Dear Friend and Gardener

Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

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

Farewell to the End of the Road


House at the end of the Road

House at the End of the Road

The time has come to say farewell to the End of the Road. You will notice I am not saying farewell to Heath, because our presence in Heath will not end. When it was clear that it was time to make a move and be closer to our children we realized we did not want to move away from old friends. We expect to make new friends in Greenfield, but we will keep our old friends in Heath and the surrounding towns.

The farewell is to our house where we have poured love and effort. The house holds strong memories beginning with the first night we spent there in November 1979 with our three daughters, Diane, Betsy and (then) Kathy, now all grown up Kate. Though moving day in NYC began very warm, by the time we got to Heath that evening the temperature had gone down to 10 degrees and the wind was blowing. We were late arriving so the plumber who was to meet us there gave up and left. That left us with no heat or water. Nothing to do but laugh and say we were on the frontier now. We built a fire in the stone fireplace with punky wood left in the shed, and pulled up water from the old well.

The house changed over the years as we made improvements but it is the memory of people and events that sheltered in that house that will remain with us. There were graduation parties for Chris from RPI, Betsy and Kate from Mohawk, GCC and later from Clark and Bentley. Henry graduated twice from UMass, first with his BS and then his Masters. The weather provided the drama and entertainment when Kate married Greg amid the roses.

With our first granddaughter Tracy, age 5 at our side, it was in that house that we greeted our second granddaughter Tricia at age one month for her first Heath Fair. Nine years ago we welcomed Tracy’s daughter Bella age three months. We celebrated Boy’s Weeks, and Girl’s Weeks when grandchildren came to visit in the summer.

There were riotous and educational Heath Fairs. At our first Heath Fair I learned that my china bowl of blackberries was disqualified because they needed to be in a standard cardboard container. Agricultural fairs had a mission of teaching farmers how to market their produce. Since then the grandchildren and I have won many prize ribbons.

Of course there were the gardens that changed over time. The first spring in Heath we got Luis Pazmino to come and plow up half an acre. How foolish I was! And determined, never listening to good advice. Needless to say the vegetable garden got smaller and smaller until a bad hip demanded a 12 by 12 foot plot.  Hip repair made the garden grow again until it was again too big.

My only interest in gardens in 1979 was for vegetable gardens and a few romantic antique roses like Passionate Nymph’s Thigh. My original planting of the Passionate Nymph by the front door, and Griffith Buck’s hardy Applejack at the head of our drive ultimately inspired The Rose Walk. And it was our neighbor Sheila who inspired The Annual Rose Viewing. We had invited the Heath Gourmet Club to a summer tea party and to enjoy my half dozen roses. As she polished off her second or third piece of cake Sheila said “You should do this every year.”  And so we did! We held more than 25 Rose Viewings, inviting everyone to our Garden Open Today.

My interests changed when I met our neighbor Elsa Bakalar who introduced me to perennials. I then launched a 90 by 8 foot perennial border. Twice foolish I was. That particular project did not last long. The border was a total loss when we returned from our first year in China in 1990.

It was in 1990 that we planted the first Family Trees, linden trees, for Diane, Betsy, Kate, and granddaughters Tricia and Caitlin. Weather takes a toll and only Diane and Caitlin’s trees remain.

In 1996 our first two grandsons were born, joined by three more boys in 1998. They all, Rory, Anthony, Tynan, Ryan and Drew,  got their trees, ginkgos as a reminder of our second year in Beijing, when we planted the Lawn Beds.

A family grows and changes. A garden grows and changes. Everything changes.

Now we are in the process of changing again. We bought a smaller more manageable house in Greenfield. We changed the colors of some rooms and found new ways of arranging our furnishings.

View from the Heath window

View from the Heath window

Instead of 60 acres with panoramic sunny views and a Rose Walk, Rose Shed Bed, Daylily Bank, Rose Bank, vegetable garden, berry patches, a peony border and two Lawn Beds we have a 66 by 170 foot lot with a more limited view in the shade. We are changing that limited grassy view. I am old enough for shrubs! Many shrubs like hydrangeas, viburnams, winterberries, a dappled willow, clethera, buttonbush, mountain laurel, elderberry, yellow twig dogwood, lilacs, and fothergilla are just the beginnings of this new garden.

