August 27, 2011

Waiting for Irene

I had just turned eleven years old when Hurricane Donna roared through south Florida.  I am told I was born during a hurricane but the 1950s saw no storms of any consequence in Miami.  All that changed on September 9, 1960 when the monstrous Category 4 storm slammed into the Florida Keys, went into the Gulf of Mexico, then stalled and came back across the state (eventually wreaking havoc in New York and New England).  Miami saw ten inches of rain and sustained, hurricane-force winds for nearly 24 hours.

When the storm had passed, I went outside to see a changed world.  Fifty-foot Casurinas (Australian pines) lay across my street like a plank road.  My yard lost a massive Terminalia catappa (tropical almond) and the tops of an avocado and mango tree.  Foliage was stripped from most shrubs.  It was the first time I had ever seen nature’s fury at its worst and it left a lasting impression.

Irene's track as on 11 a.m. on
Saturday morning.  It's down to a
Category 1 hurricane
But it was the kind of impression that eleven-year-old boys are most likely to have; namely, that this was really neat.  We had no electricity for days and my sister and I were charged with the cleanup not only of our yard but that of an elderly neighbor.  School was postponed for a week and, even afterward, there were still yards in my neighborhood where entire trees lay uprooted.

Miami would see several more hurricanes over the next five years, though none like Donna.  As I grew, I came to see hurricanes in a different light: pointlessly destructive and obstacles to pursuing more pleasurable activities.  One, Gloria, came through eastern New England in the mid-1980s.  We lived at the time on a street that was dense with trees and above-ground power lines.  Our electricity was out for nine days and we lost everything in our large freezer.  That experience snuffed out any remaining excitement about tropical storms.

A few days ago, Irene was
predicted to pass right
over us as a much
stronger storm.
As this is written, Hurricane Irene is lashing the Outer Banks of North Carolina and had drawn a bead on New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Although it will be a minimal force hurricane when it arrives tomorrow, we will be in the northeast quadrant of the storm where the wind and the rain are concentrated.  At least that’s an improvement from Wednesday, when Irene was expected to make landfall in New England as a Category 3 storm and the eye was predicted to pass directly over us.

Yesterday, Betty and I walked the gardens, making note of what needed to be done.  The hosta flowers are nearly spent and so they were cut off, which will give the wind less surface area to damage the hosta leaves close to the ground.  Several large hydrangea were trimmed, obelisks laid on their side and plastic pots collected to go to the transfer station today.  Deck furniture was removed and plans made to relocate the plants on the screen porch, deck and driveway.

This morning, I began the process of bringing containers either up close to the house or, in the case of lightweight pots made from foam or containers with fragile plants or flowers, into the garage.  There they will huddle until after the storm passes.  We stripped the vegetable garden of everything that was remotely pickable.

So, the thrill of seeing trees uprooted has long passed.  Now, it is a dispassionate process of preparation so as to minimize damage to the things we have worked hard to create.  The telephone, cable and electrical wiring in our neighborhood is all underground and we are just off a main street that will likely be a high priority for restoration of power in the event of an outage.  I worry about two trees – both oaks – that could cause damage if they fell in the storm (and it is my experience that trees always fall in the direction of the nearest house).   There is a handsome stand of Kirengeshoma palmata (Japanese wax bells) that are about to display their brief annual bloom.  I suspect that this year, what you see in the accompanying photo, taken a few minutes ago, is all there will be for 2011.
This is our stand of Kirengeshoma palmata as it
appeared today, about to bloom.  I'll show the 'after'
photo on Monday.

A bad storm will put a premature seasonal end to the gardens that surround out house and that would be a shame.  But we can’t stand with blankets in front of dozens of shrubs or perennials.  Nature is going to deliver us a tropical storm.  All we can do is prepare, wait it out, and then put things back where they belong.

