December 27, 2011

Goodbye 2011

January 2011.  Three tall panicums 'Northwind' glow in the snow.

February 2011.  It kept on snowing.  Acer palmatum 'Crimson Queen' tucks in.

March 2011.  The reward for getting through January & February.

April 2011.  The reward for getting through March.

May 2011.  View out the window.  Then.  Cercis 'Oklahoma' is gone now, felled by a storm.

June 2011.  Happy nasturtiums in a sea of green. 

July 2011.  First year that Aesculus parviflora (Bottlebrush buckeye) bloomed for me.

August 2011.  Lobelia cardinalis, cool looking and hot colored in the summer shade.

September 2011.  Caryopteris appears and bees go wild.

October 2011.  The month started like this . . . .
. . . . and ended like this.  This is just not supposed to happen in October.

November 2011.  Fothergilla and grass seedheads warm things up after the snow melted.

December 2011.  Ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite' winterberries never outlast the deer, but they're pretty in early December.

Goodbye 2011.  A little less snow for next year, okay?  A lot less rain, and more moderate temperatures in July, please.  That's all I ask.

And better light.  We had too many slightly overcast skies this year and a lot of my pictures came out flat.  A little earlier spring would be nice, but I won't push it.

No freak October snowstorms of any kind in the coming year. 

December 23, 2011

Breathing Light

It is Christmas.  You are expecting a red and green theme, some holly and berries, evergreen trees and bright red ornaments, right?  And you know it is the season of miracles.  So here is my red and green post, and it tells of a miracle, one that happens all around us.

As a young student, Donald Culross Peattie was amazed to discover that plants breathe light:

"Using spectrum analysis, Peattie learned that the constituents of a chlorophyll molecule were eerily familiar. 'To me, a botanist's apprentice, a future naturalist,' he writes, 'there was just one fact to quicken the pulse. That fact is the close similarity between cholorphyll and hemoglobin, the essence of our blood.'

This is no fanciful comparison, but a literal, scientific analogy: 'The one significant difference in the two structural formulas is this: that the hub of every hemoglobin molecule is one atom of iron, while in chlorophyll it is one atom of magnesium.'

Just as chlorophyll is green because magnesium absorbs all but the green light spectrum, blood is red because iron absorbs all but the red.

Chlorophyll is green blood. It is designed to capture light; blood is designed to capture oxygen".  *

This didn't just quicken the pulse, it stopped me in my tracks. I'm sure science majors and Master Gardeners learned this, but I never knew.

Gardening has so much to teach me.  I have so much to learn.

Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth to all the creatures breathing oxygen and all those breathing light in our world.

* Quoted from Tree, A Life Story by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady (it follows the 500 year life of one douglas fir).  Also, read Donald Culross Peattie's book: Flowering Earth.

This is the chemical diagram, if it helps.
from Wikimedia

December 20, 2011

How Tall Are Your Deer?

My deer are four feet three inches.  I know because they leave a browse line, nibbling everything up to exactly 4' 3" above the ground.

The birds never eat the berries on my winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite'), but the deer do.  Like clockwork, the herds check their calendars and when it says November 15, they send the word out -- "Winterberrries are ready.  They're ripe now.  Let's go eat."

And they arrange to meet in my garden and have a hollyberry party.
Apparently winterberry fruits are not yet ripe in early fall.  No wildlife touches them at this stage.

These are ripe.  Every berry below this level has been eaten by Thanksgiving.

Ilex verticillata stripped bare except for the topmost berries.

Those last uneaten berries at the top of the shrub stay there all winter.  You'd think the birds would at least eat what the deer leave, but they don't.  There must be a territory issue, with the birds respectfully leaving the hollies untouched for the deer herds, or maybe after the initial feasting, the berries go stale later in the season.  Who knows what rules are followed out there, I am only the gardener. 

You'd also think when the deer are starving in winter they would come back for those remaining fruits, and stretch a little to get what is just inches above their browse height. 

They're not that far out of reach, but my deer don't make the effort to get anything above four feet three inches, so the berries hang on. 

Maybe late in the season those top winterberries are like the sludge at the bottom of your cereal bowl.  Just not that appetizing after a while.

