February 28, 2010

Daisies and Susans: a Gardening Oops

On the first of each month at Joene's Garden we are encouraged to share GOOPS (Gardening OOPS) --- mistakes we've made in the garden.  Since I am a new gardener, learning exclusively by reading and trial and error, almost everything I have done outside has been an oops, either minor or quite serious.  I thought of just posting my blog address at Joene's and saying "go look... it's all a mistake."  But here's one I thought I'd share for March 1, a rather big blunder.

Our backyard patio is a sitting area for the gentle gardener and her guest to rest and admire the scene, both wild and cultivated, that spreads out to the near horizon and into the woods:

When the patio was installed, we had a stone wall put in to surround the lower area for a sense of enclosure while viewing the open prospect beyond.  Of course the wall needed softening, and I wanted full-on cottage garden abandon around it, so I put in some sturdy old fashioned daisies ('Becky') and some classic blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm').  At first they were tiny, so I planted lots:

Then they grew.  I mean, they grew.  By the following midsummer sitting on the patio was like being in a movie theater in the front row and the only picture showing was Vegetation Madness.  The view was so completely blocked that it felt like the chairs would topple over backwards in a tsunami of greenery.  Yikes:

We got taller chairs, big teak rockers with fat cushions, to sit up high enough to see over the mass of flowers, but it remained stiflingly claustrophobic.  You can't tell so much in this picture from above, but it's still impossible to see any view sitting in these rockers:

I guess it looks nice from afar, but sitting down below that billowing wall of flowery masses was not working for this gardener:

So last Fall they all came out, except for one stand of daisies and one stand of susans at the corners.  All I can say is "big fat gardening oops".

What to put in for replacements?  (Must be lower, smaller, less dense and nicer behaved.  But beautiful, billowy, soft and flowery.)

There's a bird bath now, next to the remaining clump of blackeyed susans.  I can see over it from the patio.  That's a start.

February 27, 2010

The Camera Lies

If you visit my gardens, you will see what all my gardening effort has produced so far.  None of the pictures are touched up or staged, they're just snaps I took at random times.  But they are so much more beautiful than what I see outside.

When I wander around my yard, all I can see are the gaps, the unsettling exposure to traffic on the road, the unfilled spaces in the mulch, the weeds in the meadow.  The camera shows a secluded, treed retreat with lush plantings and lots of privacy and greenery.

It's the same yard, people.  It just looks better in pictures. 

Why is that?  Is it because I still have a fresh memory of how it looked when the bulldozers left?  Is it because I see it close up at weed level and not the long view the camera takes?

Is it because I garden in time, always moving, changing, thinking of what it will be, what it was, while the camera visits the garden in space, seeing just that location in just that place, just as it is right then?

Dunno.  I still can't explain why I am generally dissatisfied with my yard living in it, but very satisfied looking at it in static photos.  I mean, I like my husband in real life so much more than just having a snapshot of him, and he's easily as changeable, full of gaps, and unfinished as my gardens.

February 25, 2010

Scotland in May

With a nod to Cyndy at Gardening Asylum who treated us to a week long trip to England in early February (her beautiful photos of exquisite gardens saved my mid winter sanity), I have decided to do a winter escape -- just a one-day hop -- and fly you to:


Scotland in May.  Overnight flight to Amsterdam, Easy Jet commuter to Edinburgh, a drive through the yellow blooming gorse, sheep everywhere in green meadows.  Isn't this much better than the dreary sight out your window right now?

There are lots of castles and moors and even a world class Royal Botanical garden in Edinburgh, but the loveliest setting in Scotland is the garden at the B and B in Bridge of Allan near Stirling.  What mystifies the American gardener is how everything blooms at the same time there --  azaleas and tulips and camassias.  Clematis draping over the high stone garden wall, everything all at once, I think there are roses too.  But it's not the flowers, it's the composition.  Get a glass of wine and come out into the garden to see:

(For the first time I understand what it means to create layers in a garden)

From my bedroom window: in the British Isles no space goes ungardened:

To my eye, our hostess's gardens are so much lovelier than the Victorian set-pieces designed 150 years ago under a completely different aesthetic --- formal, structured, grandiose and highly weird.  Look at the public gardens at Drummond Castle:

And what were the Victorian pruners thinking here?  Did they really plan this to look like what it resembles?  Really?  In her posts at Gardening Asylum Cyndy exhorted us to lie back and think of England.  Well, really:

Scotland is a beautiful place.  You're on your own now, go take the car, zip through the roundabouts, and start exploring the highlands and Balmoral and the lochs and of course spend a few days in Edinburgh.  But don't even think of missing the castle at Stirling or the town at Bridge of Allan.

