Thursday, January 29, 2015

Gardening in January

The great epic blizzard that was predicted for Tuesday was not so bad here. It snowed a lot, and we are buried, but it wasn't the worst storm ever. The sun is out now, but it's cold (zero degrees when I woke up today -- that's NO degrees Fahrenheit).

On this frigid day and on all the snowbound days of winter so far I have been having a ball gardening. I garden in winter and I enjoy it.

It's all virtual, though.

Planning for the next season, poring over catalogs (Forestfarm's catalog is a slender shadow of the former plant bible; Peg and Ray donated the nursery to a non-profit), organizing my photos from last season, and updating the inventory of plants that I maintain --- it all keeps me busy and in some ways is more rewarding than summer gardening since there are fewer bugs, no humidity, and I can mentally move any plant to any location I want.

I have so many random photos of what my garden looked like over the years that it is impossible to enjoy them. It's utter overload.  But by methodically going through an inventory of plants all winter long, I get to really look at each photo of each plant and see what it was about that plant in that spot at that time of year that I enjoyed. Or how I want to fix it.

The inventory I maintain has grown from a collection of plant tags in 2007, to a handwritten list on paper in 2008, to an unworkable spreadsheet in 2009, to an online photo journal in 2010.

The photo journal has worked the best and I have updated it each year since 2010.

Seeing a picture from years gone by tells me about the growth and habit and health of a particular plant, and by looking at wider photos of the whole garden I can see what needs fixing or what I want to duplicate.

A long list of entries documenting what is no longer in my garden (killed, lost, removed) is humbling.

In this meticulously documented timeline, it distresses me to see the early photos of my garden.

Jim got me a Nikon SLR camera last year and the entire look and feel of my journaled garden improved. The pictures I had taken before with my Lumix point and click show how big the plant was and an idea of where I had used it, but the color and sharpness were way off.  Odd pictures, and out of focus. Everything looked so yellow for some reason. Really yellow.

My online plant journal is definitely not a work of art, so I shouldn't expect great shots in beautiful color, nicely composed. It's an inventory, a record, a before and after document, and it is priceless to me for that purpose. It's not great garden photography and never will be.

 But I like my garden so much more when I see it in sharper focus and in nicer color.

Anyway, it's fun on a cold snowy day. Crop that photo, highlight that part of the shot. What's that? Did I really plant those two things together? When did that amsonia overtake the blueberries? Did the buckeye and the cherries bloom at the same time? Why yes they did, and not happily together. How did my pruning efforts improve that shrubby viburnum? When did the dahlias bloom and should I plant more?

Gardening in January is rewarding.

Very rewarding.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Irrestible Allurements . . .

Any plant that smells like anise is like catnip to me. I find anise an intoxicating scent.

So of course I had to have an Anise Tree. It's sometimes called Yellow Anisetree.

It is Illicium parviflorum, and the one I bought is called  'Florida Sunshine'.

"Illicium" means allurement in Latin -- it comes from the word for irresistible. Yes.

The foliage is supposed to smell like anise when crushed.

It is a bright chartreuse yellow leaved cultivar that remains evergreen, so it makes a lovely cheerful sight in the winter garden.

Debs Garden has a nice profile of this plant.

The problem is that it is not hardy here. It is a southern plant, really zone 7, and the only way it works for me is in a pot.

So I have it in a container, and it is on the porch, protected. That doesn't fulfill its purpose to brighten the winter garden with Florida sunshine just when I need it most.

But I could not resist the allure of anise scent.

The best I can do is put the pot out in summer under the maple tree in Meadow's Edge, where in summertime it can brighten the dark recesses of that garden.

In full sun (as long as it gets moisture) it will be yellower and fuller, and in shade looser and darker green. Since it will be in a container I can move it about and see what suits it best.

It can grow to 10 feet or more, it grows upright and conical with little pruning. It will form a suckering colony, but in a container that won't happen, and the size will be much less. But I am hoping I get a big, full, leafy plant.

Right now, as a nor'easter blizzard bears down on New England today, I could really use some Florida sunshine out there.

