December 27, 2010

The Blizzard of 2010

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the first rite of winter – putting out the driveway markers. I wrote that they wouldn’t prove their worth for the first few snows, but gave myself some wiggle room by adding, "unless it’s a nor’easter".
Well, the great blizzard of December 26 and 27 is winding down as this is written. Medfield was one of the ‘jackpot’ communities with roughly 18 inches of snow on level ground. Of course, with 50-knot winds blowing almost continuously, undisturbed snow has been quite hard to find today. But the eighteen inches seems to be a reasonable guess.

Planning for snow removal is part of
planning for a New England garden
This weather report is part of a garden blog because snow is a reality in New England and where to put snow is a continuing problem for any serious gardener in this region. Our particular issues are twofold: first, where the town puts the snow from the street and, second, where we put the snow from our driveway.

We are at the end of a cul-de-sac with a broad turning circle as part of our streetscape. The upside is that this gives us a very dramatic arc around which to design a garden. The downside is that the town plows have to put the snow from the other end of the street somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ includes the buffer zone between our sidewalk and the street. And, because the town lays down chemicals to keep the street passable prior to plowing, the snow that ends up on that buffer zone (variously called an ‘easement’ or a ‘hell strip’) is laden with salts that render the strip inhospitable to grass.

This xeric bed - shown in its
summer glory - was under
several feet of chemical-
laden snow today
We’ve adapted the strip – some 960 square feet – into a xeric garden that is planted with perennials that tolerate the chemical soup. That garden planting scheme was detailed in this blog entry. This afternoon, there is a seven-foot-high mound of snow on part of that xeric garden.

The second issue is where we put the snow from our own driveway. We are set back 220 feet from the street on a meandering driveway and, at the head of the driveway, the asphalt widens out to 35 feet to feed a three-car garage, plus provide an additional backing-out area for cars. The home’s architect was apparently from some southern clime because the driveway dead-ends into the garage.  As such, there is no ‘simple’ place to put snow.  The problem grows geometrically with the depth of the snow and new snowfalls follow ones already on the ground.

Removing 18 inches of snow - carefully
We’ve adapted the gardens along the driveway to this reality. (Double-ckick on the plot plan at the top of this post to get a more detailed view of the descriptions that follow.)  Along the main stretch of access, there is a grass strip roughly eight to ten feet wide, the sole purpose of which is to provide a landing spot for the snow from the driveway.  The driveway is never treated, so the snow simply provides moisture for the spring growing season.

This burlap skirt for
Thuja occidentalis was
added in November
The gardens in front of the house adjacent to the wide part of the driveway are, with a few exceptions, spring and summer perennials. A thuja occidentalis has a protective burlap skirt to deflect snow and we carefully direct our snowblower away from a now-four-year-old oxydendrum that occupies the center of that bed. After this blizzard, the perennials in the bed are under a blanket of up to three feet of snow.  Absent a prolonged thaw, this area may not be bare until mid-March.

The wisteria bed was planned to
support heavy snow cover
in winter
This year, we created a new garden at a critical area for snow removal. The "wisteria" garden, about which I wrote in August, is roughly 200 square feet and is anchored by six woody shrubs – three ilex and three miniature kalmia. The balance of the bed is spring- and summer-blooming perennials that can take heavy snow cover. After the blizzard, the depth of snow thrown in this area is up to five feet and is heavily compacted. We made every effort to direct snow around the tender kalmias. We’ll know next spring if we succeeded.

The back of the turnaround area has long been planted with Kirengeshoma (Japanese wax bells) and Hakonechola macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese forest grass), with miscellaneous rhododendron behind them. These perennials die back to the ground in late September; the several feet of snow that cover the area all winter seems to make the plants thrive in the growing season.

December 26, 2010

2000 Hits

For the first year that I wrote this blog I had no idea if anyone was looking at it.  Then, six months ago, Blogspot added a 'statistics' tab to the toolbar, allowing me to see for the first time how many people logged onto this site.  Yesterday, the counter passed 2000 since July 1, 2010.

I didn't start this blog in order to reach huge audiences.  Instead, I created it as a writing exercise.  A pianist does not sit down at the keyboard each day and play the Apassionata.  Instead, they play etudes, study pieces that are intended to stretch the fingers and keep them limber.  As a writer (see The Hardington Press), I need to stretch my mind.  While I write mysteries for a living, gardening is my avocation.  And so it is gardening thoughts that fill this blog, and keeping to one subject helps me to sharpen my writing.

But I am constantly in awe that people find this site and that they come from around the world.  The United States accounts for three quarters of visitors, but Canadians have been here 37 times and those from Great Britain 35 times (kudos to a nation of gardeners).  But, what about South Korea and its 28 visitors?  The Netherlands, India, Germany, Russia and Brazil each have more than 20 visits.  What interests them about New England gardening?

Blogspot provides some clues.  The search term 'container gardening'  brought several hundred visitors (most of whom went to the post, 'The Early Autumn Container Garden', and 'xeric garden' took more than fifty visitors to 'The Xeric Gardens Hits Its Stride'.  'The Incredible Shrinking Lawn' is the third most-viewed topic.  (It is also one of my wife's most requested programs from garden clubs.)

Because there have only ever been three comments appended to any of these posts, I have no idea if anyone reads for content or just bcause I happened to have a good photo of a plecanthus.  I don't required that readers respond, but it would be nice on occasion.

Anyway, it gave me a warm feeling this morning to find that my 2000th visitor had taken a look to see what the Principal Undergardener is all about.  Thanks for reading!

December 21, 2010

One Christmas, Two Trees

Before we 'downsized': a 14-foot
behemoth in our Great Room
In the continuing debate over artificial versus fresh-cut Christmas trees, we have always been squarely in the ‘real tree’ camp (see ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, December 16, 2009). The idea of a plastic, made-in-China tree was deemed too repugnant to even consider. In addition to being an affront to our gardening ethos, Betty and I buttressed our beliefs with a near-religious fervor by reading and quoting aloud the statistic that one would have to use an ersatz tree for twenty years for it to have the same carbon footprint as twenty trees from a Christmas tree farm.

