Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sounds and Sights

The other night, about 11 p.m., we were lying in bed when we heard a loud ka-bang on the metal bulkhead door that leads to our basement.

The hatchway door is right outside the bedroom wall (the a/c unit is too -- do builders think about these things when they install equipment that could be placed anywhere?)

We sprang out of bed, flipped on the outside light, and what to our wondering eyes did appear but a startled deer fleeing around the corner of the house. It had been doing something nefarious right outside our bedroom while we slept just feet away. Then it was spooked, probably jumped sideways, and its hooves clattered on the hollow metal and scared all of us.

Earlier in the week, in the daytime, we saw a buck with a headful of antlers standing very alertly in the yard. Then we saw a doe a few feet away in the meadow. For about twenty minutes we watched as she moved a little, and he followed.

She wandered left and then he did, right behind her. She moved up the slope and stopped, and he moved up the hill and stopped too. She ambled off toward the neighbors and the buck ambled right along after her. She kept moving away, then stopping to make sure he was following.

The bobcat has been around too, hunting in our yard. These photos are grainy because Jim took them through the window, from inside, but the bobcat was just twenty-five feet away from the house, at the edge of our small lawn.

There was some stalking going on, and crouching and pounce-readiness, but whatever caught his interest escaped and after a while he slowly moved on. Actually, we don't know if it's a he or a she.

The other wildlife that uses my yard has not been seen, but they leave calling cards. The coyote has not been sighted recently but it has been leaving piles of scat on the curved footbridge over my dry creek bed. Always a pile on the bridge .... use the weedy meadow, dang it, and don't make me clean the bridge off.

The black bear has been around but I have not seen it, and I hope it's hibernating now. In summer the bear left a humongous pile of droppings smack in the middle of the lawn. It was clearly a bear's work, full of seeds and berries and of a size you cannot imagine. I had to get the snow shovel out to clean up.

I like to see the wildlife around us, but not so much when they come into the lawn or up to the house. And when they clomp on the metal basement door, making godawful banging and clattering noises in the middle of the night, that's clearly too close.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Doctor's Visit

Last week the doctor came.

Mike, the arborist from Bartlett Tree Experts, scheduled a visit to check on the health of my property and see what my trees and shrubs might need in the coming year.

I like Bartlett because they do not hawk expensive services that aren't needed. They assess, and they will recommend, but you have to tell them how much intervention (for pests) or how much change (pruning or planting) you really want. They don't push anything.

I like Mike because he genuinely loves trees and can talk for hours with me at a level that most gardeners or visitors can't. He shows me pruning techniques, educates me on what to look for in tree health and marvels at what I've planted.

We had to walk around for 45 minutes in pretty appalling weather, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Here's what the doctor says:

The older black gum in front needs to have a leader selected -- it's trying to grow up and out in two directions. I had noticed that too. Same thing with the new katsura, it has strong competing leaders and one has to be selected.
The confused black gum in front. It needs a leader established

We need to pick one tall central branch and reduce the others

We could stop spraying the paper birches and see how they do with black spot and defoliation without the fungicide. I don't want to do that, though.

My tilted Cornus mas in the Driveway Garden is canted over because it is really too wet. The roots can't hold onto the mushy soil. I had noticed damp wet and puddles in that spot but didn't realize how it was affecting the corneliancherry dogwood there. Move it? What to do. . .
I've staked it upright for a couple seasons, but when the stake
is removed it goes sideways again

He is as mystified as I am about the 'Orange Dream' Japanese maple in the Birch Garden forming congested branching every summer, almost like witches' brooms. It gets too much sun and is prone to scorching. Mike speculated that when the long graceful new branching in spring starts to scorch in summer the branches die back at the tips. All the growth then goes into a bunchy clump below the die back point. I think he's right. What to do -- I can't get the poor thing more shade.
In June you see the dieback on the tips.
By August bunchy leaf growth will form below the dieback.

The brown dead branches of the blue spruces on the berm won't recover. He explained all five have needle dieback problems but the three that get more sun have enough sugar in their needles to grow and fight off the pathogens. The two on the right, in more shade from the river birch, can't produce enough sugar to keep their shaded branches from succumbing to the disease.
A lot of dieback on the lower, shaded branches
Bartlett will prune the rampant river birches and get their branches up off the spruces this winter, but I am going to ask them to take out the two most defoliated spruces. The berm will look different -- there will still be a grouping of three spruces on one side, but I have to rethink a planting plan for the right side under the river birch.
The dieback won't recover even if it gets more sun in the future

The 'Dawn' viburnum is a mess. A wildly arching branchy whippy mess of a plant. Mike said to just do topping cuts all over -- not the usual advice -- and try to create some side branching, but we both had a good laugh over how ungainly the thing is.

