Monday, October 31, 2016

A Stillness

After a snowfall last week (enough to stick for a while) and after days of late October bluster gusts and dampish nip, the wind died on Sunday and it became still and not so cold.

The air was quiet and hushed. The garden is ready to move on. Autumn is passing.

I feel the same way. I'm in a hushed state, ready to let the work of the summer garden and the blaze of fall's transformation go. I have no digging projects, no future plans for new gardens, no lists of plants I want, or fussing over plants I have.

It's probably the result of finding myself at the end of a crazy year. Travel this year was unusual for me -- three trips to California, a week in France, a week in Wyoming. There was a grand wedding with all the planning and event preparation for that. There was first time home buying in Colorado that was exciting and took a lot of focus.

The river cruise down the Seine was a once in a lifetime treat. The family bonding in Wyoming was a once in a lifetime chance to introduce my new daughter in law to the ranch.

And at one point during the year we bought a new car.

Add to that the turmoil of keeping a garden going in a very dry summer, with plant losses, replanting, redesigning and just the stress of it all.

Not a lot of gardening (or even interest) going on at the moment. It all looks fine without my attentions as it quietly drifts toward winter. Now I am in a still place myself, needing to regather mentally and financially.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Amsonia in Autumn

An Amsonia hubrichtii growing in front of the house has never rivaled the first year I planted it, when it turned brilliant lemon yellow even though it was still small. Since then it has grown into a substantial plant, but it never had that vibrant fall color again.

In 2010 it was little but bright

In fact, in some years it barely turned a buff color in fall. This year, it's a strong golden and very eye catching at the front of the house.

When the stonemason put in our new paver walk this summer, he moved it over more than a foot, making the narrow garden strip in front of the brick wall a little wider. The amsonia appreciates the little bit of extra room. It had gotten big enough to cascade over much of the walk before.

It has the size and rounded shape of a shrub, but amsonia is a perennial, and dies back to the ground. I cut it down, usually before snow comes even though it turns a nice tan in winter, and could provide something to look at in winter as you come down the walkway. But snow weighs the feathery foliage down and smushes the whole plant, so best to cut it before then.

When I cut it back, though, I need to wear gloves. Amsonia has a sticky white sap that is annoying and hard to get off your hands. The milky white sap is full of alkaloids and is a deterrent to deer; they don't bother amsonias at all.

Other than the sap issue, it's an easy care plant, unbothered by pests. It does seed prolifically -- there are always lots of little feather seedlings right under it and they are hard to pull up. But it doesn't spread anywhere much beyond its own feet.

It was a fairly inspired idea to plant this next to a burgundy 'Crimson Queen' Japanese maple and a deep green Alberta spruce, with a red brick wall in the background. In fall this rich color combination is impressive at the front of the house.

It's a good thing this plant is well placed where I have it. Amsonias are very long lived, and they have tough woody roots. It won't want me to move it. It's staying right where it is, complementing the autumn scene at the front of the house just beautifully.

Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Saturday it rained a little and Sunday the wind blew all day in fits and swirls. It happens every year -- a blustery day begins the process of taking the fall foliage down.

At least I got out for a walk in the nice weather before the thinning out began, and got some phone shots.

The view on my walk around the neighborhood last week, before the blustery wind.

My iPhone almost exploded when it snapped the hot color of these sugar maples.

I love seeing the bright colors and those faint blue hills in the distance as I come down the hill.

At home after my ramble around the neighborhood, I sat on the patio and had a rest.

Norway maples that have spread all through the woods
are always a bright yellow

Out in the meadow I can see the American persimmon tree
that I brought home in my carryon luggage in 2007

The pretty sourwood tree before the blow down.

A sassafras sapling, all shaggy and orange.

There is still fall color to be seen -- the red maples in my yard haven't even turned their brilliant crimson color yet, and won't until November. But the weekend's blow has taken away a lot of the fullness and color and spectacle of autumn around here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mid October

It is mid October and we've gone from having the heat on earlier this month to running the air conditioner. It got humid and really warm this week.

Fall colors are not disappointing this year, despite the extreme dryness. Red maples on the back hill are always the first to go. They're late this year -- everything is, and individual trees look skimpy from the drought. But still.

