Friday, February 5, 2016

I Forgive

It's been way too warm, in the 50s, and it rained during the week. Gail and I skied in slushy conditions yesterday but it wasn't bad, given how freakishly warm and wet February has started out. Today it's 32 degrees and snowing. It's coming down steadily and the landscape is transformed.

For several winters now I have been cutting branches of my witch hazels and bringing them indoors to force. The small flowered branches are nice enough in a vase, but what I really wanted was the heavenly scent. I was always disappointed.

I have two kinds of witch hazels. In the gurgling fish pitcher are branches of Hamamelis vernalis, a spring blooming witch hazel with rust colored flowers. The plant is a shrub, with stems that grow straight upright from the ground in a thicket. The tall straight branches sit well in a narrow pitcher. Spring witch hazel doesn't really have any fragrance.

In the green pitcher I have branches of Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' -- a red flowered hybrid that is more tree shaped and spreading. It flowers along the bottom of its branches making it impossible to find branches shaped for a vase. All the blooming flowers are stuck down in the water inside the pitcher.

But that is okay because this is the first winter I have been rewarded with a noticeable, heavenly aroma. Refreshing, not sweet or perfumey.

In past winters I've had the occasional underwhelming whiff from 'Diane' here and there, but this year I get a lingering, spicy smell anywhere near the pitcher of branches.


I'm concerned, though, because the flowers, even scented as beautifully as they are, have never looked right. They appear stunted. They are not red. 'Diane' is described as a heavy bloomer (mine is not), with reliably deep red flowers (mine are copper orange), and profuse, almost shaggy petals (mine have only a few spidery straps).

On my plant the sparse, orangey colored flowers are tiny, each smaller than a dime when fully open.

For reference, here are random shots of Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' from the internet. Not even close.

And lest you think these are photoshopped or over-enhanced, I have seen a real live 'Diane' witch hazel, a mature one, in full bloom at Broken Arrow nursery in their garden beds. It was covered in flowers, very red, and each bloom was almost fluffy looking.

Here's the shot of it that I took in 2010 with my old point and click on a very overcast, gloomy March day. It doesn't really capture the intense red, and the whole impact of this beautiful plant in bloom.

I have been fussing and worrying over the growth habit, storm damage, sparse flowering, leaf marcescence, and stunted blooms of my 'Diane' witch hazel for years. She gives me agita.

But for the first time ever she smells so good in the house in winter. I may forgive.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


In these oddly warm days of winter I went out and pruned the bottom of my climbing hydrangea.

I'm growing hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris over the garage doors, and  Louis the Plant Geek's explanation about how this plant grows was really instructive.

Through careful observations he noticed that this beautiful vine grows very slowly unless the stems, called travelers, can latch onto a surface. Once they are firmly attached, they put out flowering side shoots and make a full, leafy, flowery show, and then the plant grows rapidly. But making the searching traveler stems grow without much to hold onto is a recipe for patience.

That explains a lot. I've been very patient.

In 2006 (yes, that was ten years ago) one of my retirement gifts was a good sized climbing hydrangea from a local nursery.

I decided it should grow straight up to reach the top of our garage doors, where we had a pergola installed. Then it should scramble horizontally across the pergola. I thought I could just take the long vining stems as they grew, and tie them to the pergola. Like a big old rose or ivy maybe.

But the stems are very brittle and they didn't grow in long canes. Sitting well below the pergola, they seemed disinclined to grow up toward it. I put the whole twiggy thing inside a wood tower, thinking that might offer some support at least. You can see those initial traveler stems searching for something flat and rough to attach their holdfast roots to as they probe the air outside the tower.

The travelers finally decided to make their living by attaching to the laths of the wood pyramid, and so the hydrangea started to fill out but would not grow upward. Its growth rate was slow. Not much happened in the way of flowering.

Over the next 9 years I struggled with this hydrangea. It didn't want to leave its tower. It grew, slowly, filling out to the sides, but always firmly attached to the wood laths of its cage.

I eventually hung a long vertical piece of lattice off the side of the pergola and finally got tips of some of the travelers to touch it. That worked. The travelers explored it, they attached some rootlets, they leaned on it a bit, but it took more years before the stems would attach firmly enough to send up real growth.

The climbing hydrangea reached the sturdy support of the pergola in 2013 and then it began sending out side shoots all over and flowering. It has started to scramble across the pergola.

