Monday, September 27, 2004


Nemesis, the Greek goddess of vengeance, is said to be a ‘personification of the gods' retribution for violation of sacred law’. I would like to know what horticultural commandment I flouted to deserve a visitation, nay, a plague of stink bugs on my tomatoes.

My garden is adjacent to a large thicket of blackberries, which are reputed to be a stink bug magnet. I also have two large comfrey plants in the garden. These attract large numbers as well. But the insects are not content with such fare. They attack the tomatoes ruthlessly, vectoring diseases with their mouthparts.

I have determined that the culprit is the Conchuela stink bug (Chlorochroa ligata (Say)). This stink bug ranges from olive green to grayish brown with an orange margin along the thorax and wings and a spot of similar color on the scutellum.

Stink bugs, when not viewed through the filter of an irate gardener, are interesting insects. When disturbed they release a strong, unpleasant smelling liquid as a deterrent to predators. The smell is faintly almond like, owing to the cyanide compounds present. The family (Pentatomidae) is diverse, with some predators and several very colorful members.

Any infestation of this magnitude causes me to review my organic policy. I have never sprayed any synthetic pesticides in my garden and would prefer not to start now. But stink bugs are famously difficult to control using organic methods. In fact, in the most ideal of circumstances, the best control one can expect is 30-50%. Still, I cannot bring myself to resort to the heavier control methods so I will attempt some partial control this fall. Stink bugs overwinter as adults so the population of nymphs (immature stink bugs) is quite high in the fall, making this a good time to spray insecticidal soaps. These products can reduce the nymph population but are ineffective in controlling adults.

The issue of organic versus synthetic control is a contentious one, with arguments deteriorating to acrimonious name-calling on some of the garden forums I visit. I think it is really a matter of personal preference. Chemicals are chemicals and organic pesticides can be just as toxic as their synthetic brethren, despite their botanical origins. It is more a continuum of available options. If I start with the most benign option and it produces results I have saved myself time and money.

Still, I may be moving the tomatoes to a community garden plot next year. Options are not necessarily linear and when I reach the fork in the road where I must choose between the heavier poisons and relocation I think I know which path I’ll choose.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Autumnal equinox

Today is the autumnal equinox. The word itself has deep roots [Middle English, from Old French equinoxe, from Medieval Latin aequinoxium, from Latin aequinoctium : aequi-, equi- + nox, noct-, night.], reflecting the long held fascination our ancestors had with celestial matters. From now until the winter solstice the days will be shorter than the nights as the sun continues moving north, a procession sure and comforting in its cyclical reliability.

This time of balance is curiously energizing, even as the lengthening nights draw us inside, both physically and metaphorically. But these opposite tugs are oddly compatible. The coming days, shorter but awash with golden autumn light, offer opportunities to enjoy the lingering good weather to get the garden ready for winter. The coming longer nights, chilly and pungent with wood smoke, are perfect for slowing down, reading and thinking.

To honor this instinctual response to the seasonal change feels right. Our modern world negates the need for many winter preparations. But it seems likely that shifting our balance, once physically necessary for conservation of energy, still serves another purpose, more spiritual or psychological, but just as necessary.

It is just this kind of woolgathering that longer nights encourage.

Every milepost in the year’s progression is special, with its own unique gifts. But autumn has always been and will remain my favorite. Its offerings are at once sensual and cerebral, another appropriate dichotomy that celebrates the equinox.

Monday, September 20, 2004

No grows

I am fortunate to live within walking distance of a beautiful park where I walk frequently. The groundskeepers have put in several flowerbed “islands” throughout the park with some stunning displays this year. One that caught my eye and set me thinking is a display of ‘Tangerine Gem’ marigold and ‘White Star’ zinnia border surrounding cleome and ‘Purple Majesty’ millet. The cleome are an object of envy, being a plant that I seem to be unable to grow.

While walking by this bed yesterday I began to dwell on plants that I have a problem with. Cleome, certainly, should not be so difficult but I have met with failure each time I try. Moonflowers are another seemingly impossible plant. This year has been the most successful of any, though the plants did not bloom (calling this a success should give some idea of performance in previous years). But my pathetic nasturtiums cause the most anguish. Each time I walk by the planter and see them I feel acute embarrassment, as if some hidden character flaw has been revealed for the entire world to see. I do not know one gardener who cannot grow beautiful nasturtiums. They are a hit in children’s gardens for their ease.

So...what gives? Each spring I start out with cockeyed optimism, convinced that this is the year, o yes. But so far it has not been the year. It seems to me that there are two divergent lessons here. One is that persistence will eventually be rewarded. The other is that a graceful submission to one’s shortcomings is a mark of gardening maturity.

It really is a matter of spin, I suppose. Persistence is stubborness, graceful submission is defeatism. Most gardeners I know fall in the stubborn, er, persistent camp and, happily, hope will spring eternal when the seed catalogs arrive. I see nasturtiums in my future.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

First fall rain

Our first fall rain blew in last night. Yesterday afternoon was windy with a hint of a chill and bathed in that flat, almost metallic, light that heralds an approaching storm front. The temperature dropped in the night but the rain was intermittent and more a heavy mist than the rains we see in later in the year. Still, with predictions of a 5000 foot snow level tonight, it is time for fall chores.

