Thursday, September 18, 2014


Nyssa sylvatica is a native tree that has fascinated me. I have planted several -- two in the front yard, one at the bridge by the dry creek bed, and a couple on the back hill.

Fall color is stunning, the form is shapely, and the leaves are deep green and glossy. A nice tree.

It is stiffly branched, with hard wood that does not break in heavy snow storms. The lower branches sweep down gracefully, like a pin oak's. Even my young trees want to drape their lower skirts, and as a yard tree I have to limb them up.

For some reason Nyssa has several intriguing common names. Many know this as black gum, and that's how I usually refer to it.

But this tree is also very commonly called tupelo, or black tupelo to distinguish it from the well known southern tupelo.

It is also called pepperidge, and the cookies you buy from Pepperidge Farm feature a silhouette of a big pepperidge tree on the cookie bag.

Now I learn it has another common name.

While touring Martha's Vineyard this week, we found out that the islanders refer to black gums / pepperidges / tupelos by another name with an interesting history: they call these trees beetlebungs.

The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is a perfect material for the bungs (stoppers) in casks. Martha's Vineyard was a whaling powerhouse in the 1800s and needed lots of casks for whale oil and lots of bungs to stopper them. Local tupelos provided the best material for bungs. The wood is hard, and won't shrink when dry or swell when it is wet.

The beaters they used to pound the bungs into the casks were called beetles, back to Shakespeare's day. The very hard wood of the local tupelos made good mallet heads, or beetles.
So the cask makers on Martha's Vineyard referred to these native trees by their usefulness: they called them beetlebung trees.

It's very specific to Martha's Vineyard. Nearby Nantucket Island was a whaling center as well, and tupelos grew there and were used for stoppers and mallets, but no one on Nantucket calls them beetlebungs. It just caught on with the islanders on Martha's Vineyard.

Our trip was great. We saw Polly Hill arboretum, which is a treasure. Polly began planting trees on an old sheep farm she inherited in the center of the island. She began this when she was 50 years old. She planted everything from seed -- oaks, hollies, beetlebungs, stewartias, conifers of all kinds.

And she lived to see her seedlings become 50 year old specimens, as she died at age 100, still sharp and by then a legend in horticultural research.

There was even a sassafras grove in Polly's arboretum, well maintained and limbed up. I would have liked to meet Polly Hill.

We also got to tour several private gardens on the island that were professionally maintained and opulent. There is money on Martha's Vineyard.

We visited Oak Bluffs, of course. And Gay Head. And we saw boats and yachts and schooners in the harbor. We had ice cream in Vineyard Haven and seafood on the dock in Edgartown.

We saw the lace walls that the sheep farmers built all over the island. Apparently sheep go nuts when they can't see what's on the other side of a wall, so farmers built their stone walls with little views through them.

The mid September weather was lovely, but Martha's Vineyard is in one of the worst droughts the islanders can remember. They've had less rain than we got here this summer. Irrigated private gardens were lush, but everywhere else the lawns and fields were brown.

The summer crowds that swamp the island were gone, and the President and his security retinue had left, so Martha's Vineyard was quiet, the air was cool and nice, and we enjoyed it immensely.

I particularly enjoyed learning about beetlebungs!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Dry Summer

The heat came on this morning.

It was in the mid 40s when I got up and with yesterday's gray cool weather, the house had retained no warmth.

Yesterday a rain front moved through western and northern New England but delivered no rain to us. It sprinkled and wet the furniture, but did not dampen the soil.

This keeps happening. Albany NY and western Massachusetts have gotten soaking rain after rain storm this summer, but all season the edge always skirts us, sliding by just tantalizing miles to our west or north.

This is the weather service's chart of the last 30 days of precipitation -- the slope is the accumulated normal rainfall for 30 days, and the brown area below is how much below normal we are. The little green bars show tenths of an inch of rain -- the only noticeable amount was a quarter inch on the 31st of August and then just under a quarter inch on September 1, but it came down so hard and so briefly in short bursts that it mostly ran off the hard dry baked soil.

The earlier part of the summer looked just like this chart except for one storm in July that gave us two inches of rain. Those two inches were pretty much it for the entire season, and it all fell at once.

Some plants in the garden look okay with all the supplemental watering I've done. The clethra doesn't, though. It has crispy, curled leaves and I simply can't keep it hydrated enough. Hydrangeas are not at all happy. Not at all. The redtwig dogwoods by the creek bed have curled their leaves and turned silvery.

