Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Rose Hell

I arrived in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley for the Garden Writers' Association convention Friday and before I knew it, I was in Hotel Hell.

My husband and I were in our room at the Radisson watching TV. Our room was called a "themed suite." It was small, dark and windowless and if there was a theme it could have been called "Decorator's Nightmare." We weren't very happy to begin with because one of our bags had disappeared from the hotel's luggage room while we were waiting for our themed suite to be ready. Suddenly, the TV went dead, the ceiling rumbled, the walls shook. The lights went out. We opened the door and found hallway ceiling tiles falling and a torrent of water gushing down. We weren't in the penthouse -- we were on the first floor. Other guests were rushing out of their rooms. "It's raining on my bed," a woman yelled.

A tornado had hit the Brandywine Valley. I kid you not. Maybe it was the tornado that was supposed to hit the Bronx.

Except for the hallways and the lobby, the lights were out. The water was out. Afterwards, we learned that falling roof tiles had totaled a car in the parking lot. We decided to go to sleep. But without air conditioning, we woke up an hour later gasping. So we took our pillows and joined the people camping out in the lobby, where the door was open to the breeze and bottles of cold water were distributed. Garden writers are a resourceful bunch, and I had to admire a woman who was walking around with a miner's light shining from her forehead. A Baptist convention was also taking place at the hotel and I have to say that the Baptists were taking it in stride. "This is terrible," one man said to a companion. He paused momentarily and added, "but we're blessed."

By morning, the water was was running again -- in the bathroom that is -- and the electricity was back on. I can't say I felt blessed. But after two hours of sleep on a couch in the lobby, and the assurance that my husband and I would be moved to a different room without a them, I got on a bus with other garden writers from across the U.S. and Canada to the trial gardens of Conard-Pyle, one of the largest rose breeders in the world.

And suddenly, I was in Rose Hell.

This time, I didn't mind. It was hell for the roses -- not for us. We treked into a dusty field on the 375-acre facility to see what it takes for roses to get the Conard-Pyle seal of approval and make it into your garden and mine.

"Welcome to rose hell," said a charmingFrenchman named Jacques Ferare, who sounded like Maurice Chevalier. I thought that any minute he would break out into song. Instead he told us, "It's like boot camp for roses. We're known for plant abuse. We don't irrigate or spray, we may or may not trim. It's less than benign neglect, which is the way most Americans garden."

Long rows of more than 500 varieties of shrub roses -- identified only by numbers -- sat baking in the August sun. "We put them out here and leave them out here," Jacques said. "Then for three years, we just watch what happens."

This is what happens: Sun and drought fry them. Blackspot stains them. Japanese beetles attack them. I've never seen so many Japanese beetles as I saw on the yellow flowers of rose #034096. "If a rose can survive here," Jacques said, "it can survive anywhere." He was impressed by the beetles. "They were very bad this year. I can't ever remember still seeing Japanese beetles in August."

One rose that survived beautifully was Rainbow Knock Out, a hot number these days that was hybridized by Bill Radler of Wisconsin. Bill was at Conard-Pyle too. He hit the horticultural jackpot a few years ago when he created Knock Out, a cherry-red beauty. "I knew when a neighbor who never liked any of my roses finally complimented me that I was on to something," he said.

Rainbow Knock Out just won the All-America Rose Selections award for 2007. It's a coral pink rose with a yellow base that's impervious to black spot. Bill is working on Honey Knock Out, a yellow-white rose to be introduced next year. "I'm still working to get everything right," he told me.

By late afternoon, we were back in the hotel. I should tell you that the staff at the front desk showed grace under pressure during the storm. My husband and I couldn't wait to get into our new room, which has electricity, running water, a large window and a working john.

It seems like heaven.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hit Me, Hit Me -- I'm on the Web

Hey everybody. This is a big day for me. My Web site -- -- makes its debut today, which is an amazing thing for a still-uncertain voyager in the electronic world.

Hit me, hit me -- I'll love it.