Root flares need to be excavated on several trees, but it's minor and can be done by hand, so I'll do that in late winter. More pruning needs to take place on a couple other trees, and I can do that too.

The 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple by the deck is in pretty dire straits, and Mike is concerned, but Bartlett will continue to treat the phytophthera problem. They are now trying a soil drench that is nothing more than potassium, but it seems to help. Trial and error. He says not to despair, but. . . am I on a death watch?
Like the 'Orange Dream' maple, you can see the empty leafless tips of this 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple.
Phytophthera canker has killed a third or more of the trunk and the top branches can't get what they need.

The doctor made his recommendations, took notes, and will put together a plan for keeping my arboretum healthy next year.

We all benefit from an annual check up. At least "diet and exercise" didn't come up. My own doctor is on about that again . . .

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Next Year

Rain and downpours (not snow, though). Cold and drizzle. December needs to get its act together before the holidays. .  . this chill gray wet is not acceptable.

I need to start remembering what I did this year that I want to repeat or eliminate next year. If I don't write this stuff down it never occurs to me later.

Next year I am not planting zinnias. I love them, but am tiring of the hot colors and gangly height. They are a great summer sight -- look at this great stand I had of 'Cut & Come Again' -- but I'll skip them for a season or two.

Next year I am going to go back to having a mixed herb bowl. Of all the things I have tried in this planter bowl, including lettuces and annuals, I like the combination of herbs the best -- oregano, sage, some parsley, and gnome.

Next year I am going to plant a single line of California poppies in the tiny strip of gravel along the base of the stone wall I built. Will this work? Is there enough growing space, enough soil in the grit?
Next year I want to plant scaveola in the pot in the iron stand. Of all the things I have tried in this little planter, the scaveola has been the most successful. It draped beautifully without overwhelming the pot and stand. It bloomed constantly all summer and fall. There is a white variety too. I can't get the color right in this photo -- in reality the scaveola is a rich purple (and the gravel isn't so brown... having trouble adjusting the filters or something here).

Next year I am going to plant more tobacco, both the giant Nicotiana sylvestris and the pretty N. alata. They do really well for me and they bloom on and on. White, elegant, kind of dramatic from afar, easy. Even the low red perfumed ones that I had in pots were great. The big white ones do need staking.

Next year I think I'll forego coleus. I liked the low spreader 'Chocolate Drop' in past years and had big swaths of it as a ground cover. I used it again this year and planned to take cuttings for winter so I'd have more for next year, but I tired of it. In early summer before it fills out it's just clumpy, and then it petered out -- it didn't get enough really hot weather this year. My affections for it faded.

Next year I want to get lots of 'Karl Foerster' grasses and put them at the edges of the meadow. I tried these open airy grasses in my mixed borders and they overwhelmed and just didn't fit. Then a stray clump I had discarded in the meadow grew among the other weeds and showed me how lovely this grass is in that setting. So I'll try putting them in where the tall weeds meet the mowed lawn as definition points. The sharp transition between lawn and weedy meadow is a challenge and the 'Karl Foerster' grass is just wild but elegant enough to define the edge.

Next year I am going to get more Allium 'Millennium' and put them in the two oblong clay pots. I did that last year and loved them. They bloomed all summer, sturdy little things. I transplanted these summer flowering bulbs to Meadow's Edge, but want more to repeat the display in the pots on the deck.

There are more plants I want to repeat, and others I don't think I'll do again --- can't remember them all now, though. Must write these things down.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Soulful Man of the Soil

Eddie Lee May
Eddie Lee May Obituary

The character Lee May exemplified could be summed up as gentle and immediately approachable, but there was much more than that: May was a soulful man of the soil.

"He knew the soul of gardening," said his friend and colleague Walter Reeves. "There was hardly any distinction between his body and the earth; he just appreciated everything about a plant."

May was a journalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He was one of the AJC's first African-American editorial writers, said his wife, Lyn May.

May was a news writer and editor at the AJC in the 1970s and left for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s. 

During his tenure with the Times he wrote on a variety of issues including immigration and economics. He covered the White House during the Reagan administration. May moved from Washington to become the Times' Atlanta bureau chief in 1989.

