Sunday, April 30, 2006

Uncommon Spring Pleasures

This is the time of year when you need a sharp eye to keep up with what's going on in the wilds of your garden. It's easy to spot the masses of yellow forsythia or the glaring purple Rhododenrons, but there are small wonders that are easily missed unless you're out scouting for them. I've been growing Darmera peltata, or trying to grow it, for years. It's a great foliage plant for shady, damp spots, and since I don't have much damp shade, it's been a challenge.

This plant is grown for its glossy, enormous foliage, held on stems in such a way as to evoke a magician whirling plates on sticks.

Today I decided to see if the Darmera I'd planted a couple of years ago had survived another winter; I wasn't especially optimistic that I'd see it. Not only is it alive, it was putting on an unusual show. For the first time, I saw the Darmera budding up; I'd never even realized that it flowered.

Other oddities show themselves in early spring, and one of my favorites is the Checkered Lily, or Fritillaria meleagris:
It seems to be available only in mixes of white and red, which is too bad since the red is such an interesting little thing.

This is also bloodroot's short flowering season, for about a week Sanguinaria canadensis displays its charming pure-white blooms in our shady woodland garden. Its beauty is not show-stopping, it's a subtle and fleeting pleasure.

The Hellebores are finally finishing up, the late-winter flowering woodies like Jasminium nudiflorum and Hamamellis are mostly done, and the popular, splashy spring flowers are holding forth. Don't forget to look for the more uncommon, shy flowers that are blooming now; their subtle beauty is a spring pleasure not to be missed.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Shopping Spree

Saturday Morning:

I'm about to head out to the nurseries with a pal who has as much trouble as I do resisting plants. Before I go, I want to think about what I really want to buy, and why I want it.

I'll be looking for a couple of trees and shrubs, because there are several areas in the yard that need to be developed, so I've got a rationale for buying a few things for these areas.

My street-side garden has lots of space because I removed a Crambe cordifolia after one season. It was fantastic, but too loud and large for the site. There is also a very big Lonicera fragranissima (winter honeysuckle) there that needs to be moved, making more space. That bed has peonies, Fairy roses, pink gaura, blue mist shrub (caryopteris), yellow Alyssum, and a row of boxwood that's still too small to be considered a hedge.

Our home is in a downtown area, and the yard is small, bordered along the back by a stockade fence. I'm looking for tall, narrow shrubs and small trees to increase our privacy and to obscure the sight of the fence; hollies planted along it have never gotten tall enough, New Dawn roses and Magnolia virginiana are also growing there but are too easy to see through. So, I'll be carting my Taylors Guide to Shrubs and T.G. to Trees around with me, looking for the perfect 12' fastigate or columnar plant.

Saturday Night:

Funny rereading my morning's thoughts.

What I planned to buy was: Not Much.

What I bought was: Two or three each of Lavender grosso, Tiny Leaf curry plant, basil, Phlox maculata Natascha, Rosemary Tuscan Blue, Thyme: pink, red, and silver-edged, Corsican mint, Helen von Stein lamb's ears, lovage, basil, Salvia guaranitica Black and Blue, phlox, red valerian, and bergenia.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Objects of Desire

Some plants cast a spell. You see something in a book, or at a botanic garden, and it stays in the back of your mind like an itch. If you don't have a list of these plants, you're a different kind of gardener than I am.

Franklinia altamaha. Magnolia wiesneri. Camellia oleifera. Quercus phellos. Ginkgo biloba. Cercis canadensis. Cornus mas. Stewartia pseudocamellia. These are the trees of my dreams; I garden on a third of an acre lot, so it's unlikely that I'll ever have more than a couple of these dream trees.

Franklinia alatamaha is one I've captured. In fact I've bought at least 8 of them, maybe more. My first few attempts died quick, hopefully painless, deaths. I was determined, so I bought a pair. Those survived, so I bought a few more. So far, so good. And, unlike objects of desire in the animal kingdom, I still love these, even though I now possess them. There are five in the front yard and one in the back. Today, I saw them for sale at a local nursery. I'm considering adding a few more, maybe as insurance, maybe to help tie my patchwork garden together a little more. However, there were also Cercis canadensis at this nursery, and I haven't captured one of those. Not yet.

