October 30, 2012

After the Storm

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to focus a gardener’s attention.  Until Sandy’s arrival became a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘whether’, I had been following a diligent schedule regarding end-of-season garden clean-up:  I emptied pots or cut down perennials only when I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to do so.

Sandy pushed me into a very different and infinitely more productive gear.  The fence around our 1200-square-foot community vegetable garden plot came down in about three hours versus the full day I had previously thought it would take.  The final dozen containers were emptied of annuals, potting mix and filler in a single morning.  The hosta walk was cut down in an hour.  I was a veritable beehive of activity.

Keeping 'Big Red Judy' (all four feet
of her) allowed me to believe
that it was still summer in October
There is a word here that I have tried to avoid using, but which there is no way around.  The word is ‘procrastination’.  As people who know me will attest, I am not by nature someone who puts off things.  Yet, every October, I let drag an important task that needs to be done.  Why is the closing up of the garden so different?

I suspect the reason is that, through the garden, I can cling to the notion that winter isn’t really on our doorstep.  Yes, there was an overnight freeze in early October that turned unprotected annuals and vegetables to so much limp mush.  But in anticipation of that frost I began parking a number of containers into our garage on cool evenings, including one containing an enormous coleus called ‘Big Red Judy’.  The sight of a four-foot-high tropical plant along the driveway brightened my day, even as the perennials around it turned yellow and brown and the maples faded from their brilliant reds and oranges to muddy yellows.

One day before Sandy’s arrival, ‘Big Red Judy’ went ignominiously into the compost pile.  I did not even save a clipping.  By the time the winds picked up and the first rain bands arrived Sunday morning, the garden, like Big Red Judy, was no more.

Lots of oak leaves, but a new
perspective on what remains
This is written on Tuesday; quite literally the ‘morning after’.  From my office window I can survey the post-Sandy landscape.  The first things I notice is that a month’s worth of oak leaves fell in a day and now carpet the lawn and the maples and other deciduous trees have been stripped of the last of their leaves.  But the second thing I see is that our cersis canadensis – forest pansy redbud – not only still has leaves, but has turned a majestic gold.  The ornamental plum that I routinely ignore has a riot of leaves in the red-yellow spectrum, dancing not five feet from my window.  In short, what was lost in the storm has been gained in the emergence of individual specimen plants. 

We have also regained our view of the pond at least two weeks early.  We are less than 200 feet from its shore, but two-thirds of that distance is town conservation land and, for six months of the year, trees that we are not permitted to thin obscure our view of a picturesque body of water.  From now until the end of May, we’ll have a panoramic vista just outside the banks of windows on the back side of our home.

Hurricane Sandy did put an emphatic ‘period’ to the 2012 gardening season.  But it didn’t mean the end of autumn or of our enjoyment of the season. Autumn in New England is a wonderful time of year, as well as a great state of mind.  We ought to make it linger as long as possible.
The return of the pond view

October 23, 2012

A Welcome Burst of Late Autumn Color

We’ve had a great autumn here in New England.  Rainfall was close enough to normal that trees and shrubs were not stressed, and there were no heavy storms in September or October to strip plants of their foliage.  While it’s now slightly past peak, the colors this year have been delightful.

Our oxydendrum
Our property offers a tutorial in the use of uncommon trees and shrubs that extend the season’s color.  For example, the sourwood (oxydendrum) we planted four years ago in the inner sidewalk bed has started to hit its stride, growing by about a third in size this year.  The unexpected delight, though, is the brilliant, multiple-shades-of-red to which its previously green leaves have turned in the past two weeks.  We’re not counting on the show to last past the end of the month but, for now, it’s an eye-catching display.

The left-hand side of the shrub bed.  That's the smokebush in purple at farthest
left with 'Miss Rubyspice' in front of it.
The shrub bed that lies at the front of our property has the best autumn display. The bed is comprised mainly of drought-tolerant natives, and it gets a great deal of sun and wind.  Stretching more than a hundred feet from end to end, it provides space for roughly 30 specimen shrubs.  Here’s how it looked this morning (October 23) There’s a purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) with purple-brown leaves that soar above the bed.  In front of it is a clethra ‘Miss Rubyspice’ with brilliant yellow leaves.  The brown theme is continued with a small Enkianthus, a slow-growing Asian native that has settled happily into the bed.  There are two Devil Ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius), a ‘Diablo’ with burgundy-colored foliage that will linger well into November, and a Dart’s Gold that will keep its golden leaves for another one-to-two weeks.

