August 28, 2014

September Stars

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an annual garden planted in May will, by the end of summer, be a sad-looking vestige of its spring glory. Insects, summer heat, drought, and weeds take their inevitable toll.  Even container gardens – groups of annuals in a rich growing medium planted with a density to keep out weeds and conserve moisture – look ragged come the end of August.

Shopping for annuals in early May
Sometimes, though, a lot of pruning and an inspired choice of plant material can yield a container that holds its own right into the autumn.  On this page is living proof that September can be a glory month for color in a New England container garden.

Every year Betty creates more than fifty containers that do everything from define the edge of our driveway to plug holes in beds where plants failed to thrive. Some of the plants in those containers are necessarily ephemeral: lobelia is going to disappear with the summer heat no matter how much water and shade it is given. Salvia is going to get leggy. Also, some plants are thugs and will take over a container, relentlessly pushing out less aggressive specimens.  These are things than come with the territory; the ‘territory’ being ‘gardening’.

But some containers come through the season looking terrific. These photos, taken on August 27, are of containers that have come through June, July and August looking, if not exactly like grown-up versions of their May incarnations, at least extremely attractive. They were kept well watered and were pinched back regularly. 

By the front steps, Magilla
Perilla Purple and torenia
Catalina Midnight Blue
We always cluster one or more groups of containers by the steps leading to our front door.  Usually, the standout mini-gardens are the ones in a pair of cast-iron pots by the front door.  This year, though, a container at the base of the steps stole the show.  The dominant plant rising above the containers is a perilla ‘Magilla Perilla Purple’, a plant with leaves so vividly purple and pink as to look like an op-art painting.  But cascading down the side of the container is a calming torenia ‘Catalina Midnight Blue’.  Torenia usually grows best in shade. This specimen, though in an ostensibly sunny location, gets a break courtesy of the aforementioned perilla (which is a member of the basil family of all things).  ‘Catalina Midnight Blue’ is in perpetual flower and is self-deadheading.  (Double-click on any photo to get a full-screen slideshow.)

Four containers have grown into
a symphony of blues
There is also always a cluster of containers by the junction of the sidewalk and our driveway.  This year, four pots have grown into an inseparable symphony of blues.  The trailing clusters of flowers in the low gray container are verbena Royale Chambray, the dark blue ones covering the top are calibrochoa Cabaret Deep Blue.  The black pot contains a thriving French lavender called ‘Blueberry Ruffle’, a diascia ‘Darla Rose’. The abundant pink flowering plant in the tall gray pot is a nemesia ‘Pink Innocence’.  In the rear pot are the towering spikes are of salvia ‘Mystic Sprite Blue’ and cleome ‘Senorita Rosita’.  You’ll also spot artemisia (better known as ‘Dusty Miller’) ‘Silver Cascade’ and a heuchera ‘Sugarberry Little Cutie’.  The latter two plants are perennials that will be rescued from their pots after the first frost.

Coleus and fuscia provide high and
low interest to this pair of
Coleus is a terrific annual and plant genetics have advanced to the point that a breeder can practically design a plant to order – picking out a leaf shape and color palette.  A pair of matching terra cotta containers are usually assigned a ‘Southwestern’ theme of yellows and golds but, this year, Betty elected to push the envelope.  A coleus ‘Mint Mocha’ has come to dominate the larger container, dwarfing the lantana ‘Peach Sunrise’ that was supposed to be the star.  Trailing down the side of both terra cotta pots is fuscia magellanica aurea with red flowers.  Rising above the smaller pot is salvia ‘Autumn Heatwave Sparkle’ and an agastache ‘Tango’.

A different angle on
the 'symphony in blue'
Taken together, these containers are table-pounding arguments in favor of clustering annuals in highly visible locations, watering them generously, and feeding them to keep up their displays from the first of the season to that inevitable hard frost.  Putting them together was an arduous process that occupied many, many hours (think one hour per large container; half an hour for a smaller one). 

When the rest of the garden has accepted the inevitability that the season is nearly over, containers loudly and vividly proclaim, ‘Not so fast…’.

August 1, 2014

The Greens of August

In our 600-square-foot vegetable garden this year we are growing corn, okra, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, eight kinds of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, leeks, beets, spinach, amaranth…. and green beans.

I have no argument with the first fifteen items on the list. There is nothing as flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are neighbors with whom to share the bounty or, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can foist the surplus on people who unsuspectingly leave their car windows rolled down in parking lots. We have disposed of zucchini in exactly that fashion on more than one occasion.

This is one day's haul of green beans
from our vegetable garden
But zucchini is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans have pretty much the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.

For reasons I cannot fathom, this year Betty planted two ‘wide rows’ and one ‘standard’ row of green beans, with the idea that we’d freeze what we didn’t immediately eat. She apparently used varieties with names like ‘Maxi-Yield’ and ‘Garden-Glut’ because we began getting green beans at the beginning of July and are now picking – and I promise I am not making this up –five pounds or more of beans from of the garden every other day.

The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.

Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer for an hour, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.  One reason is that last year our green bean season lasted just two weeks.  Then, Mexican bean beetles discovered the garden and began chomping on everything in sight.  Seemingly overnight, the leaves were reduced to skeletons and the beans were half-eaten by voracious beetles.  But not this year:  Betty covered the beans with floating row covers in early June and the bean beetles have been effectively thwarted.  The beans, which are self-pollinating, thrive under the row covers.  Worse, the second double row is within a week of going into production.

This is what our green bean patch
looked like last year after the Mexican
bean beetles got through with it.
Soon we will be spending half an hour stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating August humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. Did I mention we are running out of space in our freezer?

Dealing with the excess will require ingenuity. Fortunately, our new neighbors on one side are vegetarians, and one of them is a growing teenage boy.  Unfortunately, the paterfamilias of our now-year-old neighbors on the other side is a man whose disdain for vegetables in general (the exception is zucchini) is well known.  I will slip our surplus green beans to his wife and their two adorable children via some Vegan version of the Underground Railroad.

The last row of green beans, a standard-width one, was planted late, intended for September production, and had poor germination. It is currently surrounded by squares of corn and I intend to leave up that corn until the last ear is plucked.  With luck, by the time the green bean plants should be flowering, they’ll instead be shivering under cooling September nights. They will not be missed.

There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and early June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This July and August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.