Recently at the Greenfield Library I saw a small book on the best seller shelf, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World. It looked like a quiet book with its creamy cover and drawing of three trees, with roots gently touching. The idea that plants can hear and talk is not new. I know of experiments with classroom or greenhouse plants, providing classical or rock music, talking to the plants encouragingly, or insulting them, all to see if these different approaches affect the plants differently.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and the author of the book, cared for his forests in the standard way in the1980s, but he never felt happy about the kind of thinning he had to do, or the pesticides he had to use. He also believed the science that already existed about the communality of trees.
What makes that communality and communication possible is the web of fungi which grows into and around tree roots, increasing the ability of the tree to gather nutrients and water, and to share those resources with other nearby trees that may be weaker or suffering. The fungi also send chemical and electrical signals. Dr. Suzanne Simard in Nature magazine coined the term Wood Wide Web.
One example of the experiments that were done showed that beeches share resources. In a grove of beeches, even though certain areas had different qualities of soil, it was found that the rate of photosynthesis in all the trees was the same. The trees were not dependent on the sunlight or nutrients gathered individually. The trees were sharing so that every leaf of every tree got the same amount of sugar. Wohlleben worked with oak and beech forests. It doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to think that trees in close proximity could communicate and help each other. Of course there is more to the book than that, and I recommend it.
By the time we left our 60 acres in Heath about half the acreage was mixed woodland, mostly white pine and some hardwoods. We had loggers come in twice during our 35 years there to harvest the white pine and some hardwood for firewood. It was fairly young woodland, and it increased over time. A field west of the house was adjacent to a stand of white pines to its west. The wind blew pine seeds into the field creating a substantial new stand of white pine.
The forester told us that the new stand of pines was very healthy with no white pine weevil in evidence. I had been keen to show myself a responsible forest owner and talked to our forester about thinning. The trees were young enough that I could go out with our Christmas tree saw. He strongly discouraged me. He said it was too hard to know which trees to take out, which were weaker. So no work of that sort was done.
I thought maybe the forester shared my motto that procrastination is the gardener’s friend, but I never imagined that he might be considering the benefits that the trees in our pine grove offered each other.
Our Greenfield property has two trees that made it very appealing. We first saw the house in wintery March, but the tall Norway spruce in the northwestern corner was dignified and stately.
Then while we were going through the buying process the horsechestnut tree came into beautiful bloom. The view from the kitchen window is pure delight. Next to the horsechestnut are two slim hemlocks. I can’t help wondering if these trees communicate with each other even if they are not the same species.
Syringa, lilac tree, and sycamore in mid-May
My husband was more taken by the very tall sycamore or buttonball tree that grows in front of the house on the street side of the sidewalk. It is very impressive. On the opposite side of the sidewalk is a lilac tree. It is a true syringa and produces airy white blossoms, not really like lilac flowers, but breathing out a delicious fragrance that catches everyone’s attention as they walk by. Two very different trees. Could the tall and imposing sycamore have anything to say to the smaller, flowery lilac tree? Those sycamore roots travel far. We have hit them when planting perennials some distance away. Those roots could easily embrace and whisper to the lilac so close by.
We have planted new trees in the backyard, part of my low maintenance garden plan. Two river birch trees don’t mind flood season in the garden. The weeping cherry is planted nearer to the house which is less apt to be flooded. These three trees are doing nicely.
Last year I planted a small pagoda dogwood, chosen for the sculptural arrangement of its branches. It too is near the house but it’s too early to see how it has come through the winter.
Surely the birches will bond, but will they have any interest in the cherry or dogwood? I think the birches are gentlemanly and I will be watching to see if they show any care for the pretty ladies, or if they will leave them to their sighs and fans, like ladies in cocktail party corners, longing for someone to come and make conversation?
When you look out your windows what trees do you see? Do you think they are paying any attention to each other? It is hard to tell but maybe it is possible, even if they come from different branches of the tree family. I hope so.
Between the Rows April 1, 2017
Jay Vinskey, Master Gardener
Jay Vinskey gave a useful workshop on Underutilized Trees and Shrubs at the WMMGA Spring Garden Symposium last weekend. I attended because I may not be quite finished choosing shrubs for our new Greenfield garden and I was looking for more suggestions. Small trees and shrubs are the elements I am counting on to make this a sustainable, low maintenance garden.
Vinskey’s list included trees like paperbark maple, tupelo, ironwood, redbud, stewartia, and pagoda dogwood. His shrub list included beautyberry, Carolina allspice, fringe tree, witch hazel, and redvein enkianthus. Vinskey chose these because of their fine attributes of bark, blossom and autumn color or winter interest. Happily for me I had already planted some of his suggestions.
It is important to know that Vinskey chose plants that were hardy in our region. The USDA lists Greenfield as zone 5b which means plants will survive winter temperatures as low as -15 to -10. Nowadays I have to wonder whether we might actually be in zone 6a which is -10 to -5 and I would be willing to take a gamble on a slightly more tender plant like stewartia.
It is also important to know how much shade or sun a plant needs to thrive. However, I also have to take into account that my garden is very wet at least during late winter and early spring, even when we are having a drought. While listening to Vinskey I was happy that I had already planted pagoda dogwood and Carolina allspice in my garden. The pagoda dogwood is a small tree with a very horizontal arrangement of branches. The flowers are small and not particularly notable, but the sculptural shape of the tree is the delight. I saw a beautiful specimen in Minneapolis last summer; the tree’s gardener told me it did require some regular pruning to keep that clean shape at its best.