And this is the outer sidewalk bed
as of Saturday afternoon.  On Monday
you'll see the storm's handiwork.
But there is one tie that goes back to Donna 51 years ago.  One of my strongest recollections of that storm was opening the hurricane awning that covered our front door and picture window (it was opened and sealed from inside the house).  The first thing I saw was the remnants of a row of purple bougainviella that had lined the sidewalk leading to our front door.  The shrubs had been stripped bare of every leaf, flower and bracht; the remaining stems tangled and broken.  This year, our five bougainviella, which spend the summer in hanging pots on our screen porch, have come inside to their 'winter quarters'.  Come Monday morning, they will look just as fresh as they do today.

August 15, 2011

Come Saturday Morning

The Xeric garden occupies the property's 'hell strip'.  Double-click on
any of the photos to get a full-screen view.

This past Saturday, we opened our property for the Massachusetts Master Gardeners.  It was a beautiful day for a tour; sunny with a high in the low 80s and tolerable humidity.  For six hours, they rambled through the gardens, fueled by tea, lemonade, cookies and chocolate cake.  It was an erudite group that was both appreciative of the garden and full of questions.  All in all, the work to get ready for the event was well worth it.

I thought this would be the right opportunity to provide a visual overview of the garden as it stands in August 2011.  Yes, everything was edged and weeded to perfection, but a garden is more than the sum of its maintenance.  A good garden is never static; it is always a work in progress with new ideas being tried out and new cultivars being lusted after.  Without question, a year from now, our garden will look different.

The Manhattan and Long Island
beds are visible from the street.
I start at the front of the property with two views of what someone driving by our home will see.  The Xeric garden (photo at the top of the blog), occupies what is sometimes known as the ‘hell strip’ - the narrow piece of land between the sidewalk and the street.  The Xeric garden is now in its third full year (pieces of it are five and six years old).  The delosperma is threatening to colonize the sidewalk; the thyme plugs have grown into a solid mass.  The nepeta has completed its first bloom and has been trimmed back severely to promote a September burst of color.  The agastache is a wonderful pale blue and will remain in bloom - and covered with bees - until a hard frost.

The perennial bed (called 'Manhattan' for its shape) and shrub bed (to the right of Manhattan and so called, naturally, 'Long Island') are studies in contrast.  The last of the daylilies in Manhattan passed in late July; that part of the bed is now dull.  But the tall rudbeckia are in full bloom and asters are heading up.  In front of the rudbeckia is an unusual, tall helianthus that is biding its time before a late September display of clusters of daisy-like flowers.  Long Island has half a dozen shrubs in bloom: clethra ‘Miss Ruby Spice’ in pink, white potentilla, and several varieties of caryopteris are blooming a delicate blue.  A towering Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus) is blooming prolifically.
Looking back down the
driveway, the two shade beds.

A copse of trees separates the balance of the property from the street.  A casual observer sees only a winding driveway leading back, but abutting the driveway are a pair of shade beds, shown at right.  The nearer one is principally astilbe (now past bloom but still with attractive foliage) and hosta.  The distant bed includes mostly native perennials (for example, two cultivars of chelonia [turtlehead] including chelonia glabra, the white turtlehead that is the only food of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly).  Currently in bloom is an Anemonopsis macrophylla (a Japanese forest anemone that was purchased at the New England Wild Flower Society) with delicate pink and white flower.

The inner and outer sidewalk beds.
Here are the inner and outer sidewalk beds (double-click to show at full screen size).  This garden offers a continuing bloom cycle from early April through a hard frost.  The last lilies are fading but Daphne Atlantica is in full show, various phlox are starting their bloom and a pink dinner-plate hibiscus has another week's worth of buds on it.  Over the past several years, Betty has gradually introduced evergreens into the garden to provide winter interest and structure.  This photo shows some of those elements.  You can also see some of the fifty containers that provide splashes of color around the property.
Old Stone Bed

Old stone bed provides a mid-summer display of perennials.  Colorful daylilies and purple veronicastrum have just passed but golden helianthus is in evidence.  At the top of the photo is the beginning of the hosta garden.

The hosta walk
The hosta walk occupies the shady north side of the property.  There are now approximately a hundred named varieties in the garden (though not all in this particular garden).  The removal of a large, but diseased oak last year has opened the area to more light.  The hosta garden has been expanded but more sun-tolerant varieties are now being incorporated.

