Thursday, March 30, 2017

What Early Spring Looks Like

This is what it looks like when March turns to April.

Snow lingers in piles. The lawn has been chopped up and left in clumps in the snow pile.

The wooden stakes used to guide the snowplow up the driveway have been snapped in two and lie in the snowbank as well.

There's mud.

But softly, with quiet promise, Cornus mas blooms and the grass greens up.

Cornus mas, or Corneliancherry dogwood, is not bright or flashy. It looks like an upright, paler version of a forsythia.

I have two small trees, of course I do, because like Noah I have two of everything in my garden.

One is at the edge of the torn up muddy driveway and one is out in the yard between a white bark paper birch and a dense green pine. The yellow is so subtle that it needs the green pine to show it off, so the more noticeable of the two dogwoods is the one farther away.

But both are a welcome sight right now as April slides into place.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Honey Badger Claws

Wait, they make these things?

I found waterproof gloves with hard plastic claws molded onto the tips of the fingers for digging in the soil, plucking out weeds by the roots, unearthing small buried obstacles, forming a small trench -- all the things that I do that quickly destroy the fingers of my Mud Gloves.

Honey Badger Garden Gloves

These are totally ingenious. The reviews on Amazon are very positive, although most say the gloves are too bulky for general garden use if you are picking up things or needing to manipulate anything.

But for the hands and knees work of scrabbling around in the soil, these answer my prayers.

I try to keep my trowel and hand claw and Cobrahead digger and other tools with me as I move from spot to spot weeding, but within minutes each item winds up too far away to reach. Then my gloved fingers become my "tools", as I root around to get a weed out or rake through gravel, or need to scoop out a hole in packed soil, or have to separate the tangled roots of a potbound plant.

I go through pairs and pairs of Mud Gloves, mostly because the fingertips wear away from all that clawing action in the dirt.

These Honey Badger Gloves come with plastic claws on the left side only, or the right side only, or both hands. They are expensive at $38. But I spend $7.99 for each pair of Mud Gloves, and I go through many pairs a season. I'd still need general-use garden gloves anyway in addition to these specialized claw gloves, so they seem expensive.

On the other hand, what price for efficiency and ingenuity? What cost is too high for the exquisite ease of moving about the garden when weeding without having to search for tools out of reach and rise to get them over and over as I move on my knees through the weed patch?

And besides, do they not look fiercely awesome? No pretty pink cotton gloves for potting petunias for me -- I want these red in tooth and claw, wolverine-like, feral looking weapon gloves on my hands.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Another New House

Seven months ago one son bought his first house in Denver and asked me to help him landscape his tiny city lot, which I'm excited to do this April.

Now the other son just closed on his first house, this one in California, north of L.A., and it comes with established landscaping that the newlywed new homeowners are excited about.

It's a tidy ranch on a smallish lot, but the back yard was what sold them on the property. There is lawn, which is green in this rainy California year, but normally would be something of a problem to keep watered. I'm not sure about that, but a flat space for play is an attraction for them right now.

The garden feature is a steep terraced hillside. It appears that it is already well planted with groundcovers and some fruit trees and mounding shrubs. I don't know California plants at all, but I am happy to look at this garden when we go out there at the end of March and see if I can offer any advice to neophyte gardener homeowners.

Meanwhile, before our visit, I can check out the realtor photos and get a feel for this unusual garden spot.

It really is steep -- that's a climb up those stairs to the top. Thank goodness the new homeowners are young, because tending to anything up and down in these gardens will require calf muscles.

The reward at the top is a sitting area with a couple of Adirondack chairs and it looks like a lovely spot to rest. Behind the fence at the top there is another house, but it's well hidden. The view from the chairs is of the neighborhood -- there is no ocean or mountain view, but I think it will be relaxing and have a real sense of vista up there, while still letting you feel enclosed among the plantings on the hillside.

Prospect and refuge -- the two essential elements of human landscapes. We love best those places that let us look out at the world from a place of safety. I think their new garden has that.

I don't know about the plantings. I have no experience with what grows in California and may not even recognize what's on this hillside. It will be fun to learn and I'll try to help them with suggested maintenance and care advice.

But I don't think there is much design or plant selection that is needed. These terraces are already well designed and seem to have plants that complement the prospect, offer comfortable refuge, and are nice to look at from the patio below too.

When I visit my son and his wife, if I am going to sit in one of those chairs at the top, I'll need some assistance. Some day a future grandchild may happily run up and down those steep steps to get things for grandma, but until then, who is going to refill my wine glass or bring me snacks?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Loch Ness Monster

When I looked out the window on the first morning of spring I had to smile. The snow, still too deep to walk in, has been receding a bit, and it uncovered the tops of five 'Tide Hill' dwarf boxwoods planted in a diagonal line in the gravel garden.

It looked for all the world like the humps of a serpentine monster surfacing from below. It made me think of a loch creature with its head still in the water, but its backside rising above in undulating segments.

A snow surfing, snaky, meandrous thing in my garden, emerging from below a cold white sea.

Ha -- Welcome to spring.

