Since I'm behind on everything these days, June seems like the perfect time for me to post about something that bloomed in March. It's Chinese Mayapple, and it's one of my favorite weird plants.
Chinese Mayapple (Podophyllum pleianthum, zones 5- 9) is getting more write-ups these days, but a few years ago no one was talking about it. I got mine as a pass-along from a fellow gardener I met in 2012 when we were both doing stints as seasonal workers at Plant Delights, the mail order nursery in Raleigh. No, there were no staff discounts, but it was still possible to end up with some great plants. Our job was cleaning up the plants in preparation for shipping; if in the process you had to snip off a ratty-looking stem, you were allowed to bring it home and try to root it. Then there was the "Reject Tree." Plants that for whatever reason were deemed not sellable were left under a tree near the parking lot, and on your way out at the end of the day you could grab some. I did only one season at Plant Delights, but the source of my Chinese Mayapple was in his gazillionth and between the ratty looking stems, the Reject Tree, and some actual purchases, his home garden was like a Plant Delights museum.
You can't help noticing Chinese Mayapple. The leaves are gigantic and sit perpendicular to the stalk, which makes the plant look like a green toadstool or something out of a fairy tale or Maurice Sendak story. In March it gets borderline-creepy dark red flowers that droop from underneath. And if you like this kind of thing, you're in luck, because unlike native Mayapple, the plant doesn't go dormant until September or so.
In my garden, Chinese Mayapple is a substitute for Hostas, which did not make the cut of plants I deem worth lying awake at night thinking of ways to save from being eaten by deer. One of Chinese Mayapple's best features is that it does not taste good to ravenous animals. It has similar growing conditions to Hosta (moist shade) and can serve the same design purpose (bold foliage, nice contrast with ferns).
But who am I kidding? One of my favorite things about Chinese Mayapple is that it's unusual. I can't deny it - I enjoy having plants no one else in the neighborhood has. It's not my most admirable quality but it's also not one of my worst, so I've decided to live with it.
I have a problem. I'm always falling for the wrong plants. Oriental lilies, phlox, heucheras - everything that deer and rabbits love, I love too. I've tried Liquid Fence, I Must Garden, Wireless Deer Fence, cayenne pepper, Schmoogie's hair, rabbit netting, wire cloches, and a fishing line fence, and still my heart gets broken. The garden smells like rotten eggs and the plants look like they are in jail. My friends and family think I'm nuts and my shrink gave me a copy of Oh Grow Up Already: How to Stop Lusting After Lilies and Learn to Love the Boring, Dependable Plants That Bambi Would Never Look Twice At.
I know it's messed up but I can't seem to stop. What do you think? Am I wrong to hold out for what I truly want? Should I settle for spirea?
Wretched in Raleigh
Imprisoning your garden in chicken wire and fishing line is perfectly normal behavior and a small price to pay for having an Asiatic Lily like Pearl Jennifer actually bloom, even with a few bites taken out.
Fire your shrink. With the money you save, you could have a real fence installed. That fishing line fence of yours is joke and there are buds on Pearl Jennifer.
Where have I been? Well, shortly after my last post in July 2014, I started a new job. It's a very good job, objectively speaking, and I am lucky to have it blah blah blah. But until quite recently, it left me so drained that I was unable to even contemplate writing this blog. Let's just say it's been an adjustment.
Partly it was the life-style change: I had been working primarily from home for almost 10 years, and all of a sudden I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, put on decent clothes, brush my hair, and drive 25 miles each way in hideous traffic. If I were a plant, you would have said I had transplant shock.
I survived the transplant. That's the good news. The bad news is that I am not "the right plant in the right place." On the contrary, it has become increasingly obvious that, at my no-longer-new-job, I am precisely the wrong plant in the wrong place. I am a shade lover in full sun. A hellebore trying to be a rose. Call me Phony Rose.
Hellebores like to work in the background. They hate being "on." They are realists, even pessimists, and they are prone to cynicism (I'll bet you didn't know that about hellebores). If you lie on your back and look up into their downward tilting flowers, you can see that they are rolling their eyes a little.
While hellebores may thrive on neglect, roses are always ready for their close-ups. They practically scream "Look at me!" They are relentlessly enthusiastic and upbeat. They are experts at small-talk. They say "awesome."
Take it from me: it's hard to be a hellebore impersonating a rose. Phony Rose is "on" all the time. She is warm. She is eager to please. She makes a gallant attempt at "bubbly". She sprinkles her emails with exclamation points, as if she were 12 years old, for crying out loud, then signs them "Best wishes" (hellebores prefer "Sincerely"). Frankly, she makes me sick.