When the leaves are down the peeling bark is beautiful. Birds nest in the interior. Where traveler stems are firmly attached to the pergola at the upper reaches, side shoots have formed and flowered.

In 2015 I finally took the tower cage down. I had to cut it away from the inside, carefully working around the firmly attached vines. Here, in early spring last year, it was finally freed.

This winter I wanted to expose the peeling bark and the beautiful twisting architecture of those original traveler stems on the lower half. That's what I did on a mild winter day last week, opening up the congested tangle of stems below and pruning away leaf buds. I have to strip away more leaf buds, though, to really clean up the look of it at the bottom.

All the side shoots and flowering will be at the top, all across the garage doors.

With the branches bare now, I can see how flowering side shoots radiate out from a large traveler that has reached the top. You can also see my attempt to bungee-cord a traveler to the strut of the pergola. If it touches the strut it will make rootlets and attach itself, and start to radiate side shoots, so I'm going to have to get that brittle woody stem to actually touch the structure.

If I had better understood how climbing hydrangea grows when I planted this, I would not have attempted it here. It's taken 10 years, but I'm glad I didn't know better.

The problem now is that the pergola structure has weathered and deteriorated over 10 years and needs painting. Significant cracks have developed. It may not last long enough to hold the climbing hydrangea up.

Then what do I do? Would bungee cords hold that split post together?

I do have bungee cords. And I know how to use them.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Day in Winter

On the last day of January 2016 it was warm enough to do garden chores outside.

The temperature was in the mid 50s, it was sunny, and the ground has not been frozen all winter.

I weeded -- real weeding. I hauled out the kneeling pad and gloves and Cobrahead and tub trug. With everything brown now, I could see the green of turf grass that had invaded border edges and easily ripped it out.

A few shady spots on the north side of a bed were frozen, but most of the ground was just wet and muddy.

I weeded, I pruned a bit, raked some spots, then got bored and sat in the weak sunshine for a while. The air was calm. The sunshine was surprisingly warm facing the sun.

It's supposed to get even warmer in the next few days, and then rain.

This is such a different winter than the past several have been. So much milder. Mild enough to be outdoors doing real gardening in the middle of winter.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Day in Summer

About six months ago, on July 16, 2015, a gardener wandered outside with a camera and took a few photos in no particular order. It was not a significant day. There was nothing noteworthy about the date. It was a very ordinary summer day --- "ordinary" herein having the meaning "spectacular".

Clematis 'Henryii'

Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

Knockout Rose 'Blushing Pink'

'Henryii' clematis up close

A red dahlia grown from seed

A scented daylily

Hot magenta garden phlox 'Nicky'

Nicotiana alata - flowering tobacco

Shasta daisies 'Becky'

The front walk

The other way down the front walk

A yellow dahlia from seed

A copper red daylily

More Crocosmias

An ordinary day in summer. Indeed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Birch Garden

We didn't get much snow from the big blizzard that crippled the midAtlantic, but we got some, and the ground is covered in white. It looks more like what January should look like here. I've been inside going through old photos, and here are some of the Birch Garden.

I call it the Birch Garden because it is a mixed planting in the middle of three white paper birches that had originally been stranded in an open patch of lawn.


We did not dig out a garden, we simply had some dirt brought in and dumped in a sloping mound on top of the lawn. That was in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, the dirt mound was mostly mulch, dotted with some struggling perennials and tiny shrubs.


But I had a vision, sort of, of what it could be, and over the years that vision has emerged.

Many plants have been lost, others have been moved and taken out. Annuals have been added, new plants put in. Each year the garden is different, but it keeps the sloping shape I had intended, with tall green plants in back and mixed flowering things in front.


Jim calls it the Butterfly Garden because I originally put in things that would attract butterflies.

We had two unusual yellow butterfly bushes ('Honeycomb'), and an agastache plant that drew them in swarms. The butterfly bushes are gone, and the agastache is gone too, and other plants have taken their places, but he still calls it the Butterfly Garden. I call it the Birch Garden. We speak different languages and communicate fitfully on most subjects.

I think I like the Birch Garden best in fall, when Sweetspire iteas in the center turn deep red but the whole effect is a muted, soft one, with all of the plants at their fullest.

