March 27, 2013

Steps in the Grass

I think I need to do something with this area between two garden beds.

Right now a wiggle of grass separates the two beds, but instead of it looking like a path through the plants, the strip of lawn looks like a barrier separating two spaces.

How about if I get some irregular flagstones and set them randomly in the grass?

Here is a very structured idea of what I want to do. This was an installation at the Philadelphia Flower Show, which by its nature looks quite small and artificial, but it demonstrates the idea.

And here are stone steps in the grass that look more natural. This is the lawn in front of the main house at the ranch we visit in Wyoming. These steps in the grass have been here for decades and get plenty of wear as hungry dudes come from the corral to the dining hall each day.

The steps here do not separate garden beds, but again it demonstrates the look I want -- a casual winding ribbon that flows into and out of the surrounding lawn.

Steps need to lead you somewhere -- in my case the end would be the bridge that crosses the dry creek bed.

I don't want anything too artificial like a laid bluestone walk, or too bare like a path of mulch. Jim would still have to mow over steps set into turf. I thought about removing all the grass and planting thyme or another steppable ground cover between the stones, but I keep going back to the pictures of steps scattered in grass and I like it.

It looks like a job we could do ourselves, just by cutting out the shapes of the stones, putting some leveling sand in the cut-out and dropping the stone in -- seems very doable. You will need to remind me of that when I post a Garden Oops lamenting this project gone wrong.

I need to think on this a little more.

March 24, 2013

Explore Three Dogs in a Garden

I'm sending you over to Three Dogs in a Garden to read a short piece I wrote.

After you have checked that out, spend some time exploring other posts on Jennifer's blog. She's an artist / designer and a gardener, and you will be wowed by her photos and the choice of design elements that she explores.

Many of you already know her -- she has a well deserved wide following. But if this is your first visit to her site, you are in for a treat as you wander through her beautiful posts.

Thanks for clicking over to read today's post on her blog.
And thanks, Jennifer, for hosting my story!

March 20, 2013

An Anthropologist and a Gardener

We have a first today for this blog -- a guest post.

You will recall that I visited the Philadelphia Flower Show earlier this month.

Fishing for Heritage
Jane Nadel-Klein
I went with Jane Nadel-Klein, who is an anthropology professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She has written a great deal about Scottish village life and published a book on the topic, Fishing for Heritage.  

She also teaches courses on the anthropology of place, and the culture of gardeners. And now, a new book is underway about the social connections we make in gardening.

For her, the flower show was book research -- a look into two cultures, Britain and America, sharing a gardening heritage. She has lived and done research in the U.K. and studied many gardens (and the people who make them) in England and America.

She is also a gardener herself, visiting the show for a little inspiration and fun.

Here is her post on why the flower show disappointed:

Why I won’t be going back to the Philadelphia Flower Show

This year, the show’s theme was “the British Invasion.” As a gardener, perhaps I may be forgiven the assumption that this would have something to do with the influence of British design on our gardens here in the United States. 

But no. Instead, with a few notable exceptions, the show was all about American visions of British popular culture. So horticulture displays relied upon cheap, superficial imagery – Union Jacks, Big Ben, a yellow submarine, umbrellas, Shakespeare, photos of various Royals, a statue of a cricketer – to say, “here is the United Kingdom.” There was a lot of red, white and blue. Why not just go to Disneyland and have done with it? 

To be fair, one nursery attempted to recapitulate Hidcote, another presented the Lost Gardens of Heligan (Cornwall), one wall did show the names of famous British gardens (Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hampton Court), and there was a very witty presentation of Alice in Wonderland. The  Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Pennsylvania offered a serious explanation of the early seed trade between Britain and America in the eighteenth century.

But by and large, I thought the show was a flop. Overall (and again, with some exceptions), the plant palette was wan, predictable and a bit boring. Personally, I like hellebores, but staged in stiff little groups under glaring fluorescent lights, they are not at their best. And someone should ban the use of hyacinths in closed spaces. 
There were so many stiff little clumps of hellebores.
More to the point, the British “invasion,” from a gardener’s point of view, should include some of the plants the Brits rely upon in their herbaceous borders, such as campanulas and alchemilla. 

