An Alameda Garden: May 2006

Monday, May 29, 2006

Can You Name This Plant?

This is one of the many recent volunteers in my garden and I would love to know its name. It stands about 18 inches high right now, its leaves are sessile and opposite with surfaces about as hairy as an African Violet (less hairy than a Wooly Lamb's Ears). It has just come into bloom in the last few days (the magenta bloom on top--the flower below that is a freesia).

Any suggestions?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Trojan Horses

During my first couple years in this garden, when I had no money to spend on plants (actually, I still have no money to spend on plants, but that no longer seems to prevent me from doing it), I thought the idea of reseeding annuals was like manna from the heavens. For the price of a few packets of seeds, I thought that I would be able to fill my yard with a variety of blooms not just for one season but year after year. So when I planted Cosmos the first year and got a lovely stand of 4-foot tall white, pink and magenta flowers, I was happy. When they came back the next year and spread out a few feet to make an even showier display, I was thrilled. However, when they came back the third year and turned my largest bed into a 5-foot tall meadow, I began to know fear. Last year, I fought back, thinning and yanking to little avail. This year, I was ruthless--I smothered them with newspaper and mulch.

I now think of reseeding annuals less like manna from the heavens and more like Trojan horses. You welcome them into your yard like a lovely, unexpected gift, but when you're not looking they invade and take over your garden like a horticultural army in the night. With smaller species--marigolds or forget-me-nots, for example--I'm happy to let them have their run of the place. Should I want to get rid of them, they're easy enough to transplant or just yank and toss. But with bigger or more stubborn plants, reseeding is no gift--it's a strategy for world domination.

Case in point: Four O'Clocks, or as I now think of them, Those Damn Four O'Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa damnus). The Sunset Western Garden Book says about this innocuous-looking flower "reseeds readily." Understatement of the year! Not only do these plants drop hundreds of little black seeds that sprout ever so easily, but they also develop tuberous roots that you may need dynamite to get rid of. Some of the ones I've pulled out have been bigger than my hand. Some of them break as you're pulling them out and the broken bits will still sprout. Some have been so determined to stay put that I've bent two trowels trying to pry them loose. After several hours of work a few weeks ago, I thought I had cleared an entire bed of all the tubers. But no. They are back with a vengeance and the battle continues.

And now it appears I may have invited another Trojan horse through the garden gate. What I mistook for large, round buds on the delphiniums are actually seed pods, and already I'm pulling out new shoots from among the stalks that are now more than 5 feet tall. I don't mind the delphiniums that are presently there. Although the flowers are not what I expected, they are filling the spot well enough for the time being and they look good against the tall fence at the back of the yard. I did not intend, however, to have to wage war with them year after year. For one thing, once mature, their woody stems aren't easy to pull out. And for another, they're bigger than me.

I guess I just wish that those plants that are out-of-control breeders would come with a warning label--a real warning label, not just a mild "reseeds readily" statement. Or maybe it's time to create a whole new genus for these types of plants. Does anyone know the latin term for "invasive barbarian"?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cuando planté rosales

My roses are blooming. That's not an earth-shattering or even particularly impressive statement. Lots of people's roses are blooming. But considering the forces I've been battling (aphids, powdery mildew, black spot) and just the general fretting I've been doing (Did I move them to the right spot in the garden? Did I prune them back enough? Or too much?), these blooms are very reassuring. It makes me think that maybe my garden will work out OK after all.

And it makes me think of a poem by the Mexican poet Amado Nervo. The poem, "En Paz," is a poignant commentary about how things in life generally work out. There is good and bad, but overall, life is generally what we make of it. When we put our best efforts into things, they usually produce something wonderful. Or as Nervo's beautifully simple line goes, "Cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas." When I planted rosebushes, I always harvested roses.

Lots of things can go wrong in a garden and disappointing results are not uncommon--I could list three or four disappointments in my yard right now. But it is the small reassurances of things like a bright white rose in bloom that lead us back into the garden again and again, ready to put forth our best efforts and see what sort of harvest they will lead to. And this is how gardens are built: one rosebush, one rose at a time.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Battle for the Hibiscus

Now I know where all the aphids went when I chased them off of my roses by blasting them with the hose. They just regrouped all over my hibiscus--and they brought friends. It looks like there may be scale, mealy bugs, and whitefly there as well. These aren't responding at all to blasts from the hose--doesn't phase them in the least.

I've been considering re-locating the hibiscus anyway, so now may be the time. I think I'll dig it up and pot it and quarantine it for a while until I get the bug problem under control. The climbing rose I just bought will probably do better in that spot anyway.

I guess I'll need to get some kind of insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to use on the hibiscus. Or does anyone out there have a home remedy that really works?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Passion at Last!

