Dear Friend and Gardener

American Sycamore


American sycamore

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

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

Made in the Shade Garden

Julie Abranson

Julie Abramson

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.

Pieris, Leuchothoe and geranium

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

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

Everything Changes – Even the Garden Rules

River Birch tree bed
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


Home Outside Plan for Pat and Henry

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

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

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

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.


Franklin Land Trust Garden Tour – June 27

Ruah Donnelly

Ruah Donnelly

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.

Calycanthus floridus

Calycanthus floridus

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

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, has more information about the Land Trust mission, and about the tour. For still more information  e-mail or call Mary with questions: or 413.625.9151

Between the Rows  June 13, 2015

Forbes Library Garden Tour – June 13, 2015

Virginia and Rob Rechtschaffen

Virginia and Rob Rechtschaffen

Virginia Rechtschaffen has always loved trees. She and her husband Rob even once owned a house in Belchertown that came complete with an orchard. Lots of trees. For the past 20 years she and Rob have lived in Northampton and accomplished something I would have thought impossible. Their in-town garden is embraced by a ring of large trees with a heart of sunshine at its center. How did they do it?

Virginia said when they moved into the house she felt she needed some help with a Plan. They hired a designer, but in the end they only used the design for the front of the house which is lovely in its simplicity. A boxwood hedge borders the sidewalk marking off the private space around the house. A trident maple which will grow to about 35 feet is surrounded by groundcovers like epimediums and pulmonaria, and geranium macrorrhizum. All of these bloom in early spring. Virginia said she loved the delicate flowers of each, and the spotted foliage of the pulmoniaria.

Entry garden in Northampton

Entry garden in Northampton

A lamp post is surrounded by white Siberian irises, just beginning to bloom when I visited. The lush foliage of the groundcovers and the elegance of the irises point out that even familiar plants can make a beautiful statement when planted en masse.

There was also a large old sugar maple in front of the house which had to be removed, but it was replaced last week with a young Katsura tree, just in time for the Forbes Library Garden Tour on Saturday, June 13.

Another striking element of the front garden is the placement of several large stones, nestled among the plantings. There is a subtle art in knowing how to arrange stones in a garden so that they look like they belong, and give a sense of timelessness to the garden.

Blooming shrubs including rhododendrons and azaleas hug the house. A grassy walk between the house and a shrub border lead to the back garden. When I visited the garden was filled with birds that came to the birdbath and to peck away at bugs in areas of soil, left uncovered and unplanted just for them.

The garden is all curves, beds holding trees like the Acer triflorium which produces small spring flowers in clusters of three, accounting for its name as three flowered maple. It also has handsome exfoliating bark and good autumn color. The golden rain tree showers its flower petals to the ground accounting for its common name. Both these trees grow to between 20 and 30 feet tall, which some count as small trees, but which are large in a small garden.

Still, around the very edges of the property are shrubs and really large trees like a Katsura they planted in 1996 and a tall weeping conifer.

Full Moon Japanese maple

Full Moon Japanese maple at entry to firepit area

The Rechtschaffens have several different Japanese maples. Full Moon, which indeed has the shape of a full moon, stands opposite the golden rain tree at the entry of the social area, a firepit and chairs where the Rechtschaffens frequently enjoy solitude or friends around the fire.

They chose the plants and designed arrangement of these garden beds themselves because the plans created by the designers were too formal and symmetrical. That formality did not reflect the way they live or the way they look at the natural world.

As we looked at the clusters of winged maple seeds, properly called samaras, but often called helicopters or whirlybirds, Virginia said, “Even the smallest things in the garden are beautiful.

Those of us who attend garden tours are always looking to spend a day in beautiful spaces and to learn about techniques and plants we might use in our own gardens. Host gardeners also have their own desires. “What I would like is that when people leave our garden they will want to go a plant a tree in their garden,” Virginia said. I think she will very well get her desire.

The Rechtschaffen’s garden is just one of six beautiful and unique gardens on the Friends of the Forbes Library Annual Garden Tour on Saturday, June 13 from 10 am – 3 pm, rain or shine. Advance tickets are available for $15 at Forbes Library, Bay State Perennial Farm, Cooper’s Corner, HadleyGardenCenter, North Country Landscapes and State Street Fruit Store. Tickets on Saturday will be $20. Tickets come with a map for this self guided tour. There will be descriptions and guides at each garden to answer questions

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – May 2015

old apple tree in bloom

Old apple tree in bloom

It has been a  while since I have been able to post on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, but May has brought many blooms to the end of the road. Old apple trees and wild cherries  are blooming in the garden , along the road and in the fields.

