Friday, January 20, 2017

Bloom Journals + Winter Weather

I always find it fascinating to compare Elizabeth Lawrence's bloom journal entries with what's happening in her garden present-day.  A better biographer this garden could not have had; on-site, we have 30 years of bloom journals - 1953 through 1983.  Here are a couple of entries I recently found interesting:

January 1, 1964:

"Yesterday morning before the sleet began I went out to pick a little Algerian iris under the kitchen window - absolutely perfect - very fragrant.  The rain came in the night, after the ice storm.  When I looked in the leaves I found buds in the Christmas rose."

January 7, 1973:

"snow + sleet - down to 12 - As soon as the snow melted, the [Algerian] iris began to bloom again"

Elizabeth's Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, still lives under the kitchen window, albeit not nearly as heartily as I'd like.  Truth be told, I've been fighting like mad to keep any amount of it in the garden for my entire six year tenure, and have enjoyed exactly four blooms in that time.  After her original clump rotted under an ill-draining gutter, I rescued more of it from elsewhere.  I planted it in gravel (as advised), which I have always done in my own garden.  Those haven't fared much better.  Thankfully (at least in this case), I am stubborn and will continue to hold vigil over the two small patches of Elizabeth's prized Algerian iris.  This is under the rose - I think I might just feel a bud down in the foliage!

Elizabeth's Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, has long been gone.  In 2013, I planted a new one whose tag had no name other than "HGC" (aka: Gold Collection®).  This year, its first flower opened Christmas Day.  Elizabeth would have loved that!  Wide flat white blooms have opened steadily ever since. They get lovelier with age as they turn golden green and backs of the petals become washed in tones of pink and maroon.

As for the weather, well, it's been all over the place.  Just two weeks ago, we were heading into the first major winter weather of the year - Snowpocalypse 2017!! - with predicted snowfall of 2-6" and lows in the single digits.  They were wrong about the snow (we got ice and a smattering of snow), but they were almost right about the temperatures.  On Sunday, January 8, we hit a low of 16º F, and 18º F the next night.  Brutally chilly.  That's when I was glad for the ice cover - it may well have saved some buds.  By the following Friday, we hit a high of nearly 80º F.   Winter in the Carolinas can be like riding a yo-yo.  I don't really let it bother me.  Besides, what better way to find out which plants are truly garden-worthy?

Yours in Dirt,

Monday, August 17, 2015

The "Dog Days of Summer"

The Elizabeth Lawrence Garden fares amazingly well through the long dry periods we call the "dog days of summer".  (The dry spell started far too early this year... months before the traditional "dogs days" begin!)  The soil is so well-drained and the 5' elevation change of the property means any much-appreciated rain or city water disappears astonishingly rapidly.

Even so, phloxes bloom fluffy bunch after fluffy bunch, roses continue to open delicate cups of soft fragrance, Rudbeckia 'Henry Eihlers' still dazzles with spiky yellow stars of slender tube-shaped petals, doll's daisy (Boltonia asteroides) dances like a sliver of the milky way, and the ironweed's royal purple blooms sway in the slightest breeze.  Swallowtail butterflies flit from puff to puff of the joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) while checkered skippers light on blooms of lantana and verbena-on-a-stick (Verbena bonariensis)Every once in a while, the staccato chirp of a hummingbird is heard near any of several species of Salvia in the garden.  And that's just a small list of blooms to be enjoyed - by all garden visitors!

Visit Miss Lawrence's garden for a refreshing retreat from the draining heat of the dog days of summer.  Open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 - 5.   

Monday, May 11, 2015

Botanical Mystery Solved!

"I love being asked to identify plants, and I don’t know which gives me more pleasure: to know what they are or not to know what they are."
- Elizabeth Lawrence
Charlotte Observer
February 23, 1969 

As I stood in Miss Lawrence's garden on a sunny Saturday in early May, talking with Katie Mullen (former Elizabeth Lawrence Garden Associate and Marco Polo Stufano Fellow), I noticed blooms in the top of a narrowly conical evergreen tree on the east property line.  This is the first time I've seen any blooms on this tree since I've worked here.  I interrupted myself mid-sentence to point it out to Katie.  "I've been thinking that was some sort of Gordonia - loosely according to Miss Lawrence's records and not having seen a bloom ... but that's no Gordonia." I could feel the rush of adrenaline - I just adore solving a good botanical mystery.

We immediately went over to it and struggled to pull a branch down just far enough to snip off some small flowering branches.  We took the blooms into Miss Lawrence's studio for closer examination, and easier access to her index card database and bloom journals.  (That is usually the first place I go to solve botanical mysteries in her garden.)

Katie immediately whipped out her iPhone and started searching online.  She noted that the bark reminded her of a Prunus.  She followed her instincts, delving deeper into the cyberspace library as I, in true luddite fashion, flipped through Miss Lawrence's index cards.  No more than two minutes passed when Katie landed on a blog post and began reading the description given there of Prunus lyonii.  Sure enough, the flowers matched up beautifully to what was blooming here - a raceme of sweetly fragrant, white, wax-flower-esque blooms.  I imagine if I paid closer attention to an ever-present landscaper favorite go-to foundation shrub, Otto Luyken laurel, their flowers would be much the same.

