Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Along the Driveway

In the end of September, 2011 we had a long curved bed installed along the side of the driveway. I had no planting design for it, but I had some conflicting ideas in mind of what this garden should do.

First, a garden here had to screen the neighbor's house. This side of their large house is unattractive. The blank side wall without windows at the near end is awkward, and the roof angles down weirdly.

They are nice neighbors and I didn't want privacy as much as just a way to hide the looming oddness.

Second, I wanted a line of tall plants to draw your eye up the driveway. It had to define and enclose the edge of our property, and give a sense of entry as you arrive.

Third, I really liked the idea of a long line of panicle hydrangeas -- a hedge of them, with big white cones of blooms catching the sun.  I had seen just such a hedge. I convinced myself that this long bed lining the driveway would be perfect with a billowing row of late blooming panicle hydrangeas.
(out of focus because I photographed this from a book)

I only had room for three 'Tardiva' hydrangeas, and that was not enough for the kind of hedge I had in mind. But they went in, lined up between the trees that already anchored this strip.
first installed, in 2011

At first they were fine. But three were not enough to make a real hedge, they were smushed between the trees already planted, and I kept adding more plants to this border which crowded them even more.
August 2013.  A little floppy and rangy, but not bad. Nice flowers.

I planted a Parrotia persicaria tree in back to get some height eventually -- the hydrangeas were never going to get tall enough to screen the neighbor's house. But the little sapling was swamped behind the hydrangeas.

There is a doublefile viburnum behind the hydrangeas too, still small but destined to get very large and spreading.

This summer I pruned the hydrangeas to get more form and structure, but that just encouraged them to lie down across the other plants in this border and smother them. It looked totally chaotic.

In the end, I had to give up the idea of a flowery hedge. And I had to give up the idea of quickly screening the side of the neighbor's house. The hydrangeas had to come out.

I got two of them out last week. The third under the Norway maple will have to go too. Now I can see the doublefile viburnum, and the tiny parrotia. Eventually the viburnum will get much taller and will spread, and the parrotia will become an upright real tree.

The parrotia and the nearby variegated sweetgum will have to do the work of screening the house, but I will need to be patient while they grow into large trees. That is going to take time, but the line of tall trees will eventually hide (or soften) most of the unwanted view.

I can't be stuffing lots of big plants in here in hopes of hiding things right away. And I can't create the hedge I wanted where I already have structure and trees and other shrubs -- that's chaos.

If I can be patient enough, this border will have a curved line of tall trees from the dark Norway maple, to the upright parrotia, to the brightly leaved sweetgum, and then ending with the grouping of witch hazels and corneliancherry dogwood at the top end.

That's a lot. I don't need big blowzy hydrangeas in there too.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mornings and Afternoons

Love to see this sight on a cool autumn morning. I am standing on the deck, coffee in hand, and the air is lovely. The sun is coming up over the tall trees.

If I look to the left I can see that the tower of clematis viticella by the hummingbird feeder never rebloomed this fall. Each year I cut it to the ground in late July and get spectacular regrowth and a full rebloom in September, but this year I experimented and left it standing after the flowers were spent. It didn't rebloom.

So next year I'll cut it back in summer. The hummingbirds are gone now. I haven't seen any in a couple days.

If I turn a little further left I see my blue pyramid in the back garden lit by the morning sun. I like it.

Now I turn toward the right and catch the startling red of the Japanese maple next to me. This was the first year it stayed such a brilliant red, rather than turning maroon in the heat of summer. It is either stressed from the canker it is being treated for, or the cool nights this summer kept it from washing out.

Mornings are lovely in fall. So are afternoons when the shadows get long.

All summer it was a challenge to find enough shade to be comfortable in the gravel garden in the afternoon. Now, late on a cool day, sitting in the dwindling sun is nice.

Asters are blooming in the meadow and the sun catches their purple haze in the afternoon when the yard is in shadow. Because of the dry summer the aster display isn't much this year. The buckeyes look better than ever before, deep green this year for the first time and unscorched. The cool summer helped.

I especially like the white wood asters, so delicate and frothy looking and they stand lower than the tall gangly purple asters. They seem to do better in a dry summer than the purple asters.

Turning back from the meadow toward the house, I see the river birches and the sweetbay magnolias lit up in the late afternoon. The red Japanese maple is as bright from afar as it is standing next to it in the morning. It just shines.

Fall is a beautiful season for light, early morning or late in the day.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The First Ones of Fall

Beautiful weather. Sunny, in the 60s. The recent rain has refreshed things, but it only made a slight dent in the overall dry conditions from this summer, and many plants are still showing stress.

The 'Tardiva' panicle hydrangea looks better now, though.

Right on cue, with the start of fall, some of the leaves start to turn colors. Here are the ones that go first every year.

The sumacs on the hill are always early.

Some red maples on the back hill turn scarlet before the others. The big red maples in the yard are still green and won't change for weeks yet.

