Friday, April 29, 2016

This Is Pretty . . . and Not

This is quite pretty -- a purpleleaf sandcherry glowing at the back of the garden on a late April afternoon.

The shrub is an unbalanced shape, the blooming is very brief, and the little plant is stranded among winterberry hollies and other bare branched things that won't leaf out for a while yet. But it's so delicately pretty on its own.

This is not. . . . .

The twiggy mess with open branches and yellowy leaves emerging is 'Ogon' spirea, and it is supposed to be covered in white flowers in April. Like this, which was in prior Aprils:

It has been declining in recent years, perhaps because of too much shade between the maple and birch. It keeps losing branches and getting sparse. Last fall it had no color, and it is known for brilliant fall foliage that holds late in the season. And now, for the first time, it's not flowering.

I'm going to cut it all to the ground this week -- you can rejuvenate spireas by hard pruning -- and see if next year it looks any better.

And speaking of pruning needs, this is not pretty either. For the second year, this blackhaw viburnum tree refuses to leaf out on the entire left side.

It did this last year and stayed bare on one side all summer. The wood beneath the bark was green when scraped, so the branches were not dead, and I thought another spring would bring them back in leaf.

Not so. The tree in front is leafed out and flowers are forming. In back on the left is a bare mess. So I pruned off all the dead looking branches, fully half of this small tree. I can't even show a picture of the result. It's an abomination, tilting all to one side now.

It is not pretty.

But it was going to look awful either way. All last summer it appeared just as bad, half dead. I'm going to try to sort of balance the lopsided look by selectively pruning the leafy branches that remain now on the one side, but that could be a bad idea. We'll see.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Alas, and Another Year

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' has only one redeeming feature in my garden. Despite promises of scented flowers (mine have no fragrance) and an elegant habit (mine looks like an abomination of exploded branches), this viburnum is a pretty bloomer. Pink blossoms come out in mid April.

Last year

Alas, not this year. Like the forsythias that never bloomed, 'Dawn' viburnum isn't flowering either.

The typically early, reliable spring bloomers were confused by a mild winter, too early spring, and then a sharp, hard cold snap with below freezing temperatures at the beginning of April.

That early April freeze took all the forsythia buds and apparently all the 'Dawn' viburnum buds too. Not a single one has opened.

This is how confused 'Dawn' was -- buds started to open last December during unusual warmth.

The plants are fine -- forsythias and viburnums aren't killed by frosted buds and they will go on to thrive all summer. Next spring there will be flowers. But that's the thing about gardening: it's an annual affair.

Anticipated events like fall color or spring flowers only happen once during a year, and if missed, it's a long twelve months to wait for it to happen again. But somehow those years flow on, a dry summer followed by a wet one, a cold spring and next year a mild one, a stormy fall after a year when fall was balmy. Some years the deer eliminate flowers I waited all year to see, sometimes I outwit the deer.

There's both rhythm and variability to the annual cycle, and 10 years on into my gardening life I am learning to deal with it. But how discouraging it is right now to have to wait another year for pink flowers on the viburnum outside my window.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Rich, Dark and Crumbly

Nobody wants to read about compost. Amirite? It's like bragging about your baby's potty habits. It's decaying plant material, brown and unattractive. Mine is in a long windrow hidden behind the spruce berm.

But oh, I can't resist. I have the best compost this year.

For two years I left a long stretch of dirt and garden debris covered by a green tarp. It was ugly and utilitarian, and got overwhelmed with nearby weeds in summer. Huge weeds -- giant fleeceflower and pokeweed and thistles and vining things whose roots crawled in under the tarp. A black snake lived under there and raised a family.

This winter I took the cover off, spread last year's raked leaves over the area, and let late winter snow and rain wet them down.

Now, after two years under the tarp and with decayed brown leaves mixed in, I have glorious black gold. Crumbly, soft, beautiful compost. Almost an endless supply.

I've been digging it up, sifting out all the sticks and branches and woody stalks that found their way in, and then hand mixing the leaves and decayed material in my Trug. It's a wonderfully satisfying way to spend a spring afternoon. Some sunshine, cool breezes, digging and sifting, hand kneading and mixing, then toting a Trug full of magic to my gardens where I spread it about.

There are sticks and branches that got dumped in the row, so I need to do a lot of sifting, but it's surprisingly enjoyable work.

