Friday, November 19, 2010

Fall Fantasy!

As I write this it is an extraordinary day outside. The sky is a perfect blue there’s no wind, my clippers are oiled and the garden is crying for me to come out and play. I had to start my fall cleanup even though we’ve only had one frost and there’s no sign of another on the horizon anytime soon. So I’ve started to cut things back and to tidy up. Not my hydrangeas of course. And I don’t touch roses or butterfly bush until the spring, unless it’s to remove dead or broken branches. Or, in the case of the roses, to get the screens off on the storm windows on, those roses get chopped.

I’m also planning to dealing with the trumpet vine that is so heavy it’s ripping itself off the side of the house. My plan? To drag it across the roof of the front porch so there’s an orange splash to greet visitor next year. It’ll get more sun, and hopefully bloom more furiously as I love a really good true orange in the garden.

Of course I have my normal ridiculous amounts of leaves this year again, but for me that is just a sign that I’m going to have more fantastic compost again next year. Now I will fully admit that if I had to rake up all my leaves, get them onto tarps, drag them to the back of the property and throw them on top of the three piles that are growing this year, I’d lie down on the ground and sob. I have help. His name is Gerardo. And he is wonderful.

He’s also my enabler. You see I figure that since I have Gerardo helping me, he can also pop in a few plants as he’s dragging the leaves around. And he can quickly cut out a new bed. Perhaps he can even help to reconfigure the tomato area. And wouldn’t it be nice to have gooseberries? I spent time in England as a child and my favorite dessert of those three years was gooseberry crumble. So why not get a few? And isn’t fall the best time to plant forsythia? And since Gerardo is helping me, why not buy a few more?

You can see how this could be a problem right? So 65 forsythia show up as do six gooseberries. Oh and since the place where I got the gooseberries also had red currents and black currants, six of each of those jumped into my truck as well. I don’t even know what to do with currants but now I have twelve! So now I have to figure out where to work in this new, “English pudding garden.” And perhaps we should also add some raspberries and blackberries to the same area and make it a whole berry wonderland. And I know there are some boysenberry plants available from a local grower. Perhaps I need a few of those too. As you can see I get carried away very easily.

This has always been a thing with me each fall. While other people find spring to be the time of inspiration and ideation, I start to come alive as the leaves shift their colored dresses through pink and yellow, orange and red. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the time for fires. And for me, sitting in front of a fire stokes the imagination. I don’t know, maybe it’s a back to school thing -- that for me the time of new beginnings and exciting change is just a delayed reaction to wanting to buy my new school shoes.

For me it’s all a time of possibilities. Perhaps it’s also from all the bulbs I plant and the knowledge that from each of those little rounded compact packages beauty will arise next spring. I think it’s the promise of the future, like putting in little tiny brown muscari bulbs and knowing that from them I will get a spring explosion of blue, I believe that exploring the possibilities of my imagination will also reap me a similarly stunning crop.

Just the other night I stayed up until 2am exploring the internet, pursuing online chocolatier classes. I envisioned using the currants to flavor ganache centered truffles. Perhaps with a touch of black pepper. Or maybe a little lemon. It’s all possible. I ordered three books. And printed out the sign up sheet for the course. Years from now you might see me in Martha Stewart in a photo essay standing in my berry allee, clutching a dachshund or two – a mini chocolate mogul. You never know. The berries are planted, and the future is something that just hasn’t happened yet.

Paige Patterson now wishes she hadn’t ripped up all her lemon balm as she is sure in her fantasy chocolatier future she could have used it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Time to grab a sweater and get out there

It’s October, a time when we start winding the garden down and there’s all sorts of projects waiting for you when you walk out into your yard.

First, take a moment and look at the sky. This is the season when the clouds are their most dramatic. The sky seems impossibly blue and wherever you look it’s a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Of course, under all that visual drama, is a series of green chores. Yesterday I started to take the vegetable garden apart. There’s something cathartic about ripping out dying plants and getting back to a clean slate again. There were still peppers dangling like earring like from the scattered plants I’d jammed into corners, but I have far too many peppers drying around the house to last me for the next twenty years. I also removed the amazing self-seeding tomatillos. I wish I knew what to use them for other than salsa, it’s one of my winter research projects -- especially since they grow like gangbusters and the deer don’t like them.