Earlier in the season it is more colorful and more chaotic looking as various annuals and perennials bloom. It wants to be a purple garden, and I counter that with red flowering tobacco and a dwarf red rose, and some yellow sundrops that bloom briefly in summer. But left on its own, purple would dominate.

I need a piece of hardscape in the front, where there is a gap at the point in front where the garden is lower. All the billowy small leaved, small flowered plants need something solid among them for contrast. Something visually weighty. What could I put there? Winter is a good time to shop.

This jumble of a garden changes all the time, but here is what was growing in the Birch Garden last year:

Shrub layer

Itea virginica - Sweetspire - anchors the middle
Aronia arbutifolia 'Brillantissima' rising just above the iteas
Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' at the very back
Two dwarf white pines that you can't even see, they've been overtaken
Abelia grandiflora 'Edward Goucher' also unseen below the chaos, needs to be moved
Buddleia 'Blue Chip', three small dwarf butterfly bushes
Caryopteris 'Worcester's Gold'


Baptisia pendula 'Alba' filling up the left side, it's huge
Paeonia 'Blaze' peony
Rose 'Red Drift' - a tidy low dwarf
Salvia 'May Night'
Nepeta faassenii 'Dropmore'
Aquilegia - various columbine cultivars but they all went to purple except 'Black Barlow'
Oenothera - yellow sundrops and pink evening primroses
Aruncus - two kinds of goatsbeard, a large billowy one and a ground cover dwarf one
Pardancanda - candy lilies, self seeding all over now
Digitalis 'Milk Chocolate'
Heuchera mostly 'Sparkling Burgundy' coral bells, but a few other red leaved ones too
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' I took it out and it just came back anyway
Garden Phlox 'Nicky' - hot magenta colored
Nipponanthemum - Montauk daisy
Dianthus - red Sweet William from a wildflower mix, and a dark red one called 'Sooty'

And a big tall self seeded volunteer purple aster


Iris 'Immortality' (white) and "Beverley Sills' (peach)
Scilla - mixed colors but all my woodland hyacinths turned purple
Colchicum - one single pink one that blooms in fall
Ornithogalum - Stars of Bethlehem scattered throughout


Nicotiana - I plant the tall sylvestris, and sweet smelling alatas in white and in red
Coreopsis 'Jethro Tull' - I treat coreopsis as an annual, it rarely comes back for me

Good grief, this is all too much now that I see it listed out. And I'm not even listing what has been taken out, like a lot of field coreopsis and Siberian irises and other things that keep popping back up here and there. Of course the bulbs and perennials bloom at different times, but no wonder it all looks so chaotic at times.

Yellow 'Honeycomb' butterfly bush and 'Purple Haze' agastache, seen here in 2011, are both gone now.
They looked not just chaotic, but rangy . . .  but they were beloved by butterflies.

Now that I am reviewing everything planted in this garden, I think 2016 will see some serious editing. And a piece of hardscape for the middle front.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bathtub Plumbago

Snow coming today -- first of the season.

A spot of winter sunlight caught my eye a few mornings ago. There in the corner a bit of greenery lit up a dark spot in the dining room. It is a pot of plumbago, Cape leadwort.

Years ago on a whim I bought two potted Plumbago auriculata plants that were already in full flower, and placed them in their pots outside in the garden.

They climbed small trellises stuck into the pots and got tall and arching and were covered in the clearest blue phlox-like blooms all summer. I fell in love with these pretty flowering shrubs.

They are not hardy at all here, so each year I have bought new ones and each year I have tried them in different spots -- I had two standing sentinel at the entrance to the gravel garden, and I tried them twining up a twig trellis with orange nasturtiums one year.

I tried growing plumbago in a pot and pinching off the long growth so it would mound into a bushier shrub.

And I tried it in a container with a small tower to climb.

Each year I would put my new little plumbago plants into containers outside in May or sometimes planted into the garden, and then wait. Plumbago won't even think about getting going until very hot weather arrives, so my plants never did much until August. By September they would start to look like something and then succumb when October frosts came.

Finally last fall I decided to bring them inside and see if they would winter over inside the heated house. Instead of buying new each year, I'm trying to save the more mature plants I already have. They'll be toasty in here until June, when I can set out larger, bigger, more mature plants when it gets hot in summer.

So two of them are living in the bathtub this winter, where there is some humidity, afternoon sun comes in the window, and wet soil drains right into the tub when I water the pots.

