Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cut Back By Half

The last Sunday in February, and it's 60 degrees F out. I just came in from a walk around the neighborhood and it was breezy but pleasant. It's hard to believe this is still February, and leap year to boot, with another day to go.

I sat in the sun on the front porch for a while and thought about perennials.

I like flowers, but I've never really caught on to the care of perennials. Trees and shrubs are my thing -- I love to plant and tend and prune woody plants. Perennials all seem to have these rules about shearing after bloom or cutting back before flowering, deadheading, staking, pinching and thinning that make them seem like a lot of work.

And it's work that has to be done on a schedule.

I'm always too late. By the time I notice a perennial has gotten big and floppy it is well past the time it should have been "sheared after bloom."

When the tall ones lie down on the ground, it is past the window of opportunity to get a sturdy stake or basket ring around the emerging stems.

After a bushy perennial has splayed open in summer I know I've been too tardy in cutting it back by half for compactness or pinching it or whatever I was supposed to do.

So this year I am going to make a list of what to do, and when, and put it on my iPhone with reminder dates that will beep when I must perform some task.

Because there are not enough things in this house that beep each day.


Cut back the garden phlox 'Nicky' by half before it blooms for compactness, and chop the the tall sedums in half too. That will keep them sturdier.
The tall magenta phlox are striking, but needed to be cut back by half before blooming to be sturdier and denser.
Also, the 'Autumn Joy' sedum needed to be hacked in half before it blooms so the flowers don't topple over.

Cut amsonias back about a foot after they are done blooming for compactness and to control splaying -- only hubrichtii and the tabernamontanas. I've never cut them back during the growing season (I cut them to the ground each spring), and they are getting big and rangy and flopping over in summer now. The low 'Blue Ice' amsonia doesn't need any cutting.
The upper left picture is of a trimmed amsonia at Cornell Plantations.
My two plants are shown, unchopped, and getting big and floppy, especially by fall

The patch of turtlehead should be snipped back about 6 inches in June for bushier plants later in the season. The deer used to take care of that job, but haven't lately, so I need to remember to clip the plants back in June.
Shearing these chelone plants off in June makes a nice full stand of them later in summer when they bloom.

In other years I have tried pinching the perennial 'Sheffield' mums and the aromatic asters 'Raydon's Favorite' in June. But it never seemed to do much -- the plants got to the same size and shape as when I did no pinching at all. I'm not sure it's worth the effort to cut them back early in the season.
Whether I pinch the mums and the asters in June or not, they look the same each year

I have to go program my phone now with a beeper reminder that tells me which plants need to be hacked in half in June.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


When I started creating gardens I knew nothing.

That ignorance allowed me to put plants in places they were never adapted to live in, then observe and learn as they died out, or not. In the earliest years I simply ordered plants that sounded interesting and put them where I wanted to see them.

Much to my surprise, a few of them not only survived my appalling ignorance, but thrived. Here are two:

Camassia cusickii, or quamash lily. 

Why I bought it:
The fat bulbs are huge and golden and sweet. Native Americans traveled far to harvest these. They were easy to carry and delicious to eat. They naturalize into big drifts with starry flowers. This sounded like a plant that could take care of itself, feed populations, and dazzle (the word "starry" usually gets me).

What it needs to grow well:
It's a native of moist meadows in the Pacific northwest. Every description of this plant stresses that it grows and naturalizes in damp areas. Moist, damp, wet, rich soils and not-dry conditions are what it needs.

What it gets in my garden:
Dry shade under two large trees with root competition.

How it's doing here:
It has naturalized into a thick stand of glossy green strappy foliage that explodes in earliest spring -- it's the greenest thing in the garden in early May. In mid May the starry pale blue spikes appear. They're subtle but elegant.

The planting is between a large maple and a big river birch. The camassias live right between the two, and as the trees have matured, everything else planted in this area has disappeared as root competition and shade and very dry conditions have taken over.

Later in the summer the foliage dies down, and then there's a blank spot between the two trees. I'd like to put in something to succeed the camassias after they go by each season but I can't find summer bloomers that will grow under those two trees. But the damp-loving moisture-needing camassias do just fine.

