September 27, 2013

Little White Lies

Do you want to hear someone tell a lie?  Just ask any gardener how much time they spend maintaining their garden. You can be absolutely certain that the answer they give – no matter how large or small the number – will be understated.  The actual time may be ten percent longer or twice as much as they tell you, but it will never be less than what they say.
We tell these fibs for three reasons.  First, we may genuinely think that gardening takes less than five hours a week.  That’s because the gardener is thinking about April or November when chores are light.  Or, they may be averaging in the winter months when, at least in New England, the only gardening is indoors.
The second reason is that gardeners aren’t looking for pity, brownie points, or convoluted looks when the honest answer is, “Oh, twenty hours a week in season, five or six at the beginning and the tag end.”  The gardeners I know are proud of their work and they don’t want to be seen as having some form of mental illness for devoting so much time to making things look really good.
The third reason – and the one that causes me to write this – is that gardeners forget about the ‘big push’ activities that come at the beginning and end of the season. 
The list above (double-click on it to see it at a larger size) is not contrived.  It has been posted to our refrigerator door since September 21.  On that date, Betty and I did a walk through the property and she called out things that need to be done as we get toward the end of the season.  I was the scribe and, because my handwriting is barely legible under the best of cases, I typed up the list after the walk.
This yellowing daylily foliage makes
the garden look ragged
New England gardens at the end of September show their age.  Most annuals are shot, as are perennials like hosta and daylilies.  There are also plants we put up with during the growing season – such as allowing milkweed to run rampant in places – that now look like poor gardening now that the birds, bees and butterflies that fed on them have decamped for warmer climates.  Performing this end-of-September cleanup greatly improves the look of the garden and extends its season by several weeks.
With the daylily foliage cut back.
Manhattan bed shows off the
still-blooming sedum and asters
The list consists of both things that can be done in a few minutes (‘cut hosta flowers in white garden’) and tasks that are backbreaking (‘turn 5-bin composter’).  There are chores that can be done in pieces, such as taking apart those leggy containers, and ones that are best done in one fell swoop, like cutting down daylilies.
Some of the chores are Trojan Horses.  I cut the dozen or so branches that overhung our forest pansy redbud (cercis canadendis) and a Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus).  But taking down those tree limbs brought to light a similar number of ‘problem’ branches that were heretofore hidden.  And, allowing those two cultivars to get adequate light started me thinking about the fate of the shrubs in out Long Island bed that are starting to ‘lean out’ because the copse of trees behind the bed is also sending out intruding branches.
And, some chores only seem simple.  One bed had both bee balm (monarda) and black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) to be cut down.  But the monarda is prone to diseases.  It must all be taken out at once and clippers cleaned with bleach afterward to prevent the spread of the powdery mildew that affects it.  Only when the monarda has all been cleaned and bagged can the balance of that bed be worked on.
I am not doing this alone; Betty is dividing hostas and moving grasses.  She’ll also take on the ‘skilled’ work on the list.  But it is the undergardener’s job to plow into the stands of daylilies and get rid of their now-yellowing foliage.  (See the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to understand why this needs to be done.)

So, all in all, how long will it take to complete this list?  I don’t know, probably half a day.

September 18, 2013

Something in the Air

The blue area is a frost warning
Autumn was in the air this morning.  The calendar says there is still another week of summer but it has not felt like summer for several weeks.  Moreover, there is a frost advisory tonight for the Worcester Hills (some 40 miles northwest of here).  If there’s frost about, it’s definitely no longer summer.
In our vegetable garden, the corn has been pulled and the green beans (and the bean beetles – good riddance!) are just a memory.  Zucchini that grew from a flower to a baseball bat in three days now takes a week or longer to become picking size.  Tomatoes and eggplant continue to ripen but no longer get larger.  The winter squash is ready to pick.  Only the leafy greens are happy with this weather.
The maple across the street
has turned color prematurely
Most of the trees on the property still have that voluptuous, late summer look but, here and there, the leaves have started to turn.  There’s a diseased maple across the street that has turned color prematurely.  One of our itea ‘Henry Garnet’ is getting a jump on the season, with a quarter of the plant already speckled with red and orange.  At the rear of our property an ash is also dropping yellow leaves – on schedule.
The hummingbirds have departed.  Just a week ago they were dive-bombing one another at our feeder in some senseless ‘if-I-can’t-have-it-then-neither-can-you’ ritual that must be programmed into their DNA.  Hummingbirds know when the fat lady is warming up in the wings.
Yellow ash leaves - on schedule
The hostas are turning yellow.  They’ll turn to yellow mush with that first frost, and those hostas that wish to go out with a semblance of dignity are doing their thing now.  Presumably with the expectation (valid) that Betty or I will cut them down in the next few days.