Here it is spread around a newly transplanted blueberry bush. Nobody wants to see pictures like this -- brown dirt for god's sake -- but I am loving it.

I have only a limited window now in spring to dig compost before weeds make their assault on the whole compost row and overtake it. This year I think I'll need two tarps to cover the length of the row, but I plan to get them out in a few days and cover up the rich, dark stuff.

After that, each time I need soil or compost, I'll have to roll back the tarp to get at it, but leaving the row exposed is just an invitation to the giant weeds to take over from the meadow side and lawn turf from the yard side. The row sits right at the edge of the unmowed meadow and I can see the most brazen weeds and the aggressive lawn grass already eyeing my compost.

Such good stuff, I won't share.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Woman With Shovel

Each spring I take a critical tour of my garden to assess what needs changing. My trees and shrubs tremble at what they know is coming. The four most fearsome words in my garden are "she's got the shovel."

I have a transplant shovel, a digging spade and a fork. This year Jim bought me an entrenching tool. It's actually a Tactical Military Folding Shovel Pick Entrenching Tool and Survival Spade. The one in the picture online has a bottle opener on it. Mine doesn't, but I've used the tool on a trial basis for the past week and find I can live without a bottle opener.

No tree in my yard is safe now, no shrub in my borders can rest. Here are a few of the things I've managed to accomplish so far:

I filled the open spot in the hedge of bottlebrush buckeyes where one was taken out last fall. I dug root suckers from the established plants and moved them into the open area. As always with most of my transplanting efforts, the procedure involved ripping out roots and probably killing them in the process.
This is the good-sized sucker that I dug from nearby bottlebrush buckeyes in the hedge
and transplanted to the empty spot, along with some other smaller ones. It has buds.

  • I dug up the post that the wireless weather station was on. I don't use it any more, so I took it out. I filled the deep hole that remained with a lot of dirt and a tiny sassafras sapling. Of course I did. It's spring and I think I have planted sassafras trees on the back hill every spring I have gardened here. This one will be a lawn tree, not part of my developing grove on the back hill.

  • I dug up several of the blueberries that were out in the meadow and put them in spots on the back of the spruce berm where they'll do better and where I can see them.
The half-high blueberries (3 kinds) in the meadow were bright spots in fall, but were lost all summer
in the meadow weeds. They'll do better and be prettier on the berm or at the back of Meadow's Edge garden.

  • I transplanted the blue beech sapling (Carpinus caroliniana) that was on the west side of the gravel garden. I moved it to the back of Meadow's Edge garden, but in its new spot it is too near the red maple that dominates that garden. Even I can see it's too crowded there. Tomorrow I'll re-dig it and move it to the  left end of the chevron strip at the back of the yard where it will anchor that strip and get a little afternoon shade, which it likes.
Carpinus caroliniana - blue beech, or ironwood. A slow grower, this little sapling would not
provide shade by the gravel garden for a long, long time

  • In the empty spot at the back of Meadow's Edge where I had thought the beech might fit, I'll dig up and replant the remaining blueberries from the meadow. Just as soon as I move the beech tree. There's a domino effect to all this moving about.

  • I planted a new Stewartia where the blue beech had been on the west side of the gravel garden. It will give me afternoon shade to sit in (the blue beech was going to take years to do that, since it's such a slow grower.) This Stewartia is 'Skyrocket' and will be tall and vertical for this narrow space. It's a substitute for the gloriously beautiful Stewartia monadelpha I lost a year ago.
The new Stewartia henryae 'Skyrocket' -- already tall and slender and leafing out.
It will quickly provide shade for the gravel garden sitting area.

More moves are planned. More transplanting needs to occur. I have more than one shovel in my arsenal and I plan to use them all.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Poet's Ivy

English ivy is a common vine we all know well as a houseplant or as an aggressive climber in the shady woodland garden. But ivy does something strange that turns it into an interesting, beautiful shrub for the garden.

When an ivy vine reaches the end of its structure or the top of a tree and it has nowhere further to climb, it matures.

When ivy matures it changes genetically. The leaves lose their lobed points and become rounded. The vine stops being a vine and the topmost part of the plant becomes shrubby and dense.

If you take a cutting from the shrubby mature part of the ivy, it will keep its altered genetic characteristics -- you get another mature shrub form of the plant.

But if you plant the seeds from the mature flowering ivy, you get an immature vine, and you are back to having rampant vining English ivy.