And so, with such strongly stated preferences, we are braced for some cognitive dissonance and a few arched eyebrows when guests walk into our home this year and find a nine-foot-tall tree that just happened to have come in a box with assembly instructions. We are also expecting mild sense of bewilderment when those same guests encounter a seven-foot Fraser fir in a different room of our house. One house, two adults, no kids. Two trees?

An explanation is required. And so, one follows.

The interloper: a nine-foot artificial tree,
but your can hang ornaments anywhere.
We had made a decision last year that we would ‘downsize’ our trees this year. No more fourteen-foot behemoths. No more standing on eight-foot ladders to decorate. No more guy wires to foil curious cats. We would have a sensible tree in 2010. But we are also deeply tied into a celebration called ‘the Festival of Trees at Elm Bank’ which raises money for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. We helped plan the event and gladly served as volunteers for it. Moreover, Betty was responsible for decorating something like nine sponsored trees.

All entries for the Festival of Trees are artificial, which may seem a bit off-putting given that ‘horticulture’ would seem to exclude things made from hydrocarbons in Asian factories. The trees are artificial because the Festival is held indoors and the local fire marshal read us the fire code: no combustible cut trees indoors where lots of people would assemble. So, an organization that promotes horticulture put fifty-plus artificial - albeit beautifully decorated - trees in a building and people came in droves to see them.

They also came to win those trees. The Festival makes money two ways: a modest charge to get in to see the trees for adults, and the opportunity to buy raffle tickets for those trees once inside. The raffle tickets are where the real money is: once the kids (who are admitted free) see a tree festooned with Hot Wheels cars or pictures of adorable, adoptable cats and dogs or stuffed animals… and, as might be expected, wallets open up and the boxes at the bases of trees fill up with raffle tickets.

I spent many hours at the Festival as a volunteer and I came to admire many of the trees. And so I purchased a couple of sheets of raffle tickets. So, apparently, did Betty. When the Festival closed and tickets were drawn, we found to our surprise that we had won a tree – one of those big nine-footers.

We brought it home and set it up in our ‘great room’ with its 18-foot ceilings. It looked, well, artificial. But we decided that we would use it for at least this one year. It is our custom that our tree gets decorated one week before Christmas – no sooner – and comes down on New Year’s Day – no later. The tree sat, bare, in the room for a full week as we got used to its presence. Then, last Thursday, we made the determination that we also needed a fresh tree. We found a nice, seven-foot Fraser fir at Weston Nurseries, brought it home and set it up in our living room.

The winner and still champion: a
Fraser fir in the living room.
We’re fortunate that we’ve accumulated a lot of ornaments over the years. Many have come from our travels, some have been handed down from Betty’s parents, more than a few are objets trouve; things that were never intended as ornaments but that look quite nice on the tree and remind us of people or places past. It turns out that there were more than enough ornaments to decorate two trees.

And so, for this year, the two trees co-exist. I will readily admit that the artificial tree is easier to decorate. Ornaments can be hung without regard to weight anywhere on the tree. Branches can be moved a few inches to accommodate long or short ornaments. And, the dark green color makes every ornament ‘pop’. It is, on the whole, an enticing prospect: a tree that never sheds and drinks no water. A tree that stood straight in its ‘stand’ on the first try and has no holes that must be covered by sleights of hand.

But our hearts are with the Fraser fir in the living room, and that is the tree that will have presents under it on Christmas morning. It has a lovely scent and a serenity that the one in the great room will never touch.

We have been tempted and we have resisted. Come New Year’s Day, the Festival of Trees will have a spare tree to decorate in 2011. It was nice, but we prefer reality.

December 6, 2010

Driveway markers

We observed one of our solemn, annual rituals the other day: we put out the driveway markers.

We have fairly well exhausted the end-of-fall checklist. The leaves have been mowed and re-mowed into the lawn until they are a fine, brown mulch. The perennial beds have been cut flat and, depending upon whether the spindly, desiccated stalks showed evidence of mildew or not, the detritus has been either composted or taken to the dump.

Those autumn chores remind us that, once upon a time, there was color and life in our garden. By contrast, putting out the driveway markers serves only the purpose of acknowledging that winter is imminent. The sun will set today at 4:15, the third of an eleven-day run featuring that horrendously early departure of daylight. It rose this morning at 7:01 and, incredibly, has still another ten minutes of daylight to lose before the solstice. With just nine hours of daylight and nighttime temperatures sinking into the low twenties, all it will take is a little bit of moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico and the snows of winter will arrive with a vengeance.

The markers look odd for now; circles of bright red atop white poles. Because our driveway meanders 220 feet from the street to the garage (good feng shui, I imagine) and has a curving turnaround area, it takes 20 markers to indicate the true outline of the course. It’s a necessary exercise: not for the first snow but, rather, for the fourth or fifth. The first one (unless it’s a nor’easter) will melt in a day. The second one may linger a little longer but the demarcation between asphalt and lawn will still be obvious even under a few inches of snow.

It’s when we get six inches of snow followed by eight inches more that the reason for the markers becomes clear. The person pushing the snow blower follows the line of markers, left and right, throwing snow between two feet and ten depending upon how much moisture is in it (if you are a snow-shoveling veteran, you can skip this part). In wide areas of a driveway or where the house or shrubs are immediately adjacent, snow is thrown elsewhere on the driveway, then re-blown off on a subsequent pass. Each pass deposits snow in a slightly different location with the result that after a short while there is no longer a clear line between driveway and non-driveway. Without those markers as a guide, a snow blower will inevitably veer off into grass. The blades of the snow blower grind up the grass, killing it, while also typically snapping a shear pin. By mid-January, those markers are worth their weight in hot chocolate.

