Saturday, May 30, 2015

Peony Heaven

I went searching for a peony to add to my garden, and found myself in peony heaven, just a short distance from my house.

Peony heaven is a real place. It is Cricket Hill Garden, in Thomaston, Connecticut. It's a nursery and show garden dedicated to every kind of herbaceous, intersectional and tree peony you could want.

Since it was late May, the herbaceous peonies were blooming, but the intersectionals and the later tree peonies weren't out yet. The herbaceous peonies need umbrellas to keep their heavy blooms out of damaging rain, but we have had so little rain in Connecticut this spring that they really weren't necessary. But they were decorative.

An entire wooded hillside, an area around a pond, and a stretch of stepped terraces had hundreds of peonies growing. There were paths to wander that let you get up close to see each special peony.

Milkweed and clover and dandelions and weeds of every kind were allowed to complement the peonies and I was surprised at how well that worked, growing so closely together. There were alliums and roses and viburnums too. Everything looked naturalized, but of course it was all highly tended.

Scattered among the peonies were glass sculptures by Mundy Hepburn, a nephew of the actress Katherine Hepburn. He makes these Chihuly-type big garden glass shapes, and they are filled with inert gas (like neon) so they must glow at night, although we were only there in the daytime.

Big multi-petal peony bombs in pinks and magentas stole the show. And there were quite a few fried egg peonies -- the clear white ones with egg yolk centers. But my favorites were the demure single blooms in creamy soft colors. Like this delicate yellow single petal variety.

In my own garden I have only one herbaceous peony, a fire engine red one called 'Blaze'. It is open now, but does not bloom for more than a week. It's brief but intense.

At Cricket Hill I picked up another, this time an intersectional called 'Bartzella' that is a lovely upright shape, and has yellow double and semi double blooms that flower in June. It's a popular variety and quite showy.

The staff at Cricket Hill were friendly and informative and I had a long chat with a woman who clearly loves these beautiful plants and thinks she works in a place close to heaven.

Here is what she told me to do with my new 'Bartzella" -- I must not disturb it right now. I am to put the whole pot in the ground now, enjoy it this summer, and then when the leaves turn brown in fall, and only then, I can take it out of the ground, unpot it and plant it in its permanent spot. Peonies don't like disturbance unless they are going dormant for winter.

It won't flower this year, and maybe not next year, but she spent so much time picking out just the right container with the best looking stems and the most promise, that I felt I was adopting a pet and not buying a plant. Her care and concern was touching.

I think I am supposed to send her postcards every year showing its progress as it grows up.

Cricket Hill Garden

Thursday, May 28, 2015


To anyone who reads this diary:

A couple people have noted that I don't have comments enabled on this blog.

Actually, if you click on the title of the post it will bring up the post with the comment field opened at the bottom and you can leave any notes there you would like to -- I do read them.

I am not trying to discourage anyone who is interested in contact, but I am trying to control spam on what is my personal journal.

My other blog (now no longer active) had the title My Weeds Are Very Sorry, and even with word verification and spam filters, I struggled with way too many off topic comments because the word "weed" was searched. Go figure.

At least this journal doesn't have trigger words in the title, but even so, I'm keeping a low profile for random commenters who are not interested in gardening. But for those of you who I follow and those of you who are interested in my garden woes and successes, you can leave a comment if you don't mind clicking the post title to open up the comments section.     

Monday, May 25, 2015

Black Bear

Hot, humid and breezy this Memorial Day Monday. And dry. The story of this spring I guess.

We saw a black bear ambling through the yard behind the Birch Garden this morning. Very big, very black, and unconcerned with us. The GPS radio collar on its neck was visible so it was a bear whose movements the wildlife department tracks, probably because this one is a known nuisance near homes.
Not our bear (camera was not at hand) but this is what our visitor looked like

In the afternoon I went over to water my neighbor's pots, since they are away for Memorial Day weekend. Jim insisted he go with me, and he carried a stick and whistled the theme song from the movie 'Brazil' which he apparently has determined scares bears.

My neighbor's hummingbird feeder was on the ground, the pole was bent at an angle, and it was clearly the work of a black bear with a sweet tooth. Her feeder was at the edge of her patio, just a few feet from the doors that lead from their bedroom onto the patio. That's close.

