Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sneezing Chipmunks

(Some updates are included at the end of this post.)

Right next to the back door I have a pot of Salix yezoalpina, or dwarf pussywillow.

It's a plant appreciated close up for its glossy green leaves and it forms a tidy, shrubby shape. It makes a nice accent at the back door as I step out onto the deck.

When it flowers in early spring it sends up furry catkins, like extra-fat pussywillows.

I have struggled with this willow. It wants to be a groundcover and spread out, and in good conditions it will do that, reaching a spread of 5 feet wide, but staying low.

I planted a bunch of these as a groundcover along the east side of the house, but even though they got afternoon shade, they scorched badly and stayed brown edged. They really want all day shade and moisture.

When I took the scorched, struggling plants out, I discovered they have incredible, huge, deeply entrenched roots. Their roots went all the way to China, and were hard to dig up.

The one plant I have here in the container is in shade almost all day, and even though it cannot spread out and there is no way for its roots to get to China, it looks happy. It's doing well.

So I was alarmed to see dirt sprayed all around the base of the container a few days ago. I cleaned it up and packed the loosened soil back down around the base of the willow.

Then yesterday, when I opened the door to go out, I could see the whole plant shaking. Not just fluttering lazily in the summer breeze, but trembling all over like a minor earthquake was rocking the deck.

Damn chipmunk! He was in there, excavating, right under my nose. I chased him out, checked the pot, and discovered he had left a gaping hole where the roots should be -- the dirt and the roots are gone and there was nothing there.

Everyone is remarking this year on the infestation of chipmunks. I've noticed it too. We used to have a brave one that scurried across the patio now and then, but this year I see multiples everywhere, all day long, and they are not brave, they are criminally insolent.

They are constant flashes of activity, running here and chasing themselves there and bounding about.

They climb up on the patio table and camp in the bowl of strawberry plants eating the fruits. The birds are terrorized by them and fly off when the chipmunks are in the blueberry bushes, where they jump from branch to branch and eat the unripe blueberries. They dig giant holes under any annuals I plant.

They excavated a potted plant on the front porch too, leaving dirt all over the porch floor and holes where the roots should be. What are they after in my containers? Do they eat roots?

I need to get some chipmunk / squirrel repellant.

A two pound bag is $20 from Cedar Creek Organics. It's lemongrass, thyme, pepper and clove oil, with some lauryl sulfate detergent for wetting / adhesion. Apparently a strong smell deters criminal activity among chipmunks.

I ended up putting sprigs of purple basil in the willow container in the hopes that the strong scent of basil is just as deterring as the mixture in the bag would be.

I thought about putting basil sprigs in the strawberry bowl too, but would the strawberries then taste like basil? I might experiment with that -- assuming I can even get a strawberry to ripen before being stolen.

I also sprinkled ground Tellicherry black pepper in my containers, strawberries included. I hope to hear chipmunks sneezing shortly.

*  *  *  *  *  *
Update: this morning I noticed several unripe blueberries half buried in a pot of cosmos on the patio.  What are the chipmunks doing? Stashing food in my containers?

Another update: The damn chipmunks are storing unripe blueberries all over the patio. I find blueberries stuffed in the cracks of the stone wall, nestled in corners behind the grill, and stashed under the potting bench.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It's Something

My rain gauge registered half an inch of rain overnight, and there is a dewy freshness to the morning sunshine.

It was a gentle, light rain.

The garden gloves I left out on the potting bench are soggy.

But that was not nearly enough, and when I dig even an inch down I get dusty puffs. We need a soaker. We need several soakers over several days.

But half an inch of gentle rain is something.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Limping Along

Too many weeks without rain, too many days of unending sunshine and dry breezes. It's been lovely for sitting on the patio in the nice weather, but the gardens are suffering. It hasn't been overly hot, and nights are downright cool, but without any rain at all, plants are going limp.

The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) is happy

There was a bit of damp sprinkles last night, but not enough to soak, and no soaking rain in the long range forecast either.

This year I promised myself that I would not stress over conditions. I vowed to take care of what I could do reasonably, like water the containers daily, keep the birdbath filled, prevent seedlings from drying up, and lug the hoses out to get water to any new transplants.

Everything else is on its own, and I simply have to stop looking.

Orange Butterflyweed is doing well.