We also are sticklers for cleaning right to the edge of the driveway. This is a matter of personal preference for some New Englanders (I have seen driveways plowed exactly the width of a car and not an inch more). Betty’s strongly held view is that snow or ice left on a driveway is bound to melt and re-freeze. Getting it all off as soon as it snows is the one way to keep the driveway clear all winter.

And, it all starts with those markers. And the markers start now, in early December.

November 23, 2010

The Quest for Late Autumn Color

Today is November 23 and, while there is technically a month to go until winter begins here in New England, the truth of the matter is that autumn is just a memory. We’ve had a dusting of snow, days when the temperatures barely got above freezing, and even the shriveled brown oak leaves have fallen from the trees.

Viburnum 'Catskill' in
early November
Remarkably, though, there are still a few shrubs on our property that have defied the season and have pleasing autumn color. A few others have just succumbed to the inevitable. Among the latter, a viburnum ‘Catskill’ that held onto its bright yellow leaves until last week and a pair of fothergillas that succumbed at the same time.

Spirea Ogden 'Mellow Yellow'
The photos here, all taken this morning, tell the story of the final round contestants. In our street-side shrub bed, a spirea Ogden ‘Mellow Yellow’ is brilliantly yellow, red and gold. It has the twin distinction of being an early bloomer with a haze of white flowers in April.

Itea 'Henry Garnet' on
November 23
The champ, though, is this Itea ‘Henry Garnet’. There are two on the property; one in the afirementioned shrub bed, the other in a rock garden behind our home. The leaves are a beautiful palette of gold, red, rust and brown. If this isn’t enough to get the neighbors to dig out their invasive burning bush, nothing is.

Oak leaf hydrangea, also
November 23
The third late-autumn beauty is our oak leaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia), which just began to turn at the beginning of the month. Some leaves are still green but most are now rimmed in red and yellow. The specimen in this photo is now about nine years old with a circumference of twenty feet or better. It’s a keeper.

There’s also a Carolina sweetshrub (calycanthus) on a protected side of the house that is full of yellow leaves. I won’t count it for now because of its location and the fact that its ‘mother’ out in the shrub bed, shed the last of its leaves about two weeks ago.

R.I.P., Thomas Sanders Blue

He wasn’t even thirty inches high and he had barely settled in as part of the family. Finding him this morning, savagely mauled, I could only think of what might he might have become when he grew up. But he was a victim of pointless violence and a public mindset that those who killed him are themselves innocent victims and cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Picea glauca ‘Sanders Blue’, a dwarf Alberta spruce with bright slate-blue needles, came to us in March; a gift from a landscaper friend who spotted it at a specialty nursery. Apart from its striking appearance, the ‘Sanders’ moniker is also our own. The ‘Thomas’ name was always an inside joke. For years, some marketing list-maker has suffered under the delusion that there is a teenager named ‘Thomas’ living at out address, and we get a steady stream of mailed offers for SAT test prep and technical school enrollment. When Sanders Blue arrived, we decided that this must be the long-awaited ‘Thomas’ prophecied by our postal carrier.

Sanders Blue in the
Manhattan bed
The tag said Thomas would do best in full sun and there is only one spot on our property that meets that requirement. And so we pulled out some uninvited, self-seeded rudbeckia from the Manhattan bed and gave Thomas a fitting site, a bucket of compost, and ample water.

Our property abuts several square miles of town conservation watershed and that land is infested with deer. ‘Infested’ is not too strong a word. There are hundreds of them and, like most suburban towns around Boston, hunting is prohibited.

We deal with the deer two ways. When we see them on our property, we run, scream and throw rocks at them. Because the deer would otherwise retreat just a few feet into the woods, we make a point of pursuing them until they are several hundred yards from our property line. But this is only effective during daylight hours when we can see them, or when we are home.

Our second, and more effective line of defense is a product called Liquid Fence. During the gardening season, we mix up as many as three gallons of the stuff and spray it once a month on everything that we care about. Liquid Fence smells awful – its active ingredients are putrefied eggs and other nasty stuff – for about three hours. Then it dries and the smell goes away, or at least abates to the human nose. To deer, it continues to smell and taste unpleasant. It is sufficiently effective that we have watched deer nose up to a hosta, start to take a nibble, then back off.

The culprit, in a recent photo
The plan is that the deer learn to avoid us, passing down accumulated wisdom from generation to generation. (“Pay attention, Bambi. The people who live here are crazy. They yell and throw rocks and their plants taste terrible.”)

But, come mid-autumn, we let our guard down. The beds are cleared of perennial stalks then mulched in with leaves so there is little for any critter to eat. We fence the vulnerable evergreens and spray Liquid Fence once a month through the winter as the weather allows. Had we been more diligent, perhaps Thomas would have been spared. Then again, being out on the street made him visible – and therefore vulnerable - to the deer that populate our neighbors’ lawns and gardens.

The photo shows the extent of the damage. The deer ate not only the needles (which have no nutritional value) but also the bark. There is no recovery from such an attack. Thomas is a goner.

This weekend, I’ll dig him out and take the carcass to the compost pile at the back of the property. I’ll do so with a sense of resignation that a hunter with a bow and arrow might have saved Thomas. Or even a well-aimed rock.

November 2, 2010

The Quest for Mid-Autumn Color

If you are reading this from outside New England, you are likely to develop a pitying look on your face by the end of this post. Those poor people, you will be thinking. They’re looking everywhere for any hint of color in their barren existence and it’s just the beginning of November…

And you are exactly right. Growing up in Miami, I knew it was ‘winter’ only because our crape myrtle lost its leaves (as did a large tropical almond, which after being toppled by a hurricane we made certain never grew back by ‘watering’ it with gasoline). In Virginia, any number of shrubs that are deciduous in New England retained their greenery year round.

