Thursday, September 29, 2016

Musings With a Glass of Wine

While walking in the evening with a glass of wine, a couple inspirations hit me all at once. I could move some things. Yes I could.

Why don't I move the cedar storage shed over to the other side of the patio? Under the kitchen window it crowds the potting bench. I'll recenter the potting bench under the window, leaving space on either side for some pails of potting soil and for the hose to hang more freely.

I'm going to move the shed over to the other side, where the pots are displayed beneath the railing. I don't need so many containers on the patio, and this ell between the upper railing and the deck steps is one hundred percent exactly 51 inches. Guess how wide the storage shed is.

It will snug into that otherwise unusable ell like a slippery glove, still be easily accessible, and it might look intentional. Why did I not notice before that this spot is the perfect place to put the shed?

Do I need all these pots in too much shade under the railing? No I do not. A glass of wine helped me figure that out.

Another glass of wine, another inspiration: why don't I move the 'Bartzella' peony to the front center of the Birch Garden? That spot has always troubled me,

It's the area where the birdbath sits, in an attempt to fill an empty spot. There are huecheras and dahlias and coreopsis there, but the very front center of this garden never filled in.

So a big, lusty peony would be great there. I'll take out the little perennials and the birdbath, maybe, then move the peony from its brick circle, and boy will that fill in the area, first in spring with amazingly big yellow bomb flowers, and then with nice foliage.

And. . . . in the circle in the center of these several converging gardens where the peony is now, I am going to move the 'Silberlocke" Korean fir. It's tiny, and it's slow growing, but one day it will be a silvery, structured, elegant presence and it just doesn't belong hidden behind the giant purple ninebark where it is crowded now.

It needs a place of honor, and this brick circle is good. I have been wondering what to do with the Korean fir, even though I knew I had time, as it grows so slowly. But now, with a couple other moves, I think I have a place for it.

One more glass of wine and large deciduous trees will be slated to move. Let's stop now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All My Wishes Have Been Granted

The wedding was perfect, the groom was elated and the bride radiant. Our flights were on time, our families blended joyously, the food and music and venue were spectacular.

There was a magical moment when the best man sang and played on stage for his brother and the groomsmen wept more than any of the women (it's all on film). Then they got up and everyone danced with abandon.

Snafus were overcome, including major ones involving guitars kidnapped in Uber cars, tulle and scissors in conflict, late arrivals, and candles that would not light. It was all good.

And when we got home, exhausted, I found that it had rained on my garden while we were gone.

God smiles on us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Little Advice

If you plant grasses, plant them in an open spot where the morning sun will light them up. Evening sun is good too, but this 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass greets the early morning.

If you plant nasturtiums, plant bright orange ones. 'Whirlybird' is good.

You can plant them beneath a soft billowy bush clover -- this one is a dwarf Lespedeza called 'Ido Shibori' and it won't overtake the area -- but make sure the orange nasturtiums face east to catch the morning sun.

If you put ornaments in your garden, like a wooden obelisk, make sure to put them where the sun can find them first thing every morning.

That's all. That's your garden advice for a cool September morning.

Put stuff where the sun sees it first on its way up in the morning.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Tall and Graceful

The very dry summer has made the foliage of the fall anemone skimpy this year, and the flowers are smaller. But the smaller flowers are standing on strong stems, taller than ever before.

Usually this pink Anemone 'Robustissima' gets very floppy. I've struggled in past seasons to keep those big stems from falling all over.

The wall helps, but this pretty plant is at the entrance to the patio and it always falls over into the walk. My staking and trussing attempts always failed -- I ended up with bunches of stems congested together and the whole thing flopped over as a unit.

This year, with drier conditions and smaller flowers, and with a thinner foliage base, the flowers are held strongly upright. The entire plant is tidier, and the stalks are graceful. A breeze makes the demure pink flowers nod, but they stay up straight.

The dry conditions stressed so many of my plants, and even killed some outright. But this anemone is standing so tall and elegant this year, providing a graceful end note to a harsh summer.

Could these be standing up any straighter?

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Day After

The local garden club came to tour my garden last week, and they could not have been more gracious or more interested. I loved talking about my plants with them, sharing stories of the wildlife that wanders through all our gardens in this part of the state, and sitting on the patio after the tour chatting with experienced gardeners.

