April 29, 2010

Arbor Day

Arbor Day is April 29 in Connecticut.  Since it's a day to plant trees, it varies by state according to spring's arrival in each climate, unlike Earth Day which was a global observance on April 22.
An oak and two maples ready to be planted on the back hill this week

It was originally the concept of a midwestern journalist concerned about planting windbreaks on the plains in the 1870s.  New England doesn't need windbreaks; we're in a woodland forest system and thick stands of trees are our natural environment.  When I weed, I pull maple and oak seedlings out of my garden beds, and we have to mow frequently in the spring to keep the baby trees from overtaking the lawn.  If we didn't mow or weed for a few seasons, our lot would be a forest again.

In fact that is what happened all across New England in the last century.  Early farmers and settlers cleared the rocky hillsides in the 1700s and 1800s to create farms, build houses and fences, and burn fuel.  Deforestation was so complete that a traveler riding from Boston to Philadelphia in 1875 would have seen clear across the hilltops with barely a tree in sight the whole way.  Except for northern Maine, 80% of the forest was cut down between 1830 and 1885.  Eighty percent!
But farming in this rocky, cold soil was hard, and there was so much open land out west --- stump free and stone free.  And cost free if you could homestead.  So the failing farms in the east were abandoned one after another, and nature began to reforest all of them.
By 1925 the forest cover in Connecticut had doubled, with red maple and red oak leading the reclamation.  By the time I was growing up here, over 70% of the state was once again treed.  But by 1972 it stabilized; the farms still being sold or abandoned were offset by the forests being cut down for new development.
It is now unlikely that any more natural reforestation will continue.  There is little open land still left to revert to forest, and population pressure is intense.  Connecticut is the fourth most densely populated state in the nation.

My house is a good example; in 2004 a developer converted the open pastures and treed woodlot of an old dairy farm into a 70 home community, and we moved in.  The good news is that our town has pretty advanced zoning regulations, and it requires every new home built here to have two trees planted in each new yard.

The bad news is they do not specify what kinds of trees, or even that they should be varied.  The builder put two Crimson King Norway maples in front of every single house... that's 140 dark maroon huge invasive monster trees lining both sides of our streets every 40 feet all the way up and all the way down each road.  (Look for a post that I will be doing on these trees in the near future.)

But still, they're trees.  And I have planted more in my little half acre.  And I will plant more.  Because I cannot imagine a time when 80% of our green leafy state was open and bare.  Because the benefits for wildlife, humans and the planet are well documented.  Because they are beautiful, each with its own unique character, and I enjoy them. 

Because it's my message to the future.

A civilization flourishes
when people plant trees 
under whose shade
they will not sit.

Arbor Day, 2010

April 26, 2010

Oklahoma Redbud

Cercis reniformis 'Oklahoma'

This variety of redbud is similar to Cercis canadensis, Eastern Redbud.  But it's a western form, and as an adaptation to drier, hotter climates it developed waxy leaves that preserve moisture.  It has the typical heart shaped leaves that distinguish redbuds, but they really are eye catchingly shiny, making this a beautiful tree up close.

And when it's in bloom, look out!  It's a deep, deep magenta, darker than Eastern Redbuds.
It usually blooms in late April and early May here in Connecticut, but in this spring's record warmth, it has been blooming since mid April.

It's perched in a narrow strip in front of a bedroom window. It's a forest understory tree, and it keeps its habit of leaning, wriggling and gracefully arching as it would in search of light at the edge of the woods.

In summer when it is leafed out you don't see the elegant open shape as much; instead this pretty tree features a round head of exuberant green foliage.

And the foliage is extravagantly glossy, as this photo from Missouri Botanical Garden's plant files shows.  My tree is right on the edge of the walk, and no one walks by it without reaching out to rub a shiny leaf.
It grows rapidly.  My photos from fall 2006 when it was a one gallon container twig, show a spindly little thing about 4 feet high.  It's now a gorgeous small tree, filling out each year.  It is supposed to have yellow, or reddish purple fall color, but I've never noticed any.  The leaves, so striking in their summer gloss, turn sort of pale, brownish and tan on my plant, and fall off.

I love everything about this tree -- its form, its flowers and leaves, where I put it by the walk -- except for one thing.  It is sited in line with a pink flowering dogwood on the other side of the garage.  They bloom at the same time, and they clash.  The color mix is jarring.  Coming up the driveway in early spring makes your teeth hurt.

Here's the dogwood bloom on a sunny day.  It's a hot salmony pink in contrast to the rich cool blue-red magenta of the redbud.  Both of them are beautiful trees, and I don't want them fighting with each other.