And please let me know what you think. If you want to be nice that's okay, but above all be honest.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Calling All Daylily Lovers

I wrote a column about daylilies a few weeks ago and judging from the letters and emails I received there's a horde of Hemerocallis lovers out there. So I have good news for everyone who wanted to know where's the best place to buy daylilies. It's at Farmingdale State University on Route 110 in Farmingdale this Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Long Island Daylily Society's annual sale from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

I tell you this with confidence after spending the afternoon at Melanie Vassallo's house, where society members were busy cleaning, dividing, labelling and packaging hundreds of freshly unearthed daylilies. People started dropping off plants Tuesday and the volunteer assembly line will be cranking right up to sale time.

Melanie organized the American Hemerocallis Society's national convention on Long Island last month and says it was super. She tells me there should be at least 1,000 plants for sale. Everything from large-flowered varieties and miniatures to doubles and spiders. Red daylilies and pink daylilies and purple and melon and orange daylilies. Ruffled daylilies and double-flowered daylilies. Some of the varieties I saw being labelled were tangerine South Seas and red-tipped Spindazzle and violet-eyed Frandeen and pink Denali. And Holiday Song, which blends pink, coral and red and was hybridized by Long Island's own George Rasmussen, who won the President's Cup at the convention for one of his creations.

All the plants come straight from members' gardens so you know they're just right for our area and healthy as well. And they'll be bargain-priced -- no plant will cost more than $20.

A word of warning if you've never been to a daylily society sale. Expect a crowd. But don't expect to see flowering plants in nursery pots. Bloom-time is over. That's why the plants have been dug up and divided. What you'll see are clumps of roots with a couple of inches of trimmed foliage in plastic bags.

And don't be fooled -- foliage isn't the focus. Melanie gets to the root of the matter: "Given the choice of more top or more roots, go for the roots. The foliage will regrow." She suggests looking for divisions with two fans of growth coming from one root system. "On Long Island, daylilies grow two-to-one," she says, "so your plant with two fans will grow to have four."

And don't dilly dally over your new daylilies. If you can't plant right away, they'll be okay in a bucket of water for a few days. If you have daylilies of your own to divide, make sure you get digging before the end of September. You want to give your new plants plenty of time to get comfortable before winter's chill blows in.

Oh yes, expect to have fun at the sale. Society members will conduct a clinic with lots of hints about growing Hemerocallis. And if you see me there looking for bargains, please say hi. It's always nice to meet another daylily lover.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Titan Arum By Any Name Would Still Stink

Opinions varied. Some people said they smelled a rat -- a dead one. Others likened the odor to bad meat. One woman opted for strong cheese. As far as my olfactory senses were concerned, someone forgot to take out the garbage.

I'm talking of course about the world's stinkiest plant -- Amorphophallus titanum, or the titan arum, a cousin of calla lilies, philodendrons and skunk cabbage. It's also known as the corpse plant, but the horticulture staff of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a much nicer name for it -- it may be a real stinker, but they call it "Baby."

I just came back from visiting Baby at the garden, where it is drawing crowds of gawkers and sniffers as well as photographers, TV camera crews and day campers equipped with crayons and sketch pads. We were there because the tropical oddity is in bloom, the first flowering of a titan arum in New York since 1939. All I can say is that my experience was a real gas.

Baby is quite imposing -- with a lime green lower spathe that opened to show a ribbed and ruffled purplish-red collar. Out of that rose a towering pale yellow spadix, or spike. From soil level to tip, the whole thing measures 66-and-a-half inches tall. All I can say is that the last part of the genus name Amorphophallus sums it up.

The basketball-sized corm from which it sprang weighed 45 pounds. Baby was planted 10 years ago at the garden and took that long to grow to its present eminence and bloom. Now, protected by roping and security guards, it holds court in a beautiful Seibert & Rice terra cotta pot.

When I was up close with my nose just inches away, I felt slightly nauseous. But for the most part, the smell wasn't overpowering. Like one bystander said, "We're New Yorkers, we're used to bad smells."

Baby was at its odoriferous worst in the wee hours when nobody was there except for plant propagator Alessandro Chiari, who showed up at 4:30 in the morning. He had to actually stick his face inside the spathe to photograph and measure the vertical band of yellow dots that are the female flowers to make sure they were ready to be pollinated. "The odor came in waves," he said. He put on a respirator mask. "It smelled rotten, totally rotten. The yellow part was oozing, like it was sweating. It really stunk."