Not all the objects of my desire are trees, I also lust after shrubs. Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn. Ilex pedunculosa. Paeonia suffruticosa. Hydrangea serrata Preziosa. Corylopsis pauciflora. Rosa the Fairy. Calycanthus floridus.

The beauty of shrubs, if you live in town, is that you can have all the ones your really want; so, I do. I still love these shrubs, each in its own way. But I am dreaming of having a collection, I mean a big collection, of hardy Camellias. I've tried a few, but lost them. I know they can be grown here, because my sister, who lives just south of me, grows them. They remain just out of reach, for some reason.

Perennials are not hard to love, but they're so easy to acquire that it's hard to lust after them too strenuously. Helleborous, Asarum, Paeonia lactiflora, Crambe cordifolia. Ligularia dentata, Rodgersia podophylla, Gaura, Agastache rupestris. Lavandula.

Sometimes, you manage to capture the object of your desire, with mixed results. Crambe cordifolia is a case in point. I wanted that plant for years, but it was elusive; why wasn't it being sold locally? After about 5 years, I stumbed upon a single pot of it, and snapped it up. What luck, I was building a new street-side garden bed, easily large enough to accomodate this giant of the herbaceous community. It looked a bit peaked for a few weeks after it went in, but grew nicely through its first season. The following summer, it bloomed, and I must say, the flowers were breathtaking. Easily 7 feet of tiny white stars, and fragrance to knock your socks off. You could smell it as soon as you came around the corner. Awesome!

The heartbreaker, in the case of Crambe, was that it was, other than the flower stalks, intensely ugly. I don't mean a little sloppy, or slightly off color, I mean ... ugly. It is, after all, a member of the cabbage family. The leaves are an absolute magnet for slugs, beetles, caterpillars, you name it. They're enormous, usually a wonderful thing, at least to my eyes. But hugh, chewed up, dull green leaves ... did nothing to make this border look good. The plant, so long the object of my desire, was removed, and banished to the back fence in back of the back yard, where, with luck, no one will notice the foliage and the flowers will still be visible.

Plant lust. It's a wonderful thing.

Friday, April 14, 2006


No, this is not about federal elections in Florida, it's about Compulsive Horticultural Acquisition Disorder. Don't laugh, I suffer from this ... syndrome, as do millions of others. We talk about it on the Garden Web forums all the time.

How do you know when you've got CHAD? If you wake up on Sunday morning full of remorse over the tab you ran up on the Heronswood web site the night before, if you take the back row of seats out of the minivan in April and don't put them back in until November, if a big package arrives from Joy Creek and you actually have no memory of placing an order, if you are absolutely dying to to get your hands on Black Jack Sedum before you've even laid eyes on it, if you find yourself walking around the garden, over and over, holding a pot in one hand and a shovel in the other, searching for an open spot, any spot, well, pal, you've got CHAD.

I've joked before that some enterprising business person should start a 12-step program for CHAD, to be held at the local garden center; this would draw in the addicts like nothing else.

Is there a cure? I've found that having a detailed garden plan, a scale drawing of my garden, works wonders, but doesn't actually cure the problem. Knowing where you have *actual* space available, knowing that something will have to be removed to make room for a new specimen, is key.

It takes many years to develop a full-bore plant addiction, and I think it also takes years to recover. Some of the little steps forward that I've made happened almost unnoticed. I finally bought the long-coveted Crambe cordifolia, and found out within a year what a monster it is. This is just an example; there have been dozens of rare plants that I longed for, for many seasons, that turned out the be "rare for a reason." Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is an enormous monster. Franklinia alatamaha is remarkably fussy. Darmera petata draws insect pests like a magnet, to the point of disfigurement within weeks of its gorgeous, enormous leaves unfurling in spring.

