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Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Gardener's Diary Archive: Can't beat the heat, August 1, 2015

In her book, A Southern Garden, Elizabeth Lawrence declares
Most Southerners need an introduction to their gardens in summer. I think they would be pleased with them if they could break with the tradition of abandoning the borders to weeds when the flare of spring has passed. To me summer is a season for taking delight in a garden, for there is no time when it is more inviting than in the early freshness that precedes the heat of the day, or the cool twilight and fragrant darkness that follow it. We can have bloom in summer if we want it, but we must plan for it and work for it. Some of the loveliest shrubs bloom then, and some of the rare bulbs, and some of the gayest annuals and perennials. But we must discover the summer flowers that flourish through heat, drought and humidity.
Right she is, but considering we only have five days in July when the temperature was under 90- and then, only just- I found myself content to stay indoors as much as possible, and stay as cool as overhead and box fans make possible.

Over the last week, though, I have ventured out a little. Partly I had to: cabin fever strikes even in summer. Partly, we had some nice days when it was hot but not so perishing humid. This week we had three days so moist all you wanted to do was take naps. None of Nick dropping by to see Daisy and Jordan in that gauzy sitting room, with cold drinks whose ice never melted. I have had to get out the ice trays to help the ice maker keep supply in sight of demand.

Mostly I have been transferring outside things I started- and have written about earlier- inside. My experiments with celery heads have been mixed. Both sprouted new growth while sitting in water indoors, per predictions. Outside, one did well for a week before perishing in a heat wave day.

Cilantro never got past the starting gate. Place in cups of water to root, they just turned to mush. I aim to try again with a late crop. I like cilantro, chopped, in an omelet, or in some ramen noodles for a light lunch with a bit of color and bite to it.

Scallions start to get mushy after I harvest their second growth in water, so I moved them to pots, six per, and they have settled in nicely. Basil sprigs from the grocery are sulky when started in a glass of water but they get over themselves and sprout lots of roots in a couple of weeks. Planted, they are a bit feeble in such hot weather; I have had to water them twice a day and place them in the shade. That done, they take well to being potted. I look forward to some pesto by summer's end.

The peter peppers are thriving in their posts. The bigger the pot you plant them in, I learn, the bigger the plants get. All, from the biggest posts down, are setting peppers. None have begun to show off their dominant, if Rabelaisian, feature.

I had two pots of peace lilies outside from June; when Housemate brought one pot home, it was severely root bound and in want to pruning. So I split it up and put them both outside in the sun.

Both did very poorly. They'd sprout a leaf or two, which would then blacken and die. When it comes to gardening,I can be like a man who won't ask for directions on the road: I am sure I remember, however partially or incorrectly, what to do with a plant, even when I am dead wrong.

Finally, the spavined and reproachful pair shamed me into looking up their growth and care. They dislike overwatering, and they really dislike direct sunlight, much less the Saharan bake off we've been experiencing.

I brought them both inside. Within a couple of days, both had new, green, leaves coming out. I share some ice cubes with them every other day.

My potato experiment- clear some grass off a sunny spot, stick 'em in the ground, and wait- has produced mixed results. The above-ground greenery is sparse, indicating the unimproved red clay is proving inhospitable. Three of the five starts have given up the ghost in the heat. I plan to expand that bed, come fall, and work in the proceeds of my first compost pile, started last September. It was dong very well until a fortnight ago, when the afternoon thundershowers stopped. Now it is dry as a bone and I am not inclined to run the kind of city water volume needed to keep it decaying at speed. I used half my 100 gallons of stored rainwater in July, just on the potted plants and the potatoes.

Of the 18 nandinas I transplanted into the always shady side of the yard in June, six failed from heat and lack of moisture. One of my neighbors has a patch of them, scores, all crammed together so I can afford to  take the root hog, or die approach. Them as don't thrive, gets replaced.

Several big patches of liriope I liberated clearing out undergrowth from the empty lot next door last summer and fall; they will thrive in the most difficult of situations. I found the original door to the storage shed on the ground next to it, overgrown by ivy; under the door I found a judge glass dining table top, and under it, two big spreads of liriope, barely hanging on. It took them several months to consider their options, but- like the other patches freed from choking weeds and smothering vines, they have filled out nicely and are in bloom. Once we get a little more I plan to divide a lot of them and replant them in the eternally shaded south end of the yard, where erosion is an issue when we get heavy rain. I have the liriope spicata- Miss Lawrence calls it the creeping lilyturf, preferring the non-spreading liriope muscari, which resembles the grape hyacinth. I have some of those I need to dig up and replant along the front sidewalk. They came up in one densely populated clump, with a few strays, this year, and only one bloomed.

All that I will get to after I root out the blighted boxwood- the baby bear of the three along the front entry. For the time being I have let a mimosa- a giant segment of root, half above ground, like a sand worm in Dune- put out tall limbs, to give some color and balance to that end of the walkway. The whole stretch between front sidewalk and the house needs rethinking. Stuff was just put places. Between two of the three boxwoods- which had grown together and nearly killed it- is a pink dogwood. Liberated, it did well this spring but the lack of light, and surrounding box, make its future problematic. I would love to just pull everything out and start over, but you haven't lived until you try to remove the root ball of a boxwood.

The other day, I finally solved a plant mystery. Two of my neighbors have a flowering bush that grows with such profligacy that I figured it must be a weed. But it has the most striking flowers: a circular crown of tiny white blooms with yellow throats, surrounded by a ring of pink ones.

I put in some serious Internet time trying to identify the thing, with no luck. I lack the technical vocabulary to set up a proper search query for most plants. So I pestered my neighbors, and Mildred's son, down for his weekly visit, identified it as a lantana. A little work, with that lead, identified my locals as the cultivar "Christine," and, not surprisingly, plant sites where I have looked warn of its tropical invasiveness.

In the Piedmont, however, the state extension service advises that the "Miss Huff" cultivar can overwinter. My neighbor Mr. Doug's is proof of that: it withered away to a strikingly ugly pile that looked like the last bits of blackened street snow in a gutter before rising into a conical bush five feet wide and three or so high. Clearly the Christine cultivar is Miss Huff's equal in our winters. But that sharp winter dieback clearly limits the plant's tendency to profligacy in summer.

Weed or not, lantana appeals because it is bright in bloom and will keep at it until the first frost. Its flowers are havens for butterflies, of which we see many these days: solid white ones, others, all yellow. A large one, with black wings running to a lacy, iridescent blue, dropped in for a rest stop on the sill a few days ago. One of these times I will sort out what sort it was. The state parks butterfly guide says we have 177 species in North Carolina. That will take a while to sort out.

I can hear birds outside my desk window, but almost never see any, anywhere, in the yard. One mockingbird, curiously quiet, drops in and out of the back yard, but the Robins, Friends & Relations Clan is nowhere to be seen, nor are the Cardinal couple. A strikingly red oriole dropped in outside my window two days ago, and then was gone. I hardly even see the Carolina wrens who live near my woodpile.

The common skinks and salamanders are out, skittish as ever; the eastern chipmunk couple ventures out of the edge of the woods daily, looking rather fraught as well. In July we had had rabbits: both the eastern cottontail and some marsh rabbits, the latter a good bit west of where you'd expect to find them in the Carolinas. Now I do not see them in the evening. Is it time for a new litter, or have the larger predators had their fill? I do not know.

Excuse me for now. I have to go make another pot of iced tea.

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