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Carefree Peonies – Lush Glamour

peonies

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

Drought Tolerant Perennials

Russian sage, cosmos, coneflowers and phlox
My drought tolerant perennials: Russian sage, cosmos, coneflowers, and phlox

I need water loving plants, but I have not forgotten that many need drought tolerant perennials. Some gardeners have soil that drains quickly, and we all fret about summer months when no rain falls, or have periods of very hot weather of the kind we’ve enjoyed recently. Fortunately there is a long list of plants that do not mind long periods of hot and dry weather. Some of them may surprise you.

One surprising family of drought resistant plants are the heucheras, coral bells. Coral bells will grow in full sun, but they also welcome some shade in our area. The coral bell flowers of their name are not always very notable, but it is the foliage that is the real draw. Heucheras now come in a myriad of colors from bright lime green to rich burgundy and even black. The cultivar names tell it all from Champagne and Electric Lime to Fire Chief and Grape Soda to Chocolate Ruffles and Black Taffeta. It is the foliage that makes heucheras so welcome all season long.

Fall, when temperatures are moderated, is a good planting season for heucheras as for many perennials that you might find on sale, or that you may be dividing in your own garden.

I was also surprised to see that Baptisia, false indigo, is also drought tolerant. Although I have it in my own garden, which I very rarely water, I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that the baptisia and most of my perennials don’t suffer noticeably from the dry summers we have had. Baptisia with its clover-like foliage and erect racemes of blue flowers blooms in the spring. There are white and yellow varieties as well. Full sun is about all they need to be happy. They develop long tap roots so once established they are not easy to transplant successfully.

Japanese anemones bloom in late summer and into the fall. I always think the white or pink blossoms look very fragile, but they have three to four foot strong wiry stems and have never minded our recent dry summers. They have been slow to take hold in my garden, but once they do they make generous clumps. I have seen waves of Japanese anemones shining in the autumnal sun at BerkshireBotanical Garden. It makes a stunning display.

A sunny and sun-loving flower is heliopsis, the oxeye perennial sunflower. It will grow to three or four feet tall and bloom for a good part of the summer, especially if you deadhead spent blossoms. It’s a relative of helianthus, the true sunflower. It attracts butterflies and is useful as a cut flower.

Coreopsis, tickseed, is a family of golden yellow flowers ranging in size from three feet like Crème Brulee, but most range from 12-18 inches tall. Shades of yellow abound, but the new Sienna Sunset has shades of apricot and sienna. Coreopsis needs no special soil, attention or watering.

It is no real surprise that lavender which grows in the Mediterranean climate of Provence in France is drought tolerant. I remember Elsa Bakalar’s lavender hedge which sometimes gave her trouble because it was too wet in the spring. I could never keep straight the names, but my favorite was the classic Hidcote which has deep purple blossoms, but she also grew Munstead which was a paler shade. There are larger varieties. Provence grows to more than two feet tall in a generous clump. Of course, it is the unique fragrance of lavender that makes it such a popular plant. Flower stalks can be harvested and dried to make sachets or potpourri.

Achilleas, yarrow, come in many shades from white Snowsport to the deep red of Red Velvet. Moonshine, with blue-grey foliage and gentle yellow blossoms is an old favorite as is the tall Coronation Gold with its large flower heads that dry well and are wonderful in fall arrangements.

Coneflower
Coneflower

Happily there are many annuals that can keep a mixed border in bloom all season. Some like zinnias, marigolds, cleome and cosmos easily tolerate hot, dry summer days. Nasturtiums can crawl over dry soil and create a kind of living mulch without demanding regular watering.

There are drought tolerant vines. Sweet peas are beautiful annual vines that don’t mind dry soil once they are established.

Clematis is a perennial vine that comes in many shades and flower forms. The rich purple jackmanii that twines over so many mailboxes and lampposts is familiar and loved, but there is the new Red Star which produces double red blossoms in early summer and then in early fall.

The trick with growing clematis is to get the pruning schedule under control. There are three groups of clematis with three pruning schedules. Catalogs or nurseries will always mark which group a particular plant belongs to. I just read a mnemonic that says Group A means prune AFTER bloom; Group B means prune BEORE bloom in early spring and Group C means CUT back hard in early spring to 12-18 inches from the ground. There is a little more to it than that, but a good beginning.

There are many other suitable plants, salvias, catmints, penstemons, Russian sage, asters and coneflowers. We should remember that even drought tolerant plants need to be watered regularly after they are planted until they are established. It is good to know that whether we have a wet or a dry garden, we will always have many choices.