And so the garden dries up. The astilbes are gone, totally crisp. Viburnums and hydrangeas are alarmingly droopy, coneflowers are wilted and the lovely drumstick alliums that stand so tall and straight have started to lie down in the dirt and make little piles of hay before even opening their buds.

The tightly budded drumstick alliums usually open wine red and make a great contrast
with hot orange Butterflyweed. But the alliums are starting to give up and wilt now.

Blueberries have brown edges on some leaves. The lawn grass is, of course, browning. Everyone's is. It will come back with wetter conditions, but right now it's another thing I try not to look at.

This is where I add modest disclaimers about my issues compared to truly horrific situations like the floods in West Virginia, the fires out west, or tornadoes in the south. My garden is no tragedy. Not even close. Some things even look good.

But I work hard all winter and spring on it, with great anticipation that I will enjoy it when summer comes and that visitors will see something nice when they visit.

I'm not enjoying it. I'm keeping what I can limping along, watered enough not to die, and waiting for another season.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Climbing Vines

Let's go over the climbing vines in my garden this year.

We'll start with one that is doing quite well -- Clematis 'Samaritan Jo'. I got it last year, but never planted it. It has stayed in a pot, actually in two different containers, since I moved it a couple times, but it has tolerated being repotted pretty well.

It's by the gravel garden now. It's a very delicate clematis that will not outgrow the tower it's on. It wants a little shade, which it gets all morning, but it does fry out here in the afternoon sun. But it seems to be fine with that.
Flowers are pale lavender-tinged in low light, and silver in high sun. Because this is a shy climbing vine, it is best seen close up as I walk past the gravel area or sit in the red chairs.

There is nothing delicate about the bright purple 'Jackmanii Superba' clematis that I moved last year. It is huge, floriferous, and leafy. So big that it quickly outgrew the 5 foot iron tower I had it on. So I cut it back last summer, dug it up, and not knowing where to put it, I just rested the rootball in a depression against one of the river birches on the berm.

There it stayed all winter. And this spring it leafed out and grew tall, even in its inhospitable resting spot. It wanted to climb the river birch trunk, but could get no purchase. When it reached seven feet tall and was flopping all about, I moved it.

When I say I moved it, I simply grabbed a handful of the long vines and dragged it, rootball and all, bumping it along the ground like Christopher Robin dragging Winnie the Pooh down the stairs.

Then I stuffed the mess into this tower by the deck. The tower is no taller than the old one it had been on, but the idea is to have the long vines reach the top and crawl over to the deck railing and stretch out there.

Amazingly the brutal bumping and dragging did not kill this clematis. It is not as big now as it was in its original spot, but it is green, leafy, and blooming and I expect that it will live on and become its glorious huge shape next year. We'll see if I can get it to reach over to the deck railing then.

The deck railing is also where the Sweet Autumn clematis will grow, with the two vines twining together, or so I envision. 'Jackmanii' will be done blooming well before the Clematis terniflora blooms, but the idea is to have their full foliage mingle together.

This is Sweet Autumn clematis on the old deck railing, before it was replaced this spring with the new deck:

I thought I lost this vine in the construction of the new deck. It got run over, compacted by the backhoe, and never came up this spring. So I put the compost number over the spot where it had been,

But it sprouted, and was trying to grow. It was completely shaded by the compost tumbler before I realized it was there and moved the tumbler. Now the vine is just a few inches high at the start of summer. It may not grow enough this season to reach the deck railing and maybe it won't bloom. It has all summer to do something, so we'll see.

Like the 'Jackmanii' purple clematis, this year may see limited growth, but the roots are alive. I'll be interested next year to see how these two vines coexist, both scrambling over the deck railing.

But what has happened with this vine -- what is going on with my 'Kintzley's Ghost' honeysuckle?

It never flowered at all this year, and there are no silvery round bracts that give it a eucalyptus-like ghostly white look. The flowers are usually funny, bight yellow blooms that open in May, followed by the papery bracts. But there was not a bloom in sight this year.

This vine is simply green foliage. At the very top it is curling and stunted, but I think that might be aphids -- I need to check and see what's causing that. The rest of this Lonicera reticulata looks fine.

But no flowers or bracts. It can't be frost damage; the vines were cut all the way back in winter and hadn't even emerged when we had a sharp cold spell in April.

The plumbago vine is another that is not doing much. I babied it all winter inside the house, and it grew tall and dark green in a corner of the dining room, even starting to put out some pretty blue blooms in March.