So that helped narrow my search of Miss Lawrence's records, but I wasn't totally convinced of the tree's identity, yet.  I came across an index card describing Prunus illicifolia, which nearly perfectly fit the tree that stands like a rocket hiding behind two large Camellias.  But the evergreen leaves of the tree in the garden were only 2 1/2" long... shorter than those described.  I turned to Miss Lawrence's reference library for confirmation, plucking The Flowering Trees of California off the shelf.  There, I found exactly what I needed - the exact match of the plant before me: Prunus illicifolia ssp. lyonii.  Eureka!

Although I was a little sad that the internet seemed to initially trump a good old-fashioned paper search, it really only more quickly lighted the narrowing paper trail which ultimately led to the answer.  Regardless, the mystery is solved!  After years of admiring this fairly small but statuesque broad-leaved evergreen tree, now knowing its true identity is a small triumph - another small piece of the puzzle of Miss Lawrence's garden... this amazing garden that still provides plenty of inspiration, discovery, and botanical mysteries.

Until next time, I remain
Yours in Dirt,

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Are you cruel enough to be a gardener?

For the past four years, I have kept a close eye on Miss Lawrence's Camellia sasanqua hedge at the sidewalk. It was not uncommon to see evidence of scale in the hedge, which had been kept sheared. Scale is an insect pest that feeds on plants by piercing plant tissue and sucking sap... literally sucking the life out of a plant. All kinds of scale like close, dark, humid quarters. In an effort to create a less hospitable environment for it, I thinned out some of the densest parts of the hedge last year. The intention was to increase air circulation and light.  While performing an annual plant assessment this winter, I realized that the scale infestation was quite severe. This was confirmed by local experts and members of my garden committee, as well as my gardening colleagues, Ben, Damou, and Danny, who have been battling scale on the oldest camellias in the Clarkson Garden.

During the process of educating myself on these nasty little vampiric creatures, I learned that there are several different species - most of which were attacking the hedge. Most were on the undersides of the leaves, but a lot were also on the limbs. Not good. Some species of scale are "easier" to control than others, but none are exactly "easy" to completely eradicate. So what does one do in a case like this?
Scale on the undersides of the leaves...
...and on the limbs.  Yuck.
The most important thing: do whatever I can to keep existing plants happy and healthy.  I weighed all of my options, keeping firmly in mind that many of the plants in the hedge are nearly 70 years old. Behind door number one, the less radical treatment - a regimen of chemical drenches, periodic spraying and pruning - over the course of years - which may or may not be completely effective in the end. (Ugh) Behind door number two, the more radical approach - renovate the hedge by pruning it way back, giving it a chance to regenerate with clean, healthy foliage that can be strategically pruned as it grows. (Seems drastic) And finally, behind door number three, the most radical approach - completely remove the existing hedge and start over. (Can you say "last resort"?)

It wasn't an easy decision, but the best option - and definitely most environmentally-friendly - was behind door number two: rejuvenation pruning... or, as I like to think of it, pressing the "reset" button.  Older plants usually respond better to hard pruning; they have well-established root systems that enable quicker regeneration. Plant maturity is definitely on my side for this one!

So Ben, Damou, Danny and I set to work, and in one afternoon, completed the first pass.  It's best to start off a pruning project like this by being a bit conservative with your cuts... you can always prune off more later. And I did.

After the first pass of rejuvenation pruning
Rejuvenation pruning complete!
Sometimes older gardens present difficult situations.  Hard decisions must be made.  Such was the case with the sudden death of most of Miss Lawrence's witch hazel, Hamamelis intermedia 'Jelena', which required the same type of severe pruning.  Thankfully, that turned out to be a success story.  I remain ever-hopeful (crossing my fingers, toes, and nose hairs) that rejuvenating Miss Lawrence's Camellia sasanqua hedge will reap similar results.  I suppose I am, after all, cruel enough to be a gardener.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's a Blooming Winter!

"It seems to me that there is never a time when some living thing is not pushing up from the ground, and that at the beginning of the year there is a more vital stirring."
- Elizabeth Lawrence, Gardens in Winter

There are many wonderful winter blooms in Miss Lawrence's Garden right now. A few that she loved have become ones I, too, most cherish.  I thought I'd better capture their images today - before the rain and colder temperatures set in tomorrow.

Amur Adonis (Adonis amurensis 'Fuku Jukai')  Rare, nearly impossible to establish, this is not a plant for the faint of heart. The blooms remain perfect for weeks on end, come rain, snow, or below freezing temps. Every year that it begins to bloom tells me I haven't killed it, yet. Pshew!

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.)  These easily-cultivated woodland charmers are a pristine delight no matter the weather, and, as with many little bulbs, are best planted en masse.  I can't talk enough about how awesome these are!

Roman Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis)  These are not your run-of-the-mill hyacinths; these are the true original white hyacinths still blooming early every year in old southern gardens.  They come close to blooming on New Year's Day.  And the fragrance... oh, such sweet aroma!  They are the first hyacinths to bloom in Miss Lawrence's Garden.

Chinese Witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis 'Wisley Supreme')  A feast to the nose and the eye, this witchhazel greets me near the front door of Miss Lawrence's house with the cheeriest yellow blooms, and a delicate clean scent.  It's a great way to start the work day.  This was one of Elizabeth Lawrence's favorite winter blooming plants.

Come by soon to see what else is blooming; contrary to popular opinion, winter is a fantastic time to see flowers in Miss Lawrence's Garden.  (It's so great, she even wrote a whole book about Gardens in Winter.  It's my favorite of her manuscripts.  Grab a copy if you find one; it's out of print.)

Yours in Dirt,