Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spring Skies

Since I have been back from Denver spring has popped out here, all emerald green grass and yellow daffodils.

But skies have been gloomy and gray, or it's been raining ever since my return. I can't get decent photos of the delicate epimedium flowers or the hot explosion of forsythias.

Spring is a hard season to appreciate. The cold and damp go on too long and the flowers and emerging foliage go by too fast. They are never in balance. Spring feels rushed and at the same time interminable.

I put the hummingbird feeder up before I left, in early April. This map of the migration status of ruby throated hummingbirds is probably too small to read well -- the green dots spread over the northeast mean hummers were first spotted in those locations between April 1 and 15.

So they are here, at least the early male scouts should be. I haven't seen any at the feeder yet, but they'll come. I've already changed the sugar water a couple times to keep it fresh.

Spring rushes by as flowers emerge and fade quickly while I wait forever for weather to clear and for hummingbirds to appear in the spring skies.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

House on a Slab

Every home I have lived in has had a basement. When we move to the west, we will be in a house built on a slab. That's how homes are constructed there. They don't have basements.

I was surprised at how a house on a slab lives so differently from one with a foundation. I just spent several days at my son's new place in Denver, and I was struck by how the house and the yard flow seamlessly, all at one level.

Here I have steps and landings and interim points to get to the outside.

From the kitchen I go through a door to the porch. Then another door and a step down to the outside deck landing. Then four steps down to the patio. Then the yard and gardens are beyond the walled patio.

It's lovely, but it makes my house feel disconnected from the outside. At my son's house you walk out the door to a stone step and you're in the yard.

Even the feeling from inside is different. At his house you look out the glass back door and the garden is right there. It feels like one space, in and out.

Here there is a fortress feeling. I'm up high, perched above the outdoor living areas.

Hiding the foundation is always something you have to think about with a basement, since the house sits above the ground level by quite a bit. It took me a lot of planting, some decorative brickwork, and even a low stone wall to effectively hide the concrete foundation and black waterproofing strip around our house.

As lovely as this planting is along the side of our house, it gives a feeling of walling off the home from the outside.

My other son's new house in California, built on a slab, has the same in-and-out flow to his back patio as the Denver house, all at one level. And when I spent several days at my nephew's in California last summer it was the same way, you just walk outside. No steps, no landings, no porch areas to go through to get outside.

It seems like a minor design difference, but when you live with the garden right at your door and when it is so easy to walk right out into it, it feels remarkably unified.

I'll like living in a home on a slab, level with the outdoors, where the garden is a cohesive part of the house itself, and not an element constructed below and away from it.

But wait, without a basement where am I going to store all my stuff?

Friday, April 14, 2017

What I'd Grow in the West

The area we are thinking of moving to is in northern New Mexico and it is not the cactus-sagebrush-desert scene everyone pictures. It is high altitude piƱon pine mountain scrub, with snowy winters. It's zone 5, very dry, with a rainy season in late summer.

Gardeners there irrigate. You don't have a garden without drip irrigation, although gardeners do carefully select plants that like the dry, and gardens are smaller, enclosed in courtyards. The bigger issue for plant selection is the intensity of the sun at 7,000 feet, and the thin alkaline soils.

I'll have fun learning about all the plants that gardeners grow there. But meanwhile, I am thinking of all the plants in my own garden here that I would miss. Would some of them do well out there? Which ones?

I have some favorites that I'd like to grow again if I have any room in a new place. These are the ones I'd want:

Sweetfern - Comptonia peregrina
Does well in harsh, dry conditions. Scented foliage.

Oklahoma redbud - Cercis reniformis
This is actually a western version of redbud that I grew successfully
until a freak storm toppled it. Loved it!

Orangebark - Stewartia monadelpha
I don't know how it would do in a mountain climate, but it does not like
wet conditions. I just love this tree and want to try it again.

St. Johnswort 'Blue Velvet'  - Hypericum 
A workhorse that I've come to appreciate.
Deep blue green leaves are cooling; yellow flowers are sunny.

'Gro-Low' Fragrant Sumac - Rhus aromatica
This groundcover sumac has gorgeous foliage, grows easily
in dry conditions, and would do well in the west.

Witch Hazel - Hamamelis hybrids
I was surprised to learn witch hazel does well in all ph ranges.
I'd love to try one for winter interest and fragrance there.

Persian Ironwood - Parrotia persica
Tough, ph adaptable, grows at elevation, might not be quite so dry tolerant.
Mine is "Vanessa', an upright form good for a small courtyard.

Bluebeard - Caryopteris
A shrub that likes dry conditions and lean soil.
It rivals Russian sage for late summer purple flowers.

New Jersey Tea - Ceanothus americanus
The native eastern version of ceanothus. It likes dry, infertile, sandy soils
and grows natively in pine barrens.

Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonica) is one I'd hate to live without. It is surprisingly tolerant of alkaline soil, but it isn't really a dry-lover. It wants water. With irrigation, though . . .  ?

Other plants I grow and love here that are high ph-tolerant are Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas) and Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra).

Dense green inkberry holly shrubs, yellow flowered Cornus mas, and the hop-like flowers
on the Hophornbeam tree. Some of my favorites that do well in high ph.

