February 24, 2013

Dinner Rabbit

We occasionally see a bobcat (Lynx rufus) in the meadow by our house. We have watched it stalk, hunt, and sunbathe in the warm sunshine. This all happens within yards of our house. We live in a densely built suburb, but there are patches of woods around us.

The other day there were two. See Christy's comment on this post -- it may be a mating pair. The male may stay with the female until spring, and then they separate.  We usually see only a single bobcat, or once a mother and kittens.

Jim caught some hunting action as one of the bobcats went after something.

Success. This shot was through the dining room window screen, so it's a little hard to tell what the bobcat got, but it looks like a dinner rabbit.

It was a good catch. The bobcat looks satisfied.

I do wish they would leave my sapling trees alone. The green mesh sleeve protects this little tree against antler rub by the deer, but it doesn't stop the bobcat from marking territory. Perhaps the bobcat predator scent will be a deer deterrent? Larger male bobcats have been known to bring down deer, although their diet is mostly rabbits and mice.

After dinner there was washing up to be done.

And then the two cats piled on top of each other for a rest in the snow.

Then goodbye. Off to do what bobcats do.

It's a good thing Jim's Siamese cats do not go outside, although they are so skinny and bony they'd be unlikely to tempt a bobcat when there is dinner rabbit on the menu.

February 22, 2013

Bursts of Light

Earlier this month there was a meteor that crashed into a lake in Russia and the sonic boom broke windows and injured hundreds in a city near the impact. It streaked across the sky in a burst of light, trailing a white plume. Incredible.

Then a few mornings later, the first thing I saw as my eyes opened was a streaking plume of light in the dawn sky.

Of course it was the contrail of an airplane, and I knew it, but I awoke with a shock, a little panicked after seeing those news videos of the meteor blazing across the early morning Russian sky.

On winter mornings I lie in bed watching vapor trails meet the morning sun.

There is quite a view of the sky from our large bedroom windows, and early morning is a very busy time for air traffic here.

I live exactly halfway between Boston and New York, right below one of the busiest air corridors in America.  Flights are headed to both those cities, and flights are coming from Europe, headed west into the interior cities and beyond. Flights going east on their way to Europe cross over my house, and then local air traffic lumbers by, smaller aircraft going past the window with the backlit plumy vapor trails of transatlantic planes behind them.

If the sun is just rising and it is a clear day, there are six or seven pink tinted plumes crossing each other all over the sky, headed every which way. What a way to greet the day.

Finally, I get up, open the bedroom door to the living room and see the burst of yellow light from the still blooming forsythia branches that I brought in to force back on January 31.

It's been 23 days now, and all the other branches that I cut and brought into the house have opened, bloomed, entertained me for a while and are now gone.

But the forsythia blooms on. Not a single little blossom has shriveled, no yellow petal has been lost. It goes on and on, a burst of never ending sunshine. It may still be abloom at Easter, maybe even Memorial Day.

You know, it's pretty exciting around here at dawn on a winter morning.


February 19, 2013

The Scent is Gone

When plant breeders make improvements to a plant and create new cultivars, it is assumed that the new attributes are added on to the original plant's qualities.

New cultivars are marketed as being just like the species, only with bigger flowers. Just like the original plant but a new dwarf size. The same as the common variety, but now an improved cold hardy version. It's all plusses, no takeaways.

Marketers never point out what gets lost in the breeding.

Case in point: sweetbay magnolia. Magnolia virginiana.

One of the key attributes of this small woodland native tree is its lemony scented flowers in June. Heavenly, or so I've read.

I wanted one, and I wanted that fragrance, especially as I planted it outside the bedroom window, to smell its lovely scent on a June morning when it flowered.

But I also wanted one that could take my winters, and was delighted to find this: ". . . and the cold hardiest variety is one developed by Jim Wilson called 'Moonglow'".

The description did not say " . . . but the fragrance was sacrificed in breeding this tree for cold tolerance."  Nope, it didn't say that.

I don't know for a fact that the scent was lost as a result of selecting for cold hardiness. No literature mentions that.

But I do know I have never smelled any fragrance. And I do know that a gardener I met last winter told me his sweetbay magnolias are highly fragrant, just delightful on a June day, but he had never heard of a 'Jim Wilson Moonglow' cultivar, he only had species sweetbay magnolias.

