Astilbe x arendsii 'Bressingham Beauty' (tucked in the middle) and 'Erika' (to the right). These shade lovers are thriving in southern-exposure full sun, thanks to the steady effluence from the sump pump hose into the sump garden. 'Erika' is a single plant that's grown into a clump the size of a small shrub, and is a year-round highlight, from the time its perfect, glossy bronze fronds appear in early spring through the stately display of its dried plumes all winter. 'Bressingham Beauty' is a contrast in size (smaller), plume shape (arched), and scent (vanilla).
The sump garden is jam-packed now, a mere two years after the lawn was dug up to make it. A smaller astilbe will be coming into bloom soon, to be accompanied by black cohosh, the plant whose foliage looks like a black astilbe. (Yes, we all came to know it as Cimicifuga racemosa, but now it's been reclassified as Actaea racemosa. Taxonomists, stop that right now, please.) Ligularia dentata 'Othello', with its leaves of oversized spoons with purple undersides, is pushing its neighbors aside. Its neurasthenic cousin, Ligularia stenocephala 'The Rocket' stands brave and unwilted in this site, with a new yellow spike that matches the yellow in the blooming Lysimachia ciliata (fringed loosestrife), which is happily taking over the bed, and whose matte reddish brown foliage is complemented by the glossy brownish red foliage of hardy hibiscus 'Kopper King', which has grown four feet in two months. Darmera peltata (umbrella plant) bloomed pink in early spring (and won't it be nice if it reblooms late summer, just like it did last year). No sign, sadly, of the "reseeding biennial" Angelica gigas, which turned out to be an expensive annual.
This garden will go dramatically tropical soon, as the black elephant ear (from the farmer's market) and the green elephant ear (from a bocce-ball sized bulb, acquired for the cost of a latte from the always-always low priced store) upsize, the siren-red cannas unfurl, and the castor beans called 'Carmencita' join the party, in the garden that never needs watering.
This is the ceiling of the tea house at Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Illinois, which are just over an hour south of Madison. I visited the gardens for the first time today. I tend to be ungenerously skeptical about and, yes, sometimes even a little disapproving of Occidental fetishization of the Ways of the East, so I went in with neutral expectations. Two hours later, I was profoundly regretting that I had not arranged my schedule to allow me to stay all day. These gardens are an experience. They are already green with lush spring growth, and the trilling drone of the pond frogs (in the height of mating season, we were told) outdid the soothing white noise of the coursing waterfalls. There were a few rare botanical wonders (flowering dogwood trees in both pink and white, tree peonies in bud, cinnamon bark maples), but most of the gardens are filled with readily available garden-variety (so to speak) plants such as groundcover pachysandra, viburnums, green and gold spireas, yews, pines, Japanese maples, Siberian irises, and hostas and more hostas decidedly not of the rare and expensive collector varieties, all arranged to exquisite effect. True to type, these gardens emphasize foliage over flowers, but numerous azaleas were blooming, including what looked to be Rhododendron mucronulatum, sometimes known as the "Snow Azalea," "Manchurian azalea," or "Korean rhododendron," which blooms before its leaves emerge in the spring.
There's a haiku by Issa that hits the spot:
Hyaku ryō no
ishi ni mo makenu
Here's a translation of this haiku into English by David Lanoue, from his Haiku of Kobayashi Issa site. And, hey! I'll give it a shot too, taking advantage of the very convenient syllable counts of the subject azalea's botanical name:
outrocked by Rhododendron
Inspiration: the Photo-haiku Gallery, a site where visitors can post photos and post their own haiku to photos. I enjoyed the page with this photo of a Japanese garden, and chuckled (no, make that laughed out loud) at one of the accompanying haikus (scroll down the page; it's the one that begins with "summery garden"). I've included more photos from today's garden visit in the extended post, just in case you might be so inspired too.
I'll be gardening edibles this year in three new, small (four foot squared) raised beds. Madison has a great farmer's market, so I'll limit the home vegetable garden to things that taste appreciably better when just plucked off the vine (or so to speak), that don't take up too much garden space for the yield, and that I'm enthusiastic about eating. The short list: tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini--ratatouille! Round out the list with lettuces, chard, endive, scallions, shallots, pole beans, okra, and cucumber. I'll also be tucking in ornamentals here and there. I'll leave the indoor seed starting on most of these for future years when I know what I'm doing; this year, I'll try to pick up as many transplants as possible from the spring sale at Seed Savers Exchange's store in Madison.
Since I'm new to this aspect of gardening, I'm (as per usual) stoking my enthusiasm and quelling my anxiety by scouring the used bookstores. My growing stack (pardon the pun):
Step by Step Organic Vegetable Gardening: The Gardening Classic Revised and Updated. Shepherd Ogden. HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. ISBN 0-06-016668-1.
