Thursday, July 31, 2008

This is a Love Story

It is about a couple who love each other, and about a woman who loves her garden. If you are the sort of person who would opt for “Dark Knight” over “Mama Mia!” and you do not want to read a love story, keep reading, there’s guy stuff at the end.

Both loves began in England, where Rich Waugh, raised in Aiken, was studying for a graduate degree at the University of Leeds, a city in West Yorkshire, about 200 miles northwest of London, where Jan had lived all her life.

Jan and Rich married, moved several times and eventually settled for good with their two children in Aiken. Jan later became co-owner of a restaurant, Number 10 Downing Street that also did outside catering. The restaurant kept her busier than she’d ever imagined and all the while Rich was on the road, traveling around the world, often gone for a week at a time. They didn’t get to spend much time together.

Then, in 2004, Jan and her partner sold the restaurant, Rich retired, and their life suddenly took on a new dimension. You would see them around town together – at lunch, shopping, about the two happiest people you can imagine.

The garden around their Westcliff home had always been well kept, as were the grounds of Number 10, both made sure of that. But there had been no time to do much extra. Suddenly, like many of Aiken’s retirees, they had the time and the energy to put into their garden.

All gardeners get their passion for gardening from some place or some person. What about Jan? “I think it was the English blood in my case,” she says. “I realize not all Englishmen are gardeners but all the people I knew were. When visiting a relative or friend's house, even as a child, it was expected that at some point you would tour the garden, however small, and comment appropriately. Family outings were taken to stately homes, and gardens. School trips were to Roman ruins and gardens. You learn the names of flowers along with nursery rhymes and the alphabet. We had "I-Spy" books in which you identified birds, trees, flowers and noted the date and place where they were seen. It was ingrained!”

The Waughs’ front lawn is neatly landscaped with hydrangeas and other shrubs, but, as is often the case, it’s in back where the love shows. “If we couldn’t live near the water, we brought the water to us,” Jan told me once. Birdbaths and trickling fountains abound, surrounded by seasonal flowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, and interesting grasses.

A recent remodeling project added a balcony off the bedroom, overlooking the secluded backyard (or back garden – Jan would never call it a “yard”), where the couple can watch the sunset and the bird feeder where, they’ve observed, the birds come in shifts all day.

The remodeling project yielded an unexpected bonus. Underneath the bedroom, with a door to the garage, is a neatly appointed room with a shiny concrete floor and gray pegboard walls, tidily stacked pots, a sink, and a place for the lawn mower. It’s the perfect place for a gardener to spend a cold winter afternoon or a hot summer morning - the potting shed, or as only they could imagine – The Posh.

Here’s the manly part. One of the lessons we Americans could well learn for most of the rest of the world is the business of recycling. I don’t mean just putting newspapers and aluminum cans in a bin and setting it out by the curb, but serious attention to reusing kitchen and yard waste, as well as capturing rainwater. It’s a win-win deal.

Composting is a given in England, and for years Jan and Rich have used the large plastic bin, meant for that purpose, to recycle everything from coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, to grass clippings and some (not all) of the pine needles from their lawn. Just one look at the rich, black soil that comes out of the bottom of the bin is enough to send you googling for one of your own. I haven’t seen any available locally.

Birdbaths and fountains aren’t the only place in the garden to find water. The Waughs came up with their own rain barrel (called a “water butt” in England) using a plastic garbage can, but that split when it got too full. Rich found at Walmart a rain barrel, made by Fiskars, the scissor people, with a spout at the bottom and holes in the top for the water to get in. You can set it up under a gutter downspout or purchase a diverter that you attach to the downspout. Rich added a bigger hole in the top with a screen on it as well. The 56 gallon container was overflowing after last week’s rain. It may save only a few pennies, but, more important, the rainwater contains fewer chemicals than our treated water. That’s a plus for plants.

What other part does Rich play in this Aiken-English garden – besides the mowing, rain barrel installation and other heavy lifting? “Whatever I’m told,” he answers.

Now that’s love.

I thought Juliet was supposed to stand on the balcony.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Three things to do that can be done indoors on a hot summer day

If you're looking for a good book to curl up with on a hot summer night, get a copy of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. It's a captivating book with mystery and suspense, English Moors and an evil twin. The only thing wrong with it is that I couldn't put it down and finished in only a few days. This is Setterfield's first book - or the only one available, so I'll just have to wait till the next one comes out. Hope it's not long.

I have confessed, to anyone who is interested - few people are, to being an anglophile. We signed up for Netflix a few years ago when we learned that we could rent the entire series of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Jeeves and Wooster (House's Hugh Laurie in a totally different character) much cheaper than we could purchase them. After exhausting both series, we went through a few of the mystery series - Campion and The Midsomer Murders, and then we discovered Monarch of the Glen.

I understand Monarch of the Glen was quite a hit in Great Britain where it ran for seven seasons, having just recently ended. It is the story of an up and coming young Scotsman who comes home to the family estate in the Highlands of Scotland to keep the castle going. The scenery is breathtaking - and the story is engaging and funny and, I guess you could say - tasteful - as a TV series can be.

