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Cutting It

Indeed, many plants that are grown in full sun in our blazing climate actually do better with some shade.

A gardening friend in Raphine, Va., Don Haynie, said he once tried raising celosia on the east side of a tall stand of corn broom, which grows to about 12 feet. Celosia is a great annual for fresh or dried arrangements, with its plumes of rich red flowers, and is thought of as a real sunbather. But Haynie discovered that the row closest to the corn had the brightest, fullest, largest plumes. "And it's the same at the house, the herbs that get afternoon shade do beautifully; they aren't being bombarded by the hot afternoon sun," he said. So my border, I thought, would get away with its light limitations.

The author's cut-flower arrangement
The author's cut-flower arrangement
The author's cut-flower arrangement: a study in purple, invention and desperation. (Welton Doby III)

Gardening is a lot like politics or stand-up comedy -- timing is everything. But logistical problems meant that I could not start my garden until late spring, an awkward time in the cutting garden calendar. This was the end of the season for sowing seeds and, in the well-tempered flower garden, it is a period of harvest, when fistfuls of early season annuals are supplemented with perennials such as Siberian irises, yarrows and pinks. And roses, of course.

There were other difficulties posed by so late a start. Many of the obvious annuals and biennials for cutting dislike the hot climate of Washington, and they must be given special care. It is amazing how many annuals have to be sown the previous fall to grow and bloom before the onset of high summer. Larkspur will bloom in profusion and Shirley poppies will flower gaily before the dog days, but they should be seed-sown the previous September, when the soil temperatures are right for germinating and they can spend the long fall developing roots. The next spring, they then grow and flower quickly, provided the gardener has kept their beds clear of overwintering weeds and refrained from smothering them in mulch, two rather big provisos.

It is curious that you can plant an oak tree at almost any time of year and it will set about its business of growing 70 feet. A frail and ephemeral poppy is far more trouble.

The same precocious heat -- or frigid cold -- makes other cutting-flower favorites miserable candidates for the Washington garden, including De Caen anemones, ranunculus, sweet peas, carnations, delphiniums, monkshood and perennial baby's breath.

So I needed annuals with seeds that would germinate fast in the warm soil of late spring, that would outpace any weeds and would bloom in short order, so that the border might be in full flower by Labor Day, or a week or two afterward.

I selected several varieties of cosmos and sunflowers and, though I was pushing my luck, some nigella, whose flowers -- blue, pink or white, depending on variety -- hide in its feathery foliage, giving it its common name of love-in-a-mist. Nigella is better sown in the spring, or even the previous fall, if you can stay on top of the weeds. But I thought my border in part shade would have soil cool enough to coax the nigella to bloom.

I might have planted dahlias, but I didn't have room, or zinnias, but I am not a big fan of zinnias because of their fondness for powdery mildew.

I also planted small seedlings of the tender purple pennisetum grass, whose downy seed heads grow on long, arching stalks and are tinged purple, echoing the rich color of the strap-like leaves. Three would do the trick.

I sowed the sunflower, cosmos and nigella seeds in very purposeful grids, about two inches apart. That way, I could distinguish the geometric pattern of desirable seedlings from any weed seeds that would sprout haphazardly.

I had not counted on the swift arrival of a weed that was new to me but not to this garden. The weed had been allowed to grow there for years unimpeded, and now, clearly, the soil was poisoned with gazillions of its seeds. Needing no period of dormancy, its seeds just kept sprouting and seeding again. It is the weed from Hell, and it is named galinsoga.

It grew so fast and abundantly that it rendered my grid-protection scheme near useless. As its embryonic leaves gave way to its more identifiable ones, I started pulling furiously, and hoped that my desired seeds would still germinate and grow.

Meanwhile, I discovered that all the sunflower seeds were gone. Not rotting, or even hulled, but gone entirely. No wonder the birds had been so chirpy. I planted a new batch and turned my attention to the galinsoga weeds, which were still appearing with fury.

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