The funny tiered sassafras draped in orange on the right is always one of the early ones, even as the sassafras right next to it remains deep green. This has always been the oddest pairing of the same species tree. They look completely unrelated.

The twiggy tuliptree in the meadow is yellow now. A wild species tuliptree came down in a storm in 2011, but this little one is a cultivar I planted called 'Little Volunteer', and it has small leaves and a much smaller size overall. It seems to be a slow grower too, unlike the wild rangy lirodendrons that leap up quickly.

The sweetspires in the middle of the Birch garden are deep red already and this seems earlier than other years. It is not usually noticeable until October, but this year it is eye grabbing a month earlier.

Geranium wlassovianum is multicolored now. In some years it has great fall color, other years it doesn't, and just looks brown and tired. I did not shear it after bloom this summer. I did take off the tangled flower stalks a few days ago to tidy it up.

All the spicebushes are glittery now. They are among the first of the shrubs to turn fall colors, always a lemony yellow and the leaves turn droopy which gives them a fluttery look.

The doublefile viburnum is among the first to color each year but it doesn't do it very dramatically. It gets brownish a few leaves at a time, but then slowly deepens to a rusty red brown color. It is definitely not as bright glossy red as the maples standing behind it, but it is nice in its own muted way.

When it comes to being first, the red buckeye gets the job done. Leaves turn yellow, and then drop completely before the end of September. The first year I thought it was drought stress or transplant adjustment, but it has done this each year (it's still a very young tree), so I guess it's just an early leaf dropper. The season's first, in fact.

Once fall starts to put on its show of color, it races by so fast.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Minerva in much younger days

She was 19 years old and that's the equivalent of mid 90s for a Siamese cat. She was an old lady when we lost her today.

Her sister Margot, from the same litter, is now the only reigning cat in the house. She is just as old, but not quite as frail as Minerva had become.

It was a full and long life for a cherished and pampered cat. 

So sad, especially for Jim. He got to say goodbye and see her off, and will miss her a lot. I will too.

Monday, September 22, 2014

White in the Window

Nice September weather, barely 70 with a breeze and some sun. After the nice rain, the ground is soft and workable. I have been removing sod in a project to expand some of the beds. It's so easy when the ground is damp.

I also cleaned up -- took out the too-big pink zinnias in the Birch garden, removed spent basil and parsley, weeded, added mulch to bare areas.

The white Rose of Sharon outside the dining room window keeps stopping me in my tracks. For years I fussed that it would never get tall enough to reach the bottom of the window and be seen from inside. It grew wide and bushy and spread out.

I'd peer out the window to see a few blooms teasing me at the bottom of the window frame. I had to crane to see them.

But now it is large enough to fill the window and be seen everywhere in the house.

I can't photograph how clear white and attention grabbing it is. The camera won't pick up the deep blues and dark wood of the inside at the same time as the pure white flowers sparkling in the sunshine outside. The lens washes out the flowers as it tries to light the interior and I don't have the skill to make it see both.

Here the dining room is flooded in sunlight and the window is bathed in white chiffon flowers, but the camera is awash in confusion.

In reality the flowers seem to come inside, shimmering more so when the sky is cloudy and the inside of the house is gloomy. It frustrates me that I can't show how glorious it looks!

The white blooms fill the porch window too. The hummingbirds adore this plant and hover in and out of all the blossoms drinking their fill. It surprises me that they go for white flowers or for Rose of Sharon at all, but they do.

This cultivar is 'White Chiffon'. It was advertised to be sterile, but I find little seedlings nearby and, as with all Hibiscus syriacus, the unwanted seedlings are really tough (impossible) to pull up.

I am concerned about it this year. Although the flowers are spectacular seen framed in the windows, the plant is stressed. The dry summer has left it with skimpy foliage and an open, see-through form.

It also tends to be wide and spreading. My attempts at pruning the sides off for more of an upright vase shape seem to have backfired, and the plant is spreading out even more.

It had such a promising shape when first planted. Here it was in 2009 looking quite upright.

In 2011 I could still barely see any flowers through the window. What a tease it was to catch only a few blooms in the bottom corner.

Now white flowers fill the window, shine into the whole house and please me every time I see it from inside. From the outside, though, its condition this summer and its generally wide floppy form have me concerned.

I think I'll try a severe pruning this winter and take out a third of the branches for shape and rejuvenation.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


It is so much easier when water falls from the sky all over my gardens and the meadow and the woods. Easier than hand watering for hours which only dampens the soil about a quarter inch down in a small area.

A 60% possibility of some thunderstorms was predicted for this morning, but all summer "possibility" has meant "no rain" and "thunderstorms" meant only rumbles and wind but no moisture.

Early this morning we got an inch and a quarter of rain. A deep steady soaking for everything.

It was unexpected but very welcome.

