Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Day in Winter

On the last day of January 2016 it was warm enough to do garden chores outside.

The temperature was in the mid 50s, it was sunny, and the ground has not been frozen all winter.

I weeded -- real weeding. I hauled out the kneeling pad and gloves and Cobrahead and tub trug. With everything brown now, I could see the green of turf grass that had invaded border edges and easily ripped it out.

A few shady spots on the north side of a bed were frozen, but most of the ground was just wet and muddy.

I weeded, I pruned a bit, raked some spots, then got bored and sat in the weak sunshine for a while. The air was calm. The sunshine was surprisingly warm facing the sun.

It's supposed to get even warmer in the next few days, and then rain.

This is such a different winter than the past several have been. So much milder. Mild enough to be outdoors doing real gardening in the middle of winter.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Day in Summer

About six months ago, on July 16, 2015, a gardener wandered outside with a camera and took a few photos in no particular order. It was not a significant day. There was nothing noteworthy about the date. It was a very ordinary summer day --- "ordinary" herein having the meaning "spectacular".

Clematis 'Henryii'

Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

Knockout Rose 'Blushing Pink'

'Henryii' clematis up close

A red dahlia grown from seed

A scented daylily

Hot magenta garden phlox 'Nicky'

Nicotiana alata - flowering tobacco

Shasta daisies 'Becky'

The front walk

The other way down the front walk

A yellow dahlia from seed

A copper red daylily

More Crocosmias

An ordinary day in summer. Indeed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Birch Garden

We didn't get much snow from the big blizzard that crippled the midAtlantic, but we got some, and the ground is covered in white. It looks more like what January should look like here. I've been inside going through old photos, and here are some of the Birch Garden.

I call it the Birch Garden because it is a mixed planting in the middle of three white paper birches that had originally been stranded in an open patch of lawn.


We did not dig out a garden, we simply had some dirt brought in and dumped in a sloping mound on top of the lawn. That was in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, the dirt mound was mostly mulch, dotted with some struggling perennials and tiny shrubs.


But I had a vision, sort of, of what it could be, and over the years that vision has emerged.

Many plants have been lost, others have been moved and taken out. Annuals have been added, new plants put in. Each year the garden is different, but it keeps the sloping shape I had intended, with tall green plants in back and mixed flowering things in front.


Jim calls it the Butterfly Garden because I originally put in things that would attract butterflies.

We had two unusual yellow butterfly bushes ('Honeycomb'), and an agastache plant that drew them in swarms. The butterfly bushes are gone, and the agastache is gone too, and other plants have taken their places, but he still calls it the Butterfly Garden. I call it the Birch Garden. We speak different languages and communicate fitfully on most subjects.

I think I like the Birch Garden best in fall, when Sweetspire iteas in the center turn deep red but the whole effect is a muted, soft one, with all of the plants at their fullest.

Earlier in the season it is more colorful and more chaotic looking as various annuals and perennials bloom. It wants to be a purple garden, and I counter that with red flowering tobacco and a dwarf red rose, and some yellow sundrops that bloom briefly in summer. But left on its own, purple would dominate.

I need a piece of hardscape in the front, where there is a gap at the point in front where the garden is lower. All the billowy small leaved, small flowered plants need something solid among them for contrast. Something visually weighty. What could I put there? Winter is a good time to shop.

This jumble of a garden changes all the time, but here is what was growing in the Birch Garden last year:

Shrub layer

Itea virginica - Sweetspire - anchors the middle
Aronia arbutifolia 'Brillantissima' rising just above the iteas
Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' at the very back
Two dwarf white pines that you can't even see, they've been overtaken
Abelia grandiflora 'Edward Goucher' also unseen below the chaos, needs to be moved
Buddleia 'Blue Chip', three small dwarf butterfly bushes
Caryopteris 'Worcester's Gold'


Baptisia pendula 'Alba' filling up the left side, it's huge
Paeonia 'Blaze' peony
Rose 'Red Drift' - a tidy low dwarf
Salvia 'May Night'
Nepeta faassenii 'Dropmore'
Aquilegia - various columbine cultivars but they all went to purple except 'Black Barlow'
Oenothera - yellow sundrops and pink evening primroses
Aruncus - two kinds of goatsbeard, a large billowy one and a ground cover dwarf one
Pardancanda - candy lilies, self seeding all over now
Digitalis 'Milk Chocolate'
Heuchera mostly 'Sparkling Burgundy' coral bells, but a few other red leaved ones too
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' I took it out and it just came back anyway
Garden Phlox 'Nicky' - hot magenta colored
Nipponanthemum - Montauk daisy
Dianthus - red Sweet William from a wildflower mix, and a dark red one called 'Sooty'

And a big tall self seeded volunteer purple aster


Iris 'Immortality' (white) and "Beverley Sills' (peach)
Scilla - mixed colors but all my woodland hyacinths turned purple
Colchicum - one single pink one that blooms in fall
Ornithogalum - Stars of Bethlehem scattered throughout


Nicotiana - I plant the tall sylvestris, and sweet smelling alatas in white and in red
Coreopsis 'Jethro Tull' - I treat coreopsis as an annual, it rarely comes back for me

Good grief, this is all too much now that I see it listed out. And I'm not even listing what has been taken out, like a lot of field coreopsis and Siberian irises and other things that keep popping back up here and there. Of course the bulbs and perennials bloom at different times, but no wonder it all looks so chaotic at times.

