Passalong Plants.
Steve Bender and Felder Rushing. Foreward by Allen Lacy.
ISBN 0-8078-4418-7.

April 29th, 2007
Passalong Plants

More than any other book, I can see Passalong Plants as a blog. The book is a collection of short essays (posts) focusing on an individual plant. Each entry has a snappy title and all contain a very personal story about encounters with said plant. Nothing formal or academic about Passalong Plants and yet the information is the best kind…words of experience. Most entries have a photograph. Doesn’t that sound like blog format?

Steve Bender (who gardens in Birmingham, AL) and Felder Rushing (who gardens in Jackson, MI) write in a determinedly folksy style, heavily laced with southern drawl. I can just imagine lounging on the front porch, as water condenses on the tall glasses of iced tea, listening to the pair of them tell one interesting plant story after another.

I don’t have to imagine too hard because I had the good fortune to have lunch with Felder Rushing in 1995, the day after he had a book signing at the local garden club. I’d bought three copies of Passalong Plants, one each for me and my two best friends at work. One of those friends just happens to know the owners of Barton Springs Nursery who just happen to know Felder Rushing and the next thing I knew we were all eating Mexican food at ZuZu’s on Bee Caves Rd. His stories were just as funny in real life. I remember especially his attempts to obtain a cutting of variegated St. Augustine grass from a little old lady who had discovered it in her garden.

Before I bought my own copy of Passalong Plants, I’d read the library copy several times. As a beginning gardener I found the writing style a reassuring antidote to all those stuffy books on English or Connecticut gardens. Most importantly, the plants discussed were plants I had growing in my yard and in my neighborhood. And they celebrated the same wacky aesthetic sensibility (bottle trees, pink flamingoes, tire planters) that my neighborhood is infamous for. In short, they spoke my language.

“Jeff McCormack, who runs the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange…describes the fragrance as reminiscent of strawberry and cantaloupe when the flower first opens, changing to burgundy wine and then spiced apples as it ages…I’ll stick to my description of the scent as similar to that of Juicy-Fruit Gum. Vintage 1979 Juicy-Fruit gum, to be exact. — Steve Bender

Passalong Plants didn’t influence just my plant choices for the next 10 years. It influenced the way I wrote about gardening. When I began Zanthan Gardens in 2001, I was primarily interested in writing up Plant Profiles, my own reports on how plants fared in Austin. My layout is loosely borrowed from Passalong Plants: a sidebar with some plant factoids, a photograph or two, and the story of my own experience with the plant. I’m not as funny or as informative of Messrs. Bender and Rushing–but they had an unmistakable influence, don’t you think? Pure inspiration!

“…a bottle tree, what the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture describes as “the poor person’s stained glass window.” I’m not exactly poor, and I’m not looking for a stained glass window, but I do have a bottle tree in my back yard. It’s a stunning specimen, if I do say so myself, composed of rare, cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles. Some folks use plastic milk of magnesia bottles, but these are shoddy efforts.” — Felder Rushing

Rereading the book has been such a joy. I’d forgotten how many plants I’d tried on their recommendation. The point of a passalong plant is that it has to be easy, easy to grow and easy to propagate. Unless a plant is kin to a weed, its chances surviving me are pretty much doomed.

I decided that the best way to demonstrate just how important Passalong Plants has been to my garden development was to make several lists of plants described in the book. The first is the list of plants that were already in my 50 year old yard and thriving without any need of a gardener’s intervention. The second is the list of plants that the book encouraged me to seek out and try. The final list is plants passed along to me…not all the plants I’ve received, just the one’s described in the book.

Leafing through the book I see I have a lot more plants to try and these days I know a lot more gardeners that I can beg passalongs from.

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Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners
On the left, the original book, Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners. On the right, the combined reprint.

April 27th, 2007
Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners

I’ve forgotten where I picked up my original copy of Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners. I suspect it was one of those books that Margaret thoughtfully tucks into our Christmas box. However, browsing Half Price Books, I was excited to find a hardcover edition. My paperback is the 1977 second American printing from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The hardcover edition is an 1998 Ecco Press reprint. Its pages looked fresh and the binding sturdy. I snapped it up.

Looking at it more carefully at home, I noticed the new book was actually a reprint of two works, the second being Bridget Boland’s 1977 Gardeners’ Magic. It was only then that I realized that the new book was named Gardeners’ Lore instead of the original Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners.

