Common Ground – July 2021

“Parnassus has its flowers of transient fragrance.”

Dr Johnson

The porch triffid, aka Nicotiana sylvestris, continues to confound visitors. Many people have asked me what on earth is that giant plant with drooping white flowers. If you have only seen the very dwarf forms that are sold as bedding plants, then this particular nicotine comes as a big surprise.

Earlier in the season I cut it back since it was so tall (5′) that I was having trouble moving it in and out according to the weather. It responded to being cut back by growing three flower stalks to replace the one that I cut off. It has a beautiful fragrance at night or on cloudy days.

Its natural habitat is in the woods as its name suggests and it does well in partial shade on my front porch.

It’s native to the foothills of the Andes in NW Argentina and was introduced to Britain in 1898. It was a popular go big or go home plant in earlier times. I can picture it with other giants like Gunnera or Crambe. One of my English books shows it growing at the back of a traditional perennial border.

Less intimidating than its huge relative sylvestris is the self seeding annual Nicotiana alata. This is much smaller, maybe a foot and a half to two feet tall. Fortunately for me it has naturalized in the garden and comes up reliably every year. The seedlings appear once the weather turns hot, usually at the end of June. The flowers are pink, white and purple and combinations of those colours. They start flowering part way through July. I discovered that they do well as indoor plants when they seeded themselves into a container that I took inside for the winter. They flowered all winter and smelled wonderful. The lower light level didn’t seen to bother them.

I love all the self seeded annuals which only need to be planted once. All that is required is some thinning when the seedlings appear. Also naturalized here are California poppies and Shirley poppies. These are both flowering by the time the nicotine seedlings start to appear.

California poppies ( Eschscholzia spp.) pop up in the garden paths and bloom in colourful shades of yellow and orange. They have attractive silvery foliage and they survive the first few frosts in the fall.

I always imagined that Shirley poppies  were named after someone whose name was Shirley. But I recently learned that the the Shirley actually refers to a place in Kent. The poppies were hybridized by the Reverend William Wilks in the 1880’s.

These are probably my favourite self seeded annuals. They come in shades of red, pink and white. I seem to have lots of red ones which pop up everywhere among the vegetables and provide some very welcome colour.

I’m trying not to dwell on the unfortunate (for gardeners at least) weather events of late May.

The freezing temperatures froze all my tomatoes. That they were covered made no difference at all. There is a first time for everything, I guess, and I have never had to replant tomatoes before.

The caterpillar invasion is on the wane and I can sit on my front porch again. I’m told that all of my trees except maybe the spruce will recover. One can only hope.

The newly planted lilies were another casualty of the freezing temperatures so won’t bloom this year. I’m hoping that they were only set back by the late freeze and will be fine next year. I hadn’t gotten around to planting the dahlias which was very fortunate. They’re native to Mexico and wouldn’t have been at all happy with freezing temperatures.

Gardening is not for the faint of heart. When your tomatoes freeze you just replant and move on. Summer is finally here after a rough start and it can only get better from now on. My gardening glass is always half full.

It’s encouraging to look at the early summer garden. The dahlias are doing well with the tropical temperatures and rain. I can’t remember what colour they are so am looking forward to being surprised.

Also doing well are the tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. The garlic finally got the rain it needed so I’m hoping for a good crop when it’s finally ready in July.

I’m glad I persevered and watered both flowers and vegetables through a very dry month. Watering and weeding in clouds of mosquitoes is no one’s idea of a good time. But hard work eventually pays off with the glorious (I hope) garden of July and August.

Should I embroider that on a pillow? Water Weed Relax maybe?  My friend the Wind Chime hater would approve I think.

By Jill Williams

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