Despite all the hints of the approaching change of season, I have been lulled by the buttery light of the last few days. All my senses have conspired to keep me in some languid stasis, drifting about with all the time in the world. Today that lull must end. The temperature drop is a wakeup call. There will be plenty of glorious autumn days ahead but a little taste of cool evenings to come is a sure motivator.

Autumn chores are not unpleasant. Put on a sweater (it is first sweater day of the year) and step out into the cool morning. Clouds and sun, the occasional shower, a rainbow…what’s not to like? Last night I put together a mental inventory of fall tasks but committing them to electronic paper is more binding. So here goes:

Find Reemay to cover the basil, tomatoes and eggplant when the inevitable frost warning comes
Buy new bulb food and locate bulb planter
Put away garden tools. ( I like to think that this year I will treat the tools correctly).
Tuck in a few more pansies.
Plant asters
Begin readying tender outdoor plants for their journey back to the greenhouse.
Plant iris rhizomes (a little late, I know)

Chores for this time of the year are mostly small and lend themselves to puttering and daydreaming, a satisfying way to spend the first cool cloudy day of the season. Just as the garden is winding down, leaves beginning to yellow, growth suspended, so I find myself introspective and deliberate as I go about my tasks. It is in keeping with the cycle of the wheel and I am enjoying every minute of it. All of this triggered from a simple fall rain.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


The rich sweet smell of ripening Concord grapes (Vitus vinifera) is another sensory signal that fall is not far away. I have two venerable old Concord vines with trunks the size of small trees. The yields are usually heavy and perfect to make strong juice with a steam juicer. In recent years, however, raccoons have pretty much put an end to any thought of juice-making. They climb up the arbors, snatch the grapes and throw the skins on the ground, to be tracked into the house. But at least I can still enjoy the smell.

'Sungold Red'

Fortunately, at my place of employment (referred to simply as ‘the station’ by employees), we planted a varietal trial block of table grapes several years ago. And even more fortunately, when the trial was over the block did not suffer the precipitous fate of other similar trials. The table grapes have remained and yield gorgeous, pendulous clusters each year.

Before this block was planted I was unaware of the wonderful varieties available to the home grape grower. Commonly grown commercial varieties were, and still are, limited to Thompson Seedless and Flame. So the varieties in the trial, with the exception of Flame, were all new to me. The flavor depth and complexity when tasting the different varieties was quite a surprise as was the unexpectedly rich palette of colors ranging from blue-black to rich ruby red to amber and translucent green. Each year the grape block offers one of the first of many pleasurable opportunities to dive into autumn.

The varieties:

'Himrod' – hybrid of Thompson Seedless and American
'Interlaken' – green-gold seedless
'Lakemont' – another hybrid of Thompson Seedless
'Sungold Red' – deep ruby-red gold
'Beauty' – blue-black seedless
'Flame' – light red seedless
'Ruby' – European red
'Black Monukka' – European medium purple black, mostly seedless

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Chop wood, carry water

"Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."
--Wu Li

Substitute deadhead and weed and you have a gardener’s version of the old Zen proverb.

Deadheading offers a chance to drift in a stream of consciousness, ponder a problem, or simply be out enjoying the early morning. This morning offered a brew of all three. It was a particularly beautiful morning with lots of clouds, a light breeze from the south smelling of rain, and some bickering hummingbirds flitting around and chittering. The problem solving kept drifting away into some bizarre Rorschach dreaminess with shapes emerging from the seedheads of the Heliopsis. It soon became apparent that it was time to let said problem drop into the subconscious to be solved by the “little gray cells” as Hercule Poirot so succinctly put it.

Weeding is another matter, confirming that enlightenment is light years away. Weeding is adversarial. Weeding is a personal vendetta. Weeding is an entrenched refusal to let go of old wrongs and perceived transgressions. Every memory of weedy triumph is burned into my brain, growing in hindsight. But it is my relationship with quack grass that really brings out my inner bitch. I swear at the long rhizomes, ripping at them with an unbecoming vengeance and sending dirt flying everywhere. Enlightenment indeed.

I suppose it is something to strive for. When I can approach weeding with the same equanimity as deadheading then I hope it will signal that new level of mindfulness. Yeah, right. The day I can approach that vile monocot without a significant spike in my blood pressure is the day you can stop the presses because I will be at the Vatican applying for sainthood.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


The appearance of winter pansies in the garden shops is always a cure for the aforementioned summer doldrums. Cheerful and bright when summer flowers are starting to fade, they will often bloom into late fall. If we have a mild winter they may still be blooming on the porch next spring.

William Thomas, gardener for one Lord Gambier at Iver in England, is thought to be primarily responsible for the cross breeding that gave rise to modern pansies, as described by Dr. John Grimshaw in The Gardener’s Atlas:

In 1813 he brought Thompson some plants of Viola tricolor and suggested that he try to “improve” them. At first Thompson bred for size and colors by simple selection, but he later began to hybridize V. tricolor with other species including the yellow-flowered European mountain plant V. lutea and the purple Siberian V. altaica, which are both perennials.

