Spring surprises enliven garden

Garden Muse
by: Barbara Blossom Ashmun, White flowering onions pop up in the middle of an island bed, for a spring surprise.

Lately when I'm out gardening in the rain and hail, neighbors passing by tell me not to work so hard. I just give them my Mona Lisa smile. I used to insist that I was really having fun, but I could tell they didn't believe me. What they saw was a woman bundled up in in a hooded fleece jacket, waterproof boots, wearing surgical gloves and shoveling gravel or wood chips into a wheelbarrow. How could that be fun?

What no one can see is the endorphin high I get from the aerobic side of gardening. But besides that, each day small surprises in the garden fill me with happiness. Lately it's the flowering onions (Allium) that tickle me. They've popped up on four-foot-tall stems, like giant lollipops. On a whim, I bought a box of them last fall at Costco, and plunked the round white bulbs here and there, just for fun. I stuck little twigs all around them, to warn me not to dig into the bulbs by accident.

Early in May, a batch of white alliums began blooming in the middle of an island bed near a newly planted 'Summer Chocolate' silk tree. The alliums add instant height while the young tree takes its sweet time growing up. In the front garden, a colony of purple allium blooms for contrast beside dazzling 'Bowles Golden' grass. I wish I'd planted even more of them near the 'Golden Spirit' smoke tree for that same electric thrill of purple and yellow.

Plants that pop up bring a quirky touch to the garden. Some, such as foxgloves and columbines, seed around randomly, splashing color here and there. They may even clash with the planned design, but who cares? The bees love them, tunneling inside their flowers for nectar. This year, pink foxgloves popped up behind 'Hot Cocoa' rose, while blue, purple and pink columbines sprinkled themselves around the edges of island beds like fairy dust.

Bearded iris resurgence

My first adventures with bearded irises were in the 1970s when I planted them together with daylilies, coreopsis and peonies in the sunny curbside parking strip of my small city garden. Within a few years, the irises took over, so I dug them up, slid them into a wheelbarrow and offered them to neighbors on my street.

It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when I visited a friend's garden in St. Paul, Ore., that I fell in love with bearded irises all over again. Susan's irises were way more flamboyant than any I'd grown in the 1970s, thanks to all the hybridizing done in the past 40 years, much of it right here in Oregon. Their voluptuous blossoms had me begging for divisions. Larger than my hand, in an astonishing array of colors (iris in Greek means rainbow), and ruffled at the edges, they reminded me of the fancy party dresses of my childhood.

Susan told me how drought tolerant they are - she hardly ever waters them in summer's heat, yet they thrive. I thought about several places in my garden where I water infrequently, and asked her to save me whatever she was thinning out.

That fall Susan handed me enough divisions to plant along the sunny shoulder of the road. Three years later, right on schedule these gifts had come into their fullness. That old saying about perennials - 'the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap' - had come true; this year they've leapt like ballerinas.

Four different colors have bloomed in harmony - pastel blue-violet, midnight purple, white edged in purple, and raspberry pink, each strong stem bearing at least half a dozen sweetly scented flowers. Because of spring rains and wind, a few stems tipped over toward the ground, giving me a perfect excuse to cut them for the house. It took a tall, sturdy vase to support the thick stems, heavy with blossoms. They stand on my desk, where I can look up at their luscious flowers. Indoors, I can admire them so much more intently than out in the garden, where so many other flowers compete for attention.

The spent flowers are easy to pop off. A continuing parade of new buds open and unfurl, providing so many days of delicious color and fragrance. I had enough to take to a potluck gathering, and to cut for our mail carrier, who drives her truck by slowly to admire the garden. I feel like a billionaire when I have enough flowers to cut and give away.

Coming events

• English nurseryman and author Adrian Bloom speaks on the best ornamental grasses and perennials that can create year-round drama in the garden, 4 to 6 p.m., June 23, at Al's Garden Center in Sherwood, 16920 S.W. Roy Rogers. Event free. Registration required at www.AlsGardenCenter.com , or call 503-726-1162.