June 21, 2010

In Pursuit of a Little Hanky Panky

There are days that are meant for working in the garden, there are days that are meant for reading a good book indoors, and there are days that are meant for… driving to the ends of the earth in search of the perfect hosta.

To say that Mason Hollow Nursery is located off the beaten path is to imply that there is an actual path to the nursery, beaten or otherwise. It is located in Mason, New Hampshire and, if there is a physical town, we have never found it. Were there a town, it would be located about ten miles over the Massachusetts border above Fitchburg, except that we did not start our expedition from Fitchburg but, rather, from The Fells, fifty miles north in Newbury. But I digress.

To get to Mason Hollow Nursery, you must first find Parker’s Maple Syrup Barn Restaurant, which the Mason Hollow website treats as a navigational feat akin to, say, finding the George Washington Bridge from the New Jersey Turnpike. In reality, you can travel for hours, fastidiously following tiny signs nailed to telephone poles and trees. Once at the restaurant, you see signs for the nursery, which is ‘just 1.6 miles farther on’, mostly over dirt roads.

Sue and Chuck Andersen (that's Chuck facing the camera on the right) run Mason Hollow as both a business and a labor of love. It is open five days a week and, one weekend a year, they entice a lot of people to visit with the promise of hot dogs and ice cream while you shop. With more than 650 varieties of hosta in their collection plus hundreds of perennials, there’s a lot of shopping to do. The ice cream, incidentally, is excellent.

We made the journey because their website lists among their collection, a hosta called ‘Hanky Panky’. As the accompanying photos show (double-click on them to get larger versions), this is not your grandmother’s, or even Tommy James and the Shondells’ hosta. ‘Hanky Panky’ has leaves in three tones: a dark green surrounded by gold border with a narrow, cream-colored thread between the two patterns. Moreover, as the season progresses, the yellow edge changes to white with an unusual light green overlay. How did it get the name ‘Hanky Panky’? Because it’s a sport of ‘Striptease’. (And, just to show that breeders who name hostas have a wonderful sense of humor, there’s another ‘Striptease’ sport called ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.)

Betty encountered ‘Hanky Panky’ while judging horticulture at a flower show several weeks back. She came home talking about it at length, which is a reasonable data point to infer that it will soon be in our garden, assuming that a good-looking specimen can be located. We are approaching 100 named varieties of hosta and have just opened a new bed to accommodate the growing collection.

You do not go to a nursery like Mason Hollow and walk out with just one plant. We came away with six, including one hosta called ‘Madam’ and other with the terrific name ‘Olive Branch’. The fern collection also continues to grow apace and Sue threw in a small tiarella as a ‘thank-you’.

We live in a time when, all too often, we go places because they are convenient: the McDonalds is just off the exit ramp and the Barnes and Noble is at the mall. All Big Macs taste exactly alike and B&N will reliably have the new Martha Grimes at a discount. When it comes to gardening, though, identical isn’t necessarily better and knowledge counts for a lot. Mason Hollow features extensive and intelligently designed hosta gardens showing their offerings at maturity. The staff understood what we were looking for and where to find it. If they didn’t have it, they could recommend something very close.

Service like that is worth a lot. Even a very long drive in the country.

June 14, 2010

The Xeric Garden Hits its Stride

It would be easy to claim, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, that the Xeric Garden was always part of our master landscaping plan.  It would, however, be a fib.  The xeric garden began as a disgusted response to a six-foot by ten-foot patch of weeds where no grass would grow.  Betty hoed up the weeds and planted some catmint (nepeta) in the spot, flanked by some Joe Pye weed (eupatorium) that thrived in an equally inhospitable nearby spot.  The two cultivars grew happily despite searing, all-day sun and benign neglect.

Let's step back a pace or two.  Every lot that has a sidewalk also has an easement between the street and that sidewalk.  It may be two feet wide in an urban setting or it may be eight feet wide in a less dense suburb.  Most often, that easement is planted with grass, often augmented by utility poles (hence the 'easement' desciption).

The easement hides two irrevocable truths.  The first is that underneath a veneer of topsoil is all the crud that the builder needed to dispose of, whether five years ago or a hundred.  The second is that - at least in New England - the easement will collect snow pushed up from the street by plows during the winter, and that the snow will be laden with snow-melting chemical laid down in the early stages of the snow storm.  Those two truths combine to make easements inhospitable to anything except stuff highly tolerant of abuse - meaning weeds. 