February 23, 2010

Why I Garden

Why do I garden?  The short answer is because I had to; we moved into a half acre blank slate of a lot with no landscaping, and I wanted some privacy in our back yard.

 The long answer is ..... longer.  My friend Jane is an anthropology professor at Trinity College, and she is writing a book on the social aspects of gardening.  She's published academic topics before, but this one will be a popular book for the average person to read to understand why people garden and who does it.  She asked me why I do.  So I had to think about it.

When the necessity of filling our blank yard drove me to nurseries and garden shops, I began to realize I was getting a visceral pump out of finding just the right plant for just the right spot, putting it in and seeing it thrive.  I was even getting a kick out of my failures: "well, that just up and died, I wonder what would do better here?"

And I was positively getting an endorphin high when I saw compositions and  colors and forms start to come together pleasingly.  Fall colors that exploded into something I didn't know I could produce and hadn't expected.

Spring scenes that surprised.  But even the prettiest of garden sights didn't keep me from constant reevaluation: "What could I put here?  How can I face down that leggy shrub?  I need more of something over there.  I just hate that purple with that red.  Where could I plant this?  Dimemsions?  Mature size?  Too narrow?  Too flashy and blowsy?  What will work at the far end of that space?"

I wasn't crazy about the dirt and the bugs and hot sweaty days in the garden in July or finger numbing afternoons in November. And don't get me started about the worm and compost thing.  But I loved, positively loved, the planning and designing stages.  Wandering around the yard surveying, assessing everything.  Winters spent with catalogs and endless MoBot internet searches.  I created a massive database in AppleWorks with so much detail (photos! searchable plant files!  Latin translations!  height at ten years!  diagrams! possible companions!) that it took 45 minutes to open the file each time.

It began to dawn on me that I like the problem solving challenges in my garden.  The things I had been good at when I worked in a complex office environment were the things I was good at in the complex ecosystem of my yard: getting individuals to work together, filling gaps with strong performers when weaker specimens aren't getting it done.  Seeing an elegant solution arise from a dirty messy beginning.  Planning, researching and implementing design specs.  Worrying about performance.

Okay, people aren't plants and I'm stretching the metaphor (although I did spend one Spring mentally debating which former coworkers would be which plants in my garden, but because I don't grow vegetables, the exercise foundered.)

But I enjoy the mental work of fixing problems in my yard with solutions that can be so lovely, that are living, growing, problematic individuals all with their own quirky needs, and outcomes I can dream of, but can't always predict.

So I told Jane that I garden to solve problems, which makes it sound rather like going to the office, which it is for me.

But it really isn't.

Visit My Gardens

February 21, 2010

Sassafras Tree

Sassafras albidum
Sassafras.  It isn't called anything else, unless you ask the children: to them it's a "mitten tree" because of the bilobed leaves, so distinctive that any grade schooler can identify this tree.  No common names, no cultivars, just the one fizzy, sibilant, Indian sounding name: Sassafras.

Although it sounds vaguely Algonquian, it's not a native word, but likely the Spanish corruption of the Latin name saxifrage.  I don't care, I prefer to think the Wampanoags had a name for it, and Massasoit told the Pilgrims "this tree, this is a sassafras.  We'll show you how we make root beer".

When I began planting trees I knew I had to have one, or rather a grove of them.  I'm not sure why.  The name.  The fiery orange fall color.  Because it's native, all over our Connecticut woods, attracting Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies.  Root beer was once made from the roots, until it was banned by the FDA.  (Is it significant that the two most important medicinal exports from the New World back to Europe in the 1600s were tobacco and sassafras?  Both turned out to be carcinogens.  I'm just saying.)   Fil-e powder for gumbo is ground up from the leaves .  Dominique Browning wrote about having them in her yard.  Bill Cullina's pictures dazzle.

Maybe it was the challenge.  Sassafras grows wild, but it doesn't like to grow tamed.  You can't transplant a big one, and you can't separate a sucker from the parent tree in the woods and have it live.  Sassafras have tap roots, and even when young they're just funny about being planted anywhere they didn't pick.  Left to their own devices, they easily sucker, they spread like crazy, they're the pioneers that reclaim abandoned fields.  Planted in my garden, they sulk and pull in their roots.