Itea 'Henry Garnet'
getting a jump on
autumn color
Just as there is a point in March or April for ‘firsts’, now is the beginning of the time for ‘lasts’.  I have re-directed the fill valves on our rain barrels; when they’re empty they’ll be put away.  I weed-whacked the community garden this morning, knowing it was for the last time this season.  I’ll take up the soaker hoses, clean them, and put them away for another year’s duty.

It’s not a melancholy time – far from it.  Apple picking has started and we’ll be headed out to get a bushel of Macouns next week.  Autumn brings its own excitement in New England.  I’m ready.

September 9, 2013

See You in September

I walked out to get the newspapers this morning, got fifty feet down the driveway, and headed back into the house for a camera.
The conventional wisdom is that New England gardens are shadows of their summer glory by the beginning of September.  Annuals are overgrown and rangy and perennials are spent.  Trees and shrubs are saving themselves for an October burst of dying splendor.
The accompanying photos (double-click on any one of them to get a full-screen slideshow) demonstrate that the conventional wisdom sometimes gets it wrong.  Each of these shrubs and perennials are within fifteen feet of our driveway.  Some notes about each one: 
Asters:  I’m not certain that we’ve ever actually purchased any asters.  Those that are in the garden – like the ones at left in the outer sidewalk bed – were transplants from elsewhere, but they’ll bloom from now until the first hard frost.  The trick to getting them to bloom like this is to cut them back hard in the last spring and early summer.  The other trick is to pull them out when they self-seed. 
autumn clematis
Autumn clematis: This is the only clematis on the property and one of a handful of perennials still around that were here when we purchased our home in 1999.  This grows up a shady corner of our library and our lone contribution to its success is to provide it with a trellis to reach a height where it can get adequate sunlight.
Caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’ is one of the three cultivars of that shrub that we have growing on the property.  From mid-April when it leafs out until the end of August, it is an unobtrusive part of the shrub bed at the front of our 
Caryopteris 'Sunshine Blue'
property. Then, overnight, pale blue flowers appear and the bees go bananas.  The blooms fade by the end of September but are worth the wait.

Daphne ‘Transatlantica’ has both dazzling clusters of long-duration white flowers and the added bonus of an intoxicating perfumed scent.  It will keep blooming right into winter.  The shrub’s lone shortcoming is that its evergreen leaves collect 
Daphne 'Transatlantica'
snow and so the branches are prone to tearing.  Each October we build it a burlap enclosure to keep its branches upright.  The pink phlox in the background is the fading remnant of an August bloomer.
Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica) are more of a curse than a blessing.  We keep them in one spot only through a rigorous process of digging out their runners several times a year.  Yes, the flowers are lovely, but no other fall bloomer requires so much maintenance.
Japanese waxbells
Japanese waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata) are a terrific plant to have around.  You see them here at their maximum height and vigor.  Once we get a hard frost, they’ll die back to their roots.  Why is this good?  Because it means I can dump six feet of snow on them from our driveway’s turnaround every winter and the plant doesn’t resent it a bit.  The beautiful yellow flowers are a September-only event. 
New York ironweed,
with hydrangeas below
New York ironweed (Veronica noveboiracensis) is, amazingly, a member of the daisy family.  We have two stands of it and, after seven or eight years, it is well established and sturdy.  The strong purple/lavender color is striking, and the bees cover it from dawn to dusk.  Some gardeners may be put off by its height (ours’ is nearly six feet) but you just don’t get color like this in autumn.  The photo at right also shows some of the late-blooming hydrangeas in our garden. 

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ may be the most overused stonecrop in gardens today, but you can’t argue with success.  From early May to late August, it’s a terrific ‘filler’ in several of our beds; providing beautiful green-gray succulent stems and leaves.  Then, at the beginning of September (hereabouts), the flower head opens deep pink and stays that way for at least a month, then gradually turns a coppery color that provides structure even when the flower is spent.
Pink turtlehead
Pink turtlehead (chelone obliqua) is another garden standard that hides in plain sight until the end of August when, seemingly overnight, it is covered in blooms that persist through September.  Until last year, we had a companion white turtlehead (chelone glabra) that is a less aggressive grower and got crowded out of the shade bed where it was attracting the rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
Joe Pye weed (eupatorium) comes in many varieties, and this variegated cultivar with
Variegated Joe Pye Weed
white flowers that graces our xeric garden (probably’ Jociuis Variety’) at the front of the property is a show stopper.  We also have eupatorium ‘Chocolate’.  They bloom profusely from September until well into October.