In the meadow I have watered the newest little saplings, but all the big maples and oaks and gums are looking limp. The persimmon, with its big glossy leaves, is really droopy.

All of the tall weeds in the meadow -- the fleabane and oxeye daisies and the pink smartweed which usually forms big upright arching stands, are really limp and bedraggled. Except the goldenrod. That seems indestructible.

2014 has been a rainy, wet summer for areas just to our north. Not here, though.

But . . .  it's not California! I can't even imagine.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Growing Wild

The weather has been either sunny, dry and pleasant or gloomy, dry and overcast. There have been some great late afternoons when the skies are a lovely blue, the breeze is gentle and the temperatures are perfect, with a sharp, clear light.

But no rain.

I moved everything around. The table and chairs are now on the patio and the set works better there.

The space is cramped. It fits and there is no real problem -- four people can sit at the table well enough, but there is not a lot of room around it.

The teak rockers are now on the front porch. We cleaned them and applied teak oil to them and they look okay, although not great. As I noted in an earlier post, the front porch is not really for sitting anyway. I just didn't know what else to do with the rockers after I took them off the patio.

The gravel garden now has a glider bench that I like a lot, and I returned the folding Mayan chairs to this space. They need a good cleaning and re-staining which is on my list of fall chores.

The compost row has been overtaken this year with wild growth. Jim is no longer bagging grass clippings, so there are no piles of heavy material to suppress the weeds, and the decaying vegetation that was there has been fertile ground for tall weeds to take over.

It's been interesting to note what has shown up in the tangle of weeds where the compost pile had been. Earlier in the summer I found lobelia cardinalis that had escaped the garden, and a crocosmia too. Both were bright red pops of color blooming in the mess.

Now I am finding Karl Foerster grass growing well where I had tossed a discarded clump last year. It's a great plant, but it didn't belong in a mixed border the way I was using it. In the wild, on its own, it looks perfect.

And a flowering tobacco has grown, blooming like the ones I have in the garden, and making the old compost pile fragrant at night.

I fuss with my plants all season and I move furniture around and I am always not quite satisfied with what I have created -- and then the wild compost pile does its thing all by itself and looks great.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What I Learned This Summer

I absorbed a few lessons this year that I simply must remember in future:

Wear polarized sunglasses.
In the height of summer when the garden is washed out and tired and dry and limp, polarized lenses make the colors pop and everything look rich. I like my garden so much better when I am wearing Raybans.
Water often.
Water when it is very dry, but water when it is just a little dry too. My mistake in past years was to let things carry on by themselves with just a little help from the sprinklers. Everything looks better when very well watered with hose and watering can as well as sprinklers, and it takes more than you would think.

"Drought tolerant" doesn't mean what you think it does. It means a plant will typically not die when it gets very dry -- it will survive and come back when conditions are better. But it does not mean the plant will look good at all. It tolerates dry weather but does not perform well.

I also learned that a plant tolerating dry conditions is not producing enough nectar for pollinators. The plant is alive and there may be flowers, and it will come back when it gets more moisture, but there is not enough hydration to help the wildlife.

Fertilize a lot.
Same thing as with the watering. Pots and annuals need much more feeding than I had realized. Fertilize often.

Make summer easier.
I found the terra cotta fountain Hope gave me has to be near a water source even though it is self contained and solar powered.  It can't be out in the gravel garden where I originally had it. It needs to be right near a hose where I can clean it out often and refill it easily. I moved it to the deck and I like listening to the bubbling while I am on the porch even though I find I am getting up to use the bathroom often.

I learned the hard way that containers out in the garden or along the front walk, and pots lining the gravel garden are hard to keep watered. Just put any pots on the deck near the hose and be done with it. Make summer easier.

Stake adequately.
I need to invest in lots of larger, sturdier stakes that can stand up to the tension of the small bungee cords which I found work well to bind up floppy perennials. The little bamboo skewers I have been using are far too rinkydink.
I learned What Not to Grow:
Morning glories. I discovered I do not like them. They climbed the arched gate to the gravel garden but were unattractively wild and splayed about and the thin twining stems turned brown and ratty looking. The flowers --- meh.
'Beach Party' sedum. Advertised as a compact sedum that doesn't flop like 'Autumn Joy', but I learned it was an odd brown colored thing with no shape or size. Maybe it just didn't like my garden. Meanwhile after I took out 'Autumn Joy' it reappeared in another part of the garden.
Vegetables in containers. My deck container farm was great, but I found I had too many peppers, way too much basil, wildly prolific parsley, less mint than mojitos required, and not enough lettuce. Carrots were paltry and tasteless. Farming in tight spaces is all about appropriate quantities, and I misjudged.

