White is a Cooling Color

A friend of mine seems able to pick a color of the day any day and then post a collage of blooms right out of the garden to celebrate.  Me on the other hand, I’m far from there but on a day like today when the garden bakes under a hot sun, anything which might lower the temperature is fair game.  They say adding white flowers to a garden can cool a hot palette but as I trudged around the garden in 97F(36C) afternoon sun I’m not sure it mattered.  We’ll give it a try though since the only truly cool white would have been snow, and it will take months of heat before I wish that on anyone 😉

stewartia flower

**full disclosure I took this photo a week ago and the blooms on the Stewartia are no longer this fresh looking, but to look at it now?  Ahhhhhhh 🙂

Heat and cicadas, that would have been a nicely mid-Atlantic June day, but as of yet I haven’t seen more than a few wings and munched torsos.  Maybe a road trip is due?  The younger child (now nearly a full month into her teens) says yes, and the first flowers of the Regal lily “smell like Longwood”.

lilium regale

These Regal lilies (Lilium regale) were mush from a late frost last year, and sat dormant from April on… but guess who returned from the dead this year!

I’d be happy with just a break from lawn mowing, and this heat should do the trick.  My neighbors are looking at mostly brown already since they’re more gung-ho about their grass knowing its place and it’s height, but here I give it a little more freedom as the temperatures rise and the sun beats down.  Longer grass withstands both the heat and drought better and recovers faster when the weather breaks, and I’m sure when that break comes and temperature drop with a rain shower or two there will be plenty of time for me to catch up on my love of lawn maintenance.

white clover lawn

A flurry of white across the lawn, thanks to the liberal growth of white clover.  A good bee plant most will say, but honestly there’s plenty of other stuff around which they also seem quite thrilled over.

I think cooling white counts even if it’s on the gray side.

mammillaria plumosa

I believe this is Mammillaria plumosa.  Each year it stretches a little further and now another pot will be required.  Any bigger and it won’t fit on the porch steps anymore.  

I was lukewarm to the dusty miller(Jacobaea maritima) which went in as an annual last summer but I quite like the bushier perennial version which returned this spring.  If the summer stays dry and the border doesn’t get too lush and crowded I think it will do well all season.

dusty miller flower

Unimpressive flowers on the dusty miller.  

Gray foliage but on a much less soft and felty side would be the Scotch thistle.  This will probably be the last photo of this weed which I subject you to, but fair warning: the Cardoon has yet to bloom, and that’s another weedy thistle which I think is just wonderful and I can’t hide my excitement over 🙂

scotch thistle

Scotch thistle against a cloudless sky.  I had to point up since this plant is well over my head by now.

Gray foliage doesn’t have much in the way of scent, but the Phlox paniculata is starting and that has an excellent summer fragrance.  I will avoid complaining about how ungrateful they seem this year, as they’re growing poorly enough that you wouldn’t suspect I transplanted and fertilized, but sometimes you have to give a favorite plant some leeway… unless of course it gets demoted to a former-favorite plant… that would be something which such an ungrateful plant might deserve but then who knows what July will bring.

midsummer white phlox

‘Midsummer White’ garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) is the garden’s first tall phlox to flower.

Weeds and wildflowers are never ungrateful.  Overly enthusiastic maybe but you never have to beg them to grow.

erigeron annuus daisy fleabane

A favorite weed, daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) can usually be counted on to sprout up when needed. 

Sometimes you don’t even have to water them.  Actually watering weeds is a crazy idea… unless it’s fleabane or larkspur.  Both might be worth a little spray to get them over a hump.

white larkspur

It looks white, but here the larkspurs all tend to be an icy white with a drop of blue or gray in it.  Kind of a skim milk shade of white rather than titanium white.

Here I go talking about weeds again.  One more though.  Common yarrow has shown up in a few spots in the meadow and I wonder how these seeds find their way.

achillea millefolium common yarrow

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) laughs at heat and drought.  I think everything around it will shrivel up and die before you see anything more than a few leaves wilt.

White flowers in a dry meadow won’t cool anyone, but maybe the patch of variegated giant reed grass out front can help.  For months I’ve been saying someone ought to chop out some of the clump, since it really is too big, but it appears the message fell on deaf ears and it’s just as big (actually bigger) than last year.  Probably too big.  Alas.

verbena arundo donax

I’m not saying I judge my neighbors for not asking if I can spare a division, but the giant reed grass (Arundo donax ‘variegata’) is pretty awesome and only gets better as it climbs to 10 feet and more by the end of the season.

It’s way too hot to be out there in the blazing sun hacking inch thick, strong as steel grass rhizomes so that’s one more year for the grass to root in deeper and spread further.  Maybe next year, right?  Shade is a much better option.  White hydrangeas in a dappled shade both looks and sounds cool.

annabelle hydrangea

‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea arborescens is the hydrangea to grow if you want a foolproof every-year-its-a-show kind of hydrangea.  Newer hybrids?  Other species?  Help yourself, I’m just fine with this.

Hostas also make the shade even cooler and many people know this.  Some go to extremes.  I only dabble.

hosta montana aureomarginata

Hosta montana aureomarginata, an oldie but goodie in my opinion.  

There’s another kind of foliage plant which I plan on going overboard with this year.  Caladiums.  I forget how much I’ve already revealed about ‘2021 the year of the caladium’ but it’s going to be big.  Not the empty kind of ‘big’ or ‘huge’ or ‘better than you can imagine’ that politicians have promised in the past, but a big five pound box of mixed tubers which was potted up weeks ago and is now soaking up the heat and starting to grow.  As you know, it’s not often I get excited about a new plant, but waiting for each leaf to unfurl is like waiting for a new plant to unfurl a new leaf and I just can’t think of anything more exciting than that.

sprouting caladium

White… with a hint of pink… not that I’m counting but there are 79 caladiums potted up separately and sitting on the driveway waiting to take off into growth.  Summer garage access is overrated if you ask me and I’m sure it will be entirely worth it. 

So there you have it, the cooling effect of white.  I’m all excited about caladiums now but maybe the white helped calm someone else and take the edge off the heat for a minute and that’s a good thing.  That and air conditioning.  Or ice cream.  Or a tub of cool water… whatever it takes to get through this because as you may remember, something called July and August are still on the way and I don’t think you’re going to hear much of ‘boy it’s looking cool next month’ or ‘golly did that temperature drop’ as much as you’re going to hear ‘relentless’ and ‘not a break in sight’.

