Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Loch Ness Monster

When I looked out the window on the first morning of spring I had to smile. The snow, still too deep to walk in, has been receding a bit, and it uncovered the tops of five 'Tide Hill' dwarf boxwoods planted in a diagonal line in the gravel garden.

It looked for all the world like the humps of a serpentine monster surfacing from below. It made me think of a loch creature with its head still in the water, but its backside rising above in undulating segments.

A snow surfing, snaky, meandrous thing in my garden, emerging from below a cold white sea.

Ha -- Welcome to spring.

The sun is bright, winter has now passed, but the sign tells me what I must do about spring chores in my garden and monsters in the snow.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


It's odd and discouraging to have deep snow on the ground as we approach the first day of spring. But doesn't the American holly tree out in the yard look fine?

The almost-spring sunlight is strong at this time of year but the snow looks like mid-winter, and that combination brilliantly highlights the holly. There's lots of light but lots of white.

Last week's blizzard brought a ton of late season snow, and it has stayed really cold. There have been lamentations about this, especially coming as it has in the middle of March, but the storm did bring one beautiful, exquisitely gorgeous day of skiing.

On Friday we had a bluebird day, all sparkling skies and soft snow and cold breezes that kept the texture of the snow on the slopes absolutely perfect. Not too deep, not too soft where the sun hit, not too scritchy scratchy where the shade lingered.

Just absolutely perfect.

I expended no physical effort -- my skis just floated along on their own while I did nothing. I am at the age where the surface of the ski slope has to be just right -- I can't handle powder or ice or slush or anything other than snow groomed to resemble the pile on my living room carpet.

And Friday's snow was exactly that. And the day was gorgeous. And I looked like a graceful pro on that perfect snow in those perfect conditions on that brilliant day.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Hazel Garden

I came across this article about Persian ironwood and found it interesting. I planted the cultivar the article talks about - Parrotia persica 'Vanessa' - in 2013. When I first came across this tree I found little information about it and I've never seen one growing anywhere.

I got mine at Broken Arrow nursery. It is a narrow version of the species tree, and my little one after just a few years does show how skinny it wants to be.

I planted it in the strip along the side of the driveway where there is a big purple mound of a ninebark, and a leafy, shaggy looking sweetgum. The midlevel green shrubbery is a lot of spreading 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumacs, and at the far left side past the ninebark and the sweetgum, there are two witch hazels side by side.

I like to name my garden areas, and since "driveway garden" has no charm, I'm going to start calling this strip the Hazel Garden, because Parrotia is in the same family as the two witch hazels, and with three plants of the same family, I have a theme going.

I had a dwarf winterhazel (Corylopsis) in this garden at one time too, and that's another plant in the hazel family. But that was moved when it got swamped by the spreading sumacs. Even the sweetgum (Liquidambar) was formerly classified in the Hamamelis hazel family, but at some point it was reclassified and is apparently unrelated. But still, this garden just wants to be known for its hazels, so it will be.

The article was interesting because it highlighted how variable Parrotia can be. Even in the few years this young one has been in my garden it puzzled me when one year there was no fall color, another year it was russety, another time yellow gold.

It is supposed to be a slow grower, but just like oak trees it seems to shoot up fast when young, then slow down. Mine is growing quickly so far.

Would Parrotia grow in the west if I wanted to try it out there? As its Persian description indicates, it comes from an area known for harsh conditions, but the article notes that its native range is actually a wetter, mountainous area of Iran with plenty of rain. It is apparently widely planted in the wet Pacific northwest and coastal California.

But it's also a very tough plant that grows at elevation, is not fussy about ph and needs good drainage. It likes dry springs and wants its moisture in the winter. So maybe it could do well in a tended courtyard at 7,000 feet?

Meanwhile, here in my east coast garden with very little care, Parrotia persica 'Vanessa' is growing tall and narrow in the newly christened Hazel Garden.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lone Hunter

I stood at the window and watched a lone coyote hunt in the meadow just beyond our yard. It looked very large in the stark snowy landscape, all dark fur and bushy tail against the whiteness.

(not my photo, I'm never quick enough with the camera)

I watched it catch a vole, and gulp it down. It didn't seem to be a satisfying enough breakfast, though, so the coyote continued to hunt and stalk and pace around the meadow for a good 20 minutes while I drank my coffee and watched and the snow swirled outside.

I thought coyotes hunted in packs, like wolves. One year there was a mother and two pups traveling through our yard, but otherwise I've only seen solitary hunters.

Pups waiting for their Mom in our back yard one year

Sometimes a snowy day is pretty from inside our house looking out. We have large windows on all sides and it's like being inside a snow globe, all dry and warm while white flakes drift down all around us. But this late season nor'easter with its blizzard conditions was a gloomy looking storm, not pretty at all.

It was so dark and the snow fell so thick all day. Our big windows magnified how gray and grim it all was, and instead of the wondrous feel of being inside a snow globe, it felt like we were submerged in a submarine at depth all day.

A mid-March snowstorm, just days away from the first day of spring, is supposed to be light and over quickly and easily meltable.