If you haven't checked out the posted links lately, have a look. The Augusta Rose Society has a new website that will have you preparing your rosebed by the end of the month.

The Nutrition Date Site has more than you ever thought you wanted to know about what's good for you to eat, and on the other end of the food chain, there's the Varsity!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summertime, when the Working is Optional

“Hire a professional and go to the mountains,” landscape designer Elliott Johnson told me once, when I’d asked him what to do here in the middle of the summer, when it’s ninety-five degrees outside and you feel like you’re enveloped in a giant zip-lock bag and you’re using up the oxygen fast.

There’s that gift certificate for a weekend at the Grove Park Inn David gave us for Christmas. Maybe it’s time to use it. But that’s only a weekend. We would have to come back eventually. There’s the usual weeding and spraying, if you are disposed to dispose of unwanted flora and fauna in that way (see below), but that’s no fun. What else?

You can still plant, Elliott told me, as long as you water thoroughly. If you’ve waited until mid-summer to plant or if some things need replacing, in Aiken you still have months to enjoy your garden. Some years things don’t die back here until Christmas.

“Just be sure to choose plants that adapt well to the heat. Purple coneflower, sun coleus, pentas, angelonia, the smaller salvias, rudbeckia, lantana, of course, will all tolerate high temperature and humidity.” Mid-day is not the best time to plant. Early or late is better, for you and your plants.

Thorough watering is a necessity. A daily sprinkling probably won’t do the trick. It’s good to let most plants dry out a little between waterings (a recommendation echoed by Suzanne Holmes, our Clemson Extension Agent) so that they send their roots down deep, looking for water. Brief, shallow watering causes the roots to look for water close to the surface. When the ground is dry to start, check beneath the top layer to be sure the water has penetrated.

Sometimes it seems the water just sits on top of the soil or mulch, creating puddles which eventually all drain to a low spot. Here’s a tip from Elliott to help make the water soak in quickly: Add a tablespoon of Ivory Liquid to a gallon of water in one of those containers that fits on the end of your hose. For some reason the soap helps the water soak in and the soap doesn’t hurt anything.

The damage to my coleus and basil that I was blaming on slugs might not be the fault of the slimy creatures after all. The ragged, chewed holes, it seems, were on the top leaves of the plants, eighteen inches off the ground. Slugs, when last I checked, do not fly (thank goodness). Nor would they opt for climbing to the top of the plant and working down. They’re not that farsighted. I was outdoors after dark last week and spotted some beetles fooling around on the basil leaves.

I checked, once again, with Master Gardener Bill Hayes, who knows more about getting rid of evil doers than Batman. “Ahh, the mysteries of the garden!” he wrote. “If you have a magnifying glass, check the leaves for very small black specs. That would be something like a sawfly worm. It’s about an inch long with stripes and a great appetite. They eat coleus and leave tiny droppings. If it isn’t that, it’s something like it.”

The beetle I saw probably is a Japanese beetle, since July is their month to shine. It’s black with an iridescent green back. Whatever it is, Bill says Sevin dust should take care of both of them.

Sevin dust is an insecticide that’s been around for years and is sold now by Bayer, the aspirin people. It is approved for use on vegetables, with some restrictions as so how long you should wait between application and ingestion. It’s available everywhere plant care products are sold. As always, read the label or go online to and read the label before you purchase.

You may decide you can live with imperfect leaves, after all. Just take Elliott’s advice and go to the mountains. The beach is nice too.

Candy Apple Red and Neon Green

I saw my first hummingbird of the season this weekend. Turk’s Cap, or Sleeping Hibiscus, never fails to get the attention of those delightful creatures. I got these Turk’s Caps, old garden favorites and hibiscus relatives, at Woodlanders years ago, and, though they are considered tropical plants, they come back reliably ever summer with bright red two-inch blooms that look like hibiscus that never finished opening. Turk’s Caps have a protruding stigma that is a siren call to hummingbirds.

Neon green and neon orange are all the fashion rage this summer, I’m told. A child in an eye-popping green swim suit is easy to spot on the beach, and the color is equally attention-getting in a woman’s tank top. Neon is not, however, the most flattering to our hair and skin tones (“sallow” comes to mind) and maybe that’s not the kind of attention we want.

But imagine neon in the garden, especially in a part shady corner. I happened earlier in the spring onto a few pots of Hypericum calycinum ‘Brigadoon’ at Park Seed/Wayside Gardens’ Greenwood, SC nursery, and brought them home to put in a pot with ‘Nigra’ Elderberry, a lovely cutleaf shrub that I thought I needed. After all, not everybody shares a name with a plant.

Gardeners and non-gardeners alike have looked for years to Hypericum, or St. John’s Wort, for its therapeutic powers. Another species of Hypericum is thought to be antibiotic and antidepressive, though it has some other, less appealing, properties.

