While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Much Ado about Nothing Much

Late winter plant catalogs can be dangerous for me.  During days steeped in February gloom, the catalogs arrive proclaiming via full color pictures the plants I must add to my garden this year!   Most plants I have no room for, many are inappropriate for my zone or expertise, and most are above my budget.  But I have the desire to try, and I love those pictures, so I am game.  I am especially drawn to unusual flowering plants not hardy in my zone 8 garden, and I don’t take failure lightly.  Case in point, I made 3 heart-felt attempts to grow Tacca chantrieri and failed each time.  Instructions for successful growth and care were followed to each minute detail but after 6 months of nothing, I grudgingly accepted defeat.

So when I saw pictures of Paris polyphylla and the promise that “Your friends will be intrigued!” and “Your garden will be the envy of your neighbors!”, I decided to give it a try.   I had planned to order the plant the following week but when I saw it offered at the 2007 Northwest Flower and Garden show I decided it was fate.   I proudly brought home a healthy, sprouting rhizome.  Within a month or two I saw signs of life, and by early April the plant sported a tiny flower.  Not the 2 foot tall stately stalk I was promised but the plant was young, spring was cold, and I was patient.  I was certain the following year would bring a stunner.  It didn’t.  No intrigued and envious neighbors stopped by to say “You are one amazing gardener!  How do you do it??!!””  By the third year, the plant disappeared – nothing showed – and I put Paris polyphylla out of my mind and the catalogs in the recycle bin.

Late winter 2013, as I weeded and mulched around a beautiful Yucca gloriosa ‘Bright Star’ (I highly recommend this gorgeous plant) I had planted 6 months earlier, I noticed an odd bloom peeking a couple of inches above the mulch.  I recognized it immediately as the disappearing Paris I had purchased years ago.  I tended it through spring until it died back.  It came up again this year, and again just a little thing blooming a couple of inches above the soil.  Still no envious neighbors, but I have faith that next year it will make me proud.

Because if it doesn’t, I will plant another Yucca ‘Bright Star’ on top of it and call it good.


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Best in Our Show

The 2015 Westminster Dog Show chose a beagle as Best in Show.  Easy decision, in my opinion.  Of the few dog breeds I know well – Cocker Spaniel, German Shepard, Golden Retriever, and Toy Poodle – the Beagle is the breed that grabbed my heart and hasn’t let go.  I’ve written about our beagle, Pippin, many times in this blog and those stories just scratch the surface of his charming, multifaceted personality.

In my experience, a beagle’s most conspicuous personality trait is tenacity.  That, and a desire to chase.  It took years for Pippin to accept that our cat, Taggy, really didn’t want to be chased around the house – or around the yard, up a tree, or down the street.  It took many years of being scratched on the nose or face before it occurred to him that when the cat hid under a bed maybe she wasn’t having the time of her life like he was.  After all, he loved chasing her throughout our small house, skidding on the hardwood floors, chasing her down the hall and under the furniture, and then seeking her out.  Under a bed was her favorite hiding place, and it took many years for Pips to realize that if he dove head-first under the bed after her, pain would ensue.  And it always did.

A favorite game of his was to run after anything moving whenever I would open the garden gate to bring him back inside the house.  One particular time comes to mind after a morning of helping me garden (he dug holes for me).  I opened the gate just as Taggy walked down the sidewalk from the front door.  Before I could leash him, Pippin took off after Taggy as she ran across our yard and into the neighbor’s yard.  There came Pippin barking and baying, followed by me running after him with leash in hand, yelling “Pippin come!”  He didn’t.  My neighbor across the street happened to look out her kitchen window in time to see Taggy being chased by Pippin who was being chased by me.  Pips and I ran around the house twice before I caught him.  Taggy didn’t come back to the house for hours.

Beagles are known to be very creative, especially when food is involved.  Pippin certainly lived up to that reputation, but added a bit of deception to his creativity, as well.  A favorite trick of his was to sit at the front door and whine to be let outside.  As soon as I would reach for the door he would shoot behind me to the kitchen, where we fed Taggy, and wolf down the food she had not finished.  Although he was successful with this trick only once, he tried it repeatedly before finally giving up.  Almost one year after his first and only success he tried the trick again, apparently hoping that I had forgotten his intent.  I hadn’t.

Beagles are known for their love of any small, furry, fast moving creature (aka squirrels) and Pippin was no exception.  I’ve never seen a happier dog than when an apple fell out of our tree, followed immediately by the squirrel who had been eating it, directly in front of Pips as he laid in the grass chewing a bone.  An angel in the shape of a squirrel!  And I’ve never heard a louder bark than the Call to Chase that Pips let loose with on that warm summer day.  The chase was short, sweet, and so memorable that Pippin sat in the same spot under the tree for the remainder of summer waiting for another squirrel to fall from heaven.

