Yard Dog

If you garden, I am sure you understand what it means to be a yard dog.  You dig the dirt, turn and spread the compost, wheel the mulch, prune the shrubs, drag the hose to the thirsty tree, plant new plants, divide old plants, pull the weeds, rake the leaves, and then start all over again.  All of the aforementioned jobs take place in the spring when it’s cold, in the summer when it’s 90, in the fall when it’s raining and very cold.     

Every landscape is threatened by trouble.  No rain, too much rain.  Weather that is too hot, or too cold, or too humid.  Woodchucks, deer, chipmunks, the neighbor’s children, Japanese beetles, anthracnose, fungus, white fly, spider mites, slugs, nematodes-even dogs.  There is ample evidence in my yard that I have two male dogs.  Can you hear me shrug??  I am always on patrol for trouble.  It makes much more sense to stay ahead of trouble, than be left in its wake. 

Some trouble pops right out in front of your face.  A shrub with leaves so green on the outside may be hiding trouble on the inside.  Scale-have you ever had it?  This revolting insect attaches itself to to the stems of magnolias, and euonymus.  A severely infected plant has stems covered in white; scale is very difficult to eradicate, once it has taken hold.  Be a great yard dog-inspect your plants regularly.  From top to bottom.   I like to hand water.  The time it takes to water deeply gives me time to see what is going on behind the scenes. I see Milo running in and out of the boxwood hedges-they do not seem to mind the intrusion.  I see the hummingbirds on the nicotiana.  I have lots of them right now-they must be on their way south.  I see the hydrangea flowers pinking up-who knew pink could be a verb? I can process a lot of trouble, and my plan to combat said trouble, while holding the hose.   

I see the hawks riding the updrafts. I see the clouds-are they not beautiful in the fall?  I see those giant messy structures I know to be squirrel’s nests in my big Norway maple.  The black tar fungus has decimated the foliage on this tree-this is trouble over which I have no control.  Whether on not I have control, I stand watch. 

Milo has a squirrel friend.  This squirrel chatters at him, leaps and runs through the trees ringing the property.  Milo never takes his eyes off that squirrel.  His focus is an astonishing thing to behold.  They have quite the relationship.  My very low to the ground corgi, and that tree hopping bushy tailed rodent have a mutually satisfying relationship.   The same could be said for me and my garden.    

Milo works very hard, keeping up his end.  He may patrol the perimeter of the garden 10 times in any given evening.  His nemesis, that squirrel friend, is bound to show up sooner or later.  At some point, he will take a break, and get a drink.  I understand perfectly the responsibility involved.  Nature dishes out all kinds of  trouble.  Weather is to be watched, and cleaned up after.  There is no intervening in this.  I don’t intervene with bugs-I live through them.  I will treat a bacterial infection, and I will treat a fungus.  But no matter how little control I have, I have the yard dog gene. No doubt, there are those moments when I need a drink of water.  

The pleasure of a garden is considerable.  What it takes to have one, more than well worth the effort.  No matter what job needs doing once I get home, there are rewards.  Every dog has his day.  

Gardening is a dirty business. The dirt may be the best part of it.  Given 15 years of compost and ground bark turned into and returned to my soil, my plants thrive.  What could be more thrilling?  That dirt-in my socks and under my nails-part and parcel of being a yard dog.       

It’s a dirty job, but some of us have to do it.

Fabulous For Fall


I think my summer may be over.  Though Buck and I are still cruising the garden every night, we have broken out the fleeces, and jackets.  As loathe as I am to give up my summer, the fall season has its charms.  I had best get ready to be charmed-the fall is here.  I am so happy that my local nurseries have seen to supplying replacement plants for those tired spots in my containers.  The petunias are fading fast, and the leaves of the coleus have thinned, and lost color.  Luckily lots of plants are very tolerant of cold-and they are ready to step in wherever you have gaps.

My favorites are the ornamental kale and cabbages.  Available in white, pink, or red, they do not begin to color up until the night temperatures drop.  Cabbage have the big wavy leaves; kale leaves are frilly and lacy.  Both do well and grow until there is a truly hard frost.  An ornamental cabbage grown in a one gallon pot has a huge rosette of leaves, and a relatively small rootball. 

 Just a few of these plants go a very long way.  I love how tolerant they are of a deep planting-I set them at whatever level I want in a container.  I tip the faces forward, so I can see into those rosettes.  They do not mind in the least the back side of their rootball set above grade.  The color and texture is moody and jewel-like-perfect for fall.  Their very thick leaves are very weather resistant -at least that is my theory. 

