Tangled Branches: Cultivated
happenings in and around my zone 6b gardens in northern Virginia and in central Virginia
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Beautiful at All Seasons
As I read Beautiful at All Seasons by Elizabeth Lawrence - the Garden Bloggers' Book Club selection for April/May - I had to keep reminding myself that these essays appeared weekly for 14 years in a newspaper column. I wonder if the readers of the Charlotte Observer realized how lucky they were to have such charming and learned writing delivered to their doorsteps. This is the third Elizabeth Lawrence book I've read and now I feel I must read them all.
What I admired espcially is the sense that the reader is accompanying Miss Lawrence on her own gardening odyssey. Unlike some garden writers (Henry Mitchell), she doesn't give the impression that she thinks she knows everything - quite the contrary, she seems to be constantly reading, experimenting, attending lectures, and corresponding with gardeners and vendors.
Some of her gardening friends appear frequently in these columns. Mr. Krippendorf, I'd met in reading The Little Bulbs, but I'd always wondered about Caroline Dormon and so was pleased to find "Meet Caroline Dormon" on page 179. "Miss Dormon is the kind of gardener who wants to plant everything that grows, and she corresponds with her kind in England, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia." Sort of like Miss Lawrence. No wonder they got along so well.
I hadn't thought of Elizabeth Lawrence as a humorous garden writer, and she doesn't seem to have a bad word to say about anybody, so I was caught off guard to read her thoughts on what would happen if the public were encouraged to plant crape myrtles as street trees. "I have two objections to their wholesale planting on city streets. One is that the colors most likely to appeal to the general public are the hot rose reds and watermelon pinks. We already have too many of these. The other reason is that few householders are likely to allow crape myrtles to grow into graceful little trees. Most of them are going to grow them as shrubs, butchering them every year so that all winter long they are a bunch of hideous sticks, and in summer a menace to traffic as they block the view of oncoming cars." I wonder if she was thinking of azaleas when she wrote about too many hot rose reds and watermelon pinks. Elsewhere in the book (and I can't find it now) she wrote about a plant as being "one of those that we are constantly removing in order to plant more azaleas". These passages made me smile, but they're not typical. Most of the columns are gentle suggestions about interesting or useful plants and garden features.
But I have one serious disagreement with Miss Lawrence. How on earth could she encourage people to plant Smilax? After having seen Smilax growing over a doorway, she wrote "It seems a pity that these charming and useful native vines are so seldom grown". Useful? I've been clearing impenetrable tangles of at least two species of Smilax from the woods for a while now. I can't hope to eliminate it, but I do hope to tame it. But useful? Hmm, maybe, possibly, to the birds certainly. But humanly useful? Well, I learned in that column that the owner of the doorway Smilax waits to cut it down until there's an occasion to use the trimmings as a decoration. Aha, there's an idea.
Yes, useful. And if you want any, stop by my place and cut all you like.
As when I read The Little Bulbs, I felt I should have been taking notes the whole time. That's not my style of reading, however, and I'll just have to search and reread from time to time. That won't be a chore, believe me.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Historic Florist Mix
Does this look to you like THE classic pansy?
I've been learning a lot about pansies while trying to track down the origin of this seed mix. These came from Select Seeds and they call them Viola x williamsiana 'Historic Florist Mix'. The catalog description says "These sprightly smaller pansies with expressive whiskery faces and a light sweet fragrance are just what you are looking for if the six pack specials of huge floppy sort just don't tickle your fancy. Called tufted pansies way back in the 1800's."
I agree completely with the first sentence, but I'm not sure about the second, nor the name.
I was going to write a long discussion here on the history of the development of garden pansies, but decided that it was so specialized that nobody but a viola addict would be interested, and besides I'm no expert. There's a fairly concise version of the history here, if you'd like to know more. Pansy-growing was a competitive sport in the 1800s, and there are still published standards for judging the flowers. Mine are not going to win any prizes but one of the requirements for show pansies or fancy pansies is that the shape be nearly round, and that's what I like about the photo above. Unfortunately, that plant is the only one so far with round flowers (not all of them have bloomed yet). The others have interesting colors, but not the round shape.