Xanthorhiza simplicissima, or yellowroot.

Why I bought it:
The botanical name. It starts with X and rolls off the tongue like a river of whispers.

What it needs to grow well:
It's a native of the deciduous forest understory and wants dappled shade along stream edges.

What it gets in my garden:
Full west sun competing with spruce tree roots.

How it's doing here:
In full sun on a dry berm six small plugs have grown rampantly into an undulating thicket of dense woody shrubs. I have divided and moved and split these plants and given them away and replanted in other spots and they happily fill out wherever I put them.

Other gardeners have told me they can't get yellowroot to grow well for them. When I have seen it in its natural setting in wetland woods, it is an open, delicate plant, usually growing in a few clusters.

Mine is full and lush and spreading easily. In summer it is a long hedge of clean green foliage; in fall the leaves turn a complex rusty orange mix.

Part of the low bank of yellowroot gets some morning shade now that the river birch and the spruces are bigger, but initially those six small plugs spread out to form this long row in full blaring sun.

They have funny purple flowers in early spring that form a haze all down the row of plants, and the rich fall colors look like a river of molten copper.

The difference between the yellowroot growing on my berm and the way it is supposed to grow is astounding.

By all rights these two plants that I stuck in the ground in the wrong conditions for their best growth should not be growing for me at all, much less so robustly.

Plenty of other plants that I did the same thing to were much less forgiving of my ignorance.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Major Wheeler

This was a mistake. I ordered an unusual honeysuckle vine, Lonicera reticulata, (you can read about it here) but the plant that arrived was mismarked. They sent me a trumpet honeysuckle vine, which I did not realize until well after I planted it and red tubular flowers opened up. It dawned on me this was not even close to what I expected.

But, okay.

It might be Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler', a common red trumpet honeysuckle that is prolific and a hummingbird magnet, but I don't know. The online nursery that sent me the wrong plant, High Country Gardens, also features and sells 'Major Wheeler', so it's logical to assume this is what they sent me.

It's a pretty plant, and grows robustly and I could do something like this inspiration photo I found from Stately Kitsch. If only I had an empty railing or something. 

But I never found a good spot for it. It needs a sunny spot and a structure to ramble on. Where to put it? While I dithered, it sulked in a pot for a year, and did nothing.

In the end I gave it to my sister. She planted it in the ground next to her pool deck and it's thriving.

I've had mismarked plants before -- it happens more than it should. And I've had plants I couldn't find a place for and plants that sulked for me. Usually the compost pile is their fate.

But this time I think the outcome is going to be a success. Major Wheeler looks like he found a home.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

I Must Have Mice

I opened the curtain the other morning and there was the bobcat on the patio. This time it was not a kitten, but a mature cat. He walked around the patio, then wandered away into the back yard and off across the road.

I think I have mice or voles wintering somewhere in my potting bench on the patio and that's what is attracting the bobcats so close to the house. The two kittens I saw recently and now this mature cat must smell something.

None of the bobcats were stalking or hunting when they came up to the house. But I think they know small prey is somewhere nearby and they are making patrols.

Or could it be lingering scents on the barbecue grill? We've grilled outside this winter. The grill was cleaned well and it's under a vinyl cover, but maybe there's still a smell that attracts the bobcats onto the patio.

Something is bringing them close to the house and it's not to visit me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What the Hawk Sees

This is what my garden looks like from the point of view of a hawk passing overhead.

Actually it's what Google saw flying overhead last year in early October.

I clearly see our solar panels as they look from above, and I recognize the plantings and hardscape and the dot of the mailbox and even the utility boxes, but I puzzled over a white spot with shadow at the bottom of the driveway, until I figured out that Google flew over at the exact moment Jim was on his John Deere mowing the front lawn. That's him on his mower. In a white t shirt.

That made me feel a little weird. We are observed.

Our lot is an irregular pentagram, but the gardens and mown lawn have spilled over into common property, carving an arc out of the weeds that surround us. It's a half acre, but with the boundaries expanded into common land, it's more.

At street level it's impossible to determine just by looking where the odd angles of our lot end and common land begins, and the homeowner's association does not tend any of the space around us, so we encroach a little and make more lawn and gardens out of weeds.