Or I’m just being pessimistic.  Order some caladium bulbs.  There’s still plenty of time and at least they love the heat even if you don’t.  And even if you’re anti-caladium I hope you have a great week 🙂

Taming the Potager

Reading broadens the mind, and I’ve read too many gardening books to remain satisfied with a plain old vegetable garden.  I of course have a potager, which (from what I’ve heard) is a vegetable garden but fancier, with vegetables but designed and mixed with flowers and supposedly a nicer place to sit around in than the dirt paths and rows of beans of your common vegetable garden.  Plus it’s a French word, and here in America anything with a french name is fancier.  Case in point: baguette vs ‘long loaf of bread’… fancier… and now I rest my case with just one argument, since neither my argument nor the fanciness of my potager will likely stand up to any in depth scrutiny 🙂

hollyhock rust

A stray hollyhock seedling in front of ‘Royal Purple’ smokebush (Cotinus).  Normally the bush is cut back but this year was left unpruned in order to smoke (bloom).

Just a few thoughts on Hollyhocks(Alcea) before we go to the potager.  I was hoping a few rust-resistant plants might show up as I try to mix in a few “rust-resistant” species, but so far no luck.  Rust is not a good look and of course I’m far too lazy to spray.

hollyhock rust

I thought this might be a yellow Alcea rugosa, and possibly less rusty, but the pink tint in the flowers and all the spotting and rusty lesions says otherwise.  I should rip it out now, but…

So I’m 99% sure that starting off with me sharing my disease problems is not the path to fancy, but I’m going to try and save this.  The best thing in the potager this week are the larkspur and oxeye daisies.

larkspur and daisies

Larkspur and daisies.  Not really fancy, but maybe ‘shabby chic’, and chic is right out of Paris.

Some people might point out that Larkspur and daisies are more abandoned farm field than they are high style, but right now I love them, and I’m not even going to mention they’re actually the result of not weeding rather than any planned style initiative.

larkspur and daisies

I meant to dig the alliums and tulips, but never quite got around to it.  Fortunately the largest prickly lettuce and mugwort were weeded out a few weeks ago 🙂

The actual efforts at design are much less impressive.  Roses and clematis to climb the ‘structure’ are still two or three years from breathtaking.

rose chevy chase

I suppose this will be a patriotic design, with the bright red ‘Chevy Chase'(a 1939 rambler rose) joining the misslabeled blue clematis and white daisies.  I’m expecting ten feet or more from Chevy, he should be a strong grower but sadly lacks any fragrance.

Any real potager needs a few vegetables, and so far lettuce and cole crops are the only things looking productive since the tomatoes and squash have only just gone in.

summer cabbage

I love cabbages and all their kin.  Earlier in the year the cabbage worms attacked, but after a little picking off, the worms have stayed away or found other hosts.  Un-nibbled leaves really look much better than the usual worm-riddled foliage.

So as usual I have an excuse for being late.  Rabbits made their nest in the middle of the tulip patch.  Somehow six cottontails had to grow up before I could dig the tulips.  I couldn’t transplant the chrysanthemums until the tulips were out, and then dahlias had to go into the bed where the chrysanthemums were.  I think following chrysanthemums with a dahlia planting is called crop rotation, and all the fanciest gardeners practice crop rotation.

dahlia seedlings

Nine ‘Bishop’s Children’ dahlia seedlings are all I got out of a packet of thirty seeds.  That’s a good thing, what would I do with thirty dahlia seedlings?

Some of the other tulip plantings were followed by tomatoes, and I’ll show them as well but they need a few weeks before they and the rest of the new potager plantings begin to look nice.  In the meantime I need pear advice.  Last year a late freeze killed off nearly every flower save three, this year every flower made it.  I have dozens and dozens of little pears and I need to know if I should drag out the ladder and thin them, or if they will naturally thin themselves.  To me the answer is already pretty obvious, but of course I’d love for someone with more experience to tell me I don’t have to thin them.

thinning pears

Little pears.  I already thinned the lower branches to just a few fruits.

It doesn’t look like a few French words will fool anyone, and those are pretty much all the highlights of the potager in mid June.  With the bubble burst, I might as well take you around the rest of the even less fancy parts of the back garden.

wildflower meadow

Weeds along the berm.  Year 1 was smartweed, year 2 was some mustard, year 3 is birds foot trefoil, daisies, and grass.  I think it looks best this year and I think some rose campion seed needs to be sprinkled in as well 🙂

Weeds along the back of the property and now an overgrown snowdrop bed.  Finally after years of tinkering this bed is becoming more stable and I think (a little)less weedy.

rain garden

Snowdrop bed, aka rain garden.  The roof runoff washes down the sand path and keeps this bed a little wetter than it used to be.  The plants seem to love it.

There’s so little design and zero fancy to this side of the yard.  As the years pass it’s becoming more of a snowdrop garden and the other plantings have to take second billing, even if they do occupy the ground for about 11 months compared to the 1 month of white.  Of course I cannot explain myself on this addiction.

blueberry

This year the blueberries will be protected.  I have netting, but all the fledgling birds who flock to the bushes are just too clumsy to avoid getting trapped, and I can’t untangle another body.  I’ll try some floating row cover material and hope that out of sight will save enough for pancakes at least.

Hopefully this end of the garden gets some attention this weekend.  It’s always the last job, and for as ‘finishing’ as that sounds it really only means I go right back to the start and begin it all again, this time with more weeding and less planting…

japanese iris

Even in a thicket of weeds this Japanese iris looks fancy.

Maybe on the next go around things will change.  All the weeds will go out, some thoughtful design will go in, some rough edges cleaned up?  I think not.  It’s firefly season and they love all the rough edges and I love having them light up the evening garden, and for as much as I’m tempted to weed-whack the berm or mow the meadow it’s not happening this month.  I’m sure I’ll get over it and it also wouldn’t hurt if I found something better to do 😉

Bonjour, and I hope you have a fancy week!

