Friday, January 27, 2017

The Star of our Winter Garden (and some supporting actors)

This is the small garden that borders our driveway near the entrance to the garage. 

Because it is our front lawn area, it was important to me that the plants in this garden have good winter interest. It contains a number of evergreen plants that I really enjoy: autumn fern, hellebores, and liriope. But the star of this garden is the paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha).

The paper bush (not to be confused with the rice paper bush) is an attractive green shrub in the summer. In the fall it drops its leaves to reveal its interesting branching structure. In November, unique flower buds begin to appear that resemble white bells. This time of year, small, very fragrant, yellow flowers begin to open, barely visible from the bottom of the bell. Winter foraging bees love them. On warm days, I like to sit on the bench in this garden and enjoy the fragrance.

Jack and I were walking up the driveway just after dark a few nights ago. The wonderful scent greeted us as we approached the entrance to the garage. I said to Jack, "I love that paperbush. It makes me happy all year round." He gave me one of those looks that say "I wish I had a nickel for every time you've told me that." But, truth be told, he loves it too!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyme and Reason
Welcome to Rhyme and Reason, my blog on gardening. The goal of this blog is to relate the art of poetry with practical gardening advice, combining art and science if you will. Anyway here goes, I hope you find it interesting and informative.

"Now is the winter of our discontent"  Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 1 William Shakespeare
For gardeners winter can be a season of discontent. Often we are stuck inside because the weather is too cold or too wet or both. Gardeners want to be outside digging in the dirt on a mild March day. Gardening, for most, is a wishful dream, at least for the next six weeks or so. Still, there are gardening activities that can keep up your spirits. Here are few suggestion to chase away the winter blahs.

Winter is a wonderful time to make some visits. Start by visiting your own garden (on a relatively nice day), pen and paper in hand. Winter is a good time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your landscape. Write down practical goals to achieve once the weather warms. Is there an area that needs a better landscape plan? What type of makeover, new shrubs or perennials (what size, what bloom time, what color). If your are really ambitious, take a piece of graph paper and make a scale drawing of your house and landscape  (include doors, windows, pavements decks, driveways, flowerbeds, compass directions and trees). Even a rough landscape drawing is  great to have when visiting your local gardening center and looking for advice on plants to incorporate into your landscape or for suggestions on how to deal with a problem area.

Your favorite local independent nursery is another visit worth making. They are open and they have more time to discuss your landscape needs now. Come March and April, the crush of business makes it hard for them to spend any quality time with you. Also, they know what plants will be available. It can be frustrating to decide you've discovered a great plant in a garden book or magazine only to learn that no one locally carries it.

Next, visit your local botanical garden. (In Memphis visit the Dixon and the Memphis Botanical Garden.) Bring along pen and paper and note what's interesting in their winter landscape. Adding interest to winter can include trees with exfoliating bark (some crape myrtles, for example) or with colorful bark (such as Sango Kaku, Coral Bark Japanese Maple.) Consider form when looking at the winter garden; Harry Lauder's walking stick and weeping Japanese Maples can add interest even without foliage. The berries of deciduous Hollies are another useful addition to the winter landscape.

Another visit worth making is to your local public library and, I recommend, checking out two books on gardening. If you're like me two books are better that five because with two books I will spend more time with each one rather that skimming and forgetting a few random ideas from five books. Visiting the library again and checking out another two is perfectly acceptable- they won't mind a bit.

Annuals such as Pansies, Violas, Panolas (panolas are a hybrid mix of pansies and violas) and ornamental cabbages are another way to add winter interest. Take a trip around and look at the entrance to subdivisions that have an appealing mix of annuals. When you find one that you like, get out and take some pictures. Next fall, use your pictures as a guide to create a scaled down version for your landscape.

Finally, as Percy Byshhe Shelley wrote in Ode to the West Wind: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind" . Spring is something all gardeners can't wait to arrive!

Poem of the Month Suggestion
 Wind and Window Flower by Robert Frost

Monday, January 9, 2017

Mister Owita's Azalea Therapy

From time to time in my life, I have had friends who really disliked azaleas.  You would think to hear them talk that azaleas are urban blight.   I had not thought much about this dislike of azaleas until I read Carol Wall’s 2014 memoir Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening; How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart.   Carol hired Giles Owita, a Kenyan native, to resurrect her neglected yard, the worst kept yard in her Roanoke neighborhood.  She detested azaleas, so her first direction to her new gardener was “Please remove azaleas.” 

