April 26, 2011

Native and Local? Not Here

We are starting a new garden.  I have been unsatisfied for a while as I look at the garden islands dotting my yard.  Each is nice, but each exists in an isolated mulch pool in the middle of too much lawn, and it all needs to be better tied together.

Here is an example, a picture from last fall:
late October, 2010: a sea of islands

This spring we dug up some lawn bisecting this area, in a winding, sinewy river of a border that will eventually become a shrub "wall" to enclose a secret garden space in the foreground, surrounded by existing borders.  A stepping stone path will wander through it and out into the garden by the birch trees, thereby tying the spaces together.  I hope.

Here it is with the bones of the new garden dug out:
this spring, the beginning of a new garden

Please do not chortle at the awkward curves.  As I confessed in my interview post, I cannot create pleasing curves in a border garden.  I don't know why, but I can't, and the plant choices I put in will have to disguise this deficiency.

The plant choices!  What fun to shop for an entire border of new plants.

And what frustration if you want anything pretty that is native.

Some choices for a shrub border were easy: I got three nice Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' plants that will be large and woodsy looking, with beautiful spring blossoms and great fall color.  I got evergreen inkberry hollies to flank the stepping stone entrance out into the yard and to the birch trees.  And I will transplant some other things, and tuck some perennials in around everything.

But the one plant I want for the focal point on the extreme left is not so easy.  I want a Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Cornus alternifolia from Oregon State
You can't get one.  You can get a Chinese dogwood (kousa) at any garden center or box store, but you can't get a native Cornus alternifolia.

When I asked at one high end nursery I was told "we don't carry it because no one knows what it is."  Okay, but I know what it is.  "Sorry, we just can't sell plants that informed gardeners know about, only the ones that uninformed homeowners have seen in other peoples' yards."  This is your marketing strategy?  The nursery manager cheerfully declined to try to find one for me.

At another high end nursery my name was put on a list with a promise to call if they ever find a source for this plant.  The book with the names and contact numbers was stuffed full and scraps of paper were falling out on the floor; my hope of getting a positive call back is possibly nil.

from Northscaping.com
Broken Arrow Nursery, 40 miles away, has two in their catalog, but they are a golden leaved variety and a variegated form that need more shade than my spot has.  Mail order nurseries will sell Pagoda Dogwoods that are smaller, a shippable size, raised in a different zone, always an iffy prospect.  Besides, I want a large anchor specimen.

A call to Bartlett Tree Experts asking to locate this tree and plant it for a hefty fee went unanswered.

With all of the focus on planting native, wildlife-friendly plants, why is the non-native Kousa Dogwood, so big and rangy and way too large for most yards, the only choice in local stores?

Why is the small, elegant, horizontally-branched bird-enticing berry producing Pagoda Dogwood a plant that no one can figure out how to sell locally?  It's easily propagated from seed, it's gorgeous, it's small enough for the suburban garden.  What exactly are the liabilities to selling this?

Gardeners are urged to go native and buy locally.  Yeah, right.

April 23, 2011

Some Things I Like

Some things I like about spring:

1.  The pale, sweet colors:
Prunus 'Okame'
'Okame' cherry blooming weeks late this year

2. Rich vibrant colors, especially reds and greens:
Redtwig dogwod leafing out in Christmas red + green
Sedum spurium 'Red Carpet'.  It's only this deep red in early spring

3. Husbands who do major garden projects:
A new border is laid out
The new border is a little snake-like.  Need to go plant shopping and fill it up!

5. Working all day outside in the garden, and then coming in for a cat nap after.
Mmm?  Did you finish digging? 
These are some of the things I like about spring.

April 20, 2011

Books for Earth Day

I've been invited by Joene of Joene's Garden and by Marguerite of Canoe Corner to participate in an Earth Day meme sponsored by The Sage Butterfly.

As part of this Earth Day observation, I also asked other bloggers to participate and you can read another at Prairie Rose's Garden.

Everyone will be posting about three books that inspired some sort of action or awareness of the environment.  Here are three books I read that have stayed with me and made me think about the plants and animals in the world I live in:

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
It's not a screed against fast food or meat and it didn't make me a vegetarian.  It's a clear, well written explanation of where our food comes from.  That's all.  But what an eye opener!  Who knew we have so many carbon atoms from corn (Zea mays) racing around in our bodies?  The section on a sustainable farming enterprise was really interesting and can still apply to our public agricultural policy.