And so I am giving my blog another go, as a much-needed antidote to my work alter-ego. It will be a relief to be me again. Here I can say quite bluntly that my front yard has been a failure. That after 10-plus years of gardening, I am still hopeless when it comes to garden design and have yet to create a decent-looking container planting. That my neighborhood is overrun with deer and rabbits and between the two of them nothing in my garden is safe. That you can add snowdrops to the list of plants that in fact are not critter-proof. That while I have always considered myself an animal lover, I am secretly rooting for the hawks.
There. I'm feeling better already.
Week five in the new house: with the inside shaping up, it was time to pay some attention to the outside. So we took advantage of the picture-perfect weather this Fourth of July weekend and did some pruning. Let me introduce you to our new plant family.
The Three Tenors line the driveway. Actually, they are Saucer Magnolias, but they look as if they are about to burst into O Sole Mio, so I call them the Three Tenors.
In the front yard is a very nice weeping Japanese maple which I have christened Cousin Itt. Itt could use a good haircut.
Standing on the opposite side of the lawn from Cousin Itt is Alfalfa, which I'm pretty sure is a weeping birch. My photo isn't very good, but if you look closely, you can see an errant stalk standing straight up in the middle. Hence the name.
We also have some boring foundation hollies. I've nicknamed them Boring Foundation Hollies. Get it? They're so boring they don't even remind me of anyone.
I took the back yard. My mission: slim down the Three Tenors.
Ron took the front yard. His mission: trim the boring foundation hollies. I didn't think they looked too bad, but Ron likes things neat. Plus he wanted to try his brand new hedge clipper.
As for Cousin Itt and Alfalfa, my thought was to leave them alone for the time being. I have no idea how to trim weeping trees, and I didn't want to turn them into Ringo Starr or Moe.
By 3 p.m., our work was done. We changed places to check out each other's oeuvre.
This is what Ron saw where the Three Tenors had been. Looks like someone got carried away with her new pruners.
And this is what I saw where Cousin Itt and Alfalfa had been. Looks like someone was having a bit too much fun with his new hedge clippers.
Well, you met the shrubs. Now meet Ron.
It's only fair I show myself too.
After a whirlwind couple of weeks, we are all moved in to our new home. We absolutely love it.
More than a few of my siblings have pointed out that the new place bears a remarkable resemblance to our childhood home in White Plains, New York. Of course it does. That's partly why I fell in love with it.
We also love our new neighborhood, which feels like a throwback to the 1950s. Everywhere you look there are front porches, picket fences, and little kids riding bikes on the sidewalk. How I got here I have no idea. True, gritty urban chic was never my thing, even when I lived in New York, but I wasn't exactly the Donna Reed type either. Yet without knowing when or how, I seem to have entered a new phase of life: the cranky "everything-then-was-great-and-everything-now-is-rotten" phase. What makes my 50s nostalgia truly ironic is that I wasn't alive during the 50s.
Yup, I am definitely getting old. Not only am I fondly recalling places and times that I never experienced, but I am losing my zeal for DIY. At the last house, we painted, put down flooring, even did a complete bathroom remodel. Most of our efforts were "galloping horse" productions, meaning they looked fine if the lights were out and you didn't have your glasses on. But lately I've come to see the beauty of making a few phone calls.
For example, we hated the wall colors in our new house. Someone - no doubt the real estate agent - had talked the seller into painting the house dreary shades of mushroom and taupe. Obviously they were going for a neutral palette, but the effect instead was to make you want to pull the shades down and sit in the dark, the better to contemplate the meaninglessness of your empty existence. Time to dial 1-800-I-Like-Service. In came Norberto, painter extraordinaire, who had the whole thing wrapped up in 3 days. Above, our homage to George Washington's dining room at Mount Vernon; below, our sitting area, done in something called "Field Poppy."
With the inside coming together, we're turning our attention to the outside, where a typical North Carolina summer is unfolding. It's 95 and humid pretty much every day - not ideal weather for planting. And maybe that's just as well. Before I can even consider putting anything into the ground, we have a fence to replace and a yard to remodel. We're thinking a picket fence, a pergola, a brick seating area, and as much garden space as possible. Now if we could just get someone to return our phone calls. I don't do fences.
I will be the first to admit that my dry shade garden by the side of the driveway is not the showiest. It consists mainly of Hellebores and Euphorbia robbiae, and their subdued palates are appreciated only by garden fanatics like me. Then there are those pesky bare spots. Even in spring, when it is at its best, it looks a little sparse.
I have been working at this particular section of the yard for years now. The Euphorbia robbiae is finally covering a good bit of territory and the Hellebores are filling out nicely, but all in all the garden still deserves the name I gave it long ago, The Valley of Death.