It’s still too early to remove the dahlias I snuck behind the veggie fence to protect them from the deer. You want to wait for a frost to blacken their leaves (as it hardens off the bulbs to save for the next year) but I did some major cutting back and harvested a huge armful of flowers for the kitchen. I did however leave my variegated basil standing proud -- it hasn’t bolted and seems totally unaware that fall is here. It’s one of my new favorite plants of 2009.

After I get everything ripped up and raked out I’m going to give all the beds a little lime and then top dress them with compost or Sweet Peet so they are ready to go first thing in the Spring. I’m late on putting in garlic, but I promised Dereyk I would so I have to hunt some down. I’m looking for good hard necked organically grown bulbs if anyone knows of any. There’s a great farm stand on Butter Lane in Bridge that grows it so maybe I’ll go over and stock up on their fabulous Oyster mushrooms (we’re majorly addicted) and try and buy a few bulbs to dig in this week.

Speaking of deer, this year they are dreadful. I’m so overwhelmed, that I’m sort of ignoring the whole situation and obsessing over bulb planting. I am mad for the Giant Grape Hyacinths (Bellevalia pycnantha) that I planted last fall and so I’m stocking up on more of those. Mine were about 10” tall and were great in a vase – my true litmus test for a good flowering plant. I'm also crazy about Summer Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) a totally misnamed bulb as they bloom in the spring with my Thalia daffodils. About 14-16” tall they have elegant nodding white flowers and look like snowdrops on steroids. I’m buying up bags of both. I’m also eyeing some Snake's Head Lilies (Fritillaria meleagris ) one of the only flowers I know that comes in a subtle gingham. Who doesn’t need a checkered plant?

I’m still shopping the sales, there’s a great deal (50% off) on an excellent peat substitute, at Marders that I’m going to buy up in bulk and use with all my planting in the spring. When you are digging in heavy clay like I am you have to amend the soil. When I get lazy you can tell, the plant is stunted and pathetic, so I’ve learned to make the extra effort, and I can always find good things on sale in the fall which live happily in the garage until next years planting season. Plus when I transplant I’m going to use tons of the stuff.

I was guilty of overwatering this year (trying to keep the hydrangeas alive) and the signs are showing up now big time. Lots of fungal issues and wilt and just pure trouble in a lot of places, but I turned my irrigation down and am trying to remove all the infected growth and hoping for the best. A note on water, once I start transplanting I’m going to have to keep watering through the frosts if it doesn’t rain, so I’m not shutting my system down yet.

But boy did I cause havoc. And boy am I going to need to fight fungus come springtime.

We made a fire the other night, so I know the end is near, and the dachshunds shiver hopelessly each morning when we head out for coffee, but while I was ripping out tomatoes with wild abandon an enormous preying mantis stepped off the edge of a tomato cage and walked across my arm. I stopped spellbound and thrilled that the egg case I put out this year still had a citizen enjoying the warmth of the day, and thought how grateful I was to have a beautiful day in the garden.

Paige Patterson thinks buying up a mass of Pee Gee Hydrangeas on sale is a justifiable purchase.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Being grateful.

The first day of September ushered in an afternoon dance of dragonflies and tree swallows in my yard. It was a beautiful day. Cooler now. And so fall has come. But instead of lamenting the passing of summer I am facing fall with a smile and a positive attitude. It’s actually fabulous gardening weather. And although everyone wants to start pruning, it’s still too early, so here’s the plan for this month. Let’s plant! Now we’ll be able to keep up with the watering needs of newly installed members of our green community, so let’s take advantage of all the sales at all the different nurseries that we are surrounded by and start shopping.

