July 28, 2010

Mini Bridge of Flowers

Drake Hill Bridge from Town of Simsbury website
I remember this bridge.  In the 1970s I lived nearby, and had to drive over the one-lane bridge spanning the Farmington River to get to some places.  You drove up to it, waited at the stop sign to make sure no one was coming the other way, then drove over it slowly, as it was kind of rickety.  The wooden planks covering the iron framework made whoppity whopp sounds under the car's tires.

It  was built in 1892, before automobile traffic.  Even though it was a normal route to get places, and I routinely crossed it in my car, it was kind of an adventure each time, and I would briefly imagine carts and horses --- and later tin lizzies --- crossing where I drove.  It was closed after I moved away and a new one was built just a few yards away in 1992, but since I no longer traveled that way, I didn't realize the road had been slightly rerouted and the old bridge abandoned.

Then a couple years ago I started visiting a small garden center that is located on the river, right at the foot of the new bridge.  I was surprised to see that the old bridge had been closed, but not torn down.  Instead, it was covered, literally swamped in colorful flower boxes and hanging baskets all up and down the railings.

It's modeled on the abandoned trolley bridge that spans the Deerfield River, the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne, Massachusetts.

There has been so much hype and excitement about the High Line public park built on abandoned elevated railroad tracks on Manhattan's West Side. It's really just an expanded version of the Bridge of Flowers. It's the same idea: reclamation of an old eyesore where weeds once grew, making it a public garden spot. Of course the High Line is 22 blocks long, a mile and a half of gardens, paths, native plants and Piet Oudolf designed installations.  The High Line itself was inspired by a similar railroad bridge reclamation in Paris.

from Town of Simsbury website
Our little reclamation project is just a modest bridge.  Just a short iron span across a small river in a semi-rural town in New England.  It's maintained by volunteers, many of them high school groups.  Although there are some perennials at the entrances, it's mostly baskets and boxes of annuals, not professional European inspired native plant installations.  
flowerboxes on Drake Hill Bridge - photo: rbglasson
But it's pretty.  It's a gentle surprise as you drive over the new bridge to get where you are going and happen to look over and see the incongruity of a decayed old iron structure festooned with bright flowers.  Canoeists look up as they drift below.  Weddings take place on the bridge.  Walkers and bikers and runners cross it.

And I love to go by it, thinking of a time when I was so much younger, carefully crossing that bridge on my way to my future self.

July 27, 2010

Strawberry Stress

My strawberries 'Mara des Bois', little gems of intense sweet taste, started out so well this year.  Last year they had glossy foliage, long runners and tiny fragile strawberries.  Not many, but a few for my breakfast.

This year started out the same, but in June they stopped leafing out or forming runners, the leaves looked flat, not glossy, and they were clearly chomped on.  And the fruits stopped producing.  There were little nibs where the flowers were, but no strawberries developed.

The leaves looked slug damaged, but there was no other evidence, no slime trails, no icky creatures under the pots, no damaged eaten fruits.  No fruits at all.

Slugs do bad thing to the leaves, but they wouldn't completely stop the fruits from developing, would they?  Something else was going on, maybe in addition to leaf chomping slugs.  I was getting really stressed about these strawberries.

I unpotted all the plants and put them in fresh new potting soil in shallow plastic containers.

The terra cotta pocket jars are actually a terrible way to grow strawberries.  They're hard to keep evenly moist and I'm pretty sure I was overwatering them before and during fruit set, which can retard berry production. The plants are cramped and it's hard to keep the soil on the side pockets from washing away from the crowns.  Just not a good concept at all, even though this is the express purpose for these pots --- to grow strawberries.

But how I loved the look!  I really liked the pots on the terrace, even without the full lushness of last year's foliage.  It's the age old dilemma: looks or function?  Cool looking aged clay jars?  Or crop production?

Now, in late July, growing in their orangey plastic containers, they look healthy again and they are producing lots of flowers, runners, and . . . . a crop of fruit!  Mara Des Bois are everbearing, so I should get more as the season goes on.

