Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Summer's Not Over

If you live near the coast like I do, you’re probably wondering what happened to summer. It’s as if the season showed up for a couple of days, looked around, and said, “Well, never mind.” Like a houseguest who is not nearly as excited about visiting you as you hoped they would be, summer showed up with full suitcases and a tote bag packed with reading material, looking as if it might stay a few months, then nonchalantly announced that it was really only passing through on its way to Portland, but thanks for fixing up the guest room all the same.

But don’t give up hope. September and October can be surprisingly warm and sunny, so there are still plenty of possibilities for the garden. The trick is to treat the fall like a full gardening season all its own, not just a graceful decline into winter. Think of Labor Day as a beginning, not an end. Here’s what I’ll be up to this weekend:

Water. The most important thing you can do for your garden right now is to give it a good, deep soaking once or twice a week. Even when it’s cloudy all day, even when the sidewalks are damp with dew in the morning, the ground does dry out. Plants that don’t have enough water stop growing and blooming, and they’re less able to take up the nutrients that are in the soil. Avoid overhead watering, which can bring on disease, by using drip irrigation or just letting the hose trickle under shrubs and trees.

Feed. Seriously, there’s a long blooming season still ahead. Really. I mean it. Scratch a dry, organic “Fruit and Flower” formula in the soil around roses and other shrubs. Use a liquid fertilizer that contains fish emulsion, kelp meal, and worm castings and spray it directly onto leaves as a foliar fertilizer. Or brew your own compost tea by mixing aged compost and worm castings with water and pouring around plants that need a lift. (The best compost tea is brewed for 24 hours first, but to do that you need an aquarium bubbler or something that will keep the water oxygenated to help feed the beneficial aerobic bacteria. If you don’t have the gear for that, just stir and pour.)

Deadhead. Shear back flowering perennials to get rid of dead flowers and seed heads. Low-growing, spreading groundcovers like geranium, catmint, and yarrow will burst right back into bloom if they’re cut back this time of year. Even lavender will produce some more flowers if you just keep cutting, but be sure to leave at least a third of the greenery on the plant—lavender won’t re-bloom on old, bare wood.

Mulch. I know, again with the mulching. But really, there’s nothing better than a pile of rotting grass clippings, leaves, maybe a little manure from the chicken coop, and some old kitchen scraps to reinvigorate the garden and keep the soil moist. If you’re not making it yourself, buy a couple bags. Spread it over bare spots in the soil and around the plants that need to perk up.

Plant. You heard me, plant. There’s plenty of time. You can get some herbs in the ground—in fact, the (slightly) warm fall months are sometimes the only time I can get basil and cilantro to grow—and there’s plenty of time for a few crops of lettuce before winter. In fact, if you start out with regular mesclun mixes and gradually start sowing cold-tolerant arugula, spinach, and mache, you’ll have salad greens at Christmas. It’s also a good time to plant beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts so that you can show off at Thanksgiving by bringing vegetables from the garden.

There’s still time for flowers, too. In my neighborhood, gardeners are just getting started on sunflowers. Icelandic poppies and bachelor button will bloom through fall. Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan) still has time to get going, and this year I’m even experimenting with planting cosmos in August. They are surprisingly intolerant of cool weather, but I’m hoping for just enough warmth this fall for a quick crop.

Finally, remember that fall is the best time to plant perennials. If you want to make any big changes in the garden—add a tree or shrub, put in a new flower bed—now’s the time to get it figured out. When it comes to perennials, don’t look for glamorous, blooming plants in the nursery. Find something with a sturdy root system and healthy green growth, and plant when the fall rains start. They’ll have all winter to put down roots and get ready to bloom in spring.

The Greenest Rest Stop

I've never considered a rest stop to be an actual tourist destination, but I may have to plan a trip to Vermont around this "green" rest stop along Interstate 89. Toilet water is recycled by filtering it and then running it through a greenhouse, where tropical plants play host to organisms that further purify the water. While it's not drinkable (and signs, as well as harmless blue dye, warn visitors not to drink from the toilets) it is perfectly safe to use over and over again and to keep the greenhouse going.

OK, so it cost a fortune to build, but it's also a veterans memorial, so that makes it all right, doesn't it?

