September 29, 2013

Merry September

I am still getting strawberries in late September. Nothing like the prolific crop that was producing in June and July, but I get a bowl like this every few days now and they still taste summer sweet.

These are everbearing 'Mara des Bois' strawberries, but I never thought everbearing meant they would be giving me such juicy big fruits in late September. They are starting to make me think of Christmas ornaments.

While I expect bold flowering asters and mums to grab attention in fall, it seems unseasonable to see begonias and clematis blooming now. They look delicate and springlike to me, not like autumn at all.

These hardy begonias (Begonia grandis) are from a plant that Lee May gave me last year. I am stunned at how lush and full this row is, all from a couple of dug-up divisions that he brought over.

They are unusual -- a white flowered Begonia grandis, rather than the more common pink. So un-fall like and a delight, both for their delicacy and for the reminder of a gift shared by a special gardener.

Thanks, Lee. I think of you every time I walk by this grand grandis display!

The white clematis 'Henryi' is re-blooming, It does that in fall, after taking the summer off, but it still seems unseasonable.  Is it really autumn here?

Another white clematis, C. viticella 'Alba Luxurians' is also re-blooming. This clematis blooms its head off into early summer, and then I cut it down to the ground in July when the flowers have gone by and the vine starts to look tattered. By late September it has fully regrown, and blooms again.

And here is a completely unseasonable sight: Christmas in autumn. This beautiful huge specimen of a spruce caught our attention at the Biltmore gardens in Asheville, North Carolina when we were there last week. It was lit by the morning sun, decorated more festively than any garlanded holiday tree.

A very unseasonable surprise indeed. Merry September!

September 24, 2013

Upon My Return

We have been away. We took a driving trip to visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home and garden in Virginia, and we went to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina to see not just the ostentatious house the Vanderbilts constructed, but the glorious landscape created by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Those created scenes and tended gardens paled in comparison to nature's glory on display as we drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Something about those layers of misty mountains rippling in the distance makes my heart stop. I have seen the Rocky Mountains and I have traveled through the Swiss Alps. I have ridden horses in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and I have spent a lot of time in the Green Mountains of Vermont, but those smoky blue ridges of the Appalachians make my soul ache. I don't know why.

Upon our return after a wonderful week on the road, I discovered fall had arrived in my own patch of the world.  It is now late September and autumn wants us to know it.

White wood asters, wild purple asters and goldenrod announce the season in the meadow. This past summer the normally rampant Queen Anne's Lace was nowhere to be seen for some reason, and that was odd, but the asters have not disappointed. They are appearing everywhere.

Shiny black jewels of seedpods have formed on the blackberry lilies.

The flowering dogwood now has red berries and the leaves are turing russety. Later in autumn the leaves will be fiery red all over the whole tree.

Rosa glauca has lost most of its gray blue leaves, but now, in early fall, it has big candy orange hips on its spindly branches.

The seedpods on false indigo are odd. In early fall they turn shiny charcoal black, and they rattle when you shake the branch, with a satisfying clatter. This baptisia is a vase shaped, arching white one, Baptisia pendula 'Alba'.

'Orange Dream' Japanese maple is very coppery bronze colored when the leaves emerge in spring, then turns light green all summer. But when fall arrives, it goes all orange again, and you can't beat the combination of the leaves against a blue sky on a September afternoon.

The pretty pink fall anemone, 'Robustissima' finished blooming while we were away on our trip. When I got home, all I could see were the spent flower stalks, but I like the way they look.

It's always good to go away, see awesome new places, and then return to the place that is home. So much is familiar after the exotic new sights, and yet so much changes in that short time.

Welcome, autumn!

September 19, 2013

The Dawn of Realization

For the longest time I wanted a Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'. It has fragrant pink blooms in April, and grows upright and narrow for a viburnum.

I found a good sized 15 gallon container plant in early 2011 and put it right next to the house, where I could open a window on a warm early spring day and smell its fragrance.

It has bloomed beautifully, although the fragrance wan't much to detect. It's still young, and I hope for more scent as it gets bigger and more floriferous.