Zinnias
Drought Tolerant annual zinnias

Between the Rows   August 22, 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

 

Drainage Problems and Happy Irises

The day after we planted all our water tolerant shrubs Greenfield was inundated by torrential rains. I was told over three inches of rain fell the afternoon and evening of July 7. We knew that our Greenfield house had a wet backyard and after planting nine shrubs we were fully aware of the heavy clay soil. However we did not expect several inches of standing water in the back half of the yard.

Fortunately, our excellent plumber, Scott Zilinski, helped us out by helping to design and dig a drainage trench near the old sheds. The yard looks flat, but in fact there are subtle dips and hollows which were identifiable by looking at the worst areas of wet. The drainage trench may be extended in the corner next to our neighbor’s driveway.

It was also clear to see that the area next to the northern fence was equally under water. We are now considering the possibility of a rain garden in that area to catch heavy rainfall, and rain runoff. We now realize that our lot is slightly lower than the two lots next to us, and that those two pieces of property have a lot of paving causing some runoff onto our lot.

It was while attending events and programs at the Conway School of Design that I first learned about the importance of permeable surfaces that would allow rain to be absorbed and kept on site. It was also about that time that our son in Cambridge, Massachusetts told us that the city had regulations about how much of a lot could be covered, and how much had to be given to permeable surfaces. Cambridge’s concern was the capacity of their storm sewers. I now have a whole new appreciation of that concern and the importance of permeable surfaces.

Carrying out our Home Outside design plan has come to a brief halt while we consider various options to improving our drainage.

One new drainage idea surfaced when I joined a Greenfield Garden Club tour of Jono Neiger’s forest garden. Neiger is one of the founders of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield. Their mission is not only to create sustainable landscapes, but to make them better, to regenerate them. One of the topics that came up as we walked through the different sections of Neiger’s garden was hugelkulture (hoo-gel culture) which makes use of logs and woodland debris to improve the soil. There are many aspects of hugelkuture but one in particular caught my attention.

When I explained our situation to Neiger he said one could dig a trench, two feet wide and three feet deep and then fill it with logs and other compostable debris, sod and leaves and such like and top it with a layer of soil. The wood will slowly compost, adding nutrients and soaking up water, improving the soil. Not a quick fix, but fascinating nonetheless. Our soil could use improvement.

Beardless Irises

Beardless Irises

While we think about next steps I have been reading Beardless Irises: A Plant for Every Garden Situation by Keven C. Vaughn and published by Schiffer. My own experience with beardless irises is with Siberian irises which are one of the most beautiful and easy care flowers in the world, and Japanese irises which often have a flatter flower and are truly spectacular. I never knew that beardless irises ranged from the sweet and petite, to the tall and stunning spurias.

I never knew anything about Pacific coast native irises which we cannot really grow in our area because of the winters, but amazingly Louisiana irises, and spuria irises are definite possibilities. I will never take the iris family for granted again.

We have purple and white Siberian irises in Heath and I always planned to bring some of them down to Greenfield. They are not only beautiful they don’t mind being wet. In fact, one gorgeous clump of deep purple/blue Siberians somehow jumped into a swale in our field where they have lived very happily for several years.

A few years ago I bought a beautiful white Japanese iris from Andrew Wheeler at Foxbrook Iris Farm in Colrain. He told me that Japanese iris didn’t need to be growing in a wet site, but they did need to be planted where they could be watered regularly. I planted it in front of the house where there is excellent drainage, and where I do keep it watered, but I am hoping that it will be even happier when it is moved to Greenfield.

Spurias love water so much that Vaughn suggests taking a plastic kiddie pool, with holes cut in the bottom, and sinking it into the ground, then filling it with good soil for a planting site. Then that area can be watered heavily without causing a problem for surrounding plants which might not need quite so much water. Spurias are tall ranging from three to five feet although we are warned that in our colder climate they may be slightly shorter. In any event they promise to be a dramatic planting, the clump growing larger every year, but not demanding to be divided.

Vaughn is a scholar, hybridizer and has a PhD in plant genetics. He gives us common gardeners the information about whether a particular type of iris will thrive in our climate, as well as the usual cultural info about soil, fertilizer and sun requirements, but the book is also rich in the stories of hybridizers and their work. If you like to know how a stunning plant came to be, or even how to create your own hybrids, this is the book for you. The many beautiful color photographs showing the full range of color have inspired me. Expect more beardless irises in my garden.

Between the Rows   July 25, 2015

If you want to play around with your own garden designs on the free Home Outside Palette app for smart phones and tablets click here.

The Shrub and Rose Border Begins in Greenfield

Shrub border begins

Shrub and rose border  begins

I first became acquainted with Julie Moir Messervy through her book The Inward Garden: Creating a space of beauty and meaning. This beautiful book approaches garden design through seven archetypes, the cave the prairie, the mountain, the sea etc., and the way that a garden makes you feel. It is this attention to the mood I might want in my garden that interested me.