Vermont Blends 'Green' Flush Toilets and a Greenhouse - New York Times

Monday, August 29, 2005

This is one of my favorite combinations in the garden right now--the orange Leonotis (Lion's tail), the fuzzy red Salvia confertiflora, and Salvia mexicana 'Limelight,' with its bright purple flowers in chartreuse calyces. All three start blooming in early summer and keep it up until winter. The flowers last a long time, and the three plants will weave into each other and form one brilliant mass. Also, they'll put up with a little shade--mine are on the west side of the house. They reach about six feet in my garden, but they're easy to cut back, too.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Just Joey

I learned about this rose when my hairdresser brought one from her garden into the shop. It was huge--one blossom was all you needed to fill a vase. And it has a gorgeous, bright, apple fragrance. I'm not much of a rose grower, but I've begrudgingly come to love a few of them. 'Just Joey' is on the short list of roses that has won me over.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Ah, tomato season. It's too cold to grow tomatoes in Eureka without taking some extraordinary measures that hardly seem worth the trouble. Especially when they're available at the farmers market and they look like this. I actually didn't get anything more than a photo, however--at every stand, the line for tomatoes was so long that it just seemed silly. Still, I do love living in a town where people line up for organic tomatoes.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Garden Wedding

Janis Eastman-Moore contacted me a few weeks ago about her garden in Eureka. She’s planning to get married there next August, but the place is completely overgrown with weeds. She doesn’t have much experience gardening, and on top of everything else, it’s a rental. She wanted to know if I had any ideas. I like nothing better than telling other people what to plant, so I headed over there last Sunday to check it out.

Janis and her fiancée Scott Grant have lived for a couple of years in a small house near College of the Redwoods with sweeping views of the ocean. They’ve got an enormous backyard filled with fruit trees, roses, orange crocosmia, and a few other plants that are half-buried under the weeds. Because they’re both going to school and working, whatever they do has got to be affordable and not terribly time-consuming.

Here are my suggestions for making over a garden in time for a wedding that’s twelve months away. If you’ve ever tackled a project like this, write to me with your ideas and I’ll print them in a future column.

Stick with what works. Take good care of the larger, more established plants that aren’t going anywhere. A nursery can recommend organic products to fight pests and diseases so there aren’t tent caterpillars dropping on the guests’ heads during the ceremony. The garden’s full of neglected roses; many of the same biological products that work on fruit trees will be effective on the roses, too.

Clear out the rest. If the landlord allows it (and who wouldn’t?), offer to pull out what doesn’t work and replace it with something even better. Anything that can’t be removed—maybe a shrub whose flowers don’t match the color scheme—can at least be cut back so it’s more of an insignificant clump of leaves on the big day. Pull weeds and bring in a truckload of compost to pile on the flowerbeds. Once the overgrowth is cleared away, it’ll be easier to make a plan.

Use a simple color scheme. The bride wants yellow, and lots of it. She’d already figured out that to really make yellow pop out in a garden, it needs a contrasting color like purple or blue. There are lots of pink roses and some pink fuchsias in the garden, but they’ll look fine with yellow and purple/blue flowers.

I suggested that they limit themselves to a few plants that were easy to grow and bloomed over a long period of time, and plant those in mass quantities. Easy yellow plants might include lady's mantle and ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, and, for contrast, catmint and ‘Johnson’s Blue’ geranium. All four of these plants are so prolific that Janis and Scott might have friends who would be willing to divide their own plants and share the extras. (Whoever you are, friends of Scott and Janis, this is a hint).

For height, it’s hard to beat the tall purple Verbena bonariensis, which puts up spikes of purple flowers on thin, wiry stems, creating an airy effect that won’t block the view of the rest of the garden. Dill or fennel flowers would also add some height and yellow blossoms, as would yellow hollyhocks, but it would be important to get a true “annual” hollyhock that blooms in the first year—otherwise you’ll end up with biennials that won’t bloom until your first anniversary.

The bride was particularly fond of the cutting of yellow ‘Honeycomb” buddleia I brought. With only a year to go, it would be a challenge to nurture this plant into a full-sized shrub, so I suggested spending a little extra money here and buying the shrubs in large, landscape-sized containers. Most of the rest of the plants will be available in affordable four-inch pots, so the buddleia would be the place to splurge.