This abominable blizzard has been long lasting and intense and is dumping a ton of snow on us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Scent Trials

After a warm interlude at the end of February, March has turned bitterly cold and snowy. The awakening buds on the 'Dawn' viburnum outside the dining room window shriveled and froze.

But inside, I had pink open blooms. I cut branches of the Viburnum bodnantense and brought them inside to force. I'd never smelled the fragrance of 'Dawn' in flower before and was hoping they would open and have some scent, and they did.

The verdict? Ugh.

Not a pleasant scent, at least to me. The fragrance was too musky and very heavy. Maybe they smell great outside, but in the house they were disagreeable.

And the branches themselves were too big and stiff for a vase. The flowers fell apart easily, leaving bits of petals and brown litter all over the table. I emptied the vase and won't be cutting 'Dawn' viburnum branches for forcing again.

My experiment with forcing witch hazel branches was much better. At the end of February I brought some of those in the house and they were lovely. The slender branches looked subtle in a vase, and the scent was heady.

Witch hazel has what I can only describe as a "clear" fragrance. It's sweet but not cloying. It makes me think of burbling water, delicate chimes, sparkling dew. It's a crystalline fragrance, if that makes any sense. It's just very light and sweet and clear.

So the witch hazel branches were a success and I may cut more later this month to bring inside. But the viburnum trials were not a success and won't be repeated.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

New Jersey Tea / New Mexico Shrub

I have had trouble keeping New Jersey Tea Shrub growing in my garden. I've planted several and lost several.

It's Ceanothus americanus, a pretty white flowering plant that looks like a miniature lilac. The bees adore it. It's native to the Eastern US, from Maine down to Texas.

It flowers profusely, but the effect is subtle, not showy as much as just quietly elegant. The shape is low and rounded. I loved it when it grew well and looked good.

But I had serial problems with New Jersey Tea (at some point in Colonial history the leaves were used to make a tea substitute, hence the name).

My first problem was deer. Of the three little plants I put in at first, all but one was eaten to the ground right away.

The second problem was breakage. I planted a couple more plants and kept them protected from deer, but heavy winter snow broke off their brittle branches.

Once again I replanted (I got stubborn about this).

But despite being a native shrub that grows well in difficult conditions, they got outcompeted. They could not hold the space against some nearby dwarf deutzias in the same border that overtook the New Jersey Tea shrubs, and after a couple seasons the ceanothus just disappeared.

Recently, while reading up on plants that might do well in thin soils and dry conditions in the west, I found that Ceanothus americanus was recommended.

It likes rocky, sandy soils best. It grows wild in the the New Jersey pine barrens in depleted soils. It fixes nitrogen (meaning it is one of those plants that takes nitrogen from the air and converts it to nitrogen fertilizer in the soil that other plants can use.)

I've been trying to grow this plant in soil that is too rich, too damp and where it is crowded too near other things. It would do much better in sandy, dry, rocky soil in a spot by itself out in the open sunshine in a place like, oh, say . . . New Mexico.

But then we won't be able to call it New Jersey Tea shrub, will we.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pink Buds, Purple Blooms

February ended with unusual warmth, and March came in windy and chilly.

'Dawn' viburnum got all excited in the warm weather and started to open its pink buds, but may be stunted now with the cold. It's only 15 degrees out there this morning.

It's still an ungodly shaped viburnum, all twitchy and strange. I've complained about its form endlessly, here in my journal and to anyone who will listen. At least this year it is filled with buds ready to bloom.

I cut branches to bring in to force, but I got thick woody stubs with buds on them, and no slender, graceful twigs. The opposite branching typical of viburnums makes for awkward ladderlike structures that don't look good standing upright in a vase.

But I brought the stiff, thick branches in to smell the fragrance of this early bloomer. Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' is supposed to smell divine. I've never had the pleasure. Mine has bloomed a bit in prior years, but not with any fragrance I could detect. So we'll see if indoor temperatures bring out any elusive scent.

The end of February warmth also made the tiny vivid purple irises by the front door pop. They are mixed in wth the white snowdrops that have been blooming since the snow melted last week.

These are Iris reticulata, a mix of two or three different named varieties, each with a different purple hue, but all happy looking at the end of winter.

Some day I will figure out how to take a picture of snowdrops. I can't get those pretty things to do anything on camera. Even my new Nikon, just arrived from my homeowner's insurance claim, won't photograph snowdrops.

Think it's time to ditch the Christmas greens display in the front garden? The boughs are starting to brown.

Yeah, it's time for that to go.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Godsend

I've been given a reprieve. Apparently I did not do much garden cleanup last fall, distracted as I was by a big California wedding and discouraged as I was with how the drought had ravaged everything.

I just didn't get to it. It can all wait until spring.

But the garden gods looked down on me and decided to grant a concession. Look, they said, we'll give you a week of really unseasonable weather right in the middle of winter so you can attend to some of the clean up. Do it now, and it won't be so daunting in the wet chill of spring.

So they sprinkled 60 degree weather on us for days, devastating the ski areas here, but giving me the warmth needed to melt the snow in front of my potting shed where my tools are.

