Bluest Of The Blues

Dazzling Delphiniums That Don’t Fall Down

I used to love delphiniums for their statuesque spears of flaming blue. For a few years, I grew all I could find, until my lust turned to disgust. Before long, I despised these border slatterns for their tumble-down habits. I was not alone in my dismay, and fortunately, determined hybridizers have taken on the task of rehabilitating this long time border belle. Today, I’m once again delighting in these queenly creatures, but this time I’m growing sturdier, more compact versions which provide that gorgeous blaze of blue without collapsing on the first windy day.

That tendency to tumble seemed odd to me, since these larkspur relatives hail from windy parts of Europe and are even in the wild Siberian wastes. They’ve also been prized garden plants since Elizabethan times, so how come they needed so much help just to stand up? The answer turned out to be neglect; once-proud seed strains had become very mixed bags, producing more losers than winners. The new strains are very reliable in sturdiness, size, and color, and are also just as attractive to butterflies and native bees (bumbles especially seem to enjoy them).

Sun And Deep Soil

Like all delphiniums, these new plants appreciate full sun and deep garden soil. In the past, the old girls sometimes struggled in my enthusiastically crowded beds. Now these modern hybrids are thriving in my sunny berms of sandy loam topped off with fish-waste-based compost and an elegant top dressing of digested dairy manure. They look very handsome planted in clusters between clumps of tawny pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and Jo Pye weed, set off by spreading skirts of common rhubarb. (Mine have deep red stems and a sinister past; they’re hand-me-downs from an elderly friend whose neighbor once got a bit too fond of her own homemade rhubarb wine, so her husband ripped out their plants and tossed them over the fence. My friend planted them and has been sharing divisions ever since, nearly 70 years now!).

So far, anyway, deer have ignored my delphiniums, along with the foxgloves, the sea hollies, the globe thistles, the agastaches, the penstemons and the cone flowers (Echinacea). Perhaps best of all, these new hybrids can stand up for themselves, so no unsightly cages or stakes are needed. In borders on flat ground, such props can usually be more or less hidden but in mounded or sloping beds, they are all too visible, even when the metals is carefully wound about with willow switches or raffia. The old delphiniums had strong stems but tended to blow over, and when they were staked, they’d snap right at the top of the stakes or cages. Happily, these new ones are cage-free and take windy days in stride.

New Heights & New Lows

The first dwarf delphiniums were introduced a few years ago as Delphinium New Heights. This Dutch seed strain was refined by ruthless roguing of once-classic English delphinium seed stocks. Roguing involves bringing crop after crop of seedlings into flower, then repeatedly removing any plants that are weak, disease prone, or muddy in color. The result is a triumphant range of hardy plants that reach 3-4 feet in height, with ample flowers in clear, vivid blues, glowing violet, and deep purple. Some are boldly marked with contrasting eyes or bees at each flower’s throat, so a deep blue flower might have a black or plum purple or white bee. If you carefully cut stems back after they bloom in June, side shoots create a second wave of blossoms in late summer.

Breeders in New Zealand were also working on compact, colorful delphiniums, and their New Millennium series is especially tolerant of hot, humid summers. All these shorties were developed with the help of a sport found by a Dutch grower, who noticed a single, extremely compact plant in a field of tall beauties. This natural dwarf was carefully hand-crossed with classic named varieties and the seedlings were field grown and rogued until the seed lines were stable. The offspring were selected for strong stems and large flowers, so the new plants are just as showy as their big sisters.

Other Small Delights

Those first compact delphiniums have since been coaxed into a number of similar strains, including the Magic Fountains series, which produces plants that are 30-36 inches high. These send up luscious spires that look equally lovely in smaller gardens or larger container plantings. Most are named for their coloration: Magic Fountains Cherry Blossom blooms in soft pink with white bees, while Magic Fountains Dark Blue/Dark Bee, Magic Fountains Mid Blue/White Bee, Magic Fountains Lilac Pink/White Bee and Magic Fountains Pure White/White Bee look exactly as you might suppose (only maybe a bit more beautiful).

