July 28, 2011

A Letter to the Future

July 28, 2040

Dear New Homeowners,

Congratulations on your new home.  I lived in this house for many decades and loved it.  I know you will too.

I am writing to you now, after the closing, to say one thing that I was not able to say during the sale negotiations.  Now that the house is yours, I need you to know:

           I am so sorry.
                 About the garden.  

It is so crammed and overgrown and impossible to navigate because I could not imagine, back in 2011, that stuff would grow so big.  I had no idea.  Well, of course I read the plant descriptions, but what help is that?   12' by 12'?  That's not so big for a viburnum, is it?

The magnolia that prohibits cars from using the driveway and blocks your access to the yard --- that was a foot high once, not even the height of a rabbit standing upright to nibble it.  The tag said "smaller than other magnolias".  Smaller, okay?  I'm sorry.  I guess it all looks too closely planted even in 2011, but who knew?  Each tree and shrub looked like a chess piece on a small game board:

That giant sassafras tree that towers over the evergreens, deforms them as it encroaches in their sunshine space, and suckers all over the berm?  I'm so sorry.  It looked like this once.  It was incredibly cute:

I know I planted trees and shrubs way too close to the house.  I'm sorry about that.  I left loppers in the garage. You could prune them back maybe.  You won't believe it, but the stewartia and redtwig dogwoods did not completely block the front door in 2011.  They seemed so right-sized then.  I did not expect them to wrap around the front porch and lift the siding panels at maturity:

See the red painted hatchway door to the basement?  You didn't know there was a door there, and I'm sorry about that.  It got covered up when the amsonias leapt their bounds and spread across, and the hydrangea 'Tardiva' ("smaller than other hydrangeas") grew to be 12' by 12' as all the shrubs did.  But there is a door there, you can see it here in 2011:

The golden hops vine that is now taking down the roof shingles on that side of the house was so small and unassuming when I put it in, back in 2011:

As was the kiwi vine that has now ripped down the deck railing.  It was dainty and so pretty when I planted it.  Sorry about the vines.  Sorry abut the deck railing.

And everything else.  When I toured botanical gardens I saw how they crammed specimens together and one plant grew into another and it all worked so well.  But maybe they pruned a lot, or replaced a lot of too-close plants as they matured and put in others that were newer.  I didn't.  I planted and let it go.

When visitors came to my garden years ago when it all was brand new, the only comment I ever heard was: "do you know how BIG that's going to get??"

I now know that 5 Colorado blue spruces and 3 birch trees and 4 hollies and a spreading biomass of clethra and spicebush and a raft of woody ground covers need more than a five foot wide strip to grow in.  But for a while, in the beginning, it looked tidy.  It all fit:

I am sure you will enjoy your new home.  And I think you can enjoy the garden if you don't go outside.  Actually, you can't get outside; the plants have blocked all the doorways.  Fortunately you can't see out the windows to observe the mess.  All the foundation shrubs are 12' by 12' now.

My apologies.

  the former homeowner

July 25, 2011

What's Not to Love?

What a kick to see what the flowers finally look like on a shrub I planted years before.  I knew bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) had white flowers that look like . . . . no kidding, bottlebrushes, but I had never seen them on my new plants.

I put a row of very small mail order plants in the ground in late fall, 2007.  They grew like gangbusters over the next three years, and had a few brown spiky attempts at flowers last summer.  They even produced a couple chestnut shaped buckeye nuts from those immature flowers. 

But this year, for the first time, the flowers are bursting into giant white fluffy candles that look like someone lit them on fire in the evening light.  They really are impressive, and they are starting to shoot up all over.

Now don't laugh at this gangly row of buckeyes.  As young plants these are the most ungainly, floppy, unshapely shrubs I've ever seen.  The leaves are great big droopy palmate paddles, the branching is what I can only call exuberant, and now the spiky tall bottlebrushes exploding out everywhere add even more awkwardness.  I love it.

