Sunday, August 30, 2015

Summer Is Ending

For late August the weather has been cool. Sunny (another too-long stretch without any rain), and pleasant with very chilly nights.

It's weird, but the 'Ruby Spice' clethra never bloomed at all this summer. I kept thinking it comes out later than the smaller 'white 'Hummingbird' variety, but I don't think that's so. They bloom together starting in early August.

Here's 'Hummingbird', already gone by, with its white spikes turning tawny and its heavenly scent faded now. The larger, lighter colored shrub is the 'Ruby Spice' summersweet, and there is not a bloom in sight.

I have this combination of 'Hummingbird' and 'Ruby Spice' planted on both ends of the berm. In both sites the taller 'Ruby Spice' did not have a single bloom this year.

Clethra blooms on new wood, so it can't be left over winter damage. I wonder what caused this total lack of flowering on what looks otherwise like healthy shrubs? And only on the one variety, while the smaller white cultivar bloomed as robustly as ever. That's odd.

The gently spicy aroma of summersweet is gone by, and now sweet autumn clematis takes over. It's stronger, headier, very noticeable at all times, even scenting the air before its star flowers are fully open.

This sweet autumn clematis is climbing on the deck railing right outside the porch, and you can't miss its sharp smell when you walk out on the porch. Unlike clethra, which is a fragrance that you have to catch on the midsummer air as you walk nearby coming and going, sweet autumn clematis greets you head on and declares for a fact: summer is ending.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Far From What It Was

This summer I have noticed two major changes.

First: this is the first year I look at what I have planted and I don't see plants. I am no longer looking at individual shrubs or isolated perennials when I survey my garden. I see the whole scene and I see it naturally without having to try to step back or force myself to take the longer view.

This has been a long time coming. For years and years I have been focused on each individual specimen. Every time I sat in my garden I saw the strugglers. Every time I walked around I zeroed in on the shape of that little shrub, or the floppiness of those tall perennials, or the new growth on a sapling.

I do take care of each plant individually if it needs something -- some staking or pruning or a check on aphids -- but when I look I see a whole garden. I no longer see a collection of needy beings.
Second: this is the first summer I have come home from visiting public gardens or private tours and thought "my garden looks as good as what I just saw." My gardens please me, and they please me in direct comparison to other beautifully tended and gorgeously designed places that I have just seen.

I drive up the driveway on my return and the word "wow" sort of slips out. I look out the kitchen window and think "that's really nice".

I sit on my porch or out on the patio and I like it. Even the new things I've planted that aren't at their best yet, or the things I know I need to take out or move -- even they fit into a larger, immensely pleasing scene.

How did this happen? How did my focus on each plant change to a wider view, and how did I lose that edgy dissatisfaction when comparing my garden to others?

Well, my garden matured. Even though trees and shrubs are not yet full sized, they are bigger and fuller. There is some blessed shade now. There is screening from the road and neighbors. It's no longer a collection of things out in the open sun, exposed to nearby surroundings. It is a coherent space that draws you in. There are layers, and there are places to walk into, and it is complex. It's taken me 9 years.

And as a gardener I have progressed. There is a process all new gardeners go through, from first lusting after bright flowers, to then learning about individual plants and wanting specimens, to eventually absorbing design concepts.

After all these years I like my garden. I think it is a special place.

Friday, August 21, 2015

When You Come to Visit

It's been hot, breezy, and humid, and now today, on my birthday, it has turned damp and rainy.

When you come to see my garden you will say nice things and compliment me on it. Thank you.

But you will not know what I know. You won't, for instance, have any idea how many years it took to get some shade on the patio so we can sit there and visit.

I tried umbrellas and an expensive awning. I experimented with moving the patio set all around, I had a small sourwood tree growing by the wall, and finally after ten years a transplanted river birch gives us enough shade to sit under in the afternoon. Finally, after ten years, we can sit out here. You have no idea how I marvel at that every day.

You won't see the hummingbirds. They have been swarming the feeder this August. There are five now, so I assume some are the new fledglings. They come to the feeder every five or six minutes, but you won't see them. When there are people sitting nearby they get shy. But when I am alone they come and feed right next to me, flirt with me at times, and swoop around.

When you come to visit you will not hear the water fountain. We'll be talking, and you won't be aware of the gentle trickling sound that burbles when the sun is out and stops when the sun goes behind a cloud. The pump is powered by a small solar panel.