That change takes the punch out of the brilliant opening line, “We are not Old Wives ourselves, being in fact old spinsters; nor are we professional gardeners in any sense.. The readers of the Ecco edition must wonder what in the world they are talking about.

And the new title destroys the focus of the book as a celebration of hand-me-down wisdom.

We began to ask all our friends, wherever they lived, for the sort of lore their grandmothers had passed down to them. Modern scientific gardening books we read, of course; but we found in old books too so much practical advice of the grandmotherly kind that the new books never covered that we decided to pass it all on to those who are not afraid of finding a certain amount of superstition mingled with good sense.”

The new book is a facsimile reprint. However, there is one glaring omission. A paragraph has been whited out. There is no explanation for the edit; no indication that this reprint is actually abridged. I might never have noticed it except that it was a story that had stuck in my mind and I looked it up one day to quote it in a comment. And it wasn’t there. I was so angry that I gave the book away.

Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners
The edited page.

Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners
The original page. I’ve typed out the missing paragraph below.

We once read of a family in France who were said to bury the unwanted babies of maidens in the villagery under their vines, presumably on the same principle. but let it not be said that we actually advocate this.

Rose ‘New Dawn’

April 25th, 2007
Rose ‘New Dawn’

After losing almost half my roses to drought over the last 18 months, I feel the wheel of fortune has turned again. 2007 has been a boom year for roses in Austin. Among my own roses, I’m seeing a flush of flowers like I’ve never seen before. The vast number of flowers are weighing down the canes. You’d think we were in England or something. Driving around town, I see it’s the same all over. One block east of Congress on East Annie, a Travis Heights cottage has its front picket fence covered with roses. The roses in every garden I visited this weekend were spectacular.

Three of my roses, ‘Heritage’, ‘Blush Noisette’, and ‘New Dawn’ took the center stage last week. After six years, ‘New Dawn’ is tumbling over the front fence as if she’s modelling for a photo in a rose catalog. The very thorny, stiff canes spread ten feet in each direction. I’ve read that they can get 20 feet long.

The pale pink flowers have a modern pointed shape and are lightly fragrant. (Peter Beales describes it as “well-scented” in Classic Roses. I disagree. He also says ‘New Dawn’ “flowers freely from June to October”. In England, I guess.) They fade to ivory when past their prime. The leaves are a bright glossy green that turns russet after a frost. If you don’t prune the spent flowers, rose hips develop.

Introduced in 1930, ‘New Dawn’ is the everblooming sport of ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’ and the first rose patented in North America. Although the thought of plant patents now conjures up nightmares of Monsanto, after reading about the struggle of rose hybridists in For Love of a Rose, I understand better how important plant patenting is given that you can work for years developing a plant and anyone can stick it in the ground and propagate it.

Which is exactly what I did with ‘New Dawn’. Now I have three ‘New Dawn’ babies, one of which I managed to get planted last December. All three babies began blooming this year on April 22.

The question of whether ‘New Dawn’ is actually remontant keeps coming up on the net. Mine has one good flush in late April, and then a flower or two in the fall. Despite the weather (drought or flood, heat or cold) it is the one rose that always blooms at about the same time each year. Some people theorize that roses being sold today as ‘New Dawn’ have actually reverted to ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’. Others posit that it depends on climate and in Austin’s hot summers ‘New Dawn’ goes dormant. Still others say they have no problem getting repeat bloom as long as they deadhead.

That might be my problem. Of all my roses, ‘New Dawn’ is the one I find most difficult to prune…yes even harder than ‘Mermaid’. Or it could be that it gets too much shade. Mama ‘New Dawn’, which is planted between the pecan tree and the Texas Mountain laurels, gets blooming the week the pecan is leafing out and doesn’t do much the rest of the year. However, it listed as a rose that can tolerate some shade, performing well with as little as 4 to 5 hours of sunlight.

In 1997 ‘New Dawn’ was voted the most popular rose in the world at the 11th World Convention of Rose Societies. Do you grow it? Does it rebloom for you? If so, what are your summer temperatures like and how much sun does it get?
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Zanthan Gardens meadow 20070423
A thrilling, dizzying afternoon.