That attention to mood might have begun when as a graduate student she spent a year and a half in Japan and fell in love with Japanese gardens while working with a master. She later wrote Tenshin-in about the renovation of the Japanese garden at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that she worked on. The quiet mood of a Japanese garden is one that has always appealed to me and I felt that Messervy and I were of one mind.

I met her in the flesh in 2009 when she came to South Deerfield to speak at the Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium. She had finished her book Home Outside: Creating the landscape you love and came to encourage us as we worked to create a domestic landscape that worked functionally, and that made us happy in that space. I say all this so you will understand how pleased I was when her design business asked me if I would test her new free app, Home Outside Palette which allows you to play with design elements in your yard/garden on your phone or tablet. For $14.95 extra you can fill the app with extra design capabilities. But beyond that they asked if I would use their custom design service Home Outside and write about the experience.

When this offer came we had just closed on our house in Greenfield. The house has a hellstrip and a tiny front yard, a sunny southern side yard and a mostly blank rectangular back yard that was all grass. I had been looking at that blank slate of a yard and saw infinite possibilities and so many decisions waiting to be made. Needless to say I accepted the offer.

Home Outside design service begins with a questionnaire about your style preferences – modern, curvy, symmetrical; what you like to do in your garden; description of the space; and finally a Wish List, as long as you want, of everything you wish to have in your garden. That questionnaire gets e-mailed along with a Google Map image of your house and lot.

While we waited for the design to arrive my husband and I got to work on the parts of the garden that were already planned. I have written about our hellstrip which is now almost completed. Time to set to work on the southern shrub and rose border.

cardboard - first layer for lasagna

cardboard – first layer for lasagna

The south border of our lot abuts the driveway of my new neighbor. Our plan was to create a shrub border that would eventually provide a prettier view than a strip of blacktop, as well as plenty of bloom. In front of large shrubs like hydrangea I wanted roses, with particular attention to modern, disease free roses. It was great fun to go off and buy enough shrubs and roses to fill a 40 foot long border. I have hydrangeas in Heath and I now have Limelight, Firelight, and Angel’s Blush in Greenfield. I bought Yankee Doodle and Beauty of Moscow lilacs, Korean spice viburnam and viburnam trilobum or highbush cranberry. The lilacs are about the smallest bushes of this array.

In front of the shrubs I planted roses: Zaide, Polar Express, Thomas Affleck, Folksinger, Lion Fairy Tale, The Fairy, Purple Rain and Knock Out Red. In between are perennials and groundcovers from Heath.

On June 3 we started to work on the shrub and rose border. Instead of trying to dig up all that sod we once again used the lasagna method of planting. My husband weed-whacked the grass down to soil level and then we planted the shrubs, digging large holes and amending the removed soil with a good helping of compost before returning it to the hole. After each shrub was in the ground we watered them well.

Compost and loam on cardboard

Compost and loam on cardboard

We usually planted at least two shrubs at a time, because the next step was covering the soil with a good layer of cardboard, making sure to overlap pieces so that no soil was showing. Then I watered the cardboard, getting it as soaked as possible. On top of the cardboard we spread about three inches of compost, and then topped that with another three inches of compost-enriched loam.

All the shrubs, including the roses are planted in the ground, but most of the perennials, groundcovers and annuals are planted in the compost and loam on top of the cardboard. Over time the cardboard will rot away, becoming compost itself, and all plants will be growing in improved soil. We have been fortunate to have had so much rain which meant that we didn’t have to do a lot of watering.

As of July 6th the shrub border is essentially finished although we haven’t yet created a real edge. Right now we just have raggedy bits of cardboard sticking out. An edge will come soon, along with a layer of mulch. All that bare soil cannot be left to welcome the weed seeds in the air.

First shrubs and roses in south border

First Shrubs and Roses in South border  July 6, 2015

Just as we were finishing we received our Home Outside plans for the backyard! The powers that be decided to send us two different custom plans. We could choose one or the other or combine them to our hearts content.

Next week I’ll reveal the landscape designs – and what we have made of them.

Between the Rows   July 11, 2015

Down Memory Lane at the End of the Road

View from the Bedroom Window

View from the Bedroom Window in June

As I begin planting new gardens in Greenfield, I have been reminiscing about the adventures we’ve had with gardens at the End of the Road. When we moved here in November of 1979 I must confess to having very little garden experience. In 1972-3 I had a very tiny vegetable garden at my Grinnell Street House. Then we moved to North Berwick, Maine and in the spring of 1975 I planted a large vegetable garden there.