When I sit by myself I hear it. It trickles with the sunshine, it goes silent when clouds move in. It's like hearing sunshine.

Our conversation will also mask the low drone coming from the anemones near the patio wall. When I am here alone, I hear a constant resonating hum when I walk past these 'Robustissima' anemone flowers. It's dozens of bees going crazy all day long. We'll be talking too much to hear them, but they make a noise like small electric engines.

Maybe we'll it on the porch instead of the patio when you come to see me. You'll think the white Rose of Sharon outside the porch window looks good, but you won't know that I cut off a third of it this spring and had to clean out so much winter kill that as a result, there are very few flowers this summer.

You won't see that, but I will. It's barely blooming at all this year compared to other summers.

There are so many sights and sounds in my garden I wish you could appreciate. Of course when you come to see me it will be raining and we won't even be out there. Or it will be too cold or too dark.

Oh well. Come see me anyway. I'll make you a nice salad of grilled peaches and prosciutto and tell you all about the neat things in my garden.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Rail Yards

The third part of the High Line in New York opened last year. We had been to visit the innovative elevated city garden when it first opened, and again in the fall of 2011. So it was time to go back and see the new section and check out how the original plantings in the first parts had grown.

The new section is a long curve that wraps around the rail yards. You look down through the fence to see the tops of trains that snake in and out in a mysterious pattern of comings and goings.

The new section is different from the stylized tableau of prairie plants and woodland copses and fountains and skywalks, amphitheaters, benches and overlooks that are the design of the original parts.

The new walk is simply a reconstructed version of the abandoned railroad tracks, designed to look exactly as it did after the trains stopped running 25 years ago. The whole stretch is just iron rails partly hidden under Queen Anne's lace and goldenrod and gravel and other wild weeds.

There are a few benches to sit on along the way, but no shade, no trees, no attempt to make what we would call a garden. It really preserves the open, weed-colonized wilderness that grew up by itself in the middle of a dense urban area.

There was controversy when it was first proposed to reclaim the decayed rail structure from the wreckers. Some wanted a beautiful tended park of flowers, shrubs and fountains built along the old railroad line. Others wanted to preserve the unkempt chaos they found on the elevated tracks -- there was such stark beauty in what had grown there naturally and some park promoters wanted it kept that way, but with stairs and paths to make it accessible to people.

Now, with the last section built to evoke the undesigned wild plant communities growing out on the open tracks, I think they got both.

But this new section is in no way left to its own devices to grow wild. It too is highly managed, and 13 sculptures by Adrian Villar Rojas placed along the way echoed that. They were crumbling buttresses of clay and cement, each one a little different, and each one showing how plants and structures grow and decay together. Some had urban junk embedded in them -- old sneakers, that kind of thing, all disintegrating and blending into a growing landscape.

We walked the whole High Line. I liked seeing what they had done with the Rail Yards part, and I enjoyed seeing how the original plantings at the south end had grown so since our last visit, especially the oaks and magnolias and other large trees. Incredible in such a confined space.

It was a hot August day, it was afternoon, and I found that on this visit my attention drifted from the plants. It's a limited plant palette by design, and this time my day in New York was not about the plants.

Instead, we sat on a bench and watched what else grows in New York: buildings. Cranes swiveled everywhere. Noise. A city ballet in slow motion, set to a score of banging and booming.

Then we spent a long time just watching the trains in the rail yard.

There were lots of people walking the High Line, and for hours I watched the women and was struck by how well dressed everyone was. Almost half wore dresses -- sundresses with sandals, long flowy skirts, swingy short skirts and tops. It was a parade. If they wore pants, they had on nice capris, or the young girls wore cute shorts. I saw one, and only one, person wearing blue jeans, and that was me.

How do they walk the long city blocks or even the length of the High Line in sandals? My feet were killing me and I was the only one wearing sneakers.

We had lunch in a really nice restaurant below the High Line. At the end of the afternoon before we headed back to the train to go home, we had a gin and tonic sitting on the sidewalk at a beer garden. We got panhandled but it was too nice a day to let that bother.

Cranes, trains, dresses, drinks. A great day in the city. Next time I'll wear cuter shoes.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Nice summer weather for August. Hot, but not too hot, sunny but with a breeze, and nights are chilly.

