January 30, 2011


I made an attempt to go out in the yard and try to dig the evergreens out of the deep snow that is weighing down the branches. 

The hemlock looked stripped, with its branches all pulled down.

The little Swiss Stone Pine seemed to be calling for help.

So I put on my ski pants, got a shovel and plunged into the snow at the edge of the driveway, headed to the back yard.  It was scary.  I sank into snow up to mid thigh.  I later measured: that's 28 inches.

It was not light enough to swish through, there is a crusty hard layer about a foot down, which is what is trapping the evergreen branches and pinning them so firmly to the ground.  It trapped me in each step, and I had to pull my leg entirely out of the snow, lifting it 28 inches to place the next step.  It was truly a frightening feeling.  I was only feet from my house, and I knew I would not die in a snowy grave, but a panicky sense of entrapment set in, and made me sweat.

I made it out to the hemlock, but it took a lot of effort, raising each foot so high and plunging back down.  I finally was able to dig down and free some of the snow and ice bound branches.

But I fear I did more destruction.  Hemlock sprigs were torn off and ripped up with each shovel thrust.  There was no way I could avoid damaging some of the fragile branches.

The little Swiss Stone Pine was freed from snow a little more easily.  It's smaller than the hemlock, and not as wispy.

But after that, I struggled back in to the house.  Just moving in that grasping sucking snow, up to my thighs, was exhausting, and it gave me such a scary feeling of helplessness.

And I think I was doing more damage than if I left the limbs pinned under all that weight.  I didn't even try to get to the Austrian pines or to the spruces on the berm or to the poor fir tree by the front door.  They all continue to be weighted down, lower branches all but snapped under the heavy load, and entire limbs imprisoned in snow.

I just couldn't do it.

January 28, 2011

One Year Anniversary

One year ago, I sat in this chair on a sunny winter morning.  It looked exactly like this, with the sun streaming in, the amaryllis blooming on the coffee table, and the two Siamese cats claiming a spot of sun on the chair I wanted to sit in. 

I opened up Blogger on my laptop, and began typing that my weeds were very sorry and wouldn't do that again. Then, on January 30 one year ago, I clicked "publish".

I had not thought about writing a blog, and I had not even considered myself a real gardener.  I started blogging out of frustration with  facebook .

I am on facebook for the same reasons many are: to see family photos (and, frankly, to track what my single sons are doing in California and Colorado, but I get very little info on that score).  I am as yet grandchildless, so I would post some fascinating photos of my plants, and make some observations --- witty, trenchant, timely and savvy... you know.  And I would get responses on my wall that varied between "get a life" and "you need to go back to work."

I gave up on facebook --- my family are not gardeners.  Most of them don't even go outdoors.

I thought: "all those people on Blotanical... they get it."

So I joined Blotanical, a wonderful meeting place for gardeners who want to share what they see growing all around them.  I set up the blog.  I posted.

To my utter amazement, I got comments.  Nobody suggested I needed to get a life; just the opposite!  In addition I discovered other blogs that were fascinating to read, literally all over the world.

And I discovered more.
  • I learned you will get a lot of search traffic if you title your blog "My Weeds Are Very Sorry".  I get hits on  "growing weed". 
  • I found the most visited post in a year of blogging continues to be the profile I did of my sweetbay magnolia last April.  By a wide margin.  Hundreds of pageviews more than any other post.  Even today, I am getting visitors who come to that post via all kinds of inquiries about sweetbay magnolias.
  • I experienced the shock of searching for some information on a plant in my garden, and Google returned my own blog post in the results.  In the top position.
    And the best discovery: I met real people!  Ellen Sousa from Turkey Hill Brook Farm and Beautiful Wildlife Garden read my blog and contacted me to ask if she could come to photograph my garden to include in a book that will be published next year.  Of course! 

    She came one day last September, she took many shots, we had a lovely visit over coffee... it was a surprising benefit of blogging.

    And earlier this month I met Cyndy, Debbie, Scott, and Joene --- Connecticut bloggers I have followed and shared comments with over this past year, as well as Colleen, a garden writer new to me.  We garden in different corners of the state, but it's a small state and it was easy to get together for lunch in the middle.

