December 27, 2013

Guests Are Expected

We are expecting guests to visit this winter, as they do every year. Here are a few that came last year. I hope they make a return visit -- we're ready for them!

The bobcat as seen through our dining room window.  The fresh kill was a rabbit. A very large one.

This wild cat, Lynx rufus, is supposed to be reclusive, hunting at dusk and dawn. But ours visits in the daytime, feeds at all hours, and is not bothered by being so near houses. The pictures are fuzzy because they were taken through the window, and Jim did zoom in. But the bobcat was no more than 15 or 20 feet away, in the tall grass at the edge of the yard.

A parade of turkeys. They are God's goofiest creatures. They're just dorky in a regal kind of way. They always march along the edge of the yard, half in the tall grass and half out in the open, daring anyone wild or human to mess with them.

The coyote does not visit very often, but we know they are around. The yipping and howls outside are eerie in the middle of a dark winter's night.

This picture was taken with the zoom; the coyote is not as willing as the bobcat to come into the yard, and prefers the half-woods behind our house. There is no mistaking the coyote for a dog -- he is big.

I thought all canines were exclusively meat eaters, but this coyote visits a nearby crabapple and eats the fallen fruit, leaping backwards each time he grabs one off the ground, as if he just killed it. We spent over an hour one afternoon watching him stalk fruit.

The red tailed hawk is a constant visitor in my garden, all year long.  We often hear the high pitched "screeeee" above, and look up to see it. Birdsong all over the yard goes suddenly quiet.

Some visitors are a little greedy, and too many come at once. But all are welcome.

The black bear might be by this winter. I went to an education class on black bears at our local library, and learned that around here they will awaken from hibernation at various times in winter and wander about, then return to hibernating.

I have not seen the one that cruises our area, but neighbors have called to say it was in our yard, or that they encountered one on the way to the mailbox. Some visitors are a little more intimidating than others.

Of course the white tailed deer herds are always here. I try to be open minded about them, and accept them as I do all the other guests, but they do so much damage to my plants that I really can't tolerate them in my garden.

They are the unwanted party guests who always show up, eat too much, and won't go home.

Everybody else is welcome to come and visit in small groups or singly.

December 14, 2013

So Far So Good

So far this season the stacked stone wall I built so laboriously last summer has not fallen down, despite freezing nights and thawing days.

But the plow has not come up the driveway yet to bury it, and a long winter of expanding ice and heaving soil is still ahead of us.

But so far so good. It even looks nice in the snow.

December 10, 2013

Because Snow

I am going to repost something from 2010 today. Because it is the holiday season and I am baking cookies, and it is snowing outside right now.

December 12, 2010
Christmas does not smell like pine needles or balsam fir to me. The season is not evoked by cinnamon or cloves or peppermint. All those are wonderful scents, but the one Christmas aroma that makes me shiver with pleasure is the smell of a Mediterranean evergreen shrub's seeds: Pimpinella anisum.

Anise (not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium) is a plant that looks to me a little like Queen Anne's Lace.

The seeds are used for herbal remedies and flavoring. And it's that flavoring, the anise extract, that brings Christmas home to me the minute I smell it.
 My mother made anise Christmas cookies every year and I make them now. They were not elaborate pressed cookies or springerles or the Italian anise cookies you can find. They were really just an iced sugar cookie with anise extract added, cut into Christmas shapes. I love them.

 Descriptions of anise flavor always say it tastes like licorice or tarragon, but it really doesn't. It has a whiff of licorice, but it is much, much lighter, almost citrusy or even minty. It is very refreshing.

Still, it's a taste that is not to everyone's liking.
'Purple Haze' agastache

Santa likes these cookies, and I love them so much I like to have a little anise in my garden. But I can't grow Pimpinella in my zone 5 garden.  I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it.

Agastache is a great plant, with tall spikes of blooms all summer long that bees love. Mine is a deep blue called 'Purple Haze' and it anchors the back of my garden with its tall frothy spikes. It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care.

There are other plants with anise scened leaves. The most notable is Illicium floridanum, called star anise or purple anise, which is a beautiful dense evergreen shrub with glossy leathery leaves. The leaves emit a fragrance of anise when crushed.

I'd love to grow it, but there are a couple reasons I won't. It is not hardy here, although I could put it in a container and bring it onto the porch over winter.
Purple Anise, Illicium floridanum
The other reason: it has stinky flowers. The aroma is consistently described as smelling like fish. How can a plant with leaves that carry the essential fragrance of Christmas for me have unpleasant flowers? Who thought up that combination? Eeeeww.
Illicium floridanum bloom 
Salvia guaranitica, Black and Blue Sage, is called Anise Sage. I grow it, and it's a beautiful large sage with vibrant deep blue flowers. But the leaves do not smell like anise. When you crush them you get an interesting sharp scent, but it's not anise.

