Monday, December 31, 2007

Rain garden under the snow

My daughter, catching a glimpse of last spring's rain garden design,

and knowing that under its current snow blanket the area actually looks like this,

remarked in that sweet and spicy tone most sharply inflicted by a teenage girl, "How's that working out for you?" Yes, how indeed?

Well, as this plot had a French drain incised through its middle in early fall, the rain garden installation stalled. Back-hoes and bob-cats meant that the few plants previously put in needed to be moved or, if left in situ, they disappeared during construction. The big mystery after this hydrological project, of course, is how will the drainage be affected this spring? Will there still be standing water for the clumps of Iris versicolor? What about adding other moisture-loving plants, like Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) "Gateway" and ornamental grasses, such as Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)? They could bring some movement, verticality, and complementary colors to this sorry corner of the garden.

So, here's a preliminary revision of my previous poorly implemented design.

I say "preliminary revision" because, looking out the back window, the area seems much larger than a few colored circles on paper would indicate. Anticipate fine-tuning. After my brief exposure to Japanese irises this past summer, I plan to enjoy the buzz from this winter's flurry of glossy catalogs--a diversion that I am postponing next year, when horticultural delirium tremens will send me jonesing for a shot of foliage and flowers. Oh, next year begins tomorrow. How convenient.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Deep snow, deep mid-winter

We are celebrating a white winter solstice this year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Viva, Mount Vernon, 1916

When recently sorting through some old photographs, I came upon this print of my grandmother in 1916. Anyone who has visited the gardens at Mount Vernon will immediately recognize the undulating picket fence and the sweeping grass path of the Upper Garden. "Straight is the line of duty, curved is the line of beauty," as the subject of this photograph would herself say.

Among the dense plantings, hollyhocks, iris, and peonies can be discerned. Another photograph shows oriental lilies in bloom.

This photograph so evokes the delights of this particular garden on a hot sunny summer day. And my grandmother, whose personal credo was "We'd have an easy life if it wasn't for our pleasures," seems to be taking her enjoyment seriously!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Winding down, winding up

The past week or so has been just bearably cold enough to allow a few end-of-season tasks:

Empty out containers: spent plants are retired to the compost pile; perennials like these succulents are dug into a corner of the garden. We'll see how well, if at all, they over-winter.

Rake maple leaves from the back beds. These will form a life-suppressing mat if left undisturbed. The frequent advice about leaving unraked leaves to serve as a winter mulch carries one large and generally omitted disclaimer: these mulches apply only to smaller, non-toxic leaves, like those from beech and dogwood trees.

Mow the lawn, short. Sadly, trimming newly sown grass is like giving a balding guy a haircut: he may have a new 'do, but he's still bald.

Prune back rose growth and tie canes to trellis.

Untap and store garden hoses.

Cut down perennials with wilted, diseased, or ugly foliage: peonies, phlox, irises, ladybells, hostas, astilbe.

Start drawing up my long list of spring chores.

Inside, a potted amaryllis is just starting to leaf out.

Time for a change of venue . . . and a cup of hot chocolate!

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's cooking. Not.

On this food festival holiday weekend, I can proudly announce that my refrigerator shows few signs of culinary activities. (And those who have been subjected to my labors over the years might say that's a good thing.) Instead of turkey and all the trimmings, the shelves are filled with chilling plant life.

These glass vases hold white ("L’Innocence") and deep pink ("Jan Bos") hyacinth bulbs. The bulbs must chill for about ten weeks at 40-50 degrees suspended over--but not touching--water. They'll be brought out of the refrigerator after January 1, to welcome the new year.

A crisper drawer holds amaryllis bulbs, bagged for convenience--my first attempt at rolling these bulbs over for another season. Three plants came to me in bloom last holiday season. After the blossoms dropped, I watered and fertilized the plants erratically until early fall. When their leaves turned limp and yellow, I cut off the foliage, removed the bulbs from their pots, picked away the dirt from the roots, and stuck each in its own labeled bag.

They need to chill for about eight weeks, so re-potting will not begin until after January 11. I also ordered a new deep red amaryllis ("Royal Velvet") for this year, just in case. Trust issues, I guess.