This row will mature into a massive, dense 10 to 12 foot high hedge over time that will stop the meadow from coming into the yard.  Specimens I have seen in public gardens are awesome.  They lose their youthful ungainliness and become stately.

Can you imagine a row of giant, fully mature bottlebrush buckeyes covered in zooming, lit up flower spikes in July?  I can, now that I am seeing what these gawky adolescent plants can do.

Aesculus parviflora has been amazingly forgiving in my garden.  They are understory woodland plants that like shade, and of course I have them lined up at the edge of a meadow in full sun.  They need a lot of water to fund all that growth, and we have had hot dry summers last year and this year so far.

Voles nest in the dense suckering branches at the base and strip the bark mericlessly, but the shrubs survive and just make more suckers.  Bottlebrush buckeyes are one of the very few plants in my garden that deer do not nibble or even sample.

To all the deer reading this blog: please, please, do not let that be an invitation.  Now that I have mentioned how resistant they are, I do not want to see any bucks eyeing these plants. *

Unlike buckeye trees, called horse chestnuts, the leaves do not get that terrible scorch problem late in the season that make the Aesculus trees planted all over European cities look brown and tired, although mine do singe and crinkle a little at the edges all summer because I have them in too much sun.

In fall the big leaves turn a neon yellow, mixed with lingering green, that makes them look like they dressed up for a Halloween party in clown costumes. 

I ask you, what is not to love about such a funny, tolerant, enthusiastic, entertaining personality in the garden.

* you got  it, right?

Just so you know, Aesculus is called buckeye because the nuts are brown and somewhat crescent shaped and look like the big brown eyes of a deer.  Sort of, I guess.

July 22, 2011

Adam and the Apple

I have discovered an interesting blog that is completely and totally dedicated to apples.  Actually he discovered me and left a comment on my post about heirloom apples at Tower Hill Botanical Garden.  That's how I found the link to his blog, and when I went over to check it out, I was delighted.

Adam's Apples is not about recipes, autumn crafts or the health benefits of eating apples.  It is totally focused on the growing of apple trees and reviewing apple fruit varieties.  It really caught my fancy.

First, there is the fact that his name is Adam (that made me smile).

Second, I grew up in an apple orchard and have such nostalgia for the beautiful clouds of May blooms, the twisty scrabbled trunks, the heavy fruit dropping into messy piles in the lawn (okay that part was annoying, as it was my job to rake them up) .  The farmer sold off the property after World War II and a builder put up houses among the gnarled old trees and that's where I grew up, living in an orchard.

1956 - that's me in front of the apple trees in our yard
in winter the contorted branches stood against the sky
Third, Adam's blog is an incredibly comprehensive catalog of varieties most of us have never seen.  And I know that the look and taste of some of the old cultivars is nothing like the waxy globe you buy at the supermarket.

And fourth, his blog is so focused.  I love the fact that it is all about apples.  Just apples. The genus malus.  There are clear pictures of each kind, and a quirky catalog.  His enthusiasm for this remarkable, productive fruit is infectious.

I don't grow apples in my garden, and I can't even grow ornamental crabapples since our area is prone to cedar apple rust from nearby junipers.  While rust can be controlled somewhat and probably won't kill the trees, I just don't want the maintenance and the defoliation problems in my small garden.
from Adam's blog, check it out

But oh, how I miss the apple trees I grew up with.  And how I am longing for a tart, crisp, juicy eating apple right now.

I will have to go cruise Adam's catalog of opinionated reviews to find one that would be just right.

By the way, if you really want to appreciate the remarkable attributes of the humble apple, read Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.  He profiles the evolution of four plants that humans have domesticated, one of which is the apple.  It's an amazing story. 

July 18, 2011


(I wrote this post on July 18, 2011. It has been updated on June 16, 2015 so you can see photos of the changes I made to the creekbed at the bottom of this post --- read all the way to the end if you want to see!)

Original post:
The edges are too symmetrical, too uniform
The dry creek bed I constructed has never looked quite right.  I built it completely by myself, on my hands and knees.  Jim helped remove the sod and cut the shape, but I dug and hauled and moved and placed every rock.

