November 28, 2011

The Steve Jobs of 1780

I like a little bit of history, and I like living in New England where much of the past centuries' imprints on our landscape have been preserved or restored.

I particularly like the Shakers.  They were a utopian religious group in the 1700s and 1800s with some beliefs that we find unusual today.  I like them because they were innovative gardeners.

The Shakers were the Steve Jobs of their time, known for exquisite simplicity of design in their furniture, buildings and tools, and for doing things in new ways. They created essential everyday products the early settlers didn't even know they needed.

They were the first to collect seeds, put them in little envelopes and sell them.  Think about the innovation of that simple process as you sow your garden next spring, and thank the Shakers. 

Last month we took a day to visit the Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts. The village was built in the 1780s for the community of Believers that eventually grew to 300 people in the 1800s, but by 1959 there were no more Shakers at Hancock.  You can now wander through 20 carefully restored buildings and tour the gardens and fields they farmed.

It is famous for its iconic round barn, a stunner of an innovation when it was built in the early 1800s.   Feeding the animals arranged around a central silo inside was an efficiency improvement, and it was simply a beautiful building as well.

This is the entrance to the village.  Do you see something odd behind the white fence?

It is a large ground mount installation of solar panels, and a roof array that spans the entire antique barn roof.  This is what greets visitors as they head into the village and step back two centuries.

And it is completely appropriate.

A small sign tells us that if the Shakers were still an active producing community here, they would have been the first to embrace solar technology.  The panels provide a third of the energy for the whole complex, which includes a visitor center, museum, offices and a cafe.

Simple, elegant looking, efficient and useful.

Now, when I see solar panels on buildings and homes around the city, I think of them as Shaker Panels.

Shaker seed packets

November 25, 2011

Replacement Tree - suggestions

This is my pear tree, Pyrus calleryana  --- this is the best it has looked since I planted it in 2005:

It came down in the freaky October snowstorm that buried southern New England and tore down so many trees.  The Bradford pears are weak wooded and prone to falling apart, and they did not survive the heavy snow.

Other types of trees recovered from having their branches weighted to the ground in the snow, but the pear did not.  Here is mine, the day after the storm.  The drooping limbs did not pop back up when the snow melted, they snapped off or tore apart.

It was a good sized specimen, about 25 feet tall, standing alone in the side yard.  But I never liked it, so I was not too upset when the branches broke off and we had to take the rest of it down.

I never liked it because it did this all the time --- it suckered.  I cut back the sprouts a dozen times a season and they were always there the next week.

I never liked it because it was an ungainly, odd-branched shape, although other Bradford pears do have tightly pyramidal, shapely forms.  This one did not.

I never liked it because it did not develop any fall color.  Other Bradford pears are known for good deep color very late in the season, but this one just turned an indeterminate brown-green color with overtones of mustard.

It had its moments.

There were showy white flowers that covered the bare branches in early in spring.  There were fruits that the birds devoured each year in one single day, swarming the tree and stripping it bare in three hours.

But it's gone now, and I am okay with that.  More than okay.  In fact, I am excited about planting a replacement and I need suggestions.

This is an open area of the yard, to the east side of the house, not tied to any gardens as you can see in the pictures.  I want a large tree, a looker, a presence to fill the grassy lawn.

Suggestions?  It doesn't need to be a flowering tree, but it needs to look good standing alone, sited in between the flat boring side of the house and the flat weedy meadow on the other side.

And it needs to hold up in a snowstorm.

November 21, 2011

Not Everyone's a Star

Recently Curtis at Native Plants With Adams Garden posted a profile of chokeberries, a lovely native shrub, and one that I grow in my garden.

Aronia, or chokeberry (it really does have an unfortunate common name), is a great alternative to invasive burning bush, mainly for its red fall color, as he writes.

But whoa, mine did not look anything like the photos he posted.

I have a small stand of Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima' in the center of a roundish bed.  They are leggy, bendy and tall, growing in a willowy vase shape.

Pretty in bloom (as you can see here next to a young Japanese maple 'Orange Dream'), but quite naked belowdeck.

The pictures he showed were of full, rounded shrubs, with brilliant red fall color.

My aronias are not full, not rounded and not so brilliant.  They have some nice red fall color above the bare stems, but it is a softer color compared to the deep garnet itea nearby.

The leaves drop earlier than the itea, so it is naked all over just when fall colors get going.  But it makes up for that with its red berries --- not an explosion like the winterberry hollies, but some nice red berries nevertheless.  Nobody out there likes the berries (hence the name chokeberry I guess) so the birds leave them alone.  The deer did sample them one cold winter.

Curtis suggested that I could cut back the older stems and encourage suckering below for fuller plants.  Aronia does send up shoots and form large stands, but rabbits seem to love this plant and they get all the suckers when they are a foot high.  My leggy plants don't get a chance to bulk up.

Besides, I kind of like the wavy, tall presence in the center of this garden.  The aronia's branches arch out over the top of the iteas and other shrubs and anchor the middle of this space.  There are too many full moundy shapes in here, and the tall arching aronia is a pleasant contrast rising in the middle.