Immature vining ivy leaf on left / Adult rounded form on right

I first saw the adult form of ivy at Wave Hill Garden in the Bronx in 2013. I wrote about it here. It was a tidy, elegant, round shrub, flowering in late October. The flowers were yellow-greenish and really interesting; not colorful, but alive with late season bees. The foliage was glossy green -- deepest, darkest, light-grabbing, mysterious green.

Shrub ivy -- the adult form -- at Wave Hill in late October, 2013.

This April I found adult ivy -- Hedera helix 'Arborea' -- at Broken Arrow nursery, and brought home two plants to put in the two empty spots along the front walk where the deceased heath plants had been.

These are sometimes also called 'Poetica Arborea' or Poet's Ivy. Pliny in his Natural History mentioned that poets used the adult ivy with its light colored berries for their wreaths. You can look it up.

Louis the Plant Geek has a great write up about Poet's Ivy here. He mentions the need for fantastic winter drainage and some problems getting adult ivy through a cold, wet New England winter.

Louis Raymond's photo

Even so, I'm excited about this. I've wanted an adult ivy ever since I saw them at Wave Hill. And I despaired at what to replace the tidy round heaths with, until I found these and thought how perfect the round shrubby shape and dark evergreen foliage would be against the brick garage wall.

The strip in front of the garage gets warm south sun and has pretty good drainage I think. I hope the spot will provide plenty of wreaths for when poets visit my garden.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Yellow Spring Flowers

There are simply no forsythias blooming this year.  It's April 12, two weeks after the ubiquitous shrubs normally explode into their hot yellow masses everywhere, and there are none to be seen.

When we drove down toward the shore there were plenty in bloom, but none up here. The early April snow and cold temperatures came at exactly the wrong time and killed off this year's flowers.

Not forsythia.
Cornus mas (Corneliancherry)
I didn't think that could happen. Forsythias are indestructible, everlasting and impossible to kill. That's why every homeowner over the past 80 years planted hedges of them in every suburban yard.

They hold soil on highway embankments. They surround public buildings and parking lots. Their screaming yellow color is as reliable as spring mud. They never fail to bloom riotously.

Not this year, it seems.

I do have yellow spring flowers, though. Not forsythias, but yellow blooming dogwood trees. Cornus mas.

These are Corneliancherry trees, not the typical pink or white flowering dogwood that blooms in May.

While Cornus mas is sometimes mistaken for forsythia -- both yellow, both bloom very early in the season -- they really do not look similar.

For one thing, Cornus mas is a tree, not a big arching shrub. For another thing, its flowers are tiny and subtle, and more of a light haze from afar than the riot of bright yellow that forsythia sports.

The Cornus mas tree at the back of the yard flowered well at the very end of March. This one was a large 15 gallon plant that I planted in 2011.

It seems to flower at the bottom and middle, but there are no blooms along the top of the tall upright branches.

The other Corneliancherry tree along the driveway had a sad and tortured history. I planted it in 2010 as a tiny plug, just a few inches high. I always have such hopes for my baby trees and am not daunted by how little they are at first.

But in 2011 it was snapped off to the ground by heavy snow, and was pretty much given up for gone.

Now, five years later, it has regrown from nothing to the same height and size as the 15 gallon dogwood I planted at the back of the yard. In 2016 this is already a real tree. I have problems with it tilting in the wet soil where it is planted, and so it is staked, bound, and trussed.

It isn't as flowery as the other one. The flowers on this one are subtle to the point of not being noticed.

Maybe it just needs a better background -- evergreens or woods behind it. Also, the cultivar I bought was 'Aurea Variegata', with gold margins on the leaves, but I've only ever seen green leaves. I think when it got chopped off it regrew from the original rootstock, so I won't see any variegated foliage.

Given its rebound from dead stick to full tree in just five years I should be generous with my expectations.

Both of these golden yellow dogwoods got a little discouraged when early April cold and snow arrived, but they do still bloom on, although not as brightly now in mid April.

The daffodils that had popped up before our snow and deep freeze are now very sad looking. Still blooming, but their heavy yellow heads droop.

And no forsythias flowering anywhere. That's never happened before.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

On The River

We took a boat tour down the lower Connecticut River yesterday afternoon and saw bald eagles and ospreys and loons and cormorants. We passed through three separate eagle nesting territories and saw their giant stick nests high in the trees, all inhabited with nesting pairs.