Rose gardeners know that scent was one of the first things to be bred out of heirloom roses in the quest for disease resistance or long bloom. I suppose it's logical to think the same has happened with this magnolia.

I still love this tree. Its glossy leaves flutter outside the window, showing their silvery backs. The flowers are creamy white and pretty, and the tree flowers at a very young age.
Sweetbay magnolia holds onto some of its foliage all winter, then in April and May it gets skimpy looking and looks unhealthy.  But it is just getting ready to shed the winter leaves and put on new foliage. May is not its season, but by June all is glorious again.

With its leaves on in winter it can suffer from heavy snow. This was the worst, when snow the consistency of cement fell in late October one year, bending this upright tree all the way to the ground. It was literally lying down on the ground, Talk about winter tolerance!  It sprang back up and survived.

The leaves are beautiful, the open habit does not block the window, the shape is perfect at the side of the house, and the flowers are so nice.

But it lost something on the way to becoming the perfect plant for my northern garden.

It kept all the great attributes of the species that the breeders wanted, plus it could handle a cold winter. But there was a loss in the process. It lost its scent.

(If any commenters want to write in that they grow this specific 'Moonglow' magnolia cultivar and it smells divine blooming in their gardens, please do so, but be aware that I  am going to kill myself if that is true.)


February 15, 2013

Buying Trees

My winter catalog orders are in -- a few annual seeds to sow inside soon, and some perennial plants to be shipped in early May when I can plant them.

So now I can get down to my real pleasure: buying trees. Out comes the Dirr's doorstop to pore through.

I don't know why tree planting is so satisfying to me, but my dream would be to live in an arboretum. I'm on my way to creating a small tree museum here.

There is not much room left to expand my arboretum or extend my mini-forest. I have planted the back hill too thickly with native maples and pin oaks and swamp white oaks and black gums and persimmons and sweetgums and tuliptrees. The saplings are all gaining size and growing into each other the way a natural forest would.

My sassafras stand is taking hold out in the meadow, finally. In the yard specimen trees like a pagoda dogwood, a sourwood, a redbud, magnolias, stewartias, two cornelian cherries, some tree-form blackhaw viburnums are all getting taller than me, and the maples and spruces and birches are now quite big. But I want to plant more.

What's on my shopping list so far this year?

Ostrya virginiana.  It's called hophornbeam. A native shade tree, with interesting hop-like seedpods that dangle and flutter. I saw one on a walk in our local reservoir a few years ago, and it was enchanting. I want to plant one for those pretty hop flowers. The habit is kind of coarse and large, so it will go in the meadow.
Hophornbeam From New England Wildflower Society - Plant profile

Carpinus caroliniana. This is called blue beech, or musclewood for its smooth gray sinewy looking bark. It's another native. I'm going to plant three in a small grove (I don't have much room; a grove can only be three trees big). It's another native, a smallish tree that grows in the shady understory.
Blue beech, or Musclewood From Missouri Botanical - Plant profile

Parrotia persica 'Vanessa'. This is a cultivar, and it is not a native, but it is a stunner. 'Vanessa' is narrow, although not really fastigate, and I think I can get it in next to another tree in the front part of my yard. It has beautiful form, clean leaves, and gorgeous fall color. A real specimen.
Parrotia persica 'Vanessa' From Learn2Grow - Plant profile

I don't plant trees to save the planet. It simply makes me happy in a way that flower gardening does not, so I keep doing it.

I will never enjoy the real reward. As a gardener in my mid 60s, I will be gone from this little arboretum when the trees I plant reach maturity. I will not sit under their shade or be able to hang a swing from their lowest branches. I will not see them at their best.

Someone else will live in this house and curse the fact that there is too much shade, that there are too many weird kinds of trees, and that the damn sweetgum drops its spiky fruits in the yard.

My reward instead is imagining how this will all look in the future. And I do get a more immediate pleasure from seeing spindly container plants grow into saplings.

Some of the original trees I started planting seven years ago are actually medium sized young trees now. Some screen the view beyond as intended, some are already flowering in their youth, and some are looking graceful in the way they will eventually at maturity.

That's good, and that's all I ask right now.

My sources for small container-grown trees that I can plant myself:

Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, CT - a specialty nursery 40 minutes from my house. Interesting selections of woody plants, great propagation program, knowledgeable staff. They publish their retail inventory online, so I can shop for exactly what I want before I get there.

