Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ptolemaic Cosmology: The Life of a Garden

Ptolemy, an Alexandrian Greek, of the 2nd Century AD, articulated a cosmological theory that explained the apparent movement of the Sun and the planets. Beginning from an unshakable assumption that the universe was geocentric, which we know is not true, and an equally strong belief that the planets' movement was defined by perfect circles, again not true, Ptolemy was faced with a problem. Because the solar system is heliocentric and the orbits are elliptical, it happens from time to time that the planets appear to move backward in their paths. Ptolemy was faced with explaining this retrograde motion. He devised, or adopted, a system of cycles and epicycles wherein the plants move in small circular orbits on top of a large circular orbit. Through the years, in an attempt to match the observed motions of planets more accurately to this concept, very complex configurations were devised. The complexities of time in the garden reflect and rival the intricacies of Ptolemaic cosmology. [This picture shows a construct of the 14th Century Muslim astronomer Ibn al-Shatir; epicycles are piled upon epicycles. (the image is in the common domain)]

The Diurnal cycles of days in our gardens ride epicyclically upon the circle of the seasons that is the year; the circles of the years in turn years roll along the linear path that is the passage of time. Actually it could be more complicated. While Judaeo-Christian metaphysics suggest that time is a straight-line, that is not true of all Religions and Philosophies. Maybe there are cycles upon cycles upon cycles. The whole thing is frightening and makes the idea of designing a garden seem like an insurmountable task. I am not sure whether it is arrogance or ignorance that allows me to continue; I expect it's a good bit of both.

The good thing is that Nature is forgiving and the worst choices we make in the garden tend to have aspects with some redeeming value. If we focus our attention on what is working and looks good and try to fix the really bad problems, we can usually stumble onto a workable scheme. Anyway, thats my system.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Showy Evening Primrose...Oenothera speciosa

The plant with the 2" pink bowl-shaped flowers in the front of this picture is Oenothera speciosa, the Showy Evening Primrose. I like this plant a lot. It is a native with lovely flowers. I realize that it has a tendency to run rampant, particularly in rich soils. My response to this is, "don't use it in rich perennial borders." That should solve that problem. What it is good for is weaving its way through informal mixed borders. In this particular bed, it replaces the Spotted hawkweed (when it stops flowering) as a binder, giving coherence and beauty to a very diverse planting.

Fewer inputs are better; the less we have to water and fertilize the better. As the population grows, water will become more problematic, both more expensive and scarcer, Dry Borders will become more important elements in the garden. This plant is an invaluable element in dry borders. It stays low, meanders enticingly, flowers dependably and heavily, clashes with nothing, and is pest and disease free.

In spite of all this, Showy Evening Primrose doesn't get a lot of respect in the horticultural literature, but it does receive a certain amount of affection. Ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to the dark side. If you don't know what you are doing, and you plant this wonderful plant in a fertile, well-maintained perennial border, it will take over. You would rightly fear it. But if you know the plant and you use it in the right soil, without supplemental watering, or fertilizing it will provide glorious strands of color over a fairly long period. I guess the flip side of "every plant can be a weed if its in the wrong place", would be that every weed can be a valuable addition to the garden if its used in the right way. Well, maybe not every plant, but definitely this one.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Crambe cordifolia? It is for sure a Crambe, cordifolia I am not certain

I love sculptural plants and they don't get a lot more structural than this one. Of course right now its form is obscured by that immense cloud of richly fragrant flowers. The scent is strongly sweetish, I am not certain whether I like it or not. Not unpleasant, it is an aroma that suggests the presence of lots of bees, but there are no bees to be seen.. The leaves there under the flowers are thick, dissected, glaucous, kale-like. It is a beautiful plant and seems to love this hot, sunny, sandy site.

Like anyone who has spent 40 years involved with plants vocationally and avocationally, I possess varying levels of knowledge about many many plants. Some are intimates that have been daily in my life for decades. Others I fell in and out of love with, growing them for a while, then giving them up and maybe being lured back by a new incarnation. Some have come into and out of my life for short periods and, about many of these I retain a solid base of knowledge. Some I am fanatical about. Others I know more as acquaintances; we acknowledge each other in passing but have developed no relationship. Others I have really only encountered in books, magazines, and the odd curious garden.

Crambe is a plant that until a few years ago I had only read about. I encountered it as a weed in a gravel path that I regularly traversed and became intrigued. It seemed unkillable; they tried. Graham Stuart Thomas liked it. He quotes E.A. Bowles, whose opinions I respect and usually concur with to a positive effect. I obtained a small start and put it in my front streetside bed. It has prospered. Though not visible in this picture, a plant of Eryngium bourgatii, a similar sort of plant but in miniature, sits visually juxtaposed. It also serves, while in flower, to soften the incredibly vivid color of the Knockout rose. When the flowers are gone, Agastache x Tutti Frutti will fill in around it

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Islands in the Stream

Max was at a job interview, Karen was teaching, and I was waiting to go to a funeral so all I had to do was move one car and there was nothing parked in front of the house. I almost never see the front garden without cars. Not that the exfoliating asphalt pavement is a better foreground than automobiles, but... I actually don't have, didn't have, any pictures of the front gardens without cars. That is a little weird, but hey. Now I have a bunch!

