November 28, 2010

What I'd Like

I don't need anything for Christmas.  I have absolutely everything I want.  In embarrassing abundance.

But Santa, if you're listening, you might just maybe possibly could bring me this:

Or a garden shed just like it.  This one is in the far back yard of a house in our neighborhood.  It's way nicer than the house, which was for sale recently.  I was very tempted to put a bid in on the house in order to take ownership of this shed.

It's the setting, of course.  Tucked into a shady woodland edge behind the house, it just fits.

In my open half acre with no tall trees it might look a little over-cute, too much like a dollhouse sitting in the middle of the yard.

Isn't that one of the secrets of garden design?  Context.  Setting.  Stuff in isolation never works unless you are doing a very large specimen focal point.  The lighted tree at Rockefeller Center works spectacularly standing by itself.  A single sheaf of miscanthus grass standing alone is visually odd, and we've all seen just such stranded plant orphans in yards.

So Santa, a few very tall mature trees in my stocking would be appreciated too.  Just for context.

November 24, 2010

My Archipelago

I am a beginning gardener and I have certainly made many mistakes.  The individual plant disasters and disappointments are legend.  But there is one overarching design problem I need to overcome that I know other beginning gardeners have made.

The problem: I have designed half an acre of islands, an archipelago of isolated atolls mounding up out of the sea of lawn.

Here's what I have created: a big irregular roundish bed in the middle of three separate birch trees.  A long mixed border along the edge of the meadow.  A strip of black eyed Susans and herbs along the patio wall.  A triangle with trees and shrubs at the top of the driveway.  A bed edging the driveway.  And more.  Each patch is isolated from the others by lawn.
Each garden has grown and developed and is pleasing.  But it feels like being on an island chain where you hop from place to place, enjoying each one, but aware that the next one is just over there beyond.  In my yard you visit each garden, but you are not in my garden.

When I sit on my patio, I look out over my string of separate plant atolls.  I am safely protected behind low stone walls, attached to the mothership of the house.  I do not feel like I am in the garden at all.  I feel like I am reviewing the gardens from a parade vessel.

I started with a blank slate with no landscaping other than a husband standing in the open expanse.  We did have a borrowed view of trees on the far ridge.  Some before and after shots show how far we've come.
Before and after from the back.

Before and after from the side.

We first put in trees for shade, then a deck to sit on.  Then two red maples, the three paper birches, a line of spruce trees, some stone pavers surrounded by a low wall.  Those became the first structures, all separately sited in various spots in the lawn.  A garden was attached to or plopped next to each one.  Completely random.

And thus, the archipelago was created.  It all looks lush compared to where we started.  But.

Garden designers, what should I do?  I know I should link the isolated gardens together, and eliminate much more of the lawn.  But simply extending two or more gardens into a great big blended area is daunting.  Half an acre is actually a big space.

Should I make a plan on paper? 
Install winding stone paths around the gardens as linkages? 
Make the existing gardens bigger? 
Hire a garden coach?
Plant more trees to create a woodland effect with the isolated gardens below?

Or should I give up and go to Hawaii, where I can view lush island atolls across the water while sipping a Mai Tai?

You decide.

November 20, 2010

My Brother in Law

The marigold in my garden, the sturdy one, the reliable bloomer with the short stocky form and the colors of sunshine.  The most dependable, easy going, funny plant I grow.  Yes, the marigold is funny, it tells jokes and makes the other flowers laugh.

 He made me laugh.

Marigolds never ever fail you.  They are like the repairmen of the garden, ready to fill a spot with brightness, or repel trouble on nearby veggies with their spicy scent.

When I needed him, he was always there, repair tools in hand.

The marigold is an easy plant that gets along with every other specimen in the border.  A fussy mass of blooms is always anchored by the addition of structured, unpretentious marigolds tucked in among them.

He was the stable backbone of our messy, jumbled lives.

My brother in law, my sister's husband, the marigold in my life.

I will miss him so much.