Browsing through the seed catalogs last winter, I noticed that Chiltern Seeds offers something called "Historic Florist Pansies", which I assumed was probably the same seed mixture.
Further digging in the internet shows that Baker Creek and Seed Savers Exchange also offer "Historic Florist Pansies", and both of them identify the source of the seed as Kees Sahin. Now we're getting somewhere. Kees Sahin founded a seed company in the Netherlands. Look at this photo from the Sahin seeds website. Very similar to my photos. So that's where these seeds originated, apparently. And they call them Viola x williamsiana, so I guess I'll accept that as the proper name.
Sadly Mr. Sahin passed away in 2006, and his company was acquired by a Japanese seed producer, but his contributions to our gardens live on.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Fireflies and Mountain Laurel
Ah, Memorial Day weekend. The psychological start of summer in the mid-latitudes of the United States. So why are we still shivering in the cold? The fireflies think it's summer. We sat on the front porch Friday evening, bundled up in sweatshirts and woolly slippers to enjoy the summer weather, and the fireflies appeared right on schedule. We first saw them last year on Memorial Day weekend. I'll stop whining now, because it's supposed to warm up a lot by Monday.
Let's look at something pretty instead. Don't these Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) flowers look like they belong to spring instead of summer? The pale pink color and delicate patterns make me think early April instead of late May.
We have a large Mountain Laurel shrub at the edge of the woods. It suffered from having the woods cleared away around it (in order to build the house), and when we first moved here I wasn't sure it would survive. And truth be told, it still looks a bit rough. The height is well over my head (but I'm not tall), and many of the branches are bare. I may cautiously snip it back to see if it will resprout from some of those bare branches, or I may not. I could just plant something shorter in front of it.
The structure of the flower is interesting. See how the stamens support the petals like the spokes of an umbrella? National Geographic magazine, June 1917, reports that "...the mountain laurel has taken care that no visitor shall escape without rendering it the service of messenger. When the flower opens its stigma is erect, but the anthers are fastened down with a trigger-like arrangement, one in each of ten little pockets in the flower. The bee that creeps down into the flower for a sip of nectar releases a tiny spring, like a mouse entering a trap. The released anther flies up and dusts its pollen on the hairy body of the insect."
Mountain laurel nectar is said to be toxic, but apparently not to ladybugs.
There were at least two mountain laurel shrubs blooming last year. I don't see any others this year. I do remember that one had paler flowers than the other, but I don't remember them being white. The photographic evidence says otherwise.
Or could it be that the color was lighter last year because the weather was warmer?
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Karen Gray Again
Can't let peony season go by without posting at least one picture of 'Karen Gray'.
OK, maybe 2 pictures.
The color of the petals is more true-to-life in the second photo.
Who is Karen Gray anyway? No idea, but according to Carsten Burkhardt's Web Project Paeonia the peony named after her was created by William Krekler, and registered in 1965. Peonies by Allan Rogers and Linda Engstrom tells us that William Krekler was a landscape architect, nursery owner and peony breeder who sold his peony stock to Klehm in 1977. Apparently, the Klehms thought highly enough of Karen to keep her in production because I bought mine from their online establishment - Song Sparrow - a few years ago.
The other peony - 'Krinkled White' - still has a few blooms, but they're almost finished. The Siberian Iris 'Vi Luihn' usually blooms at the same time, but is lagging behind this year.
Monday, May 19, 2008
This Bird Has Flown
Final wren update: I haven't seen a wren all day.
The grill nest is empty. Part of me wants to go buy a steak to cook tonight, and part of me wants to leave the construction marvel in place for a little while.
The wrens used a variety of materials, including some pretty skeletonized leaves at the outer edges. Have they been studying trendy decorating magazines?
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Basil: Holy and Otherwise
I love basil. In the kitchen, it gets along perfectly with all the summer vegetables, and is practically a requirement for sliced tomatoes. In the garden, most basils make attractive green backgrounds that complement other plants. And if solid green isn't your thing, you can get various shades of purple.
