Green on Black Friday (Part 2)

Actually, as I write this, it’s Cyber Monday Eve, but no matter. There are still some plants looking green out in the garden, even though by day’s end they might be obscured by a few inches of snow. It is the 1st of December (already!!!), after all.

Two days ago I wrote about a euphorbia and a fern, and now I’d like to present another example of each plus a third companion in the garden, all of which consort near a special rock. Yes, special. I like having rocks and minerals around me, both inside and out; perhaps some day I’ll share here a few pictures of and musings on my mineral collection. The rock of interest before us now was part of the Big Landscaping Buy I made a few years ago in anticipation of laying a new sidewalk, garden seat, and steps, but instead of being incorporated into all of that, the special rock is now used as a separate garden accent, partially because it contains some attractive crystals that I assume are quartz. I need to assume almost a worm’s-eye position to see them, but I take pleasure in knowing there’s a little bit of sparkly rock crystal in that shady spot under the big arborvitae.

It took a few years to finally decide on the spot that the rock now occupies, and there’s no guarantee it will remain there. I like to move things around, either to make them appear more pleasing, or simply to try out a new situation in the landscape. To me, well-practiced and enjoyable gardening is not static: it’s a dynamic, ever-changing, sometimes maddening, usually satisfying adventure.

To the plants: in the foreground grows a cluster of the hideously named gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyris), brought all the way from New Jersey when my long-time friends Ken Selody and Anne Ziolkowski trekked West to take part in the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk on July 13. I remembered how much I enjoyed walking through Ken’s miniature forest of this (normally) biennial euphorbia in a wooded area of Atlock Farm, his specialty nursery in Somerset, smack in the center of the Garden State. A few days before Ken and Anne’s departure from Jersey, I texted Ken about possibly bringing me a few seedlings, and he obliged by presenting me with a small but generously filled pot of them as he and Anne stepped out of their car. After Ken and Anne’s visit, I decided the entire wad of seedlings would be planted near the crystal stone; separating them might shock the roots, and I liked the immediately established look of them in a cluster. They didn’t grow much over summer, but they still look happy enough on this first day of December, and I’m eager to see if they will reach up a couple feet or so next year. Their decussate leaf arrangement (referring to their pairs of leaves placed at 90-degree angles to the pair immediately below them) will remind me of the angular geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and stained glass, the generosity of Mr. Atlock, and my happy reunion with the nurseryman and his nice Anne.

Accompanying the euphorbia and clustering around the stone are five specimens of the marginal shield fern, Dryopteris marginalis, a Wisconsin woodland native. Like so many other members of the front garden, they were inserted into the landscape this past growing season, and as many ferns are wont to do, they didn’t grow exuberantly during their first months of establishment. I hope to see them double in size next year, though, assuming the spot under the giant arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) suits them and hoping the local rabbit population, which grew like, well, you know, bunnies this summer won’t include them in their diet. They certainly have discovered many of the new offerings in the front garden, two of which (both hydrangeas) are now  surrounded with kindasorta unobtrusive chicken-wire cages to protect them against eager bunny teeth. They’ll gnaw other plants to the ground, no doubt, but at least the hydrangeas will have a fighting chance to enter the next growing season as intact plants. I hope.

 

Here is the final member of the rock trio, one of the macabrely named dead nettles (Lamium maculatum ‘Purple Dragon’).  I value dead nettles for their ability to quickly make an attractive groundcover in dry shade and for the way the silver-variegated selections remind me of constellations in a warm summer night’s sky. You astronomy buffs out there will perhaps make the connection of the cultivar name to the constellation Draco, the dragon of the northern sky. Wikipedia tells us that “Draco represents Ladon, the dragon that guarded the gardens of the Hesperides in Greek mythology.”  Perhaps this Purple Dragon will guard the plants around it from those toothy bunnies.

Before we leave this grouping, I’d like to draw your attention to the “mulch” in the picture. That beautiful warm-toned blanket falls from the big arborvitae that stands like a sentinel in this part of the garden. Like many others of its kind around here, it entered the growing season with a slightly disturbing amount of persistent brown foliage and then proceeded to bear huge quantities of cones, which also turned brown. All of that brown stuff made me ask myself, “Are my arborvitaes in decline?” I made note of my concern when Janna Nelson, a former student and employee, and now a gardening buddy, stopped by while walking her two remarkably mellow dogs. Janna agreed with my observation about the abundance of cones on arborvitaes in Sheboygan but attempted to reassure me by pointing out that in some years the local specimens naturally make a whole lot of cones and then cool it for a few years. I hope that is the case; aside from the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata selection of some sort) at the street and the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) behind the garage, that big arborvitae and another one in the back are the only big specimen trees in my garden. Their demise would make a big impact on my little landscape. In the meantime, I will continue to treasure the orangy-brown manna of mulch that falls from them.

