Sunday, June 28, 2015

As I Weed

Earlier this week I was out in the yard weeding at about 9:30 in the morning, when a black bear ambled through the yard in front of the hedge of bottlebrush buckeyes. He went right out into the lawn, not 50 feet from where I was.

As I quietly backed away toward the house he walked between the gravel garden and the birch garden and then over to the new crabapples the neighbors planted between our two yards.

I was inside by now, and watched him stand up and shake a tree. He shook it hard, sniffed the leaves, then dropped back down and lumbered over to the neighbor's patio out of sight.

I think it was a juvenile. There were no ear tags and no collar, and although he seemed smaller than the average bear, he looked immense and black and glossy so close up. And standing up shaking the tree he (she?) looked powerful.

This encounter was too close.

Black bears are not aggressive. There have been no reports of human-bear mishaps around here. But a juvenile or a startled bear might react unpredictably coming so close to to a gardener with her rump in the air and her nose in the dirt.

I'm not frightened, but I am now hyper aware of everything around me outside. No more zen hours of weeding, which is a favorite thing to do on a cool morning after a rain has softened the earth. Just kneel and tug, step and pull, tuned out to everything but breeze and birdsong.

When I weed I don't look around me, I simply laser in on the next weed, the errant leaf and the out of place stalk, until the moment when I gently rip out a tall leafy thing only to find out it is the spicebush seedling I just paid a fortune for and planted this spring. Argh. I'm an idiot.

When I am not ripping out cherished seedlings, though, I drift off thinking of nothing and unaware of anything as I pull up weed after weed.

Not any more. Now I am acutely aware of everything around me. When I walk out to the meadow or the woods with brush to dispose of, I clap and whistle (not really, I can't whistle. But I make squeaky noises). I don't want to catch a bear unaware.

Jim wants me to carry an air horn to scare a bear if I come upon one, but it would only wind up lying in the dirt someplace where the trowel and the pruners and all good garden tools end up when I am outside working. I would never have it at hand when needed.

I am not scared. But I am edgily aware and unable to enjoy the long periods of zoned out calm I used to have in my garden.

I miss those zen weeding moments.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Step This Way

I like how this came out.

We bought a pallet of irregular bluestone stepper stones and placed them between the two back gardens leading to the bridge over the dry creek bed.

Well, we didn't place them. We hired a strong young stonemason to install them. There was some very heavy lifting of some of the largest slabs.

He's coming back to actually dig out the space for each stone and set them in stone dust to make this a walkable path.

But even now, with the steppers just laid on the grass to see the spacing, I like it.

It flows. It moors two separate islands of gardens that seemed to be swimming in the lawn before. It ties them together.

The stone path draws you from the open lawn down between the two gardens, then curves around toward the front again.


It's still visually part of the lawn -- the turf will remain in between the steppers and it will have to be mowed. Jim has assured me that's no problem.

I like that it is an extension of the lawn, not an abrupt change to a paved walkway that you enter. It's just the lawn itself turning into a path that directs you between the two gardens, under the trees and back around.

It's a simple addition, but it transforms this narrow strip.

I wasn't sure about the light color of the bluestones, but the contrast with the grass is nice, and I even like how the stones pick up the slate blue of the bench in the distance. A little bit of color repetition.

When the trees that line this area grow up a little more (and god help me if the purple leaved redbud doesn't die back any more each winter) it will be an arbor of cool shade that draws you down the path. Nice.

In the first years of creating gardens on our empty half acre I struggled with tying isolated beds and features together. Everything seemed to float alone in a sea of lawn. I'm getting there with this composition I think.

Step this way, please.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Truth in Tags

In my last post I was so excited to find a 'Seiryu' Japanese maple at an affordable price and a small enough container size that I could plant myself.

And I found it unexpectedly at Lowe's.

This was truly a scoop. If local nurseries or box stores around here carry a dissected green Japanese maple it is always 'Viridis', a common weeping variety. It's very common; I have found it everywhere I have looked at Japanese maples.