Making Vegetables Grow. Thalassa Cruso. Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. ASIN 039449783X (hardcover).
Square Foot Gardening. Mel Bartholomew. Rodale Press, 1981. ISBN 0-87857-340-2 (hardcover).
Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! Patricia Lanza. Rodale Press, 1998. ISBN 0-87596-795-7 (hardcover).
Crockett's Victory Garden. James Underwood Crockett. Little, Brown and Company, 1977. ASIN 0316161209.
I'm working my way through these books, hoping to be able to synthesize their useful parts without ending up with too much of a Frankenstein's monster. I'm enjoying and learning a lot from each of them in its own way, but I was stopped dead in my tracks when I picked up The Epicurean Gardener by John F. Adams. For me, this hits the same sweet-spot as Henry Mitchell's writing. It's funny, punny, full of know-how and fully down-to-earth, philosophical without an iota of preciousness or pretentiousness, and brutally honest and caustically opinionated—which, to my mind, renders it utterly trustworthy. And, by the way, it's also beautifully written. Here's Adams, having a little fun with a well-meaning gardening publication of the USDA:
Consider these instructions for planting horseradish:The Epicurean Gardener. John F. Adams. E. P. Dutton, 1988. ISBN 0-525-24597-9.
["]In planting, make furrows 3 to 5 inches deep. Plant the cuttings with the tops all in one direction in the row, dropping a cutting every 24 inches. As the cutting is dropped, draw a little soil over the lower end of it with your foot and tamp firmly. After all cuttings are dropped, they are covered with soil to slightly above ground level (to allow for soil settling), being sure that the soil is firmly in contact with the cutting.["] Gardening for Food and Fun. The Yearbook of Agriculture. 1977 U.S. Department of Agriculture, p. 243.
What this means is, "Plant cuttings 3 to 5 inches deep, 24 inches apart." So awkwardly is it written with its shift in tense and vacillation in person that I had to read it several times to figure that much out. With this much information—if you need this much—you can grow horseradish until its cultivation is prohibited by some other agency of the U.S. Government. Actually this Department of Agriculture publication uses an additional three pages to discuss the proper home garden cultivation of this pungent condiment.
Clearly the expert assigned to do this segment of the Yearbook felt he or she had some information to pass on and a certain amount of space to use up. To use up space the author began to become a little stern and uncompromisingly exact in the information, implying a kind of superiority in the exactness and a false importance to the significance of the instruction. I have seen no recorded instance where a planting of horseradish has failed. I think if you were merely to pronounce the word horseradish with a clear intonation above a spot of soil, horseradish would germinate there spontaneously in a few days. What this horticultural bureaucrat should have done to fill the space, of course, was to tell a couple of interesting stories about the history of horseradish and its cultivation—magical properties attributed to it, what cultures consider it an aphrodisiac, and one or two particularly brutal murders committed with it. With that information the space would have been read gladly, with no less instruction or decreased likelihood of success.
The monochromatic still of winter has its own beauty, of course. But if it's hard to shake off that fog of s.a.d.-ness this time of year, it's because it seems impossible that tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that, will be any different. Think Groundhog Day without the happy (or any) ending...and with the clock radio perpetually playing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" at the alarm.
I couldn't have asked for a better antidote (well, other than maybe getting that imaginary winter home in New Zealand--peonies in December!) than spending a day at the Garden Expo yesterday. The displays of real, live, flowering plants--daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, lilacs, crabapples, fothergillas--cast a spell (or broke the spell?), making the hope of spring seem more than just a hope.
The best thing about the Expo is the programming--seminars all day long on great garden topics by great speakers. It feels as though you're attending a fantasy version of college, where every minute of every course is interesting, you only enroll in classes that you want, and all without any papers due, exams to take, or grades given. (A bit of intruding reality: too many presentations of compelling interest scheduled for the same time slot. Guess I should have taken Human Cloning as a prerequisite.) So here's what (after a painful process of triage) I went to see, and just two (of the many) things I took away from each presentation:
"Diversify Your Garden with Ornamental Grasses" (speaker: Nancy Nedveck of The Flower Factory). #1: Karl Foerster (of the eponymous Calamagrostis cultivar) spearheaded breeding of North American grasses in Europe, during a period when they were virtually ignored here. #2: Consider planting daylilies and Miscanthus silver feather grass in combination; the plumes of miscanthus will emerge in September after daylily flowering has ended. (I like this idea--the chance to extend into fall the span of my daffodil-to-daylily strip in the back border.)
