Letting Go

containers-mid-september-7By mid September, change is in the air. As much as I would wish that the summer would persist past Labor Day, it never does. The summer season falters right on cue. The blazing heat generated by the summer sun is waning. The sun is lower in the sky. The garden is cooler. The night temperatures are a little chilly. We are beginning to get a little rain. The plants in my containers are beginning to look like summer is coming to a close. The petunias which have been sulking all summer are sliding headlong into decline. Any thin leaved foliage looks pale and unhappy. The bloom on any container plant is more sparse. The showy oregano blooms in the driveway pots have matured and turned brown. I am lucky for the licorice and nicotiana that has come on strong with the cooler weather. The big thick leaves of the alocasia have not gotten the message yet. They still look great. It is just about time to think about letting go.

containers-mid-september-6The upkeep of my containers is a summer long pursuit. The watering required by our very hot and dry summer was just about a full time job.  The driveway garden took a long time to water, as there are plants in ground there too. Once the plants became root bound, their need for water was insatiable. I watered. And watered again. Ordinarily, looking after the pots is generally a pleasure. The maintenance is relaxing. A plant that is unfairly crowding another may need some pruning back. Some flowers need dead heading in order to keep blooming well.  Old leaves mature, and need to be removed. Other plants need to be headed back to promote better flowering. Or staked. Most of this is fiddling, and not really work. But once the season begins to turn towards fall, I quit most everything except the watering. My last act was to cut all the flower stalks off the nicotiana mutabilis.  They had mostly gone to seed.  And I knew they would come on again once the weather cooled off. I favored more flowers over seed.  Why do I quit fiddling?  What I do to manage the plants is about what I think they need.  What plants do when left to their own devices is always an education. Plants grow at different rates. Some tolerate crowding while others do not. Some grow much bigger than expected. Others languish. How every plant in a container adjusts to a lack of intervention from me is interesting to watch.

containers-mid-september-9For whatever reason, nicotiana seedlings by the thousands appeared in the driveway in June. I have never seen this happen, not in 20 years. I have no explanation for this, beyond the fact that the nicotiana mutabilis started going to seed early – I suspect from the heat. And I was watering a lot. But these seedlings did not necessarily look to be mutabilis to me. Pulling them out of the bricks would have been no small amount of work. In spite of my propensity for order, it seemed like a better plan to just be grateful that I had all those volunteers working this garden. Any plant that wished to grow in the driveway this summer was welcome to do so.  Of course the most robust group of seedlings were those in proximity to the water draining out of the pots.

watering volunteer seedlingsI eventually took to watering them on purpose. Buck would sit on the deck so we could talk while I was watering in the drive. He had a lot of questions about why there were so many weeds in the drive, and my reason for watering them, but I waved him off. If I had set out to grow nicotiana in the brick, I am sure my efforts would have been an utter failure.  No doubt nature was in charge of this event. For some reason, conditions were perfect for nicotiana seed to germinate.

containers-mid-september-3The very first seedling to bloom was nicotiana alata lime – a cultivar which I am growing in the ground this year.  I never got a chance to take a picture of it, as I accidentally ripped the plant out of the brick dragging the hose over it. Dang it all.  If you are a gardener, you know that any plant you kill is a burden to be born by you alone. Anyone else would yawn.

nicotiana langsdorfii

The next to bloom was nicotiana langsdorfii, which I have not grown in these pots for at least 8 years. It could be my letting go in September many years ago resulted in seed that has laid dormant in between the bricks for years, only to be induced to sprout for some unknown reason this June. I suppose it could be that the frequency of my watering kept the sand between the bricks moist long enough for the seed to sprout. Nicotiana langsdorfii, from whence did you come?

containers-mid-septemberUp close it is easier to see how the letting go is creating a new dynamic. There was no reason to remove the variegated alocasia leaf that was shading the showy oregano.  That oregano had already given up. The green leaf hovering over the dead oregano was a much better look. The large lower leaves of nicotiana mutabilis in the upper pot covered the bare stems of the licorice close to the soil line. I have never had any trouble growing licorice, but this year all of the leaves on the stems close to the soil died back. I have no idea why. The licorice recovered, and had grown vigorously all through and on top of the puny petunias. These pots, left to their own devices, are looking better than they did 2 weeks ago. The alocasia is very happy, on the house side. The back side of this pot is in a fairly shady spot. The sunny side is the primary viewing side. Driving up the drive, the alocasia is leaning towards the light. One of the most difficult parts of container planting design is picking the plants that will be able to handle and perform in light conditions that vary.

containers-mid-september-5Buck has enjoyed the alocasia all summer. He kept me posted if a leaf was turning brown, or developed a hole or tear.   I have never grown them before, so I am giving them a serious look. They are slow to get started. Given plenty of heat, they thrive. They react very slowly to change. It’s clear they can anchor a summer container on in to the fall.

containers-mid-september-10I have learned that my driveway is not just a place to park.

containers-mid-september-2Welcome to the September nicotiana fest underway in the driveway.