The red buckeye sapling bordering the gravel garden usually drops all its leaves in late September, but this year held on til last week. It's bare now and not willing to have its picture taken.

But my lovely sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has turned its vivid watermelon pinky red and demands a photo.

Spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) are glowing yellow on the right end of the berm. The ones in the meadow defoliated in July, but these get a little shade and more moisture.

I have planted more spicebush seedlings to fill in this whole area. We took out two big spruces a while back, and now this side of the berm is empty. My intent is to have a mass of leafy spicebush shrubs all growing together here and filling the area with lovely foliage.

But how pretty it is now, all open and graceful, with just the two larger spicebush plants featured and nothing around them.

The Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) by the front door gets fire engine red in fall, but is still thinking about it at this point. It's barely turning, but the new little upright 'Skyrocket' stewartia that I just planted this spring has surprising pumpkin orange color.

The plants that took the drought hardest this summer were the viburnums and dogwoods. They looked blasted all season, and now they are coloring, sort of, but mostly their leaves are curled and brown. No pictures please.

The bottlebrush buckeye hedge also was blasted looking all summer. Their big palmate leaves need shade and the plants like moisture. I have this hedge in sun, and with the horrid dry summer they suffered, and in fact never flowered.

But they have made a late season comeback that surprises me. They look good. Green, leafy, just now starting to change into their clear yellow fall color. The leaves are still a bit scorched but not bad. The hedge looks decent.

Here's another surprise. Blue beech, Carpinus caroliniana, has elegant soft red color. The blue beeches in the meadow, where I am making a "grove", defoliated completely in the summer drought. They are nothing but sticks now. I'll wait to see if the roots live and if they leaf out next spring. Meanwhile, this little one that I dug up and moved to the yard got some water from the lawn sprinklers and lives.

I spent the day putting cages on the little beech and all the slender trunks of saplings in the yard and on the back hill. I learned a lesson years ago that antler rub from deer in the fall is the single biggest killer of my new trees.

So the smallest get a plastic mesh cage clipped on with plastic orchid clips. It ruins the fall look of things, and the cages stay on all winter (I took them off one year right after Christmas, thinking the rut was over and male deer were done scraping trees, and immediately paid the price in a damaged linden and magnolia, neither of which lived after that.) I wrap about 40 trees. Probably overkill, but I have not lost a sapling to antler rub since I started doing this. It's a pain to do, though, and unsightly for six months.

Fragrant asters are spectacular now. I have several clumps in different gardens, all divisions from the first Aster oblongifolius plant I bought. This is "Raydon's Favorite' and it's my favorite too.

The flowers are not fragrant, but the foliage is. It smells like your grandmother's attic when you touch the leaves -- a very old fashioned scent.

You know what I love to see in fall? The tiny twigs of trees that I planted ten years ago -- the potted remnants from end-of-season sales and the volunteers I dug from the woods and several Home Depot rejects -- look like this now.

Each one of those tall slender trees was about three feet tall when I either dug it up from the woods, or unpotted a badly rootbound twiggy thing, and planted it in rocky scree the builder had left. And this is only one section. My reforesting project stretches to the right and way over to the left of this shot, and into the meadow in places, and of course in my yard.

The trees now make a solid leafy screen to block the road, but in mid October I can see their individual shapes as each colors up differently.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sniff Walk

Every autumn I go on a smelling tour of the neighborhood. I pick a breezy, sunny day and go for a walk around the nearby streets, sniffing the air. And then . .  .

. . .  I catch it.

The unmistakable cotton candy smell of Cercidiphyllum japonicum. I've written every year about how these lovely trees smell in fall. The burnt sugar scent is something tree manuals describe and some other people have noted on occasion, but no one seems to have the atavistic, deeply rewarding and primitively intoxicated reaction I get when I smell a katsura tree.

It wasn't the pretty yellow colored katsura pictured above that smelled so divine, though. Katsuras do color beautifully in fall, but the tree above in a neighbor's yard was the only one on my walk that I saw with any fall color. It didn't have any scent.

