Sunday, September 21, 2008

Where are you now?



I got alotta fennel goin' on.  There is a good reason for that.

Fennel is a relative of a huge plant family, the Apiaceae, known colloquially as umbellifers.  The latter name refers to the morphological form of the flower, the umbel.  

Whew.  Whatever, right? Mmm, no. Since I'm writing about it, you should know about it.

Fennel is lovely for exactly 3 reasons:
  • It tastes damn good
  • Those umbel flowers attracts beneficial insects
  • Is a primary food source for Black Swallowtail larvae!!!
  • Oh, yeah, #4: it reads as a fuzzy and airy mass from a distance when planted in beds, the thin foliage can be bright green or bronze, it collects dew on moist mornings, and it smells like the best kind of licorice . . .
Let's get back to the umbel now that you know more about where I am going with this. The umbel may seem like it is just one big, dome-shaped flower.  Go ahead, bend down, check it out, it won't bite. That umbel is a compound flower that is made up of hundreds of branched florets. It is those tiny flowers that make up what you are looking at.  

(Trip into my brain: Did anyone see the Sensation exhibit from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art back in '00? When I first walked into the space, to my immediate right, there hung a huge portrait of British child murderer, Myra Hindley.  Marcus Harvey painted Myra's maniacal monochrome visage from her arrest photo using children's hand prints dipped in black and white paint. Anyway, that reminds me of an umbel. Think about it.)

Welcome back.  So those miniature flowers are the BEST food for the BEST kind of insects you want in your garden.  Teeny parasitoid wasps and other beneficials feed off the nectar that is profusely produced from the umbel flowers.  

It is these wasps and flies that will go out an attack the aphids, cabbage loopers, tomato hornworms,  and all the other nasties that invade our garden spaces.  Have I stressed enough the importance of planting lots of umbel flowers within your vegetable gardens and perennial borders? This is called attracting beneficial insects, a very savvy gardening philosophy.  This is the first step in my personal integrated pest management protocol: I get to know my adversaries, and I staunchly promote their enemies.  Or, you can just think of it as "plant it and they will come".

Another benefit of this particular umbel is a benevolent one.  This quiet garden visitor means no harm, does no damage, and is truly thrilling to behold in all its stages of life.

The larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly also loves the taste of fennel.  In early August I found 4!, yes 4! of these stunning larvae on one plant!


 I got a little macro-happy . . .

So I can only wonder where these glow worms are now. 

Have their wings dried? Are they sipping the late-season nectar of Eupatorium purpureum and Aster divaricatus?  I am just pleased to have observed them preparing themselves for their reincarnation.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sissinghurst : The world's synonym for 'English garden'


Designed in 1930 by poet/author Vida Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, this progressive couple supported each other in the creation of their home and landscape. In addition to rebuilding the ruined rooms of their castle, Vida guided the building of outdoor rooms that still surround the main residence and the famous tower that served as her study. It is truly the gardens of Sissinghurst that survive the impassioned lives of Vida and Sir Harold, and puts on display the kind of bond that only happens between gardeners.

It was about 10 a.m. at Great Dixter.  I was working in the Sunk Garden deadheading tulips when Aaron whisked me away to visit Sissinghurst with Sarah, Fergus' assistant.  It really is so convenient that Vida and Harry chose a ruin just down the street from the Llyods.  Aaron navigated the crazy country roads to Sissinghurst like the pro he is. There were busses, full parking lots, and all sorts of proper folk gravitating toward this hexagonal tower. Certain death? Wacky Kool-aid? No, thanks. Maybe some other time.

Aaron, who by nature and nurture is not easily impressed, gave me the speediest tour of any garden I have ever been on, well, save for MS on Mount Desert Island . . . but I digress. Basically, he's seen the gardens 174 times and wanted to show us the features of the garden that were most important to see. There was no lolling about or pining over plants. As a result, I have a succinct understanding of the garden as a whole.  

The Reader's Digest version of Sissinghurst is this:  the Lime Walk, the Fall garden, the Hazel coppice, the Azalea and Wall garden, the White Garden, the hedging, the hedging, the hedging, the tower courtyard, and the biggest, fattest, Rosmarinus officinalis growing happily in the ground at the foot of Vida's tower. And! Ceanothus!, And! . . . Now I understand why Aaron sped through -- this could take all day, and we might miss tea. 

The Lime Walk is located to the far right of the gardens, so while it is a destination when it looks fantastic, it is not a focused featured throughout the season.  