Nicotiana Fete And Fandango

 nicotiana alata

Being ever so fond of all of the cultivars of nicotiana, I planted the boxwood parterre in front of the shop this year with a mix of 3 kinds.  Nicotiana “perfume white” is short growing, and as  fragrant as the name suggests.  Nicotiana alata white is a taller, lanky growing nicotiana with larger and more widely spaced branches and flowers.  Bur nearest and dearest to my heart is the big growing species, nicotiana mutabilis.  I can’t manage to let a summer go by without planting it-usually in my own yard.  This year I planted lots of them at the shop.

The garden had an odd look early on-every single plant got its own 4 foot tall bamboo stake.  There for a while, we had a stake garden.  But there are few things more trying than staking a plant that needed that stake weeks previous.  If you have ever tried to get an Annabelle hydrangea that has gone over in wind or rain off the ground, you know what I mean.  The afterthought staking always looks like that afterthought.

nicotiana mutabilis

Our stakes go a good foot into the ground.  Given the torrential rains and high winds that accompanied all the heat we have had the last 10 days, I am so glad we did it that way.  We did not loose a single plant.  In another week, those stakes will completely disappear from view.  Nicotiana mutabilis is never more beautiful for me than it is in the fall-it is happy in cool weather.  But I see no signs of heat stress here.  We have watered heavily and regularly-as much for the boxwood as the nicotiana. Like the annual flowers, woody plant material stressed by too dry conditions are more susceptible to other problems.

  nicotiana perfume white

There are a few perfume white nicotianas in the window boxes.  They are a great size and height for a container that is already a good distance off the ground.  We keep the giant leaves at the bottom trimmed back, so as not to cast shade on the neighbors. When using nicotiana in containers, the grooming at ground level is important. They produce leaves prodigiously.  

nicotiana mutabilis

The flowers of nicotiana mutabilis are very small, and an utterly simple shape.  But a happy plant will produce thousands of them.  I don’t understand the science, but each plant will produce pale, almost white flowers, pink flowers-and hot pink flowers-all at the same time, on the same plant.  The slender stems make it seem as though those small blooms are floating, hovering over the container.

Nicotiana alata lime peroduces flowers that are just that-lime green.  In a good season, they will bloom heavily the entire summer.  I have seen them peter out in really hot weather.  In that case, I cut them back a little, and feed.  They seem to revive when the weather cools off.

I remember taking this picture of a pot at home some years ago in September.  The nicotiana was sending out giant thick bloom stalks.    The composition was no doubt lopsided, but I loved the exuberance of it all.  The stiff habit of those giant dahlias is completely masked by that cloud of flowers. 


This English concrete pot cast in a classic Italian style is a huge pot-it measures 39″ by 39″.  The surface is 12 square feet.  The nicotiana mutabilis makes a giant airy bouquet-the pot is the smallest element of the composition.  This picture was taken the beginning of September.  I like annual plants that can go the distance-an entire summer season-and on into the fall.  I like to get tired of looking after my container plantings before they give out. 

nicotiana mutabilis

One of more foolish container moments-planting nicotiana mutabilis in a relatively small Italian terra cotta urn. The bigger foolishness?  How much I loved the look. 







At A Glance: Nicotiana In October


Had I But Four Square Feet…

Alice Harding, whose book “The Peony” is a classic on the subject of growing peonies once remarked, “Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the centre, and proceed to worship.”  My sentiments exactly.  But there are other plants that might make muster in my four square feet.  Most certainly nicotiana would be high on my list.  My three foot square Tuscan box is full of them at this moment, and they are looking good.   Henry Mitchell describes peonies as “that rare combination of fluff and majesty”-nicotiana could not be further from that description.  

The flowers are utterly simple.  A long slender tube fans out at the end into 5 distinctly scalloped lobes.  They look back at me with that guiless and frank signature look.  The nod in the breeze.  Can you tell I really like them?  There are lots of species, hybrids and cultivars; I like them all.  Nicotiana sylvestris grows better than 6 feet tall, always needs staking, and attracts every aphid in the neighborhood-so I rarely grow that. The diminuitive nicotiana langsdorfii is a charmer.  

Perfume purple and Perfume white are lovely.  They seem to maintain that same graceful spacing along the flowering stems as the species nocotiana alata.  Shorter nicotiana, such as the Avalon series, have densely bunched flower heads that lack grace to my eye.   

By far and away, my favorites are nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis.  I like them even better, grown in a mix.  Nicotiana mutabilis grows tall, and also needs staking, but it is worth the trouble.  Hundred of white, pink, and rose pink flowers grow on the same plant.  It is never better for me than it is in September; it will put on incredible growth in the fall.  The tiny flowers are always fluttering over something. 

They are not fond of really hot weather, so I have no idea what will become of this planting. Those that talk weather are saying it will be really hot here for another month.  You wouldn’t think this giant pot would dry out very often, but it is a rare hot day that I do not have to soak the corners.  Do I water parts of container plantings-absolutely.  I did soak it thoroughly this morning, knowing there was a possibility our temperature would hit 100 degrees today.  So I had time to take a long look.    

What else am I growing here?  Pink mandevillea, white angelonia, Persian Queen geranium, white mini petunias, and white variegated trailing plectranthus. I have an event going on here-a nicotiana fest.