Even more compact is Delphinium elatum Diamonds Blue, a dainty 18-24 incher with abundant flowers of a truly astonishing cobalt, summer sky blue on surprisingly bushy bloom spikes. The delicate foliage is handsome all by itself, making a pleasing contrast to broader leaves of companion plants such as hardy begonias and coppery coral bells. If you’ve been put off by delphinium failures in the past, give these new ones a try, since any or all of these are well worth growing, even where space is tight and deer are rampant!

Posted in Drainage, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Prep, Pollinators, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Saving All the Bees

Honey Isn’t Everything

As the earth starts to warm up (finally!), it’s delightful to spend a morning puttering in the garden. I love weeding and prinking in late winter, when shoots and buds are promising spring and the ground is soft and open. In between cloud bursts, I happily tug away old foliage and stems and divide aging grasses and late bloomers, finding more spacious homes for the crowded and showier spots for the shy. This makes a horrible mess, so finally I spread a layer of digested dairy manure, a lovely, lumpless carpet that looks like chocolate frosting. Admittedly, it still smells authentically of its humble origin, even though digested manure has been stripped of its bio-gasses, which are converted to electricity and sold back to the grid. I let it stand a season or two, so the smell recedes while the composting continues.

While tidying up, I keep an eye open for nests and cocoons as well as for the first sleepy bees. Most of the time they are not honeybees but smaller native bees that don’t make honey but are far better at pollinating. Of some 4,000 species of bees native to North American, perhaps a thousand are native to the Pacific Northwest (though some are not yet identified and some have vanished). Few resemble the iconic European honeybees and some may be mistaken for their wasp cousins, hover flies (fine little pollinators), or other insects. Similarly, native bee nests don’t look like honeybee hives, since the great majority are solitary rather than social (living together in hives). Some lay eggs in hollow-stemmed grasses, others nest in rotten logs or in tunnels or holes. All bees are good providers, stocking their nests with enough food (blends of pollen, nectar and antibacterial bee saliva) to support their offspring from egg to maturity.

Nurturing Natives

Though Mason bees get the most press, many of our native bees are champion pollinators, while honeybees actually aren’t. Since about 75% of backyard food crops are bee pollinated, providing food and shelter for natives can pay off in big garden dividends. Naturally enough, native flowering plants will be the biggest draw for native bees (who will often go on to visit the imports). You’ll find some attractive and garden worthy plant choices among the Oregon grape family, from low growing Mahonia nervosa to shapely, mannerly forms of shrubby M. aquifolium such as Smaragd and Apollo. I always add insect favorites like Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), and native roses to my own gardens if they aren’t there already, mainly because I love them too. Flowering currant and native honeysuckles are also rewarding, as are evergreen and deciduous huckleberries, thimbleberry, salmonberry, salal, ninebark, kinnikinnick and redtwig dogwoods.

Not too surprisingly, many native bee favorites are also loved by native butterflies. Indeed, when we amplify our garden palette with choice natives, our beds will come alive with a delightful range of beautiful critters, from helpful insects to lovely birds. Certain native perennials may appear without our help, including bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), red columbines (Aquilegia), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and avens (Geum macrophyllum). If they don’t pick the right place for themselves, gently reposition them now where they can flourish over time. I often group such volunteers between tall shrubs at the back of deep beds where they have room but don’t swamp proper border beauties.

Beyond Natives & Nectar

For some bees and butterflies, specific native plants are a must: without them they die. However, many native pollinators are generalists that find quite a range of non-native plants attractive and useful. Sidalceas and lavateras are popular in both native and non-native forms, as are violets, milkweeds (Asclepias), sweetpeas, dogwoods, and spireas. Orchards will benefit from Mason bees and veggie beds will attract native bees that appreciate tomatoes and peppers as well as squash and beans. Ornamental thistles please bees, butterflies and birds (especially goldfinches), while hops can gladden the heart of man (in liquid form, anyway) as well as butterflies and the smaller bees.

Nectar is not the only attraction in a well stocked garden, so don’t get bugged by bugs. Having a haze of insects hovering over your beds will just about guarantee you a host of birds (even hummers need protein as well as sweet desserts) as well as butterflies. Housing helps too; many grasses (especially stipas) are butterfly friendly host plants, while roses offer building material to leaf cutter bees along with their pollen and nectar. That’s a large part of why I tidy now, in late winter and early spring instead of in autumn; putting off the work protect and supports native pollinators and when I finally get around to it, there’s a lot less to do, since so much as self-composted in place.