April 22nd, 2007
Garden Visits

There are two gardens here. The garden that is and the garden I envision. I rarely look at the garden with my eyes firmly rooted in the present. I see the garden of intentions. The paths completed and free from chinaberry seedlings. The nandina and bindweed hacked back and replaced with roses. The lawn level and green. The trees trimmed and the clippings hauled away. The endless pile of mulch tucked into beds. The tools and laundry put away. The plants waiting in the nursery finally transplanted.

Zanthan Gardens meadow 20070423

So having guests come to the garden always shocks me into the present and what is real. When I look at the garden as I imagine a visitor might see it, I panic. Then I’m tempted into that great sin, to say, “If you could only have seen it last week when…”

I can’t remember where I read this was the great sin of having people in the garden but I remember hanging my head with the guilt of it. For a garden exist. in time as well as space. A plant in full glory one day has gone to seed the next–how can you really know a place until you watch it unfold day by day, hour by hour? Come to my house today and you will not see the iris ‘Raspberry Wine’ which was in perfect bloom yesterday, or the spiderwort which filled the southwest corner of the yard with purple last week, or the Tulipa clusiana which I spent hours lying on my stomach admiring last month.

However, today was THE day. The visitors were not just any visitors. They were gardeners, too. And bloggers. Today was the day we Austin garden bloggers (Annie, Dawn, Julie, Pam, R. Sorrell, Susan, Vivé) got together and visited each other gardens. In the real world.

All last week I eyed the skies. We had relatively cool weather so my fears that all the flowers would have shriveled by today were unfounded. Three roses, which have been putting on a show all week, decided they could be showy one more day for me. I watered and cut the sweet peas two days ago and they rewarded me by opening more flowers today than I’ve seen all spring. And the batchelor buttons (which had looked droopy and sad) decided to straighten up and bloom all at once.

rose Blush Noisette

In my relief I did not mind too much that the bluebonnets had mostly gone to seed, that the bluebells and Naples onions had died down, that the yellow heirloom irises had all but disappeared, that scarcely one spiderwort or false dayflower was left blooming, that the larkspur had not really gotten going yet.

As it turns out, I did not spend much time thinking about my garden at all. My senses were overloaded with the sights of the other gardens and the buzz of garden (and blogging) talk.

I’m amazed at how different our gardens are, we who all garden within a 15 mile radius of each other: different plants, different colors, different amounts of sunlight, and different personalities of the gardeners cultivated into each garden. Is there such a thing as a common Austin thread that runs through them all? Certainly none of our gardens would be mistaken for an English garden, a Connecticut garden, or a Seattle garden. And yet there are enough differences that we spent all afternoon asking each other, “What’s the name of this plant? How long have you had it. Can it stand some shade?”

After six hours, I arrive home too buzzed to sleep, filled with ideas, new plants to try, conversations to continue, promises of future lunch dates, and a resolve to finish moving that stupid pile of mulch out of my driveway.

photo: tall bearded iris 'Raspberry Wine'
2003-04-27. Austin, Texas. (zone 8)

April 21st, 2007
Iris ‘Raspberry Wine’

In 2007, ‘Raspberry Wine’ has been the only named bearded iris that I still own that bloomed. Over the years since I first fell in love with bearded iris, my yard has gotten shadier and shadier. Bearded iris are definitely sun-loving plants.

I’d give up on fancy bearded irises except every time one opens, I fall in love all over again. ‘Raspberry Wine’ is no exception. I really like the color and the proportions of this flower. It just needs more sunlight than I can offer it here. Given the poor conditions for irises in my garden the last couple of years, I’m delighted that it flowered at all.

I received ‘Raspberry Wine’ as a bonus iris with my order from Schreiner’s.

Schreiner 2001 M 37″ Claret self. “This vigorous wonder has inherited superb growth habits from its parent Madeira. Seedling BB 326-1”
Madeira X Y682-2: (T453-B, Thriller sib x T449-A: (R183-A, sib to Stardus Memories pod parent, x R208-A: ((Sailor’s Dance x unknown) x Yaquina Blue pollen parent)))

In 2005 ‘Raspberry Wine” won an Honorable Mention award from the American Iris Society. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find ‘Raspberry Wine’ in Schreiner’s Iris Gardens online catalog just now, even though they developed this iris. It is available from Rainbow Iris Farm in Iowa.
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Zanthan Gardens spring bouquet
2004-04-23. Cupani sweet peas, larkspur, pink evening primrose, and love-in-the-mist make an old-fashioned bouquet.