This has taught me a lesson in design: when you site permanent garden elements like trees, think about how they will look from multiple views.  And remember bloom colors as well as shapes and forms.  The garden is a whole system, not just individual specimens, but we get seduced by each plant's charms.  I certainly did with this redbud -- I do love it.

I just drive up the driveway with my eyes closed in April and May.  Knowing this, Jim has hidden my electronic garage door opener.  I hope to get it back in June.

Cercis reniformis 'Oklahoma'
In MoBot's database

April 24, 2010

Come for Breakfast

Today, as I walked around my gardens, all I could think of was breakfast.  Breakfast colors, breakfast foods.  Really.

Come for breakfast.  Don't dress up, jammies are fine.

You'll see what I mean when you get here.  I could just about smell the cinnamon toast as I spotted the cinnamony brown colored bark of my paperbark maple, Acer griseum.  Even the leaves are cinnamon colored as they emerge, making the whole tree a toasty warm brown all over in spring:
 Butter for that toast?

And berry jam?

There will be strawberries (Fragaria 'Mara des Bois') for your cereal:

And there will be blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum 'Northblue') for your pancakes:

And vibrant orange fresh squeezed juice:
(Actually these orange blooms are Geum 'Cooky', and I know we've all had cookies for breakfast... we have, haven't we?  Lorna Doones?  Oreos?   Just a few?  But I thought I'd make the orange juice connection here.)

So come to my house for breakfast.  I'll pour you a cup of Jim's good coffee, and we can walk around my gardens in our pjs, smelling cinnamon toast, slathering on the butter and jam.  And sampling the strawberries and blueberries...  mmmmm

April 22, 2010

Praying for dirt

I have been sitting here praying for dirt.

I need garden soil to create two new raised planting beds, and to add an extension of the garden near the dry creek bed.  A magnolia, a variegated redbud, a stewartia, a corneliancherry dogwood, a lacecap hydrangea and several shrubs have been sitting in their pots, ready to be planted since the middle of March when they were still dormant.

The sod is removed, the garden shapes are dug.  But I need dirt.

In mid March we began calling a landscaper, a local guy, who does a lot of work in our neighborhood, is well liked and comes highly recommended.  We've used him before.  But there was no answer to our calls until early April.  Finally his wife got in touch with us, a lovely lady who set up a delivery date for a week out.  Of course no truck ever arrived.  No call, no reschedule, no contact --- standard landscaper protocol.
I found myself praying that some nice dirt would fall out of the sky.  They predicted rain, why not dirt?  Wouldn't that be great?  My gardens were ready, my plants on hold.  Need dirt!

It took another week of messages to get her again in mid April.  When we did finally talk, we told her we'd try another source.  She was relieved -- a one time truckload of dirt was not a landscaping job they wanted.

So I called Envirocycle, a green waste recycling company that collects our town's leaves and brush and composts them.  I ordered 6 cubic yards of mixed topsoil and compost, and they set a delivery date.  They came last Wednesday.

Oh, gardeners, my prayers were answered.  This is what 6 cubic yards looks like:
The creaky dump truck arrived and backed into our tricky slanted driveway without touching a blade of grass, and there were only inches to spare on each side.  I was impressed, and called to the driver as he opened his door "nice job backing in!"

A little gnome of a man tumbled out.  His thermos went rolling, clanking down the driveway.  The paper with our order on it flew away in the breeze and other detritus from his cab spilled out with him.  "Ehhh," he said, smiling.

He checked the tarps I had laid down on the pavers, and he moved the heavy objects I had placed at the corners, saying he didn't want to bury them.  The wind immediately caught both tarps and blew them into the birch trees --- note to Christine in Alaska: we have blue tarps here too, I just didn't get a picture of them flapping in the birches.

The gnome chased the tarps down, wrestled them back onto the pavers, replacing my ballast items. "It's okay, you can dump the dirt on them" I said.  "Ehhh", he replied.  He then proudly took me on a tour of his truck, showing me the missing pin in back, how the chain had fallen off and he now had to keep track of the pin by putting it in a rusty little slot in the side.  There were other highlights, and an explanation of each, and some demonstrations too.

But finally the dirt was dumped on the tarps, the gnome retrieved his thermos from the end of the driveway where it had rolled to a rest.  "Aha, nothing broken, this happens all the time."

Ehh.  Then he was gone, and I was left standing in front of a shrine of beautiful soil and compost, my prayers heard and granted.  What lovely stuff to fill my new gardens with.

One of the new raised gardens going in:

Newly planted, but more trees and shrubs to come:

April 21, 2010

Why I plant trees

I have planted more than 75 trees on my half acre lot and in another quarter acre strip of untended common property that abuts our lot. About 80% survive. Sixty of the seventy five trees.  Fifteen of those were planted by the builder and by a landscaper we hired to put in maples and birches and spruces (and a Bradford Pear!) in the yard the first year, and they were pretty large specimens going in.

