Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Clematis in my Garden

I never wanted any kind of clematis in my garden. They seemed too fussy, not my style. Too flowery. Too big.

They seemed difficult, what with the pruning categories and the wilt problems. And so many cultivars -- who could pick a few to grow? So I sniffed and said "nope".

Right. Despite my original huffiness, seven different clematis types have somehow been planted in my garden. Here they are:

C. viticella 'Alba Luxurians'
C. 'Jackmanii Superba'
C. 'Henryi'
C. 'Niobe'
C. 'Samaritan Jo'
C. 'Bee's Jubilee' (but I took this one out)

And C. terniflora, sweet autumn clematis. That was a vine I resolutely stayed away from, convinced it would get too big. (It's not invasive here, but it is elsewhere.) It too was planted.

Surprisingly, I like clematis. Mostly.

Except for 'Bee's Jubilee' which was a sweet candy lavender pink that got washed out in bright sun and didn't do much for me. It was supposed to grow to 6 feet tall, and it was a group 2 pruning category, but it never got much height or needed any pruning before I took it out. This one did not make me a fan of big flowered clematis at first.

But the small flowered viticella clematis that I planted did please me. I got a white flowered one with green streaks called 'Alba Luxurians'. It has been nothing but luxurious, every year. Big, prolific and flowery, it is quite delicate and refined up close by the patio wall.

It is a group 3 pruning category, which means I cut it to the ground and it regrows. In fact I cut it to the ground in summer after blooming, and by September I get fantastic rebloom on a fully regrown vine that stays fresh into late October. Then I cut it down again in winter.

'Alba Luxurians' just keeps going. Trouble free, pretty and a performer. The green streaks would be more pronounced if it was in more shade, but the delicate colors I get in full sun are nice. The flowers at first open downward, giving it a dangling handkerchief effect.

I tried some more of the large flowered varieties after 'Bee's Jubilee', but went for more intense colors. One was the rich red clematis 'Niobe', which I planted under a pine tree to scramble up through the pine boughs.

'Niobe' is still little -- I only planted it two years ago. It is supposed to be one of the truest red clematis you can get, but it's not red at all in my eyes. It's magenta. It needs some time to show me what it will do.

'Niobe' blooms in summer and is pruning group 3 so when it gets bigger, I'll cut it to the ground in winter.

If you don't cut down a group 3 clematis, the vine gets leggy. It will have bare areas below and blooms only toward the top -- that might actually be a plus for 'Niobe' here, since I want it to disappear below and then appear well up into the branches of the pine. I'll need to experiment.

The velvety purple 'Jackmanii Superba' has been much quicker to bulk up and show me why I should have clematis in my garden. I have it on a metal tower at the end of a bed in full sun.

The purple of the big flashy blooms doesn't go with the wine red foliage of the nearby 'Forest Pansy' redbud, but the clematis is a stunner.

It looks a little stranded at the far end of the bed, but I have since expanded that area late last year, and there is a tiny twig of a gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) growing right next to it that will (gracefully I hope, with pruning) create some height at that end.

Maybe some day 'Jackmanii's' purple flowers will scramble over and up into the branches of the dogwood and mingle with the dogwood's white flowers. This clematis gets 10 or 12 feet long, so let's plan on that.

In various lights the purple hue changes.

'Jackmanii' is a summer bloomer and it's group 3 for pruning, so I cut it back to the ground in late winter. Easy care.

I planted 'Henryi' in the front to climb a trellis between the two garage windows. It's another large flowered clematis, and its pure white is dramatic against the brick. Even in its first year, with very little foliage yet, it bloomed, first in early summer, and then again in fall. It will grow 6 to 7 feet tall, not too big for this slender trellis.

But in its second year, just as the flowers were at their biggest and best, it got clematis wilt. It was very sudden and very obvious. I cut it to the ground. Only after I had bought and planted this, did I learn that 'Henryi' is a cultivar that is susceptible to wilt.

It did send up a long skinny tendril in October. Clematis wilt is rarely fatal, and plants that have been in the ground for five years with a good root system seem to fend it off. So, patience.