As I have my coffee and breakfast it is gloomy and dark, but so beautifully, wonderfully wet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Nyssa sylvatica is a native tree that has fascinated me. I have planted several -- two in the front yard, one at the bridge by the dry creek bed, and a couple on the back hill.

Fall color is stunning, the form is shapely, and the leaves are deep green and glossy. A nice tree.

It is stiffly branched, with hard wood that does not break in heavy snow storms. The lower branches sweep down gracefully, like a pin oak's. Even my young trees want to drape their lower skirts, and as a yard tree I have to limb them up.

For some reason Nyssa has several intriguing common names. Many know this as black gum, and that's how I usually refer to it.

But this tree is also very commonly called tupelo, or black tupelo to distinguish it from the well known southern tupelo.

It is also called pepperidge, and the cookies you buy from Pepperidge Farm feature a silhouette of a big pepperidge tree on the cookie bag.

Now I learn it has another common name.

While touring Martha's Vineyard this week, we found out that the islanders refer to black gums / pepperidges / tupelos by another name with an interesting history: they call these trees beetlebungs.

The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is a perfect material for the bungs (stoppers) in casks. Martha's Vineyard was a whaling powerhouse in the 1800s and needed lots of casks for whale oil and lots of bungs to stopper them. Local tupelos provided the best material for bungs. The wood is hard, and won't shrink when dry or swell when it is wet.

The beaters they used to pound the bungs into the casks were called beetles, back to Shakespeare's day. The very hard wood of the local tupelos made good mallet heads, or beetles.
So the cask makers on Martha's Vineyard referred to these native trees by their usefulness: they called them beetlebung trees.

It's very specific to Martha's Vineyard. Nearby Nantucket Island was a whaling center as well, and tupelos grew there and were used for stoppers and mallets, but no one on Nantucket calls them beetlebungs. It just caught on with the islanders on Martha's Vineyard.

Our trip was great. We saw Polly Hill arboretum, which is a treasure. Polly began planting trees on an old sheep farm she inherited in the center of the island. She began this when she was 50 years old. She planted everything from seed -- oaks, hollies, beetlebungs, stewartias, conifers of all kinds.

And she lived to see her seedlings become 50 year old specimens, as she died at age 100, still sharp and by then a legend in horticultural research.

There was even a sassafras grove in Polly's arboretum, well maintained and limbed up. I would have liked to meet Polly Hill.

We also got to tour several private gardens on the island that were professionally maintained and opulent. There is money on Martha's Vineyard.

We visited Oak Bluffs, of course. And Gay Head. And we saw boats and yachts and schooners in the harbor. We had ice cream in Vineyard Haven and seafood on the dock in Edgartown.

We saw the lace walls that the sheep farmers built all over the island. Apparently sheep go nuts when they can't see what's on the other side of a wall, so farmers built their stone walls with little views through them.

The mid September weather was lovely, but Martha's Vineyard is in one of the worst droughts the islanders can remember. They've had less rain than we got here this summer. Irrigated private gardens were lush, but everywhere else the lawns and fields were brown.

The summer crowds that swamp the island were gone, and the President and his security retinue had left, so Martha's Vineyard was quiet, the air was cool and nice, and we enjoyed it immensely.

I particularly enjoyed learning about beetlebungs!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Dry Summer

The heat came on this morning.

It was in the mid 40s when I got up and with yesterday's gray cool weather, the house had retained no warmth.

Yesterday a rain front moved through western and northern New England but delivered no rain to us. It sprinkled and wet the furniture, but did not dampen the soil.

This keeps happening. Albany NY and western Massachusetts have gotten soaking rain after rain storm this summer, but all season the edge always skirts us, sliding by just tantalizing miles to our west or north.

This is the weather service's chart of the last 30 days of precipitation -- the slope is the accumulated normal rainfall for 30 days, and the brown area below is how much below normal we are. The little green bars show tenths of an inch of rain -- the only noticeable amount was a quarter inch on the 31st of August and then just under a quarter inch on September 1, but it came down so hard and so briefly in short bursts that it mostly ran off the hard dry baked soil.

The earlier part of the summer looked just like this chart except for one storm in mid August that gave us two inches of rain. Those two inches were pretty much it for the entire season, and it all fell at once.

Some plants in the garden look okay with all the supplemental watering I've done. The clethra doesn't, though. It has crispy, curled leaves and I simply can't keep it hydrated enough. Hydrangeas are not at all happy. Not at all. The redtwig dogwoods by the creek bed have curled their leaves and turned silvery.

In the meadow I have watered the newest little saplings, but all the big maples and oaks and gums are looking limp. The persimmon, with its big glossy leaves, is really droopy.

All of the tall weeds in the meadow -- the fleabane and oxeye daisies and the pink smartweed which usually forms big upright arching stands, are really limp and bedraggled. Except the goldenrod. That seems indestructible.

2014 has been a rainy, wet summer for areas just to our north. Not here, though.

But . . .  it's not California! I can't even imagine.