I repotted it and put it outside once the temperatures got warm.

But the re-potting destroyed the brittle stems, and it had to be cut all the way back, losing those pretty blue flowers. Now, outside, it still isn't warm enough for this tropical Plumbago auriculata to do much yet. I'll have to be really patient with this one.

Clematis 'Niobe' is another disappointment. It's a big clematis that has showy red flowers, but mine is mis-planted, not red, and won't climb. I had to use my camera's flash to even get a shot of it hulking deep under a pine tree.

It's under the pine tree because I had seen clematis vines scrambling up conifers at the Philadelphia Flower Show years ago. Gorgeously colored flowers decorated the deep green pine boughs all up and down the length of the trees like Christmas garlands. That's what I tried to do here.

But it hasn't worked at all. First, it's too dry under the pine. Second, the clematis tendrils won't grab on to the pine boughs, even if I clip them on. The whole plant just bunches up in a pile in a dark corner under the tree.  I ended up using a bamboo tripod for a little encouragement but that doesn't do much.

And, to add insult to my misbegotten plan, the flowers aren't red. They are dark magenta. I think this clematis wants to be moved. But where?

Clematis viticella 'Alba Luxurians' is my one reliable, easy, flowery, no-fuss climbing vine, and it is an old friend by the patio wall, completely obscuring the iron pyramid it is on.

It has small, downward facing handkerchief flowers, nothing big or fancy, but always profuse and pretty. I'll cut it down after flowering in early August, and it will regrow and rebloom (in some years) by late September.

And finally, Clematis 'Henryi' seems to have recovered from its bout with clematis wilt a couple years ago. It's still not a very vigorous vine. It's small and spindly, with only a few blooms, but they are lovely against the brick garage wall.

So, to recap, the different clematis vines I have are a very mixed result this year, the non-blooming ghost honeysuckle is a mystery, and the plumbago is still too cold to be happy.

That's all the vines I have, if you don't count annuals -- a  trailing nasturtium that I am trying to get to climb up a small pyramid, and a black eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia) that is small and pretty.

And, of course, I have a big woody climbing hydrangea that is now racing across the pergola over the garage doors. I'll do a separate post on that at some point this summer. It's doing really well.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Choca Mocha

First of all, how can you resist the name -- Choca Mocha. And the color -- rich velvety red.

Cosmos 'Choca Mocha' in my garden in 2013

It's supposed to smell like chocolate, but it doesn't. That's all right, I love this cosmos atrosanguineus for its color and texture and its small flowers at the end of bouncy stems.

I first planted this cosmos in 2013, not knowing what to expect, and I was charmed by its sprawling, low habit and beautiful red flowers. I planted it again in 2014, but last year I did not include it in my garden, and I missed the deep red summer flowers.

So this spring I thought I would try something similar: Painted tongue, or Salpiglossis 'Chocolate Royale'. Same idea -- a low plant with chocolate red flowers. It's also called stained glass flower.

Salpiglossis 'Chocolate Royale'

I got a packet of seeds of painted tongue, but when I opened the packet, there was nothing there, just a hint of dust at the bottom corner of a tiny plastic sleeve. Nicotiana seeds are so fine they look like dust, so I thought maybe these were an even finer type of seed.

Painted tongue, or stained glass flower

They have to germinate in the dark. I planted the nonexistent seeds -- basically I wafted the empty sleeve over some fresh potting soil -- and covered the container. But nothing.

What I can't figure out is whether Salpiglossis is a fine, dust-like seed, or whether my seed packet was empty. How stupid is that? But googling "Salpiglossis seeds" gives me lots of pretty pictures of the deep red flowers, but no info on what the seeds look like.

I am deeply suspicious that my seed packet was empty.

But not to worry. I quickly gave up on waiting for imaginary seed dust to sprout, and simply ordered plants of my old favorite, Cosmos 'Choca Mocha', from Avant Gardens.
Back to my reliable, beautiful 'Choca Mocha' cosmos

I won't be without deep red velvet textured chocolate colored flowers this summer.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Duct Tape

I provide water in a birdbath all summer, and I keep it clean and fresh. I plant flowers to attract the bugs that birds want to eat. I leave seedheads standing all fall and winter for them. They raise families in all the leafy trees and shrubs I provide. Really, I do a lot for the feathered flocks.

Then they go and do this.