The area to the left (west) of the house at the end of the driveway is the gravel sitting garden. The light tan area is where we put in a section of pavers for a driveway turnaround

At the back of the house (north side) is the patio and deck, surrounded by a garden. My potting bench and storage shed are there.

It's fun to see all the elements of my entire garden, stripped to the essentials of shape and placement, without any of the 3D complexity of form or height.

Jim mows openings into the surrounding common area behind the house, and I can see the wandering network of paths from above. It's more extensive than I realized. The meadow plants hide the paths from sight at ground level.

At the convergence of some paths in the center there is a single red blob (the first red maple to color in fall), and that marks the start of a steep treed hill. You can't see from overhead that the land rises in a sharp incline there.

The three white blobs to the right (east) of the house are three dappled willows planted in a line.

Where the meadow and paths begin, I can see the light colored squiggle of the dry creek bed, and from above it looks too small. It is -- I need to expand it.

I can see the big irregular blob of the Birch Garden out in the middle of the lawn, and my hedge of bottlebrush buckeyes along the back (even the space left in the hedge where one was taken out last September). I can identify each tree and shrub and it's interesting to see how each relates to the others just by their placement.

The zoomed-in shots from Google are so grainy, but at least I know what I'm looking at.

But having seen what the hawk sees of my garden, I'm now thinking a GoPro camera and a drone might be the thing. I could take high quality overhead garden photos and terrorize Jim while he mows the lawn at the same time.

Maybe not.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Another Cold Night . . .

  . . .  and the furnace died.

It was minus 8 degrees F early this morning. We have two zones and two separate heat systems and the one in the loft died.

We are not in peril -- the ground floor furnace works. In fact it is running constantly as the hot air it generates blows up into the now unheated loft area.

Tomorrow is forecast to be 53 degrees. We can survive until then, or until the furnace guy gets here. I worry, though, about the rapid swings from bitter temperatures to mild warmth on my plants.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Minus 11 degrees F this morning. On the unheated porch where I am overwintering potted plants it's above zero, but barely. After a mild and sometimes too-warm winter so far, deep cold has arrived. I'm staying inside. But I have complaints.

Everything in this house beeps. The coffeemaker chirps five times when the coffee is ready and three times when it shuts off.

The washer beeps when the load is finished. The dryer chirps urgently when it's almost done, and again when it's finished. Loudly.

The microwave, our phones, alarm clocks, computers all beep. The toaster oven dings.

But this is the worst -- our house is now wired to chime every time we open a door.

We recently had a home security system installed. I did not want it, and asked the technician repeatedly to show me how to disable it and how to keep it disabled permanently. But we had to have it. In order to get a much (much !!) cheaper rate on our cable bill, we had to sign up for the system.

Please tell me how beeping doors enable cheaper TV channels.

The system is disabled -- we haven't turned it on and won't. But even turned completely off, the doors all ding melodiously when we go out and chime when we come in.

I had no idea how many times we open and close doors. And this is the middle of winter.

When spring and summer come, and I am in and out of the house constantly, I think I will go mad. Already I find myself modifying my habits -- I don't want to go out on the porch to water that dry looking plant, I'll wait until I have another chore out there so the door only beeps twice.

I wait for Jim to get up in the morning before I go out to get the paper so I won't ding him awake.

Our winter cookout hamburgers got charred because who wants to go out to the patio repeatedly to check on the grill -- just go out once so the damn door doesn't ding and dong so much. I'm going mad.

It's too cold now to even think about opening a door, so at least that's one blessing from this bitter stretch of winter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Trolls and Dwarves

When I posted earlier this month about my climbing hydrangea did you notice a little lollipop of a tree in the photo? That small stick with leaves directly under the windows?

That's a dwarf ginkgo biloba 'Troll'. I just planted it last summer. It's the cutest thing.

It is a shrubby ginkgo, not anything like the 100 foot tall species trees. It will grow to only 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide, and its distinctive fan shaped leaves are much smaller too.

This one won't be a round 3 x 3 shrub, though. It was trained into a standard, which is pretty common for 'Troll'.  It was already 3 feet tall when I bought it, so I don't know if that is its maximum height as a standard, or if it will get any taller.