I watched Alessandro and Patrick Cullina, vice president of horticulture and Mark Fisher, curator of the Tropical Pavilion pollinate Baby. First came the pollination of the female flowers -- in the wild, carrion beetles and sweat bees do the deed. Actually, that's why the titan arum stinks -- the scent an unmistakable signal to its insect pollinators. In Baby's case, the pollen came from a titan arum that bloomed recently at Virginia Tech and was Fed-exed to Brooklyn. Sort of a botanical in vitro procedure. Today's operation took mere minutes and involved a couple of camel-hair brushes doused with the Virginia pollen that were attached to a long white stick. The crowd applauded as Alessandro made the match.

Tomorrow, he turns his attention to the male flowers. "It's like the male and female live in the same house," he said, "but, well, one's ready now and the other isn't, if you know what I mean. They're not exactly on the same page." He'll cut a section of spathe and collect the sticky pollen from the male flowers with a spatula. This pollen will be stored and made available to botanical gardens hoping to propagate other titans.

If today's human intervention succeeds, a column of red seeds will appear. In any case, Baby will collapse. The giant spadix will wither and the plant will die down into a vegetative crown.

And no one knows when -- or if -- the titan arum will rise again to smell in Brooklyn. As for me, I left the garden secure in the knowledge that I had sniffed the world's stinkiest plant.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Smell Grows In Brooklyn

I'm on the scent of the world's stinkiest plant. I'll be at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden tomorrow to catch a whiff of Amorphophallus titanum, AKA the corpse plant, which is blooming this week.

So check back here tomorrow for my report. And in the meantime, take a look at what's happening in Brooklyn.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Fall and Rise of the Sunflowers

This spring out of concern for my husband's back we converted two of our vegetable beds to flowers. Sunflowers, to be exact. I saw the variety known as Italian White in one of my favorite catalogues and it looked great. I wanted to go subtle -- no mammoth sun-faces on gargantuan stalks.

I admit that I wasn't wild about what came up -- little flowers that hung their heads on skinny stalks. But then the rains came and kept coming. When the rain finally stopped what I saw was far worse -- little flowers on skinny stalks sprawled in the mud. I came within an inch of pulling them all out. Maybe dahlias, I was thinking. But my stubborn streak prevailed. By the end of the day, the fallen flowers were all staked up.

And then the hot days came and kept coming. The sunflowers never wilted. When I turn into the driveway, I can see them standing tall inside the green picket fence. They look terrific. Sometimes, you just gotta believe.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Some Like It Hot

I was out and about the other day in the 100-degree heat and I could feel my own temperature rising. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I was driving my beat-up un-airconditioned black Honda CRX. It had to do with the sprinklers I saw on lawn after lawn, some of them watering the driveway or the sidewalk, even the street.

Come on guys. When the globe is warming and the world around us is wilting, why is a green lawn still a badge of honor? It's time to give the lawn a break. Let it rest. Let it turn a nice shade of beige. It's called going dormant and it's what turf grass does naturally when the growing gets tough. You're better off letting the lawn nap a while than giving it a spritz now and then to perk it up. Believe it. Besides, a splash from the hose or a spray from the sprinkler won't be enough to keep the green green grass of home very green -- nature will take care of that when things cool down. But in the meantime, it will do wonders for the weeds. And what good is that?

So here's my word for the day -- Xeriscape. It's derived from the Greek word Xeros, meaning dry, and it's pronounced as if the first letter were a "z." The idea of xeriscaping, which started as a water conservation measure in Colorado in the early 1980s, is to garden with plants that get along with little more moisture than what comes from the heavens.

There are more of them out there than you might think. Some annuals and perennials you may be familiar with like nasturtiums and hens-and-chicks and black-eyed Susans and Echinacea purpurea (both shown above in my garden) and Gaillardia and yarrow. And some you may not know like gomphrena and tithonia and melampodium and Echinops and Agastache -- my favorite variety is Tutti-Fruitti -- and Acanthus and sea holly and Russain sage.

Of course, all plants need to be watered until they're safely established in their new digs. With perennials and trees and shrubs that could take a year or two. The results are worth the wait.

I'm making my wish list now. It's later than you think. Next month we'll be heading into prime perennial planting season. We need all the water we can save.