Monday, June 15, 2015

Carolina Gardening: Year One, Part One

Last year's "garden," on our back porch.
If this spring was about changes and shifts in my internal and work worlds, it has also been about the kind of growth that happens slowly, under the earth at first, then out in the open. The garden we had back in California always felt like a paradise I escaped to whenever I could. When the boys were born, I didn't garden, because new-parenthood turned out to preclude gardening for me. I know, there are some parents who garden with their infants strapped to them or lying blissfully on a blanket nearby. Those infants were not my infants, and I could not have been that parent.

The Oakland garden at its best.
And now we've left that garden behind, and while I miss our California poppies and the 11 month growing season, I am learning to garden here in North Carolina.

All this grass was great for three-year-olds to push stuff around on at first, but when summer struck, much of it turned to hard-packed earth and weeds. There are some new aspects to my gardening here: for one, we could afford to do some hardscaping, so we did (ah, the joys of a lower cost of living!).

My favorite part of the brickwork.
Extra bonus: the hardscaping meant tons of pre-turned and pre-mulched soil, saving us most of the effort that it takes to start a big old garden from scratch. The dry creek lends structure to the yard and creates different planting zones: the hummingbird garden, the butterfly garden, the semi-shady but mostly sunny stuff.

And we made a space for the boys to play in while we work and laze outside, which makes tending a garden easier. The bottles, above, like the plants, are a long-term project.
No, the sand looks nothing like this now.

But the creek is always like this when it's wet.
As it turns out, our soil is somehow even more clayey than in CA. So some plants we can keep growing here—salvias, buddleia, agastache, and penstemon (below) all do well.

Berries also grow well here, and I've planted two varieties of raspberry and a thornless blackberry in the hope of recreating our years-ago bliss. And there are new things to grow, like blueberries! A tomato hornworm and a flock of cankeworms did some serious damage to one plant, but next year we should have a small, delicious harvest.

Other new discoveries: Pink muhly grass and easy-to-grow verbena (below), the latter of which somehow stayed green over a very cold winter.

The sun-drenched strip along the south side of our house is where I'm slowly building a butterfly garden to delight our eyes when we're looking out the windows. Across from that strip is another, wider strip which I haven't planned out yet; we got suggestions from our land design folks that I'm toying with, but I'm saving that planting for the fall. For now, I'm cultivating a fine collection of weeds and volunteers from my neighbor's yard. And some muhly grass (barely visible to the left below).

In the butterfly strip above right, you can see how wonderful my neighbors are: one of them gave me a ton of plants and seeds to experiment with last fall—the anise hyssop (foreground) and salvia (next down the row on the right) are doing splendidly. A month later (below), you can see the hyssop nearly covers the garbage carts, while the rest of the plants have started filling in nicely.

Not pictured in this post are the gorgeous red yarrow that I dug out of the same neighbor's yard this spring, and the thyme I dug out of another neighbor's yard. Everyone has irises to share, of course. And the brilliant carpenter who built our shed and gate has brought me a few lovely hellebores which will be beautiful early next spring. This kind of community is exactly what I was hoping to find here. Some people go to church. I stand around and look at plants and talk to my neighbors. Below, an aster that I pulled from a neighbor's yard last fall wakes up in April.

All kind of things have been slowly emerging in the last months. Some things take longer to reappear than you would think, if your main gardening life has been in always-growing California. Dormancy made me worry that all my plants were dead, when really they're just taking a long, long nap. And of course some actually did die. That's disappointing, but anyone who loves plants knows that a dead plant is just an opportunity to acquire more plants.

The same aster is the big thing center/rear-ish, above. The big tallish thing toward the front is an agastache. That mound of silvery stuff is an artemisia, which is hardly notable except for the fact the Nicky pulled the center of it out not once, not twice, but three or four times. I will no longer get annoyed at him for doing it—the plant certainly doesn't seem to mind.

I am glad that I'm inclined to wait and see if something's a weed before I pull it—if not for my magnificent procrastinating skills, I might have missed the tiny sage that I remember watching die almost as soon as I planted it last fall, and I might have pulled out the pomegranate tree that's now exploding with fresh, healthy growth.

I might have missed the minute signs that the Russian Sage, which looks so spare next to the lush verbena, is healthily spreading its roots. So I will keep waiting, sitting on my favorite step, watching the plants grow.

Russian sage, looking good.

The second thing to bloom in our yard this year: Gaillardia.
The most satisfying aspect of this waiting game is noting the small changes every day, in addition to the big shifts from April to June.
Summer Phlox ('Nicky' varietal—how could I resist)

Asclepias incarnata
Every bud, every tiny flower is a revelation, a sign that things are working. There are more weeds than I'd care to admit, but when it's 100 degrees for nearly a week straight, my focus is on keeping everything alive. So I kill wooly aphids with Dawn, water at dusk, and keep my eyes on the tiniest parts of the plants.

Gosh, it almost looks like a real garden! (asclepias, mistflower, rocks. Pawpaw in background on left)

This coleus. So cool.

Coleus bloom.

It's hard to wait, but the beauty of waiting is learning more and seeing what thrives. I've got plenty of time.