Thursday, February 27, 2014

Winter's Grip

3 degrees this morning when I got up, and as usual this winter, the day warmed only to mid 20s.

It has been cold, the snow persists in big ugly banks and is spread deep across the yard. The back door to the deck still doesn't open.

Salt and gritty sand coat the driveway.

I missed any chance this winter to get out and cut branches for forcing.

The very few days when the ground was bare enough or the temps were in the 30s or 40s, I was busy with other things, and then we got snow covered and too cold again.

I did want to force branches. I really loved it when they graced the living room half-wall last year.

I have not yet seen the sugar pails on the maples along Duncaster Road. They usually appear the first week in March when nights are freezing and days are above freezing.

This is what it is supposed to look like on Duncaster on March 1.

Not this year, though. All next week it will continue to be in the single digits at night, and 32 or below in the daytime.

The sun sets noticeably later now, about quarter of 6 in the evening.

The sky gets pink in the east, as it usually does here. It's not a reflection from red sunsets in the west -- when I look out the west windows the sky is colorless.

But the other side of the sky is a gentle pink, sometimes magenta. For some reason it is the eastern horizon here that tells us the sun is setting.

March arrives on Saturday, and winter holds on.
  • Seed packets have arrived, to start indoors in March.
  • Catalog plant orders have been placed, to ship in late spring.
  • I never did order the sentry shed that I wanted so much.
  • And I didn't get to force any branches this winter. Maybe in March.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Mild today, in the mid to high 40s. The polar vortex returns next week, but today the air is still, and not terribly cold.

We went to the Connecticut Garden & Flower Show yesterday. At the Hort Society exhibit I saw a lovely witch hazel 'Diane' in bloom.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' blooms a deep brick red, offset nicely with evergreens in the background and a wine red painted fence. In open sunlight the color is clearer and brighter red, but in the terrible indoor lighting at the Convention Center it was darker and rustier.

But so lovely.

Of course they force all the plants on exhibit at winter shows like this, but seeing it made me want to check out my witch hazels, which should be blooming now, in late winter on a warmish day.

So I went outside, excited to see and perhaps smell the blooms on my witch hazel 'Diane'.

I was immediately daunted by the giant snowbank piled up in front of both the witch hazels -- 'Diane' and a spring blooming Hamamelis vernalis next to it. The wall of snow was high and I couldn't get past it to go look at the tiny flowers.

And where were they anyway? The brown leaves are still hanging on to both of these witch hazels, obscuring any blooms. It's ugly.

The only way I could get close enough to see any flowers was to stand on the driveway and use the zoom on the camera lens. Yep, there are flowers, kind of. Buds, at least.

So I gave up on the witch hazels and decided to start the project I mentioned of sanding and painting the rusted black trough planters. I brought them inside, put them on a tarp in the basement and was immediately daunted by the task of dumping out soil and cleaning them.

Without a hose or faucet there is no way to wash them out. The compost pile isn't reachable, so the soil will have to sit on the tarp. I went out to the back porch to see if I could find empty containers to repot what is in the planters now, but the pots are stacked on the patio by the potting bench, under snow.

I was daunted even getting out the back door. It won't open, there is too much snow on the deck.

So that project will have to wait til spring, like everything else.

I ended up on the couch looking at Pinterest pictures.

There are so many pins of witch hazel 'Diane' in people's gardens, looking gloriously coppery red, and blooming without any persistent brown foliage hiding everything . . .  sigh.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Trailing Nasturtiums

The giant threatening icicles hanging from the eaves have melted finally. It was 38 degrees today, overcast and spitting drizzle, but warm enough to melt some of the ice.

This year I am going to try two kinds of trailing nasturtiums on the twig towers that flank one entrance to the gravel garden.

I liked 'Gleam' orange nasturtiums in 2012. I did not have them climb the twig towers, I actually had some nice blue plumbagos there, but 'Gleam' nasturtiums were planted nearby and some of the trailing vines rose up into the inkberry hollies and onto the tower supports.