    It was wonderful meeting these avid gardeners for the first time.  I already felt as though I'd known them forever from their posts and pictures and comments. They all live somewhat near me, are doing what I'm doing, and have a wealth of information to share with me, but how would I have ever met them?  Without blogging, how would I have known about them at all?

    There are other friends I've made this year who comment and whose blogs I love to read.  A community.  Real people, real gardeners, real plants --- the only thing virtual is the network structure that allows us all to communicate.  I have to say I was flabbergasted that all this exists.

    I'm still on facebook, I still look to see if my sons have posted anything that tells me what they're up to, but I spend my time online in the garden blog world.

    It's been a very rewarding year!

    January 25, 2011

    The Fifth Season

    When the Pilgrims landed on the east coast of North America they knew they were roughly near the same latitude as England, and near the ocean like England, and they expected the seasons to be like England's.  They even called the place "new" England and set about putting in their gardens for food.

    They did not realize they were squatting at the edge of a continent where the weather came roaring across 3,000 miles of solid land, out of the west.  It wasn't like England at all.  The weather, which is heated and chilled by the giant land mass behind them, made the seasons wildly extreme.  The Wampanoags had to show them how to grow anything here, and when that failed, had to feed them.

    It's extreme here, but I'm lucky to garden in a climate that has so much variation.  New England has five very distinct seasons: Mud, Spring, Summer, Fall Color, and Winter Interest.

    What we have here now, people, is the fifth season, Winter Interest.
    Iteas, Aronias, Buddleia, Sundial and Shadows

    To have something to look at in the garden in snow, you need to plant woody shrubs and trees.  In January the red berries are long gone, so it's branches and shadows, light and dark, form and blank emptiness, that give the garden focus.  A perennial garden simply disappears during Winter Interest in this zone.  When the gardening articles talk about putting the garden to bed in autumn, they mean the perennials.

    You can leave some perennial seedheads standing, but only the sturdiest can hold up to an onslaught of deep snow. 
    Rudbeckia seedheads, a partly buried evergreen Zenobia, and flowerstalks of basil

    Most of the perennial garden looks like a white desert in January and February.
    Perennial garden in Winter Interest

    That's okay for some gardeners; they close up the garden and use the dormant season to wait for spring.

    But I don't want to wait for another season.  I want to see my garden now, and not just a generic scene of evergreens and snow, but the actual plants.  My plants.  I love knowing that the combination above of Iteas (Virginia sweetspire) and Aronias (Chokeberry) and Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) still looks good together when they're all branches and stems.  And I love seeing the redtwig dogwoods outside my front door.

    A bird's nest in the flowering dogwood is abandoned, but the bare branches of the tree still cradle it, and it's clearly visible in winter.  The dogwood looks like a shrub branched low to the ground, but it's a tree, with a trunk.  It has snow up to the first level of branches, giving it a whole new look during Winter Interest.

    You can't go wrong with a river birch in this season.  The shaggy bark is a treat.  I'm not sure what the mound in front of it is.  It looks like something overflowed.  I think there's a dwarf spruce under there, but everything looks so different now, I can't tell.

    Those of you who are waiting for your winter to end so you can see your gardens again are missing out.  I'm enjoying this season, not the cold or the wind or the shoveling, but I like the way my garden looks in Winter Interest.  Eventually I'll tire of it just as I do the other seasons, and then I'll be anxious for Mud to start in late March.

    January 23, 2011

    Sixty Degrees, Six Months

    All I did in my garden was subtract sixty degrees (F) and add six months to go from this....

    ..... to this:

    Water, temperature, time.  Three simple elements.  Where else but in your garden can so much drama be created with so little effort?

    January 20, 2011


    It's winter and I'm dreaming.

    I'm in another place, another time.  Not my garden.

    I'm far away and high up.

    I'm five thousand feet above sea level, and that's before we get on the horses and haul ourselves up to the high sandstone ridges and look down at the ranch.  See it there in the green flat meadow and dark strip of cottonwoods hugging the creek?

