Beautiful, healthy ajuga, March 2012.
With the end of summer and Labor Day upon us, I’ve been reviewing the successes and failures of my gardening year. On the plus side, my crinum and acanthus bloomed for the very first time, and my Sky Pencil hollies didn’t die. Overall, though, it was a banner year for failures. The mystery is why.
Vines scare me. Let’s face it: they are high-maintenance, hyperactive stranglers just waiting to invade your siding or your neighbor’s yard. But I love them just the same.
A few years ago, I was browsing at Bramble Wood Nursery, one of my favorite vendors at the State Farmer’s Market, and spotted passiflora incarnata “Incense.” It was not on my shopping list, and I had nowhere to put it. But the lone flower in bloom on that deceptively small plant was so striking that I gave in. For years I kept it confined to a pot, afraid of what might happen if I planted it in the ground. Now it’s free, and it’s making me nervous.
Hibiscus Crown Jewels.
I owe my hibiscus an apology. Not my hibiscus syriacus, the nearly indestructible Rose of Sharon that is still churning out flowers daily, but my perennial hibiscus “Crown Jewels,” which seems to have been eaten alive while my back was turned.
Perennial hibiscus, sometimes called rose mallow, is a native plant that is all the rage these days. The most popular varieties have dinner-plate-size blooms in shades of red, hot pink, and white, but these are not my favorites. To me, they look fake, almost freakish, the accidental outcome of a bolt of lightning and an ill-timed electrical current. “Crown Jewels” is more demure. It has pretty dark foliage and blooms that measure a paltry 6 inches across - large enough to make a statement but not garish. The flowers (which, like all hibiscus, last for only a day but appear throughout the summer) are white with a red center, and make a nice contrast with the blue Rose of Sharon and bog sage nearby.
Best of all, “Crown Jewels” likes its days hot and its soil soggy. As such, it seemed the perfect plant to help transform my swampy back yard into something resembling a garden. I had no intention of tromping about in the mud coddling sensitive plants that probably wouldn’t survive anyway, so I made sure to select only tough plants that were suited to the conditions. Let nature take its course, I said. And that’s exactly what it did.
Living in New York City, I rarely came across a hummingbird. I had never given them much thought, so when one showed up in my yard during my first North Carolina summer, for one horrifying moment I mistook it for an enormous flying insect. Once I realized it was a hummingbird, though, I was thrilled - this North Carolina thing might work out after all. My garden was non-existent back then, but I was already envisioning creating a haven for birds, bees, and butterflies. So I set about trying to create the perfect hummingbird habitat.
Only after I became an experienced gardener and a naturalized southerner did I realize that those ubiquitous "Plants that Attract Hummingbirds" lists should be heavily annotated. Take ajuga. I don't know about you, but I have never had a hummingbird in my Cary garden in March, when ajuga blooms. The earliest I have seen one is April, and then it was merely the briefest of sightings. On the other end of the seasonal spectrum, we have pineapple sage, which I put in pots on my deck to maximize my hummingbird viewing pleasure. Pineapple sage is sometimes billed as a September bloomer, but in my yard it starts blooming in mid-October. The bees are delighted, but the hummingbirds have already left town.
I loaded up my garden with plants that are reportedly hummingbird favorites: Louisiana Iris, bee balm, hibiscus, agastache, torch lilies, turtlehead, and tons of different kinds of sage. Nevertheless, the only months in which I regularly spot hummers are May, July, and August. In mid-May, when the Louisiana Iris blooms, I see primarily males (distinguishable by their red throat). However, in late May and June, I see nary a one, despite my ostentatiously blooming bee balm and Rose of Sharon. From mid-July through August, we're back in business, with regular sightings of the all-green female hummingbirds. Interestingly, the males now are nowhere to be found.
Tulips: To Chill, Or Not To Chill
The fall catalogues have arrived, so it’s time for my annual ritual: obsessing over tulips.
Why I bother is a very good question. As any southerner can tell you, tulips are basically annuals here. Some varieties won’t perennialize, and others will if and only if you provide optimal growing conditions. After reading what “optimal growing conditions” entailed (perfect drainage, perfect balance of nutrients, perfect light, and perfect moisture levels), I concluded that it would be far easier to start from scratch each year. So every fall, right before Thanksgiving, I grab the pickaxe and start digging, all so I can have two weeks of oohs and aahs in the spring.
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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