Saturday, November 29, 2014

Festive but Grumpy

This didn't go well today. I keep Christmas decorations outside very simple -- just wreaths on the windows and sometimes a very small lighted shrub or tree. I gave up wrestling with lights and anything elaborate years ago.

But this year even hanging wreaths went wrong.

Here, for a holiday treat, is a list of my complaints.

First, it was cold, only 32 degrees, and gloomy and not at all festive outdoors.

Second, the wreaths were too heavy. They are simple unadorned balsam wreaths, bought from the same nursery as every year, but somehow over engineered this time. I could not hang the one on the front door using the powerful thru-the-door magnets I have used every other time. It kept pulling the magnet hook off.

So I put up an indoor artificial wreath I had that looks skimpy but hangs on the magnet hook ok.

I put the balsam wreath on the garden arbor frame instead, where it is too heavy and will topple the frame when the wind kicks up. It actually took some maneuvering and was surprisingly awkward to get this hung, and my patience was wearing thin.

The window wreaths were too heavy this year too -- every year I use suction cup hooks on the glass and it works just fine. Not this year. I struggled, and froze my fingers but finally got them to stick after an hour of wrangling, window washing, rearranging and some major irritation.

Then the bows wouldn't go on any of the wreaths. The twist wires were too small to go around the wreath frames and it was a pain attaching them to random branches. Not a major catastrophe but at this point I was losing the will to decorate.

And fir needles make my hands itch.

It was all compounded by the snow, which is not pretty. It is a hard crusty snow that has bent some shrubs down, and smushed things. I can't release the bent branches from their icy traps. Walking on the slippery hardpack, back and forth to get twist wires and then scissors and then hooks and other things to hang the stupid decorations . .  well, interest was ebbing.

In other grumpy news, the utility company came in the middle of the snowstorm the day before Thanksgiving and finally installed the net meter. It's a lovely addition to the garden scene, isn't it? Ugh.

We've had solar panels on the roof since October 24 -- over a month now -- but they were not hooked up. We had to wait for the utility company to install the net meter, so that when we are producing more electricity than we use, it flows back to the utility company.

Now the meter is finally installed, and the only thing left to do is flip two switches on the inverter boxes to turn on the panels. But do we do that? Or does the solar company? Instructions? Any manuals?

It's a really simple thing -- just flip the switches. But we are reluctant to do that without some kind of instructions and it's Thanksgiving weekend, and we'll have to wait till next week to talk to the solar company for their advisement and next steps.

So I am grumpy right now, in this festive season. The wreaths are hung, but not without some torture, and the panels are up but not producing electricity, and snow has blanketed the yard but not without damaging some of the woody plants out there.

Bah. My hands itch.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

At the Gate

Gate A-4 
By Naomi Shihab Nye:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No Sleeping In

I tried to sleep in this morning. It's the day before Thanksgiving, the pies are ready, and the weather promised a day to stay inside.

But restless noises woke me. Restless polar bear noises, huffing and shuffling and pacing.

I can see why. He wants to get out.

Because . . .

. . . it is snowing. It is the day before Thanksgiving. It is snowing and it is accumulating.

Should I put the Christmas carols on? Too soon? Should I hang the wreath on the door?

Should I let the polar bear out? Will he come back in?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Regrets

After so much deep cold, we got a pleasant day today. It nudged up to 60 degrees and there was no wind. A lovely day to work outside.

I took down the grasses, which I really hated doing, but it was much better to do it now on a nice day, than later when it gets cold and windy again.

They looked so good -- fall is their season, so it is a shame to get rid of them now.

The miscanthus by the garage door still danced in the wind and floated about beautifully with every breeze. But it's gone now.

The Hakonechloa grasses draping over the walk still added softness and grace along the edge. But they are now cut back.

The tall, upright 'Northwind' panicums at the back of Meadow's Edge still made a bright foil to the startlingly red winterberries. But their tall forms are no longer there.

The grasses are one of the few things that add any interest to the bare, late fall garden. Jim made short work of them with the hedge trimmer. Really, it took ten minutes to remove all of them, and now it looks barren and uninteresting out there.

If we have a mild winter I will miss their structure and grace in the winter garden. They can look like this in early winter if the snow is not heavy:

But by midwinter, they end up looking like this, and it drives me crazier than the bare landscape does:

It has taken me years to realize I can cut down healthy plants if they are not working for the spot they are in. It has taken me many seasons to accept that I must cut back the grasses now, even though they are so lovely at the moment. I don't like losing them when they are at their best, but I'll have fewer regrets come winter if I sacrifice them now.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A World of Sparkle

It's been very cold. Overnight it is well below freezing and in the day it has been windy and in the high 30s.

The birdbath froze, and although the air is above freezing in daytime, the block of solid ice does not thaw.

