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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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.

Thank you for reading…

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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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Garden Of Roses…

Indeed, I think you should approach them as though they were textiles rather than flowers.  The velvet vermilion of petals, the stamens of quivering gold…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
May 28, 1950

 

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I have been waiting all year for this.  Waiting for the perfect opportunity to purchase my roses.  They will be the staple of my garden forever more.   I knew the perfect place to go, and if you live around you should check them out.  Vita always gave suggestions to nurserymen, as she called them, and as I have become quite a connoisseur of the big names around these parts I will do the same.   The place for roses, without a doubt, is Wiegand’s Nursery in Macomb, MI.

I say this because they have a most well organized selection.  Organized by hybrid teas, old English, Floribunda and the climbers.  Each bush stands against a white picket fence.  What perfect staging!  Someone was clever enough to know the color of the blooms will stand out better.  Their position along the white picket fence also brings to mind the beautifully overgrown gardens of yesterday’s American dream.    Somewhere the Dining Sisters begin to sing in their usual perfect harmony, and all is right with the world.  Sigh…

Anyway, I ventured to this particular nursery because I knew I would find perfect specimens.   Each rose is clearly labeled.  You needn’t bend down to look at tags, but instead the information for each variety is displayed at eye level.

I walked along the pathways of old world romance and waited to be spoken to.  I didn’t have to wait long before I came face to waist with this, the most gorgeous rose I had ever seen. This floribunda Moon dance (above).  Its head did not waver or fall but stood erect, staring at me.  It’s petals did not fall at the touch of my hand.  Its color, a creamy white like churned butter, and its fragrance sweet.  All the leaves were intact and healthy, not one of them disturbed in the slightest.  Then, like a tidal wave, others spoke up.

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Floribunda, Sheila’s Perfume (above) was recommended to me by one of the staff.  I was a bit overwhelmed and told her I was going to plant similar colors that would eventually melt into each other as their colors fade to white, as most do.  I liked the two toned petals of yellow and pink so I added this to my collection.

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Floribunda, Tuscan Sun (above) joined soon after.  I liked it’s big full blooms, and I thought planted  within range of Sheila’s Perfume it would make a nice blending effect.  It starts out with the same pink as Sheila’s Perfume then ends with a peach.   With the Moondance behind them I think they will make a striking show.

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On the opposite side of my garden a white climbing rose will work its way up the fence.  Having a pink climber at home, I had to remember they bob their heads downward when they bloom so I told myself to not be discouraged by this sight at the nursery.  They are not wilting for lack of care or water, they are merely wanting you to see them better.  They have formed this habit of pointing their heads downward, because they know someday they will be a mighty towering thing and will have to look down at you.

I then was intrigued by a rose that is grotesquely named, but fortunately, its flower is not.  It’s called Ketchup and Mustard…

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Beside the Moondance, this bicolored beauty spoke to me in a very strong way.  I was disgusted with the name, but I put that aside.  Its coloring was quite beautiful, and attracted my eye.  Let’s instead refer to it as Sunshine’s Kiss.   Sounds much better than Ketchup and Mustard.  Gag me!  The name reduces a garden to a flimsy hotdog.  Not exactly what I meant before by achieving the American dream.   Anyway, last but not least I picked up a yellow to blend with the unfortunately named.

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Floribunda, Julia Child.  See the white climber in the background.  Like the moon aglow on a starry night.

I emerged from this adventure an hour later covered in blood (the thorns) and sweat.   I choose all Floribunda’s because they are hardier for Michigan.  I felt I had gone about my task carefully.   When I was done I drove away completely satisfied with all of my choices.  Not a drop of regret.  These roses will be in my garden for a very long time, hopefully forever if I can do my job well.   Wish me luck!!

Tell me, what is your favorite rose?

…And as always, thank you for reading…

Short and Sweet Woodruff

There are things we grow in our gardens and forget about, and then remember suddenly, as I have just remembered the Sweet Woodruff, that meek, lowly, bright green native of Britain, so easy to grow, so rapid in propagation-every little bit of root will grow and extend itself-keeping weeds down and making a bright green strip or patch wherever you want it.
It is not showy.  Its little white flowers make no display, but it is a useful carpenter for blank spaces, and it certainly makes sweet bags for hanging in the linen cupboard to discourage the moth or to put under you pillow at night.

-Vita Sackville-West
May 14th, 1950
In Your Garden

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I read about these late one night and was intrigued by a certain useful quality the Sweet Woodruff possesses.   So intrigued and attracted, that I headed to the nursery strictly to get my hands on some.   I’ve since planted it all over my flower beds and under trees, so my supply is great and my harvest will be plentiful.

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Vita advises that if you cut the leaves in autumn, which, if they grow as rapidly as I’m told, I would just cut their long stalks of leaves and hang them upside down as you would a spice.  They will not have a scent until they are dried.
After which, you can make them into little sachets which smell of freshly mowed grass and lingers for years.  Imagine the lift you’ll receive when in the dead of winter you’ve forgotten what grass looks like let alone smells like!  Slip it under your pillow to remind yourself.  You’ll sleep peacefully knowing that spring is always right around the corner.