Should I take down our hummingbird feeder, which is also just feet from our door?

I'm not really afraid of encountering the bear. Black bears are usually not threatening or aggressive, but I don't want it quite so close to the house, and I don't want our hummingbird feeder ruined.

It puts me in mind of a warning found on a park sign in British Columbia that details safety practices around bears. The picture of it is not in great focus, so if you can't read it, scroll below and read the words.

It contains good advice, although it never mentions whistling "Brazil" as a deterrent. The sign says:
Due to the frequency of human-bear encounters, the B.C. Fish and Wildlife Branch is advising hikers, hunters, fishermen and any persons that use the out of doors in a recreational or work related function to take extra precautions while in the field. 
We advise the outdoorsman to wear little noisy bells on clothing so as to give advance warning to any bears that might be close by so you don't take them by surprise. 
We also advise anyone using the out of doors to carry "Pepper Spray" with him in case of an encounter with a bear. 
Outdoorsmen should also be on the watch for fresh bear activity, and be able to tell the difference between black bear feces and grizzly bear feces. Black bear feces is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear shit has bells in it and smells like pepper.
Now I know.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Gladiator Parade

Very cool out. It is sunny but the air is only in the mid 60s with a stiff breeze, so it's sweater weather.

With bright sun and big breezes, the half inch of rain from a few days ago is long gone and we're pretty dry again. I water the new plantings and we're running the sprinklers.

I had very specific design goals for a planting of Alliums along the driveway. The last two autumns I have put in several dozen Allium 'Gladiator' bulbs, a lavender purple globe onion.

I wanted these tall soldiers to march up the length of the driveway garden, right up the middle, forming a parade of striking forms in May.

Mostly that is working although I have to move some bulbs around to get them out from under the doublefile viburnum where they are crowded. And the parade could stretch a little longer through the whole bed. I'll move some bulbs after flowering is done.

They were planted under the branches of fragrant sumac, which leafs out very late, so the design intent was to have the onions featured in May, and have their deteriorating foliage hidden when the sumac's leaves came out.

That's working pretty well as designed, although you can't really hide the crappy foliage completely.

I also included some white globes, to soften the purple parade. I interspersed Allium 'Mt. Everest' among the purple globes. It's a muted creamy white, and not as big or as tall as 'Gladiator'.

That's not really working as I planned. The white ones are lost. They are pale and smaller and hard to even see, so they don't really provide any contrast.

Overall I like the effect, though. I can move a few around and improve the length of the parade, and that will be a little better. Globe alliums are such oddities -- so tall and structural and so much like soldiers marching along in step.

I have my own Memorial Day parade right here in my garden.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Siberian Elm

We ended up with a half inch of soaking rain yesterday. It refreshed things after the long dry, but we need more. It was so welcome, though.

For years I have been finding wild saplings of a tree growing on the back hill in suckering thickets. I try to cut it back so I can encourage the maples and sweetgums and tupelos and oaks I have planted to grow unimpeded, but it is a really tough thing to eliminate.

It can't be dug up no matter how hard I try, and the bendy young stems are tough to cut through with even the sharpest pruners.

I kept wondering what it was. I have never been able to get rid of it. It's everywhere.

Then it started to appear along the edge of the meadow, right where Jim stops mowing and the wild takes over. I've been leaving the young trees, thinking it will be nice to have volunteer saplings there, growing into eventual shade trees at the edge of the lawn.

But what the heck kind of tree are they? The leaves look like elms, or maybe beeches.

I was getting a little uneasy because they're growing in earth that was disturbed when the house was built, they are tenaciously rooted, fast growing, and suckering. And they seem to be everywhere. Their best friends on the hill seem to be Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose and poison ivy.

I finally decided to do some research before letting them grow any more at the edge of our yard. Pictures / descriptions confirmed this is Siberian elm, Ulmus pumila. The uneven base of the leaf, the way the toothed margins point forward, the leaf shape and the flat green color were matches for Siberian elm.

It's an Asian elm, on Connecticut's invasive threat list. It's aggressive, it grows in poor soils and it is an unattractive and disease prone tree. It should not be planted. Of course it moved into the disturbed earth of the hill and the meadow around our house.