Big reward today! The passion flower vine that I've been fretting about surprised me with its first bloom. There's just something about these alien-looking flowers that I love and I hope that someday the struggling little vine I've been pampering will flourish like the one I remember in my Aunt Helen's yard. That one spread across her entire back fence and bloomed like mad.

I took advantage of a break in the rain to fuss with the vine a bit, tying up loose branches and clipping the few yellow leaves that were left. The fertilizer seems to really be kicking in now and the plant seems more vigorous and healthy--lots of new leaves and I spotted two more buds. As it fills out more, the tendrils will have more branches to latch onto and I won't have to tie it so much. I can't wait to see it completely cover the old iron door that I have it growing against.

But for now I'm happy with just this one hopeful blossom.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I feel like I'm finally starting to see a little progress in my garden. Bringing in the mulch has helped tremendously just by making things look more orderly. And today I worked some more on hauling in buckets of the compost I had delivered to build up two raised beds. I've planted one of them with two bell peppers, two roma bean plants, and the volunteer berry plant that I found in one of the other beds. Then I thinned the baby carrots I'd planted in a container a few weeks ago and transplanted the thinned-out seedlings into the new bed alongside the peppers and beans. I also thinned out the spinach seedlings and transplanted the thinned-out ones to the second new bed. I'm not sure the transplants will take (especially the carrots--they seemed so fragile), but I thought I'd give it a shot. I still have to build up one more bed, but already the area looks so much better. Here is what it looked like in mid-April:

And here's what it looks like now:

Aside from that, things are filling out and blooming, including more iris (finally some blue ones!) and the freesia--my all-time favorite flower. It's rewarding to start to get some payback for my efforts.

Even Linus, the Garden Supervisor approves:

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Let There Be Mulch

I tried, I really tried to be patient and thorough and carefully dig and pull out the weeds that were consuming my garden. But my gardening time has been in short supply in the last few weeks and I had a looming deadline--I'd invited my family over for lunch for Mother's Day. It seemed like everytime I got a substantial patch of ground weeded, I turned my back for a day or two and when I checked back, the weeds had all returned in even greater numbers. It was time to get serious.

So last Thursday I called a green waste recycling company in S.F. and asked them to haul over 4 cubic yards of mulch and 1 cubic yard of compost. It arrived on Friday and was neatly dumped in two piles in my driveway. I spent Saturday hauling the mulch bucket by bucket (because I don't have a wheelbarrow) from the driveway into the yard, where I spread it out over several layers of wet newspaper, smothering the weeds underneath. I mulched the largest bed and have hardly made a dent in the mulch pile. By the time I get everything else mulched, I'll probably still have enough to fill my compost bin and some more left over (to save or give away). The compost that was delivered will be used to build two raised beds on top of the mulch for vegetables.

The cost for all the mulch and compost was $80. (Actually, the mulch and compost were free--the $80 was for the delivery.) I know I saved money over buying the mulch bag by bag from Home Depot, although it would have been nicer still if I could have found a tree trimming company that would have been willing to deliver their wood chips free (none of them wanted to come to Alameda). I seem to be spending money on the garden as though I actually have it to spend! But I think I need to rein it in now for a little while until my cash flow improves. I should add a new slogan to my business card: "Will Work for Plants."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rose Parade

There was a long list of things I should have been doing today--at my desk, in my house, and in the garden. I didn't do any of them. Instead, I hit the road with three friends--Linda, Julie, and Elizabeth--and we headed an hour and a half north to the wine country to visit the Russian River Rose Company for a perfume rose harvest tour.

This family-run nursery in Healdsburg has more than 600 varieties of new and old roses. In the midst of fields of Chardonnay grapes, they have display gardens that include some of the most gorgeous roses imaginable. We wandered along, sniffing and admiring, under a long, old-style rose allee. Climbers, floribundas, tea roses--they have it all.

Our tour began in their old barn with a short introduction to the three types of roses we'd be harvesting: Rose de Rescht, Kazanilk, and Ulrich Brunner. We then took our baskets and headed out to the fields. We picked all three kinds of the roses, filling the baskets to overflowing with the fragrant blooms. (This is Linda displaying her bounty.) The scents ran from spicy to sweet and our fingers became sticky with pollen and nectar.

When the baskets were full, we returned to the barn and transferred the blossoms into the large copper kettle used to distill the roses into rose water. While the kettle was brought to a boil we drank tea and nibbled tiny custard tarts and listened to a brief history of the processes of distilling essential oils and perfume making.