Fill in with containers. Containers are another place to splurge because, as renters, they’ll be able to take them when they move someday. Containers don’t just belong on decks and patios—by placing them out in the garden they can add some height and some charm. Use logs, stones, cement blocks, or upside-down wine barrels as the base, then set a container on top and fill it with flowering plants the weekend before the wedding. (Simplicity is the key here, too—it’ll look much more coordinated if every pot is filled with the same one or two plants. Most nurseries can special-order extras with a little advance notice.)

Use high-impact foliage. Since it’s nearly impossible to make plants bloom on cue, I suggested using lots of gorgeous foliage in between the flowers. They already had a couple of silvery artemesias, so it makes sense to add more of those. The soft silver or pale green foliage of helichrysum would work well, as would the large-leafed peppermint scented geranium or some good-sized euphorbias, all of which are also available in inexpensive four-inch pots.

Feed with care. It’s easy to get over-excited and feed a garden so much that you burn it, but a monthly dose of dry organic fertilizer is critical. The established plants can use a balanced, all-purpose food now, and there are transplant formulas available for the new plants. The roses should get organic rose food, and the fruit trees need a special fruit tree formula. Scratch it in around the base of the plants and water well. Lay off during the coldest months of winter, then resume in spring. About six weeks before the wedding, switch to a “fruit and flower” formula that will help push everything into bloom.

Water, weed, and deadhead. Plants need steady water to be able to take up nutrients and grow. This is not the time to put your garden to the test and see what kind of abuse it can stand. Water regularly, pull weeds, and keep cutting flowers. The garden will start to look gorgeous in June; it’ll take real discipline to cut back the flowers to encourage another round of blooms in August.

Expect the unexpected. Anybody who’s ever tried to time a garden to bloom for a wedding knows that gardens have minds of their own. Some flowers will bloom a little early, some a little late. Welcome to married life; it’ll be the first of many things you can’t control. My words of wisdom to the bride: You get to pick the day, you get to pick the dress, and best of all, you get the pick the guy you’ll spend the rest of your life with. But when it comes to the garden, just give it all the love and attention you can, then stand back and let it do what it wants to do.

In fact, that approach works with husbands, too. Good luck to you both.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Glorious Lavender

I was out running errands the other day when I heard a commercial on the radio that just about stopped me in my tracks. It seems that Ramone’s Bakery has started making lavender truffles: little dark chocolates with a center that has somehow been steeped in lavender. I wasn’t clear on the process, but just the thought of lavender-flavored chocolate was enough to make me turn the car around and head right over there.

To my surprise, they still had one or two left by the time I arrived. Perhaps I shouldn’t have assumed that there would be a run on these truffles—as much as I love lavender, it rarely occurs to me to cook with it. I certainly never would have thought about combining it with chocolate. But now I can tell you from experience that lavender-flavored chocolate is a revelation: the herb does nothing to interfere with the chocolate, but what it leaves behind is the precise experience of lavender, somehow transformed from a scent to a flavor.

I’ve always grown lavender, but I got serious about it when I moved to Eureka. I wanted a border of lavender to run around the perimeter of the garden. A neat row of lavender would, I thought, keep things from looking too haphazard. I needed over thirty shrubs to do the job right, so I did plenty of research before I placed my order.

The first thing you have to know about lavender is that there are several varieties, and it can be a bit confusing to sort them out. The variety known as French lavender, Lavandula dentata, is not widely grown in France. It is easily identified by its serrated, or toothed, edges. It has a long blooming season, almost year-round in mild winter areas like Humboldt county, but the flowers have a menthol scent that don’t lend themselves to sachets or chocolate truffles.
English lavender, or L. angustifolia, is not native to England and is more commonly grown in southern Europe. It produces the kind of sweet buds that are often used in perfume and sachets. ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ are two of the most popular varieties of English lavender around here.
The lavender that is grown in the Provence region of France is actually an English lavender hybrid called lavandin, or L. intermedia. ‘Grosso,’ ‘Fred Boutin,’ and ‘Provence’ are the most popular varieties of lavandin. They have long, sturdy spikes of flowers that lend themselves to lavender wands and dried arrangements, and the high oil content makes them perfect for soaps and perfumes.