Fothergilla Mt. Airy; each leaf
is like a painting
Scattered among the shrubs in the bed are several that retain their leaves – and striking color - for an extended period.  One of my favorites is Fothergilla.  We have two in the shrub bed:  Blue Shadow and Mt. Airy.  Both produce a dazzling palette of autumn colors on each leaf and both are long-lasting.  Our Carolina sweetshrub (calycanthus) now shows with large, lemon-yellow leaves that will reward us with color well into November.  Our two wigelia ‘Wine and Roses’ have turned a speckled dark red and will stay that way until the weather turns bitter.  

Spirea Ogon Mellow Yellow is just
starting its long-lasting autumn turn
The two champs, though, are an itea ‘Henry Garnet’ (sometimes called a Virginia sweetspire) and a spirea ‘Ogon Mellow Yellow’.  We have two iteas on the property.  They’re a pretty green from spring through September, then begin a metamorphosis to a coppery color with specks of red, yellow and brown.  Last year, the one at the front of the property eventually went bare sometime in late December.  The second itea is in a sheltered area behind our house, and it lost its foliage only when the new leaves pushed out in late April.

‘Mellow Yellow’ puts on two shows each year.  The first is in very early April when it flowers a pale white-yellow when little else is in bloom.  Now, its profusion of small leaves have turned a specked yellow red and orange.  Those leaves will still be in place for Christmas.

Two other deciduous shrubs are still green: a viburnum ‘Catskill’ will not turn yellow until the beginning of November.   Its color will last about three weeks.  Finally, an oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia) will stay stubbornly green until well in November, after which its leaves will gradually become a mottled brown.

Ours was not an ‘instant’ landscape.  The shrub bed, like everything else, has evolved organically over a dozen years with lots of trial and error.  But now, in late October, it appears as a coherent whole.  Someone looking at that bed today might conclude that we put it together with the purpose of showing visitors how to have late-autumn color with a variety of leaf textures and sizes.  They’d be wrong, but I wouldn’t correct their perception.
The right-hand side of the shrub bed.  The large yellow shrub is calycanthus.

October 17, 2012

Aye, There's the Rub

There’s a drawback to having a two-acre garden, as well as to having 62 containers arrayed around that garden in eye-pleasing groupings: come October, it all has to be cleaned up.

After the frost:  two containers that
need a lot of tender loving care
Eastern Massachusetts had its first frost last Friday evening.  Temperatures dipped into the upper twenties for about seven hours overnight.  They recovered to the mid-60s by Sunday, but the damage was done.  The frost was the ‘period’ to the growing season that began in April, peaked in June and July, and lingered through a warmer-than-usual September.

When we awakened Saturday morning, the damage was everywhere.  I firmly believe that annuals are nothing but water held in interesting shapes by a thin coating of chlorophyll.  When the air temperature hits 32 degrees, annuals collapse with a speed and finality that is stunning.  Forty of our 62 containers were filled with annuals.  On Saturday morning, we had 40 pots of mush.

This container...
Each pot needed to be emptied but, in our garden, that is not an easy thing to do.  First of all, some pots also held perennials.  Each container was inspected and salvageable perennials were taken out separately, re-potted into plastic containers, and sunk into the transplant bed.  If they survive the winter, they’ll be re-used next year. 

...yielded these two perennials that
will be over-wintered for 2013
Each container also holds ‘ballast’.  We use large pots: some with 20-inch-plus diameters and heights of up to two feet.  Many weigh more than 20 pounds.  If they were filled entirely with potting mix, the combined weight could be half again as much as the container alone.  To keep the containers ‘portable’, Betty fills their bottoms with plastic water bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, packing ‘peanuts’ in plastic bags, and even corks.  Come October, all of this ballast is removed, cleaned and stored.

The overflowing compost bins
Even the potting mix gets recycled, after a fashion. The truism in gardening is that container mix should never be re-used because it potentially carries diseases.  But there’s no prohibition against combining container mix with garden soil, mixing it well, then using it for planting in future years.  We have a special raised bed just for our ‘used’ container mix.

Finally, each pot is scrubbed clean and then rubbed with a bleach solution, allowed to dry, and stored in the basement for use in 2013. 

So, for containers, the litany is a) put the annuals in the compost pile, b) pot up the perennials and place in the transplant bed, c) remove and clean the ‘ballast’, d) place the used container mix in a special bed, e) clean and bleach the container, f) carry to the basement, and g) repeat steps ‘a’ through ‘f’ 40 times.  Because a container filled with dead annuals is something of an eyesore, we try to get through that process in three or four days.