Yellow 'Honeycomb' butterfly bush and 'Purple Haze' agastache, seen here in 2011, are both gone now.
They looked not just chaotic, but rangy . . .  but they were beloved by butterflies.

Now that I am reviewing everything planted in this garden, I think 2016 will see some serious editing. And a piece of hardscape for the middle front.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bathtub Plumbago

Snow coming today -- first of the season.

A spot of winter sunlight caught my eye a few mornings ago. There in the corner a bit of greenery lit up a dark spot in the dining room. It is a pot of plumbago, Cape leadwort.

Years ago on a whim I bought two potted Plumbago auriculata plants that were already in full flower, and placed them in their pots outside in the garden.

They climbed small trellises stuck into the pots and got tall and arching and were covered in the clearest blue phlox-like blooms all summer. I fell in love with these pretty flowering shrubs.

They are not hardy at all here, so each year I have bought new ones and each year I have tried them in different spots -- I had two standing sentinel at the entrance to the gravel garden, and I tried them twining up a twig trellis with orange nasturtiums one year.

I tried growing plumbago in a pot and pinching off the long growth so it would mound into a bushier shrub.

And I tried it in a container with a small tower to climb.

Each year I would put my new little plumbago plants into containers outside in May or sometimes planted into the garden, and then wait. Plumbago won't even think about getting going until very hot weather arrives, so my plants never did much until August. By September they would start to look like something and then succumb when October frosts came.

Finally last fall I decided to bring them inside and see if they would winter over inside the heated house. Instead of buying new each year, I'm trying to save the more mature plants I already have. They'll be toasty in here until June, when I can set out larger, bigger, more mature plants when it gets hot in summer.

So two of them are living in the bathtub this winter, where there is some humidity, afternoon sun comes in the window, and wet soil drains right into the tub when I water the pots.

It makes for a crowded situation when I take a bath, but they don't seem put off when the aging gardener gets in the tub for a splash. Each plant had been cut back to the soil line when I potted them up to bring inside, so I am pleased to see so much green growth shooting up now.

The third plumbago is in the corner of the dining room and only gets that little bit of eastern morning sunshine in winter. It's not as robust looking as the two bathtub plants, but it too is showing some nice growth after having been cut all the way back when it came inside.

I'll try to keep the bathtub plants cut back to form bushier shrubs, and I'll let this one vine and eventually get it to go up a small trellis.

The test will be to see if I can keep them going all winter, and to see if I do have bigger, more flowery plants to put out in summer when it gets good and hot.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Industrial Site / Garden Oasis

Cold and windy, and no snow yet this year as we approach the end of January, but they are predicting quite a snowfall coming up this weekend. Ah, winter.

I've gotten really good at taking garden photos that do not include any shots of the utilities, but occasionally, as in this early spring picture from last year, the electric meters and a/c units are visible, and there is no question they are always visible when sitting in the gravel garden.

I've gotten pretty good at planting around them to minimize their visual impact. Dwarf Alberta spruces are in front of the meters, but don't enclose them completely.

The complexity of plants and their maturing size along the side of the house helps distract, but not hide, the ugly mechanics. For the most part.

I did try to find ways to completely hide the big a/c units, but tall grasses, which did obscure them totally, ended up creating a repair bill when the units weren't getting enough airflow around them. So the grasses came out and the units are no longer hidden.

Pretty alchemillas, Japanese forest grass and flowering low shrubs do the work of distracting the eye as you pass down this walk. It's okay I guess.

On the house wall I have to hide something that looks like the Large Hadron Collider, and it's installed a good seven feet up. That's a lot of vertical height to camouflage, but the Alberta spruces in front of it at least offer dense height if not complete screening.

And the lower end of this power station complex is the ugliest of all, so the ground level needs screening, which the dense Alberta spruces also provide. How on earth is this wiring tangle acceptable, featured on the outside of a house? But all the homes are wired this way.

The obvious solution is some kind of structure to enclose the meters and there are great examples on Pinterest, although they don't look to be seven feet tall.

I thought about something like this, but the cost (these are custom made expensive constructions) and the source (where to find a local woodworker who could even build one of these?) and the maintenance (another outdoor structure to preserve) and the lack of space behind the spruces nixed the idea.

I don't want to take the Alberta spruces out -- they do more than partially obscure the meters, as they offer color and height and greenery along that long flat wall. And there's little room behind them for meter houses bigger than some garden sheds.

And look . . . . from some angles you can't see the utilities at all. Behind that line of Alberta spruces at the top of the driveway is the power plant, but you wouldn't know.

An area I can't camouflage at all is the entrance to our property.  A forbidding purple Norway maple stands sentinel over electrical boxes to welcome anyone up our drive and into our garden.  For years I've wanted to paint Welcome on the biggest box.

