Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Snow Fairy Attack

Last summer the herbaceous caryopteris 'Snow Fairy' got too large and bushy for its position so close to the walkway. I had to do some awkward chopping on the left side of the plant to keep it in bounds.

So during spring clean up activities this year I tried to dig it up, with the intention of moving it away from the walk somewhat. Just a foot or two back from the bluestone path and closer to the gravel side of this border strip.

I still wanted to keep it in the same general location. It's a plant that looks full and frothy from a distance, but really needs to be seen close up as you walk by, especially when in flower. The blooms are so tiny, they are best appreciated right where you can see them as you pass by.

And the foliage smells sharply of fresh cut green peppers when you touch it, so the plant needs to be close by where I can rub my fingers over the leaves each time I walk by. Later in summer the foliage gets whitish and frothy looking (like a snow fairy?) but earlier in the summer the leaves are medium green, crisply outlined with white edges, and best seen close up.

In the digging up process I kind of broke it apart. It's an herbaceous form of bluebeard (meaning it dies back to the ground in winter), but the root system is as woody as a shrub, and just as hard to uproot.

I really botched it. I ended up with two large broken-off pieces of bare root structure, so I planted one in the Birch Garden at the back, and one at the rear of Meadow's Edge. If they survive I'll be surprised. If not, nothing lost, I guess.

But I do hope what is still left of the original plant along the walkway makes it. I still want 'Snow Fairy' to get all frothy and billowy in late summer, and I want to touch the white edged leaves and admire the tiny flowers as I pass down the walk each day.

I didn't mean to hack it to pieces so badly. Will it survive my attack?

Saturday, March 26, 2016


This is my new rain gauge.

It uses Archimedes' principle of water displacement to show how many inches of rain fell.

The tube rises as the water fills the copper collection cylinder. The blue plastic tube is marked upside down -- one inch at the top, and 5 and half inches at the bottom.

Since the tube magically rises as rain fills the cylinder, the lower rainfall inches are at the top, so you can see an inch of blue rising from the cylinder from inside the house when an inch of rain has blessed your garden.

When there has been no rain, there is no blue tube sticking up -- it's housed inside the copper cylinder.

It needs no mounting on a post or stake. It's a tabletop version, so it will sit on the patio table, or maybe on the top of the stone wall around the patio. How easy is that?

Okay, I'm ready for some rain to test whether Archimedes knew what he was talking about or not.

This is Archimedes. He was Greek, and he lived 250 years before Christ.

I like to think that ancients and ancestors and people who came before me are with me in the garden every day. I need all the help I can get.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I Need a New Rain Gauge

When they tore down our cedar deck, my rain gauge lost its home. It had been attached to one of the posts. It's a giant plastic tube from Lee Valley Tools, and I liked it because it was easy to read from afar, easy to empty, and indestructible.

There is no place to mount it on the railings where the new steps are. The railing posts have large caps, so the collection tube would be sheltered by the cap.

So I set out to mount my rain gauge on a freestanding stake in the ground. Near the patio, visible from inside, as before.

I won't go into the travails of finding a suitable stake, waiting for the drill to charge to screw the tube's mounting frame on, finding Elmer's glue when the stake split, looking for clamps to get it back together. . .

I won't go into the ordeal of sawing off the bottom of the stake to make it just the right height, digging a hole deep enough, looking for the bubble level to make sure the stake stood up straight. . .

I won't go into the details of all the other steps, miscues, repeat steps and complications involved in mounting a plastic rain gauge on a stake in the ground.

But I will say the indestructible rain gauge destructed into four or five pieces when the stake was hammered into the ground and the plastic mounting frame shattered. It is now totally kaput. Fertig. Verfallen. Verlumpt. Verblunget.


I guess I need to get a new rain gauge.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Patio & Steps

After all the unseasonable warmth and daffodils coming up and irises popping, it got cold again. It was 25 degrees F on Saturday morning and again on Sunday.

The patio renovation and deck removal is done and it came out great. For the moment ignore the brown plants (it's still March) and the fact that the house siding needs a serious power wash.

Everything is so neutral -- the steps, the pavers, the workbench and shed -- but with greenery around and plants on the patio it will look good. I wish it was a prettier time of year to take pictures.