I especially loved seeing my own garden through new eyes. No one thought the grass looked horrible (it does), or the bottlebrush buckeyes looked scorched (they are). No one even knew a dead hemlock had previously stood at the back of one garden, or that a diseased baptisia used to be by the patio. It all looked fresh and good to them. Wow.

But guess what happened the day after they left?

The sweet autumn clematis burst into bloom. I can't describe how spicy and heady the fragrance is. How I would have loved to have them all smell that wonderful scent and see those pretty star flowers in abundance.

And this is the vine I thought was dead and gone three times over (trampled by deck construction machinery, smothered by the compost tumbler over it, and then all but one stem eaten to the ground by rabbits). While it is great to see my garden through new eyes experiencing it for the first time, there is something rich about knowing the complicated history of what grows here.

Dahlias that I had laboriously grown from seed all summer refused to open for the garden club visit. Then, after they left, this happened:

It's the only one of half a dozen plants to open so far, but still. Could it not have opened a day or two earlier?

And of course the plumbago on the patio, which had bloomed all summer, petered out in time for the garden visit. But a couple days after, it started up again.

Still, no matter. The people who visited my garden appreciated all that they saw, and they seemed to think the whole place was a testament to fabulous gardening proficiency, which of course it is not. It's bugs, weather, accidental good luck, bad fortune and serial mistakes that are the true gardeners here.

But how nice to be complimented for it.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Denver Trees

I now know a property owner in Denver. A homeowner, a householder. A man of means. He owns half of a duplex in the city, in Sunnyside, an urban neighborhood of small homes that is up and coming.

His home is 814 square feet. It's a shotgun layout, straight through to the back. Built in 1897, it has a dirt and stone foundation and a hundred years plus of charm, and has been fully renovated. It's tiny, but there is a big new garage, allowing this new property owner to finally get his road bikes out of his kitchen.

He has asked me to consult and advise on trees for his yard and his public space.

For a tiny home and small yard, there is actually a lot of public space between the sidewalk and street, and a lot of room inside the fenced back yard that needs planting.

The city of Denver has a remarkable tree planting program where they offer free trees to homeowners in neighborhoods that they have determined have too little canopy. These are free container grown shade trees, about a 5 foot tall sapling size, which you'd pay $90 to $120 for at a nursery. They are to be planted in the public spaces between sidewalk and street or in your own yard. This is a great program.

The Sunnyside neighborhood where the new homeowner has settled is not one of the target areas in Denver with too few trees, so the trees are not free, but are offered at a modest cost of $35. That's still a bargain for this size tree.

They offer the following, selected by the Colorado forestry department for suitability to plant in a western city a mile high:

Swamp White Oak  (Quercus bicolor) -- it's a tree I grow in my Connecticut garden and love. Stately, even at a young age. Glossy and green. I'd advise planting this tree.

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) -- a coarse big tree, but well suited to the Denver climate.

Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) -- I don't know much about this one, but it could be interesting.

Triumph Elm (Ulmus x 'Morton Glossy') -- how great to have a tall shady elm tree! It's tough and disease resistant. Makes me a little concerned, but maybe improved disease resistant elms out west do well. I'm still scarred by the total loss of the original species elms that succumbed to disease in Connecticut in the last century.

London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia 'Bloodgood') -- A very big shady tree much like a sycamore, but I wouldn't select it for my new homeowner. Messy, big-leaved, not my favorite. To me the mottled bark is weird rather than interesting.

Honeylocust -- (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis 'Shademaster') -- this is a lacy looking tree that provides dappled, open shade. The leaves turn yellow in fall, and against the dark black trunks, it's a stunning look. We have them here in the east and they are eye catching. I think the new homeowner should plant some of these.

'American Sentry' Linden  (Tilia americana) -- a dense pyramidal tree with an elegant shape. I love lindens, and it would be really nice to plant some at the new house.

They also offer Cleveland Select flowering pear, which is popular, but can be a problem here. They break apart under icy snow loads. I mean they totally self destruct. But in Denver there is rarely heavy wet snow like we get here, and perhaps they are a better choice out there. They can be very pretty flowering trees with russet fall color, so. . . that's a possibility.

The program also offers small trees -- a dogwood and a redbud, but only for spaces where shade trees won't fit. The focus of the tree program is to plant very large trees that will shade city streets.

In addition to the city's tree offerings, there are choices from local nurseries too -- crabapples, bigtooth maples, and of course evergreens like spruces and conical junipers that could work in a small yard.