'Henryi' is in one of those tricky groups for pruning -- group 2, where you have to untangle the stems and selectively prune somewhat after spring flowering but before it blooms again in fall.

In the early years it doesn't matter what pruning group clematis you have. All new clematis plants need to be cut back to 18 inches, regardless. Young clematis plants have to get their roots going before they can support all the long vining growth, and a good root system helps ward off wilt apparently. You sacrifice flowers for a couple years but you get a better plant.

By pruning them all to a low point for the first two or three years, it encourages more branching at the bottom and a nicer, fuller look.  If my white large flowered group 2 'Henryi' gets wilt each year and needs to be cut back, I apparently will be right on track with the recommended pruning approach.

In 2014 I got another clematis, 'Samaritan Jo', which will climb to only about 4 or 5 feet.

I'm not sure why I ordered it. I think I was considering it to replace the 'Henryi' that I thought I'd need to take out, but it wants some shade to keep its purple tinged silvery color.

So it will go on the blue obelisk in Meadow's Edge in the shade of the maple instead.

But because it will never succeed in competition with the maple's roots, I'll put it in a pot inside the obelisk.

It is pruning group 3, needing only to be cut back each year. Here's hoping you can grow smaller clematis varieties in a container.

Finally, there is the big rambunctious sweet autumn clematis growing up the railing of the deck. What a heady scent in September just as I step outside the back door and onto the deck.

I cut this back to the ground each winter, but I don't know how long I'll be able to do that if it gets as big as I fear it might. But right now it is tidy and shapely and I can't imagine not having it.

In Connecticut this Asian sweet autumn clematis is not invasive -- but it is an invasive plant that has escaped cultivation in other parts of the country.*

For someone who sniffed at growing clematis, I have been been humbled.

The pruning isn't so bad, although it takes some work each year to trim everything as it should be. And yes, I have had to experiment with controlling wilt. And the colors aren't always exactly what I thought they'd be. I'm still working on siting and how to get them to climb trees or hang on to the right structure.

But surprisingly, I am enjoying them in my garden. I might even get more. I have my eye on a texensis clematis called 'Gravetye Beauty' that is supposed to be red (not you, Niobe), and there are so many many more . . .
                               . . . Brushwood Nursery - Vines and Climbers

*  Is Sweet Autumn Clematis Invasive Here?
The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group, says Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora or Clematis paniculata) is not on Connecticut's list of invasive plants.  
To be listed as either potentially invasive or invasive in Connecticut, a non-native plant must meet a set of scientific criteria (see 

Sunday, March 1, 2015


A report from here on the beginning of March.

Normally by March first there would be a faint hint of spring in the air. With the brighter mornings and a little more light longer into the late afternoon, the air would have some dampness and the snow would be mushy. I'd be checking for the appearance of snowdrops in the warm protected corner of the front walk.
Report: Not this year. It was 0 degrees when I got up Saturday and single digits this morning. Snow is on the way tonight. The air is sharply cold and the snowpack deep and mighty. Thank goodness for that -- at least all the tender plants under three feet tall are well protected from night after night of sub freezing temperatures.

Normally by March first I would be deep in catalogs and spreadsheets, writing up my plans for spring. What to order, where to put stuff, lists of ideas I probably wouldn't implement and pages of sources for the plants I want. It's a part of gardening that I love -- the planning.
Report: Not yet this year. I just haven't gotten to it. I will.

Normally by March first solar panels facing into the strengthening sun would be totally clear, even if there is snow on the ground. The early March sun is intensifying and easily melts roof snow.
Report: Aaarrggh . .  . it just won't melt. There are 25 panels up there and only the top right two are open. All winter we have been without solar power. Snow has covered them since the first snowfall in December and it never melted. The panels we see around town on other people's homes are clear the day after each storm. Ours have never been clear all winter, and it's March already. 