Last year I tried 'Variegated Queen' nasturtiums climbing the towers, rather than the plumbago, but the effect wasn't what I wanted. They were supposed to trail to 6 feet, but grew so slowly, got bushy and did not bloom until very late in the season, in September and October.

The leaves of 'Variegated Queen' were very large and splashed with cream. I think these are grown more for the foliage. I liked the shy, smaller leaves of the orange 'Gleam' and I liked its trailing habit better.
             'Gleam' in 2012 -- smaller leaves                              'Variegated Queen' in 2013 -- larger, mottled leaves

So this spring I got nasturtium seeds from Summerhill Seeds for a yellow 'Gleam' variety to grow on the twig pyramids. I am hoping it is as flowery and nice as the orange one, with small leaves and vining habit. It vines to 15 feet. I'll plant some under the inkberry hollies, let them climb through, and then onto the twig towers.

And . . . how cool is this . . .  I am going to combine the yellow nasturtiums with a blue one on each tower. I have never seen a blue nasturtium. It looks deep blue, almost purple in the seed catalog. It vines to 7 feet. We'll see how this does. It intrigued me.

What I would really love to see some day are the trailing nasturtiums at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I want to see the fabulous art collection, but I'd also like to see the over the top nasturtiums in the museum courtyard.  Makes my 5 foot high twig towers look a little puny.

Really, nasturtiums in any setting should be orange!
What am I thinking with blue ones?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Mob of Robins

It has been cold, and we are still buried under feet of snow. Yesterday was windy and loose snow was blowing about in 25 degree gusts.

The bobcat was seen at dinnertime, moving away on the east side of the house, down toward the pond. Seemed to be in a hurry.

For the past several days robins have been mobbing the aronia shrubs. There are dozens, but the camera, shooting through the bedroom window, captured only a few of the frenzied hungry birds.

The robins are heavy and they weigh the bendy branches down. In the white and brown world out there, their red tummies flash as they bounce up and down on the bobbing branches.

They are after the aronia berries. No animal or bird will touch aronia fruits until everything else is gone. They are apparently not tasty at all. But in the depth of winter they either have sweetened in the freezing weather or the birds are starving and not so fussy.

They are such pretty berries, but not on the top of anyone's winter menu. Until now.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Order

It's snowing again today.  Coming down hard. Pretty, but so tiresome at this point.

Here is my order for the North Central Conservation District plant and seedling sale. I pick up the plants on April 11th at Auer Farm.

Broadleaved mountain mint -- Pycnanthemum muticum. 
That was already on my list as I mentioned yesterday. I'll put it behind the witch hazels.

from a commenter at Garden Web -- Link here
Dwarf Joe Pye Weed 'Phantom' -- Eupatorium dubium.
Although it is advertised to about 3 feet tall, it can get pretty big, so chop it by half in June for control (like that ever worked with the tall sedums that flop, but do it anyway.)

A meadowy plant. It is supposed to be dwarf but a thread at Garden Web says it gets to 4 or 5 feet in moist soil. One commenter said it was a tidy 2 foot plant the first year, 5 feet tall the second.

I'll put it in Meadow's Edge at the back.

Coreopsis 'Sweet Marmalade' --  Coreopsis verticillata.
I have had a lot of trouble with coreopsis cultivars in the past. Only the big tall weedy yellow species plant grows for me. But we'll try this and see how it goes.

(After I ordered it I found this exhaustive coreopsis trial from Mt. Cuba Center. 'Sweet Marmalade' in their trials ranks poorly, with overwintering problems and mildew and floppiness. Eeesh.)

Orange (or sort of terra cotta) flowers on a foot tall plant. I'll put this with the asters in the gravel garden, or maybe in a pot to see how it does, since the Mt. Cuba data is so iffy. I may have simply repeated my issues with coreopsis, as in "I can't grow those".

Vinca -- a bundle of 50 bareroot stems to get a ground cover started under the dappled willows.

The willows are so big now that Jim can't mow under them and the area looks unkempt in summer. I'll dig the grass out this spring and make an island area for the three willows so he won't need to mow between or under them.