My little one, in a pot on the porch, will have to do.

This is not star anise (Illicium verum), so the star shaped fruits are not for culinary use. And it is not the stinky-flowered Florida Anisetree (Illicium floridanum), which smells awful when blooming.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Trouble at the Top

Stewartia monadelpha flower in late June,
small and hard to see
In 2010 I planted a Stewartia monadelpha.

It's called tall stewartia, probably because this tree stays quite narrow (about 10 or 15 feet wide) as it grows in a pyramidal shape up to 25 feet high.

It's also called Orangebark because of its cinnamon colored trunk.

It is similar to the Stewartia that is more commonly planted -- the showy Japanese pseudocamellia tree that has a profusion of big white fried egg flowers, red fall color and mottled bark.

But S. monadelpha is quieter than its showy cousin. It is slender and delicate. The leaves are small and narrow, the subtle orange toned trunk is skinny, the flowers are tiny and few, although they look like the pseudocamellia flowers, just much smaller.

But in its quiet way it is a very elegant tree.

Only in fall does it abandon all refinement and dress up in brilliant scarlet and shout "fire in the yard" at the top of its lungs.

I mean, how red can a red tree get?

Even in its first season, in 2010, it was a skinny scarlet column of rich red.

When it is not on fire, it is the elegant narrow pyramidal shape of this unassuming tree that recommends it.

But in spring of 2011, after its first winter in my garden, the top half of this pretty tree did not leaf out. That gorgeous, slender shape was toast at the top.

So I had to cut it back. I used a side branch, taped to the stub of the dead leader, to try to re-establish a vertical top:

There it was in 2011, a stunted little shape of a tree.

In 2012 it worked hard at regrowing a leader, and some progress was made.

My efforts to recreate a leader after this tree was topped in 2011 started to pay off in 2013. The tree grew fuller, and added growth at the top, but no one branch was dominant.

By fall, just as it started to color up, I could see a lot of new growth at the top, and a nice dominant leader. This is one of those trees that needs a leader to grow best. It has to have one branch that grows above the rest and gives the tree shape and form.

Alas. This poor tree keeps losing its top. After a harsh winter in 2014 there were dead branches at the top again, and I had to cut them back. The newly grown slender leader was once again sacrificed.
5/21/14  that lovely slender top died back                                   5/30/14 after lopping off the top again

But going into its fifth year in my garden, it is now an established tree that can take some pruning setbacks.

By the time fall 2014 came around, you could see the top had resprouted, and if those top branches make it through this winter I will cut back the competition so one becomes the clear leader.

I am hoping we are finally done with all the trouble at the top of this little tree. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Deer Up Close

When I opened the door the other day to go out and get the paper I was face to face with a deer. It was standing on the front sidewalk just feet from me.

We startled each other and it sort of bounded off while I jumped back.

It is the badly injured deer, the one we saw at Christmas. We've seen it several times since. The mangled hind leg is still a mess, only this time I saw it close up.

The deer has eaten my plantings along the garage wall, reducing a dwarf cypress to a nub. It left droppings right in the middle of the walk which I need to clean up before anyone else steps in them or they get sucked into the snowblower.

It still lives. It is still coming far too close to houses. I still don't know what to do about it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lessons in Design

Temperatures are finally out of the teens in the day time and in the high 20s today. But it's raining / sleeting / icing. Let's look at pictures from warmer seasons gone by.

I'm happy with the way the bluestone sidewalk on the west side of the house has developed into an allee.

In the beginning it started out as just a way to get from the front of the house to the back.

I planted both sides, added and took out, planted more, and after a couple years it became an inviting path, with the rounded maple in the distance beyond the bend in the walk as a focal point.

Now, in fall the maple in the distance positively calls you to come down this path. Come this way!

It's a very short allee, but there are a few sights to see along the way. In spring dwarf deutzias ('Nikko') have pretty white flowers at ground level and the bright fountainy hakonechloa grasses ('Aurea') spill over and try to tickle your feet.