Instead, it was the tree in front of this house, just browning up a bit and not at all colorful, that gave off that hard to catch whiff of angel food cake.

Most of the katsuras in the neighborhood were either brown or green, not much to look at this year for fall color.

There is a stand of three katsuras on another nearby street that had some pale yellow fall color. They always look a bit shaggy, not as elegantly formed as some of the others, and never pruned or shaped. But they are reliable in producing the sugar smell. I always get a whiff when I walk by this stand.

It's not an overwhelming or sweet smell, and you can't walk up to a tree and sniff the leaves. The scent has to come to you in gentle, periodic waves from a distance away, on a puff of sun-heated breeze. That's the only way you can sense it. Many people can't even smell it when I point it out to them.

For some reason I am highly aware, and acutely sensitive to the scent and it gives me such pleasure as I take my sniff tours, snapping iPhone photos and inhaling deeply in front of people's houses.

Caramel. Cotton candy. Burnt sugar. Angel food cake. Autumn in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Question of Leaving

When the local garden club visited last month I gave them a history of this garden from its beginnings as a scraped-bare builder's lot to the intensively planted gardens and reforested hillside that they were seeing.

We've been here 12 years, but most of the tree planting and garden creating started about 9 and 10 years ago, with major additions 5 years ago.

One visitor asked "when did it first seem right to you? When did you first like what it evolved into?" The question hit a mark with me, because for the first years I did not like this garden and it did not feel right. It was a work in progress and I enjoyed the process immensely, but I did not feel at home in this space.

Only in the last two years has it become what I envisioned. Now I do feel that I belong here and that my garden belongs in this place. Jim and I spend a lot of time out in it, and it feels exactly like it was meant to be just this way in this time and in this area. It pleases me.

It wasn't always so. The difference in the last two years has been that many things have matured. When the entire garden is started from nothing in a span of just a few years, it looks and feels universally raw for a long time. Everything is developing at the same time, not just a few areas.

Now, after 10 years, I have losses and changes and new plants going in all the time, but the bones of the place look settled. I have shade to sit in -- not a high forest canopy yet, but enough shade. The road behind us is well screened. The patio and front walk are both finally redesigned and look so much better with the rest of the garden. The built edges of the gravel area and other garden constructions are now filled in and softened with bigger plants.

I've matured too. I've settled on the furniture that works, after years of rotating items around. I've learned the rhythms of the seasons and the idiosyncrasies of the micro climates here, so I am more relaxed about what I can do. I know more about plants in general. After so many years we've found a way to make peace with the chaos around us (mowing paths into the wild meadow helped) and how to control the wildlife and how to shrug off each year's problems. They aren't such catastrophes any more.

So. . . .  now that it all looks and feels so right, could I leave it? Could we move out west in the next few years? In the next year?

I want to be careful to assess whether I picture leaving this garden for the logical reasons (proximity to future grandchildren, lower taxes, serious downsizing, making a move while we still physically can and not when it's a crisis) or whether I picture leaving here because this summer was so awful.

I have to admit I feel disillusioned this year. It was so dry, it was a lot of work just to keep things alive and they don't even look good. Winters are always long and difficult here, but adding a long and difficult summer made me sort of give up. I feel like I could be done with all of this. A condo with a stone courtyard in a dry climate seems just about perfect to me right now.

But if next spring is lovely and my plants respond, and I'm feeling the pleasure of a settled place here, will it then be too hard to think of leaving? I wish I knew.

I'll miss seeing my little trees grow, I know that. A couple were new this year and aren't more than a few twigs and leaves. I want to be here to see them grow and to see the older trees get big and shady. That's going to be the hardest thing about leaving. . .  my trees.

The rest of it, especially all the work of a big lawn-and-borders garden, I could leave. Particularly if I don't try to replicate what I am leaving. I'd be moving to a small place, a different climate, a new aesthetic, a whole different view of the landscape. It would be a clean and total break. I could do that.

I could do that for sure.

I think.

Friday, October 7, 2016

I Dig Holes

I haven't really done anything outside for quite a while. There was all the wedding planning and then the time in California and when we returned home the weather was misty and cold for days.