I have planted 1 gallon container mail order saplings (many), bare root sprigs (quite a few) and even some 5 gallon spindly container grown whips (two).   Survival rate: about zilch, but not quite.  I've been determined, and out of my many, many attempts, I now have 5 growing in the weeds in the meadow behind our yard, soon to be a woodland grove.  And they're growing fast.  I trim off the suckers that are already forming on these surviving baby plants so they will be single trunk large trees, not multi stemmed shrubs.

I'm waiting for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies to show up; sassafras is a host plant for them!  So far mine attract a lot of Japanese beetles. 

They're not really yard trees -- a little coarse in habit up close, and the suckering needs to be attended to all the time.  But as I watched my little grove in the meadow take shape, reach heights of about 5 feet in two summers, and turn a twinkly tangerine in fall, I couldn't resist, and I put one survivor at the back edge of our lawn.

The picture at the top of this post is my friend Becky's tree rescued from brambles when it was chest high 10 years ago.  Mine is a little 10 inch high rag doll poking out of the mulch.  Did you ever see such a cute tree?

There's an ancient sassafras on the Institute of Living campus in Hartford, and it's immense, over 40 feet tall with chunky furrowed bark.  They do grow like that, but mostly we see the little shrubby multi stemmed young trees in the wild, as they sucker at the edge of the forest, lighting up the deeper woods in autumn.  The mitten shapes are noticeable on young trees, but by the time they are tall shade trees the lobed thumbs are gone and the leaves are primarily oval.

Another reason I love the sassafras: they make their young wear mittens!

Sassafras albidum
in University of Connecticut plant files
in Mobot's database

picture from Missouri Botanical Garden plant file

February 19, 2010

Native Forest

In November 2009 we went to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.  It was a remarkable visit, for lots of reasons that belong in another blog.  Today I'll just show the gardeners out there what amazed me about the landscaping around the museum.

Indian curators and architects created a native forest around the incredibly evocative sandstone museum building.  The forest is representative of what existed in the northeast / mid atlantic landscape when Europeans first arrived.

What is so amazing is that this forest lives right on the Mall, in a busy, tourist-saturated urban area of DC.  Directly behind this sylvan scene are tour buses idling.  You wouldn't know!  That fluttery yellow tree left center is a paw paw (Asimina triloba), a custard apple, a wonderfully quirky native tree that produces giant banana flavored fruits.  It's just weird:

The waterfall on the entrance terrace adds a rushing splashy noisy patter that helps mask the sounds of traffic just feet away, so you really do feel isolated from the urban setting:

Only a few yards separate me here from busy streets, cars, buses and traffic.  Third Street SW is just beyond the far edge of the water behind me, then it's just a block and a half to the Capitol:

It was eye opening how this forest created such a sense of calmness, wonder and peace in such a small space.  This is not an urban botanical garden or public park.  It was literally a buffer strip of just a few yards between the entrance plaza of the museum and the street. Jim was concerned that the "evergreen" trees were brown and dying but I assured him those were Baldcypresses (Taxodium distichum) and they're supposed to look like that in the Fall.  They turn reddish brown and drop their needles for winter, and they love standing in water:

The museum just opened in 2004, so the plantings are new, barely 5 years old. It looks so very full and mature because many young plants were set very close to each other.  There are red maples and tuliptrees and oaks planted closely among the laurels and fothergillas and viburnums in what is really just a very big raised planter at the front.  These huge forest trees will quickly outgrow the narrow strip they inhabit here.  It will be interesting to see how the museum copes with that as the trees grow.

It's the same dilemma I have: how to "forest" my little space with trees and shrubs, making a woodland screen that instantly pleases and looks natural but won't completely overpower my yard in a few years.  I know it can't be done.  If planted too closely, like the trees are at the museum, they will soon be too crowded.  If planted to allow for space, I end up with strands of mulchbeds and isolated blobs of shrubs and saplings, not the effect you see here.

With perennials you can overplant and thin in subsequent years.  With trees and shrubs it's harder.  I will come back to DC to see what the Indians do with their marvelous, magical, dense urban forest in a few years.

For much more:

February 17, 2010


Caryopteris x clandonensis
I had never heard of caryopteris when I started gardening.  It's a small shrub that is also called bluebeard or blue mist shrub.  Never heard of those names either.  I picked one up at the nursery, unsure what to do with it, and then came home to read about it.