And What to Grow Again:
White flowering tobacco.
Nicotiana alata bloomed all summer and still looks fresh even as the iteas behind are fading. It's tall enough to be seen from a distance and it's a clear, delicate white. Grow more of that again.

They are simply flower machines all summer. I don't like the tall giants with blooms that look like frisbees. But there are many that are small bushy things like the dark red 'Black Beauty' that I have grown before, and the orange-pink-apricot pom poms that were new to me this year. I grew both from seed and I'd grow them again.

I learned that nasturtiums can be transplanted, but will look awful all season if you do that. Transplanting doesn't just set them back, it affects their habit the whole season. Put the seeds in the ground where they are going to stay. Don't start them indoors or move them. Wait. They'll look much better all summer if unmoved.

I learned I will have to net the blueberries. There was one year that I had unmolested access to the whole crop, without losing a single berry to bird thieves -- but that did not repeat this summer. They have found them and they leave me none.

I am going to have to build a hoop system to put netting over, something like this maybe.

You can't just drape netting over blueberry shrubs, it gets tangled. So I'll try to create a portable frame system to cage the bushes, just for the time they are producing and then I can remove it. I predict a failed science project next year and new "lessons learned" from that.

I learned a lot this summer. I'll learn even more next year and the year after that.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


September seems to be more summery than July and August were. Hot days (80s and 90s), a lot of humidity, and warm nights so far.

It rained a half inch in a brief downpour on Sunday, the only time in ages I had anyone over for a cook out, and the rain came just as we sat down (inside) to eat!

This summer I have been having issues with the hummingbird feeder.

The little tube feeder that I always liked has attracted too many yellowjackets and it drips. Bugs and drips were never such a problem in past years, but this summer the hummers are tormented by aggressive wasps at the feeding hole and there is always a drop of sugar water hanging off it.

So a new hummingbird feeder (researched for wasp deterrence, ant avoidance, and ease of cleaning) is now up, hanging where the old one was.

It's a "Hummzinger" model. It has an ant moat in the center, upward facing deep ports that wasps can't get into and a plastic weather shield over it.

I watched this morning and the hummingbirds have found it and accepted it.

The yellowjackets still fly around the area -- they know sugar water is there -- but they are no longer all over the feeder driving the birds batty. There are no drips or stray sugar beads to attract any insects.

I liked how unobtrusive my old tube feeder was, nestled in by the clematis at the patio. The new Hummzinger one is plasticky and large and garish, but I think the hummingbirds will be happier.

I dunno about the big clear plastic umbrella thingy overhanging the feeder. That may have to go.

A hummingbird buzzed me and hovered in my face this afternoon, looking directly at me while I sat on the patio. Was it in thanks for eliminating their tormentors, or in anger for taking away the old familiar feeder?

I probably should have waited til next spring to change things up, but the insect pests were such an annoyance.

The hummingbirds will be gone soon, headed south. I hope they go away happy that I tried to make their summer a little easier, and not mad at me for making changes so late in the season!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Come Sit for a Bit

My estate is grand enough that I have multiple places to park myself for a rest and a view.

There is my new bench which I bought for decorative purposes to visually break up the long row of the berm. But I find I sit on it in the mornings, sometimes for a long time when the morning is cool and there is a breeze. It provides a view back up the yard that I don't normally see from the house or from the patio. It is shady in the morning and is just a delightful spot to rest.

Next year: this is a keeper. I want the bench here in the same spot next year.

Then there is the front porch, where I put the folding Mayan chairs this year. I only sit here once in a while. It's nice, but sitting on the front porch looking down the street is odd. We are at the end of the cul de sac, and I feel like I am monitoring the drivers and walkers and dog-exercisers as they come down the road. It's weird. Waving and eye contact is awkward.

Next year: remove the chairs. Put some flower stands and pots there and leave it as a decorative area. 

It doesn't function as a sitting porch.

There is also the gravel garden, which I can't figure out how to use. I put the patio table and chairs in it this year, and it looked nice, but eh. We tried three times this summer to entertain here, but it has to be timed right so the sun is behind the tall trees to the west. Otherwise, it's too sunny and hot and the umbrella doesn't shade enough area. The air conditioners roar nearby. The steel legs of the chairs sink into the gravel. It didn't really work.