Eddie Lee May, of Marietta, died Wednesday of cancer. He was 73.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

did not know Lee May the national journalist; I knew the gardener, the soulful man of the soil. 

His garden in Connecticut was unique and I wrote about it here. 

He visited my garden and did me the high honor of pruning things I was too timid to touch. He brought me hardy begonias from his garden that bloomed beautifully at my patio wall this past September. 

He left his special garden in Connecticut and moved to Georgia recently, where he started a brand new garden that promised to be as unusual and creative as the one he left. He had such plans for it.

But it was his writing that intrigued me most -- he could write about plants and design and the peculiar things that happen when you put things in the ground and tend them, in a way that really spoke to me.

He published books, but mostly I read Lee May through his gardening blog, and we struck up a back and forth commentary. Not just "nice pics", or "how lovely", but thoughtful, highly personal commentary and response on each other's blogs that was very rewarding to me.

I will miss reading and following Lee. I will miss seeing his new Georgia garden develop. 

But I will think of him when the begonias pop up along my patio wall, and whenever I have pruners in my hand I will hear his gentle encouragement. More. Limb that up. You can cut a few more branches off, look how graceful that trunk is if you open it up. 

And I will make the cuts, and he will be right.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Madcap Horse

This post is about viburnums. Madcap horses are involved, but you have to read to the end to see how.

Such a madcap!

The two viburnums that are framed in the windows of our house look very structural. Whenever I look at them I am struck by their symmetrical looking branches.

There is a blackhaw viburnum with stiff branches by the bathroom window, and a rangy young Dawn viburnum outside the dining room window. This is Viburnum prunifolium in fall, trained into a tree:

From the dining room window here is Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' in autumn. It was just planted in spring 2011. Not much of a looker, and not much of a bloomer yet either, but so far I like the ladder-like branches:

They look so stiffly structural because viburnums have opposite branches. Most large trees and shrubs have alternate branches. There are only a few kinds of trees that are opposite.

Seen up close, the blackhaw's branches are clearly opposite each other.

And the Dawn viburnum's branches, silhouetted against the sky, also show that ladderlike form.

Knowing this has been helpful when I have come across a tree or shrub with generic looking small leaves that I can't identify. The leaves look like every other woody plant, the shrubby form could be anything, but when I see branches lined up opposite each other I know it is typically a viburnum or shrub dogwood.

Other opposite-branched trees are easy to identify: maples, ashes and horse chestnuts. They have leaves I can usually distinguish. Viburnums, shrub dogwoods, elderberries and bush honeysuckles are the ones that look like everything else until you see the branch structure.

Pia Bobacka photo
There is a mnemonic to remember the very few types of woody plants with opposite branches:


Adoxaceae - viburnums and elderberries
CAPrifoliaceae - honeysuckles
HORSE Chestnut

That works for me. . . . . as long as I can remember what the "A" stands for, or the "Cap" for that matter.

Or why I am standing there looking at a shrub and completely at a loss for what goofy animal I am supposed to come up with.


(Well, this worked better when viburnums and elderberries and honeysuckles were all in the Caprifoliaceae family. You only had to remember what was in that one family, and it was just MADCAP Horse. Then they moved viburnums and elderberries to a new family, the Adoxaceae, but left honeysuckles in the Cap family . . . so the mnemonic had to be expanded, and it's kind of defeating the purpose of a memory trick. At my age, anyway.)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Putting up the Tree

In contrast to my struggles to hang Christmas wreaths outside, putting up the tree inside was so easy.

The temperatures rose to the mid 60s briefly today. The air was delightful, the sun was out for a bit and this was the day I should have picked to put up the outdoor decorations. A really nice day. Much of the icy snow melted.

But, perversely, I put the outdoor things up in the cold, and then used this warm day to decorate indoors.

Our tree is artificial and little and pre-lit. It took less than 5 minutes to haul it up from the basement and stand it on the rug. Done. Lit.

It took longer to find a bottle of wine, open it, find a Christmas CD, put it on, and then sit down to think about getting the ornaments out.

We heard from the solar panel company today, were instructed to flip the switches and did. Nada. The GFI light is lit, there is some kind of electrical leakage issue and the panels won't connect. A "guy will be out" to fix it.

Okay. The tree is up and lit, not with energy from the sun yet, but soon. The ceramic nativity scene is on display, and I found some sparkle covered railroad set trees and polar bear figures I forgot I had, and put them out in a little global warming scene.