View from the Greenfield window

View from the Greenfield

I added garden memories and moved a Purington pink rose, a Rangoon  rhododendron, and a nearly dead red tree peony, as well as a few pieces of daylily, aster, Siberian iris and lady’s mantle to the new Greenfield garden.

We are settling into our new life. A new neighbor has already brought me a few small iris divisions, the beginning of a new FriendshipGarden.

We are now full time residents of Greenfield. There will be changes in our routines, enjoyment in new urban pleasures like the Garden Theater and winter dreams of adding to our new garden in the spring.

Purington pink rose

Purington Pink rose

Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh

Natural History of Winnie-the-Pooh

Natural History of Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh and I did not become acquainted until I was an adult and read what had become literary classics, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, to my young children. I had known of the books, of course, but only through an Eeyore-ish high school friend who was devoted to all the characters who lived in the 100 Acre Wood. I did not understand his devotion at the time, but as I read these gentle stories of friendship and adventure to my children I gained some understanding of what these characters might have meant to my friend.

Those memories of my friend and of the happy bedtime reading to my children came freshly back to me as I read The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto (Timber Press $24.95). They also reminded me of my own childhood when I had the freedom to wander in the fields and woods of a family farm in Vermont, quite intent on “doing Nothing.”

By the time Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 Alan Alexander Milne had already written 18 plays and three novels. He wrote screen plays, and humorous columns for Punch magazine and was a highly respected writer. It was while working at Punch that he met and became friends with Ernest Howard Shepard who was an illustrator of books, as well as working at Punch. A. A. Milne and E.H. Shepard shared the same sensibilities about nature which came together in a happy partnership when Milne wrote his famous children’s books.

Milne always said his writing was inspired by the life around him and in 1920 his son Christopher Robin was born. Then in 1925 he bought Cotchford Farm, in East Sussex, only an hour’s drive south of London. Milne and his wife Daphne shared their love of the natural world with their son, and watched him play with his stuffed toys – and so the books were born.

The One Hundred Acre Wood is actually inspired by the real AshdownForest. While the Forest has not capitalized on its being a model for Milne’s book, visitors will find a small sign directing them to PoohsticksBridge. Aalto has given us more landmarks to connect Winnie-the-Pooh to the actual landscape of Cotchford Farm and the Forest. She quotes substantially from the Pooh books and takes us right back to the time when we were children, or were reading to our children about the sweet and gentle adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and Roo and Eeyore. I have to say I am moved to go back to the books themselves and savor them anew.

Milne’s prose is an evocative and charming view of childhood, but it is enhanced by E.H. Shepard’s exquisite illustrations. It is hard to imagine the one without the other. Aalto includes many of Shepard’s delightful illustrations.

Still, if we were to travel to Ashdown Forest today we will not spy a young child busy building a house for Eeyore or reading to a fat little bear who has been stuck in a door because he ate too much ‘hunny.’ What Aalto can give us in one section is a beautifully illustrated guide to the flora of the Forest and a geography of the streams and woodland.

The book is well researched and includes many photograph s of the Forest today but it is the charm of Aalto’s prose that carries us into this Enchanted Place. In this book she has given us some biography, geography, and botany, but most of all a trip back in time to a loving childhood.

Flowering Tobacco by

Flowering Tobacco by Richard Pocker

In the Illustrated Guide to Flowering Tobacco for Gardens, Richard Pocker takes us on an enthusiast’s tour of nicotianas. I have never grown nicotianas, and therefore have never gotten an appreciation for the delicious fragrance which makes them such a desirable flower. My friend Wendy sent me a photo of nicotiana taken at twilight when the fragrance begins to fill the summer garden air. Unfortunately, the fragrance cannot be transmitted digitally. I never fully realized that the nicotianas for the flower garden were sometimes the same kinds of tobacco plants that get made into cigarettes.

One variety of nicotiana is called Perfume, but Pocker lists dozens of heirloom varieties as well as nursery hybrids, complete with a photograph, description, information about growing and seed sources, as well as diseases and pests. He also gives a stern warning not to grow nicotianas in the vegetable garden because they are toxic. You may recall that nicotine is a poison sometimes used to kill garden pests.

One variety example  he gives is the heirloom Florida Sumatra which has been grown in Florida as far back as 1884. “Primarily raised as a cigar tobacco, the leaves are large, about 24 inches long by 15 inches wide and fast growing as it matures in 55 days. Topped with a cluster of pink flowers, the leaves emanate a delicious smell, described by some people as spicy. A unique nicotiana that is easy to grow and with abundant sources of seeds. It is a good beginner’s plant.”