Here's my most recent strategy. I can buy as many plants as I want, as long as they are not new. So, since I've got a sedum collection, I can buy sedum. I don't have a redbud (cercis) so although I long for one, I'm not buying it. This system not only cuts down on the overspending and overplanting, it protects my garden from the "one of each" look and forces some cohesion and rhythm in my garden.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Personally, I don't do spring cleaning, at least not indoors. Since I leave most of the spent foliage on my perennials over the winter, though, there's lots to do outside in March and April.

Just about every border in my garden has some very early spring or late winter flowers, so it's almost impossible to rake the beds out in spring for a tidy look. My solution is to accept that tidiness won't be part of my garden - there will always be dead leaves here and there. I rake the areas that I can do safely, but because I use mulch, even these areas get only the lightest touch of the rake. Other areas get cleaned by hand, or by glove. Timing is everything; some plants, like species tulips and some early allium, really suffer from having leaves on them - the emerging foliage spears through the rotting leaves and literally strangles in the small hole it's made. I try to remember where these plants are, and clean out those areas as early as I can. We tend to have cold damp springs on the Cape, so by the second week of April I'm already feeling like I'm behind in the cleanup.

As an area is cleaned, it can get a top-dressing of compost, if any is available. Sometimes I apply coffee grounds, which I get in 5-gallon buckets from a local shop. The worms love it, and apparently it doesn't acidify the soil appreciably. Coffee is acidic, but once it's been brewed the grounds are essentially neutral. The down sides are that the buckets are heavy and too many people drink that revolting hazelnut-vanilla-mocha stuff, so the smell can be unpleasant for a day or so after application.

I have lots of old foliage to cut back in spring, and for some plants it's critical not to rush this procedure. Gaura, Salvia, Russian Sage (Perovskia), lavender and the other subshrubs strenuously obect to having their foliage cut before new growth appears at the woody base of the plant. I love the look of these dormant beauties anyway, especially the bare stems of gaura, which is almost grass-like by this time of year. One problem child in the group is Lavender Cotton (Santolina) which looks like hell and takes forever to begin to leaf out. Instead of a silvery grey look, like lavender, its leaves and stems area dull brown now. It's hard to know when or where to cut this plant; I'd shovel-prune it if it didn't earn its keep with that great scented silvery foliage in summer in my dry garden.

This is also the time to cut back summer-blooming shrubs like wigela and some of the viburnums. There is a row of American Cranberry bush Viburnum waiting to be severely cut back - it's one of those "good plant, bad place" situations where I simply picked the wrong variety for the location. I don't know if these can be moved, and in any case the imminent arrival of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle tells me these plants may not be long for this world.

There's also a red wigela waiting to be stooled, or cut to the ground. It's a lovely, reblooming shrub, it has sufffered this treatment before and come back beautifully. I could simply cut out a third of the stems evey year, but it's difficut to get into the center of the shrub where the oldest stems are lurking, so I cut it to the ground evey five or six years instead.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Noah was in first grade, it was the Friday before Mothers Day. I went to pick him up at school, and stood outside Mrs. Johnson's classroom with a gaggle of other mothers. Each child was clutching a styrofoam cup and looking very proud. There was a bit of a scuffle as Ali elbowed Noah to get out the door ahead of him. Noah's cup went flying, when it landed on the hall floor, there was a small pile of potting soil and a tiny green seedling, a Black-eyed Susan.

"No problem, we can put this back together and it will be just fine." Back then, he believed everything I said, but in fact I wasn't very sure. We stuffed the plant back in the cup, dumped the soil on top, and headed home.

A little over two years later, Mrs. Johnson walked by the house one day when I was working in the front yard. She told me how much she liked my garden, and I invited her to see the "real" garden, in the back. I think that was the first time I noticed that my garden was full of Rudbeckia. There were pure yellow, yellow streaked with orange, red with yellow markings, and every possible combination of yellow, red and orange imaginable.