But to find an upright green dissected one was surprising so I snapped it up.

Yesterday I planted it in a spot by the creek bed and took the tag off and only then did I look a little closer.

Yep, it says Acer palmatum dissectum 'Seiryu'. Thank god for botanical Latin. But down at the bottom it lists its features, including "cascading" tree. Cascading?

Is this really 'Viridis', the very common and easily found weeping maple that every store around here sells?

Or is it really 'Seiryu' and the lazy people making label descriptions just lifted stock language from dissected maples in general?

The incised leaves of 'Viridis' and 'Seiryu' look the same; it's the form and habit that are completely different.

The back of the tag says it needs afternoon shade, and it will spread to 15 feet wide, which is the size of a giant mounding weeper, not the spread of the narrow, slender 'Seiryu'.


There is a reference number to look up at the bottom of the tag, so I went online but no such reference exists on the site. There are other Japanese maples with other code numbers, but not L1173.

Enough of useless tags. Let's go out and look at the tree I planted. Is it growing upright or mounding over?

Ummm, I can't tell.

It's impossible to see in the photo -- the slender twigs and lacy leaves don't show up against the complex background of rocks and dirt. But even looking at it in real life I can't tell.

It looks upright overall but the bendable branches flop out and down. The ones in the middle go up straight, the ones to the side and at the bottom arch over.



So I don't know. This tree looks like a combination of upright and arching. It's both.

What nags at me is knowing that 'Viridis' is commonly sold here, 'Seiryu' is not. Their leaves look alike. 'Viridis' needs afternoon shade (the tag says grow this in morning sun only), but my research tells me a 'Seiryu' maple can take full sun.

I'm hoping this tag just lifted wording about dissected-leaf trees in general -- that they need shade, they cascade, they spread to 15 feet wide -- even though this unusual tree is supposed to take sun, grows upright and will be no more than 8 feet wide and vase shaped.

What really bothers me most is that finding 'Seiryu' at Lowe's seemed too good to be true. You think?
Which one have I actually planted?

I'll grow this tree and see what develops. If it gets huge and cascading, I will know it was mislabeled and it will come out. If not, I'll know the label was right but the description and care instructions were woefully generic and useless and wrong.

(And yes, I'll let the store know the plant tag has a mismatched label and description. I've given feedback to Lowe's before about their nursery operations and gotten an acknowledgement back, so there's that.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Blue Green Dragon

After the rain at the beginning of the week it has been damp and overcast. Humid, but not really hot.

There have been moments of sun and with all the moisture in the ground, everything looks great, even pots on the deck.

Clematis are blooming, nicotianas are becoming huge, big creamy flowers are opening on the sweetbay magnolia.

June is busting out all over.

I spent the morning chasing a deer out of the meadow.

Each time I shooed it away it came back. I flapped my arms and moved toward it and it trotted away. But then it came back.

The deer kept returning and just stood there, posing. Perhaps there were fawns nearby lying on the ground in the tall grass -- I did not go out to investigate.

Finally I went in and got the camera and as soon as I came back out to take its picture it bounded away and hasn't been back.

Apparently a digital SLR with a zoom lens works pretty well as a deer deterrent.

Yesterday I brought a dragon home. It is Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Seiryu', which means "blue green dragon". Because of the name I assumed the leaves had a blue cast, but they don't.
It is a small cutleaf Japanese maple with medium green dissected leaves, that will get to about 10 or 15 feet tall. Fall color is brilliant as with most Japanese maples. Its small size and deeply incised leaves give it a lacy elegance.

It is the only dissectum Japanese maple that grows upright. The dissectum group of Japanese maples are weeping trees, like 'Crimson Queen', which I have in front of the house. They are small trees that cascade over into mounds of fringy looking foliage.
'Crimson Queen' has the typical cascading dissectum form

Every year I prune off about a third of 'Crimson Queen' to open up the congested canopy and give this tree some form, but it wants to tumble down and grow like a haystack.