Normally by the beginning of March I would be getting seed packs ready to start some seeds indoors. Each year I have started annuals inside. I have two light stands and the fun of seed starting is the endless tending and watching and misting and seeing little green shoots come up in March.
Report: Not this year. We will be away later in March for almost two weeks, so it doesn't make sense to start them now. And my seed starting hasn't been all that successful. They do come up great, but then I don't really get any advantage when transplanting -- the transplants and the seeds I sow directly outdoors in May do about the same. Indoor seed starting seems messy and labor intensive for the same result as outdoor sowing.

Normally by the first of March sap buckets appear on the sugar maples along Duncaster Road and the red haze of early flower buds on the red maples start to color the early March sky.
Report: Not so much this year. You need consistent days above freezing and nights below in order to create the push and pull and freeze and thaw that makes the sap run. It's been too cold. And the red maples are in bud and will surely flower, but they're holding tight right now.

There you go. That's the report from here.

Up to March 1 it has been a little on the chilly side, and by "chilly" I mean "coldest February on record in Connecticut".

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sap Buckets

It's been spitting fine snow all day. No accumulation, just misty stuff in the air that is actually white and crystalline. How many variations on snow can winter come up with this year?

Here's a decorating challenge. I received two vintage sap buckets for Christmas. Hope and Steve found them and gave them to me to use as planters in my garden.

They are wonderful old metal buckets, washed with a yellow green paint and rusted, that were actually used to collect maple sap years ago before plastic buckets came into use. I love them.

Since Christmas they have been stored away, waiting for spring when I can plant them up. I have so many ideas for how to use them.

But if I use them as planters, I'll have to drill a drainage hole in the bottom. Even if I use them as liners with plants inside another pot, I need drainage if they are going to be outside in the rain.

When used for their real purpose -- collecting sap -- they have metal hats that keep the rain out. Used as planters a lid wouldn't work, so they'll need to drain. I really don't want to drill holes in these great old pails.

I could keep them out of the rain and still use them as planters if I put them on the screened porch where they would be out of the elements. But the porch is small and there isn't really room to display these buckets well -- if I tuck a container plant in a corner of the porch, you'd never see the pail.

So I'm increasingly thinking of using them in the house. Dried arrangements could be displayed in them and I can put the buckets where they could be seen. They are too big to be used on a table, but I could find floor space for them.

Flowering forced branches would look rustic standing in a sap bucket on the floor. Big dried stalks of faded panicle hydrangeas would look nice too, and my one remaining 'Tardiva' hydrangea produces tons of sturdy flowerheads that I can cut next summer. I even found some old silk hydrangea blossoms I had that are oddly blue and red.

The sap buckets were given as a garden gift -- a thoughtful idea to make a really interesting planter. But I think I am going to use them inside for other things.

Ya think?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

X Marks the Spot

It's been bitterly cold for the past few days. And then the wind kicked up and it got bitterer. And then the thermometer went down to minus 10 overnight and it was the most bitterest.

There is a rusted metal sign at the entrance to the allee that welcomes you down the walk into my back yard. It's a reminder to slow down, take it easy and relax.

Last week only the x marked where the sign was, buried in a snowbank, and there was no way to go down the walk to the back. As if you'd want to.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

So Much Sunshine

When I look out at my growing forest and gardens and how big everything is getting, I am reminded of Michael Pollan's amazement at how sunshine becomes physical mass.

He marveled at a squash that had grown huge one summer, a big monster of a vegetable that appeared out of nowhere. He wondered how it could have come to be -- there was no crater of used up soil that went into making this big thing.

He had not lugged tons of garden inputs out there to convert into a squash. It seemed to have been built out of nothing -- not a bit of the garden's material was used up in creating something with this much volume.

The soil provided trace minerals of course, but the physical mass of a plant is water and energy. Energy from the sun converted into solid form.

I look at my trees becoming giants -- big structures of wood -- and the concept of sunshine turned to solid form is even more amazing.

Nothing in the ground where they are growing has disappeared, no soil is consumed. And yet where there was nothing before, there is now a standing forest built out of water and sunshine. Photosynthesis is the word; miracle says it better.