It sounded nondescript in the literature, looking like something halfway between a spirea and lavender.  Yes, there is a famous long allee of blue mist shrubs planted in two long lines at Longwood Gardens and the pictures show bright purple strips of color.  Okay, nice enough, but I wasn't going for an allee look, and I only had one plant.

I plopped it under the paperbark maple at the top of the driveway, to fill an empty spot there.  It settled in, took off with nice full growth, and I liked the gray-green pretty foliage.  In August it bloomed.  I was stunned.

The clear blue-purple fuzzy blooms just danced in the sunlight.  Twirled and danced and got themselves all shook up by swarms of bees.  There's something absolutely sparkly about the whole shrub in flower ... hard to capture on film, but it glows and seems to magnify sunlight.  Flowering lasted right into the end of September.

With its grayish leaves and billows of blue flowers it reminded me of a catmint - nepeta -- but much more elegant and structured.  My Nepeta 'Dropmore' was floppy and blowsy and kind of unkempt.  This caryopteris was just the opposite: neat and perky and shapely.
I love its spot right along the walk where I see it all the time.  From its inauspicious start as a filler plant under a tree, it has become one of my favorites.  Very easy to propagate (stick stem cuttings in the ground), and not bothered by any diseases, it just kept surprising me.

But wait, there's more!

It turned out to be a beautiful burst of structure in the winter garden.  The dried fuzzy blooms persist, and the graceful tan branches make a lovely spray above the snow.  It gets completely cut down to about 8 inches in late winter (just above a couple buds), and then regrows rapidly to its full size again in summer.
This is one of those mysteries in landscaping: why are there so many spireas in everyone's yards when they could have a caryopteris?  There are several cultivars, most of them with varying shades of blue purple flowers.  There's also a yellow-leaved caryopteris called 'Worcester's Gold' that brightens any drab corner of the garden with its foliage, even before the explosion of blooms takes over.

Caryopteris x clandonensis
   in University of Connecticut's plant files
   in Mobot's database

February 16, 2010

Winter tenants

No one is up yet at the chalet.  I'd see cross country ski tracks if anyone had ventured out of the bungalow to go anywhere.  They must be sleeping in.  When the smoke starts to rise from the chimney I'll know the sausages are frying and pancakes are on the griddle.

The homesteaders left, probably went to Florida earlier this winter.  They're hardy folk, but the cabin's unheated and a little drafty, so I don't blame them for going south.  I'll keep an eye on the place til they get back.

The frat house needs a good cleaning.  I'll wait until Spring.  They're all pretty busy with exams and papers right now.  But when the warm weather comes, I'll need to get in there with some bleach and a vacuum.

Have you checked on your tenants this winter?  Look around and make sure they're okay, especially if you get a lot of snow where you are.

February 14, 2010


There's no question that winterberry hollies are beautiful in winter.  They're planted for the sparkling red berries that pop against white snow and deep green evergreens.

The rest of the year they are ordinary -- nice enough plants with clean foliage and a loose, sort of woodland shape.  The flowers are okay but not very showy, and fall color is a nice enough yellowish.  They're kind of a mid-border filler plant most of the year.

But winter..... ah, winter!

I planted four winterberries (Ilex verticillata Red Sprite females and a wonderfully named male called Jim Dandy to go with)

However, the photo above is NOT my winterberry.  It's one I pass on the way to the center of town.

My very own winterberry hollies, not more than a mile away from this specimen, are completely denuded of red fruit.  The birds got every last one, and they did their berry-stripping deed long before Christmas.  Before there was any snow to highlight the bright red.  Before I could even enjoy the idea of red berries as the holly's leaves fell away to expose them.  Before I even got a photo of any red berries.
The naked twiggy thing next to the stump is one of my winterberry shrubs.  No berries.  No pop of color against the birch's light bark and an evergreen background. The tiny green thing behind is a Swiss Stone pine (Pinus cembra), and until it grows it isn't helping much in the winter scenery tableau department.

So, my winter garden, carefully planted for maximum effect of red berry, white bark, green pine, and snowy backdrop, with just a hint of melancholy decay with the old stump, is kind of a bust.  Wildlife value, however is the bomb.

February 12, 2010

Random Cohesion

Sometimes I have planted random things in the same space and they have instantly become happy combinations.   I put drumstick alliums in front of a big stand of mardi-gras colored helenium and the delicate, cool, red-purple onions nodding in front of the stiff sheaf of hot orange daisy-blooms made my heart skip each time I looked at it.  Random acts of cohesion, appearances out of nowhere that are so right and make sense --- they happen.