In summer it is a bit of cool respite on the way to the back yard on a hot day. Not only does this allee beckon the eye with its focal point and mystery around the bend, but it also beckons with cool blues and bright yellows in a shady spot that makes you want to pause.

From the opposite direction the open curve brings you from the sunny yard into a cool passage and then opens to the driveway and the street.

This walk did not start out as an allee. Originally, when the flagstones were first put in, I was only concerned with hiding the ugly stuff all along that side of the house. I didn't want to have to see the electric meters, the air conditioning units and the cellar bulkhead door.

In 2007 this is what we had. My entire design plan for this area was to use plants to hide things.

I planted pretty shrubs and trees -- white blooming fothergillas, a standard panicle hydrangea, a beautiful pink flowered redbud with heart shaped leaves. At certain times it was lovely, but these plants didn't really screen anything. Some dwarf Alberta spruces in the middle did start to block the electric meters, but the strip of plants looked like a gardener's fantasy against a wall of ugly.

So I lushed it up. Miscanthus and other grasses and lots of plants went in. It was much better at hiding utilities on the wall, but the house still loomed above the strip of plants.

By 2010 it looked like this on a rainy summer day. I loved the lushness, but it was getting hard to actually navigate the path and the oversized grasses were unmanageable.

That's when I started thinking of this area as a garden itself, not just a strip along the house with impossibly big plants for screening. Don't accentuate the house, I finally decided -- instead pull the eye away and create an entire space out into the yard and beyond the walk.

More plants. A new gravel garden seating area off to the left was installed, which began to make this an area to walk through, maybe to linger in. All this planting out away from the house made me less likely to see the utilities up against the house wall. The miscanthus eventually came out.

Then one day as I walked along the path, I looked up and saw this. An obvious focal point across the lawn.

What pleases me most is what I learned in creating this allee. I began by just wanting plants to hide the side of the house. There was a job to do: block things out. But good design can do so much more.

I learned to create alternatives. Let the eye see something else (a focal point in the distance), give the visitor something to do on the way (rest in the cool, look at individual plants along the edges), create a destination (that bend in the walk -- what's around it?), frame the space (enclose it with plants on either side, a darker area leading to a lighter one beyond), and make it legible.

This allee is legible because it has a clearly readable function. It is a path through the garden. You know what it is. You walk it, you go somewhere when you do. The shrubs and chairs and yes, even the a/c units give it human scale that counteracts the enormity of the side of the house.

Those air conditioning units are still there, the bulkhead door is too. The electric meters on the wall are even worse now since we put in solar panels and they stuck the monster inverter box on the wall.

But I no longer see them when I am in my inviting, restful, beautiful allee.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Prune Up the Hollies

Such cold weather. It never gets out of the teens in the daytime, and I wake up to single digit temperatures in early morning that make me want to pull the comforter up and have my coffee in bed.

For several seasons now I have known that the branchy winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) in the back garden need some work.

They need to be shaped, limbed up, and opened up a bit. Here's a great example to give me an idea of what I am after:
BB Barnes Garden Center in Arden, NC -- found on Hortitopia

I have already lopped off wayward long stems that were getting in the way or overtopping other plants. But what I really need to do is some selective pruning from below.

In my garden, the one on the left needs work. The one on the right is narrower and has been lopped over the years, but could use some finesse pruning too.

There is a third winterberry holly to the left of the shot above, out of the picture, and that needs the most trimming from below.

Winter is the time to do it, when the branches are most visible. It has to warm up a bit first, though.

I need to eliminate the branches that want to arch out and droop over. Winterberry hollies look better as upright forms.

I keep such careful track of what I have planted, but I did not record what cultivar of Ilex verticillata these plants are. I am guessing 'Red Sprite' as they seem to be smaller. I got them at Gledhill and planted four in random spots along the back of the yard in 2007 (but took one out later).

I wish I had massed mine together as they are in the photo from the NC garden center above. It makes a real impact with five of them in a stand, especially after they have been shaped more narrowly and thinned out a bit.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Because Weeds

So much of gardening in my part of the world involves getting rid of plants. Constant, vigilant, effortful plant eradication.

