June 28, 2010

House of the Three Birches

Betula papyrifera

Our house is strangely sited on our half acre lot right up against the building line on the east, leaving the west side with a big open patch of yard, lots of yard.  All on one side of the house.

Not knowing what to do with all that open lawn on the side, we opted for some trees to start with, and planted three paper birches in a rough triangle to fill the space.  Later a garden was added in the middle, and other landscaping, but the three birches, with their glowing white bark that can be seen from down the street, remain the focal point of our home.

White birches are one of those native trees that grow wild in the woods, and seem to thrive anywhere -- on dry rocky outcrops, deep in the forest, all along the highways, but in a cultivated yard they become finicky.  They need a lot of water (I almost hear a sucking sound when I run the hose at their roots in summer), they get borers, and I find them to be messy trees, dropping branches and twigs all over.  But they are pretty, and iconic.  These are the trees that birch bark canoes are made from.

To keep them healthy, we spray for borers each year; to keep them from wilting and sulking I water them when there isn't enough rain.  Neither practice is very eco friendly.

And to keep them neater, I prune them.  Here's one after her haircut:

They grow criss-crossing branches, they grow way too many branches, and they get wildly shrubby, so the canopy always needs to be thinned out.  They need to be limbed up to show off their best feature, the peeling white bark, which sheds.   I find little strips of white parchment in my garden beds, as if the fairies who live there were tossing away sheets of paper as they write their notes.

Cut branches and logs make nice decorations; they keep their bark color and can be used for garden features.

Fall color is supposed to be a showy clear yellow, but the past several summers have been very wet, and they got a leaf spot fungus that defoliated them by Labor Day.  We're probably too warm and humid here in the summers for paper birches to do really well.  They thrive in zones 2 and 3.

They are far from trouble-free trees for me, and probably not the best choice for our landscape, but they are striking and they do define our home in the neighborhood. "That's Jim and Laurrie's house, the one with the three birches."

And besides, if I ever need to evacuate during a flood, we can make a canoe.

In MoBot's database
In University of Connecticut's plant files

June 25, 2010

Gone Gaura, Gone

I have a weak spot for one particular perennial, and have purchased it multiple times, killed it repeatedly, repurchased it, despaired when it didn't come back, and bought more.
It's Gaura lindheimeri, and I can't give it up.  I am a new gardener, experimenting and learning, and anything that fails me is a lesson, not tried again.  I moved on when all the heathers died.  I got over it when the azaleas expired.

I cannot give up Gaura.

It's called Wandflower for its waving stems that look like butterflies --- I don't mean "attracts butterflies", although it does.  I mean it actually looks exactly like butterflies zipping around on the end of arching stems that bounce in a breeze.  One cultivar name is 'Whirling Butterflies" and I loved it in my garden, shown here in very late summer last year -- it's the big flowery white clump at the far left, still blooming away as the rest of the garden faded.
I like it so much because it does everything at once: it looks delicate and light while massing to fill a space.  Smaller gauras fountain and cascade without overtaking what is planted below.  The wands reach out over the walk without blocking the path.  It's untidy and sprawly but contained.  It blooms all summer and into fall.

I had 'Whirling Butterflies' (big, shrubby, and white) and 'Crimson Butterflies' (red stems, compact) and 'Siskiyou Pink' (rosy pink, an open see-through plant), and I had them planted in various sunny locations near my walk, in the garden, near a tree.  I enjoyed them all summer, waited for them to return in spring, and they never did.  So I tried again, and the next spring they would be gone.  This went on for several years.  I finally figured out I am planting gaura as an annual each year.

They have tap roots and need not just well drained soil, but "highly well drained" soil.  Highly well drained!  I'm doomed.  The dead plants I had to remove from my gardens had slimy wet roots that had rotted, even when I had sited my gaura in a raised bed facing south.  When they say well drained they really mean it.  No fooling.

I guess I have two choices.  I can keep buying a new gaura each year and plant it as an annual.  Or I can try them in pots in cactus mix potting soil, and bring them into the garage for winter.
That's what I'm trying this year, with a 'Siskiyou Pink' wandflower potted up on the patio, ready to entertain me with its whirlygig blooms this summer.

And I put another in the front garden to cover up a spot where the rabbits sheared some lovely Japanese forest grasses down to nubs.  Looks kind of abrupt with the pot just sitting there, but I like the bouncy pink blooms right at the front walk.