I don't know what malady they had, but I'm ready once again for strawberry season with no stress!  Now I need to go get some succulents to stuff in the empty pocket jars.  Not the look I wanted, but it's always been about what the plants want, not what I want.

Although all I ever really wanted was a sweet red juicy strawberry for my breakfast.

July 24, 2010


If only I could send the delicate spicy scent of my blooming summersweet over the internet.  I'd post it here and you could take it in, sniffing your screen and getting intoxicated on the aroma.

It's not cloyingly sweet like lilacs or overpowering like some other flowering shrubs.  It's a constant surprise.  It catches you every now and then, and you stop.  What's that?  aaaah.  Then you walk on, or wander over to the deck, and again you stop.... what's that?  Again, aaaah.  It's the clethra, tickling the air.

You have to know it's the nearby clethra, otherwise you wouldn't really catch where the delicate scent is coming from.  Have you ever gotten a sweet smell on the breeze and wondered what it was?  Couldn't identify it?  Knew you knew it, but couldn't place it?

Well, we need a Shazam for that.
You iPhone users know there is an app called Shazam that identifies song titles when you hold the phone up to any music that is playing.  It boggles the mind.  But it works surprisingly accurately, returning the song, the artist and a map pinpointing the nearest music store to buy a copy.

Can you imagine it?  You hold your iPhone up in the air near where a lovely scent is wafting, and .... shazam ... you get common name, cultivar, an image of the plant and the nearest garden center that sells it in a 10 mile radius of your zip code.
It could work.  There are many garden apps on iTunes but I found them to be weak, just inventories of plants with some images and stock advice like "needs well drained soil", which is about as unhelpful as "water if needed".

But until the one billiionth iPhone app is created and it identifies flowering scent... or until you buy a monitor with the ability to transmit fragrance, you are stuck looking at my pictures of the two kinds of summersweet I grow, and hearing me go on about their heady presence in the air around my gardens.

In my garden: I planted two clethra 'Ruby Spice' plants that I bought before they were in bloom.  They are supposed to have pink candles, but only one does, the other is white.  Mislabeled?  Reversion?  Here's the lone pink shrub:
It's not really pink, but kind of a cinnamon rose color.

The other clethra in my garden is 'Hummingbird', and that is supposed to have white candles and it does.  That's the photo at the top of this post.

One caution about clethra: their season is high summer, blooming in July, with nice green foliage, a pleasant loosely mounded shape, and that awesome fragrance.  But they are rubble in spring.  They are very late to leaf out, later than anything else.  And while the gardens come awake, fill in and and start to bloom, clethra just schlumps there, brown and dead looking with last year's tattered gray flower spikes hanging on droopily.  I've almost pulled them out each spring.

But oh, when summer comes, they redeem themselves.

Hmmm, after I posted this I came across an article from earlier in the month where twitterers sent in ideas for apps they wished existed, and lots of them suggested Shazam apps to identify many things we wish we recognized... including one that would take a picture of a plant and tell you if it's a weed or not!  Creative genius abounds.

July 21, 2010

Hoping for Troy

My neighbor has moved, and the house next to me is up for sale.

No, not the neighbor whose garden I envy.  The other one, on the other side --- a single man who bought the house and was astonished to find it included a yard, foundation plantings and two newly planted trees in the front yard.

He was transferred to the midwest, and moved out last week, so the house is now empty.  I no longer see lights on at night over there or hear his music when the windows are open, but honestly, looking at his yard, nothing has changed since he moved out.  It looked abandoned when he lived here.  This is the view from my front door. 

His girlfriend made him weed the foundation bed, and he hired a lawn guy who always came with his big machines at 7 o'clock on nice summer evenings.  But the outside appearance of the house was bleak.  There was absolutely no landscaping beyond dwarf Alberta spruces and azaleas that had been installed by the builder under the front windows, and two Norway maple saplings in the small front yard.

That's okay, not everybody is a gardener.  But I despaired .... he had his lawn guy mow around a couple large multiflora roses in the field to isolate them as specimens. 