Calycanthus or Carolina allspice is a shrub that can take a fair amount of shade and produces dramatic dark red blossoms from May into July. And, of course, there is the sweet fragrance.
In addition I’ve planted buttonbush, elderberry, spicebush and winterberry shrubs, which I personally think of as underutilized. Perhaps some gardeners would consider them too wild for a cultivated garden.
My perennial list includes joe pye weed, boneset, culver’s root, Echinacea, American burnet, turtlehead, bee balm, Siberian irises Japanese primroses, and bog rosemary which is a water tolerant ground cover. You can see that in a sense I have been cultivating a wetland garden. These plants don’t need to be in wet ground all the time, but they thrive when the soil is moist, or water is puddling around their feet. Some are familiar to flower gardeners, but others are more unusual although those who love native flowers may find them familiar.
Monarda or bee balm with bee
The fact that I have so many native plants in my garden is because I wanted plants attractive to bees and other pollinators including butterflies. Having a pollinator garden is one of my goals. Because honeybees and other pollinators are under so much attack by the use, and often overuse, of herbicides and pesticides I want to play my part in supporting these vital creatures. Without pollinators many of our vegetables and fruits would no longer exist.
Bee Spaces Pollinator Garden Award
This year there will be a special opportunity and event at the Langstroth Bee Festival on Saturday, June 3. The Second Congregational Church, which this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary, has cooperated with the Franklin County Beekeepers Association for several years creating a bee festival that will entertain and educate children, and all the rest of us too, about honey bees and the 300 odd other native bees that work hard to make sure we have good vegetables and fruits to eat.
Greenfield has a very special connection to honeybees because the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth served as the Second Congregational Church’s minister from 1840-1848. He is one of the people who recognized ‘bee space’, the specific distance that honeybees leave between their honeycombs so that they could fill, or empty them. He also invented the modern wooden beehive that allows for ‘bee space’ between the removable frames.
This year, in honor of the church’s anniversary, special celebratory events are scheduled for the Bee Festival. Kim Flottam, editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine and author of several books on beekeeping, will be the main speaker.
For those who do not keep bees, but welcome bees to their gardens the Second Congregational Church and the Franklin County Beekeeping Association will present awards to home gardens, farms, public or community gardens or businesses that provide some space for bees. Former Governor Deval Patrick will be on hand to present the awards. The award itself is a beautiful pottery plaque designed and made by the well known potter Molly Cantor. It is designed to be placed on a house or business, “designating you as a pollinator friendly garden of distinction.”
Rudbeckia, black eyed susans are another good bee plant
Those who are interested in this award should fill out an application. Requirements are that the garden be in Franklin County, and that no pesticides or herbicides can be used anywhere on the property. For more information check out the Bee Spaces pages on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.
This is the kick off of the award, so if you think your garden might need a little updating to be eligible remember that there is always next year, and the Second Annual Bee Spaces Award.
Between the Rows March 25, 2017
Newly planted arborvitae
Recently a friend asked if I had any suggestions for creating a sound barrier in front of his house. My first idea was arborvitae. These neat symmetrical conifers are popular because they are not only handsome, but because they are low maintenance plants. They are hardy, not fussy about soil, are fairly salt tolerant and once they are established they are drought tolerant. They also tolerate some shade but need at least four hours of sun.
Two easily available arborvitae cultivars are Emerald Green which will reach a height of about 15 feet with a three to four foot spread, growing at a rate of about a foot a year. Green Giant will reach a height of 30-40 feet with a 15-20 foot spread, and grows more rapidly.
The Leyland cedar, which has the scale-like foliage and other attributes similar to that of the arborvitae, will grow about two feet a year until it is 60 feet or more with a spread of about 20 feet. It needs full sun.
The question with any planting is how long it will take before the plants achieve your goal. One way to hurry the usefulness of a sound barrier created by these trees is to plant two rows, with the second row planted off center. Two rows planted this way will give you a solid barrier more quickly. An annual pruning will help control the height.
Evergreens make the best sound barrier, but people need other barriers if they are looking for greater privacy on small urban lots. I have seen houses here in Greenfield that have five or six foot privet hedges in front of their houses to give them privacy in their gardens.
The lots on our Greenfield street are quite narrow. Houses take up most of the width of the lot and driveways use more land next to the house. The north side of our house, where we park our car, is hardly more than an alley. Long ago our neighbor on that side planted a privet hedge which is now about seven or eight feet tall.
On the south side there is approximately 21 feet from our house to our neighbor’s driveway. Driveways are necessary and we all have them, but no one ever claimed they were things of beauty. Our answer was a deep border filled with blooming shrubs.
I began with hydrangeas which have become so popular. There are different families of hydrangea and each of them has different requirements and benefits. I was careful to choose paniculata hydrangeas which have the kind of loose, airy flower clusters that I like. I am not as fond of the familiar snowball hydrangeas. Paniculata hydrangeas are hardy and not very fussy. All three of the cultivars I chose should be pruned back slightly in the very early spring to encourage new growth, but they require little other care.