This was twenty years ago, and Noah's Black-eyed Susans still hold sway in my gardens. I eventually started pulling a few of them, for their own sake as well as to leave some room for other plants, but I always have hugh drifts of these. I collect unusual perennials, and have lots of favorites, but I can't say that there's a nicer, more hardworking plant in my garden than Noah's Black-eyed Susans.


I must have the most complicated and inefficient compost system in New England. I sometimes wonder if it's worth the trouble, but this week I sifted about 4 wheelbarrow loads of the stuff and spread it on an established mixed border out near the street. It looked wonderful, masking the 8 different textures and colors of bark chip mulch, and I know it will help sustain all the plants in that garden, from the Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar rotundiloba) to the tiny Cyclamen coum.

Here's my system. For kitchen scraps, I have a tumbler, also called a batch composter. I bought this because, in my in-town yard, I don't want to draw rodents to the kitchen scraps. I purchased this locally, but it was from Gardeners' Supply Company. I had to modify it in 2 ways: block the larger drainage holes with hardware cloth (steel mesh) to keep rodents from moving in, and drill smaller holes in the lower half of the unit. This holds a winter's worth of kitchen scraps; when it's too full to turn, I start stashing the fresh scraps in 5-gallon buckets with tight fitting lids, and let the material in the tumbler cook for a few weeks, turning it whenever I think of it.

When the buckets are full, I slop the material out of the tumbler into another black plastic unit; this one is wrapped in hardware cloth because it is also prone to attract rodents. I mix in some dry material, leaves or cardboard, whatever is available at the time. Now I'm ready to dump the buckets into the tumber and start refilling it.

Meanwhile, all the garden waste, leaves, grass clippings, spent foliage and weeds, go into a 3-bin system that my husband built for me. It's about 9 feet long, each bin is a 3 foot cube. Material goes into the bin on the left, when that's full each bin is turned into the bin to its right, with the material in the last bin theoretially fully cooked and ready to sift and use. Anything in the last bin that won't pass through the sifter is put back into the first bin for a second trip through the system. The last bin also gets the material from the second platic unit, which is pretty well broken down by the time it needs to be emptied.

The problems with this system are that the material in the last bin isn't usually ready to use by the time the other bins are full, and I may not be ready to use that compost anyway. I have a trash can with holes in the bottom to store it until it's ready or I'm ready. If I were building this again, I'd make the bin to the left, the first bin, at least half again as big as the middle bin, and the last bin much smaller.As the material breaks down, the piles become much smaller, so this would give me more room where I need it without taking up any more space. I might even use 4 bins in my next system. Since this unit is just built from pine, it needs to be rebuilt every 10 years or so anyway, so I can redesign it each time.

Having a second tumbler would also make this much more efficient - it would eliminate the sloppy mess of emptying the tumbler into the "holding bin".

Is composting worth the trouble? You bet.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Early Flowers

Winter is not especially cold on Cape Cod, compared to other parts of New England, but it lasts long into the season when other areas of the region are enjoying spring. I try to make it less dreary by planting things that bloom in late winter or very early spring.

The season starts for me around the New Year, with Stinking Hellebores - don't be put off by the name. Helleborus foetidus is the very first flower to bloom in my garden, with its white or pale green flowers nodding above glossy, finely cut, deep green, evergreen foliage. It has no scent, pleasant or otherwise, that I can detect. It grows in shade in my yard, but apparently can take part sun too. Its evergreen foliage is also good in summer, as a foil to the flowers of its neighbors. It self-sows freely, but not aggressively, and seedlings are fairly easy to move around. They're also very easy to give away, to anyone who likes the idea of winter flowers.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' begins blooming - bright yellow - in early February. Although I've got two other cultivars, Diane and Jelena, which are reddish and bronzy, respectively, that begin blooming around the same time as 'Arnold,' HE is the star because of his long period of bloom. This year, this 8 foot tall shrub has been in full bloom for at least six weeks. The flowers are a lovely clear yellow. The foliage is uninteresting, even slightly coarse; I have it planted outside a west window, where I can enjoy the flowers backlit by the seting sun. In summer, it serves as a backdrop to a mixed order of hydrangea, gaura, tall sedums, and lavender.