The steps are composite material, and there is just a narrow landing and steps down, instead of a whole raised deck. It leaves so much more room on the patio below.

I'm not crazy about the shed and potting bench side by side -- it looked better when the potting bench was centered under the large window and the shed was off to the side. But it's a work area, it functions, and when the patio table and chairs and all my nice potted plants are about, it won't be a focal point at all.

The change in color between the old pavers in the distance by the wall and the newly laid paver bricks in the foreground marks where the deck used to be. The difference is slight and the new pavers will fade to a more even tan just as the older ones did in no time.

The best part of this renovation is all the extra space where the new pavers are. Look at all that room now.

Before, the deck came out into the area so much that the patio set was cramped up against the wall. It looked nice enough under the shade of the tree in summer, but there was no room. It was awkward to maneuver around the chairs.

Now, with room to spread out, the table and chairs will be much more comfortable.

There is still room for the compost tumbler off to the side, not visible when sitting on the patio, but it's there in all its green plastic elegance, convenient enough to the back door.

In the patch of dirt in front of the new low wall there is a small Japanese maple sapling. It replaced the beautiful 'Bloodgood' tree that I lost last year. When this little sapling grows it will fill that area at the juncture of the walls and add some shade and enclosure.

This re-do really doesn't look like much. Just some beige steps and a paver patio off the back of the house. Nothing expansive or fancy. But what an improvement!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Late Seed Sowing

I'm not starting seeds indoors this year. In past years I haven't been that successful. I have grow lights and starter flats, and trays to put them on, but never figured out an easy way to keep the mess of water and soil and misting and thinning under control indoors.

By the time I transplanted the tiny seedlings that germinated, they would languish in the early garden. They were a pain to harden off, they stubbornly resented our chilly springs, and they were always so spindly despite having constant light indoors, that I just decided the bother wasn't worth it.

Most seeds that I direct sowed outdoors in late May did better than the struggling seedlings I transplanted after starting indoors.

But the real reason I'm not starting any seeds this year is that we'll be away the first half of May.

That's exactly when indoor seedlings need the most care. They are gangly and thirsty by then, needing daily moisture in the thin mix of their starter cells. They need hardening off outside every day, and the lights still have to be turned on and off. That's too much to ask a neighbor to do while we are gone.

But the minute we get back in late May, I want to start some seeds outdoors. I have a bunch of seed packs from last year that I want to plant. I'm hoping they are still viable. Here's what I have:

Nasturtiums -- a pale yellow 'Moonlight' 6 foot vining nasturtium that I have enjoyed in past years, and some 'Whirlybird' mounders in red, tangerine and gold.
'Moonlight'                                                                                       'Whirlybird'

Basil -- a compact, short 'Genovese' variety that I'll put in a pot.

Tobacco -- I love the tall white perfumed Nicotiana alata 'Grandiflora' plants that were in the Birch Garden last year, and want more. And I have seeds left of the very tall sylvestris that I liked at the back of the Birch Garden, so I'll try those again.  I also have more of the 'Baby Bella' short, low red ones.
Nicotianas, both white and red

Dahlias -- a 'Variabilis' pompom mix that I have grown in the past, and 'Redskin', a variety that has a different color flower on each stem! I've never grown that before.

Salpiglossis -- I've never grown this before, but the description of 'Royale Chocolate' with its velvety red flowers sounds wonderful.
Salpiglossis sinuata 'Chocolate Royale'

I'm already feeling anxious, knowing that I won't get these plants going until summer is well under way. I'll be behind. Nothing will come up in time. It will all be too late, too late I tell you!

But that's the plan this year.

Monday, March 14, 2016


Notes and updates from mid March:

Unseasonably warm, and I spent the weekend cutting back, trimming, and cleaning up. Last winter at this time there was deep snow on the ground and no way to even get to the shed for tools.
Last year in mid March

Daffodils are blooming now. There are about 5 or 6 sunny yellow blooms on the back hill. Early!

I detected a bit of fragrance from the witch hazel in the meadow as I walked by. Sweet!

Found a tick on the bathroom floor, which means I brought it in on me. First of the season. It's only March.