Of course we have evergreens in New England – rhododendron, for example – but the hunt for color is for the reds and yellows that linger into mid-autumn. We’ve now had enough sub-freezing nighttime temperatures that the annuals planted back in May have long since gone to that Big Compost Heap in the Sky (or, more specifically, the one at the back of our property). The maples are down to a smattering of leaves that will be gone in a week or so. Even the oaks have turned a dismal yellow-brown and their leaves are clogging my gutters.

A pair of fothergillas
What remains are a handful of shrubs that delight the eye exactly because they offer rich color in the midst of a world relentlessly going brown. Except as noted, these are all located in the ‘Long Island’ shrub bed at the front of our property.

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' on November 1
First prize goes to a pair of fothergillas. The larger one is a ‘Mt. Airy’, the smaller (and newer) one pictured at left is a ‘Blue Shadow’. Both have produced long-lasting autumn coloring in which every leaf is a riot of crimson, yellow, red and purple. The shrubs are handsome in spring and summer, but it is now that they are proving their pedigrees.  Double-click on any of the photos for much more detail.

The Itea 'Henry Garnet' in our rock garden
A close second goes to an Itea ‘Henry Garnet’. Henry has been in the bed since its creation nearly a decade ago. We originally installed it as an object lesson for our neighbors in why they did not need their invasive burning bush (euonymus alata), which was planted in profusion along Wild Holly Lane in the mid-to-late-90s. Our itea has not only grown and prospered, it has produced runners that we pot up every year to spread the word that there’s a great native alternative that provides autumn glory. Yesterday, Henry was a terrific mix of red, orange and chocolate. The lower photo is of one of Henry’s offspring that is now eight or nine years old. Henry Junior is growing happily in Rock Garden 3 where it receives protection from the wind. As a result, we expect to see its foliage into December.

Enkianthus on November 1
We treated our enkianthus poorly this year. We planted it in May and then failed to properly water it through the long, dry summer. As a result, we had some late-summer die-back that called into question our gardening skills. Some judicious pruning and TLC brought it back from the brink and we are being rewarded by an autumn show of chocolate brown and dark red foliage that is as eye-catching as it is durable. We promise to treat it better in 2011.

Hosta 'Camelot' on November 1
Some honorable mentions: Our Devils Ninebark (physocarpus opulifolium) is still a rich chocolate color, though pretty much monochromatic. A hosta ‘Camelot’ turned a brilliant gold and brown and, as of this morning, has not collapsed despite being hit by frost. Until its water-laden stalks freeze and then thaw, it will be a show-stopper.

We use Leucothoe axillaris as an evergreen foundation planting, and it does some wonderful things in the autumn, with leaves that are speckled green and white during the spring and summer developing cranberry and white stripes. It makes for terrific viewing out the living room window.

Finally, I’m keeping an eye on our oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia). It has not been in the ground for eight or nine years and has a diameter approaching ten feet. Its leaves are just starting to turn. Photos will be posted when it gets interesting.

October 20, 2010

Garden Ornaments, Memories of People and Places Past

Berkeley the snail is getting ready to go away for the winter. This weekend he will join the World’s Ugliest Frog, Fish, and a dozen other garden ornaments in the safe confines of our basement. He will be first cleaned with a bleach solution and then placed carefully inside a pot or some other protective container.
Berkeley the snail
Berkeley joined our garden menagerie as a result of a trip to London ten years ago. I was there as part of a financial road show in deepest, darkest February. Because of the road show’s grueling, two-week duration, Betty had been invited to join me for its final, transatlantic stop. The underwriters were responsible for all lodging and they chose for us a junior suite at The Berkeley, an extraordinarily luxurious Knightsbridge hotel a stone’s throw from Hyde Park.

Going to gardens was quite out of the question so, instead, we went shopping and to museums. Just down the street from our hotel was a shop that dealt in garden ornaments (they have such things in England) and the snail pictured on the left was prominently on view. We purchased it, promptly named it after our lodgings - pronounced, by the way, “BARK-lee” - and carried it in the overhead bin on the flight home. (In that pre-9/11 world, no one in airport security took notice of our carrying onboard a 12-inch-by-fifteen-inch cast-iron object.) Every year since, Berkeley has been positioned in a different perennial bed, waiting to be admired anew by us or a visitor.

The World's Ugliest Frog
The World’s Ugliest Frog was a parting gift from a friend leaving Medfield. She was moving, and the frog had graced, if that word can be used for such a thing, her garden for many years. Its muted, polychrome d├ęcor had been the butt of numerous jokes. On the day that the packers came, Mary Anderson brought over the frog and said that World’s Ugliest Frog should come live with us. It has a permanent, seasonal home underneath a magnificent “Alfred’s Crimson” peony that blooms for Memorial Day every year.

I will not bore you with the individual stories for each of our other garden ornaments. I will only tell you that they all have back stories and that all those stories link us to times, places or people fondly remembered.

The Winterthur turtle and its pond
Oh, all right, one more. An outrageously overpriced concrete turtle at the Winterthur Shop was knocked down to a much more realistic five dollars after we pointed out a chip on its nose. For fifteen gardening seasons now, the turtle’s chipped nose has poked out of the water in a bird bath. We suffer its imperfection with as much dignity as we can muster. The butterflies and dragonflies that land on its snout don’t seem to mind in the least.

Each spring, we take out these items much as we take out Christmas tree ornaments in December. We discover them anew and, with great deliberation, place them around the property, taking into account changes in the landscape. This season, a chamaecyparis in our outer sidewalk bed pushed into the space long occupied by the turtle and its bath. The pair became the first occupants of the new wisteria bed and they look terrific there.

Fish, another garden ornament
These garden ornaments are links to travels. They are reminders of old friends. They are also practical objects that draw the eye to certain plants or that break up expanses of mulch. Some are put in plain sight while others are deliberately hidden, awaiting someone to part the foliage and find a surprise. With the 2010 garden season nearly over, their careful cleaning and storage are also part of an annual ritual as distinct as picking apples or harvesting the butternut squash.

