An Upbeat Closing

I don’t know about you all, but I have a great urge to tidy up my garden this time of year. Partly it’s because doing so leaves one less thing to do in spring and partly because, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in My Summer in the Garden in 1889, “the closing scenes need not be funereal.” All this tidying up is usually quite enjoyable.
Pulling creeping charlie
Moist soil – and not too, too many weeds – make weeding fun. Creeping Charlie (also know as gill-over-the-ground) has sneaked into some flower beds. Its creeping stems are not yet well-rooted so one tug with a gloved hand and a bunch of escaping stems slithers back from its travels forward from beneath and among flower plants and shrubs. What remains are occasional tufts of grassy plants, especially crabgrass, easily wrenched out of the ground or coaxed out with my Hori-Hori garden knife.

This tidying is intimate work: me, the soil, weeds, and garden plants at close range. While I’m down there on hands and knees, I’ll also cut back some old stalks of perennial flowers. When everything is cleaned up, I’m going to spread a blanket of chipped wood (free, a “waste” product from arborists) over all bare ground.

The one thing not to do this time of year, as far as tidying up, is pruning. Better to prune after the coldest part of winter is over and closer to when plants can heal wounds.

A Real Crocus, Now

A few weeks ago, I, along with anyone visiting my garden, was wowed by autumn crocuses then in bloom. As I pointed out, they weren’t not true crocuses (they were Colchicum species), they just acted like crocuses – on steroids. Then, a couple of weeks later, I noticed that my true autumn crocuses (that is, the ones that are true Crocus species) were in bloom.
autumn crocus
And I did really have to stop and notice them after that most flamboyant show of fake autumn crocuses. These true crocuses (crocii?) are dainty plants, just like spring crocuses, and their colors are subdued: some are pale violet and some are white. In contrast to the fake autumn crocuses, which multiplied like gangbusters, the real autumn crocuses look about dense as when I planted them. Both kinds of crocuses wait until spring to show their leaves.

It’s fortunate that the part of my garden that’s home to autumn crocuses, real and fake — the mulched area beneath the dwarf apple trees — is free of weeds. Otherwise, the real autumn crocuses, being so dainty and lacking a supporting role of leaves, would be swallowed up, visually or for real.

Weed? Perhaps.

Back to weeds . . . I’m trying to see the positive side of all that creeping Charlie I’ve been pulling. Bits of it that have insinuated themselves in amongst the bases of stems of woody shrubs, especially thorny ones like the Frau Dagmar Hastrup rose, are not that much fun to weed out. So what’s good about creeping Charlie?
creeping charlie
For one thing, with shiny, round leaves of a deep, forest green color, it’s not a bad looking weed. The flowers are an attractive, purple color although neither big nor prominent enough to make a statement. The otherwise excellent reference book Weeds of the Northeast (Cornell University Press) erroneously states that “the foliage emits a strong mint-like odor when bruised.” That would be nice except that I’ve never noticed that odor and didn’t even when I just ran outside to crush some leaves check up on this statement.

Creeping Charlie grows well in sun or shade, so well that when I worked in agricultural research for Cornell University, I considered the plant as a possible groundcover to replace the relatively sterile herbicide strips in apple orchards. It grows as such beneath my dwarf pear trees.

Creeping Charlie beneath trees

Creeping Charlie beneath my pear trees

The plant could even be a somewhat ornamental groundcover, making up for any lack of great beauty with its capability to rapid fill in an area and grow only a couple of inches high. You couldn’t ask much more from a plant – except to keep out of some of my flower beds.


Zinnias In and Colchicum Outside

And the winner is  . . . Every year boxes of plants arrive at my doorstep, sent by nurseries and seed companies hoping to wow me with their products which I will then praise and induce you all to purchase. Most of the plants turn out to be ho-hum, perhaps new but not necessarily better than what’s been around for decades. Not so this season, for a charming yellow flower that’s been blooming nonstop all summer long and offers no indication as yet of expiring.Yellow blossoms of Zahara zinnia

That plant is  . . . unfortunately I lost the label so have been sleuthing for days now to give this winning plant a name. It looks much like a zinnia, a single flowered zinnia, that is, one with a single row of petals. The plants are compact, a little more that a foot high and wide, and — very un-zinnia-like — show no signs of powdery mildew.

