A Series of Firsts

No sooner do I go out of town for a week (to visit my parents on the cold, rainy East Coast) than spring makes herself at home for real in my garden. And what a thrill to return home to find trees leafed out, progress all around among the new plantings, and the titular series of firsts awaiting my arrival.

Five one-gallon azaleas planted around the base of the fountain are just starting to bloom. Pale pink, with blushing frecked throats, ever so delicate…
The first bearded iris, smelling like the Rolls Royce of grape candy. I feel the beginning of another collection coming on. Irises currently in my garden either came with the house, or were given to me by a friend who divided her white ones and then found she had more than she could use. I’ve seen one called “Anything Goes” at the local nursery, the colors of which are raspberry and pink. They sound gorgeous, and I might not be able to resist. Especially since they are being sold in enormous pots in which there are already enough rhizomes to divide. Hold me back.

The first rose buds, on one of the Joseph’s Coat climbers and on a hybrid tea that we planted a few years ago and which is now over six feet tall and among my favorites for its reliability in pumping out dozens of spicy-scented, long-stemmed beauties every year:

New growth on all the citrus trees, but none so dear to my heart as the richly perfumed blossoms on the navel orange, which I’d been about to give up for dead after it languished for two full years following transplanting to a sunnier part of the garden:

Does anyone have as many aphids on their roses as I? We planted several new roses from Jackson & Perkins early this year, and while the bushes themselves have leafed out and appear healthy, they are SEETHING with aphids. Bought a container of ladybugs at the nursery to set loose in the evening, and hope they will engage in a feeding frenzy since my sprays of water seem only to encourage the little buggers. Also fear I’m seeing white fly on them… how much indignity can tender new roses tolerate? I’m reluctant to use a systemic pesticide, since my garden is pesticide-free and I’d like to keep it that way. But I’ve never had aphids like this…

Oh, My Aching Back…

I guess it was inevitable, with this frenzy of spring activity. Spent a good part of Saturday amending the last raised bed, now that the thornless blackberries have been consigned to the green waste bin (I know, I know, I loved them but no one else in the family would eat them… wouldn’t know a good blackberry if it jumped up out of the bowl and bit them on the nose. Plus, to my eternal annoyance, there were evidently two different kinds of plants, one of which produced sweet, plump and gorgeous berries the size of a giant thumb. These plants, of course, were far less prolific than the ones that produced the sour, seed-loaded tiny berries that disintegrated into a sticky mess when picked and were always crawling with ants.).

Once my strong, agreeable, he-man husband (who might someday actually read these posts, you never know) finished uprooting, shoveling, turning, and raking the soil, I got busy planting artichokes. Three so far, and if I can find two more there just might be room for them. I found the standard green globe variety at our local nursery, and perhaps will be lucky enough to find some of the purple ones if I venture a little farther afield. Anyone know of nurseries anywhere in the East Bay carrying more esoteric artichoke varieties?

That last tomato I planted, by the way, is a Hillbilly, from W. Virginia originally. Yellow fruit with red streaks. Sweet tomato-y flavor. Did very well last summer, so all I ask is more of the same.

The dogwood blossoms seem to have gotten pinker, and our rhody is in bloom. It is ancient and exceptionally leggy. I might get brave when it goes dormant again, and lop off the tops to see if it produces some new growth down near the bottom of the shrub.

Found lemon-scented geraniums at the nursery, and planted them near the patio table so the citronella fragrance might help keep the bugs away.

Also found the variegated leaf pelargonium I love, and potted those up this weekend as well. The flowers aren’t much to look at, but with these leaves they don’t have to be:

Nothing Makes Me Happier Than…

Nothing makes me happier in the spring than a pot of primroses and pansies by the front door.

Unless, of course, it’s the fact that the new dogwood is in bloom for the first time.

Or, perhaps, it is seeing the delicate white blossoms on our ancient Bartlett pear tree that over the years has provided the fruit for many a tart and jar of jam or pear butter.

Maybe it’s the satisfaction of prepping the vegetable garden for another summer. Turning the soil and adding amendments is labor-intensive and progresses much more quickly when I bribe my husband with promises to plant his favorite squash and tomatoes (well, I like them too, so it’s really a win-win proposition!). It’s a thrill to see those pristine raised beds all ready to go. This year, I couldn’t resist NINE different kinds of tomatoes (Brandywine, Watermelon Beefsteak, Pineapple, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Black Pineapple, Costoluto Genovese, a paste variety, and one other I can’t think of right now). I must be crazy.

I’m probably way too late, but threw a couple handfuls of sugar snap peas into the ground last week just in case they might still sprout. Even if I get no peas because the weather heats up too fast, we’ll eat the shoots! That’s rhubarb in the foreground of the photo below, a division of which was gifted to me by my friend Sandy, who has since moved away. I have a fantastic recipe for a rhubarb-citrus chutney that I’d be happy to share. It sounds kind of gross, but the rhubarb flavor is completely masked by the other ingredients and acts more as texture. It’s delicious over pork tenderloin or with cheese. Really.