The sun is bright, winter has now passed, but the sign tells me what I must do about spring chores in my garden and monsters in the snow.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


It's odd and discouraging to have deep snow on the ground as we approach the first day of spring. But doesn't the American holly tree out in the yard look fine?

The almost-spring sunlight is strong at this time of year but the snow looks like mid-winter, and that combination brilliantly highlights the holly. There's lots of light but lots of white.

Last week's blizzard brought a ton of late season snow, and it has stayed really cold. There have been lamentations about this, especially coming as it has in the middle of March, but the storm did bring one beautiful, exquisitely gorgeous day of skiing.

On Friday we had a bluebird day, all sparkling skies and soft snow and cold breezes that kept the texture of the snow on the slopes absolutely perfect. Not too deep, not too soft where the sun hit, not too scritchy scratchy where the shade lingered.

Just absolutely perfect.

I expended no physical effort -- my skis just floated along on their own while I did nothing. I am at the age where the surface of the ski slope has to be just right -- I can't handle powder or ice or slush or anything other than snow groomed to resemble the pile on my living room carpet.

And Friday's snow was exactly that. And the day was gorgeous. And I looked like a graceful pro on that perfect snow in those perfect conditions on that brilliant day.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Hazel Garden

I came across this article about Persian ironwood and found it interesting. I planted the cultivar the article talks about - Parrotia persica 'Vanessa' - in 2013. When I first came across this tree I found little information about it and I've never seen one growing anywhere.

I got mine at Broken Arrow nursery. It is a narrow version of the species tree, and my little one after just a few years does show how skinny it wants to be.

I planted it in the strip along the side of the driveway where there is a big purple mound of a ninebark, and a leafy, shaggy looking sweetgum. The midlevel green shrubbery is a lot of spreading 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumacs, and at the far left side past the ninebark and the sweetgum, there are two witch hazels side by side.

I like to name my garden areas, and since "driveway garden" has no charm, I'm going to start calling this strip the Hazel Garden, because Parrotia is in the same family as the two witch hazels, and with three plants of the same family, I have a theme going.

I had a dwarf winterhazel (Corylopsis) in this garden at one time too, and that's another plant in the hazel family. But that was moved when it got swamped by the spreading sumacs. Even the sweetgum (Liquidambar) was formerly classified in the Hamamelis hazel family, but at some point it was reclassified and is apparently unrelated. But still, this garden just wants to be known for its hazels, so it will be.

The article was interesting because it highlighted how variable Parrotia can be. Even in the few years this young one has been in my garden it puzzled me when one year there was no fall color, another year it was russety, another time yellow gold.

It is supposed to be a slow grower, but just like oak trees it seems to shoot up fast when young, then slow down. Mine is growing quickly so far.

Would Parrotia grow in the west if I wanted to try it out there? As its Persian description indicates, it comes from an area known for harsh conditions, but the article notes that its native range is actually a wetter, mountainous area of Iran with plenty of rain. It is apparently widely planted in the wet Pacific northwest and coastal California.

But it's also a very tough plant that grows at elevation, is not fussy about ph and needs good drainage. It likes dry springs and wants its moisture in the winter. So maybe it could do well in a tended courtyard at 7,000 feet?

Meanwhile, here in my east coast garden with very little care, Parrotia persica 'Vanessa' is growing tall and narrow in the newly christened Hazel Garden.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lone Hunter

I stood at the window and watched a lone coyote hunt in the meadow just beyond our yard. It looked very large in the stark snowy landscape, all dark fur and bushy tail against the whiteness.

(not my photo, I'm never quick enough with the camera)

I watched it catch a vole, and gulp it down. It didn't seem to be a satisfying enough breakfast, though, so the coyote continued to hunt and stalk and pace around the meadow for a good 20 minutes while I drank my coffee and watched and the snow swirled outside.

I thought coyotes hunted in packs, like wolves. One year there was a mother and two pups traveling through our yard, but otherwise I've only seen solitary hunters.

Pups waiting for their Mom in our back yard one year

Sometimes a snowy day is pretty from inside our house looking out. We have large windows on all sides and it's like being inside a snow globe, all dry and warm while white flakes drift down all around us. But this late season nor'easter with its blizzard conditions was a gloomy looking storm, not pretty at all.

It was so dark and the snow fell so thick all day. Our big windows magnified how gray and grim it all was, and instead of the wondrous feel of being inside a snow globe, it felt like we were submerged in a submarine at depth all day.

A mid-March snowstorm, just days away from the first day of spring, is supposed to be light and over quickly and easily meltable.

This abominable blizzard has been long lasting and intense and is dumping a ton of snow on us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Scent Trials

After a warm interlude at the end of February, March has turned bitterly cold and snowy. The awakening buds on the 'Dawn' viburnum outside the dining room window shriveled and froze.

But inside, I had pink open blooms. I cut branches of the Viburnum bodnantense and brought them inside to force. I'd never smelled the fragrance of 'Dawn' in flower before and was hoping they would open and have some scent, and they did.

The verdict? Ugh.

Not a pleasant scent, at least to me. The fragrance was too musky and very heavy. Maybe they smell great outside, but in the house they were disagreeable.