It makes for a crowded situation when I take a bath, but they don't seem put off when the aging gardener gets in the tub for a splash. Each plant had been cut back to the soil line when I potted them up to bring inside, so I am pleased to see so much green growth shooting up now.

The third plumbago is in the corner of the dining room and only gets that little bit of eastern morning sunshine in winter. It's not as robust looking as the two bathtub plants, but it too is showing some nice growth after having been cut all the way back when it came inside.

I'll try to keep the bathtub plants cut back to form bushier shrubs, and I'll let this one vine and eventually get it to go up a small trellis.

The test will be to see if I can keep them going all winter, and to see if I do have bigger, more flowery plants to put out in summer when it gets good and hot.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Industrial Site / Garden Oasis

Cold and windy, and no snow yet this year as we approach the end of January, but they are predicting quite a snowfall coming up this weekend. Ah, winter.

I've gotten really good at taking garden photos that do not include any shots of the utilities, but occasionally, as in this early spring picture from last year, the electric meters and a/c units are visible, and there is no question they are always visible when sitting in the gravel garden.

I've gotten pretty good at planting around them to minimize their visual impact. Dwarf Alberta spruces are in front of the meters, but don't enclose them completely.

The complexity of plants and their maturing size along the side of the house helps distract, but not hide, the ugly mechanics. For the most part.

I did try to find ways to completely hide the big a/c units, but tall grasses, which did obscure them totally, ended up creating a repair bill when the units weren't getting enough airflow around them. So the grasses came out and the units are no longer hidden.

Pretty alchemillas, Japanese forest grass and flowering low shrubs do the work of distracting the eye as you pass down this walk. It's okay I guess.

On the house wall I have to hide something that looks like the Large Hadron Collider, and it's installed a good seven feet up. That's a lot of vertical height to camouflage, but the Alberta spruces in front of it at least offer dense height if not complete screening.

And the lower end of this power station complex is the ugliest of all, so the ground level needs screening, which the dense Alberta spruces also provide. How on earth is this wiring tangle acceptable, featured on the outside of a house? But all the homes are wired this way.

The obvious solution is some kind of structure to enclose the meters and there are great examples on Pinterest, although they don't look to be seven feet tall.

I thought about something like this, but the cost (these are custom made expensive constructions) and the source (where to find a local woodworker who could even build one of these?) and the maintenance (another outdoor structure to preserve) and the lack of space behind the spruces nixed the idea.

I don't want to take the Alberta spruces out -- they do more than partially obscure the meters, as they offer color and height and greenery along that long flat wall. And there's little room behind them for meter houses bigger than some garden sheds.

And look . . . . from some angles you can't see the utilities at all. Behind that line of Alberta spruces at the top of the driveway is the power plant, but you wouldn't know.

An area I can't camouflage at all is the entrance to our property.  A forbidding purple Norway maple stands sentinel over electrical boxes to welcome anyone up our drive and into our garden.  For years I've wanted to paint Welcome on the biggest box.

Whaddya think? Would the utility company mind?

There is simply no way to disguise these boxes. That corner of the road and drive is not wide enough for large, tall shrubbery, and the plow piles giant snowbanks right there. Perennials would have to be huge, (miscanthus again?) to hide anything, and the snowplow would make a mess of anything there.

Fake fiberglass rock covers are expensive and would only fit the little green box. The bigger one is the size of a small refrigerator and hums all day, and probably shouldn't be enclosed.

I do love turning  the corner into our driveway, coming up the small rise to the paver section at the top where the low stone wall invites you to stop. It's such a short entrance, but particularly in fall the plantings along the drive draw you in and there is a sense of arriving in a special place.

But it all starts at the corner entrance from the road, and that's just ugly. At night the streetlight illuminates the boxes, and only the boxes, as it throws very little light. It really does spotlight them.

Wait, you say. You're the same homeowner gardener who put hulking shiny black solar panels smack on the front of the house?

And you think metal boxes on the corner spotlighted by a streetlamp are kind of ugly?

You're right. The utility boxes are probably the least of my garden's blights. The panels and the electric boxes actually kind of balance each other in a feng shui kind of way, offering blatantly utilitarian hardscape contrasted with greenery and repose.

Welcome to my garden, where industrial vibe meets garden oasis. It's intentional.