Which is what led to that first experiment five years ago.  For the first five or six years we lived on Wild Holly Lane, we did everything possible to grow grass in the easement.  We seeded, transplanted, sodded and pampered the area, all to no avail.  In hindsight, it made no sense because, fifteen feet away, we were ripping out grass to continually expand our street-side shrub bed. 

When the first rectangular patch worked, we added a second, flanking bed, which also thrived.  That's when Betty came up with the idea of ripping out all 960 square feet of our easement and planting a Xeric garden - a bed of perennials that would thrive in an abused area and require no watering beyond what was needed to establish the area. 

It took two years to accomplish because the process involved not only ripping out the weeds, but the depleted topsoil as well.  The entire site was dug down to a depth of fifteen inches, from which was removed rocks of every imaginable size, cans, lengths of cable, plastic bottles, chunks of concrete and even remains of workmen's lunches.  What remained was primarily sand.  We then filled the trench with a mixture of compost and chopped leaves which we mixed with the sand.  A contractor with a backhoe could have accomplished all this in a day.  With just a shovel, it took a good bit longer.

The six accompanying photos (double-click on them to get a full-screen view) show the Xeric garden as it looked this morning, June 14.  I've walked around the beds (plural because it is bisected by the driveway) clockwise starting from the east.  In the top photo, the yellow flowering shrub is genista, which has a roughly three-week bloom in JuneThe grasses will send up plumes in August.  The daffodil greens in the foreground will be cut down in July as they yellow; the entire bed is heavily planted in spring bulbs.  The second photo picks up the bed at the nepeta in full bloom.  It is about to be severely trimmed back to give the variegated eupatorium between the two clusters time to grow and bloom in August.  In the foreground is one of the dozen or so sedem plantings that will enliven the fall, and just starting to grow is a bed of agastache that will start blooming in late August and still have its azure blue flower stalks into October.  Beyond the catmint is more eupatorium which, if the deer leave it alone, will bloom in August.

The third photo looks back east from the far end of the garden.  There is more genista, a baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight' that bloomed back in May, and a soft yellow achillea that just went into bloom last week and will be a highlight of the bed for the next month.  Hidden by the genista are a variety of perennials, including yellow gallardia which, once it starts blooming, doesn't stop until there's a hard freeze.  The fourth photo looks east across the driveway with yet another genista in the foreground, showing the sweep of the Xeric bed beyond.  As soon as this particular genista has finished blooming, it will be trimmed back to allow a Himalayan indigo to get more light for a late July-August bloom.

The fifth photo shows a quickly spreading and prolifically flowering delosperma, blue rug junipers and short grasses.  This is the most abused part of the bed as this is where snow from the driveway is deposited and where ice may endure until mid-April.  The sixth and final photo shows the plots of thyme that are now well established and growing quite well along - and into - the sidewalk.  There's a plan to extend the thyme border.

The Xeric garden attracts bees and butterflies, as well as lots of walkers.  Alas, none of our neighbors have evinced an interest in following our lead to creating a prettier - and more ecologically prudent - easement.

June 6, 2010

Open Day at the O'Callahans

It is a-near annual pilgrimage for us. On a June morning that may be brilliantly clear or threatening rain, we will embark on an 80-mile journey to an enchanted garden. It does not matter that we have seen this garden half a dozen times over the past decade; all that is important is that, for an hour or so, we will experience something that comes close to the idyllic.

The garden of Juan and Bunny O’Callahan sits on six acres overlooking Little Narragansett Bay, just outside of Stonington, Connecticut. Once a year - or every second year – they open their property for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. Today, June 6, was the chosen day as noted in the Open Days Directory, and it has been marked on our calendar for months. Our goal is always to arrive as close to the 10 a.m. opening time as possible so as to see the gardens without the crowds.

This garden is stunning both for its location – a 270 degree view of the bay, the ocean beyond, and Stonington Village – and for the breadth of the garden. For starters, six generously sized cutting beds with a variety of flowers and bulbs (peonies, lupines and poppies were in special abundance today) and a vegetable garden all enclosed in a yew hedge, the better to keep out both deer and the stiff ocean winds.