Interwoven with the cultural information are brief stories of the part tobacco  played in American history and in the lives of characters like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This book is available at Amazon for $39.99 for the paperback, but a Kindle version now only costs $4.99.

Between the Rows  October 24, 2015


Apples – The American Fruit

Tim Smith of Apex Orchard with his Fuji apples

Tim Smith of Apex Orchard with his Fuji apples

Ralph Waldo Emerson called apples the American fruit. Certainly the legend of Leominster-born Johnny Appleseed, once an orchardist and later a traveler on the frontier planting apples, is one of our favorite American stories. However, archeologists have found European fossil evidence of apples growing in prehistoric times. Apples had a long history before they ever made it to America. These early apples were actually very tiny crab apples. Evolution carried on its slow work over the eons.

The Greek poet Homer, possibly born around 850 B.C., mentions apples in The Odyssey, and Plutarch wrote about a fictional banquet where the discussion turned to the apple. One of the characters said the apple was a perfect fruit because it was smooth to the touch, had a sweet flavor and fragrance, and appealing to all the senses.

More pragmatic reasons could be named for its perfections. It will grow in cold parts of the world, and it can be cooked, eaten fresh, or stored for long periods of time without any preservation. It can also be dried for later use, and it can be turned into hard cider, or applejack which is a distilled cider, a kind of brandy. It means that apples can be eaten, or drunk, during several months of the year. Of no other fruit is this true.

Long before Emerson came on the scene, cider, and I do mean hard cider, was a common drink for everyone in the country. Although those early settlers had good clean water in this country, they came from places where the water was not good. They knew that many diseases were caused by water even though they did know exactly why or how. In any event, they were cautious about water, and careful in their preservation methods when making hard cider.

The apples that made that cider were not eating apples as we know them. Apples are a fruit that rarely grows true from seed. We all know that Johnny Appleseed went around planting apple seeds, but he was not interested in eating apples. He wanted cider apples, and the best cider is made with many different kinds of apples. Since apples did not grow true from seed a seed planted orchard was by definition an orchard of many different types of apples.

Hard cider and applejack remained important alcoholic drinks right into the 20th century until Prohibition was declared. During those years whole orchards were cut down to prevent the making of cider. By the time Prohibition was repealed people had pretty much forgotten about cider, and the orchards were gone. Happily, today there is a resurgence of interest in hard cider, an interest we can see right in our own neighborhood with the success of farms like West County Cider.

Once in a while a seed apple would turn out to be a good eating apple. One of these is Northern Spy.

Other good eating apples that appeared by chance were then propagated by grafting. Small twigs, called scions, of the desired tree would be grafted onto another tree that grew well in that area. By the 1500s books explaining how to graft apples were written. It is through grafting that today we can even order up an apple tree that bears three different types of apples.

By the turn of the 20th century L.H. Bailey compiled a list of 878 apple varieties in cultivation. There may have been some duplicates in that list, but we all know that that only about a dozen varieties are available in the supermarket today. What happened?

There are many reasons from cities getting bigger, farms being located farther from the cities and the introduction of large controlled cold storage buildings. Since farmers could now transport their apples long distances they began to grow only the most dependable and heavy bearing apples.

Also over the years people’s tastes changed.  People wanted red apples and hence the development of Red Delicious. People wanted ever sweeter apples and so those apples with more complex flavors fell off the list.

In recent years there has been more and more interest in the old varieties. Tower Hill Botanical Garden has an heirloom apple orchard where 119 pre-20th century apple varieties grow. We are also fortunate that our local orchards sell the apples that have long been familiar in the supermarket, but they also grow and sell some of the antique varieties like Gravenstein, Jonathan, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, Winesap and others.

Of course, new apples are being developed all the time. Honey Crisp certainly comes to mind and this sweet, crisp apple is much in demand.

Liberty apples

Liberty apples at the End of the Road

We planted the Liberty apple in Heath because it was hybridized for disease resistance and was introduced in 1978.  I didn’t want to have to worry about spraying and we have had good crops with very little work. The apples are clean, beautiful and with good flavor.

I love driving by orchards and this year the harvest is particularly good. I stopped to see Tim Smith at Apex Orchards where his trees are bent with thick set fruit. Even my Liberty tree is more heavily laden than usual. Pine Hill Orchard and Clarkdale are enjoying a similar happy harvest this year.