Not visible in this photo, but clearly seen through binoculars, were the eagle parents, who were sitting high up because there are hatched chicks in the nest. Breeding is well underway this spring.

Through binoculars we could see the eagles dipping their heads and craning necks, feeding their chicks.

Both males and females take turns leaving the nest to soar above, hunting the river for fish to bring back to the nest.

It was a guided tour, so the naturalists on board the boat educated us on eagle behavior, how they court and nest and hunt the river and raise their young. They know these birds as individuals, and they know which eagle dad is an indifferent hunter and sketchy nest sitter, which couple failed to raise their young successfully last year, and which juvenile had yet to figure out that you can't catch a fish by its tail, it has to be heads up.

It was all fascinating, but almost beside the point when an eagle parent took to the sky and all that mattered was how majestic this bird is against blue sky and rolling clouds.

Eagles do not fly, or even soar or glide. They simply own the sky. They are motionless, barely moving their huge wings as they ride the air.

The Connecticut River is a fact of life I've grown up with -- it bisects our tiny state right down the middle and you have to cross it all the time to go anywhere here. What a different perspective to be on it, in a small(ish) boat, seeing the marshes and islands and wild rice and abandoned stone quarries up close.

The highlight, of course was seeing bald eagles.

There were plenty of osprey pairs too, and we learned about them from the naturalists and checked out their stick constructions of nests and watched them soar to hunt too. We spotted all the other birds along the river, and ogled the expensive houses along the river bank and kind of froze to death in the chilly April air on deck.

A great day on the river.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Trees Falling Down

It snowed and it has been well below freezing. and this is entirely unreasonable. Not unexpected -- New England in April can be wildly unpredictable, but even so. The strong April sun is melting some of the snow, but whole areas on the lawn and in the woods are still covered.

From my desk under the kitchen window I see directly out to the back yard and up the hill to the road that passes behind our house. In April it's just a tangle of brown trunks and roadside electric wires, with the only greenery the garlic mustard spreading on the woodland floor. From a distance my eye caught this one trunk all askew.

It's right at the edge of the road. I went out and climbed the hill to investigate.

The trees along the road are all weed trees, and they are tangled up in bittersweet and poison ivy vines. I don't do anything to tend the road edge. This tree seems to have been broken off at the base and the only reason it's not lying on the ground is that it got caught in a snarl of vines on other trees.

I couldn't even see what had happened to the trunk. It was just uprooted.

Just a few feet away to the left, two other trees were uprooted and tilting over in the opposite direction.

Earlier this spring I found one of the trees I had planted years ago, a 'UConn' white pine, uprooted and lying on the ground with barely any root mass left. It was also at the top of the hill, near the road, but not right on the roadside edge.

I know trees fall down in the forest all the time. And this narrow strip of untended, vine-clogged, trashy trees along the road is hardly a healthy forest.

But what is causing so many trees to break off at the root flare and fall down all at once this year?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Heavy Wet Snow

Snow fell last night, damping the sunny enthusiasm of the daffodils. They looked so great this year, popping up all over the back hill and on the berm under the spruces.

With the mild winter behind us and a lot of warm spring days, I had put out the patio furniture on our new patio, hung the hummingbird feeder to attract the early scouts, and even put out the pillows on the chairs in the gravel garden.

Spring clean up and cutting back and transplanting was well underway in the garden. The star magnolia had started to bloom.

Everything today is under a coating of wet sloppy snow. There is more coming, and high winds, and it's all entirely unwelcome.

Friday, April 1, 2016


It looks like my old Saab 9-3, which I loved and drove for 9 years.

It looks a little like my Prius, sort of egg shaped but much sleeker. After the Saab, I drove the Prius for another 9 years.

This car is powerful and fast, but uses no gas and has no moving parts to service or maintain other than the tires. It will go 215 miles on a full charge. Where there are Tesla Supercharging stations all across the country the electricity to charge the car is free. No maintenance costs, no fuel costs for as long as you drive this car. The base price is $35,000, or $27,500 after tax credits. I could afford that.

At home you plug it in and would have to pay for the electricity, but we have solar panels, so there's no fuel cost there.

It's the Tesla Model 3 and it won't be available until 2017, probably later, but I can wait.

This car has my name on it.