This is the book that gave us his famous recipe:  
Eat Food.  Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.

(If I get to pick more than three books, I'd add all of Michael Pollan's books, including The Botany of Desire and Second Nature, both incredibly informative about how plants work, and how we use them in the landscapes around us.)

Noah's Garden by Sara Stein.
Although I don't have the acreage, pond, and natural setting the author had, I have followed her approach to rehabbing my own suburban environment in a recently built new subdivision.  My lawn is being converted to plantings, I have installed over 50 native trees and shrubs and I'm inviting nature back into the sterile landscape.  The author is no "natives only" fanatic and neither am I.  Her compromises with pests and limitations are the same I am making, but her inspiration to "let the wild back" into our suburban yards was compelling to me, and continues to guide what I plant and why I plant.

Gathering Moss by Robin Kimmerer.
An absolute gem of a book that focuses on observation of the most minute natural details, in this case mosses.  You'd think this would be a snooze -- moss? really?-- but it is lyrically written, incredibly informative about a miraculous plant I knew nothing about, and full of wonder.  There is a disturbing discussion of the definition of life: mosses are not always living tissue, but can be revivified.  Not from a dormant state, mind you, but from a dead state.  It gets tricky in so many ways.

There are some chilling chapters about the lengths we go to in eradicating nature, and some hysterical chapters on what wealth can buy if you want to recreate nature in all its details on a massive budget. 

Check out all the other blogs that are participating for Earth Day and see what books have inspired garden bloggers.

April 19, 2011

Interview - Part Two

R: We're back with the second installment of our interview with a Connecticut gardener.  You can read a transcript of the first part here.  This time we are out of the studio, on a visit to the garden itself.  Tell me, what is this shrub here with the funny bottlebrushes on it?  They smell like honey.

Me: That was a Hydrangea serrata but now it is a Fothergilla gardenii.

R: Really?  Plants can change into completely different plants?

Me: Yes.  Not naturally, but if I move them. The hydrangea that was in this spot languished.  It was too sunny and dry here.  So I moved it and put in a fothergilla, which likes it better here.  Almost every plant in my garden is sitting in a spot where some other plant was before it.

R: Why move plants around so much?  Doesn't that set them back or hurt them?

Me: Heavens, no.  I only plant things that can be moved three times and thrive. 

R: Why three times?

Me: The first spot is always where I want that particular plant to grow, despite the plant's own needs and the culture info on the tag.  The second location is where the plant itself is happier.  The third spot is usually a whim, when I'm doing radical garden redesign without a plan.

R: While we are walking around, show us which plants are your favorites.

Me: I don't have favorite plants --- individual plants by themselves are not interesting.  It's how they combine with others that make me go "wow".  This is a favorite spring combination of 'Oklahoma' redbud, the fothergilla I just mentioned, and some spruces, with a climbing hydrangea in front. This was from last spring, and it still delights me:

And this fall combination of amsonia and Himalayan fleeceflower nestled under a doublefile viburnum is a favorite:

Even a simple corner of the garden with creeping thyme, roses and grasses can wow on a summer morning when they are together:

I have favorite mixes of forms and shapes too, not just colors.  Like this combination at the bend of the walk:

I could go on.

R: That's okay.  I get it.  Show us the first thing you ever planted, the very beginning of your garden six years ago.

Me: I can't.  I killed it and most of the other things I planted at first.  For a while I kept a plant graveyard, with all the tags of all the deceased plants stuck in the ground.  But after a while it looked ghoulish and it was taking up too much room.  Now the compost pile is all I can show you of most of my beginning efforts.

R: Why do you have a rusted sign here in the border?
Me: I need to be reminded.

R: Thank you for this tour of your gardens.

Me:  My pleasure.  Come back next season, it will all look different.

April 16, 2011

We're Late

How late can spring be and still call herself spring?  After the most brutal winter in years, New Englanders are being subjected to a cool spring, with freezing or near freezing temperatures overnight and cold blustery winds in the daytime.  Nothing abnormal -- it's all part of the natural variation of seasons, but c'mon.   It's late.  I paid my income taxes already.

The 'Okame' cherry just won't open her buds.  It's the earliest of all the flowering cherries to bloom, and it's a lovely light pink.  Last year, which was very warm very early, this cherry was in full bloom on March 31.  Look at her now, April 16, holding fast and tight to those buds.