November 19, 2010

Damn Deer Damage

This year I have tried to make peace with the destructive forces in my garden.  I looked away when the rabbits pruned my perennials, leaving them lopsided and funny looking, but alive.

I stopped spraying vile scented sprays on my ornamentals.  I couldn't stand the mess and smell.  Instead I placed wireless battery operated zappers around to deliver a slight shock to any curious deer in the vicinity, and then I looked the other way when some of the shrubbery was nibbled.

I tried hard to be patient about waiting out the drought, less obsessive about eradicating the bittersweet that chokes saplings in the meadow, and more at ease with the loss of some plants to voles.  I have many plants; my garden is getting full now, and it is maturing. I can afford to lose some things and see others stunted or chopped down without losing the whole effect.  I can.

But this I cannot tolerate.  I can not make peace with this:
The male deer come through my yard each November and rub their shedding antlers on the trunks of trees until the inner bark --- the phloem layer (food transport) and cambium (the growth layer) --- are exposed.  They don't nibble or browse or sample.  They destroy.  Sprays and zappers do not deter them; they are not looking for food.  They have other things on their minds, and they have an urgent need to scrape the covering off their antlers.

The shredded sapling is my katsura tree, a Cercidiphyllum japonicum that I planted in 2009.  It put on such lovely growth this season.

Ever since I lost an expensive linden to antler rub in 2008, I am careful to wrap the trunks of the larger saplings in plastic tubing each fall.  But I had not wrapped the little katsura tree because it was still so small; the bucks have always gone after the 2+ inch diameter trunks that have heft and sturdiness, not the whippy bendy young stems.

And the katsura has multiple trunks that branch low; the bucks seem to like the single straight stems that offer more area for rubbing.

I was wrong.  The katsura should have been wrapped, with its multiple trunks encased in plastic all around.  It is now --- but that's rather like shutting the barn door after the horse escapes; I'm bitterly aware it's too late.

Although the linden never made it back after being rubbed raw, this little katsura may survive.  From another angle you can see that there is a second trunk that had branches pulled off but did not have its outer layer of bark stripped as badly as the trunk on the right.

The bark will heal and form a callus around the wound.  Maybe only one vertical stem will survive, but maybe both will.

Cercidiphyllum can grow to be a wide spreading major tree in maturity.  We saw an ancient katsura at Arnold Arboretum in Boston this summer, and you can see how its low branching limbs spread way out.

Katsura trees smell like burnt sugar in early fall.  This one at Arnold Arboretum did!
Mine, if it survives and grows, may not have such wide spreading low branches as it ages; the damn deer may have made this a single trunk tree.

But it may send out more low branches and get its form back.  Young trees are adaptable, and I have many many years yet to watch mine grow.

Many years, that is, if it survives.

And if I can survive the angst and stress of this destruction.  I'm trying not to let it anger me so much.

I am trying.

November 18, 2010

A Garden on the Beach

We went to Hammonasset beach last weekend, on a sunny November day.  I am always amazed at the tenacity of plants that survive in the harsh conditions at the ocean's edge. This little bayberry, growing in a crack in a rock, caught my attention as we walked along East Beach toward Meigs Point.

There were other things growing in the rocks at water's edge, just as precarious and just as tenacious.  Jim says these are cairns built by beachgoers this summer, but I dispute that.

If nature could grow a woody shrub like a bayberry in a shallow crack on the side of a rock facing the salt spray of Long Island Sound.....

.... why wouldn't it make sense that she would grow beautiful rock spires out of the tops of salt sprayed boulders?  Isn't it obvious?  

Jim rolled his eyes.  He often does.

He doesn't understand the mysteries that grow in the garden every day, much less the wonders that could grow in a garden on the beach. 

