September 29, 2018

Color at the End of September

Dull in October?  Not our New
England garden!  Double-click
for a slideshow of the garden
There's a truism among certain gardeners that says New England gardens are shot by mid-September.  Pull it out and plow it under because, until the leaves turn, the garden will be a wasteland of spent plants and brown flowers.  There's a rationale for the belief.  Days are less than twelve hours long and the angle of the sun is all wrong.  And besides, an early frost will kill everything anyway, so why bother?

Perhaps our garden is the exception, or maybe it's a product of Betty's thoughtfulness coupled with serendipity, but 26 Pine Street is still barreling along, blissfully unaware that we should have put away our gardening tools on Labor Day.

These purple dome asters add
long-lasting fall color
Take the fall-blooming perennials, for example. We planted a clutch of purple dome asters two years ago, and they've spread quite nicely.  Two weeks ago they were green.  Today, they're a blaze of purple.  We also planted wood asters to border the wetlands at the back of our planted area. They've been a sea of white for the past three weeks and we're beginning to re-think how many of them we want on our property.

One of our Aconitum
Our pod of Chelone (turtlehead) 'Hot Lips' is also on full display as is a growing array of white Chelone 'Glabra' we planted specifically to attract the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.  Close by is a cluster of Aconitum (monkshood) with its vivid, and long-blooming purple flower.  The Aconitum is mostly my idea as I used it as a murder weapon in one of my books, Deadly Deeds.

Birds love our bright red
American dogwood fruit
We have berries on display.  The leaves of our Cornus florida (American dogwood) are just starting to turn but, as they do, the tree's fruit is quickly ripening.  In a week or so, migrating birds will see or smell it and descend upon the tree to devour its nutritious berries.  The fruit of our neighbors' Asian kousa dogwoods will fall to the ground and rot, uneaten.  On the rise at the front of the property, our three Ilex have produced their bright red berries.  They'll stay on the shrubs until they've been frozen and thawed multiple times, after which they'll be palatable to over-wintering birds.

Purple beutyberry with a backdrop
of still-blooming geranium
Our Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry) had exploded in its second year and now has arching branches laden with dark purple fruit, which will feed a variety of both migrating and over-wintering birds.  It pairs nicely with our 'river' of Geranium 'Rozanne', which will stay in bloom until the first hard frost.

These woodland asters, backed by
Solidago, catch the eye
Container gardens are supposed to be on the compost pile by mid-September and, indeed, we have pulled apart several that gave out after they stopped blooming in August.  But several are still brilliant with color.  Two are anchored by Alternathera, (one is Purple Prince, the other's tag is missing).  We consider them 'thugs' that crowd out other plants, but two containers in particular have equally aggressive specimens of coleus and Agastache.  The result is two, brilliant potted gardens that look better today than they did in August.  The photo at the top of the page shows one of those containers.

A profusion of Melampodium
Finally, one of our in-ground annuals is putting on a spectacular show.  We planted a short row (eight plants, if memory serves) of Melampodium 'Showstar' last year to disguise the unattractive hyacinth foliage along our driveway.  By September of last year, the Melampodium had turned into a foot-wide row of dense plants with yellow flowers.  The plants died with the first frost and we pulled them out and agreed we might purchase a comparable number this spring.

We needn't have bothered.  The seeds from those Melampodium flowers overwintered and began showing leaves as soon as we cut back the hyacinths in June.  This year, the row is two feet wide, denser, and showier.  They're also blooming prolifically.  Yes, they'll die with that first frost, but we now have a terrific eye-catcher that has earned a place in the landscape.

September 24, 2018

Here's Mulch in Your Shoe

Life is always interesting for the spouse of an active gardener.  You have an enormous garden at home and a 600-square-foot plot at a community vegetable garden to look after.  Even with all that to take care of, though, my wife can never turn down a cry for help, especially if it’s from a friend.  Which is how I came to be up to my calf in mud this past week.

‘Sally Kahn’ is a lovely lady.  I know because she is the first person I ever murdered.  That was more than a decade ago when I was writing A Murder in the Garden Club, and I use her fictional name here to spare her unwanted notoriety.  Sally maintains one of the most prominent wayside gardens in town and, last week, she called Betty to ask for her help in planting a new sedum at the site.  I should probably mention that Sally is closing in on 90, though she looks and has the energy of someone twenty years her junior.

Last week these were a pristine white.  Then I offered to
water a tree...
Although not specifically included in the invitation, I came along and ended up removing the mulch, digging the hole for the new specimen, toting the water, and then looking for opportunistic weeds in the bed while Sally and Betty did the actual planting. 

As they planted, Sally described another issue bothering her.  The parking lot at one of our town’s civic buildings has been something of a horticultural desert since its construction several years ago.  While maintaining the foundation plantings at the building. Sally and a group of friends have pressed for the addition of trees for the parking area.  Earlier this year, Sally got her wish: four trees were procured and planted by the town.

The problem Sally described to Betty was this:  the trees were a mess.  Although they bore sales tags from a highly regarded nursery, the specimens came with dead or broken branches and had clearly been grown with inadequate space to its brethren trees.  Everything pointed skyward; nothing grew laterally.  Could Betty help?  And so, the next morning, I once again piled tools into a car and drove with Betty to the site. 

The role of an Undergardener is to dig holes and move rocks.  A Principal Undergardener (that would be me) may, from time to time, be asked for advice by the Head Gardener (that would be Betty).  However, my charter has never extended to ‘skilled labor’.  On this day, my writ would be to move Heavy Stuff (ladders and hoses) and create mulch rings around the four trees.  In the meantime, Betty assiduously climbed the aforementioned ladder and pruned extraneous branches from the trees; reshaping them to allow air circulation within the tree and prevent branches from crossing and rubbing.

And so I began watering.  However, I could not help noticing an odd phenomenon: no matter how much water I put on that first tree, the water did not puddle.  And I am not talking about water trickling out of a hose.  This water was gushing out at the rate of four or five gallons a minute.  And it just disappeared into the mulch surrounding the tree.  I was standing on pavement while watering.  Intrigued, I stepped onto the mulch to investigate.

And promptly sunk my crisp, white sneakers into more than a foot of a thick, swamp-worthy slurry of mulch and water.

These trees had been planted in good, old-fashioned wood mulch.  There was no soil underneath what we all assumed was a veneer of mulch.  Like the turtles that support the earth, it was mulch all the way down.

Betty gave Sally the delicate task of communicating to our town’s Department of Public Works that a slight error had been made in the preparation of the site.  With luck, a crew will be dispatched to the building to dig out the mulch surrounding the trees’ root balls and replace it with something that will hold moisture and contain nutrients to allow the tree to grow. 

As for my sneaker, an afternoon in OxyClean followed by a bath in bleach left my shoestring a dazzling white, but the canvas of the shoe a dispiriting brown.  That is the fate of an Undergardener.