And then came what may have been the best part: shopping! Wandering up and down the rows of miniature roses, rambling roses, old-fashioned roses, and every other kind of rose you could think of, I was in danger of going into sensory overload. But in the end I found the perfect rose to bring home with me, a rose that was discovered and named by the folks at the Russian River Rose Co. themselves--a stunning rosy red climber called Rachael's Smile. A great remembrance of a day with all the right elements: friends, fun, and flowers.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Global Warming vs. Butterflies

The San Francisco Chronicle has an alarming article today about the declining populations of butterflies in California. Dr. Arthur Shapiro, a UC Davis entomologist and professor of evolution and ecology, has been tracking butterflies in the state for 35 years. He monitors ten study sites and maintains one of the two largest butterfly databases in the world. According to his data, this year at most of the study sites, they have seen half or less than half of the number of species they would ususally see at this time of year. Shapiro attributes the sharp decline to the particularly weird weather we've had this year (mild temperatures, heavy rain) caused by global warming. Butterfly populations have been on a definite decline in recent years because of climate change as well as habitat loss.

Makes me glad that I went with my Landscape-Hort class last week to do some maintenance gardening in the Butterfly Habitat at the Oakland Zoo. We weeded, trimmed up, and mulched a little spot they keep dedicated mostly to native plants for the butterflies, like Pacific Coast Iris, salvias, and sticky monkey flower. And even though it was hot and sweaty work, it's good to know the butterflies will have a tidy playground to romp in.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Strawberries Redux

It's becoming increasingly clear that certain areas of my garden need a major transfusion of nutrients, so today I spent a couple hours working on my strawberry bed. These are Quinault strawberry plants that are two or three years old. I dug them all up (weeding as I went along) and put the strawberries aside. When the entire bed was empty, I dug in two big bags of steer manure. Then I divided and cleaned up the strawberry plants before replanting them. There are now over 30 plants in that bed, plus about another dozen in the bed by the roses, and at least two more dozen in two strawberry pots. These are everbearing strawberries, so there will never be a big harvest at one time, but with this many plants I will be able to reliably get a few each day until October or November. Hopefully, the manure will give them a good boost to start production.

I also put in four salvia starts that I got from the Merritt College plant sale a couple weeks ago. They may get too big for that spot and shade out some of the strawberries, but if they do, I can always move a few of the strawberries to another spot.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Garden Books

It's a beautiful day today and I wish I were gardening, but instead it's been a day for work and errands. While doing those errands, however, I just happened to be sucked into (by forces beyond my control) the Alameda Library's used book sale. And jackpot! Although there was only one small table of gardening books, I still managed to snag five books that look promising.

First up is Through the Garden Gate by Elizabeth Lawrence, who wrote a gardening column for the Charlotte Observer from 1957 to 1971. This book is a collection of some of her articles.

Next is Spanish Gardens by C.M. Villiers-Stuart. This book is from 1929 and I got it mainly because it has some lovely black-and-white photos of old Moorish gardens. I visited Spain and Portugal in 2001 and was struck by how similar the terrain is to California and how well the Spanish gardening style would translate to here.

I also got Men and Gardens by Nan Fairbrother, published in 1956. This provides a historical view of gardening--I'm really looking forward to this one.

Next is Home Ground by Allen Lacy, which looks to be a fairly light-hearted first-person account of gardening. Lacy was a gardening columnist for the New York Times. Also in this vein is the last book I purchased: Beds I Have Known by Martha Smith. I must confess that I picked this one mostly for the title. I wish I'd thought of it!

Thank god for gardening books and gardening blogs! They're almost as enjoyable as actually gardening, and they're definitely easier on my back.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

BH's Garden

Last year at this time my cat, BH, whom I'd had for 17 years, died. He'd been through a lot of illnesses, and I'd always been able to nurse him back, but sadly it was time to say good-bye. In the month or so that followed, I felt completely lost and surprisingly the only thing that made me feel any better was to begin to create a little memorial garden for him.

It began when I got his ashes back in a little wooden box. I couldn't stand to leave them sitting around, so I buried the box next to my back steps. I didn't want to leave them unmarked, so I covered the spot with the statue of a cat holding a basket that I filled with blue glass jewels. Next, I tried to find what I thought would be appropriate plants, and given my mood at the time, old-fashioned Bleeding Hearts seemed the thing. Some iris and freesia are nearby and I just moved a woolly-leaved volunteer from another part of the garden there as well (it's not a lamb's ear, but similar).

But it remains a work in progress. I plan to fill in with forget-me-nots and some catnip, and maybe some other plant will come to my attention that would be a good fit. The thing is, it's a very special place in the garden for me and working it is more than gardening--it's an act of love and memory.

This whole process has made me very aware of memorial gardens in general. The private ones that people keep for their own dearly departed are probably small and deeply personal. On the other hand, the public ones, such as the AIDS Memorial Garden in Golden Gate Park, can really be quite amazing. They don't at all provoke the same feelings as a cemetery; rather than being mournful, hushed, and static, memorial gardens are honoring, living, and ever-changing. If it were me, I'd much rather be remembered with a garden than a headstone.

So I continue to work and plan and plant BH's garden in memory of my lost, furry companion. I still feel the loss, but it is easier to bear when blooms mark his spot on the earth.

R.I.P., bubelah. You are missed.

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