Another popular variety of lavender is Spanish lavender. (Please don’t ask me if it grows in Spain; I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t.) These shrubs are generally smaller and they produce fat spikes of flowers with two or four bracts—petals—on top that resemble rabbit ears. They aren’t used in sachets or perfume, but they do perform well in small spaces, which makes them a great choice for patios and balconies. (For more on lavender varieties, check out The Lavender Garden and Lavender: The Growers Guide.)

I settled on ‘Fred Boutin’ lavandin for my lavender border. I could use the dried flowers for just about anything, and the people at the nursery promised that each shrub would grow to three or four feet tall and just as wide. It sounded like exactly the sort of muscular border plant I was looking for.

But most of all, I chose ‘Fred Boutin’ because I like the idea of growing the same kind of lavender they grow in Provence. I read somewhere that the French lay their pillowcases out to dry on lavender shrubs and let the perfume infuse them. I heard that lavender buds can be mixed with sugar and used to ice cakes or make lavender shortbread cookies. I knew that the spikes could be used to skewer whatever you happened to be throwing on the grill. I found recipes for lavender jelly, lavender custard, and lavender lemonade. And of course, one could maintain a French countryside glow with lavender facial steams, lavender salt scrubs, and lavender bath oil. Overall, it sounded like a pretty good lifestyle to me.

But since I’ve had my row of lavender, I have never once strewn my sheets across them to dry. Perhaps, being out in the country, the French don’t worry about someone walking off with their pillowcases, but I would. I’d need some errand outdoors so I could keep an eye on them until they dried. And in Eureka’s cool, foggy summers, they might never dry properly at all and have to come inside at sundown, half-damp, and finish the day in the dryer.

I have also never made lavender jelly or lavender shortbread cookies. In fact, the most I’ve done with my stalks of lavender was to hang them from the rafters in the attic and to occasionally try to pass off the bunches of dried flowers as Christmas gifts.

But that chocolate lavender truffle got me thinking again about lavender recipes. I had the right kind of lavender—English lavender and lavandin are the only two varieties that are safe for use in cooking—so I went into my kitchen and started thumbing through cookbooks, looking for a recipe that would put Ramone’s efforts to shame.Most of the recipes I found seemed far too complicated, often requiring that you steep the buds for hours or days. I was on deadline; I didn’t have that kind of time. So finally, in the name of investigative journalism, I poured myself a lavender martini: a splash of vermouth, a generous pour of gin, and a sprig of lavender dropped in like a swizzle stick.

I must confess that while the lavender smelled great, it didn’t do much to the flavor of the gin. In the end, I tossed the lavender sprig and replaced it with an olive. Hey, olives come from the garden… not my garden, to be sure—but perhaps a garden in Provence.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Garden for Sale, Home Included

Now here's a real estate story I can cozy up to. I've been through the heartache of leaving a garden behind, and it's not something I'd ever like to go through again. Selling your garden to another gardener is the only way to go.

Garden for Sale

Sweet Peas

Gardening in Humboldt County can have a certain Groundhog Day quality. The weather is almost the same, month in and month out, and that weather is—well, chilly and cool, not unlike the weather on Groundhog Day itself. This is especially true near the coast, where it’s not hot enough in summer for tomatoes, and not cold enough in winter for anything that needs a hard freeze like peonies.

The trick is to find what works and run with it. I gave up on tomatoes, but I learned to love berries and artichokes. I might not have the dedication to dash out to my peony crowns during winter and drop a tray of ice cubes on them to keep them chilled the way some gardeners I know do, but I have figured out that I can keep sweet peas blooming almost year-round. Sounds like a fair trade to me.

The sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, has been in cultivation in Europe and the United States for three hundred years. It was easy to hybridize—think of Gregor Mendel and the elegantly simple experiments he carried out on peas to demonstrate how genetics worked—and the flowers themselves were popular as cut flowers in the Victorian era, when short-stemmed, ephemeral, highly scented flowers were popular. At the end of the nineteenth century, the most popular form was the Grandiflora, which was known for its large, sturdy blossoms, new colors, and wild, old-fashioned fragrance. A few years later, the Spencer types, with ruffled petals and even larger flower head, came into vogue and have never quite gone out of style again. Spencers and Grandifloras have also been cross-bred to expand the range of colors for both.

