Life After Deadheading

My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy.  I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere.

-Vita Sackville-West
March 26, 1950

In the quote above she speaks of pruning.  From her books I gather that Vita thought pruning in the Spring a foolish way to go about the garden.  She referenced the Victorian gardens of abundance and the wild gayety of the flowers, able to stretch themselves to the sky.

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The gardens of the turn of the century up through mid-century established a habit of cutting their roses right down to the ground in order to achieve abundant blooms.  But in doing so they only stifled growth.  Vita argues that roses ought to be left alone in the Spring, and if you didn’t believe her she simple advised: “the only thing is to be bold; try the experiment; and find out.”

I do not prune my roses.  Instead, the only thing I do is deadhead them throughout their bloom season and in the spring to make the greens look more attractive.

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Deadheading is my favorite thing.  It’s therapeutic and it’s grounding.  I’ve heard when monks are upset or a little melancholy they are told to work in the garden until they feel better.  Deadheading is the perfect way to fidget while thinking out one’s problem.  But why should we cut off the spent flowers like I will do soon to my Floribunda Tuscan Sun above?

The rosarians whose books I’ve read fail greatly at one simple task. They order us: “deadhead at an angle facing away from the leaf a quarter inch above the leaf”.  They show pictures: “too much”, “not enough”. But why?  They never explain this.  Perhaps if they did we would be more apt to follow orders? Knowing what treachery might befall upon our precious blooms we might do as they say.

Let’s examine this:

WHY DEADHEAD?

Do you want your roses to grow rapidly? Would you like more blooms?  How about continual bright red baby leaves sprouting all summer long?  Deadheading is your answer.

HOW TO DEADHEAD:
The best thing I can tell you is to cut down to the fifth leaf set.  Spot the spent bloom, follow its stem downward until you see the first five leaf stem.  Cut it there at an angle, opening away from the leaf set. Why?  Because this technique gives the new stem room to spike out and from what I’ve read it can also produce stronger stems if this is done one-quarter inch above the leaf set. Like this,

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As you can see I’ve had some thrip and beetle damage.  This is the first year I’ve had problems with pests of this nature and they caught me a little offguard-please ignore.

Anyway, a week later you should have young leaves shooting out all over, making a pretty show of purple and bright green-almost as striking as the flowers themselves.

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Young life, a reminder of our excitement and the hope we carried into spring.  I can feel that again when I look at these new leaves of tender delicacy.  Do this and you will see.  You needn’t worry.  Soon you will have an abundance of blooms again, bringing a sense of accomplishment to you and the beauty of youth and hope to your garden once again.

 

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Astilbe & The Romanovs

People often ask what plants are suitable for a shady situation, by which they mean either the north side of a walk or house, or in the shadow cast by trees.  There are so many plants that no one need despair.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

Astilbe and the Romanovs, perhaps that will be my next book title.  I did somewhat draft a love story last year that took place in wintertime Russia.  For this piece however, we’re talking about a plant, not a flaxen haired blonde of Russian decent.  

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband and I have had some trouble with our front yard.  Everything we planted there seemed to die or resist flowering.  We face north and I did despair thinking I would have to stick to boring old hedges.  One nurseryman told me ‘sorry there is no hope.  You can only plant boxwoods and such’.  But Sir, I need flowers and color!

It now strikes me odd that a nurseryman would say such a thing, they are indeed many beautiful plants that will tolerate shade.  When I ripped out the holly bushes and planted them elsewhere I replaced them with Astilbe or False Spiraea.
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They are flowering now, and have already grown rapidly.  The variety I choose are the Chinese Astilbe or Purple Candle.  I’m told they will grow quite large.  I am hoping they spread out so I gave them room to do so.  Perennials are known to sleep, creep, and leap in three years time, but this Astilbe has grown very much just in the two months I’ve had it. I’m very excited to see what it does in three years.

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The one getting the most shade is doing the best, surprisingly.  Flowers need sun in order to bloom and they get just enough here I suppose – less than four hours.
It tickles me that the astilbe will let you know immediately if it needs water.  The little ends of its flower spikes will droop in the slightest drought.  So I have to keep an eye on them and water them constantly.

