Getting to know Valerian

It’s basically fall now, and I feel like I’m just getting to know my garden. It does make sense, we’ve only been here a few months, and it takes at least one growing season, if not longer, to really get a feel for an outside plant. But today I was working in the backyard and for the first time I gave some real attention to one particular plant.

It’s actually truly the one plant in the yard that has been a rock star this whole summer. If I remember correctly it was already blooming when we went to England, and it’s been blooming the entire time since. All I’ve done is deadhead it a few times really quickly, and those pieces rebloomed. So of course I’ve barely paid it attention, because I’ve been too busy poring intently over leaves that have been savaged by spider mites or overwatered or covered in aphid galls. I sat down today to do some more deadheading because it had gotten fairly unwieldy, and all of a sudden I noticed one of the seedheads. I literally gasped out loud. They are delicate beautiful dandelion type seedheads, with the seed at the bottom and a wispy umbrella at the top.

And then I started looking at the flowers and was so charmed. Vibrant pink cymes, each little individual flower is so perfect and sweet with the pistil and stamen totally visible. I love cymes and other floral arrangements where multiple tiny flowers make up something big and showy.

So I was deadheading and taking pictures and boring the hell out of my husband when I was like, “Uh. What even is this plant?” And I realized I had no idea. I hadn’t even bothered to figure it out all summer, while it was over there looking awesome. I used iNaturalist and it was Valerian. What??? I thought I knew what Valerian looked like? I had some in a garden long ago? (I really like to grow plants that have useful properties, even if I never intend to ever use them that way. Like, I am not out here harvesting Valerian root and making tinctures. People are! And those people are rad, and I’m not being sarcastic! But I am not those people.) Turns out it’s one of those situations where the common name is misleading. This pretty plant is Centranthus ruber, whereas the medicinal Valerian is Valeriana officinalis.

They are in the same family (Caprifoliaceae) and have similar star-shaped flowers in cymes, but the Valeriana has white or pale pink flowers, not the intense pink of my Centranthus. And the leaves, flower stems, and growth habit of the plant are all quite different. Also the Valeriana is very fragrant. Some websites say the Centranthus is fragrant, but I haven’t found it to be noticeable.

Unfortunately once I started to pay attention I realized my new favorite perennial has self-seeded and is popping up in some places I don’t want it, like right in the middle of a tragic patch of thyme I’m not sure what to do with it. I can see it potentially becoming a bit too aggressive. Also, it REALLY flopped over , and I don’t mind it exactly, but the center is pretty bare and ratty looking, plus when I pulled it up to look under it today I was like, “Whoa there bindweed.”

So anyway. TMYK, which apparently stands for The More You Know, but I think since I know what it means the kidz probably stopped saying it five or so years ago. But on the subject of getting to know my garden, here is my favorite story that is super funny to me but maybe my sense of humor is lame and specific.

I think I’ve mentioned the pigsqueak in my crabgrass bed, which we overwatered and watered from above, resulting in some very yucky pigsqueak, which I guess I will try to rejuvenate in spring. But the other day I was like, “Wow! It’s sending up another flower stalk!” We’ve had a weird summer in Portland, and I’ve heard that some gardeners are experiencing kind of a second spring, with getting surprise second blooms and new growth on plants that are normally shutting down in the heat, and I do know that pigsqueak can bloom a second time under certain conditions. So I was pointing it out to the big kid when I look a closer look at it and realized…it is not a flower stalk. It’s a very robust Buckeye weed! There’s a Buckeye across the street and probably a squirrel buried it. I actually tried to pull this particular weed up once already and it was rooted in too hard and I meant to come back with a trowel but at the time I just sort of ripped it in half. Well, it did not give a shit and the foliage came back looking healthier than ever. So that’s my story.

I’m naming this Bergenia aesculifolia.

The discouraged gardener

Do you like getting advice about successful gardening, and looking at professional-level photographs of beautiful blooms?  This might not be the blog for you.

I generally try to, at least publicly, deal with my negative emotions with a sense of humor.  As you may have guessed.  But I need to be real for a second.  My garden is kind of sucking right now.  I don’t think I have ever, in a personal garden, dealt with so many annoying factors on so many plants at once.  You know what is maybe the worst thing about it?  I live next door to such a nice family, and yesterday the lady said hi to me and I just casually asked her if she had spider mites all over everything in her yard, because I sure the hell do, and she told me that actually, there was all this stuff in the yard when they move in ten years ago and she doesn’t know what any of it is and doesn’t do anything to take care of it.  Her yard looks AWESOME.  Meanwhile, every single time I go outside I see another dying plant.  And, I keep adding new plants, and they keep looking terrible.

Let’s think this through.  I have over twenty years of home gardening experience.  I have a degree in Horticulture.  I worked in commercial horticulture for years.  I have read a bajillion books, nerded out on all the websites, followed all the Instagrammers, and joined the Facebook pages.  I AM JUST SO INHERENTLY HALF-ASSED.  I don’t really need any advice about most of my tragic garden, I know what I’m doing wrong.  Although I will accept advice and also sympathy, but not judgement please.  I just needed to vent for a minute.