'Seiryu' on the other hand, grows vase shaped and upright.
image found here

I have wanted one for the longest time, but never saw one offered locally, even at Broken Arrow Nursery, nearby in Hamden, which is a treasure house of special trees and shrubs.

I could get it mail order, but I stopped buying trees through mail order a few years ago. In general I've had good experience with mail order trees, but you have to buy them very small, and they have to be narrow, lightly branched specimens to survive shipping. And shipping costs for a tree are way expensive.

But yesterday, walking through Lowe's to buy a bag of potting soil, I spotted a whole display of 'Seiryu' Japanese maples. I was surprised. Lowe's, of all places.

They were big and leafy but just the right container size to fit in my trunk and to be planted by me without help. And the price was right.

Michaela at The Gardener's Eden in Vermont has a beautiful specimen that she has often featured on her blog, especially in its fall color.
The Gardener's Eden

Larry Conrad in Wisconsin had one that he showed on his blog Conrad Art Glass and Gardens, but I think he lost it to a disease a while back.
Conrad Art Glass and Gardens

Here's hoping I have not bought another tree I may have problems with. Several forum discussions about growing 'Seiryu' mention it hates hot wind in the summer and perhaps wants some winter protection. It is hardy to zone 5 but in the odd climate of my garden, zone hardiness is more or less random. It wants more shade than I can give it.

The only afternoon-shady spot I can put it in is near the dry creek bed where I lost two other trees; a variegated redbud and a native pagoda dogwood both refused to spend even one winter in that spot.

For those reasons, and because I never found one locally, I had decided not to plant 'Seiryu' even though I admired it so on other gardeners' blogs.

But then Lowe's.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mid June Before the Rain

It poured down rain yesterday. Two inches!

That much rain is wonderful for all the plants in my garden, but it did knock down a lot of blooming things. Here's what was flowering before the rain came.

The iteas that I cut back so severely because of winterkill look good. They did leaf back out where the stems were live, and they even bloomed a little bit at the bottom.

They look fine and leafy, filling the middle of the garden with green mass. Honestly, they look better now after such hard pruning, and maybe that's a lesson to prune this tangled mass of shrubs every other year.

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) has never looked better. It took years (and several moves) for this to establish.

By the way, the little white nicotiana visible just below the goatsbeard is lovely N. alata, but it is not what I thought I planted -- it was supposed to be N. sylvestris, the great big tall tobacco that is a statement plant at six feet tall. Oops. The seeds got mixed up and I didn't know because the seedling leaves look the same.

The white baptisia (B. alba pendula) has also never looked better.

It starts with upright white rockets of flowers, but then arches over. The rain has knocked it down a lot, but before the rain it was draping over nicely, true to its name 'pendula'. And check out the climbing hydrangea in the distance, scampering over the pergola above the garage doors.

The other baptisia, 'Twilite Prairieblues', was done blooming a week ago, but while it flowered it was lovely. Still weird, and impossible to photograph, but nice. The flower spikes are always such an odd grayish smoky purple color.

Yellow sundrops are blooming now in front of the iteas. There are red pops in this garden from the Nicotiana 'Baby Bella' and from the cutest little bun of a red rose.

It's a 'Drift' rose that stays small and tidy. I love its size, shape and the tiny, deep red June roses.

Fleeceflower (Persicaria affinis 'Dimity') is in flower now and I always love the pink fuzzy pipe cleaners sticking up above the mat of groundcover foliage.

Spirea 'Goldflame' is blooming bright pink against its chartreuse foliage. This was a plant I took out when it was growing by the front door. Too big for that spot, too neon garish in bloom when it was in full sun and seen up close. But in partial shade tucked into the woodland part of the garden, I like it better. It offers a pop of color and bright form back there, rather than an assault on the eyes at the front door.

'Husker's Red' penstemons have popped open in front of the patio wall. They are pretty and frilly and I like seeing them up close now. They were moved from the back of the Birch Garden where it was hard to see their detail.

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' keeps going and going with deep royal blue flowers. It blooms later and for a much longer time than the traditional blue stars, A. tabernamontan or hubrichtii.