December 17, 2011

Where the Magic Happens

This is where the magic happens.  This is my potting bench, as seen the day after Jim brought it up from the basement when he built it several winters ago.  It never again looked as neat and tidy, but that first day on the patio it was pristine.

We live in a community that bans outdoor structures (and swingsets and clotheslines, sigh), so we cannot put up a garden shed.  I am a serious gardener, making horticultural miracles happen without a shed, greenhouse, cold frame, storage structure, or tool depot.

But I have a great cedar potting bench, custom built.

Of course it is rarely used for potting up.  It is a staging area, a work table and a place to stash stuff.  The metal cans have tight lids, so things that need to stay dry, like pruners and gloves, are stored in there.  Empty pots accumulate around the bench, and all the miscellaneous dirt encrusted things from the garden make their way to the bench, bringing half the soil from my garden onto the patio.

Big manly tools, like shovels and wheelbarrows, live in the garage with the John Deere.  There is a lot of schlepping back and forth between the patio and the garage on the other side of the house.

And the compost pile is hidden behind some spruces way at the back of our property, nowhere near the bench.  Again, more tromping between the compost pile and the patio.  I walk back and forth a lot when I garden.  It's not ideal.

Some of the magic happens on the porch.  It's unheated but gets bright daylight, and it's where the tender plants live during the cold season.  It's cramped and not ideal here either, but it suffices.

Here is where the real magic happens --- indoors, at the dining room table.

This is, in fact, an ideal workplace, the best place to garden on a winter afternoon.

December 14, 2011

Is This Plant OK?

Is Nandina domestica supposed to look like this?  This is dwarf heavenly bamboo, and it is assuredly not celestial looking.  It looks sick. 
Nandina domestica 'Firepower'. 

The foliage has been a bright offputting orange with streaky white since I planted it this spring.  It has stayed a small clump all season.  Does this plant look OK to you?

I read such glowing reports about nandina before I planted it.  Southern gardeners say it is too rampant and a problem, but northern gardeners say it is a dieback shrub that stays within bounds and delivers so much.  Specifically ---
  • Red berries if you plant en masse (but I only have one).
  • Deep green foliage in summer.
  • Fall color to die for.  To die for.
  • Dwarf size for restricted areas ('Firepower' stays low and small).

I'm not seeing it.  It's gaudy.  Too orange.  Too shaggy blobby.  Too clumpy.
This is 'Firepower' fall color as Wikipedia shows it.

I learned long ago that the first year for a plant in your garden is not indicative of what that plant will really look like.  The puny penstemons became lush specimens after I gave up on them.

The nepeta languished and was wimpy and wispy until the following year.  The amsonias didn't rise to the occasion for three full years.  So many other plants underwhelmed until they got going in a year.

But is this plant OK?  Will it morph into something beautiful next year?  Or is it just unhappy up here out of its normal range?  Does it really have such garish fall color?  Does it belong as a single dwarf blob in this horizontal strip?

There is a clematis that will climb the wire trellis in spring, but for now this is a flat narrow strip, punctuated by a too-bright ball of nandina, and the whole scheme needs help.

Does anyone grow Nandina domestica 'Firepower' up north?  And do you like it?  You are going to need to convince me.

December 11, 2011

Wine Party

The aluminum fire bowl was banished to the basement the first time it was used.

When we bought it many summers ago, I laid a few pieces of firewood in the bowl, and fired it up that evening in anticipation of cocktails on the patio on a summer's eve.  Firelight, drinks, conversation and balmy breezes laced with sweet wood smoke.

Within minutes, as thick smoke billowed into the open kitchen windows, all I could hear was roaring shouts, windows slamming shut, and Jim's helpful but forceful suggestion to move that damn thing or put it out.  The fire bowl has been in the basement for six years now.

So imagine my surprise when he brought it up a few nights ago.  He placed it among the chairs in our new gravel garden.  He got some firewood at the store, and spent the afternoon cutting it up into chunks small enough for the bowl.

As darkness fell (4:30 this time of year), he brought out a tray of wine, cheese and crackers, and we had a wine party around the fire on a cold evening.

It was chilly out, and it is densely dark in December in the early evening.  But the firelight danced, the aroma of wood smoke was delightful, and the stars twinkled above.  It was very romantic.  The air was crisp.  The wine was fortifying, and it was all so enchanting.