Iris reticulata blooms are all open now, with a few white snowdrops mixed in. The tiny irises are richly purple and spreading among the kinnikinnik. I normally see the first ones peek up on April 1.

I took all the mesh trunk protectors off my skinny trees. The danger from male deer rubbing the bark off young saplings is well past. All the trees sighed and said thank you, thank you.

I weeded. Right now, it's all popweed, spreading lawn turf, emerging wild asters, and flat whorls of dandelion greens.

There are an alarming number of grassy clumps in the meadow that look like sedge (Carex). They have never been there before, and now I see them all over. Everywhere. I have 'Ice Dance' in my garden -- has it escaped?

My knees are raw. So much of clean up and weeding is done in damp, hard ground on the knees. Ow.

Rain this week, and we still have a backhoe on the patio, a dumpster in the driveway and an unfinished deck replacement project ongoing. Ugh.

I took the dead clumps of winter heaths out and now I need to replace them with something along the front walk. Wrestling those woody shrubs out was a job.

After all my complaining about witch hazel 'Diane', this is the first year it is blooming well. Not red, not with big strappy flowers, but there are many tiny rust-orange blooms, and they are at times backlit by the sun, which is what I had always intended. The flowers have to compete with the brown marcescent leaves, but still, I see promise.

Because the last two winters were protracted and there was snow on the ground forever, I did not anticipate this year that I'd need to do anything outside in mid March. I'm not ready for this. I still have to plan my seed sowing, I have to make lists of what I want to buy mail order, and I need to think about replacements, additions and new things for the garden. Catalogs are stacked high.

I thought I'd have all March to do that before chores and warm weather called me outside.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Hot and Unsettled

Unbelievably, Wednesday hit 81 degrees F and Thursday was in the 70s.

It's still early March. I thought it would be wonderful and couldn't wait to get outside in the warm breezes, but it was unsettling. I felt deeply at odds all day.

First I thought I'd do some pruning, and took the loppers to the redtwig dogwoods to do the long overdue rejuvenation pruning these overgrown shrubs need. But it was messy and hot work, and I ended up feeling exhausted rather than invigorated. There was so much tangled brush to deal with.

Then I thought seeing our old deck get removed and the new steps put in would be exciting, but it turned out to be a bigger project than I had understood, and I was just not prepared for heavy machinery running over my plants and scooping dirt outside the porch all day.

I don't know why I thought it would be a simple tear down and replace process. I didn't know there would be so much digging and trampling and destruction. They're doing a careful and thorough job -- I have no complaints -- I just didn't expect all this.

I used the warm weather to clean out the small storage shed where I keep tools and supplies at hand on the patio. When I opened the hinged top I found standing water in the tool buckets, soggy gloves, and pools of water in the trays of miscellaneous supplies. Everything had been standing in dirty water over the winter. Fail.

I took everything out, dried off what I could and turned to my plants instead. Surely winter plant damage would not be too bad this year. It was a mild winter with just a day or two of below zero temperatures, and very little snow. But when I walked past this 'Gold Cone' juniper that anchors the corner of the garage, I was startled. It's a little browned from winter, as junipers typically get until they green up in spring, but that wasn't the issue.

It was this -- the juniper has a severe list to the left. Thinking its dense tall shape had simply been smacked about by the wind at some point, I tried to straighten it up, but it's tilted at the roots.

I tried everything to pull it back upright, but the rootball is not loose, it's just shifted and now solidly and firmly tipped over.

That was discouraging enough, but I then saw the dead winter heaths right next to the juniper. They are Erica darlyensis 'Ghost Hill', and have been in my garden since 2005 -- this was one of the first plants I ever put in. I had two mounded evergreen heaths along the front walk that burst into pink blooms when nothing else was out in March and April. Delightful. Often they rebloomed in December too.

Sometimes at the end of winter there would be a little browning but then they would green up in summer and make tidy round deep green buns that were the perfect size for the narrow strip along the front walk.

This year, after eleven winters, both seem to have died. I can't see any sign of life, and they should be starting to put out their late winter pink blooms right about now.

After all this time, both these 'Ghost Hill' heaths gave up the ghost at the same time. Ha! A pun.