It shouldn't be so amazing. The natural world converts energy to mass and it does it all around us all day, prodigiously. Why don't we see the miracle in that daily?

Because we are used to looking at the world as consumers -- we use stuff up to get other stuff. There's a negative for every gain. Material goods are made out of something, so you have to deplete something else in order to make new things.

Even non-material concepts in our everyday lives, like politics or money, require something to be lost or given up in order to get something else. It's how we constantly think. It's how we live.

It's not how sunshine works. Okay, someday the solar energy streaming down on earth and being converted to physical mass will die out as our sun implodes, so ultimately there is loss and gain in the true sense of physics. But there is such an incredible surplus of sunshine energy falling on us freely and there will be for a massively long time.

Plants will make abundant new stuff out of it without taking anything away from our earth. So much something from what seems to be nothing.

So with all that free energy, why aren't my solar panels working?

Major props to the photographer. . .  
Jim went out yesterday to take this shot of our covered solar panels, because I asked him to. It was 2 degrees (-17 C) at the time and the wind was fierce. He is my hero.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lemons in Winter

We don't have the seven foot drifts of snow that Boston is trying to cope with, but we are having a snowy, very cold winter here. It's two feet deep on the ground, drifts are higher, and it is bitterly cold.

It is below zero when I wake up, and in the teens or sometimes into the 20s in the day.

The wind blew ferociously a few days ago and stripped the sweetbay magnolia's leaves. Usually the sweetbay holds its leaves all winter and then looks raggy in May just before the new foliage pushes the old leaves off.

But when it gets so cold, the leaves panic, curl up and then get blown off to scatter across the blank white expanse of snow in the back yard.

The Polar Vortex is back, just like last year.

But I have lemons!

While the snow blows and swirls around us and thick cakes of frosty ice coat the lower panes of our windows, I have been tending my Meyer lemon tree. It looks great.

The leaves are glossy. I fertilize it with special citrus fertilizer every week or so, and I water faithfully.

It sits in a pool of winter sunshine briefly in the morning, but I need to use a bright floor lamp that stands over it shining light from late in the morning until I go to bed at night. Lemons need a lot of light.

It was outside on the deck all summer, getting full bright sun. I brought it inside in October.

In November it bloomed. The fragrance was heady. It was a very sweet smell, almost too much, but intoxicating just as winter was coming on.

In December green nubs appeared where the blossoms had fallen off and I was thrilled. I started collecting Meyer lemon recipes on Pinterest.

In January the nubs grew a little and my excitement at having lemons in winter soared. I began buying the other ingredients needed for my recipe collection.

In February the green baby lemons are still there, small and hard and green. I'm trying to remain patient.

In March we are going away. Will the lemons all ripen while we are gone? Of course.

It's a pretty tree, adding greenery and interest inside while we are cooped up indoors in the white, icy torment of this year's Polar Vortex.  I love looking at it, especially when the morning sun falls on the deep green leaves and little green fruits.

But I want a crop of ripe yellow lemons, dammit. Some time this winter.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

People in Gardens

It's cold and snowy again. Saturday morning was minus 5 degrees, and when it warmed into the teens it started snowing and has kept snowing.

Snow has such a distorting effect on everything. The whole level of the yard is raised, leaving the house as a ship partly submerged and wallowing in the seas of winter. Features that orient the landscape like shrubs and plant stands and most of a garden bench are simply gone.

I continue to garden by tending my photographs. I have so many, and I like to look at others on blogs and Pinterest and in the magazines I have stacked by my reading chair. Let it snow.

It's interesting how garden photographs never have people in them.

I read an essay recently about how we like to see gardens in photographs: perfect, just right, a utopian vision of the ideal landscape. It's all a deeply human urge to recreate the original, the Garden of Eden.

And, like the original garden that man was banished from, there are no people in garden photographs.

It's as if humans, with their waste and manure and compost rows and working tools and piles of debris that need to be picked up, don't exist. The perfect garden shot has none of that. People are banished when we set out to capture the ideal garden and put it in a magazine spread.

Almost none of my own garden photographs have people in them.