Same bed, after cleanup
The wisteria bed after the
frost.  That's "Kossa Regal"
collapsed in a heap
The frost also did in the hostas, which were already starting to yellow.  With the hostas lying in a heap on the ground, it was clear that all the other perennials were ready to be cut down.  We have 15 principal ‘gardens’ within our property.  While all are maintained throughout the season, the October clean-up means all perennials are cut to the ground, though not all at the same time.  As they are cut, seed heads are removed and anything that looks as though it may have either disease (usually mildew) or insect damage is bagged separately and taken to our town’s transfer station. Everything else goes into the compost bins which, by now, are filled to overflowing.  We also take out several hundred feet of drip-watering hoses each autumn so that they don't go through a long series of freeze-thaw cycles that will shorten their useful lives.

In the bottom of each container:
reusable 'ballast' that makes the
container lighter
There are also relatively minor tasks: three rain barrels are emptied, cleaned and stored in the basement; and 25 water jugs are emptied and sorted to see which are worth saving over the winter (new containers are constantly being ‘created’ because they hold our cat’s litter).  Garden ornaments are located, cleaned, and stored away. 

It is a very physical time of year; a lot of stooping and hunching over.  But the weather outside is nigh on perfect.  A brisk wind, pleasant temperatures and low humidity.  And, all around us is the color: the reds and yellows and rusts of autumn in New England.

We take it one bed at a time.  The process will take about two weeks but, once it is done, it is done for the season. 

October 11, 2012

October Surprise

(Note:  I sat down this morning to write about the gorgeous Helianthis angustofolius at the end of my driveway.  Halfway through the process, I realized that what I was writing seemed hauntingly familiar.  I went back through the archives and found that I had covered the subject exactly two years ago today.  Re-reading that 2010 post, it says precisely what I wanted to say today.  I have never repeated a post, but this one is worth doing so.)

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, with
Daphne Atlantica in the
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.

October 4, 2012

Why You Should Never Let a Plant Go to Waste

The container garden of the year was never supposed to be one.

Start with the container itself.  For six years, it held a series of evergreens.  I say ‘series’ because there would come a point when either the evergreen grew too large for the pot or the evergreen needed to be pressed into service because a deer had ravaged an in-ground one and a replacement was needed.

Last year, the
container held an
arborvitae.  Note
the patina.
That was the case this past spring.  Scant snow coverage allowed deer to forage in our outer sidewalk bed, leaving one side of an arborvitae badly mauled.  When we pulled its replacement from out of the container, we found that the terra cotta had cracked in several places.  If not for a metal band around the top and the container mix and tree roots pushing outward, the container would be in several pieces on the ground.  We put the container aside to be disposed of.

April turned to May and container gardens were assembled – more than 60 in all.  At the end of May there were some leftover plants, including three torenia ‘Purple Moon’.  Here’s how Andrew’s Greenhouse describes the annual:

NEW! TORENIA fournieri. The Wishbone Flower is a leafy plant with small, dark green leaves and a plethora of lipped blooms, each with a wishbone-shaped marking. Flowers remind me of snapdragon florets. Low maintenance plants that are self cleaning; that's right, no deadheading! Does best in consistently moist, well-drained soil and partial to full shade.  'Purple moon' This fast-growing, long blooming trailer bears loads of large dark violet flowers. 6-10".

The container in late July.  Note
the change in patina.
Betty had purchased the torenia at Andrew’s thinking she would use them in a container program.  The day before she was to give the program, she noted that the plants had only a few insignificant blooms.  She set them aside in favor of a different plant.

At the end of May, nearly all other containers were filled and Betty was ready to call it a wrap.  As usual, I thought that every plant ought to find a home.  The torenia were now flowering nicely and starting to trail.  There were also several caladium bulbs that were beginning to sprout leaves.  I hauled out the broken container, put the pieces in place and gave Betty an expectant look. 

In return, Betty gave me one of her ‘why are you doing this to me?’ looks, but gamely filled the container.  She placed the caladium in the center and the torenia at the corners – as simple an arrangement as you’ll ever see.  We placed the container under an oak tree, principally because of the shade requirements of the caladium.