The pink blooms were certainly pretty and a welcome sight outside the window when there was not much else to see in April. There is a lot to like about this tall shrub, and I am expectantly waiting for it to mature, flower profusely and fill in.

But this summer a couple things have dawned on me about 'Dawn'.

First. . . . is it supposed to look like this?

It is growing fast, as viburnums do. But really, is this its form? Does anyone else grow Dawn viburnum and can you tell me it is simply immature and will outgrow this awkward stage? The way this plant is growing is bizarre.

Here it is from the other side, just as rangy. I have pruned it extensively, cutting off the wilder arching branches, only to see them regrow in exactly the same direction and exactly the same goofy way.

Second . . .  it has dawned on me that "tall and upright" does not mean you should plant it within a foot of the house. From inside the dining room it looks a little scary, with those probing branches angling to get in the window.

I have no excuses. I need to be supervised when there is a shovel in my hands and I am anywhere near the foundation of the house.

This is where any gardeners who have a Dawn viburnum can leave a comment saying Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' will grow into an elegant shape next year, the flowers will develop a delicate but intense aroma, and the final form of this shrub will be decidedly narrow, no more than three feet across at maturity.

September 15, 2013

Protecting Young Trees

From Whitetails in Our Backyard
The single biggest reason for the loss of new trees in my garden and on the hillside behind us over the past seven years has been damage from antler rub.

Not browsing of young leaves, not voles chewing the bark or rabbits eating the small saplings down to nubs, although all of those wreak some havoc on new trees too.

Not disease, or bugs, or storm damage, or hot dry summers when it was hard to keep them watered. Those calamities have been worrisome, but rarely killed my new trees.

I have lost more trees to deer using the slender trunks for scratching posts.

In late summer the male deer come by and use the trunks of young trees to rub the velvet off their shedding antlers.

At first I did not think it would be such a problem, and seeing a stag prancing through the yard on Thanksgiving morning was pretty awesome.

The bark on several trees looked shredded after an attack, but not like a fatal wound. But after a few years I found that sometimes the trees healed over, but more often the wound did not heal the following year, and by year two or three after the injury, the tree died.
The spring following rubbing by a male deer the wound
didn't heal and this beautiful linden died.

I lost a beautiful large linden in the front yard, a yellow flowered magnolia, a katsura tree, several maples on the back hill, a tuliptree in the meadow, and others.

The stags prefer smooth, thin bark against their antlers, and they like small caliper trunks about two to four inches that they can wrap the curves of their antlers around.

The big established trees, and trees with shaggy or peeling bark like river birches or paperbark maple are not targets, but new maples and lindens are sought out eagerly, and rubbed right down to the core.

So now every September I know I must put protective wrap around the trunks of most trees in my yard and in the meadow, and leave it up through winter. Faithfully, with no exceptions! I missed one young maple one year and of course it was the only tree in the whole area that got rubbed raw.

Worse, I had actually wrapped the trunk of the poor linden in fall, but took the protection off on Christmas Eve, as the tree was in the front yard and I wanted the decorated house to look nice for the holiday.

Christmas morning the fatal shredded bark was evident.

I use green plastic mesh fencing from Lowe's which is easy to cut with scissors (I tried hardware cloth and I have tried chicken wire, but that stuff is awful to cut into shapes, and just as awful to bend into a cylinder).

I make a tube around the trunk, and to fasten it together I use plastic clips. They are technically called orchid clips, I guess for florists to hold potted orchids on small stakes. They work just like hair clips.
These are the kinds of orchid clips I use.

They are easier and quicker to use than tying the mesh together with twine or twist ties -- that was too awkward for me. I just wrap, clip, and go. They hold all winter.

I hate the way it all looks, especially in fall when the trees color and come into what I think is their best season.

Here is my blackhaw viburnum, V. prunifolium, which I limbed up rather prettily. The mesh cylinder had to be large enough to go around the multi stems. It isn't terribly obtrusive, but it's there. Ugh.

This year I have another worry. A Japanese maple 'Bloodgood' that has grown into a lovely shape over the past seven years now has a terrible looking wound at the root collar. It has some kind of canker at the graft point but not above.
You can see the sharp division line where the graft and the tree meet.

