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.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Truly Black Dahlia

Ginger Clack of Mrytle Creek, Oregon was in her garden about five years ago when a pretty little black flower waved at her. "It just waved at me," she says. "My heart was racing. I waved back."

It was a hell of a hello.

Black flowers are rare in nature -- and the reason is simple. Flowers weren't put on earth to look good in a vase or to create nice combinations in our gardens or to make silly humans smile or to say 'I love you' or 'I'm sorry' or 'Happy Birthday' or any other sentiment. Flowers exist simply to attract pollinators to a plant. It's all about sex. Survival of the species is what matters. And black blooms, it seems, are not a turn on to buzzing bees and other pollinating insects. They prefer red and yellow and white.

But humans keep trying to create black flowers. What is it that makes us want what we can't have? Why do we have to one up Mother Nature? Of course, when it comes to black flowers, mostly all we've done is come close. I mean Basil St. John has been on the trail of black orchids since 1945. And in 1850, Alexandre Dumas wrote The Black Tulip about one man's obsession with an elusive flower. Actually, Queen of Night, introduced in 1940, remains the standard for black tulips -- even though it's more mahogany than midnight.

It's the same with other flowers. Iris Superstition is really dark purple and Dracula's Shadow is deep violet. Hemerocallis Starling is more maroon than black. Fritillaria persica is burgundy. Chocolate cosmos is chocolate. Rosa Black Magic is often billed as the deepest darkest red rose ever. A black hyacinth named Midnight Mystique took the Chelsea Flower Show by storm two years ago, but even its Dutch hybridizer was quoted in The Guardian as saying "it's impossible to create a truly black flower -- there will always be a touch of purple or magenta."

Which brings me back to Ginger Clack. Ginger claims she has what looks to be the first black dahlia. "We've had lots of dark purples and reds that are close," she told me over the phone. "But this one -- we've been showing it and they think this is the closest there's ever been to true black. It's so dark you can't see it against a black cloth."
She sent me the pictures to prove it.
She knew it was special the minute she saw it waving to her. "The bees did the work and it just showed up -- a small single black flower that wowed me." She nurtured that original seedling -- gathering seeds in the fall and overwintering them, then growing and watching and evaluating the next generation and the next. "It's always exciting when you see something special," she said. "One out of a thousand dahlias might be a good one."

Ginger knows her dahlias. She and her husband Ronald have been growing and hybridizing them for more than 25 years at Clack's Dahlia Patch, their 200-acre hay and timber farm, where just over an acre is devoted to their favorite flower. They've introduced about 20 varieties, including this mini cactus dahlia in shades of pink and yellow that they named Shea's Rainbow after their granddaughter. "But we cut back this year," she said. "We're down to 3,500 dahlias. I'm 65, my husband is 69. We grow them all ourselves."

Right now they're concentrating on cultivating their black dahlia so they'll have between 80 and 100 to sell in the fall. Ginger named it Ebony Star -- "because that's what it is."

"The really good news is that it has to have sun," she said. "It gets even darker when it grows in the sun, which is very unusual. And we can take the black gene and get the big dahlias and the doubles. I'm just so happy about it. Of course, if I came up with a blue one that would really be something. There's no blue gene in the dahlia world. I haven't even tried for it. But this black dahlia is special. It's big news. It's a real event in the dahlia world."
Photos courtesy of Ginger Clack

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Little Bit of Heaven

I spent a little time in peony heaven recently and I'm so glad I did. Actually, it's a 7-acre wonderland of sun-dappled terraced hillsides in Thomaston, Connecticut, where Kasha and David Furman nurture hundreds of tree peonies. I tell their story and the story of their nursery, Cricket Hill Garden, in my column.

I was enchanted by the woody deciduous shrubs that the Chinese have revered for more than 2,000 years and that plant explorers brought back to Europe in the 1700s. Just take a look at Coral Terrace and I'm sure you'll understand.
I'll be adding a few tree peonies to my garden in the fall, which is the perfect time for planting since that's when they're dormant. Take care of your tree peony and it will reward you with true beauty. In time, one plant will perfume your spring garden with 50 or more colorful 8-inch flowers.