The winterberry hollies are full of festive red berries. I always think how spectacular they will look against white snow, but it rarely happens, as the berries are completely gone right after Thanksgiving.

But right now they sparkle.

In fact, my whole world sparkles now -- not red like the winterberries, but clear and sharp, with my vision restored. The cataract is gone, a new perfect lens is in, and wow.

I feel better, the pain is pretty much gone, and each day I am more comfortable. And each day is a wonder to see.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bulbs and More

This fall I planted lots of bulbs and a few other things too. Here's what I put in:

In October I finally got all 100 daffodil bulbs planted on the back hill and among the spruces on the berm.

I added more Gladiator, Mt. Everest and Stratos big globe alliums to the driveway garden. There should be a decent display of these dramatic onions marching in a big line up the side of the driveway next spring.

I planted Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum) bulbs randomly in the Birch Garden, Meadow's Edge and the Blueberry Garden. I loved the way they looked in mid June at Katherine's, popping up all over her gardens. I hope I get the same effect.

They are listed as aggressive / invasive spreaders and MoBot warns about them taking over in garden beds. Will I have a problem? (Evening primrose was also an aggressive spreader and mine did nothing and have now disappeared.) Meadow's Edge has such competition from the maple that I don't think Ornithogalums will spread, but the other two gardens are wetter and richer.

I put drumstick alliums in all along the patio wall. None of mine around the gravel garden or in Meadow's Edge did anything last summer. They sprouted and then laid down in piles of dry hay. Too little water at the wrong time I think. But in prior years I loved these little pom poms, so I had to have more and try again.

I planted a small (dwarf?) Styrax japonicus under the guest room window. This snowbell is called 'Evening Light' and is advertised to grow to about 8 feet, much smaller than the species. It has dark foliage, green tinged purple, which should be interesting when the little white bells bloom against it in spring.

My original styrax, planted last year by the gravel garden, was pretty its first spring but gone the next. It did not survive the winter. Hoping for better with this one.

I put in a 'Lemon Candy' physocarpus where one of the panicle hydrangeas had been removed along the driveway.  It too is much smaller than the usual big ninebarks are. It has bright foliage that I think will light up the middle of this long bed between the massively dark Norway maple and the darkly purple full size 'Summer Wine' ninebark.

There is a great article about UConn's research on ninebarks here. Most cultivars are susceptible to deforming powdery mildew. Summer Wine is not much affected, and Lemon Candy was too new to evaluate but holds promise. I'll have to watch it and check for mildew susceptibility.

Two new little dwarf 'Northcountry' blueberries were added to the existing one in the Blueberry Garden where I had expanded it under the clematis tower. These are not for fruit, but rather to repeat the look (and red fall foliage) of the taller ones in the middle. But almost immediately something snapped off one -- a rabbit? It is now just a toothpick twig with no branches. It may not survive.

I expanded the area under the flowering dogwood again, moving it down the edge of the driveway a little more (small adjustment but it involved hauling away two cartloads of removed sod strips). I then added more 'Frohnleitien' epimediums to spread out there.

I got more iris reticulata bulbs to plant by the front walk. These are 'Gordon'. It's hard to tell from online photos, but I think these are more purple than blue. I like the lighter, bluer ones I originally planted better, but the ones I put in last year were dark purple, and now these will likely be a deeper color too, so there will be a mix of darker and lighter little irises.

But I can't put them in until we remove the cotoneaster shrubs. They must go -- they are crowding the walk and the spruce tree, and they are weed magnets. The congested arching branches harbor grass and weeds that I can't get to.

Jim and I tried cutting back the woody cotoneaster branches and then prying the rootball up one by one, but the job is too much. So we asked Peter to come with his tools and strong men and he agreed to stop by between other jobs in the neighborhood. But . . . we won't see him for a long time, I'm sure. Meanwhile the bulbs need to go in. Might not happen.

Why is fall so short? Why didn't I get more done? When will Peter come to take the cotoneasters out?

Friday, November 14, 2014


We got snow, a coating, but it came with bitter temperatures and wind. The rest of the country is under frigid polar weather too, and low temperature records are being smashed in the midwest.

It is very cold here but not record breaking. In my preparations to get ready for this cold snap I forgot one plant that needed to be cut back: the baptisia pendula alba.

Baptisias have clean looking foliage all season that goes completely black when a freeze hits. This baptisia is an arching, big shrub-like mound of foliage all year. Today it is a large scary looking black mass, with the characteristic black seedpods rattling in the wind.

I forgot to take care of this one last week. I'm not going out there now to cut it back.

First, it's too cold. Second, I am hurting pretty bad.

The cataract surgery earlier this week was a success -- perfect lens, clear sight now. But unlike the recovery last time, which was easy and painless, this time it's an ordeal. I have a headache that would kill a buffalo, and discomfort that keeps me sitting still in a dark room or half submerged in a hot bathtub for hours.


