south. Some do a little better, some do a little worse. Either way, the show will be ending just as I return.
Peonies are so gorgeous when they are blooming that it is impossible to resist getting one, even though they are as fleeting a pleasure as gardens have to offer. Blink, or go on vacation for a week, and they are gone. People will try to convince you that the foliage is "handsome" and the form is "pleasing," but who are they kidding? Everyone knows we're in it for the flowers.
This is what I'll be missing.
I am aware that missing my peony's brief bloom period for a fabulous trip to Alaska ranks low on the tragedy scale, but it is extremely annoying nonetheless. And it's all my fault. What sane gardener plans trips for May anyway? Had I been thinking clearly, I probably would have pushed for August, but I was preoccupied with risk assessment and my brain had shut down ("Ships and airplanes? Are you kidding?"). The peony never even crossed my mind.
So off I go to Alaska - excited, petrified, and more than a little miffed at Festiva Maxima. Wish me luck.
Last week, I bought another lavender. Of course I didn't need; I already have two rather enormous specimens and have no room for more. And yet, after a trip to the Farmers Market to purchase basil plants, I somehow wound up with another lavender. In my defense, it was a white flowering variety. Pretty cool.
Spanish lavender ( L. stoechas): funny looking and proud of it. Ron's photo.
My fixation with lavender is odd, because I am not the lavender type. I hate perfume, sachets, and scented soaps. I think lavender in food is an abomination, and I don't care how many trendy chefs think I'm an unsophisticated boor for saying so. Yes lavender is pretty, yes it smells nice, and yes the bees love it, but you could say that about a lot of plants. So why the obsession with lavender?
"Provence" lavender with bee. Messy but delightful.
I trace it back to my visit to the south of France 20 years ago. The trip was decidedly out of character for me; I'm far too cynical ever to have romanticized places like Provence, plus I'm a coward when it comes to travel. In fact, I probably never would have gone if my friend Lili hadn't dragged me. The trip ended up being one of those obnoxiously picturesque vacations that I had always assumed only other people could take - you know, where you rent a 200 year old farmhouse in a tiny town in Provence, amid olive groves and vineyards. We pulled figs from the trees and drank wine under vine-covered arbors. We had tiny cups of espresso at sidewalk cafes while the locals read the paper and smoked smelly French cigarettes. We picnicked at the calanques in Cassis, where my insane friends dived off the cliffs into the Mediterranean. It was like being in a magazine spread. Two of Lili's photo's from Provence. There are more on LilisLight. Mostly I hung out with Lili, who was busy photographing everything in sight (you can check out a small sampling of her photos at LilisLight). Lili has a romantic nature and an artistic sensibility, some of which must have rubbed off on me, because I left Provence all misty-eyed, with a fixation on sunflowers and lavender that has never gone away.
When it's happy, Spanish lavender gets huge (3 x 3 at least) and sprawls all over.
Back to reality. Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, and the climate in central North Carolina (not to mention the soil) - is emphatically un-Mediterranean. My observation has been that growing lavender here is an all-or-nothing proposition: either you fail completely, or the plant takes off and eventually sprawls over everything in the vicinity. For some reason, the so-called English lavenders, like "Hidcote" and "Munstead," don't work at all. However, Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and the "Provence" variety do just fine. Since lavenders need perfect drainage, most people recommend raised beds, but I've had great success simply amending the soil (throwing in lots of Permatill) and planting high. I also "mulch" with pebbles (to reflect the heat and keep things dry), and water very sparingly.
Lavender "Provence" does very nicely in North Carolina's humidity. My yard in June 2009.
Is my garden now a little slice of Provence? Actually, no. Do I fantasize about living in the south of France? No again. But I do love brushing my hands on the lavender.
The pollen is here. One week ago, the greenish-yellow powder began coating everything, from my deck to my brain. Consequently, I have been in a pollen-induced fog for the past week, which makes it quite difficult to string words together in a coherent fashion.
Pansies coated with pollen dust.
You may be unfamiliar with North Carolina's annual pollenfest, in which puffs of yellow powder spurt from the pine cones, form yellow dust clouds that float on the wind, and then land pretty much everywhere. Sensible people close their windows and turn on the air conditioner. In fact, many people here don't even put screens in their windows - why bother, if they are never planning to open them? But the weather is stunning in April and, with everything blooming, the air smells fantastic. We keep our windows open.