Snacks and drinks are around the corner, up the deck, and too far away. I had to shepherd people out here to sit, and it didn't work easily as a place to sit and entertain.  I didn't use it during the day either.

Next year: go back to having the Mayan chairs here.
It works better as an occasional sitting area. 

I actually really liked the way the Mayan chairs looked in the gravel garden in prior years, so I'll be putting them back here. Maybe get a hammock too? Yeah.

These chairs work better here than on the front porch. 

Then there is the patio, where I spend my time surveying the place from the rockers. This is shaded now in the late afternoon and I rock here with a glass of wine. The hummingbird feeder is nearby.

Next year: Change this up. Put the patio table and chairs here.
It will be much more convenient from the kitchen, and it's near the grill.

I actually had the table and chairs here at first when the patio was brand new -- isn't this photo from early spring 2007 amazing?

The set barely fit, but the table I have now is smaller.

I also had the table and chairs up on the deck for a couple years, but it was always really cramped there and I could never get late afternoon shade. It just didn't fit. But I did like having a place to eat lunch and have drinks with friends right outside the kitchen / porch door.

The table and chairs belong near the kitchen and house, but this upper deck area was too small.

Having the table and chairs on the patio will be more convenient. Definitely doing that next year.

Oh, and there is the little cement bench under the birch tree. I do sit here, it's a good place to stop and catch my breath amid chores. It faces the Birch Garden and is in shade in the morning. This stays.

I supervise the butterflies from my spot on this low bench.

It's Labor Day -- the end of summer and I'm getting tired of the plants and flowers and weeds and successes and failures growing in the garden now (it happens). So instead I'm mentally moving furniture around outside and it seems to be much more rewarding at the moment.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Little Stress

Hot and muggy yesterday, up to the mid 90s, and then a little cooler and fresher today after a brief thunderstorm rolled through last night. There was no rain from the storm though, just rumbles and flashes.

After drowning in two and a half inches of rain on August 13, it's now been over two weeks without any rain (I think a quarter inch fell the day we left for Denver, but that's hardly enough).

Some things look stressed.

The 'White Chiffon' Rose of Sharon looks really stressed. Leaves are turning yellow and it's not very leafy any more. I can see through it as I sit on the porch.  It is flowering but not as much as in other years and the blooms are shattering on the ground.

There has been vole activity all along the east foundation, and one tunnel leads directly into the rootball of the Rose of Sharon. Could that be part of the problem or is it just the long dry stretches with too little water?

The 'Edo Shibori' bush clover also looks bad. It is starting to flower now all along the bouncing stems, but the whole plant has flopped and splayed open down the middle. It's just messy looking. In other years it has been fuller and more arching.

'Forest Pansy' redbud looks stressed, but then this one is a constant concern -- it struggled in winter, never bloomed in spring, and leafed out late. But it did leaf out and it did look good in the cooler parts of summer. Now it looks limp, although it is one of the trees I do spend time watering deeply when I can.

The dogwoods look limp now too. The Cornus florida flowering dogwood in front and both Cornus mas corneliancherry dogwoods all have curled leaves, which is typical at the end of the season, but it seems very pronounced now. Is it the heat? The dry stretch? Is it normal?

Does it help if I worry?

Aesculus pavia, red buckeye, always yellows and drops its leaves early. Late summer is not unusual for this little tree to look raggedy and go bare. I did water this heavily this summer, as it crisped badly  in late summer last year. Even with the extra water it wants to close up shop in August.

It does seem unusual for the iteas in the Birch Garden to be reddening up already. They are bronzy now, and will be deep garnet red in October, if they hang on that long. I think the cool nights all summer this year and the dry conditions have stressed them into early color.

But some things actually look really good, with no signs of stress. The 'Robustissima' anemone, for example.

And the sweet autumn clematis continues to be spectacular, looking up at it from below, or looking out at it standing on the deck. Lovely from all angles.

And the 'Yellow Gleam' nasturtiums, after bunching around the foot of the twig towers all summer, have now made a shapely climb up the structure.

It's been a stressful summer for some of my plants. Too many chilly summer nights and too little rain. Then too much.

There's been a little stress in the household too -- Jim came home from Denver with a cold. It's almost a guarantee that airplane travel will sicken us.

Since retirement we are not around people enough, and with no grandchildren to share germs, we've lost immunity to anything.