When I was growing up my father ended every dinner with an apple. I continue the tradition of eating a lot of apples over the course of the year, but I confess a number of them will be eaten in apple pan dowdy (makes your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy), apple crisp, apple pie and apple cake. Yes, indeed. The apple is a versatile fruit.

Between the Rows    October  17, 2015

Watch for CIDER DAYS November 7 & 8 at the various orchards and venues.


Carefree Peonies – Lush Glamour


So many peonies – this herbaceous pink peony is only one of the three dozen in my Heath garden

Herbaceous peonies are the most glamorous flowers in my garden, so lush and big, and pink, of course. I have planted mostly late varieties so that they will still have some bloom when the roses begin to bloom. That way, if for any reason, the roses are not doing what I want them to be doing on the last Sunday in June, the peonies will delight visitors who have come to the Annual Rose Viewing.

You might have a different sort of reason for wanting herbaceous peonies to bloom in an earlier season, or you might want to have early, mid and late season varieties for a long period of that lush bloom. Whatever it is that you want you will have many choices of flower color and form.

Peonies are also among the most carefree flowers to have in a garden. They have no serious pests or diseases. Once planted they will be happy for years and even decades. Some happy peonies have been found growing in a garden neglected for a generation. All they need is slightly acidic, humusy soil and a place in the sun. The only tricky part is that they must planted properly, with the root only an inch or two below soil level. If they are planted too deeply they will not bloom. This is not fatal, it just means you will have to dig them up sometime in the future and replant them.

Because peonies are so long lived it is wise to plant them at least two feet apart and at least that far from a wall or any other plants. A mature peony can have a three foot diameter and needs room to show off to best advantage.

Peonies have large brittle roots and fall is the best and official time for planting, or dividing and replanting them. Nowadays, you will often find a few potted peonies at nurseries in the spring, but autumn planting gives the feeder roots time to develop and be stronger in the spring. Even so, it may take a year or even two before your peony blooms.

I used to think peonies were pink or white and all had the same form. I was wrong. To begin with there are single peonies with a single ring of petals around a (usually) golden center. White Wings and Coral’n Gold are examples. The semi-double form comes next with two or three layers of petals like Coral Charm.

Japanese form peonies like Mikado have a large central cluster of stamens. Sometimes they are called Imperial peonies. Anemone peonies are similar to Japanese, but the central cluster has evolved into petaloids, larger than the stamens. Bowl of Beauty has a large pink blossom (up to 12 inches in diameter) around a cluster of lemon yellow petaloids.

Peony 'Kansas'

Peony ‘Kansas’

Double peonies have so many petals that the stamens are not visible at all. Kansas is a deep red double blooming in early midseason. In 1957 it was awarded a Gold Medal by the American Peony Society. Alas, no fragrance.

The bomb form is similar to the double, but the center segment of petals form more of a round ball set on the surrounding petals. Charlie’s White is very tall, up to 48 inches, pure white and with good fragrance. It is also an excellent cut flower and can even be dried.

I am not moving any peonies this year so I do not have to do any digging up, dividing or replanting. However, I am a little late with my cutting back. It is time to cut back all the stalks to the ground, weed, and possibly add a little compost or mulch.

Tree Peonies

Guan Yin Mian tree peony

Guan Yin Mian tree peony

I also have tree peonies and these do not get cut back at all. They will not really grow into trees, but they bloom on sturdy branches that remain all year. A mature tree peony can produce many blossoms over their season. The main difference in their care is that tree peonies do need to be planted more deeply, about four inches, again in slightly acidic, humusy soil in a sunny location.

I love the tree peonies because they are the size of a small shrub and are extremely hardy even though the large blossoms appear so delicate. I confess I do pray for sun while they are in bloom because a strong spring rain will wash away those flowers. Guan Yin Mian which refers to the goddess of compassion is my best tree peony with all the delicacy and strength that the goddess embodies.

The newest peony in the nurseries is the Itoh peony. They are so named after Toichi Itoh who was the first hybridizer to successfully cross a tree peony with an herbaceous peony in 1940. Originally these were very expensive, but prices have come down. These are also known as intersectional peonies.