November 17, 2010

Tough Decisions

Perennials are pretty, shrubs can be nice.  But trees are the plants that hooked me on gardening.  I'm still amazed that the bare root twig I planted in spring 2007 in front of some established spruce trees looked like this when I put it in:
you can't even see it inside the plastic mesh cage
And in fall 2010, just four seasons later, it looked like this:
It's a river birch, Betula nigra, and it is by far the fastest growing tree I have.  It is sitting in an area that forms a puddle when it rains where the lawn dips in front of the mulched bed, and true to its river heritage, it loves this wet spot.

My other twigs and saplings and whips and transplants, trees of all kinds, remain much much smaller.  But they all have within their tiny roots and little twiggy branches the potential to grow to be trees.  Some of them to be 40 foot trees.  All from a sprout that starts as a little stick and two leaves, that I have to protect within plastic cages at first.

I have other river birches, and they are growing well.  They tend to be very fast growers.  All have the wonderfully shaggy peeling pinkish bark that they are known for, and it appears early, within the tree's first years.

But none of the other river birches have grown as abundantly as the one in front of the spruces, so happy in its perfect, perpetually wet spot.  The others dropped their leaves by mid November; the one by the spruces held its leaves the longest, still golden with glittery fall leaves into late November.

This river birch is going to outgrow its space.  Already, after just four seasons living together, the birch and the spruces are touching and mingling branches.  They are both just going to get bigger and bigger.  The river birch can get to 50 or more feet tall, and 40 feet wide.  This one, so immensely happy in its wet spot, may get even bigger.

50 feet tall!  40 feet wide!  It's already encroaching on the conifers.  What will I do?  Of course it will need to be removed.  But could you do that?  Could you take out a tree that you planted as a twig?  A tiny twig?  And watched it become so lovely and shapely and pleasing right before your eyes?  Could you hack it down?
From behind the bed, the river birch and spruces frame the glorious red maple in fall.
Perennial gardeners are used to dividing and moving and, yes, pulling out stuff that is too big or doesn't work in the garden any more.  Tree gardeners have tougher decisions.

Some of my other 40 foot trees-to-be
I should plant another river birch further in front of the spruce tree, far enough away this time to account for its eventual size.  They grow so fast, I could put it in now, give it three years to reach a pleasing size, and then take down the one that is too close.  That way I won't have a period of time with a completely empty space there in front of the spruces.

Makes sense.  But could you do it?  Could you take down the tree you grew from a twig?

I'm not sure I can.

November 14, 2010

Fire in the Backyard

Fall morning.
Six forty five a.m. and it's 33 degrees outside.
I get up to open the shade.

I'm groggy and my glasses are on the nightstand.  I start to get alarmed.

What is going on out there?  Did something catch fire in the backyard?  Should I call someone?  Where are my glasses?  Where is my phone?

I'm awake.  I'm awake already!

I'll put the coffee on and calm down a little.  I don't really think I need the caffeine this morning.  I'm wide awake.

November 13, 2010

My Exotic Garden

Bernie at Bush Bernie's Garden Blog left me a comment on one of last month's posts that has been on my mind ever since.

She was admiring the October colors in my garden.  Bernie lives in northern Australia and her climate is tropical.  Her other blog is My Dry Tropics Garden.  I read both her blogs regularly and I love her writing and garden designs and observations and photos.  A visit to her blogs is always a treat.  I leave comments about how beautiful it is or how the composition looks or how I enjoy seeing her part of the world. 

But I am always at a loss to comment about the specific plants in her photos.  I simply don't know what many of them are and have never heard of the names of most of them.  I am in awe of the beauty she shows us, especially the close ups and plant descriptions but they are all foreign and exotic to me.
Planchonia careya, Cocky Apple, with permission from Bush Bernie's Garden Blog
Here's what has been on my mind: part of her comment on my October post was: "....the colours!! Dogwoods, Amsonia, Viburnum, Maple, Hamamelis ... these are all plants that I don't have any experience with and their colours are beautiful."