And the branches themselves were too big and stiff for a vase. The flowers fell apart easily, leaving bits of petals and brown litter all over the table. I emptied the vase and won't be cutting 'Dawn' viburnum branches for forcing again.

My experiment with forcing witch hazel branches was much better. At the end of February I brought some of those in the house and they were lovely. The slender branches looked subtle in a vase, and the scent was heady.

Witch hazel has what I can only describe as a "clear" fragrance. It's sweet but not cloying. It makes me think of burbling water, delicate chimes, sparkling dew. It's a crystalline fragrance, if that makes any sense. It's just very light and sweet and clear.

So the witch hazel branches were a success and I may cut more later this month to bring inside. But the viburnum trials were not a success and won't be repeated.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

New Jersey Tea / New Mexico Shrub

I have had trouble keeping New Jersey Tea Shrub growing in my garden. I've planted several and lost several.

It's Ceanothus americanus, a pretty white flowering plant that looks like a miniature lilac. The bees adore it. It's native to the Eastern US, from Maine down to Texas.

It flowers profusely, but the effect is subtle, not showy as much as just quietly elegant. The shape is low and rounded. I loved it when it grew well and looked good.

But I had serial problems with New Jersey Tea (at some point in Colonial history the leaves were used to make a tea substitute, hence the name).

My first problem was deer. Of the three little plants I put in at first, all but one was eaten to the ground right away.

The second problem was breakage. I planted a couple more plants and kept them protected from deer, but heavy winter snow broke off their brittle branches.

Once again I replanted (I got stubborn about this).

But despite being a native shrub that grows well in difficult conditions, they got outcompeted. They could not hold the space against some nearby dwarf deutzias in the same border that overtook the New Jersey Tea shrubs, and after a couple seasons the ceanothus just disappeared.

Recently, while reading up on plants that might do well in thin soils and dry conditions in the west, I found that Ceanothus americanus was recommended.

It likes rocky, sandy soils best. It grows wild in the the New Jersey pine barrens in depleted soils. It fixes nitrogen (meaning it is one of those plants that takes nitrogen from the air and converts it to nitrogen fertilizer in the soil that other plants can use.)

I've been trying to grow this plant in soil that is too rich, too damp and where it is crowded too near other things. It would do much better in sandy, dry, rocky soil in a spot by itself out in the open sunshine in a place like, oh, say . . . New Mexico.

But then we won't be able to call it New Jersey Tea shrub, will we.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pink Buds, Purple Blooms

February ended with unusual warmth, and March came in windy and chilly.

'Dawn' viburnum got all excited in the warm weather and started to open its pink buds, but may be stunted now with the cold. It's only 15 degrees out there this morning.

It's still an ungodly shaped viburnum, all twitchy and strange. I've complained about its form endlessly, here in my journal and to anyone who will listen. At least this year it is filled with buds ready to bloom.

I cut branches to bring in to force, but I got thick woody stubs with buds on them, and no slender, graceful twigs. The opposite branching typical of viburnums makes for awkward ladderlike structures that don't look good standing upright in a vase.

But I brought the stiff, thick branches in to smell the fragrance of this early bloomer. Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' is supposed to smell divine. I've never had the pleasure. Mine has bloomed a bit in prior years, but not with any fragrance I could detect. So we'll see if indoor temperatures bring out any elusive scent.

The end of February warmth also made the tiny vivid purple irises by the front door pop. They are mixed in wth the white snowdrops that have been blooming since the snow melted last week.

These are Iris reticulata, a mix of two or three different named varieties, each with a different purple hue, but all happy looking at the end of winter.

Some day I will figure out how to take a picture of snowdrops. I can't get those pretty things to do anything on camera. Even my new Nikon, just arrived from my homeowner's insurance claim, won't photograph snowdrops.

Think it's time to ditch the Christmas greens display in the front garden? The boughs are starting to brown.

Yeah, it's time for that to go.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Godsend

I've been given a reprieve. Apparently I did not do much garden cleanup last fall, distracted as I was by a big California wedding and discouraged as I was with how the drought had ravaged everything.

I just didn't get to it. It can all wait until spring.

But the garden gods looked down on me and decided to grant a concession. Look, they said, we'll give you a week of really unseasonable weather right in the middle of winter so you can attend to some of the clean up. Do it now, and it won't be so daunting in the wet chill of spring.

So they sprinkled 60 degree weather on us for days, devastating the ski areas here, but giving me the warmth needed to melt the snow in front of my potting shed where my tools are.

Go, they said. Get the pruners and your gloves and cut down those amsonias. Get the clematis vine off the porch rail, and haul the broken stalks of asters out of the garden. Pull up the annuals, that's just sad to see those lying on the cold ground now.

You can do a little weeding, they suggested. The ground is damp and soft, not frozen.

The garden gods sweetened the deal with a day that reached 70. We opened the windows.

I did as I was bid, and got out yesterday on the last day of February to cut and haul and snip and tote and clean things up quite a bit. There is still more to do, but having these days of tolerable, even nice, weather smack in the middle of winter was a godsend.