Garden report

melissa_thefarm(NItaly)December 21, 2013

Four days ago bad weather and a viral cold arrived simultaneously, which, together with the shortest days of the year, laid me flat; or, at least they would have had I not promised DD a feast for her birthday, which was yesterday. So I cooked, but in a vile, oppressed, and oppressive mood the whole time. Meanwhile the garden rests. Up until three days ago I was thinking that we had apparently gotten all the good weather that has been so conspicuously lacking for many of you, to judge by your accounts. After abundant rains in October and November the weather finally cleared up right before Thanksgiving. The sun shone, the sky was a (somewhat misty) blue, winds were light, the temperature fell nightly to around freezing, but rose to a comfortable levels during the day. In other words we had near perfect gardening weather during our eight hours daily of sun, and high time, too, after such a wet winter, spring, and fall (I never do much during our blazing summers). This has been the warmest December I've seen since we moved to Italy. A few roses have continued to bloom a bit: 'Archduke Joseph' and 'Clementina Carbonieri' sparingly--but how lovely were their flowers--'Sanguinea', 'Old Blush', and 'Odorata' rather generously. Also my crinum under the water faucet and the patch of agapanthus 'Headbourne Hybrids' around the corner, facing northeast, still have their foliage, and the lemon verbena and Salvia guaranitica are largely intact. All these plants die back to the ground every winter and resprout come spring.
During my roughly three weeks of good gardening weather I was busy. I had a lot of digging to do: planting holes; the propagating beds. The wet winter and spring and all the rotting of rose roots they provoked powerfully reinforced my insight of late years, that the ground in the big garden needs huge organic amendment before it will support life. So I dug big holes and added a lot of rotted hay. When I dug up the babies from the propagating beds for transplanting I was shocked to see the gray cement they had been growing in: no wonder our yields from all the cuttings I took last year was so poor. So the beds had to be redug, with abundant purchased bagged compost (there's NEVER enough compost!) and coarse sand added. Last year I asked my husband to dig these beds, but thought it wiser to do it this year myself. DH has never quite understood that what goes on under the surface of the soil is as important as what happens above; the invisible isn't wholly real to him. I, though, dig with pleasure and conviction.
I planted phlomis, rosemary, lavender, thyme, shrub germander (it finally rooted) and six inch roses out into much-amended holes in the sunny garden, but for the first time also potted a number of the roses started a year ago from cuttings. Since cane girdler entered the garden I've lost baby roses that had one good main cane: that destroyed, the rose died. So I want them to develop more and woodier canes before I set them out. Most of the roses that rooted were Teas, Chinas, and Polyanthas.
I did a lot of repotting, while my sizeable pot garden has not shrunk greatly. This includes plants I bought but haven't figured out where to put, like a couple of Periclymenum honeysuckles and some of the epimediums and sarcococcas I was so happy to receive from Esveld in the Netherlands, and I'm growing on some of the shrub germander which did finally root in such quantities. Then there are the seedling herbaceous peonies, started for pure curiosity's sake, the roses, the four inch tall symphoricarpos and Lonicera fragrantissima started last fall from cuttings which need to get bigger before I can plant them. I've found it's very helpful if a plant will grow taller than annual grass, which is why I'm beginning to favor the big hybrid lavenders over the smaller English lavender (though what I have, seed-grown, I suspect is itself somewhat hybridized).
I've done a lot of reworking of the ground around previously planted roses in the big garden, digging out the gray clay and putting it back layered with rotted hay. I have endless work to do here, as we planted hundreds of roses without adequate preparation before we mended our ways. But we've learned our lesson--our most recent lesson--and have made an appointment with the man with the small digger, who will come out after the holidays and dig us beautiful big holes which we'll amend properly. And we found someone who will bring us fourteen bales of badly needed old hay. I believe we've dried up the local supply, and for the first time this fall were in danger of running out of our chief amendment.
I'm starting to look forward to pruning after the holidays; I never did get around to it last year because there was snow on the ground for the entire winter. And I'll see what happens when I take cuttings in December and January instead of my usual October-November. Maybe the Noisettes will actually root this year for a change. I've already filled up a good part of the freshly dug propagating beds.
The shade garden and the woodland below it got a few sarcococcas, hardy sweet violets, epimediums, hellebores, and bulbs this fall and are looking very pleasant. Even winter can be a good time to visit there on a dryish, mildish day. I was admiring the evergreen shrubs: yew, box, pyracantha, Ruscus hypoglossum, the yellow-variegated Japanese euonymus, and the contrast they made with the leafless trees and fallen leaves. The extended rebar-and-wood pergola DH built to support 'Treasure Trove' after its black locust got blown down in a storm last spring is looking fine (so is the rose), as do the steps underneath it I made using the trunk and major branches of said locust. Nothing goes to waste in the garden.