I have 'Blue Ice' repeated around the patio too, where it is nice to see their little stars up close.

This year even the tabernamontana amsonia still has a few starry blooms in mid June. It was really a good year for them. And the tiarellas are still blooming their little hearts out. They always go on forever.

If all this rain doesn't keel the drumstick alliums over, there will be pretty purple pompoms opening on these tall wands, to complement the orange butterfly weed just opening. So far it looks like the drumstick stems have stood up to the drenching rainfall.

  Mid June.

          Rain.

                  Blooms gone by and flowers to come.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Living Rocks, Mighty Chains


In 1938 Harvey Fite bought an unused bluestone quarry in Saugerties, New York near the Hudson River. He wanted it for a supply of stones for his sculpting work. He was the director of Fine Arts at Bard College nearby, and he was a sculptor, although he got there after early attempts at law school, the seminary and a few other occupations, none of which took hold until he discovered he could sculpt.

About the same time in the late 1930s he went on an expedition to Honduras and was awed by the dry stone stacked walls built by the Mayans. He came home, built a house next to the lip of the quarry and began cutting, moving, stacking and fitting rocks into place using no mortar.

Bluestone is not blue -- it's rust colored and slate gray and charcoal. Look at how the walls of the quarry show exactly where the stones want to be split into flat pieces for stacking.

He used only hand tools to break and cut the rocks.

At first his idea was to build rock platforms to display the statues he had carved. But after a few years he realized that the quarry itself was the sculpture, and the Adirondack mountains in the distance called for something of much greater scale.

So he moved his carved statues and began building giant ramps and walls and deep pools out of the quarry rock. He kept building. And kept building. And kept building.

Over 37 years he built the world's largest sculpture measured by surface area. He just kept adding walls and stone alleys and crevasses and steps. He quarried, cut, and stacked every single stone by hand by himself. He used no power tools. He did it alone. Each stone, individually placed.

The main quarry is an undulating, twisting structure capped with a 9 ton obelisk. He found this stone in a stream and winched it into place using ancient Egyptian pulley techniques (there's a grainy black and white film of it at the visitor center). The winding ramps and stepped pits cover several acres.



Then you wander away into the woods around the quarry and the walls just keep going and going and going. In all there are over six acres of stone structures -- the original quarry and the long alleys of walls winding through the woods.

There are steps and stone seats all along the woodland walls inviting you to sit or to climb up a slope. Some walls are unfinished, ending in rubble where unstacked stones lay ready to be picked up and fitted someday to keep the wall going.

Everywhere it looked like the rocks, which were strewn about in mossy stone piles in the woods, had tumbled down the slope and self assembled into fitted walls. I think that was the sculptor's intent, that it should look like the living rocks built this themselves by just falling into place.

As people began viewing the immensity of the structure being built, they asked Harvey Fite what he called it, and he finally came up with Opus 40 -- he said when he hit the 40 year mark it would be finished. After 40 years his masterpiece would be done.

He did not get there. It is still unfinished. At the age of 72, after 37 years of herculean work on his great opus, he died in the quarry, in a catastrophic accident when his riding lawnmower stuck in forward gear and catapulted him over the front edge of the quarry and onto the rocks below.

Deep quarries are dangerous places and walking the ramps of the main sculpture was unnerving -- there are no rails, and the drop offs are 12 feet or more. The slopes are steep and the footing is uneven over the rocks.

But kids are encouraged to clamber over the ramps and walls, and to build cairns out of scrap stones.
The whole place is a kid's delight with hidden pools, tiny alleys, and mysterious crevices you can climb into. Picnics are encouraged.

The intimacy of the spaces surprised me. I was prepared for grand scale and giant proportions and was not disappointed. But it was the small details that amazed me.

