Saturday, June 20, 2015

Portland Garden Schooling in Texas Succulents


We've had an incredibly wet year so far. After a long period of drought where we begged for rain, the heavens have answered with storm after storm and days of endless gray. It's so wet that it's like I'm living in Portland again.

Except for the humidity.  

Except for the heat.  

Except for the gargantuan mosquitos.

Okay, so it's not like Portland.  

But it IS wet and while many of my plants have gone gonzo (clearly, I don't water enough) others have drowned. I've had more than a few succulents rot in planters and in the ground, plus the winecup and black footed daisy aren't that happy, which brings me back to Portland.

Last year I visited my old home town as part of the annual Garden Bloggers fling and was really struck by what a funny bunch we gardeners are. We're never satisfied with the native plants and attributes of where we live, but instead lust after what we can't or have difficulty in growing. Here in Austin my friends lust after hydrangeas, azaleas, hostas, lilacs - all the things that are ubiquitous in Portland. And the PDX gardeners? They grow succulents. (I just got back from Toronto and their passion?  Lantana. They overwinter it in greenhouses.)

But I digress. Succulents in Portland? With all that rain? I'm not talking about the sedums that hug every rock face, but agaves and prickly pear and other cacti.  I think back to my own unsuccessful attempts to grow winecup, evening primrose, and other prairie flowers in my wet clay soil. Growing succulents in Portland just seems a crime against nature.

But the gardeners are doing it and with fantastic results. Not only that, but they taught me a lesson on how to appreciate these great plants and how to use them in the garden whether in the ground or container. Both Portland and Austin are in zone 8, so many of the same plants that grow on the roadside here can survive in Portland - with some modification.  

Drainage is the key and with that comes some creative use of space.  

To grow these in the ground takes some serious soil replacement.  Loads of aggregate, sand, and other porous materials are used as life preservers.

But I also like how they hung those plants on walls and combined them for visual interest.  It's  a forehead slapping moment for me. Why am I fussing with plants that fry in pots when I should just jam in an agave? I had to go to Portland to learn that.

And while I love grouping herbs and other flowering plants  for a profusion of bloom, my dog seems to think they all need treats buried in them. If I switch to cacti my problem will (hopefully) be solved. (Note, she still dug up one of my succulents that didn't have thorns.)

And where else should you be growing "hens and chicks" sedums beside an old chicken feeder?


I love it that I have to travel back home 2.000 miles to be taught how to grow succulents.  And today when I look outside at the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill graying up my Saturday, I have to smile at yet another mashup of Portland and Austin.

Except for my heat rash.





Sunday, June 14, 2015

Small Gardens With Big Impact - Toronto Islands and Cabbagetown

There were two places we visited in Toronto that really demonstrated how a small space can have just a big of impact as a large estate garden.

Just offshore of Toronto is a small chain of islands that are the largest urban car-free community in North America. We took the ferry and spent the afternoon exploring Ward's and Algonquin islands. There were several yards open to us to tour and meet the gardeners.

The first word that rushes into your brain is "charm". It's like every amazing cottage photo you've ever seen plunked down onto the same real estate. Being there in early June meant we got to see the plants at their lushest - all contributing to the intimacy and magic of the moment.

What I really appreciated about the island community was the lack of, and in some cases, refusal, of conformity. No two places were alike and in many cases the plants were very different. The gardeners weren't afraid of color and jammed plants into every corner possible.


I took a side route and came upon this lovely seating area tucked into a leafy bower. I love how it is both private and public. Peaking through the foliage at those adirondack chairs really tempted me to creep in and sit a spell - but I resisted. Barely.