The remaining 45 trees I planted myself, on my hands and knees, digging rocks out of the soil and pulling root bound saplings out of plastic containers.  You can see what kinds I planted in the tab at the top of my blog "About my plants".
When I started planting trees, it was an entirely accidental confluence of necessity (I wanted screening from the road) and accident (they had cheap trees at Lowe's).

It began in 2005, when I came home from an errand at Lowe's with some spindly $24 whips in five gallon pots, exclaiming to Jim: Look! These fit in the car's trunk!   I can plant them and we'll have a little forest to buffer the back yard from traffic!   I can do this I think!  And so I did, going back to Lowe's several times, putting my bargains helter skelter on the back hill, to look as if a wild forest had grown there naturally.

Here it is, with mesh deer protectors around some (hard to see in the photo, it was all just weeds and twigs and a green mess).  The trees were species red maples, silver maples, three sweet gums they had one spring but never again, several pin oaks, a tiny persimmon from an arboretum sale, and a tuliptree.

My epiphany came when I planted the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  It was the biggest of the Lowe's saplings I had purchased, very spindly and exceedingly root bound.  I freed it from the pot, teased the choked roots apart, rinsed them off, spread them out and planted my little stick in rocky, loose soil on the hill.  This is where it gets weird:  The tuliptree sighed.  Audibly and unmistakably, as I freed it and planted it.

With some watering it shivered visibly.  I swear it shook itself off, trembled, and by that evening it had grown.  By the next morning it was the happiest plant I had ever seen.  The leaves had filled out, the trunk had straightened up, it had added maybe an inch of height, and the whole tree just looked ....  thankful.  It looked grateful.

With that, I was hooked.  I wanted to plant more trees.  I went on to study, learn and become familiar with species, cultivars, special needs and special benefits of trees of every kind.  Not every tree was as dramatically relieved to be unpotted and planted as the tuliptree had been.  Some even resented it, and either declined or up and died.  But I kept planting, and even if the saplings didn't react enthusiastically right away, many did settle in after a time and start to grow. 

And my tuliptree continues to thrive.  Last summer I found a volunteer, far from the tree I planted, nestled up against the house foundation.  I potted it and I will plant it out in the field this year.  The leaves are so distinctive, and it was so clearly a message from my grateful sapling, a beautiful way for it to say to me: I live because of you, and I multiply because you rescued me. 

Plant trees. 

April 19, 2010


One of my favorite plants is a groundcover shrub called Xanthorhiza simplicissima.  How many times have you even gone to the X section of a catalog's plant listing?  And this one's a beauty.

The name is a mouthful, but the common name, yellowroot, is both easy and descriptive.  Even the Latin is easy: xantho for yellow, and rhiza for root.  And simplicissima means, if you couldn't guess, simplest, which describes the unbranched straight stems.

You can see how yellow the roots really are.  They're kind of shockingly yellow when you dig up a runner.  The leaves look like celery leaves, don't they?

It is a woody groundcover, no taller than a foot high.  In April tiny starlike blooms form a haze of mauvy plum color, rising on delicate stalks above the branches, before the leaves come out.  I have a row of them planted in front of a long line of 5 large spruces.

I started with just 3 plants and they quickly spread by runners to form shrubby mounds of clean green foliage that light up the lower level in front of the mass of dark evergreens all summer.

They are incredibly easy.  Dig up a bright yellow runner and replant it and you have more.  Deer disdain them.  They grow in zones 3 to 9, a really wide range for any plant.  They are very long lived; there is a colony of yellowroot at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard that is more than 100 years old.  My spruce trees will grow to overtake the yellowroot long before the century mark, but I won't worry about that for another 50 years.

They are natives of streamsides, where it is wet and cool and shady.  I either didn't know, or didn't pay attention, and mine are planted on a raised mound in front of the spruces, facing west in full sun, competing with the tree roots for water.  They thrive.

In the fall, they first turn deep bronze and copper, then saturated reds and yellows, and they look just like a rich oriental carpet spread out below the spruces.  In winter the upright twigs add a little bit of structure, but it's subtle.

This is a plant that is worth a trip all the way through the alphabet to the end, to where the Xs and Ys are hiding treasures like Xanthorhiza --- the lovely shrub yellowroot.

In Virginia Tech's plant ID files

April 17, 2010

Dragon's Blood

I buy wine by the label on the bottle.  If it has a cute name or an interesting sketch or elegant design, it goes in my cart, regardless of the quality, vintage, appellation, or what it's supposed to be paired with.  I'm such a rube when it comes to wine.