When the season is over, I'll tuck them in, give them a spot in the unheated garage, and keep them dry, dry, dry in their pots all winter.  Let's see if this works, because no matter what, I do intend to have these butterfly flowers in my garden.

June 22, 2010

The Sound of Carbon

It's 7:45 a.m. and I am having my coffee on the deck on a sunny summer morning.  I love this time of day.  I am retired, I don't have to go to work.  Life is beautiful.

My yard is private and green.  It backs up to a narrow road that I can't see in summer when the trees fill in, but I can hear the traffic that goes by.

The school bus rumbles by.  Landscape trucks rattle --- the big ones with clattery equipment on the backs of trailers.  I can't see them but I hear them.

Traffic headed to work wooshes by, car after car. We're only miles from the airport that serves our state and western Massachusetts --- airplanes on takeoff rise from beyond the green wall of trees and roar above me.  It's garbage day, and the big green behemoth shifts gears and struggles up the hill behind us.  A UPS truck headed for a delivery trundles by.  Could it be bringing my new plants?  Some kind of construction vehicle with a bad muffler and a poof of air brakes temporarily drowns out the rest of the traffic noise.

All the landscapers' giant industrial mowers are already roaring in different pitches in yards in the distance.  When they're done I'll hear the sound of blowers moving the grass clippings around.  The high buzzy whine of a weedwhacker starts up.

My husband is showering inside.  The exhaust for our gas hot water is on our back outside wall, and it adds its hot blast of noise to the background hum throbbing around me as I sit on the deck.

Whoppa whoppa whoppa, a corporate helicopter angles over my yard on its way southwest, headed to New York.  A small private plane adds its steady chop as it crosses going the other way.  Another jet on takeoff growls on its way up into the sky from behind the trees.

A motorcycle rips down the hill.  Someone a few streets over is running some kind of power tool... a saw maybe.

The unrelenting roar, the constant hum, the clatter and buzz and white noise is all around me, surrounding me in the throb of carbon burning in the early morning.

I am drinking coffee in my back yard, listening to the sounds of the earth burning itself up. 
 Deepwater Horizon - Apr. 21, photo from US Coast Guard

A train crosses the streets in the center of town three miles away, and its whistle pierces the hum of cars and airplanes and lawnmowers and trucks and buses and motorbikes and gas heaters and blowers and helicopters and weedwhackers.

It's a haunting sound, that lonely wail of the train.  It too is burning up its diesel fuel, but it alone, amidst the cacophony all around, sounds like regret.

June 20, 2010

The Garden Soaking Tub

The builder's sales brochure for our home breathlessly exclaimed that, in addition to other really cool features, the bathroom had a "garden soaking tub". 

Why do all new homes built in the past several years (ours was built in 2004) have a large glass window over the bath tub?  Over the one place in the house where it is guaranteed you will be, without exception, undressed and exposed?  At night, when I actually want to soak in the tub, that big black glass stares back at me at my most vulnerable, hinting at prowlers and voyeurs just outside, unless it is covered up.

In a suburban development with nearby neighbors, the first thing you have to do on move-in day is put up shades in the bathroom.  Then every day thereafter, using the facilities involves climbing into and out of the bath tub to get to the windows.

And here's the worst of it: the very best view of my garden is from the bathroom window:

We keep the shades drawn to use our bathroom, but the first thing I do on a summer morning is clamber into the big soaking tub to open them and see my garden in the morning light.  Then clamber out.  It's undignified, and it's awkward when I'm groggy.  The thing is, this and a guest room have the only windows on this side of the house.

(When you create your gardens, consider the view from inside --- that's a well known principle of design.  The fact that the only view of this side of the yard is from such an inconvenient place makes me crazy).

Every new home is built with the same useless feature: a huge obstacle in front of the one opening where you need to actually operate the window treatments every day.

Does anybody know why a design element that is so clearly unusable, awkward and unworkable is so ubiquitous in houses today?  Who thinks this stuff up?

In order to close this post on a less cranky note, here are some pictures from my garden that make me happy:

There, I feel better now.  I'm done for the day in the garden, and I'm ready to go take a long soak in my garden tub, with the shades drawn and no garden in view.  But I know it's out there.