But wait, my unsettled day got worse. I looked out at the back hill and saw another casualty. A large Pinus strobus 'UConn' was lying on its side.

This white pine was another early citizen of my garden. I planted it on the back hill in 2007 for dense screening of the road. It's a variety that stays smaller and rounder, not as tall and rangy as the typical Eastern white pine. For nine years it has grown well, and had quite a crop of pine cones last fall.

It broke off at the base. All the pine cones came loose when it fell and were scattered on the ground next to the corpse. This just looked so sad.

There was nothing left of the roots at all. They had all withered away, the inside of the trunk was gone and there was nothing to hold this tree upright. It had looked so good, but it was apparently dying from the roots up for a long time.

Normally I would be energized by such unusual warm days, and I would relish feeling tired and a little sore after a day outdoors working. I would jump at planning new things to plant to replace any losses. I would love being outdoors in early March so unexpectedly.

Instead, trimming the redtwig dogwoods utterly exhausted me, the deck reconstruction work is overwhelming me, finding a dry place for tools thwarts me, the tilted juniper discourages me, and the desiccated winter heaths are a real loss. It was strangely hot, one of my trees toppled over dead, and I am trying to deal with how this all dismays me so very much.

I feel flustered.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Deck Removal

In the winter of 2005 Jim and I designed a 16 by 14 foot wood deck for the back of our house that would span the width of the back porch and step down to a stone patio off to the right.

There would be plenty of room for a table and chairs and umbrella. We drew it all out on graph paper and hired a contractor.

The builder came in the summer of 2006, went to pull the building permit, and to everyone's bafflement, discovered that the back corner of our house is smack on the building line even though the house sits on over half an acre, with tons of room to spare on all other sides.

But at this corner there was no room to put in a structure without going through a zoning variance and all that that would entail. So the deck got chopped in half.

Where the steps go down to gravel there was supposed to be the entire upper deck area. Instead, a railing cuts the space in half and the useless gravel landing area is all that we could install on that side. The remaining deck area was reduced to a size too cramped for a table and chairs.

I could fit a couple patio chairs on the deck and sit up there, but it was an awkward space that felt like being in a playpen with railings around such a small enclosure. Eventually I just used it for pots -- a staging area as you walked by to the patio below. Nice enough in summer.

The orange-brown stain peeled off in patches as soon as it was applied. The cedar was too raw, or perhaps we applied it wrong or maybe this deck was just doomed in all ways. We tried to sand it, but in the end we lived with the mottled orange remnants of stain on the step risers and railings. It didn't bother the photographer who set up a hummingbird blind on a stool on the deck.

But after 10 years the cedar has rotted in a few places and we can't now bring ourselves to repair something we wished had never been built. So we decided to take it down.

The doomed, awkward, useless, peeling, mottled, rotting natural cedar deck will be replaced with stairs made of composite material. The stairs will be wide. They will step down to the stone patio, in something like this design:

Inspiration photo, don't know now where I got it

Without the prow of that half-size deck jutting out into the patio, the stone paver area below will now be bigger, giving us more open space at the bottom of the new steps. An improvement all around.

Yesterday they came and removed the old deck. Stay tuned for the "after" pictures.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tree Circles

I don't quite know what to do about the base of my shade trees in the middle of the lawn. Should I try to maintain a big circle of mulch around them, or let the grass grow up to the trunk? Either way is a maintenance problem.

The large red maple standing in the middle of our back yard had a circle of wood chip mulch around it when first planted. But it was constant maintenance to keep the lawn turf out of the circle, the mulch decayed into the ground at an alarming rate despite refreshing it twice a year, and without my intending it, the grass simply grew over the mulch circle.

It's a mowing problem now. Jim is careful to stay away from the trunk with the string trimmer or mower, but that means hand trimming around the base of the tree, which is completely silly. But we do it.

The same thing has happened with both black gum trees in the front lawn. The planting holes were raised and bermed a bit when both trees were put in, but the grass grew over, the circle diminished, and I could not keep up with maintaining the area grass free and mulched all season.

In the photo above the grass was making its forward attack and spreading all over what remained of the circle at the foot of this tree. I tried to dig out the edges and mulch and re-mulch often but lost the battle.

