Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pulling Up Persicarias

It turns out the lovely compost that I spread all over my gardens this spring was full of weed seeds. I'm seeing easily recognizable smartweed seedlings popping up densely everywhere I added compost. They are little, easily removed, and absolutely everywhere I look. When I pull them up more appear.

I kind of knew that would happen. A huge stand of smartweed surrounds the compost pile, and I know my nice crumbly dirt and leaves did not really cook enough to sterilize anything.

Weedy smartweed. Kind of pretty, but ugh.

Pink flowered smartweed gets to be a huge arching plant. It's a Persicaria -- fortunately not the horribly invasive Japanese knotweed that is in the family, but smartweed also takes over wherever it seeds. And it is now seeded in all my gardens. I am so tired of endlessly weeding this plant.

I have another Persicaria in my garden, but it's one I planted and loved and now I don't know what to do with it. It's a well behaved dwarf, Persicaria affinis 'Dimity', also called Himalayan fleeceflower. It is a groundcover that spreads nicely into a lovely mat of clean foliage with pink and white pipe cleaner flowers held upright over the leaves. The mat is thick and suppresses weeds.

A lovely patch of clean green 'Dimity' foliage and little wands of pink flowers under a bush clover shrub.

In most autumns it turns bright red, making a fantastic contrast with buff yellow amsonia foliage and strappy green grasses.

Fall color. Some years it is rustier brown, some years redder.

I adore the funny flowers, and they last all summer, then remain standing up in fall as they turn rust colored. 'Dimity' forms the lower level of the Blueberry Garden and I love it. Most of the time.

Pipe cleaners!

The problem is that if it is very dry in spring, the leaves never green up. Then this cute groundcover is just a brown desiccated mess. Not reduced, not skimpy, not waiting for wetter weather to burst forth; the whole mat simply stays brown and dry.

It's alive this spring, with green leaves around the edges of the garden where a little moisture collects. Isolated pops of green are emerging here and there.

The bush clover in the center will fill out and get large in summer,
but the groundcover fleeceflower won't green up this year.

But I know from past dry springs that it won't fill in. Rain too late in the season won't help. It's such a beautiful, fresh looking mat of green when it's happy, and it's so dry and dead looking when it's not.

So, I think I want to take it out. As much as I love this groundcover most years, I can't stand it in others when it looks so bad all season.


I can't just pull up the brown stuff and leave the pockets of green -- the plant spreads by rootlets and all the stems are hopelessly entwined. So it's getting ripped out in large tangled masses. I think I'll put in some nice leafy green alchemillas, Lady's mantle, instead. They will make a mounding groundcover and be more reliably leafy and green.

So it seems this spring I am destined to spend pulling up Persicarias. Both the weedy seedlings  --goodbye to those -- and the cute pipe cleaner Himalayan fleeceflower plants that I had loved so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Unpretty Spring

This has not been a pretty spring.

First, a too warm winter exposed plants to damage when cold hit. And when deep cold did hit in early April, it totally eliminated any forsythia blooms, or star magnolias, or 'Dawn' viburnum flowers. There were none.

We went away. Ten days gone. Time to forget the inauspicious start and come back to a refreshed spring garden.

It got too dry here while we were in wet, lush Normandy. It has only rained a dribble or two in all of April and May, just a few tenths at a time, a few times.

So some of the trees are reluctant to do anything -- like my sourwood (Oxydendrum) tree, which still hasn't opened its leaves fully, despite Memorial Day bearing down on us.

The black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) trees in the front yard haven't completely leafed out either, and hydrangeas are all just stick piles right now.

The dwarf deutzias, 'Nikko', are usually pretty bloomers in May, but not this year. It''s so dry they won't leaf out either. No pretty white flowers at all, and just a few leaves clustered at the base. They are alive, they will fill in eventually, but this spring has passed them by.


Another plant that hates this spring is the groundcover Himalayan fleeceflower, Persicaria 'Dimity'. It needs a very wet spring to get going, and once it has leafed out it can take some dry conditions. But it simply cannot tolerate a dry spring, and stubbornly remains blighted brown and crispy in large swaths throughout my whole garden. Ugh.


There are a few orange geums blooming now, and some tiarellas, but they are sparse and tentative, while in prior, wetter springs they were lovely and widespread.

Nothing is pretty this year. Even the groundcover sedums are struggling.

I pruned the redtwig dogwoods by the front door in April, to rejuvenate them. They will take another year to fill back in. Meanwhile, they bloom, but the open, rangy, pruned branches give them a weedy look. In other years, although congested and too overgrown, the blooming redtwig dogwoods were spectacular.


This corylopsis, or winterhazel, did not bloom in April and is barely putting out any leaves now. Not the pretty accent I wanted at the corner of the front walk.


