November 27, 2012

Alike But Different

My last post was about poison ivy and now I want to show you a plant that often is confused with it.

The leaves of Rhus aromatica can be mistaken for poison ivy. They are trifoliate, shiny, and grow on woody stems. They turn scarlet in autumn.

This is fragrant sumac. It's a low ornamental groundcover, and I have planted it everywhere under trees in my garden. It is in the sumac family, but it is not poison sumac, and it is completely unrelated to poison ivy. It is not a vine, and it causes no rash when you touch it.

In fact, when you touch its leaves, Rhus aromatica gives off a fragrance, as the name suggests, which is described as "citrusy".  I think not.

I think it is stinky, a little like peanut butter left on the shelf during a heat wave, oily and stale. How does anyone think that smells like citrus?

But despite my aversion to the smell, I absolutely love this plant.

I first saw a stand of it growing on a bank at Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts.

It forms a dense groundcover, it positively shimmers and shines in the sunlight, and it is quite elegant.

The cultivar at Arnold Arboretum and growing in my garden is a dwarf variety called 'Gro Low', and it does exactly that -- it grows to only a foot high. It arches beautifully, and spreads easily, covering about 8 feet across when it gets going.

In autumn it turns orange and red and gives a pop of brilliance at ground level under everything else.

It is easy to grow. It wants dry poor soils, so it does well competing with tree roots, as long as the canopy is high enough for full sun. It will hold a steep bank or cover a problem area.

Rhus aromatica is not even in the same family as poison ivy, but is is related to to other sumacs. I just can't see the resemblance.

Wild staghorn sumac grows here along roadsides and on my back hill, where all weeds think they are welcome. Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is a tree that is a colonizer of disturbed forest land, and it forms huge stands wherever the woods are open. It likes the rocky waste areas where forest hardwoods have a hard time filling in.

Unlike fragrant sumac's classy little rounded glossy leaves, staghorn sumac has big primordial fronds of compound leaves.

The slender trunks are covered in a soft fuzz, which looks like the furriness of a young deer's antlers. It does, really.

Staghorn. Antler fuzz.

Trees with compound leaves look deeply primitive to me. Staghorn sumac's big fronds look prehistoric, especially growing among the quiet, reserved maples and ashes and beeches of a New England woodland.

They do have brilliant red fall color, and I'll admit I like them when they turn scarlet ahead of all other forest trees on my back hillside.

While the fall color is nice, it's hard for me to get past those jungle looking Cretaceous period leaflets.

Staghorn sumac gets fiery red drupes that stand up like rockets all over the tree in fall. Rhus aromatica gets cute little red berries.

One is a primitive looking tree with compound leaves and fruit that looks like a weapon, the other an elegant groundcover with pretty rounded leaves and decorative berries.

Alike but so different -- fragrant sumac is not a toxic pest like the poison ivy it resembles, and does not resemble the staghorn sumac it is related to.


November 23, 2012

Is It A Myth?

Some of the prettiest fall color here comes from the scarlet leaves of a beautiful native vine that climbs up into the trees. Long after the leaves of the maples and ashes in the woods have fallen, there is brilliant color running straight up the length of the bare trunks and draping the open branches.

It's poison ivy, of course. Toxicodendron radicans. It grows everywhere around us, and if you live anywhere in eastern North America it grows all around you too.

Poison ivy climbs the trees, but on my back hill it also drapes down over the rocky slope, crawling along the ground in very long runners that tangle and snare everything at ground level.  

On the ground it doesn't have brilliant fall color; that seems to be a feature of the vine when it reaches the sunlight of a bare canopy.

I'm pretty familiar with the growing habits of poison ivy here because I spend a lot of time trying to eradicate it, move it, eliminate it, stunt it, pull it down out of the trees, chop it and, mostly, accommodate it where it wants to grow. 

Just to maneuver among the scrub and tend the tree saplings I have planted on the hill, I have to wrestle with poison ivy at every step. The long woody runners wrap around my ankles and trip me. Young pliant vines snap me in the face when I try to pull them away from my growing trees.

I know you are shrieking just thinking about that. Almost everyone has a story of horrid encounters with poison ivy and the misery of the rash it causes.