Longing For More?

Here are links to lots of accurate regional information:

Posted in composting, Early Crops, Easy Care Perennials, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Pollinators | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Double Your Primrose Pleasure

Long Blooming Hose-in-Hose Primulas

This week, colorful, fragrant primroses are everywhere, from gardens and nurseries to grocery stores and big box stores. Few people realize that those clear colors and soft scents are largely due to the work of an Oregon gardener, Florence Bellis. Back in the 1930’s, her homemade nursery in Gresham held all the species she could get her hands on. She soon noticed, as many growers had before, that many once-lovely lines of primroses were losing vigor, clarity of color, size, and scent. Many antique forms were unstable from seed, and vegetative propagation resulted in increasingly weak plants.

Bellis set out to improve the situation and she certainly did. One of her first discoveries was that using her fingertips to transfer pollen from plant to plant resulted in terrific increases in viable seed. Her focus was soon concentrated on the most popular Polyanthus and Acaulis groups, which always sold well. As her color palette expanded, her Barnhaven primroses became sought after all over the Northwest. From murky blues, cloudy whites and yellows, and rusty reds, she crossed and recrossed to purify the colors and develop a wider spectrum of tints and tones. By consistent roguing and crossing, Bellis eventually created seed lines that ran fairly true, which was a huge breakthrough.

European Finishing School

When Bellis retired and sold up her stock, some of her plants and seed lines went to England and Europe. In Prague, a research geneticist, Otka Plavcova, spent over forty years refining the Barnhaven hose-in-hose primroses, an unusual double form that became wildly popular in Elizabethan times. The name ‘hose-in-hose’ refers to the stylish long stockings worn by Elizabethan courtiers under their pouffy knickers. It was trendy to wear two pairs, the outermost folded down to reveal the inner ones, and these primroses reflect that by stacking their blossoms in pairs. The form was first described in Gerard’s Herbal in 1597, making hose-in-hose primroses among the oldest documented garden flowers.

Today, these rescued treasures are available as You and Me primroses (Primula x tommasinii). The large, fragrant blooms are pink or white, rose or cream, blue or purple, yellow or coral, and two laced forms have red or burgundy petals with silvery edges. These free flowering primulas bloom from late winter into June and are solidly perennial, retaining their foliage rosettes all year round. They do best in partial or filtered shade and if divided every few years, the plants will happily carpet a woodland or shade garden.

Pleasing Primroses

To keep these or most primroses happy, give them a well drained spot in half sun or light shade, with a deep mulch (3-4 inches) of light, leaf-based compost. By fall, your plants will probably be big enough to divide. Indeed, most primroses like this kind of treatment and will flourish in such a setting. Most primroses need to be divided every 3-5 years or they tend to dwindle instead of multiply. Luckily, the process is extremely simple. You can divide primroses in spring after they finish blooming, or in fall. I prefer fall division, because the new plants don’t need any care during the rainy season.

To divide a big clump, lift the whole thing out of the ground and shake away the soil. Break each clump into smaller pieces, each with a bit of crown and some roots. I use my hands for this, but some folks like to cut plants with clippers. Toss the old, woody centers on the compost heap and reset the newbies in fresh soil. Give them a nice blanket of mulch in fall and refresh it in spring and you will have lots of happy plants to share.

Sex And The Double Primula

If you are really fascinated, you might want to slog your way through this admittedly dense but fascinating scientific abstract discussing hose-i-hose primulas as a sex-linked mutant form of Primula vulgaris from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010:

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Home And Garden Editing

Reducing Excess Indoors and Out

(Note: There was no post for last week, as the overloaded Log House Plants site needed a boost to handle a high volume of visitors.)

