A lost generation of gardeners

Plus more chores than you can shake a rake at.

Add long-lived Dictamnus albus to Siberian iris in your perennial garden. - Susan Safford

It is important to share what it is to have a garden, to grow things yourself to eat, or to experience pleasure in being outside, slowing down, and creating your own entertainment and the magic of a garden space. Observing plants and nature, learning to be unafraid of insects, listening to birds and wind, creating a little haven of peace: This cannot be monetized or branded.

The Royal Horticultural Society produced an outcry at the opening of its 2016 Chelsea Flower Show with the statement that a generation of gardeners had been lost due to the baby boomers’ failure to pass on gardening skills to those now in their mid-20s to 40s.

Fred Fisher used to wear a T shirt that said “Keep the Green Side Up,” planting advice to greenhorns who might set the plant wrong side up in the soil. The current tech and texting skill set does not focus on gardening info, terminology, and practices; the incipient interest exists, but is peppered by astonishing gaps.

The approach seems to be that one must go out and buy something; better is to go out and learn something. I sometimes include gardening advice in this column that is a bit basic and “duh!” but people no longer grow up seeing these activities being done. I want people to do it and try it anyhow. See for yourself. Use your garden as a laboratory. Try things.

Worth seeking out

A choice perennial, Dictamnus albus, is seldom encountered in today’s perennial gardens, and when spotted is most likely to be in its pink-veined form, D. albus var. purpureus. Is it choice because it is long-lived? Or is it because the flowers and glossy foliage are refined and handsome? And why is it so little seen in today’s gardens and garden centers when it is also deer-resistant? All are good questions without convincing answers, except to pounce, as I recently did, when plants are available.

The usually seen mauve-pink form has spikes of airy, veined flowers reminiscent of azalea or gaura, perhaps, but on an ascending spike that needs no staking. Mature, well-grown plants may throw as many as a dozen spikes and grow as tall as four feet! White and pink forms both associate well with peonies and irises, especially Siberian iris, sharing bloom time and similar conditions.

The white form, for which the species is named, is a very pure, dense white, something altogether different and eye-catching, especially backlit in the evening garden. Plant dictamnus where it is to grow, in well-drained rich soil in sun.

Propagation of dictamnus is difficult and time-consuming, one of the reasons for its scarcity in nurseries. Letting the attractive seedheads mature on the plants and capturing seed when ripened is one way, but germination is slow. Root propagation is mentioned in sources, but requires disturbing the parent plant, probably fatally.

In the garden

So much to do, so little time to do it. Many gardeners are stretching time to combine jobs and work with their gardening activities, and there is no time of year more chore-ful than now. Here are some things you might want to think about doing: Clean up passé plants in beds, and withered foliage of spring bulbs such as species crocus. Weed out the continuously emerging unwanted seedlings of privet, sycamore maple, Japanese honeysuckle, burning bush euonymus, and more, before they become little trees, strangling vines, and shrubs much harder to yank. Clear away the sections of buddleia, vitex, and hydrangeas that were cold-shocked by recent weather hiccups. Cleanup and prune spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia, lilac, and viburnum — do this before the summer solstice. Remember the adage: If it blooms before June 21, prune right after flowering. If it blooms later in the summer, prune before June 21.

“Chelsea chop” perennials that respond by becoming bushier and better able to stand up to wind and rain; sometimes deer do this for us. Pinch and tie in dahlias; tie in climbers such as rose, clematis, and honeysuckle. Thin tiny fruits on apples, pears, peaches to promote better size and health of remaining ones. Feed and cosset containers to get the best continuing display, and making sure they are watered regularly.

Scout for slugs, chewing insects, and beetles: in particular, red lily beetles and pests of potatoes. In the home-size garden, this is an effective method of control. The small, soft-shelled snails I encounter in certain gardens are serious pests of phlox and dahlia, and are numerous this year. I do not have a successful strategy for dealing with these, yet.

Sow small crops of vegetables at regular intervals: lettuce and cutting greens of all sorts; bush beans; broccolini; radishes and spinach while the weather is still cool.

Pests of hollies and yew

Yews and English and hybrid hollies commonly host cottony or camellia scale and/or other sucking insects. I suspect many of these pests are just a part of the life of a heavily fertilized production plant that is “pushed” by frequent applications of nitrogen, and arrive with the nursery stock.

The honeydew exuded by the insects in turn supports sooty mold that thrives on the plant sugars and turns everything black wherever it falls. Sometimes this is the foliage surface itself, covered with a dull black coating; sometimes it is porches, fences, or hardscape. Insecticidal soap or horticultural oil sprays usually take care of the problem on the plants in one or two applications per season, but this needs to be done on an overcast and cool day. The porches and fences, however, need a power washing or dilute bleach spray cleaning. Yuck!