First of all, just because a plant is past blooming, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or dying or unhappy. It just means it’s slowing down a little. I picked up a whole crop of Echinacea and a gaggle of roses at 40% off and used them to fill in holes in all my perennial borders. And there are great deals out there on rhododendrons and other more expensive plants, which maybe seemed a little indulgent when they were at full price. I happen to have my eyes on some fabulous Chionoides over at Marder’s. These rhodos have a clean white bloom, and a perfect habit. A plant’s habit is the way it grows, it’s form and the structure it takes on as it matures, and the Chionoides rhododendron stays fairly tight and leafy and grows wider then it gets tall. It’s the best foundation rhodo on the block, and it’s a prime plant to pick up if you scout them on sale.

Plus, right now is the prime time to buy grasses. You can see them at the peak of their glory and make sure you’re choosing the right grass for the right place. I like the grass Molina Sky Racer. For reasons I don't understand, it is not as common a grass as the miscanthus and pennisetums that everyone else has. The clump of grass itself doesn’t become overwhelming in size, perhaps up to three to four feet, but it’s plumes shoot up and out up to seven feet above the ground and sway with an elegant delicacy the seems quite ethereal.

Of course there’s also a whole group of plants that haven’t even started to show off their beauty. My lespedeza is just starting. It grows somewhat like a grass, tall and arching over and is covered, weighed down actually with thousand of tiny flowers in either white, pink or purple that look like the individual florets of wisteria. It’s a must have in the garden, especially since the deer have never touched any of mine. Two other fab deer resistant, fall bloomers are aconitum or Monkshood and leucosceptrum -- a plant unblessed with the common name Japanese Mountain Mint. Now Monkshood is more common, with it’s tall blue spikes waiting until September to do their thing, and I put them in all the gardens I do, specifically because they extend the color display and because they multiple in a gratifying way and are easy to grow. Plus who doesn’t love blue in the garden? But leucosceptrum is more unknown. I like it for fairly deep shade in that it grows a lot like a hydrangea but the deer don’t touch it. It isn’t as interesting or as impressive in flower, with small bottle brush shaped inflorescences that come in either white or pink, but when you are working in the shade and without a deer fence, this plant is quite impressive, I have all three different kind, a variegated one, the original which looks like it has quilted leaves and my favorite, a golden foliaged one. Combined with Hakonechloa macra, the electric chartreuse shade tolerant Japanese forest grass it’s a perfect brightener of dark corners. And for those of us who are truly plant maniacs I have a stumper for you all. Who has rabdosia longituba? Who wouldn’t love a plant that can grow in the shade, is covered with billows of flowers in October and has a variety called Tube Socks? Hard to find, but worth the time, Jim Glover of Glover Perennials is the only local wholesaler to grow it but ask at your nursery and there’s a true perennial lover there, they can get it for you. Trust me, you want this plant.

This is also the time to start a Japanese maple collection or to begin an obsession with specialty conifers. I’ve always promised myself that I would grow a greater diversity of evergreens and I have my eye on this amazing dwarf hemlock at a local nursery that would look amazing with the Shishigashira Japanese Maple that’s sitting just a little farther down the path in the same area. A Shishigashira maple is very compact with tiny leaves that grow very close together, thus the plant’s common name, Lion’s Mane Maple. I’ve longed for one for ages and love it even more now that it’s costing less.

So I’m taking a hint from the creatures zipping across my skies and I’m starting my fall migration pattern and hitting all the nurseries I can over the next few weeks –– you should too. I promise I’ll even leave you some of the good stuff.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Before the fall

I know that it’s hideous to even mention it, but has anyone else noticed that it feels an awful lot like fall? I feel a little cheated frankly. It’s as if we went straight from June to August and are now heading deep into September. The horrendous parking lot previously known as Montauk Highway proves it’s all just my imagination, but it feels like we got gypped out of a month of summer. It doesn’t help that all the plants are so far ahead of themselves that the crape myrtles are already almost past their prime and that the extremes of July toasted every Nikko Blue out here. Nor do the stressed trees who’ve decided to perhaps start shedding a leaf or two or a dozen help to lower my anxiety. There’s that back to school smell in the air, and the sky just the other night took on another blue for a moment, a blue that I’ve long associated with the beginnings of wanting embers in the fireplace and the wearing of cardigan after dusk.