    In my dream it's August.  Not winter.  Not my garden.

    It couldn't look more different than my garden, but it is so familiar to me after years of visiting this place, summer after summer, and in my dreams in winter. 

    It's home, but it's not where I live.

    I had never been to the high plains; I'm an easterner.  I had traveled and seen a lot of the US, and had even been to other countries, exotic ones too.  I had visited places unfamiliar to me and foreign.  But I had never been "out West".

    The day I arrived in Wyoming and drove south to the ranch, I had an overwhelming sense of having been there before, of belonging, of coming home.  I have no idea why.  I can't exaggerate how compelling the feeling was.  A billboard outside Sheridan urged voters to consider a candidate for school board, and her name was both my maiden name and a variation of my first name.  Had I been here?

    The landscape was so completely different than woodland New England, and the ranch itself was so unlike the suburban yards and gardens I love back east.

    But there was no shaking it off.  This landscape was my place.

    It became my sons' place too, as we headed out there every summer when they were little, and they grew up with the horses and dogs and all the other dudes at the ranch.  They had no living grandparents on either side, so for them summers at the ranch were like going to visit the old folks, in a time warped ritual of horse wrangling and playing cowboy in an antique time.

    There were no TVs, no faxes, no phones there, which added to the sense of time dislocation.  The stars were so blazing and they hung so bright in the wide bowl of sky, that I ducked the first time I walked outside at night.  It was just a momentary flinch, but I ducked, afraid I'd bump my noggin on low stars that seemed just inches away.

    Part of my dreaming is revisiting this place, but part of it is going back to my childrens' youth, when they were little and excited to ride horses, and thrilled to toast marshmallows over a campfire and stay up late in the chill mountain nights to play endless card games of "spoons" in the cabin.

    It was long ago and they grew up, no longer quite so entertained by playing cowboys.

    But they have been back.  Once to help me scatter their father's ashes from the top of Castle Rock onto the rocky scree below.

    And later, as grown men, when they came back to the ranch to help me celebrate my birthday, and gave me the best birthday gift of all: new memories.

    I'm dreaming.  Outside it's cold, it's winter in New England, but in my dream it's summer in the Big Horn mountains.

    January 18, 2011

    Large Flowered But Doubtful

    Do you see the pale yellow spires of my perennial foxglove in this photo from last spring?  The yellow one, Digitalis grandiflora ambigua?  It's at the back of this garden --- in fact there is a stand of six of these beauties massed together.

    See them?  Me neither.

    They're at the back, behind the deep purple Salvia 'May Night'.  Their assigned role in this garden was to stand tall and provide the beautiful vertical structure this garden of clumps needs in May and June.  The pretty bells of foxgloves are just the thing to discipline a cottage garden, and Digitalis ambigua is a perennial one that comes back each year, not the bienniel that only lasts two years and stays in your garden only by self seeding.

    Permanent. Tall.  Soft yellow to tame the purples and pinks of spring.  A classic.  But nowhere to be seen.

    This is not one of my horticultural failures, or a plant I killed. This is a blooming, thriving success; I just can't see it.

    Here's a view a little later in the season from the backside of the garden and you can see the pale downward facing foxglove bells just peeking out to the left of the bright pink 'Elfin Pink' and the white 'Husker's Red' penstemons.

    They're there.

    But it turns out they are not tall enough for the back of the garden, and too pale to shine through other plants and get noticed.  A really doubtful note in the garden, very middle sized and middle colored.  Ambiguous.

    What did the plant breeders mean when they dubbed this foxglove Digitalis grandiflora ambigua?  "Grandiflora" I get: large flowers.  But "ambigua"?  In Latin it means "doubtful".  Were they underwhelmed by this plant, or just confused about its middling look?  Did they doubt it would do anything interesting in the garden?

    It's awfully helpful to know Latin when you shop for plants for your garden.  I didn't know, and I bought a plant essentially named "foxglove, large flowered but doubtful".

    from MoBot's files
    This spring I am going to dig up all six and put them somewhere else, nearer the house and closer to the front of one of my borders.  Maybe next to something dark, a conifer perhaps, that will give the pale buttery shade of the bells some contrast.

