April 28, 2013

Spring in Connecticut

It's a tentative spring in Connecticut. The beautiful yellow magnolia 'Elizabeth' isn't quite ready to open yet, but oh how she wants to!

How tightly she holds onto those vulnerable buds. We are still getting temperatures in the 30s at night, so she's wise to keep everything tightly closed up. Soon, though.

The Japanese maple 'Orange Dream' is holding its leaves furled up against cold nights. The foliage opens a bright orange with red tints, looking like a soft copper haze from a distance, but fiery orange up close.

While we wait for this tentative spring to make a move, here's what else is going on:

Jim and I are walking in support of Foodshare in Hartford on May 5, and if any of you wonderful bloggers and gardeners out there want to donate for our effort, I would love it. Foodshare helps people all over central Connecticut who need assistance feeding their families.

Here is our page, and thank you so much for helping us out!

Our Donation page

Connecticut may have a reputation as a wealthy state, and that is true in a few pockets of privilege and comfort. But in most of the state there is the same need as everywhere else -- hard times are found here.

We are a very small state geographically (48th -- only two states are littler) but with over three and half million people in our small area we rank 29th out of 50 states in population. We're a little crowded, but we still have woods and open areas of great beauty around us.

With that many people, though, you know there are some who will need our assistance and no one should go hungry, anywhere, ever.

Thanks! If you decide to donate, you have my greatest appreciation.

Now, if you could just get spring to hurry up and come to Connecticut. The grass is greening, but the trees are still a little reluctant.


April 25, 2013

Blueberry Jam and Jelly Beans

I'm in a jam. I have too many blueberry bushes.

There are the four I planted several years ago that are half high (Vaccinium corymbosum 'Northblue').

They are self fertile, and produce a good crop, although only briefly in July, and the fruits are a little tart. Fall color was good, and generally these are pretty plants sitting out there in the sunshine, not too big for the space and kind of woodsy looking.
In summer four Vaccinium 'Northblue' are between the rosemary on the left
and the wine colored redbud on the right.

Then I added a very little one, called 'Northcountry', that stays quite dwarf.
Vaccinium corymbosum 'Northcountry' in a pot on the patio in fall.
Later I planted it out in the garden.

With five bushes I had enough blueberries for ornamental interest, and for my breakfast cereal for a short time in summer. I leave one for the birds, but put a net over the others.

This spring I added two dwarf blueberries to keep in pots on the deck.
Vaccinium corymbosum 'Jelly Bean'

Why more blueberries? Because these were named 'Jelly Bean'.

I am a marketer's dream --- if you call a little blueberry bush 'Jelly Bean' I will buy it. The fruits are supposed to be very sweet, like jam, and that will be nice, since my 'Northblue' shrubs produce tart berries.

Blueberry jam in the raw! Jelly berries!

So far so good -- more than enough blueberries for my needs now.

But then I got six native highbush blueberry shrubs last week. I ordered three from our conservation district plant sale, and thought I'd put them out in the meadow for the birds. They will be tall shrubs, with red color in the fall that I thought would be pretty in front of the native forest I am creating out there. I don't need the fruit, I just wanted the wildlife-friendly woodsy looking shrubs for their look at the open edge of the mini forest.

When I picked up my three highbush shrubs, the volunteer put six in my car. No, no, I said, I only bought three. Keep them, he said. They were unsold during the ordering process.

I guess I looked like someone who could use more blueberries.

The plant sale order form had simply offered a "set of three" blueberries. It turns out the set included one early fruiting variety ('Northland'), one mid season variety ('Berkeley') and one late season ('Darrow').  And since I ended up with six plants, I actually have two of each variety.
Early. Wild berry taste in small fruits.
Orange fall color and reddish winter twigs. 
Mid-season. Mild taste in powdery blue berries.
Good fall foliage color, yellow stems in winter.
Late season. The fruits are huge, half dollar size!
It doesn't produce very heavily, though.

(I grabbed these pictures from Northeast Nursery, Inc. when I was researching what I had bought.)

