Seeding the Sense of Wonder

Digitalis ferruginea gigantea in the Garden

Downstairs in the kitchen before any other human is afoot is my time for reading and coffee – lots of both. I’ll sift through my library of garden and nature books, gathering strategies and jotting down ideas. I’ve gotten to page 124 of A Gardener’s Life by The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, when I run across another remedy for bulb scavenging squirrels and mice. As a deterrent the Dowager says, mix cayenne pepper with water to a slurry consistency, dip the bulbs and plant.

This beautiful book, by a woman who writes as well about gardens as she designs them, includes such places as The Museum of Garden History in London, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Chateau de St Clou in Provence. I’ve often wondered what it might be like to garden within a thousand-year old stone wall – no need, then, to treat my Camellias with an anti-desiccant as I did yesterday. The warmth off the wall would be a worthy opponent for the winds and plunging temperatures of the recent chaotic winters. And, oh, to have the funds and labor to plant an allee of sixty-year old olive trees. But then I’d miss the satisfaction of completing a three-foot section of my own dry-stacked wall. It’s been a bit like building a cathedral. You know you have a life’s work ahead of you, never seeing the end, knowing the purpose is in the journey. And I have my own grove – one potted olive, one Meyer lemon and an eight-foot bay laurel, each moved inside the hoop house at the onset of winter.

I head outside into the wind and chill to take a walk through the garden and woods, reconnoiter, stop to scoop another bucket of leaves from the ponds now overflowing with autumn’s leafy tapestry. Late in coloring this fall, the possumhaws, Viburnum nudum, hold fast to their leaves, only now beginning their transformation through the kaleidoscope of marmalade, mango, peach and Merlot.Against the kitchen wall, a foxglove – Digitalis purpurea – sends up a late bloom spike. A single bud revealing a dollop of strawberry cream in spite of the recent eighteen-degree dawn, an incongruous reminder that I want to order more seed. This year, I’ll add D. parviflora, called the “chocolate soldier”, and D. ciliata, the hairy foxglove with bell- shaped creamy blooms, and perhaps D. ‘Anne Redetzky’, the creamy petals cut and fluted. Stiff competition for them, though, in the D. ferruginea gigantea I started from seed two years ago.

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Foxgloves start easily from seed. I scatter them across a flat filled with potting soil topped with a thin layer of vermiculite. Depending upon the species, I leave them exposed to the sun or cover very lightly with another sprinkling of vermiculite. Once watered, the vermiculite conserves the moisture necessary for sprouting while its structure promotes adequate drainage – that mythical grail of all gardeners. In all my years in the nursery business it’s the propagation method I found most reliable. In my present small greenhouse, the flats are kept on a bed of sand heated with coils and lit by plain old fluorescent bulbs, hooked up to household timers. One day I’ll break down and buy the more efficient LED lights. For seeds needing winter cold to germinate, I leave the trays on racks without heat.

Another seed I’ll be planting come spring is the fragrant sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus ‘April in Paris’. This past April, I planted a packet next to the walls of our ‘Ruin’, sheltered from the prevailing winds. I didn’t hold out much hope. Not only had the horrendous winter stymied my earlier planting, but my success with sweet peas in the past has been pitiful at best.

Intense and intoxicating, the fragrance greeted me one morning as I stepped out the door. Mesmerized, I stood for a moment my nose in the air. Then I remembered the sweet peas. Walking down the path to the Ruin, I encountered their creamy pastel blossoms nodding over the wall, practically gleeful at my amazement. Even into July’s muggy early days, they continued to offer a blossom or two, making me smile.

As soon as it became available this fall, I ordered more seed from Renee’s Garden Seeds, Four packets. One, I’ve already sown, covering the seedbed with six inches of mulch – a trial for our Zone 7A. Starting in late February, I’ll sow another pack, then another in March and again in April. See if I can have a succession of ‘April in Paris’.

C. sasanqua ‘Orchid’

My morning rambles takes me around the spiral pathway through Kim’s Garden and past the “October Magic” Camellias, bred by Bobby Green of Mobile, Alabama. Their magic is palpable, resonating this year from C. sasanqua ‘Orchid’, rich in blooms. Six feet away, ‘Bride’, looking beautiful in her greenery, hides one lone bud on her backside. Behind the first ‘Orchid’ at a remove of possibly ten feet, another stands budless. A little further around the path, ‘Inspiration’ looks virginal without bud or flower. The only other Camellia in the entire garden that bloomed this year, and she rioted flowers, was the C. sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’. They all endured the same cruel weather from last winter.

C. sasangua ‘Setsugekka’

The same compost and pine bark amendments. As in all shade gardens, the light varies somewhat, but surely not that much in such short distances. The flowering beauty is a year older than a couple of the other Camellias, but others are the same age. Perhaps the ‘Orchid’ is planted a little higher on its mound. Would that make the difference? But the ‘Setsugekka’ is not, but it is planted in the protection afforded by the back porch. Ah, the vagaries of the natural world are endlessly fascinating, launching a lifetime of discovery and revelation.

Back inside, I turn on the radio. Some host is recommending the best Notepad, I-Pad, Amazon Fire type device for a four-year-old this Christmas. Say, something under a hundred dollars or so.

With a pack of seeds, a little water and a few moments in time, that father could give his child a world of exploration and adventure, and that ever more elusive, so easily lost, sense of wonder – all for a pittance.

Become Lost in Wonder,