A Gardener’s Notebook: April to June

By: Thenie Pearsall

[[ED note:  this is a pseudonym for Caroline Stone, second wife of George Waters.  SFgate obit in link]]…

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Our keen observer of the natural world returns for a second installment from her garden notebook.

April

There’s a gazing ball, one of those mirrored silver orbs, in a vase in the gazebo, put there a long time ago when some project going on elsewhere threatened its safety and then never replaced. The other day, I heard a scrabbling sound, like little claws on a slick surface, which is exactly what it was. A rufous-sided towhee was standing on it, or trying to, like an acrobat balancing on a large rubber ball turning under his feet. The bird was slipping and sliding down the sides, but managing always to scramble to the top again. Was he doing it for the fun of it, for the challenge, or because he was attracted by his lovely counterpart in the mirror?

Every shade of green is visible today through the back window: the pale silver, weeping, willow-leafed pear; the sage green (what else?) of the Cleveland sage; the deep dull color of the distant eucalyptus and cypress; the fresh new green of the oak and of the brighter plum beneath it; the yellow green of the new leaves on the chestnut rose (Rosa rosburghii); and every shade and subtlety in between.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) made its appearance a month ago, right on schedule, but I was slow getting to it, and soon it was blooming and producing seeds in copious quantities—a brief interval between breaking through the ground and going to seed. I had the offer of a troop of Senior Girl Scouts as weeders, a fund raising event for their troop, and enjoyed an afternoon with five girls and two leaders sitting on the ground, on paths and flower beds, pulling chickweed and singing. They were a pleasant addition to the garden, but too late; I know the chickweed will be back in increased numbers next year.

Years ago, I had a canary, and I used to feed him what I was told by trustworthy adults of the household was “chickweed,” my theory being that if chickens liked it, so should canaries. He did like it, particularly if I could find some with aphids clinging to it. The ferocity with which he attacked them was amazing in one so small; truly “red in tooth and claw.” (Except no teeth.) I have since discovered that the “chickweed” I fed him was actually common pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), which folklore says should be allowed to grow near the garden gate as a sign to the passerby that he is welcome to visit (to help with the weeding, perhaps).

May

New plants enter the garden frequently, sometimes because the gardener fails to eliminate the unwanted before it gets a toehold, but often the newcomers are welcome. I have found, and encouraged, chicory and fennel; blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium) established itself before I really felt established myself; and, of course, California poppies will fill as much space as I’m willing to allow them. I was glad to see, a few springs ago, amole or soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), spreading its long wavy leaves and sending up its tall flower stalks, so delicate and graceful, dotted with tiny green- and lavender-striped lily-like flowers that open at dusk. The early Spanish settlers in California, according to Mary Elizabeth Parsons, used these amole bulbs for washing, and the native Californians threw them in ponds to stupefy the fish and make them easier to catch. I dug up a bulb once—no easy task—to see how it would be as soap. Not at all effective, as I remember. I suspect the Californios relied a good deal on elbow grease and sunshine for whitening their linens.

Another occasional volunteer appeared in great number this year, enough to make me curious about which veronica it was, because it was obviously one of some sort. I finally identified it with the help of the internet site for the UC Digital library, a marvelous resource for those who want to know the real name of what they’re growing, even if they don’t use that name. Bird’s-eye speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) is what this one turned out to be. It’s a charming plant, with tiny flowers, less than half an inch across, with one white petal and three blue ones; each blue petal is finely marked with dark lines. The scalloped leaves are twice the size of the flowers. The shade of blue is much like our native baby-blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii), and the white touch adds to the similarity; but in other ways, it looks like the creeping veronica called ‘Waterperry Blue’. I couldn’t bear to pull it up until suddenly, when the temperature began to rise into the seventies, it turned weedy and brown and went to seed; enough was left, though, to ensure its return next year.

I saw the first curculio beetle of the season the other day, on a rugosa rose, and sighed a resigned sigh. Now, the early morning curculio searches must start, with pruners and a pail of soapy water at hand. It’s a lovely time of day to be out, though, and curculio searching is almost as contemplative an activity as weeding the thyme bed, if not as soothing.

Salvador, my occasional garden helper, is hard at work this morning spreading a layer of alfalfa meal around the roses and working it into the soil—the kind of thing I used to do myself but now hire him to do. He likes the idea of using alfalfa around roses, and it amuses him because it’s a Spanish word, and in Mexico, alfalfa is fed to the—and here his English failed; I suggested “cattle,” but what he was struggling for was “donkeys,” which he finally remembered. I thought briefly of trying to explain that actually I’d rather have the alfalfa after the donkey had transformed it into something better, but it was far beyond my Spanish to convey or his English to understand the concept. Actually, I’ve fed alfalfa to roses for years without knowing why I was doing it, just that I had been told by those who knew that it was beneficial. I’ve lately learned that alfalfa contains a root stimulant called tricontanol, which is good for roses and other plants.

I’ve singled out ‘Reine des Violettes’ from among my roses for special attention this year, and have been giving her regular kill-or-cure doses of fish manure to supplement her diet. She averts her aristocratic nose at the smell, but I’ve made it plain that, though she may be the darling of Graham Stuart Thomas and other eminent plantsmen, to me she is just a troublesome, willful, sulky girl and this year is her last chance. We shall see how she responds.

Rosa ‘Reine des Violettes’. Photograph by William Grant

Rosa ‘Reine des Violettes’. Photograph by William Grant

June

I’m ordinarily quite generous with surplus anything from the garden: figs, roses, tomatoes, and, most recently, zinnia plants, which I’ve been pressing on all the neighbors, whether they want them or not. With blackberries, however, I am a miser. In a good year I’ve picked seven pounds of them in the last hour before dark on a summer’s evening, all in a perfect state of ripeness, and that’s a lot of blackberries. They freeze well, and I have blackberries all year to sprinkle on the morning cereal—as precious as rubies.

A good neighbor, handy with tools, visited the other day. He covets our bluebirds, whose offspring have now hatched, because it was he who built and installed the bluebird houses on the pergolas, to exacting specifications he found in a book somewhere. He put some up in his own garden, too, but has never had an occupant. For tiny things, baby bluebirds make a surprising amount of noise, and ours take turns sticking their heads through the hole in their box, cheeping loudly, while the overworked parents are off in the field over the fence looking for worms and other foodstuffs. The neighbor wanted to know why they nested here instead of at his house, and all I could suggest was that they like vacant fields, with dry grasses and lots of insects, more than they like golf courses, such as the one that surrounds his house.