I chose three which promise to be tall and wide. Limelight has a long bloom season, producing large pale green flowers from mid-summer into the fall. Hydrangeas grow quickly and it should not take long before my Limelight reaches a height of at least five feet, and I’m hoping for seven or eight feet, with an equal spread.
Then I chose Angel’s Blush hydrangea because its label said it was one of the largest hydrangeas and would grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The large loose flower clusters turn a lovely shade of pink over the summer. It also tolerates some shade.
Since I can never resist shades of pink and red my third choice was Quick Fire. The large flowers will turn a deeper and deeper shade of pink/red over the summer. It will reach a similar height and width as Angel’s Blush.
I’ve planted lilacs and viburnams in this deep border as well, but hydrangeas will be the stars. Because these shrubs are still young, I have also used ground covers, perennials and a few annuals to cover the ground. I’d don’t want to look at bare soil any more than I do a driveway. As the shrubs fill out I will move those plants to a roomier spot. My photo of a section of this border/barrier looks a bit of a tangle, but that will change as the hydrangeas mature.
No matter how big and tall my hydrangeas get they will loose their blossoms and foliage when frigid winter storms in, but we will be keeping our heads down and rushing from car to house so we won’t be looking at the flower bed. Or my neighbor’s driveway.
We are also planning a privacy barrier with a third type of shrub at the back of our lot. The very back border is a bit of a tangle of weedy trees and Virginia creeper. I don’t object to this wildness because wild space is important to support pollinators and birds. However, it is not lovely.
Because this end of our lot is very wet we have created a kind of large raised bed that we call The Hugel. So far we have only planted groundcovers on The Hugel, but in the spring we will plant beautiful broadleaf evergreens, rhododendrons.
The world of rhododendrons is a large one with small and tall cultivars, in a rainbow of colors like the pink Scintillation, the soft yellow Capistrano, snowy Boule de Neige, or rich Purple Passion. These low maintenance shrubs all bloom gloriously in the spring around Memorial Day in our area. Though their leaves curl in really cold weather, they will still provide an attractive barrier in front of our deciduous weediness. ###
Between the Rows October 15, 2016
Section of the view from my dining room, hydrangeas, roses and lilac
Do you have a favorite chair? Is it near a window? Does your dining table sit near a window? Do you enjoy the view from your window?
Oddly, our new house in Greenfield does not have many windows that look out at the garden. Only one upstairs window (in my office) gives a view of the back yard. The kitchen window is too high to see much of anything except the most westerly area of the garden. Fortunately there is the dining room window which looks out onto a section of the South Border, which will ultimately be the most floriferous view.
Last week my husband and I were having dinner and admiring the view of newly blooming roses, I was so happy to have this joyful view. Then I realized that the view from a window is not usually a part of garden planning or design. Yet a view that will please, whether flowery or serene green, can give us hours of pleasure.
I am looking forward to enjoying a better view of my garden. We are about to embark on a kitchen renovation which will not only give me a kitchen where I can cook and bake more easily and efficiently, it will also give me new windows that will allow a fuller view of the garden. The windows will also help define and frame an area I might want to concentrate on as I plan new plantings. They will give me another chance to create a beautiful view from inside the house.
When planning a vignette, a limited view of a small space, you have the advantage that accrues to a small space. You can plant something special that might be quite expensive, but can also be the star of this relatively small space. I’m already thinking about an intersectional peony like Bartzella. Intersectional or Itoh peonies are hybrids of herbaceous and tree peonies. An Itoh peony would be ideal because it would have strong stems that keep the flower heads high and don’t get beaten down in the rain like herbaceous peonies. In addition, because of because its primary and secondary buds, it has a long bloom season.
If flowers are what you long for, but no longer feel up to a whole garden full of demanding flowers, it is still possible to create a flowery view. You might consider an annual bed. Just a few flats of starts will give you a riot of color. I can imagine tall annuals with gentle colors like sweet peas, cleome or cosmos or the brilliant colors of zinnias. These can be fronted with low growing annuals in companionable colors like blue Felicia daisies, pale marguerite daisies, osteospurmums (another daisy-like plant) in shades of pink, purple, blue or white, and salvias.
An annual bed might also be an experimental bed, an opportunity to try out different flowers, colors and flower forms. Starting this kind of bed will not be costly, and will not chain you to a choice, because all the frost-bitten plants will end up in the compost pile at season’s end. Just remember this is an experiment so be sure to keep a few notes so you can repeat the flowers you like next year.
A different way to have flowers in your view is to plan a perennial selection that will give you one or two flowers for each season. For example you could begin with daffodils, then have astilbe, achillea and daylilies. Dahlias have a long season of bloom, especially if you keep cutting them for bouquets. The more you cut, the longer the season and the greater the bloom. Some smaller dahlias will begin blooming in midsummer but you can have dahlias with all their shades of color and form until the first heavy frost. One autumnal choice that surprised me was the Japanese anemone that blooms into the fall. And of course, there are asters and mums, which also have many colors and flower forms.
You could plant for the birds. Perhaps you could have a small tree like a dwarf crabapple near the window along with a bird feeder and a birdbath. An expert birdwatcher once told me that the sound of water is the best way of attracting birds. The tree branches and foliage would give the birds protection and shelter if they became alarmed. My eyesight is such that I really need to be able to get pretty close to birds if I am going to learn to identify them.