When I saw that my reaction was "but those plants are staples of the garden. What do you mean? --- Viburnums and Dogwoods are the norm, Maples are absolutely everywhere, and Amsonias and Hamamelis are so common, not like your exotics."
Um.... not like your exotics?  Is it possible that plants so common and everyday to me are curious to her?  A viburnum glamorous and peculiar?  A dogwood strange and wondrous?  Can that be?  These are just the usual workhorse plants in everyone's garden around here.
Some of the the now exotic looking standard stuff in my garden
It kind of alarmed me how ego-centric my thoughts about the garden were.  My plants, my climate, my seasons are the "standard".  All others are deviations in my insular gardening view.  When I think "winter" it's cold and sometimes snowy.  When I think "July" I have scenes of the height of summer.  To think otherwise in my little world is "reversed".  Hmmm.

If I google "winter scenes" I get pictures of snow and northern hemisphere conifers.  Does Bernie get that too even though she is sitting at her computer in her Queenslander cottage, googling from the tropics?  Or does the recognize that her norm is different?
Wait, norms can be different?  Normal is ... standard.  What's not normal is "different".  Now I'm off into issues of relative worldviews and identity concepts.  Urk.

But when these issues are as visual and earthy as they are when we look at each others' gardens, it's much more immediate.  What is strange looking?  Whose garden is exotic?  All are beautiful in their own ways, and the commonest plants somewhere are bewildering to gardeners somewhere else.

This makes my head hurt.  I am going out into the garden now to check my newly alien looking autumn Viburnums for deer damage.

I hope Bernie, a day and a season ahead of me, has already gone out in her garden to look at her common spring Ixoras to make sure the wallabies haven't been at them.

I love garden blogging.

November 11, 2010


The name of this woody ground cover just delights me.  This is commonly called Kinnikinnik, one of the longest palindromes in English, and just enjoyable to say.  Some spellings put a "ck" in there, but what fun is that?  It wrecks the palindrome.

Then there is its botanical name, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  I am not making this up.  Arkto is Greek for bear, and staphyle means a bunch of grapes.  Uva also denotes grapes, and ursi is of course Latin referring to bear.  This all translates to Bearberry berry-bear.  Yogi couldn't have said it better.  But just call it Bearberry, which is its other common name.
I put this groundcover along my walk leading to the front door, chiefly so I could tell visitors what it's called. 

But it surprised me with virtues beyond a funny name.  In summer it has tiny, glossy green leaves that catch the sun and sparkle.  In spring it has little heather-like flowers that are pink and delicate.  It's a good thing this planting is along the walk, so you are close enough to see the tiny flowers.  They're hard to notice from any distance.

In winter it reliably keeps its leaves.  I've only seen a sprig or two of winterkill.  It gets reddish brown without getting dull colored.  It has red berries, but neither the birds nor the bears like them despite being named Bearberry.  I think it's a food of last resort when all else is gone in the coldest regions.  This plant is hardy to zone 2.

Kinnikinnik spreads easily.  I started with three plants, then added two more.  They filled in effortlessly, just where I wanted them, and then softly spilled over the edge of the walk.  It spreads by rooting where the expanding woody stems touch soil, but is easily controlled with a snip or two if it wanders where you don't want it to go.  As my patch shows, it will definitely cover some ground.

The cultivar I planted is 'Massachusetts'.  Kinnikinnik is like heathers: it wants dry, infertile, crappy soil that is quite acidic.  'Massachusetts' is better at tolerating wetter soil, but the best advice is to ignore this plant, and don't water or fertilize it.  Most sources say it is hard to transplant and slow growing, but my plants didn't read that.  They have been easy to put in, and fast to grow as long as I left them alone.

Limbing up the Japanese maple this summer will allow the green mat to spread underneath it and cover all the area in this square between the walk and the front stoop.

Kinnikinnik has never failed to entertain me as people ask "what is that glossy green mat in front?"  On my cue, I smile and rattle off "oh, that's Kinnikinnik.  You know, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  Bearberry berry-bear."  Mostly they nod, move on, and stop asking me the names of my plants.
Blooming in May.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Massachusetts' In MoBot's database.