He had one other memorable encounter with a squirrel, but this one left him stunned and depressed.  The two of us were out walking on a late fall morning.  Apparently wildlife had been active during the previous night and early morning hours because Pippin was sniffing something to ground (he never did find it) when a squirrel ran down a Doug Fir on the opposite side of the street.  Pippin didn’t realize it for a moment and I hoped that he wouldn’t notice it at all.  But the squirrel saw Pippin and froze in place.  That caught Pippin’s attention and he looked up and saw the squirrel.  He gave the full-body shake that preceded a good chase.   I held tight the leash.  The squirrel stared at Pippin, the dog stared at the squirrel, the squirrel looked to its left, then right, and for reasons I will never understand, ran directly towards the dog.  Oh boy!!  Before Pippin could make a move or sound, the squirrel ran across the street and directly between the dog’s legs, then up a tree behind us.  Pips stood still for a moment and then looked up at me as if to say “Where’d he go?”   As it dawned on the dog that his new best friend was not coming back, his tail drooped, he hung his head, and he sat down.  After a pat on the head and a small biscuit, all was forgotten and our walk resumed.

When Pippin was 5 months old, he joined me and my daughter on our annual vacation to Cannon Beach.  Not being familiar with the surprising strength that a 5 month old beagle can conjure when enticed by something new to chase, I learned a valuable lesson that summer.  My daughter and I checked into our room, gave the dog a snack and some water, gathered the tools for sand castle building, a large blanket, more snacks and beverages, and headed for the beach.  The hotel we stayed at supplied beach chairs for their guests, and we found one in a good location.   We spread out our blanket and set out our tools to begin our building project.  I tied Pippin’s leash to the chair and gave him a bone to chew on and a squeaky toy to play with. The day was sunny and warm and the beach was fairly crowded – families with dogs, people walking their dogs, people sunbathing with their dogs resting next to them – the scene was calm and relaxed, and the dogs were well-behaved.  My daughter and I had been involved with our building project for some time when I heard a commotion down the beach – a dog barking, seagulls crying, and people laughing.  Then a man called to me, “Lady, your dog got away!”  I looked up and saw Pippin running down the beach with the chair in tow chasing a flock of angry seagulls.  I took chase after the dog just as my husband’s best friend and wife saw us (neither family knew the other was there).  My husband’s friend retrieved Pippin and took him on a long walk down the beach after returning the chair while his wife helped me and Rebecca put our blanket and supplies back in order.   Pippin slept well that night.

If you’re wondering which dog breed would be a good fit for you (whether you have a family or are single), you won’t be disappointed by a beagle.  They are loyal, funny, creative, very loving, good with and protective of young children, gentle, and sweet-natured.  The breed tends to be healthy, easy to care for, and not destructive when left alone as long as they have a window to look out of and toys to play with.  If you have a garden, they are always willing to help!  If you have a cat, a beagle will make sure it gets exercise!

So it was no surprise to me that a beagle won Best in Show.



Plant Shaming

I don’t approve of pet shaming.  After all, a dog is innocent even when proven guilty.  And a cat, well, a cat responds to shaming like some politicians respond to honesty.  But I’m fine with plant shaming.  Some plants deserve to be shamed, and one such plant is the lovely, dramatically-hued Foeniculum vulgare, common purple fennel.  I won’t address the culpability of the gardener who, years ago, chose this enticing plant (3 of them, actually) to place on either side of and between 2 stunning golden Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera (say that really fast – it’s fun!), Golden Charm babes.  After all, this gardener’s favorite nursery displayed the fennel prominently where it out-shown its tablemates on a beautiful spring day, and this gardener thought to herself “Purple and gold – perfect combination!”  I won’t mention that this gardener didn’t do enough research to learn that the plant should not be allowed to set seed, because if it does it will reproduce faster and more prolifically than mosquitos in a warm pond with a sign that says “This way to a good time!”

So filled with the thoughtless enthusiasm of a true believer, I brought home 3 feathery, graceful fennel plants and placed them at the very front of my property, where they could display their feathery beauty to all who passed by.  The effect was impressive and the colors pleasing, but by the end of autumn the garden was filled with tiny fennel babies having sprouted even through the wood chips covering the bed.  Little fennel seedlings all throughout that garden and into surrounding gardens!  Apparently, a good time was had by the vulgar parent plants and they looked mighty pleased with themselves.  At this point I considered placing a prominent sign in the bed stating “Don’t buy this plant!”  An equally effective sign might have said “Don’t be like this gardener!”

As I pulled out the many fennel seedlings I thought of our never-ending struggle with Hedera helix in the Demonstration Gardens at Carkeek Park.  Ivy was never planted intentionally on park grounds, of course, but it has infested most of the forest and continues to pop up wherever it wants in the gardens.  (Birds love its seeds!)  It reminds me of an encounter I had with a bully who, upon learning that I have a strong aversion to talking on the phone, demanded that the only way she would communicate with me was via phone – for years.  No emails, no texting, only phone conversations.  Eventually, I stopped taking her calls.  And eventually the fennel seeds will disappear.

This gardener has learned from her many mistakes.  One of the most important lessons is to read about each and every plant you plan to purchase.  Confirm that it will not present problems to your garden, to your neighbor’s garden, and to the larger community.  Because once a bully plant takes hold, it will not let go.

And feel free to shame any plant that shows its true colors to be those of a thug.


