March 28, 2012


I have been trying to grow our native spicebush, Lindera benzoin, for several years.

It's a woodland shrub that grows wild and is not really noticeable unless you look for the soft haze of tiny yellow flowers in March.  That's when you see how spicebush fills open forest areas.

The next street over from mine is called Spicebush Lane, so I guess our surrounding woods were at one time home to stands of spicebush plants.

It has wonderful qualities -- a spicy scent if you crush the leaves, its droopy fluttery leaves turn bright yellow in fall, and these delicate greenish yellow flowers pop out very early in the season.

It's a host for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, along with sassafras.  Red berries on female spicebush plants are a plus in the winter.  Just a really great plant all around.

It is supposed to be an easy to grow, no fuss, very pretty native shrub, but I have had the darndest time getting them going.

Although it looks like the haze of flowers covers a large plant in the top photo, you can see here that my plants are still little.

I planted these two in 2006, from two-gallon nursery containers.

What you don't see are the several spicebush plants that died in the past six years, or the two that are still out in the meadow but no taller than the weeds in summer.  They were planted in 2006 and 2007 but they have not grown.  I thought they were in too much sun, or soil that was too dry, but most sources say Lindera benzoin is a tough plant that can take shade or sun, moist or drier. 

A thriving, 10 foot tall mature spicebush will not overwhelm you, even in bloom, or in its golden fall color.  It's a subtle plant, an overlooked plant in all seasons, but a lovely one.

Mine are trying as hard as they can not to overwhelm me at all.

And they are succeeding.

March 25, 2012

Gotta Love 'Em

You just have to love some old standbys in the garden.  Spireas are plants that never seem to inspire garden designers.  Overused?  Too rangy?  For whatever reason planting a spirea just isn't sexy.

And then Spirea thunbergii 'Ogon' comes into bloom -- in March this year -- and it is a stunning bright spot in the brown awakening garden.  I love this plant.

This March has been crazy warm, and 'Ogon' is in bloom early.  In prior years it showed off its white fountains in mid April, and at least the greening grass gave it a nicer frame.

Here it is last Thanksgiving day, also enriching what becomes a subdued browning scene in late fall.

And you just gotta love the star magnolias.  They aren't the big shows that saucer magnolias are, and they are not rare forms or achingly soft pink colors.

But how could you not smile at this baby Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star', planted last fall, blooming in March for all it is worth on its tiny little branches?

The forsythias, much maligned all the rest of the year, are just gorgeous right now all over the neighborhood, along the highways and everywhere you look.  You have to love a plant that doesn't care what we all think, and blooms with such obvious happy enthusiasm.

Big old "Lynwood' forsythia shrubs live out by the road, under big utility wires, among the Eastern red cedars and brown meadow weeds, not minding that they are not in a prime spot in the garden.  They just bloom away.

And who ever notices that maple trees flower?  When you are out there scanning the mud for newly opened daffodils or emerging spring bulbs, do you ever look up?  The Acer rubrum red maples are in flower in March.

They are not called red maples because of their leaves --- they have green leaves and look like other maple trees.  They are called red maples because they have hazes of red flowers in early spring.

Look up.

You gotta love 'em.


March 22, 2012

Building Bridges

Incredibly, summer has arrived in mid March in southern New England and I am disoriented in the 80 degree afternoons.  You have to understand what a bleak, cold, muddy season March normally is at this latitude and above.  This week of hot weather day after day is not only unseasonable, it's completely unreasonable.

I had plans, plans and more plans for what I needed to do in the cool weather before spring burst out.  Now I'm way behind and I haven't even started.

But here's one task that we did this week.  Jim assembled and installed the little arched footbridge over the dry creekbed.
The bright cedar color will fade to silvery gray and fit in nicely

We had to build the level of the ground ramping up to the bridge a bit, so there is black soil at both ends that looks mounded, but it's just the color contrast with the grass that makes it look hilled up.  It's actually flat and all will blend together when new grass is planted.