Unfortunately, pollen is very time consuming. Forget the deck - the rain will take care of it. But when the windows are open, the pollen naturally gets inside. No one would ever accuse me of being a neat freak, but even I have my limits, so I've been sweeping, dusting, vacuuming, and/or mopping several times a day. (Confession: when it's late and I'm tired, I have been known to take a damp towel, throw it on the floor, and wipe the pollen off by pushing the towel around with my feet. Works like a charm.)
When oh when will this end?
Then there's the dog. Schmoogie is highly allergic, and will chew himself raw unless preventive measures are taken. So every time he comes in from a walk, he gets a full-body wipe down, an anti-itch spray, and a Bag Balm foot treatment. When that isn't enough, he gets half a Benadryl wrapped in cheese.
Fothergilla "Mount Airy." Great shrub but no aroma, contrary to reports.
Even if my brain were functioning normally, all this has left precious little time for gardening, let alone writing. So for the April edition of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day
, hosted by Carol at May Dream Gardens
, I am showcasing Ron's photographic foray into the pollen-laden wonderland that is my garden.
Euphorbia robbiae. Very sci-fi.
Everything looks healthy and fabulous, as things usually do in spring. I liken it to the first act of a drama, in which all the characters are introduced and nothing bad has happened yet. But then, I'm a pessimist.
Spanish lavender, one of only two types of lavender that I have grown successfully here (the other is "Provence").
In a few weeks, for instance, this azalea will probably have some powdery mildew. Today, I can say with certainty that the coating on the leaves is pollen, not mildew.
Pretty unnamed azalea.
The Michelia figo, aka Banana Shrub, is permeating the garden with the delightful aroma of Banana Splits, a favorite candy from my childhood. It's evergreen and hardy from zones 7-9.
Ah the scent of banana candy in the springtime. Michelia figo, otherwise known as Banana Shrub.
Two perennials new to my garden are Verbena "Snow Flurry," and Dianthus Barbartus "Heart Attack," which is just opening now. The mystery bearded iris is going gangbusters. A newly purchased Delosperma "Eye Candy" is getting a second chance to prove itself after last year's failure.
Verbena "Snow Flurry"
Dianthus Barbatus (Sweet William) "Heart Attack"
Mystery bearded iris, a pass-along from a neighbor. It's short and early blooming.
Delosperma "Eye Candy." We'll see if it can take the heat this year.
Spring is far too short in this area; in a week or so it will probably be good and hot. In the photo below, you can see the ornamental cabbage is flowering, which means it is on its last legs. The pansies will be droopy and leggy by May, when they will be replaced with the summer annuals that don't mind heat and humidity. By mid-June, even we will have to give in, close the windows, and turn on the air conditioner. So pollen or no pollen, we enjoy it while we can.
Pollen-dusted pansies and ornamental cabbage flowers.
Forgive me Earth for I have sinned. It's been, actually, never since I had a compost pile in my back yard. I love to garden. I love to cook. I love fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet I have been throwing out my kitchen scraps.
I have plenty of excuses. Heat + rotting vegetables = flies, and lots of them. Plus I don't want to encourage raccoons and their ilk. Each season I vow to find the perfect enclosed compost bin: secure, easy to turn, easy to access, and aesthetically inoffensive. Somehow I never find it.
But that's all behind me. I have found CompostNow
CompostNow is a local urban composting organization. When you sign up, you're basically outsourcing your composting - you get all the benefits without the unpleasant smells or wild animals. Here's how it works.
- I pay CompostNow $25 each month.
- They give me two empty buckets.
- I spend the week filling them with kitchen debris. Vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grinds, tea bags, paper towels, even chicken bones - they all get dumped in.
- Every week, a nice young man driving what I can only assume is a bio-fueled vehicle picks up the full bins and gives me two new ones.
- They compost my garbage.
- I get their compost.
It's the perfect symbiotic relationship.
Ron's signature Italian eggplant (left) and chicken (right). Disclaimer: no onion, garlic, eggplant, or chicken skins were thrown away in making this dish.
I love CompostNow, and it's not only because I can now hold my head up high (or at least not slink away in shame). I love it because it's fast. I signed up in mid-January, and by the end of March I had already earned my first compost delivery. Maybe that's not as fast as ripping open a bag of Black Kow
, but it sure is faster than making compost in my back yard.
