Sunday, December 28, 2008

'Tis the season . . .

. . . for mad crazy bulb forcing. Currently, paperwhite narcissi "Ziva"--the biggest, most pungent variety--are in bloom.

I keep at least one container in flower from October through March.

Bowls, vases, cups--whatever can be filled with pebbles or marbles and topped with a couple of bulbs--will work. If I remember to provide an intoxicating drink, the paperwhites will grow shorter; if I forget, they grow taller. Shorter is better, I think.

Because I was open to a change of pace this year, I impulse-bought a few bulbs of Narcissus tazetta v. orientalis Chinese sacred lily" and Narcissus tazetta ssp. aureus "Grand Soleil d'Or" at a local hardware store. Here's what I reaped--nothing but foliage. I know that these varieties take longer than paperwhites to bloom but after a few months of waiting, I had to move on. Narcissi are all about brevity.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Light up the night

The solstice sequel to my previous post about firewood : light, warmth, and crackling flames.

Some exciting weather was packed into the daylight hours. We've had about 8 inches of snow and sleet, accompanied by downed trees and power lines. A flash freeze is predicted for tonight. Brrrr ...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wood chopping

Here's the only site of backyard activity this past weekend: where the wood is chopped.

Despite our 21st-century suburban setting, this part of our lifestyle sometimes seems reminiscent of existence in another time and place. We are always on the look-out for logs. What some people consider tree removal problems, we consider a cold weather opportunity. Relatives have been known to come bearing timber in their back of their cars and pick-up trucks. My husband splits enough wood to see us through a winter's worth of weekend evening fires. This little stack represents a few hours of wood chopping. What's nicer than a fire on a winter night? Okay, you're right, a fire with a book to read by it . . . and a choice libation.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Nipped by Jack Frost

This morning brought the first snowfall of winter. Only the top few inches of soil have begun to freeze, so despite flurries all day, few flakes actually stuck to the ground. It was more the concept of a snowstorm than the reality of a snowstorm. Holly berries, at least, seized the inspiration.

Yesterday may have been the last good day of gardening weather this year. And good gardening weather, it was, indeed: mild temperatures, overcast skies, and windless. Lots of tidying up occurred: cutting back still slightly scented catmint, gathering up dead hosta foliage, trimming down bearded and Siberian iris leaves, clip, clip, clip, rake, rake, rake . . .

Only this morning did I remember that I had not yet not planted larkspur seed. So here they are, waiting until it was snowing to be properly winter sown.

The other tasks that I'm only now remembering? They'll be added to the garden goal roll for next spring.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Small stuff

In keeping with the very small amount of time spent in the garden over this long weekend, I'm sharing some of the small plants that I missed tending.

A frosty grouping of Thymus serpyllum Coccineus, Vinca minor "Alba," and fallen beech leaves.

The needle-like leaves of Dianthus gratianopolitanus "Firewitch" enclose a dried bud.

I did manage to transfer these tiny sedums and hen-and-chicks from their summertime planter to a sunny corner of the garden. Hopefully, they'll over-winter fine beneath the snow.

Lots of reasons, some happy (friends, family, and sweet potato pie) and some not (flight cancellations and sleety weather), for allowing time to slip by. So it goes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cold snap/ice crack

Just a week ago, it was 55 degrees and sunny. I was giving my sweet pea trellis a spruce-up coat of paint and setting it in place for spring planting.

This weekend, the temperature tumbled down to 18 degrees at night. I was caught unprepared--my garden hoses and clay pots of annuals were still outside. First, everything had to be dragged into the basement to thaw. Then, the pots were emptied and their contents sent to the compost pile. The hoses spit out chunks of ice as they were drained. Yes, it was an ugly sight and not just because of the environs.

Warmer weather is forecast for the next few days. I'm hoping for a little raking and snipping time in the back quarter acre over the long holiday weekend.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Garden goalroll

A couple of months ago, my brilliant neighbor over at Skippy's Vegetable Garden posted an on-going list of garden ideas for next year. I figured that I could do with one, too.

Just as with those strategic planning exercises at work, I'm trying to think about SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-sensitive) goals. I'll keep this list as a "Thinking ahead!" link on my sidebar and add new tasks--whoops, goals!--as inspiration strikes.

To keep this list alive, I've changed the order so that future tasks and their times are at the top and those of relevance--and, hopefully, completed--earlier in the season are towards the end.

May or June

When it is 3 feet tall, cut the joe pye weed "Gateway" back to half its height to encourage dense growth.


Move the summersweet Clethra ainfolia along the property fence so that they are placed between, rather than directly in front of, the "Sky Needle" hollies.