Plants I've grown here that I'd like out west also include Russian sage, of course, and any of the true sages -- salvias of different varieties. Clematis likes alkaline soils and there are several I'd like to grow there.

Agastache too, and the western honeysuckle Lonicera reticulata 'Kintzley's Ghost' would be nice to replicate on a trellis in a western courtyard. Maybe the pretty dwarf groundcover deutzias 'Nikko' would do okay there?

There are plants I have grown here that I wouldn't attempt or even want to in a new climate. They've been pretty but troublesome here. I'm sort of over these plants:
Japanese maples
And there are plants I love here, and would miss so much, but would not attempt out west. These really are better as eastern woodland plants, both aesthetically and in terms of climate suitability:
Stewartia pseudocamellia
Sourwood - Oxydendrum arboreum
Eastern Redbud - Cercis canadensis 
Beech, willow, birch, sweetgum, black gum 
Red maples, Sugar maples 
         But most of all, my sassafras grove.

These lists have made me really look critically at my garden and figure out what I like.

Even if we never make a move to a high mountain dry climate, this has been a fun exercise in plant evaluation.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chopping in my Chaps

Sunday and Monday were lovely days, good for getting things done. I put on my shiny blue rain boots and my garden chaps and set about chopping things.

1,000 denier textured nylon chaps: best item of clothing I own

First I chopped back the smokebush at the top of the driveway. But once I did that, I could see it needs more. If I want branching low and full, with lots of vertical upright shoots, I need to get the saw out and cut it where I've marked on the picture.

The way it is now, all the fullness will start up where the cluster of branch stubs are. I can fix this.

Then I got out the stepladder and starting chopping at the climbing hydrangea over the garage door. I trimmed it to follow a line across the pergola, and tried to get rid of the shoots going upward and back toward the window.

It really was a hatchet job, but I got it chopped back and I tied up what I could to encourage rightward growth. The vine is very brittle, so manipulating the long stems is tricky. It has beautiful peeling bark that I like seeing exposed close up as we come and go from the garage.

I guess I need to do some scraping and painting this spring. The pergola needs work.

Climbing hydrangea roots easily -- I should stick some of these newly budded cuttings in some soil and start new vines.

I also spent time cutting back things that were still standing in the garden, like the panicum grasses and perennial stalks and I even chopped at some of the multiflora rose in the meadow. My chaps kept my knees dry and my pants clean while I knelt in the mud getting things done.

I actually saw the head gardener at Chanticleer wearing these exact same garden chaps once, so I feel pretty professional wearing mine now.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dead Man Walking

My beautiful American holly, Ilex opaca, decorated with red berries, shiny with glossy green leaves and standing so elegantly . . . .

  . . . . .  is a dead man walking.

Do you see the problem? Can you determine why this tree's fate has been sealed?

The bark has separated from the trunk and fallen off, nearly all the way around. This is fatal. This tree still lives, but its death warrant has already been signed.

I've had this happen too many times before to hold out any hope that an injury this severe will heal itself. The tree will continue to carry on for a while and it will start to form a callus to seal the wound, but there is simply too little bark left. It will go into slow decline and in the end, it will die. 

It happened to my linden in the front yard, it happened to the first katsura I planted, it happened to other trees I have nurtured and lost. I'll lose this one too.

The holly's bark is thin, and this probably started with sunscald when February got so warm this winter, since it appears to be worse on the south side, and only the north side has even a tiny strip of bark left. Mild winters are the worst -- the sun is so warm on the trunk in the daytime, and woody plants break dormancy where the sun hits, but then night temperatures freeze the newly active tissues and kill them.

Normally the tree forms a scar around the dead area and recovers. This holly's damage is far too extensive for that.

I'm having trouble staying engaged with my garden and plants this year. We'll be moving at some point in the future, and I'm starting to divest emotionally. Losing this Ilex opaca, after all the other trees I have lost and just as it was finally becoming a beautiful form is one more catalyst in my uneasy parting. 

I simply can't any more.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Blog About Moving

Someday, perhaps this year, maybe much later, we will move.

It's a process.

I'm documenting it here:


A blog about finding a new home, leaving this one and moving.

Monday, April 3, 2017

California Gardens

Our end of March visit to California was spectacular. I was overwhelmed with plants and gardens -- first in the neighborhood where my son's current apartment is. It's a quiet residential spot (smack in the middle of L.A., if you can believe it) where the orange blossoms perfumed the air so thickly that it was intoxicating.

Then at the Getty, where the highly structured garden spills down a steep hill, with sprawling L.A. in the blue haze below.

Everything about the Getty garden is sculptural, complementing the beautiful museum buildings that tower over it and the stone terraces and balconies that surround it.

Plants are sheared into shapes, and colors are used like paints and forms are controlled.

It's all artificial and artistic and eye popping.

Then at the Huntington Library, where we never even got into the museum buildings to see the Gainesborough or Mary Cassatt or Edwin Church or Edward Hopper -- we only walked around the gardens, and at 120 acres, that pooped us out.