 

A Day of Rock Gardening

Last weekend my friend Kathy of Cold Climate Gardening talked me into a plant sale.  No offense to her salesmanship, but it wasn’t the toughest sell considering I’ve been itching to get back to town ever since my first ‘Ithaca Spring Garden Fair and Plant Sale’ two years ago.  Covid you know… so I’ve been saying pass, but then Kathy told me about the spring plant sale of the Adirondack Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.  It’s a members only thing, just a few people donating, buying and selling, but it sounded perfect.  Big deal that I wasn’t a member(yet) and it’s an over two hour drive, plus it’s a whole Saturday away from a garden which I should be weeding… and I already had plenty of unplanted things… but you know as well as I do that once the gardening gauntlet is thrown down it must be accepted, so of course I said yes.

It was a beautiful morning and the drive was a perfect trip up the Susquehanna river valley and then across the rolling dairy hills East of Cayuga lake to the plant sale.  The sale was fun.  Members (which now included me) were given numbers and each person had a chance to visit the sale tables and pick up a favorite.  After a couple rounds of this the tables were opened to everyone, and one by one they emptied.  There was more of course.  While this was going on plant talk was every where, an auction was lined up, a free table was filled and cleaned out… members introduced their favorite plants which they thought ought to be selling better, and at one point someone just stood on a bench and invited everyone over to visit their garden afterwards 🙂 I like these people, and this also brings me to one of the big selling points for me doing the drive and joining the chapter.  Garden visits.  I had heard that a local rock gardener had offered to open their garden after the sale, for members to visit.  It’s a garden I had read about and seen pictures of, and I knew it was a must-see garden.  Wow, was that the truth!

ithaca rock garden

A hillside was being excavated to expose the bedrock

Some of the epic rock gardens of Europe are heaps of stone built up to create mini-Matterhorns out of flat cow pasture.  This garden is not that.  Here a pair of inspired gardeners found a plot of land where they knew they could carve the earth down to bedrock, and then build a rock garden up that follows the natural cut of the ravine.  It’s actually quite a crazy idea, but awesome to see.

ithaca rock garden

One of the newest additions, a bridge now spans the gap between rocky outcroppings.

Of course these pictures don’t do the scale of the garden justice.  Massive boulders were being moved and placed in a way which looked as if the glaciers did all the heavy lifting thousands of years back.  Unearthing the bedrock sounds easier with the help of heavy machinery, but then consider the care which has to be taken to not gouge the naturally weathered walls and boulders as they’re being uncovered.  All the fine uncovering had to be done with hand… and then moved by hand…

ithaca rock garden

The earthworks from even further back.  All of this was uncovered, and much of it moved into a more effective place or position, even the larger slabs of stone.  Behind where this photo was taken there’s even more excavation.

One of the chapter members mentioned that the owners were back and forth about opening the garden.  ‘It’s not a garden, it’s a construction site’ is more or less what I got as the reasoning, but only half of that is true.  It’s an awesome construction site, but it’s also an amazing garden, and I think it’s even more amazing when you can see what went in to all the plantings.

ithaca rock garden

Plantings tumble down the slope, this one built up with tufa stone, a porous rock light and airy enough to allow plant roots to penetrate.

This is the first real rock garden I’ve ever visited so I can’t say much about the plants other than they looked perfectly happy.

ithaca rock garden

Rocks overhanging a small pool.  Tufa stone allows for plants to be ‘set’ directly into drilled holes.  Eventually the plants spread out on their own as the roots find their own paths into the rock.

ithaca rock garden

Oh, and just a big crevice garden for all those things which love a deep root run between stones.  Yellow delosperma and a yellow leaved teucrium (which I just happened to pick up at the plant sale!)

ithaca rock garden

Some of the plantings were really amazing

ithaca rock garden

Even a hosta!  -but I really love the yellow leaved saxifrage (maybe saxifraga ‘Cloth of Gold’?)

As I worked my way down the paths through the rock gardens, and headed closer to the house, I reached the patio area.  Here the garden hosts had set up a dining area with snacks and beverages and plenty of wine.  From what I hear this generosity was all part of a master plan to “loosen lips” and get the honest impressions of their visitors with an eye towards improvements and new ideas.  Sadly, I believe the wine was just wasted on me 🙂

ithaca rock garden

Bonsai and trough gardens.

The trough gardens were particularly interesting, and not just because of the mini landscapes planted in them.  In the past these gardeners have hosted trough making workshops in the garden as well as publishing articles on the process, and I was excited to see that the troughs look excellent in person.  Excellent enough that I think I’ll give one a go this summer and see how it turns out!

ithaca rock garden

Some of the troughs were quite complex.

Wine and snacks have a way of gathering people, so at the patio I stopped and took in a few of the conversations.  Someone asked me how I liked the top part of the gardens and I said ‘Top?  There’s also a bottom?’ …and yes, there’s a whole other part to the garden.

ithaca rock garden

Below the rock garden a natural seep provides flowing water for the bottom part of the gardens.

As you come around a few more boulders you find yourself at the bottom of the ravine, where a mass of Primula japonica fill the low spots.  They were just starting their peak bloom, it was excellent.

ithaca rock garden

A path runs back and forth along the stream.

ithaca rock garden

Masses of Primula japonica

ithaca rock garden

The stream heads out to the lake.  You would never guess a downpour had this garden nearly flooded a few days prior to the opening.

There were more woodland plants, azaleas, rhododendrons, and tree peonies but of course I can’t show everything, so I’ll leave off with one last overview of the upper garden as viewed from the house.  As you can see ‘dwarf’ conifers are also an interest.

ithaca rock garden

A view from the other side.  You can see some of the deer fencing, obviously the hooved beasts have no respect for such a special place.

So this garden was amazing, but who would I be if I turned down another garden tour invite?  I headed a few miles further to the impromptu open garden which had been announced at the sale, and here I was able to enjoy huge beds filled with lush perennials all grown to perfection.  I’m afraid I derailed plenty of my host’s Saturday afternoon gardening plans since it was already kind of late, but she still gave me the full tour!

ithaca rock garden

Tree peonies were at their moment of perfection.