Urban composting is hardly new, but since I generally don't discover a trend until I read about in the history books, I had not realized how widespread it was. CompostNow, which serves the Raleigh/ Durham/ Chapel Hill area, will soon be expanding into Asheville (I know - what took them so long?) and Charlotte. The D.C. metro area has something called Compostcab
. And there are similar organizations all across the county; this link shows some of them
Peace, love, and CompostNow. Now that's a slogan I can get behind.
Unusual weather we're having, ain't it?
In North Carolina, spring has been unusually late in arriving, as winter temperatures stuck around a lot longer than usual. March was unusually cold. Last winter, though, was unusually warm. And last summer was unusually hot.
With the unusually cool weather, my Edgeworthia has been blooming for an unusually long time. All photos courtesy of Ron.
I have reached the conclusion that, in central North Carolina at least, the weather is always unusual. In the 8 years that I have lived here, we have never once had "normal" weather. You can ask anyone. It's always unusually hot. Or unusually cold. Or unusually dry. Or unusually wet.
Since I'm a relative newcomer to these parts, I have a slightly different perspective, which is: snow in July is unusual. Everything else is about par for the course. Realizing this has done wonders for my garden.
My early-blooming pure white "Mondial" and pink "Foxtrot" tulips have also lasted for an unusually long time.
Let's start with tulips. I am still patting myself on the back for my decision to forego the mid- and late blooming varieties in favor of early bloomers. Of course it "shouldn't" be 80 degree in April or May, but it often is. March bloomers are a better bet if I want my tulips to last more than a day.
Today is April 1, the average last frost date in Zone 7B Cary. Usually the weather is gorgeous, and everyone floods the farmers markets and garden centers looking for basil and tomato plants. Not I. Back in April 2007, a rare late frost killed all the peach blossoms and ruined life for many a farmer. That one actually was unusual, but those freak spring hail storms that pour buckets of crushed ice from the sky are not. How quickly we forget.
My hellebores have been blooming since January. How unusual.
As for the summer, it will be hot and humid. Very, very hot and humid. Sometimes it will be very, very, very hot and humid, and everybody will be surprised. I was too, at first. But after failing with such allegedly hardy-to-Zone 7 plants as Sambucus "Black Lace," Delosperma "Eye Candy," Fuschia "Sanicomf," and pretty much every oriental poppy I ever tried, I stopped being shocked. Now I'm even boycotting hardy geraniums, which are hardy to Zone 8. Usually.
A perfect metaphor for the weather in North Carolina. (Young Frankenstein, in case you missed the movie.)
"Normal" weather is like a "normal" person: a phenomenon so rare that it is almost a contradiction in terms. Most of us are a little crazy in some way. "Normal" people are the exception, which makes you wonder why they get to be called normal and we're stuck with being weird.
Normal weather? Now that would be unusual.
"Foxtrot" double early tulips in various stages of color development. All photos by Ron.
Success at last! Maybe not Martha Stewart success, but success by my standards. I grade myself on a curve.
My double early tulips are out, and I think they are pretty darn nice. Sure, they are a little shorter than they should be, and my two colors have, predictably, failed to bloom in concert. But I'm still giving myself an A. They are a lot better than last year's show.
Mondial is blooming a bit later than Foxtrot. One, in the foreground, has opened.
So just who is reading my blog? Yesterday I found out.
Come here often?
Apparently this barred owl read my last post
about the bountiful food supply in my backyard "Peaceable Kingdom": he showed up in broad daylight yesterday, swooped down for a quick snack in the leaves, then proceeded to park himself in my red maple, where he graciously posed for these photos (all by Ron - he's good, I'm not). This was quite a thrill, as neither of us city bumpkins had ever gotten up close and personal with an owl before.
Just who is the barred owl, and what was he doing out and about in the middle of the day? Time to consult owlpages.com.
First things first. He's a killer, unlike the cosmetically-challenged turkey vulture of my last post. Mainly he eats voles, shrews, and mice, but in a pinch he will also eat moles, rats, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, salamanders, frogs, beetles, grasshoppers - in other words, anything he can sink those enormous claws into. He (or possibly she - the two sexes look similiar) begins nesting in late February, and that's probably why we spotted him - owls are out and about in daylight primarily during nesting season. His call, recorded here
, supposedly sounds like "Who cooks for you, who cooks for all?" He did not favor us with a performance.
The barred owl surveying his lunch choices from a high perch in my back yard.