A similar vibe can be found in Cabbagetown on the east side of downtown Toronto. It is a neighborhood that got it's name from the poor Irish Immigrants who grew cabbages in their front yard. Rankles me that even back in the 1840's people were mocked for growing food in the city. Of course the joke is on those snobs because now it boasts one of the largest continuous areas of Victorian-style houses in North America.  
It is also home to quite a gardening community. We were able to visit gardens that were featured on a recent garden tour.  All of the gardens we visited were quite small - but I found I got more ideas from these small gardens than the other large properties we visited. I think part of the reason is that these spaces are LIVED in. They aren't just showcase views but part of the homeowner's lifestyle.

You really get to appreciate the individual elements of the garden. A colorful rug, a little bonsai on a table. A clay pot laying on it's side with plants spilling out into the flower bed.

Most of these gardens also had some great art incorporated into them. I love this chicken wire globe spray painted an electric purple. So much more fun than an ordinary gazing ball.


I also enjoyed this art wall of planters and objects. It made me pause and consider each one.




















The planter built to look like a painting on an easel was awesome too. You can bet this will be showing up in my yard soon.

A metal bird wading through grasses made me smile.

All of these gardens really reminded me that beauty lies in smaller things. A small garden gives you the ability to consider and appreciate each element much more. No sweeping vistas or planting beds to distract you from the examination of a particular plant or object. Not only that, but it is these smaller spaces that are ultimately more inviting. I really wanted to stay in each yard and enjoy it. I even had a hard time remembering to take photos at both locations because I became so relaxed.

Me?  Relaxed in a garden?  An inspiration for my own patch of ground.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gardening with Brush Strokes - the Marion Jarvie Garden in Toronto

Marion Jarvie is a noted gardener, instructor at the Toronto Botanical Garden, and long time member of the Ontario Rock Garden and Hardy Plant Society. Her yard was one that we visited as part of the Garden Blogger Fling 2015.

As soon as I walked onto Marion's 1/2 acre lot where she has gardened for 40 years, I could see that this was something different. I'm not even sure that the term "garden"  - with it's images of happy puttering - even applies here. I felt like I was stepping into a painting.

And it wasn't just that it was beautiful, which it is, or even the  most beautiful garden I've ever been to, which it isn't, it was the precision and thought of the plant materials that made it different. It is like a painting by the old masters, where the artist spent a year on getting a hand depicted correctly.

Walking through Marion's garden I could actually see the brush strokes. Extraordinary when you consider that her plant collection is very heavy on interesting specimens.  Other gardens where the gardener is focused on individual plants lack the flow and color schemes that Marion has been able to pull off.
So what's her secret? Ruthlessness! When she considers a plant placement she looks at it from all sides to make sure that it fits in and compliments other plantings. If it doesn't it is planted elsewhere. If new acquisitions cause a plant to look odd or not at it's best, it's yanked out and moved.

Some might consider this type of gardening as too rigid, overly planned, even "precious". At this juncture in my life, I totally relate to what she's doing and appreciate her effort. Since moving to Texas I've worked for two start-ups - and the CEOs of these companies do just what Marion does. They have an end goal and if you can't fit in, complement the rest of the team, make the business better and faster - you're out. After spending the bulk of my career in banking where dead wood rules, I find this approach invigorating. It's fun to run with the big dogs and Marion's garden is definitely ahead of the pack.

And, oh, the plants!  The shear volume of what she's got packed in is really overwhelming.  I walked by the same spot three times and saw something new with each passing.  I nearly missed seeing one of my favorite wildflowers - Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

But not just plants made my day.  Her pond was full of pollywogs (amphibian tadpoles).  This black damselfly makes a dramatic study in contrasts as it rests on the chartreuse leaf of a Japanese Maple. 

I also really liked her liberal use of Clematis - both the full flower and nodding bonnets of the species varieties.This trio of the tree trunk, allium, and clematis against a chartreuse background gives you a sense of what I mean by a paint stroke.  Can't you just feel your brush dabbing into a mound of mixed purple and then applying it with a single stroke? Really marvelous and an inspiration.  Going through the garden upon my return I sharpen my eye and look for slackers. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

In Defense of Natives

High Park in Toronto is about 400 acres and features some important, rare habitat for native plants.

