He­len Ches­nut

Times Colonist - - Homes - HE­LEN CHES­NUT Gar­den Notes

Now that the weather has turned cold, I’ll be miss­ing the oc­ca­sional visit with keen gar­den­ing neigh­bours, sit­ting in their small, metic­u­lously de­signed and main­tained front gar­den and sip­ping the best cof­fee in town — one of Tom’s spe­cial­ties.

Com­fort­able benches and chairs are set out in the midst of con­tain­ers planted with small trees, shrubs and flow­ers by the front en­trance to the house. The ar­range­ment is ideal for tran­quil re­pose. A small lawn presents a brief in­ter­val of rest­ful green be­tween the flow­ers and benches and a small pond, whose gen­tly bur­bling de­vice im­parts a sense of im­me­di­ate calm.

Look­ing out across the lawn, my fo­cus is al­ways drawn to an im­pos­ing western white pine lean­ing out from the far edge of the pond. When the tree was young, Tom in­duced it to grow at a lean rather than up­right by weigh­ing the trunk down with a rock in a stocking, which he tied to the tree.

Fruit-tree grow­ers some­times use the same method to bring branches down from a near-ver­ti­cal to­ward a more fruit­ful di­rec­tion, closer to the hor­i­zon­tal.

As the tree grew, Tom pruned and shaped the de­vel­op­ing branches into ir­reg­u­larly tiered “clouds” of fo­liage — bon­sai style, but on a grand scale.

Struck by the im­pres­sive plant and Tom’s artis­tic hand­i­work, I be­gan search­ing through my bon­sai ref­er­ences and soon came upon a white pine (Pi­nus parv­i­flora) en­try show­ing two sam­ples of minia­ture pot­ted trees.

White pines pro­duce dense tufts of nee­dles that can quickly form heavy fo­liage masses, lead­ing to con­ges­tion and over­growth in a tree. Pinch­ing out or snap­ping off emerg­ing shoots where you don’t want them and thin­ning con­gested ar­eas con­sti­tute the process of cre­at­ing an in­ter­est­ing, es­thet­i­cally pleas­ing spec­i­men. The thin­ning also en­hances air cir­cu­la­tion and sun­light pen­e­tra­tion in the tree.

Au­tumn sage. On one of my last vis­its, re­lax­ing in the seren­ity of Tom and Mar­lene’s gar­den, prom­i­nent among the con­tain­ers of flow­ers around us was a new one, with two bushy au­tumn sage plants bil­low­ing with pur­ple and red flow­ers. Mar­lene is fond of these plants and looks for them ev­ery year in late sum­mer at lo­cal gar­den cen­tres. She is par­tic­u­larly charmed by the but­ter­flies and hum­ming­birds that are fre­quent vis­i­tors to the lovely blooms.

Tom has tried keep­ing au­tumn sage plants over the win­ter in his garage, with no suc­cess so far. Har­di­ness is not uni­form among the va­ri­eties. Plant la­bels in­di­cate har­di­ness. They will give ei­ther a plant’s base har­di­ness zone or a “ten­der peren­nial” des­ig­na­tion.

Richters Herbs, a Cana­dian source for a huge se­lec­tion of seeds and plants, lists four au­tumn sage va­ri­eties, two of them hardy down to Zone 7, which means the plants should win­ter well here, given pro­tec­tion from wet con­di­tions.

To check out the Richters’ au­tumn sages, visit Richters.com and type “Salvia greg­gii” into the plant search box.

An al­ter­na­tive to con­sider for peo­ple who like sages that at­tract hum­ming­birds is a form of pineap­ple sage (Salvia el­e­gans) called Honey Melon sage. Though Richters lists it as hardy only to Zone 9, my plant­ing has been rock hardy for years, giv­ing me bright red flow­ers all sum­mer and through most of the fall.

The edi­ble flow­ers are hum­ming­bird mag­nets and the fo­liage fra­grance is won­der­fully, sweetly fruity. For close-up en­joy­ment of the plant’s per­fume and flow­ers, as well as the vis­it­ing wildlife, Honey Melon plants can be grown in hang­ing bas­kets and other con­tain­ers.

Bright au­tumn sage flow­ers at­tract but­ter­flies and hum­ming­birds.

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