So much for December here. And in your gardens? or the gardens you have in your head?

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Mendocino_Rose(z8 N CA.)

It's difficult for me to talk about my garden right now. We are heading into the worst drought I've ever seen here. If the pond doesn't fill and the springs are not properly replenished I will be fortunate to keep a few pots watered. I'm imagining enough moisture for Spring bloom and then widespread destruction. I know some things will survive, established climbers, species roses, some of the ORGs, but many plants that I love will die.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 9:32AM
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Beautifully written, Mellissa. I also had lost my main source for amendments which is horse manure. One of the barns burned where I get my horse manure, and they no longer had the huge amounts I need. My six horses don't produce nearly enough for what I use. The stable called last week, and I was able to get a large trailer load, but this means I'm very late getting my seeds and roses out. I decided to wait until after Christmas to even start.

I've never started this late, so there may not be much of a garden this year.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 9:33AM
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Melissa - you are amazing. It makes me both feel tired and guilty to read about all that you are accomplishing - that is so fabulous! Can you post some pictures, please? The ones you have posted in the past have been so lovely.

Pam, I hope hope what you fear will not happen. Not far South of you, we have not gotten any winter rain to speak of yet either. Less than one inch since July 1, when we normally would have had almost 20 inches by now. I keep telling my self that that horrible high pressure that is sending all of the storms to the way North of CA cannot stay there forever, and that it will rain a lot soon. Nothing in the forecasts, however. After it warmed up from that unusual cols spell we had we went out and tested our irrigation system for leaks (there were not any leaks, but my DH did have to repair some of the valves, etc on top of the standing hose bibs - our garden is NOT set up to have freezing weather for days & days). Then, we have actually turned it on again! There are 18 different stations, and I decided that I do not want to re-program all of them for less water (as it is so cold that the garden is staying damp with not much), so I am just leaving it on for a few days, then turning it off, etc. Still, I do not want to even think about the water bills which will result, as our water rates go WAY up in the Winter, when theoretically no one needs to irrigate.

The weather is lovely now, mild and not too cold, with sunny skies, so I should not complain - no ice storms, no wind storms, no snow, no floods, no blizzards, but I would love it if it would rain "40 days and 40 nights" and flood everything!


    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 10:55AM
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ingrid_vc(Z10 SoCal)

Melissa, I so enjoy reading about what you're doing in the garden, although sorry to hear about your illness. That can accomplish a drastic change in mood. As usual I'm in awe of what you've accomplished, and you've certainly had to fight your soil and the elements every step of the way. Pictures would be welcome because you list so many changes, not just the roses but so many other plants.

Pam, I'm very worried about your situation. I know that garden is your life and can't even think about your losing it. It will be a loss to all of us. If we have another winter like last year my garden is on its way out too. I can still water but this year's sparse spring flush after a winter of drought showed me that my roses need rainwater. One of the owners of Greenmantle Nursery told me they had 7 inches of rain last year. According to my research the average there is 50 inches, although her website mentions 150. Either way all this, even Melissa's uncommonly mild winter, does not bode well for the future. I didn't know that Jackie in northern California was also experiencing a dry winter. The winter is not over by any means and sometimes there will be late rains in March and April, so let's keep our fingers crossed that all will still turn out better than we fear.