In midwinter in Shelby County, it is hard to be enthusiastic about azaleas. Thin, curling leaves are blackish green, brown or rusty orange, and the largest azalea specimen in my front yard is full of holes from dieback brought on by neglect, drought, age, or a combination.  I have certainly thought, “Please remove this azalea!”  Yet in late winter, when Mister Owita turned his attention to the stragglers in Carol’s yard, he saw something else: “Those azaleas at your compound will be beautiful,” he promised her.  

This promise of beautiful pink blossoms did not soften her dislike
for a plant cursed with a brief blossoming time and an eternity of browning blossoms, petals falling away in advance of winter, and the ugly debris of decay.   Indeed, unlike most gardeners I know, Carol Wall did not like blooming things at all, since they reminded her of her sister’s coffin and generally reflected her unhappiness at the brevity of beauty and the fragility of life.  She was fearful  of a recurrence  of cancer and also anxious about the failing health of her parents.  What Mister Owita was up against in this particular gardening project was less a neglected yard than a troubled heart.
Carol was outraged when she discovered him at work pruning rather than removing the hated azaleas. 

He lovingly tended to the first azalea with fingers that carefully plucked away the crisp, dead leaves and dried debris that had fallen from the overhanging trees.  His feet were planted firmly on the sloping, moss-covered ground, and his eyes were warm with concern as he inspected the healthy green parts now becoming visible on the azaleas.  (52)

He applied his “chemicals,” fertilizer and an antifungal.  And rather than respond to her anger, he tended the azaleas and asked about her ailing parents.  

For Mister Owita, “Every yard must have its flowers.”  Carol hired him to fix her yard, but like all mentors, he saw his job as broader.  He had to help Carol appreciate them.  After the azaleas bloomed that spring, Carol reluctantly allowed them perhaps “one more year.”  Meanwhile, Mister Owita pruned the shapeless river birch to let in light and air for new beds.  He gave her green gardening gloves to use in preparing a bed for colorful annuals, but at her despair over such a riotous blend of colors, he promised shrubs instead.  They scraped, dug, and mixed soil.  They shared stories about her fears and anxieties and his worry over a daughter unable to emigrate. 

By the next March, as a late snow melted, Mister Owita’s plan for a cure of Carol’s malaise took a dramatic step forward.  Pure white daffodils pushed up between the boxwoods.  Tiny, white crocuses bloomed in profusion in beds.  White flowers “spilled all along the fence line” (114).  White snowdrops and a stand of white alyssum appeared, and soon there were white tulips and blossoms of sweet woodruff.  Her yard had become a sea of white flowers, just what her broken heart needed. 

The challenges of life were not over for Carol or her mentor, but finally she could allow him to introduce color into her life--red primroses, lemon-yellow lilies, purple-bearded irises.  Mister Owita turned out to be a miracle worker not only in tranforming Carol's yard, but also in helping her apply the patience, hope, and knowledge of gardening to her life.

Serious gardeners are not strangers to the therapies of our avocation.  Digging weeds and hauling manure are good strategies for allaying anxiety or anger.  Nor are we unaware of the benefits of the mentor who can minister to more than the neglected garden.  Carol Wall’s memoir is not always joyful, but like my garden catalogs and garden diary, it has helped me remember the beauty of azaleas even in the bleak midwinter.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Gem of a Western Botanical Garden

I’ll always love the lushness and greens of the Mid-South but a trip to New Mexico gave me new appreciation for the browns, sharp angles and deep blue skies of the West.

A visit to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden at Museum Hill provided a quick lesson in the possibilities of gardening in a dry, high desert climate. It is more than cactus and sand!

Driving through neighborhoods to see how fellow gardeners adapt to their climate and soil is enjoyable. However, a visit to a botanical garden offers an efficient way to learn more about the opportunities and challenges for gardeners outside of your home zone. It can inspires some “out of the box” thinking for your return home.

