December 29, 2010

Twelve Months Past

Wordless 2010
JANUARY 30: Ilex verticillata

FEBRUARY 8: Invasion
MARCH 14: Hamamelis mollis 'Sweet Sunshine'

APRIL 22: Cercis 'Oklahoma' and Fothergilla in bloom

MAY 17: Camassias

JUNE 3: Spring exuberance

JULY 11: Physostegia 'Miss Manners' and Echinacea 'Pink Double Delight'

AUGUST 27: Caryopteris and Zinnias

SEPTEMBER 10: Abelia blooming, Itea turning red

OCTOBER 11: Oxydendrum arboreum

NOVEMBER 12: 'October Glory' red maple

DECEMBER 27: Happy New year

December 27, 2010

Granted Wishes

Well, it had to happen.  I whined about a hole in the map that left my patch of earth uncovered, bereft of snow for the Christmas holiday.  I wanted a white Christmas.

When the gods want to punish you, they grant your wishes.  And they apparently read your blog.

As a result of the post-Christmas nor'easter blizzard, youngest son is stranded in New York, unable to fly back to Denver to get back to work.  He can't get out now until mid week.

Oldest son shoveled us out today, and then coaxed his Florida-raised girlfriend out into the snow for a photo and to make snow angels, all of which lasted about four minutes before she escaped back inside.

The snow has stopped now, but the winds are still howling.  The snow cover will protect the plants that are buried, but any evergreen leaves daring to peek out are getting blasted.  I'll have winterburn on the bayberry and dessicated leaves on the hollies next spring.

But it was a wonderful, magical holiday, with family here.  We had heat (many lost power), we had good food, and the wine held out.  It was a memorable Christmas, full of talk and laughter and gifts and future plans being made.  While travel is aggravatingly disrupted, my sons are both safe.  I can't complain.

In fact, I will never complain again.  I promise.  If the gods are not only listening to me, but also reading my blog posts, I need to be much more careful.  I'll have to monitor what I wish for.  Who knew I had the ability to bring such wintry devastation to a whole region of the country?  All I wanted was a little snow.

December 23, 2010

Live Gifts for the Garden

It's tricky to give gardeners gifts.  Whimsy and garden decor are always appreciated.  Birdbaths, pots, a sundial, all good choices.  Indoor plants wrapped in foil are nice.  Gloves and kneepads are okay although not a lasting gift.

But the best presents I have received for my garden have been live plants.  They remind me over and over of the giver as I tend them and watch them grow for years and years. 

Jim and I received plants as wedding gifts when we were married years ago.

My sister and brother in law gave us a blueberry bush.  It was a favorite for its delicious (but scant) berries that topped my morning cereal --- harvested three at a time --- and for the adventures of the hyperactive squirrel who got caught in the netting we had put over it to keep the birds away from the fruits.  That blueberry bush had history and stories, and it always made me think of my family.

Friends from work gave us two New Dawn roses.  They were tiny things that grew to be rambling, long-limbed blooming scramblers that covered a split rail fence.  They were the first things I saw every time I came up the driveway, and they always reminded me of those friends, even years after we had lost touch.
'New Dawn' from a Dave's Garden forum post.  Ours looked just like this at my old house, fence included, but how could I have never taken a photo of it?

Others gave us perennial plants: poppies and yarrow and other delights that we planted at the feet of the roses.

One of the best gifts I ever got was the Dixie cup with a white pine seedling in it that my kindegartener gave me one Mother's Day.

But here's the thing with gifts of live plants: they belong to the garden, not to the gardener.

When we sold the house the plants could not come with me.  The white pine was by then a big tree, a miracle grown from its tiny paper cup beginnings.   In the hectic days of the move, I did not take divisions of the perennials or cuttings of the roses or the blueberry; I wish I had, but I had nowhere to plant them at the new house at first.  I miss those gifts now.

At our new home we have also received plant gifts: one Christmas a niece gave us a mail order gift certificate for two butterfly bushes, with a ship date for that spring.  She specifically picked out a yellow flowered 'Honeycomb' Buddleia x weyeriana, and of course when I see the big arching shrubs now I think of them as "Angela" shrubs, not as Honeycomb butterfly bushes.
Buddleia x weyeriana 'Honeycomb', but it's really 'Angela Shrub' to me
That was actually a great solution to garden plant gift giving: the paper certificate at Christmas was easy to wrap and give, but the actual gift arrived later when it was time to plant.  And yet it was not a generic certificate that I would have used to buy mulch or garden gloves; it was a specific plant she picked out for my garden.

