Monday, May 3, 2010

Old Friends and New

Over the few weeks from April through May, a tremendous transformation takes place here in zone six. A barren landscape, of leafless branches, is remade by Natures’ unseen hand into a lush green habitat. The icy silence of winter gives way to a cacophony of birdsong as woodpeckers and robins, sparrows and wrens, titmouse and cardinals set up housekeeping amid the new growth. We have reached that point in the growing year when each day heralds the appearance of something new in the garden. One experiences the joy of greeting “old friends,” established perennials making return appearances, as well as the chance to become acquainted with “new friends,” “ingĂ©nues” on the gardening stage that one is introducing to ones garden for the first time.
At Penrose bungalow, the “old friends” include stalwarts like Lilac, “Syringa Vulgaris,” and peony, Festiva Maxima, poised to open their blossoms in time for Memorial Day. There is a thicket of Irises, short, tall and bearded. A variety of Lily’s have broken the surface of the ground. Poppies, including Papaver Somniferum “Drama Queen,” are returning to beguile me with their saturated color and silken petals. Monarda, Jacob Kline is back, thicker and more robust than ever, a favorite of the bees. Then, there is Echinacea and lavender, Leucanthemum superbum “Becky,” and Geranium “Johnsons Blue,” among others, all of these appearing right on cue to fulfill their roles of supplying color, texture, beauty and fragrance and even sustenance. This “resurgence” extends to the potager, where the “Fish”peppers that over-wintered in the basement “limonaia,” have finally been brought back outside, and the Rhubarb has sent us scampering for our recipe books.
In the “new friends” category, there is excitement in both the flower and vegetable beds. Thanks to a generous free seed program from , for the first time we have heirloom Italian Kale “Lacinato,” Snow peas, “Oregon Giant,” and lettuce “Sea of Red” sprouting in the potager. In fulfillment of one of last season’s resolutions, “J” has introduced Kniphofia “Red-Hot Poker” to draw ones eye to the far end of the north flower-bed, as well as a profusion of gladiola bulbs. I cannot forget that growing up, Mother disparaged these as “funeral flowers,” prejudiced I suspect, by their use at her father Lemuel’s burial services more than sixty years ago. Today, I am optimistic that they will provide rich color and tall growth in the back of the mixed border, free of any unpleasant associations.
I had almost given up on the idea of starting plants from seed indoors this year, preferring to wait until it was warm enough to “direct sow” seeds into the ground. One plant however, changed my plans, and I am glad that it did. Do you recall when and where you first encountered a plant that you just “had to have” for your garden? I experienced just such a sensation last year, when, for the first time, I encountered Leonotis Leonurus, or “Lion’s Ear.” This was in the border at Morven, the ancestral home of the Stockton Family in Princeton, New Jersey, and for a time, the residence of New Jersey’s governors. This plant, a native of South Africa, had such presence and such a striking growth habit, with tall, erect stems supporting whorls of orange blossoms, that I risked being pricked by the nearby rose thorns in order to read the tag explaining what it was. Then, a few weeks later, I again encountered Leonotis, this time in the flowerbeds of Temple University ‘s Ambler Campus, outside of Philadelphia, where it was grown to appeal to bees and other pollinators. Yet, no garden center I visited offered it for sale. What was I to do? Thanks to the miracle of the internet, and Google, I was able to locate a company in Apple Valley, Minnesota, that offered Leonotis Leonurus seeds for sale. It took some weeks before the seeds arrived, and then, in the depths of a snowy winter, I doubted that I would ever see anything green growing again.
Then, as April came on, and the profusion of daffodils gave me reassurance that Spring would prevail, I decided to give germinating the Leonotis Leonurus seeds indoors a try. They, along with seeds of Tomatillos (Toma Verde and Heirloom Purple), (thanks again Renee’s garden!) were placed in sterile seed starting mix, “moistened but not wet,” under close-sitting florescent bulbs. The tomatillos germinated so quickly, in less than forty-eight hours, that I became doubly hopeful that the Leonotis would quickly pop from their tiny seeds, as well. But, I had no such luck. A week went by, with me hovering over the tray, making sure that the moisture level and the lighting remained constant. Eight days, then nine went by with no indication of life. By day twelve, I had just about given up hope that anything ever would come of these tiny seeds, that could have been grains of sand for all I knew. Then, on day thirteen, something happened. The morning started as usual, with nothing to report. But, In the afternoon, when I flopped down on the floor to peep into the seed-starting tray, I immediately noticed a “bump” in the soil of one of the “nine-packs” containing the seeds, and, there was just a hint of the pale green that is the color of botanical “life” poking above the soil. SUCCESS!!! The next day, another seedling emerged, then another and another, so that so far, eight Leonotis Leonurus are growing, slowly but surely. According to information on the web, these plants can reach six to ten feet tall, and with care, they may even survive the winter. We will see. Meantime, I predict that these plants are poised for much greater popularity.

It is plenty exciting when plants emerge where one has intended them to grow. Yet, Nature often does her own arranging, placing volunteers in locations of her own choosing. The question is, “how does one respond?” Does one relocate these unintended plants to a more “appropriate” location, or leave them to thrive where Nature has placed them? I asked myself this question, weeks ago, at the first sign of Acquilegia leaves emerging from the crack where the back steps meet the garden walk. An attempt to move the tender new growth would probably have killed it, prompting me to leave it where it was. Now, it has matured and developed a cluster of the most beautiful pink flowers, Natures’ own bouquet, that greets one coming and going. I could not have planned anything so perfect.
Keep gardening!


  1. Great post. I often think of spring as the time to greet all my old friends. And it also refreshing to make new ones :)

  2. I live in Mexico and love Leonotis leonurus, and so do the hummingbirds. We recently moved from the high Western Sierra Madre Mountains to Merida, Yucatan, at sea level. I was disappointed to see that one one knew about Leonotis leonurus here because I think the climate and soil in this area would be perfect for this very tough drought tolerant plant. We visited my in-laws back over in the high central plateau a few weeks ago and I found a large patch of Leonitis lenonurus growing along the edge of a farmer's field. My husband helped me collect a bag full of seed heads and I spent the evening shaking the seeds out. I nearly filled a small ziploc bag with all the seeds. I started them in the ground about a week ago and I see a few sprouts coming up. I have never purposefully grown them from seed--they always just self-seeded so I never paid attention to how long it took or what the seedlings looked like, so I googled it and that's how I found your wonderful garden blog. It's hot here year round--yesterday it was 97 degrees for example, in February, so I'm able to direct sow any time of the year. I'm pretty excited about them. How did yours turn out?