After the forsythia blooms

Move Amsonia hubrichtii towards front of bed for more sun.

Expand the new side bed to join more fluidly with the raingarden.

Add two Astilbe x rosea "Peach Blossom" to existing one.

Add two Chasmanthium latifolium Northern sea oats to existing one.

Consider replacing flagging forsythia with red osier dogwood Cornus sericea "Allemans." If only local nurseries would carry a decent inventory of shrubs!

Replace mallow in raingarden with Aster novae-angliae "Purple Dome."

Organize the bearded irises, so that visually compatible cultivars are grouped together. Tag individual plants so that they can be moved later in the season.

Explore new combinations of annuals, such as Ageratum houstonianum "Blue Danube" and Salvia farinacea "Victoria Blue," as inspired by the gardens at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Sedum and iris foliage would complement. Ageratum houstonianum "Hawaii Blue" and Salvia farinacea "Victoria Blue" are going in from 05/17/2009

Resist the temptation to position dark dahlias in front of yews. Plant the following varieties: Rose Toscano (2 plants), Normandy Painted Pearl (1 plant), Rae Ann's Peach (1 plant) . . . Old side bed: "Karras 150" (white) and "Park Princess" (pink); new side bed: "American Dawn" (peach/pink/purple) and "Park Princess" (pink); house back: "Karma Choc" (dark red), "Rae Ann's Peach" (red/peach), and "Rose Toscano" (peach), all planted 05/16/2009

Plant three more Thymus serpyllum Coccineus plants along top of wall to left of front stairs.

When the forsythia blooms

Continue to prune front foundation plantings, especially rhododendron and little-leaf hollies.

Prune clethra to remove deadwood and shape.

Re-seed damaged portions of front lawn.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Watching the leaves molder

Here is my newest garden creation.

Yes, it looks like a pile of leaves--and, no wonder, because that's what it is--but, more importantly, it's leaf mold in the making. I've been wishing for a place where I could pile up dried shredded leaves in the fall and shovel out rich leaf mold in the spring, one or two years hence. With such a small plot of land, there's not much extra space. At last, the long overdue demolition of a playhouse in a back corner of the back quarter acre offered an ideal location, tucked-away but still accessible. Now I have a spot for watching the leaves molder--the winter version of summer's sport, watching the grass grow.

The two main trees dropping leaves on my yard are a weeping beech and a rag-tag maple. I raked up their leaves and mowed over the piles twice. Given that I had to use a gas mower to chop up the leaves, there may be an environmental false economy in this organic endeavor . . . but it felt like the right thing to do nevertheless. I heaped the chopped leaves into a pile. More ambitious gardeners use plastic bags, wire cages, or garbage cans to produce leaf mold.

The mold will be used to top-dress beds, mulch plants, and generally improve soil condition. Now, if only I could collect leaves from my neighbors' yards . . . .

Monday, November 10, 2008

Zen and the art of garden maintenance

Closing down the garden in the fall is a time for contemplation. It's best to shift from puzzling over the inner workings of plant life--why didn't that grow here? will those come back in the spring?--and simply enjoy cutting down dead foliage, shoveling mulch, raking leaves--what an enlightened person might call being in the moment . . . and if you don't assume that mindset, you're likely to call chores.

Dead wood was pruned out from an old yew. My son's Japanese wood saw set the mood. I am planning to start a leaf pile in this back corner, so access needed to be improved. Also, this yew hadn't been cleared of dead wood for many years. And, the remaining green boughs should look nicer when the winter snows arrive.

This aged yew is fruiting more heavily than usual. I am hoping that this is not its last reproductive gasp, but a reinvigorated spirit. A fabulous local tree company is now providing a twice annual root drench of compost tea. A different type of tea than enjoyed by the Buddha, but perhaps part of its own Way.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

From earth’s wide bounds

Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day . . . . isn't this time of year when the veil between the living and the dead thins?

These seasonal reflections took me to Rock Meadow, one of my town's conservation areas. My colonial ancestors farmed a portion of this tract about 350 years ago. In walking over the mowed grass fields, I wondered how much this land has changed since the time that they pastured their livestock here.

These open fields? Local history indicates that this area was meadow, wetlands, and woods at the time of colonization.

Those clumps of Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)? With its beguiling Halloween colors, this invasive plant is the devil in disguise. This herbaceous colonizer arrived around 1850.

A fascinating study of Henry David Thoreau's diaries, written during his sojourn at nearby Walden Pond, indicates how much the New England landscape has changed over the past 150 years. Since the 1850's, 27% of the plant species at Walden have disappeared; 36% are near extinction. Lilies, orchids, buttercups, anemones, asters, bluets, violets, roses, dogwoods, and mints have declined at the expense of mustards, knotweeds, and non-natives (hello, bittersweet). Global warming is not just about melting ice-caps and a few stranded polar bears--it hits us here and now.