I thought I understood basil perfectly, but I always like to try new things. I went a little crazy this year and sowed seed of 14 different varieties - some new to me and some old favorites. One (Licorice) didn't germinate so now I'm left with 13. Bad luck? Should I plant another variety just to be safe?
The lucky 13, in no particular order:
Sweet Petra Dark
Thai Open-pollinated (Kitazawa)
Mrs. Burns Lemon
Mexican Cinnamon Spice
Italian Large Leaf
I transplanted the seedlings to cell packs a few weeks ago and they'd be happy to escape and get into the garden, but 1) the garden isn't quite ready, and 2) it's been too cold and rainy for basil to flourish in the garden anyway.
So, I whacked off the ones that were getting too tall for their cells, and created a Thai-inspired multi-basil stir fry dish from the trimmings. This was a last-minute concoction containing ingredients I had on hand, but I trawled the internet for ideas first and came across this fabulous-sounding recipe. That isn't what I made, but it set me off on an internet journey to learn more about holy basil. I hadn't paid much attention in the past to holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum or O. sanctum), believing it to be not commonly used in cooking.
But one of the basils I planted this year looks very different from the rest.
'Blue Spice' has a different leaf shape and is slightly hairy, most noticeably on the stems and flower buds. The catalog described it as having "a strong basil scent with vanilla overtones". Hmm, well, I would say it has a strong scent but not like anything that I associate with basil. The fragrance is sweet, but when I tasted a leaf, it was quite camphor-like. Could this be a relative of holy basil?
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages mention a hybrid of an African species (Ocimum kilimandscharicum) with Ocimum basilicum - 'African Blue' - which sounds very similar to what I have. And the African species is supposed to be very camphorous. Further searching on 'Blue Spice' turned up this page from Richter's. They don't seem entirely certain, but state that 'Blue Spice' is "said to be a hybrid between purple basil and O. americanum". Going back to Gernot Katzer, we learn that O. americanum is a lemon-scented species. I didn't detect any lemon in either the scent or the taste, so I'm doubtful about that genealogy. Or perhaps what I have is not 'Blue Spice', but 'African Blue' instead? So I'm still confused - pretty sure that what I have is not holy basil, but also wondering if the taste of 'Blue Spice' is anywhere close to holy basil since now I know that holy basil is what I need to make authentic Pad Kra Prow (variously transliterated as Ka/Gra/Kra Prow/Prao/Pow, and others). I think I've just decided to grow a 14th variety this year, if I can find any holy basil plants. Or maybe it's not too late to start seeds.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day
And why I'm a day late...
The space is so large, but my dreams are bigger.
The distractions are so many.
Exquisite flowers with alluring perfume.
Beautiful butterflies. [Imagine photo here]
Spring butterflies seem in such a hurry - no time to pose for pictures.
I had a full day in the garden yesterday, trying to get things done before it rained again.
The Bloom Day lists follow.
At Tangled Branches South (in the gardens) we have:
Dianthus 'Rainbow Loveliness'
Thyme 'Lemon Mist'
Viola 'Historic Florist Mix'
Assorted store-bought annuals: pansies, violas, lantana
In the fields and woodland edges we have:
And at Tangled Branches North, as of earlier in the week:
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Heuchera (Yellow foliage)
Lonicera sempervirens (Coral honeysuckle)
Lamiastrum galeobdolon 'Herman's Pride'
Lamium 'Purple Dragon'
Dianthus 'Bath's Pink'
Dianthus 'Cherry Red'
Sedum (unknown, looks like S. kammschaticum only larger)
Peony 'Krinkled White'
Calycanthus floridus 'Athens'
Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-Valley)
Siberian Iris 'Vi Luihn'
Cotoneaster 'Streib's Findling'
Azalea (unknown pink variety)
Aquilegia canadensis (Columbine)
Polygonatum biflorum (Solomon's Seal)
Assorted pansies and violas
It feels like the flowers are a bit sparse this time. Checking last year's list, that seems to be true - both in the flowers that haven't bloomed yet and in those that are finished already. You'd think it would be one way or the other, but not both.