I debated all winter what to put under them rather than bare mulch. I have always liked vinca, and even grew it in a pot for its sweet blue flowers for a while.

It's a spreader and can overtake a garden, but this area will be mowed around on all sides, and I do want something to spread under this difficult area. It's glossy and pretty and for $25 I can get a good area covered.

I also ordered 5 bareroot red oak seedlings ($8 total) to put in the meadow, just because. And some compost in bags.

No container trees or shrubs this year, although they had some great choices. I should call them to see if they still have any more Carpinus caroliniana -- ironwood trees.

Friday, February 14, 2014


We got hammered on Thursday and snow has buried every detail of my garden. Huge mountains plowed up by the truck greet us at the top of the driveway. More snow is coming Saturday.

So it continues to be catalog gardening and spring planning in my comfy chair indoors. That's all I can do.

The flyer arrived from North Central Conservation Distrcit today. They are a state non-profit organization that promotes ecology education, native landscaping, ag services, wetland reviews, etc.

I had a great experience ordering plants from them last year. I got nice sized carpinus caroliniana trees, and six blueberries and gray dogwoods, and so much more.

This year I had hoped to add to the mini-grove of carpinus (ironwood) trees, but they are not offered.

But the one plant I do see that I'd like to order is Pycnanthemum muticum. That has been on my list of wants, and they offer it, so it's a deal.

They deliver the plants for pick up at Auer Farm in town, as easy for me as possible. The NCCD volunteers were wonderful last year when I went to pick up plants, and the plants were big and healthy. A great experience all around.

Pycnanthemum muticum is mountain mint. I saw lovely big stands of it in James Golden's garden at Federal Twist. It is silvery and light and fills the space. The flowers are tiny and white, and the foliage is interesting.
mountain mint in James Golden's garden at Federal Twist

from North Creek Nursery

I want to put it at the back of the Drive By garden in the empty spot where I had zinnias last year.

There aren't too many other plants offered this year by NCCD that I want. I already have comptonia and redbud and eastern red cedars and bayberry and many other native plants they are selling.

But I might get some bareroot red oak seedlings and put them in the meadow. And they offer compost in bags, I might get some. And some blazing stars and early blooming rudbeckias and a dwarf Joe Pye Weed and a coreopsis that looked different and . . . .

My order is growing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rusted Planters

Another huge snowstorm is on its way. Tomorrow it will snow all day, and we are expecting 8 inches or more.  It is still only getting into the 20s in the daytime.

One thing I noticed that needs attention this winter is some rust. Quite a bit, actually.

The two black planter stands are in pretty bad shape. They were probably not meant to be outside, and they certainly were not meant to hold dirt. I had to drill holes in the metal to allow drainage.

There are two of these planters and I always liked the shape of them and the elevated height. I had them in various locations, and used an orange rectangular plastic liner to plant annuals in. The liner drained, but without holes in the planter itself, there was too much standing water in the metal trough.

So I drilled holes at the bottom edge of the metal sides, put potting soil directly into the trough and planted them up. Probably not a good idea. Obviously not a good idea. They rusted.

The troughs simply sit on the stands, so one option is to get rid of them and just use the stands to put smaller flowerpots on.

Or should I sand the metal down this winter, paint them with black rustoleum and get some more years of use out of them?

Sanding and painting sounds like a good project for a winter's day. I'll first need to dump out the plants and soil that are in there now, and since the potting bench and compost pile are completely snowed in, that will have to take place in the basement. A mess, for sure. But why not.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Another Indigo Dilemma

Still cold, a little snow last night, more snow coming later this week. For days it has not gotten out of the 20s during the daytime.

Dilemma #1
I mused earlier this winter about the pink dwarf weigela not playing nicely with the false indigo
'Twilite Prairiebues' near it.

When the smoky purple baptisia blooms it is an odd color combination. I've been thinking this winter I ought to move the weigela in spring. (Baptisias do not move, being tap rooted and fixed in place. And big.)