The new homeowner has to apply for the city program trees in February, so I'll help with that. Then, in April when the plants are available for pick up, I'll fly out for a weekend of planting, watering, mulching -- maybe some nursery hopping too for a few shrubs.

I already see the future vision of a shady urban homestead in a mile high city.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My Woodland Shrubbery

I have never been good at growing flowers. The aggressive perennials I was warned about putting in my garden because they would overtake and spread -- obedient plant and evening primrose -- completely died out and disappeared. I even bought more over the years and replanted and those went away too.

I never got pink coneflowers to stay, and sneezeweed disappeared too. Heliopsis didn't last one season. I've never seen more than one errant bloom on the Siberian irises I planted years ago. An experiment to plant sunflowers at the edge of the meadow one year resulted in no sunflowers.

I could go on with a long list of flowers I can't grow.

This is a tree and shrub garden, a fact I need to explain to the local garden club that is coming for a tour this week. I love planting and tending woody plants and watching the ones I don't kill mature into stately specimens over the years.

Some woody plants do flower, and I'm glad the club members will see a nice Rose of Sharon in full white bloom. The panicle hydrangeas are flowering -- although both of my big leaf mountain hydrangeas have had no buds or blooms at all this season. Our early April deep freeze zapped all of those.

I do have some black eyed Susans about, and some magenta phlox in the Birch Garden. Dwarf fleeceflower plants at the wet end of the Blueberry Garden have little pink pipecleaner spikes standing up.

But I really don't have flowers or color here. Even my patio pots are all foliage, no blooms. I have herbs and strawberries and a funny dwarf willow that is all leaves, but the one potted flowering plant, a tall blue plumbago, has now stopped blooming.

I don't have any luck with annuals either. The ten dahlia plants that I nursed along from seed all season have been reduced to just a handful (rabbits got them), but those that survive still have closed buds. I had wanted them to open by the time of the garden club visit, but they won't. They would have at least offered a few pops of color here and there.

Early in the summer I planted lots of nasturtium seeds around -- lots of them, in every open cranny -- but only two live now to bloom. I planted flats of alyssum in order to have a blanket of color at ground level where the earth was bare. And I watered them all this dry summer. All but three or four completely refused to grow.

Thank goodness there is a pretty pink fall anemone flowering by the patio. It gives some color and floweriness, although this year it has been thinner and sparser than in more normal summers.

I am not a flower gardener. I grow trees, I grow shrubs, I have completely reforested a bare hillside with natives, and created shade and canopy in my yard. I prune, I shape, I move and I often cut down. I grow sassafras and spicebush and zenobia and xanthorhiza and ostrya and sourwood and native persimmons and I know all their Latin names.

I tend an arboretum.

So why do I feel so inadequate about not having flowers in my garden for a garden tour?

I even went out and bought pots of things in bloom and set them about in empty places so there would be color and flowers in my garden.

I bought pink coneflowers against all evidence that I can even grow them, and planted them in a few spots last week, creating the pretense that they'd grown there all along. Then I went to the nursery and bought bags of mulch to cover the areas where my groundcovers failed or where all the flowers should have been.

I was even tempted to buy a bunch of big tropicals in pots, like tall cannas and neon colored crotons and strew them around for color and interest. But no.

This is crazy. I need to dispense with all my anxiety about having flowery perennials or colorful annuals to show the garden club, and instead celebrate what I love to do and do well: plant and tend a woodland shrubbery.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Plants, like people, are strongly influenced by their genes to be what they are programmed to be. Here are three examples of plants in my garden that are determined to grow according to their own mysterious dictates.

The sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) by the new deck was nipped to the ground by rabbits and I despaired. They chopped off all but one stem. But that one stem is carrying on like a hero, and has climbed all by its lonely self up to the railing.

That one stem has produced enough foliage and buds to decorate the railing all the way up and across. It usually blooms in late August, but I am hoping now that it will open those tight buds in time for the garden club's visit next week.

It's late blooming because it got badly trampled in the construction of the new deck in spring, then totally shaded by the compost tumbler when I placed it over the plant thinking it was lost, and then once it finally got going in summer, the rabbits had their evil way with it.

Despite having been stomped, smothered, shaded and decapitated, its roots stored the urgent genetic imperative to grow. It twines and will flower soon with a heady, spicy scent when the tiny starry flowers open. It's fascinating how this plant can carry on with one, and only one, surviving stem and create a complete vision of what the whole vine would have been.

I have two adult ivy plants that I put in along the front walk this spring, and even though they are tiny little plants they are blooming their heads off. These are Hedera helix 'Arborea'.