The refrigerator's butter shelf contains larkspur and mallow seeds (thanks, Bestitched!) from summer collection. I celebrated Thanksgiving by direct-sowing about half of the larkspur seeds. I guess that's what I'm serving this holiday!

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Raking leaves is fall's familiar task. Here's how it was conducted in the Maryland suburbs, circa 1918: by well-dressed toddlers who had not quite mastered the finer points of how to operate their equipment.

Both of these apprentices--my mother and her sister--grew up to become accomplished gardeners. Maybe it was all those years devoted to perfecting their skills.

Up here in New England, the raking season is in full stretch and swing. Trees have shed about half of their leaves. Following the economy of effort school of gardening, I like to combine lawn mowing, yard waste removal, and leaf mold production into a single activity.

In other words, after running my mower a few times through the leaves I've piled up, I dump the shredded leaves onto my compost pile. There is never enough room for all this good stuff, so I stashed some of the excess in a tin tub before bagging the remainder for local composting.

Yes, as if the night frosts and short days didn't sufficiently spell out the season, fall has definitely arrived.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fall fruits, writ small

One of my tasks this weekend was to fertilize broadleaf evergreens: hollies, rhododendra, and pieris. According to "Horticulture," this feeding should be done about two weeks before the first frost. Since we hit hard below freezing last night, I figure that I'm late with my chores, as usual. I use about 5 lbs of HollyTone in the fall and close to 10 pounds in the spring.

As I walked from bush to bush--stopping along the way to sprinkle a few handfuls of fertilizer on a bed of pachysandra or over the lilies of the valley--I realized that this garden contains a lot of plants with berries and that those berries fruit in all colors.

Earlier this year, when the front foundation plantings were renovated, my savvy sister-in-law suggested Ilex meserveae "Blue Princess" and "Blue Prince" for this north-facing elevation. These berries testify to the happy home and compatible relationship these hollies have found.

Nearby grow a couple of black-berried Ilex crenata "Chesapeake." How could a Maryland native not honor a variety named after the Bay? Although maybe this holly would prefer a more southern clime, as it is terribly vulnerable to winter kill and begs for a hard pruning every spring.

Another Japanese holly that fares better is this large, late blooming Heller's variety Ilex crenata hellerii. It is just now sporting tiny creamy flowers.

Some of the first bushes that we planted 15 years ago were American hollies, both red-fruited female Ilex opaca "Christmas Tree" and, for company, a yellow-berried male Ilex opaca, variety forgotten.

Some of my favorite hollies are a pair of sparsely fruiting Ilex opaca. These two American hollies were among six softwood cuttings that my mother took a decade ago from hollies growing freely on my in=laws' Cape Cod property. Glossy, well-formed foliage--but all of three berries!

Sunday, November 04, 2007


What better way to use today's extra "fall back" hour than in the garden? Perennials were cut down and several hundred more bulbs went into the ground. Although we haven't had a hard frost yet, the dahlias were spent.

No tuber trials this year: the plants directly went the way of yard waste. Nature abhoring a vacuum, allium and tulip bulbs were cycled into this spot. After they bloom next spring, they'll be replaced by another crop of dahlias.

Around here in early November, it's all about yellow foliage. When the flowers are gone and the leaves are dropping, these bursts of color fire up an otherwise insipid garden.

The brilliant amsonia in the foreground came as a slip from my prairie-gardening pal, DK. I stuck it into a back corner and, now, look at it a few years later. In addition to the steely-blue flowers in the spring and yellow fall foliage, its habit is graceful and delicate (kind of like the gift-giver herself, come to think of it!).

Astilbe foliage is beautiful all year, even as it dies.

Yellow leaves set against the dark stems of Clethra alnifolia "September Beauty" are a stunning addition to autumn. Why didn't I discover this genus years ago? And can I find room for more of these plants? That French drain did create some opportunities for new plantings . . . .

Sunday, October 28, 2007

BB-ID-LB L/W, etc.

Hitting the seasonal finish line just before the first frost, in comes my cryptic dahlia. So that's what "BB-ID-LB L/W" looks like.

While it may be charming up close and personal in a photograph, this dahlia is rather underwhelming in real life. And not just because the plant put out only one bud . . . which waited until the end of October to open. (Such a sorry performance may be the consequence of where it was stuck in the garden and not indicative of its true habit.) No, it's just that it's one of a number of lilac flowers that tie up this season: New England asters (Aster novae-angliae), hardy mums, Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), etc. Aren't there enough of them already?