April 19th, 2007
Lathyrus odoratus

Recently, Kathy Purdy at Cold Climate Gardening reviewed Graham Rice’s The Sweet Pea Book which told her everything anyone would want to know about sweet peas. I get the impression from her post and comments left by others that sweet peas are difficult to grow, especially in the US, especially in the hot dry south.

Lathyrus Odoratus Explorer
April, 1998. Bush-type ‘Explorer‘ sweet peas in a wild mix of ruby red, hot pink, and lavender climb over Texas bluebonnets and heirloom yellow irises.

I don’t remember what made me pick up my first packet of sweet peas. I never saw sweet peas growing or as cut flowers before I grew my own. Nor do I think I would have recognize the scent had I smelled some artificial form of it. (Although I’ve read it smells like the cologne “White Shoulders”, my mother’s scent, I don’t make that connection.) Being annual vines, they’re not something you see in the bedding out section of the big box stores. They are not easy to market to the masses these days as sweet peas are neither compact nor can be already flowering when you sell them. You can’t buy a flat of them to pop in for instant color.

Sweet peas were not only popular in another place than I garden but in another time. In Victorian times, British hybridizer Henry Eckford developed the Grandiflora strain, new colors with larger flowers and stronger stems. Then in the early 1900s, Silas Cole, the Spencer family gardener who had been making sweet pea crosses noticed one seedling with large frilly flowers. The Spencer sweet pea set off another hybridizing craze. By 1911 there were over 300 varieties of sweet pea. Only a handful of which survived to the 1980s.

Everyone I read from Celia Thaxter to Tasha Tudor to Steve Bender waxed poetic on lovely old-fashioned sweet peas. And the catalog descriptions from Select Seeds were enticing. I knew I had to try them.

I have always loved scented flowers best. Whether it’s roses, or herbs, or annuals, I’m drawn by the promise of scent. And both its English and botanical names conjure visions of a garden where sweet odors waft in summer breezes. (Visions of a summer obviously not in Texas. How difficult it is to garden where you are when you’re reading sumptious descriptions in garden catalogs.)

They are incredibly easy to sprout from seed…if you start them in the right season. In Austin that’s fall. The first few times I tried to grow sweet peas, I followed the instructions to plant them early in spring as the ground could be worked. That’s too late. Sweet peas seem very unhappy whenever the temperatures hit the 80s…and we can have days in the 80s even in January.

In A Woman’s Hardy Garden, Helena Rutherfurd Ely devotes two lengthy paragraphs to sweet pea culture, including (as Annie mentioned) digging a trench a foot wide and a foot deep, putting a manure at the bottom of the trench, and filling it partially with rich earth and wood ashes. The idea is to hill them up as they grow, so that the roots will remain moist and cool.

Celia Thaxter gives almost the same prescription in An Island Garden

I find Sweet Peas can hardly have too rich a soil, provided always that they are kept sufficiently wet. They must have moisture, their roots must be kept cool and damp,–a mulch of leaves or straw is a very good thing to keep the roots from drying,–and they must always be planted as deep as possible. Wood ashes give them a stronger growth.

Given these demands, I’m surprised I’ve ever managed to grow a sweet pea at all. Generally, it’s too hot, too dry, and Austin’s soil too thin and shallow. Our one advantage in Austin is that we’re over limestone. Sweet peas prefer limey soils (thus the love of wood ashes).

Once you manage to get them flowering, you have to deadhead spent flowers vigorously or they will give up and go to seed. This isn’t hard if you have time to cut bouquets each morning. And that’s one of the pleasures of growing sweet peas.

photo: Lathyrus Cupani sweetpeaHeirloom sweet pea ‘Cupani’ is scented and less bothered by the heat than some newer varieties.

I’ve had the most success with ‘Cupani’ an old sweet pea that people have been growing since the late 1600s. Unlike newer varieties that were bred for showy flowers rather than scent, ‘Cupani’ remains sweetly scented. It also blooms longer and has even self-sown in my garden.

In 2001, I planted ‘April in Paris‘ and the Spencer type ‘North Shore’ in September but had very poor luck with them.