But I have never had any reaction, despite handling it with bare hands all the time, over a lifetime. Is it a myth that some people are immune to poison ivy allergic reactions?

Experts say that people like me who have never had a reaction simply haven't had one yet. There is no such thing as lifetime immunity, and frequent exposure increases the odds of getting a reaction at some point.
Yes, they say. It is a myth.

So I dread the day when that happens. Right now I enjoy being out in the woods, I love planting and tending to my little forest, and I don't mind the poison ivy, except that it is everywhere.

Without negative associations, I even think it looks nice. Unlike Oriental bittersweet it does not strangle and kill trees. It does not vine by winding around the host structure, instead it climbs straight up the trunk, using tiny hairy rootlets to attach itself.

It is beautiful in autumn.  I don't want so much of it, and I wish it would leave my young saplings alone, but it doesn't frighten me to deal with it.


November 20, 2012

Momentum Lost

I've been hunkered inside all of November. I've gone out to clean up perennials a bit, and snip a few things back, but not to do much more than that. I've been inside with the heat on, complaining I can't get warm enough.

And yet the chill weather outside is ideal for digging without overheating, the partly cloudy grayish skies won't bake me, and the ground is soft, damp, and easy to work. Leaves are down and I can see what needs doing. These are perfect conditions for getting at the one project I have been putting off for cooler weather -- expanding the edges of several gardens.

This is the weather I waited for all season, holding off on edging until hot humid summer was over. This is weather that rewards a day of digging in the garden with rosy cheeks and an appetite when you come in.

The curve of the bed under the doublefile viburnum needs to be expanded since the viburnum has grown into the yard. The strip of ground under the bottlebrush buckeyes needs to be wider, as they have grown out into the lawn too. Around the patio needs to be enlarged. The gardens under the white birches need to be made larger to accommodate the shrubs growing there. A little here, a little there.

Just small adjustments, but it involves digging and hauling away the strips of sod. Dirty work, hands and knees work, up and down work.

I think I lost my ooomph when I was resting up after my eye surgery in late October and didn't go outside much. Then it snowed briefly in early November. Then autumn seemed to be suddenly gone by. I lost my momentum.

There are rhythms to the maintenance tasks that need doing in the garden beyond what each season calls for. There is a physical tempo to putting your garden pants on each week and going outside. There is a pattern to puttering.

You can't keep up with all the little jobs out there by sitting inside writing blog posts and reminder lists.

I could always edge the gardens when it warms up in spring, after the ground starts to thaw and before the weather gets too hot again.

Maybe I'll do that.


November 16, 2012

My Pinterest Porch

One of the things I was most excited about when our new house was built eight years ago was that I would finally have a screened porch.
Photo from This Old House website.
Not my porch.  Not even close.
I imagined a big lazy ceiling fan slowly circling above, cushioned rustic chairs all about, and lots of plants. I planned to live on the porch all summer, maybe even entertaining guests out there on hot days.

What I failed to take into account was that the space was only 14 feet long and 7 feet wide, tucked into a back corner of the house. The builder did not put in full length screens, just screened windows, as you can see in this photo, so it became simply a narrow unheated room, not really a summer porch.

For years Jim has had to listen to me whine that it felt like being in a railroad car. The windows are too high to see out of when seated, and the space is not wide enough for much furniture unless it is lined up along the wall.

Now we are finally going to re-do the porch, and I am searching Pinterest for ideas.

Right now I have kept some furniture on the porch, but the area is mainly a storage depot where pots of tender plants live in winter. I call it The Warehouse.

In summer, with lots of houseplants, and early morning sun streaming in, it looks nicer, so then I call it My Conservatory.
We are not gong to expand the footprint of the room -- that's beyond our budget, so it will remain the size and shape of a railroad car, 14' by 7'.

But we'll take off the vinyl siding that covers the interior walls and use something nicer, like cedar planks. The floor will be covered in terra cotta tiles, maybe brick. The windows will be dropped down considerably so you can see out to the deck and garden more easily from inside.

But how to use this porch? What can I do with such a narrow space? What would you do with it?