Hydrangea 'Preziosa' is a smaller, rounded hydrangea that is sometimes listed as a mophead, sometimes as H. serrata, and it is marginally hardy here. The blooms turn wine red in summer and fall. This is what they look like in autumn:
I took this at Whiteflower Farm in October.

I planted a 'Preziosa' in my garden in 2010 and it promptly failed. It just did not thrive in an open spot in the Birch Garden. So I dug it up, and in the process it kind of fell apart, so I had two woody clumps of roots and some stems. I planted the two pieces in separate spots where I thought they might do better, but they both struggled.

I moved them again in 2012. One to Meadow's Edge in the deep shade of the maple. The other was moved to the patio wall under the river birch. By this time I was verging on plant abuse.

Finally, this summer, five years later, and after two harsh winters, one of the two 'Preziosa' shrubs is really looking good. Really good.

The other, sited under the maple tree, is not doing as well. It has plenty of shade, but the competition with the maple's roots is too much, and it spends all summer looking helplessly limp.

But the one by the patio wall is starting to look like a gardener's inspiration. I can see it up close, of course, and that's key to appreciating how the flowers change from lavender blue to deep rose, with both new and older blossoms on the shrub together.

It is a nice shape and size to go under the river birch and it complements the bright Blackeyed susans and a cool-toned zenobia nearby.

I really like the combination of colors and forms here. It works well.

I'll be eager to see how 'Preziosa' looks in the fall, when all the flowers are deep red. It will be a while before my shrub is covered in blooms the way the mature one I saw at Whiteflower Farm was, but after five years of abuse and struggle, I am surprised at how this little hydrangea is coming along.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Scents and Sounds

It rained deeply yesterday, an inch and a quarter, and then it rained some more at night, another half inch, and then at 3 in the morning the sprinklers went on and I had to get up in hurry and turn them off. We've had plenty of water. Today is sunny and sparkly.

The pink Knockout rose by the front steps has started blooming again in the past week. It flowered in spring, then looked a little tired and sparse, but now in August it has another full flush of delicate pink roses.

I make frequent excuses to go out the front door on some errand or other in order to catch a whiff of the rose's very subtle sweet scent.

August is when the clethra bloom, filling the back yard with a spicy aroma. The 'Hummingbird' shrubs flower first -- they are low and have white spikes. 'Ruby Spice' is taller and not yet in bloom. When it flowers, the spikes are bigger and a soft pink.

When I get tired of going in and out the front door to smell the rose, I come out back and invent errands that take me past the clethra. The compost pile is behind the berm, and the stands of clethra are planted on opposite sides of the berm, so I make up lots of reasons why the compost needs tending.

Although I don't actually do anything with the compost. I end up sitting in the middle of the berm on my shady bench, in between the two stands of clethra. That way I get the scent from either side and I let it waft by me while I sit and listen to the high chirring summer sound of cicadas on an August day.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cleopatra's Necklace

Mornings have been almost chilly, and days hot and summery and filled with sunshine. No rain, and once again it is needed. Look what I found this morning as I walked in the cool garden and out into the field.

This spider is making sure anything flying in the vicinity of the hop-hornbeam tree gets nabbed. No halfway effort here, this is a work of art and a guarantee of breakfast.

It looks like a finely wrought silver breastplate necklace, something an Egyptian queen would wear.

I was checking out this little sapling, looking for hops. It's an Ostrya virginiana, and the fruiting clusters look like dangling hops, hence the name hop-hornbeam.

My small tree is young, so I haven't seen any flowers or papery hop-like fruits yet. But even better, it is decorated in impressive regal bling. I thought I heard trumpets.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Pine Barren Berries

This is how the wild blueberry was first cultivated in the pine barrens of New Jersey:

The article in the link is a great history of how Elizabeth White brought blueberries into commercial cultivation in the early 1900s and then created a market for these "moorland jewels".

She sent local pineland woodsmen out into the sandy barrens to bring back fruits of highly variable wild shrubs that thrived everywhere in the sandy acidic soil. She would select the best, then have the woodsman guide her back to the shrub to dig it up -- in return he got a dollar and the honor of having the variety named for him (except for Sam Lemon; she wouldn't name a variety the Lemon Blueberry.)

The article is interesting. I'll think of Lizzie White each time I put those big blue pine barren berries on my breakfast cereal.