MoBot says:
Siberian elm is not recommended for landscape use today because of its weak, easily damaged limbs and branches, its susceptibility to numerous insect and disease pests, and its general lack of ornamental interest. It could be effectively grown in poor soils, as a windbreak, or along slopes for erosion control where ornamental features are not an issue.

I'll never be able to get rid of it on the hill where thickets keep forming below the maples and other trees. But I'm going to take down those saplings in the meadow right now and paint the cut stems with Brush B Gone so they don't sucker.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On the 29th Day

A gentle deep soaker is underway. After 29 days of zero precipitation, right at the most vulnerable time in spring, it is now finally raining.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Heart Shaped Tree

So dry. Too dry. Some trees do not fully leaf out until the third week of May here, and the lack of any rain for 27 days now is keeping everything in check.

A very hard, very bad winter and a very dry, rainless spring are taking a toll. As unhappy as it all makes me and as bad as some things look, there are bright spots.

Like a tree in the shape of a heart. Is this a message to cheer up or what?

It is 'Orange Dream' Acer palmatum and it made it through the winter. I had doubts. It is barely hardy here, a zone 6 plant. It did have a lot of dieback at the top, and it leafed out very late this year -- normally in late April or early May it opens bright orange leaves that blaze from afar, before the leaves turn chartreuse for the summer.

This year it skipped the orange stage, stayed leafless well into May, but eventually opened up with its summer color and only a touch of orange leaves at the top. I trimmed off the dieback twigs.  This shrubby Japanese maple is only five feet tall, so I could trim it pretty easily.

When I finished tidying up, I stood back and noticed the sweet shape of this little tree -- a big heart for me!

Just to the right of the heart tree irises are blooming (sugary white 'Immortality') and columbines are out (all purple now, my cultivars all self seeded to purple).

The camassias have opened their starry flower spikes. They always look so pale and they read lavender gray from a distance. Up close they are actually blue like the pyramid next to them.

The strappy, glossy foliage of the camassias looked very wilted a few days ago. I watered and they perked up little, but the whole stand of them is muted this year.

Wood hyacinths (Scilla) scattered about in the Birch Garden were complete no shows this spring. There are lots of clumps of them and the foliage emerged but then wilted out. Too dry I guess.

Doublefile viburnum never ever disappoints, though. It is reliable and stunning every year and even after a hard winter and no rain, it is flowering on time and beautifully.

Jim calls it the wedding cake shrub, and it is always in bloom for our anniversary.

With heart trees and wedding cake shrubs in the May garden, it's all good. We could use some rain, though.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Possibilities and Potential

After all the heat and humidity we've had, it is now typically cold May weather. Still no rain. There is a possibility of 3/10ths of an inch tomorrow, which is the same as saying no rain in the forecast.

'Forest Pansy' redbud (Cercis canadensis) is utterly unimpressive, and a little worrisome. It blooms, but sparsely. It has a couple leaves emerging, but I'll have to wait til the end of May to see if it comes in at all.

After the discouragement of losing beautiful trees this spring, I don't want Forest Pansy to be a bust. This is one tree that does not look like much until maturity I think. Right now it is just spindles with goofy bits of pink and very little evidence of leaf buds. But the promise of a nice looking tree is there.

The blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) next to it is finally blooming well. The flat white flowers cover the front of this small tree, but the back half got frost burnt earlier this spring (on a morning when there was no frost anywhere else -- but in my strange garden temperature anomalies and odd conditions abound).

This border has potential -- when that potential is realized a beautiful magenta redbud will bloom next to a fully flowering viburnum with blue forget me nots in the background. For now it's pathetic looking in spring.

Another pathetic looking border with potential is the top of my rock wall, where I have phlox sublulata clumps that will someday spread and drape over the stones in a thick carpet of pink.

It's not happening, though. I have been at this for three years now, planting moss phlox 'Fort Hill', watching it disappear and then planting more each spring. Nothing spreads, nothing drapes, and the plants I put in shrink each year. The reason there are pink clumps there at all is because I buy new plants annually.

It's time to give up on the moss phlox and just plant bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) at the top of the wall instead. Look how beautifully Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip' has spread and how gloriously it blooms next to the walk leading to the patio.

Ajuga won't drape over the wall with that liquid look that phlox gets, but it will creep to the edge of the stones and it will fill the area under the smokebush. Instead of planting new phlox each year for a clumpy look that never spreads, should I unleash the rampant potential of ajuga to carpet this area?