Why do we do that? Humans give scale to the picture, and that's much needed when I want to see how big a tree is or how deep a border goes. For reference alone, people add dimension to a garden.

Humans in the frame also remind us that a garden is work. It is created, not sprung naturally from the benign hand of providence. Why do we cling to the vision of "nature" as a beautiful place uninhabited by humans? Is the Garden of Eden thing really that deeply, psychologically embedded in us?

People don't have to be working in a garden -- they can be strolling and enjoying it, and how natural would that be to see? But when we visit a public garden and take shots of the beautifully designed spaces, I crop out the people, or try to get a view with no one in it to start with.

I know that people in pictures will always draw the eye -- we are genetically programmed to notice people before surroundings, and the photographer wants to feature the plants instead. So humans in a garden shot are a distraction.

It's disorienting, though, when you look at as many gorgeous garden photos as I do, to see that the highest aspiration of the perfect garden is to be a space growing untouched by gardeners, unseen by visitors, and completely devoid of humans. Eden.

We are stardust
we are golden
and we've got to get ourselves 
back to the garden

 Joni Mitchell

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Right Location

We have snow on the ground. Things that I know to be two feet high out in the yard are not visible. It's been single digits at night and in the 20s in the daytime. Very wintery. Let's look at plants I want to do something with this spring.

I planted a red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, in late summer of 2012, but I'm not sure it's in the right place. I keep planning to move it. This interesting tree requires a specific location for several reasons.

First, like most buckeyes, the big floppy leaves need some afternoon shade in summer and even then they brown and go limp.

Early spring foliage and flower in May

Second, it loses its leaves in mid September. It just does. All of them. It drops early, so you don't want to site this for fall interest. It should be put where you can enjoy the scarlet spikes of flowers in spring.

by September 24, red buckeye has dropped every leaf

Third, it doesn't respond well to dry periods. It needs to be watered when dry summer conditions hit, so it needs to be near the hose.

Fourth, the seeds and young twigs are poisonous to humans and to wildlife. In fact, Native Americans crushed up the seeds and twigs and put them in the water to stun fish for easy catching. Really.

I'm not very worried about poison seeds but if I had grandchildren toddling around my garden putting things in mouths, I might be.

So where did I plant Aesculus pavia? Is it in the right spot?

I first saw red buckeye on a garden tour in upstate NY, and it was in flower next to a big red barn. The scarlet flowers complemented the barn so beautifully.

May 12, 2012 on a garden tour in Amenia, NY

With no red barn nearby, I ended up putting my little sapling at the entrance to our gravel seating area, right near the red painted cellar door.  You work with what you have.

Still in its pot before planting

So is it in the right spot?

It is near the house where it gets deep morning shade but is then out in the afternoon sun the rest of the day. Not really ideal, although it's not in full sun all day.

It's convenient to the hose near the house. I do have to water it when we have dry periods. It gets stressed looking.

It is part of my allee along the walk that goes from the front to the back of the house. With bare branches in early autumn, this buckeye doesn't add anything when the whole allee is gorgeous in fall color. But the stewartia and other trees forming the allee do their part spectacularly, so I guess I can forgo fall foliage in this spot.

Part of my young allee - a stewartia and the little buckeye

It is, of course, too close to the house, the walkway, and other plants, just as everything in my garden is. Here is a mature one next to a college building so you can see the size.

mature Aesculus pavia at Smith College

I will have to limb up my tree as it gets bigger in order to be able to go down the walkway and get into the gravel seating area, or even if we want to be able to open the cellar doors.

I'll have to limb it up a lot.

But I think (I think) that will be okay. This tree has a shaggy aspect that might look good limbed up about 6 feet. The firecracker flowers -- its main attraction in spring -- are certainly going to be visible when you have to walk right under it. With it sited so close to the house, the flowers will be easy to see even from inside looking out the windows.

But then I think I should move it to get more afternoon shade. And to give it more space to be the natural size tree it wants to be. Maybe it shouldn't be part of a line of trees, particularly in fall.

