Expeditions: MICHIGAN SUMMER

I write this note far from home, on a not unenviable expedition which involves wandering round other people’s gardens.

-Vita Sackville-West
August 17th, 1947
In Your Garden


This summer we have done our usual expeditions.  We have gone to the family cottage a couple times on the East side of the state, and also to my Mother’s condo retreat on the West side.  Some have their preference.  Each side offers different things.  First, if you’re a sunset and wine person, the west side is where you’ll likely go.  If you’re an early riser and the sunrise is your thing then you’ll want to be on the Lake Huron side. But you can get amazing sunsets on the east side too.   Our cottage on the east side of the state faces the west on a small inland lake.

It’s very laid-back, very fisherman friendly. It’s very affordable so you’ll get people from all walks of life.  Every restaurant up there is a total dive, but that’s why we love it.  You can relax as no one puts on airs.
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There are numerous scenic outlooks and secret places…

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Foote Dam ^  Oscoda, MI

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Lumberman’s Monument ^  People climb this sand dune.  I prefer to sit at the top in the shade with a wine and cheese picnic watching everyone’s struggle.  It’s a fun show.  This looks over the Ausable River which is the river used for the World Famous Ausable Canoe Race.  The race includes participants from all over the world.

And my favorite spot in this magical place…Iargo Springs.  To see the natural springs one must climb down hundreds of steps.  Deep under the canopy it’s amazing.  Pictures do not do it justice.  I always wish this was my back yard.

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Indian Pipe^ the only place I’ve seen it growing.  It’s just dark and moist enough for this strange plant.  It lacks chlorophyll and instead gets its nutrients from decaying plant matter.

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Ausable River^

Now, the west side of the state…

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Every night we would walk down the beach with a glass of wine and watch the sunset.  People gather for the big show.  I want to move up there just so I can see this every night.  It’s all I need.  
The wineries are also spectacular and I wish I would have taken my camera to get some shots but I was too distracted by the wine itself to think about it.  One must live without remembering their phone constantly, yes?   When it comes to wine, Michigan excels in two varieties, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  I will go head to head with any snobby wine connoisseur that wants to argue this fact.   One can actually taste Michigan earth in these wines.  The peppery flavor of the reds is our signature.

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Also Cherries are huge, Balaton is my favorite cherry wine from The Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, MI.  Glen Arbor has been featured in Country Living magazine and Food and Wine Magazine for its quaint artsy vibe.  It is indeed one of my favorite places on the planet.
The west side is also known for its sand dunes that look over the turquoise Glen Lakes and Lake Michigan…

IMG_1863I dare not venture down this one either.  It can take up to two hours to climb back up!

Rocks are amazing along the beaches.  Petoskey stones and Leelanau Blue are the most coveted.
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(Photo courtesy of Meggen Watt Photography)

People have vacationed here and stayed.  One of these days I’m going up there and never coming back.  It’s really the most beautiful place, you should come and see for yourself.  I consider myself very lucky to live is such a wonderful versatile state.

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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Fresh Eyes

Within minutes of arriving Vita was ‘flat in love with Sissinghurst’.  ‘The place, when I first saw it on a spring day… caught instantly at my heart and my imagination.  I fell in love at first sight…It was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue.’ Standing in the middle of the vegetable patch looking up to the Tower, she turned to twelve-year-old Nigel and said, ‘I think we shall be happy in this place.’

-Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden
Copyright; 2014

I’m a book lover.  Correction, I’m obsessed with books.  People will hear this and ask me what I thought of the latest best seller.  I haven’t read any of them.  I’m working my way up through time.  When I finally get to today’s best sellers they will be considered only a residue of our history. Like little creative bursts of the past, old and forgotten; just the way I like them.

We recently went to our family cottage for a week.  My book of choice was Vita’s novel The Easter Party.  I finished it in a couple days.  It was good, subtle but brilliant in its own way.  It was the first novel I ever read of hers.  It really gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of her mind.  She put her observance of flowers on hold and applied her skill to the observance of people instead.  I dare say she excels at both. 

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This one finished, I pulled out the second book I brought.  It was a gift from my husband for Mother’s day this year.  He’s so thoughtful; always giving the best gifts of thoughtful simplicity.  He gifted me, Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden.

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This book is very inspirational. So much so that when we returned home I saw my own garden with fresh eyes. 

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I was feeling Vita’s spirit all the more because I had immersed myself in her knowledge and life all weekend.  As I looked at my garden,  I saw where I could make some changes.  For instance,   I would like to pull out the marigolds and plant them elsewhere.  Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a lavender hedge there?  Vita always sectioned off her gardens with hedges.  The lavender in the back of the garden have done very well and bloom consistently.  I think it would be perfect for my miniature garden to bring them forward.  I’ll make a note of it for next year. Vita had a garden journal where she often made notes of what she would plant/change the next spring. 

 I have about fifteen zinnia sprouts that need transplanting.  They will replace the marigolds this year.  They will create a tall hedge. One will have to step into my garden to peer at the lovely flowers- like a secret. 

About those marigolds: I have found, marigolds do not keep the bunnies out, nor do they deter moles, as these are still major pests in my little sanctuary.

Apart from these changes, this book also renewed my inspiration.  Every plant in all my gardens, even the ones frequently overlooked, seemed all the more precious and inspiring.