I really only wanted these highbush blueberries for their shrub look in the meadow, but now I'm intrigued with the fruit I might harvest. Does anyone grow these three types?

I'm a little worried, though, that I might have to register with the agriculture department as an operational fruit farm now.

April 21, 2013

What to Do With the Willows

I am all over the place with what I want to do with three shrub willows planted in the side yard. Indecision is driving me nuts.

These are Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki', or dappled willows. They have shrimp-pink and cream-white tinged leaves, and are very eye catching.

The problem for an indecisive gardener is that they can be anything you want them to be -- immense, wild, arching shrubs if left alone, or artistically pruned elegant small trees.

They can be a hedge, a focal point, or an accent. They can grow huge or be kept small. They could probably make coffee and entertain guests.

You can buy them as single stemmed poodled trees that are grafted onto a skinny trunk if you want a cute lollipop effect. I actually like that look, but only for a formal terrace, not for the side of my yard as a hedge.

They can be maintained as low shrubby accents jammed into a mixed border, although I think you have to be at them every week with the pruners to keep them that small.  But I've seen it.

I planted three in a row in 2007 and left them alone.  As young bushes they are stiff and starburst shaped. Later, as they mature, they get 12 feet tall, and arching and droopy. Here they are in 2010, about as tall as me and not yet gracefully arching at all.

So this is nice, right?

But there they sat as three blobs in the grass, hard to mow under and not really forming a hedge. I didn't know what to do with them.

Should I let them go and wait for a real hedge  -- a 12 foot high mass of foliage? Or prune them into more artistic shapes?

My neighbor has one that has been cut back to only a few stems and the shape is lovely, the coloration of the twigs in winter stays red, and the entire plant is a real focal point.

Here is hers in early winter, before the snow. The few trunks are curved and interesting and the whole plant is nice.

Mine look like wild tangles in winter compared to hers.

In 2012 I coppiced them, cutting all three back hard, thinking I could then select a few main trunks to get an elegant shape going, and at the same time encourage the dappled leaf coloration, which is enhanced with rejuvenation pruning.

But then I whiffed, and did not cut out any stems. When the new growth started, I was baffled. I ended up doing nothing as the shrubs quickly regrew. The new growth has the pink coloration, so that was one positive -- keeping the foliage variegated.

This month I came across a simple statement that Margaret Roach had on her blog A Way to Garden. She quoted Michael Dodge of VT Willow Nursery on pruning willows:
“Cut them down to the ground,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Really, really hard—don’t leave a foot of stem, like you often read about, but just an inch. I learned that in England—that you want just three or four stems to replace the one you’ve coppiced, and if you cut too high, it promotes a lot of messy growth.”

You can see I did not do that. I left almost a foot of stem congestion, I did not cut them all the way to the very ground and then select just a few stems. The willows then regrew into green round blobs without any mature grace. Here they are the summer following my attempt at coppicing.

They regrew completely in one season, but still have the immature starburst explosion look about them.

So now I need to decide:

1. do I just leave them alone and plan for a wild willowy hedge all grown together in an arching tangle in a few more years? There's enough room for that, but mowing under them is still a problem. The pretty coloration may be lost as all the stems age.

2. do I take Michael Dodge's advice to heart and cut these down next winter so not even an inch of stem shows? Then ruthlessly cut out most of what regrows so I only have a few graceful stems? Seems like a lot of work and my handsaw is not enough for the job at this point.

And if they are thinned, what should be planted under them? Do I need a mixed border mingling with the arching shapes, or should they just sit out in the grass, three in a line?

What to do?

April 17, 2013

I'm So Organized

There are rules here, and in my neighborhood we can't have garden sheds. I cruise Pinterest and ogle photos on garden design sites, but all in vain. No outside structures allowed. Rules.
This is what I want but it is not allowed
I want a garden shed for the look, but really, all I need is a place to store pruners and gloves and twist ties and stakes and a tape measure and mini-tarps and scissors and those biodegradable cowpots out of the rain.