"Integrating Spectacular Roses in Your Garden Landscape" (speaker: Jeff Epping, Horticulture Director of Olbrich Botanical Gardens). #1: Olbrich's new rose garden will feature landscape uses of roses integrated into borders (the garden design work at Olbrich is always so fresh and imaginative that I cannot wait to see this); #2: crushed gravel can raise the pH of surrounding soil, which may cause alkaline-induced chlorosis for rugosas (good to know when considering hardscape and path design alternatives). (Gratuitous #3: It's "cle-MAT-is" for the very winning Mr. Epping.)
"Home Composting How-To" (speaker: John Reindl, Recycling Manager, Dane County Public Works Department). #1: Compost benefits plants by helping the plants' ability to absorb nutrients by improving their "cation exchange capacity" (Whoa--whoa--I'm a liberal arts major!); #2: Grass clippings compact too much, limiting aeration, and don't decompose well in compost piles, hence are better left on the lawn (good...we already do that).
"What's Wrong with This Photo: How to Make the Best of Your Garden Shots" (speaker: Pat Behling, photographer, Trillium Woods). #1: A tripod or monopod will make a big difference in getting a crisp image; #2: a chameleon background reflector is a good accessory, and can be homemade with clotheshanger wire and store-bought fabric.
"Vermicomposting: Indoor Composting with Worms" (speaker: George Dreckman, City of Madison recycling coordinator). Preface: I was primed for this one, having just finished Amy Stewart's new book, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Post on The Earth Moved to come; in the meantime, get the book, read her blog, and hope with me that her book tour will include a stop in Madison. #1: Try shredded corrugated cardboard for worm bin bedding (the worms like the glue); #2: (From an audience member) Sprinkle lime on top of the bedding to control fruit flies.
"Trying WOW! Annuals in the Garden" (speaker: Mark Dwyer, Rotary Gardens). The title may have sounded a little corny, but let me tell you...by the end of this program, the audience was near nigh ready to salute the speaker with flickering lighters. #1: I must visit Rotary Gardens at least monthly during the growing season, to see how they integrate their 100,000 annuals into their border plantings; #2: You can't overuse sweet potato vine, and while 'Ace of Spades' is a nice leaf shape, 'Blackie' holds its color better.
"Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Container Gardening" (speakers: Jan Wos of Mayflower Greenhouse and Glenn Spevacek of Paine Art Center & Gardens). Another tremendous audience-pleaser; you should have heard the collective groan of disappointment when time ran out just as the speakers were beginning to get into their examples of season-extending fall container plantings. #1: On the importance of foliage: "With fronds like you, who needs anemones?" (I know. Only for certified pun-lovers, like me.) #2: Two words: Centaurea gymnocarpa. Best border and container combiner ever.
I managed to resist most of the garden decoration and accessories booths, until I came across an exhibit featuring works from "Jessy's Originals" in Black River Falls, Wisconsin -- the dried-flowers-in-frames thing, but done in more artful a way than I've ever seen before. I had to pick up a small frame featuring a bloom of Hydrangea macrophylla, dried with just the right mix of denim-blue and khaki-green coloring retained in the florets.
I wish I'd taken my camera for the exhibit at the Expo put together by University of Wisconsin students for the Allen Centennial Gardens display, on garden themes in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. An intriguing idea, which I hope they're planning to expand upon in the gardens' displays this coming season.
All cheered up now: let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity...
Is it affectation to give your garden a name? Hadspen. Gravetye. Sissinghurst. Malmaison. Monticello. Giverny. Winterthur. Or, closer to home, Marlyn Sachtjen's Wind 'n' View. Or, much, much farther from home, Eden.
Willoughby. Just a whiff of anglo-horticultural correctness. Willoughby. "Farm in the willows." I like willows: Willow Weep for Me (as performed by Dinah Washington); Salix purpurea, purpleosier willow; and, of course, Willow.
And then there's Willoughby, refuge and sanctuary. In the opening scene of "A Stop at Willoughby" from The Twilight Zone's first season, a conference room is filled with suits waiting for either a conference call...or a round of B---S--- Bingo. Our hero is a gentle soul, trapped in the life of a gray-flannel-suited company man. He yearns of escaping to Willoughby, which is "...Peaceful. Restful. Where a man can slow down to a walk. And live his life full measure." And so he does...in a way.
Perhaps the calming and restorative powers of the garden are better appreciated (or the midlife gardening obsession is more acute) when experienced from the viewpoint of one who's run the ratrace and jumped its track. But enough of that. Let's just say--this is my Willoughby.
Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity, and is part of the Twilight Zone.
--Rod Serling, "A Stop At Willoughby"