Around the same time as the Witch Hazels begin their yellow and orange show, low mounds of pink. purple and white Winter Heath (Erica carnea) burst into bloom. I love the fine texture of these plants, and the slightly wild look. They like dry, sunny sites, though the local heather farm has them growing wild and blooming in the woods. In summer, their "off-season," they look very much like dwarf conifers. My favorite, an unnamed variety with deep purple flowers, is sited right outside my office window; it's backed by a row of cotoneaster and makes a great contrast to the glossy leaves and deep red berries of that shrub.

The Christmas Rose, H. niger, doesn't bloom anywhere around the holiday, but is in full force by early- or mid- March. Its upright white flowers acquire a pink cast over time, its foliage is a smoky green, slightly mottled; good enough to make me treasure this plant even if it wasn't a winter flower source. About the same time as the Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose (H. orientalis, aka H. x hybridus) begins to bloom. The foliage is quite different from H. niger, the plant is larger, and there's a teriffic range of colors available. I've got everything from a deep plum to white, some of the flowers are spotted or streaked with another color. The foliage often looks quite ratty by the time the blooms appear, and most gardeners remove this to make the plant look better. The down side of H. orientalis, other than the need to remove much of the foliage in early spring, is that the flower heads often hang down, so that the casual observer misses their stunning faces.

Jasminium nudiflorum is a wonderful lax shrub, which means it is grown as a vine but needs support for its stems. It begins blooming with forsythia-like flowers just after the witch hazels in my yard; unlike them, though, it takes quite a bit of shade. I have it on a lattice fence, and occasionally tie the stems to the lattice.

About the time that the winter Jasmine blooms, a small stand of Winter Aconite flowers in the front garden, in full sun. This is a new plant to me, picked up at the WOods Hole Library plant sale alast year. Its cheerful yellow flowers are finished at the end of March but are followed by very nice dainty foliage.

This year is the first for my Cylamen coum tubers. They look quite a bit like florists cyclamen, the type grown as a houseplant, but the flowers and the entire plant is much smaller. These are said to be hard to establish, so I planted about two dozen tubers last year, hoping some would survive and establish a colony under the Merrill magnolia in the streetside garden. They're blooming for the first time this March, having started out sparsely but looking quite lively on April first.

The Merill is blooming now, April first, its first flowers just opening. The fuzzy buds, which form during the winter, always prompt passersby to ask if i's a pussywillow.

Also blooming now are Cornus Mas, the Cornelian Cherry, a small tree with tiny, bright yellow flowers, and Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn,' Dawn Viburnum. It has small deep pink flowers that remind me of a redbud. First year blooms are also out on Winter Honeysuckle, Lonicera Fragrantissima. This is a very large, robust shrub, it should be sited near a path to make the most of its fragrance. Unfortunately, it has a somewhat unkempt-looking shape. It belongs in a yard much larger than mine, but I needed to try it, so I planted three last spring. It was obvious within weeks that these plants were going to be much too big for the space I'd allotted them in the streetside garden, so I've moved two to more remote parts of the yard. One is along the back fence, where we may mostly miss its perfume, but it should help obscure the view of the back fence.

Online Design Course

Recently heard about a free online landscape design course being offered by Barnes and Noble University. Designing Your Own Garden begins on April 3.

The text, Your House, Your Garden: A Foolproof Approach to Garden Design is by Gordon Hayward, one of my favorite authors. The instructor is Becke Davis, who is also a garden writer.

Update: The course isn't so much about "designing Your Garden," it's more like "designing garden beds." I'd like to learn more about drawing visitors into the garden, creating destinations and framing views, but it won't be in this course. Back to the books.