    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 2:12PM
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Campanula UK Z8

Um, Ingrid and Pam, without diminishing the horror of drought, I do feel I should point out that the garden AS YOU KNOW IT may well be on the way out....but the garden, as an ongoing creative process is highly unlikely to vanish, merely change. Unless you are completely too demoralised to continue, the garden is a work in progress, an evolving dynamic process, not a one act spectacle. Try to think of losses as an opportunity, rather than a totally negative thing. Life, if nothing else, is utterly tenacious and WILL thrive, with or without your influence so you might as well continue to guide the process rather than merely observing.

Not the same, I know, but having gone from a sunny, open plot to a dark and neglected wood, I know that my garden will be completely different to what I have grown before.....but I do know, with every fibre of my being, that I will grow something which will give pleasure, offer challenges, cause disappointment and joy in fairly equal amounts but ultimately, there will be a garden again, out of the unpromising and tricky terrain.....and so it will be for you.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 2:51PM
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titian1 10b

Melissa, your account is charming, and yes, please post photos. I haven't even heard of lots of the perennials you mention.I agree with Jackie about the 'tired and guilty' - must go and actually do something! And good to know that I'm not the only one who gets bad-tempered from time to time.
mendocino, it must be heartbreaking to be facing losing so much of what you have created. Here in Oz, we still get drought and flood, but with city water I am well off.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 5:12PM
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ingrid_vc(Z10 SoCal)

Suzy, I can always count on you to drag me out of my negativity by the scruff of my neck. Self-pity is definitely not in your makeup, more power to you. I can and do admire many different garden styles but for me personally if it doesn't have some old roses in it it's not a garden that will make me happy. You'd also be surprised how few so-called drought-tolerant plants flourish here without quite a bit of water unless they're in the shade. Even the native vegetation such as the live oaks have begun to succumb, something I've never seen in all the decades I've lived here. My expectation, as long as the water holds out to some degree, is to have at least a few roses, those that do best here, and to design the garden around them with whatever can thrive. I'm anxious to see how Wild Edric will do, of which I've ordered a second plant since Heirloom is having a sale and I've read here how well it does under adverse conditions. On the other hand, I've also ordered Reine de Violettes, not the best rose for my conditions, so the dreamer in me is still fighting the realist. Best to be a bit of each, I suppose.


    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 9:01PM
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There are so many dreadful things that can happen to a garden (and in life) that one hardly knows where to begin listing them, but drought for me is one of the worst. (I suppose northerners and midwesterners feel this way about cold.) I feel for you Californians, and hope you get rain, in abundance. I recall Texas and Oklahoma had a horrible drought a couple of years back, and have wondered what the long-term effects of that were, thinking in particular of native flora and mature trees and drought-tolerant shrubs. How did they come through it?
On the issue of water, here I don't worry so much about the garden as about the possibility of running out of water entirely at some point. Our water supply comes from the nearby Apennines with nothing further away to draw on, and a good-sized population depends on it, not just our township, but the towns and small cities downstream from us in the Po Plain. I've seen the reservoir get mighty low; what happens if a drought goes on longer than usual? Will we run out of water for cooking and drinking?
I can understand why a gardener in Ingrid's situation has to water in order to have any kind of satisfactory garden at all, but here we have different conditions, a decent annual rainfall and heavy soil to a good depth. From the beginning one of my ambitions was to have a garden whose plants didn't need to be watered after the first year. I wanted to create an environmentally responsible garden: it was an experiment. The first summer we were here we had one of the worst droughts on record. The rains ended in January, as I recall, and didn't get going well until around September. It was an awful year, and not just in Italy but in a good deal of western Europe. Anyway, I made an interesting discovery. When it finally started raining again, all the wretched looking native flora came right back to life. Nothing died, even in a severe (as opposed to normal) drought. So probably one day we'll have an even worse drought and oaks and cherries WILL die. But this experience gave me a degree of faith in the resilience of plants. And I will say that I've killed a fair number of plants by now, but I believe have lost very few due to lack of water.
Of course I'm tranquil at the moment also because we have had a wet, wet year and drought isn't lurking on the horizon. Rather in a year like this we worry about slumps and landslides.