It would be nice to store the shovels close by. My potting bench is on this side of the house. The garage is on the other side. I walk back and forth, back and forth.

There are Association Rules and Sacred Bylaws against outside structures, but no rules against patio furniture.

So here is my solution. This is patio furniture:

It's actually a storage bin for garbage cans. The hinged lid lifts. The front doors open. It is made of cedar, and will fade to the same silvery gray as the potting bench and the deck railings. It smells wonderful.

It's perfect for my needs, it sits right near my potting bench, and it is not a structure prohibited by The Bylaws, as long as you and I call it furniture. And no one can see it anyway, sitting here on the patio below the deck.

I am so organized now.

I put cuphooks inside, hung a basket for my gloves, and put a tension rod across the width of the interior, which holds the shovels from sliding about, and allows me to hang some S hooks, a rag and a little bucket for small miscellany.

Below, on the floor there is a bigger bucket and a crate for larger stuff, and a freestanding shelf with slide out drawer. The really big things like the wheelbarrow and garden cart and big bags of potting soil are still kept in the garage.

Go ahead and admire it now, because it will never ever look this neat and tidy again.

But even if the arrangement of everything falls into disarray and becomes the jumble it wants to be, it is still exactly what I need. Everything is at hand, out of the rain, close by my bench, right where I need it.

And it is technically legal.

April 13, 2013

Bronze Spring

How did this happen?

The plan for this strip of plants along the front of the house was to soften the brick wall with soft pinks, some wine red, and green neutrals. Later in the year the focal point is a clear white clematis 'Henryi' that climbs the iron sunburst trellis.

But now, in early spring, the soft pink heath (Erica darlyensis 'Ghost Hill') is actually magenta, and it is surrounded by Sedum 'Angelina', which has turned fiery gold.

The wine red accent was supposed to come from this tall urn, which is actually a deep rust brown, setting in a pool of gold sedum.

It's a riot of bronzy colors right now, in April. Rust and gold and brown and that little pop of magenta heath (there are actually two of them.) The tall plant in the background above is a juniper, 'Gold Cone' which will stay narrow and upright for this tight space at the corner of the wall.

At the very front edge along the walk there is another sedum, 'Red Carpet', which adds an additional fall color of deep crimson to the riot along the front walk.

I never planned for this kind of spring display.

In summer it does go pretty and pink. That was the design. The sedum 'Red Carpet' blooms bright pink as it creeps over the sidewalk, and there is a willowy, bouncy gaura with rosy blooms above it. A billowy amsonia is in the background. The urn looks more wine colored here, doesn't it?

The clematis is bright and white and a nice contrast against the brick, rising above al the pink frothy stuff.

And in late summer, the whole effect is softened as the tall sedums and the creeping sedums and the gaura and everything else fades.

But in earliest spring I have a burnished tapestry, all autumn shades, all fiery bright and the only real color anywhere in my awakening garden. In earliest April daffodils aren't up yet, tulips are just green spears nosing out of the soil, and even the forsythia is not quite open.

As we wait for spring to arrive in this cold part of New England, my front walk can be seen from down the road and across the neighborhood, an out of control blast of rich gold and bronze colors.

A spring riot of fall color.


April 9, 2013

Moongate Arbor

I spent the winter planning an arbor for the entrance to our gravel seating area, which I posted about here in January.

I wanted to define the way into this garden, and thought an arbor with a kiwi vine (Actinidia kolomikta) would do it. I gathered lots and lots of inspiration photos, which kept me busy much of the winter.

So now, here it is. Ta Da! A metal moongate arbor, waiting for a nice climbing vine and some summer weather.

Jim and I installed it during the cold, windy days of early April. It's an inexpensive aluminum structure, wobbly and insubstantial. The woody kiwi vine, which I will plant on the left side, will probably be heavy enough to tear it down in a season.

The four slender legs are just kind of stuck in the ground, but Jim dug down as deep as he could to stabilize it. You can't dig very deep in New England -- you hit ice age boulders at 8 inches, so it sits where it sits and we'll hope the vine holds it down.

I like it.