Today's cool clear weather was perfect for re-setting a cobblestone border and filling a bare bed with 80 grape hyacinths, 100 Tulip dasystemon, 100 Tulip "Apricot Impression," and 20 Tulip "Black Parrot." I dug a trench along the length of the bed, scrabbled in handfuls of Bulb-Tone, set in the bulbs, laid down 1' x 3' lengths of chicken wire, and then back-filled.

Much more to do, but with newly sown grass sprouting and most of the bulbs planted, this is a good place to be at the end of October.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Poetic intention

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

. . . to the ridiculous

Where to begin reconstruction of this barren landscape? Here's how the wasteland looked at the beginning of the weekend . . .

And here's how it looked at the close . . .

What's different? Anything? Nothing? Okay, this is going a lot slower than I had imagined.

My limited accomplishments:

1. Clumps of displaced lambs ear and Siberian iris were divided and re-planted.

2. The blue flag irises were re-planted. My wee wetlands have resisted the hydrological seduction of the new French drain. The water-filled footprints here promise more room in which to expand my knowledge of wetland plants.

3. Exactly 35 bulbs were planted. Only 745 left to go.

4. Some cobblestones were laid along the border of the bed. Additional stones are needed as a number went missing in action. For a former archaeologist, my lines are not very straight or level. I can live with that.

5. The would-be lawn was limed, fertilized, seeded and raked. Then I walked all over it, watched birds nip up seed from it, and hoped that rain might just visit it. Despite the current agitations of some anti-lawn types, I find that a stretch of green grass is essential to visually defining trees, bushes, and flowers. And I like to have a place to set up lawn furniture.

At least these guys are cheerful!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dumbarton Oaks, the sublime

A weekend trip down to Washington afforded the happy opportunity to visit my very most favorite garden, Dumbarton Oaks.

These ten acres, designed by Beatrix Farrand, are magically inventive. Around every corner and over every wall, views are alternately concealed and revealed.

Deep inside a bamboo grove, a faun plays his pipes.

Inset zodiac signs pin down the corners of the almost hidden Star Garden.

And boxwood-lined paths lead up and down the terraced hillside.

I have many fond non-gardening memories of Saturday afternoons spent exploring the grounds with my brothers and of school day afternoons playing hooky down in Lovers' Lane. Quite revelatory however to see this garden through older, less distracted, eyes. None of the plants are marked, so the visitor retains the impression of a private garden rather than an arboretum.

The rose garden is frothing with leggy canes, many topped with fresh foliage and full blooms.

The center of this "garden room" is stuffed with hybrid teas, almost 1,000 according to the official record. Along the edge, a sunny border of Rosa multiflora ramblers turns the corner into a line of shade-loving anemones so well matched in color and size that at first glance they look like a single variety. What a clever sleight of hand!

None of that tidy style of gardening with each isolated plant adrift in a sea of mulch here. At DO, the garden beds are solid masses of form and color. The herbaceous border is a crashing wave of tall asters and mums.

This radiant yellow border reminds me of J.M.W. Turner's later luminous paintings, seen the previous day at the National Gallery of Art. Even the ripe pears hanging from the enclosing trees visually connect.

Towards the bottom of the hill are the very stylish tool sheds and lines of potted plants in the holding bed. Inspiration to this beleaguered field hand.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Columbus Day weekend

Perhaps it's a good thing that pre-existing obligations and inclement weather conspired to keep me out of the garden for much of this long weekend.

Upheaval, heavy machinery, and yellow tape are everywhere. The bed slated for bulb-planting now holds displaced Siberian and blue flag irises and lambs' ears.

A few beds still muster a block of end of season color.

Elsewhere, a final head of Phlox panticulata struggles on . . .

. . . and ladybells Adenophora confusa sends up a half-hearted stalk.

Dead-heading, weeding, and pulling out overgrown plants were the main order of business this weekend. How many bearded irises were found under the sprawling foliage of catmint and daisies!

The weather is definitely turning towards autumn. Almost every open flower on this dahlia had a blitzed bee stumbling over its pollen-rich surface. Last call!