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The Tenacity of Life, Part V; or that’s a lot of work for One Bite

Shepard’s hooks are an easy and efficient way to display hanging containers throughout the garden, especially when tree limbs are too thin to hold the weight of a watered container, or not easily accessible.  I grow flowering or brightly-colored foliage annuals in these containers and place them throughout the landscape to bring shots of color to a garden filled predominately with dwarf conifers and broad-leaf evergreens.  They have successfully enlivened shady areas of the garden and offered me an outlet for that creative urge that occasionally strikes, most often when I don’t have the money to comply.

A favorite combination consists of Caladium (white and green), Sedum morganianum, Torenia (deep purple looks best), and Plectranthus.   Other combinations, especially for the hottest, sunniest areas (of which I have many) consist of Coleus (usually ‘Giant Exhibition Marble’), surrounded by Lotus maculatus and Ipomoea pennata, Red Cypress vine.  Contrary to what most sources recommend, I have had best results growing Coleus in full sun as long as I keep it well watered (leaf size is the only trade-off).   Another favorite grouping of annuals consists of Scirpus cernua (aka Isolepis cernua), Fiber Optic Grass, surrounded by Rhodochiton atrosanguineum (from seed) and Ipomoea batatas, black Potato Vine.  I grow this combination in morning sun and give it protection from afternoon (western) sun, although I place the Purple Bell Vine to receive the most sun.

I began using Shepard’s hooks for hanging bird feeders about 10 years ago.   Eventually, I gave up on that method for many reasons, including the continued intrusion from Starlings.  These aggressive birds will swoop down as one large mass to a food source and swarm the food to the extent that they crowd out all other birds, including crows and Steller’s Jays.  That’s an accomplishment!  I have only seen one other situation that brings crows and jays to a complete, silent stop, and that’s the Cooper’s Hawk who visits our property a few times each summer.   Anyway, shortly before I stopped using hanging feeders, occasionally I would notice a squirrel or two trying to climb the Shepard’s Hooks.  At that time, I discovered the limits of a squirrels’ jumping abilities.  Pretty far, apparently.  And, also, I discovered I was placing the feeders too close to a tree or tall shrub, although it looked far enough away to my eyes.  One late fall afternoon I looked outside and saw a mass of squirrel parts (tails, feet, legs, etc.) hanging onto the feeder, swinging back and forth and round and round in slow motion.  And this, after I thought I had moved the Shepard’s hooks far away from the Pieris and Arbutus unedo, which the rodents were using as launch pads.  So, I decided to place the hooks and feeders in the middle of the yard – no plants close enough around the hooks for even the most athletic squirrel to jump from, or so I thought.   But this did not discourage them.  In fact, they seemed to interpret my actions as a personal challenge, and proceeded to climb the shafts of each hook with single-minded determination.  Each day, multiple times in a day, we could see squirrels struggle up the shaft only to make the slow slide back down to the ground. Up and down they went.  You would think that the sound of their claws scraping along the shaft as they slid down would be enough to deter them – the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound is not pleasant – but it didn’t put a dent in their unsuccessful attempts to reach the feeders.  So with this success in mind, with the Starlings having moved on, and with winter fast approaching, I decided to hang seed blocks and suet cakes for the small birds who had resumed their visits.  These rich food options created even more interest for the squirrels, but no more success in reaching them.   Until one rainy afternoon.  I had just arrived home from work and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea when I looked out the window and saw a squirrel perched on the very end of the very longest horizontal branch of our apple tree.  His entire body was pointing in the direction of the Shepard’s hook with the largest seed block.  He would alternate between standing up on hind legs, quivering with tension, and laying down on the branch, still quivering with tension.  Up and down he went, trying to determine the distance between him and the food and the effort it would take to get there.  “Don’t do it”, I said to myself.  “You’ll crash.”  Up and down he bobbed.  As I watched, it appeared that he was realizing he would have a terrible accident if he proceeded to jump.  He settled down on the end of the branch and sat there.  I turned away from the window to finish preparing my tea, stirred in a bit of sugar, and turned back to the window to determine if the rain was letting up.  If so, I would get some work done in the garden.  Just at that moment, the squirrel stretched straight up and took a flying leap in the direction of the seed block.  It was an amazing leap for a little ground squirrel (maybe lubricated by the rain)!   And he made it, but not without trauma.  He bashed into the seed block with such force that he and the block soared off the hook, crashed to the ground, and tumbled down the side walk as one unit until bumping into a short retaining wall.  “That had to hurt,” I thought.  I watched him as he disengaged from the sticky block that had broken into large pieces.  He took just one bite of one of the pieces and ran away, into a neighbor’s yard, leaving the block and its remnants behind.

I am always impressed by the lengths all creatures go to when reaching for something we truly want.  Whether we succeed or land flat on our face, there is a moment within the effort where we realize that the attempt is more important than the result.  It is that moment that fuels the desire to continue.  I am not sure if that moment constitutes hope, or something more basic – something that evolved along with our will to survive.  I do know that the little squirrel continued to climb the Shepard’s hooks deep into winter.  And occasionally, I see him perched on the same limb of our apple tree . . . there is always hope.