Pam, I hope you get rain! I have no words to say how beautiful I find your garden: what a glory.
Florida, am I correct in thinking that your garden needs ongoing amendment? If you're gardening in Florida sand you'll need the horse manure. Good luck in finding another source.
Enjoy your beautiful weather, Jackie, and I hope water doesn't become a major worry for you as well. Your garden is an inspiration to us all.
Thanks for the good wishes, Ingrid, and your steady benevolence. Oh, I do get sour and crabby when I'm under stress. It's a good thing DH and DD are both such sturdy, sunny-natured types.
Suzy, let's say you're right, but I do wonder how much wiggle room a gardener in a semi-desert or desert environment has? But...okay...if I were in such a situation, with drastically limited water and possible range of plants I could grow, yes, I would be growing something, and as many kinds of plants as I could. But some situations do require dramatic psychological adjustments.
Trish, one of my ongoing desires for my garden is to get a great variety of plants in it. Art is long, life is short, and even sticking with (fairly) readily obtainable garden and local plants, no rarieties, nothing terribly difficult, I figure I can find and plant new plants in the garden for the rest of my life with no danger of running out. Subtle variety is part of my notion of Edenic garden richness.

I wonder if it would be worthwhile starting a thread on resource-thrifty gardens? What do you all think?

Thanks for the responses. Merry Christmas, or happy holidays as the case may be, to all, and may your gardens bloom!


    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 1:48AM
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Regarding Ingrid's difficulty with drought: I keep thinking about the ancient solution to gardening in arid/desert climates. The garden was surrounded by high thick walls (sometimes house walls) and had a fountain in the center. A few trees cast some shade but did not completely shade the garden. All of this would contribute to maintaining humidity and moisture in the garden. The walls would prevent the wind from whisking away the humidity created by the fountain and by the evaporation of moisture from the plants. The shade and evaporation would lower the temperature in this protected garden. The walls would also provide some shade as the sun moved from east to west. And the thick walls would provide some insulation from the burning sun outside the garden.

This complete package may not be a possibility for Ingrid but any component would be a help.


    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 3:14AM
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Mendocino_Rose(z8 N CA.)

What a lot of good things said, sharing and encouragement. We are all in this together as gardeners. I can be such a fatalist, never for others, always for me. As the years have gone by on this forum there have been so many times that I have been amazed at the courage and perseverance of my fellow gardeners.
Melissa and everyone, I hope your gardens thrive, and grow in beauty.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 7:03PM
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ingrid_vc(Z10 SoCal)

cath, you've perfectly described an ancient Persian garden and under the right circumstances I believe it would be a great idea. The right circumstance, for one, is a flat area where building such a wall would work easily. I live in the hills with views all around and dropoffs on one side and a high hillside on the other, which would pose quite a challenge, as would the cost of building one here. New Mexico seems to have such gardens with walls but I've never seen one here, probably because the terrain doesn't lend itself to that kind of enclosure. It can be a beautiful concept, though, in the right place.


    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 8:25PM
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Well, I hesitate to post after all this...but I have too much water! The snow is melting too fast and we have standing water everywhere. The ground is somewhat frozen (not draining) and my poor lavenders are literally sitting in a pool of water. Thank goodness I have Hidcote, which doesn't seem to mind...

As for the roses, cold is our main concern. I often wonder how warm area gardeners do it. Worry about drought and heat...with no down time. We have hot summers (100 is not unusual) but it lasts six weeks and then autumn. Winter brings lots of snow and then early spring rains. We are in a mountain type of region, so lots of extremes. The plants have to adapt, so I try to only buy roses that bloom early and can take cold...or smaller blooms that last all summer, but don't seem to mind the heat.

Most of our plants are cottage garden/herbs and perennials that can make it in zone 3 and 4. They all seem happy and we have the luxury of letting the garden go to sleep in October and not worrying about it until April. No flowers, but the plants get a nice break and so do we :)

    Bookmark   December 23, 2013 at 10:21PM
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I always wonder why we pipeline oil but not water. New Orleans spent millions of dollars on huge water pumps to push the water out of the city and into the lake. The lake doesn't need that water. What a waste.