It was originally purchased by a man named John Howard, who deeded it to the city in 1873 on the condition that it remain a park. The city maintains it and preserves about a third of it in it's original -and rare - black oak savannah.

They do this through prescribed burns - which is remarkable for a property in the middle of the city.
The park staff who gave us a tour as part of the Toronto Garden Blogger's Fling showed us several sites that they are working on to beat back the invasive species that threaten to swallow this property and highlighted some amazing, now rare, ecosystems.

One of them is the blue lupine.  They knew that had a few patches of lupines, but it was only when they started the  burns that the flower sprang back and is now spreading again.  To me this highlights the role of legumes in the natural environment.  They are the marines of the plant world.  It's their job to establish a base, fix nitrogen from the sky into the soil, and make the area more habitable for other plants like grasses.

Like the bluebonnets of Texas, specialized insects evolved around this plant.  The Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is endangered in both Canada and the United States and is listed as extirpated by the Canadian federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). This means the species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere. With the decline of the lupine, the host plant for the butterfly larvae, so goes the population of the butterfly.  There is a movement afoot to try to reintroduce the butterfly into the park now that these lupines are making a small comeback.


We were also reminded of another butterfly that is struggling for habitat - the Monarch.  The oak savannah supports milkweed, the majority of the plants are Asclepias tuberose as seen here. Interesting side note, one of the invasive species that they are trying to control is called "Dog Strangling Vine".  According to the Rare Plants of the Endangered High Park Black Oak Savannah Guidebook, it is also a type of milkweed.  Unfortunately for the Monarch, while they may lay eggs on it, their larvae don't survive.  The proliferation of this weed is cited as another reason that the Monarch is in decline.

I was very inspired by my visit here and it serves as another reminder that innocuous (to us) activities like gardening can have a devastating impact on the natural environment.  It's not just the chemicals we use, but our choice in plants that escape our control.  The Toronto parks people pointed us to a stand of Norway Maple that has taken over part of the park.  It's used as an ornamental - often  planted as a street tree - and spreads easily by seed.  I'm reminded of the dreaded Ligustrum that plagues Central Texas in the same way.

I like to consider myself a good soldier in the war for natives.  The best that any of us can do is try to live where we are.  Stay educated and diligent, try to be stewards not conquerers.  Find ways to use natives and not just fall for a pretty face that will turn into an ugly problem later.  And when you see a problem, jump in and take care of it.  Whether it be killing ivy, bamboo, bastard cabbage, ligustrum, or even maple trees, it's worth the fight and something each of us can do.  Plus, I'm telling you, pulling weeds and clearing brush is very meditative and satisfying.  So what's good for the soul can also be good for the natural environment.  A win-win!

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Very Definition of Garden

What makes a great garden?

I recently visited Jardin botanique de Montréal and as I sat at it's cafe overlooking the terraces I told my husband that it was one of greatest gardens I'd ever been to.

But what does that actually mean?  What was it that so captivated me?

Part of it, I think, is the familiar - and lot's of it.  In a large space like this, you can have the long vistas that sweep and calm your eyes.  This long stretch of tulips greeted me at the main entrance. I miss the hundreds of bulbs that I had in my northwest garden (not enough chill hours in Texas), so seeing these made my heart happy.  I really liked that they used the pink shades with the spikes of purple as accents.

Another familiar sight was this deodar cedar with it's new cones.  I certainly got my evergreen fix.  There were spruces, firs, pines, cedars, and junipers all waiting for me to brush by and inhale their fresh resin perfume.
Another thing that made this garden great was the memories it stirred.  The peonies were resplendent for my visit - both the bush and tree peony were everywhere.  The tree peony is a truly spectacular plant.  The blossoms are often larger than a dinner plate, the petals actually wave in the breeze.  They were a favorite flower of my late grandfather, Jess Williams.  Seeing the blossoms made me think of him.