The four, interconnected rock gardens at the rear of the property continue to evolve.  Several trees that once provided shade to the gardens bent over this past winter and refused to straighten up with the spring and so were removed.   A cornus mas (Cornelian cherry) has been brought into proper form and now dominates rock garden 4.  At the same time, a Chamaecyparis ‘Snow’, also in rock garden 4, has doubled in size and is outgrowing its space.  The individual elements of the rock gardens and the ground covers that bind the slope are in fine form.  The leptinella serrulata (a.k.a. New Zealand fern and visible in the upper right hand frame of the photo at right) is slowly winning the battle over the stonecrop.  Mosses and ground covers are now covering stones and steps, softening the hardscape.

Irish and Scottish moss flank a
dwarf Japanese maple
In summary, the garden looked very handsome for its day on tour.  It will inevitably change because great plants will become available, existing cultivars will outgrow their location, and new ideas will captivate Betty's attention.  I do not pretend to be anything other than the guy who makes the place 'pretty'.  The intelligence is supplied by Betty.  But's that's OK: an undergardener - and even a principal undergardener - knows he's contributing.

August 8, 2011

Summer Rain

Eastern Massachusetts gets about 45 inches of precipitation per year.  Roughly ten inches of that falls as snow, the balance as rain.  Much of our spring rain comes from vast, drenching weather systems that sweep in from the west or up from the south and give us all-day rain ‘events’ that re-charge our ground water and ensure that May and June are brilliant with color.

Precipitation in Eastern
Massachusetts.  Double-click
on the chart to see details.
Then, as the chart at left shows, the rain slows down.  By July, we’re dependent on ‘pop-up’ thunderstorms – highly localized downpours caused by unstable air masses.  The problem is that these thunderstorms are truly hit or miss.  The next town over gets an inch of rain while you get the rumble of distant thunder.  Or, the rain may all fall in a few minutes, meaning water runs off rather than soaking into the soil.  And, this July, the rains did not come at all to Medfield. 

We do not water our lawn and never will.  We water newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials for the recommended periods.  Because they’re annuals, we water our containers and vegetable garden generously.  The primary source of water for our containers is rain barrels – three, 55-gallon drums connected to our downspouts. The secondary source is recycled water from our home.  For example, we keep buckets to capture the three gallons of water from our shower while it warms up in the morning.  We capture the water used to rinse vegetables.  Waterwise, we run a ‘green’ household.

Pop-up thunderstorms.  One town
gets drenched, another gets zilch.
It takes more than 30 gallons of water to drench our 50 containers and, during the hottest days of summer, that needed to be done every other day.  Until last week, we were holding our own despite the lack of precipitation.  Then, I noticed that one of the shrubs in the large bed in front of our property was in distress.  It got the diverted shower water.  Other shrubs and perennials quickly began showing the same distress.  We hauled water in two- and three-gallon containers to the affected plants and poured it slowly, making certain that every ounce went to the roots and none to waste.

But by Saturday evening we were facing an ethical choice.  A week hence, our gardens would be filled with visitors.  Our perennials were limp; there was simply no moisture in the soil.  There was a 70% chance of rain for Sunday but we agreed that, if we didn’t get substantial rain, we would break out of the hoses and watering wand.

Sunday morning, 11 a.m.  Oh, yeah!
Sunday morning we awoke to soft rain – the first in more than 30 days.  The rain gauge showed that four-tenths of an inch had fallen overnight.  An hour later, the rain was steadier and heavier.  By noon, the rain gauge showed more than an inch.  The weather map showed a conduit of moisture passing steadily over Medfield, fed by Atlantic Ocean moisture.  Around 4 p.m., the rain finally stopped; the rain gauge showed a total of 2.4 inches in a twelve-hour period.

This morning, it is as though the month-long dry spell never happened.  The perennials in Old Stone Bed are tall and erect.  Seedeater’s Heaven, which was prostrate a day earlier, has completely recovered.  A quick trowel check of one of the shrub beds shows that there is moisture down at least six inches.