Then I discovered the same thing was happening when I buy plants.  If it has a funky cultivar name, it's in my basket.  I'll buy anything with a great name.  So far I've resisted hydrangea 'Pinky Winky' (really, I don't know how), but I succumbed long ago to Trifolium repens 'Dragon's Blood'.

Trifolium (three-leaved) repens (creeping) ... yes, it's what you think.  It's clover.  I actually bought and planted clover.

Because it said Dragon's Blood, I fell for a vision of brave knights and pitched battles with green monsters suffering deep red wounds.  I thought the markings would be wine red and bold.

It's not the wild spreading white clover in your lawn.  But it does spread, and it does have the funny white flower mops that the bees love, and that are just the happiest looking bobs of white you could imagine.  But the real garden feature is supposed to be the maroon markings on each leaf.

There's a wonderful description of it here, at Paghat's Garden with a picture that shows really striking wine colored markings.  Mine seems much more delicately striped, and some leaves are not marked at all.  Maybe my dragons don't have such furious battles.  We're pretty polite up here in New England, and our knights are highly chivalrous and reserved.  There's not so much dragon's blood spilling on fields of green here .

It is creeping in among the Sedum 'Angelina' and I love how the tiny blue-green clover is advancing through a forest of mini golden conifers.

They are spreading along the walk to the cabin.
The homesteader needs to keep after the clover to make sure it doesn't overtake the pea gravel in the walk.  (Not to mention the spreading lambs ear behind the cabin and the  groundcover sedum.  It's a constant battle for him to keep the advancing wilderness from retaking his cabin clearing.)  I'll help with weeding ... really, once I got past the idea of planting clover as an ornamental, I easily accepted having to weed it from the gravel.

A note to vintners: if you bottle a red wine, and put a picture of a dragon on the label I will buy it.
Dragon wine holder for sale here.

Three Knights cabernet (label above) from Bronco Wine Co., the people who make Trader Joe's Three Buck Chuck.  
See, I do know something about fine wines.

April 16, 2010

Rethinking the Porch

When we bought our new house I was excited to have a screened porch.  Perfect!  Jim and I even stole an evening (trespassing) before we moved in, while it was still under construction, and we had our anniversary picnic dinner on "our porch" in May of 2004:
But after we moved in, it was frustrating that the space was so small.  It's only 7 feet wide, by 14 feet long.  That's okay for an open veranda, where you put a couple rockers side by side facing out, but for a screened-in sitting area where we had a rustic sofa and loveseat, it was just too crowded.  I tried various combinations, I took out the smaller loveseat, tried a single rocker plus sofa, it all was too cramped. 

But the biggest frustration was that the windows are not full length like a summer porch would have, as you can see in this exterior photo.  They are about 3 1/2 feet off the floor, so while sitting on the porch you can't really see out to the yard and gardens.  The windows open half way, sash over sash, instead of full length screens.  Whenever I sit on the porch I feel like I'm inside a railroad car.
I toyed with the expense (aack) of replacing the windows with floor to ceiling screens, but it's still a too-narrow space, and I'd lose the benefit of having a cold room for overwintering plants, unless we did something with huge storm glass.

So rather than re-do, I decided to re-imagine this space. First, it became plant sunroom.  One year I took out the furniture and put shelves and stands in the small space, and a tiered system for holding my summer woody propagation station -- trays, plastic domes, watering cans, fertilizer, supplies.

But it started to look like the inside of the garage.  And it's right off the kitchen (you have to pass through it to access the back door to the deck); it has to be somewhat presentable.

So now I am rethinking this space as a place for both plants and me, but not large enough for people to sit around and chat --- in other words, a mini conservatory.  Just a private space, the equivalent of a potting shed / private retreat.
The sofa is comfy, the plant stand will hold cuttings and pots, the black containers under the windows will dress up the place with foliage and blooms.  I can't entertain out here, but then I never did, it was only me sitting in what is really just an unheated nook off the kitchen, not really a porch.  There's still no view of the back yard, the windows are too high, but when filled with plants and cuttings it will be lush and enclosing and private, a place to turn inward for contemplation (or a nap), not an area tied to the gardens in the back yard.  I'll go out on the deck if I want views, or to entertain.

So, is it a porch?  A veranda?  A hallway to the back deck?  A retreat?  Conservatory?

Right now it looks empty, but imagine it filled with plants, and me on the sofa reading a book.

I've been interested in Carol at May Dream's shedless garden shed.  She too is planning to use a space that is now just a plant storage area (a sunroom) to create a private retreat... in her case to look out at the garden rather than to enclose a nook.  But the idea of creating a one-person space out of an awkward passage or room is the same.

Not every part of the house has to be set up for entertaining.  Sometimes a 7 foot by 14 foot unheated enclosure can be a place where just one woman and a bunch of plants entertain themselves on a summer day.