Green on Black Friday

So while a zillion people are engaging in the rituals of Black Friday, I’m sitting at my laptop, thinking about Green on Black Friday, which is my horticultural take on what’s happening outside in my front garden. Of course most plants have already retreated underground of their own accord (bulbs, herbaceous perennials), have been cut down to neaten the landscape (again, lots of perennials and of course frost-blackened annuals), have not been cut down because I’m hoping they’ll look good with a mantle of snow (especially the volunteer coneflower, which every winter wears perky little snow caps perched on the dark brown, pointy flowerheads), or have been allowed to remain because I haven’t felt like making the effort to remove the remains (most notably the big sweeps of lady’s mantle – Alchemilla mollis – and catmint – Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ – which would take more than a little time to trim back, and does it really need to be done now?).

But not all is dead and gloomy in my late-November garden. Yes, I have included a few evergreen conifers – such as the undemanding, patiently spreading mat of Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata, sometimes amusingly but aptly called “shade juniper”), a pleasant pancake of bird’s-nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), and the imposing arborvitae or white cedar, as it’s more commonly called in these parts (Thuja occidentalis) that towers over and dominates its part of the garden. However, they can wait to be included in another post, because right now I want to share some pictures of and thoughts on three of the green survivors out there.

I use the word “green” loosely: a gardener’s palette offers shades of green-green, those more yellow than green (chartreuse), purplish/bluish/reddish green, and more gray than green. So given it’s the day after Thanksgiving, let’s start with a frequent companion of a Thanksgiving turkey, namely gray-green culinary sage (Salvia officinalis).

 

For many years I’ve grown various culinary sages strictly for their earthy scent and appealing foliage colors, especially the neutral gray provided quietly by the common selections. The colors of many garden elements are complemented by their grayish tones, including but not limited to the foliage of companion plants, their flowers, and garden features (especially gray stone and weathered wood, including cedar mulch). You can determine your favorite combinations by cutting off a sprig of sage (or any plant, to make this a broader lesson in garden design) and holding it against other plants and features. If the match looks good to you, make a note of it, then perhaps next year you’ll plant some sage next to a late-blooming, luscious violet-blue selection of aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Raydon’s Favorite’), to borrow an example from my garden. After you’ve completed your sage color-observation exercise, take the sprig into your kitchen, gently macerate the leaves in some melted butter, and then drizzle it over some cheese-, cheese-spinach- or cheese-mushroom-filled ravioli. Skip the tomato sauce for once: the sagey butter allows the flavors of the ravioli filling to shine through.

 

I must confess that I wasn’t expecting the green fronds of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’) to hold up this late into November, given that all of the other ferns (except for the marginal fern, to be described on another day) have vanished from the scene. Perhaps back in a dusty corner of my memory lies the fact that this fern is evergreen or nearly so in other climates; nonetheless, I have been pleasantly noting the freshness of the fern in that part of the garden for weeks now. This fern is probably most widely appreciated for the red tones of its expanding fronds, and does it in fact take on red shades in autumn in those other climates referenced above? Also, will it still be green after winter finally departs, providing the garden receives enough snow cover to protect the fronds from below-zero temperatures as well as the desiccating effects of high winds and sun? Time will tell. Note the sad-looking lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) foliage accompanying the autumn fern. Yes, it will more than likely stay in place until new leaves emerge, at which time I will frantically cut away the dingy, winter-worn foliage and haul it to the pile behind the garage. Spring cleaning in the garden will just have to wait.

 

Speaking of semi-questionable evergreen-ness, here’s a treat for your eyes if perhaps not your nose. I planted three good-sized pots of Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ about a month before this summer’s much anticipated Sheboygan Area Garden Walk, mainly because I gave into the seductive appearance it presented at a local nursery that I frequented during the runup to SAGW. I value the contrast that variegated plants can offer when used in the landscape in reasonable quantities, and I’ve always been intrigued by the unconventional “flowers” (technically referred to as “cyathia”) borne by the members of this enormous genus (2,000 species or so, I’m told. Why haven’t the botanical splitters blown this genus up as they have done with Chrysanthemum and the lily family? More on that topic inevitably later). So yes, this euphorbia is eyecatching, and it grew without making too many demands on me (other than frequently expressing its thirst until it rooted in and/or the air temperature grew cooler). However, sight is not the only sense with which this plant interacts: during the first couple of weeks after planting this seductive beauty, I would catch a strong but evasive scent in the air, reminding me of the distinctive odor of Fritillaria bulbs and foliage . . .  and of skunks. Then during a notably warm afternoon, after having earlier neatened up the succulent euphorbias in my greenhouse, I put 2 and 2 together: that scent is the same as that of the smelly, sticky, irritating, fairly toxic white sap that oozes from the cut ends of euphorbia stems and leaves. Not a nauseating deal-breaker, but not roses and lilacs, either. However, since not a single garden visitor asked about the funny smell in the front garden (were they being polite? maybe they had not noticed the scent?), I turned the other nostril for the remainder of the season and enjoyed the visual delights of this plant, which continue to this Green on Black Friday. It’s marginally hardy, but if my plants perish over winter, I have a feeling I can get more at that nearby nursery. Or listen to another Siren’s call.