October 18, 2010

Laura Petrie Lives Here

Autumn came with a vengeance last week. A nor’easter blew in on Thursday evening, bringing 45 mph winds and dropping two inches of rain in twelve hours. A cold front followed. By Friday morning, the storm was somewhere over the Maritimes, but the damage was done. Containers that just a few days earlier had been laden with wildly colorful coleus were nothing but stems with limp leaves. Other temperature-sensitive annuals were stripped bare by the winds.

In large measure, we’ve been living on borrowed time here in Eastern Massachusetts. It isn’t unusual to have a hard frost in suburban Boston in late September, and to make it to Columbus Day without sub-freezing temperatures is rare. But, with less than eleven hours of daylight now, the garden was starting to look ragged anyway. In mid-October, the summer gardening season is only a memory.

Betty and I spent this past weekend performing triage on the remaining containers, taking apart those that had only one or two plants remaining and re-positioning those that have more a durable portfolio of plants. Last year, we over-wintered roughly two dozen containers and were rewarded with a jump-start on spring color. Thus year, we’re contemplating cutting that back by half because the 2011 Boston Flower & Garden Show will emphasize container gardens and we hope to take advantage of ‘leftovers’ from that March event.

There are two containers that will definitely make the move indoors. The first contains a Plumbago auriculata, or Cape Plumbago. We acquired it this summer from Weston Nurseries and it is a beauty – two feet tall and (still) covered with pale blue clusters of phlox-like flowers. It spent its season in full sun out at the end of the driveway where it added a very nice touch of vertical class to an area planted in ground covers. The ‘Cape’ in the name, unfortunately, refers to the Cape of Good Hope, not Cape Cod. The plant is hardy to Zone 7. We’ll harden it off as best we can, but will have it indoors by early November.

The second container holds a Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubrum’. It was a gift from Paul Miskovsky, an extraordinarily generous Cape landscaper who uses this Zone 7 plant as an annual at many of his gardens. We overwintered it last year and it came back not only strong but ready to bloom in mid-March. My problem had always been remembering its name. I finally hit on the mnemonic ‘Laura Petrie’ (the character played by Mary Tyler Moore on the old Dick Van Dyke Show which, if you’re over 50, you may remember).

Our Lorapetalum roughly doubled in size this year and to our amazement went into a showy second bloom in early September. In the South, the plants can get to twenty feet and are sometimes pruned into tree shapes. Ours resided as part of a cluster of containers at the border of the cottage garden and drew numerous compliments. We have now moved in into a sheltered location and, like the Plumbago, we will harden it off before bring it indoors next month.

October 11, 2010

October Surprise

I walked out to the end of the driveway this morning to collect our newspapers (yes, we’re dinosaurs who actually subscribe to the print editions of multiple newspapers), and was greeted by our stand of Helianthus angustifolius. It’s part of the ‘Manhattan’ bed and is the penultimate bloomer in that three-season site.

Helianthus angustofolius in October bloom
 This is one remarkable perennial: it blooms after the first frost. Very tall (six-feet plus) on bamboo-like canes, it lies in wait at the back of the bed, waiting for its moment. It is hidden by a tall rudbeckia that blooms from August into mid-September, after which the birds have reduced the rudbeckia to stalks. Meanwhile, low-growing asters at the front of the bed started blooming in early September and are still in evidence.

But the Helianthus takes you completely by surprise. Until it blooms, it is truly part of the tall greenery at the back of the bed. Once it opens up, there’s no overlooking it. There are multiple – up to half a dozen – blooms on each stalk and their weight bends those stalks to a confounding series of graceful arches.

I would like to take credit for first planting this specimen, but honesty forces me to acknowledge that there was a small clump of it growing in the original Old Stone bed. We divided it, moving half out to the Butterfly bed where it would get better late summer sun. It took off (it spreads by rhizomes) and the clump is now about ten feet wide and two feet deep, fully intermingled with the aforementioned rudbeckia. Some years ago, we potted up a single plant, took it to a nursery, and asked for a further identification. Many books and websites were consulted but the nursery was unable to come up with a specific cultivar.

Chelone lyonii
Bees love it, of course. It, along with the asters, is one of the last sources of nectar on the property. Betty spent part of yesterday cutting back daylily foliage and the bees were everywhere.

A handful of other perennials are still in bloom. The pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) is holding its own in our lower shade bed even as the rest of the bed turns an inexorable yellow. The two sidewalk beds closest to the house are still a pleasure to look at. In the ‘inner’ bed, a white David’s phlox is in its second month of bloom and a Persicaria ‘Painter’s Palette’ has both the beautiful, multi-colored foliage it has displayed all season plus, now, an abundance of pink spikes.

Persicaria 'Painter's Palette'
In the ‘outer’ sidewalk bed, a clump of balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) eaten down by deer earlier in the season is making up for lost time by flowering long past its usual date. Because we’ve not yet had a hard frost, the cleomes are still in bloom, and probably prolifically self-seeding next year’s crop. Also, there’s a clump of pinkish-white Japanese anemone that, left to its own devices, would take over the garden. We allow this one clump to remain because of its reliable September flowering. To keep it in check, we spend much of the spring and summer pulling out its never-ending runners.

The outer sidewalk bed
The single most striking perennial in the outer sidewalk bed is a Eupatorium ‘chocolate’. Joe Pye weed never was more elegant than this. The foliage is indeed a purple-chocolate brown, but the bloom – huge puffy heads of tiny white flowers – is remarkable. We’ll have those floral clusters until early November.

Finally, although a shrub rather than a perennial, our Daphne ‘Atlantica’ is putting on an autumn show. We nearly gave it up for dead after last winter and it spent much of the spring and summer staked in hopes of strengthening its trunk. Whatever we did worked: the plant roughly tripled in size over the course of the summer and then began putting out fragrant white flowers. It is still going strong.