A simple hostess gift of a tiny hydrangea came from another niece one summer.  Just a little thing in a four inch pot, wrapped in cellophane.  Of course it's now a big glorious shrub with metallic blue blooms (it's a 'Blau Doneau') filling a corner of my garden where there is some shade. 

That's the great thing about shrubs and trees as gifts.  They get so much bigger.  What starts out as a little modest gift, or even as a piece of paper with a promise to ship, becomes a major element in your garden over time, reminding you each year of the giver.

December 21, 2010

A Hole in the Map

The entire northern hemisphere is covered in snow, but not here.  The US midwest and west and mountains and upper New England is snow covered.  Washington DC and Kentucky to the south of me are looking at white.  Cape Cod to the east is snowy.  We won't even talk about England, buried catastrophically in snow an ocean away.

But here in a tiny swath of land at the eastern edge of the continent our grass is bare, our mulch looks ratty and plants are shivering naked in the wind.

The green arrow on this Snow Depth map from yesterday (12/20) shows where my garden sits, right between the snow cover (light blue: a couple inches) of western Connecticut and the fringe of snow to my east along Rhode Island and Cape Cod.  The brown spot shows we literally have snow all around us... within just a few miles... but none here.  We're sitting in a hole in the map.  Nature didn't color completely inside the lines.

I'm apoplectic about this because the garden suffers when it is laid bare to cold temperatures with no insulating blanket of snow.  But I'm really more upset because my son is bringing his girlfriend home for Christmas and she was raised in Florida and then lived in Los Angeles.  She's coming to New England!  For Christmas!  There must be snow.
Green holly needs snow as a backdrop, not brown weeds.
And this looks ridiculous. Brown blobs and green lawn.  Gaudy red berries with no white background.
I know I need to be careful what I wish for, especially as travelers make their way home this week for the holidays.  I don't want my son and his girlfriend hung up in an airport with weather delays.  But a little white frosting for her sake would have been nice.

It's just so odd,  snow all around us, to the north, south, east and west.  But a strange hole in the map right over my little half acre.  I'm going to get the blue crayons out and color in that last millimeter on the very edge of the Snow Depth map.  That should do it.

December 19, 2010

More than a Flowerbed

I built a dry creek bed entirely from rocks I dug from planting holes
I met a woman last summer who was a gardener and a published author.  We had a nice chat about plants and writing.  When she found out I had a gardening blog she was curious and asked me about it.

It doesn't take much for me to start blabbing on about the world of blogging, but she confused me when she asked "what do you blog about in winter?"

"I write about my garden in the winter too".

She looked really skeptical.  "But what can you post then?  What is there to write about?"

It dawned on me then that to her a garden was a flowerbed.  It was only interesting in bloom.  The only thing to write about was which flower had just opened, with a close up of the blossom.

Building homes is part of gardening
Have you had that happen?  Have you identified yourself as a gardener, and had people ask "oh, do you grow flowers or do you have vegetables?"

I don't grow vegetables, and the few herbaceous perennials I have are tucked in among shrubs and groundcovers and trees and vines and hardscape.  I'm not a flower gardener, but I can't call myself a landscaper... that's a term reserved for a crew with machines or for designers who get paid.

What do you call yourself if you tend woody plants, reforest a hillside, build a dry creek bed, manage a hundred tree saplings, haul compost, bushwhack a wild meadow, and make safe homes for fairy spirits, but you do it for enjoyment and you do it without power machinery?

I do have some flowers in my garden
Is it still gardening if you are clinging to a ladder in winter pruning a young maple canopy with your loppers?  Are you gardening when you clear brush?  Do you even have a garden if it consists entirely of a spirea, caryopteris, ceanothus, a young stewartia, a conifer and a low groundcover deutzia --- without a hosta or blooming daylily anywhere?

Thank god for garden bloggers.  You all know. 

But how do you describe to new acquaintances what you do?  Especially if the new acquaintance is a non-fiction writer and a little um, ... literal?

I'm no landscaper.  I'm certainly not a trained arborist.  But my garden is so much more than a flowerbed.

C'mon all of you with imaginations.  What is it we do?  Garden?  Yarden?  Arborize?

December 16, 2010

Searching and Finding

These are some of the search terms that brought visitors to my blog in the past year:

"magnolias with diamonds on them"  I like that one. I'm glad the searcher found my post on Magnolia virginiana, a pretty tree that does in fact look like it has diamonds on it when it glitters in the breeze.