By mid-September, the torenia had
trailed down the side of the
container.  The flowers are prolific,
the plant self-cleaning.
What happened next was a joy to see.  The torenia quickly grew into a dense mat and began trailing down the sides of the container.  The caladium began putting up dozens of leaves.  Although the purple of the torenia did not play off of anything in the caladium, the overall effect was quite pleasing.  In the meantime, the green patina on the terra cotta container became vivid and multicolored, and the trailing flowers accented the effect.

Through July and August, the container continued to astound.  We kept the container well-watered and the torenia kept growing, producing large numbers of flowers.  Best of all (from my point) the flowers are ‘self cleaning’ – when they’re spent, they drop off rather than needing to be dead-headed.  The caladium’s leaves became ever more numerous and the height-to-container-size ratio was just right.

Chilly weather had taken its toll in the past week or so, but Betty and I agree that, hands down, this was the best container she created this season.  Which proves the adage, never let a plant go to waste.

October 1, 2012

Fair Weather

The finest use for Macoun apples
We picked our second half-bushel of apples at Doe Orchards in Harvard this past weekend.  The Macouns were large, perfectly ripe, and will be turned into Molly O’Neill Apple Walnut Upside Down cakes as well as sundry other treats.  Two weeks ago we picked the last of our sweet corn, gorged on two ears apiece, and froze the balance.  The lettuce in our garden is brilliant green and growing like gangbusters.

For gardeners in eastern Massachusetts, it has been a very good year.  Total rainfall was almost exactly normal (and slightly above normal for September), there were no Irene-type weather events to upend the season.  The last frost was in early May and, as this writing, there has yet to be a ‘first frost’ inside I-495.  It was never oppressively hot for extended periods.  In short, it was an excellent year for plants, whether in the vegetable garden or the flower beds.

As gardeners, we tend to remember the bad years; the ones where it rained for weeks on end or it didn’t rain at all.  We remember the year that our perennials and annuals shriveled under relentless heat or our trees were ravaged by winter moth caterpillars.  The mind retains the heartaches.

This morning (October 1), this
container of annuals on our front
porch was still in full bloom
We seem to forget years like these - the good years - and that’s a shame.  It’s the beginning of October and my container-bound annuals are still in bloom.  The coleus has grown large and lush.  There is still phlox and the eupatorium and asters are ablaze with a profusion of white and purple flowers.  Though the temperature barely touched 60 degrees this weekend, there is still a touch of summer in the garden.  The lawn is an emerald green.

I’m all too aware of the disastrous drought that continues to grip the Midwest.  We have no contract with nature that assures us five months of pleasant weather between the beginning of May and the end of September.  So, when nature delivers New England a spring and summer like the one we’ve had, we ought to celebrate it.

Perfect tomatoes at the
Topsfield Fair
In essence, that was the thought behind the end-of-season town and county fairs that were once a regional staple around the country.  We are fortunate that a handful live on in New England – especially in places like Topsfield and Fryeburg.  In another era, they were the tangible evidence of a good harvest.  Remarkably, they still highlight horticulture (even if the newspaper headlines are given over Ron Wallace’s 2009-pound pumpkin, a world record).

A display of chrysanthemums
grown by backyard gardeners...
You can walk though those two fairs this week and see perfect tomatoes, chrysanthemums, carrots and dahlias; all grown by backyard gardeners.  They were picked on Thursday and entered in a narrow, four-hour window that evening.  They were judged Friday morning and are on display all week.  To me, they put to shame anything on display in a supermarket or florist’s shop. 

... and perfect ears of Indian corn
Horticulturally speaking, fortune smiled on us this year.  You could see it earlier this year in the displays at the Barnstable Fair (July) and the Marshfield Fair (August).  The season will end, of course.  We are already under twelve of daylight and shrinking at a rate of five to six minutes each day. I recognize that those final tomatoes and zucchini aren’t likely to ripen.  But the winter squash are losing those tell-tale green veins that separate the pickable from those that need more time, and the leeks are still growing.  Eventually, though, a cold-air mass coming down from Canada or Minnesota will put a ‘closed’ stamp on the season.

If you want to remember this year, I encourage you to make the trip to Topsfield before next Sunday.  If you’re more adventurous and have a full day, it’s a spectacular drive through fall foliage into southwestern Maine and the Fryeburg Fair, which also closes October 7.  Both are glorious throwbacks to another time.  Both are end-of-the-season bacchanals, yet perfectly suitable for all ages.  Go for the pumpkins, go for the Midway.  Enjoy the sight of a basket of perfect Indian corn.  But go.