So what’s going on out there right now?  Well.  I have this vine maple that rather suddenly got some brown leaves and then even more brown leaves.  I was actually surprised that there was a vine maple in this full sun bed because I would have imagined it would do better in a shadier situation, but the internet tells me I am wrong, so my theory that it was sun damage was wrong.  I went to just cut back the dead branches, and then found that the branches were not, in fact, dead after all.  Just the leaves.  I see a very small amount of stippling and very, very small amount of webbing, so I suppose it does have the currently ever-present spider mites, but I really don’t think that’s what is doing the damage.  The stems are a bit sticky?  I just don’t know.  I ended up taking off all the brown leaves and leaving the branches, maybe it will put out new healthier growth?  It’s not truly my tree since I rent, so I’m not ready to heavily prune it yet because I don’t know how much the owner cares about the eventual shape of the tree.

This just doesn’t look like spider mites to me.  

But this does.


Vine maple glow-up.

This vine maple is in the crabgrass bed, with the strawberries I didn’t plant right away.  The FIRST batch of strawberries I didn’t plant right away, because I AM SO HALF-ASSED THAT THERE ARE TWO BATCHES OF STRAWBERRIES I DIDN’T PLANT RIGHT AWAY.  These strawberries are actually not looking so bad, whereas the ones in the strawberry pot, yikes.  Anyway so this bed as the dying vine maple, the brown strawberries, the kinnickinnick with the aphids, whatever the hell that ugly perennial was that is now past bloom and covered in powdery mildew, and the oregano that went to seed and I did not realize would then completely defoliate, the half dead ratty sandwort, and the really beautiful when I bought it Campanula that the big kid did not notice so she did not water it at all for the first week after I put it in the ground.  It was in the high 90s that week.

I see this every time I drive into my driveway, and it just makes me cringe.

Wondering if this oregano will self-seed.

See how pretty the red parts are? They are galls caused by aphids and I had to cut them all off.

Wondering if something else is going on here.  Those crunchy black parts are only where the plants are meeting the rocks, maybe they don’t like the heat from the rocks? Is that even a thing?

Right in the middle of this gruesome bed is this tall, healthy plant that iNaturalist tells me is Fagopyrum esculentum, common buckwheat.  I…really don’t care for this plant.  It’s the one plant in this bed that is thriving other than the crabgrass, and it’s basically a weed.  Sigh.

Buckwheat? Seriously?



The spider mites really got to the Veronica that is at the end of the driveway and is the first plant you really see as you enter the yard.  I had to pull out about 2/3 of the whole plant that was just straight up dead, and cut what was left way back.  It’s brutal.

I’ve spent all my gardening time over the last two days laboriously planting teeny tiny bare-root sedums.  Someone on Next Door posted they had sedums to give away so we scooted over there on the way to run some errands and grabbed the trays and brought them home.  I didn’t realize until I went to plant them that the lady had pulled them out of the ground individually and I guess shaken all the soil off, then laid them on the trays.  Each of these is just the tiniest, barely rooted bare root fragment of sedum.  But, as I said to my poor husband, I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of time in order to save some money.  And truly, if they take, they are perfect for what I’m doing with them.  I think.  Remember the garbage can area that is two unidentified unhealthy shrubs and a lot of Malva that I pulled?  Well, I put the sedums there.  It’s a pretty sad soil, covered in crushed rock.  I just dug holes, dropped some decent potting soil in, laid in like five sedum fragments, and covered the roots with the ground soil and the rocks.  I also put them against the fence on the other side of the sidewalk there, then today I put them all around the gravelly perimeter of the patio.  I STILL HAVE SO MUCH SEDUM LEFT.  I have no idea what I’m going to do with all of it!  And the lady is so nice, after corresponding a bit, she has invited me over to her house tomorrow to get MORE sedum, and also to do a garden tour to see what other extra/dividable plants she might be able to share with me.  I can’t turn it down but holy cow.  Do I just throw the sedum at a rocky area and run???

Like 1/6 of all the sedum in the garbage can area.

I guess somewhat finally, while I was planting and weeding today I noticed a little area full of tiny seedlings, most of them don’t even have their first true leaf yet.  I honestly have no idea what they could be.  I’ve had some suggestions from Instagram, but nothing that sounds correct to me.  They are near the bindweed, but don’t look right for that, plus I’ve been keeping the bindweed way too small to seed.  They are closest to a crocosmia, but the seedlings are dicots.  They are near a birdfeeder, but no birds go to the birdfeeder so they wouldn’t be scattered seeds.  I’m stumped, so I’m leaving them alone for now, but I’ll probably regret it when I figure out which awful invasive I’ve let live and start feeding its taproot.


Oh, finally finally, a note on pictures…again.  I just really wish they were higher quality.  My iphone is great to grab when the little one is doing a funny dance, but for a carefully composed shot of the teensiest first baby leaf, it’s terrible.  I really like photography and have done it as a hobby in the past, and this is just super frustrating to me.  Right now I just filter the hell out of everything on Instagram and then shrug my shoulders, but I’m hoping to get a macro lens for my phone for my birthday which is FRIDAY.  I have a feeling I am getting lots of garden and bunny accoutrements, which is perfect.

And that’s that!