Apple blossom closeup

Apple blossom closeup

Blooming trees are wonderful, and each blossom is a delight.

Sargent Crab

Sargent crabapple

The Sargent crabapple could not fit any more blossoms on itself.

Sargent crab apple blossoms

Sargent crab blossoms

Didn’t I tell you no more blossoms could fit on a branch?

Cotoneaster in bloom

Cotoneaster in bloom

I never get over my initial surprise that cotoneaster bears flowers!

Ornamental plum blooming

Ornamental plum blooming

How is it possible that I never noticed blossoms on this ornamental plum?  Could this year be the first time? The tree has to be at least 15 years old in this spot.



Sometimes bluets appear in the fields, or the lawn. These bluets seem almost white

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium sulphureum

This clump of Epimedium sulphureum has increased so much. So has Epimedium rubrum on the other side of this lawn bed.

Daffodils, Waldsteinia and tiarlla

Daffodils, Waldsteinia and tiarella

My idea was to get rid of grass, and this area on the road side of the Peony Bed is coming along. Waldsteinia or barren strawberry is a native groundcover that has little yellow strawberry-like flowers.  This isn’t a good photo but in the upper portion of the photo, up against the peonies is a growing section of tiarella. The white blossoms are so foamy that they don’t show up in a photo – even from this little distance.



Not a great photo, but these are great old white lilacs that have been at the end of the road since long before we arrived. There are old lilac lilacs, too, but we have added pink Miss Canada and Pocahontas, the white Miss Ellen Willmott and the Beauty of Moscow. I just this moment noticed that these are all ladies.

Dandelions and violets

Dandelions and violets

There are other bloomers: the forsythia is going by; grape hyacinths in the lawn here and  there; a pot of sunny pansies; and of course, that common weed, the dandelion blooming in the lawn with violets and ground ivy. My own springtime flowery mead.

Carol, I am glad to be posting on Garden Bloggers Bloom Day once again. Thank you so much for hosting over at May Dreams Gardens. New dreams are coming true this May.

Monks Garden at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Monks Garden

Monks Garden at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On Mother’s Day we went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum so I could revisit the Monks Garden , newly designed by Michael VanValkenburg in 2013. I wanted to see how it was filling out, and if it really went ‘crazy with hellebores” in the spring. This is where we entered on the graceful curving path.

Monks Garden

Monks Garden Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Visitors to the Museum can also enter the Monks Garden from one of the galleries. The trees are indeed filling out.

Monks Garden

Monks Garden Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Hellebores are very modest plants and it’s hard to see them going crazy, but the garden is certainly crazy with varieties of white daffodils that really stand out among other ground covers, and plants that will come into bloom later in the season.

Monks Garden

Monks Garden Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Because I am thinking how to create my own stroll garden I was paying particular to  the way the paths curved and split and joined again, embracing the beds of trees and flowers that provided so much privacy for the visitors.

Katsura at Monks Garden

Katsura at Monks Garden

The oldest tree in the garden is the ancient Katsura. All the shagbark maples, birches, stewartias and conifers are new.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard

Orchids in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard

Of course, there are many beautiful flowers and trees in the famous interior courtyard. And the new museum rule is that photos  are  allowed in the courtyard, and in the Monks Garden. Hooray!

A beautiful celebration for a hot Mother’s Day.

Considering Small Blooming Trees

Carolina Silverbell on the Bridge of Flowers

Carolina Silverbell on the Bridge of Flowers

Blooming trees are an important part of our domestic landscape, giving it substance as well as beauty. Planting a blooming tree requires more thought than planting a perennial or pots of annuals. A tree cannot be moved at will.

No matter what we plant in our garden we have to consider the site, sun or shade, and we have to consider the growth rate and the ultimate size of the plant. With a tree these considerations become even more important. We planted five ginkgo trees in our new Lawn Beds 16 years ago when we had five toddler grandsons belonging to our three daughters. The trees were a nod to our years in Beijing, and pleasing to me because of the unusual fan shape of the foliage which turns a beautiful shade of yellow in the fall.


