Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hacked Hollies

Cold, in the 40s, overcast. I worked outside in a parka and was never warm despite a lot of physical activity.

I have found ticks in the bathroom each of the past several days when I come in from outside and undress. I'm now spraying myself with DEET when I go out, and checking every body part when I come in (at my age that takes a certain brand of courage.)

Last night, despite my precautions, a little bugger of a tick was crawling across my computer screen! This was after I had showered and checked, and made sure I was tick free. There it was, definitely a tick making its way across the lighted screen. Eerrrrgh.

The spruce berm has always been tick-laden, with the dense foliage of both the spruces and the blue hollies (Ilex meserveae China Girl).

That's where I had spent the day, hacking away at the hollies and, distressingly, picking up ticks.

At first I tried to prune the burned leaves off the poor hollies. Then I decided to take them out, and Jim helped me saw them to the ground -- all of them, gone now, and the berm is much improved.

I have never seen winterburn as bad as it was on the blue hollies this spring.

Usually they come through winter just fine. This year the leftmost, which is the largest and gets the most sun, was dried crispy brown all over, head to toe.

I tried to prune off the dead leaves, but in the end it was the whole shrub that was desiccated, right into the interior, and my pruning turned into a total hatchet job. I just whacked away, and not much was left.

From the backside you can see how much was trimmed out. It looks kind of architectural, but not what a holly should be.

The kicker is that last summer and fall was the first year these hollies looked so good. Full of berries. Dark and glossy and dense. I had shaped them into stiff pyramids, which I liked.

Was my shaping to blame? Did shearing them last summer encourage new growth that wasn't hardy?

My hatcheted hollies were alive and would fill back in -- they are pretty forgiving and the bare stems are alive. But I decided it was time for them to go.

In 2005 they were so little and it was impossible to imagine them ever crowding the spruces.

But in 9 years those cute little holly pyramids grew, and the spruces did too and the hollies ended up impinging on the bottom of each spruce. I don't need them to fill the gaps any more, and the gaps between the spruces are quickly closing.

Between crowding from the hollies and too much shade from the river birch, I am losing lower branches on several of the spruces.

Those dead spruce branches need to be trimmed off. They will not regrow even if I clear out the hollies or remove the shade from the river birch. So the spruces, as they get even larger, will be skimpy and bare at the bottom. Ugh.

Really, the river birch in front should go too. It wants to be much branchier and much bigger and it is shading the rightmost spruce way too much. The river birch should be removed, but I'm not quite ready for that. Yet.

But the hollies I was ready to sacrifice.

Here are two shots of the berm, one in fall and one in winter of last year, which help me see how the hollies were affecting the bottoms of the spruces, and how visually their dense little forms kept the berm from looking more naturalistic. It was time to hack them down completely.

I liked the layers of tall trees, dense spruces, and punctuations of holly bushes for a while. For 9 years, actually. But now, with them gone, I like the more natural open look.

When the weather improves and the sun is out, I will get a picture of the berm without the holly shrubs, and prove that hacking them down was the right move.

Monday, April 28, 2014


After the harsh wind earlier this week we got some rain in the past two days; over an inch in total. It was still cold over the weekend, in the mid 50s, and the trees and shrubs aren't ready to leaf out yet, but things just look fresher.

Here's something that has never happened before. I got all the hoses up from the basement and hooked them up on Sunday.

And . . . . .  not a one leaked.

Not one is dribbling anywhere, and I tested them all. Including my hacked system to get water from the spigot at the front of the house to the back by the deck, using extra hose lengths and Lee Valley extender units.

This has never ever happened before. Hooking up hoses each spring is a frustrating, leaky, water-spouting job and I've written about it bitterly in past years. I've paid fortunes for hoses and reels and nozzles and connectors and systems and washers by the dozens each year, and they all fail to varying degrees at some juncture point.

They are never tight enough and always leak. But this year, without tools, without drama or fanfare, they were simply attached, turned on, and tested. Presto!

This is completely unheard of.  

The star magnolia (M. stellata 'Royal Star') has been blooming its little heart out for over a week now. It just keeps going, despite being frost burned last week. It's not the prettiest look with the browned blooms hanging on, but I admire its spirit blooming away like a champ!

I bought some 'Fort Hill' creeping phlox (P. subulata) and put them along the top of the wall by the driveway. They will spread out and drape over the wall.

At least I hope so. I never had any luck with two little plants of 'Drummond Pink' creeping phlox, which never spread and then didn't come back one spring. (I think they got too shaded by other plants in the summer.) These new 'Fort Hill' phlox are in an ideal open sunny spot, with a wall to drape over, so I'm hoping they do well.