"whoppa whoppa whoppa"  That's just weird.  Who types that in?  What were they looking for?  And did they find it on my blog?

"my neighbor blows his weeds in middle of road"  I like to think my blog helped assuage suburban strife somewhere.

"expensive specimen tree"  Surely they came to the right place for that.  They must have found all my costly forays into arbor care.

"graft and corruption begins at home"  It sure does.

"hilarious usps abbreviations"  You need a finely honed sense of humor to search for the wit in state postal codes.  Especially if you wind up on a gardening blog page.

It's fun to track these search terms back to the posts I wrote, and see how Google thinks.  Comments are part of the search, so some of these hits came from the terms others used when they left me a comment.

Other bloggers have had silly search terms that delivered readers to their blogs.  Let me know what you've seen!

December 14, 2010

Holly By Golly

Nothing says Christmas like red berried holly.  You can let the snow do the decorating outside and it's all good --- deepest shiniest green, brilliant pops of red, and a stiff, formal structure that is noble looking out there in the cold garden.

English hollies created the classic image of holiday greenery, but we can't grow them here.  We grow smaller, hardier ones that fit our small yards and New England climate.  We have these iconic evergreen Christmas hollies here solely because of one woman.  I love her story.  

A story?   It's Christmas!  Yes, tell us a story --- improbable, mythic, heartwarming and seasonal --- maybe a fantasy?

Okay.  Get me a cookie, come over here, and I'll tell you about Kathleen Kellogg Meserve.

Ilex x. meserveae are the hybrid hollies that are named for a housewife who never studied botany.  Kathleen Meserve bred them on her kitchen window sill in the 1950s as a garden club hobby, and went on to patent one of the most popular and successful cultivar lines in horticulture.  If you live anywhere colder than zone 7, when you go to the nursery and buy an evergreen holly for your foundation plantings or your mixed border, it is typically a blue holly, a "meserve" holly.
Mrs. Meserve, looking rather patrician (NY Times)  She died in 1999 at age 93.

The myth is that she was a humble unschooled gardener like me, discovering gardening late in life, like me, and gardening on a budget like me.  The reality is that she came from a privileged background and had a 10 acre estate on Long Island, in St. James, New York, to experiment in.  But the improbable wonder of the story is all true: she really was a complete amateur and she really did stumble onto a great horticultural discovery.

Here's the story of Kathleen Meserve.  I quote this from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture:

"Meserve grew up on Park Avenue in New York City where plants simply were not in her universe. She and thousands of others were introduced to plants during World War II when the Victory Garden program was started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage homeowners to grow their own vegetables to save commercial resources for the war effort.

After the war, the Meserves moved to a new shaded estate a few miles from their old home. The new garden was unsuited for vegetables so she cast about for a new plant to occupy her awakened interest in gardening. At a garden club meeting, she became acquainted with hollies and was soon collecting all of the sorts available from local nurseries.
Ilex aquifolium, English holly.  They grow to be big things.  photo from U. of Wisconsin LaCrosse
Her breeding efforts were spurred by an interest in developing a dwarf form of evergreen holly with red berries that was not too large for use in foundation plantings. The red berried hollies of her acquaintance --- the English, Chinese and American hollies were all trees that grew 20 feet or more high and wide and required constant shearing to use in the landscape. She managed to obtain seeds of Ilex rugosa, a dwarf evergreen holly of northern Japan and Korea that had red berries. Her breeding efforts began in the early 1950s.
Ilex rugosa, or Prostrate holly --- a rangy, low spreader

Many of her crosses succeeded and seed developed. She planted the seeds and two years later had seedlings from the crosses. 

Then, disaster struck. The winter of 1956 was colder than most, with temperatures dropping to minus 17 degrees.

Upon inspecting her crosses in the spring, she realized most of her seedlings had died, except for the plants that had Ilex rugosa as a parent. These were planted on the grounds and watched for a few years. During the early years of the 60s, she worked with several nurseries trying to get her new creations as Luther Burbank* would have called them into the marketplace. Finally Connard-Pyle, the nursery that gave us the Peace hybrid tea rose, introduced the plants in 1964.

"Blue Girl" and "Blue Boy" were the first introductions but were followed in 1972 by their children, "Blue Princess" and "Blue Prince," created by crossing the original hybrid back to the Ilex rugosa parent.

The 1972 crosses were even more cold hardy than the parents and more compact.
Meserve went on to release about a dozen hybrid hollies and was awarded a citation by the American Horticulture Society for her efforts as an amateur plant breeder."