Adult ivy, also called Poet's Ivy, is the mature version of the long, vining English ivy. When it matures, it changes genetic form, and becomes a flowery, rounded, medium size shrub. You can read what I wrote about it here. Or here. It's a really interesting botanical anomaly.

I have these little plants sited in too much sun, facing south. Ivy wants some shade. I did keep them well watered in this dry summer. They are young, and I'm looking forward to them becoming big rounded, dark leaved forms anchoring the walkway.

Shrub ivy is such an intriguing plant. It actually changes genetically when it matures. A cutting of mature ivy reproduces the genetic instructions to be a shrub, not a vine, with differently shaped leaves. It's truly a different plant. But seed from mature ivy will produce the immature vining form.

The black gum, Nyssa sylvatica, in the front yard is determined to be what its genes are telling it to be. Despite my efforts to keep a strong upright leader growing, this tree wants to be a weeper. It just does.

This is what I noticed yesterday morning when I looked up. The top branches curve over.

This tree has been pruned professionally by Bartlett Tree Experts and I have had at it too to try to get a good top leader, but it's been a struggle.

At first it looked like an upright, pyramidal tupelo tree when it was planted in 2010. Even by 2012, it was still looking upright, much like normal black gum trees. Fall color is always great.

But now, in 2016, it's true identity is showing. It is drooping over and no matter how we prune it, the leader and all the branches cascade downward.

I have noticed in specialty nurseries and catalogs there are several contorted cultivars of Nyssa sylvatica, so apparently it's a tree that is easily bred for twisted branching habits. This one was sold as a normal species form, but it definitely has the genes for weeping.

That would be fine, except it's paired with another black gum in the front yard. The two trees are supposed to be a symmetrical frame for the front of the house. Alas, one weeps, the other is strongly pyramidal and straight.

It is so fascinating to watch the plants in my garden asserting their individual inborn identities.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Organ Pipe Effect

Despite its name, my smokebush 'Grace' is anything but graceful. Look at this burly shrub with its long upward reaching arms, all gangly and too big for the little wall and tidy space it occupies next to a small paperbark maple.

This is my fault. I have read in several sources that Cotinus coggygria needs two cutbacks -- the first in late winter when it should be cut to the ground, and then after it leafs out in May, it needs a reduction shearing to keep the upward reaching branches vertical and graceful as it grows later in summer.

I know this. But I didn't do it. You see the ungainly results.

By cutting it back in May, you get the smaller, slender upright branching that I have seen in other gardens, notably at Chanticleer, where low, vertically branched smokebushes surround the parking lot like a ring of fire.

Or at Berkshire Botanical Garden, where the deep red stems are small enough to fit in the flower border, making a nice upright accent.

Here's what Louis Raymond (of The Plant Geek) says about smokebush:
Resist the urge to pinch branches if they have become overly-long stems; the resultant high-altitude side-branching will only look clunky. Instead, next year try being proactive.
If you pinch new smokebush stems in late May -- or whenever they are still less than a foot high), you'll achieve denser and, overall, less floppy and bulky growth.  
And you'd still retain the interesting thrusting verticality of its new stems, which have a casual but organ-pipe-like effect.

I did cut back all the stems in winter, leaving about a two foot stem structure. But then I just let it go, and never did anything else.

By early June it was already too late to make the second cut back.

At a garden tour in Peterborough, New Hampshire in August I talked with Michael Gordon (of The Gardener's Eye), and he said he does the two step cutback with his 'Grace' smokebush, which was small and in fact had the delightfully described organ-pipe effect, tucked into borders in his garden.

He cuts his all the way to the ground, rather than leaving a two foot high trunk structure.

I have read this advice in other places too, and I knew about it before this season, but didn't do anything and the result is an awkward big shrub that is the focal point coming up our driveway.

Rather than the organ pipe effect of small upright branches, what I was really going for with my smokebush was the billowy shape of this one, seen at a neighbor's garden several years ago. You can tell it has not been cut back at all since it's covered in airy flowers, which you would sacrifice if the shrub is cut back to the ground.

But leaving mine unchopped did not result in this pretty form. And cutting it back in winter without a subsequent May reduction hasn't been working either.

So next winter I'll cut this all the way to the ground -- not leaving the two foot high skeleton as I have in the past. And I'll remember to do the second cutback too. Let's see if I get anything close to an organ pipe effect with that approach.