There were cool plants everywhere, and they were all so well grown that I tried to avoid all honesty about my own garden when asked.  My big regret though is that I didn’t take more pictures.  It’s almost criminal that there are no photos of the red horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea ‘Ft. McNair’) which was in full flower over one of the back beds.

ithaca rock garden

Alliums, Aquilegia, and peony were at their peak but I could see that the show had started months ago with spring bulbs, and will continue for months more with all the other later perennials.

ithaca rock garden

Wow.

So I’m also not even mentioning the shade gardens, the small arboretum of special trees, the field of dahlia tubers I was preventing her from planting… It was another fascinating garden and I have to say that the best thing about this day was meeting person after person who were so crazy about plants that it made me feel entirely sane.  What a group!

I rushed out of this stop with a new friend (and even more plants in my hands) and headed for my last stop.  It was already about dinnertime when I rolled into my friend Leon’s driveway but he didn’t seem too annoyed with me.  He knew I’d be late and still led me around the grounds of Der Rosenmeister Nursery and tolerated question after question.  I didn’t have time for a single picture.  I bought three roses.  I’m going back in a few weeks to see the hundreds of roses in full bloom, and it is guaranteed to be another great trip and I’m sure you’ll hear all about it 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this adventure !

The Potager 2.0

When the pandemic first came to our shores and we were faced with a surprise vacation and then a transition to work at home, the non-commuting lifestyle left me with what seemed like a mountain of extra time to spend in the garden.  ‘Let me get some building materials delivered’ I said, and ‘build a few raised beds’ I thought.  The boss gave her approval and things began to move.  Slowly.  A thousand things had to be moved first, plans needed to come together, but I think it’s finally at a point where I can show it off a bit, if only to get it over with rather than build some unwarranted, over-blown hype.

raised beds

The front entrance to the potager.  A slight downward slope ends at the pergola, the beds are leveled into the slope, and the blocks will hopefully help with keeping the lawn edge neat just in case we get enough rain for it to grow again.

The first dilemma was choosing lumber.  As usual I went with cheap and selected eight foot pressure treated 2x4s, but it wasn’t all that easy. Naturally rot resistant cedar or redwood would have been nice, larger boards would have been nicer, but the costs were way higher than I was comfortable with so it was a compromise between expensive all natural, or cheaper with a vague possibility of copper leaching… well I say that but actually the compromise was lower the cost or it’s not going to happen…

Overall I hope to get at least ten years out of the wood because although it’s pressure treated it’s not rated for ground contact.  Eventually it will rot, but the treatment should give at least a few years more than untreated, and funny story… the pandemic caused a pressure treated lumber shortage, so we will see exactly how much faster au naturel rots, since all I could find for the last two beds was untreated wood.

raised beds

The view from the trampoline.  We are into the annual zucchini tsunami and each morning a few more line up on the counter.  Someday I hope to level this bottom part of the garden.  The beds are built level but the grass paths still need some fill to bring them up. 

Besides being cheap with materials,  I also got a little greedy with the bed space vs path width.  Between beds is about two feet, and even if it were wider there was still no way (add laziness to the growing list of personal faults) that I was going to wrestle a lawnmower between each bed.  Enter the wonderfully gritty sand pile.  I knew I didn’t want lawn, wood chips need replacing (and why add organic matter to your paths when it should be going onto your beds?), bare landscape fabric is ugly (and violates my no new plastic policy), so I wanted it to be something inorganic and long lasting (and yet again, cheap).  So I grabbed my face mask and was off to the quarry to look at stone dust, crusher run, and sand.  Surprisingly the sand looked perfect.  It was sharp enough to pack down well for a solid footing, and coarse enough (up to about 1/8″ particles) to not wash away in a heavy rain.  So far I love it, and in the future I might even get sand to top off beds rather than buying ‘topsoil’ that turns to rock the minute it dries.

raised beds

I removed the grass from a few of the pathways and used the turf to fill the beds.  Sand paths will hopefully be low maintenance with great drainage, and if worse comes to worse I can just dig them over and replant grass.

Cinder blocks are also cheap, and at about $1.20 a piece I lugged a few carloads home to use as edging and to form a little paved area under the pergola.  So far I like it.  It’s an honest concrete look rather than concrete pavers trying to pass off as something fancier.  Of course stone would have been another nice permanent edging but again spending a bunch of money was not part of my pandemic response.

With the beds built and the lawn edged and sand down on the paths I was super surprised to see that I still had leftover sand.  I tried to calculate for extra sand for an additional pathway up alongside the fence, but to actually have a plan that worked out was a little bit of a surprise.  After years of collecting and lugging random stones I could finally use them to line a sand trail that gives access to the back of the pond.

garden pond

Finishing the pond is still on the to-do list but for now I think it looks good enough.  The shallow end is in constant use as a birdbath, so it’s really more of a watering hole than a pond…

The pond path is surprisingly popular with the kids and our little garden bunny.  I’ve caught both zipping back and forth, and in the morning there are all kinds of footprints in the sand.

sand path

Pond path’s entrance.  Yes those are mostly weeds.  Weeding went onto the back burner as I lugged load after load of lumber, blocks, and sand.  

To sum it all up I love the new beds and I feel like there’s so much more useable space with it set up this way.  I have a total of eleven 4×8 beds and for now it’s all vegetables and I’m trying not to give in to the temptation of planting flowers… except for the one bed which I gave over to chrysanthemums… but my resolve may dissolve since I still need room for phlox and tulips.  At least I’m trying to be firm with the usual sunflowers and verbena bonariensis seedlings.  -for the record I’m not sure why I needed a bed of chrysanthemum, but after years of neglecting them and abusing them in horribly weedy, infertile, and dry sites, I thought it was about time to do them right.  We will see.

rain garden

Yes, more weeds.  The weeds exploded with last week’s rain and this bed was the next one to need attention.

With everything under control in the potager, there was still enough sand to upgrade the dirt ditch of the rain garden with another nice, stone-lined, sand path.  If you recall, last summer this area received a small paved area and path with all the leftover flat stones liberated from the industrial park construction.  It was nice, but I didn’t like the dirt gully which channeled the runoff, and when I don’t like something I kind of neglect it, and when you neglect a garden the weeds send out an alert, and when they all show up to answer the call things go downhill fast.  The weeds are out now, the sand is down, and although I’m short on rocks along the one side, the other doesn’t look bad at all.  We will see how it holds up.  If you look closely at the paving joints you might notice the joints are neatly filled with sand rather than dirt, and both of those are a pain to keep weed free when all you have is this narrow joint that the roots can hold onto.  Truth is I threw some leftover polymeric sand in there, and when you wet the sand the polymer sets up and solidifies it.  I don’t know how it will hold up but hopefully I’ll get at least a few years of no-weeds-in-the joints enjoyment.  The weeds will be fine elsewhere though, so if you’re worried don’t be.

rain garden

Another step forward I hope.  Mulch would be nice now.