Their flowering is almost done, but the bees and other flying creatures have enjoyed them.  It seems they turn colors as the blooms progress and die.  Going from a bright, almost florescent purple, to a faded purple with a green underlay; very pretty.  

As I observed their faded blooms the other day, the Romanov family came to mind. I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s the romantic nature of the faded purple that reminds me of this faded Royal family of Russia.  I find their history quite interesting, but perhaps I was reminded of them because their reign looked solid and eternal just as my astilbe blooms, then suddenly they are gone with a flash of light and with an exhaustion of energy.  So sudden it seems that my astilbe blooms should be dying; their blooms look so permanent and stable.  

I do suggest, by the way, reading some Russian history.  Rasputin, and the end of the Romanovs, for example was an interesting chapter.

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Anyway, they do have a fragrance.  It is sweet like clover.  I’m sure you could cut a flower spike, but why do this when their spikes are a bit sparse, unless of course your collection is large.  I can imagine they would droop in water anyway. Rather, I wonder if they would make a pretty dried flower?  I’ve read in this great book Making the Most of Shade by Larry Hodgson, that the author will not cut his spikes off in Fall.  Instead, he lets them remain unless he wants to use them in a dried arrangement.  He says, “They turn brown it’s true, but still add interest right into winter.”  He also suggests leaving the flower spikes, and they will collapse on their own just in time for Spring.

They have many benefits, beside being interesting to look at, they are also deer and bunny resistant.  There are many different varieties from which to choose, and they come in an array of colors and sizes.  I suggest planting a few in a dark unused corner and see how they do, you really would thank yourself in three years time.

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Under The Catalpa Tree…

Travelers between Calais and Paris must surely have noticed the lumps and clumps darkening like magpies’ nests the many neglected-looking strips of trees along the railway line in the North of France.  Perhaps the neglect is deliberate; perhaps they pay a good dividend.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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The one and only catalpa tree in our neighborhood sits by our sidewalk.  Belonging not to one individual but rather to the entire City itself.  It is somewhat neglected yet it continues to flower and thrive year after year.  Perhaps neglect is all the better for it.

It was a great surprise as I rounded the corner on my morning walk and was greeted pleasantly by its white orchid-like frills.  A happy sight, as it looks like a tree belonging to the wild tropics rather than our conservative state of Michigan.

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Rarely do we see trees flowering in June, but the Catalpa shares with us its blooms; throwing them down for weeks.  They send a fragrance of rosehip and honeysuckle floating through the humid air as you pass, and when the flowering is done, its seeds appear. Like giant vanilla beans, they hang and dangle until they too eventually fall, hoping to spread the fruit of their mid-summer labor.

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A tree with many good qualities indeed.  Their fragrant, deep blooms make for a fun hiding place for the little fingers of children.  A canopy of huge heart-shaped leaves provide a hiding place for animals during rain storms, and the wood is resistant to rot, making it the perfect material for railroad ties.

Every year, I can’t help but wonder why I do not see more of this unique tree growing in the park or elsewhere?  I have not the slightest clue as to the origins of this one specimen.   I’m wondering now, how it came to be? Why on earth was it planted that close to the sidewalk but just off the property line of our neighbor’s?  Was it planted deliberately or did it seed there by accident?  It really is the only one I know of in this area.   Perhaps I haven’t been looking up enough.  Perhaps we need to plant more.

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Spiderwort or The Unfortunately Named

It is sufficiently remarkable that a great and powerful noble should have accepted so frank a criticism from a peasant, little more than a child.  He was more accustomed to see such people tremble in his presence.  Such impertinence must have taken his breath away.  Besides, it attacked him in his most private feelings.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc; 1936

I like to learn things.  A “natural curiosity”, as my Grandma calls it, will keep one from being bored.   In fact, in my house, the word “bored” is considered a bad word.  It strikes me right to my core when my children say they are bored, because all that means to me is that they haven’t yet learned the ability to entertain themselves or they themselves are boring.