Ginkgo in October 2012

Ginkgo trees are dioecious which means they need male and female trees to fruit. We did not know whether we had male or female trees so we couldn’t be sure they would fruit or not. Male ginkgoes are more desirable because they will never fruit, and the fruits are famous for their bad smell. We didn’t worry about this because even if we had male and female trees they would probably not mature and fruit for many years – when we would no longer be around. We might seem thoughtless, but it is my position that we can see only so far ahead into the future, and in the case of plants we can usually please ourselves. The only exception would be deliberately planting something invasive.

We had the room in our country garden to plant trees that would get fairly large. In a suburban yard or garden you will have to be more discriminating about which trees to plant. When I look at the dimensions of trees labeled ‘small’ they can still be larger than you might expect. For example, there are many crabapple varieties that range from 12 to 25 feet high with an equal spread. Donald Wyman crab, one of the ten most disease resistant, produces white flowers in spring and small red apples in the fall. Prairiefire is also highly disease resistant and has bright pink flowers in the spring. The foliage begins with a purplish shade, changes to bronzey green and finishes with a yellow/orange shade in the fall. Crabapples are wonderful trees, with beautiful spring bloom to please you and support pollinators, with small apples in the fall that you might use in the kitchen or that the birds will enjoy.

The pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, is a native dogwood that can reach a height of 25 feet with an equal spread. Its airy while blossoms do not resemble the more familiar flowers of Cornus florida or Cornus kousa, but there will eventually be small blue berries that will attract birds. The name refers to the attractive layered arrangement of the branches.

The Silverbell is slightly larger, possibly reaching a height of 35 feet. You can see this tree on the Bridge of Flowers. Clusters of small white bell-like flowers appear in mid to late April.

Rate of growth will depend on your soil, but I once listened to an arborist explaining to a friend that she could control the size of a tree by regular pruning. This is good to remember when a small blooming tree that you have planted becomes larger than you and your garden’s definition of ‘small.’

Careful planting is important to the future of a tree. Dig a generously wide hole and loosen the soil within the hole. It should be only as deep as the roots, or balled roots, or the container that your tree came in

If you have a small bare root tree support it in the middle of the hole so the root collar is even with the soil level. Fill in with the original soil. Tamp it down to make sure there are no air pockets and that the tree is firmly held. As you fill in the last of the soil make sure it is just below the root collar and that there is a shallow basin to collect water. Water well. Then mulch with two inches of wood chips or bark, but make sure to keep the mulch away from the trunk. No mulch volcanoes!

If your tree came balled and burlaped place it in a good big hole so it is at the proper level. Then cut away and remove all the wires and the burlap. If there is burlap left underneath that is fine as long as it is not plastic burlap. You want to free all those roots. Fill with original soil, water and mulch as for a barerooted tree. If you have a landscaper do this for you, make sure the wires and burlap get removed. I have heard horror stories of inept landscaping help not doing this resulting in the loss of the trees.

If your tree comes in a container and you find the roots are rootbound you should cut an X at the bottom of the root ball with a sharp knife, and make three or four cuts down the sides. This root-pruning will encourage new root growth. This is not unlike firmly combing out tangled roots in a rootbound perennial before planting. As with any plant, keep it well watered for the first year while it is getting established.

Trees give us so much: sculptural form, shade, the whispering of breezes among the leaves, seasonal flowering and food and shelter for many creatures. Choosing the appropriate tree for its site and planting it well will give you decades of beauty.

Between the Rows   April 4, 2015

Stone, Water, Earth and Sky – A Woodland Walk

Moss on the Piazza

Moss on the Piazza

The moss on the piazza in front of  the house begins to turn lush and green as we begin the walk into winter. I  went on a woodland walk  to see if I could find any more moss to photograph, but I found much more.

Moss on the roadside

Moss on the roadside

I found moss on one side of the road



and on the other, wetter, side of the road.

Moss on log

Moss on log

I found moss on a rotting log,



I also saw a rivulet running cheerfully through the woods,

Old stone wall

Old stone wall

and old stone walls meander through the woods, marking forgotten fields.



Stones made a complicated pattern.

Lichens on a tree

Lichens on a tree

Lichens made patterns on the tree bark..

Sun shining through the evergreen woods

Sun shining through the evergreen woods

Sun shone through the evergreens

Woodland Sky

Woodland Sky

and turned the sky blue behind the birches. Stone, water, earth and sky.

This was my woodland walk in Heath on Wordless Wednesday. For more click here.