Like all great sculptors, Harvey Fite wanted us to see the living spirit in the rock. Like the impression he gave of rock piles in the woods tumbling down on their own to form tidy walls, he built areas in the quarry where the wall gradually became cut stone and then became fitted pieces. Here's a picture of how he did that:

Details like that are everywhere and all the hidden spaces invite lingering. I could have spent hours peeking into deep alleys and discovering little details. But the day was humid, it was noon and the sun was high. And climbing up and over so much rock is surprisingly hard on the legs.

So we took a last look at this amazing structure and the beautiful mountains around it and headed home.

To get back home we had to cross the mighty mighty Hudson. Here's a shot of it, right at the spot where American revolutionaries stretched a big iron chain across the river to keep British ships from going upriver. There were several places up and down the Hudson where this tactic was used in 1776, including at West Point. This picture is where Ft. Montgomery was located, and apparently the mighty chain obstacle worked pretty well.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Moving a Few Plants Around

Sunday June 7 was a top ten day. Dry, cool, breezy and abundantly sunny. Just a really lovely late spring day.

The light was beautiful, the air was fresh and the day was perfect.

I took advantage of the cool weather and made some moves that involved digging and hauling and hacking.

I took out the bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) at the back of Meadow's Edge. It's a pretty plant, and in summer it is leafy and screens the weeds behind this garden. But it leafs out so very late, and looks ratty until it does. It gets such winter damage and it just wasn't making me happy. Out.

The purpleleaf sand cherry that was hidden behind the viburnum in Meadow's Edge was dug up (oomph) and moved just a few feet to the spot where the bayberry had been. It is now visible from the patio. Big improvement.


It's a bit misshapen from being crammed in behind the viburnum, but it will fill out.

I like the way its wine colored shimmery foliage is an echo of the 'Forest Pansy' redbud's leaves. The redbud is alive, despite my misgivings this spring, and once I cut away all the winterkilled branches (about third of the total), it looks okay, although much smaller than last year.


Then I moved some 'Husker's Red' penstemons to the spot next to the sand cherry. A nice complement with its red tinged foliage.

Then Jim and I dug out the rest of the 'Bloodgood' maple stump. What a job. The John Deere riding mower had to be called into service. We chopped off all the roots we could get to, then tied a cord to the stump and attached it to the John Deere. We rocked the tractor back and forth and eventually loosened the stump enough to wrangle it out. It took a couple hours and Jim's back is toast.

I dug up the seedling 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple that Cassidys gave us last year. It had been in the border along the gravel garden, but with all the dark purple leaved plants on that side of the garden, it would have been too much, and I wanted to move it to the east side where there are no dark leaved plants.

I put it in a pot, and put the pot in the place where the original Japanese maple had been. Once the deck is redone later this summer, I'll plant it in its permanent spot exactly where the original 'Bloodgood' maple had been. For now it will hold the spot in its container.


In the spot next to the gravel garden vacated by the little seedling Japanese maple, I planted a small American hornbeam.

It is Carpinus caroliniana. It has excellent blue muscular looking bark, and is called blue beech, or musclewood, for that reason. The cool looking bark will be easily visible so close to the seating area.


This small sapling had been out in the meadow but was not thriving. An animal scraped the bark and it barely leafed out last year. This year it still looked wimpy. So I dug it up and put it in a container and all of a sudden it leafed out and started looking good.

Well, okay then.


It wants to live after all, and in the new spot of prominence by the gravel garden I hope it does. It will get to 25 feet tall, slowly, and provide shade just where I need it. I will have to keep it limbed up to see the bark, and to keep it from swamping the small area it is in.


This all sounds so routine -- moving a few plants around, pffft. But it was very, very hard work, and digging up the Japanese maple stump was a job that young men with power tools should have done, not two 65 year olds with pruning handsaws and an underpowered lawnmower.

But we did it and I am very happy with the results. I like the purpleleaf sand cherry in its new site, next to the dark leaved penstemons and now visible from the patio. I like the hornbeam that will provide shade along the gravel garden in a few decades or so.

And I really like replacing the deceased Japanese maple with another one in exactly the same spot. It just looks right there, even while it is still in a container waiting to be planted.