Making a bird-friendly garden was always a goal of mine. But I have to admit I was thinking cardinal or goldfinch, not owl. Obviously some gardeners do think owls, though, or they wouldn't sell owl nesting boxes
. From the looks of the boxes, I'd say they are intended for smaller varieties; at 16 to 25 inches tall, the barred owl is a big boy, and couldn't possibly squeeze into any of these houses.
Where's Waldo? The owl's coloring helps him blend in and avoid annoying suburban photographers.
I confess I found the owl's visit strangely validating. After moving to North Carolina, I reluctantly - very reluctantly - embraced the "work with nature, not against it" school of gardening. Deep in my heart, I wanted a different kind of back yard (you know, a nice one) but quickly learned that was out of the question under the soggy circumstances. So I planted tough, wet-tolerant plants, dubbed the yard "rustic," and consoled myself with the abundant frog population. Now I learn that the back yard I've been cursing for the past 8 years - a swamp adjacent to a forest - is also the perfect habitat for the barred owl. Score another one for Nature.
Scabiosa "Butterfly Blue." (Photo courtesy of Mostbeautifulflower.com)
This is Scabiosa. It's pretty - not my personal favorite, but pretty. The butterflies and bees like it, so I have it in my garden. It's semi-evergreen here and will bloom about 10 months out of the year if nothing eats it first.
Guess who's coming to dinner? (Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This is Newman. He's pretty too. I've named all the rabbits in my garden Newman, after the devious mailman who is Jerry's arch-nemesis in Seinfeld. Newman loves Scabiosa. He prefers it plain, but he'll also take it with cayenne pepper, dog hair, and Deer-Off.
"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks, in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum. This is not real life.
I have a complicated relationship with Newman. He's adorable, so it's hard to hate him. And he plays right into my Peaceable Kingdom and Rabbit Hill delusions. I love the idea of my yard as a haven for wildlife (a baby rabbit took refuge in my garage one spring and I brought him arugula - which, by the way, he didn't eat). Part of me enjoys having Newman in residence. I just don't want him raiding the refrigerator. Newman sees it a little differently. His attitude is, I'm a rabbit, this is what rabbits do, deal with it. And because he's cute, I do deal with it. In addition to the scabiosa, Newman and his many flop-eared friends are partial to my pansies, rudbeckia, day lilies, and annual sunflowers. They may also have been responsible for the demise, a few years back, of my brand new and very expensive Illicium floridanum (which apparently is not poisonous to wildlife, so don't believe everything you read). I am still uncertain whether the perp was a bunny, a beaver, or Bambi. Nevertheless, I cling to my Walt Disney version of nature. Destructive little monsters they may be, but I still feel bad when one of the Newmans has a fatal encounter with my neighbor's cat. Or when one ends up by the side of the road, which is what happened the other day.
Turkey vulture (Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This is a turkey vulture. He's not pretty. In fact, he's downright unattractive. He might even be considered disgusting to those of us with refined sensibilities. The turkey vulture is a year-round resident of North Carolina, but an infrequent visitor to my Peaceable Kingdom. However, because of the aforementioned roadside accident, one has been hanging around the neighborhood for the last few days. At first he gave me the creeps. My dog took one look at him and wanted to walk in the opposite direction. But as I learned in this entertaining and informative video, he's not a bad guy. He's a turkey vulture, and he's just doing what turkey vultures do. Yes he's a scavenger, but he's [generally] not a killer. So if you're alive, you can relax.
The best part is, he doesn't eat plants. Welcome to my kingdom, vulture.
My adopted town of Cary, North Carolina has many advantages. Compared to New York, life here is stress-free; the traffic is manageable, the taxes are not bad, and there are Indian and Asian markets if you need tamarind chutney or nam pla. Architecturally, though, it's another story. My house is pretty typical: an assembly-line concoction with zero personality.
Home sweet home.
I'm sure Cary was charming once. Fifty years ago, it had about 1500 residents, an historic downtown, a lot of one-lane roads, and a handful of traffic lights. When Research Triangle Park
opened in the 1960s, though, IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, and a host of other corporate biggies set up shop, bringing with them the massive influx of transplants known in these parts as the Second Yankee Invasion. Developers had a ball ("So many trees, so little time"). Today, the population exceeds 140,000.
The upshot is that Cary, despite a founding date of 1750, is new - so new that my 1989 subdivision is considered an "older" section of town. And since new construction in Cary looks pretty much like new construction everywhere else, you don't get a strong sense of place. Everything is nice and neat (the town's landscapers in particular do a bang-up job) but architectural character is in short supply. The developers are also a bit stingy when it comes sidewalks and are overly enamored of the cul-de-sac.