The area is weeping and wet, but not soft or rotted in any way. The tree looks great -- leafy and full, but a severe canker can kill it.
How I would hate to lose this tree now that it is so fine looking.
In fall the 'Bloodgood' maple is coppery but in spring the leaves are a gorgeous garnet red.

Over the years I have learned to protect all the young trees I have planted from antler rub, but I am not sure how to protect this Japanese maple from a graft canker.

Why is growing trees to maturity so hard?

September 11, 2013

Late Summer

I have more blooms and pretty colors in my late summer garden than I do in the spring. Not planned. I thought it would be the other way around, but I only live here; the plants are in charge and do their own thing.
Sweet Autumn Clematis draped over the deck railing, which I may 
regret some day as it overgrows the railing and eats the deck.

Thunbergia 'Blushing Susie'. I think of pale peach as a 
spring shade, but here it is in late summer.

Amethyst jewels on this caryopteris lure bees into drunken stupors.

Anemone 'Robustissima' hums with pollinators. It sounds like a zither concert.

I was surprised to see that this 'White Chiffon' Rose of Sharon
attracted hummingbirds. They spent more time inside these
flowers than at the feeder I hang for them.

Chocolate cosmos. Velvety, rich and sinful but calorie free.

'Tardiva' panicle hydrangea, looking stately late in the day.

I think of pinks and purples as spring colors, but the late summer 
garden, seen here on a rainy day, is all rosy shades.

It's always a delight when the garden turns out differently than you expected and completely out of sync with your careful plan. It happens every year, and every year I am surprised.

Some plants just never showed up this year, totally in contradiction to the plan. I have grown the very aggressive evening primrose, Oenothera berlandieri, which spreads and takes over. It was pretty but a worry. This year it did not appear earlier in the summer and I missed its delicate pink booms. Where did it go?
Evening primrose in prior years made a large spreading patch. But it disappeared this year.

Physostegia 'Miss Manners' is the better behaved version of Obedient plant, not so aggressive as the species. I had a lovely stand of it going in my garden, but it never came up at all this year, it just went missing when it should have shown up in summer.
What happened to my stand of Obedient Plant? Here it is two years ago, but I never saw any of it this year.

Mysterious disappearances.

Oh well, even though I miss these plants from prior years, there are pretties enough now to keep me entertained in the late summer garden.

September 8, 2013

Pleased With the Result

I am pleased with how my first ever attempt at building a dry stacked stone wall came out.  Not happy with the process, and we were awfully naive about the amount of physical labor and technical skill needed, but here it is, and it is more than ok.

We backfilled with all the dirt that we had previously spent days hauling away, and that has given it some stability. We never did figure out how to use mortar to affix pieces along the way, so we skipped that part entirely.

It's done now. The Advil is back in the cabinet, my knees are healing over.

Apparently I bought a pallet of "wallstone", which are fieldstones. They are irregular and not as flat and even as flagstones, and that explains a lot of my frustration -- I kept envisioning a more fitted, easier to stack, low and tidy wall, but the materials wanted to be a chunky rough wall.

Well, next time I'll know.

It does what I want -- holds back the slope of dirt from the raised garden, offers a sense of enclosure to the space behind it, defines the edge of the pavers.

Eventually the young smokebush in the garden above the wall will become large and fill the open space. I transplanted some lambsear that had been struggling in too much shade to the corner just to fill in a little.

I am very pleased, but I do have a few critiques.

First, I am not sure why the wall does not span the width of the pavers. The left corner stops short, making an odd hillock of dirt between the corner of the wall and the metal arbor. Why didn't I build it right up to the arbor's edge? That was the point -- not to have a little hill of dirt sloping down to the pavers.

I'll have to figure out how to hold back those few inches of dirt, but wasn't that what the wall was supposed to do?

And the right side ends in an odd curve under the dwarf blue spruce. I think I can fix that, but again I am puzzled why the wall doesn't go all the way to the corner.

There are other defects that only the builder would see, so I'll spare you those, and try not to see them myself.

Overall, for a first time attempt, using the wrong kind of rocks, this came out great.

