May 29, 2013

Scene Stealer

She steals the show in May.

Consistently a scene grabber.

Never an off year. It doesn't matter if we have a dry spring, cool start to the season, horrible storms, or too much sun.

She blooms like clockwork and in perfect symmetry.

And for a long time, weeks and weeks.

She is never bothered by pests or any kind of leaf problem. Her confidence radiates, and no hungry bug or errant spore would dare approach.

Even though I have lots going on in the late May garden, every time I look around, I see her. She is elegant and delicate, but demands notice.

Even when Jim goes out to take a picture of other things in the garden, there she is in the shot, calling out to be noticed.

Hey guys, over here, in the distance. Scene stealer.

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Shasta'.

Doublefile viburnum, or, as we say because it looks like white icing on horizontal tiers, --- the Wedding Cake shrub.


May 25, 2013

Heather Tapestry

What do you do with a dry bare slope at the edge of the woods with a soil ph of 5.0? Not much will grow in such acidic ground.

Here is the slope at my friend's house. A beautiful bowl pond is at the top, and the land dips down from there to where the huge stump of an old oak tree marks the final drop off.

From the side, you see that large rocks hold the edge, and the slope is at first gentle.

But then it drops steeply, as you see from below looking back up the slope.

One plant that thrives in this kind of acidic, lean soil is Calluna vulgaris, or heather, and so the garden designer here has decided to blanket this steep strip of woodland edge with a tapestry of different colored heathers.

She has done several things right to create her heather garden.

First -- she tested the soil. It really is 5.0, unusually acidic even for New England. Too many of us just guess what kind of conditions we have and then write Garden Oops posts about losing plants that didn't have the right environment. Test your soil.

Second -- she went to Heaths and Heathers online to order the needed plants. They are a specialty nursery in Washington with a huge selection of heathers, and they provide really extensive education about how to grow them in different climates. Learn from experts if you're just starting out.
Heaths and Heathers nursery in Shelton, WA

Third -- she measured the space. Then she planned it on paper, arranging the colors in blocks, and figuring out how many she needed in what colors for the look she wanted. I would have eyeballed the area, ordered a dozen plants and then found that was too few. She ordered 35.

Heather has both beautiful jewel-like flowers and colorful foliage that changes from summer greens to fiery red or gold on some cultivars. In our winters the foliage can suffer from exposure if not covered by snow (some cover the plants with cut pine boughs) but the brightest colors intensify with a lot of winter sun.

(Thumbnails from Heaths and Heathers catalog. These are a few of the selections my friend will be planting)

Her area is well protected between the house and the woods, but I am sure she will experiment with the best way to winter her heathers. She'll need to cut back some of the branches that are shading part of the area now.

To get the rounded, dense look that will fill out a tapestry of heathers, they need to be sheared each year. Otherwise they get open and woody. But it is easily done with a pair of scissors, like giving a haircut, and it's very satisfying work.

The reason I know something about growing this plant is that I also created a heather garden years ago, but did not have the quick draining lean soil or enough acidity to make them happy. They want absolutely no nitrogen, (fertilizer will guarantee death, so don't try to acidify the soil for them with Miracid) and they need quite a bit of water, but it must drain really well. I had relatively heavy, neutral ph garden soil and it stayed clumpy damp in winter. My heather garden is gone now.

But I do grow a lovely related plant, a heath, in regular garden soil. It is Erica darlyensis 'Ghost Hills', which I thought would have ghostly white flowers or perhaps silvery foliage, but it is hot pink in bloom and has very dark green fine foliage.

This is my one success growing heaths or heathers. For a real tapestry of beautiful mounded heathers I'll head over to my friend's garden to see what very careful siting with high acidity, sharp drainage and a designer's talented eye can produce.

I'm hoping to post shots of how hers develops after the slope is planted and fills in.

May 21, 2013

This Doesn't Happen Very Often

Last week we drove north to Massachusetts to visit one of our favorite places, the Berkshire Botanical Garden. We had lunch in town in Stockbridge, then drove out to the garden for a short walk around. It was colder than we dressed for.

Greening mountains in the background, a field of dandelions in the lawn, and flowering crabapples everywhere. Just add in some chilly temperatures and you have spring in the Berkshire Mountains.

A potting shed with living sedum roof and raw timber posts would, of course, be perfect for my needs.

Shades of pink and white are everywhere in early spring.

It is a small botanical garden and can be walked in an hour, even with lingering. There are educational areas, plant sale areas, a tropical hothouse, several beautifully designed perennial borders, an inventive children's garden, a tidy vegetable demonstration garden, all packed in 15 acres.

But we visit just for the views like this one.

I usually come back from a visit to a mature and elegant public garden all pumped up with ideas for my own garden, which quickly turns to deflation as I look around my yard and see so much to do, so many immature and dinky plants, and little cohesive design.

But last week something different happened. We arrived back home from the Berkshires late in the afternoon and the light on this cold May day was still pretty.

I looked around, took a walk in the yard and out into the paths Jim has mowed in the meadow, and I thought . . .

. . . this is just as nice.

My own garden is immensely pleasing in its own smaller scale and relative immaturity. I like it all, even on the same day I saw an established and professionally cared for garden.

I do not have pink and white clouds of flowering crabapples, but there are pinks and whites in my garden to be seen.

It's not that my own garden looks anything like the botanical garden or could rival it in any way. It was simply that it felt as nice. What I saw as I walked around really pleased me in just the same way I had felt at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.

That doesn't happen very often.