Whaddya think? Would the utility company mind?

There is simply no way to disguise these boxes. That corner of the road and drive is not wide enough for large, tall shrubbery, and the plow piles giant snowbanks right there. Perennials would have to be huge, (miscanthus again?) to hide anything, and the snowplow would make a mess of anything there.

Fake fiberglass rock covers are expensive and would only fit the little green box. The bigger one is the size of a small refrigerator and hums all day, and probably shouldn't be enclosed.

I do love turning  the corner into our driveway, coming up the small rise to the paver section at the top where the low stone wall invites you to stop. It's such a short entrance, but particularly in fall the plantings along the drive draw you in and there is a sense of arriving in a special place.

But it all starts at the corner entrance from the road, and that's just ugly. At night the streetlight illuminates the boxes, and only the boxes, as it throws very little light. It really does spotlight them.

Wait, you say. You're the same homeowner gardener who put hulking shiny black solar panels smack on the front of the house?

And you think metal boxes on the corner spotlighted by a streetlamp are kind of ugly?

You're right. The utility boxes are probably the least of my garden's blights. The panels and the electric boxes actually kind of balance each other in a feng shui kind of way, offering blatantly utilitarian hardscape contrasted with greenery and repose.

Welcome to my garden, where industrial vibe meets garden oasis. It's intentional.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bigger Beds

One of the things I need to remember to do next spring is to dig out a wider area under one of the paper birches. The planting bed under the birch tree has Chinese junipers on one end, fragrant sumac 'Gro-Low' at the other end, and a swath of burned lawn around it on one side.

I never remember that this area needs expanding in spring and early summer. The grass always looks fine for much of the early season, and I forget that when high summer comes it will burn out.

The thirsty birch roots are taking all the water in this patch of lawn, and no matter how much we run the sprinklers, it never helps. I need to remove the sod here, expand the planting bed to incorporate this dry area, and then let the 'Gro-Low' sumac spread out into the newly dug area to fill it.

Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low' has been a wonderful groundcover plant that fills several areas of my garden. It is tough and tolerates dry conditions, so I have no worries that if I allow it to grow into an area that obviously struggles with enough water, it will still look great.

The best season of all for Rhus aromatica is in fall, when it colors beautifully.

October 30, 2014
I like how two birch trees framing the central garden are anchored by colorful sumac shrubs. In the fall picture above from 2014 the grass was once again green in the trouble spot, so again in 2015 I forgot about doing anything to expand the bed. Then it burned out, predictably, in summer and I remembered.

If I make the planting bed under the right birch tree bigger, I need to do the same with the planting bed under the left tree. The symmetry of the two birch plantings is what I like, and they will frame the center garden even better if I bring them out into the grass, toward each other a little more.
Like this -- the shadows on the lawn show me just where I'll need to dig.

I did spend one afternoon last fall starting the expansion on one side but I can see I need to make this three times bigger to make sure I've removed all the grass over the dry spot. And then I need to start on the other side.

Put it on the list of jobs to do in spring:
                                           Make bigger beds!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Old Mossy Bench

It's been an odd winter. No snow yet, other than an ice coating for a day that then slid off the roof and made a mess. The local ski area couldn't even make enough snow to open until last weekend, and then it poured rain when they did. Some beautiful sunrises lately, though.

I decided to decorate the potting bench. I don't know why -- it's a work station and it gets dirty and attracts whatever junk a garden uses, so spiffing it up is pointless.

I experimented with putting some tchotchkes on the potting bench, because I had them. Like a small collection of license plates from cars we either used to own or never owned.

The mesh wire across the top of the bench is there to hold hooks for hanging garden tools. But my tools always wound up somewhere else, not on their proper hooks, so I abandoned that organizational bright idea and took all the hooks down.

On the top shelf I put four brass garden ornaments, because I see the top of the bench from inside, now that the desk is right up against that window. Now I look out and see a shy ladybug, a brassy cricket, a sleepy dragonfly and a morose turtle. They are company as I type at the desk.

The bench itself is weathering into an old mossy ark of a thing. When it was brand new in early 2007 the cedar was fresh and bright and the tool hanging system on the mesh backing held promise. Jim built this for me in the basement and then we couldn't figure out how to get it up the stairs and outside, but we managed.

Over the past nine years the wood has weathered and darkened, as cedar does. It has also grown quite a crop of lichens and moss, since the bench is up against the shady north side of the house.

I dig the moss out and transplant it into the garden in small spots where I want some mossy ground cover, and each time I do that, the moss regrows on the bench, as well as in between the pavers below it. I think it is Leucobryum, pincushion moss.

I like the moss, actually, and the lichens and the aged darkening of the bench. But the cedar planks are constantly slimy and slippery and that's not good on my work surface. The north side of the house really keeps this area dark and wet.

Dressing it all up with garden ornaments and license plate displays isn't helping with the slime and mossy decrepitude. But I like the aged look and I am fascinated with how moss grows, and the four little brass creatures just outside my window do make me smile.