Make sure it has plenty of room to reach its potential – most tree peonies mature into four-by-four-foot woody shrubs with deep roots. Depending on the variety, some grow into 10-foot-tall superstars, although that might take 100 years or so. Plant it in dappled shade so flowers last longer. Kasha and David place charming handpainted umbrellas in the garden to protect the blooms. Good drainage is essential – a raised bed or slope is the perfect place. Which is why David and Kasha bought their gently sloping property in the Litchfield Hills and why they dug the peony beds three feet deep, then filled in with wood chips and other organic matter. You'll also want to make sure your tree peony is at least eight feet from large trees so it doesn’t have to compete for water and nutrients.

Unlike other garden divas, tree peonies don’t require a lot of fuss. It's hard to believe that flowers this gorgeous demand so little.

But it's true. Protect them during their first winter with a blanket of mulch, and water during the growing season if conditions are dry. Once established, tree peonies are drought tolerant. Feed plants every couple of weeks with liquid fish-seaweed fertilizer. Kasha and David also like a rock powder amendment called Azomite that replenishes the soil with 67 minerals.

When the flower show ends, deadhead faded blooms so young plants don’t put their energy into making seeds. Around the first frost, remove leaves but don’t cut the woody stems. You wouldn’t want to lose a single bloom.

After a day at Cricket Hill Garden, I can hardly wait to grow my own tree peonies. Here are two of my favorites -- Snow Lotus and Yang Gui Fei Wearing a Crown of Kingfisher Feathers.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

What a Croc

George Bush in Crocs?

I may be forced to toss my sunflower-yellow Crocs in the compost pile. Okay, I know they're not biodegradable -- but you get my drift.

Still, President Bush in Crocs -- with socks. OMG, as the kids say. This photo from Getty Images is not a pretty picture.
I'm not surprised that he's wearing the most boring shade of Crcos I've ever seen. And the socks -- it's a footwear faux pas of the greatest magnitude. But then again, why not since he's spent so much time with his foot in his mouth.

Maybe now we can officially call him George "What a Croc" Bush.

Bloggers, of course, are having a lot of fun with this one, but most of all I like what Manolo the shoe blogger has to say.

Tell me what you think.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

"Otherwise Normal People" -- An Interview with Aurelia C. Scott

I just finished reading an entertaining book titled “Otherwise Normal People” by Aurelia C. Scott. The subtitle is even more to the point – “Inside the Obsessive and Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening.”

Aurelia describes a surgeon who convinces roses to open by warming them with his wife’s hair dryer and a lawyer who “chastises underperforming floribundas with a sharp shovel.” She guides us through this alternate universe where truckers and chemists and race car drivers and butchers and anesthesiologists plant and prune and primp and pamper their prickly darlings in pursuit of awards and trophies and a place in the court of honor at the National Rose Show. It’s a book about love and passion and the never-ending allure of the Queen of Flowers.

I caught up by phone with the first-time author from Maine during her West Coast book tour. (photo by Robin Krug)

So what is it about the rose that makes people beserk?
The rose can be so many things – a tiny mini or a great puff with 100 petals. It’s the only flower you can fill an entire garden with – and it won’t be boring. Some of the scents are quite head-spinning. All this on a plant that can make us bleed. Roses are the perfect combination of danger and beauty.

Of all the roseaholics you’ve met, who’s your favorite character?
I fell in love with each person as I met and wrote about them. But I remain head-over-heels in love with Clarence Rhodes – who is famous in Portland, Maine, where I live, for his car-stopping roses – because of his infectious joy and the way he laughs with such obvious pleasure when he talks about them. When I asked if I could come by and see his roses, he said, ‘Sure.’ And that started me on my way with this book.

What’s the wackiest thing you’ve seen someone do to a rose?
It has to be the rosarian in the Carolinas who protects tender canes from impending frost by slipping PVC pipes over each and every stem. Every rose, and he has a lot of them, looks like it’s sprouting multiple pipes.

The book is dedicated to your husband and “to the memory of the women who gave me roses” – your mother and grandmother. Tell me a little about them.
My grandmother wore rose-scented perfume. She lived in apartments but she always had bouquets of roses. My mother had a rose garden in Massachusetts where I grew up. She made potpourri from the petals. Roses were a symbol of romance and sophistication to her. She died while I was writing the book.