            I was in a manic mood in 1975. I was unhappily teaching 6th grade and found great pleasure in the garden, the chicks we bought and the two piglets named Supper and Dinner. The garden was too big and my skills were minimal. Our old neighbor, Mr. Leslie, once chatted with my husband while I planted carrots. “I never saw anyone broadcast carrot seed,” he said with amazement. Henry just shook his head.

            A change in plans put an end to that garden before the harvest and we moved to New York City, where Henry’s ancestral apartment did have a shady backyard garden. No vegetables, and I paid very little attention to it

            The move to Heath filled me with big plans and dreams for a vegetable garden, a root cellar, and canning marathons. In the spring of 1980 we hired Louis Pazmino to come over with his tractor to come and plow up a very big vegetable garden. It only took that one year of picking potato bugs and watching half the garden become enveloped in weeds for me to be ready to rethink the plan.  Henry shook his head, and I agreed a smaller garden would be wise.

            I also began working at GreenfieldCommunity College where I met our famous neighbor Elsa Bakalar, perennial gardener extraordinaire. I, who had never thought about flowers beyond marigolds, zinnias, and The Passionate Nymph’s Thigh rose, suddenly started planning and planting a perennial border at the edge of the big front lawn. I filled it with strong growers like plume poppy and feverfew from Elsa’s garden and local plant swaps. Henry shook his head while he watched me try to keep up with weeding the perennial border, the vegetable garden and the beginnings of the Rose Walk.

By the time we left for our year in Beijing in 1989 the border had grown to 90 x 8 feet.     When we returned to Heath the spring of 1990 the perennial border was officially lost. As gardeners we learn that a garden is a delicate ephemeral thing. It is always changing, and cannot survive a year of neglect. We worked to revive the vegetable garden, and plant more rose bushes and then took a break to celebrate the Fourth of July with friends and barbecue. The day was enervating, very hot, still and humid. We were happy to fall into our bed that night.

            At 2 in the morning a violent thunderstorm woke us and the smell of smoke moved us into action. Lightning had struck the big old barn across from the house and was burning. Lightning had also struck the telephone pole and knocked out the phone. Henry drove down to our neighbor, leaning on the horn all the way, to call the fire department.

            The volunteer firemen immediately sprayed the house which was already beginning to smoke. It took the rest of the night to put the fire out, but the house was saved. Nearby trees, and roses were singed but they survived. We were left with three stone barn foundation walls.

            The perennial border was gone, but now we had the beginnings of a SunkenGarden which was never a part of any plan. With the help of tons of autumn leaves we turned that space into a vegetable garden filled with cold compost leaf beds according to the Larry Leitner method. In 1994 our daughter was married in front of the by-then more familiar raised beds for vegetables.

            I planted David Austin Roses along the north wall of the Sunken Garden, forgetting that the plow dumped a lot of snow over the edge of the Garden. The roses were too tender and did not survive two Heath winters, or the plowed snow. The rest of the garden, even with raised beds proved to be too wet for vegetables. Only the Sargent crab, planted in the middle of the space survives.

            In 1991, while the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings provided conversation over the hammers and beams, our family gathering spent the Columbus Day weekend working on a new shed. That shed provided space for a rose filled Shed Bed.

Shed and Rose Bed

Shed and Rose Bed

 

            It was also at that year (I think) that I went on a Franklin Land Trust garden tour and visited Walt Cudnohufsky’s garden where I was taken with is use of native plants, but especially by a little grove of trees that casually divided a lawn. While our Lawn Beds do not resemble Cudnohufsky’s grove, it was the inspiration for the Lawn Beds which define spaces in our lawn, and they remain successful elements in our landscape.

            There have been other changes. Troubles with my hip led to a very tiny vegetable garden, the building of the Cottage Ornee and friendship with Jerry Sternstein, rhododendron expert, led to rhododendron plantings. The building of the arbor in front of the house led to an extended Herb Bed.

Cottage Ornee and Rhodies

Cottage Ornee and rhodies

            In our 35 years here at the End of the Road, one thing has followed another. There was never a master plan. My husband has often watched me, and shaken his head, but he is always willing to fall in with the latest plan.

            Now we are in the process of planting a new garden, one that is more limited in scope. And we are older, no longer looking ahead at what seems like endless years ahead of us. This time we thought we should have a master plan. Our good fortune is that, by chance, I was given the opportunity to ‘test’ noted landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy’s new Home Outside Palette App for IOS and Android phones and tablets. In addition, they asked me to use and review their other services which included two custom designs. The timing was perfect and I agreed.

            Next week I will start talking about our experiences with the Home Outside Palette.

Between the Rows   July 4, 2015