When you’re choosing a sweet pea to grow, there are two things to consider: growth habit and temperature. A sweet pea will either be classified as a dwarf or a climber; for the most part, you’ll select dwarf-style plants for containers and climbers to scramble up a fence or a trellis.

Subtle changes in temperature and day length also make a difference, so if you’re going to try to keep sweet peas going year-round, it’s a good idea to switch to a winter-blooming variety when temperatures drop and go back to a heat-tolerant summer variety when it warms up again. Renee’s Garden Seeds, for instance, offers ‘Velvet Elegance,’ which blooms early in cool weather, and a more heat-tolerant ‘Perfume Delight’ for summer. As a rule, red and orange varieties can’t take the heat, so although it may wreak havoc with your seasonal color scheme, you’re better off planting pastel varieties to bloom in the hottest months of the year.

The most economical way to start sweet peas is to grow them from seed. The seed is covered with a tough coating; most companies now sell them pre-nicked to encourage better germination. If yours don’t already have a fine slit in the coating, you perform the operation yourself with a knife or simply move on to the next step, which is to soak the seeds. (I know this sounds like a lot of work, but come on, these are sweet peas we’re talking about here.) Wrap the seeds in damp paper towels and set them in a warm spot—a window sill, maybe—and within several hours, they will have started to swell, which means that germination has begun. Now you can plant them. And if that’s too much trouble, look for sweet pea plants from Annie’s Annuals at nurseries around town. They’re foolproof and fabulous.

Now—where to plant them? A chicken wire or chain link fence works well, as does any other trellis or wall that has been covered in the kind of fine mesh netting or string they need to get a grip. Bird netting is nearly invisible against a wall and is easy for tendrils to grab. You can also start seeds in a pot and transplant them later, when the plants have plenty of young tendrils and look ready to climb.

Pick a site with full sunlight and dig in plenty of aged compost—sweet peas like rich, loose soil. Work in a little bone meal before you plant. Keep the soil damp (soaker hoses are great for sweet peas because they’ll keep the roots moist without getting the vines wet) and feed with a weak solution of fish emulsion and kelp meal every couple of weeks. Finally, don’t be shy about cutting the flowers—it’s absolutely essential that you keep seed pods from forming, because once the plant starts making seeds, the show’s over. I start out very carefully cutting individual stems and placing them in slender, narrow vases or even champagne flutes, but by the time the vine’s mature, I’m chopping off whole sections of vines and dropping them in water. Anything to keep the plant from getting ahead of me. (And by the way, the cut flowers will last nearly a week in the vase if you use commercial flower food, change the water, and keep them out of the sun)

To keep a crop of sweet peas going throughout the year, start a new batch every month or two. Ideally, each new batch would get its own freshly-dug space to grow in, but I don’t have enough space for that in my garden, so I continue to plant new seedlings in the same row around my chicken coop. They scramble up the chicken wire and provide a little shade for the birds. By cutting back the old vines drastically as they start to go to seed, I create enough room for the young seedlings to climb.

If you’re really into sweet peas, whatever you do, don’t go buy Graham Rice’s The Sweet Pea Book. It’s sheer torture. I flipped right to the photograph of the tangerine and cherry-colored ‘Glow’ on page 61 and just about passed out on the spot. As far as I can tell, it’s only available from one seed company in England, and I can’t get an e-mail through to them. (Does anyone get the Unwins seed catalog, or am I just going to have to go over there myself?) Then there’s the heavenly “Lavender Bridesmaid,” a dwarf bicolor that is described as “white with pretty purple whiskers and purple wire; shaded purple at the top; bolt of deep purple on reverse.” What this means in non-sweet pea speak is that it’s the most gorgeous, delicate lavender and white flower you’ve ever seen. I may have to go to England for that one, too.

But there’s no reason to travel that far; you’ll find a great selection at local nurseries and garden shops, and if you need a few hundred more choices, check out Fragrant Garden Nursery in Brookings or Enchanting Sweet Peas in Sebastopol.