Pssst! I got jewels of Opar and a string of pearls… wanna make a deal?
My garden is stuffed with hard-to-find plants that came to me with sweet folk names and back stories.Their charms have been spread over and under fences around the world, cutting across cultures and languages.
But worthy as they are, many are not easily found for sale – to get a start, you gotta have informal connections.
They are passed around like the simple string game which has no written instructions yet is known by children worldwide.
For decades, as the co-author of the Passalong Plants book, I’ve been overseeing small and large-scale plant swaps. Often there is little in common between participants except a love of plants.
True anecdote: Some years back the Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty told me over dinner that her mother “stopped going to her garden club meetings when they stopped swapping plants.”
But not to worry, thanks to folks with generous spirits, the tradition is alive and well at plant swaps around the world. I’m featuring just three here.
While checking on my garden’s rainfall drainage patterns during a recent downpour, I caught one of the longest worms I have ever seen as it ventured out of a sodden raised bed. When I tried to gently tug the foot-long creature out of the soil, it resisted, clinging, alarmed, to the sides of its burrow with tiny, claw-like bristles similar to those that so swiftly propel “graboids” (Caederus mexicana, the twenty-foot long terrors of the Mojave Desert). Continue reading “Worming Their Way Into My Affections”
My old truck with the garden in the back has been driven to countless flower shows and events across the eastern half of the US. It has been featured in magazines, online sites, garden books, and on NPR programs. It still drives fine, and the garden still flourishes through heat and cold, year in and year out, with only twice-a-year replacement of a handful of seasonal annuals.
The antique truck is better known than I am. Over the thirty or so years I’ve had it, it has been through many makeovers. Its current, cheery form has been preserved on film – as a result, people often call out a greeting while I’m driving through Jackson.
Booglify: Felder verb; to become mushy after freeze and thaw. “My canna’s leaves booglified into slimy cell goo.”
Far as I know, there ain’t a formal word for what happens when, come Autumn’s first freeze, summer plants melt into a putrid glob. But it’s nasty.
Want technical? Me neither – studied plant physiology in college, and can make your eyes cross with esoterica. Short version, with apologies to Professor Price, is that in general plants are organisms made of living, multiplying cells with fairly rigid walls filled with gooey protoplasm made of tiny functional bits suspended in water. Water between the cells holds soluble nutrients, proteins, enzymes, salts, and other stuff which normally moves in and out of cells to keep things running smoothly.
In cold-climate plants, some of the substances act like antifreeze and some plants can shift them around to reduce cells’ drying out or bursting; some plants don’t.
OUCH! Say “G’bye” to one of the South’s most cherished landscape trees.
In spite of their maybe being a tad overplanted, I love crape myrtles – the lilac of the South. I even made the trek to South Carolina to hug the oldest crape myrtle in North America, planted in 1786 by André Michaux at Middleton Place near Charleston. I don’t even have a problem with their being pollarded (what some folks call “crape murder”), especially when gardeners like me weave the trimmings into wattle fences. For more insight on this check this blog post out.
TROUBLE IN EDEN
But just like whether to spell it “crape” or “crepe” or want to argue about pruning, they’re all moots point now, water under the bridge, as our beloved crape myrtles are being pushed out of the garden entirely by a new pest that is for all practical purposes uncontrollable. Get used to it.
This blog is about what the problem is, and what we can – or can’t – do about it.
Five years ago I didn’t think it could get any better when I, accompanied by my sweetheart, was the Grand Marshal of the 30th anniversary St. Paddy’s Parade, a major event in Jackson, Mississippi, with nearly ninety thousand people lining the route.
But this year when I showed up just as a spectator driving my antique pickup truck – painted a brilliant John Deere Green (how apt for this auspicious event), and with its decades-old herb and flower garden planted in the back – the parade founder pressed us back into service…and once again put me at the front of the queue.
The parade was founded on St. Patrick’s Day in 1983 by Malcolm White, the current Mississippi Arts Commission executive director, at a local pub with a couple hundred of his close friends. It caused a massive traffic jam in Jackson’s busy city center. It has grown now to where the entire downtown is cordoned off for huge colorful floats and marching bands.
With marching bands giving it everything they’ve got, to music blaring from loudspeakers on every float, we can barely hear the “throw me some beads” chants from the crowd, which is in places ten deep with people in every imaginable combination of green costumes, hats, flags, and other accessories. While you’re imagining that, throw in the indescribably delicious aromas from hundreds of portable barbecue grills loaded with Southern outdoor cuisine.
The truck garden, which was refurbished two years ago (visit the video link here), is already over-accessorized with an old gnome rescued from Darwen, Lancashire, and my grandmother’s concrete chicken from Indianola, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. And bottle sconces, a bird house, and more.