People who grow exhibition roses seem to be an ingenious lot. Who wins the Rube Goldberg Award for the wildest invention?
Clarence Rhodes for his rose-bloom protector made from empty two-liter plastic juice bottles. Clarence also created an extra-long wand that squirts upward and he’s training sparrows to eat Japanese beetles off his roses.
(Here’s how Aurelia describes the bloom protector in her book:
“He cuts off the bottom of a bottle and wires it into position like a hat over the uncapped top; then he glues a clamp to the bottle’s base. To use the bloom protector, you drive a pole into the soil near a flower . . . clamp the bloom protector to the pole and slide it into place . . . The hatlike top keeps moisture and ultraviolet light off the bloom, and the open bottom ensures air circulation.)

How did the title come to you?
My editor and I were experimenting with titles. We wanted to use the words “rose” and “obsession.” One day she was telling someone what the book was about and she said, “the thing is, in the rest of their lives these are otherwise normal people.” We had our title.

In the book, you admit that you only grow two rose plants. Is the heat on you to grow more?
Well, I have seven now. I was thumbing through a rose catalog the other day and by the time I got to the last page I realized I’d checked off 26 that I really wanted. But I’m not yet someone who’s gone from one plant to 600.

What’s your favorite rose these days?
Gemini, it’s a hybrid tea bred by Keith Zary of Jackson & Perkins. One of the people in the book describes it as a real show rose as well as a good garden rose. And I love Louise Odier, an Old Garden Rose. She’s a big lovely soft pink shrub and she’s incredibly scented. I keep trying to pin her to the fence but she doesn’t like it. I should pay more attention to what the plant is telling me instead of trying to be in charge.

Do you squish Japanese beetles by hand?
When I first heard about that I thought, I could never, it’s too gross. But one day I went out and saw a Japanese beetle on my roses. I was undone with fury and grabbed it and squashed it hard between my fingers. It crunches when you do that. It’s oddly satisfying, you know.

There’s a chapter where you talk about the fungicides and insecticides exhibitors use in their pursuit of the perfect rose. How do you really feel about the chemicals?
I’m an organic gardener. And when it comes to my roses I don’t mind what one grower calls “a pretty good scattering of yellow leaves.” In my heart I was prepared to disapprove of the chemicals they use. But I must say that most of the exhibitors I met use chemicals wisely and with knowledge and care – and as sparingly as possible.

Your book is filled with stories of love and passion. Do you have a favorite love story?
The story of Dr. Satish Prabhu and his wife Vijaya. Because he captured her heart with roses and because he was so desperate for roses after not having a place to grow them when he came to America that when he and his wife finally bought a house, he ordered the entire Jackson & Perkins catalog. Literally. On the flip side of that, there are stories of people who lost love because of roses. But usually they found it again with someone who shared their obsession. A woman on Long Island, Louise Coleman, even wrote articles with titles like “How to Grow Roses Together and Stay Married.” Her husband died but she believes he’s still with her in the rose garden, guiding her. It’s her way of honoring his memory.

Will you ever look at Q-tips the same again?
Never. Q-tips are used to gentle tight rose petals apart. Actually, I love watching people groom roses – they use shoe mitts to buff foliage, nail clippers to cut off thorns, crinkly scissors to shear off the dry edges of leaves, artist’s brushes to arrange petals in a perfect spiral. Amazing.

What do you grow in your garden besides roses?
I live in downtown Portland, Maine, on about an eighth of acre with a view of Casco Bay so we get a stiff east wind. I love scented plants – I grow lavender and sweet clethra. I have tall grasses; I like variegated ones as long as they don’t spread. I grow shrub and standard hydrangeas. We got rid of the last patch of lawn last year and replaced it with creeping thyme you can walk on and spreading Dianthus Zing Rose, which is dark scarlet and low-growing. And I have four raised vegetable beds where I grow tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, arugula and ball-shaped lemon-flavored cucumbers – things that are hard to find in stores.

So is there a national rose show in your future?
Well, I’m speaking at the Spring Nationals in St. Paul, Minnesota later this month. But I think it will be awhile before I exhibit any roses there. Maybe one day I’ll try a local show. The people I wrote about don’t understand why I’m trying to resist.

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