Persian Queen geraniums that have been in containers over the summer will go on representing well into the fall.  Given that their chartreuse leaves are their big attraction, fewer fall flowers matters not.  Other summer container plants that do well through the fall-vinca maculatum is one of the best.  These long trailing plants are not in the least bit fazed by cold.  Nicotianas can revive and soldier on with the advent of cold weather.  My nicotiana mutabilis is sending out new shoots, and growing like crazy right now. 

If you need your container plantings to thrive on through the fall, choose carefully in the spring.  Impatiens of any sort, and coleus will collapse into a heap of mush given a short string of cold nights.  Tropical plants need to be brought in ahead of any really cold nights.  Trailing verbena is amazingly cold tolerant, as are nasturtiums, dahlias, and ornamental grasses.  But in the event that your containers are full of plants that have little love for cold, you still have choices.   Pansies reappear in the fall-they really do thrive in cooler weather.  The Clear Sky series is actually quite perennial.  Plant them in early fall-they will reward you all fall, and on into the spring to come.Their cheery faces look great in fall containers-try a few.

For years I rolled my eyes whenever I saw a sign for fall mums.  They have a form completely unlike garden chrysanthemums-they are trimmed to within an inch of their lives until it is time for them to set buds.  Mum balls, I call them.  Garden grown mums have a much more natural appearance.  Why I ever had the need to make a comparison, I do not know.  Mums grown for fall planting are just that-fall plants for containers.  I love the giant balls that have been perfectly trimmed all summer.  Thinking of planting on in a pot now?  Pick a plant that is budded up-no flowers.  Once those budded plants are in your containers, you have all fall to watch them develop, and bloom.

Gourds, pumpkins and the like-I am starting to see those shapes and colors at market.  Fall colors are like no other.  A pot full of gourds with sme left over creeping jenny from the summer is a good look.  It will be late Novemeber before I start my winter plantings-that is two months from now.  Too long to have nothing to look at near the front door. 


Bare branches-I have no objection to them in fall pots.  Every shrub and tree reveals a beautiful branch structure, once the leaves fall.  The structure of a garden is never more clear.  Subtract the flowers and the leaves-a gardener is faced with the bones.  I design with the bones in mind. Bare bones-I like that look.  There are enough cold tolerant plants, gourds, pumpkins and squash- and enough bones to make a festival of fall.

Black Leaves

Plants with leaves a color other than green-exotic.  I have never counted the numbers of plant species in my yard, but every one of them has green leaves. In my green world, a red/black or purple/black leaved plant would most surely be exotic. That exotic quality attracts attention. The numbers of urban properties featuring a Bloodgood Japanese maple somewhere in the landscape is an indication of the attraction of black.  Central to the color composition of these four containers of mine several years ago pivoted around purple oxalis triangularis and purple threadleaf alternanthera.  The purple black oxalis in the center pair of rectangular planters has the best black color of any black leaved plant I know.  It is not muddy.  The black/red alternanthera is not bad either.  But critical to the appearance of that black has to do with the choice of company.  Gartenmeister fuchsia has black/green leaves.  Variegated licorice provides startling contrast. These plantings are all about good company.

Black calocasia has plenty going for it.  The very large wavy leaves are a standout.  Its willingness to grow is only limited by the size of the container in which it is grown.  For me, the difficulty is finding suitable companion plants.  As a general rule, once I start a container planting with other than green leaves, I need the companionship of some other than green-leaved cast members to make the entire picture work.  Inky fingers coleus is a favorite. The black leaves are outlined in the most outrageously electric kelly green.  In this container, the color black is the dominant element.  The contrast of leaf size is swell.  A small dash of lime licorice, which in this instance reads as green tinged yellow, is just enough to keep all that big black from looking gloomy.

Black sweet potato vine is a beautiful color and texture, provided you plan for the cascade. This is a good ratio of plant to pot.  Pots completely smothered in black sweet potato vine have that Cousin It look.   In this planting, I knew the green leaves of the white petunias would never be a part of the big picture.  Petunias bloom so heavily one can ignore the size, shape and color of the foliage.  The double, or hose in hose datura has green foliage, but it is very dark green.  Moody, this planting.  Moving off moody, it has balance.  Black can be dominant, or fade away.  Container plantings are all about partnerships, relationships.  Like any other partnership or relationship, things can be difficult.  Most of what I do as a gardener is weed, and mediate. 

The leaves of Persian Shield are a color complex of purple, green and black. A dark foliaged dahlia harmonizes.  The lavender flowers contrast in such a way to assign depth to this discussion of black. 