Even on a winter afternoon at Walden Pond.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


With this past week's hard freeze, the back quarter acre has officially crossed into fall. Wilted dahlias were pulled up and tulip bulbs rotated in. Why is it that there are both too many bulbs to squeeze in during fall planting and not enough when spring flowering comes around?

These mums are happily sited, along with Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum" (red fountain grass) and Helenium "Dakota Gold," in a planter on my front step. Yes, those colors again. But don't they look happy together?

Friday, October 17, 2008

In the bag: amaryllises

With frost forecast for the next night or so, it's time to bring in my amaryllises. They spent the summer lolling about in a sheltered spot, catching some rays, regularly sipping a liquid fertilizer, and generally enjoying the plant spa treatment. Their bulbs needed to recharge after putting out blooms last winter. Now that they've worked so hard to build up their strength, they need to rest, really rest.

There are a number of ways to put amaryllises through dormancy. Some folks just store the potted bulbs in a cool location. But my house doesn't have a garage or basement that maintains that stable low, but not too low, temperature. So I stash the unpotted bulbs in my refrigerator for 8-10 weeks before starting them on the next bloom cycle. At least, that's what I did last year, and it worked.

First, I cut off the leaves and remove the bulbs from their pots. Amaryllises like to be pot-bound. These were. Seriously.

Then, I tease out the roots. Anyone who has combed the snarled hair of a toddler has the skills necessary for this task: patience and a gentle hand.

On the side of a no-name pink striped cultivar, a little bulblet had sprouted leaves and roots.

With a gentle nudge, it separated from the mother bulb. This little fellow will look so cute planted in a 2 inch pot come spring!

Each bulb goes into its own bag. One of my refrigerator crisper drawers is crammed full with forcing bulbs: hyacinths, narcissi, and now amaryllises. Before I put them away, I wash the pots with a dilute bleach solution in order to maintain good garden hygiene.

I'm hoping in three or four months, this is what I'll see budded up on my window sill.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Falling along the home stretch

By mid-October, the back quarter acre is looking just plain tired. I've started to cut back shaggy perennials like peonies, phlox, daisies, and hostas and to pull out slug-nibbled annuals. Unperturbed by their surroundings of death and decay, however, the dahlias continue to bloom heavily. This deep purple cultivar, "Downham Royal," has just hit its stride and is madly tossing off flowers as it races towards the frosty finish line. Despite its strong performance, however, I'll be putting this dahlia out to pasture: its bluish cast is a poor companion for my garden's palette. Doesn't mean that I can't console myself with a big bouquet of blooms in the meantime.

As a novice dahlia grower, I am struck by inaccuracies in the catalogue descriptions of several varieties. Of course, working in a museum, I value the art of precise cataloguing: of a flower, photograph, uhikana, whatever. Both "Downham Royal" and "Shadow Cat" were described as 36" high--but grew to over twice that height. How can the basic facts be so far off? Nature or nuture?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lighting up the dark

Along three sides of my yard run dark hedges and stone walls, tacked back by a line of looming evergreens. This background acts like a black hole. In some places, even the shadows have shadows.

So I am always looking for plants with bright-colored foliage or flowers to light up these dark areas. This fall's dreamy companion is Anemone blanda "Honorine Jobert." But the lovefest didn't start out so well.

Our initial meeting was marred by opposing expectations: I was looking for a late-flowering plant to put in a sunny spot; it wanted shade. After enduring a few progressively less happy weeks being blasted with heat and sun, these anemones needed desperately to find refuge in a sheltered spot. That concession occurred a year ago and, to celebrate our anniversary this fall, they have sent out a flush of blooms. The secret to this happy relationship? Yes, it's location, location, location . . . and acceptance of our differences.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bulb choices, the slightly political version

Bulb selection continues. To help assess which varieties of tulips, irises, and daffodils partner best, I pull together image files from suppliers' on-line catalogues. This spring, a sloping side bed should sport these bulbs, courtesy of John Scheepers.

As I was busily dragging and dropping--and wondering how folks made these visual comparisons back before computers--I recollected the wonderful bulb books that my mother used. These were 5 x 8-inch ring binders with each page illustrating a different bulb. The paper was heavy and glossy, the colors were saturated, and the names were exotic ("Queen of the Night," "Princess Irene," "Trevithian"). Even for a kid, this was intriguing stuff.

You could open the binder, remove pages, and lay them out like playing cards next to each other, bundling together "Cheerfulness," "Sweetness," and "Tete a Tete" into a friendly group, or spicing up the scene with a dash of "Adonis."