I could go on. It's just not a spring I want to remember in my garden.

I lost the New Jersey Tea shrub, Ceanothus americanus -- a charming white flowered plant seen here in a prior season, flowering under the green, leafy Stewartia monadelpha that I lost last year. Neither plant is my garden this spring. This space is now a big blank.


I will miss it -- what a pretty, tidy, low shrub it was, and the bees loved it. I also lost one of the 'Mt. Airy' fothergillas by the gravel garden. Dead sticks remain.

How do you keep gardening when major elements disappear each year and must be replanted, making every season a new, immature version of what you imagined, with continuous blank spaces, open spots and unfinished designs? I understand a garden is never "finished", but mine can't even get started.

I know, I know, I promised to come back from France in a cheery mood and not complain. But I am discouraged. Spring here has been such a disappointment. Let it be over.

Okay, to end on a better note, Doublefile viburnum 'Shasta' is beautiful. We call it the wedding cake shrub, and it blooms, even in an unpretty spring, on our wedding anniversary.


Seventeen years. We celebrated with a cruise down the Seine, and then came back to this sight, to mark the actual anniversary date.


Even a disappointing spring has joy. Now, please, let it rain.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Well, I asked for rain, but didn't specify exactly where. The rain on the doppler map this morning is heavy, but is rotating in a perfect circle around a completely rain free center -- where the blue pin is dropped at Hartford my struggling garden sits and the precipitation is not forecast to circle into the area. Maybe we'll get sprinkles.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Seven Gardeners

When I got home from France, my garden welcomed me with some pleasant sights. But it was dry while we were gone, and not all the trees are fully in leaf even now.

It all looks skimpy. I still have in mind the lushness of Paris in full spring leafiness and especially Monet's garden exploding with color. Everything here seems diminished in comparison.

The streets of Paris and every little town in Normandy were lined with horse chestnuts, or what I call buckeye trees, in full bloom. The Seine riverbanks were too, all up and down the river, and they were massive.

We spent days on the Normandy coast at St. Malo and Mont Saint Michel, and of course the D-Day beaches, then more days cruising up and down the Seine river to Paris and Rouen and Vernon and St. Andelys. The medieval towns and cathedrals were awesome, but it was the flowering buckeye trees on the way that captivated me just as much.


Crabapples and laburnum, or golden chain trees, were also in bloom, like these in Monet's garden.



All over Normandy, where apple cider and calvados are king and queen, the apple orchards were in bloom.

Did you know that Normandy is named for the Vikings who invaded in the 9th century? They were the "north men" or Nor-men who settled this part of Europe. Now you know.

My own garden is nice, and I was so glad to see it after a long flight home. But in no way can it compare to the intensity of Giverny. It's the way Monet's space is so densely layered, crammed, stuffed and eye-poppingly rich that I can't get out of my head. It is, of course, an Impressionist painting made with plants.

There isn't much actual design -- the layout is not a feature, it's the use of plant colors that is so amazing. Such as clear purple in the abundant wisteria at the waterlily pond.


There really is no other plant so exotically lush when in bloom. The gardeners must work to keep this rampant monster vine in check and looking so delicate and perfect for the space. They must prune it hard and often.


Even the silver gray mauve of the pond itself has a complex, rich color.


Bright tones abounded all over. What I can't wrap my head around is that it is all concurrent -- roses and tulips and azaleas and forget-me-nots and foxgloves and irises and camassias were all out in full bloom at the same time.


How does that even happen? I have most of these plants in my garden and each is nice in its brief time of flowering, but is gone by before the next opens. None of those are ever remotely in bloom at the same time.


But they all are in Giverny.

Of course, Monet had seven full time gardeners, and apparently he ran them ragged. It is speculated that he was bipolar, and his gardeners took the brunt of his stormy whims to create his artistic vision in plants.

I will never have the benign damp climate, the painterly eye, or the funds and energy to come close to what these gardens look like. I don't live where spring comes early and opens lush.

And I will never have the seven full time French gardeners it takes to make a garden like Monet's.

Ah, c'est la vie.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Claude's Garden

Monet's garden at Giverny, France on a misty, cloudy day in May.








Sunday, May 8, 2016

May Gloom

Last spring, in 2015, I wrote a blog diary entry about how discouraged I get in May, and how much I hate it. Cold weather, skimpy bare branches, wet mud, grim skies. Early May is an end-of-winter slog.

The lawn turns brilliant green while the black gums stay
bare -- they are always very late to leaf out

I never published it. It was too gloomy and whiny. This year I am again mired in damp chill, waiting for May to be over. I really do not like the slow, cold, gray season that is spring in my part of the world.