Monday, August 3, 2015

August Assessments

Boy did it rain last week. A line of thunderstorms brought almost two inches (!) of drenching rain last Thursday evening. It came down in windblown curtains. Noisy waterfalls ebbed and surged, stopped and then started again, pouring down and sounding like trains running over tracks. It was needed.

Summer is racing by. It's time to make assessments of what needs fixing next season. Here's what I think:

I don't need two sweetbay magnolias.
There are two sweetbay magnolias at the north corner of the house. The one in front of the window is taller, flowers more, and is just a statelier shape. The one at the corner is smaller. It was a smaller sapling when planted and was moved twice before it landed here at the corner.

It's too close to the house, it looks funny paired with its larger sibling, and somehow the form of one sweetbay looks nice, while this one looks weedy. It needs to go. I'll take it out.

Clematis Jackmanii 'Superba' has to move. 
It has outgrown its tower. It's eye catching in bloom, but the thing looks densely congested and it looms oddly in the open garden.

It needs to be taken out of this spot. I want to transplant it somewhere else, but I have no structure it could climb to its heart's content. That pillar standing in the middle of nowhere is unnatural looking, although when the little gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) right next to it gets taller than the tower, maybe it won't loom so. Even so, the clematis is too big here and I'll move it.

The lone bottlebrush buckeye is really, really annoying me.
I can't help it, this just drives me nuts and I keep writing about it in this diary. That mislabeled rogue cultivar does not belong in a row with its species cousins.

I do think I will take it out and let the other Aesculus parviflora shrubs fill in the gap for a coherent and consistent hedge. I just have to for my sanity and nerves.

One of the pair of black gums has a distinctly weeping habit.
There are two in the front yard. The one on the left wants to droop over. I have trimmed the branches repeatedly and the remaining lower branches then arch downward even more. The leader has gone awry.

Several other black gums (Nyssa sylvatica) I have planted have stiffly pyramidal shapes and upright leaders. This one is the only one with such a weeping tendency.

I kept thinking it was immature growth and as it matured it would stiffen up and take on the usual form. It has been growing in this spot since 2010 and was a large specimen when planted. It is not outgrowing the droopiness, and in fact it is getting more noticeable.

It's paired with another black gum for symmetry in the front yard, but the two trees look so different. My assessment is that this one is genetically a weeper, but my solution is to do nothing, as I'm not sure what can be done about it.

A large baptisia needs an intervention.
Baptisias have clean, fresh looking foliage all summer, and are not bothered much by pests or diseases. They are always described as indestructible, easy plants. But the Baptisia 'Twilite Prairieblues' outside the bedroom window has a lot of grayish, browning foliage at the top, and the soil under it is carpeted with dried discarded leaves.

It turns out to have spider mites -- nothing else around it is infected and baptisias in general are not susceptible. Go figure. A miticide spray is needed.

My other false indigo, Baptisia pendula, planted in the Birch Garden, looks fine.

At least the spider mite problem on 'Twilite Prairieblues' is fixable, but the reason it became infested is a mystery.

The 'Orange Dream' Japanese maple is struggling.
I was so pleased it made it through the winter when other small trees did not. I pruned off winter kill, and thought I'd escaped further trouble. But now it's pretty fried at the top, and the heart shaped canopy is forming even more of a gap in the middle.

It always gets this way in summer -- it is in too much sun -- but it looks worse than in other years and the shape is starting to deform.

Extra deep watering and more frequent soaking may help. Of course this tree is at the back of the Birch Garden at the very edge of the yard where no hose can reach it, so frequent deep watering is something I've already decided to just feel guilty about not doing enough.

The Blackhaw Viburnum is half dead.
The rounded green tree next to the wine colored redbud is a Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) that I limbed up rather artfully, and I've been so pleased with how the trunks look opened up. But this summer half the tree in back has died off.

The tightly twisted trunks are actually compressing each other, and the trunk that supports the branches at the back of the tree is flattened and unable to support its canopy. Frost nipped the back branches this spring, and now this summer it's dying back even more. I can wait to see what develops -- maybe it will resprout more fully next year. But in my assessment, this tree is half gone.

I will lop off the compressed trunk, leaving just the single stem to grow. That will remove half of the structure and all of the graceful look of the stems. To even it out on the fuller side, I'll have to take off branches in front too.

If it kills the tree I'll start over and plant something else.

I am no stranger to do-overs and raising baby trees.