Follow the season's tides and currents

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2001

There are tides that flow through all types of seas, and there are currents that mix and swirl events and elements through all types of media. The seasons of the year have their own tides and currents, carrying us through experiences as well as washing those experiences against us.

Some are predictable; days lengthen, soils warm, bulbs emerge and fill the edges of beds with color. Days get even longer, soils warmer, the bulbs fade, spring passes and summer is here. A whole new group of flowering plants make their appearance, in totally new colors.

The colors of summer are different from those of spring, warmer and wilder hues and deeper selections from which to choose. The blues are more available, there are creamy yellows as well as the bright ones of daffodils, and oranges, from pastel to peeling. Plant shapes change too, the crisp outline of the spring icons is overwhelmed by the myriad forms of billowing, trailing and flowing summer annuals. Baskets, porch planters and flowerbeds abound with these indicators of seasonal change as school ends, vacations develop, and the wash of summer visitors begins. Our grandparents started seeds in the windows for summer flowers while the snow was still on the ground, and many Juneau people relish the selection of varieties that this method allows. There are hundreds of thousands of offerings available each year, seed catalogs from the whole world, exchanges with specialty grower groups or heirloom seed saved and distributed through family networks. This offers the home gardener more choices than the imagination can hold.

The modern nursery trade boils with the foment of new varieties as well, and the annual flows of colorful plants carry shapes, tones and hues that were never seen before. The worldwide search for new and exciting flowering plants has grown a network of innovative explorers, plant breeders, color and fragrance developers and nursery growers. The past few years have seen the first fruits of these groups work and we are all thrilled.

Hanging basket flowers were the first to experience these developments, since it was seen as a new and exciting way to promote the dense, plant-packed use of flowering annuals. The familiar shapes and colors of the bedding plants were beautiful when transferred from the beds and pots to the hanging basket format, but they had really been bred and developed for upright growth, and for being seen from above. The explosion of commercial displays and municipal hanging basket programs as well as the shrinking garden spaces of most residential developments fueled this transition, and new plant types were called for to satisfy the need.

Flowering plants from many parts of the world were re-examined for suitability to the new conditions, hundreds of species have undergone trials and selections and the resulting flowers have roared into the market like returning salmon. The few trickles of test plants have quickly become a flood of new colors, shapes and textures.

This season the new varieties offered are abundant, ranging from the cutting propagated "million bells" and "trailing petunias" to pink, mauve and purple bacopa whose weather-tolerant cascades of star-shaped gems is sweeping lobelia and alyssum from the top-selling lists all over the country.

"Bidens" has brilliant yellow daisies that are still in bloom when Thanksgiving arrives, and the cornucopia of colors available in the African daisies seems to be endless.

The familiar favorites are not out by any means: cosmos with its bright erect flowers that miraculously endure the winds and rain without wisping away has new colors, and snapdragons glow with two-toned beauty in rich ruby and cream. Pansies and violas carry the potential for more colors than almost any other cool-weather species and they are dancing along showing brilliant new hues of orange and purple along with the favorites of decades.

Antique varieties are being resuscitated, old-fashioned malvas, with their hollyhock-like blooms and linaria - the "fairy snapdragon" that can flower all season in neglect and obscurity - are once again available. And that old Victorian amaranth "Love Lies a Bleeding" can be seen too. These were almost consigned to the compost pile until the concept of revival made the very old new again.

What happens in the gardens and flowerbeds is a slice of life, just like the thrown yarrowstalks of the I Ching, or the frozen instant of the photograph. The currents and tides that mix and blend favorites and rejects into the present is flowing now. Launch your vessel into the stream, voyage into the future with confidence, color and delight.

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