The Lime walk had seen it.  It is primarily a spring garden profuse with bulbs. No wonder why they hid it behind a Taxus hedge to hide the wreckage. Smart. My initial reaction was, "Why isn't it cleaned up, planted, etc, etc." But, Hello! This garden is huge, and I know all about setting garden priorities when time and labor is at a premium. I had to ask, what is the deal with Limes? They aren't hardy, and it certainly was not the tree I was questioning. The answer was Tilia platyphyllos. Its flowers have a delicious fragrance similar to -- we're all smart people here -- lime blossoms! Even though my timing was off, I could just imagine walking through this lovely allĂ©e viewing whatever fabulous geophyitic display through the open windows of the tree trunks, woven together with the thick sweetness of lime blossoms.  

The Fall room looked great in mid-spring.

The wallflowers boasted about themselves in voices of reds, oranges, and yellows. Such saturated colors were a welcome respite to the Easter-egg gag reflex I usually experience with the spring color palette. I'm out to change all that.

(Pssst! So you see that chunk of chartreuse on the upper right?  Oh, my god. The most amazing, luscious stand of Euphobia characias I have NEVER seen before. I wanted to stand there all day, screw the tea.  Sadly, not hardy in my zone 5b-6, but who says? Just so the world knows, the Euphorbiaceae is my FAVORITE plant family.)

The Hazel coppice was a very pretty part of the garden. Not enough to be pretty, it also had a function. Coppicing is an ancient practice that was very widespread especially in that part of England. Each year, branches were cut down for firewood, fencing, etc. As a response, the tree/shrub sends up long shoots from latent buds. Talk about sustainability: each year a new and reliable source of fuel and raw materials was available. En route to the garden, we actually drove right through old coppiced woods with the clubby wounds as proof of the repeated cuts. 

Peering through the coppice, a statuary is sentinel. What struck me as sheer brilliance are the shadowed and glowing ferns all framed under the canopy of Corylus. Sir Harry designed this part, and how stellar the result. Garden design 101 here: repetition propels the eye forward. Now, 101 does not mean elementary; it means fundamental.

The azaleas were just on fire! Why does spring have to be a washed out introduction to a lively new season? No. After the bleak ick of winter neutrals, I want some eye candy!

Huge specimens of orange and yellow azaleas proved that this flamboyant couple were nothing if not inspired.

The wall was interesting; little hunks of mortar had been removed to accommodate plants that seemed to clutch you into them. Think Labyrinth circa David Bowie (aaahh).

Sissinghurst is famous for its White Garden.  While I was not impressed with the early season show of white-flowered and silver-leaved perennials, I did fall in love with the structural elements of the layout. The meticulously trained and trimmed boxwood followed a slim serpentine pattern. The yew hedge behind it created planting areas in the bulges of the design. Who am I, but if I had a garden styled similarly, I would keep one type of plant growing in each enclosure. Cold? Maybe. Bold? Definitely. Thats the beauty of seeing other gardens and taking them one step further for yourself.  You can't argue with inspiration.

Don't try to tell me you can't see the humor in this.  Well, I suppose the incredible geometry should stand out more.

The strict hedging gave the garden a kind of precision. It felt official, stately, and well, proper. The lines were just so clean that it was the perfect visual element to balance the romanticism felt throughout the garden. 

In this garden, I imagine the dark corridors commence at dull heartache past openings of hope, to a destination at the warmth and light of a new love. 

In her own words, her garden is "profusion within the confines of uttermost linear severity". Well,  Vida was a poet.




Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Seed pods, unite!



Now is the time . . . all those dried out remnants of summer love are stuck like beheaded cannibals atop the varying heights of flower stalks.  You could just look at them, but what fun is that?  Snap 'em off, do a little reading, and figure out how to save, start, and grow them on for next year!

It never ceases to amaze me how ONE, just one, flower will make enough seeds to litter your garden like a ticker tape parade after the Yankees win the World Series.  Considering their winning streak, ahem, I'm just glad that life has rhythms that do not depend on major league baseball.

Those gorgeous pods are from Baptisia australisa fantastic US native.  Even if you don't care to grow on the seeds that are ripening now, cut them and use them in fall floral arrangements, or for other decorations for the season.

If you really are serious about collecting seeds, its very simple. You'll just need some envelopes, a pen, and something to cut the seed head off (sometimes you try to break it off and, well, you know Murphy's Law).

Label your envelope with the name of the plant (duh), the date, and where it was collected. Then go ahead and harvest those seeds! Do not be selfish; leave some seeds for others, as well as for that precious plant that worked so hard attracting pollinators in order to procreate itself. Next, seal the envelope and put in the fridge until you know what you are doing with them.

Don't forget to marvel at the unique shapes, textures, and scents of those seeds.  Have fun!