You can see that I am not delusional about my talents. This blog is called Galloping Horse Garden for a reason. Some of my gardens are pretty nice; others, like the Valley of Death, are not. And when we put our house on the market a few weeks ago, I certainly was under no illusions that my garden would help to sell the house. On the contrary: I assumed it would be at best a non-issue, at worst a liability. But I have admit that it never dawned on me that my garden - even my worst one - would be mistaken for a parking spot.
And yet a real estate agent actually pulled up to our house and decided to park her car not here:
So there you have it. Nine years of costly, backbreaking, but emotionally fulfilling labor to transform my wasteland of bad grass and hard clay into a garden, and someone thinks it's a parking spot. Could there be any more appropriate end to this Galloping Horse Garden?
Because yes, we're moving. The house sold, we bought another one in Raleigh, and Galloping Horse Garden: The Sequel will begin next month. The yard is small, but it's full sun and there's plenty of room. I envision an arbor, some shrubs, a few perennial beds, and maybe a car or two. Stay tuned.
Several years ago I read an article on how much landscaping can add to a home's value. Obviously a house with a pretty yard and garden will be more appealing to potential buyers than one with a patchy lawn and some scraggly hollies. But this article actually claimed that certain plantings - Japanese maples, for instance - were the horticultural equivalent of granite countertops. Take it from me: they're not.
I bring this up because we developed a sudden urge to sell our house and it's going on the market any day. The real estate agent recently did a walk-through and while she was very complimentary about the many improvements we made, she never once mentioned my Japanese maple.
'Shaina,' the Japanese maple in question, dates to 2007, or two years after we moved into our Cary home. Still a relative novice at gardening, I fell for Shaina's picture in the Wayside Gardens catalog (top photo). Needless to say, what I received (take a gander at the photo above) bore absolutely no resemblance to the tree in the Wayside Gardens picture. What it resembled - and what it resembles even now, seven years later - is a lollipop. The branch canopy has yet to catch up with the stick-like trunk, and while the foliage color has lived up to its billing, I think we can agree that 'Shaina' looks a little ridiculous.
Had I known then what I know now, I never would have ordered a Japanese maple through the mail. Now I know to pick out a Japanese maple in person so I can be sure it has a nice shape from the get-go. And next time - if there is a next time - I'm going to spring for a bigger model. Japanese maples are way too slow-growing and I am way too 1.) impatient and 2.) old to wait for them to morph from ugly duckling to swan.
But back to the subject at hand. Even if my 'Shaina' looked just like the Wayside Gardens 'Shaina,' I doubt we would be getting rich off it. Nor will I be getting rich off my Edgeworthia (a real looker), or my side garden, or my wetland garden, or any of the other thousands of things I did in the yard in the nine years we have lived here. Not that I'm complaining: I made the garden because I wanted to, period. My only problem is that I've gotten quite attached to my plants. If I knew where we were moving, I might even pot some up so I can bring them to the new house.
Not 'Shaina,' though. 'Shaina' is staying.
Before I was married I spent a fair amount of time staring at the telephone. I'm not proud of it, but since the dawn of the telephone millions of single women have done the same. Today they check their cell phones endlessly, but in the corded, landline days of the 80s and 90s, I would simply pull up a chair and wait. Periodically I would pick up the receiver to check for a dial tone. Pathetic.
I like to think that I have matured since then and gained a modicum of self-respect. However, for the past few weeks I have found myself staring obsessively at two conspicuous bare spots in my garden, hoping that Dianthus barbatus 'Heart Attack' will call me. Several times a day I make a thorough examination of the dirt, looking for anything new that may have poked up out of the ground in the 3 or 4 hours since I last checked. I know. Pathetic.
I planted 'Heart Attack' early last spring and fell madly in love with its deep red blooms. Everything seemed to be going fine and I was looking forward to years of happiness. Of course I knew that most Dianthus barbartus were biennial, but 'Heart Attack' (named by the famously offbeat Tony Avent of Plant Delights) was supposed to be a perennial. Tony says it comes back bigger and better each year. I have no doubt that it does - for him.
However, over in my yard, things were going downhill fast. By August, 'Heart Attack' was a shriveled up bundle of sticks. I cut away the dead stems and let the ruminations commence. What had I done wrong? Maybe nothing. It might have just gone dormant in the heat. Plenty of spring bloomers do that in North Carolina, so why not this? Bad sign - it's nearly April now. If it intends to bloom in May it had better hurry up and get out of the ground. Maybe I'm deluded. Maybe it's never coming back. Then again, it's been very cold this winter. It might just be behind schedule.
Call me? Please?