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Speaking of the usually overlooked: Do you know what this is?  I ventured over to our little wild garden and found this seed plant.  Perhaps you could tell me what it is called?  It looked to be something coveted for bouquets of another time, perhaps it would have been used as a country wedding bouquet with baby’s breath and wild geranium.  It was beautiful to me, although just a weed no doubt; forgotten and humbled by the more popular, somewhat like the books I read.  The little seeds that shoot off the stems are variegated red, pink and green.  If you know what it is called I would love to know.

I could feel what it must have been like for Vita to see Sissinghurst for the first time.  I too have fallen in love with my own grand ideas, falling in love with dilapidated or thrown away objects of our history.  Thrown aside and forgotten because they’re not in style or popular, and the owners haven’t the mind to be inspired by what they could make from the rubble.  

Vita was inspired by the history of Sissinghurst, and its dilapidation did not deter her in the least.  At first sight, the seed of what she could create was planted in her mind and she was lucky enough to make it a reality, thus creating her legacy…somewhat like the grand authors of classics whose prose stands the test of time. 

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Survival of the Fittest: Milkweed

The bees think that I have laid it for their especial benefit.  It really is a lovely sight; I do not want to boast, but I cannot help being pleased with it; it is so seldom that one’s experiments in gardening are wholly successful.

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
June 18, 1950

A couple years ago we discovered a milkweed plant in our back garden.  Since, it has seeded many times over.  Once only considered a weed has gained a new appreciation in my book.  As I look at the many milkweed plants we now have I realize how beautiful their shapes are.  Indeed it should be grown in every garden.  Not good for cutting and bringing into the house, no.  They are strictly there for the bees and butterflies.

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I worried yesterday.  As the drought has caused everything to droop, I thought for sure the milkweed would die.  But in the wee small hours of the morning it cooled off and everything seemed to bounce right back.  Moisture evaporates from plants in direct sun forcing them to wilt faster.   My husband informed me however, not to fret about the milkweed, they are survivors.  Their roots tunnel themselves way down into the ground making them extremely hardy.

Aside from this, they practically force pollination.  They have slits in their tiny flowers in which the little legs of bees and other insects get stuck.  They can easily escape of course, but in the meantime, the milkweed has traded pollen with the winged creature.

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May I also comment on its scent?  Like honeysuckle and lilac.  It wafts through the air hoping to attract its soul mate: The Monarch Butterfly.

I believe the monarch butterfly must covet the milkweed more than any other creature.  The two practically share the same DNA as the milkweed creates a safe haven for its eggs and food for their baby caterpillars.  The caterpillars climb and eat, enjoying their happy feast the whole way.

The milk that is expressed out of the milkweed leaves (hence its name) is toxic.  The fat little caterpillar is not affected however, but instead takes on the milkweed’s toxicity.  It is this sap they have ingested since their birth that makes monarch butterflies poisonous to predators, thus solidifying their survival, making them as ‘fit’ as the milkweed itself.

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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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The Art of Conversation…

…Poison has done its work only too well.  In what agony, during the dark hours, have these miserable members of God’s Creation perished?

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; 1958

I panicked when I saw the caterpillar damage on my rose bushes.  Easily distinguished by the large chucks of green taken from the leaves.  They came in flocks in the springtime and had their feast, leaving only a skeleton of foliage in their path.  Before I knew what was happening, the damage was done.  I wasn’t listening very well.

I sprayed with an insecticide but it was too late, many of the leaves had perished.  But with the catapillars gone I welcomed a new problem.  Variagated leaves, speckled and discolored, this malfunction left me distraught as all my research seemed to point to only two conclusions:  A vitamin deficiency, or a dreaded virus.

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Through these symptoms my roses had found speech.  But what were they trying to tell me?   What warning were they struggling to present?

After an inconclusive internet search, I took the leaves up to a couple nurseries.  One group of ladies told me it looked like a fungus.   Another told me it was probably insect damage and to keep spraying.

But who to believe?  I went ahead and bought the recommended fungus remover and a soaker hose as it’s really the only way to water new plants in this drought.  But I bought one more object to satisfy my own suspicion: a pH meter.  

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I had my suspicions; an intuition if you will, that if I fertilized perhaps all problems would be solved.  I’ve noticed the blooms have decreased greatly since spring.  Also a sign that it’s a vitamin deficiency.  Roses like an acidic soil and as you can see I have very low acid levels.  In the spring I gave them all a slow release fertilizer but I don’t think it is working fast enough.  So I’ll give them a little ‘snack’ of miracle grow throughout the summer and next year I’ll mulch with some manure to increase the nitrogen in the soil.

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It’s a grand experiment really. I have no idea what I’m doing as I’ve never dealt with inconsistencies before.  So here I am, yet again, learning something new. Yay!

One thing the roses are telling me is that their new growth is healthy.  This is a great sign.  To me, it points to a pest problem; an easy fix.  All other symptoms however, seemed a mystery,  and perplexed even the master gardeners with which I spoke.  But in the world of gardening, everything is learning by doing.  You have to be a detective and listen to the plant as well as your intuition.

As summer progresses, I’ll see if there seems to be more damage but I’m hopeful it’s not a virus.  If it is, God forbid it, I’ll have to rip out all my bushes and burn or tie them up in plastic bags, then I would have to replace all the soil before planting anything new.  Total buzz kill to summer’s euphoria.

Listening is precisely why gardening is an art form.  There is an art to listening; an art to conversation.  Coming up with a response that is both wise and applies directly to the point.   One must listen well because plants always have something to say.  If your plants could talk, what would they tell you and how would you respond?

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