My first guess for the plant was creeping zinnia, which actually can be one of two different plants. The first is a true zinnia, Zinnia angustifolia, and the second is not really a zinnia; it’s Sanvitalia procumbens. After getting out my botany books (books!) and magnifying glass and staring at the peduncle, receptacle, and disk and ray flowers of a flower from my plant and comparing it with written descriptions, I was still scratching my head to give my plant a name.

In frustration, I went to the garage to my “miscellaneous” bucket into which I sometimes toss plant labels that I might need to reference again at a later date. Digging down deep amongst all shapes and sizes of labels, I came upon one printed “Zahara Yellow Improved Zinnia.” Back inside, on the web, comparing descriptions and photos verified that — yes — that’s the plant.

The botanical name listed for Zahara zinnias, which also come in other colors, is Zinnia Marylandica.  That species name looks and is fake. Zaharas are interspecies hybrids, with some creeping zinnia (the Z. angustifolia c.z.) in their blood. So my guess at their being creeping zinnia was not far off.

Looking over at my conventional zinnias (Zinnia elegans) for comparison, they appear gawky witI their large flowers, both new and faded ones, prominently perched atop long stalks. Their many petalled blossoms look too full of themselves. Zahara buries its spent blossoms out of sight amongst new flowers and foliage of the compact plants.

Next year, I’m planting Zahara Yellow Improved Zinnias again.

A Vegetable Factory Functionally, But Not Visually

Those Zahara zinnias, planted along the main path of the vegetable garden joining arbored gates at either end, create two golden ribbons to draw you along the path. As I walk the path and glance left, north, I see, just outside the garden fence, another ribbon, this one a broad brush stroke of purple with not a hint of green. (More on that later.)

Yellow zinnias line the main path in the vegetable garden

Yellow zinnias line the main path in the vegetable garden

A vegetable garden need not be a vegetable factory. Too many look as if dropped from the sky, plopped down in the middle or far corner of lawn and enclosed with a strictly functional fence. Why not make the vegetable garden pretty and cozy it up near the house? Beds paint a two-dimensional design on the ground. A nice fence helps; even better if it integrates with the style of the home.

Vegetable gardens often look stark because of the abrupt transition between the vertical fence and adjacent, horizontal lawn. Decades ago, I regularly rototilled around the outside of my fence to keep weeds away from the fence line. I decided that was wasted space, so planted it with shrubs, flowers, and vegetables that didn’t need fencing. It was a good decision, softening the transition from garden to lawn.

So gussy up your vegetable garden with ornamental plants inside and out, with decorative fencing and arbors, perhaps an herb-lined path drawing you within, or perhaps with a bench, bird bath, or gazing globe as a draw.

And A Stripe of Purple to Gussy Up the North

That purple brush stroke north of my vegetable garden are the petals of autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale. In contrast to the Zahara zinnias, autumn crocus has been cultivated hundreds of years, and my plants are run-of-the-mill species rather than any hifalutin variety.

Purple autumn crocuses, in a row

Purple autumn crocuses, in a row

Like Zahara zinnias, autumn crocus has nomenclature issues. To whit, it is not a crocus. Further complicating things, there are true crocuses that bloom in autumn, sometimes called autumn-blooming crocuses, among them the saffron crocus, Crocus sativa. Colchicum autumn crocus, my purple brush-stroke, is poisonous.

The purple of my autumn crocuses is so bold because leaves don’t accompany the flowers (again, in contrast to autumn-flowering crocuses, whose leaves appear with the flowers). Autumn crocus leaves are big and bold, appearing in spring and looking something like ramps, the edible wild onion species. In Europe, where both autumn crocus and a ramp-like relative, grow, people have been poisoned for mistaking one plant for the other.

But toxicity isn’t what keeps more people from planting autumn crocus. Daffodils, after all, also are toxic. The problem is timing: Autumn crocus bulbs are ready for planting in late summer, before daffodils, tulips, and other fall planted bulbs are ready. It’s hard for nurseries to get people excited about yet another bulb planting season, and only for this single species. If not planted soon enough, autumn crocus bulbs grow, even without soil. The bulbs multiply quickly and when I divided and replanted them last summer, I kept a few out, three of which now sit naked in a bowl on the dining table, blooming.