Well, I finally broke down and bought a Mahonia 'Soft Caress,' this year's Hot New Plant. I had been fighting the urge since last fall, when I stumbled upon it at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. In full bloom and loaded with happily buzzing bees, it was quite a sight to behold. At the time I had no idea it was the Hot New Plant. I just liked the way it looked.
'Soft Caress' is a compact evergreen shrub that sports spiky yellow blooms in late fall and dark purple berries a bit later. Unlike the Mahonias with spiny, holly-like foliage, 'Soft Caress' has foliage that resembles a Nandina, and it's not prickly at all. It is billed as hardy from Zones 7 -9, and since it likes shade, I thought it would be perfect for the spot once occupied by my late-lamented Daphne odora. But was it still too new?
I swore I'd never again buy a Hot New Plant, having learned the hard way that, with plants as with people, familiarity breeds contempt. Take Raspberry Dazzle dwarf crape myrtle. Six years after its big splashy introduction, people finally got wise to the fact that it had no intention of ever blooming. Too bad I bought three and finally had to rip them all out. Ditto Verbena bonariensis, which gets powdery mildew, falls over, and generally looks like Who Did It and Ran by the end of the summer. I came to loathe it.
With 'Soft Caress,' I had the sense to restrain myself and buy only one. I confess I was considering getting three, but fortunately the plant was so expensive at a local ooh-la-la nursery (a whopping $45 for a 3-gallon pot) that I high-tailed it out of there and headed over to the downmarket alternative, where the temporary insanity passed. There the owner, quite a knowledgeable guy, told me they don't carry 'Soft Caress,' adding rather ominously that he had real doubts about its winter hardiness. Next stop: back to the Raulston Arboretum to see for myself what the shrub looked like after one of the coldest winters in a long time. Here is what I found.
Not particularly pretty, are they? The small one looks particularly pained. But hey, they just came off a pretty hard winter, and they are clearly Not Dead. So it was on to Nursery Number Three, which also being of the ooh-la-la school, was positively awash in Soft Caresses. Hedging my bets, I picked one in the half-gallon size. Heartbreak hurts less at $19.95.
So here I am again, jumping on the latest botanical bandwagon after vowing not to. Of course I feel like a sheep, which is kind of humiliating. I used to consider myself an independent thinker, unmoved by fads and cheap marketing ploys. Bah. Or should I say, Baaaaa.
Let us now praise the 2004 Hyundai Elantra, the best little pickup truck ever. Without it, my garden would be nowhere.
I didn't always love my car. Even as a teenager I was never wild about driving, and spending most of my adult life car-less in New York City only made things worse. Consequently, when we moved to North Carolina in 2005, the thought of getting behind the wheel again was positively horrifying. Alas, you need a car to do just about anything here. Ron, the master of Tough Love, was determined to make me as independent as I had been in New York City. So he bought me this car, with the crazy idea that I should drive it.
Week after week, month after month, Ron sat in the passenger seat while I did terrifying things like get on the highway at rush hour and drive to and from the airport. Trust me when I say that re-learning to drive in your 40s, when you have actually figured out that yes, you are going to die some day, is quite different from learning to drive when you are 16 and the possibility has never entered your mind. Exhibit A, pictured below: my steering wheel. I haven't been chewing it. I've been holding on for dear life.
But let's not dwell on past neuroses. In the intervening years, I conquered this particular fear (mostly), threw myself into gardening, and in doing so came to appreciate just how fabulous a cheap four-door sedan can be.
You wouldn't think it to look at it, but this unassuming hunk of metal holds 13 bags of soil in the trunk and another 9 in the back seat, provided you know the magic loading formula. If you push the front seats forward as far as they will go, you can fit a pair of 3-gallon shrubs on the floor behind them. You can also ram a young tree into the back seat if you turn the pot on its side and open the windows.
Then there's the really heavy stuff, the kind that would send normal people over to Home Depot's Rent-A-Truck. My little Elantra has hauled a patio's worth of bluestone, assorted concrete statues, and the 8-foot cedar rails for our backyard fence (put the back seat down, open the trunk, shove the rails in, and drive very, very slowly). Even that most annoying rite of spring, the annual lawnmower tune-up, is a piece of cake with this car. Yes, we do squeeze the lawnmower into the trunk. Granted, the top doesn't close, but as long as we tie it with some string, the lawnmower stays put and we don't get a ticket. Win-win.
So let's hear it for my Hyundai Elantra pickup. Next month my car and I celebrate our 9th anniversary, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's not a fancy car. It's not a cool car. But it's an incredibly tough car. Best of all, it's the kind of car that you don't mind getting filthy. Which is good, because the spring gardening season is here.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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