That’s where we’re at going into the weekend.  The weather forecast is promising another heat wave so I’m not worried about mowing, but watering will be on my mind.  I don’t like watering but it does beat lugging cinderblocks and digging turf so I’ll keep the complaining to a minimum.

Traditionally I usually meet the hottest days of summer with a pile of mulch in the driveway.  Hmmm.  I hope you have a more relaxing weekend 😉

2018: Four Days Left and Finally a Sunny Day

The title may be an exaggeration, but it sure feels like the truth this year.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually all in favor of a well watered growing season, but this endless gloom is really wearing me down this year.  Fortunately the colder weather seems to have dried the air out a bit and although there are still plenty of storm systems creeping across the States it’s only tomorrow which seems to be a complete wash-out.  With that on the way I made a point of taking advantage of yesterday’s dry skies and sunny weather (and a Christmas holiday!) to labour outside a bit, and hopefully work off a few cookie-calories.

garden path stones

Stones were hauled out of the construction site next door and put to use in expanding a planting bed.

The hard work was hauling stones.  For those who garden on rocky mountainsides the idea of intentionally adding rocks to a yard might seem like nonsense but I love having them scattered around.  Big enough to sit on is perfect, flat enough to step on is also good enough.  This line of stepping stones will hopefully be ideal for muddy spring mornings spent looking too closely at sprouting snowdrops.

snowdrop noses galanthus

Speaking of snowdrops here are a few of the earliest sprouts.  Depending on how the winter goes we could have blooms coming on these by January, February, or March….  Earlier sounds nice, but the stress of later, damaging cold snaps is sometimes not worth it.

Even with a little sunshine, most everything is the garden is dull and bleak ‘winter interest’, and I guess if you’re taking a winter vow of poverty that’s fine but I prefer to see a little more interesting in my winter interest.  A move further south is out of the question, a massive greenhouse is out of the budget, but maybe a few fall blooming snowdrops will fit the bill.  This summer I finally planted my ‘Potter’s Prelude’ out in the open garden, and will now see how they take a full blown, in the garden winter.  Many have re-assured me they’ll be fine, but for now I’m committed to covering them ever time the weather sinks into the low 20’s.

galanthus potters prelude

Galanthus ‘Potters Prelude’.  This year they’re about a month late, undoubtedly I wasn’t the only one waiting for all the rain to stop.

We will see if much else still gets done during these lulls in winter.  I tried to warm up to the winter garden in the garage last week but maybe it’s still just too early and I’m still not quite as desperate as I will be when the snow flies, so for now I’ll still putter around outside.  In the meantime I hope the holidays are being enjoyed by all.  The countdown to 2019 has begun and I wish all of you nothing but the best for the new year!

A Tropical Update

While we look to the tropics and wait to see what the latest hurricane brings I think a trip to the milder side is in order.  The Pennsylvania tropics are much calmer and even-keeled and if you ignore the heavy hand of winter’s approach I think it’s a nice enough retreat from everything else going on.

tropical garden

The tropical border this summer.  The steady rains were a plus but the cooler temperatures held many a hot-blooded plant back.

Even though things were in the ground earlier than ever this year the cool weather made for a slow start.  I even lost nearly all the dahlias when my “big patch of ’em” idea didn’t go well with the “all the water drains here” reality.  Losing plants to an excess of water is not something I’ve ever experienced here on this thin-soiled hilltop.  Fortunately there’s always a backup plan.

tropical garden

The striped leaves of ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna rank as one of my all time favorite plants.  To me they seem to go well with everything, especially the purple verbena bonariensis and surviving dahlias.

Verbena.  Verbena bonariensis is my backup plan for nearly every plant fiasco/disaster.  Any unmulched sunny spot quickly sprouts a few seedlings and all this gardener has to do is stand back.  If anything they need thinning since they  come up thick and look much better when each has some space of their own.

alcazar kniphofia

This might be my most promising red hot poker.  Kniphofia ‘Alcazar’ has nice big spikes with just the right glow factor.  Last year there were only two flower stalks which faded in a week or two, but this year three flushes of flowerings kept the plant interesting for almost two months.  I hope it wasn’t a fluke!

I do tend to let things just happen.  Laziness and distraction can do that to a garden, and the far end of the tropical border is mostly foliage.

tropical garden

Leaves aren’t all that bad.  Having a spot where color is not entirely in your face is probably a good idea.

The mulch which I smothered this end of the bed with must have contained some leftover autumn decorations so the coleus I planted ended up being smothered by the climbing vines of Yugoslavian finger squash.  They seemed to love all the rain and vines slinked and slithered all through the back of the border.

yugoslavian finger squash

There’s something about the name ‘Yugoslavian finger squash’ which I think is funny.  Yugoslavian?  The finger?  Finger squash?  It’s like a teenage boy came up with the name and I guess it speaks volumes for my maturity level.   

So while we await our Finger squash decorating bonanza the rest of the border is busy with the bees and butterflies who take advantage of the color.

monarch on verbena

With any luck this year’s Monarch migration will be a big one, and I hope I left enough verbena to keep them around for a few days. 

I’m hoping things work out well for a big Monarch migration this autumn.  A few years ago there was a trifecta of beautiful weather, plenty of butterflies, and loads of verbena blossoms and walking through the fluttering garden was almost surreal.  Thinking back on it I really feel bad for those people who hire landscape companies, spray for any wildlife which gets too close, and then stare at lawn all summer.  Holy boring.

katydid

At three or four inches long Katydids are an insect you can have a conversation with.  People go on about bees and butterflies but these guys are my favorites… even if they do eat decent sized chunks out of the purple canna leaves.