    They do have attractive interesting blooms as the close up photo from MoBot shows, and looking inside the carillon tubes reveals the speckled brown mottles that are a classic foxglove detail.

    They really are pretty after all.

    No doubt about that.

    January 16, 2011

    Hunters and Gatherers

    In my garden group, half of us are plant hunters and half are plant gatherers.  Which are you?

    There are two very distinct styles of buying for the garden.

    The Gatherers:
    They are gardeners who visit a nursery, find so many intriguing plants that they must have, and buy them.  No matter that there is no specific place in the garden for their acquisitions.

    Their purchases wait in a holding bed, get heeled in, or simply sit in pots all summer while a place opens up in the garden that would be just perfect for that elderberry or those shade loving epimediums.

    Gatherers never have enough room in the car on their visits to the garden center. They glean treasures on every visit, they collect specimens they know nothing about and must look up when they get home.  They always have unplanted containers that they must "do something with" some day.

    Plants on sale are a narcotic to a gatherer.

    The Hunters:
    They only go to the nursery to find a specific plant.  They hunt long and hard for that variegated redbud that can only be sited in partial shade, but which is a must to complete the design of the garden.  Hunters research what they want to buy, then spend long hours sourcing the plant, stalking the best price and nicest specimen.  A hole in the garden will sit unfilled until the right plant is found.  Sometimes for years.

    Discovering just the right plant is a real high to a hunter.

    You would think the gardens of hunters and gatherers would look very different, but they don't.  A garden carefully designed with purchases made only when the right plant is found looks just as exuberant and lush as a garden created with every new find snapped up on sale.  And a garden planted with all the happy items that found their way home in the trunk of the car looks just as thoughtful and planned as one created plant by plant.

    A plant gatherer's garden or a plant hunter's?
    It's a mystery how we all get along in my group.

    I do have to say my nerves go into spasm when my friends excitedly tell me about all the stuff they gathered up at the horticultural society plant swap, and how after filling the trunk they had to put containers on the front seat and sit among leaves and fronds all the way home, and they might plant the new rose they just picked up next spring if they can find a good spot.  And they just found an unusual new flowering quince but have absolutely no place to plant it.  Yet.

    And they must twitch uncontrollably when I explain how deliberately I planned the border at the back, and how thrilled I was when I found the perfect clumps of panicums with just the right vertical height, and how they complement the 'Ogon' spirea I was looking for all over and finally found at a nursery downstate.  And now I'm hunting for a specific kind of perennial basil I read about and have looked for everywhere but can't find.  Yet.

    Yes, you guessed it.  I am a hunter.  What are you?

    January 13, 2011

    Condo Snowed In

    I'm a little worried.  Usually the garden fairies are happy enough in winter; some go south for a few months, others stay here in Connecticut, warmly snugged in their crooks and crannies.   I occasionally see the younger ones outside on winter mornings, playing in the frosted leaf litter.

    But the condo dwellers who moved in under the deck steps last summer have me concerned.

    When it started snowing yesterday, their front door and windows were quickly obliterated, even the second story windows were blocked.  But the lantern was peeking out above the front door, the only thing visible at all.  At least I knew emergency vehicles could find them if they could see their lantern. 
    Only the snow capped lantern was visible by the middle of the storm.
    By afternoon the lantern was buried.
    But it kept snowing, and the lantern was soon under a blanket of snow as well.  Now I'm a little nervous.  You wouldn't even know their condominium is located there.  I know they have electricity and the water is running.  Supplies are adequate --- there was a very full acorn crop this fall.  But are they ok? 

    Should I try to shovel them out?  Garden fairies are acutely skittish and won't like me meddling anywhere near their front door.  But they were the ones who decided to take up residence so near my own back door, and they have tolerated my coming and going up and down the steps all year.

    What would you do?  Shovel them out?  Leave them be?  Clear away enough to just expose the lantern again for safety's sake?

    I am worried.