There were so few iconic British flowers like campanulas
I get that the show is intended to be a spectacle, an entertainment. But does it have to be so shallow and uninformative? Why not educate as well? The last time I went, I got ideas about design. This time, I got bored and annoyed. I’ll save the money next year and go to a good botanical garden.

Thank you, Laurrie, for the chance to rant. 

March 17, 2013

My Gardens All Need Names

What do you call each of your garden spaces?

Without an easy way to identify where things are, I find it gets confusing when I want to make a note to myself on where I need to do some work. And photos need consistent labels in my photo editor.

Without names, it gets silly when I want to tell Jim where I need a photo taken.

Can you get a shot of the viburnum for me? It's looking so nice now.

Sure, where is it?

It's out back. You know, the wide shrub out there. The one in front of the higher part of the back area, it's behind the middle garden but in the front of the back part of that long garden. In back.

It's much easier to say It's the shrub on the west end of Meadow's Edge.

Meadow's Edge is the big garden space that backs up to the untended meadow. That's easy.

The Birch Garden is a raised round bed surrounded by white birches.

But there is an art to naming gardens. They should have memorable names, not just a location or a specific anchor plant. "Front Garden" or "West Walkway"? Yawn. Those are spaces I have labored over and invested a lot of my creative energy in. You wouldn't know that by what I call them.

I want a name that evokes the experience of that garden, not just where it sits on the property.

The north garden is a small foundation planting hugging a corner of the house that is, well . . . on the north side.

The sign in this small area points to where our adult children now live. Jim made it, but misspelled Massachusetts, so I have to hide the error with strategically placed foliage. Surely he would know what garden space I mean if I mention the Blooper Patch.

When I walk past the narrow strip of plants along the front walk, I always think of the year the voles ate everything, absolutely everything, and the entire garden had to be replanted. It was traumatic but rewarding, as I am still tinkering with the aftereffects of their damage.

I call it the front garden but I think of it as The Vole's Rampage.  I should rename it that.  After all my laments about what happened in that area, Jim would know instantly what I was referring to.

In the pea gravel sitting area there is an oblong rounded rock that is gray and shaped like a whale's body surfing the gravel sea, its tail about to flip the nasturtiums over.

That rock was placed there the winter we went to Maui and saw humpback whales cavorting in the bay-- a truly memorable sight. Each time I sit in the area that I call the gravel garden I see that rock and think of warm Hawaiian breezes, those astonishing whales, and the good friends we shared that experience with. I should rename this The Humpback Garden. It brings me such memories.

Coming up with what to call a garden forces me to identify what is unique and interesting about it. Why I created it. What makes it distinctive. Or what I feel or remember when I am in it.

I need to think of new names for all the other areas, and I might do that. Then I'll need to relabel all the photos of those gardens in my photo editor. Thank god for "batch change".

I'll need to get Jim used to it all so he knows what I mean when I ask him to haul those bags of mulch to The Serenity Walk --- named that because, for some reason, every time I walk down this path I relax.

March 13, 2013

The Sap is Running

I posted this three years ago, but the scene looks exactly this way each year. It's timeless. So I thought I would put this up again, since it always pleases me when the sap buckets appear in March.

On the route I take out to the main road to go grocery shopping, I passed by a wonderful sight yesterday. The sap is running. The maples know it's March. They've sprouted new buds and buckets.



For some reason I came back from the supermarket with too much pancake mix and extra waffle batter. 

Here's what all the sugar is for... sap is being slowly and inexorably drawn up the massive trunks into the canopy to provide energy for the glorious show that's about to begin. The tight red buds know it's March. They're ready for their sugar drink.  It's wonderful to look up from the cold icky winter scene out the window, and see the flush of red in the sky at this time of year.

Bright red maple buds against the sky outside our kitchen window, March 1.  
These are red maples getting ready to burst out, not the sugar maples that are tapped for sap.  