Wow! Has it really been over a week since my last post? Too much happening in the garden to sit myself down at the computer to update. Last week, as further research for an article I’m writing, I toured the Ruth Bancroft Garden with their delightful media liaison person. Talk about hidden treasure… this wonderful garden is tucked away in plain sight, smack-dab in the middle of suburban Walnut Creek.

Devoted to succulents – agaves, cacti, echeverria, and aloes, to name a few – the RB Garden is the charter member of the Garden Conservancy, and is better known to garden lovers in other parts of the world than in our own. They have an annual plant sale (the better to have succulents of your very own), a Mother’s Day boxed tea and tour, and other workshops on things like plant propagation. Very cool.

With cacti that bear a startling resemblance to characters from a Dr. Seuss book, and agaves like props from “Little Shop of Horrors” – complete with flower stalks that appear to be gigantic mutant asparagus erupting from their centers – this public garden is understandably a hit on the elementary school field trip circuit. It’s quite amazing, and you should go there. Soon.

In my own back yard, this crazy warm weather (80 degrees two days last week) resulted in visible growth in all sectors of the garden. The blue of the corydalis, coupled with its speckled leaves, add lovely notes of color and texture to the shade bed, especially now that the pink bleeding heart is just starting to bloom. Those fragile looking one-year old roses from the Heirloom mail-order company have at least tripled in size. The clematis have tiny leaves and flower buds sprouting on them. I transplanted some of last year’s given-up-for-dead geraniums, and those are leafing out. Yes, they’re stinky, but the shot of brilliant red flowers in mid-summer is just what the back patio craves. The flowering plum trees are blooming and leafing out, a gorgeous shiny claret color.

Eternally delightful are the hellebores. This deep burgundy one thrills me… the blooms seem never to fade, and they last for months. No sign yet of flowers on the daphne, but I’m ever hopeful. Besides, if we missed the flowers this year we’ll surely see them next year. Did I mention the dogwood is about to bloom? I’ll have photos of it in the next few days. Here are some other things coloring up the garden… primroses, which do fine until the sun gets too hot for them, and then splat! They wilt in the blink of an eye.


Progress in the new garden this week. Doesn’t hurt to have temps in the seventies and clear skies when one is putting tender new plants into the ground. Everything under the pergola lights up beautifully at night, as shown above. Most of the potted plants have been connected to the drip system, and by next week the remaining ones will be done. How great not to see all those spaghetti-like tubes running along the ground and up the sides of the pots (these were inserted up from the bottom of the empty pots, which were then filled with soil so the tubing rests on top, looping helpfully around the plants.) No more hand-watering these pots:

Decided to train two jasmine plants to grow up through and around my antique iron tuteurs that we brought along from back East, so those will appear on a future post (the jasmine plants are still tied to their wood stakes and have to be wrapped around the tuteurs before they reach the photogenic stage.)

Organized a staging area in the vegetable garden; the tomato cages are lined up with obsessive neatness by size, empty terra cotta pots are stacked and ready to fill, the wheel barrow rests up-ended against the garage wall in case we get a last downpour before spring really kicks in. Hand tools now hang by hooks right outside the back door along with an assortment of ratty straw hats at the ready.

Lots of prepping to do in the vegetable garden: I hauled ten 50-pound sacks of soil amendment (Bumper Crop, if inquiring minds want to know) back there from the trunk of the car… and will I ever feel it tomorrow! So much for the benefits of my weight-lifting at the gym. Have to rake the beds, inspect the drip system tubing, add compost. Etc. Etc.

In an effort to attract bees to the garden, I planted several lavenders in the back flower bed, in among the roses and irises. Couldn’t resist a few more geum with bright orange blooms in summer, and more lady’s mantle found a home tucked in near the peach tree where it will get a bit of shade once the tree leafs out. For a large empty space under the family room window, I put a wild currant, which is a native California shrub. This one has cascades of tiny, frothy white flowers, pretty crenellated leaves, and will grow to about six feet tall. The birds will have to fight me for the currants!


Patience is a Virtue… Right?

While researching my new gardening article for Walnut Creek Magazine, I had the good fortune to visit the Gardens at Heather Farm. With six acres dedicated to environmentally sound gardening, the facility is impressive. Gardens focusing on native plants, draught tolerant plants, and other themes were fascinating, but what really rocked my world was learning that they have over a thousand rose bushes of more than 150 varieties! Despite the sunny high-60’s morning, of course these rose bushes were all still dormant. New canes were just beginning to form, as they are on my roses. I’m the first to admit that patience is not a characteristic for which I’ve any talent, but there’s nothing better than gardening to teach patience even to the most highstrung among us.