From a distance I like how it settles into its little swale.

I like it, even in its raw looking state before the grass fills in and before it fades to a softer color.

Now, on to other spring projects.  The cold weather will return.  There is still a lot of chilly April to get through, and even ten more days of March.  We can't keep breaking temperature records for all that time, can we?


March 18, 2012

The Big Move

Last week I finally tackled a job that I have been dreading all winter. I moved some trees.  It was surprisingly easy.  Well, not easy, these are five foot tall trees, and I had to dig and move them by hand, but it wasn't as bad as I feared.

I have long wanted to move the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) away from my patio wall.  I love this tree, it's striking.  But it provides no shade, and my patio bakes in a western exposure all spring and summer.  I need a shade tree in that exact spot.

Sourwood in bloom in June.  Kinda cute.  Not very tall or shady.

Sweetbay, who blogs from the south, says that sorrel trees, or sourwoods, grow happily and wildly all around her pastures.  But up here at its zone edge in southern New England, it is a difficult tree to get going.  It wants perfectly acid soil, and mild winters, and it is a very slow grower.

A mature sourwood in October at Tower Hill Botanical garden.  Will mine ever . . . .?

Mine is almost stunted, although healthy enough.  But it's so small, a dwarf looking thing, not increasing in size over five years, and heavy snow loads broke a few branches, causing it to lose stature this past year.

A frosty morning in fall.  Black eyed Susan seedheads hide the sourwood's spindly trunk.

So I finally did it.  I dug out the tree, but Jim had to help me wrestle the sourwood into its new location, it was quite heavy.  It came out of the ground ok.  It was shallow rooted, and not very wide (although I cut some long roots to get it out).  But still, it's a five foot tree, and a lot of soil came with it, and it was very heavy.
I love the sourwood's Lily of the Valley blooms, and the bees do too. 

Oxydendrum does not like any kind of root disturbance.  Really hates it.  So this may have been fatal.

But it moved with little fuss, Jim got it positioned next to the gravel garden, and I filled it in with soil and watered it well.  It is standing straight, there wasn't much maneuvering to get it upright.  All in all, very little trauma, and less spousal irritation than putting up the Christmas tree together.

My little sourwood after transplant

Then I moved a young river birch (Betula nigra) that was growing in the back into the now empty spot by the patio.  I like it already, with the rusty orange winter leaves of the zenobia shrubs at its feet.

The small river birch is now next to the patio
This is another river birch that I grew from a 10 inch seedling -- this is four seasons' growth

Here's why I feel pretty good about this move:
  • The river birch is the same height as the sourwood was, but will quickly grow very tall, and will make some shade for the patio, and that should easily happen in a season or two.
  • The sourwood actually looks better next to the inkberry hollies by the gravel garden.  It's better as an element of a woodsy planting rather than as a single undersized focal point.  It was just too small next to the patio, not providing enough shade and not holding any visual weight there.
  • The sourwood might actually do better away from the less acidic stone wall and walkway.  That is, if I haven't killed it.

Here's why I am distressed about this move:
  • I pretty much destroyed some of the alliums I had carefully planted around the patio wall last fall.  Some were starting to come up, but got dug up and disturbed during this move.  I tromped on others.  Never mind that I probably killed the sourwood tree as well.
  • The transplanted Mara des Bois strawberries that I intended to spill over the edge of the gravel garden got destroyed too as we wrestled the sourwood into place.
  • I'll get shade on the patio from the river birch, but as it grows into a big tree it will dominate the view out my kitchen window.  I won't have such a clear look into the back yard when all I see are leafy birch branches.
Betula nigra is leafy and shady, just what I need by the patio.  Peeling bark is interesting up close too.

So . . .  was it worth it?  Yes. 

I went inside after the big move was finished, satisfied, but praying a gardener's urgent prayer:

Please, please, let the sourwood thrive in its new home, and may the birch grow quickly without overwhelming that spot.  

And let a few trampled strawberries and alliums come up after all.  