This ‘Brigadoon’ turns out to be even more attractive than I realized. It has the brightest, yellow-green leaves I ever seen in a garden, and promises even more treats when it blooms.

Unlike many of the tropical plants I’ve tried this year, ‘Brigadoon’ can take winter temperatures down to zone five, with its bright green foliage appearing in spring, followed by yellow flowers typical of the Hypericums, about a quarter size in diameter with pronounced stamens attractive to bees and butterflies.

‘Brigadoon’ is a low-growing, spreading ground cover that grows twelve to sixteen inches tall and two feet wide. It likes full sun to partial shade and is very adaptable to different soil types. It is listed by Wayside Gardens for zones five to seven, so it should come back next year.

I got a phone call last week from an Aiken gardener asking why her Calla Lily wasn’t reblooming, and I had to admit that my Calla Lily blooms are smaller and fewer in number this year as well. I think having success with Calla Lilies, in many ways, depends on the luck of the draw. You need to have found the right variety for our Aiken soil and climate. Calla Lily needs sun, but not too much sun. It needs cold, but not too much cold, and water but good drainage.

There are also two things worth trying. We can fertilize them after the leaves come up, though it may be too late to do any good this year, or we can dig them up in the fall and divide them into new plants. Calla lilies are just too beautiful not to be worth the fuss, or worth the price of some new bulbs. Online the price of bulbs ranges from a package of ten for twenty-five dollars to one ‘White Giant’ at Plant Delights for sixteen dollars. You get what you pay for, I expect.

We’ve been blessed with recurring afternoon showers lately, and weeding has become our main chore of the day. But the mornings seem cool now, considering it’s nearing the end of July, and weeds come up more easily from wet ground. Hummingbirds dart, butterflies sup. Life is good. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

In the mystical world of plant taxonomy, there are characteristics that group plants together. Some plants in the same family don’t look like they even know each other. But there are other plants that, if you saw them sitting together, you would know were cousins. Such are the Arums.

The Araceae is a family of herbaceous plants. They are also called Arums, though the true Arums are a genus, or smaller group, within the Araceae family. The Araceae may live on land or in the water and have simple leaves or compound leaves, but the family trait most easily identifiable is the peculiar flower – a long, round spadix swathed in a silky petal called a spathe.

One of the handsomest of the summer flowering bulbs, I think, is an Arum of the Zantedeschia genus, called “Calla Lily.” Now, to add to the confusion, the Calla Lily is neither a Calla (yet another genus), nor a true lily (a whole different family). No matter. It is elegant and easy to grow and is quite happy here in our Aiken soil, surviving our mild winters outdoors nicely.

The Calla Lily flower is quite dramatic and is at its most eye-catching when it’s shown alone or with other Calla Lilies. I’ve seen the large florist varieties in white, carried by brides and bridesmaids and on the altar on the day of a baptism. Remember the Diego Rivera flower vendor paintings or the Georgia O’Keefe flower studies? There’s a book titled Georgia O’Keefe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940 that credits Sigmund Freud for the flower’s popularity.

I think it could have made it without Freud, but whatever the reason for its popularity, the Calla Lily has continued to be a well-loved flower, both in the garden and in a vase.

Jim Wilson lists Calla Lilies in his book, Bullet Proof Flowers for the South, reminding us to plant them in well-drained soil so that the bulbs won’t rot during wet winter weather, or grow them in a pot fill with “moderately fast-draining soilless mix.

The bulbs I planted several years ago in the sunny side bed have blooms that have lasted several weeks already. Propagate them by dividing the tubers in late summer or early fall, and cover them with pine straw mulch and they will very likely make it through the winter.

I stopped by more than once at the Shady Characters booth at this year’s Aiken Garden Show and one of the unusual plants that caught my eye was another handsome Arum called Pinellia tripartita ‘Dragon Tales.’ Each of the light green three lobed leaves of this plant is variegated with creamy yellow. Some leaves are all yellow, some half green and half yellow, some streaky yellow and some all green. “The unstable variegation pattern is what makes this a truly fascinating plant,” says Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh. The flowers are produced all summer and can also be variegated.

Pinellia likes moist woodland soils and, like all Shady Characters plants, part shade. I brought it home and put it a pot with ‘Molly Bush’ Heuchera and some lovely peacock moss, also from Shady Characters. They make a handsome trio.

Everette and Karen Jones opened their nursery called Shady Characters out Wire Road near 1-20 several years ago, and they offer a huge selection of cool plants made for the shade. They began with a good collection of Heuchera and Hosta, and have continued to expand to other shade tolerant plants such as Heucherella (a sterile cross between Heuchera and Tiarella) and Pulmonaria and another unusual flower called Spigelia marilandica.

I haven’t dared make a trip out to their Wire Road place this year. Though their prices are quite reasonable, I find too many things I can’t live without that I know I can’t find anywhere else. If you have some shady spots that need some attention, give them a call to be sure they’re open at 803 269-3309 and take a drive out to see them. You won’t be disappointed.