I’ve lived in this large, lovely house for well over a decade now. Over the years, I’ve renovated and repaired and re-imagined pretty well every square foot of its three stories. I mended and refinished the deck and installed new windows and sliding doors. Instead of the rusty, rattling old gutters, we’ve now got the new kind that don’t fill up with leaves (call me a wimp, but ladder work at 20-plus feet no longer tempts me). I replaced the aging heating system and water heater twice, renewed old plumbing and wiring, cleared out the crawl spaces, restored insulation. Last year, I turned the jammed-full-to-the-ceiling garage into a clean, light-filled studio and built a study, attractive screened in porch off the sun room. Now, I’’m done.

In fact, I’m done altogether. This summer, I’ll put the house on the market and look for a smaller place that will suit me better as I age. That might sound sad; indeed, several friends seem quite dismayed to learn that I’m planning to leave so soon after getting the house just the way I want it. Oh, there’s a twinge or two of sorrow mixed in, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the work. I deeply enjoy the creativity of the renovation process and have always felt pleased to leave each home better than I found it. Right now, the idea of a move feels freeing and wide open to possibilities; indeed, VERY wide, since it’s not clear just where I’ll be going. I’ve appreciated this big house enormously. It’s a beautiful, hospitable, flexible place, with plenty of room. These days, however, my kids have homes of their own and the family that’s home-shared with me  is excitedly planning to move on to their own new home as well. So, I’m done.

Sharing The Pleasure

All this releasing really does feel great, but any move is a pretty major life event and can’t help but be somewhat emotionally mixed. This winter, I’ve found joy in clearing closets of extra clothing, knowing that the homeless people who receive it will be snug and warm. I’ve donated carloads of treasures I haven’t looked at or touched in years to benefits, nonprofits, and appreciative friends. (I’m at the stage where anyone who admires anything ends up taking it home.) Now, I’ll be setting this happy, handsome house free to more active use than I can offer, and that feels positively wonderful too.

At the very same time, sorting out each box of memories requires some processing (definitely some more than others) and I’m finding it best to pace myself a bit. The broom closet, while amazingly packed (how did I end up with so many light bulbs for lamps I no longer own, and why was there a waffle iron and a stovetop griddle in there?), did not trigger an emotional cascade. The filing cabinet full of old house papers, death certificates, family pictures, well, that one I’m taking one drawer at a time, with several easier tasks in between.

Garden Giving

Outside, I’ve similarly edited over time, removing overgrown shrubs and leaning trees, renovating beds and replanting the front entry. I’ve redone the driveway twice, improved the drainage systems twice, and built a splendid new garden shed. After two years of growth, the mounded bed garden is a delight and the carefully chosen, much loved plants are thriving in the blend of sandy loam and digested dairy manure. This garden was thoughtfully planned and planted, with each hand picked plant given an appropriate spot. Mostly. Despite my care, it’s clear that plant lust has overridden my design sense here and there. There are certainly going to be some extra plants for Hannah’s Garden, the kid-friendly plantings at Owen’s Playground, an accessible play space for everyone of any age or physical ability.

In the past, I might have waited months to see if the hard freezes truly killed off certain tender plants. This year, out they come with barely a backward glance. It doesn’t hurt to know that there are plenty of replacements in the wings. My original plantings were hedged with boxleaf honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata), which are now filling in fast. To keep the deer disinterested, I had circled the whole garden with a new Dutch catnip called Meow. These strapping plants easily get 3 x 3 feet and where the hedge encroaches, I’m digging out the Meows to replace the silvery white sage, Salvia apiana, which definitely gave up the ghost this winter.

Going, Going, Gone

I’m usually a total sucker for garden seedlings, carefully nurturing and protecting them, but these days, a new ruthlessness makes it easy to yank them out wherever they mar the overall design. Or perhaps it may not be ruthlessness as a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. It’s very obvious (to anyone weeding my driveway, at least) that nature’s first principle is abundance. If I pull the dozens of crowded, over-eager seedlings that blue the edges of the beds, I know very well that the act of weeding will bring dozens of seeds to the surface. The most willing seeders are often plants of disturbance, whose seeds germinate most freely when exposed to light and air rather than smothered under muddy clay. Perhaps my own spirit will similarly awaken and stretch and grow into new strength once the weight of excess ownership is lifted. I’m certainly eager to find out, and I’ll certainly keep you posted!

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