This year I started ‘Velvet Elegance’ on November 24th, planting them into the vegetable garden. They are supposed to be day-length neutral so they start blooming earlier than standard sweet peas. Most were up by December 15th and I transplanted them. They began flowering on March 10th and are still flowering but I didn’t keep them moist enough during some of our 80 degree days and about a third of them have died. Some of the flowers are a beautiful lavender/periwinkle (the seed-packet says “deep violet-blue”). Others are a maroon that I’m less fond of.

photo: Lathyrus Regal Robe sweetpea‘Regal Robe’ produced a mix of colors, some dark burgundy, others rich cream.

I also started ‘Regal Robe’ on December 22nd, transplanted them on January 12th and 31st. They began flowering on March 25th. So far I like ‘Regal Robe’ better than ‘Velvet Elegance’ because the flowers are larger, more frilly, and have more scent.

Overall, my success with sweet peas has been marginal. Mine don’t look anything like the show flowers I see in garden magazines. I manage to get a few flowers in April and May each year. Perhaps one of these years I will get serious and dig a trench. Maybe put up a sturdy trellis. After all, there are so many varieties to try with new ones coming along every year. I think I’ll always leave some space somewhere to grow sweet peas.
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rose French Lace
Floribunda rose ‘French Lace’
St Joseph's Lily
St. Joseph’s lily, Hippeastrum x Johnsonni, so-called because it usually blooms on the saint’s day, March 19.

April 15th, 2007
GBBD 200704: Apr 2007

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

My desire to compare and contrast made me want to keep a running entry. But how to organize it? Have all the months of one year so that I could track progression of blooms. Or organize the entries into months, so that I could see how April differs from year to year? I decided on the latter.

The garden is at its height right now. In fact, many plants (bluebonnets, coriander, spiderwort) are beginning to fade and I’m pulling them out. But April is my month for irises and roses.

April 15, 2007

  • Allium neapolitanum
  • Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Magic’
  • Commelinantia anomala (false day flower)
  • Consolida ambigua (larkspur)
  • Coriandrum sativum (cilantro/coriander)
  • Iris flavescens ?
  • crinum
  • Diospyros kaki ‘Eureka’ (Japanese persimmon)
  • Duranta erecta
  • Engelmann daisy
  • Hippeastrum x johnsonii (St. Joseph’s lily)
  • Lathyrus odoratus ‘Regal Robe’ (sweet pea)
  • Lavandula heterophyla ‘Goodwin Creek Grey
  • Lupinus texensis (Texas bluebonnet)
  • N. jonquilla ‘Quail’
  • Nemophila insignis
  • Oenothera speciosa (evening primrose)
  • Oxalis crassipes
  • Oxalis triangularis
  • Phlomis lanata (Jerusalem sage)
  • Polanisia dodecandra
  • Rhaphiolepis indica (Indian hawthorn)
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette
  • rose ‘Ducher’
  • rose ‘Heritage
  • rose ‘French Lace
  • rose ‘New Dawn’
  • rose ‘Madame Alfred Carriere
  • rose ‘Penelope
  • rose ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison
  • Salvia farinacea ‘Indigo spires’
  • Salvia greggii ‘Raspberry’
  • Solanum jasminoides (potato vine)
  • Spiraea bridal wreath
  • tomato
  • Trachelospermum jasminoides (Confederate jasmine)
  • tradescantia (spiderwort)
  • Tradescantia pallida (purple heart)
  • Verbena canadensis
  • viola
  • yaupon holly

This left me speechless and AJM had to leave the room.

April 12th, 2007
Daffodil Rap

From the Cumbrian Tourist board, Wordsworth for the YouTube generation. Yep. Wordsworth’s “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud” has been turned into into a rap in order to make it appeal to a new, younger audience.

“A spokesman for Cumbria Tourism, which was behind the innovative approach to th. poem, said: ‘Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem has remained unchanged for 200 years and to keep it alive for another two centuries, we wanted to engage the You Tube generation who want modern music and amusing video footage on the web’.”

I don’t mind the rap nearly as much as I mind the guy dressed up as a squirrel in the video…er, that’s MC Nuts…actually Sam the mascot for the Ullswater Steamers. shudder

There were no daffodils in bloom the last time I was in the Lake District and, I’m happy to report. no rapping squirrels either!