Some sources indicate that V. cornuta, an alpine pansy from the Pyrenees of France and Spain, was included in later cross breeding that resulted in the today's pansy (Viola x wittrockiana). This alpine pansy was also bred to create the modern viola.

The only problem I have with pansies and violas is the enormous selection. I spend an inordinate amount of time selecting, putting back, picking up and holding next to another color…and so on. This year is no exception. I finally settled on two violas, ‘Penny Beaconsfield’ and ‘Sorbet Yellow Delight’ and two pansies, ‘Crystal Bowl Scarlet’ and ‘Imperial Antique Shades’. I am still watching for ‘Jolly Joker’ a dark purple and orange bi-color that has always struck me as perfect for Halloween.

The pansies were not ready to photograph but below are the two violas.

Monday, September 06, 2004


Comforting rituals, reliable markers of the wheel of the year, define a gardener’s month to month journey. The miracle of a seed, the first tender lettuce, the bounty of summer crops; all are a pleasure to experience anew as the months pass.

The late summer garden doldrums, while not particularly enjoyable, are as much a part of my gardening year and as reliable. My garden in the doldrums is getting blowsy, overrun with weeds and generally down at the heel. It is harder to continue weeding when all the signs of cooler, rainier weather and coming winter are there to read. The light is changing. Not only does the sun rise later and set earlier, but that almost imperceptible lengthening of shadows, which will give rise to that most glorious light of autumn, is beginning.

Humans are not immune to circadian rhythms. We have light receptors and respond physiologically to subtle changes in light. If we are wired to recognize changes of light in a 24-hour cycle why not in larger cycles? Is it surprising that we begin to slow our garden activities though the daytime temperatures tell us it is still summer? No more surprising than the late winter surge of energy and the compulsion to start seeds regardless of the inhospitable conditions outside the window.

Still, the listlessness that marks my summer garden doldrums is always a bit unnerving. I suppose that when I am able to accept this as part of that wonderful ebb and flow that draws gardeners to cultivate and nurture then I will have learned yet another of the many lessons that gardening has to teach.

Saturday, September 04, 2004


The bulb catalogs are arriving. Browsing for bulbs differs in quality from the rainy-day catalog ritual of January. Even in the middle of winter, spring has inevitability. Looking out to the dripping sunflower stalks looming gray in the mist, one can still imagine sunlight on the April garden. Bulb shopping, however, is a small act of faith. Spring is not a given on the continuum of seasons. It is fully two and one half seasons away. Planting bulbs is not, as leaps of faith go, as dramatic as planting a tree. But in a world gone mad it is possibly the biggest leap I can manage at this time.

With regard to bulbs, glossy pictures and great prices have always seduced me. Last year’s experience may have changed that. Admittedly the planting was late. But I once planted well into December and was nevertheless rewarded with stunning displays. Last year’s performance was tepid, with less than half of the bulbs blooming, and many of those stunted. This failure has served to reinforce the adage ‘you get what you pay for’.

As a consequence, I have been looking around for a new bulb source. Colorblends (Schipper and Co.) offers an extensive selection and wholesale prices but you must buy in bulk. They received rave reviews at Garden Watchdog (a great resource for discovering information about garden retailers).

In keeping with that time-honored tradition of garden shopping, overindulgence, I submit my selections:

Tulipa Bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’
Narcissus bulbocodium conspicuus ‘Hoop Petticoat’
Narcissus jonquilla ‘Pipit’
Narcisuss ‘Cheerfulness’
Tulipa The Crusaders blend
Tulipa 'Big Eartha'
Later added two from Ebay
Narcissus triandrus 'Hawera'
Narcissus cyclamineus 'Jetfire'

I was delighted to note that several of the above are included in the gardens of Paghat the Ratgirl. If these are good enough for her garden they are certainly good enough for mine.

Hopefully, this year’s bulb planting will be more timely.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Coleus monstruoso

Well, not really. This is Giant Exhibition Limelight (Solenostemon scutellarioides, previously known as Coleus blumei)

The leaves on this beauty are 6 inches long and four inches wide and the color leaps out in the shade, mixing well with darker foliage plants. A couple of years ago I grew Limelight with Palisandra, a purple, almost black, Giant Exhibition coleus. Now I see that Park’s is offering a collection (not mix) of this series. In addition to Limelight and Palisandra , it includes Tartan (green, cream, burgundy, and hot pink), Copper Queen and Scarlet II. I suppose I will need to wrestle with my mixed feelings about Park’s because, come January, I know I will want must order these.

For years Park's was the only source I could find for Fairway Rose coleus( outside of a mix). This coleus has always been essential to one of my favorite shade combinations. Paired with just the right shade of magenta impatiens to match the center of the coleus and filled in with white lobelia it makes quite a show.

It was while browsing for Fairway Rose that I ran across the Giant Exhibition series. I believe these are contemporary hybrids of the heirloom coleus that were said to be quite the rage in Victorian times.

I have always used coleus as a companion, a background to showcase other plants. The Giant Exhibitions are bold and take center stage in a planter. I'm looking forward to trying some of the other colors.