I’ve often wandered through gardens in November thinking, ugh, it’s all dying! There is nothing beautiful left as the cold and the rains disassemble the plants, breaking them down and washing away the vibrant color and energy of spring and summer. At first glance it seems to be true. What is special about November? A birthday, Thanksgiving, maybe the first snowfall? But on closer inspection the changes happening in the garden are filled with color and life. Here are just a few of the reasons why I love November.
Arbutus menziesii, or the Madrone tree, is a beautiful tree native to Western Washington. On a recent trip to Orcas Island I didn’t see any Orca whales but I kept spotting this amazing tree. The most striking feature is the cinnamon red peeling bark in contrast to the young chartreuse green bark. The leaves are evergreen, alternate, oval and leathery. The flowers are white, urn-shaped in large clusters, turning to orange-red berries enjoyed by birds. This tree is not often found in the homeowners landscape, but it occurs naturally on dry, sunny rocky sites, especially around Puget Sound. Arbutus means Strawberry Tree in Latin and menziesii is in honor of Archibald Menzies, a Scottish surgeon, botanist and naturalist.
I’m especially intrigued with the green bark. It’s so vivid and bright. I wonder about photosynthesis and what the advantage is to the tree to have such stunning bark. Bright green to red to peeling away. And then ready to start all over again. I like this tree.
Now that the hectic pace of spring has come and gone, it’s easy to think that all the hard work is over. The planting, fertilizing, trimming and clean-up are all complete, shouldn’t we just sit in our Adirondack chairs and gaze serenely at the garden? We can’t forget one of the most difficult tasks a gardener faces, summer watering. With our Northwest summer drought, plants need consistent and thorough watering to grow and stay healthy.
I’ll never forget a Myrica californica that is growing in the arboretum. When I first noticed it a few years back it appeared healthy. The leaves were green. It had new growth, but it was small. We added irrigation to its bed and within a year it had doubled in size. After two years it has tripled in height and width. It’s a changed plant now, like it has a new breath of life with regular and consistent watering. I see its potential. It’s interesting that we might think a plant is doing just fine. It’s green. It grows a bit every year. And then suddenly when all its needs are met…wow! It can take off.
There are many methods available, sprinklers, watering cans, drip irrigation and in-ground irrigation systems with timers. Water is a precious resource and we should always be thinking about conservation. Setting up a home irrigation system such as drip irrigation may seem complex, but is really quite manageable. The main thing to remember is that plants prefer a thorough deep watering to a light superficial sprinkling. When we spray the surface, the soil may appear dark and moist, but underneath the roots have no moisture. We have to allow time for the moisture to reach the root zone. Water when the soil dries out, more often when it’s hot and less when it’s cloudy and cool.
It’s happened so many times. I think I’ve watered a container really well, whether a small four inch pot or a large patio container. I might have to dump the soil out or dig into the container, and I’m shocked to find out it’s dry at the bottom! A good method is to water a container until the water runs out of the bottom. I also like to give a container as much water as I think it needs. And then do it again. Give it twice as much. If the soil is too dry it can become hydrophobic and it takes a long time to absorb the water. Then the container will have to be watered two or three times. Over-watering can be a problem too, but only if the soil constantly remains wet and is never given the chance to dry out.
Planting similar groups of plants together can also help conserve water. Annuals and big leafy perennials take more water than established shrubs and trees. Keeping them in separate beds will make watering easier. Many of our Northwest native plants are tough and drought tolerant, but remember this is only after they have had a few years to grow a good root system. So when you add any new plants, even if they are ‘drought tolerant’, remember to water for the first two summers. Mulching is a good idea as it helps retain moisture. Rhododendrons are usually ignored all summer, but these plants will really benefit from a consistent supply of water. Remember, a healthy plant that has been well watered and fertilized will more easily fight off insects and disease. Just like us, if we aren’t getting enough sleep or eating well we tend to get sick. So enjoy your summer garden and don’t forget to give your plants a drink. And then do it again.