The advantage to the Itoh peony is that they have a more bushy appearance and will produce dozens of blooms over a long season once established. There are only a few Itoh peonies on the market compared to the scores of herbaceous peonies, but they are very beautiful. Quite a number are in shades of yellow which is an unusual color for   a peony. I don’t know who it is named for but there is a lovely double pink Itoh named Hillary whose petals will fade to cream

I have a border devoted to peonies in the HeathGarden but they can be used on a more individual scheme throughout a garden. I am now looking for good locations for peonies in the new Greenfield garden. There is still time to do some planting.

Between the Rows  October 3, 2015

Chinese and Japanese Gardens at the Huntington


Japanese Garden

Japanese Garden

In my youth I thought Chinese and Japanese gardens were very similar. Over the years I have learned how wrong I was. Both concentrate on bringing the gardener – and visitors – into nature. With the Chinese it is a wilder nature, intended for strolling, visiting and sharing with friends. For the Japanese the garden is more stylized with carefully pruned trees and shrubs that can be admired from inside a sheltered spot. There are many ways in which they differ, some are easily perceived while others are more subtle.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California has a Japanese garden, built about the time the Huntington opened in 1928, and a Chinese Garden that was installed in 2008. These two gardens, right next to each other, give the visitor a chance to experience each type of garden, to feel the differences even if we don’t have a vocabulary for describing them.

Japanese Dry Garden

Japanese Dry Garden

On our visit my husband and I began with the Japanese garden. The first section was a dry garden, which is probably familiar to most of us – an area with raked gravel representing the waves of an ocean while stones, large and small, represent mountains, islands, and other features. One does not walk in this garden. You sit on a bench, or from the platform of your teahouse and you meditate and admire.

Past the dry garden we walked into a courtyard filled with a display of bonsai specimens. Creating a bonsai is a serious art among the Japanese and this courtyard is the site of the Golden State Bonsai Federation. The display of dwarfed trees with graceful limbs and twisted trunks and roots are chosen that most suit the season. The rotating collection now includes hundreds of bonsai.

Montezuma cypress bonsai

Montezuma cypress bonsai

The central part of the Japanese garden includes a historic Japanese house where the owners might once have sat to view their garden. Now that house overlooks two small hills separated by a shallow valley with streams and ponds and a moon bridge. Winding paths provide a stroll with ever changing views.

A teahouse stood off by itself where a tea ceremony could be performed, or where one could just enjoy the view of the garden. Often teahouses are built in a more distant wooded part of the garden, but for this public garden it was built where we could admire the teahouse and the view.

A path between walls of bamboo takes you to the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance which was completed (so far) in 2008. More features are in a planning stage. Once through the bamboo pathway way we came out onto a wild hillside scattered with tormented white stones punctuated with holes. We immediately recognized the highly prized Taihu stones from LakeTai. While they look very odd to us westerners they are considered works of art made by nature.

Chinese Garden

Chinese Garden                                            

We entered the garden through a decorative opening and walked down a covered walk and into a paved courtyard circled with a few green plants and more Taihu stone this time inscribed with a few words of poetry. This is another Chinese tradition, to inscribe a poem or bit of wisdom on stones in picturesque places. They feel gardens are an art and that art should include other arts including the literary.

Beside the courtyard was a large pavilion, the Hall of the Green Camellia filled with tables and chairs where visitors could relax and visit for a while, but no tea was served here.

The pavilion sat on the edge of a large pond and looked across at another pavilion, while a smaller rendition of Empress Cixi’s famous marble boat was moored off to the side.

While Japanese gardens are more for looking at, Chinese gardens are for being in and enjoying with family and friends. There are covered walkways and pavilions and courtyards. There tend to be more buildings and pavilions in a Chinese garden and the paths are paved, while Japanese paths tend to be covered with gravel, moss or other groundcovers and there are fewer structures.

Stone and water are essential to these gardens, and the plants are mostly trees and shrubs. Flowers play a minor role, a role that is often more metaphoric than purely decorative. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any flowers in these two gardens, but I did see two of the three Friends of Winter, pine and bamboo. The plum tree is the third Friend, but he was not showing himself to me that day. The Chinese honor the pine and bamboo and plum because they thrive even in the bitterest winter proving themselves resilient and strong, persevering in adversity, inspiring us all to do the same. Pine and bamboo are evergreen so it is easy to understand their place in this trio, but the plum is the very first tree to bloom as winter draws to a close.