It's a member of the mint family, which is why it spreads, and also why it gets out of control. Dilemma.
(update: Or how about rock cress? Arabis? A great suggestion from Patty in the comments to this post is making me think that might be a good solution to top the wall. Hmmmm)
Here's a tree whose potential was never realized until now -- the river birch at the end of the berm is no longer stuffed in between two spruces. We took out the spruces last winter, and the birch just spread out and filled in this spring in a way I had not seen before.

I had liked the woodsy look of leafy birch and stiff blue spruce mingled together, but never realized the possibilities of the birch standing by itself.

And here's a little tree that holds some real promise -- between the metal tuteur of clematis and the tree stump there is a rounded leafy little thing.

It is a gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) which is a suckering shrubby dogwood that I am training into a single trunk tree, much like I did with the blackhaw viburnum. It will be a smallish tree, and I am already pleased to see it take on a potentially graceful form.

It's already mid May and I don't want to deal with winter losses any more. I like dealing with the possibilities of what might be in my garden instead.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Losses Mount

Strange weather -- very hot, in the 80s and up to 90F and very humid and summery feeling. Too hot for early May. It's also very dry. Three full weeks now without a drop of rain, and the winter stressed trees and shrubs are holding back. Lawns all over the neighborhood are browning like it's July.

There are more losses in my garden.

Winter was too harsh for the Stewartia pseudocamellia by the front door. The bottom branches are leafing out but the top branches, fully two thirds of the tree, are not.

Unlike the Stewartia mondadelpha that did not leaf out at all, this tree does have some life, but I don't know if it can recover all that lost canopy. Even if it lives, it will be severely stunted, as if lopped in half.

I won't take it out. It is still alive, and if I can eliminate the dead two thirds and re-train a leader, I may get a tree shape back. In another 9 years. Maybe.

It was yet another prized specimen tree that I raised from a 10 inch tall seedling over the last 8 or 9 years. Like my other losses this year -- a Japanese maple, another Stewartia and now this one -- it was one of the most shapely trees in my garden. with amazing white flowers and drop dead scarlet fall color.

I feel like I am starting over just when the prettiest trees I had planted were becoming beautiful specimens worth noticing.

But wait, there's more.

The first sassafras I ever planted -- again, a tiny whip of a sapling in 2006 that grew to be a full, leafy tree -- has also lost some if its canopy. In this case it is the lower third of the branches that are dry and snap off. It is leafing out up at the top so I think it will be okay, but it will be sparse and branchless at the bottom.

The big stand of 'Henry's Garnet' iteas (sweetspire) that anchors the middle of the Birch Garden look terrible. They are always late to leaf out, but a few scraggly leaves are just now appearing on a few random branches and the rest looks completely bare beneath the arching white flowered aronias.

Can I cut iteas all the way down to rejuvenate them? I can't find anything that says itea responds to a hard cut back. But what is there to lose? If it has died off above ground it will have to be cut hard. It's a suckering shrub, so I hope the roots will regenerate new growth.

The Cornus florida (pink flowering dogwood) in front is refusing to flower at all this year. Only a few stunted blooms are opening. Winter did not kill the tree, and leaves are opening, but the flower buds were killed.

Other flowering dogwoods all over town are in beautiful bloom, so their buds survived this winter just fine. In the geographical oddity that is apparently my zone 2 garden, however, this dogwood's flowers were completely zapped.

The big old silver maple (or is it an old cottonwood?) in the meadow in the distance has died. It is the focal point of my view from the living room window, so now my window frames a big dead tree. Silver maples in the woods around here did survive the winter, so maybe this one just succumbed to old age.

Old trees die. We'll just call this maple "sculptural" now and deal with the changed view out the window.

But the losses and ruination of prized young trees I had planted, long before they were mature, well before they could offer shade in my garden --- that's a deep and unsettling discouragement.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Another Loss

Warm weather for early May -- some 80 degree days, humidity, open windows. Spring is now leaping ahead. It's too dry, though. 17 days since the last rain, and no rain in the forecast for a week.

There's been another disappointing loss in my garden. After losing a beautiful red Japanese maple this spring, I have now lost another cherished tree that I raised from a young sapling.