One of the little Norway maples in his front yard died and he left the dead stick standing, slanted askew in its mulch anchor, for two full years.  I could continue with more landscaping transgressions, but really, he's moved on now and I need to too.

So let me focus on the future: we'll be getting new neighbors!

Remember when you were in seventh grade and that house in your neighborhood went up for sale, and you just prayed a cute boy would move in, maybe a ninth grader, maybe even named Brett or Troy?  How that anticipation occupied your waking moments and your dreams too?

Extra points if you recognize who this is
Well, here I am at midlife, in the same hopeful state.

Only instead of a ninth grader with brooding eyes, I want a nice gardener to move in.  Maybe someone who will put shrub and perennial borders in on the side of the house I see, and get rid of that stand of multiflora rose.  Someone who will plant a shade tree and paint the peeling bulkhead door and wash the side of the house.

And if he's named Troy ..... well.

Oh my.

July 18, 2010

Not My Thing, but...

The Connecticut Horticultural Society sponsored an open garden tour today of a landmark house that sits on a busy street where the exuberant gardens routinely stop traffic.

This private home is well known --- Chrissie D'Esopo's gardens have been featured in Fine Gardening magazine and others.  You just can't miss all the stuff going on in the front and side yards as you pass by on the street.  The house itself is classic New England Greek Revival, beautifully kept among riotous gardens and stately old shade trees.  It's a head turner.

From the street the lush annuals --- impatiens and petunias --- yell at you to come on in.  Nothing subtle here.  A walk up the driveway showcases garden after garden, leading to the garage and barns and back yard.

Cleome, daylilies, some black eyed susans, and lots of edging annuals.

I was unprepared for how the vista opened up beyond the garage, into a vast hillside of color climbing up the deforested slope.

The gardens cut into the forest wall had shrubs, arborvitae, some scattered perennials, and there's a fishpond and mini waterfall in there too.  But mostly the slope was covered, absolutely covered, with roundy moundy containers of petunias and impatiens.  Buckets of them, pots of them, urns and planters and bowls of annuals.  Some placed on the ground, some on the flat tops of tree stumps, some sitting on level rocks.

And every garden below the slope was edged in petunias and impatiens.  Sweet potato vines and petunias hung from baskets on the barn wall.

There were nice touches ....

.... and

.... and a shady grape arbor leading from a lush jumbled kitchen garden.

But mostly the gardens were garish, the forms were all rounded mounds, and the repetition and scale of the plantings was exhausting.  There had to be thousands and thousands of containers of petunias and impatiens, and just as many in the ground, edging every garden feature. 

Every plant looked steroidal, aggressively blooming and cascading immensely.  Some hostas tucked into the hillside were as big as elephants.  Ipomeas vining among the annuals were threatening.  The basic perennials scattered about (foxgloves, rudbeckia, some bee balm, daylilies) looked frightened.

Even the moss in the cool shade was scary, formed up into a dragon just as the sunlight splattered on the ferns making it look like this fellow was spewing fire.

This garden was just not my thing, and not to the taste of many gardeners. 

But here's what I loved about it.  It is unapologetically genuine.  The same few annuals are repeated over and over, but with tremendous confidence and assurance.  It is overfed, overblooming, and excessive, but the gardener's delight in her creation is evident.  It is inappropriate for the surroundings; no New England reserve here, no melding of woodland plants into their forested slope.  But it is exuberantly inappropriate, showcasing a childlike overindulgence in contrast to the strong bones of traditional house and barns, dark shady maples and hillside.

I hated it but I loved it.  I loved it because it shows us that there is no "right" way to garden.  There is room for so many different tastes and designs--- just do it well and with enthusiasm.

Here's a video that Whiteflower Farm did of these gardens, extolling the design and execution of all the chaos!

July 16, 2010

Two Little Onions

I discovered two perfectly delightful little onions that are so different from the more recognizable big globe allium balls.  One for spring, and one for summer.