One concept is to forego any furniture at all and make this a work station for my plant activities. I'd call it The Interior Potting Shed.

We could brick the porch floor, add a floor drain (um, sure), and then put in a dry sink table for potting and washing.  Zinc topped.  Double sinks, actually.  Plants and containers strewn about. Tools hanging on the walls.  As they say on Pinterest, Love, love, love it.

We can't put plumbing out there, so I'd have to make do by bringing the garden hose in through the door when needed, but there is a faucet close outside the back door. (C'mon. It's a fantasy right now, and in my fantasy dragging the hose in through the door works just fine. Perfectly fine.)

Here's the same idea again, complete with stone potting sink, and this windowed nook appears to have the skinny, cramped dimensions of my porch. How beautifully it transforms this space into something interesting and useful and full of light and life. I'd call this My Cottage Greenhouse. More love.

Or I could dispense with all the plants and greenery, and keep my porch spare -- just a couch, a chair and a lamp. I would read and relax there, and I'd call it My Zen Retreat.

At Idyll Haven, a blog written by Sue, a fellow Connecticut blogger, it looks like her porch is about the same size as mine, and she has done exactly that. She has created an uncluttered space for sitting, and kept the furnishings and any plants to a minimum.

The full length screens are essential to open up the narrow area. Glass topped tables lighten up the tiny space. You can see her porch is tucked into the corner of her house as mine is. These pictures are so helpful for me to see how I could translate what she has done to my problem space.

I am wandering around Pinterest to get more ideas for our porch re-do. Before I go much further, though, I have to make a decision about what I want the porch to be, what I actually want to do in it.

A lush, plant filled work area with no furniture -- like a potting shed or cottage greenhouse? Or a sitting area for one or two people -- a zen retreat, uncluttered and simple?

How do you use your small screened porch?

November 12, 2012

Not This Year

The two red maples in our back yard put on the most glorious show in November each year.  They turn scarlet all over, long after the other trees have shed their leaves in October. Against the bare branches of the surrounding woods, the maple's color is extraordinary.

This is a picture I took on November 12 in 2010.

The effect is so bright that the entire house lights up inside. On a sunny day in mid November, the indoors positively glows. At times it looks like the bathroom is on fire, and opening the shades in the morning causes panic at the sight of the back yard going up in flames.

I look forward to this spectacle each year, and the timing is always fabulous. The show starts just as the rest of the garden has faded and gone brown.

But not this year.

This year the fall color has been overcome by a combination of two unusual hard freezes in early October, Hurricane Sandy, and then a nor'easter storm last week that brought wind and wet snow (I've never seen that before -- heavy, sloppy, wet snow blowing sideways.  What the?)

This year at the same time in November I took a picture. Last week's snow is gone, but what a sad sight this tree is, compared to other years. Here it is on November 11, 2012.

A year earlier a very bad storm broke off major branches so the shape of this tree is now awkward. And this year the fall leaves were frozen, blown, and shorn before any color could develop.

We are sorely disappointed.

Every year is different.  Spring is even more unpredictable here, but every season brings its own unexpected delights and unforseen calamities. Another year will have to come and go. Both maples are healthy and branches will grow to fill in the broken shapes, new leaves will dress them up all summer, and they will color beautifully once again in fall. In a year.

Meanwhile, isn't it great that I have pictures to remind me of what I am waiting for. Here are a couple more from 2010.

Come back to my garden on November 12, 2013 and bring your sunglasses. These beautiful red maples will be in full color once again.

November 8, 2012

In the Parking Lot

This post has no photos, because I cannot show you what I want you to experience.

I want you to smell the delightful burnt sugar, teasing, wafting fragrance of a katsura tree in autumn.

In mid October we went to Cornell Plantations, the botanical gardens at Ithaca College in New York state. Lovely gardens, beautiful arboretum, a sleek visitor center, and charming wildflower walk along the river --- all nice. But the highlight of the entire tour was the parking lot.

I got out of the car. I started toward the entrance and noticed the delicate scent of sugar. The smell you get from the browned crust of an angel food cake coming out of the oven. Cotton candy at the state fair. Caramel melting.