Now I'm back with exactly the same dilemma but this time it's the false indigo in the Birch Garden.

The white flowered baptisia alba pendula is a striking plant, strongly vase shaped and covered in white flowers. The branches arch and the flowers are frilly, and it is overall a much more attractive plant than 'Twilite Prairieblues'.

But here is dilemma #2 -- it blooms at the same time as the equally pretty and frilly 'Husker's Red' penstemons below it. The combination of small white flower spikes, one in clear white and the other in pinkish mauve-white seems odd.
Dilemma #2

It is compounded by the fact that the delicate white spikes of itea, just behind the baptisia, are starting to bloom too, and they mimic the arching form, the white delicacy, and the overall smallness of the penstemons and the baptisia, but in a completely different shade of creamy white.

It's all too much.

Too much sameness, too much of the same color but off.

I think I want to move the penstemons. They dig up and transplant easily. I could put something with more saturated color and bolder form at the foot of the baptisia.

Where to move the penstemons? Last year I tried a different penstemon, 'Elfin Pink', at the back of the Drive By garden and it was awful. I thought their wild hot pink would go nicely with the dark foliage of the ninebark and the moody dark foliage of the rosa glauca.

But it was too much eye-hurting pink. I took them all out.
No, no, no. This was bad.

But the 'Husker's Red' penstemons are much more refined, have a cooler white hue mixed with complex dark tones and dark foliage--- wouldn't they look nice with the maroon ninebark (the rosa glauca has been moved).

I think that's what I'll do in spring.

I'll move the penstemons to the back side of the Drive By garden, and put something bolder and brighter below the baptisia in the Birch Garden (more of the deep purple 'May Night' salvias? Another pop of bright red 'Drift' rose?)

Then the white arching false indigo in the Birch Garden can have pride of place.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Winter Disinterest

We got a big storm yesterday and I spent the day indoors watching it snow. In this house, with all our big windows, it feels like being inside a snow globe. It's still cold, in the 20s. Today, after the storm, the sun is back out and Gail and I skied at Sundown.

The next time I read an article about leaving grasses standing for winter interest I am going to  . . .

. . . I don't actually know what I'm going to do.

I guess I'm going to disagree. The tall upright panicums (Northwind) are not upright or tall. They get weighed down by snow in the beginning of winter and look like sodden lumps until I cut them down in spring. I am going to cut them in fall next year.

The big miscanthus by the garage door doesn't just fall over in a heap, it splays out and shatters into wayward fronds that then blow all over the yard. I am also going to cut it down as well next fall, before winter snows arrive.

The smaller Japanese forest grasses (hakonechloa) look okay, they remain snow covered mounds and their light grassy foliage stays okay. But the big grasses have to go. I hate the sheared stubble look in fall before it snows, but it will be much better in the middle of winter.

On a happy note, I put the heart stone back into the wall after it fell out New Year's Eve, and it is still there. I wedged it in, tilted back a little more this time.

This shot was from earlier in the week -- yesterday's foot of snow obliterated everything and the wall and the heart are behind a giant mound of pushed up snow from the driveway. But I know it's there.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chainsaws and Chippers

The cottonwood dominated the scene
It snowed all day yesterday and another major snowstorm is expected tomorrow, but the day in between is sunny and bright and cold today.

Bartlett came today to take down the cottonwood on the back hill.

It had grown way too tall. Last summer it was really starting to loom over everything.

It leaned, and within a few years it would drop branches all over and threaten to topple into the yard.

They took it down with a chainsaw, cutting it off at the base, and then carted the fallen wood away by hand to a chipper in the driveway.

For years, when it was still small, I could have lopped that sapling off myself, but I didn't, and now I am paying an expensive fee to have it taken down*.

It was a complicated affair, with a rope tied to the top, careful positioning to make it fall where it would not crush my shrubs or trees, and then of course a heavy duty chipper was needed to dispose of it.

The cottonwood came down easily, although its branches did brush my persimmon nearby as it fell. But only a little, and the persimmon was unharmed.

