Saturday, July 27, 2013

Summer Wildflowers

June and July were so full of rain, weren't they?  The local farmers had a terrible time getting in their hay, I was feeling totally hemmed in by the five-foot high grass in Locust Hill’s meadows. August was almost here when the Ford boys finally appeared. It took three days to cut, rake, and bale Locust Hill's twenty acres of hayland.  What a comforting sound, the rhythmic "kathunk-kathunk"of the baler was as it swept up the raked hay and turned it into bales. And not a drop of rain fell before they were all safe in the barn. 

Since I’m sick of weeding, edging, sawing up the dead limbs of the maple tree for firewood,  and other hard jobs, let's take a nice leisurely walk up to the pasture today and see what field flowers are blooming. I’ve often taken my readers on wildflower walks in the spring when the small delicate woodland plants are in flower, but I thought it would be fun to tell you about some of the many mid-summer wildflowers  

The most prominent wildflower right now is Queen Anne’s Lace.  With herbal remedies all the rage, it's too bad somebody can't think of a good use for this wildflower, but it isn't even edible, despite its being known as wild carrot.  Because of its tiny centered red dot  it got its most common name as Queen Anne supposedly pricked her finger while sewing lace. That red dot turns black so quickly that I've never seen it.  Its other common name, Bird’s nest, comes from its spent flowers which curl up into a cup shape that would make a perfect home for a hummingbird.

Farmers consider this wildflower its worst pest, being prolific and hard to eradicate, but I consider the  bedstraw plants much worse.  How well I remember trying to pull off this perennial's sticky tangle of stems that wrapped itself around the axles of the hay rake, back in the days when we cut our own field.                                           .

Cows will eat bedstraw and most other field flowers, but there's one they definitely are smart enough to not care for, thistles. Locust Hill's hay fields and pastures are full of these painfully prickly perennials. Here’s one in full bloom.  Look down at its base and you always see hundreds of tiny ants.  They’d like to climb up and feast on all the sweet nectar, but very few manage to get past the prickles.   The thistle welcomes only insects on wings that will properly pollinate it.


According to an old Scottish  legend, hundreds of years ago the Danes secretly  invaded Scotland in the middle of the night, and took off their big boots in order to be very quiet.  One big burly
Dane stepped on a thistled yelped "JEG FOLER SA SMERTEFULDT!" All the Scots woke up and rushed out, saving their country from the Danes.  Shortly after, in appreciation they chose the thiustle as their national flower.  

 Field flowers can be as dull or as absorbing as people at a cocktail party.  You might ignore   the woman in double knit with a voice like a rusty hinge, but if you knew she’d written four best sellers and had just adopted an orphan from Vietnam, you’d most likely find her pretty interesting.  And who’d talk to that owly-eyed  old man wearing knickers, for heaven’s sake? But if he’s an old friend you haven’t seen since he came back from climbing in the Himalayas you’d be delighted to spot him across the room.

Flowers may not be as fascinating as people, but just knowing the name of a flower makes it more appealing.  You’re probably familiar with this tall stalk of yellow blooms below called mullein with its velvety soft gray-green leaves, but I like its more descriptive names – beggar’s blanket and flannel flower.  As kids we used its sturdy stalks as swords for mock battles, but in olden times they were dipped in fat and used as funeral torches. 

Oh, look.  This is a really pretty flower that you may not have even noticed. It’s a moth mullein.  Look closely at the blossoms spaced so nicely up the stem, each one almost an inch across.  Aren’t they beautiful?  Their centers are made up of tiny anthers covered with purple fuzz, surrounded by orangey yellow stamens, and each one set against a pale yellow background of petals.  Such a fantastic color scheme.  The photo doesn’t do it justice.  

Are you familiar with the Self-heal? This low growing plant with a rusty greenish cone sports one or two small purple blooms today, another one or two a few days later,  a couple more in a week.  It’s a pretty homely flower with an equally homely Latin name, Prunella vulgaris, which reminds me of one of Hank’s old girlfriends who could never quite get it all together.  Vulgaris is the Latin word for common.

There are many more flowers in this pasture, but here’s a delicious spot where nothing grows but moss.  How long since you’ve lain on your back in an open meadow and felt the earth’s pull vanish in a floating cloud?  Let’s just sink down for a few minutes and drink in the vastness of the universe.  We can meet more flower another time. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Avoiding Problems in the Garden

My Perennial  Border in 20009
I love almost every job I face in Locust Hill's various gardens, whether it’s weeding, dead-heading, staking tall blooms, even lugging heavy buckets of dirt to fill in a hole after transplanting  a large plant, or pruning the dead raspberry bushes at summer’s end. Usually there are one or two projects, however, that I will do anything to avoid. This year it’s to finish the job of making the 100-foot long  perennial border easier to maintain. 

This monumental task has been so ironic – to work almost daily for two entire summers to make something be less work. The first thing I did was to dig up the three thorny quince bushes took required constant pruning.  more than a week.  They’d been living in the border for more than 20 years, and had looked fine each April when they bloomed, but even a diet of constant pruning couldn’t control their obesity.  Pruning them encourages new sprouts.  When  half a dozen of these children pop up, they, too, can turn into obese shrubs.

Besides the toil and trouble of uprooting the quinces,  I also removed dozens of clumps of phlox and other misbehaving plants and replaced them with flowering shrubs and easy-care plants that require little work.  I  put protective shields between the border and the sheep pasture so grass can no longer creep into the bed, and replanted the clumps of iris and astilbe farther away from the border’s edge so the lawn mower won’t run over them any more.

Before I did all this, that perennial border was my pride and joy, everything arranged in an aesthetically  satisfying position.  Unfortunately aesthetics were far from my mind as I struggled to remove unwanted plants and fill their spaces with well-behaved ones.   Now what’s needed is an artistic gardener, and I don’t even know how to start. 

Wow! When I began this column I didn’t understand why I was avoiding this job.   Now, having written the paragraph above, it has suddenly become clear.  There is no way to figure out how to rearrange the plants until I’ve seen the border through an entire summer.  When I took the photo below there was hardly any color but green.   All those flowering shrubs I bought are still pathetically small when they need to fill the back edge with height. 

How delightful  to finally understand why I’ve been avoiding this job.  Now I can relax, knowing what’s the matter! Obviously the border will look very different as the summer progresses.  Hopefully the new shrubs will have gained height, and there will be lots of color as various plants begin to bloom. Then I can learn what’s good and what’s bad, and can formulate a plan for next summer.
I am so cheered at learning why I’ve been doing anything but tackling this problem.  I’m going to go get the camera and not even finish this column.  Taking photos has become essential for gardeners my age. We no longer have the ability to remember what’s where in a large  border any more.   I’m sorry you haven’t learned anything today, but I