I looked all around, and could not locate where this intoxicating fragrance came from. I stood in the parking lot like a pointer on the hunt, nose in the air, sniffing.

There they were -- lining the lot were several young katsura trees. Their fall foliage had mostly dropped, but a few still held their autumn leaves. You can't walk up to a katsura tree and smell its foliage. You can only catch whiffs from afar, when the sun and air currents bring it to you.

And there, in the parking lot, on a cool October day, conditions were perfect.

Katsura is Cercidiphyllum japonicum.  It is a tall spreading tree with lovely attributes, and I grow a young one. Nice shape, leaves that are heart shaped like redbuds, good fall color, a fast grower.

But the one attribute that endears this tree to me is the scent of its fall foliage.

It is not a floral scent, it is a distinctly sweet sugar smell, and it is not always detectable. You have to be away from a tree to pick it up. I have experienced it around other katsura trees (my own, a four year old sapling, has yet to give off any sugar scent), but I never had such an overwhelming, deeply satisfying, soul enriching experience as I did standing by the car sniffing the air that day.

The parking lot at Cornell Plantations --- visit it in fall.


November 5, 2012

Three Survivors

You know what survived Superstorm Sandy in my yard?

Three kinds of plants came through intact: the grasses, the amsonias and the fothergillas.  Each looks untouched.

Most other shrubs lost their leaves and many perennials got knocked over and flattened.

The poor Sheffield mums are splayed on the ground, still in bloom, but I have left them for the bees, who have so little to feed on right now. Other perennials have been cut back since the storm, since their dishevelment added nothing to the garden.

But the grasses look better than ever. Not a bit of floppiness nor any threat of falling over, and they looked this way the very day after the storm.

And the Amsonia tabernaemontana is untouched, looking just as it did before the winds howled.

The gale blew down all the fall leaves on trees and shrubs, but the fothergilla gardenii did not lose a single leaf, and decided to show its fall glory when the storm clouds departed.

I am fortunate that nothing was destroyed -- no trees down or limbs split.  But the whole garden looks done for the season now, too early and too abruptly. So I am particularly happy to have these three survivors looking so good right now.

(You know what else looks great after the storm? The lawn. Cold, wet and windy seems to be perfect for it. It is lush and green and looks like you could play golf on it if you dress warm and hit straight. Damn poor for croquet, though. Too thick.)

November 1, 2012

Large Forest Plants in Small Garden Borders

It is the first of the month and time to show you a gardening Oops. For more mistakes in the garden you can go to Joene's blog and see the errors others have made under Gardening Oops -- or GOOPs.

Associated Press picture (taken at Bridgeport CT 10/29/12)
Before I show you my silly mistake, I want to say that it simply doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter because my garden, my home, my loved ones and my neighbors were all safe through the terrible Storm Sandy that devastated the east coast.

I have no damage to the garden. The fact that I create self inflicted catastrophes by threatening my plantings with horticultural gardening blunders is nothing. It is simply and truly not a real disaster.

But I did make a mistake here, and it is the usual, repeated mistake of putting large forest plants into small garden borders and then wondering if they will fit when mature.

Spicebush, or Lindera benzoin is a subtle woodland plant.  Shrubby, delicate in bloom, beautiful in fall color, it grows slowly. It eventually spreads out horizontally in maturity and becomes gracefully architectural.

Jim photographed this one at Cornell Plantations in Ithaca NY on our recent trip there in October.

Now tell me, do you think the spicebush I planted a few years ago at the edge of a raised berm is going to fit when it spreads to its intended size?

And I have three of them in this crowded border, smushed in between ever expanding Colorado spruce trees that will also become huge.  There is simply no room for the beautiful spicebushes to spread out the way they will want to.

There was room, I thought. In 2010, after several years of growing this bed, I was still unhappy that it had open gaps.

And the slow growing little shrubby lindera benzoin plants that I had been nurturing in another garden spot seemed the perfect size for the empty space here, so I filled it up with the three compact spicebush babies.

Now, after seeing a naturally growing mature spicebush in the woods at Cornell, I know mine will grow too big. Once again I have forced large forest plants to grow in cramped garden beds, and no one will be happy about that.

Certainly not a disaster, but . . . oops.