The tropical garden is not boring.

tropical garden

Too much?  Stripes on stripes was not the plan but somehow ‘Tropicana’ ended up in front of ‘Cosmopolitan’ fountain grass.  It should look even more tasteful in another few weeks when the grass puts out its pink flower heads.

Hope a good weekend is had by all and a little boring can extend down to the areas in the path of hurricane Irma.  The tropics look much better when not ravaged by obscene winds.

Visiting Jean

My friend Jean has an amazing garden which she’s been working on for years and she’s made it into a treasure trove of color and textures which flourish in spite of the thin mountainside soil she first started with.  I love a garden which you can walk through and experience and this garden fits that bill perfectly.

jeans pond

Yoga frog leads the class of froglets who follow along from the safety of the pond.

It’s a sheltered garden filled with the sounds of running water.  You enter the backyard though a shaded arbor at the end of a long drive which leads you through the large wooded lot.  What first grabs your attention when you step through the gate is the large pond carved into the mountainside.  It looks as if it’s always been there, a relaxing little nook left over from when the glaciers last scrubbed this part of Pennsylvania.

jeans pond

Looking out across from the house and main patio to the pond.  A natural stone path leads to a cozy seating area and fire pit, a clematis covered arch marks the path out into the garden beyond.

You have two choices here, explore the pond and gardens to your left or ignore the deck and patios (and inviting patio seating) surrounding the house and let the color of the slope to the right draw you in.  We usually choose the flowery slope 🙂

jeans garden

Jean’s garden is always magazine ready.  It’s got color, paths, destinations, focal points, vignettes… Here container plantings line the stone steps which take you to the upper garden.

I guess the upside to gardening on a thinly covered, rocky mountainside is that stone paths and walls are just an arm’s length away… assuming you’ve got a prybar and shovel at the end of that arm!  Over the years Jean has built up terraces and pickaxed out level planting areas to make room for her plant addiction and they really keep the garden interesting with their changes in elevation and solid structure.

jeans garden

Color galore with annual plantings and summer perennials.  Of course if there’s a nice bright phlox I have to include the picture 😉

The top of the slope has been kept open for sun and leveled to make room for all the summer color that fills this end of the garden.  On my last visit the dahlias were just starting to take off and I hope I wasn’t too pushy with my hints of how much I liked the colors and how well they’d look in my own garden!

Zinnias, calibrachoa, and of course dahlias.  This picture just doesn’t do the scale justice, the pot of purple fountain grass is probably about six feet up on a tower of container plantings.

Jean is just a little obsessed.  It’s hard for me to believe a gardener could be that way but she’s got plants all over, she’s got plant inventories, she’s involved in plant groups, she travels for plants, and she’s got about a million plans which are on the drawing board.  It’s always fun talking to her as her compulsively organized type A personality deconstructs gardening.

jeans dahlias

Even the plant supports are well thought out and complement the yellows, oranges, reds and purples of this section.

Beyond the sunny and bright center of the garden, pathways take you out into the more shaded woodland edges.  Hydrangeas abound and although I didn’t get any decent pictures of them individually, if you start looking you’ll see they show up nearly everywhere… and not just planted ones… believe it or not there are hundreds of hydrangea seedlings in any open spot of soil or gravel which gets a little sun.  What a thought to have to weed out handfuls of hydrangea!

jeans garden

Stone lined paths run throughout the garden and special shrubs and trees fill every available space.  Here the left side of the path is dominated by an eight foot tall planting of purple angelica (Angelica gigas ‘purpurea’).

If there’s one thing which Jean struggles with it’s the local vole population.  Deer are around as well but at least you can fence them out.  Voles are a curse.

jeans garden

The shadier planting still look great but at one time they were also filled with hostas.  Lots of them.

Soil additives, traps, caged plantings, containers, all are in use to wage war against the rodent hordes but as Jean likes to say, her stone walls and rock ledges are practically vole condos so it’s a continuous battle.

jeans garden

Round about the back a pathway has been planted up as a scented walkway.  On a previous visit the fragrance of oriental lilies filled the air, on my my last visit it’s been replaced by the scent of passionflowers and fragrant hostas.

Fortunately she’s holding her own and shows no signs of throwing in the trowel.  Score one more for Jean.

jeans garden

Shaded steps leading around to the fire pit.  I love how things fill in here, and you could plant a whole other garden with the dwarf goats beard, ferns, and other goodies which sprout up in the cracks.

I’ll leave you with one last pond photo as we return to the house.

jeans pond

Just the right amount of water lilies for interest and open water for light reflection.  I’m sure the Japanese maple is awesome in the fall but my favorite right now is the airy variegated moor grass Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’).

As you exit the garden off the main patio you can’t help but notice how well Jean grows climbing nasturtium.  Although I love the leaves and flower colors, this is one plant I always struggle with.

jeans nasturtium

Nasturtium climbing the arch.  It looks so healthy!

And that takes us back to where we started.  I hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did and it’s inspired me to make more paths and get more shrubs in the ground.  Structure.  That’s what I need… just like snowdrops are what Jean needs 😉

Thanks Jean!

Deck Season

I’m about done with this gardening thing, it’s just so much work!

deck container planters

The deck awaits.  Cool drinks, evening sunsets, it all sounds so much better than slaving away in the garden.

We have yet to hit our traditional summertime combo of brutally high temperatures and endless rainless weeks, and for once it seems our climate has decided to make it easy on the garden and gardener.  The garden has been enjoying excellent growing weather and perfect transplanting conditions, and I think I’ve done more this year than ever to shape up the yard.  The deck has been no exception.  Overwintered tropicals came out of their garage storage earlier than ever and containers were put together way before the usual Memorial Day rush.  I like the way it came out this year (which was not the case last summer).

deck container planters

My biggest splurge this year, a blue sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) which I snapped up the minute I saw it.  I was hoping it would take over this whole corner of the deck but for now it’s more intent on sending out more and more of its beautiful flowers.  At least the self-sown petunias on the left make a nice color compliment.

In my opinion the whole point of annuals is you can try something completely different each year, enjoy an entire season of noncommittal color, and then count on winter to completely clean the slate for next season.  For the most part I started with a clean slate, but this year I tried to bring in a few new things rather than just sit in the rut I felt like I’d been settling in to.

deck container planters

Calibrachoas will always earn a spot in the deck containers because of their unending bloom.  As long as the tobacco budworms hold off on their late season attack and I get a little fertilizer on them, they’ll keep going like this for weeks!