September 3, 2013

I'm Rockin' Rocks

At the end of August I decided to do something about the browned out mess of thyme that was draped over a little rise at the top of the driveway. It had to be removed, but how to hold back the dirt in the raised bed above from washing down onto the pavers?
Another creeping groundcover? I got some good suggestions from commenters when I posted asking for ideas to replace the thyme.

Or . . . how about a dry stacked stone retaining wall? It would only need to be a foot high. A low rustic wall, more ornamental than functional. Yes, that's it.  Off we went to the stone store to buy rocks and hire a contractor.

This is where it all went wrong.

The man at the stone store said a wall one foot high and 20 feet long was too small a project for a contractor. He looked at us, a gray haired couple in our mid 60s driving a sedan, and without blinking said "you can do it yourselves. Easy. Just put down 3 inches of crushed gravel and line the rocks up so they are staggered".

He sold us a pallet of rocks and sent us on our way. The pallet was delivered the next day.

Thus began our disaster.

First, it took us the better part of a week to hand dig the strip where the wall would go. The pennisetum at the far end would not come out, that clump of grass just would not budge. That took two days, but Jim finally got it hacked out with the crowbar and shovel.

Then digging up the thyme and removing the dirt turned out to be a huge effort. Who knew we had to remove a yard of soil by hand and put it somewhere? Aching bodies. Jim's back snapped, and we broke the bed on the John Deere lawnmower trailer hauling the dirt away.
Finally the area was dug out, the stone dust laid and leveled, and we began sorting rocks by size.

Did I mention we are both in our 60s? Did I tell you about Jim's back? Pick up rocks, put rocks down. Sort rocks. Move rocks. Exhausted, and the wall building had not yet started.
(All of my pictures are terrible because it was either overcast or drizzling each day we worked. It kept us cool and wet, but clear photographic evidence of this debacle is wanting.)
On a damp, muggy day, already sore and tired from the week's prep work, we began to build our wall.

As soon as we started to lay rocks, the painstakingly leveled gravel base was demolished. You have to rock the rounded stones into place, you have to scrape out a depression for the uneven sides to sit in, and then you have to move each one multiple times to try it out, rock it level, then try another, then try a third stone, squishing the crushed gravel every which way.

Apparently the whole rock laying thing is 99% art and only 1% careful preparation and measuring.

Jim discovered that one of the stones was shaped like a heart. I know nothing about wall building technique, and so far the whole thing looks like stacked rubble, but that heart had to be set in as an accent somehow. It took hours of jimmying and wiggling and it falls out each time I put a new stone anywhere on the wall, but you get the idea.
It's almost done -- I'm not showing you how the right side trails off awkwardly at an angle. That needs to be fixed.

And we still need to backfill behind the wall, somehow get level cap stones on top, and figure out how to stabilize the whole thing.

I am beyond confused about how to get these stones stacked at all, much less keep them from toppling over. It's impossible to put any piece on top of any others without it rocking and tipping.

Because I am constantly reworking what I build three and four times or more, I can't get the hang of mortaring stones in the back for stability where it doesn't show. That would mean I'd have to commit to the placement of at least two stones. I can't commit to any two, I keep moving every stone around.

I thought there would be more flat(ish) rocks to work with, but about 3/4 of the whole pallet, small and large sizes both, have uneven topsides and very rounded irregular bottom sides, so they will not stack on top of each other. They rock. I've already used the flatter ones I could find, and now am trying to fit increasingly rounded tippy rocks over them.
The shapes have so many corners sticking out at odd angles, that I can't place them side to side. I am not trying to get a fitted look, I just don't want the wall to wobble and teeter so much.

I shim with small stones underneath the wobblers, but there's a limit to how much chunky rubble you can stuff under every stone and I am already running out of small stuffer stones.

I have no idea what I'm doing. I am incredibly frustrated, Jim's back is very painful, and I am sore all over from bending and kneeling, and lifting and shifting rocks.

This is not a project for two older homeowners who have never laid stone. It simply isn't. What was the guy at the stoneyard thinking when he looked right at us and said "You can do this yourselves." WTF?

Stay tuned. I will post a picture of the finished wall if my painkillers and patience hold out.