Silver Spring Nursery in Bloomfield, CT - a small, local nursery that is a hidden gem right here in town. Kevin Wilcox, the owner, is an expert in woody plants, propagates most of his inventory and can usually locate a specific plant even if his small nursery does not have it.

Forestfarm Online Nursery in Oregon -  very comprehensive inventory of mail order plants, especially trees and shrubs. Shipping is costly, but the plants arrive in excellent shape and the selection is great. I have had some zone transplant difficulties (they are in the Pacific NW, and I am planting in New England), but most survive. Their catalog is no frills, no pictures, nothing glossy, just endless pages of plant descriptions!

February 11, 2013


Initially our front porch had a 3 foot drop by the front door, with only rough concrete siding it.

We fixed the uglies by putting brick over the concrete, but it didn't do much to soften the drop off. Shrubs are always the answer when there's a decorating problem outside, so four skinny little redtwig dogwoods were planted in a row.

These are Cornus sericea 'Isanti' named for the Minnesota county where it was introduced (the county itself named for the Santee Sioux).

Redtwig dogwoods can get very rangy, but this cultivar was advertised to grow compactly to only 5 feet tall, just enough to come up over the 3 foot brick face and then another 2 feet to create a low wall of greenery along the open edge.

A year later they were still little, but showed promise.

Species redtwig dogwoods will get really huge, and will sucker. This smaller cultivar is nicer in so many ways.

After five years I could not be happier with them. Unlike many of my gardening solutions, this one worked beautifully. Right size, full shape, a loose look that billows without looking too unkempt by the front door.

But wait, there's more!

There are pretty flowers in spring.

And the characteristic red stems in winter.

 And those red stems look wonderful against snow and the dark green spruce.

 They are eye catching as you walk up to my front door.

On winter nights the porch lights illuminate the bare red twigs just so, and they glow ruby red in the dark. It's a sight that people comment on when they come to my front door.

Cornus sericea is a suckering shrub, and it is easy to cut rooted stems off and replant them. I created another stand of redtwig dogwoods behind my dry creek bed just from a few random rooted cuttings that I took from this row.

I have not pruned these yet, other than to take off the more rambunctious branches that reached toward the front door. But you can cut them all the way back and they'll regenerate.

Or you can cut out just the bigger older stems and leave the younger shoots. That is supposed to assure good red color, since it is the newer stems that are reddest.

I spend a lot of time on this blog lamenting my mistakes and all the goofs I have made in my gardening career. This is not one of them.

Planting Isanti redtwig dogwoods was the perfect solution.

Rob Woodman at The British Gardener did an excellent three part profile of shrub dogwoods here, here, and here. Check out his posts for some great info!

February 8, 2013

An Update

This is just a quick update to let you know that while a blizzard rages outside today, inside my house the branches I brought in to force last week are starting to flower.

The winter honeysuckle smells sweet and serene. Tiny white blossoms are unfurling. I moved the vase with its four little branches to the bedroom. The smell is helplessly alluring.

The witch hazel has finally given it up for me, and is allowing a very slight but very intoxicating spicy scent to wash over me at odd times when I am not looking, and especially when I am not expecting it. Unnerving.

The sunny forsythia is opening bright and happy, the yellow cornelian cherry is making moves to open, and the pink buds of the Dawn viburnum are ever so slightly looser, and promise a scent that I can't quite detect yet.

You cannot imagine the sensory dissonance here today.

Outside all is white and colorless and cold, as the falling snow slowly devours any landscape features. Inside, the heady scents of delicate spring blooms surprise me at strange times, not all the time, but every once in a while as I roam from window to window to monitor the storm.

If you are going to bring branches into the house for forcing, do it a week before a Nor'easter bears down on you.

The sensory contrast is extraordinary.


February 4, 2013

An Indoor Shrubbery

I have been captivated by this photo all winter.

I think the photo came from Southern Living magazine. A Tin Eye search returns several blogs that re-posted it, but Southern Living seems like the original.

The colors, the composition, the beautiful blooming branches and expensive glass jars all sing to me.

So on the last day of January, when a crazy warm front switched our temperatures from 10 degrees F to the high 50s overnight, I went outside to gather branches for forcing.

It was warm and windy and wet and sloppy, but with pruners in hand, I set out.