Maples need freezing nights and warm days for the sap to run. When the temps change from nighttime freezing to mid 30s or 40s in the daytime, which is what we have in Connecticut in March, the carbon dioxide and water that froze overnight in the growing part of the tree trunk thaws. When it does, pressure differences in the tree's cells develop as the water and CO2 expand. The pressure difference makes the sap start to move.


I love the fact that our neighbors use the old galvanized buckets with pitched roofs to keep the rain out, rather than the blue plastic tubing and bright plastic pails that commercial sugar houses use. I'm sure the plastic is more efficient and probably more hygienic, but this just looks right.

It's such a marvel, all that sweet golden activity going on silently inside each growing cell of these big old brown scrabbly trunks. For eons and eons the maples have known what to do when the nights are freezing but the days are not, and they get right to it.

 Sap buckets laughing their heads off on a warm March day. 


March 9, 2013


I spent two days this week in Philadelphia at the flower show with my friend Jane.

We took the Amtrak train down, and stayed in a quirky bed and breakfast in Society Hill. The tiny brick row house had been built in 1811 and was an eclectic mix of modern furnishings, centuries-old structure, and shabby upkeep. 

We liked it. It was comfortable, but not luxurious. In the evenings we had our choice of a four star restaurant or a house of ill repute directly across the narrow street from the B&B. It was hard to tell which was which, but we figured it out.

We could walk to the convention center a little over a mile away. Our B&B hostess was a pleasant woman, a gardener and member of the Philadelphia Horticulture Society, which sponsors this renowned flower show each year.

I have asked Jane to write a guest blog about the show and I will post that when she does.

There are a couple reasons why I want you to read Jane's critique. First, because she is a sharp observer of human social groups. As a professor of anthropology at a college here, she has a trained eye when it comes to how gardeners interact with each other and the horticulture industry.

Second, because I have searched high and low and can find no critique of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Nada.

There are articles aplenty about how wonderful it all is -- So bright! So loud! The Beatles! Big Ben! Such a sight for winter weary eyes! There are roses!

Negative criticism of the show mentions only the lack of parking and the ticket cost. Critique of what was shown is non existent, even though the entries were juried and prizes were awarded. Nobody in the press or on blogs seems to have any opinion about what was displayed, other than that it was all a wonderful spectacle.

So stay tuned. "An Anthropologist Visits the Flower Show" is coming up on this blog.

Meanwhile, here are the uninformed observations of a first-time visitor to the greatest winter flower show that ever was:

          I was disappointed.

Yes, it was huge and the exhibits were eye goggling. I understand it really is about floral extravagance, not gardens.

The themes of "Brilliant" and "British" led most exhibitors to do something silly related to English pop culture, and so we got a Beatles-themed yellow submarine, a Jane Austen cottage garden scene, installations with royal thrones in them (really... throne chairs) and the queen's crown as design motifs.

There were umbrellas scattered in the garden (get it?)

There were some more complex displays too -- a Hidcote representation, a Scottish golf course scene, some layered designs with garden sheds and design elements that were interesting enough, although plant material was heavily spring bulbs and azaleas.

One exhibit that I really did like was a student-created display of the early seed trade between John Bartram and Peter Collinson, showing what transatlantic shipping of plants and seeds was like and how a seedling nursery might have been grown in 1740.

(Read Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf to learn about the wonderful history of plant trading that went on in the 1700s between the American colonies and Britain. This display depicted it nicely.)

Photo and article from Hortitopia
There's a good post about this award-winning student exhibit from Marian St. Clair here at Hortitopia, describing it fully.

I know visiting a flower show is not like touring a botanical garden for plant education or design inspiration, but I did want to get some ideas to try in my own garden. There were few. I am not putting thrones in my borders or the queen's crown on a birdbath pedestal.

Instead, I enjoyed the spectacle, the color, and the relief from threatening snow and cold wind outside. Jane and I had coffee in great little shops nearby, ate well at local restaurants, called our husbands at home to tell them what we saw, and spent some serious money at the vendor stalls. All good, but not much to do with gardening or plants.

I had expected something different.

March 5, 2013


I want to turn two viburnums that I am growing into trees. They are Viburnum prunifolium, called blackhaw viburnums, and they are naturally multi stemmed, upright, vase shaped shrubs. They can become quite large.