The half moon gate is as flimsy as the rest of the contraption, and is difficult to latch. It will drive me crazy coming and going through this area.

But I still really like it.

A casualty of the installation was the nice creeping thyme that was establishing around the bluestone steps. We added a third step so you can walk from the pavers up to the gate without stepping onto the grass. Did you know that laying stone is a job that is way harder than it looks? It is.

I could have dug up the thyme and saved it to replant around the new steps, but I didn't. It was cold, it was windy, and we just started digging, thinking the stones could be jiggered in and nestled among the creeping thyme. Of course not.

So I have to get more plugs to reestablish a carpet around the steps. It is Thymus serpyllum 'Albus'. Where it was planted before, it was quite nice, with white flowers that bloomed forever throughout June, and a thick mat of greenery the rest of the time. You step on it and it smells fragrant.

Here it is, back when we had roses growing above the thyme mat. The roses were taken out, but I love this picture of pink petals sprinkled on the tiny white blossoms.

This thyme spreads quickly, so the steps under the moongate arbor will be softened and look more natural.

The kiwi vine will grow quickly to cover one side of the arch. I'll post a follow up when it all starts to look as I imagined it.


April 5, 2013

But Where Are The Gardens?

My garden group has been reading about and discussing garden design. Recently we got talking about how our default assumption is that an ornamental garden is full of flowers, tightly packed and layered with perennials and shrubs, and presented in a curving border.

In other words, an English garden.

All other designs flow from that concept, or defy it in an attempt to update it or to be provocative. But even as modern garden designs dare to do something different, the norm they are escaping is the English border.

As I visit other gardens I don't even realize that I judge all designs from that starting point.

It made me think of the time we visited the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy to see the famous Boboli Garden.

The grand gardens are on a hillside behind the palace, with allees, paths, stone steps, hideaways and open areas twisting among the greenery as you climb. As we entered the courtyard and took in the initial scene, the tourists behind us could be heard saying:

   But where are the gardens?

First of all, I'm a tourist too, so no pretense there. Second, I had the same reaction. Where were the gardens?  Were we supposed to go up the hill to find them at the top?

Of course this was a Renaissance garden, built over centuries beginning in the 1550s. So we knew it would be formal and full of sculpture. There are resources all over the internet to tell you about the palace history, the Medici family, and the lavish style of the garden. But putting all that wonderful history aside, let me give you my impression of the design of the garden, seen through the eyes of an American gardener.

There were no flowers.

That fact alone made us disoriented. The lack of any blooms made us think there was no garden here. The stonework was impressive, and there were gravel drives and open grass and statues and walls, and a lot of greenery, but it didn't fit our concept of what a garden looks like.

Without flowers, where was the garden?

It was in the framed views.
All design in this space was to enhance what could be seen below, either the hills of olive orchards falling away in one direction or the city of Florence in the other. Or looking back from the hillside garden, the majesty of the palace structure itself, just to impress.

It was in the use of light.
In Italy the sun is an element in the garden. The way you enter the garden is up shallow walled steps, through cloistered shade and suddenly into the bold light. Pleached allees of shady trees further up the hill offer coolness, and also a play of dappled light. You walk this garden, you don't just look at it.

It was in the hardscape.
Statuary, of course; lots of it strategically placed against green backdrops. Walls and steps naturally. Stone fountains. Even a simple pool with some potted lemon trees became a beautifully designed space.

I told you I was a tourist.  I make no excuses.
For centuries this kind of walking garden in Europe, with its emphasis on light and shade, the views beyond and the sculpted hardscape within, was the norm. It went through fads and styles, adopting elements from English landscape parks, or becoming less formal. But for a long, long time, Boboli Garden was what grand garden design looked like in western culture.

The flowery herbaceous border full of color did not develop until recently, really only in the 20th century. Yet we now think of it as the norm. While we mow our lawns, hike in the woods, or love to see a prairie expanse, it is flowers and shrubs that define what it means to have an ornamental garden now.

I love the style of my typical American suburban garden, but oh, how travel to another time and place expands our definition of things!