The desert garden was all oddities and weirdities and we felt like we were in an undersea world unknown to explorers but discovered by us.

Then we drove out to see the newlywed's home. They just closed a few days ago, and the house is empty yet, waiting for them to move their few pieces of apartment furniture in.

We spent a lovely afternoon in the new, empty place, watching the light change as it moved across the yard, and having snacks and champagne on the new patio.

I did some forensic garden analysis.

It appears that the terraced gardens had been let go. The years of drought, and the fact that the prior homeowner had gardened the space herself with no professional help, left evidence of neglect, weeds, and bare spots.

Prior to selling the house she added many brand new baby plants, and they still had the tags on them. They were zone 8 plants I need to learn about: loropetalum, pittosporum, dodonacea, and others. Some I recognized -- a lovely blooming swath of creeping phlox, all purple and flowering, and beautiful mounds of blue flowered ceanothus, California lilac.

There were four mature manzanita trees. A big eucalyptus hung over the fence. And there were so many others I did not know, and had no idea what to do with.

A family of crows lives in this garden, and came by to get acquainted, although they mostly complained about our presence.

Domingo stopped by. He was the former owner's gardener. He had stories to tell about the development of this garden, most of which we could not understand in his thick accent, but his knowledge seemed impressive and his dedication to this spot of garden seemed genuine, and I suspect my son and his wife are going to hire him -- no one in California does their own garden maintenance.

My son happily loped around the yard all afternoon and got the hose out and watered things, and asked me what the plants were and how to manage them and he fiddled with the automatic sprinkler system until Jim noticed he had it set for 6 hour watering schedules, and we drank champagne and sat at the top of the terraces and befriended the crows and debated whether Domingo said there had been problems with the foundation or with the fountain.

A lovely California day.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Ick . . . a Tick

A mild winter has meant the tick season will be a brutal one here in Connecticut. But I was not prepared for it this soon.

I was in the yard and on the back hill at the very end of March on a cold day, removing the mesh tree trunk wraps that keep deer from scraping the bark off saplings.

I had a parka on, and long sleeves and jeans tucked into boots. Yes, a parka -- it was cold out. It was March 30, for heaven's sake, a winter date here, even though the calendar has turned to spring. There is still snow the ground.

The next morning I found an embedded tick on me, filled with blood. I got it out with tweezers and I'll watch for any reaction. In 2008 I had a terrible bout with Lyme Disease with searing joint pain, a fever, and paralysis on one side of my face. It was truly awful, but I am cured.

I've been dealing with tick season each year and I know what to look for and how to avoid them, and what to do. But this was too early for my guard to be up.

A deer tick. Ick. Add another item to the list of "reasons I want to move out west".

And mud. Put mud on the list too.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What Early Spring Looks Like

This is what it looks like when March turns to April.

Snow lingers in piles. The lawn has been chopped up and left in clumps in the snow pile.

The wooden stakes used to guide the snowplow up the driveway have been snapped in two and lie in the snowbank as well.

There's mud.

But softly, with quiet promise, Cornus mas blooms and the grass greens up.

Cornus mas, or Corneliancherry dogwood, is not bright or flashy. It looks like an upright, paler version of a forsythia.

I have two small trees, of course I do, because like Noah I have two of everything in my garden.

One is at the edge of the torn up muddy driveway and one is out in the yard between a white bark paper birch and a dense green pine. The yellow is so subtle that it needs the green pine to show it off, so the more noticeable of the two dogwoods is the one farther away.

But both are a welcome sight right now as April slides into place.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Honey Badger Claws

Wait, they make these things?

I found waterproof gloves with hard plastic claws molded onto the tips of the fingers for digging in the soil, plucking out weeds by the roots, unearthing small buried obstacles, forming a small trench -- all the things that I do that quickly destroy the fingers of my Mud Gloves.

Honey Badger Garden Gloves

These are totally ingenious. The reviews on Amazon are very positive, although most say the gloves are too bulky for general garden use if you are picking up things or needing to manipulate anything.

But for the hands and knees work of scrabbling around in the soil, these answer my prayers.

I try to keep my trowel and hand claw and Cobrahead digger and other tools with me as I move from spot to spot weeding, but within minutes each item winds up too far away to reach. Then my gloved fingers become my "tools", as I root around to get a weed out or rake through gravel, or need to scoop out a hole in packed soil, or have to separate the tangled roots of a potbound plant.

I go through pairs and pairs of Mud Gloves, mostly because the fingertips wear away from all that clawing action in the dirt.

These Honey Badger Gloves come with plastic claws on the left side only, or the right side only, or both hands. They are expensive at $38. But I spend $7.99 for each pair of Mud Gloves, and I go through many pairs a season. I'd still need general-use garden gloves anyway in addition to these specialized claw gloves, so they seem expensive.

On the other hand, what price for efficiency and ingenuity? What cost is too high for the exquisite ease of moving about the garden when weeding without having to search for tools out of reach and rise to get them over and over as I move on my knees through the weed patch?

And besides, do they not look fiercely awesome? No pretty pink cotton gloves for potting petunias for me -- I want these red in tooth and claw, wolverine-like, feral looking weapon gloves on my hands.