In my new garden I am concentrating on having more green than color. Green is not a single color and a green view could include bright shades like golden threadleaf chamaesyparis contrasting with dark green mugo pine. Perennials like hostas are available in dozens of shades of green from brilliant chartreuse to dark green, to blue-green. Variegated hostas will also provide a symphony of greens brightened with shades of white.
Garden art on Hawley Tour
Another view could be a piece of art set against shrubs and flowers. I’ve never managed this, but I did get to the point in Heath where I demanded neatness of the view of the backyard. Wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, buckets of weeds, all were forbidden to mar the view of pink, white and green kiwi foliage rambling high on the shed wall above the roses. Serenity was what I wanted with my first cup of coffee in the morning.
So, what view do you have that pleases you? Flowers? Greenery? Statuary?
What view would you like to have? When will you get it? If not now, when?
Between the Rows June 25, 2016
One of the very first things I liked about our new house, or more specifically our new yard, was the very tall evergreen in the northwestern corner. It is a magnificent tree that might be 30 feet tall with graceful pendulous branches. On our first drive past the house I admired this beautiful tree in the backyard. It is not like any tree we had in view in Heath. There most of the conifers are pines or hemlocks.
I thought this tree was a Norway spruce although I cannot say what depths of my mind or imagination made me think so. With so much else to do I did not go out of my way to try and identify it properly. Now that it has produced some cones in its upper branches I have been able to confirm that it is indeed a Norway spruce.
Our tree doesn’t have any cones near the ground, but a zoom lens on my camera puts them within identifying distance and the long cones do match the photographs I found online.
Norway spruce cones
The Norway spruce, as you might imagine, is native to Europe and beloved by the Norwegians. It is disease resistant and deer don’t like to eat it. It likes acid soil and is hardy in zone 2 (hardy to -50 degrees) and tolerant of a zone 7 climate where the temperature rarely goes below zero. Any tree welcomes good soil, but this tree is very tolerant of clay or sandy soils with the caveat that it get at least 25 inches of rain a year. According to US Climate Data Greenfield gets an average of 50 inches of rain a year. After seven months working on our new house I have learned that my biggest gardening challenge is the poor drainage of my clay soil. The Norway spruce does not lack for moisture.
It is a fast growing tree, especially in the first 25 years after being planted especially under good conditions. At maturity it can reach a height of 100 feet with a 40 foot spread. It is not a tree for a small garden! Our street was laid out around 1925 so the tree was probably not planted before that, making it nearly 100 years old.
Norway spruce has a deep and wide spreading root system making it very sturdy in heavy wind, hence its frequent use as a windbreak tree.
Learning that the Norway spruce was a good and valuable timber tree, I did not think that it would make a very good Christmas tree. I was wrong. I just learned that Norway sends a majestic Norway spruce every year to London, Edinburgh, New York and Washington, D.C. In London it stands regally in Trafalgar Square; I don’t know where the other cities place their spruces. The trees are a gift in gratitude for the aid given to Norway during World War II.
We’ve had several varieties of Christmas tree over the years. Our first Christmas tree in Greenfield in 1971 was a straggly hemlock that began dropping needles as soon as we brought it into the house. A new friend took me and my three girls into the woods to have a real Christmas experience and cut down our own tree. The experience was not quite what we expected or wished for but it has made one of our favorite family stories.
Our first tree in Heath was a fat Colorado blue spruce that was growing right in front of the windows where we had our dining table to get a view of our beautiful landscape. The tree was not part of the view we wanted to admire. It had to come down. It was not too hard to cut down, but it was so fat and bristly with sharp needles that we all got a bit bloodied while trying to drag it into place. I’ve been told that while the Colorado blue spruce is a popular Christmas tree, it is often sold as a small living tree in a pot so that it could be planted outdoors later. I certainly can understand that a baby blue spruce is easier to handle than a mature specimen. I hope most people do a better job of siting the tree than our predecessors did.
When we planted our snowbreak in Heath with Conservation District pines, we also planted a number of Balsam firs. We were able to harvest those trees for Christmas over the years, and did at least one additional planting that got us nearly through our tenure there. I do have to say we have had some very odd looking trees over the years. Planting trees intended for Christmas does not necessarily mean you will prune and care for those trees the way a professional tree farmer will.
Our Christmas Tree
This year for the first time in many years we bought a tree on Greenfield’s Main Street. It is a fat Fraser fir, one of the most popular tree varieties. It was well pruned and tended which means it has a lovely regular shape, but it does not have the space between its branches to hang larger ornaments. That was an adjustment for me, the chief tree decorator. When we had our own very irregular Christmas trees there was always empty space for large ornaments.
So this year, we have an imposing Norway spruce in the backyard protecting us from any bitter northwest winds, and a charming Christmas tree in our new dining room where we will enjoy roast beast and sugar plums, and celebrate all twelve days of Christmas. On January 6 the tree will be taken down and set out in the garden (such as it is) to hold suet and seeds for the birds.
My wish is that you each celebrate the holidays for at least 12 days, and find many happy days waiting for you in 2016.