With the grass all the way up to the trunk, it looks odd, since the original lump of the bermed mulch circle is still raised, but covered with lawn now.

Trees were never meant to grow in grass. Grasslands are one thing, forests are another. They don't naturally grow in the same place. The lawn wants irrigation in summer but trees hate sprinklers splashing their trunks, which opens them to root rot diseases. Trees and lawn are not compatible.

And yet. I want shade trees in my lawn.

I have a young katsura tree that still has its original circle. It too was planted in a raised berm -- not a mulch volcano up against the trunk -- this tree is properly planted with the root flare showing, but the shoulders of the planting hole are above the lawn as it slopes away a bit.

Like the issues I had with my other lawn trees, the mulch under the katsura decays quickly and I can't keep weeds and lawn out of the circle despite reapplying wood chips multiple times a season.

On top of the losing battle with mulch, I actually dislike the look of big brown circles under trees, especially when there are several trees scattered about. Those big rings look so artificial.

Thomas Rainer agrees. Read his article about getting rid of mulch circles here. It's interesting.

A formal boxwood hedge around the trunks might be a possibility. It's artificial too, but at least it's green. It's another maintenance nightmare, though, what with clipping and shearing and the tendency of boxwoods in my climate to get winterburned and break apart from ice.

So . . . no to the boxwood hedge parterre.

An alternative is to underplant each tree with low shrubs. I've done that with each of the three white birch trees in the side yard. It's a challenge to grow anything in competition with thirsty tree roots, but the low junipers and some fragrant sumacs (dwarf 'Gro-Low') do well, and a catmint (Nepeta 'Dropmore') fills out the lower level in summer. This looks cohesive and natural.

I created these plantings when the birch trees were young. There is no way I can dig out lawn under that red maple in the back yard to get any kind of shrubbery in there now.

But I still might be able to underplant the two black gums in the front yard, which are small enough, perhaps.

But do I want a garden of shrubbery or even groundcovers around each tree? I like the idea of the open lawn leading down to the street. I don't want two fussy garden islands in front of the house.  But I do think that black gum tree looks isolated with its clompy bits of grass ringing its feet.

Will it look better if I can even out the lawn lumps with a bit of careful digging?

Will it look better when it's a mature, graceful tree with a big trunk, the way the trees in this park-like setting look in the lawn?
Photo from Thomas Rainer's article on getting rid of mulch rings

Although I like the way my white birch trees rise out of the underplanted junipers and catmint, I don't  think I want more garden beds all over the yard in every spot where a shade tree lives.

But I don't want those brown mulch rings at all.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Season Missed

I'm excitedly anticipating an overseas trip we are taking this spring. We'll be gone for 10 days and I can't wait.

But I know I am going to miss some things in my garden that only happen briefly and only once a year. It's no tragedy -- we'll be seeing sights and wonders enough in our travels.

But spring rushes in quickly here and I won't be around for some of it. So I went through prior years' photos to see what exactly will be happening at the time we'll be away.

The flowering dogwood in our front yard is usually in full bloom at the time we'll be gone. Last year, after a harsh winter, it had no buds and no blooms whatsoever -- so missing the show again this year will be two years without seeing it flower. That's a disappointment.
Flowering dogwood in 2013 and 2014

The blackhaw viburnum blooms strangely each spring. One year it had flowers only on the lowest branches, last year it flowered more profusely but only in front, with no blooms at all in the back. I'm curious to see what it does this spring, but we'll be away when the flowers come out.
Blackhaw viburnum full of flowers in front -- but none in back

I'll miss seeing the purple river of ajuga, and the honey-scented fothergilla spikes, and my white 'Immortality' iris, and the starry tiarellas.

Some will still be there when we get back -- the tiarellas usually bloom a long time and the ajuga and irises may be fading but still showing some flowers.

Happy orange geums and sweet blue forget-me-nots and the starry pale spikes of camassias will be at their peak but I won't see them.

It's a disappointment that I won't be here for these blooming sights, but the trip of a lifetime more than compensates.

I just wish seasons in the garden were not measured by annual events that come and go and leave me with a long year in between until the next time.