It is decorative, it doesn't carry any water.  My main goal in constructing it was to use up all the rocks that had accumulated around the property every time I dug a hole.

I used them all.  But it didn't look right.  Too symmetrical or something.  The edges had no variation, and it did not look natural.

I kept adding more stones every time I dug in the garden (the supply is endless.  You can re-dig in the same hole you made a month ago and new rocks will have formed.  Lots of them.)  I kept trying to get the stream bed to look better, adding more and more material and becoming more and more dissatisfied.

My neighbor Kit's dry stream bed, professionally installed and running the entire length of her back yard, looked like what I was after.  Really, what was the difference, other than money, materials, depth, scale, an arched granite footbridge, a hired landscaper and a backhoe?  Why couldn't I make my tiny amateur version look like hers using only a wheelbarrow and my garden trowel?  Why not?
Kit's dry stream bed: my model

Finally, after studying constructed stone stream beds at public gardens and in photos, it dawned on me: subtraction.  Not addition.

Take some of the edging stones away.  Leave random breaks in the stream bank.  Let the grass and low plants grow down into the breaks. So I started removing rocks, sighing as I undid a lot of the hard work I had done, one by one, rock by friggin rock.

In the end I took out about a quarter of all the rocks, and left some small breaks along the bank cut directly into the garden or lawn.  I bought some pea gravel and added it for contrast.
The flat oval stone in mid stream is to step across.  I think I need an arched wooden footbridge instead

I made a rock overhang for the trout to hide in on hot days

I'll let the pink dwarf beebalm (Monarda 'Petite Delight') creep into the rocks, but probably will have to edit (weed) it frequently

I like the random edging much better

In all the rework and fussing and adding pea stones, I lost any depth. . . it's a flat stream bed now.  Mmmph.

Garden design involves editing.  Sometimes taking away plants or materials is an improvement.  It took me forever to get that idea in this project.

But even as I absorb the lesson of gardening by subtraction, I am planning to add things to this area --- a creeping mat groundcover that will inch down into the stones, replacing the turf edges.

A little wooden footbridge, more plants to spill over the edges, some irises anchored in the rocks at the margins, and sweet smelling clethra  at the inside curve.  Maybe a few bigger rocks that are more boulder-sized.

And . . . . . 

Subtraction as a design concept is not going to be easy for me.

As of June 2015 -- Here's an update: I did add a curved bridge over the little creekbed in 2013.

Ta Da!

July 15, 2011

It's My Turn

In a post about my friend Jane's garden I asked her and my blog readers to consider what they like about their gardens.

Don't tell me about the neglected weeding and rampant failures and minor frustrations, tell me what delights you.  Jane was quick with her answer (the surprises of her quirky, meandering, wild, spilling garden).  Blog commenters also told me what they love in their gardens.

Now it's my turn.  What do I really like about my garden?  Its constant transformation.
in 2011 . . . and in 2004

There is an incredible feeling of time and change in the half acre that started out as a pasture, became a building construction site, and has been and is still transforming into a garden.  I never look at it without saying "wow, this used to be empty / flat / a twig / a pile of rubble.  Look at it now.  Look again in three years.  Wow." 
A simple row of bottlebrush buckeyes transforms itself in just a few years

Time.  Change.  Transformation.  It wasn't simply the evolution of a scene over time as natural things happened.  It was my own creation that abruptly changed the look and feel of this plot of land.  Nature helped, and nature conspired with me, and thwarted me when she felt like it too.
still working on this garden

I plant the ittiest bittiest saplings.  I have planted over 100 trees-to-be, many of them no more than 10 inches tall.  They are tiny, they struggle, they look pathetic, and then one day they are shady and leafy and they look like trees.  Small trees, but real trees.