The canna Australia is a better black than Calocasia black.  I attribute this to the substance of the leaf.  Calocasia leaves are very thin; they transmit light.  That transmitted light dirties the color.  Canna leaves are very thick; these leaves are emphatically black.  Opaque-not transluscent.  The representation of color is strong and dramatic.  The edges of the leaves of the coleus Arizona Sunset repeat that wine red black in a different texture and dimension.  The Misty Lilac wave petunia skirt lights up the night life going on above.

This planting of Persian Shield, pink New Guineas, peach petunias, and variegated licorice is from my yard a few years ago.  The variegated licorice picks up the cool green of the Persian shield.  A little intermediary peach petunia action and some hot pink New Guinea flowers feature the iridescent quality of those featured black leaves.  

Moses in the Cradle is a common name for a black variegated Wandering Jew-I think.  I have always known this plant to be a tradescantia, but some literature indicates otherwise.  That said, this black foliaged trailing tropical is amazingly tolerant of cold, sun, shade,-whatever weather comes its way.  Planted in early spring with Italian cypress, yellow dahlias, annual phlox, this planter still looks good in August.  Imagine this planter without that frothy skirt of Moses-boring at best.  On the outs, at worst. 


Hibiscus Red Shield is a red/black foliaged plant that will grow to astonshing proportions over the course of one season.  Not surprisingly, the flowers are insignificant.  Note that I underplanted it with a red coleus with lime edges, and lime licorice.  Green leaves underneath would have put out the fire.  Mix the variegated plants with more variegated plants.  Should you decide to go for black, chose your chorus accordingly.

Sunday Opinion: Making It Work

I have a new client-a daughter of an old client.  She is a young person, with children.  She has a fairly large property in a really nice neighborhood; she has lived there 6 years.  They have ripped out some things.  They installed a really nicely done terrace in the back-that took a big chunk of their landscape budget.  Now what?  Lacking a clear idea of where she might want to see in this landscape and garden in 10 years, she is circling, waiting, and wringing her hands.  Finally, she calls; I am glad she did. 

I plan to provide her with a schematic plan.  A different sort of schematic plan.  When I was her age, I had loads of energy-energy to burn.  I feel quite certain that she has that same level of energy-I will suggest that she use it.  There are so many things that young people can do for themselves to make a landscape come to life.  She is passionately involved in everything about her life.  My plan is to siphon off a little of that passion in furtherance of a great landscape.  She has enough energy to power a Volt-it just needs a little direction.  What makes a young gardener put their foot down on the accelerator?  A plan that makes her feel that a beautiful landscape is within her grasp.  A plan that enchants her such that she cannot wait to get out there and make it work.

The plan also needs to address the issue of success.  Nothing is more disappointing than a great plan that once implemented, does poorly, or dies.  I was garden obsessed such that the dying and the dead did deter me in the least.  This is partly my personality, but I did not have kids to raise.  The people that I know with children are very busy people.  My evenings were my own-I could dig a drainage trench, or dig rocks into a garden-I had nothing calling me after dinner beyond my own exhaustion.  For her, I would design with a time table in mind.  Prepare this ground, go shopping for plants.  Take the plants out of the trunk, and plant them.  If she cannot swear she will water until she is blue in the face, I will teach her about how to lay soaker hoses, and tell her where to go to buy them.  Then, and only then, go to the next spot.

I do intend that she will lay out, and dig her own beds.  She is perfectly capable.  It may be the most valuable thing I will say to her-that she is capable.  She has a very nice husband who is encouraging her to make some moves.  He clearly knows how to make things, build things, look after things.  Together they will make a great landscape installation team.  Their joint efforts will save them a lot of money. 

There will be lots of places in the plan to play with.  They may decide to grow roses, or invest in peonies. They may switch this plant for that one.  My job is provide them with a foundation they can get behind today, and appreciate many years from now. My big idea here?  There are many ways to make something work. 

My first garden was a God forsaken, utterly neglected 5 acre piece of property.  On the down side, I had just about 25 dollars to devote to the reclamation.  On the upside, I held this property for 15 years-every year I made a dent.  15 years of dents can add up to a transformation.  I am counting on this for her.

There are lots of ways to make things work.  This client-no doubt she has the ingenious gene.  My job is to loosen that rusty valve, and get her to turn the tap on.  This part of the schematic plan is every bit as important as the plan itself. 

I can dream.  I can draw.  I can wave my hands.  I can explain, I can quote-but in the end, the best thing I do is provide a plan for making things work.