Maybe I'm crabby about the Cary aesthetic because I just got back from Charleston and Savannah. They are picture-perfect Southern cities, right down to the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Both have an overabundance of gorgeous architecture and beautifully landscaped parks. We spent a lot of time gawking at historic homes and peering through wrought iron gates into exquisite private gardens. Carved fountains are everywhere, as are elegant statues and urns (I think there is a No Kitsch ordinance in effect). Cast iron plants and Japanese holly ferns are the edgers of choice, and there's no denying that they look sensational in Hardiness Zone 8b, where it hardly ever freezes (they are distinctly less impressive in my Zone 7b garden).
A private garden in Charleston. We stuck the camera through the gate to take the photo.
If I had to nitpick, though, I'd say there is one problem with the private gardens: they're so perfect they're impersonal. Once I stopped oohing and aahing over them, I realized that they all looked the same, in the way that all blond models on the covers of fashion magazines look the same. They were the epitome of good taste but lacked - brace yourself - character.
This house goes with the garden above.
It's funny - in Charleston and Savannah the houses have character, but the gardens seem a bit mass-produced, albeit in a very high-end way. What's even funnier is that the homeowners didn't need to go to all that trouble. Even a flat of crummy Walmart impatiens would look fabulous next to one of those houses.
A typically beautiful block in Savannah. This photo was taken on an earlier trip.
My house, on the other hand, has absolutely no character - in fact, it's the very same model as the one across the street. But at least my garden has personality. It would be an exaggeration to say that if it weren't for my front yard, you couldn't tell my house from my neighbor's. But I will say this: no one else on the block was dumb enough to plant Pyracantha as a specimen shrub.
There's no mistaking my front yard.
Have you noticed how complicated it has become to buy yogurt? What used to be a fairly straightforward decision is now a positively Herculean task. In the old days, all you had to do was choose between plain and flavored, fat and non-fat. Now an entire wing of the supermarket is devoted to yogurt. Greek or cow's milk. Splenda or sugar. Extra Lactobacillus acidophilus. Square container or round.
Buying plants has become like buying yogurt. Ever since the garden catalogue avalanche began in January, I have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, wracked by indecision as I debated the merits of amsonia hubrechtii vs. amsonia tabernaemontana, the nuances among the different varieties of flowering tobacco, and all those new buddleia introductions. Meanwhile, the pressure is mounting as the calendar marches inexorably toward spring.
I have an unusually large number of decisions to make this year. Nature has blessed me with a bumper crop of garden bare spots, as well as two little garden beds that require complete makeovers. Ordinarily, I would be delighted by the chance to try new plants and fix past design disasters. Instead, I am paralyzed. There are too many choices.
Raspberry Dazzle. Photo by Monrovia Proven Winners.
To narrow things down, though, I have made one resolution: no new introductions. Sometimes it takes a few years to find out that the latest and greatest is not really all it's cracked up to be. A case in point: one of the beds in need of a makeover is currently occupied by three Hot New Plants circa 2006. "Raspberry Dazzle" dwarf crape myrtles was part of the first wave of shorter (3 feet), more cold hardy (zone 6) crape myrtles developed by plant guru Michael Dirr and marketed as the Razzle Dazzle series. My philosophy is that you can never have too many crape myrtles, especially when they are compact enough to fit into a border and remind me of my all-time favorite Crayola crayon, magenta. So naturally I snatched them up.
Berry Dazzle. Photo from Wayside Gardens.
It turns out that nobody's perfect, not even Michael Dirr. Raspberry Dazzle is a dud. In six years, I have never, ever seen as much as one bud on any of them. An online garden forum
confirmed my suspicions: when it comes to blooming, Raspberry Dazzle would prefer not to. Now it has been booted from the market to make way for a better Hot New Plant. Its name? "Berry Dazzle." If you don't think it's different, check the patent number. I'll bet it blooms, too.
Buddleia Miss Molly. Photo from Proven Winners.
Buddleia Miss Ruby. Photo from Proven Winners.
Back in the living room, the catalogues are everywhere and my decision-making is nowhere. My current fixation is that fabulous new Buddleia, Miss Molly. Or is it Miss Ruby? No matter. I love them both. They're compact enough to fit into a border and remind me of my all-time favorite Crayola crayon, magenta. If they are still on the market in 5 years, I may just spring for one.