That's all I ask. 

March 15, 2012


Quiet Please.  Trees at Work.

Thank You.

March 12, 2012


My knee is a device for locating rocks.

I have tried every form of knee protection there is and never got comfortable with any of them.

Molded strap-on pads that go over your pants always bind, and they scoop up dirt and funnel it down inside the pad when you kneel in the soil.  Strap-on pads inside the pants are too bulky.  Those foam garden kneelers that you pick up and move each time -- forget that.

I tried special utility pants with padded inserts but never liked the fit or the heavy canvas fabric.

I garden in my comfy jeans and that's that.  So my jeans have soiled, worn patches, my knees get wet and cold, and gardening causes a world of hurt.  I suffer.

And then, a solution.

Garden Chaps.  I kid you not.

They are made by Muscle and Arm Farm, which markets them as Greenjeans.  They are not cheap.  I got the ML size in green.

The chaps are lightweight, made of sturdy backpack nylon.  They strap on around the waist, hang loosely down the leg, and have a couple straps that go around the legs just so they don't flap about.

The key is to fasten them around the leg loosely so they have enough give.  I can kneel, scrabble about in the soil, stretch and generally do what I need to.

They tug a little at the waist, and need an occasional hitching up, like the move a cowgirl makes just getting off her horse.  I kind of like the effect and do it well.

But it's the comfort and ease that have sold me.

My knees stay dry, the padding is more than adequate.  I simply unclasp the hooks to slip them off, and go in for lunch in a pair of clean, dry jeans.

They can be washed, but hosing them off after a day in the garden is enough.

I have long had a fascination with the West, and I own a real pair of pointy toe cowboy boots.  And a Stetson hat and a broomstick skirt with a silver belt.

But I never thought I would own a real pair of chaps.

(I bought these on my own.  They were not a free giveaway for trial, and Muscle & Arm has not asked me to review them)

March 8, 2012

What Have I Done?

Three dappled willows (Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki') make up an informal hedge that defines one corner of my yard. 

They are big rangy shrubs, but oddly graceful as they arch and wave about in the wind.

Their real appeal, though, is the coloration in the foliage.  

The leaves on the youngest branches are tinged with pink, salmon and mottled green and white.  It's a beautiful effect.

Despite being big tangled multi-stem shrubs, these willows look soft and frothy with their pastel tinted leaves.  Dappled willows are often limbed up into single stemmed standards, which are very common and quite formal and pretty, but I like them wild and natural.

They have been completely easy to grow.  I planted them, and they grew massive in a season, five feet wide and six feet tall.  While willows are water lovers, these big plants are sited on a southeast facing slope and do fine with no particular care.

The  dense crossing branches even look good in winter.  Really, not much is required to keep this beautiful loose hedge.

With one hitch.  The striking foliage variation occurs on new branches.  In order to maximize the dappling, these willows should have the older limbs pruned out in winter to let the new branches develop.

One alternative is to simply coppice the whole shrub, by cutting it completely down.  It will regrow within one season, and the new growth will have the lovely variegation.  

So that's what I did this week, and my twiggy dense hedge went from this ---

 --- to this.  What have I done?  Now that I look at the stubs I think I pruned them down too far.

All my research said this was ok to do, and advised the gardener to simply get the loppers out and make an easy job of snipping the multiple branches off.  It was not at all easy.

The older branches were thick as small tree trunks and the loppers were useless.  My only other tool is a small Japanese pruning saw, and it was hardly up for the challenge.  

At first I thought I would save the willow branches for projects or flexible stakes around the garden.  Maybe even weave a fence or build small trellises.

But the job quickly overwhelmed me, the work was hard by hand, the branches were big and awkward, and I ended up just carting them off behind the compost pile to make a big wildlife-friendly brush pile.  A very big pile.

Did I chop too much?  Should I have left a couple feet more of branches above this level?  Aaack.