Panicle hydrangeas didn't miss a beat in this summer's drought.
Go figure -- hydrangeas are water lovers I thought.

The last few days have been brighter and nicer. The sun has been out, so I got the shovel and moved some things. Not the peony I had thought to move, but some sedums that were in the wrong place, a struggling fothergilla that needed a moister spot, and some lambsear on the back of the berm that needed dividing.

I added a new dusty blue Zenobia to the ones under the river birch by the patio wall. I had two there, and thought a third one would just balance things out. They're small, delicate understory shrubs. You can see how the existing two brighten the shadows under the tree.

I also moved the little Korean silver fir, but not to the brick circle in the lawn where the peony was. I left the peony alone. Peonies are notorious for disliking disruption. Instead I put the Korean fir in the vacated place at the end of the gravel garden where the struggling fothergilla had been.
My Korean fir 'Silberlocke' is still too small to photograph well.
Here's an example of a mature one from The Garden Professors.

Moving things around felt productive. As I dug holes in the dirt it occurred to me that I don't move plants around in my garden to improve their well being or give them better conditions.

I move plants around because I like the activity. I do it for me, not the plants. Apparently I enjoy digging holes a lot.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Outdoor Gravel Living Room

My son's new house in Denver came with a fenced in backyard -- long, narrow, not very big, quite private, and in need of landscaping. I've accepted his commission to think of ideas for him to implement.

The seller put in sod, and added nice big stepping stones. There are borders of mulched wood chips all along the fence and at the garage door. The ell between the garage and fence is entirely mulched.

The mulched areas will need some shrubs and I'm working on a list of low-care, easy plants he could put in (I'm working on ideas for trees for shade too).

But my main recommendation right now for the yard is to entirely remove the sod inside the fence and put down pea gravel. It's hard to keep grass nice looking in a climate like Denver without lots of water, fertilizer and weed killer. He has plenty of lawn outside the fence and in front to mow and tend.

The area inside the fence could be converted to a no-care seating area -- an outdoor living room as an extension of his small indoor space. Here are a couple idea pictures of chairs around a fire pit in gravel:

Wood burning fire pits are outlawed in Denver. It would need to be propane fueled.

Not sure where the propane tank would be --
I guess several feet away with a hose buried under the gravel.

Fire pits can be metal, free-standing, portable ones or bricked in for a permanent installation.

The portable ones appear to be wood burning and not usable with propane?
 -- not an option for Denver

The nice stepper stones that lead to his garage can be re-set level in the gravel as they are in the grass now. These photos show an idea of how that would look:

It doesn't have to be an elaborate outdoor room with much furniture. It can just be chairs set randomly in the gravel. They don't have to be centered around a fire pit.

In my own side yard I have made a gravel seating area for a glider and chairs. I don't have a fence surrounding it, but it's the same idea I recommend for his fenced in yard. The key is to soften the gravel area with lots of shrubs at the edges.

A patio table and chairs in the gravel area works nicely too.

Two Adirondack chairs side by side might be all he needs. Nothing fancy, no maintenance, just a place to sit outside.

Or a simple picnic table in the gravel is versatile and makes a great living area, eating space and work bench all in one.

Here's a great step by step tutorial --  these homeowners took up their grass and made a gravel patio area:

The key to implementing this for his yard is putting in a couple trees for shade and enclosure, and adding low-care shrubs in the borders around the fence line so the space is more like a patio garden room and not a gravel parking lot.

The advantages:
  1. No maintenance. No mowing. No lawn care.
  2. A clean, simple look. Unfussy.
  3. Chairs, a table, and a gravel "floor" expands the living area of a small home.
It all depends on what the homeowner wants. If a green lawn inside the fence is the look he'd prefer, we'll work with landscaping that.

But picture stepping outside the kitchen door into a fence-enclosed outdoor living room. Stone steps still lead to the garage, but the grass -- lovely green now, but hard to keep -- is replaced by textured pea gravel. Chairs beckon you to sit a bit. Maybe a table for your beer, and a fire pit for those chilly Denver nights. Can you see it?

Here are some more picture ideas. Lots of ways to do this.

Propane gas only in Denver -- so the design will have to accommodate that.