Between the Rows December 26, 2015
Our American sycamore and her sister across the street
One of the blessings of our new Greenfield house is the tall and majestic American sycamore which gives the front of the house shade and helps cool it in summer. My husband Henry and I have never had such a large domestic tree. New York’s residential trees cannot be too big, and the big trees in Heath were nowhere near the house. They were wild trees in the woods.
We were told that the tree was a sycamore, but the mottled bark made me wonder whether it was a plane tree. It was when we turned to the Internet to find out why Henry was coughing so much when he was out raking leaves (that seemed to have fallen all at once over night) that I found my answer. Our research confirmed that our tree is an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and not an Oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis, or a London plane tree which is a hybrid of the two, probably created in the late seventeenth century.
The American sycamore is native to Eastern North America and is known as the tree with the greatest girth. After 200-300 years it may become hollow and there are tales of colonial families making a temporary shelter of that hollow tree. There is also a tale of 15 horsemen, and their horses, taking shelter in a hollow sycamore, but that sounds more like a campfire story than a piece of recorded history. Sunderland is proud of their giant sycamore tree which has a girth of over 24 feet and was alive when our American Constitution was signed.
Though these three trees are similar, 100 feet or more, grow rapidly, have mottled bark and ball shaped fruit, there are differences. The American sycamore’s bark is rough and grooved near the base and the bark in the upper limbs and branches is thin and brittle. As the tree grows and branches rapidly gain greater size over the season the thin bark cracks and falls off the tree. Then the gray/white underbark is exposed. The whole London plane tree has mottled bark with an underbark that is a pale yellow or green shade. In both cases the exfoliation is caused by the rapid growth of the limbs and the thinness of the bark. At least that is a theory. It has been pointed out that there are other trees like the shagbark hickory that have exfoliating bark, but they do not grow as quickly, and the bark has more time to grow with the limbs. I have always said there are many mysteries in the garden.
Mottled bark of American sycamore
The ball shaped fruits which do not contain seeds, are called buttonballs and grow singly from a single stem on the American sycamore. Two fruits grow on a single stem on the London plane tree.
Because of these fruits the American sycamore is sometimes called a buttonball tree, and it was under a buttonball that the agreement to form the New York Stock Exchange was signed in 1792. That document is even called the Buttonball Agreement, so the sycamore has its place in our country’s history.
The tree may also have its place in many family histories. The sycamore has such a long life span that a sycamore was often called a ‘bride and groom’ tree when it was planted in front of a newlywed’s house, symbolic of a wish for a long and happy life together.
My further researches explained that the wood of the sycamore has many uses, for flooring, chopping blocks, good furniture and sometimes sliced into veneers that are then glued together forming plywood. It can also serve an even humbler use when it is ground up for particle board. American sycamores grow fast and can be coppiced. That means that when a sycamore is cut down, new branches will grow from the stump. They will grow until they can be cut again. Coppicing is an ancient technique for getting new wood and timber out of the same roots. Birch can be coppiced again and again every four years or so for small firewood, but oak can be coppiced every 50 years for poles and timber.
I learned a lot about sycamores but not what was making my husband cough.
I soldiered on with my research and gave my botanical vocabulary a workout. The large coarse leaves of sycamores are palmately veined which is to say the main veins originate from the leafstalk which is also called the petiole. In the spring the underside of these leaves area are covered with tiny hairs called pubescence. These tiny hairs begin to be shed in mid season and continue until abscission which is when the leaves lose their grip and fall. It is these hairs that cause irritation when breathed in when raking or doing other pruning or maintenance.
The sycamore also produces seeds that are called achenes because the seed is covered with a hard coating. The winged seeds that maple trees produce (remember sticking them on your nose or twirling them into helicopters when you were a kid) are also achenes. Actually, the maple achenes have their own special name; they are samaras. The sycamore seeds are attached to more little hairs that act as parachutes that will carry at least some of the seeds away on the wind.
I do love learning new words even though I may not use that new word ever again.
The tiny hairs cause irritation. It is not clear to me what it is about the hairs that make them irritants. My research only took me so far.
I am happy with our beautiful tree, and even with the leaves because they provide biomass for my compost. Wearing masks while raking is a small price to pay.
Between the Rows November 7, 2015
Julie Abramson now lives with a graceful shade garden, but it was not always so. Like so many of us, Julie never had much interest in her mother’s garden when she was young, but over the years she has tended three very different gardens of her own. Her first garden in Albany was cheerful. “I was inexperienced, but this garden was very floriferous. I knew nothing about trees and shrubs,” she told me as we sat admiring her very green garden filled with trees and shrubs in Northampton.
Her second garden was on a hillside with a cascade of plants including a cottonwood tree that filled the air with cotton-y fluff when it was the tree’s time to carry seeds off to produce more cottonwood trees.
I was especially interested in this, her third garden, because it is a mostly a shade garden. Julie moved to her Northampton house 12 years ago and began her garden a year later by removing 25 trees. Even so, this half acre garden grows beneath the shade of maples and conifers, and smaller sculptural trees like the pagoda dogwood.
As I struggle with creating a garden design, I asked Julie for her advice. She explained that there are certain principles that can guide plant selection and placement. “Repetition, and echoing or contrasting of foliage types are basic rules. I look for relationships between the plants, looking for arrangements that please me,” she said. “Respond to the site. My garden turns out to be a series of large triangles dictated by the landscape.”