I made some progress on my to-do list this chilly March-like weekend:

I divided and spread the blue iris reticulatas all through the kinnikinnik, mixing them, hopefully, with the other deeper purple ones. You're supposed to wait until early fall to divide and replant these little bulbs, but I can't find them after the foliage is gone. So it got done in spring. I hope they'll forgive me.

I also spent some time trying to trim some of the dead stuff in the kinnikinnik and fill holes, which was tedious and kind of hard to do. And messy.

I moved the Husker's Red penstemons to the patio wall. They are so shallow rooted and easy to move, it took all of a few minutes. Penstemons are like furniture, you just put them where you want. If I don't like them there, I'll move them somewhere else.

Here's why they were moved: their frilly pinky white blooms were too much with the frothy white baptisa alba and creamy white spikes of itea virginica. Too many small flowered plants blooming together in early June in slightly different shades of white.

Instead, I'll use more of the deep purple contrast of 'May Night' salvia and a rounded St. Johnswort under the arching baptisia. The pretty pink stands of penstemon on their dark stems will look good close up at the patio wall. At least I think so.

I did more clean up, broke up the matted mulch sheets in the Drive By garden, and now I see I need to start weeding everywhere as well. And, in an unprecedented development, I got all the hoses hooked up with no problems.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Inch By Inch

The project to remove the sod under the three dappled willows on the east side was slow going.

This was not an exciting new garden in the making. It was simply clearing out the sod and planting a groundcover so Jim doesn't have to mow right under the willows.

It was getting impossible for him to get the mower or even the weed whacker under there.
This was in 2011.  Already, keeping the grass cut below the willows was not happening.
By 2013 the willows were bigger -- impossible to mow under.

The answer .... remove the sod and plant a groundcover. Simple.

Yikes! It was a long project, and was accomplished digging up sod inch by inch.

The extensive roots of the willows made cutting with the edger and scooping up flat squares of sod impossible. A rented sod cutter would not have been able to cut through those roots at all.

So the entire project was done by clawing out grass, wiggling the Cobrahead tool just so, and then teasing up each clump, one tiny inch at a time, separating it from every willow root, and sometimes following a grass runner to its source. Tedious.

Day one of the project
April 9 - cold and windy but sunny. This is what a little over 2 hours before lunch produced -- a circle of sod removed under one willow. Hard work, 10 buckets of mud clumps taken away. A few hours of zen.

Day two of the project
April 10 - cold (mid 50s) and windy again and cloudless. This is what 2 hours by myself before lunch and 2 hours in the afternoon with Jim accomplished. 14 buckets of mud clumps taken out in the morning, and then when Jim came out to help we used the John Deere trailer to haul away clods.

My right forearm hurts from using the Cobrahead claw. The roots of the willows are so impossible to maneuver through.

The two willows on the left are now connected by the future bed, but I need to shape the area to not be so curvy. I don't want wiggly squiggly. In fact crescent shaped would be good, but I'm not sure I can get to that.

Day three of the project
April 12 - warm and pleasant and mostly still. A little warm to work outside, even.  Still hard going, ripping up small clods at a time.

Jim and I both worked for a couple hours in the morning and after lunch, and we got the basic area cut out.

Day four of the project
April 13 - warm and breezy, 70 degrees. I finished up shaping the curves and evening them out, and expanding some edges just a bit. Small work, but still inch by inch work, and it took all afternoon. The bed is probably still too small and will need the edges expanded in future years. I am sore and tired, but the hard job is done. Those roots!

Day five of the project
April 18 - cold, not even 50 degrees. We got 4 yards of soil + compost delivered, and spent the day spreading 2 cubic yards of it under the willows. It didn't really raise the level of the soil, just covered up the exposed roots and what had been dug out.

Despite my efforts at creating rounded curves, I have a squiggly wiggly shape to this whole area. Oh well. It's neat, it will keep Jim from having to get in under the willows in summer to mow, and it is what it is.

Day six -- done.
April 22 - This project took 6 full days. It's not a new garden, just an area that needed fixing so it didn't have to be mowed in summer. Six days of hard work.

I planted 50 bareroot vinca bundles, which will eventually spread out and cover the area under the willows with glossy evergreen leaves.

I got the vinca at the Northwest Conservation District sale, and for $25 I got 50 really big bundles -- there were 5 or 10 individual stems in each bundle. That's 250 to 500 separate plants!

But here's what I did wrong: I should have simply unpacked them and put them in water until ready for planting, but I tried to separate the tangled stems and then pot each one up in holding trays of potting soil.