Stewartia monadelpha, also called Orangebark, is a dapper small tree. I raved about its fall color last October, with good reason:

In addition to spectacular fall color, it has a nice elegant shape, fresh looking green leaves all summer, and rough, cinnnamon colored bark. Unlike its cousin, the showier Stewartia pseudocamellia, it had only a few tiny flowers in June, but it was just the perfect tree for a narrow space near the gravel garden.

In spite of losing some top branches to dieback every winter, this tree was growing well. It was perfect.

But this spring there was more than dieback at the top. The tree did not even attempt to leaf out.

This past winter was too much for this zone 6 tree. Technically my garden is in zone 6 where the lowest expected temperature can be minus 10 F.  Zone 6 plants can tolerate temperatures between zero and minus 10.  But we never did get down to minus 10 all winter. We had single digits for days and days on end, though, with no break, and we had more than a few mornings when I woke up to zero.

It was the unbroken span of cold days and cold nights that went on forever that affected the Stewartia.
Although my garden meets the definition of zone 6, it really is a harsher place in winter than the hardiness maps can account for.

This Stewartia was planted five years ago, in 2010. Not as old as the Japanese maple I just lost, but it was still an investment in time, money, and hopes. It was a central part of the design for the border of this gravel garden and the allee that runs between the garden and house.

It was slender and still small, but it had helped to enclose the gravel sitting area and shield it from the side of the house where the cellar door and utilities are, just a few feet away. It was even beginning to shade that hot blank wall of the house from the western sun.

Functional, beautiful, and trouble free --- but too tender for winter in my garden.

This is just too, too cruel.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cage Free

Finally, a very warm day yesterday, in the 80s and summery. Too hot even!

This climbing hydrangea has been freed from its cage. It is now standing on its own. It took nine years.

In 2006 we put up a pergola over the garage doors, and I used a gift certificate from my retirement party to buy a nice Hydrangea anomala petiolaris.

When I first planted it there was nothing for it to climb on. It uses root hairs to attach to structures, like poison ivy does, actually.

I wanted it to grow up to the pergola and stretch across it, but there was a big gap between the little plant at ground level and the pergola way up over the garage doors. So I gave it a structure to hold onto while it gained some height. The poor thing has lived inside a cedar pyramid since 2006.

By 2010 it had outgrown the pyramid and was confused about what direction I wanted it to go in. So I hung a small panel of lattice from the pergola, and tied the uppermost branches to it and encouraged the vines to attach to the lattice and go up. Upward! You can do it!

By 2013 I was so excited that it had reached the pergola and seemed ready to crawl across it. I took down the lattice panel but left the pyramid for support below.

Now, finally in 2015 it was time to set this plant free.

Last weekend I took out the cedar pyramid, which meant chopping it out in one foot lengths using my loppers, since the hydrangea had engulfed it and could not be separated from the laths very easily.

But I got it free, and now this beautiful vine, with peeling bark and lovely foliage is on its own.

The middle section is twisting  and architectural and cool looking. The bottom third is still box shaped and congested from its former life inside a squared cage. The top is just wild and excited about getting across that pergola.

I'm going to prune the lower third so the stems show more. And since I took these pictures a few days ago I have pruned the top third so it goes horizontally across the pergola and not so much up and out in wild abandon. That was ladder work.

I never thought this would be a nine year project, but it was. And I never thought the pyramid to pergola leap would really happen, but it has.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Red Chairs

Lovely weather for early May. Sunny, in the low 70s and very nice. Dry, though. We could use rain.

I did it. I painted the Mayan folding chairs, after giving them a good cleaning to get some of the stain and mildew off. Here is how they originally looked in 2006 when new.

But after 8 years out in the elements they had become discolored and black with mildew in places. So I cleaned them up, and painted them red.


This isn't the barn red color I was going for. Somehow they look plastic now, and kind of cheap.

I don't like them this color at all. Even in low light they are too red. In fact they stand out even more in the fading evening light.

Jim says they will look fine when the trees around the gravel garden and in the background leaf out. The paperbark maple on the right, and that twiggy stump of a smokebush are both late to leaf out and are still bare, but I can see what he means. The red chairs aren't so bad surrounded with other things.

But I don't like them.

This should be fixable, but I'm not sure what to do. Repaint?