February 28, 2012


I've been away, but I'm back.

Despite the fact that there is an extra day of winter this year on February 29, I am ready to think about spring and gardening.

Aloha.  Time away in a warm garden of Eden is just the tonic I needed to come back and face the cold mud of spring in my own garden.

Let's begin.

February 13, 2012

Every Story Has a Story

Just nine days ago, on February 4, I was sitting in an auditorium listening to Tony Avent talk to us (the Connecticut Hort Society) about planting in drifts of one. He was as funny and irreverent as his Plant Delights catalog is, but his garden design examples and advice were sophisticated and professional.  He's not just a comic speaker, he is a well grounded plantsman with an eye for designing with form and texture.

To start, he shared photos from his first gardens when he was a newly wed, newly minted horticulture graduate, clueless about garden design at that time. 

We, the audience, did not know his wife was terminally ill as he told us amusing stories about creating those first gardens in his first tiny home in the city.  We did not know.

There is a story behind every story.

A week after his talk with us, his wife and partner of many years died.  You can read the moving obituary here.

February 11, 2012

Big Umbrian Pot

In my last post I mentioned I bought a lightweight resin and cement urn for my front garden.  It came yesterday in a big box.

Not what I expected.  It does not look at all like the picture in the catalog (Pottery Barn), not the same shape, not the same decorative rim.  It is chunkier and a brighter color.
Ordered this
Got this

What do you think?  Is this container too orange and bulky squatting in the long strip along the garage wall --- or is the rest of the garden so pathetically itty bitty that it's just out of scale?

I think it is the latter.  Everything else in this space is too small.

The tiny juniper on the very far left ('Gold Cone') needs to get some height and fill out, although it will remain an upright pillar, and it is a brighter green-gold in summer.  Right now it's just too pathetic.  The strawberry jars next to it --- also too small.

The center space between the windows will get a dramatic clematis, a crisp white big-flowered 'Henryi' to climb and add contrast against the brick come summer.  (The little blob of pink nandina will come out.)  Way over on the right next to Monster Pot is another tiny juniper pillar in a small red glazed container.  How silly.

All of this needs to scale up.  It's a front walk ---  you see it from afar as you approach the house.  There are large windows, and a lot of brick.  It is flat and dark colored.  Right now it suffers from being too tentative, even in winter.  Especially in winter.

The Big Umbrian Pot actually looks to scale with the window.  It is all the little things around it that make it look foolish.
It is hard for me to go bold with accents in the garden.  I think too small.  This space with so much hardscape structure and deep brick color is asking for me to step outside my comfort zone and play big.

The urn looks stupid now.  But I like it.  I like the tone-on-tone terra cotta with the brick and I do like the bulk.

The junipers will grow, the clematis will climb and flower, and I will put in other larger containers, add evergreen shrubs for mass in winter, and create a scale that complements my Big Umbrian Pot.

My new purchase is pushing me to design more dramatically for this challenging area.  It's not what I ordered, but for this problem garden it may be just what the doctor ordered.

February 8, 2012

Gardening in Winter

It's still winter, and living plants are dormant, so I am gardening with hardscape materials now --- structures, ceramics, leather, wood, and metal, and my imagination.  What's in my winter garden?

I'm glad you asked.
A cedar structure to be
Jim says he can build me a scaled down version of this tool closet to sit on the patio near my potting bench.  Plans are on This Old House web site.  Mine needs to be smaller, only one door wide and under six feet tall. He says he can do that.

A cement and resin ceramic urn
 I bought this lightweight Umbrian pot for a new container garden in the front walk.  It will add some bulk nestled among low perennials, along with two similarly hued strawberry jars.

An arched wooden footbridge
 I bought a 4' cedar bridge similar to this to span my dry creek bed. (This one is in Lee May's garden and when I saw it I knew I needed one just like it.)

A leather chair in a sunny south facing window on a winter afternoon
This is where the garden dreaming and planning happen.  Some napping too.

An aluminum tabletop grow light for my seeds
 I ordered this small version from Gardener's Supply.  I don't start many seeds, but I do need to get a few early perennial seeds going.  Some assembly was required (mmmph).

Several wire tomato cages covered in bird netting
 When I plant the sunflower seedlings out in the meadow, these will protect them from chomping animals, at least at first.  It was a job to cover the cages in netting, but it kept me busy one winter afternoon.

I also have two steel tuteurs to assemble.  I plan to grow climbing nasturtium 'Moonlight' up them this summer. They are tall and round but came in cartons that are flat as pizza boxes.