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 12:11PM
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I wish there were the funds to bring the extra water from WA to CA. LA has the most beautiful climate and to see it all paved over makes me sad. I wish it was a land of green spaces instead. I am in agreement over the removal of unused lawns. So many times it seems to me that these grass covered areas are only being used by passing dogs. In my own area, there are not many young children yet 90% of homes have a big thirsty lawn in front and in back. When not properly cared for, the ground hardens and the water runs into the gutter. And this is good drinking water.

My sister asked me to replant a small patch of grass to lay on in the back but it was only after seeing that she could not be happy with anything else that I said yes. I was willing to get a beautiful new lounge or outdoor cushioned furniture or a big hammock or a covered swing but none of that would make her happy. She insists on the grass which is far more expensive in the long term than any of the fine furniture we could buy to lay on. It is something relating to her high school cheerleading/suntanning days.

On the days that I can, I rinse all the clothes over this lawn. I feel that guilty about it.

I planted a pomegranate where the old pine was and it has done so well. All the roses in its shade are happy. They get just enough sun to bloom and no more. The shade the rest of the time helps them survive comfortably in the summer.

We used to have hot dry winds in late October. I remember being blown about on Halloween and Election Day in November. We just now had a period of these winds but without the heat. I would much rather have the winds without the heat but where is the rain that used to follow the windy times? I hope some is on the way.

I hope it's a beautiful spring for you in Italy and a mild summer. You deserve it. I hope each and every one of those peonies lives and is wonderful. I'm glad you are well and are full of optimistic thoughts as you garden. I am getting ready to do the big yearly effort myself and have been gathering up leaves to place under a layers of manure and compost. A few big roses will be moved and there are trees to trim. But the camellias are blooming as well as some azaleas and daffodils. They keep me company while I do the hard stuff. Mozart helps too.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 2:18PM
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What a beautiful message, Kitty. I don't know that I would call myself optimistic, but such optimism as I do have is definitely in large part tied to the garden. Now we have three months of mostly winter to get through, though only about five weeks before the lengthening of the days begins to make itself felt. I try not to think about it this way, as it doesn't make January any easier to get through. I can focus on my winter job of pruning and general cleanup, and on unfinished tasks like taking cuttings and digging up a lot of baby roses from the propagating beds to grow them on in pots. We've been having a very mild winter so far, and though I don't think this is necessarily good for the garden, still it's nice to think that perhaps we won't have snow on the ground much of the winter like we did last year. And it's not THAT warm: we're getting our chill hours. I'm hoping for a reasonable mix of decent amounts of rain and snow, and mild periods when the sun shines and my hands and feet don't freeze as I prune.
Since I am able to get out in the garden this winter I'm paying a good deal of attention to what looks good this time of year. I find myself confirmed in my high opinion of box, yew, hellebores, and cyclamen, all with excellent winter foliage; and sarcococca, equally handsome, also includes many varieties, some fragrant, that bloom in winter. Mahonias look awfully good in the winter (in the case of M. aquifolium, it needs to not be allowed to get ragged), and our big hybrid mahonia, 'Charity' I think it is, is in fullest handsome bloom. And daphnes. Good Lord, think of all the richness possible in a zone 8 garden. And pyracantha. I love leafless deciduous trees and shrubs, too, and fallen leaves and stone outcroppings such as we have in the shade garden. On the other hand the sunny garden is just a mess.
Of course the big frustration this time of year is not that the garden is not handsome, but that nothing is happening. I can do all kinds of work, but the plants are sitting tight. Still, if I can get out and do enough work--and just spend some time sitting in the sun on a mild day--perhaps it'll all be bearable. I think January is a reminder to me to live in the present.
Your flowering plants--none of which I can grow in the ground--sound very pretty. Your description reminds me of soft and beautiful central Florida in the wintertime. And it's such a satisfaction to improve the ground, like carrying moneybags to the bank. I can't think of a better way to start the new year.

    Bookmark   January 1, 2014 at 12:19PM
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