May 16, 2013

Spring Tree Party

There's a party going on in my garden, and it's the spring trees that are hosting.

Cornus florida, a pink flowering dogwood, still bears the scars from a snowstorm in 2011 that broke off the center branches, leaving a gap in the middle, but it is slowly recovering. From some angles you can't tell.

The 'Forest Pansy' redbud that I wrote about recently is done flowering and is now opening its leaves in the shapes of tiny crimson hearts. This takes my breath away.

'Orange Dream' Japanese maple is turning from rich coppery orange to yellow and chartreuse, its summer colors. A lacy white Aronia 'Brilliantissima' photobombs the shot.

A longer view in cool evening light shows the pinky white aronia having fun next to the coppery 'Orange Dream' maple in the distance. A very new variegated white and green sweetgum is in the foreground, tied up because it wanted to lean over and I did not think that was acceptable.

A brand new Aesculus pavia, red buckeye, is spreading its floppy palmate leaves, and they are so crisply pleated, on such a little tree that I am amazed. The tree itself is just a stick of a sapling. But even at this young age, it has big red candle flowers opening.

A paperbark maple, Acer griseum, looks kind of stately as it leafs out in spring. I never thought it would happen -- this tree always looked like it had been assembled by a 7th grade shop class -- but this year it has outgrown that awkward stage and is truly party ready.

The red maple, Acer rubrum, that anchors the end of my "allee" (that is, a 25 foot walk along the side of the house) was deformed by storms a couple years ago, but is regaining its big rounded maple shape now.

Black gums, or tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica) are very late to leaf out in spring. After waiting forever, they slowly and tantalizingly unfurl their greenery.

And finally. . . . finally, my sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum is just beginning to open its leaves. It took its time this spring, but has finally decided to join us. A real latecomer to the tree party in my garden.


May 13, 2013

Spill, Tumble, and Spew

I love the early spring look of densely flowering ground covers spilling down slopes or tumbling over edges and walls. But I have discovered it is not an easy look to achieve.

Here is my attempt to get Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxatilis, to spill over the edges of the gravel. I wanted it to blur the lines between the mulched bed and the pea gravel area, but instead it has grown in a straight line, apparently afraid to touch the stones.

After flowering I will divide and spread out the individual clumps, and if I stagger the clumps a little better I might break up that straight edge.

And I need a lot more. It should form a long sea of bright yellow spreading all down the borders of this sitting area. Right now it is more of a yellow puddle than a golden sea.

I do love to see it through the emerging red foliage of a smokebush. I cut the smokebush down to two foot high stubs in late winter, and this is what it looks like by mid May. This is Cotinus coggygria 'Grace'. Within the month it will get huge and leafy.

Here's another attempt at spilling plants that has gone a little wrong. These are Forget Me Nots tumbling out of a pot laid on its side.

You can see this kind of thing all over Pinterest, mostly using alyssum as a river of dense flowers running out of a pot. I think it looks dumb, but that didn't stop me from trying to imitate it.

My problem is that the Forget Me Nots (Myosotis) are spreading uphill. You can see it a little better from the other direction in the shot below. It gives an aggressively spewing effect rather than looking like a gentle tumble down the creek bed slope.

Honestly, it looks like the flowerpot belched this blue stuff out and now regrets it. I'm sorry, it just does to me.

See what I mean? I'm going to divide these, spread them about in spots in the gardens for a more natural look, and stop copying ideas from Pinterest.

Who knew growing flowering spreaders would require such fine tuning?


May 9, 2013

Here We Go Again

I am on my fifth attempt to grow a redbud tree, a Cercis. I have lost four so far, but, ever hopeful, here we go again.

This my latest attempt --- Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' and I am so excited to see the first tentative pink blooms opening. I planted it last summer, so this is the first time I am seeing it flower.

It is the purple-leaved variety, and the leaves are a striking, very deep wine color in spring and early summer. Here it was last summer.

After the early summer flush, the leaves fade a little, but the effect becomes kind of jewel-like with mixed greens and reds.

What happened to the other four redbuds I tried to grow?

Well, there was an earlier 'Forest Pansy', planted in this exact same spot, but it was decapitated in a snowstorm its first year. The following spring it made a valiant effort to carry on, and the foot high stub of the remaining stump tried to bloom, but it didn't make it.

Then there was Cercis candensis 'Silver Cloud' with variegated white and green leaves, but it refused to come back after its first winter. I learned from other gardeners that it is not a robust cultivar. It wants just exactly the right amount of partial shade and just the right amount of water and it apparently didn't trust me to provide either.

My one success, until I lost it, was Cercis reniformis 'Oklahoma'. It was a spectacular tree, and I had it for five years before a freak October snowstorm in 2011 took it down.

It was most beautiful in bloom, in late April, just outside the bedroom window.

After blooming on bare wood in early spring, 'Oklahoma' would fill out with glossy heart shaped leaves. It had become a shapely round headed tree, just the right size and a pleasing form.

But this was the last I saw of it after a too-early wet snow hit before the leaves had fallen:

And there was another redbud that I lost. It was one of those 10 free bare root seedlings that comes in an envelope in the mailbox when you donate to Arbor Day. It was about seven inches tall when I planted it in 2006, and six years later it was a sizable young tree. This was a species Cercis canadensis, not a fancy cultivar. I put it out in the meadow, where it got no special attention, and it grew into a multi-stemmed wild child. It did great. Then last year it died.

So, four failures, and here I go again with my hopes rising for my newest 'Forest Pansy' redbud as it opens its pink flowers this May and promises wine red leaves for summer.