I live in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, but it was all hacked out of hardwood forest over several centuries and despite population pressure and sprawl, it wants to be forest again.

Not an inch of ground in southern New England tolerates being bare. It started out as vast white oak forests, and then, after the European settlers had cleared so much of it for farms, native red maples and poison ivy moved in where sunny open ground was left untended.

Now, it is the aggressive foreign-introduced plants that are moving in: autumn olive, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, tree of heaven, Norway maples and other invasive competitors.

It is astonishing how quickly dirt becomes weeds becomes brambles and then becomes a shrubbery on its way to reforestation. It only takes few seasons from weeds to forest.

I get tired of hearing gardeners (myself among them) constantly complain about weeds. We read books about design, we pore over pictures of paths and seating areas, we lust after the botanical marvels we want to plant, but we spend our days taking out weeds, or fretting over not getting them out fast enough or often enough.

We garden in a state of constant agitation. We are barely in control. It is hard to sit and contemplate life in our gardens, because, you know, weeds.

I read a couple books this winter on Islamic gardens. What is strikingly different about them is that they exist for sitting, contemplating and experiencing the calm of creation.

They are not walking gardens (it's too hot there to be active outdoors), they are not even visual experiences, although they are artistically beautiful.

They are formal, enclosed spaces you sit in, quietly and contemplatively, using all your senses to experience God's paradise. They are oases not just from the harsh landscape outside the garden wall, but also spiritual refuges.

That is their purpose, and all design and plantings and hardscape and water features are built for exactly that use of the garden. You sit, you visit with people, you eat and rest in the garden. You carefully encourage flowers and trees to grow, using ingenious irrigation systems.

Balance and harmony reign.

Here, in our gardens that seems impossible.  Yes, we have benches to sit on. But our gardens are action spaces -- paths lead somewhere, curved garden beds wander, lawns exist for play areas, at least in theory.

And the constant need to pull out as many unwanted plants as you can in a day means that even when we have a bench to sit on in a quiet nook of the garden, we can't sit still.

The garden here is never, not even for a day, in balance. It is always aggressively growing toward something else.

It's not that an Islamic garden is work-free. Achieving perfect balance and harmony does mean effort -- the gardener has to irrigate and prune and plant and nurture the garden. But it is effort toward creating, and it is garden work that celebrates growing and fruitfulness.

Here our effort is toward eradicating what wants to grow. Gardening in New England involves eliminating plants and always fending off the agitation of being overrun.

Our gardens are rewarding and beautiful, but the word "battle" comes to mind more than "harmony."

After learning so much about Islamic gardens, I am struck by how different gardens in other parts of the world are -- not just how they look or are designed, but how completely differently we experience them and what it even means to have a garden some place other than my own spot on the globe.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Out of Season

Minus 1 degree when I woke up this morning. The unheated porch, where container plants are supposed to be protected while they winter over, is 25 degrees.

This is cold, but last winter was tough on many plants for a long, extended time, and the two rounded heath shrubs along the front walk were very hard hit. In early April last year they emerged from winter brown, desiccated and dead looking.

They are Erica darleyensis 'Ghost Hills' and March or April is their season to bloom with tiny pink flowers all over. But they did not bloom -- they were barely alive.

However, they went on to recover, and were tidy green buns by summer, no worse for the wear. Their complete revival was surprising.

Now this surprises me too -- they are blooming in January! This is way out of sync.

They both are covered in flowers, just covered, and looking grimly cheery on a winter day.

They look so out of season blooming under the Christmas wreaths which are still up (I'll take them down soon. I promise)

Because they were prevented from blooming while they recovered from their terrible winterburn last year, are they now confused about the season? Will they bloom as they are supposed to next April?

Erica is sometimes called winter heath, but that means they bloom in late winter, or early spring in the colder part of their range, which is what we are here in zone 5. 