We have spiderwort plant growing behind our fence, completely neglected.  It was growing there when we moved in and we left it.  There was not much we cared to do with that plot of land anyway.  It is a scraggly, sloppy looking thing.  It just hangs there with its electric blue flowers that only seem to minimally dot the green foliage from afar.  I never thought much of it, in fact, I’ve always observed it as an ugly plant.  But as I’ve learned many times in life and in the garden, it is easy to make enemies of those we don’t know well.

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So let us get to know the spiderwort a little better, and perhaps from now on the sight of it won’t aggravate me.  We will perhaps satisfy our natural curiosity in doing so…

The unfortunately named spiderwort actually has many good qualities, and it has proved itself a very useful plant for centuries.

The word ‘wort’ originated in Middle English.  Middle English; think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  ca. 1343-1400

“Whan that April With his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr…”

I could read Chaucer all day but alas, we must continue with today’s acquaintance.  The word ‘wort’ applies to plants or herbs used for medicinal reasons.  The root of the spiderwort are used as a laxative.  Brewed into a tea, they will help with numerous stomach ailments, including kidney pains and “women’s complaints”.

Its flower, the electric blue stars that smile with yellow stamens, can actually be eaten.  I can imagine it used as a decorative edible garnish for a summer dinner party in the garden. The sun sets in the background as your glass of Sauvignon Blanc politely sweats in the warm summer night air, while you get the pleasure of studying solely this flower at close range.

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Perhaps while you’re at it, you’d like to use its tender young leaves in your salad?  Yes, you can!   Forget the romaine, walk a little further to that forsaken plant round the corner and pluck some leaves to add something a little different; texture or otherwise.

Speaking of its leaves, the larger ones contain a mucus that can be used as a healing ointment.  This is also where the word ‘spider’ comes from.  If you tear a single leaf, this mucus-like substance will thread and stretch just like a spider web.

Well?  What say you?  Will you look on with disdain and turn your nose up at the spiderwort?  Or have you gained a new appreciation because you’ve gotten to know it better?   Personally, I’ll take the later response.  From now on it will remind me of the days centuries ago when Chaucer wrote of the great pilgrimage, and Middle English reigned in the world of literature.  Perhaps the peasant is the noble one after all.

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The Object Of My Disenchantment

There are few more repaying plants.   Rabbits dislike them; their flowering season extends through May and June; they last for a week or more as picked flowers for the house; they will flourish in sun or semi-shade; they will tolerate almost any kind of soil, lime-free or otherwise; they will even put up with clay; they never need dividing or transplanting; in fact, they hate it; and they are so long-lived that once you have established a clump (which will not be difficult) they will probably outlive you.  Add to all this that they will endure neglect.

-V. Sackville-West
In Your Garden: 1958

What Vita said is all very true.  So why have I been indifferent to our four peony plants growing around our house?  Let me explain, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

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For years I’ve been disenchanted by peonies, particularly our peonies.  I never paid much attention to other’s plants to correct my assumption that peonies are unimpressive in their flowering.  Their foliage was outstanding, but the blooms?  Almost nonexistent.   Our largest produced only four blooms this year, and another plant, only one, while the other two continually produce nothing every year.

Surprisingly, I never gave it much thought as to why our plants were at odds with the consistently generous plants of our neighbors.  However, it struck me last night when preparing for this post that we might be doing something wrong.  I read a little passage from Vita which states, “Never cut [them] down“, very seriously and in italics!  Then I realized our problem.

As I recall, for years we have been cutting them in autumn.  Now mind you, I didn’t give two hoots about gardening up until three years ago (I was raising toddlers), and even then, never paid attention to the peonies because they never produced much of anything.  But here was the problem:

My husband chopped them and I didn’t care because they never produced many blooms. So this cyclical pattern began where my husband chopped them every year and I sat back not caring because they never bloomed anyway. But they never bloomed because he was chopping them.  You see where we goofed?

 

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So this fall I will say no to chopping them down, and hopefully next year they will produce more blooms and I will acquire a new opinion.   I have however, always liked cutting them for bouquets.  They do very well, (lasting over a week) and will add fragrance to an entire room.   I have always liked this quality about them.  They smell wonderfully nostalgic to me-like sweet lemon, and remind me of Victorian front porches dappled with morning sun.