The spring onion is Allium moly, called golden garlic.  It's a small plant that is best used in big drifts.  Individually it's not very significant, but when massed, you get bright, clear yellow sweeps that are cheerful in spring.

I like them lining the walk where the little guys lean out to say hi and give you a wave as you walk by.

And in the larger garden from afar they add sunshine to what would be a moody purple and mauve grump. The color is the bright yellow of earlier forsythias and daffodils, but brings its cheer into the late May garden.

The allium moly bulbs are tiny, about the size of a grape, and they will spread into quite a colony if they like where you put them.  Like all onions, the foliage gets tired looking after flowering, and handling the foliage makes your hands smell like bad cooking for days.

The second little onion, Allium sphaerocephalon, blooms in summer.  It's called drumstick allium or nodding onion, because it has a tight oval little head at the end of an absolutely straight stick stem and, well, because it nods.  It really does, in the most delightful way, bobbing and wobbling in the breeze. 

The color starts out soft green morphing to reddish, then finishes a deep purple wine.  The blooms are delicate, but in a clump their vertical presence is strong, and their wine red color is wonderful in front of a sheaf of hot colors like orange daylilies, or nodding over a bright orange milkweed, or in front of Mardi Gras heleniums.

The key with both these little alliums is to plant a lot of them together to form clumps of color and form.  Then go up to them and look closely... each individual onion has such a cute bloom.  I like these unassuming plants in my garden; they're quiet, understated little bulbs with a lot of character.

Allium moly in MoBot's plant database
Allium sphaerocephalon on Rob's Plants site (some really good pictures)

July 13, 2010

Propagation, Pots, and Patience

One of my favorite local nurseries is Farmington Valley Nursery on Waterville Road in Avon, Connecticut.
There is no web site, they don't advertise. There are no perennials, no flower flats, no bulbs or grasses.  Just trees and shrubs.  They only sell woody plants that they have propagated themselves.  They have some interesting and unusual cultivars, and Kevin, the nursery manager, can tell you all about each one in detail, knowing exactly how it grows right here.

Last Saturday Kevin held a short class on softwood cuttings.  It's been very hot in Connecticut... the whole east coast suffered with 100 degree temps recently, and we were way too warm in the steamy greenhouse, so the class was short.  Really short... we rushed through the snipping and dipping (cutting the stems and dusting with growth hormone powder) so we could get back outside where it was much cooler, in the mid 90s.

There wasn't much new to learn... I've been making softwood cuttings for a while with varying degrees of success.   The process is well documented and easy.  Fine Gardening has a good tutorial here.  And Ken Druse's gorgeous book Making More Plants was my fireside reading all one winter.  

My failure in the past wasn't due to technique or knowledge.  It was a lack of space to house the cuttings. They need shade, they need to stay moist but not wet for 4 to 6 weeks, and they take up room.  Then, when they root, you need lots of room for nursery pots, out of the weather and sun.  I just didn't have a good place to set pots or trays.

I had propagation flats with plastic humidity domes set up all over my small porch, but I didn't realize that the early morning sun was coming in and beating down on them before I got up each morning.  It was only for a brief time, but it was creating little solar ovens and the cuttings were cooking.

Other locations inside and outside were also a problem... no room, no shady nook, too much sun, I'm just not set up for propagating anything more than a pot of cuttings.

Even so, I have had some successes.  The obvious: forsythia and caryopteris and shrub dogwoods will root on their own if you just suggest it.  But I also rooted some trees: sweetgum twigs and maples, and a cutting from my little persimmon tree.  I got impatient, and tried to plant the little tiny rooted plants out in the garden too soon, so eager to see large leafy plants and woody trunks emerge.   I should have left them potted over winter to put on size and build up the little root system before planting them out.

I didn't really learn anything new at the cutting workshop Saturday.  The two problems that plagued my results in the past weren't covered: finding a good location for the trays, and patience.

But I always enjoy a visit to this unusual nursery, checking out the woody plants, and realizing that the beautiful lush specimens for sale all started out right at Kevin's workbench as tiny, almost leafless twigs stuck in perlite and peat moss.