Call me? Please?
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?
Pride goeth before a fall.
Last January, I got a bit carried away with my extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi (aka torch lilies or red hot pokers). These little devils are supposed to bloom in September, but for as long as I've had them they have insisted on trying to bloom in December and January instead. Most years that spelled disaster, as the buds were inevitably decimated by a frost. More than once I was on the verge of digging them up. Then, for the last two years, something remarkable happened: the weather held up, and they bloomed.
If you have never seen Kniphofia rooperi blooming in the dead of winter, you don't know what you're missing. Although it's dramatic enough no matter when it blooms, when it's the only act in town it is stupendous. But was I satisfied? Could I just accept the blooms as a freak gift from the weather gods and leave it at that? Of course not. I wanted more.
What did I want? I wanted everyone in the neighborhood to know I had torch lilies blooming in January. I wanted everyone driving by to slam on the brakes and say, "What's that?" and "I must meet the gardener and get her autograph." Alas, my miraculous, mutant torch lilies were in my side garden, which is not visible from the street. So I hatched a scheme. The torch lilies would move up front. Never mind that they were safe and sheltered by the side of the house and would be unprotected and exposed to the elements up front; I had other fish to fry. Up front, in the company of my pyracantha and coral bark willow, they would be the eighth wonder of the world. Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Mid-November: so far, so good. My front-yard Kniphofia has tons of buds and, with a little help from contractor garbage bags and some spare bed sheets, has even survived two nights of temperatures in the 20s. Victory is mine. Fame and fortune are nigh.
Monday, November 25: the forecast calls for nighttime temperatures in the teens. I throw my homemade frost protectors over the plants and cross my fingers.
Tuesday, November 26: I learn many important life lessons. Leave well enough alone. Don't be greedy. Appreciate what you've got for as long as you've got it. Don't use garbage bags for frost cloth and expect it to work. And for heaven's sake, don't touch the extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi. They know what they're doing.
When it comes to momentous, life-changing choices, I am nothing if not decisive. I had known my husband for precisely 5 months and 3 weeks when I married him. The decision to relocate to North Carolina took 30 minutes. We bought a house in two days.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, less earth-shaking decisions take me forever. A 15 minute run to the supermarket becomes an hour while I survey my options in the ice cream freezer. Deciding on a movie is an ordeal. But both of these pale in comparison to buying a plant.
I spent the better part of last fall and winter trying to make up my mind about 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass. I knew I loved it, but should I buy it? That was the question.
I had read somewhere that 'Karl Foerster' did not like extreme heat and humidity. Maybe that's why it isn't as common in the Raleigh area as Miscanthus. Maybe it wouldn't work out, and I would have wasted precious time that I could have invested in a relationship with a more appropriate plant.
Nor was I certain it was the right design choice for my side garden, which, having crossed the line from "exuberant" to "sloppy," was in need of a remodel. I was in the market for a vertical element, and 'Karl Foerster' fit the bill. With an upright habit and a height of 6 feet in bloom, it would definitely provide some much-needed structure. Supposedly it maintains its form and looks fabulous for nine months out of the year, which is more than most of us can say.
But maybe 'Karl Foerster' would look too rigid in my garden. Maybe I already had my strong vertical element: the side of the house. Maybe I needed my sloppy sprawlers to soften the harsh backdrop of the house.
Maybe maybe maybe.
Once I do make up my mind, however, I become positively obsessed. So in early March, when I finally concluded that 'Karl Foerster' was indeed The One, I had to have it instantly. Nor would I be satisfied with a puny specimen from a mail order nursery. I wanted immediate gratification, which meant I had to get my hands on a blooming size plant, ASAP.
As late winter is not the best time to go plant hunting, this was easier said than done. Most of the local nurseries I called had no 'Karl Foerster' in stock; could I check back in mid-April? No, I most certainly could not check back in mid-April. Finally I hit pay dirt. Yes, they had some Karl Foersters left over from last season - still dormant, of course, but gallon sized. Yes, they would hold them. Yes, I wanted all four.
My grasses are blooming now. Would you like to see them?
The best laid plans of mice and men, yada yada yada. Instead of Karl Foerster's amber waves of grain, I am now the proud owner of four mystery fountain grasses - I'm guessing 'Hameln,' but who cares. I blame human error rather than foul play; dormant ornamental grasses look a lot alike, and tags can easily fall out and be placed back in the wrong container. But the fact remains that, far from being tall and upright, my new additions are short and floppy - not exactly what I had in mind.
Maybe I should take this sorry episode as a sign that 'Karl Foerster' and I were never meant to be. Maybe my new fountain grasses will work just as well. If they are really are 'Hameln,' they are supposed to turn a golden bronze in the fall. That could be nice. On the other hand, maybe I should just rip them out and find some Karl Foersters while there's still time to get a positive ID.
Maybe maybe maybe.
Since Juneteenth is being celebrated across the country this weekend, I thought now would be an opportune time to highlight the daylily named in its honor. Behold Hemerocallis 'June Teenth,' which has been blooming for the last week in my next door neighbors' yard.
First, a little Civil War refresher for those of you who, like me, were unfortunate enough to have a soccer coach as your 11th grade American History teacher.
The Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863. But in reality it was not until June 19, 1865 - one month after the Civil War had ended and two months after Lincoln's assassination - that slavery finally ended in America. That was the day that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and enforced the emancipation of the country's last remaining slaves. June 19, or "Juneteenth," has been celebrated as a holiday ever since.
"June Teenth" is one of the many (somewhere between 50 and 75) unusual daylily varieties gracing the garden of my next door neighbors, Mark and Cheryl. In total, they have about 100 plants, a few of which are shown on my Guest Gardens page. All came from Holly Hills, the now defunct daylily farm in Moncure, North Carolina. Owned and operated by the famed daylily breeder Dr. Jim Massey, the farm was a pilgrimage site for daylily fanatics, who happily traipsed through acres of lilies in search of that perfect something their neighbors wouldn't have.
Holly Hills closed its doors in 2011, but not before Mark and Cheryl had pretty much cleaned out the place. All their lilies are beautiful, but "June Teenth" seems to be their pride and joy. The name alone would make you want to own it, but everything about it - the color, the huge flowers, the height - is eye-popping. And since Mark and Cheryl's "June Teenth" was one of only ten and is not commercially available, its price-tag was equally eye-popping (I'm not telling). All in all, it's quite a conversation piece.
Meanwhile, over in my yard, I've got a rather pedestrian assortment of daylilies blooming, including that perennial (no pun intended) object of scorn, Stella de Oro. Personally, I think Stella gets a bum rap - is it her fault that she was marketed to death? She's actually quite lovely if you stop sneering long enough to take a good look at her. But she's no "June Teenth."
And as much as I like Stella, and Hyperion, and a bunch of other plain-Jane daylilies, I have to admit that those Holly Hills specimens are pretty spectacular. I wouldn't mind having a few for my garden. The bad news is, Holly Hills is no more. The good news is, Mark and Cheryl have a good portion of the inventory. How lucky for me that they live next door.
I'm planning to be very, very nice to them.
Thanks to Carol at May Dream Gardens for hosting the June 2013 Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.
A few years ago, when the official word came down from Garden Command Central, I ran out and bought some Verbena bonariensis.
It's done amazingly well in my garden. The bees love it. The butterflies love it. The goldfinches love it. Ron loves it.
Unfortunately, I kind of hate it.
To me, Verbena bonariensis is the most over-hyped and over-rated plant out there today, starting with the color. Some call it rose-purple. Others call it lavender. I call it blah.
The plant's common name is "Verbena on a Stick," which gives you a good idea of its habit. Garden designers say it's airy and architectural. I say it's spindly and weak. Mine are nearly 6 feet tall, and since the stems at the flower heads are particularly thin, a good rainfall - or a half-ounce goldfinch - can easily bend them. By September the plant is a mess.
Shall I go on? It self-seeds everywhere, with a grows-between-cracks vigor that makes annual Vinca look like an amateur. For good measure, it gets powdery mildew every year, no matter what I do. The mildew doesn't seem to hurt the plant, but it doesn't do much for its looks, either.