It's not just my faulty recollection; I have pictures and they are automatically dated, and they show this tree in glorious fluffy full color more than two weeks earlier last year.

In fact, I apparently had a creative burst a year ago on April 16, and I took about 40 photos of the entire yard, and everything was leafed out or blooming!  The redbuds were starting to bloom their intense magenta and the ornamental pear was a haze of white blossoms.  The funny bottlebrushes of the fothergillas were completely out. The daffodils were sunning themselves happily.
April 16 last year
the same daffodils April 16 this year

The tulips were up.  This year there are none, zero, not a single tulip peeking through the cold soil, but that is because of the voles, another lament that I can add to my woes about weather.

It was all too early last year, and that was just as much an anomaly as this year is.  But after such a long winter, this interminable waiting, weeks of waiting now, is wearing on me.

Thank goodness for the dwarf forsythia.  Its cheerful yellow against the bare red stems of the redtwig dogwoods provide the only spring color for my starved eyes.

You may recall that I planned to take out the long low lumpy line of dwarf forsythias that looked so bad along the foundation.  I did.  I took them all out last week, except for this one remaining shrub.  I left this one to anchor the corner.  This one looked the best and had a decent form and so it stayed.

As if to justify being saved from the shovel, this one 'Golden Peep' dwarf forsythia has completely redeemed my faith in a tardy, slow spring.  Maybe I should threaten all the other spring bloomers in my garden. . . go after them with the intent to remove and replace them, and see if they step up like this gorgeous little forsythia has.

April 14, 2011


R: Today we are talking with a new gardener, a woman from Connecticut who started gardening late in life, after her retirement from the corporate world.  Thank you for coming to our studio.

Me:  I'm glad to be here.

R: Tell us how you came to gardening in your 60s.

Me: We bought a new house when I retired.  As anyone who has downsized knows, we ended up with a larger home and more acreage.  It was a newly built home, and the lot was a blank slate with no topsoil.  I had to create all of the landscaping and gardens and patio and deck areas from scratch.  After the closing there were few funds left for professional landscaping, so I figured, naively as it turned out, that I would simply get a shovel and do it myself.

R: How did you start?

Me: Randomly.  I read a lot, I did internet searches, and then I randomly dug up areas around the foundation and out in the yard and added plants.  I wanted screening and privacy so I planted a lot of trees.

R: What did you plant?

Me: Tiny little saplings.  Dogwoods, pines, little oaks and maples and sweetgums and redbuds and birches, many of them 10 inches high, that will be tall trees when other people live here.

R: How did you decide what trees to plant?

Me: Whatever Lowe's had that cost less than $20 and whatever ArborDay would send for free with my annual dues.  Then later I figured out I should be planting natives, so I had to read and learn what actually grows in the woods around here and go deeper into the internet and to specialty high end nurseries to source them.  Surprisingly, it's a varied and wonderful selection of hardwoods and shrubs that have filled our natural forests for eons.  Have you seen a sassafras sparkling in fall?  A viburnum in spring flowering quietly at the edge of the woods?

R: No, it must be beautiful, though.  So you only planted trees and shrubs?

Me: Perennials and annuals and groundcovers too.  Herbs and berries but no vegetables.  Vines.  Mixed containers.  Statuary and some garden gnomes, god help me.  Birdbaths.  A dry creek bed.  Once you start, it doesn't stop.

R: You had a dry creek bed installed?

Me: No, I put it in myself.  On my hands and knees, using only the stones I had collected from each planting hole I dug.  There was no shortage of stones, and I appear to be growing more in the soil each year.

R: What was the hardest thing for you to learn as a brand new gardener?

Me:  Math.  Gardening is one of those real life math applications that your teacher warned you would need as an adult.  Volume eludes me.  Six big, heavy, difficult to haul bags of mulch cover only a small fraction of a portion of the corner of a tiny part of the garden.

Geometry baffles me.  I cut borders whose edges look like a tight, difficult slalom course, all sharp bends, the radii and arcs are all wrong.  Getting a wide gentle curve is a skill I cannot master and laying out a curvy hose or painting lines on the grass in orange paint is no help.  I think you need math to do it right.

Volume, scale, ratios, proportions all mystify me.  That's why I have short plants in the wrong places and tall plants too close together and onesies scattered about in forlorn isolation.  Planting odd numbers, massing, spacing is daunting and seems to require too many calculation skills.  I wish good garden design was about the plants, but it's about how much you paid attention in seventh grade math class.