My sister also came to mind as I passed this white alder.  Jeanette always calls this the "earring tree" because of the tiny cones that she fashions into jewelry.  If you read this post Jeanette - I lost mine so please send another pair!


Greatness also comes from inspiration.  Learning something new or getting ideas on how to build something is a key hallmark.  This huge spider-web hammock was awesome.  It even features pockets to store the dead bodies. 

On the more practical side were these standing towers.  They planted thunbergia in these.  I'll bet these are stunning when they grow in.  The outside is just landscape fabric that they've wired onto a frame.  Each tower has it's own drip line for irrigation.  This idea is definitely a keeper - it would be cool with sedums too.



And being a Texan, I'm always on the hunt for shade.  I like how they used a wattle fence as a shade cloth.  The frame is metal with a piece of cattle panel on top that they used to weave in the branches.  I think that was a bit of overkill but I like the idea and the shadows it casts on the plants below.


This rock island was "floating" in one of the water features.  I liked the Sarracenia purpurea (northern pitcher plant) in the middle.  I need to figure out how to do this in my tiny pond to replace the concrete blocks I use to elevate my bog plants.


 More rocky inspiration came from the alpine gardens.  I've seen this treatment before but not at this scale.  The flat rocks are placed on edge, with the plants placed in between  The texture is amazing and a great way to provide some height to better admire the tiny plants.

The garden is huge (190 acres) and has large ponds that help to separate and define the spaces.  But most important, as a feature of a great garden, it gives you a chance to pause.  They have adirondack chairs and benches placed throughout, compelling you to sit in them.  There were many people sitting in the shade reading books or just quietly lost in their own thoughts.  This sense of peace and tranquility is what's been so elusive in my own yard.  Maybe it's just not lush enough to provide that enveloping cushion of silence.


Or maybe it's just the lack of gracefulness and art.  The entrance to the Chinese garden is a great example of both. 


I leave awed, inspired, and at peace all at the same time.  THAT, is what a great garden is.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Building a Bog in Midst of Drought

As a gardener, I always want something I can't grow in my current surroundings. While in Oregon it was winecup (Callirhoe involucrata.)   I planted them dutifully each fall and every winter they rotted in the ground.  Putting them in gravel didn't help because the surrounding clay soil was so waterlogged that they ended up swimming.

Of course now that I am in Texas they grow with abandon in my garden.  Duh.  So now what I am I up to now that my heart's desire has been found?  A bog.  That's right.  I'm smack dab in the middle of a region in terrible drought and I want a bog.  In the Northwest my whole yard was a bog, so why the sudden urge to live in a swamp?

Chinese Water Chestnuts.  

My friend Clyde gave me a pot of Chinese Water Chestnuts to grow in my pond.  He had planted a few of the corms he found at the Asian grocery store and found that they multiplied quite rapidly.  When I brought them home I separated what he gave me and planted them in my pond.  What is interesting to me is that the water chestnut itself is a corm that forms off the roots.  I was disappointed that the pot didn't yield anything but figured that it was just too crowded.  I put just a few plants in the pond and composted the rest.

They went crazy!  The are spectacular 5 foot plants that have small catkins like a cattail reed.  However when I went to pull one of the pots out of the water I discovered that they had all grown together.  I had to get out the pruning saw to hack them apart.  And alas, when unpotted the chestnut yield was still zero.

So I spent time on the Internet.  I discovered that the Aussies have great success growing their water chestnuts in bogs.  A few of them have dug special bogs and others are using containers like stock tanks.  They grow them in peat or other spongy material so they are easy to harvest.

So I got to thinking.

I decided to dig a bog and plant a tuff tub in the ground below the pond in front of one of my drainage shafts.  When I put the pond in I actually have it partially sitting on cinder blocks so water cascading down from my neighbors actually goes under it. The cinder blocks are oriented to form a culvert of sorts.  I put the bog right in front of it so when we get a downpour, the runoff goes into the bog.  The tuff tub has holes drilled into the sides about 2/3 of the way up to facilitate drainage.  The Australian gardeners didn't have their plants totally under water so I am following their lead.