Here is one of the blackhaws, the year after I planted it, still a small and tidy shrub.

With pruning they can be shaped into trees that look similar to hawthorns, with a rigid form, and a lot of character. That's what I want.

However, I haven't got a clue what I am doing.

You can see from last summer's picture that I have already taken off quite a few lower branches.

Viburnum prunifolium is a very densely branched, twiggy shrub and it suckers. The key is to prune it when young, and in the three short years of this viburnum's life in my garden I have taken off over a third of the branches each year. I also cut back the suckers that form around the base.

The branching of blackhaw viburnum can only be described as congested.

This winter I went at it again. That angled crossing branch to the left looked kind of interesting, but to get a vase shaped tree form, I thought it should come off.

Here it is after pruning. I took off the angled stem and I took off another branch on the upper right too.

By taking off the funny branch I may have removed some of the character I wanted, but I do have an idea in mind. Here is what I am going for. This picture is from Learn2Grow:

Or this, from Willow Landscape Design, which says blackhaw is semi evergreen (it's not for me), and that the leaves are purplish (mine have no purple tinge) -- but what a lovely shape and form:

Like all viburnums, blackhaw has pretty white flowers in spring, interesting berries, and decent fall color.  Mine is planted right where I can see it in front of the garden, and although it is still young, it flowered finally last year, with lacy white flat-topped blooms the last week in April.

I have another one that I grew from a six inch seedling planted in 2006. It also needs pruning to become the tree I want it to be.  It is smack up against the house, so it will need to be shaped for size as well.  I know the stubby lower left branch has to come off, but what else should I be doing with this one?

Does the vertical upright branch in the dead center need to be there? Would it look more open and spreading if I took that out?

The good news is that Viburnum prunifolium is so dense that I can't really make a mistake by cutting off the wrong branches. It just grows more, sometimes oddly and in weird directions, but that's the character of this angled, stiff little hawthorn look-alike.

Still, I'd like to influence these to grow into real trees with a nice shape. Suggestions?

March 1, 2013

My Failures Have Numbers

Purple coneflowers are easy to grow. They are prairie style flowers that evoke simplicity and carefree summer color.

But I failed with them. Who fails with these easy plants?

This is my confession of a garden Oops.  Joene calls these GOOPs, or Garden Oops and you can read more on her blog on the first of every month.

I planted Echinacea purpurea 'Pink Double Delight.'  They were pretty for a brief while, but mostly they flopped over, and not just splayed out a little, but lying prostrate on the ground.  Then they got eaten.

The bugs (I think earwigs?) ate the petals, leaving just the shredded cones. The flowers that were not lying down in the mud looked ragged.  From a distance there was greenery and a little bit of tired pink, but no sunrays of pink happiness.  I staked, I tried to combat the bugs, but it was all a lot of effort and in the end I gave up. I took them out.

Who's eating all the petals?

Then I came across this thorough study of coneflower cultivars conducted by Mt. Cuba Research Center in Delaware.

Mt. Cuba Center Research Report 2009

I am so much happier when my failures are assigned a number. On the chart of cultivar performance 'Pink Double Delight' gets a 2.5 score out of a possible 5.0.

Mt. Cuba Center evaluated the confusing and exploding number of cultivars of coneflowers for good habit, disease and pest resistance, abundant floral display and winter hardiness. The plants in my garden did not rise to the top in any of these categories.
Not my fault!  Not my fault! The plants were genetically defective. It was not the gardener's failure at all. Well.
Echinacea Pink Double Delight with Physostegia Miss Manners.
They looked like this for a week, then never looked this good again.

The home gardener gets confused when presented with a marketing array of new and improved and special varieties of old standbys. Are they really better? Is every new version an improvement? Do we need so many?

Apparently not. I am impressed when I see a study like the one Mt. Cuba Center did on coneflowers. I wish every new cultivar offered for sale had this kind of research done, before I get to the garden center.

Do you grow purple coneflowers? Is the variety you grow on the chart and if it is, does it score well? And has it been a success in your garden?