September 30, 2010

The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special

As September turns to October, garden center owners fixate on their remaining stock of unsold trees, shrubs and perennials. They face the unappealing possibility that they might actually have to pay someone to replant those maples and azaleas lest their roots freeze over the course of the approaching winter.

The more appealing alternative, of course, is to get me to buy them.

And so, at this time of year, the offers come. First in a trickle and then a flood. Take 30% off. Buy one and get a second one at half price. HUGE markdowns. The really clever garden centers send me colorful, floral-themed plastic cards with my name pre-printed on them together with the massive discount to which I am entitled if I act immediately.

Then, they make it really irresistible: they throw in pizza or maybe ice cream.

I once succumbed to an invitation to Weston Nurseries' end-of-season sale because they parked an ice cream truck in the middle of their container display area. While I unwrapped a Dove Bar, someone loaded a viburnum in the trunk of my car. Another time, I ate a piece of delicious grilled corn and somehow purchased an amelanchier. One memorable year I enjoyed a slice of an open-oven grilled pizza and found myself the owner of a Japanese maple (acer japonica expensivus) so special that it requires its own trust fund.

None of this is the fault of garden center owners. By the end of September, gardeners’ thoughts have gravitated to the post-season, yet autumn is the near-ideal time to plant trees and shrubs. In reality, they’re doing me a favor.

My problem, of course, is that I’ve run out of room for new stuff. But because the prices are so good we go looking anyway… and invariably bring something home.

Weston's most excruciatingly wonderful invention is the ‘pallet sale’ annd it is that organization's contribution to the pantheon of marketing. It is a masterstroke of inventory management:  Take a pallet. Fill it with roughly a dozen trees or shrubs and top it off with half a dozen perennials (which if still on the premises will become compost with the first hard frost). Mark the price at roughly a third of full retail.

That’s how we acquired our fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). This was, of course, back when we had room for new specimen plants. Betty really wanted that fringe tree but had chafed at the price for a decent-sized one. So, we bought the pallet (and got its contents home in a Saab convertible in only four trips) and suddenly, we had not only a great looking fringe tree, but also a pair of boxwoods, two rhododendron, three azalea, a climbing rose and enough summer flowering perennials to feed an army of birds. That was seven or eight years ago.

We bought the pallet because of the fringe tree. We didn’t really ‘need’ the other plants. But there’s always room for another attractive rhododendron, even though today I am hard-pressed to remember which of the twenty rhodies on the property are the two that came off that particular pallet (confession: we have succumbed to pallet sales more than once). The other plants found appropriate sites.

Except for the boxwoods. For years the boxwoods from that pallet sat at the edge of our woods, completely aloof from the rest of the landscape. What can you possibly do with just two boxwood shrubs? For most of that time, had we known of a home for unwanted Buxus sempervirens, we would have sent this pair packing.

But something unexpected happened: they thrived on neglect, probably muttering to one another how unappreciated they were by their owners. Today, they make a magnificent statement, twin pillars that are prominently visible from the window from which this is written.

The moral of the story is that serendipity ought to play a role in every landscape and those autumn sales can be the catalyst for a horticultural adventure. Carpe diem.

Buxus sempervirens at the edge of the
woods.  That's a young heptacodium
(seven sons tree) growing between them. 

September 24, 2010

A day at a perennial plant symposium, with a scolding

I spent Wednesday at an all-day symposium on perennials. Two hundred of us sat in the beautiful carriage house amid the stunning gardens of the Elm Bank estate in Wellesley, listening to a series of speakers talk about every kind of perennial under the sun or in the shade.
They were an energetic lot. Kerry Mendez, who travels widely from her base in Ballston Spa, NY, kept up an hour-long tutorial just on the plants growing in her own quarter-acre garden. She was an encyclopedia of plant knowledge, never talking down to her audience and conveying an enthusiasm that was infectious.

Brent Heath, of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs in the Tidewater region of Virginia, led a low-key but wonderfully colorful journey through a year’s worth of bulbs. Laura Deeter, a professor at Ohio State, gave a stand-up comedy routine that was cleverly disguised as a talk on perennials maintenance. And Adrian Bloom, the consummate head of the UK’s Blooms Nurseries, gave a dazzling tutorial on garden design built around color and texture.

Roy Diblik, of Wisconsin’s Northwind Perennial Farm, gave a subversive talk that was as much about ecology as it was about planting perennials. A gifted speaker with a droll sense of humor, he started with a photo of a non-descript lakeside park. In the foreground was a pathetic patch of daylilies amid a sea of mulch. Any other speaker might have tossed off such a slide with a quick, ‘this is what not to do’ and then gone on to more pleasant gardens. But Diblik stayed on that photo for a good ten minutes, describing everything that was wrong with the mindset that produced such a landscape. In the process he also wove in his own life story. By the time he was finished, Diblik had offered a view of garden design that was clear, concise and firmly rooted in science. He got my vote as the best speaker of the day.

Adrian Bloom delivering his talk to the Perennial Plant Association seminar
The opening speaker, though, was a complete puzzler. Kirk Brown is a garden writer and business manager of a garden design firm in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He spent his first fifteen minutes describing a Swiftian-type ‘modest proposal’ that we pave over part of the Pacific Ocean using the oil from the BP spill and garbage floating in the Pacific gyre. I expected that grim opening to morph into a discussion of sustainable gardening principles and the role of perennials. Instead, he spent the next fifteen minutes discussing species extinction.

By now, half an hour into an hour-long presentation, I was wondering why the Perennial Plant Association, which co-sponsored the day along with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, had signed on such a downbeat speaker. Based on the audience’s nervous laughter, I wasn’t alone in my confusion. The second half of the presentation was given over to a plea for recycling and a tirade against plastic bags. At 10 a.m. I felt as though I had just sat through a first-period, ninth-grade ecology class. Amazingly, the words ‘perennial’, ‘flower’ or even ‘plant’ never crossed the speaker’s lips.