In this garden chokeberry is a background plant.  It doesn't have the star attributes that Curtis profiles.

It has pretty apple-blossom like flowers in spring but they are subtle and brief.  It has a nice open shape but it is wispy and needs other things around it.  It has fall color and berries, but mostly serves as a foil to other deeper colors and fuller foliage.  It is too tall and too bare to be a specimen by itself.

But I really like it.  Not everybody needs to be the star.

November 20, 2011

A Re-Post from A Year Ago

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.

It was a year ago today that he left us.

Still missing him.

November 17, 2011

Why I Don't Weed

When I began digging new gardens all around our half acre, weeding all the bare spaces was daunting.  So much new, disturbed earth.  So much empty space for weeds to fill, and they did, immediately and speedily.

I thought a fact of life was that you had to be out in the garden almost every day, in the summer heat, in the humidity, on your hands and knees, weeding around the shrubs and perennials.  So I weeded.  I mulched.  Then I weeded the mulch. 

But not now.  Now, five years into this project, I spend very little time pulling up unwanted stuff.  Why is that? 

Groundcovers.  Groundcovers are the secret weapon.  I planted low spreading plants in every border and bed.  Once they spread, I eliminated almost all weeding in the areas they cover. 

Here are my favorites for:
  • weed suppression, 
  • ability to spread quickly and nicely (no thugs), and 
  • sheer good looks:

Himalayan Fleeceflower, Persicaria afinis 'Dimity' (or 'Superba').  It forms a low, tight mat that nothing grows through.
Rosy pipecleaner spikes bloom from summer through late September.  Clean green leaves are red tinged.
Scarlet 'Dimity' between soft yellow dwarf amsonia and a border of liriope in fall.  Some years it's more maroon or rust red.

Yellowroot, Xanthorhiza simplicissima.  It's a taller, woody shrub that gets to about one foot high and loses its leaves in winter, but only the rare tall weed grows up through the woody stems, and is easily pulled.
In April, before the leaves appear, yellowroot has hazy purple blooms
Celery-like green leaves in summer . . .
. . . give way to soft wine tinged foliage in October . . .
. . .  turning bright gold in November.  Some autumns it's more bronzy, some years multi colored like a Persian carpet.

Fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica 'Gro Low'.  Another low woody shrub that loses its leaves in winter.  It can get more than a foot tall but is easily pruned lower.  It spreads widely and densely and very quickly.  My plants just went in this summer.
Fragrant sumac leaves are glossy green.  They bring a shine down to the lower level of the garden.
This is how dense a mature patch of rhus aromatica gets.  No weeds grow in here. This is on a slope at Arnold Arboretum
Rhus aromatica in fall.  This is not mine -- my patch was just planted this summer, but I can't wait to see it turn to this next fall.  Photo is from Fine Gardening, credit Karen Bussolini

Geranium, there are many good spreaders --- mine is Geranium wlassovianum.  Geraniums smother absolutely everything under them.  They are kind of weedy themselves, needing to be cut back and trimmed each season, and they leave bare earth in winter, but they are so pretty.
Geranium wlassovianum fills a corner in front of bushy upright amsonia tabernaemontana.
It turns winey red in fall.

Kinnikinnik, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  I've written a lot about this groundcover before.  It's a favorite of mine.  The occasional bittersweet seedling pops up in the woody branches but can be pulled.
It's evergreen, it's glossy, it has sweet pink bells for flowers.  I love this groundcover.

A few plants spread easily to make this mat, and will keep going into the bare areas up to the brick wall.

Thyme, the low mat kind, mine is Thymus serpyllum 'alba'.  A few grass strands want to grow in the mat, but the dense competition keeps them stunted and I can pull them out when I get to it.
Creeping Thyme is dense and spreads easily.  The white blooms go on for a month in early summer.

Groundcover Sedums (mine are 'Angelina', 'Red Carpet', and the mouthful 'Weihenstephaner's Gold' but there are many others).  All nice.  All easy.  All low, and nothing grows through them.  If you do nothing else, plant these and you will not weed.  I have them everywhere.

Some other groundcovers that are nice but are still problematic for weeds:

- Cranberry Cotoneaster.  It's glossy green with red berries and it spreads low and wide, but tenacious bittersweet and slender grass shoots get established in open areas under the arching stems and they are hard to eradicate.
Cotoneaster apiculata

- Epimedium.  Lovely, and a mature stand in dry shade under a tree is awesome, with beautiful foliage.  I love them, but they take a good four years to establish and spread.  That leaves a lot of weeding to do before they get going.
Epimedium 'Frohnleiten'.  There are many varieties.

- Salix yezoalpina.  A groundcover willow.  Really.  It has very attractive wide glossy leaves and it stays low and spreads out many feet.  The leaves turn buttery yellow in fall.  It is too new for me, I have no experience yet to know if it will keep weeds down, but it is great looking so far.  More to come on this one.
Groundcover willow, newly planted last summer

There are so many choices, including the low mounding hakonechloa grasses, and liriope, and other plants that fill in at the feet of more upright perennials and shrubs.

For every plant that I put in the garden, I stuck a groundcover below it and hoped they would get along.  To my delight, my weeds fled, very sorry that they tried to grow in my gardens.