Today I was so excited to find ladybug larvae on my roses. I was making the usual weekly rounds, dead-heading, checking things out, snipping out leaves with black spot and scouting for aphids. Normally when I find a cluster of aphids I strip them off the leaves with my fingers (yes, I wear gloves). Today as I was brushing them off I noticed a few ladybugs nearby. And then I noticed there were still a few insects tenaciously hanging onto the stem, but they weren’t aphids. Upon closer inspection I discovered they were the larvae of ladybugs, little aphid-munching machines. I was thrilled that beneficial insects were hard at work in my garden. I was also glad that I hadn’t sprayed any chemicals, not even Neem oil, onto the roses. The circle of life, happening in my yard! When people don’t have a lot of time it’s just easier to get a bottle of something and spray the roses when insects appear. But if you really love your plants, you have to take a close look at them. Spend time with them. Give them an afternoon. That’s when you see what’s happening in the garden.
When I see the word hibiscus I think of big, beautiful blooms. When I hear the words New Zealand I remember scenic flax covered coasts. But when I think of New Zealand hibiscus I feel troubled. I should have known when this hibiscus germinated so readily and grew so easily that there would be trouble. Trouble when it grew so fast and sparsely and discouraging when the flowers only lasted for one day. Twenty four hours to shine. The flowers are quite pretty, but after they disappear it’s back to the rangy looking plant. It’s not my favorite. I purchased seeds when I traveled to New Zealand last year. Out of all the plants I tried to grow from NZ, this one was the most vigorous. I’m not sure how it would fare if planted outside. I had mine in a greenhouse and after I cut them back I moved the pots outside and they didn’t make it through the winter. And now the seeds I collected are gathering dust, I don’t think this is a plant that I want to grow again. I’m waiting for seeds from my Meconopsis, that will be a good day!
Just the Facts
New Zealand Hibiscus, Puarangi
Hibiscus richarsonsii (erroneously referred to as Hibiscus trionum)
Indigenous to New Zealand north island and Australia, New South Wales.
Coastal, growing in recently disturbed habitats.
Annual to short-lived perennial up to 3 feet tall (1m)
I was thrilled when on the lovely day of May 3rd the first bud of my Himalayan Blue Poppy began to open. I purchased two plants last year at the Rhododendron Species Garden in Federal Way, hoping against hope that I could grow them in my yard. I knew that Meconopsis could be a difficult plant to grow and without a lot of options I planted them in an odd spot in between two planter boxes. It tends to stay cool and moist in that location and perhaps the companion plant also in that bed influenced me. It’s a Sunshine Blue blueberry bush…why not put blue with blue? I wished them good luck and waited.
I thought the winter rains would be too much, maybe the soil wouldn’t drain enough, so when they popped out of the ground this spring I was happily surprised. They were growing! They both made it…I was so excited. The fuzzy leaves shot up 12 to 14 inches high and slowly the first plant formed a flower bud. The flower that appeared on May 4th (yes, the force is strong in this one) sparkled. The blue of this poppy is incredible. There aren’t many things like it in the natural world which makes it stand out even more against the many shades of green all around. The color is so intense that it seems to glow a bright beautiful blue. The first flower lasted just under a week and after a few days the second bud opened and I see a third one farther down the stalk. That probably means almost a month of blue from this one little poppy. And the second plant hasn’t formed it’s flower stalk yet, so I’m hoping for a blue June as well. I read that they like cool and moist growing conditions and that the seeds are easily collected and will germinate readily. I’m really excited to gather the seeds up and start growing Meconopsis. Maybe someday I’ll have my very own Blue Poppy Meadow like at the Rhododendron Garden. It’s true Poppy Love.
Some plants need the slant of the morning sun to be appreciated, others possess an intoxicating fragrance. The Dove Tree, or Davidia involucrata, is at its best when the wind rushes through the leaves, lifting the white bracts so they twist and turn and dance. They flutter. It’s like watching music. The rhythm sweeps through the branches, breathing life and creating patterns. It seems to come alive with the wind. Like when I’m playing disc golf and I throw a disc, it comes alive in the air. The breeze can give it unintentional purpose. Disc golf, Dove trees, discovery. I started playing disc golf last year and it’s not easy for me, but I love it. Slowly, slowly I learn new skills and improve my game, but it’s always two steps forward and one step back. Just like watching the wind dance through the leaves of the Dove tree, there’s nothing better than watching a disc fly through the air and glide through the trees. The breath of life.