A sunken garden is built into the rock ledge next to the seawall, and it is truly a “secret” garden – there is no hint of it until you are upon it. Once inside, there masses of huechera all with long stems vibrating in the breeze and succulents growing in the ten-foot-high rock wall face.

Nepeta – catmint to the rest of us – is a unifying element across the property. It is used in long, undulating rows to break up the lawn and to border other beds. Today, it seemed every catmint plant was blooming a brilliant blue. Also in their full glory were hundreds of lupines, which can be found in many of the perennial beds.

It is a garden that seems the same, even as it changes. We have watched the rehabilitation of a pond take shape over the past several years. On this visit, it seemed finished, overrun with bull frogs and with a spouting fountain. On a visit a few years ago, the O’Callahans and a neighbor had planted an unused field in red poppies, with results like something out of a Monet painting. Alas, that experiment hasn’t been repeated.

The O’Callahans have always been generous with their time on their Open Day, fielding questions from dozens of visitors. And, because there is always something new to discover, we had questions of our own. Behind their greenhouse and surrounding their compost pile, we spotted a thicket of multi-stemmed shrubs with maple-like leaves bearing clusters of some tiny, green, immature fruit. We were stumped. Bunny O’Callahan, though, had a ready answer: red and black currants. Because they were linked to a disease affecting white pines, their cultivation was banned for the better part of a century. The ban has been lifted in certain states, including Connecticut, in recent years.

June 1, 2010

Well-contained Enthusiasm

I was at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, standing in a queue for drinks. Directly in front of me in line were two gentlemen, both silver-haired and attired in gray, chalk-stripe suits that spoke of both good tailoring and good breeding. They said little during those few minutes I was behind them, but one sentence continues to ring in my ears with a clarity undiminished by time.

“Penelope,” one of the men said to the other, and then paused for just a moment before continuing, “has a £100 a week perennial habit.”

He said this with neither anger nor regret in his voice. It was a statement of fact; tinged with opinion only in his use of the word, ‘habit’ in describing Penelope’s voracious gardening budget. I swiftly did some currency conversion in my head: at the then-current exchange rate, Penelope was buying up $182 a week worth of salvia, astilbe and hosta.

When I returned and handed Betty her drink, I related what I had just heard and I said, “Don’t ever again fret over what you spend on gardening. You will always be a rank amateur.”

We had a pounding rain here overnight and one of my jobs this morning was to empty saucers from the various containers around the property. Saucers with water in them mean containers can become waterlogged, which leads to root rot.

Somewhere along the way, I began counting the containers surrounding our home. I found 52 and am not certain I got them all.

Now, one or two are just for show – unplanted behemoths that are in perennial beds strictly as focal points. Some others are long-term homes to plants that we overwinter, such as a beautiful burgundy loropetalum or the stone planter given by Betty’s garden club that is home to a fern that returns majestically every May.

The core group of containers – medium and large terra cotta, glazed ceramic or high-quality foam ones – numbers about 35. Betty has been diligently planting them for the past month, filling them with an amazing array of mostly annuals but also including perennials, tropicals and a few shrubs; none of them common.

Those containers are scattered around the property, bringing color to otherwise bare areas of asphalt, concrete or rock. Some are awaiting permanent assignment, such as a large, colorfully planted pot that will sit atop a clutch of prominently visible daffodil greens once those greens have started to yellow later this month.

There are multiple containers along the sidewalk that will fill voids in the perennial beds as June bloomers pass. There are six containers on our deck, turning an otherwise drab structure into a colorful annex of the garden below it. Two matching metal urns are overflowing with color on either side of the front door. Large containers bring drama to the spaces between garage doors and still others fill an awkward, dark corner.

Does this count as a ‘container habit?’

Hardly. And, were it so, then I would be the principal enabler. Betty takes me plant shopping at her peril. I’m the one saying, “Don’t you want another of those?” And, at container sales, I’m the one piling the cart to overflowing, with Betty ordering me to put them back.

It isn’t even a container obsession. Rather, it’s an appreciation for what can be wrought by mixing plants of differing heights, bloom size and color into a small space, and then massing the resulting containers into a pleasing arrangement. It’s art using a different palette and medium.

So, to the gentleman at the Chelsea Flower Show, I say, “Hooray for Penelope.” I hope that she, too, is still creating art of a different kind somewhere in the U.K.