November 14, 2011

In My Backyard

Our bobcat came for a visit.

Seen yesterday, strolling in our back yard, then plopped in the November sun a few yards from the house.  A bobcat is smallish but muscularly powerful, even doing a slow amble.  And look at that face.  So fierce, so contented, so . . . . catlike.
I have written about the bobcat before and taken pictures of her stalking outside our dining room windows.

We see her (him?) often, patrolling not just the weeds and meadow by the woods, but smack in our back yards.  This photo was taken by my neighbor Gwen, and it was no challenge for her to get a shot of this elusive hunter.  The bobcat simply laid down in the lawn in full daylight for half an hour and practically posed.

If I had whiskers like that I'd want my picture taken too.

November 11, 2011

Zelkovas in Skirts

Zelkova serrata from UConn database
Very few people have heard of a tree called a zelkova.

It is a shade tree that has been widely planted to replace the elms lost long ago in our cities.  You have them all over newer neighborhoods and planted up and down urban streets.  But almost no one knows the name.

It doesn't have a common name, for some reason.  Zelkova is the genus name and it sure doesn't roll off the tongue.

Zelkova serrata is vase shaped, like American elms.  But to my eye they lack the grace and proportion of elms.  They don't even come close to being a replacement for what we lost when all the elms succumbed to Dutch elm disease.

But they are a nice enough lawn tree, very tough, not bothered by much.  Fall color can be eye catching (see the New York City trees in Marie's post at 66 Square Feet).  Older trees have patchy, peeling orange bark that is really interesting.  I have not planted one, but there are several at the end of our street.

In the October snow storm here they suffered damage, but being tough survivors, they will be okay.  What was so funny was the pattern of damage, which was identical in each tree: every zelkova dropped two branches down around its knees, creating a little skirt.  Just two limbs, no more.

A pair of branches snapped from the center of each tree and then carefully draped themselves around the naked trunk.

One young zelkova cracked up and completely split apart, but all the others (5 of them in total), did this identical thing and as a group they look like they were seized with a fit of modesty and had to cover up.  Trees do funny things.

They are wonderfully resilient growers and will look just fine next season.  Someone will have to remove the two branches dangling around each tree's trunk, but in the end, I think they look better pruned this way a little bit.

I just hope these modest trees aren't too embarrassed to have their skirts removed.

November 9, 2011

Slow Growers

Red maple and river birch the day after the storm

Tammy at Casa Mariposa asked me which plants in my garden did well and survived the recent October snow catastrophe.

The ones that came through unscathed were the slowest growers.

Slow growers have strong wood.  Stiff branches, small leaves and dense wood helped them shrug off tons of heavy snow that crippled, bent or snapped other trees and shrubs.

Here are some of my young trees that survived the storm well:

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a lovely forest tree that grows very slowly, driving me crazy as I wait for mine to gain any size as shade trees.  They have very stiff branches.  Very stiff --- I have tried to turn a small branch upward to train it into a different position and you can't do it.  The branches are completely unbendable.

Black gums have small leaves, so the wet heavy snow did not have as much surface to weigh down, and the stiff branches held.  I had no damage on any of the three small Nyssa sylvaticas in my garden.
I took this picture of the larger of my black gums on 10/25, just 4 days before a freak snowstorm dumped 18 inches of cement on everything.  It looked just as good, well shaped, and intact after the storm.

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is another modest grower that also has rigid branches and small leaves, and mine had no breakage.  I like this plant --- it's more of a small tree than other viburnums, but its twigginess is dense and confused looking and I do wish it was a little more elegant.  But that stiff twigginess served it well under the snow load.  Strong bones.
A chaotic, twiggy little tree, the Blackhaw Viburnum lost no branches and looked fine after the snow melted

The spruces did well, again because they have stiff structure and narrow leaves (needles). Oaks, known for their strong wood, also did okay, even my very small pin oak saplings.  Spruces and oaks are known for being slow growers.

Both of my small stewartias (Stewartia pseudocamellia and Stewartia monadelpha) were untouched by the snow.  Again, they gain height slowly, and they have small leaves.
After the storm the Stewartia showed no ill effects a week later, and even managed to color up like it is supposed to, snow be damned.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a rigid little tree.  It did lose a major branch, which was upsetting because it is such an extremely slow grower it only puts on one small branch a year.  But overall it came through fine.  If only it would get bigger than 5 foot 4.  I want to sit under trees that are taller than I am.
The little sourwood was ok.  The big weeping mound on the left in back is a 20 foot tall red maple, or it was.  The double arching branches next to it belong to a 25 foot high river birch, headed off in two directions.  In the foreground on the left is a tall magnolia lying down in the snow.

The real disasters during the storm were the trees that shoot up rapidly, with weak, brittle wood.  The worst: the Bradford pears, which I wrote about already, and almost everyone's ornamental cherries broke apart.  My redbuds went completely kaput and snapped off.  Poplars, including a big thriving tuliptree that fell over, were weak performers.

The slow growers were the survivors.  There's a metaphor for life here, I think, but it's so obvious I'm not going to pursue it.  They're just trees, you know.