As we walked around the house and into the gardens, she pointed out examples of these principles. The sunniest garden on the gentle south slope has shrubbery including Little Devil ninebark, arctic willow and spirea which give weight to the repetition of garlic chives, nepeta and blue caryopteris. A boulder adds to that weight and the natural feel of this garden.
Foundation planting: Pieris, Leuchothoe and geranium
Julie edited the foundation planting she inherited to make it less dense and more interesting by layering. One section starts with tall pieris that blooms in the spring, and in front of that is the graceful broadleaf evergreen leucothoe which also blooms in the spring. Hugging the ground is geranium macrorrhizum with its paler foliage. These layers contrast different foliage forms, textures and color.
I loved the long daylily border on the sunny side of the house which was ending its bloom season. Julie told me a secret. This border has an early bloom season when the daffodils planted in and among the daylilies bloom. After bloom the daffodil foliage gets lost in the early daylily foliage and the gardener never needs to endure browning straggle, or worry about cutting back the foliage too early depriving the bulbs of new energy.
Of course, it was the shade garden that was of particular interest to me. It is the shade garden that Julie admires from her study, the dining room and the screened porch. This is a more natural woodland garden planted with many natives and other shade-loving plants. Earlier in the season there is more color when shrubs like fragrant clethera and perennials like astilbe, heucherella and others are in bloom.
Right now the garden is mostly green. “I am a collector and have many different plants, but I also like calmness. I try to integrate the two sides of who I am with two sides of the garden.” She pointed out that the entry to the shade garden is a kind of tapestry where one groundcover blends into another. “This is a calm way to taper the garden,” she said.
Julie confesses to a love of mounding plants like the caryopteris and garlic chives in the sunny garden and arctic willow, hostas and heucherellas in the shade garden. There is a repetition of burgundy, and green and white foliage. “The mounds are distinct but they relate to each other. Your eye keeps moving because you can see a repeat of color or form just beyond,” she said.
Shade garden path
She has curving paths edged by mass plantings of ajuga, hostas and bergenia that keep leading the eye along. There is a sense of movement. “The curve makes me very happy,” she said.
She struggles with the dry, root-y soil. Her first year she spread 6 inches of compost and planted in that, which is not recommended practice, but she said it worked well for her.
Julie has a simple routine for maintaining the garden. In the spring she gives her garden a thorough weeding. Then, with some help, she spreads a layer of compost over the whole garden, followed by spreading layer of wood chip mulch, again with some help. After the mulch is applied she considers the main work of the garden done. In the fall she edits the garden, dividing, removing or adding plants. “It is not just the garden itself, but the whole process of gardening that gives me pleasure,” she said.
Our style, our approach, to our gardens carries through from the way we choose and arrange our plants to the way we care for it. Although Julie gives great thought and care to the arrangements of plants the effect is of unstudied grace. Gardeners are very generous and share knowledge and experience, as well as plants, but somehow no two gardens are ever the same.
I came away from Julie Abramson’s garden with new ideas and examples of how to arrange the plants in my new garden, but we can both be confident that my garden will not be a copy of hers.
Between the Rows September 5, 2015
- River Birch tree bed
Everything changes. Our whole life is changing, but there are smaller changes in the world, like changes in cultivation rules, come to all gardeners with some regularity.
We have been planting trees and shrubs in Greenfield and have followed new rules, and rubbed up against others unhappily.
One old practice, if not a rule, about planting trees was that you could leave on the wire cage if it came with one, and that you could leave the ball and burlap if it came to the garden that way. I don’t really understand the rationale about leaving those constraints, but I do know of a case where a person had a landscaper plant several trees and they were all dead or dying the by the following year. A different landscaper was brought in to investigate and discovered strangled roots caused by the intact wire cage. This did not seem like a surprising outcome to me.
Even planting a tree with burlap holding soil and the roots together needs to be undone. The burlap can be cut away, and beyond that, the roots should be disturbed. The situation is similar for container grown trees. I bought two container grown trees, and when I finally got them out of the container it was clear that there was very little planting medium left and that substantial roots and just grown round and round inside the container.
We dug planting holes that were at least twice as wide as the container, but not much deeper. The soil in our new garden is heavy clay and I simply could not bring myself to use this soil without adding compost. The newest thinking about planting trees and large shrubs is that if you add fertilizer or large amounts of compost the roots will be happy growing in the planting hole until they need to grow into the surrounding soil, which they do not find enticing. Also, large amounts of compost will rot over time and the tree will sink slightly.
So I confess, I did add some compost, and a measure of loam to the removed soil. I also loosened soil within the planting hole. Before planting I cut and untangled the roots as best I could and gave the root-bound mass a vigorous watering with the hose that also helped loosen the roots. The disturbed roots will then start growing new roots. I made sure not to plant the tree too deeply. The planting hole more resembled a bowl than a pit.
The new thinking about what to do after the tree is planted and watered properly is to spread a layer of compost and mulch around the newly planted tree. It has been pointed out that this is the way Mother Nature enriches the soil, from the top down. Because my design plan is to have wide tree and shrub beds separated by curving paths I have been using the lasagna method with compost, cardboard and mulch over the whole area of the bed.