My ‘ outside the box’ move didn’t last much longer than putting down the traditional purple fountain grasses and substituting with a couple new coleus.  Lots more foliage this year rather than flowers, but for the most part, since I overwinter so many plants, I’m bound to always be stuck in at least some part of the box.

deck container planters

If there was a color theme this year it was orange and purple… sort of… I’m never much good at sticking to a theme, plus I’m always far too easy on the self-sown annuals which show up, such as the pink petunias and red snapdragons in the back.

Cannas and coleus are back this year and doing great.  The coleus were all new purchases made to replace those I was too lazy to bring in last fall.  Lesson learned with that but now I’ll have to make all new decisions on which ones to take in when frost threatens.  Experience shows it will be all of them 🙂

deck container planters

The far corner of the deck.  The cannas are just starting, coleus are already too big, the Virginia creeper is creeping over from the other wall, and who would have thought I’d like white salvia?

Since May the plan has been to re-do some of the unfinished ends of the deck.  You know how the goes.  As of July 11th there’s been no action, which isn’t world ending, but it does mean I haven’t yet hooked up the drip lines which should go to each planted container.  The regular rains have been my savior but as things grow that won’t last.  I need to get things going!

deck container planters

A little bit of a mess here but the succulents and cacti are enjoying the regular rain.  Usually they get nothing but disrespect from me and are lucky to get a haphazard splash from the hose once a month… I wonder if I need a new cactus… I’ve been good all spring 🙂

By all estimates I have about another week left in me before I throw in the towel on whatever projects didn’t get done this year.  All work and no play is making me an extremely dull gardener and summer is too short for dullness.

Gotta go, weeds await!

Getting Roots in the Ground Again

2016/17 been a remarkably mild winter in this corner of Pennsylvania, and although February usually brings us some of our harshest cold and winter storms, this year it’s going out with a whimper.  For a few days I won’t complain but beyond that I can’t promise anything.  March has a history of big snow-dumps and hopefully if they do come they’re more picturesque than they are damaging, and hopefully this quirk of a winter is also not some dark prequel to an even worse global warming future.

Without a solid slate-cleaning this winter I’m a little lost heading into the 2017 gardening season.  It all still seems so ‘last year’ so I suppose I’ll use that as my excuse for not putting out the usual bored with the snow, don’t want to face the cold, winter time flashback posts, but let me at least try and get this one post out before I’m lost outside again searching for spring sprouts.  It goes back to 2002 when the ignorance of youth thought it would be a good idea to buy a house, lose a job, and get engaged all in the same two months.

dupont house

Our diamond in the rough.

Before I get too distracted with the story I want to point out that a normal first impression of our little valley usually dates it at around 20 years behind the rest of the country.  It’s a region who’s boom time began at the tail end of the 1700’s with the discovery of vast deposits of anthracite coal; the cleanest, hardest, and highest carbon coal out there, and the fuel which powered the economic and manufacturing development of this entire region.  For about 100 years we were riding high but it was a one horse show, and by the 1950’s the horse was definitely showing its age.  Deep mining had shifted to strip mining and the whole region went into a kind of long term hibernation of fleeing youth and aging residents.  Our house is an example of the ‘build it quick for housing’ phase and was probably built around 1910 as cheap two family housing for miners.  After decades of rough living it was probably worth our $24,000 purchase price.

garden renovation

100 years of history and the yard didn’t even have a peony or daffodil.  Gardening was confined to an overgrown privet hedge which looms to the right and a single mass of lilacs growing alongside a decaying shed.

I optimistically brought all the potted plants over from my former apartment balcony and then later watched them freeze as first the plumbing and then heat and finally electricity were pulled out and replaced.  In case it’s not obvious from the photos or purchase price the house was in horrible condition, so much so that when the realtor’s odd girlfriend took her small dog into the house and allowed it to pee on the kitchen doorjamb it barely raised an eyebrow.  I guess we were too distracted by the rotted floor boards, cobbled home repairs, and ‘evidence’ of vermin infestation.

new garden

That fall I planted daffodils, and in between gutting the house and piecing together scraps for a rabbit hutch, put in the first patch for gardening and trimmed back the near side of the privet. oh yeah, and actually transplanted grass so that I had at least one nice strip of lawn to walk on.

As I’m very fond of saying, ignorance is bliss, and for several months the economic realities of the newly unemployed demanded that I just “polish and put a shine on shit” and hopefully have a resale value once the journey was done, but a former girlfriend now fiancée had different ideas.

new garden

I have no idea why I had to have a waterlily even when I didn’t have a running toilet, but there it is.  Until the next dumpster arrives, what better use is there for a 1960’s avocado green bath tub? 

After several months of basement and utility renovations the friend who’s a contractor is traded in for the actual deal.  We’re into new territory now and although I can’t pay my labor in cases of beer anymore there is progress.  Unfortunately real contractors can’t be bothered with sensibly small attic dormers, they prefer “it’s cheaper to rip it down and build solid walls” and so we did.

dupont house

About a year later.  Might as well add a second floor while you’re at it. 

So here we were taking a two family home (which likely housed close to a dozen people at one time), tripling it in size, and making it just large enough for the two of us.

dupont house

Looks quaint and country, but keep in mind that a freight rail line runs just behind the trees, and only a few years ago a garbage truck collapsed into the road when an old mine shaft gave way.

Still unemployed, and now enrolled in school (again) the ballooning “don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of the kids”, pricetag finally scared me off the very addictive drug of contractor help.  With windows in and siding set to go on we cut the cord, buttoned up the exterior and moved into the basement… and found out what it is to live on love 🙂

dupont house

Building from the bottom up.  What were we thinking!?  In hindsight it’s hard to believe all of this was the product of me in the basement with a few sheets of graph paper and a lot of ‘yeah, I think I want another door here and window there… and oh, probably another bathroom’. 

Obviously there wasn’t all that much free time for gardening, but you know how it goes with all work and no play…

new garden

Of course there’s not much to the garden in October, but the privet has bounced back from its trim back and another bed is in.  Not really a garden design, but these beds take care of the pathetic grass which it replaced.  Please note the ever popular burn pit where most of the old house’s lumber was illegally burned.