This was not an easy task, despite the gardening advice books that made it seem so, and I don't think I am up for doing this every year or so.  I may just let the willow do what it wants, and leave it unpruned in the future.  I will eventually lose all the variegation, but the billowing shrubs will still look great, screening the corner and dancing about in the breeze.

But . . . . can I really forgo the pretty leaf colors?  Would you be able to?

Like many tasks in the garden, it was perfectly awful to do but not so bad when it was done, and I do love the look of these pink and green and white willows.

Please, please tell me, all you arborists and gardeners out there --- what have I done?  Did I prune too far down?  Did I kill them?  Can you actually kill a willow?


March 4, 2012

I Am a Shrubberer

Roger the Shrubberer: There is a pestilence upon this land.  Nothing is sacred.  Even those who arrange and design shrubberies are under considerable economic stress at this period in history.
King Arthur: Did you say 'shrubberies'?

Roger the Shrubberer:
Yes. Shrubberies are my trade.   I am a shrubber.  My name is 'Roger the Shrubber'.  I arrange, design, and sell shrubberies.

Sir Bedevere:
King Arthur:
No! No, no, no! No!

       -- Monty Python's Holy Grail, scene 18

I liked Noel Kingsbury's February 29 post on Gardening Gone Wild, titled From the Shrubbery.

It said exactly what I have wanted to post about perennials versus woody plants ever since I began this blog.   But of course he said it so much better than I could.  And he asserts that after a decade of the New Perennial trend, shrubs may be making a welcome comeback.

I've been trying to create a woodland edge habitat out of my empty half acre yard, so from the start I focused on trees, (lots and lots, do you know how many individual trees make up a small forest and how many will never grow?) and shrubs (woody plants for a woodland look), and rocks (you work with what your garden gives you).

I wanted structure and form and permanence.  I wanted height and shade.  You don't get any of that from a flowerbed.

But as Noel points out in his post, perennials have ruled the day for a decade.  They give you a full effect in two years, they are cheap to propagate and sell, they don't threaten the timid gardener with "care", and they are small enough for small gardens.  Woody plants just seem more difficult.

I do grow perennials, and I listen with patience as others go on about hellebores and hostas, but I am a shrubberer at heart.   So, with delight at Noel's prediction about shrubs, I present a few of my favorites that are small, that flower, and that grow without complaint in my garden.

Zenobia pulverulenta (Honeycups).  Delicate, open shape.  Blueberry-like flowers.  Glaucus foliage that holds dewdrops and shimmers with silver undersides.  Keeps its leaves into winter.  Not flashy or fancy, but elegant and quiet and very pretty.

Itea virginica (Sweetspire).  A medium green filler in summer, but spring and fall are its seasons --- droopy spikes of white blooms in May, and fall color that is a deep clear garnet.  Shapely and tidy.

Fothergilla gardenii (Witch alder).  Funny white fuzzy flowers appear in May before the leaves.  They smell lightly of honey.  Medium green, clean foliage all summer, then bright orange fall color in November and December.

Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet).  I have 'Hummingbird' which is low and white flowered and 'Ruby Spice', taller and pink flowered. The candles are spicy scented in mid summer and in fall it is a fireball of bright yellow foliage.  It's not a spring plant --- it wakes up slowly and looks like twiggy rubble until it leafs out, but all is forgiven in summer with the first whiff of spice and the first wink of a blooming candle.

All these shrubs are small enough (about 3 or 4 feet high) not to intimidate a perennial gardener and they fit in a border.  They need no care, no pruning, no deadheading.  They flower.  They have all the attributes of a perennial but also give you structure and permanence all year long, color in fall, and flowers in spring or summer.

There are many other small flowering shrubs like azaleas, daphnes, and others that I do not grow.  I love the big ornamental shrubs too --- bottlebrush buckeyes and all the viburnums, and many more.  Oh and the winterberry hollies, hydrangeas of course, and half-high blueberries and . . . .

But if we are going to convert perennial gardeners into shrubberers, these smaller woody garden plants are good ones to start with.