I'm leaning toward leaving it and limbing it.

Or maybe I should move it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Satan's Ridge

The local area where I ski: Sundown
I started skiing fifty years ago and although I am no athlete, it is a sport I have thoroughly enjoyed in six different decades of my life.

We have decent resorts within easy driving distance in Vermont and New Hampshire, and some of our best family memories were created on ski vacations there when the boys were little. We had to buckle their boots for them then, and lift them onto the seat of the chairlift.

Those mini skiers are now grown men who "skin" the Colorado backcountry (no lifts, you climb up with rough skins on the skis), or ski black diamonds in the Sierras in California.

They are both graceful, incredible athletes who are a joy to watch coming down the mountain.

My sons have outgrown Eastern ski conditions and hills -- too icy, too tame -- and they live in the west now, but I still live here and I still ski New England slopes.
The little skiers grew up and now ski out west

For an aging skier like me, it is a rare visit to Vermont at this point.

Satan's Ridge in the 1960s
But within 35 minutes, just up the road from my house, there is a local area that is a gem. Our little state is not known for mountains, but the hills in the northwest are actually quite steep. Not high, but rugged in places, and all you need for a small ski area is a pocket of steep terrain.

This gem is called Ski Sundown now, but when I began skiing in the 1960s it was called Satan's Ridge. The name was a natural -- it was built in Satan's Kingdom, a forested, undeveloped area where the river runs over rocks and churns up rapids.

I had leather boots then that took half an hour and strong fingers to lace up tight enough, and wooden skis. We skied in our jeans and got wet.  Downhill skiing was an endurance sport then, and if you came in with icicles on your eyelashes, you could prove you had a good time.

Now, all these years later, I have high tech equipment, ice shedding clothes, every convenience an expensive sport allows, and I will only ski when the snow has been groomed perfectly. And the weather has to be mild.

It's so easy for me now. I can get to the local area quickly, I can ski mid-morning in the middle of the week before the kids arrive and I even get a senior discount.

It's a small area, not much variety, but the slopes are challenging and I only stay a few hours at a time.

blurry shot of me skiing -- but it's proof!
I find lately that I am as interested in the greenery and plants on the slopes as I am in my next run. Ski areas are not kind to forest ecology. They rip up swaths of the mountain and lay it bare.

They do allow a way for people to get into the woods on a winter day though, and I like checking out the mountain laurels poking up through the snow or the stately presence of giant firs and ghostly birches around me.

I try to i.d. woody plants by their buds and I love the play of shadow and light on twiggy winter branches. I notice red berries deep in the woods.

On the mornings I ski there are no crowds, so the experience is a calm, quiet and sometimes reflective one, where I can stop and look about and enjoy nature.

Then I face downhill, push off and I am a teenager again, ripping down Satan's Ridge in Satan's Kingdom, forever young.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What Goes on in February

Snow. There's a lot.

Temperatures have been quite frigid, down to zero at night.

Taxes got done.

No deer tracks or vole tunnels in sight. No rabbit prints. It's too deep now for animal activity.

Solar panels are totally covered by all the snow on the roof, and it is not melting or sliding off. Kwh are zero even on a sunny day. Our neighbor's panels are completely clear.

Went downhill skiing for a couple hours yesterday morning. Great snow, no crowds midweek, and a senior discount on my ticket.

The "allee" that I wrote about on a recent post looks like this now.

My plan to go out and cut branches for forcing inside will have to wait. The snow is higher than my boots.

The witch hazels in the photo above continue to hold onto their leaves all winter. They are fully clothed in brown and if I brought branches in to force, I'd first have to strip all the leaves and that would probably take any little flowers with them.

I'd like to get some winter honeysuckle and forsythia branches but they are too far out in back and I would be lost under the snow until spring if I tried to get to them.

I can open the dining room window to cut off some Dawn viburnum branches though. As long as I am quick with the pruners and don't let too much heat out the open window. 

But the pruners are in my tool shed which I can't get to. Even if I could, I can't open the doors.

That's what's going on here. More snow coming in the forecast over the next days.