That turned out to be a huge project (250 to 500 stems!) and although I kept the potting soil very wet, there was a lot of desiccation.

I should have planted the entire bundles and let them spread out from the 50 plugs. Instead, I spent a whole day potting up individual stems and half of them look like they won't make it.

But vinca minor is very tough. Even if only half the stems survive planting, I'll have a patch of periwinkle soon. They'll spread out.

So. It's done and now we just need to wait for the groundcover to spread out.
June 1, 2013.  Love these dappled willows (Salix integra Hakuro-Nishiki)
Picture them this year with glossy dark green periwinkle under them.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sunny but Windy

Windy day. Empty containers waiting to be planted were blown about, and patio furniture overturned.

And it was a chilly wind, with harsh gusts. Whew.

But I got some items done on the checklist (moved the white pine in the meadow, divided astilbes, moved the My Monet weigela, etc.)  Fairly easy things to do, but there are a lot of them on the list!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bright and Colorful

Humid and warm today, up to 70, and then a gentle rain started this evening.

For Earth Day today, the 'Lynwood' forsythias out by the road finally burst into full bloom.

And here is the result of planting 200 daffodils last fall -- a bright circle on the hillside around the Norway spruce!

In a few years the hillside will be covered much more, but it is clear I need another 200 daffodils, probably more, and I need to spread them out to the left and right sides of the hill.

Although it looks skimpy when viewed full on, the little pops of yellow daffodils are wonderful when seen from the house, through the plantings in the yard, just hinting at a little color beyond.

I continue to struggle with the dwarf 'Golden Peep' forsythias on the east side of the house. I took them all out, except for this one. They all had dieback in the centers. This one looked better for a few years, but now it too has a dead zone in the middle.

It doesn't look so bad photographed lengthwise along the house, which hides the barren patch. And the awkward "Dawn' viburnum looks okay from this angle too, although looked at from the front its shape is ridiculous and the blooms got a little freeze-zapped.

The Dawn viburnum needs to mature, and I hope as it does, there will be fragrance. So far, nada. Like the scentless sweetbay magnolia, it has no smell. Yet.

I do like the way this strip along the side of the house is so bright and colorful --- the pretty pink viburnum blooming, a dark green boxwood to break it up, then the hot yellow dwarf forsythia beyond, and finally the deep red stems of redtwig dogwood.

I'd like you to think I planned all that.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Easter Sunday was brightly sunny and still, with temperatures in the low 60s. Very nice.

The corneliancherry (Cornus mas) trees are blooming, but like everything else this cold spring, the sub-freezing nights have taken a toll and the yellow flowers are a little browned and reluctant to open fully.

Seen from afar they look okay, but the bright haze of yellow is a little sparse. Cornus mas does not flower as vibrantly as forsythia, but their delicate flowering should not be quite so skimpy.

Nevertheless, I am happy to see the two corneliancherries in my garden in bloom.

Both are young. The one in back by the pines was planted in spring 2011 -- a 15 gallon container plant.

I debated about removing the angled stem but I think I'll leave it for another year to see if it starts to form a graceful multi-stemmed shape. If it just looks awkward I can still cut it off. It's harder, though, to put lopped branches back on.

The other corneliancherry was planted in 2010. It was a foot high bundle of just a few twigs when planted, then promptly got decapitated in the winter of 2011. Snow broke the leader, leaving the pencil thin twig just dangling.

I taped it back together, clipped it with a bag holder clip and hoped it would recover.

Look at it now. Despite its drastic setback, it is the same size now as the 15 gallon one that I planted a year later, and blooming nicely.

It has an odd v shaped crotch. I'm not sure if that is from the bandaged leader failing, or if it would have grown this way in any event. It was sold as a variegated dogwood, 'Aurea Variegata', with gold edged leaves, but all its leaves are regular green.

It got very tippy last year and is now staked to hold it firm. Perhaps the rapid upper growth was too much for the roots. Cornus mas is supposed to be a slow grower, but after its decapitation at a young age, this one has really taken off in the three years since.

Both are still awkward, young trees, but this is the first spring I've seen what the haze of yellow blooms can do in the chilly spring landscape. With maturity and warmer springs, they should be awesome.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Indoors, Outdoors

The heavy rain on Tuesday turned to snow. Temperatures plummeted, and for the past couple days it has been very cold. Well below freezing at night, and bitterly cold and windy in the daytime.

The sun is out today, but after breakfast, when I want to get outside and start working in the garden, it is in the 30s and unpleasant despite the strong spring sunshine.  It will warm, but only into the 40s today.