A big box of the bulb books arrived at our house every spring. Sales of the featured bulbs supported my mother's college alumnae association. She was a tireless volunteer: many an evening she'd sit at the kitchen table, telephone to ear, as she extolled the virtues of these bulbs to her garden club colleagues. She'd drive from house to house, dropping off and picking up bulb books and, a month later, delivering bulb orders. My mother must have been pretty darn good at the gentle art of persuasion--she was a native Washingtonian, after all--because her alumnae association rewarded her efforts with a Dutch trip to enjoy the gardens at Keukenhof, the Aalsmeer flower auction, and Haarlem flower parade. Here she is, in April 1976, posing with two equally elegant companions in the Castle Garden at Keukenhof.

I'll side-step the obvious political observation about the skills and capabilities of alumnae from Southern women's colleges. My mother would have dodged it, too. And then gone out to work in her garden.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Equinox excogitations

With an end to summer this weekend, all the mistakes that earlier in the season had been disguised by foliage and flowers came clear. While piling on compost, edging garden beds, and pulling weeds, there was ample opportunity to ponder--and pull out--my mistakes.

This dahlia, "Shadow Cat," promised to be tall, thrilling, and satisfy my current color fixation. Well, yes, it was all of those things. Too bad the deep color disappeared against a hedge of dark yews. What a waste!

And speaking of black holes, this witch hazel struggles on, decked with tattered and yellowing leaves, in a location that to date has swallowed a sequence of apple, weeping cherry, and dogwood trees. Some killing karma at that spot. Ground too damp? Not wet enough? Maybe this witch hazel will manage to brave the winter. A stay of execution until the spring, I say!

Perhaps because of the heavy rain throughout spring and summer, plants grew taller than expected . . . and then they flopped over. I couldn't stake these cosmos and heleniums well enough to prevent them from looking like dishelved drunks at the end of a long, liquid evening. Party's over for these guys. I transplanted a peony where the cosmos had been and stuck a division of Phlox paniculata "David" in place of the helenium.

What did I learn? Nothing complicated. Just don't make the same mistakes in the future. Profoundly utilitarian.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Under my 'Skin

Back in the spring, I thought that I was planting a garden in hues of apricot, dark red, and blue. Wrong. Little did I know that I am actually wild about all plants burgundy and yellow. And believe me, it goes much, much deeper than a crush on the coleus and Helenium "Dakota Gold" blooming away on my blog header.

To begin with, there is a container of Lysimachia "Outback Sunset" and Calibrachoa "Superbells Red" (above) and "Midi Mariana" dahlias and coleus "Florida Sun Splash" (below) posted on my back step.

In the same range of colors, this "Raz-Ma-Taz" dahlia shows off in front of a curtain of very tall yellow Helenium.

But my favorite example--my favorite dahlia this summer and maybe my favorite dahlia ever--is this oh-so-perfect "Normandy Painted Pearl." It floats like a luminous waterlily, tethered only by a delicate purple stem. It's so tall--about six feet--that looking up at the blooms, I feel somewhat like I'm under water. The petals shade from lemon to rose.

So, good doctor, what explains my subconscious obsession with burgundy and gold? Yearning to relive the color palette of 60's? Channeling the local high school team colors? Or, no, those of my hometown football players, the Washington Redskins. Hmmmm . . .

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Where we were, where we are

About a year ago, one corner of the yard was a slough of despair . . . and muck . . . and untapped opportunities . . .

Progress has been made, but the pilgrimage continues.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A nutty nest

This weekend's storms turned out to be underwhelming--not that I'm complaining, Mother Nature, you hear--so there were several sunny hours to be enjoyed out in the garden.

My New Dawn climber was way, way past its mid-summer pruning. In fact, some folks recommend not pruning this late in the season, in order to prevent the growth of tender shoots. But I think that a trimmed and tied up rose over-winters just fine--and poses less risk of personal harm from wind-whipped canes.

I had delayed taking to this climbing rose with ladder and clippers in deference to the family of robins nesting at the top of the arbor. And, also, pruning is difficult to do when there is still a spattering of flowers in bud and in bloom. This cultivar continues to throw off just enough flowers for it to be touted as "ever blooming."

Even though the robins disappeared in mid-August--flying out under the radar--imagine the cognitive dissonance when, peeking into their empty nest, I saw something small, green, and egg-shaped.

A butternut. Crazy! A squirrel must have scaled the arbor, negotiated the thorny branches, and cached the butternut for winter. Talk about squirreling something away! The butternut is still there, even after the pruning, should anyone need a snack.