Garden Diary - May 2003

The merry month of May is a time of hurry - plants hurl themselves into leafage and flowers, and I hurry along behind, attempting to finish planting before hot summer weather truly arrives, hurry with the clean-up of old leaves, fallen branches and other detritus left from winter that never seems done before plants begin to grow, and always busy weeding, weeding, weeding. Time should also be found for leisure - appreciation of the tender green of unfurling tree leaves, transient morning droplets of moisture as dainty as moonstones on the still faintly pleated leaves of lady's mantle, flowers opening where yesterday there were only buds.

Daffodils continue to enhance the BelleWood Garden pathways. Now is the time when Division 9, poeticus daffodils of garden origin, come into bloom. Their ancestor species, Narcissus poeticus itself, has one flower to a stem. Petals are a pristine white, and the cup is a slim little ruffle banded red to orange or deep yellow, and with a green eye at the base of the cup. Prepotent, the species stamped its offspring with its own good looks and all the cultivars: 'Actaea', 'Cantabile', 'Felindre', 'Old Pheasant Eye' and more look much the same. Small details such as a few days difference in bloom time (but all flower in late spring) or a slight reflexing of the pure white petals take an expert's eye to know and name the different cultivars. In the late 1990s I planted something on the order of 1,400 bulbs along an old farm path leading to the Forest Deck and beyond. Most areN. poeticus var. recurvus, the true poeticus, but there are groups of several cultivars as well. Their sweet and spicy fragrance scents the air at the end of April or early May, depending on the time of bloom. This is of course influenced by winter's chill and quantity of snow that in some years slows or hinders the arrival of Spring. I love their look at all times of day and dusk, but perhaps the best is early on a misty morning, when the white flowers glow against a foggy backdrop and perhaps water droplets drip from small twigs on the surrounding trees.

May is time to weed. Of course so are the months on either side, April and June. Not to mention March and July . . . . The garlic mustard, invasive exotic thug and bane of my garden is shooting up and coming into bloom with its clusters of small, 4-petalled white flowers. Its tenacity and ability to survive never fails to astonish me. Dry it on an asphalt driveway on a hot sunny day (I speak theoretically you understand - we certainly have not had any such weather so far this year.) Discard into the compost heap, and watch it revive. Stuff it into a garbage can. Lift the lid several days later and see the dainty white flowers peering up from the nether recesses. No, this is one weed that must be firmly evicted from the premises. Fortunately the recycle center to which I take our cans and bottles, newspapers and magazines will accept brush and yard trimmings. They shred it all into mulch. Which, steaming and smoking as I scoop the dark brown shreds into containers to haul home, is clearly hot enough to clobber even the most vigorous of weeds and their seeds.

My technique used to be to clear an area of all weeds, then move on to the next part of the garden. However this meant that some weeds got ahead of me and went to seed. The old folk saying, "One year's seeding is seven year's weeding." warns that This Is Not A Good Thing. So my preferred method now is to go after whatever is in flower or the early stages of seed production wherever I see it. It can and does mean weeding all parts of the garden again and again. And there is such a reservoir of seeds in the soil that that weeds - from garlic mustard to wild onion, beggar's ticks to touch-me-not, and more - will return year after year. But there are some areas of my garden where this year at least, the garlic mustard will not send a fresh crop of seeds to lurk in the soil, to germinate and grow and provide me with future full-time employment in their removal.

My friend Gerry Barad stopped by on May 12th, accompanied by his wife Bea and a house guest of theirs who was visiting from Zimbabwe. The occasion was an exchange of plants. I was sharing excess cannas and Gerry brought me generous starts of several vigorous, shade-tolerant ground covers. (Once space is cleared, you see, my goal is to plant something P.D.Q., that will fill the space and claim squatters' rights against the weeds. As it is said, possession is 9/10th of the law.) He brought Phlox divaracata and P. stolonifera, two native woodland species. The first, known as wild sweet William, forms small clumps and at 15 inches high is taller growing than the evergreen creeping phlox. Both bloom in May, and will, where conditions are suitable, seed about in a welcome manner. Gerry brought me a chunk of Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon', whose dark green leaves are brightly painted with cream and red. As well, this generous friend brought me a nice chunk of Polygonatum humile, a dainty little Solomon's seal with solitary or paired flowers, green-tipped white bells, that droop from the leaf axils along the stem. And lastly, a clear sign of my favor in his eyes, two pips of Convallaria majalis 'Striata', the lily-of-the-valley with narrow yellow stripes pencilled on its leaves. I had admired it in his garden a few days earlier, never dreaming that he would share this choice rarity with me.

We managed to get two containers worth of green, gray, white-blotched Canna 'Stuttgard' out of their rather large pots and into garbage bags for their trip to the Barads. As well, I gave Gerry a number of the soft pink pinecone-like rhizomes of Oxalis regnellii, that charming species with deep purple leaves marked with a bright fuchsia blotch at their base. A tour around the garden, and it was time for them to go. Just as well, as I was itching to start planting my new treasures.

Since we live fairly close to each other, and Gerry knew that I'd deal with them promptly, he'd merely dug the plants and plopped them into plastic nursery trays. You know, those shallow rectangular units with the diamond pattern perforated bottoms. If I had not planted them the same afternoon, the gift plants would have needed to be potted up to keep them healthy until I did plant.

Because BelleWood is a sizeable garden on sloping ground, the first step of any project is to collect whatever I think I'll need. Trudging back up the driveway yet another time for a forgotten tool, more fertilizer, labels, or whatever gets quite old rather rapidly. So, loading plants and supplies onto a cart I wheeled everything down into the woods along the creekside path. The next step - deciding where which plants would be best utilized. The phloxes were easy. Since they were in flower, I knew that the wild sweet William was the typical blue-lavender. Other possibilities would have been white or a pale icy blue. And the creeping phlox Gerry had given me was a rich violet, rather than white, bright or soft pink, or blue. Creeping phlox roots down along the nodes, those places on the stem where the leaves emerge. So after clearing the patch of ground where it was to go I separated each strand, covered the roots with soil, and scattered a thin layer of compost over the plants. Dipping water from the drainage creek, I watered them in. That washed the leaves clean, but left the creeping stems covered, something that would encourage them to root down and quickly spread into a nice thick patch.

I did much the same with Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'. In their book, "Perennials for American Gardens," Ruth Rogers Clausen and Nicholas H. Ekstrom describe it as "...spreading plant forms a dense ground cover . . . Thrives and may become invasive in damp or wet soils." Perfect! I found a site along the drainage creek and cleared it of weeds. Next I patiently separated all the knobby houttuynia stems, even the smaller bits, and, after spacing them out, gave them a covering of compost.

By the time I finished with all theseew plants it was time to clean my tools, put them away in the tool shed, clean up myself, and go indoors to make dinner. A very pleasant afternoon.

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