They shred the window screens on our house, to get bitty strands of netting for their nests. They have been doing it for years. My high-tech damage repair involves putting a piece of Scotch tape over the holes.

It's the house sparrows of course -- the non-native, aggressive little birds that displace bluebirds and other small songbirds.  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, house sparrows live exclusively around humans, where they thrive in malls, nest in building signage, and love nothing more than a wreath on a front door to inhabit. They are not found in forests or wild areas.

I knock their nests out of the rain gutters, and I chase them from the front door wreath every few days. We had to nail a block of wood over the open slot under the mailbox where the paper goes because they kept nesting in there. It is, of course, a losing battle.

But what to do about the screens? My Scotch tape solution is getting ridiculous on some of the windows. This latest hole in the bathroom window screen needs a chunk of duct tape. I don't think a bit of clear Scotch tape will patch it.

You can get screens made from aluminum mesh rather than the fiberglass that the sparrows seem to like. Is it even feasible to replace the tall, oversize window screens on our house with custom built aluminum mesh screens? Our windows are all 6 feet tall.

Somehow replacing the screens does not seem like an option, and who's to say these persistent birds would leave the fine aluminum mesh strands alone?  They seem capable of using any kind of building material they see, and repurposing any part of the house to their own ends.  I just live here, it's their house.

I give up. Where's the duct tape?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Front and Center

I just got a 4 inch pot of Ruta graveolens 'Jackman's Blue' from Avant Gardens, and I put it at the center of the garden along the front walk.

I was careful to wear gloves and long sleeves, since rue is a plant that causes skin rashes and water blisters in some people. I don't know if I am sensitive to it -- not everyone is. I have never had any reaction to poison ivy in my life, and I have handled it extensively. But immunity to poison ivy (urushiol oil) doesn't mean I can tolerate the completely different toxins in common rue. So, caution.

I was awfully skeptical about this herb when my garden group suggested planting it. I wrote about it here last winter, and was having a hard time coming up with reasons to even put this in my garden.

And yet here it is, front and center along the walk. I put it in front of the white flowered 'Henryi' clematis, next to a tall sedum and with golden 'Angelina' sedum at its feet.

There are some yellow dahlias with dark purple foliage that are already in bloom this spring. The dark leaves of these small dahlias don't show against the brick, but the sunny yellow flowers are nice.

The soft blue tinge and frilly cut leaves of the rue adds some complexity and it should stay a nice round shape. I think it will have yellow flowers at some point.

I'm pretty ambivalent about this plant. But it sits at the center of my front walk garden, so I've given it a prominent place, and I'll see if common rue, the herb of grace, wins me over.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Say Hello

I bought an Itoh hybrid peony last spring, waited until the foliage declined in fall to plant it out in the middle of the lawn, put some leftover flooring bricks around it and called it a formal design element in my garden.

It's still small, and there are only two blooms on it so far this spring, but say hello to 'Bartzella'.

Hello, Bartzella!

It will get much larger and will eventually be covered in dozens of big fat yellow flowers in future years, but right now I am so pleased with how well 'Bartzella' has settled in and how good it looks in its first year here.

There's a bit of flame red at the base of the flower to give the clear sulphur yellow some complexity.  It's a big peony, but sturdy and not prone to flopping. Itoh peonies are a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies, which seems like kind of a miracle.

Hi there!

The bright yellow flowers are easily seen as you come up the driveway, even though there are only two of them and the plant is still small. What a welcome this peony offers.

I'm used to planting small trees, waiting ten years, and then posting about how nice they've finally become. This peony is such immediate gratification -- so big and full and beautiful in one year, with a promise of even better things in future years.  Say hey to a really rewarding plant.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Drizzles, Sprinkles and Chill

It got cold today. I sat in a pool of sunshine to have my coffee -- the one red chair on the right was in enough sun early in the morning to warm me.

The air was crisply fall-like, not even in the 60s, and someone in the area had a fire going so the air smelled deliciously smoky.

It never warmed up all day, and then this patient fairy sprite, waiting for water to fill her umbrella flower, was rewarded with sprinkles of light rain in the afternoon.

Before it drizzled, I puttered a bit. Pruned off dead branches, trimmed the kiwi vine at the entrance to the gravel garden, planted some alchemillas I picked up at Wade's, pulled up anemones everywhere.

I had planted thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana, years ago, and now I find them everywhere, especially in garden beds far from where the originals were. This is not the rampant hybrid or Japanese anemone. It's a native woodland wildflower, and quite pretty, and not known for migrating, but wander it has, all over.