The lotus which grows out of the mud of a pond to bloom bright and unsullied is a symbol of purity, and peonies are symbols of nobility.

The Four Gentlemen are four plants that denote the seasons. The orchid is for spring, bamboo for summer, chrysanthemum for fall and the plum, again, for winter. There are many Chinese paintings that depict a scholar or official who has retired from the stresses of life in the rich court for life in his mountain top hut to care for his chrysanthemums.

Chinese and Japanese Gardens are both beautiful. Whether you enjoy parsing the traditions and philosophies of the two countries that lead to the creation of stunning gardens, or just want to enjoy the view the Huntington Botanic Gardens will give you great pleasure.

Between the Rows  October 3, 2015

Rain Management with Hugelkultur


hugelkultur trench

Hugelkultur trench

Learning how to harvest rain and manage water use is an urgent topic in California where I have been visiting, but it is a big topic for all of us. It is important for us all to manage our use of that precious resource – water. My husband Henry and I have been visiting friends. We have also been visiting wonderful gardens like the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens with garden writers from all over the country. It was at the Arboretum that I saw the ongoing installation of the Crescent Farm project and saw examples of hugelkultur, a technique that helps to harvest and manage rainfall. It also builds good soil and sequesters carbon.

The first thing I noticed was a deep and wide trench that had been filled up with sections of large logs with smaller spaces filled with smaller branches. The idea was to make this log filled trench stable so that if you walked on it the logs would not shift and cause a fall. The trench was strategically sited to capture the most rainfall and run-off.  In California where rains are infrequent (even when there is not a serious drought) run-off and flooding are the problems that come with the heavy rains. The trench will capture the water, but it is the wood logs and branches that will absorb the water. It then takes a long time for the logs to dry out, enough time for the useful bacteria and fungi to grow and benefit the soil.

Example of Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur example

I also saw large log sections circling a tree. Inside the circle cardboard sheets had been laid down, watered, and then covered with strips of bark to provide a mulch. I am familiar with this technique and have been using it in my new garden. I was not as familiar with the idea of providing ‘nurse’ logs to help my garden grow. The purpose of the encircling log lengths was twofold. First, to keep people from walking near the tree and causing compaction of the soil, and second, providing a medium for the growth of more helpful bacteria and fungi. The soil is a living thing; the nurse logs, and the logs in the hugelkulture trench are ways of increasing the beneficial forms of life in the soil.

I interviewed the learned horticulturist John Latsko about the making of the hugelkulture. “The whole idea is to keep the water on site in the soil, and even in the aquifer. In a really heavy rain the water may fill the trench and make the wood float, but it will not overflow,” he said. “What we want to do is slow the movement of water, spread the water, and save the water. Slow, spread and save.”

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

He also pointed out that what looked like a berm at the edge of one of the large planting beds was a different form of hugelkulture. In this instance they had piled up logs and then covered them with soil to make a type of raised bed. “The covered bed absorbs moisture in the air and wicks it into the wood. We planted pumpkins on this bed and without any irrigation or fertilization at all we harvested a lot of pumpkins.”

I also noticed a few small trenches cut into the planting beds at a slight angle. They were going to be filled with logs, again the purpose was to capture runoff. I was told that the logs and branches used in hugelkulture can be from any kind of tree. Trees like cedar and black walnut have a reputation for being harmful in the soil and that they will kill crops planted in that soil. While it is true that some woods have volatile oils that could be harmful, they dissipate within a year and are no long a threat. All logs, hardwoods and softwoods, will breakdown and provide a source of nutrients for the plants over a long period of time. The raised beds will slowly lower themselves as the logs decompose, but they can always be added to.

The point was made that by burying these logs the gardener is also sequestering carbon Latsko told me that the soil in this garden had been heavy clay, but over the two years that the garden had been in process the soil had improved considerably.” He was aided by Yara Herrarte, a young college student who was also working in the garden as an interpretive horticulturist. That day she was getting ready to teach a workshop on lasagna gardening, which I have often mentioned here. She is preparing for her teacher certification. Her goal is to teach younger children, and to show them “that you can discover so much in the garden.”