During lunch, I asked the executive director of the PPA why Brown was on the schedule. “He drew a standing ovation at our Portland symposium,” was the reply.

Well, maybe in Portland. And there is a place for a talk like the one Brown delivered. But in my view that place wasn’t at this symposium. Two hundred people – the preponderance of them serious home gardeners and the balance industry professionals - paid $95 each to hear about perennials and get garden design ideas. They didn’t sign up (or pay) for a scolding.

Roy Diblik, on the other hand, delivered a talk that was rife with an ecological undercurrent, but it was also informative about ways to garden with environmental stewardship in mind. Kerry Mendez, too, spoke at length on how she achieves terrific results with the absolute minimum of chemicals. They did it right. In my opinion, scheduling Kirk Brown, the PPA got it wrong.

September 13, 2010

Horticulture amid the art, or maybe vice-versa

Jill Nooney
(2013 update:  Bedrock Garden will be open five Saturdays this year, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  The dates are May 18, June 15, July 20, August 17, and September 21)

Once, many years ago, I proved once and for all how little I understood modern art, by asking a Duane Hanson sculpture what time the gallery closed. Admittedly, it was an honest mistake that could have happened to anyone. And so perhaps I could also be forgiven this past Saturday when I asked Jill Nooney at Bedrock Gardens (that's her at left) if a large tree by her barn was a work of art or just a tree infested with the worst case of autumn webworms I’ve ever seen.

“It’s webworms,” she explained. “They’re horrible this year.” Then she reconsidered and shrugged. “Or, maybe it could be Christo in the ash tree. I never thought of it that way.”

Welcome to Lee, New Hampshire and Bedrock Gardens. It is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual gardens I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. To begin with, it’s open to the public just four days a year (other days by appointment). If most public gardens entreat you to visit, Bedrock Gardens, which is private, seems to go out of its way to make itself tough to get into without an appointment.

Under development since 1987, the garden encompasses 30 acres (see the nearby aerial view and map; click on them or any of the other photos for a full-screen view). It is the vision of two individuals, Jill Nooney and Bob Munger. Ms. Nooney, a graduate of the Radcliffe Program in Landscape Design, is a horticulturalist and landscape designer. Mr. Munger is a retired physician and self-described natural-born tinkerer.

They are both artists and Bedrock Gardens is as much about the whimsical metal sculptures they’ve created as the garden in which the art is displayed. The preceding sentence is not intended to take anything away from either the sculpture or their garden – both are unique and quite beautiful. Both are full of a playfulness that is too often missing when bright minds are constrained by matters of finance, zoning boards or trustees.

I’ll start with the garden. To me, the dominant feature is the GrassAcre (at left), which is half a dozen different specimens of miscanthus tightly planted to form a living, abstract painting. The aerial photo, probably a year or two old, doesn’t do it justice but then neither do any of my attempts to capture it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. There is a spiral garden and beautiful parterre formal garden with pool. Perhaps my favorite is a sleeping room set in the woods with a series of step-down pools that positively sing. You approach this area through what appears at first to be an arch that, only when you’re within a few feet of it reveals itself as a set of three giant tumblers.

The horticulture ranges from the ‘kind-of-interesting’ to the ‘wow’. A Caryopteris divaricata 'Snow Fairy' stumped the experts in my group (it’s a distant cousin from the Himalayas). There were at least three specimens of heptacodium (seven son tree) on the premises, all in bloom. An espaliered fence made of apple trees was a show-stopper. The garden also gives you ample opportunities to pause, rest and observe. There are numerous pergolas and shelters that offer inviting places to sit and contemplate.

Most of those seating opportunities appear to have been wrested from tractors, which brings me to the art part of the garden. The co-owners are both artists with an eye for seeing what fits with something else. There are, literally, hundreds of sculptures large and small scattered throughout the garden. They are almost entirely the detritus of an earlier industrial era, bolted and welded into shapes that please the eye. Most require close inspection to reveal their mechanical origins, sometimes bringing a smile of recognition. Most are for sale. The shelters, too, are industrial architecture rescued and re-purposed for a new century.

Ms. Nooney and Mr. Munger would like to turn their site into a public garden. They’ve given themselves a decade to make that happen but, as their website makes clear, they’re not altogether certain how to proceed.

It is a unique place and a beautiful garden. Unfortunately, it is also out of the way (twenty miles east of Manchester and eighty miles north of Boston) and open far too infrequently. Their next open day will like to be in May 2011. If you’re ever in the vicinity, you might want to consider calling to ask for an appointment.

(Postscript:  Jill Nooney has posted four open days for 2011, all Saturdays.   They are May 14, June 11, July 9, and September 10.  It might be well worth checking the garden's website to see if additional open dates will be offered.)

September 8, 2010

The Early Autumn Container Garden

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a container garden planted in May will, by the end of summer, be a sad-looking vestige of its spring glory. Sometimes, though, a lot of pruning and reasonable choice of plant material can yield a container that holds its own right into the autumn.

As noted in previous posts, Betty created something like fifty container gardens this spring. Some of them are necessarily ephemeral: lobelia is going to disappear with the summer heat no matter how much water and shade it is given. Salvia is going to get leggy. Also, some plants are thugs and will take over a container, relentlessly pushing out less aggressive specimens.

But some containers come through the season looking terrific. These photos, taken today (September 8), are of gardens that went through a torrid July and August yet survived looking, if not exactly like grown-up versions of their May incarnations, at least attractive. They were kept well watered and were pinched back regularly.  Double-click on any of them to get a full-page photo.

There are a pair of cast-iron urns by the front door that greet visitors. The dominant plant in the containers is a coleus ‘Pele’, a slow grower that never bolted. The terrific grass is a pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ that is still of a manageable size after nearly four months. The fragrant nemesia ‘Sunsation’ is somewhat the worse for wear but the strawberry vine that cascades down the side of the urn has looked great all summer. As a tip to container gardeners, Betty offers the advice that there should be an insulating layer between the metal of the urn and the soil inside it.