June 17, 2010

Three Blue Stars

In late May, Blue Star --- Amsonia tabernaemontana --- was blooming pale blue, with flowers that look like multiple tiny stars.  It's a happy combination of delicate flowers and pointed lance shaped leaves.  The flower and foliage forms work really well together, which isn't always true of all plants.  The flowers are brief, but the green summer form is an upright, full presence in my garden that moves in the breeze.  In late fall, the leaves turn a nice buff tan that stands out even though it is pale, and I leave them standing all winter to rustle in the dry wind.

There's another type of Blue Star, with spiky wispy foliage.  It's Amsonia hubrichtii, and it also has starry eggshell-blue flowers, although mine is too young to bloom very much.  As this one matures it will get big and immensely fluffy, and it will become a yellow beacon in fall when the foliage turns golden, much brighter than the pale tan of the tabernaemontana.  The colored spire twists don't add anything to this lovely plant, and I'm removing them.  I put them there because the young plant was so wispy, but really, they're dumb.

Finally there is a third Blue Star in my garden.  It is Amsonia 'Blue Ice', discovered here in Connecticut.  It is supposed to be a variant seedling of Amsonia tabernaemontana since it was found growing among them, but I find it to be a very different Blue Star.  It has masses of flowers that are rich royal purple and they are still blooming well into June, after the other more ethereal pale Blue Stars have ceased.  It's compact, solid, low to the ground and very unlike its cousins' big forms that are full of movement.

Like the other Blue Stars, Blue Ice's leaves color up in fall, a clear yellow in between the tan and golden shades of the other two Amsonias.

Amsonias are perennials but they have all the low maintenance attributes of woody shrubs.  They take three years to establish and reach size.  They fill their garden spaces with interesting form and autumn foliage color.  They have woody roots and never need dividing.  They don't need deadheading.  Really, I think of them as part of the shrub layer in the garden, even though they die all the way back each winter.

I like the fact that I grow three different Blue Stars and get three completely different effects.  I have them in separate garden areas now, but I'm toying with planting all three in a single space and letting the shapes, foliage movement, varying structures and spectrum of color shades play off each other.  I'd give that garden three stars!

June 15, 2010

Ground Zero

In hot summer weather I garden in a long sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck and tucked into my jeans, and with socks and boots, and DEET aroma wafting all around my head and neck.  I am miserable.  Really miserable.

I live in Connecticut, ground zero for a little bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, a bug carried by the Ixodes insect, namely the deer tick.  Sometimes (in 10% of all infected ticks) the tick also carries a parasite called Babesia, which causes a malaria-like disease.

I got both.  Lyme Disease and Babesiosis.  Together.

I was bitten in 2008.  It was unfelt and it was high on the back of my thigh, a place I can't see even when I try, and I don't often intentionally back up to a full length mirror. The only person who would ever see that part of my body is my husband, and we're well past the age where he looks.

By the time my symptoms presented, the big bullseye rash was all up and down the back of my thigh, I had a fever of 102 and the left side of my face was paralyzed into a gargoyle-like frozen mask that was grotesque and frightening.  The pain in my hip and knee was so intense I could not sleep for days.  I could not drink without dribbling, talk coherently, or close my left eyelid at all.

I didn't take a picture, I was far too sick, bordering on delirious, but the rash looked something like this:

I got weeks of antibiotics, narcotics for the pain, 6 weeks of physical therapy for the Bell's palsy in my face, drops for the eye that would not close, and a visit to an infectious disease specialist who advised that the treatment for the Babesia parasite was large doses of quinine.  I stocked up on gin and tonic.

In the end, I recovered.

I recovered physically (the side of my face still has an odd "heavy" feeling even though I have full muscle and nerve function now).  But I don't think the gardener in me ever recovered.

While I love planning and designing my gardens in winter and spring, I do not like being out in the yard in the warm weather.  The restrictive clothing, the icky feeling that there are "bugs" out there... it takes away from any enjoyment I have working in the garden.

I go out into the yard and admire my plants, and I take pictures, and I'm okay with that.  But any activity involving work at ground level, any chores that require mucking around in the weeds or tall grass, I just can't abide, even dressed to the eyeballs and DEET saturated.