The black gum by the creekbed is also still just bare branches,
while forget-me-nots bravely bloom by the bridge

We had some warm sunny days here in late winter, in March and April. That was a tease. I see wonderful pictures on blogs all over the country showing spring ephemerals and sunny bulbs and opening leaves, but that just sets expectations that May will bring the same here too. It doesn't.

Yes, early things are leafing out, tentatively. Forget me nots are bright blue, and creeping phlox is magenta, and the flowering dogwood should bloom by Mother's Day. Blueberries are defying the cold damp with tiny flowers. The grass is lurid green except where Creeping Charlie makes purple incursions.

'Fort Hill' phlox subulata looks good this year, although photographing hot pink
on a gray day is a challenge

But it's been drizzling and raining off and on for a week now. Skies are leaden. The air is chilly, in the 40s, sometimes inching up into the 50s (4 - 10 C). It's hard to get pictures on a dark day of what little color has opened. What does bloom looks plaintively brave, rather than pretty.

I promised myself last year I wouldn't complain so. But it's May again.

I'm going away for a while -- I'll be back at the end of the month, and by then the garden will be cheerier and I have made a promise to myself that I will be too.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Crown Vetch

I seem to suddenly have an abundance of crown vetch (Coronilla varia) in the front garden. This is a low groundcover vine in the pea family, that is used for erosion control and animal forage. It spreads rapidly and is impossible to control or eliminate.

I've noticed it in huge thick mats in the untended meadow, and now I have it in my garden. It overtakes by seed and vegetatively. A few seeds could have blown in, and then runners spread it all over.

The very fine, spindly vines are completely entwined around and in and over my garden plants along the front walk. They simply surround everything they touch.


The runners don't grow upward, they scramble along the ground making a mat. I can see why crown vetch is good at erosion control, but that talent isn't really appreciated as it annihilates the slowly emerging shoots of an amsonia clump, smothers the brittle woody bearberry branches and swallows allium stalks trying to come up in the spring soil.

You can't pull it up. The filaments of tender vines just break into pieces. If you have an open field you can mow it and glyphosate it, but most sources say that usually gets you nowhere. In a garden bed tangled among all my plants, it can't be eradicated at all.

The garden along the front walk is the furthest from the meadow. My other gardens, closer to the edge of the meadow, don't have crown vetch all over them. Yet.

Is it just a matter of time?


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Three Bags Full

Yet again it was another dry April. Each year seems to start wth a very dry spring. All the newly emerging plants and all my recent transplants needed water and only a quarter inch here and there fell in April, if you don't count the four inch snowfall that opened the month.

May started with three quarters of an inch of rain yesterday, and it's raining today, so that helps. No hummingbirds yet. The feeder's been up for a month (changed every week).

All winter I had a task on my list that said "expand dry creekbed". The entire creekbed is far too narrow and lined with small rocks rather than boulders, but it is what I built, on my own, from potato sized rocks dug from every planting hole that my shovel touched. Because I built it, and because I know every rock in it, it pleases me.

The creekbed starts at a sharp vee point where grass and garden meet

But there are problems -- the pitch is erratic, for example, and undulates up and down rather than descending from left to right, under the bridge and downward. Water doesn't actually flow down this course as much as it pools in sections that are a little lower than others.

And it ends oddly, just stopping in the grass at the bottom.

It starts too narrow, with only a few inches of rock at the vee where the grass and garden meet. So this week I fulfilled my mission to "widen" the thing, and dug out a little swale to the left where the creekbed starts. It amounted to two Trugs full of dirt that I took out, which is not much at all. I added pea stone to the area I dug out.

A little wider at the top, with white pea gravel added

It looked very white in the picture because the pea gravel I bought was coated in powdery dust. The rain washed that off and it looks darker, more natural now.

It took three bags full of pea stones, and I strewed some slightly larger rounded pond rocks over that to make this happen. It's hardly any material at all, but schlepping heavy bags of stones from Lowe's was a bit of a job, and paying money to buy rocks is always an odd concept.

There's a curve at the top now, not so narrow

Now the skinny creekbed is slightly wider at the start. It's still not a smooth descent. Water still won't flow down it, with the rises and dips that persist. But visually I like the minimal increase at the top curve.

I thought this would be so hard to do -- it stayed on my list of tasks for a long while. But it was easy, and hardly any effort at all. I only had to dig out two Trugs of dirt and add three bags full of gravel.

Friday, April 29, 2016

This Is Pretty . . . and Not

This is quite pretty -- a purpleleaf sandcherry glowing at the back of the garden on a late April afternoon.


The shrub is an unbalanced shape, the blooming is very brief, and the little plant is stranded among winterberry hollies and other bare branched things that won't leaf out for a while yet. But it's so delicately pretty on its own.