I’m not ready. I want more time at the beach. I just started to pick huge bouquets. I haven’t even tasted lobster yet this year.

I know, I know, I might be overreacting a tad, and that fall is not really breathing down my neck, but I’m bummed that my garden is fronting as a harvest landscape and the Pee Gees are already pinking. I want to blame it on climatic change, but I know that even hedging towards those words incites deep arguments, so I’ll veer instead towards the positives of all this heat.

The corn this year is amazing. We had some two nights ago from Pike’s that was spectacular. White, sweet and with a buttery taste that melted on my tongue like whipped cream it was a revelation. Every year I wonder why no one has even chosen to base a religion on those kernels. I would join that church in a nanosecond.

The crape myrtles put on the most extraordinary show in years. Every summer I get tons of people complaining that their tree isn’t flowering, or asking why they only had three blooms instead of the profusion the pictures in gardening books promise. This year, all I heard was how fantastic these trees are and could they get more. I used to tell people that crape myrtles need a lot of heat to do really well and that we are the farthest zone north to possibly support these loads of August fluff. I lost one of my borderline hardy pinks this winter, but if there were a competition for a flower for the summer of 2010, my vote would be for the crape.

Of course, we got tomatoes earlier then ever. I do confess though that once again my tomatoes, as I predicted, have gotten away from me. This year, I cut down on the number of plants, but when the black cherries started to head past 4’ and laugh at the tomato cages I had thoughtfully provided them, I didn’t build the scaffolding they require. So now I have what appear to be weeping tomato plants that are creating trains swishing 5 feet out on both sides of their beds and making the harvesting of the small little orbs a challenge that would fit nicely into some strange reality competitive gardening show.

As an aside, my husband wants me to write about the perils of planting too close to the house, an issue raised by the jungle we have to hack through to get to either of our entrances, and he wants me to accompany the piece with a photo of the 8’ tall hydrangea I bondage tied up (as I refused to prune it and lose it’s flowers) to allow passage. It may also have something to do with the fairly large southern magnolia (planted by an ex boyfriend who gave it to me in lieu of a bouquet one day when I was in a bad mood) that is now eating the front of our house. He’s right of course, in the way that nonplant people are always correct about the placement of greenery when debating with us folks who buy things impulsively without planning for their eventual home first. And so I have promised him that we can move the magnolia when the time is right. I was going to do it this spring, but got overwhelmed by the fact that the season came and went in a fluttering and that summer slammed into us in May. So now we are talking about root pruning the thing so we can move it next year. And yes, Dereyk, I do plant way too many plants, way too close and in all the wrong spots. But long ago I ‘fessed up to being a plantaholic and it doesn’t look like I’m going to change that pattern anytime soon.

For those of you stuck with a gardener like me in your family, don’t be fooled by our promises of transplanting things. There’s a good chance that when spring comes each year, it’s been so long since we brought home some new that there’s little chance we’re going to be digging up old stuff when we can still find new stuff to throw into the back of the car. I am going to try to move a whole bunch of stuff this fall, but with the weather playing such weird games with me, I’m really not sure when I’m going to be able to begin.

Normally I say the best time to transplant is the first or second week of October, but this year, I’m hedging my bets. I saw Mare’s Tails last week and someone said that the fall migration of warblers is already fairly deep so I’m saying I’ll have to keep watching the leaves as they fall to see how the whole thing plays out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hydrate those Hydrangea

Boy is it hot. Now I’m a summer person. I love the heat, the beach, running around barefoot, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. It’s like I’m a vitamin D junkie, the way I thrive in the sun, but this year, I’m a little overwhelmed by the heat. And the thought of gardening, well this is the kind of weather that makes the idea of gardening melt right out of your brain.

But your plants need you.

And what they need from you is water.

The tricky question is how much? And I apologize up front but unfortunately there is no exact answer to that question.

I can’t tell you. Your other gardening friends can’t tell you. Your irrigation man doesn’t even know. And it’s not that we’re being difficult. It’s the fact that every situation is different.