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Ramble On…

He kept them sitting for hours over the dinner table, he who was usually so impatient to move away; he kept them entertained by anecdote after anecdote, reminiscence after reminiscence, observation after observation…

-V. Sackville-West
Easter Parade: A Novel
Copyright: 1953

 

Allow me, if you will, to ramble a bit?  Ramble like a climbing, rambling vine?  One that reaches and twists until its head is in the sun or in this case the truth?

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The Clematis, if planted with good support, such as a twiggy bush – like a rose or lilac, will grow well and fast.  If the support is not there, it will falter and stagnate.  I have also heard that it will produce more blooms if grown horizontally.  Take for example, my neighbors clematis which grows on our side of the fence, much to my delight.  It grows horizontally through the fence and rambles about itself, see the abundance of blooms as a result?

However, for my three varieties of clematis I have chosen other plants to support them.  I have two growing throughout my lilac bush, and I recently discovered a third I assumed was dead. See my post, The Living Dead, for a good lesson on this.  Perhaps I should have read my own post.  Anyway, I thought about transplanting it to the lilacs as well, but instead I simply left it alone and planted a yellow rose bush beside it.  This purple Clematis growing through my yellow Floribunda Julia Child rose will make a striking combination when they begin to flourish.

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The honeysuckle (featured in yesterday’s post Honeysuckle Fireworks ) has done well for me, I am surprised actually because the first year is usually hard on my perennials.  I watch the newly planted with nail biting anxiety, and at the slightest inconsistency or yellowed leaf, I worry and fret.

It seems this year more so than others, I have subconsciously made bright decisions about troubled plants.  I will attribute this to all I’ve read in books for the past two years.  In the past, information that had enlightened me was soon forgotten.  This year however, my focus has been more acute and I’m able to recall garden truths on a whim as if someone besides me has thought of it.

One such example of a bright decision was the transplanting of our Holly bushes.  They were originally planted in complete shade and continually had spots on their leaves and weren’t growing.  So I dug them up and planted them on the west end of the house where the morning sun would touch them.

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I gave them a drop of fertilizer and destroyed all their yellowing leaves as some looked to have the dreaded black spot fungus.  Again, evidence to me that they just needed more sun.  Since bacteria and fungus is usually killed by UV rays I would think more sunlight would lessen the chances of the black spot coming back.  But I am no botanist, this is only my educated guess.  Either way, they are doing quite well. They are now producing beautiful, perfect growth rapidly.

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Honeysuckle Fireworks

…it is not generally realized by the amateur gardener how many shrubs and climbers will lend themselves happily to layering.  It is possible to obtain quite a nursery of young, rooted stock in a short time, at no cost and for very little trouble.
Honeysuckles sometimes layer themselves of their own accord, so avail yourselves of the hint if you want to increase your supply.

-V. Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening
1958

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Honeysuckle.  Its name alone suggests a heavenly plant.  Indeed it is.   It took very well to my planting it in full sun and I gave it a sturdy support of our little pergola entranceway at our back door.

An avid climber, the honeysuckle will grow about four to six inches a day.  However, you must frequently check on it and guide its shoots in the right direction.  I often find the precious little things stretching their way under our deck, and I have to pull them out and wrap them elsewhere. This picture (above) was taken about two weeks ago.  You can see it was just reaching its goal, grabbing hold of our deck.

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This morning it has reach far and beyond as it naturally wraps itself.  There is no need to train it as you would a rose.  It finds its own way.  Independently emerging around every corner.   Reminiscent of the fairy tale Jack and the Bean Stalk, it stretches to the sky.  The treasures you’ll find as you follow its course are the firework display of blooms that smell heavenly sweet, and continually appear from June until the frost.  My variety starts out white and ends a honey colored yellow just before dropping.

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As Vita explains above.  Honeysuckle takes easily to layering, basically another term for propagation.  Simply cut one of its stalks at a 45 degree angle, and bury it in the ground with some sort of support so that it will not topple over.  Let it be for a year, and you’ll have yourself another plant to ramble up an entrance way or perhaps a  hedge of sweet briar like Vita did at Sissinghurst.

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Here
 are a couple different ways to propagate in detail.   I’ve seen this procedure done in books to many other plants.  In some cases a root growth will have to be applied.

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