I can tell you that I was learning a lot on this 2.2 acre garden. While the goal of the hugelkultur beds and trenches at Crescent Farm is to slow, spread and save water on site, I have a different problem. My garden site is very wet, at least seasonally. My neighbors’ garden are also wet, so I think this is an ongoing situation. I have already built some slightly raised planting beds with cardboard, compost and loam, but hugelkulture can ameliorate my problems with water too. I can dig a huglekultur trench to capture water so that I do not have standing water for as long a time, and I can build raised hugelkultur beds that will not need irrigation. Whether a trench or a raised bed the hugelkultur technique will be improving my soil. And my soil definitely needs improvement!

Between the Rows   September 26, 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

Autumnal Container Arrangements


White mums

White mums at 5 Acre Farm

The Heath Fair is over. Facebook is full of photos of kids going off to college and kindergarten for the first time. You can hardly get into the supermarkets for the ranks of rigidly potted containers of mums by the doors. It must be fall. Time for an autumnal arrangement.

Chrysanthemums are certainly the iconic autumnal plant, but other plants can also perk up our summer weary gardens or containers. I took a tour around the area looking at what is still available, or newly arrived for fall. I stopped at Home Depot and saw all the trays and racks of plants that looked pretty good. I pulled out an identification label and was surprised to see a clear statement that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are systemic pesticides that kill a broad number of insects including bees and other pollinators. Systemic pesticides are taken up by every part of a plant so if an insect stops by for a bite or two or a sip of nectar it will be poisoned and die. Rob Nicholson, greenhouse manager at the Smith College Lyman Plant House, says they no longer use any neonics because wild pollinators come in and out of the greenhouse when the vents are open. Plant House staff do not want to poison insects that spend most of their time on important labors out in the world.

The Home Depot label says that neonics are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  I cannot see that this is quite true. A visit to the EPA website shows all the work being done to evaluate pesticides like the neonicotinoids. I certainly choose not to buy plants that have been so treated. I very much appreciate that Home Depot does label its plants and warn us.

Five Acre Farm Greenhouse

Five Acre Farm Greenhouse

I finally made my way to Five Acre Farm in Northfield which has an array of perennials like coral bells and salvia, as well as an array of annuals to use in autumnal arrangements. There are mums, of course, in a rainbow of colors. There are also annual asters, hibiscus, marguerite daisies, ornamental peppers, verbena, zinnias and the daisy-like sanvitalia. All of these look fresh and with lots of bloom left in them, while some, like the asters, are just coming into bloom. I was particularly impressed by the fresh, healthy looking Bull’s Blood beets, Swiss chard and several varieties of ornamental kale that I would not have thought of for an autumnal arrangement.

It is hard to find fresh looking annuals at this time of the year but Five Acre Farm has made it a point to have them so that gardeners can create a bright look. Annuals that have seen better days in the garden can be pulled up and replaced with new vigorously blooming annuals.

Flowers are not necessary to have a handsome autumnal arrangement. Foliage plants can make their own statement. We might be able to find foliage plants in our own gardens. This is the time of year that we might be dividing up some of the perennials in our garden. Divisions of coral bells, Hakone grass, hostas, northern sea oats, blanket flower and others can find a happy place in a container arrangement. At the end of the container season they can be separated again, and put back in the garden to resume blooming next year.

You might also find perennials on sale at garden centers. If they are in pretty good shape, or in a small pot, they might be happy in a container arrangement. Again, when the season is over, they can be put in the garden to grow and bloom next year.

My autumnal arrangement

My autumnal arrangement

Staff member Joan Turban gave me advice as I went through the greenhouse and gave her approval when I made my selections.  My central tall plant is Mahogany Splendor, a dark leafed annual hibiscus. Surrounding it is an ornamental pepper in shades of yellow and orange and a bit of purple. The Great Yellow sanvitalia has small yellow daisy-like flowers while the Zahara Sunburst zinnia is rich orange. At the last minute I bought a cream, green and pink coleus to add a little light to the arrangement. Finally I included two gold and orange lantana plants to droop prettily.

I loosened the roots of these plants as I placed them in my large container, especially of the hibiscus which was quite root bound. I watered all the root balls, just for good measure before I crowed the plants in together. For the first time I think I might have done a good job of jamming and cramming. I gave the container a good watering and set it in front of our new house where it can recuperate in the shade. In a few days I think I will give it a sunnier spot by the back door.

Since we had the Rose Viewing this year I haven’t paid much attention to other blooming plants in the garden so it felt very good to put together this autumnal bouquet.

Do you usually put together an autumnal arrangement in your container?

Between the Rows   August 29, 2015