Ilex x. meserveae 'Blue Princess' in my garden
She died in 1999.  Her plants are now sold by commercial growers throughout the world. The profits from the sale of Mrs. Meserve's holly patents helped to maintain her estate on Long Island, which she called Holly-by-Golly.

Holly-by-Golly?  I love it.  She looks like crusty old money in the photo above, but she evidently had a wonderfully tacky streak.

Here are some of her words:
"A professor from a leading university with a strong graduate horticulture program visited me once," she told an interviewer.  "He told me that he was amazed at how his school spent thousands of dollars in research hoping to come up with a new strain, but that here I did it on $15.  Not knowing what I was doing was an advantage," she said.  "Especially at the beginning.  I didn't know what could be done and what couldn't.  So I just did it."

And that's the fantasy of it all.  Don't we all secretly harbor a dream that we will spend $15 on supplies, plant some seeds, and go on to create a botanical wonder that generates fame for us and lasting funds for our heirs?  I do, by golly.

* You've heard of Luther Burbank, right?  The Plant Patent Act was passed in 1930 as a result of his botanical work.  It's what allows breeders to profit from crossing plants to create new cultivars. It allowed an amateur gardener like Mrs. Meserve to make a fortune from her hobby.

December 12, 2010

The Scent of Christmas

Pimpinella anisum from Wikipedia
Christmas does not smell like pine needles or balsam fir to me.  The season is not evoked by cinnamon or cloves or peppermint.

All those are wonderful scents, but the one Christmas aroma that makes me shiver with pleasure is the smell of a Mediterranean evergreen shrub's seeds: Pimpinella anisum.

Anise (not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium) is a plant that looks to me a little like Queen Anne's Lace.  The seeds are used for herbal remedies and flavoring.  And it's that flavoring, the anise extract, that brings Christmas home to me the minute I smell it.

My mother made anise Christmas cookies every year and I make them now.  They were not elaborate pressed cookies or springerles or the Italian anise cookies you can find.  They were really just an iced sugar cookie with anise extract added, cut into Christmas shapes.  I love them.

Descriptions of anise flavor always say it tastes like licorice or tarragon, but it really doesn't.  It has a whiff of licorice, but it is much, much lighter, almost citrusy or even minty.  It is very refreshing.

Still, it's a taste that is not to everyone's liking.  Santa likes these cookies, and I love them so much I like to have a little anise in my garden. But I can't grow Pimpinella in my zone 5 garden.
'Purple Haze' Agastache on the right

I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it.  Agastache is a great plant, with tall spikes of blooms all summer long that bees love.  Mine is a deep blue called 'Purple Haze' and it anchors the back of my garden with its tall frothy spikes.  It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care.

There are other plants with anise scened leaves.  The most notable is Illicium floridanum, called star anise or purple anise, which is a beautiful dense evergreen shrub with glossy leathery leaves.  The leaves emit a fragrance of anise when crushed. 
Purple Anise, Illicium floridanum
I'd love to grow it, but there are a couple reasons I won't.  It is not hardy here, although I could put it in a container and bring it onto the porch over winter.  The other reason: it has stinky flowers.  The aroma is consistently described as smelling like fish.  How can a plant with leaves that carry the essential fragrance of Christmas for me have unpleasant flowers?  Who thought up that combination?  
Eeeeww.  Illicium floridanum bloom

Salvia guaranitica, Black and Blue Sage, is called Anise Sage.  I grow it, and it's a beautiful large sage with vibrant deep blue flowers.  But the leaves do not smell like anise.  When you crush them you get an interesting sharp scent, but it's not anise.
Anise Sage. It doesn't smell like anise

There is an anise scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, a native plant that is supposed to have leaves that smell like anise when they are crushed.  I could try that.  But I'm not sure where I'd put these big weedy stalks in my garden.
Anise scented goldenrod

There is also an anise scented basil I could grow in my garden . . .  but wait, now we're getting confused.  I mean, basil should smell like basil.  I like basil and I like anise.  I'm not sure what you gain by having one smell like the other.

In fact I'm not sure what I gain by trying to replicate such a specific and evocative memory of a smell in my garden.  While anise does come from the seeds of a plant, it's not the plant that carries the delight.

It's the cookies.  It's the season, it's childhood, my mother, and Santa.  It's snow and it's good stuff baking.  I really don't need to grow anise scented plants in my garden --- I just need to make sure there is anise extract in my pantry.    Mmmmm.