Check out the amazingly lengthy list of Bloom Day participants at Carol's Bloom Day post! 102 comments and counting.
Labels: in bloom
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
I couldn't stand the suspense.
I saw a female Brown-Headed Cowbird yesterday in the yard, and got to thinking, What if the grill-nest wrens are raising cowbird babies? So I took a quick peek with the camera in hand. Wren babies - phew! Sorry for the crummy photo (cursed autofocus thought I wanted to show you the nest not the birds) but I didn't want to disturb them too much.
According to the Cornell Ornithology web site, Carolina wrens fledge in 12-14 days. We should have our grill back soon.
Update: Never write anything in a hurry. Several hours after posting this, it dawned on me that the title Grill Babies could just possibly be misconstrued. Not at all what I intended.
New innocuous title: Wren Update
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Updates, a Life Bird, and Potager's Progress
It occurs to me lately that much of the good stuff on this blog happens in the comments, and as a result, doesn't get the prominence it deserves. Also, I tend to write of mystery plants, birds, bugs, etc. and then don't update the post when I learn the ID. Soooooo.....this post is to tie up some loose ends.
Thanks to bek, I now know that the mystery oak galls are Wool Sower Oak Galls.
Thanks to the kind folks at bugguide.net, I believe my first bizzare-o insect of the year was the caterpillar of a Red-Spotted Purple butterfly.
Thanks to Squirrel, I knew that yesterday (or was it Thursday?) was International Migratory Bird Day. I celebrated it by doing some front-porch birding and saw a life bird. But Ms. Smarty-pants here was so confident of the ID that she failed to observe all the field marks and now is uncertain. When I first saw the all-blue bird in the treetops, I immediately thought Indigo Bunting, and kept right on thinking that until just before I lost sight of the bird. In those last few seconds, I thought I saw a rusty red streak on the flanks. Hmmm, well, the Blue Grosbeak has a rusty red wing bar, and furthermore, this seemed larger than a finch-sized bird. So now I'm about 70% sure that I saw a Blue Grosbeak, with a 30% chance that it really was an Indigo Bunting. Either way, it's a life bird for me.
Other birds of note yesterday were Great Crested Flycatcher very close to the house in the morning, and in the afternoon by the vegetable garden 2 Pileated Woodpeckers in some kind of altercation, with one pursuing another across an open field. They're even more awesome in flight with red crested head and bold black and white wings.
Still no ID on the big mystery seed pod, but I found another just like it while working on the vegetable garden yesterday and ta da! - it has at least one seed in it. I'm going to plant it and see what sprouts.
Wild orchid foliage? This is what I noticed last weekend, and recently found another one some distance away. I was waiting for a good sunny day to take a photo, but had to settle for using the flash.
And when I said the ditch had turned blue with Salvia lyrata? This is what I meant.
Lastly, Happy Birthday to my vegetable/herb/cutting garden and/or nursery bed. I'm going to keep calling it a potager. Early in May last year, we starting digging. One year later, we're still digging, but there's visible progress. We're messing up the symmetrical layout this year by adding a column of beds along one side and potato bins on the other. I plan to bring it back to some kind of symmetry, but probably not this year. And I've just discovered that the lower part of the garden has a drainage problem. Last year, no rain, no drainage problem. This year, lots of rain, big drainage problem. The sage, rosemary, horehound and shallots are all drowning, but the garlic doesn't seem much affected. Four rosemarys were supposed to anchor the corners of the design, but one got chewed off last fall and the drowning one looks like it's on the way out. I either need to fix the drainage problem or rethink my design, or both. (Disclosure: I cropped out the poor suffering waterlogged plants on the left side of the photo.)
A few closeups from the potager:
The Mexican mint marigold either self-sowed or lived through the winter sheltered by Provencal thyme.
We're going to have some very large garlic bulbs this year.
The rue is just starting to bloom.