Once we moved into the house the next three years are kind of foggy.  A full kitchen came first, a completed first floor, a new job, a master bedroom, a new baby, a completed second floor… finally an attic loft.  Slowly the garden inched along as well.

garden renovation

Behind the garage became a new garden spot where iris divisions were welcomed.  You can’t beat the generosity of other gardeners for filling in bare patches.

To know me is to know I have a slight leaning towards the tropical flair.  I love how you can get a massive show in just a few short weeks.

garden renovation

The usual leftovers and scraps which are my constant struggle.  Someday I’ll get them under control… or move to a new house 😉

The fun of a new garden is you have room for nearly everything and don’t yet have the baggage of too many beds gone to weeds, invasive plants, or “shouldn’t have put that there” issues.

tropical garden

I am a bit of a creature of habit.  Ten years later and I’m still growing all of these tropical and tropical looking goodies. -and I still like too much red

Another big plus for this house was that pretty much everything we did was a blessing -considering the property’s history of troublesome kids, giant rats, and overflowing trash piles.  Construction debris, dirt piles, unfinished projects, were all overlooked in this neighborhood where it’s not unusual for people to live and die in the house they were born in.

garden renovation

The front garden never really had time to come together.  I would have loved a small picket fence or something.

We were on a different track though.  Memories were built, lessons learned, and dreams ignited but when it came down to it this wasn’t more than a stepping stone.  Five years into it (just as the last big projects were finished) we decided to buy the house of my wife’s grandparents.  It was an unexpected decision based mostly on emotion, but in the long run we knew this would be short term.

garden renovation

A very helpful addition to the garden.  From the start he was practically an expert in finding worms and digging up new transplants.

So that spring I focused on grassing over a few beds, moving a ton of plants to the new house, and getting the house set to go on the market.

garden renovation

The new view out the back door.  I wish I had better pictures of the seating area carved out of the back slope, but as usual I was distracted by lounging out on the deck.

So that was what brought us to the new house.  In what has become our normal mode of operation for life changing events, that spring we were hit with a tsunami of the house selling in three days, a baby arriving a month early, a job lost, a car totaled, all made even more fun when you decide a few changes to the “new” house might be necessary… but we survived and it really puts the panic of a late frost or snapped iris stalk in perspective.

Don’t worry, we shall return to our normal garden updates next post.  I’ve just taken a look outside and the snowdrops are coming and the snow is melting and as soon as 2017 is off and running I won’t give a darn about years gone by until winter rolls around again.  Hopefully the weather is looking up for you as well!

Winter Interest? I guess….

Just like nearly all the rest of the Northern hemisphere we here in NE Pennsylvania are dipping into another cold spell.  As far as cold spells go it’s not anything too intimidating, since we’ve only dipped into the single digits one night, but it is cold enough to make you reconsider running out to the mailbox without a coat on and it encourages you to think of the garden from more of a spectator point of view.  Even from the comfortable side of a windowpane winter interest is still slim pickings around here, but now that a few years have passed things are starting to turn a corner.

paperbark maple winter

A low winter sun catches the russet peels of paperbark maple (Acer griseum).  I may have it in a spot far too close to the house, but at least it’s finally starting to grow well.

Winter interest here does not include early snowdrops or hellebores nor the occasionally exotic winter blooming shrub, winter interest here is a desperate flash of green holding out against the winter, or a fresh blush of colorful bark or bright conifer needles brightened by the weak winter sun.  I guess if pressed I’d include dried seed stems and stalks, but honestly unless they’re frosted in ice or topped with snow they really just remind me of all the cleanup yet to be done before spring.

winter panicum dallas blues

Ok I guess I do like the golden(?) winter tint on the dried stalks of Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’.  While other grasses take on a faded dead beige, these seem to hold on to a much richer color which shows up even better when surrounded by snow.

In the meantime, before the rush of spring hits, there’s still plenty of time to sit back and consider the winter garden.  Snow helps.  There’s really nothing to do out there when snow hits other than watch the comings and goings at the bird feeder, but until we get a couple inches down there’s always a restlessness every time the sun comes out and things look like they’re just waiting.

box hedge winter

The smallest bit of winter structure.  A boxwood hedge which has finally grown in enough to look intentional.  It may not say good design the way I just have it randomly in the yard, but I do love my little hedges and always try to get it just a little more level and a tiny bit straighter.

If cropped perfectly and shot from just the right angle… and if the light just happens to work out, you can halfway believe that my garden has something worth seeing once the flowers have died and the leaves fallen.

winter interest garden

A lawn still holding on to green (which has faded significantly from the last arctic dip), a few little bluestems and dried hydrangeas, a blue spruce… it all looks somewhat interesting right now.

Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to offer something more constructive in the way of winter gardening advice, but for now I’m just glad I can wander through without snowshoes.

magnolia grandiflora seedlings

Future winter interest may be just what these Magnolia grandiflora seedlings will offer… assuming they prove hardy.  Last winter was a protected outdoor test for several dozen, this winter will be an open garden test for the remaining three.

More snow will come of course, and when it does things will officially enter the indoor “puttering” stage of seed sowing and houseplants, but for a few more days I’ll brave the cold and look for even the tiniest sprouting buds of hope.  My anxious side wants to find them everywhere, my cautious side wants them to wait another two months.

galanthus merlin

Here’s a new snowdrop which didn’t get the NE Pa memo on winter storm watches.  Here’s some news for you ‘Merlin’, there will be more blasts of cold, and you shouldn’t be out so early.

So in the mean time we will deal with the ice storms, shovel out from the snow storms, and bundle up for the cold spells.

ice storm

A nice glazing of ice kept the kids home last week.  No good for sledding but they were fine with the day off 🙂

All this talk of braving the weather has been made a whole lot easier with a look at the ten day forecast.  The fluffy snow and single digits from yesterday will warm up and melt rapidly in temperatures that don’t even dip below freezing in the foreseeable future.  This wouldn’t be the first January thaw to ever hit us but considering the ground is barely frozen under the snow, I don’t hold out much hope for convincing bulbs to stay dormant.  February may be ugly if too many things decide to give growing a go, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.