As the cottonwood was felled, I noticed even more that there are leaning trunks of red maples at the top of the ridge that were semi-toppled in the 2011 storm. They need to come down too, probably. Those are actually at the edge of the road up there, and on town property.

The chipper made short work of the whole tree, chunks of trunk and all.

They took the stump right down to the ground.

I need to clean the bittersweet and multiflora roses out of that area, then I think I'll plant a sapling or two to fill in the open space in the line of trees on the hill.  Cut a tree down, plant a tree . . .

* by all rights, the Common should have paid to take this tree down. It is on common land, and the association is responsible for maintaining all the common areas. But they don't. So I maintain it on my own, planting new trees, removing invasives, trying to create a healthy forest in what had been a disturbed open area left by the builder.

I did ask permission from the board to take the cottonwood down, and they agreed. But I am paying. At least that way I could get Bartlett, rather than having to go through a bidding process and wind up with someone unknown, and I could do it on my terms, with access through my yard. So.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day

There has been a surprising lull in the bitter cold, and groundhog day has been warm.

It was 51 degrees, and very still, nice enough to put on my garden chaps and go outside to clean up fallen plant stalks.

I left almost everything standing this fall instead of cutting back perennials, and I am not happy.

Seedheads on the black eyed susans and some other sturdy stalks are still standing and were great for the birds. They still look nice. But asters and amsonias and the grasses and other perennials have simply laid down in the mud and created puddles where snow collects around the mashed down stalks.

The grasses self destruct in winter wind, so I have light tan fronds of dry grasses blowing all over the place, collecting at the foot of shrubs and burying some things. This is not good.

So today I got the fragrant asters cut back and the amsonias by the back corner. The St. Johnswort had to go. I tried using the hedge trimmer, but that only worked on slender astilbe stems, I had to cut the tough fibrous stalks of the other plants by hand.

I didn't get much done when it started to spit rain. But it felt good to be out there for just half an hour, attending to things, even if only a few plants were tidied up and there is so much more to do.

It will all wait for spring. The groundhog and the weather forecast both predict a lot more winter to come.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who Am I Kidding?

I want to grow vegetables this year.

There is no open sunny spot big enough for a true vegetable garden, but I could add some edibles mixed into the existing borders, or in pots.

The best spot is the Blueberry Garden, which is in open sun, and the small trees there are not big enough yet to shade things. Nothing is very big, so there is room to stuff some vegetables in.

Or near the patio, around the birdbath. And containers work for many things.

The things I might like to grow:

In the 26 inch bowl
Lettuces in spring, which I have done before.
Then replace them with fast growing radishes after the lettuce is done, and add the usual herbs.

Around the birdbath, or in the Blueberry border 
Basil, which I have grown in pots before, but I would put several in the ground this year and give them plenty of room to spread out. You need a lot for pesto.

Could I fit in green beans or wax beans? And how I would love some early peas. Would there be enough room?

In containers spread around the gravel garden
Fingerling potatoes

I'd like to try tomatillos, but they get ungainly like tomatoes and they need tall cages. And I don't know if one or two plants would give me enough to experiment with recipes. But I might try. I have the cages from my ill-fated experiment protecting sunflower seedlings a couple years ago.

For Christmas Tom gave us Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Wow.

It is a detailed resource for growing absolutely every kind of vegetable, with inventive recipes and pictures of how to cook them. Gorgeous book, it has inspired me to try growing some food.

Who am I kidding, though? 

This winter I have dreamed and pored over this book endlessly, but the reality is I could only grow vegetables with an enormous fence sunk into the ground a foot, and at least 9 feet high. Or tightly enclosed cages around each plant. The deer and chipmunks and rabbits would quickly and easily overtake any food crops I planted, however artfully placed in the borders or nicely potted up.

I did well with the blueberries and strawberries last year. My bowl on the deck was nice for lettuce and herbs. Maybe a pot of carrots and one of potatoes could be protected enough? Would that satisfy this lust for vegetables in my garden?