Windows in the house were shut tight against winter, so smoke from the fire swirled around us without any threat of inside invasion.

There was only one glitch.  There was no place to put the tray of food and wine.  Years ago I rescued a slice of a cottonwood tree stump from the side of the road (there's a story to that, posted here).

It is the perfect rustic side table next to the chairs, and you can set a glass on it.  But after years of sitting in a wet garden spot before I moved it out to the sunny gravel area, it has fungus growing in beautiful patterns all over it.  I could not have arranged the overlapping scattering any better or more elegantly.  It has weathered into a work of art.

With the fungus on top, you can't put much on it.  So we nestled the tray of goodies in the gravel at our feet, and all was well, as long as we were careful not to step on the cheese platter in the dark. 

I do need to find something to use for a flat table to hold a tray, though.  There is no way I would scrape those beautiful rings of sculpture off the top of the cottonwood stump.

I'll have to scour the woods and see what I can find.  So many trees came down in the freak storm we had at the end of October, and utility crews have been running their chainsaws for weeks now.  I'm sure there are treasures out there that I can salvage.

December 7, 2011

Do I Dare?

I want to plant an American holly.  Do I dare?

Ilex opaca is a native holly, and it can get to be a huge tree.  It's not the small foundation holly bush that you see around homes.   It's a tree, and a spectacular one.
I took this photo last summer at the Connecticut College arboretum in New London (along the Connecticut shoreline).  It is about 25 feet tall.  It is in a sunny clearing in the woods, not far from the ocean, apparently the perfect conditions for it.

It has it all --- it's deep green (not so glossy as English holly, though), it is evergreen, perfectly shaped, and it has berries.  It has branches that grow to the ground, although old specimens become more open.

It looks like Christmas all year long.  Joene from Joene's Garden suggested it for the open space next to my house where the former Bradford Pear tree met its demise.

But do I dare experiment with one?  My reservation is that no one sells them here in zone 5 northern Connecticut.  When I tried to get Ilex opaca at local nurseries I was told they are hardy (marginally), and will survive the winter temperatures but are too prone to winter burn.  They need to be grown in a protected spot, which I don't really have.  The east side of my house will give it afternoon shade in the summer.  But not much protection in winter.

This is where Ilex opaca grows naturally (from Wikipedia).  
Can you see the little green dot in Boston and a few along the Connecticut shore?  Its range includes southern New England, but only the coastal areas.  Do you see any green shading in northern Connecticut?  No, me neither.

One landscaper said he could get an American holly for me and would plant it, but would not give me the standard one year planting guarantee.  And yet there are mature holly trees around here, planted many years ago in parks and estates.  The green shaded native range map from Wikipedia just shows where they grow naturally, not where they CAN grow.

I so want this perfect looking tree.  Do I dare?

I have pushed zones with some trees and they do well (my sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, shouldn't grow here but does.  And a persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is native further south but thrives for me.)

I took this photo of Ilex opaca at the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan this fall.  It is about 10 feet high.  It is potentially exposed to winter winds up there, 30 feet above New York's streets, but it is near the moderating ocean.

Apparently an Ilex opaca north of its preferred range will not get as big.  But what I really want is that tree from the photograph I took at Conn College last summer --- the photo at the top of this post.  That is what I want growing in an open sunny spot in my garden where the poor beknighted pear tree once was.

Joene tells me she has seen open planted specimens in her neighborhood, planted out where the sun and the wind are.  And they do well.  She is only a few miles south of me in central Connecticut.

Do I dare try one?  What if it winterburns and looks horrible and is a mistake?

If you garden inland north of the Mason Dixon line, and you have grown Ilex opaca successfully, and it looks great and doesn't get crispy in winter, send me a picture and some encouragement.

The University of Connecticut (UConn) plant database shows some huge American holly specimens, and the school is located in northern Connecticut.  I just don't know if their photos are all campus shots or if they post pictures from other parts of the country.

December 3, 2011

The 99% Rule

You just can't do this.   You can't wrap MOST of your young sapling trees in protective mesh and expect ALL of your young sapling trees to be okay.  You have to wrap each and every one.