Cinder block culvert will fill bog.
I put concrete edging around it to keep things from washing out.  The water will fill the bog, then continue down the gravel pathway like it does today.

I considered putting peat or moss in the bog but my timing, for once, was perfect.  Peat moss is just decomposed plant material that's been sitting in water.  Since it's fall, I can make my own from leaf mold instead.  I layered leaves with the soil from the excavation, using about a 1/3 soil to 2/3 leaf mix.  I compacted the layers by walking on them each time I added leaves.  Sort of like crushing grapes for wine!  Okay, not the same, but fun nonetheless.   

The last step was to add water.  We are expecting rain so I only poured in about 5 gallons.  I'll add more later in the week if needed.  I'm going to let it sit until next weekend then will probably add more of the leaf/soil mix along with the plants.

Aesthetically it should turn out really well.  The plants will grow tall enough to form a nice green backdrop behind the seating area I've built around the pond.  I'll have to add water to it so plan on the rainwater we store for the pond.  Being buried in the ground will keep things a little cooler and the thick growth on top should inhibit some evaporation but I'm not kidding myself.  We'll just add water at the same time we refill the pond.  At the worst of summer it's about every four or five days.

I'm hoping that with more room, more soil oxygen, and looser growing medium I'll have water chestnuts to add to our Thanksgiving dinner!  Wouldn't that be fun?  Now, what to grow in the pond where the water chestnuts used to be?  I'm thinking Minnesota Wild Rice...


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Acceptance, Recovery, Defiance - The Garden After A Freeze

It's dark when I get home so I've not been able to do my regular yard tour to survey the damage from last week's freezes.  I'm happy to report that covering the vegetables beds in their plastic hoop houses did the trick (thank you Ed.)  Surprisingly none of the citrus trees seem fazed.  I now have orange oranges instead of their usual it's-too-hot-to-blush-green.  The fig tree and malabar spinach, of course, are not happy and most of the leaves are blackened.  Some of the new sprouts on the roses are wilted.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair
The nice thing now is that my yard truly believes it is fall. The leaves on my peach tree are yellowing nicely, the Santa Rita cacti glows pink, and the cedar elm is daring a bit of rusty orange.  In the pond the Chinese water chestnuts are fading; the golden leaves arching over the bog filter remind me of Rapunzel.

The malabar spinach still clings to the arbor.  I'm leaving them put because the black berries will make great bird food.  We use malabar in the summer as a cooked green.  It's the only one in the garden that doesn't get horribly bitter.  I make a nice little quick stir-fry with onions, malabar, and okra in the cast-iron skillet.  Pairs well with the chicken that is normally being grilled at the same time.

Now however, it doesn't look very appetizing and as I walked under it this morning it struck me funny.  It's twisted, blackened vines made me think of a Goth wedding arbor.
Goth wedding arbor?

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

So far it doesn't look like anyone has been snacking on it.  The birds have so much to eat at my house right now - chili pequin, beautyberry, rose hips, and flower seeds - that they haven't started working on it yet.

Just before the freeze I picked all the roses and brought them in the house - knowing that they probably wouldn't survive the low temperatures.  We've been enjoying their incredible fragrance as they sit on the dining room table and compete against Ed's chili making.  Yes, total etiquette violation having scented candles or flowers on the table but in this case I think we can make an exception.

One of the roses out front ignored the precaution.  The pink Heritage rose is blooming and has one other bud on the way.  She is tucked into a bed near a tree and was able to keep away the cold.  A few purple gomphrena accompany her and were dancing for everyone who walked by this morning.  I bowed and performed the de rigueur face plant as homage to the queen.  Aah, blood pressure plummets, troubles evaporate.  This is why I garden.

Ice Queen