This blog at Page55 is one of them.  It's the first paragraph found on page 55 of different books.  Nothing more, simply the disconnected paragraphs one after another, making a wonderful narrative.  I love it.

For a beautiful narrative of accidental connection, check out the blog at 66 Square Feet.  You have to read all her posts (and she's prolific) to realize that she met and married a commenter.  Someone who left a blurb on one of her blog posts in 2007.  There's no single post about it, but several references.  Here's the inauspicious first comment, posted on her blog by a man she didn't know.  They commented back and forth, they talked, he flew 3,000 miles to meet her, and .......

My favorite random act of cohesion: in 1997 I e-mailed a stranger because I saw a reference in his online profile to a quality improvement program I used at work.  At that time there were 8 million AOL members.  I e-mailed just that one.  Not through a chat room or common interest subgroup.  Randomly.  And he answered.  In 1999 we were married (you saw that coming when I said "e-mailed a stranger", yes?)

So out of the blue.  So accidental.  So cool.  Happy Valentines Day.

February 10, 2010

This Old Pot

I have never gotten the hang of container planting. I've tried filling nice garden pots with the plants I see in magazines, but my spillers, thrillers and fillers never look full or spill very gracefully, and they don't thrill.

But I have to find something for this pot this summer.  

Why?  Because it's an old artifact that I have lugged from house to house whenever I moved over the past 37 years.  It's an old friend.  It's heavy, it's clay, it's always been with me, and it needs something in it.

In 1973 I bought a vacant house on the Farmington River for $12,500.  That's not a typo, it was twelve thousand five hundred.  It needed work:
Inside were piles of yellowed dress patterns from 1921, half of an upright piano, broken furniture, stacks of undetermined rubble, and on the porch was a big ceramic garden pot with black markings.  Someone in this long abandoned heap of debris had once been a gardener.

By the time I left it looked a lot better.  We had completely rehabbed the inside, modernized the plumbing, added central heat, insulated, (although the icicles in this picture tell you it wasn't the most efficient), even poured a cement floor in the dirt cellar.  The outside was painted.  The fir trees so close to the front porch should have been removed, but we left them.

We did the work ourselves (we were young).  We were so busy renovating the house and barn, while working full time (as I said, we were young) that I never had time for a garden or plants, and nothing ever went into the big pot.  It just sat on the porch as a freestanding decoration.

But I liked it.  I brought it with me to the new house, where it still was never planted with anything, but served as a home for frogs and interesting slimy things.

I moved it to the next house, and then again to where we live now.  Once or twice I planted something in it, but mostly it sat empty.  It froze in the winter (I never brought it inside), it got knocked around the patio, placed under the deck, and used to store garden hoses.

After 37 years outside it's never cracked.  It's a little too orangey, not a muted terra cotta color, so its best admired from afar, and the black pottery is showing through the glaze more now.  The middle is wider than the neck, so transplanting anything big that grows in it will be a problem.  It's heavy; once planted it has to stay where it's put.

But after all these years it's time to plant this container and give it a spot in the garden come summer.  I feel it's become a lot like me: aged, round in the middle, not very elegant, but ready to grow something and shine.

February 8, 2010

Dry Creek Bed

Last year I decided to tie together the two planting beds at the back of our lot, to give us some definition between our lawn and the meadow beyond.  A dry creek bed was the solution, mainly because I had a robust supply of one particular landscape element: rocks.

Every planting hole I have ever dug has yielded rocks.  Every shovel ever thrust into the earth has yielded a clink as metal meets rock the first time, every time.  Always.  New England farmers used to complain that they would, with great effort, clear their fields for planting, removing all the rocks, only to find the frozen earth had heaved up more over the winter.  Damn earth just grows rocks.

I built this creek bed entirely on my own, with no equipment other than a shovel and a wheelbarrow.  I know it doesn't look like much in terms of a major landscape installation, but I did this all by myself!  Mostly on my knees.

This is where the creek bed needed to go, between the two mulched areas:

Worst part of the job was digging up the sod:

The biggest stones line the edges.  They were moved by rolling them along the ground on hands and knees:

Oh no, I ran out of rocks!  The landscape fabric in the middle shows through!  Some bags of purchased pea gravel filled in those spots:

A witch hazel (Hamamelis intermedia 'Diane') is to the left of my new dry creek bed.  In the center is my young black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica).  The shrub on the far right is a summersweet (Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird') which blooms beautifully and fragrantly, but wasn't in flower in this photo: