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.
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.
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.
They said it would happen, and now it's happening. My Daphne odora is dying.
Above, what it looks like today. Below, what it looked like when I wrote about it in January, when it was happily blooming its little head off. Note the perky foliage below. Note the droopy foliage above. I suspect root rot.
Do I know for a fact that it's root rot? No. I suspect it's root rot because it's not frostbite, it's not root disturbance (I tugged at the plant and it is still stuck firmly in the ground) and root rot is what They say usually kills Daphne odora. I have great faith in They.
They taught me everything I know about Daphne odora. From They, I learned that Daphne is finicky. That it is a plant that will thrive for years without a care in the world, then out of the blue will develop a fatal case of Something. That Something might be root rot, but that it doesn't really matter whether it is or it isn't, because when it comes to Daphne odora, Something is always fatal.
Alas, poor Daphne. She looks like hell, doesn't she? I'll miss her when she's gone, but at least I was psychologically prepared. They warned me. They were right. They know.
This Halloween, I decided to go the extra mile for the neighborhood kids and buy only old-time candies. The way I see it, when Trick or Treating is over and you dump the contents of your pillow case onto the bed, you really don't want to see 50 mini Snickers bars. You want variety. So this year, I picked up a stash of retro candy at the State Farmers Market. I got some of my childhood favorites - Banana Splits, Mary Janes, Bit 0 Honeys, Jawbreakers - along with some others that I don't remember but that Ron swears by. The leftovers should be fun.
I love sugar. When I was a kid, dressing up and trick-or-treating was merely a means to an end; for me, Halloween was all about the candy. Today I am a sucker for any plant that smells like candy and would happily add them all to my garden. But as far as I can tell, only two fit the bill. One is Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which smells like a Hershey bar. The other is Magnolia figo (formerly
Michelia figo), aka banana shrub. It smells like Banana Splits.
First up, Chocolate Cosmos. What a disappointment. I tried it a few years ago and, while the plant was pretty enough, all in all it was nothing to write home about. I probably should have used it in a container, but instead I plopped it into the ground, where it looked a little scraggly. Worst of all, you had to squat down, get face to face with the flower, and inhale to get the aroma. It wasn't worth it. Unwrapping a Hershey bar was easier.
Magnolia figo, on the other hand, is definitely worth it. It may not be the showiest broadleaf evergreen for the South (that would be camellia), but it is definitely "handsome," as plant books like to say. It has attractive deep green foliage and dainty, cup-shaped flowers in either yellow or burgundy. It blooms heavily in March, April, and May, then repeats on and off through the summer and into the fall; mine has a few blooms now. It even gets random red berries if the flowers are pollinated.
But the main appeal of banana shrub is its aroma. To me, the scent is distinctly not banana; rather, it is unmistakably the smell of Banana Splits. In the warm months, when the plant is covered with flowers, the yard is filled with the gentle fragrance of cheap banana candy. It's delightful.
For those of you too young to remember, Banana Splits are little squares of extremely artificial-tasting banana taffy. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, I adored them. We ("we" being my sisters, brothers, and pretty much everyone attending Post Road elementary school) used to buy them at Collins' for a nickel a piece. Located just a few blocks from school, Collins' was a combination candy-newspaper-tobacco store and one of the bedrock institutions of my childhood. My weekly allowance was hardly princely, even by 1960s standards; my father started us at 5 cents, then raised us to 10 cents at some point, now forgotten. Collins' was where I spent what little I had -- which, come to think of it, is probably why we got only 5 or 10 cents. A father's wisdom reveals itself in time.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's why, when I sneaked a Banana Split from the Halloween stash, it tasted good to me, although it's basically artificially flavored sweet rubber. It's why Ron prefers an Entenmann's chocolate cake to almost anything I can bake from scratch (and I'm a pretty good baker). And it's one of the reasons I am so devoted to my banana shrub. Until they make a plant that smells like Sour Grape gum, which I vastly prefer to Banana Splits, Magnolia figo will always have a place in my heart.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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