Inside, my seedlings are getting impatient. Starting them in the warm bedroom, under lights, has been great, but it's still weeks to go until the last frost date when I can plant them. They will have to stay in their pots for three more weeks! Some may be blooming by then.

I googled last frost dates for my zip code, and the last frost for here is May 10, which is about right. 

Zone 5 B, officially, although some maps show us as zone 6.

I am particularly concerned about the morning glory vines. I don't have sticks or supports big enough for them in their little pots and they are vining wildly already.

Outside, the star magnolia opened its first blooms a few days ago and they were immediately battered by warm winds. Then it snowed, and the nights got bitter, turning them limp and brown.

There are still some tightly closed buds, so if the temperature abates by the time they open, I may still see a starry white profusion of flowers on this pretty shrub. It's gotten to be a nice shape now.

As the day got up into the high 40s I did get outside and did some jobs best done in cool weather: I turned the compost row (achy body!), then used some of the nice turned moldy stuff to put around the blueberries in the field.

In the chill air, it was nice to see bright yellow Cornus mas blooming, unaffected by the subfreezing nights.

Did some more edging around the trees on the east side, trimmed the willows, raked the brown mess of persicaria, that kind of stuff.

We got 4 yards of 50-50 soil and compost from Envirocycle today, so that will get spread under the willows shortly. It's sitting on a tarp in the driveway now. Jim will help with moving it and spreading it over the next few days.

Still much to do. . . . 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Example of a Low Wall

Rain, rain, wind and rain today. Almost an inch by midday. It's warm -- in the low 60s. The lawn is suddenly a very vivid green.

So. . .  I'm inside looking at pictures. Found this on Pinterest and immediately knew I need to make a simple fix to the low stone wall that borders the east side of my house.

Here's the example I pinned of how the low border wall should look. A few larger flat rocks jut back into the mulch and give the low wall visual weight and oomph:
found on it's a green life

The edging wall I built has same-size small rocks all lined up too evenly (yes, I am aware my personality gets in the way of effective garden design). I need to duplicate the staggered larger stones in the example and make this wall less uniform.

my first attempt, with leftover stones from the wall I built by the driveway

(the only variation is the cut out for the sprinkler head)

I also need to accentuate the arc shape by extending the wall at either end of the strip to round the curves.

the wall needs to extend further along the right and left curved parts

My low wall came out the way it did because I simply used up the leftover rocks from my main project building a stone wall at the top of the driveway. There really weren't enough to do this side properly.

I know I need more stones.

Another pallet of wallstone from Harken's in East Windsor would be good. It's actually too many for the few rocks I'd use here, but a pallet would give me plenty of varied shapes and sizes to use elsewhere -- like some big flat steppers for the grass by the bridge, which I need more of. And maybe some for a small wall under the dogwood that I am sort of considering, using photoshop to try the idea out.

Yes. More rocks. That'll do the trick.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Proceed With Caution

A warm, sunny day, little breeze and 70 degrees. It rained very lightly, just a tenth of an inch, and this weekend the grass has really started to green up.

The winter bloomers just won't let go. They are cautious and not ready to flower even though it is just about mid April. Plants that should have flowered in late winter are still tightly budded.
Cornus mas, getting ready to open but not quite there yet

Dawn viburnum has lots of buds but they are just barely expanding

Not only are these late opening, but they are slow too. Once the buds swell and the hint of flowering is there, they usually burst open quickly. But we have had below freezing nights well into mid April, and so they are being cautious and taking their time.

One winter bloomer is not merely cautious, it is probably dead. The fragrant honeysuckle does not even have swelling buds. Nothing. The bark on the bottom stems was badly chewed this winter, but I had thought it would be okay. Apparently not.
I think this Lonicera fragrantissima didn't make it

The winter heaths are looking better, although still only half of each plant has flowers. After a shearing they will be fine.
Still fried on the front side, but blooming and alive

The star magnolia is an early spring bloomer that has opened in late March in warm years. But this year it is hanging on to its fuzzy fat buds well into April, and only a few are showing a hint of the white stars that will emerge.
Star magnolia, with only a few blooms even showing the promise of white stars

There are still forecasts for below freezing nights in the next week, and that will make the magnolia blooms mush if they do open up soon. So caution is most definitely needed.

This year the winter blooming plants and the early spring plants may be out at the same time. Forsythia is starting to show little bits of yellow, but no explosion of color yet.

Daffodils on the back hill are up, but only one or two are blooming. The daffodils at the top of the driveway aren't open yet, but the greenery looks good.

I am so ready to see the winter blooming trees and shrubs get their act together before the spring show starts and steals their time in the limelight!

But they are proceeding very carefully and slowly this year.