Today EVERYONE is – or at least all decked out as – Irish!
So I wanted to do my bit. I quickly cobbled together some faux bottle trees from crape myrtle branches, cast-aside green soda bottles, and strands of green beads from other revelers.
…and a bow for the eagle, and a hastily-assembled custom-crafted wreath from nearby vines, magnolia leaves, and stems from a flowering Forsythia.
Yeah, my Celtic roots run deep – my Rushing ancestors hail from the Isle of Man – so it’s extra satisfying to lead out one of the largest Irish festivals in the country…
Most horti-holier-than-thou professional garden writers get a little peeved when people call plants by the wrong names, or downright irritated when Latin names are mispronounced. Doesn’t bother me at all, as long as we’re still communicating, talking about the same flower.
I mean, I have to switch back and forth every time I cross the Atlantic on how I say tomato (to-MAH-to), oregano (or-e-GAH-no), and ain’t (oops – no translation in the Queen’s English). I even switch hands when picking up my fork and knife.
It isn’t about being ignorant, it’s called going vernacular. And it’s okay. Breathe in, breathe out.
When lecturing on the West Coast, Midwest, or New England I understand that when they say “hen and chicks” I know they’re referring to Sempervivums; in the South, hen and chicks are Graptopetalum. And though I grow dozens of different kinds, including some from my horticulturist great-grandmother’s garden, I’ve long since stopped arguing over the difference between Narcissus and daffodils (they’re the same; one is Latin, the other is folk name for English speakers. And don’t get me started over jonquils versus paperwhites!).
Graptopetalum Hen and Chicks
Sempervivum Hen and Chicks
Both Graptopetalum and Sempervivum are called “hens and chicks”
So I don’t get my shorts in a knot over all the different buttercups, zebra plants, or wandering Jews. Let’s quickly get onto the same page and move on with our talking about whatever it is.
Quick aside: My old friend Brent Heath, 3rd-generation bulb grower from Virginia, says there is nothing “common” about common plant names – they are really folk names.
All that said, I have to just ignore it when someone in Mississippi talks about their snowdrop bulbs, when they’re referring to snowflakes. The similar early-flowering bulbs are pretty closely related and are used the same ways in gardens, but are different enough to a make a point, if you feel the need. Sorta like how apples and pears are very close relatives, but not quite the same thing.
I’ve photographed early-flowering snowdrops (Galanthus) from coast to coast and all over England, including a fascinating personal tour by Lady Carolyne Elwes of her vast Galanthus collections at her Colebourne Estate halfway between Cirencester and Cheltenhamin in the heart the Cotswolds (here’s a nice link to a winter visit there). They’re pretty, and hardy, but they have poor to no tolerance for the hot, humid summers and mild winters of the lower and coastal South.
On the other hand, snowflakes (Leucojum) spread pretty rapidly from home gardens to roadsides and moist ditches, even in wet clay, and are among the earliest flowering bulbs even in Florida.
Rather than make your eyes bleed with unnecessary details (the petals are technically tepals, and, short of writing a book, there are too many species and cultivars to get into), here are two simple photographs. Look at them, and decide if yours is one or the other.
And call them what you want, as long as we’re admiring the same beautiful early flowers.
Feel a little oddly uneasy on your garden swing? There’s a saint who may offer comfort.
There are some quirky saints, to be sure, patrons of every imaginable profession or situation, from farming to protecting beekeepers, even keeping ants out of the house. But some are peculiarly suited for gardeners.
One of my favorite garden sculptures is my three-foot concrete statue of a saint – not Francis, the environmental/wildlife guy with the bird on one hand, but St. Fiacre, the most popular and official patron saint of gardeners.
St. Fiacre is said to have sailed from Ireland to France looking for a quiet place where he could devote himself to God. An obliging bishop offered him as much land as he could turn up in a day, and clever Fiacre, instead actually plowing the expected small plot, used his wood staff to dig a row all the way around and enclosing a larger area. His garden became a hospice from which he shared his vegetables, herbs, and flowers with travelers, some of whom claimed he performed miracles. He is now recognized as the patron saint of gardeners – and, by the way, of Paris cab drivers, whose taxis are called fiacres – because the earliest commercial rides-for-hire in Paris originated near the hotel Saint-Fiacre. Continue reading “Swinging Garden Saints”
For the past thirty years – since my now-grown son was still in a child restraint seat – my old antique pickup truck has had a diminutive but productive potager garden overstuffed with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. That’s right, the working truck has a working garden in the back!
I started it out from frustration with one too many people whining about not having a place to garden. Thinking “What’d be the hardest place, the acid test, to give it a go?” I decided to try it in the back of my pickup truck.