I don't think it means they should be flowering so profusely while the Christmas wreaths are still up.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


The warmth that was promised for Sunday never materialized and instead we got a full day of frozen fog. The temperatures forecast to be in the 50s hovered one degree above freezing all day.

Now, mid week, it is even colder, in the teens. It's so January.
The day after Christmas I opened the blinds in the bedroom and was face to face with a deer standing right at the patio wall, just a few feet from the window. Deer come into the yard, but not usually so close to the house in daylight.

It was badly injured. The right back leg was torn open and bloody. Bones were visible. The deer hobbled off on three legs, awkwardly. It was a very unsettling sight.

I assumed it would die of its injury or soon be taken down by a bobcat or coyote.

This week our neighbors called to say the three legged deer was on their patio, the injury visible and the compound fracture still open. It's been almost two weeks since we saw it and it is still very much alive, very much injured, and seems to be sticking unnaturally close to houses in the neighborhood.

Our neighbor called the state department of environmental protection - Connecticut DEP -- expecting, what? That they would come out and do something? Euthanize it?  But the DEP simply said deer get injured, deer live, and there are three legged animals surviving just fine in the woods. Nothing to do.

I fret all the time about getting rid of the deer who are so destructive to my gardens. But I certainly don't want any animal to be hurt so grievously or to suffer.

The injured deer in our yards was likely hit by a car. It could have been a predator attack, but I doubt it. Broken bones indicate it was struck hard by something, and deer crossing the road around here are a constant hazard. I only pray the driver of the car wasn't hurt.

I don't know if I hope this one lives a three legged life in the woods or succumbs quickly in this cold, bitter January weather.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Bracken's Brown Beauty

It snowed all afternoon yesterday, and it was pretty to watch from inside the house. Today is expected to get very warm, into the high 50s!

The new year has started with good news and bad -- the bad is that Jim has the flu. We still haven't made it up to Mass. to see his daughter and husband for Christmas, he's been too sick to go. So our tree is still up, wrapped presents under it, waiting for the day when he can rally. It's been a long haul for him and he is miserable.

The good news is I won $80 on a lotto wordplay scratch ticket New Year's Eve.

That's never happened.

In other lucky happenings, I have long wanted to plant a cold hardy southern magnolia called 'Bracken's Brown Beauty', and I may finally have the room for it. The first one I saw was in Lee May's former garden in Connecticut. This photo doesn't show it, but the afternoon light was tickling it just so, and it was lit up and sparkling.

In youth it is open, like the sweetbay magnolia, and Lee had, of course, pruned his quite a bit for openness.

It has velvety mahogany brown undersides that give it a rich look.

In maturity this can be a big dense tree, 30 feet tall, bulky but narrow, like this very old one at Wave Hill in New York.

I spent a lot of time thinking about where to put such a large dark evergreen tree. It is narrow for a magnolia, and upright, but it does take up some room. I could not think of anywhere that it would not overwhelm. I couldn't come up with a plan to put one in my garden.

Then, in December, we had the two struggling blue spruces removed from the right side of the berm. It opened up a lot of space next to the river birch there.

At first I thought to just plant more spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), and let their wide spreading mid level woodsy look fill in the open area. I still like that idea.

But then. .  . inspiration. I could put a 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' there.

Growing in New England - Rockman50 photobucket
But wait, won't it get too big there and recreate the crowding issue that doomed the spruces?

Well, yes. Maybe not.

It won't mind shade from the river birch -- the spruces didn't cope with that, but this magnolia wants a little shade.

It is narrower than the spruces ever were, although still large. It can be pruned and shaped, at least early on, which the spruces never could.

It will counter the dense visual weight of the remaining three spruces on the other end of the berm.

It's evergreen, so it will provide the screening that the spruces did.

I've always wanted one.

I am talking myself into this.

Here is a great profile of Bracken's Brown Beauty by Louis Raymond (The Plant Geek). He is in Rhode Island, and raves about the cold hardness and ability to handle snow loads of this variety of magnolia -- but R.I. is just a teeny bit warmer, solid zone 6, and he has his against the house, very protected.