And yet it stays. Every winter I vow to rip it out and plant something else. Every spring it gets a reprieve. Partly it's because I'm outnumbered - Ron, the goldfinches, the bees, and the butterflies all like it, so that settles that. Partly it's because when I'm in a generous mood, I will concede that it has a few good qualities. To wit: it flowers like an annual, even thought it's a perennial in Zone 7b. It's better than having a goldfinch feeder - no need to buy niger seed, plus you never have to refill it. The seedlings, though plentiful, are easy to identify and easy to pull. And in a certain light, at a certain angle, after a glass of wine, it can look pretty.
Even so, I'm still not sure why Verbena bonariensis became the "It" plant. Inevitably, the fad will peak and the now ubiquitous VB will meet the fate of the Stella De Oro daylily: a victim of its own success. Landscape designers will shun it (too cliched) and serious home gardeners will roll their eyes at the mere mention of it (too common, and doesn't make up for it by being native).
Gardeners are one tough crowd to please.
Once upon a time, there was a nondescript yard with an unfortunate tendency to flood. It was not a nice place at all.
So begins the story of my back yard bog garden, which is looking pretty darn good after a very rough start. There are many heroes in this story, but today's star is Louisiana Iris "Black Gamecock," which is blooming like mad as I write this.
It would be unseemly at best and ungrateful at worst to complain about anything related to my upcoming trip to Alaska.
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.
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.
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?
Adjacent to my driveway, ending where my neighbor's holly bushes begin, is a little strip of land that I have dubbed the Valley of Death. A few years ago, Ron and I had the harebrained idea of turning it into a shade garden; ever since, it has been the place where plants go to die. The entire experience has been an education.
First, some background. When we moved in 8 years ago, our future shade garden was an unsightly slope of not-very-nice grass. Two mature trees, an oak and an alder, did a good job of preventing anything decent from growing around them. Throw in years of topsoil erosion and the reflected heat from the driveway, and you had just about the least likely place to plant a garden.
Fast forward to fall 2008. We had just replaced our ugly cracked driveway with pavers, and suddenly the wasteland seemed like a shade garden waiting to happen. We spent fall and winter preparing the site, piling on bag after bag of compost and top soil to improve and raise the planting bed. Then, beginning in March 2009, we filled it with a very expensive assortment of "tough" and "drought-tolerant" shade plants. Among the lucky winners were some A plants (asarum, aspidistra, and acanthus), some H plants (hostas, heucheras, and hellebores), one bergenia, two carex, one euphorbia robbiae, two "heat-tolerant" primulas, and assorted ferns.
I am sure all of you been wondering what has become of my extra-late-blooming kniphofia rooperi.
When we last left this aberrant specimen, it was the week after Thanksgiving, and the plant was doing its typical maneuver: producing buds about 3 months later than it should have. It had pulled this stunt every year since I brought it home from the nursery. What was supposed to be a late summer/early fall flowering plant in fact was some sort of mutant strain that took its own sweet time hatching those orange Popsicle blooms that made me buy it in the first place. And with the freezing nights that descend on Cary, North Carolina in December, its cavalier attitude usually proved fatal. Consequently, the buds of my kniphofia rooperi (torch lilies to the rest of us) never made it to the flowering stage until 2011-2012, the year of the winter that wasn't.
Today, for the January 2013 edition of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day (hosted by Carol at May Dream Gardens), I offer you the latest installment of the kniphofia soap opera.
Say hello to my winter torch lilies. Yes, they made it. We are having another mild winter, although it has been a tiny bit colder than last year. There have even been mornings when I was sure that they could not possibly have survived - mornings when the Acuba, my unofficial outdoor thermometer, was drooping pathetically in the frost and the pansies were positively crispy. I need not have worried. The Popsicle sticks bent a little on those frigid mornings, but they straightened out as the day warmed up.
So the good news is, they bloomed. The bad news is, nobody cares. It's January. At this time of year, the only reason I pass my side garden is to pull the garbage cart up to the street. Since they insist upon blooming in December and January, they will need to move to the front yard, where I can enjoy them in the color-compatible company of my pyracantha and coral bark willow.
It will be a cliffhanger, I know. It is impossible to tell how they will perform in their new home, away from the protective warmth of the brick wall.
Will they decide to bloom when they should - in September and October?
Will they continue to set buds in November, only to be nipped by the cold in their more exposed location?
Or - dare I hope? - will they burst forth with glorious flowers in the dead of winter, inspiring awe and wonder among gardeners everywhere?
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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