The black swallowtail caterpillars are back! This year I hope they come visit when they're grown up.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
The Inadvertant Nest Box
The old gray grill, she ain't what she used to be. In more ways than one. Now she's a nest box.
We haven't used the grill at Tangled Branches North yet this year. I opened it up this afternoon to see how big a cleaning job awaited me, and it was bigger than I thought. About half the grill surface was covered with a nest which I first took to be a mouse nest (we've had those before), but then in the center of the loose mossy nest I noticed tiny heads and open beaks. Oops, sorry, I'm not your mama, and I don't want your mama mad at me. I closed the lid. Yesterday and today, I had seen a Carolina Wren carrying food across the deck and I didn't think much about it except that there must be a nest close by. Later this afternoon, we watched the wren carrying food again, but this time we saw it enter the grill through the hole for the rotisserie.
I'll take a picture of the nest after the babies have flown.
We're going out for dinner.
Monday, May 05, 2008
More Natives: Salvia and Chionanthus
Over the weekend I noticed the ditch near the road had turned blue. I don't know how I missed these last year because the entire roadside is covered with them.
A few minutes with the wildflower books told me that they're Salvia lyrata, maybe a bit weedy (but native!) and hummingbirds will sip from them. And while I was sitting on the deck looking this up, a hummingbird came by to investigate some arugula that had started to flower but soon left in search of something better. Wait, wait, I do have something better! So I dug up a few Salvia plants from the ditch and moved them to the edge of the woods - one group where I can see them from the deck and one group in front of the house.
I thought the Salvia might look good next to this - another thing I missed last year - Fringe Tree or Chionanthus virginicus.
I feel sure that it didn't bloom last year and that's how I overlooked it, because it's right at the edge of the woods very close to the house. It's only about 3 feet tall now, but through my Gardeners' Glasses I visualize it as 15 feet tall and covered in white fringe.
Here's another curiosity at the edge of the woods - fuzzy oak galls. They look like some craft project from the 1960s involving spray paint - mostly white but just tinged with pink or red.
If anybody knows what they are, please tell me. A few Google searches didn't give me an answer, but I can tell you that the first hit for "fuzzy oak gall" is this post from Ki last fall. Not the same thing, however.
I hope to keep exploring the woodland over the summer and not ignore it when I get busy with the kitchen garden (like I did last year). Purely by chance yesterday, I found some foliage that looks very like orchid foliage. No photo yet, but I have high hopes.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Garden Bloggers' Hoedown
There is an embarrassing lack of hoes at Tangled Branches. Well, I do have one, but it's stashed behind some other unused tools and I didn't feel like digging (sorry) it out.
That doesn't mean the garden is total weeds though. I just like to get personal with my weeds - face-to-face sort of thing. So, to join in Carol's Garden Bloggers' Hoedown, let me introduce you to my weeding tools.
Clockwise from top-right, we have a cultivator-mattock thingy (Does this have a proper name? I don't know it.); an asparagus knife, aka dandelion digger (The catalog called it an asparagus knife, but this one is very different.); my old trusty trowel; and my new favorite, the Hori-Hori knife. My biggest weeding tool covers the background of the photo - mulch!
Now, a good gardener would have taken one of those tools in hand and dispatched that poor dandelion immediately. Me, I went in the house to see how the pictures turned out.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Last Day of April Pictures
April is one of the best months for the northern Virginia woodland garden. We began with daffodils and the little blue bulbs I love so much, and now we finish with azaleas and dogwood and more.
|Azalea 'Herbert' blooms along the back of the lot.|
|The Spanish Bluebells have been outstanding this year.|
Unlike the red one, I remember planting these at one time.
I don't remember planting it in the woods, however.
|This old dogwood was here|
at the edge of the woods
when we bought the house.
|The coral honeysuckle is finally climbing |
through the viburnum as I always thought it should.
|Not all our azaleas are elegant.|
This screaming coral-pink-red one is in front of the house
right where the builder put it.
Most of the houses here have similar ones.
It's been with us so long now I can't think of getting rid of it.