plantings on a low berm have evolved

And then there is the seasonal transformation as dead-wet-cold New England spring gives way to summer.  Every time I go out in the garden on a dewy summer morning, I am struck by how it didn't look like this last evening when I went into the house and went to bed.  It didn't even hint it was going to look like this last month.  It threatened to never look like this, ever, last winter.

seasons of change

And when fall comes, the changes are heart stopping and alarming as colors explode.  Winter brings its own disorienting transformation, and it never ceases to amaze me:  it didn't look like this before.  Look at it now.  Look again in a few years.
Autumn alters everything

My too sunny lot will be too shady soon, and I will say: how did that happen?  It used to be empty / flat /  a twig / a pile of rubble.  It used to be unbearably sunny.  It changed.

The sense of transformation in my garden is what I love about it, and it is what I see every time I open the door or look out the window. From barren plot to garden, from sunny day to dewy morning, from twig to tree.  From season to season and back again, never the same.

a dewy transformation

It all changes, and it all changes all the time.

July 13, 2011


I love these silly drumstick alliums.  They look like curious kindegarteners exploring in the garden.
Allium sphaerocepahalon  -  Drumstick Onions

They stand up straight on the slimmest vertical stems.  Some flop over and get in trouble.  Most stand tall and behave, but they all bob around having fun in a breeze.   They come from tiny bulbs and you need to mass a lot of them together.  They are very social bulbs and like to play in groups.

In early summer they open from soft green, turning to deep wine

I don't know why some flowers enchant me and others do not.  I admire a nicely formed rose or peony when I see a picture on a blog, but they leave me a little bored in the garden.

But these goofy little round headed sticks make me smile. 

July 11, 2011

It's Complicated

All I want to know is --- did it rain?  How long ago?  How much?

Do I need to water?

But it's complicated.  If you have a garden you have a rain gauge, or more likely you have several.  One is never enough because no one rain gauge does what a gardener needs.

The simple cheap plastic tubes didn't really work for me.  The rain knocked them askew, the pointy part that stuck in the ground broke off.

A cute glass tube in a decorative ceramic base broke in the bag on the way home from the garden center. 

The sturdier aluminum stake and tube with thermometer pictured here (from Lee Valley Tools, love them) is better, but it has the same limitation of all measuring tubes: you have to be around to empty it and you have to remember when you last did so.  That's fine, but gardeners want to monitor what happens when they are not there to tend things.

That requires a weather station that records and keeps data and has a self emptying rain gauge.  But if you want an electronic rain gauge you get a whole meteorological contraption that could be used to send manned missions to other planets.  This is really complicated.

The one I got is pictured here, it's from Oregon Scientific, it is sexily wireless, and it has way more than I need to know.  There is barometric pressure and trends and charts and beeping alarms.  There is wind speed and direction and gusts and averages (average of what?  the last five minutes?  the day?  It doesn't say).  When the wind blows it beeps.

There is a moon phase and UV index and heat indicator and arrows that indicate something directional is happening, and of course there is a hygrometer and thermometer and a beep for each reading.  Setting it up took all day.  Beep. Beep. Beep. 

Jim installed the sensors on a big post anchored in the ground, and I planted golden hops at the base to eventually hide the pole.

And the rain gauge?  I can get hourly rate of rainfall, precipitation totals for the last hour, precipitation totals for the last three hours, for the last six and for a period of 24 hours. 

There are animated bar graphs that rise and fall like an electronic rollercoaster and timestamps and millimeters and inches and a confusing system to toggle between displays. The black round disk at the base rotates and does something random to all the data.  It beeps.

Sigh.  All I want is accumulated inches of rain in my garden since the last time it rained, did it rain enough, and how long ago did that happen.  That's all.  Then I can get on with things.

There is always the tuna fish can set on the ground.  It's simple. 

On a hot day your measurements evaporate, and the birds drink the data, but I could maybe use this as a supplement when I accidentally erase everything while toggling, beeping, rotating and wirelessly graphing info.  If the grass is wet and there is water in the tuna can, I could reliably determine it had rained at some point.  You'd think that would be enough to know.