My infection was not a one-off or rare, unfortunate occurrence.  Every serious gardener I know in our part of New England has had a case of it... not nearly as bad as mine, but most have had confirmed and treated cases of Lyme Disease.  The name of the disease comes from a town in Connecticut.  The black shaded states are where the risk of Lyme Disease is highest.
What to do?  I love my gardens, I love my plants.  But I hate summer gardening.  Advice for prevention includes keeping meadows and grass mowed short (contrary to the anti-lawn movement), and covering up (you just can't imagine an 85 degree day with 50% humidity, clothed in what amounts to ski wear).

I kind of like this outfit from the army-navy store, it looks lightweight and protective.  Will the neighbors be alarmed?  Or amused?  Will children run and hide?  Will it keep the ticks from getting a firm hold on a patch of skin?
I can get this kind of light protective clothing, and I can put the silly stuff on and go outside, but where can I find the relaxed joy and comfort that should come from being outdoors on a hot sunny day?  Where did that go?

June 12, 2010

Shattered Hopes

I knew we'd get rain this weekend, because flower buds are opening on my Stewartia pseudocamellia.  They are extraordinary blooms, camellia-like, as the Latin name says, and they come out all over this pretty tree in June and July.

Except mine don't last more than a few days because we always get a downpour when they are blooming and the fat buds and weighty blossoms are knocked off the tree.  Always, without fail.  We could be in a deep drought, with no rain for weeks and no precipitation in the forecast for the whole northeast, and we will get a windy downpour the week the Stewartia flowers want to open.

My Stewartia is planted right by the front door where I can see it and admire it.  And there is so much to admire.  The flowers are the big draw.  If it stays dry and they hold on, they look like this, like big fried eggs:
 open flower and bark photos from MoBot's files
The mottled bark is interesting, although people who arrive at my front door sometimes ask "is it supposed to look like that?"

It's a narrow tree, perfect for the side of the house where it adds height in a nice pyramid shape, without much spread.  Mine is a very young tree, planted as a 12 inch stick from a one gallon container in fall 2006, and it is still gangly, with a silly twisted top, but it will straighten up.  The bark is just beginning to show its mottled pattern.

The fall color is astonishing.  I can't describe how pulsating red this gets.  My camera kind of imploded when I took this photo in direct morning sun last fall, and it would not even pick up the leaf distinctions, just a blur of shimmery red orange.

It's noted as slow growing, but I'm finding it to be a fast grower, although a little goofy shaped right now.  It likes the due east exposure I gave it, with the house for shade in the afternoon.

It's June now, the fat buds are forming, and yes, it is raining.  Of course it is.  The bee wants to get out of the rain and is happy upside down in his little umbrella shelter, in one of the few blossoms that is hanging on.  Most of the flowers litter the soggy mulch at the foot of the tree.

I wish it would hang on to its flowers.

It's such a great tree --- small and neat, with a dapper form, eye blinding red fall color, crazy looking bark --- that each year I forgive it, and have resigned myself to enjoying a few hopeful buds against a gray rainy sky, and creamy white blooms shattered on the wet ground.

Every spring those shattered blooms dash my hopes, but I still love this tree.

June 10, 2010

It's the Simple Things

It's the simplest things that delight.

I planted Thymus serpyllum 'Alba' under some roses to stabilize a little hillock of dirt that rises about 8 inches from the edge of pavers at the top of our driveway.  I hoped it would spread out somewhat and hold the loose mound of soil.

No big deal, just a utility plant to cover bare dirt that kept washing down to the bricks below.  The real show here is the rose thicket above, next to some arching daylilies and waving grasses.

I put a dozen little thyme plugs in, and then forgot about them as I tended to my real gardens, the ones with the big robust shrubs and the needy bloomers and the fussy hybrids and the cultivars with cute names.  I didn't even pay attention to the spreading thyme as I occasionally deadheaded the roses above.

And quietly, undemandingly, sweetly and without any fuss whatsoever, they filled the bare spots and settled in to do their job of covering the berm edge.  One day as I came up the driveway, I saw a carpet of white, with a few rose petals scatted on top.

What a charmer!  How did this happen without me noticing? 

And here's the genius of it: because the thyme carpet is draped over a raised edge at the top of our driveway, it's what you see as you come up the slight slope driving in.  It's a bit of an eye-catcher!

I never intended this effect, and never thought of this groundcover mat as a garden focal point.  I didn't even notice it starting to happen.  Then one day this carpet was just there. Yes, it is keeping the soil at the edge from washing down, exactly as hoped, but who knew it would steal the limelight and delight in such a simple way?