This is not. . . . .


The twiggy mess with open branches and yellowy leaves emerging is 'Ogon' spirea, and it is supposed to be covered in white flowers in April. Like this, which was in prior Aprils:


It has been declining in recent years, perhaps because of too much shade between the maple and birch. It keeps losing branches and getting sparse. Last fall it had no color, and it is known for brilliant fall foliage that holds late in the season. And now, for the first time, it's not flowering.

I'm going to cut it all to the ground this week -- you can rejuvenate spireas by hard pruning -- and see if next year it looks any better.

And speaking of pruning needs, this is not pretty either. For the second year, this blackhaw viburnum tree refuses to leaf out on the entire left side.


It did this last year and stayed bare on one side all summer. The wood beneath the bark was green when scraped, so the branches were not dead, and I thought another spring would bring them back in leaf.

Not so. The tree in front is leafed out and flowers are forming. In back on the left is a bare mess. So I pruned off all the dead looking branches, fully half of this small tree. I can't even show a picture of the result. It's an abomination, tilting all to one side now.

It is not pretty.

But it was going to look awful either way. All last summer it appeared just as bad, half dead. I'm going to try to sort of balance the lopsided look by selectively pruning the leafy branches that remain now on the one side, but that could be a bad idea. We'll see.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Alas, and Another Year

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' has only one redeeming feature in my garden. Despite promises of scented flowers (mine have no fragrance) and an elegant habit (mine looks like an abomination of exploded branches), this viburnum is a pretty bloomer. Pink blossoms come out in mid April.

Last year

Alas, not this year. Like the forsythias that never bloomed, 'Dawn' viburnum isn't flowering either.

The typically early, reliable spring bloomers were confused by a mild winter, too early spring, and then a sharp, hard cold snap with below freezing temperatures at the beginning of April.

That early April freeze took all the forsythia buds and apparently all the 'Dawn' viburnum buds too. Not a single one has opened.

This is how confused 'Dawn' was -- buds started to open last December during unusual warmth.

The plants are fine -- forsythias and viburnums aren't killed by frosted buds and they will go on to thrive all summer. Next spring there will be flowers. But that's the thing about gardening: it's an annual affair.

Anticipated events like fall color or spring flowers only happen once during a year, and if missed, it's a long twelve months to wait for it to happen again. But somehow those years flow on, a dry summer followed by a wet one, a cold spring and next year a mild one, a stormy fall after a year when fall was balmy. Some years the deer eliminate flowers I waited all year to see, sometimes I outwit the deer.

There's both rhythm and variability to the annual cycle, and 10 years on into my gardening life I am learning to deal with it. But how discouraging it is right now to have to wait another year for pink flowers on the viburnum outside my window.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Rich, Dark and Crumbly

Nobody wants to read about compost. Amirite? It's like bragging about your baby's potty habits. It's decaying plant material, brown and unattractive. Mine is in a long windrow hidden behind the spruce berm.

But oh, I can't resist. I have the best compost this year.


For two years I left a long stretch of dirt and garden debris covered by a green tarp. It was ugly and utilitarian, and got overwhelmed with nearby weeds in summer. Huge weeds -- giant fleeceflower and pokeweed and thistles and vining things whose roots crawled in under the tarp. A black snake lived under there and raised a family.

This winter I took the cover off, spread last year's raked leaves over the area, and let late winter snow and rain wet them down.


Now, after two years under the tarp and with decayed brown leaves mixed in, I have glorious black gold. Crumbly, soft, beautiful compost. Almost an endless supply.

I've been digging it up, sifting out all the sticks and branches and woody stalks that found their way in, and then hand mixing the leaves and decayed material in my Trug. It's a wonderfully satisfying way to spend a spring afternoon. Some sunshine, cool breezes, digging and sifting, hand kneading and mixing, then toting a Trug full of magic to my gardens where I spread it about.

There are sticks and branches that got dumped in the row, so I need to do a lot of sifting, but it's surprisingly enjoyable work.

Here it is spread around a newly transplanted blueberry bush. Nobody wants to see pictures like this -- brown dirt for god's sake -- but I am loving it.


I have only a limited window now in spring to dig compost before weeds make their assault on the whole compost row and overtake it. This year I think I'll need two tarps to cover the length of the row, but I plan to get them out in a few days and cover up the rich, dark stuff.

After that, each time I need soil or compost, I'll have to roll back the tarp to get at it, but leaving the row exposed is just an invitation to the giant weeds to take over from the meadow side and lawn turf from the yard side. The row sits right at the edge of the unmowed meadow and I can see the most brazen weeds and the aggressive lawn grass already eyeing my compost.

Such good stuff, I won't share.