Game On, Spring

As February races toward its conclusion, this Austin garden is ready for spring.  I started pruning in late December, after the first of the freezes lay waste to the herbaceous  perennials in my gardens.  I’ve been pruning since.  Seven garbage cans full of garden detritus every week, for almost two months.

Plants like Turk’s Cap (Malavaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) are whacked.

The luscious, sunny-blooming Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata)? Nary but sticks protruding from the ground.

The Martha Gonzales Roses are reduced to a fifth of their full size.

Some Variegated Flax Lily (Dianella tasmanica),

fared better than others in my gardens.

All I pruned from the Flax Lily were the freeze damaged straps.  It’s the one plant (I have four groups of them) that I dutifully covered with each freeze forecast into the 20s.

And the  Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) and other evergreen native shrubby plants are pruned into tidy balls,

or spindly bits of green perched on woody stems, waiting for the just right  light and breath of warm spring air to burst into new growth.

I still have more to prune, but I’m almost finished for the year.

I didn’t lose any established plants this winter and that gratifies me and validates my garden choices.  I choose natives or hardy non-natives, with the occasional splurge for the newest, cheap thrill plant that everyone (okay, just gardeners) is talking about.

I always think of the winter landscape as barren, but it isn’t, even in this winter which was colder than any of the past 19 years.   With most of the flowering perennials in my front garden temporarily gone, I’m reminded how nice my ignored-most-of-the-year evergreens are during their winter concert on this sunny February day.

And in my back garden, I like the clearly defined garden and pathways.  The iris and yucca straps dominate,

while the Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata) insinuates its soft green carpet anywhere allowed.

I have a clean pond, which will make pond maintenance easier for the rest of the year and appeals to my aesthetic sense.  I don’t think the fish care whether I clean the pond or not.

Spring is almost here.  The Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) is pruned to the ground

but life begins anew.

The Columbines (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana) are lush,

their first buds emerging.

Bring it on, Spring.

Evergreen Beauty

Another word (or two) about Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior).  I would encourage gardeners with shade to consider this striking plant.  It’s a great staple  for the shade garden because it adds graceful vertical structure for background and definition.

Aspidistra  is evergreen, deer resistant and heat, drought and cold hardy. I’ve never had any insect problems with this plant.  It’s pairs beautifully with Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium),

Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus),

and Giant Lirope (Liriope muscari).

During the winter months when the herbaceous perennials have frozen and are pruned to the ground, it’s nice to have the deep green, wide, strappy leaves to give a garden form and structure.  During the growing season, Aspidistra compliments flowering perennials with additional,  tropical-like lushness. According to literature about the plant, there is a bloom associated with it, but I’ve never seen one in any of my plants.

Cast Iron Crisp

Cast Iron Plant, (Aspidistra elatior), is an old fashioned plant, probably over-used in places, but for a dry shade garden, it’s excellent.  Cast Iron Plant is native to China, so I have to deviate a bit from my cheer leading about using native plants in the garden while I extoll  the virtues of this plant.  It has smooth, wide, evergreen leaves and lends itself to a lush, tropical look, especially in dark areas of the garden. (In the photo below, the Aspidistra  is fronted by Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

It grows from rhizome roots and is a xeric addition to any shade garden.  The rhizomes can be separated from time-to-time (best in February/March), but it takes years for it to become over-crowded. It’s a great pass-along plant! Cast Iron Plant does benefit from pruning every two-four years.   To do this, prune near the base of the plant (2-3 inches above the soil)–again this is best done in late winter/early spring.  Soon, the new leaves will unfurl themselves, verdant and lush, fresh from the soil.  Most years, I prune only the leaves that are are brown and ragged looking, so I don’t have a barren area for any length of time and it keeps the clump of Cast Iron looking its best.  Plus, it doesn’t take much time to prune only what really looks tired and cranky.

I see many gardens with Cast Iron Plant that are brown, ragged and torn–in short, a horror. I think there are two reasons for this. 1) The poor babies haven’t been pruned. Ever.   And, 2) the plants are in full or nearly full sun.  Aspidistra shouldn’t ever be in full sun and with a variety of more appropriate plants for full sun and  with the limitations for shade, Cast Iron/Aspidistra is a must for the shady garden.

With the exceptional drought and record heat that Austin has experienced this summer of 2011, I have noticed something about one clump of Cast Iron in my garden.  This clump is in the center of a garden which is in dappled shade for most of the day, but receives the hot, blast of west sun after 3PM.  In June, the Aspidistra  was normal looking for summer–nice ‘n green and generally attractive.

By August, the searing temperatures had done a number on the “nice ‘n green.”  The leaves are yellow and in some places, brown.

(Gee, maybe I can pass this new look off by claiming that these are the variegated types.  Then again…maybe not.)

The other clumps of Cast Iron in my garden are looking good (all in shady spots), so I think that the culprit for the nasty discoloration is most likely the high temperatures and exposure to the deadly rays of the sun. This particular clump of Cast Iron has been in that garden for almost 13 years and I’ve never seen this happen before.  I plan to prune the entire clump in February and see what happens next summer.  If the temperatures of Summer 2011 are an aberration, then I think the Aspidistra  will be fine in the future.  If the trend of exceptionally hot (not just normal Texas hot) summers is the new normal, then I’ll remove this clump of Cast Iron and replace it with something else.  Probably a native plant like Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) or American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).