I'd like it to grow tall enough to be seen through the windows --  another two feet of height would be nice and a sturdier trunk would be appreciated.

I was excited to see if this dwarf would have the bright yellow fall color that the species trees are famous for. And to see if it would drop all its leaves at once the way ginkgo trees do.

But we got a brief, hard freeze in late October and all the leaves browned before they had shown any color. Disappointment.

And then the leaves hung on, since their abscission pattern had been messed up by the freeze.

I'm really looking forward to next season to see if 'Troll' gets any bigger, and to see if it does its fall thing the way ginkgos are supposed to.

Actually I'll be happy if it just makes it through the winter. My other attempt at a ginkgo ended badly. Years ago I planted 'Spring Grove', another dwarf version that makes a shrubby plant, and for two years it was cute, it colored nicely and it did in fact drop all of its golden leaves in fall on a single day. But it did not come back after two winters.

So I'm trying again, this time with 'Troll'. I don't have room for a huge ginkgo tree in my garden, but I'm fascinated with the leaves, so a dwarf ginkgo has to suit. I can't wait to see how this little guy grows.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Two Kittens

We got a ton of heavy wet snow a day ago. On Saturday morning, as I walked past the sliding glass doors that lead to the deck, I found myself face to face with a bobcat.

Right there, next to the snow covered bistro chair, looking right into the porch through the door, a bobcat paused, full of curiosity about what was inside.

I didn't have the camera with me, but this is the spot I stood in, and the bobcat was right outside the door. So much for their elusive, hiding nature.

It was a kitten. He was still very big, but clearly immature, and like any kitten, he was curious. He stopped at the chair, looked at me through the door, checked things out a bit, then bounded around the corner of the railing and down the deck stairs.

He leaped out into the yard and joined his sibling who was sitting quietly on the compost pile at the edge of our yard. I found my camera and got this shot of the one that was waiting.

Here's a zoom-in of the kitten sitting on the compost pile.

The two of them tumbled and jumped together, came back up toward the house, and played in the snow in the yard. It was clear from their sizes and from the way they roughhoused together that they were kittens. After a while the pair ambled away into the woods.

Where was the mother? Are they on their own? I wonder if a mother bobcat would have let a kitten come up on the deck so close to the house.  Jim is worried -- he thinks something might have happened to her.

I prefer to think she was at the edge of the woods watching indulgently the whole time and we just didn't see her.

These two kittens were way too cute. I don't want to think of them being in any danger by themselves.

Friday, February 5, 2016

I Forgive

It's been way too warm, in the 50s, and it rained during the week. Gail and I skied in slushy conditions yesterday but it wasn't bad, given how freakishly warm and wet February has started out. Today it's 32 degrees and snowing. It's coming down steadily and the landscape is transformed.

For several winters now I have been cutting branches of my witch hazels and bringing them indoors to force. The small flowered branches are nice enough in a vase, but what I really wanted was the heavenly scent. I was always disappointed.

I have two kinds of witch hazels. In the gurgling fish pitcher are branches of Hamamelis vernalis, a spring blooming witch hazel with rust colored flowers. The plant is a shrub, with stems that grow straight upright from the ground in a thicket. The tall straight branches sit well in a narrow pitcher. Spring witch hazel doesn't really have any fragrance.

In the green pitcher I have branches of Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' -- a red flowered hybrid that is more tree shaped and spreading. It flowers along the bottom of its branches making it impossible to find branches shaped for a vase. All the blooming flowers are stuck down in the water inside the pitcher.

But that is okay because this is the first winter I have been rewarded with a noticeable, heavenly aroma. Refreshing, not sweet or perfumey.

In past winters I've had the occasional underwhelming whiff from 'Diane' here and there, but this year I get a lingering, spicy smell anywhere near the pitcher of branches.


I'm concerned, though, because the flowers, even scented as beautifully as they are, have never looked right. They appear stunted. They are not red. 'Diane' is described as a heavy bloomer (mine is not), with reliably deep red flowers (mine are copper orange), and profuse, almost shaggy petals (mine have only a few spidery straps).