Not every gardener is as serious about water conservation as we are, but then we have to make up for our neighbors who thoughtlessly run their lawn sprinklers despite the watering ban imposed by our town.  Ours is not some holier-than-thou attitude toward water in the garden.  Rather, it’s learning to live by the same common-sense rules that ought to apply to everyone (and what Betty tells the groups that pay her to speak on the subject).  That we have two acres doesn’t give us an exemption.  Enough said.

August 2, 2011

Company's Coming!

There is a gardening aphorism that has always resonated with me.  It goes like this:  “If you have three months to get ready for company, re-design.  If you have three weeks, replant.  If you have three days, put down mulch.  If you have three hours, edge.”

I understand the underlying wisdom embodied in that timeline.  Three years ago, our property was part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program.  We had the better part of six months to prepare for that day and we attracted several hundred visitors, each of whom paid five dollars admission.  Let me say without hesitation that, had I known what we would spend to ‘get ready’ for our Open Day, I would have come out considerably ahead by simply cutting the Garden Conservancy a check for the amount we would have brought in lieu of actually holding the event.  Of course, we still get to enjoy the ‘improvements’ we made over the course of the winter and spring before our Open Day, but I also remember the labor involved.

I bring all this up because we are hosting another group this month.  This time it is Master Gardeners and I am thrilled because we have only two weeks to prepare. There has been no talk of trees cut down or tree planted, stone walls rebuilt or new garden ‘rooms’ created.  The most labor-intensive project is getting rid of a failed grass walkway between two beds and replacing it with a mixture of stone and ornamental grasses.  Of course, I have yet to actually start this project so the timeline may be moving from dawn’s-early-light cool to mid-morning mugginess, but I can finesse that.

What I cannot control is the bloom cycle of our garden.  That is Betty’s sphere of influence.  Most homeowners are content to see a plant bloom once a year.  Not so in our garden and certainly not so this year.  Certain perennials like salvia and nepeta can be coaxed into a second bloom by judicious pruning.  August is ordinarily a letdown after June and July.  Not so this year.  Our containers – all fifty of them - are getting tender loving care to ensure that the annuals and perennials in them are in their full, late-summer splendor.

Oxalis - a truly nasty weed.
There is also weeding.  Weeding is one of my jobs and I will be the first to confess that in August I start to let my guard down.  Not this year.  I have carefully re-edged and re-mulched one of our major beds and, in the process, found a shameful number of weeds.  They’re gone now, but I know I will go through this process at least one more time before the tour. 

Leptinella serrulata, otherwise
known as New Zealand fern
Out in back, our rock gardens are the scene of an epic battle to control oxalis and an insidious creeping sedum that, given its druthers, would smother everything in its path.  It is my job to keep the paths and steps green, but green with the ‘good’ ground covers like New Zealand fern (which is neither a fern not from New Zealand, but that’s another story) and Scotch moss, and get rid of everything else.  The problem with oxalis is that you can pull it out by its roots on Saturday morning and, by Sunday afternoon, it has all come back.  (The oxalis hitch-hiked in on other plants.  This is why you remove all extraneous greenery from pots.)

My driveway edging tool of choice.
Edging is my strong suit.  Most homeowners (and lawn services) use string trimmers to whack at grass to pull it back off driveways or flower beds and I suppose such tools do a satisfactory job… for most gardens.  My tool of choice is a back-powered piece of 19th century technology that delivers the perfect driveway edge with an inch-wide channel between the pavement and the grass.  Edging perennial beds is done with a straight shovel and the effect is gorgeous.

The psychic benefit of inviting people to your garden cannot be overestimated.  Compliments make the work worthwhile.  Even I have to admit that for August in a dry summer, our garden looks quite good (well, it will look good once I get that pathway done).  But once in a long while, you can hear something that makes you proud to be a gardener.  It happened three years ago: two ladies stood at the front of our property on that Garden Conservancy Open Day.  They had no idea who I was and so they spoke openly.  One turned to the other and said, rather caustically, “They’re lying.  There is no way that two people take care of this garden.”

It was the best compliment I never received.