There is an anise scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, a native plant that is supposed to have leaves that smell like anise when they are crushed. I could try that.

There is also an anise scented basil I could grow in my garden . . . but wait, now we're getting confused. I mean, basil should smell like basil. I like basil and I like anise. I'm not sure what you gain by having one smell like the other.

In fact I'm not sure what I gain by trying to replicate such a specific and evocative memory of a smell in my garden.

While anise does come from the seeds of a plant, it's not the plant that carries the delight. It's the cookies. It's the season, it's childhood, my mother, and Santa. It's snow and it's good stuff baking.

I really don't need to grow anise scented plants in my garden --- I just need to make sure there is anise extract in my pantry. Mmmmm.

December 3, 2013


I have been pruning the lower branches of some shrubs in an effort to create small, upright trees out of them, and the work has been very rewarding.

One is a hybrid witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'.
I am trying to love 'Diane' but it's hard. The spidery red flowers open in late winter, but they are miniscule and few and are completely obscured by brown desiccated leaves that hang on all winter.

Leaf persistence will diminish as the plant ages, from what I have read, so eventually, in years to come, the leaves will be off when the witch hazel blooms in February.

If only.

In summer Hamamelis 'Diane' is shapeless. The pleated green leaves are glossy and crisp and look nice enough, but the whole shrub was just a leafy blob.

So this fall the pruners were called for, the garden surgeon was prepped, and the lower branches were lifted up. I like the twisty, architectural shape of witch hazel 'Diane' much better now with bare branches below.

Imagine this as a small, spreading tree. Imagine those candelabra stems as thicker trunks, shapely and twisting. Imagine.

I also limbed up a viburnum. It's a Viburnum prunifolium, which wants to be a multi stemmed bush about 10 feet high. But with some pruning of the lower stems, they can be trees, and can reach 20 feet in height.

I started when the viburnum was a small shrub, and made cuts over three seasons. The trunks were twisted together and the cuts looked crude, and I thought I had butchered the whole thing.

But this fall I was happy with the way the bottom of this blackhaw viburnum is lifted up, exposing a few multiple curved trunks

There is a green plastic mesh tube around the stems, please ignore that. It's there to protect this shrub-becoming-a-tree from the deer. Just imagine this viburnum as a twenty foot tree, with elegant curving trunks and a wide crown of foliage, covered in flat white blooms in May.

The best I can do is show you a suggestion of what is to come -- the white viburnum blossoms were only at the bottom this spring because a frost got the upper blooms, but imagine how it will be. Imagine.

I am also limbing up another Viburnum prunifolium that is planted near the house, between the air conditioning units. An unfortunate placement.

It started as such a tiny thing in 2006, not even a foot high, but unlike the other blackhaw viburnum, it always had a single trunk, even as a tiny sapling.
And unlike the other blackhaw, it is stiffly branched, reaching out all over. I have kept the lower branches limbed up, and I like how tree-like it is becoming.

Another shrub that can be a small tree is Cornus mas, cornelian cherry dogwood. It is not naturally as tree-like as a flowering dogwood, but it is not suckering and thickety like redtwig dogwoods. Sort of in-between, it just seems to want to be a tree, so I'll help it.
I trimmed off some lower branches, but still need to do something with that rightmost stem jutting off to the side. A vee-shaped double trunk might be nice, but I'm thinking I should eliminate it. Maybe.

Imagine the dogwood all grown up and spreading, with a strong central trunk and those droopy leaves providing shade. And in early spring, before the leaves come out, it is covered in a yellow haze of flowers, looking for all the world like a forsythia, but standing upright.

To help you imagine that, here's a mature one in bloom, limbed up, but with three trunks. Maybe I should keep that angled stem on mine?

Another dogwood, Cornus racemosa, is the last of my pruning projects. This one you really will have to imagine -- I don't have much to show, since mine is little. I just planted a one-gallon container plant this fall.

It is called gray dogwood, and it can form big mounding thickets that cover some real estate. But trimmed and kept in check, they can be graceful trees.

Here is one just leafing out in spring at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It takes some work to get this form. Gray dogwoods I have seen growing naturally are quite weedy and rangy, sending stems up all over.

But I am encouraged with the successes I have had so far pruning my other dogwood and the viburnums and witch hazel into small trees. I think I can keep the new gray dogwood gracefully pruned too.

There is something in this work that makes me feel like a sculptor. It's very uplifting.