Funerals.....I used to resent going to weddings 5 or 6 or 7 or 10 times a year, but you know what? Now I would trade one funeral for a bunch of weddings. And I hate to complain but, I thought the participants would be young people. They seem to be waiting longer to marry however, which makes a lot of sense, except that it means I am going to second weddings of people my own age and I didn't anticipate that. On the up side though, they are generally relaxed and fun and that's good. Hey, theres no substitute for experience.

A "conceit" runs through this garden. A conceit is an artificial construct imposed on the design of a garden (or anything, eg. a poem). For example: a garden that, viewed from the air, looked like a butterfly (or a poem where the words form the shape of, say a butterfly). Nothing so odd controls this site, but I did have an idea in my mind in which the house and the contiguous plantings represented a "mainland" in an ocean, while the turf represented an embayment, making the various island beds, well, "islands". You don't have to buy into this scenario to appreciate the plantings (I hope), but it does add a subconscious layer of comprehensibility. Actually when I removed the walkway connecting the house to the street, I think I lost a lot of the enthusiasm of my fellow residents, but you can't have a sidewalk crossing a bay, or river, or any body of water. Still, I have a sense that there is some valid use of the concept of a conceit. Notice that in this framework, the street is part of the "Ocean."

Monday, May 12, 2008

To Stake or not to Stake...Hindsight is 20/20

Sure in retrospect it would have been a good idea to have staked these trees. But then who knew we would have what? almost 10" of rain in 3 weeks! Ideas about staking have changed over time as tree planting techniques have been refined. A tremendous amount of research has been done in recent years regarding selecting, siting, planting, and maintaining urban trees. Cornell University's Institute of Urban Horticulture and Bartlett Trees are at the forefront of this work. Both offer on their sites, useful and informative downloadable publications. Both also observe that staking ought only to be done in special situations, i.e. when the tree may come down if you don't stake it! Ha Ha!

It isn't always easy to tell when that will be. I don't know when those trees were planted but if they were planted in the fall after most of their leaves were gone, it was reasonable to expect that they would have rooted out enough to support themselves before the leaf canopy filled out sufficiently to catch enough wind to blow the tree over. Fall is the best season, by far, to plant trees so lets be generous and assume they did the right thing, the trees went in in the fall, and its just bad luck that the soil turned to soup.

Back to whether to stake or not. So, if you plant in the fall and the tree is deciduous you normally don't stake. Exceptions would be a tree with a leafy top out of proportion to its root ball. If the ball isn't heavy enough to hold the tree, stake it. If you plant an evergreen in the fall, stake it, cause the winter winds will have their way with it. Planting in the spring is the trickiest. If you plant before the leaves are out and the top is in good proportion to the rootball, you shouldn't have to stake; the new roots should grip enough to support the tree. If you do stake, be sure to remove the support after one year. The proper development of both top and bottom depend on movement of the top in the wind. Oh yeah, about summer and winter. Winter is easy, its the same as spring staking-wise. Summer....try not to plant in summer, but if you do it is probably a good idea to stake as a defense against the winds of thunderstorms.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

Mother's Day is serious business in the Nursery World. The biggest day of all. And if you have a florist shop, look out! I bought plants for my own mother this year, which I almost always do. I'll take them over and plant them for her today. She is a lover of plants with a well-developed but not cultivated streak of individualism, so when I saw a cart of assorted exotic Passifloras at, God I hate to say it, Home Depot, I knew I had stumbled upon a good thing. And you know what? They were even named! I bought her 'Lady Margaret', with flowers. The blooms are a rich red with white centers; in my research I discovered it is supposed to have a fragrance, but I couldn't detect it. It is awfully cool though.

I am also giving her two Moonflower, Ipomoea (formerly Calonyction) seedlings. Moonflower, or Moonvine, is a giant white morning glory that flowers in the evening with an incredible fragrance. It grows like a weed, so that these small seedlings that I purchased at the Beltsville Garden Club spring sale will be 10' long and branched by the end of the summer. Often with favorable weather conditions, it flowers well into fall, though it doesn't take much frost to bring it crashing down. The sooner you can get them out, after frost danger is over, the better. The flowers open at dusk, and if you time it right, you can be sitting on your patio, porch, or deck with a glass of wine and watch the flowers unfold, it happens in just a minute or two. I admit that I am prone to hyperbole, but this really is a great plant and the only annual that I consider indispensable in a garden.

A few words about the Beltsville Garden Club. We are in many ways a typical local garden club, but the proximity of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center means that there are a few members with tremendous knowledge of the Plant Sciences. Add to that, the usual quotient of fanatical plantspeople, and a small greenhouse facility, and you have an interesting group. We have two plant sales a year in the spring with both usual and quite uncommon material available at extremely reasonable prices. I bought Arisaema sikokianum seedlings for $5 apiece. And Arisaema dracontium flowering for the same price. Unfortunately this Saturday was the last sale this year, but we gardeners are patient planners in it for the long haul. Check the website and mark your calendars.