Here are a couple of things offering instant gratification in my garden. The camellia (top photo) is espaliered against a wall of the garage, and the primrose is one of many in the flower beds.

Preventive Medicine

I sprayed the peach tree yesterday, warding off the dreaded Peach Leaf Curl with a foul-smelling liquid the color of battery acid. Only with difficulty could I reach high enough with the hose to spray the topmost branches, reminding me of its first season four years ago.

That spring, with a mixture of skepticism and hope I planted what looked like a dead stick into the ground. Watching those first peaches develop, swell, and ripen after the show of delicate pink blossoms was a small miracle of spring.

And what a conundrum… each stem of blooms I cut to add to a bouquet meant fewer peaches to eat later. Two years later, enough peaches appeared and ripened for a batch of peach jam AND a peach tart AND a peach crisp. So laden were the branches that we had to position ladders under them to keep them from breaking under the weight of the fruit. Then, last year, nothing. Bupkis. Just those gnarled and diseased leaves littering the ground. And it was my own fault… I deliberately did not spray the tree because I wanted to see if it could “tough it out” and resist PLC on its own. My bad. Heartbreak.

Meanwhile, the pergola is done. Table and chairs, potted plants, and the aforementioned fountain nearby. We had lunch out there the other day… I can’t wait until the roses and clematis are climbing up the columns and over the trellis, but that is probably a couple of years away.

A second coral bark maple has been planted inside the new front gate, where its brilliant color plays off both the front door and a second coral bark maple planted outside the fence. Moving those boulders was no simple task but they frame the tree so nicely, it was worth the effort.

These trees were chosen specifically to fulfill our quest for fall color. While in spring and summer the leaves are deep green and burgundy, in the fall they form a haze of brilliant reds, orange, and gold.

Speaking of fruit trees, the new plum trees are just breaking bud. Told by the nursery plantsman that the Satsuma plum we wanted requires a pollinizer, we opted to bring home a Santa Rosa plum as well (the ideal pollinizer for Satsumas) and plant the two trees in a single hole. A little weird but not unheard-of, and evidently it works. My friend Debby makes the most divine jam with her Satsuma plums… for now I can only aspire to such jam-making greatness.

Late Winter, or Early Spring?

It’s too early in spring (or too late in the winter) for very many plants to be blooming in the garden. In fact, the garden is sleeping and the only flowers in it right now are there mostly because our landscaping project is complete and the new plants are occasionally in bloom when delivered by the nursery.

The fruit trees are just beginning to break bud (and I have to spray the peach tree one last time as a hedge against the dreaded Peach Leaf Curl… if I don’t do it this weekend, it will be too late and the leaves will seem fine at first, only to shrivel and erupt with nasty carbuncles before they fall in twisted agony off the tree), the roses are sending out their first cane shoots, and the tiny patch of weed-infested grass we grandly call a “lawn” is a soggy yellow, matted mess.

Only the daffodils and hellebores are in full bloom. And, of course, the extravagantly gorgeous cymbidium orchids I’ve been snapping up at Costco and Trader Joe’s (at less than half the price the florists charge for plants of equal size). These orchids love our climate enough to live outdoors in protected areas in pots. Can’t decide whether the chartreuse with the flamboyant ruby center is my favorite one, or the buttery yellow with red freckled throat that screams “Spring!”

Here are a few flowers that successfully brave the frosty mornings and many rain-soaked days we’ve had over the last few weeks.

The Power of Suggestion

The new garden fountain was delivered and installed yesterday, and while the two strong gentlemen were hefting the unwieldy and heavy fountain elements into place, I was hopping about uselessly asking them, “What happens if there’s an earthquake? This is California, after all. Will the fountain topple over in an earthquake? Break into a million pieces, squashing plants as it explodes onto the terrace?” The installers assured me that it is too heavy to go anywhere, and in fact that in 1989 after the Big One, not a single one of their fountains at the showroom had fallen or broken.

That very evening as I made dinner, there was a sudden loud BOOM! and the house shook. I ran to check on my daughter as pots banged together loudly on their iron rack (and my knees wobbled in fear). Later that evening, the news confirmed that we had had, indeed, a 4.2 earthquake right here in Lafayette! And guess what? The fountain continued burbling away, undisturbed and upright as promised.
The raised pattern of lemons around all three components of the fountain are a reminder of the Meyer lemon trees we have in the garden. The stone finish will weather to a softer, warmer tone over time. The fountain’s top spigot pours water into a shallow basin, from which it falls into another, slightly deeper basin which itself has three miniature spigots that carry the water down into the largest pool. All this falling water produces a satisfying splashing sound that completely masks the noise of the construction next door, the traffic on the street out front, and the neighbor’s incessantly barking dog. Wish I’d thought of this years ago.