July has arrived and the long borders are glorious after a cool and rainy spring. Summer is here and while the tended gardens are beautiful, I have a confession. It is not the the glorious flowers of astilbe, bee balm, phlox or even the majestic delphiniums which have caught my attention this summer. No, it is a lowly native plant patch which beacons me and Gibbs, each day, down into the lower back field. Sometimes it is in the morning with a cup of coffee. Other times it is in the glare of the mid day sun. Often it is late in the day. Halfway down between the barn and the lower field, the scent pulls me forward. It is heavy and sweet and as identifiable, once experienced, as that of lily of the valley or lilac. The milkweed patch, Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, has taken root in the well composted horse manure pile of the back field. As unromantic a start as can be had. In the morning, the flower heads of the milkweed are thick with dew, in mid-afternoon the patch hums with life and in evening the scent seems the sweetest. To stand at the edge, or even in the midst of a patch of milkweed is a revelation. There are moths, bumblebees, honeybees and milkweed beetles meeting for some afternoon delight. A visceral experience of sight, sound and scent. At the recent Fourth of July party, a good part of the afternoon involved several trips down to the milkweed patch. All who traveled there seemed amazed. I have to believe they were being more than polite and the surprise and appreciation at the life in and scent of the milkweed patch was genuine. There are many interesting facts about our native milkweed. It was named for the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius and as expected it has many medicinal uses. The latex like substance exuded from the plant when it is cut or damaged has been used to treat warts. The milkweed plant contains cardioactive glycosides which gives protection from predators to those insects who ingest it. Good news for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly which feed exclusively on Asclepias species. The silky parachute of the milkweed seed is six times more buoyant than cork and five times warmer than wool. The floret of the milkweed has the ability to trap the leg of an insect seeking nectar. A structure called the corpusculum does the trick. This helps ensure pollination as pollen is dispersed as the insect struggles for freedom. The coarse fibers of the stalk have been used by Native Americans to make twine. You can read much more about this plant from the experts but there is no substitute for standing near the milkweed patch where you can hear, smell and see all the life which it supports. I would not recommend this species plant for the manicured border but there are other garden worthy species available such as A. tuberosa, Butterflyweed. Common milkweed is coarse and can be invasive as it spreads from both seed and runners but if you have a sunny field area it would make a great addition to your landscape. I look forward to visiting the flowering patch which will last another week or two but I know, in mid-October, the milkweed will again please the senses as the seeds ripen, the plush parachutes open to catch the breeze and they lift and float to fields unknown.
June begins here in the garden much as May ended-with a gentle rain pattering on the windows and on the garden. Another slow and cool spring gives longevity to the flowers which have dared to bloom. The cool moistness also holds back the iris, peonies and poppies. They stay tightly wrapped, waiting for warmth and sunshine. It has been a while since the garden has experienced either. I know I will yearn for this coolness a month from now. Right now though impatience for sun and warmth after a rainy, cool spring is rampant. Anticipation is one of the major hallmarks of a gardener. We wait for the first crocus, the first iris, the waft of fragrance which signals the month-lilacs and lily of the valley for May here in Rhode Island. June brings the soft sweet smell of peonies and iris and later in the month comes the heavy scent of roses. I had forgotten the fragrance of iris. My husband reminded me. One has to stuff ones nose down into the bloom to experience its unique but subtle fragrance. As June begins here, all is lush with green as the predominant color. How many shades of green exist in the world? The human eye is most sensitive to different shades of green than any other color. I adore green but I am a bit anxious for more color in the garden. It will come. It seems as though we have had more than the average 10" of rain for May but perhaps it has just been faux rain and mist and gray. It has certainly been a month with less sunshine than previous years. Rain may dampen the spirit but it does break up garden tasks giving the gardener a bit of a rest in the frenzy of spring planting, weeding and mowing. I have found that a misty, gray day can be a very comfortable day in the garden. Weeds come out of the earth a bit easier, moisture is kind to the skin as well as the plants and while the knees and feet get a bit muddy both wash quite easily and sweat does not drip down ones face. What will June bring? I will let you know in a month but right now I will just enjoy the green.
Most of the winter has been quite dark here in southern New England. That is, until the second week of February when a snowstorm dropped over a foot of snow. It is amazing what a difference snow makes to the light of winter. December and January were gloomy. All was brown, rust and gray with watery, limpid light. Snow transformed the landscape but the snow of February is doomed more quickly than the snow of December. The sun is getting stronger and the temperatures can and did fluctuate wildly. The back field gave way from white to bare in a matter of days. With an average February temperature of 40ºF here, February is a bridge to the coming warmth of spring. March will be ten degrees warmer than February and just perfect for working outside without breaking a sweat or battling bugs. That is the expected but expectations are not always realized. This past weekend we had three days of over 60º weather. Three days is quite enough. The initial warmth is welcome even while it is unsettling. Unsettling because gardeners know that plant dormancy is necessary for their survival. If a plant breaks dormancy in February here in my garden, it is often doomed. Cold weather and frost will put an end to those green bits of new growth on most plants. There are exceptions of course. Eranthis, winter aconite, shrugs off the cold. It just closes up at night and when morning arrives opens its sunny petals. The early crocus are also a hardy bunch. Those which are leaning against the base of the foundation open first and cooler temperatures keep the blooms happy much longer. Snowdrops are often the first of the little bulbs to bloom here but they are a bit later than the aconites this year. Hellebores with their thick leathery leaves and flowers are really the 'honey badger' of all flowers. Nothing bothers them. Not the deer nor the cold. They bloom starting in December depending on the weather. Their blooms will handle a heavy load of snow. They shrug it off multiple times with none of the exasperation of the winter weary gardener. I will thank Mother Nature for a spring preview and also thank her for returning us to more normal, bracing, late winter temperatures.