Go, they said. Get the pruners and your gloves and cut down those amsonias. Get the clematis vine off the porch rail, and haul the broken stalks of asters out of the garden. Pull up the annuals, that's just sad to see those lying on the cold ground now.

You can do a little weeding, they suggested. The ground is damp and soft, not frozen.

The garden gods sweetened the deal with a day that reached 70. We opened the windows.

I did as I was bid, and got out yesterday on the last day of February to cut and haul and snip and tote and clean things up quite a bit. There is still more to do, but having these days of tolerable, even nice, weather smack in the middle of winter was a godsend.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Another Chance

When the day comes that we ever move out west, and if I ever wind up with a small patio or courtyard that wants some plants, I will need to learn a whole new world of horticulture for a different climate.

I've been reading about what grows at 7,000 feet in alkaline soil in the southwest, and much of it is new to me. So I was pleased when I kept coming across recommendations for a small flowering tree that is widely planted there, and . . .

      . . . it was an old favorite that I have grown and that I loved.

Cercis canadensis reniformis 'Oklahoma'
(synonymous with texensis)

In 2005, the year after we moved here, I planted an 'Oklahoma' redbud tree. It was one of the first plants I put in. It was spectacular.

Although Cercis canadensis is an "eastern" redbud, the reniformis subspecies (now called texensis) grows in the west and is noticeably different. Why I wanted a western plant when I first started planting trees in New England, I don't know. There were plenty of commonly available eastern redbuds in nurseries here, but I sent away to Forestfarm to get this specific western variety.

It was probably the description that hooked me so.
Texensis (reniformis) is native to Oklahoma and Texas, is shrubbier, more compact than the straight species. It differs from the straight species by having  
(1) slightly more drought tolerance 
(2) darker and brighter wine red buds and flowers 
(3) glossier, thicker, broader and darker green leaves, more reniform (kidney-shaped) 
(4) leaves that are rounded or blunt (not pointed)  
(5) winter hardiness to USDA Zone 6 (species to Zone 4). 
‘Oklahoma’ is even more compact and broad-rounded than Cercis canadensis var. texensis, typically maturing to 12-18’ tall. Its flowers are darker (rosy magenta to wine red) and its leaves are a richer green with more gloss and wax. 
    --- Missouri Botanical Garden plant profile

Mine absolutely showed these characteristics -- shiny leaves, deep color in bloom, a fast growing, densely leafy tree. In flower it lit up the side of the house and made the bedroom glow. After blooming, the thick glossy green leaves shaded the window and made a home for birds that we could watch from inside.

My 'Oklahoma' redbud did so much better than any of the others I planted. I have poor experience with redbuds. I planted a 'Silver Cloud' variegated one that never survived its first winter.

A species redbud planted on the back hill disappeared from unknown causes years ago.

My first attempt at planting the purple leaved 'Forest Pansy' resulted in decapitation and death one winter. My second attempt at 'Forest Pansy' is still standing, but grows smaller each year with winterkill. It's never flowered much.

But oh, the western redbud at the side of the house -- what a beautiful tree it was. I never did get a good photo of it in leaf in summer. Mostly I was captivated by the intensity and profusion of flowers, and so my photos were all taken in early spring.

But it was such a pretty shape, and getting to be a good size. The best I can show you is this terribly out of focus shot, which is an awful picture, but it does at least give an idea of the form of this western redbud.

I wish I had taken better photos of it in all seasons. Because I lost it in 2011.

A freak heavy snowstorm in late October that year weighed down the big heart shaped leaves, which were all still on the tree at that time of year. The weight split the tree in two and it was gone. I miss it.

But who knows, I may have another chance to grow an 'Oklahoma' redbud, in another climate better suited to it. If I do ever get that second chance, it will be like having an old friend with me in a new place.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Warm Interlude

Yesterday was in the 60s, warmer than L.A. and a welcome treat in mid winter.

Snowdrops are blooming at the front of the house, so sweet. I wish I could show pictures of them. But this is a post with no photos because my camera was stolen and I can't figure out how to properly use Jim's.

A replacement camera is on its way, same make and model, courtesy of homeowner's insurance. Until then, imagine pretty white snowdrops and brown muddy mulch and warm sunshiny light.

I was tempted to do garden clean up in the nice weather, but my tools are in the potting bench on the north side of the house, and even 60 degree temperatures can't melt the snow in the deep shade on that side. The patio is covered, and where I shoveled out a bit of access it iced up and was treacherous.

Even so I managed to get at the pruners and did some artistic lopping of the rose at the front door. The woody canes needed some taming.

It felt good to be doing chores outside in the unexpectedly pleasant air.

Oh, and the 'Diane' witch hazel is flowering in this warm interlude. Blooms are copper, not red as it was advertised to be, and the flowers are oddly tinier than what I've seen for this cultivar elsewhere, but it's blooming and the fragrance is delicate and spicy. I'm just no longer sure this is actually 'Diane'.

No matter. I cut branches and brought them in the house and when I walk by at certain times I catch such a sweet, lovely scent. Very nice.