I'll get them built now, before it's time to plant, and that will occupy another winter's day.  I do believe there is assembly required.

I have a lot to do.  The winter garden is a busy place.

February 5, 2012

Hanky Tree

The handkerchief tree: I read about this unusual tree from China, and I have hunted down specimens whenever we visited arboretums.  I really wanted to see it.

I caught a glimpse of one at the Edinburgh Botanical Garden in Scotland several years ago, but it was deep inside a stand of tall trees, and difficult to see.  I did see one at Wave Hill Garden in New York once, but it was not in bloom.

Then, on a visit last May to Blithewold Mansion and Gardens in Rhode Island, it was right there, peeking out from behind a big oak.  Ha ---  I see you.

It is a Davidia involucrata, called a handkerchief tree for the white double bracts that flutter in the breeze.  It is also called a dove tree; some think the bracts look like a restless flock of white birds.  Still photos don't do it justice --- the beauty of this tree is its fluttering movement.

I was so surprised to finally see one with all its hankies hanging from the branches.  A fair number were carelessly discarded all over the ground.

I actually saw a small expensive dove tree for sale at a local nursery several years ago.  It is hardy to zone 6, and I used to be in zone 5 but have recently up and moved to 6a on the new map.  It can be grown here but needs winter protection.

Blithewold, with its warmer Rhode Island ocean climate, did have this one sited in a protected area.  It obviously thrives.

The hankies come out in spring and then the rest of the year it is a medium kind of ordinary looking tree.  I may have seen one and not realized it if the bracts were not hanging from the branches.

But, when it is all twinkling aflutter there is no mistaking a handkerchief tree. 

I know.  I have seen one now.

February 1, 2012

Hops on Strings

Golden Hops Vine
I made a mistake with this vine.  Oh, it's healthy, and it grows, and it did what it was supposed to do, but not what I wanted it to do.  My mistake.

This is the first of the month, when Joene sponsors GOOPs, or Gardening Oops.  You can go to her blog to see more.

My oops involved a complete failure on my part to execute a design I had seen in a public garden.  It's not the first time something got lost in translation.

I wanted a particular look and design element in this corner of the front garden.  This hops vine, Humulus lupulus 'Aurea', was the answer. 

Originally I had a small white-flowering clematis here on a wooden rose trellis.  The space is just a wall with a drain pipe and no redeeming features.  Very little room between the wall and the other plants, so something upright and tall was called for.  A vine.

The clematis was a viticella variety that scrambled to only 8 feet, and made a pleasing open shape as it wandered up off the trellis and onto the downspout.  Elegant and arching, shapely but unfussy, a nice little bit of contrasting elements.  And such pretty flowers.

The original clematis growing on this wall

       It was perfect in that spot.

           So of course I moved it.

What I planted in its place was a mistake.  I put in a golden hops vine that is well documented to grow rambunctiously to 20 feet or more.  And I knew that.  I knew it would grow that big.

It dies back to the ground but regrows its happy looking golden foliage each season with exuberance.  I knew it needed more than the wobbly wooden trellis, so I put it on a steel structure that was a little taller.  A little taller.

By September it looked like this, all humped over and massed on top of itself trying to find something more to grow on. 
Nope.  Not what I was going for.
The leaves have a nice shape and light color, but not the golden hue I expected.  I never saw any hops bracts, but they might be in there inside the dense foliage, along with small mammals and yard tools.

Why did I remove such a pretty, perfectly sized flowering clematis and put in this big clumpy hops vine?

In my defense, I had an image in mind.

I saw this at The Cloisters Museum & Gardens in New York, where brewery hops grew in long trains up to the tiled eaves of the arched wall.
Hops vines in the kitchen garden at The Cloisters
That's what I had in mind.  Why these grand, elegant hops towers inside a medieval stone monastery cloister didn't translate well to the squat metal trellis on my vinyl-sided garage wall, I just don't know. 

But here's what I plan to do.  The steel trellis will be removed and next spring I will tie multiple long string cords all the way up the wall to the gutter, just like the Cloisters picture shows.  The hops vine can enthusiastically grow along the strings to the garage roofline, hopefully in the graceful pyramid shape I want.

A blank slate and a design plan for this wall.  Future oops.

Then next summer when the whole effect is a tangle of confused foliage, buckled gutter, and snapped string supports, I'll post another Gardening Oops to show you how that worked out for me.