Male deer will find any unprotected supple trunk and vigorously rub the felt off their antlers, shredding bark in the process, enough sometimes to kill a young tree.

I forgot to enclose this maple sapling in a mesh cylinder this fall.  Look what happens if you don't do that.

Wrapped now, a little late.

Here is the Rule of 99% regarding male deer in autumn:
  1. If hunters were allowed to hunt at will and if they killed 99% of all the bucks in the area, every doe in the same area would still be pregnant.  Deer are prolific reproducers and all it takes is one male deer.  Just one.  Hunters want antlers, but killing a lot, but not all, of the bucks does nothing to control herd size.
  2. If gardeners protect 99% of all the vulnerable tree trunks in their gardens each fall, saplings will still be damaged by bucks rubbing their antlers on bark.  The sole unprotected trunk, tucked in behind other plants and hidden in the general planting scheme, will be sought out, found and trashed.

This season there has been a young adolescent male in our yard and he has been so funny to watch.  He is confused, uncertain, without any antlers yet, so he was not the bark shredding culprit.  This time.

He is not feeding or browsing, just wandering around and it doesn't bother him at all that I am out in the yard.  He is big, with giant hindquarters that don't fit his clumsy body yet.  He doesn't bound gracefully, he forges about heavily, tromping across front yards and driveways.
All summer the female deer and I have an agreement --- when I scream and run at them, the does very sweetly agree to prance away into the woods while I carry on, and then nicely come back when I go inside.  This dumb young male doesn't get it.

I try to scare him and he stands there hanging his head, knowing he is doing something wrong, but not sure what.  I clap and bang and threaten, and he looks around to ask "does this mean something?  Am I supposed to know?"
Jim throws small rocks at him, and he shifts position, then crashes about in confusion as he heads for the meadow, veering back and forth in random directions.  He's just dumb, dumb.

But I'm 99% sure that in another year, all the fawns in the neighborhood will be his.

December 1, 2011

Digging Daylilies

this one was highly fragrant
On the first of the month Joene sponsors GOOPs, or Gardening Oops.  It's an opportunity to confess what you have done in the garden that you just shouldn't have done.

I should not have planted daylilies.  At least not where I planted them, weaving in and out among mixed plantings.

I love daylilies and I particularly like ditch lilies that are so orange and so summery when they explode all along the roadsides in July.

arange daylilies crowding a young doublefile viburnum

They look best in big colonies, or in long rows, massed together where each new day's flower can mask the stalks of the spent ones and the untidy foliage blends together in a big sea of green.  But in a mixed border scattered about with other plants they just don't work.  

First, daylilies are crowders.  I wanted to fill all that empty space in the big bare swaths of mulch that were my early garden, so I thought planting dozens of them would be just the thing.

They quickly took over and shouldered aside anything else I wanted to put in the border.

Second, daylilies flop about.  I wanted mounding, arched foliage to fill spaces with a lovely cascading effect.  I got wildly unkempt fountains of strappy leaves that laid down all over the other plants. 

this wasn't the cascading foliage effect I was going for, it's just messy
Third, they don't flower. The deer eat the buds, never the leaves. They were all messy foliage and few redeeming blooms.  Using lots of smelly deterrent spray I did get them to flower at points during the season and I have pictures to show me that they were pretty in bloom.  But it was a struggle for the occasional pop of bright color.

Finally, they add nothing to a mixed border.  They are too unstructured and too big to play well with companions.  They need space of their own.

They need to be massed.

These escaped the deer one season
This fall I dug most of them up to give away, and the beds look better already, cleared of all the chaos.  I left some, but even those should be dug and moved.  I have plans for that next spring just as soon as I can find a separate new spot for a daylily patch.

I never kept the labels to know which cultivars I had.  I would have liked to know what the magenta one was, or the name of the very fragrant yellow daylily.

It was a lesson learned, an oops from a beginning gardener.  I thought so many daylilies interplanted in curving sweeps among shrubs and perennials would be such great garden fillers, but they weren't.

Now I am digging up daylilies.

Do you see the mistakes in this beginner garden?  Everything too close (the doublefile viburnum on the left will get immense and swamp everything), and those strappy daylilies in the middle will soon engulf their neighbors.  It all looked so tidy for a while.