Many containers were moved over the course of the season, most often to fill in holes in various flower beds. One such is visible directly in front of the urn. There, a strobilanthes ‘Persian Shield’ provides a dramatic burst of purple and black, augmenting a heliotrope ‘Fragrant Delight’. At the base is a nice fringe of Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria). As an aside, on the steps to the right is a light green and very fuzzy plecanthrus. Early in the season, it became home to a large frog which created a pleasant (to a frog) damp hidey-hole in the plant’s root mass. We’ve left it alone all season. The frog is still happily ensconced and doesn’t mind being periodically doused.

If I kept better track of tags, I could more fully identify the plants in the other containers pictured. One of the highlights of the garden is the grouping of five containers (at right) that soften a corner of our home. There’s an arborvitae ‘Berckmans Golden’ in a tall terra cotta pot. A smaller, identically shaped container holds a coleus ‘Kingswood Torch’ and a ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea). Three more pots offer a variety of accent plants ranging from succulents to a trailing, nicely scented petunia. The vine behind the containers is a clematis ‘Virgin’s Bower’ that blooms in September.

September 1, 2010

Yep, that's our garden

The Wall Street Journal is a wonderful newspaper.  I've been a subscriber for the better part of four decades.  In that time, I've watched it evolve from the best business newspaper around to an incredibly good general interest paper.  If it carried today's TV listings, Arlo and Janis, and the Thursday supermarket flyers, I could readily dispense with at least one of the other papers that land at the end of my driveway.
Gardening articles are a relatively recent addition to the Journal's repertoire but the paper has taken on the subject with a seriousness and dedication that is admirable.  I've seen garden-specific articles from at least three reporters; none of the reporting is of the 'me too' variety.
A few weeks back, I dropped Ann Marie Chaker a congratulatory note on an article she had written about xeric landscapes.  The next day, I had not only a reply, but Ms. Chaker said she had scrolled through this blog and noted the June 14 entry on our 'utility easement'.  She said she was getting ready to write on what she called 'hell strips' and would my wife be available for a few minutes to talk about ours?
That 'few minutes' turned into a 45-minute-long conversation that begat a second call of almost equal duration (plus a brief one to verify quotes), plus a visit by a photographer. The result appears this morning; here is a link to the first page and the second page of the article.
What is most gratifying about the article isn't that Ms. Chaker gets everything 'right' (although she does).  Instead, it is that Betty is just one source among more than a dozen quoted in the article.  I cannot imagine the total number of hours spent on the article.  Dedication to good journalism doesn't get any better.
So, my hat is off to the Journal and to Ann Marie Chaker.  A job amazingly well done.

August 27, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Lawn

When we moved into our current home eleven year ago, the then-four-year-old property had roughly 10,000 square feet of lawn. Today, the lawn is barely 5,000 square feet. Therein lies a story.

The diagram at left shows the extent of grass in 1999. We bought the property because of its unique attributes; it is part of a neighborhood yet it is also secluded from that neighborhood by trees and a long driveway. It is 220 feet from the street to the house and a nice copse of trees was left to provide a green barrier at the front of the property.

All in all, having just 10,000 square feet of grass on a 1.7 acre property (70,000 square feet) would seem already to represent a degree of environmental consciousness. Several of our neighbors – with similarly sized lots – have lawns that are upwards of 40,000 square feet. We, however, immediately began looking for ways to pare the lawn (and the time spent mowing it). The second diagram, below, shows the reductions made over the past 11 years. Here are some notes about what happened to the rest of that grass.  The letters in the plot plan correspond to areas being discussed.

The back ‘yard’ of the property ought never to have borne any grass. From the rear wall of the house the land slopes down at a 15% grade toward a pond 100 yards away. We have heard, anecdotally, that the builder initially sprayed grass seed and that, briefly, the back of the property was all grass. But rain, snow and gravity caused most of it to be washed into the woods behind us by the time we moved in. The home’s first occupants tried all manner of fixes, including mulch and perennials. By 1999, there were only a few remaining area of grass (A). We effected a permanent solution by terracing the back area via a series of rock gardens. The grass was removed to extend those rock gardens across the entire rear of the property.

At the very front of the property, the builder incongruously elected to put in a 30-foot-deep strip of grass (B) between the sidewalk and the woods. The grass benefited no one. It was invisible from the house and the neighbors could care less. That was the first grass to go, removed to be turned into a long shrub bed. All that remains of the original grassed area is a narrow, undulating turf border that serves as an accent. This year, the shrub bed expanded by about 100 square feet with the removal of a Norway maple (C).

We began nibbling away at the grass along the driveway (D) almost from the day we moved in. Two existing perennial beds were enlarged, each time shrinking the grass area while providing more room and sunlight for the growing perennial collections. Similarly, the outer sidewalk bed (E) was nearly doubled in width, allowing for a more dramatic display of plantings while further reducing the volume of grass in one of the only areas of the property to received all-day sun.

One of the most significant reductions in lawn came from the creation of Old Stone Bed (F). The original tiny, rectangular garden (built in a raised bed bordered with paving stones), discernible in the top diagram, made no sense. It was quadrupled in size and its contours made more interesting. The paving stones were removed but the name stuck. At the same time, ‘the Cove’ (G) was created by narrowing the opening of a bib of grass leading to the Hosta Walk.

The Butterfly bed (H) has been deepened and a triangular section of lawn (I) removed and replaced with ground covers and spring bulbs.

The two most recent lawn reductions; the Xeric garden (2007-2009) (J) that replaced the utility easement, and the ‘Wisteria’ bed (2009) (K) by the driveway turnaround, have already been commented on at length in recent posts.

What is left is a very manageable area of lawn that can shrink only with difficulty. The expanse of turf in front of the house covers the septic field. Planting that area is not considered advisable. The ten-foot-wide strips of grass along either side of the driveway provide a landing point for winter snow – a not insignificant consideration in New England.