In this case I have not completely followed the rules and we’ll have to see how things come along. So far so good, but that is not proof. Indeed it will not even be proof that breaking the rules is proof that the rule is not correct. I always say there are many mysteries in the garden, and other people say you can not always claim that result B was caused by action A. Sometimes it is hard to pin down a cause.
The final part of planting a tree is staking it. Or not. I certainly remember the careful directions for staking a tree carefully. I think I may even have staked a tree or two, with firm wire and old hose length and stout stakes, but usually I was too busy or too lazy and most of our trees did fine without a stake. Now the official word is out. Staking not needed. A tree swaying in the breeze is getting just the exercise it needs to grow strong.
Recently my husband and I have been having what we like to call discussions about the benefits of mulching with arborist wood chips. Last year I got a couple of big free loads of chips from the arborists clearing along the side of the road. My husband retains the view that wood chips will tie up the nitrogen in the soil and make it acidic.
I counter by quoting Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott Associate Professor at WashingtonStateUniversity, author of The Informed Gardener and other books, and a participant in The Garden Professors ™ blog. According to research arborist wood chips were one of the best mulch performers in a group of 15 in terms of moisture retention, temperature moderation, weed control and sustainability.
One of the reasons for their benefits is that arborist wood chips are made up of bark, wood and leaves. The physical diversity of these materials reduce compaction that will occur with sawdust or bark mulches. Different elements in wood chips mulch break down at different rates and so create a diverse environment that encourages diverse biological and bacterial life in the soil.
Often wood chips can be acquired at no charge. Using local wood chips will keep them out of landfills, and this is another environmental benefit.
I am using some bark mulch in my new Greenfield garden beds, but I am bringing down as much of my Heath wood chip pile as I can. I am working on improving my soil structure and adding some enrichment. Mulch applied before weeds arrive will keep the weed count down – just exactly what I am trying to do now.
Science is always refining its knowledge. Advice is always changing, and while it can be hard to give up old habits and methods, I try to keep up with new research and new ideas about the best ways to garden.
Between the Rows August 15, 2015
My husband Henry and I stood outside the back of our new Greenfield house. We each clutched a different custom garden design prepared for us by Home Outside, Julie Moir Messervy’s newest service to help homeowners create the garden they had always dreamed of. We looked at each other, we looked at the designs, and we looked at the blank green space that was our back yard.
Palette Plan #1
Both Home Outside plans used the information I had sent them. We answered questions, filling out a form with the attributes (driveway, sheds, wet spot in lawn, etc.) of the Greenfield lot, and all that we wanted to have. We also explained what projects we had already begun, the planting of the hellstrip and the south shrub and rose border. I mentioned wanting a very small vegetable garden, a blueberry patch, a raspberry patch and an umbrella clothesline that would be at the back of the lot near the current sheds. This may have been a mistake. I should have let the designers have free rein.
Palette Plan #2
How were we going to translate the graphics on the page into plants in the ground? Where should we start? It seemed impossible. I started to get the giggles. Henry sighed and said we had to take some measurements. The idea of measurements always strikes terror in my heart, but we had had some trouble understanding the scale given on the designs so there was no help for it.
We had already planted a clump of river birch and a weeping cherry, so we used them as markers, measuring the space from the side boundries of the lot to each of them, the distance between them, and the distances to the back of the lot. That was information. Now what?
While we had waited for the custom design to arrive in my email, my husband revealed that in fact, he had an idea or two. This was a surprise to me. He usually is content to be the muscle. He thought the clotheseline should be closer to the house and that we shouldn’t build our plan around sheds that would ‘soon’ be replaced with a better shed.
When the first Home Outside plan arrived I just loved it, even though some of it would have to be changed because of our own new plan about the clothesline. Then the second plan arrived and I loved it even more because it had more curving paths than the first and I really wanted curving paths.
We pulled our socks up and decided to begin with the curving paths that were common to both plans. One would amble along the north side of the lot, and the another on the south side. Henry waved his hands to indicate where he saw the paths going. I asked for clarifications. He waved his hands some more. I said I needed concrete markers to understand what he had in mind.
We got out stakes and string and marked the north border path, but not before a discussion on how wide a path should be, three feet or four? I decreed four feet because a path is for wandering with a companion.
Then we marked the southern curving path using the river birch which would be at the path entry, and stakes, but I kept getting confused, partly because of the big pile of compost that was impinging on this space. “The new river birch will be on the left side, right?” I asked. “No, it will be on the right side,” Henry replied. I still didn’t understand and it took more stakes and string before I was clear.
I finally walked the marked path. “Are we both on the same page?” Henry asked. “Yes!”
“How did that happen?” Henry laughed. He is very patient with me and my difficulty dealing with spatial relationships.
With the outer paths generally established, we could think about other paths through the yard which would be filled with large native shrubs that loved water. We knew when we bought the house that the backyard was very wet, but felt this was no great impediment.
I had already bought a selection of water loving native plants. They had been patiently waiting for planting day. We planted a dappled willow on one side of the north path where it was especially wet. Fifteen feet further west we planted a button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) which is so wet tolerant it can be planted in swamps and river margins. Both grow tall and wide. As we were running out of time that day, we set other shrubs in possible places to give us an idea of space required for each. We set the two potted potted winterberries on the opposite side of the willow path., as well as an elderberry.