That’s a literal snapshot of the September bloomers.  I have omitted a few that have been blooming since midsummer such as agastache (also called the ‘giant hyssop’), rudbeckia, and various helianthius.  Among shrubs, we have a plethora of hydrangeas (notably the 'City Lights' series) that have been blooming since June and will keep up their show through most of the month.

What I hope I've shown is that September doesn’t have to be the intermission between summer blooms and the 'main attraction' autumn spectacle that attracts the leaf peekers.  If you garden in New England, take a look for these gems. 

September 6, 2013

The New Neighbors

Our new next-door neighbors moved in a few weeks ago.  Last weekend, glasses of wine in hand, we took them on a tour of our garden.  It was an unexpected educational experience for all of us.
This is where our new neighbors
moved from
They moved to Medfield from Boston's South End where they lived in a condo at the corner of Mass Ave. and Columbus.  Now, they have two acres in the suburbs, a toddler, a second child on the way, and a hyperkinetic dog with a worrisome attachment to its chew toys.
They were drawn to Medfield by the sense of community.  When they were driving around, looking at places they’d like to live, one of our neighbors took the time to talk with them about our little cul-de-sac.  They also say they took a long look at the part of our garden that is visible from the road and liked what they saw. 
This is their new home.  Both photos
encompass roughly two acres
of land.
Now, they have the opportunity to put their stamp – in reality, the first-ever stamp – on a 17-year-old home’s landscaping.  The house’s previous owners – financial services professionals who both worked long hours and were frequently out of town – left all landscaping decisions to a firm that apparently believed that it was a sin to spread anything less than a dump truck full of mulch on a bed.  What our new neighbors bought is basically two acres of over-fertilized grass.
I expected we’d be asked a lot of questions and we would provide sound information.  What I didn’t expect was to discover that the questions they asked us would be as interesting to us as the answers we gave them. 
Don't call a forest pansy redbud
a cercis canadensis.  You sound
like a garden snob
Here’s what I learned:  as gardeners, we take far too much for granted.  We use an intimidating shorthand and jargon that we should securely lock away in a vault when we talk to someone who is just getting started.  We believe that pointing in the general direction of a plant from fifty feet away is as useful as walking up to the plant and touching it.  No, it isn’t.  Touching is a very good thing.
Here’s what else I learned:  sometimes, we’re inadvertent snobs.  We assume that everyone has long since sorted through the false marketing claims and emotional appeals that bombard consumers, and can filter facts from hype.  No, we can’t.  Never assume that the person you’re speaking with has read a certain article or heard ‘that expert’ speak.
Nowhere does this insider/outsider gulf become more evident than when talking about ‘organic’.  At the top of our neighbors’ wish list for their lawn is having a safe, pesticide-free environment for their children’s long-term health and well-being.  But what, exactly, is ‘organic’?  My somewhat cynical answer is that ‘organic’ is a more expensive version of whatever a marketer is already selling; a means of picking the pockets of unwary homeowners.
But, at the same time,
'oxydendrum' sounds a
lot better to the ear
than 'sourwood'
So, for two hours, we explored the garden.  We talked the benefits of ‘natives’, of compost and of water barrels.  We said it was OK to have clover in the lawn and that a modest amount of insect damage to trees and shrubs means moths, butterflies and beneficial insects are finding food.  We talked drainage and plants that hold hillsides in place.  We went shrub-by-shrub through one bed, talking about each one’s virtues and limitations.
Along the way  I learned that ‘forest pansy redbud’ is a lot easier name to remember than ‘cercis canadensis’ but that ‘oxydendrum’ is a much more appealing name for a tree than ‘sourwood’. 
It has been thirty-five years since Betty and I purchased our first home, a brownstone in Brooklyn with a concrete front yard and a back yard that had been used as a dog’s ‘convenience’ for more years than any bib of grass should be asked to endure.  I think about everything we didn’t know and all the misconceptions we brought to those first projects.  A number of houses later, we know a lot more than we did in 1978.  The wonderful thing is, we’re still learning.

I like our new neighbors.  They bring energy and enthusiasm to a big job.  Fair from being naive, they understand that theirs is a long-term undertaking and they’re going to tackle it one project at a time.  Watching and helping will be fun.