On my plant the sparse, orangey colored flowers are tiny, each smaller than a dime when fully open.

For reference, here are random shots of Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' from the internet. Not even close.

And lest you think these are photoshopped or over-enhanced, I have seen a real live 'Diane' witch hazel, a mature one, in full bloom at Broken Arrow nursery in their garden beds. It was covered in flowers, very red, and each bloom was almost fluffy looking.

Here's the shot of it that I took in 2010 with my old point and click on a very overcast, gloomy March day. It doesn't really capture the intense red, and the whole impact of this beautiful plant in bloom.

I have been fussing and worrying over the growth habit, storm damage, sparse flowering, leaf marcescence, and stunted blooms of my 'Diane' witch hazel for years. She gives me agita.

But for the first time ever she smells so good in the house in winter. I may forgive.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


In these oddly warm days of winter I went out and pruned the bottom of my climbing hydrangea.

I'm growing hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris over the garage doors, and  Louis the Plant Geek's explanation about how this plant grows was really instructive.

Through careful observations he noticed that this beautiful vine grows very slowly unless the stems, called travelers, can latch onto a surface. Once they are firmly attached, they put out flowering side shoots and make a full, leafy, flowery show, and then the plant grows rapidly. But making the searching traveler stems grow without much to hold onto is a recipe for patience.

That explains a lot. I've been very patient.

In 2006 (yes, that was ten years ago) one of my retirement gifts was a good sized climbing hydrangea from a local nursery.

I decided it should grow straight up to reach the top of our garage doors, where we had a pergola installed. Then it should scramble horizontally across the pergola. I thought I could just take the long vining stems as they grew, and tie them to the pergola. Like a big old rose or ivy maybe.

But the stems are very brittle and they didn't grow in long canes. Sitting well below the pergola, they seemed disinclined to grow up toward it. I put the whole twiggy thing inside a wood tower, thinking that might offer some support at least. You can see those initial traveler stems searching for something flat and rough to attach their holdfast roots to as they probe the air outside the tower.

The travelers finally decided to make their living by attaching to the laths of the wood pyramid, and so the hydrangea started to fill out but would not grow upward. Its growth rate was slow. Not much happened in the way of flowering.

Over the next 9 years I struggled with this hydrangea. It didn't want to leave its tower. It grew, slowly, filling out to the sides, but always firmly attached to the wood laths of its cage.

I eventually hung a long vertical piece of lattice off the side of the pergola and finally got tips of some of the travelers to touch it. That worked. The travelers explored it, they attached some rootlets, they leaned on it a bit, but it took more years before the stems would attach firmly enough to send up real growth.

The climbing hydrangea reached the sturdy support of the pergola in 2013 and then it began sending out side shoots all over and flowering. It has started to scramble across the pergola.

When the leaves are down the peeling bark is beautiful. Birds nest in the interior. Where traveler stems are firmly attached to the pergola at the upper reaches, side shoots have formed and flowered.

In 2015 I finally took the tower cage down. I had to cut it away from the inside, carefully working around the firmly attached vines. Here, in early spring last year, it was finally freed.

This winter I wanted to expose the peeling bark and the beautiful twisting architecture of those original traveler stems on the lower half. That's what I did on a mild winter day last week, opening up the congested tangle of stems below and pruning away leaf buds. I have to strip away more leaf buds, though, to really clean up the look of it at the bottom.

All the side shoots and flowering will be at the top, all across the garage doors.

With the branches bare now, I can see how flowering side shoots radiate out from a large traveler that has reached the top. You can also see my attempt to bungee-cord a traveler to the strut of the pergola. If it touches the strut it will make rootlets and attach itself, and start to radiate side shoots, so I'm going to have to get that brittle woody stem to actually touch the structure.

If I had better understood how climbing hydrangea grows when I planted this, I would not have attempted it here. It's taken 10 years, but I'm glad I didn't know better.

The problem now is that the pergola structure has weathered and deteriorated over 10 years and needs painting. Significant cracks have developed. It may not last long enough to hold the climbing hydrangea up.

Then what do I do? Would bungee cords hold that split post together?

I do have bungee cords. And I know how to use them.