A local garden comes alive with color in spring. Just don't blink or you might miss it.
I happened to look up at the sky the other day just in time to see a flock of birds flying north across my path. Sunlight struck their feathers in such a way that it created a wavy ribbon of white flashing from the "V" the birds formed in flight. The wondrous sight lasted only for an instant. Within a few seconds the birds turned in unison, the sun no longer reflected off their wings and I lost track of the formation as it vanished into the deep blue of the sky.
Plants, too, can be like a flight of birds caught in sunlight -- seen for a brief moment, then gone. Flowers emerge in the spring, put out a delightful display of color and then vanish as they recede into the earth where they remain hidden until the following spring. Unless the garden is witnessed at the just the right time, at the height of its spring show, the full beauty escapes and dissolves into ordinariness.
The garden of Adrian Melott is like this. It comes alive when many spring flowering bulbs, shrubs and woodland flowers bloom. His is a garden of intense, fleeting beauty in the spring, followed by several months of average garden appeal.
I visited Melott a few weeks ago on a chilly overcast day. We walked along the curved flower beds in the front yard. The tall oak trees, still leafless, rose overhead. Only the earliest of the daffodils in a pale yellow color, tiny deep blue Siberian squill and crocus were in bloom. The bleeding heart was just beginning to flower. Otherwise, the garden was nothing outstanding.
"This doesn't have grand vistas," Melott said, half apologetically. "But the details might make up for it," As we walked he pointed out the detail. Even in its preblooming state, I could appreciate this garden for the woodland wonder it was and would become in a week or two.
The mainstay of the garden is a carpet of hundreds of Virginia bluebells. What started out as a few plants that he purchased a few years ago, have turned into a mass of bluebells, most gathered around one of the oak trees, others scattered throughout the beds.
"Virginia bluebells seem to like to colonize new areas," Melott explained. "They've adapted so well under the oak trees."
Their wide thick leaves were all that were visible during my early visit. Even though the plants were not in bloom, this woodland gardener assured me that they would soon bear trumpet shaped flowers on 18-inch stems. Like their name predicts, the flowers of the Virginia bluebells are blue, although Melott has seen some with pink blooms.
Trying to estimate the exact bloom time is problematic. Melott explained that when the weather warms, the plants grow rapidly, their size changing noticeably from morning to night. But cold days, like the one during my visit, seemed to slow the blooming process. But, they eventually bloom. Then, within weeks after the bluebells flower, the plants die back. Within several weeks little evidence of their presence can be seen. The garden is "not too colorful from July on," he admitted. "The biggest problem is it's very ordinary looking in summer, not spectacular."
The show must go on
To fill the garden when all the bluebells disappear, Melott has used a variety of other plants and ground covers.
"I experimented with ground cover," he said. Vinca, pachysandra and wild variegated euonymus spread across the area. Bloodroot with cup-shaped white flowers with yellow centers and wood hyacinths also grow in this woodland garden. Just for fun, other plants that succumb to a disappearing act, magic lilies whose blooms appear seemingly from nowhere during the summer and vanish just as completely, are also planted.
"I'm trying to put in some small trees," he added. A Japanese maple tree stands in the right flower bed reaching only to my shoulders, if that.
A flowering almond shrub and a wild raspberry bush with inedible fruit but delightful purple flowers bloom in April and May. A sweet shrub, known as Carolina Allspice, borders the side garden. "My grandmother's generation lived in a log cabin," Melott noted. The sweet shrub was moved into town with the family. Now generations later, the bush, taken from various cuttings during the years, grows in his garden.
From east to west
Rocks uncommonly seen in these parts, such as coal and hard white limestone, surround the front garden. He pointed out some of the interesting contours of the rocks, including the river erosion noticeable on the limestone. "I sort of collect rocks when I'm traveling," he explained. Part of his travels takes him to a 100-acre family farm in West Virginia. In fact, many of the woodland plants in his garden originally came from West Virginia.
"This yard was pretty bad with a lot of dead spots," he said. He fought with it for one year. Since it was plunged into shade by the mature oak trees, he finally decided to treat most of the front yard as a forest. "I spaded it up and brought shovels full of forest dirt from (my) farm in West Virginia." Then he waited to see what came up.
Before long a host of woodland plants grew in his new garden. He augmented it with purchased plants, some from a mail order catalog that specializes in woodland plants. Although the Virginia bluebells are native to his home state, he did not bring them from home. "Bluebells roots are too deep," he noted, making them difficult to transplant. "They are best planted in the fall," he added.
"I bought Solomon's seal," he admitted. "I found it doesn't transplant well." Melott likes the arching branches of the Solomon's seal to add flair to the garden after the bluebells fade. "I have a lot of Solomon's seal," he said. "It looks green all summer and into the fall."
Like other gardeners trying to get the most out of their work, Melott added, "I try not to have anything that won't survive if neglected." As a result, one of the plants he has given up on is trillium. Even though it is touted as a woodland plant, he has not found success with it.
Melott has lived in Kansas for more than 12 years and is a faculty member in the physics and astronomy department at Kansas University. When I asked him how he became interested in gardening, he mentioned an earlier attempt when he lived by a lake. "I did a little with that," he noted. Although his father does landscaping, he told me, "He's not interested in this woodland stuff."
I left Melott and his garden when the wind made us both too chilly. I knew I had not seen the spectacular garden Melott grew. The spectacular part comes during a short time in the spring when the woodland flowers, bulbs and ground cover create a simple yet dramatic display. About a week after my visit with Melott, he called to tell me that the Virginia bluebells were in bloom.
I drove back to see this time-sensitive garden. The bright red blooms of the bleeding heart were fully opened and the delicate pink of the flowering almond bush sparkled. Best of all, the garden seemed to shimmer with the nodding bracts of sky-blue trumpet shaped flower of the Virginia bluebells.
Yes, for a brief and beautiful moment, a woodland garden worth seeing was right before my eyes.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.