Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't Look a Gift Horse...

Times are tough all over: public or private, gardeners tend to tighten their belts and set aside grandious plans for follies, blue slate patios and three tiered fountains. I was reminded of this general resourcefulness in a conversation last week with one gardener from down near Lenexa. We first sold plants to this children's garden last year, a typically challenging year one experience with cancelled orders, unanswered phone calls and various other misunderstandings. When the bid came over the email transom earlier this winter, there was serious discussion about how we should respond. But, we hate to leave any greenhouse space unfilled and we've been doing this long enough to realize the second year is always an improvement as grower and gardener get better acquainted. In this case, the gardeners are bound and determined to carpet the ground with flowers, even as the orders for individual, designer, high dollar cutting raised plants are pared down. Not to worry! Back to the drawing board, or in this case, the proverbial egg before the chicken: the humble seed.
Lisa is serious about the Children's Garden. Last year she told me she covered her driveway with drying seed heads of assorted annuals, even though she was pretty certain her neighbors didn't appreciated the blowing debris. When I heard that, I was convinced her seed saving mania was frugality in the interest of greater beauty and gladly delved into memory to come up with candidates for flowers with the biggest bang for the least buck.
Cheap posies come in multiple guises. I covered one of those bases by ordering several thousand seeds of some of the most beloved of cutting garden favorites. In wholesale quantities, a generous swath of cosmos, whether feathery leaved Sonatas or neon bright Cosmics, will set one back not much more than a five spot. A packet of a thousand zinnia seeds of modern breeding are easy to lose in the car, but you'll never lose them in the garden! A scratch in the soil, a hoed row, a sprinkling before a shower, and you'll have the ineffable pleasure of discovering emerging seedlings and a devil may care attitude if the grandkids, family pet, or mower man take out a dozen or more in the normal course of summer events. That's one way to cover some territory.
But the fun really begins later. NEXT year, mother Nature takes over the garden design and the human gardener can decide how much of a control freak he or she desires to be.

I am a tardy gardener. For better or worse, the green things in my yardhave a running start on their supposed lord and master. In the big circle bed out front last year's coneflowers and balloonflowers are duking it out with aging clumps of daylilies and Autumn Joy sedum I planted to provide balance in the fall. The daffodils have proliferated to such an extent that one cannot fit a trowel between them. If I had it to do over again, I would go for a monoculture of daffodils somewhere in the yard, much as I enjoy their long season of cheerful bloom when I come home to an otherwise unkempt abode. I used to dream all winter of the perfect plant to ring the circle bed, but then the coneflowers filled in all but one quadrant, and now another helpful volunteer is stepping up to the brick edging the bed. This cuphea, a relation to 'Rumba' and 'Flamenco', exhibits all the vigor of its passionately named siblings, making up for small blooms with sheer plant volume and toughness. You can hoe out as many of these seedlings as you want, but you won't get them all, so its just easier to go with the flow. Around the pergola in the back yard, I have ceded one whole side of the border to the cupheas; they keep the weeds down; they are drought resistant; and they can be mowed off where ever the mower man thinks they intrude.
Unlike the cupheas, which only come back where they have been planted, a verbena bonariensis will soon colonize every empty corner. Don't get me wrong, I love this plant; it weaves beautifully among other stemmy bloomers, whether annual or perennial. The mauve, or violet, or aubergine, hue, take your pick, blends with every color, hot or cool, and clashes with none. The plant stands and is hardy well past an initial frost. I would happily recommend verbena bonariensis to anyone, except for that whole rather frightening ability to carpet any bare ground. If you are vigilant and ruthless with your hand hoe early in the season, the seedlings that escape will provide a pleasant accent later in the summer when other annuals flag.
The giant back perennial border was designed with volunteers in mind. It is far from water and so deep and wide that I always planned it to be minimum maintenance. One massive weed flinging orgy in the early summer and one unpleasant itchy pruning in the fall is what it gets. In between, I cut out the elms and mulberries, mow close, and enjoy the opportunistic arrangement of the perennials from afar. There are hardy hibiscus for deep into the summer heat; miscanthus of various persuasions for catching autumn light; penstemons, echinaceas, and rudbeckias to approximate the prairie roadside; and purple poppy mallow and hydrangeas for shock value. I have terrible eyesight; my aim is to enjoy this bed from my bath on the second floor!

Speaking of rudbeckias: I have a weakness for them. A huge swath of the garden around the pond has been sacrificed to the volunteer rudbeckias. Most of them are the simple, black eyed Susie variety, but over the years, I've planted 'Prairie Sun' with its green gold eye, and 'Cherokee Sunset', a double with shades of bronze. Each year, a new variation of the black eyed Susan appears in the catalogs and every year I have to have a flat to introduce somewhere in the garden. Never mind that some years the caterpillars take them, or that they leave a spot barren of bloom in mid summer. For six weeks in June and July, they are the glory of the garden. Daisies forever!
Finally, in all my praise of volunteers, some caveats. Be vigilant if you fall in love with 'Little Bluestem'. Be wary of potentilla. Shun cattails in the water garden. Never cease to prune out 'Autumn Glory' clematis or trumpet vines. One, or at most two, volunteer asters is all that should be tolerated. Cleome will become a prickly thicket. And any petunia that comes up the second or third year will be a pale shadow of its ancestor. Weed it out!!
Being a gardener is hard enough; welcome the freebies Mother Nature dishes out. They've proven they can live in your world and you should reward some of that spirit and vigor. Use your artist's eye and your surgical hoe. And use all your extra time to make new gardens!!

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