In the potential bed headed by the weeping cherry we placed the potted clethera (sweet pepperbush), Aronia (chokeberry), and a yellow twig dogwood. The final pottedplant, a fothergilla like the one on the Bridge of Flowers, was placed just beyond the river birch.
Newly planted river birch and fothergilla (L) then weeping cherry , aronia, clethera (center0, then winterberries and dappled willow and button bush
Then we ran upstairs to look out the back bedroom window to see how it looked. If we used our imaginations, we could almost see the beds forming, not exactly as pictured on the plan, but close enough for our satisfaction.
The next day we put all those shrubs in the ground, and heaved a sigh of happy achievement.
The next day came the torrential rains and we got a not very welcome surprise. Keep reading next week.
Between the Rows July 18, 2015
If you want to play around with garden design for your own garden on the free Home Outside Palette app click here.
Ruah Donnelly’s house overlooks a wooded ravine, a tapestry of shades of green and shifting light. There is not a flower in sight. Donnelly says that over her years as a gardener she has experienced a growing struggle between wanting art in the garden and wanting to conserve the landscape. While she thinks conservation is winning the battle, any visitor to this garden and landscape will see no struggle, only beauty.
Donnelly’s garden is only one of the unique private gardens, and farms, on the Franklin Land Trust Garden Tour that is open to visitors on Saturday, June 27 from 10 am – 4 pm.
For the past 15 years Donnelly has been gardening on what is considered the site of the oldest farm in Conway. She loves the New England landscape where she has spent most of her life, and has dedicated great energy to its beauty by serving on the boards of TowerHillBotanical Garden, the New England Wildflower Society and the Franklin Land Trust. When she began planning the Conway landscape she said, “I wanted to figure this out. I didn’t want it to look like New Jersey. I wanted to let nature have something to say, without too much pruning, or too many flowers.” She also said that at this time of her life she needed to make it sustainable. She cannot be out in the garden doing everything all the time.
Donnelly’s garden is essentially a woodland garden. There is the Grove, a stand of trees that has grown up around the cellar hole of the original house. It has been ‘edited’ so that you can see the form of the trees and stroll through the grove which is underplanted thousands of daffodils that have naturalized and bloom in the spring, as well as native groundcovers like epimediums, and ferns. One of the striking shrubs growing beneath the trees is a large Calycanthus floridus which has graceful lax limbs and fragrant, wine red fragrant flowers that are responsible for its common name sweetshrub.
There is art in the grove as well a very large black and yellow container holding shining yellow begonias. “Yellow is an accent in the grove, and points up the beauty of all the green.”’
Ornamental yellow begonias in The Grove
Even so, beyond the desire for some ornamental plantings, “What makes me happy is the deeper question, of finding ways to make the landscape more beautiful in ways that are good for the land. I want to bring out the best in the woodland; that is something beyond my own pleasure,” she said.
Donnelly took me on a long walk across a lawn that edges an unmowed field that hides the road, through the Grove on paths that allow you to see the plants, across more lawn to an old barn surrounded by lilacs and peonies and other old fashioned plants, past ancient apple trees, to a planting of new apple trees. We walked towards another woodland at the edge of the ravine. Some of the trees had been pruned recently and the branches and limbs were chipped to make a mulch. That wood chip mulch will eventually rot and provide nourishment for the soil. This sounds a lot like “let the carbon stay where it falls”, which I have mentioned before.
We sat beneath the trees on one of the well placed benches, and watched the large swath of hay scented ferns, bowing in the breeze like waves on the sea. But still more sections of the garden were urging us onward. We wandered back towards the house, under the silverbell tree where we were surrounded by fragrance, admired the espaliered star magnolia behind an herb garden, and on toward more magnolias.
I did not realize that so many magnolias were hardy in our area but Donnelly explained that many native species are hardier than the more ornamental hybrids that have been developed.
Donnelly has written two books, The Adventurous Gardener: Where to find the best plants in New England and The Adventurous Gardener: Where to find the best plants in New York and New Jersey, about interesting nurseries that sell natives and other interesting, less common plants. The books are somewhat outdated, as nurseries have gone out of business, but you can find the books online and many nurseries, like Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst are still going strong. One nursery she recommended is the Broken Arrow nursery in Hamden, Connecticut which specializes in mountain laurels, and other unusual plants like the sweetshrub. Also she reminded me that Nasami Farm in Whately, the propagating wing of the New England Wildflower Society, is now open every weekend, all season long, and offers many native flowers, shrubs and trees
There are other treats in Donnelly’s garden: a vegetable, herb, and flower potager surrounded by a wattle fence, and a hedge made of living basket willows woven together. There is also a Witches’ Walk, a woodland allee of witch hazels, something you will not see anywhere else. I love the way gardeners find a way to share their sense of humor as well as their gardens.
This year the Franklin County Land Trust Garden Tour is featuring gardens and farms in Ashfield and Conway. Tickets, $15 for members, and $20 for non-members, may be purchased any weekday at the FLT office at 5 Mechanic Street, ShelburneFalls or on the morning of the event at the Ashfield Farmer’s Market, Ashfield Town Common. Lunch tickets for an additional $15 are available with a reservation. The FLT website, www.franklinlandtrust.org has more information about the Land Trust mission, and about the tour. For still more information e-mail or call Mary with questions: email@example.com or 413.625.9151
Between the Rows June 13, 2015