The Santa Fe Botanical Garden at Museum Hill is a treat not to be missed if you’re in the area. Phase One, known as the Orchard Garden, opened in 2013 and is the only area open at this time. A total of 14 acres will be developed in four phases. 

I’m often overwhelmed by large public gardens. I find myself racing from place to place trying to see every nook and corner, look at every plant and vista. The Orchard Garden's size and layout encourages slow strolling and sitting to admire the views.

Nestled into a hillside, it features a meadow garden as well as a dry garden. It also marks the permanent entry point into the gardens. A temporary Visitor Center holds a small Garden Shop. Future plans call for a contemporary garden that will serve as a “hands on” outdoor classroom with plants used for healing, food, weaving and dying. Other phases include a series of courtyards highlighting the culture of Santa Fe.

The Museum Hill garden contains mostly native plants along with others appropriate for the area’s climate. Artfully arranged, the plants frame the stunning views. This provides inspiration for gardeners who wish to incorporate views from the surrounding area into their landscaping. The pathways weave through the gardens with comfortable seating that encourages you to relax and enjoy the view.

Art exhibits rotate regularly. The current exhibit  is sculpture by Bill Barrett, a metal artist with studios in New York City and Santa Fe. The 16-piece show, titled “Visual Poetry,” incorporates the ever-changing beauty of the landscaping with the light and vistas of the West. It also reflects the vibrant art community in Santa Fe where there seems to be a sculpture on every corner. The work will remain until mid-May 2017.

Along with the Botanical Garden at Museum Hill, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden also manages the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve. For more information, visit

Monday, January 2, 2017

With the New Year Come Gardening Catalogs

The gardening catalogs have started to arrive, most unsolicited. I have to admit that these catalogs give me a lot of pleasure during the winter months, as I garden vicariously through their pages. Most plants (not all) sold in many of these catalogs can be found at your local nursery, but if you braved the cold to go there, you’d be looking at an apparently empty pot rather than a growing plant.

The prices you pay for catalog plants are typically a lot higher than what you would pay for that plant at your local nursery, especially when you add in the shipping. I don't really mind paying more for the convenience of catalog shopping. After all, printing catalogs is an expense that must be paid for somehow. And I don’t mind that the plant you get will be tiny compared with the plant you could buy at your local nursery. These small plants usually grow very quickly.

But I do have one big complaint about these catalogs: what you see is not always what you get. The pictures in some of these catalogs can be deceptive. I’m not talking about the fact that the pictures are of robust plants that have been grown in prime conditions and pinched back to maximize blooms. I’m not even talking about when the picture is a close-up of very small flower so that you don’t get a sense of the true size of the flower. I’m talking about pictures that have the effect (if not the intent) of deception.

It bothers me when plants that commonly have only a few flowers on a stem are pictured as though they produce a large bouquet of flowers. Sometimes the foliage of the plant may not even be shown in the picture, just a bouquet of flowers against a garden background. Who buys a plant for the flower without considering what the foliage looks like?

And speaking of bouquets, when you look closely at some of the pictures in garden catalogs, it appears that the plants have been digitally constructed, with bouquets of flowers photo-shopped onto the plant's foliage. Regardless of how green our thumbs may be, I don't think we could ever grow plants so floriferous. Staging plants in this way is bound to result in a disappointed purchaser.

The most egregious example of this staging came in a catalog this week. Leafing through the catalog, my eye was caught by a striking picture. On first glance, it appeared to be a large, pink and purple flower growing on a light green stalk. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a few leaves of coral bell (Huechera ‘Midnight Rose’) pictured on top of what appeared to be variegated Solomon’s Seal. The description accompanying the picture talked about “these blooms,” but the blooms on the plant were not even shown in the picture, only the brightly colored foliage! The dark leaves of the coral bell and light green of the Solomon’s seal make a great combination, but why not show them in a realistic setting so that a shopper could (1) know what he/she is getting when the coral bell is purchased and (2) get some ideas about companion plants?

So my advice to anyone purchasing an unfamiliar plant from a garden catalog is to check out the plant from some other site to confirm what the plant actually looks like. Preferably, use a non-retail plant site. The Missouri Botanical Garden is one of my favorites but there are many others that provide realistic pictures of plants. 

Happy New Year and happy shopping.