R: But your gardens have not all been badly designed; don't you have any successes?

Me: No.

R: You are too modest.  After five years of intensive experimentation you surely have liked some of your results?

Me:  I like the way this turned out but it was an accident.

R: It's lovely.  Are there others?

Me: Well, actually yes.  Of my photos from 2010, I saved 400 that I thought showed a particularly nice view of some successful designs and plant combinations I like.  Let me show you on my laptop, here, I'll just go into Picasa . . . 

R: Well, hold onto that link.  We'll take a break now and continue with part two of our interview in the next installment.

April 12, 2011

Tree Rehab

This little twig, bandaged and clipped, is a recuperating Cornus mas.  It's recovering from a catastrophic injury sustained this winter under a snowbank.  It was seven inches high last fall, and when the snow melted this spring it was three inches high.  Most of the upper half of the tiny stick was still attached, but barely hanging off to the side. 

A tight wrap of velcro tape and a bright purple bag clip make a splint.

When the rescue dogs found it, blood pressure was hard to detect, pulse was thready, and vitals were unknown, but there were buds as of March.

It's hard to believe this fragile twig, snapped almost in two and now limping through spring with a ridiculous purple clip holding it together, will ever become the glorious yellow flowered tree that Marie documented this spring in Manhattan's Battery Park: see her photos from March on her blog at 66 Square Feet.

Cornus mas is a dogwood, but it's unusual.  It has a haze of golden yellow flowers in March and April, and it's a big shrubby tree.  It's the earliest dogwood to bloom, and it looks like a big forsythia, but far more elegantly shaped and way more dapper in full flower:
from Chicago Botanic Garden's "Illinois' Best Plants"

Here's an ancient one I saw last summer, limbed up and loosely espaliered in the kitchen convent garden at The Cloisters Museum in New York:

Cornus mas is called Corneliancherry, and it has small red fruits.  The reason it was cultivated in cloister gardens in the middle ages was because the cherries were an important fruit crop that could grow in a small space.  Garden advice articles say it should be sited away from walkways or patios, as the birds love the cherries and tend to make a mess with them.
from Edible Landscaping.com

Tell me, will mine survive?  It is so tiny and so grievously injured.  Rehab will be long and protracted, and I don't know if I can stand looking at that purple clip in my garden all summer.

April 9, 2011


From this in the fall:

To this in my driveway yesterday:

Every autumn the town of West Hartford vacuums up homeowner's raked leaves, sends them to a company called Envirocycle, and through nature's miraculous transformation they become black crumbly soft fluffy stuff in a couple years.

I bought a truckload, and it was delivered in a great big pile that I am using to fill some new gardens, enhance the soil in the old gardens, and otherwise spread around with gleeful abandon.

My only question:
Was the blue tarp really necessary?

Actually, you should always use a blue tarp for protection in any and all situations.

Otherwise you'd get dirt all over everything and it would make a mess in the cracks between the pavers.

Get the shovels out.

April 7, 2011

Angelina, Angelina

Sedum rupestre 'Angelina' just amazes me.  I picked up a mixed pot of succulent plants at Home Depot one year, and when the season was over I planted some of them out in the garden.  This little sedum was among them.

From one plant I have a spreading groundcover that is just beautiful.  Who knew?

It roots easily where ever a tiny succulent "branch' falls, and it spreads beautifully.  Not aggressively, but rapidly and thoroughly, smothering weeds.  Like any sedum it likes dry infertile soil, such as the spot along this brick wall where the overhanging eaves prevent any water from reaching this strip.

In winter and earliest spring it is golden hued with subtle red and rust tones. It just lights up the edges and far corners of the winter-tired garden and cold brown mulch. 

It provides a little richness below dormant twiggy shrubs and trees.

When the weather warms it turns a lovely light green, almost chartreuse at times, and sometimes even yellow.  It gets a bit spikier as the tiny stalks grow like a miniature pine forest.

Remember, this was all from one plant I took out of a container and plopped in my garden, later dividing it multiple times and replanting any stray branchlets as they occurred.

The yellow flowers in summer rise on small stalks, about three inches high.  I don't like them, so I cut them off.  I prefer the soft flat carpet look of the foliage rather than the blooms.

I had absolutely no expectations of this sedum when I took it out of a spent container and put in in the ground.  Didn't expect much of anything. 

Angelina, Angelina, how you charmed me.