First on my list was witch hazel. The hybrid Hamamelis 'Diane' was in bloom, but for the life of me I can never see those little flowers. The foliage is rusty brown and persistent and the scattering of rusty flowers are tiny and hang below the brown leaves for a truly ghastly effect.

This witch hazel had been split apart by a storm in 2011, and in 2012 I pruned it severely to try to regain some shape. So there were few branches to cut that hadn't already been taken off. I found a few, but the flowers seemed to be clustered at the base of the stems, and would wind up under water in the vase.  No matter. I stripped the dry leaves off the branches I cut and brought them in.

I have never ever smelled any of the famous fragrance that witch hazels are supposed to perfume the countryside with in winter. Nothing. But as they warmed up in the sink, as I cut them and stuck them in a vase, bringing them up to my face as I carried them to the living room, I caught a tiny whiff for the first time. Spicy. Wonderful.

I also had trouble finding sufficient branches to cut from a newly planted winter honeysuckle. This Lonicera fragrantissima is still tiny, with just a dozen whippy branches on it, so finding a few to cut was a problem. But four were taken, and I am eagerly waiting to see if there will be blooms indoors. I have never smelled winter honeysuckle, but like the elusive witch hazel scent, it is supposed to perfume the air.

I cut some forsythia, just because you can. Forsythias will bloom inside if you look at them.

I took just a few budded branches from a Dawn viburnum (Viburnum bodnantense). Like my other shrubs, it is not big and there are so few branches to sacrifice.  It is another young plant that I have never seen bloom and have never smelled, so I hope it opens its pretty pink buds and delivers a scent indoors.

I cut some fothergilla branches, some cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and aronia, just a few of each.

Jim came into the room and asked, why do we have pruning clippings in the living room?  Not prunings, I told him, those are branches of winter flowering shrubs.  Well why do we have a shrubbery indoors?


Because it's midwinter and I need to see something bloom. I need to smell something fragrant. I need to create my own version of the picture I have been ogling all winter, even though I know some glass florist vases, a ceramic pitcher and a shot glass aren't even close.

In the shot glass is one tiny budded branch from my yellow flowered magnolia 'Elizabeth'.  That tree suffered storm damage last year too, and there is not one branch I can spare. But could you resist this fat fuzzy bud, so ready to open?

And could you resist knowing you could force it to look like this in midwinter indoors?

Here's hoping.

February 1, 2013

Bad Pruning Cuts

It is time to show you a mistake I have made in the garden. Joene calls these Garden Oops, or Goops, and you can read more on her site on the first of every month.

My mistake this time was pretty basic. I made bad pruning cuts. And I knew it when I was doing it, but planned to go back and fix things. Then I didn't.

This shows you a bad pruning cut on my weeping Japanese maple. Branches should be cut at an angle close to the trunk. They should not be sticking out an inch or two like this.

This shows you what happens if the stub is left untrimmed. It dies, of course, and it prevents a healing scar from forming where the cut branch and the trunk meet.

I made this mistake on several branches. About a third of the tree, actually.

I was pruning in summer when it was in leaf.  The best advice is to prune woody shrubs and trees in winter with the leaves down, but with a complicated form like this tree has, you really need to see what you've done to the entire leafy shape, and the best time to do that is in summer. There is no absolute rule about this -- pruning in summer is okay to do.

To prune the contorted, droopy branches of a weeping Japanese maple, you have to get under the cascade of branches and make cuts above you, blind, trying to look up into the canopy, with leaves in your face and twigs matting your hair.

You lie down in the dirt and squirm, prune up into the tangle of branches, get up, look at things, get down again and cut away and then do it again. I knew I was just hacking off things without clean cuts, but I planned to get the overall shape right, then go back and fix each cut afterwards.


I did not clean up the bad pruning cuts.

I did not do it after my initial shaping. I did not do it when the leaves came down in autumn and I could clearly see the dying stubs all over the tree.

Finally in January I went out and cleaned things up, trimming the pruned branches back to the main limbs, being careful to maintain an angled cut, and not making the cuts flush with the trunk -- you need to leave the branch collar intact.

In winter I could see what I was doing now that the shape was more open from my initial efforts, and now that the leaves are completely down.

This mistake in the garden reminded me of cutting my own hair -- lopping blindly with the scissors held awkwardly above my head, hoping for the best, then using the mirror after each snip to see what had been done.

Awkward bits left over.

And in the end a trip to the hairdresser to fix things.