For several reasons this surgery was more complicated and although the outcome is fine, the healing is difficult. Despite the pain I am already able to see better -- my computer screen looks awesome now. But mostly I keep my eyes closed and count the hours until I can take the next dose of Advil.

Not even thinking of going out in that cold wind. The blackened baptisia will remain standing a while longer.

The problem is that I can see its ugly frozen form from the window so clearly now. Every blackened leaf. Oy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Lawnmower Red

I love how the Viburnum prunifolium looks limbed up. I think I've done a good job turning a shrubby, densely twiggy plant into a graceful small tree. It gratifies me to see the form emerge more and more each year.

I love how the witch hazel, Hamamelis 'Diane' is such a cheerful yellow next to the darkly brooding purple ninebark 'Summer Wine'. I limbed this shrubby plant up too, and gave it a chandelier effect that I like.

I love how the stately red maple in the middle of the lawn has nothing but fiery red leaves all over, but drops a pool of yellow leaves at its base. This puzzles me.

And Jim loves the fact that his lawnmower is exactly the same color as the fothergillas in fall. He took a picture to show me, and is pretty pleased with this.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tucked In

We are ready for winter now. The hoses are disconnected, emptied and stored. The furniture is all in the basement or garage. The annuals are uprooted and tossed. All the pots have been removed from the deck, and the ones I need to overwinter are on the porch.

The porch screens are off, the glassed storm door is on and the porch windows are all closed.

Some, but not all of the perennials are cut back. Some I will leave standing for winter. The mums are still colorful, so they'll get cut down later.

I'll leave the grasses for a while yet too, since this is their season, but I won't leave them standing over winter. There is no such thing as winter interest when panicums or miscanthus or even hakonechloas are matted down with heavy snow. Grasses are not winter worthy in this climate.

It seems early. We haven't had a hard freeze yet and taking out the annuals seemed premature -- they still looked good, especially the nasturtiums (I actually left the biggest leafy one by the gravel garden.)

Taking in all the chairs makes everything look so barren, and I have no place to sit now when the sun is out and there is a nice moment to enjoy all the fall color that still dazzles.

But very cold weather is on its way next week, and I have eye surgery next week too. It is routine and the recovery is quick but I will have to take it easy for a few days. So rather than risk frozen hoses and rather than wait for my doctor's ok to wrestle furniture inside on a cold day, we took care of everything now, in early November.

We're all snugged up and ready for winter.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wave Goodbye

We've had some nights below freezing lately, and the plants right at the foot of the hill behind us have been affected as the cold air sinks just a few feet and collects at the bottom.

The oak trees out there suddenly turned completely brown, although they always hold on to their leaves.

Other plants away from the foot of the hill were not affected. It always intrigues me how the colder, denser air sinks and the effect is so visible at the bottom of even the smallest slope.

It's been cold but we haven't really had a hard frost. And that has contributed to a long and glorious fall this year.

Even the tender nasturtiums are still going strong in their protected spot under the inkberry hollies.

They're even still blooming and catching the sun's rays on cool afternoons.

But despite the lingering fall, it's getting time to say goodbye to the growing season.

This is the time of year I actually like the miscanthus grass by the garage door. Its flowers look like they are waving goodbye. Both of the fothergillas along the walk are bright red now.

The river birches have lost their leaves but the white paper birches are glowing yellow. Ever since we started treating them with a fungicide each summer, they have held on to their leaves long enough to make a lovely show in fall. I hate having to do that, but they were completely defoliating in August previously. Now they look wonderful, well into November. I'm conflicted.

The bark is their best feature, but having green leaves still on the tree in September, and glowing color in November makes the three paper birches a lovely and healthy looking part of the whole garden. So we spray.

The dapper little star magnolia has fall color this year, and it is gold tipped with caramel. That's nice.

Despite the wind taking down so many leaves and baring branches all over, I am surprised each time I round the corner of the walk and see how full and sparkling red the stewartia monadelpha still is.

The black gums have all lost their leaves now -- except for the newest one planted by the mailbox. This little tupelo is the only one still holding on to its leaves.

So many trees are bare now and nights are cold, but there are still beautiful, colorful, leafy things to be seen. It's still a lovely fall.

But as I watch the grasses wave goodbye to the season, I know it won't be long now.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Blown Down

November arrived with half an inch of rain and then a wild, cold, and windy day. Leaves were torn from many trees and my blue pyramid blew down. It's a light and flimsy thing, not anchored to the ground. I'll bring it in for winter.

Before the wind, on Halloween morning, the black gum at the bridge was spectacular. Today it has only a few leaves barely hanging on. What a difference a windy day makes at this time of year.

That's how fall behaves. It gets all duded up in fancy finery and then has fun blowing everything down.