The seedheads stand tall and sturdy after flowering, and I assume the birds love them, because they certainly have distributed thimbleweed plants far and wide. I'm leaving lots in Meadow's Edge garden, especially around the blue pyramid -- that's a nice look -- but pulling them out everywhere else.

I did some more pruning of the 'Orange Dream' Japanese maple. This time I took off lower branches and I am surprised at how that improved the bunchiness of the whole tree.

Beneath 'Orange Dream' there is a big goatsbeard, Aruncus dioecus, starting to bloom. When the flowers open more fully it resembles a giant astilbe and is often called that. But I love the name goatsbeard. The shaggy white flowers really do look like a billygoat's whiskers, don't they?

I weeded the Birch Garden a bit. When the early spring bulbs go by -- woodland hyacinths and allium moly -- the decaying foliage in front looks bad, but it's temporary. Iteas in the middle are flowering all droopy and the coreopsis in front came in much more orange than yellow.

There is a little bit of white something tucked in under the iteas to the left. It's a self seeded flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata. There are lots of seeded Nicotianas there, and they are all still small clumps of foliage now, but this one plant has shot up and bloomed already, way ahead of its siblings.

It's too cold to have any scent now. But when the nights are warm, this white tobacco has a beautiful sweet perfume. I wonder why this one plant is so precocious?

I fertilized the brand new peony 'Bartzella', which is about to open any day now. I can't wait to see the yellow blooms. I can't decide if a peony stranded in the middle of the grass in a brick circle looks ridiculous, or if this stab at a formal design element looks classically elegant.

I'm going with classically elegant.

Sun and sprinkles alternated, gray skies and clear came and went, but the air never got above 60 degrees. Too cold for the patio, I'm afraid.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Here's the hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) I mentioned on my tree tour the other day. I didn't post a picture of it, but I should have, because it tickled me. It is planted in the meadow, and I view it from between the blue spruces on the berm in front of it, which makes a nice frame.

I plant tiny trees from one or five gallon pots, wait for several years while they add skinny branches to the two or three twigs on the original stick, and then one day they get all tall and gangly and make me laugh.

When it eventually outgrows its gawky stage, it will become a large rounded pyramid of a tree, like this one:

Ostrya virginiana has flowers that develop into dangling pods that look like hops. Mine hasn't flowered yet, but that will be the next stage that makes me smile. In a few more years.

Talk about gangly -- this red oak (Quercus rubrum) was planted as a bendy stalk in a 5 gallon pot from Home Depot four years ago. I did show it in my tree tour post, but look at it close up. It shot up this year and has a kind of topknot thing going on.

It's next to a dappled willow, and eventually the tall oak and the billowy willow will become one planting. The oak trunk will be thick and its canopy will overtop the willow at its base, and it will fulfill my fantasies of a leafy mise en scene.

Trees don't have to be large specimens to complete my visions, though. I like this little one rising above the purple blooming amsonias ('Blue Ice'). This little tree has the small grace and openness of a Japanese maple, but it's a dogwood.

It is a Cornus racemosa, or gray dogwood. It's actually a thickety shrub when left on its own, and can cover some real estate in large colonies after a time. But I have pruned it up, leaving just one low-branched trunk, so it will be tree-like rather than shrubby. But it will remain kind of open and it won't get very tall and I imagine its gracefulness in the future.

This spring there is a tree I am dreaming about that I don't have in my garden (there are two types of trees in my hardiness zone, I discovered: Trees I Have Planted and Trees I Have Not Yet Planted).

The object of my desire this year is a fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

I never planted one before, partly because I thought the fringy white flowers were kind of too much -- too fluffy or something. And partly because I had seen a couple struggling saplings in other gardens and was not impressed. But those were sickly, and in no way represented what a nice, mature, flowering fringe tree could look like.

This past week I saw one in Cheryl's garden that stunned me. I don't have a picture of hers, but it was as elegant and flowery and lovely as the pictures above, and it smelled divine.  It's a native, its berries attract birds, it stays smallish, and I am convinced it is the one tree that I must now plant.

They are available in nurseries around here. I think I am going to have to take down the blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium) in the center of the yard that seems to be declining, so that will leave an open spot for a small, structured, elegant tree, and I think a fringe tree would fulfill every tree fantasy I have ever had.