All good.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Festive but Grumpy

This didn't go well today. I keep Christmas decorations outside very simple -- just wreaths on the windows and sometimes a very small lighted shrub or tree. I gave up wrestling with lights and anything elaborate years ago.

But this year even hanging wreaths went wrong.

Here, for a holiday treat, is a list of my complaints.

First, it was cold, only 32 degrees, and gloomy and not at all festive outdoors.

Second, the wreaths were too heavy. They are simple unadorned balsam wreaths, bought from the same nursery as every year, but somehow over engineered this time. I could not hang the one on the front door using the powerful thru-the-door magnets I have used every other time. It kept pulling the magnet hook off.

So I put up an indoor artificial wreath I had that looks skimpy but hangs on the magnet hook ok.

I put the balsam wreath on the garden arbor frame instead, where it is too heavy and will topple the frame when the wind kicks up. It actually took some maneuvering and was surprisingly awkward to get this hung, and my patience was wearing thin.

The window wreaths were too heavy this year too -- every year I use suction cup hooks on the glass and it works just fine. Not this year. I struggled, and froze my fingers but finally got them to stick after an hour of wrangling, window washing, rearranging and some major irritation.

Then the bows wouldn't go on any of the wreaths. The twist wires were too small to go around the wreath frames and it was a pain attaching them to random branches. Not a major catastrophe but at this point I was losing the will to decorate.

And fir needles make my hands itch.

It was all compounded by the snow, which is not pretty. It is a hard crusty snow that has bent some shrubs down, and smushed things. I can't release the bent branches from their icy traps. Walking on the slippery hardpack, back and forth to get twist wires and then scissors and then hooks and other things to hang the stupid decorations . .  well, interest was ebbing.

In other grumpy news, the utility company came in the middle of the snowstorm the day before Thanksgiving and finally installed the net meter. It's a lovely addition to the garden scene, isn't it? Ugh.

We've had solar panels on the roof since October 24 -- over a month now -- but they were not hooked up. We had to wait for the utility company to install the net meter, so that when we are producing more electricity than we use, it flows back to the utility company.

Now the meter is finally installed, and the only thing left to do is flip two switches on the inverter boxes to turn on the panels. But do we do that? Or does the solar company? Instructions? Any manuals?

It's a really simple thing -- just flip the switches. But we are reluctant to do that without some kind of instructions and it's Thanksgiving weekend, and we'll have to wait till next week to talk to the solar company for their advisement and next steps.

So I am grumpy right now, in this festive season. The wreaths are hung, but not without some torture, and the panels are up but not producing electricity, and snow has blanketed the yard but not without damaging some of the woody plants out there.

Bah. My hands itch.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

At the Gate

Gate A-4 
By Naomi Shihab Nye:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No Sleeping In

I tried to sleep in this morning. It's the day before Thanksgiving, the pies are ready, and the weather promised a day to stay inside.

But restless noises woke me. Restless polar bear noises, huffing and shuffling and pacing.

I can see why. He wants to get out.

Because . . .

. . . it is snowing. It is the day before Thanksgiving. It is snowing and it is accumulating.

Should I put the Christmas carols on? Too soon? Should I hang the wreath on the door?

Should I let the polar bear out? Will he come back in?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Regrets

After so much deep cold, we got a pleasant day today. It nudged up to 60 degrees and there was no wind. A lovely day to work outside.

I took down the grasses, which I really hated doing, but it was much better to do it now on a nice day, than later when it gets cold and windy again.

They looked so good -- fall is their season, so it is a shame to get rid of them now.

The miscanthus by the garage door still danced in the wind and floated about beautifully with every breeze. But it's gone now.

The Hakonechloa grasses draping over the walk still added softness and grace along the edge. But they are now cut back.

The tall, upright 'Northwind' panicums at the back of Meadow's Edge still made a bright foil to the startlingly red winterberries. But their tall forms are no longer there.

The grasses are one of the few things that add any interest to the bare, late fall garden. Jim made short work of them with the hedge trimmer. Really, it took ten minutes to remove all of them, and now it looks barren and uninteresting out there.

If we have a mild winter I will miss their structure and grace in the winter garden. They can look like this in early winter if the snow is not heavy:

But by midwinter, they end up looking like this, and it drives me crazier than the bare landscape does:

It has taken me years to realize I can cut down healthy plants if they are not working for the spot they are in. It has taken me many seasons to accept that I must cut back the grasses now, even though they are so lovely at the moment. I don't like losing them when they are at their best, but I'll have fewer regrets come winter if I sacrifice them now.