Obviously, everything needs more water then earlier this summer. We haven’t had a good soaking rain in the longest time and the days have been a series of brain stunners one after another, so everything is really suffering, but there are too many variables for a quick and easy answer.

What’s your soil like? Is it sandy? Clay? Loamy? I have both sand and clay which guarantees that some plants are getting too much water while others being hit by the same sprinkler aren’t getting enough. Hideous.

Plus different plants have different needs. Lawns want smaller sips of water daily. Trees want long soaking drinks where the water gets down to their deepest roots. And shrubs, well right now my shrubs want about an hour and a half of water every other day, preferable before the sun hits the high point of the day.

Then what’s your light like and where’s your plant? Stuff in full sun needs much more water then things in the shade, but also living green things that are close to stone (walls, patios, paths, driveways and pool copings) need more moisture to combat the heat that the stone is absorbing and radiating out. And if a plant is growing in a windy spot it’s going to need more water then the same plant in a more sheltered spot in the same yard.

And how are you watering? By hand. By hose? By sprinkler head? By soaker? And how’s your water pressure? And are you watering in the evening or the morning?

I know, I know, it’s too hot for all these questions, but here’s the thing. I’ve had a couple people tell me, proudly, that they’ve just turned the water on and kept it on. And I understand. Last week my husband asked what was the point of having an irrigation system if was just going out and adjusting it three times a day and we had it running constantly? Well it wasn’t running constantly. It was just that I had a few newly planted plants in two areas and I wanted to try and keep them alive. Which I succeeded I doing, but just barely, but then I turned the water back down because unfortunately, you can give plants too much water.

Give a lawn too much water and it’s fungus central. Give a tree or shrub too much water and you’re inviting root rot, fungus and all other fun and sexy things like phytophthora, blight and cankers. And contrary to popular belief you can give a hydrangea too much water.

Granted most hydrangeas are waterholics, but that’s because lots of us, myself included, grow hydrangeas out in the sun. Let’s face it, the flowers are fabulous, the billowing blooms last almost all summer and they fairly basic and simple to grow plants. Who doesn’t love hydrangeas? But they’re really a part sun plant. Let me say that again. Hydrangeas, those pretty, fluffy pink and blue and white flowers we all adore really want to have shade in the afternoon. And when we insist on planting them in masses in the hot blazing sun and then we have a crazy heat wave like we’re having right now, those hydrangeas are most likely going to fry. Or at least be very stressed. But you can give them too much water so please be careful.

You can’t just turn the hose on and hook up a soaker hose and let it run for the rest of this heat wave. You have to give the soil a break and let it breathe. You have to dig around and make sure the roots of your plants are moist but not soggy. You have to do a little tough love and look away when your hydrangeas start to flag between noon and two. You have to get out in the garden and poke about and not just rely on upping the timer on the irrigation clock.

And you have to accept that the best answer I have for how much water to give your plants, is to give your plants as much water as they need and not too much more.

I told you I was sorry ahead of time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why I can’t just sit back, relax and enjoy the flowers.

I just saw my first hummingbird of the season drinking from the pink blossoms of the nepeta subsessilis that surrounds my pear tree. Spiraling round the top of each plant he visited each and every blossom until the shadow of a too close veering catbird with a mouth filled with mulberries scared him off.

Hmm, well the crows have started to hammer at the tiny rock hard pears so there will be no crop again this year and there is a squirrel that sits in the top of my weeping mulberries gorging himself each evening, fascinating both the cats and anyone else who happens to be up at the bedroom window, but eliminating my jam crop one not quite ripe berry at a time. And a chipmunk family has claimed the asparagus patch as home plate, so they’re off limits plus I’ve lost the battle for the dill to the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Okay, so I’m happy to give up the herb in exchange for graceful emergence of yellow and black later in the summer, but I’m starting to feel a little besieged. Something is skeltonizing all my rose leaves, a miner I think, and let’s not even talk about that fact that the afore mentioned roses have their buds and new growth sheared clean off by my own personal pack of stealth deer. Now I have a lot of plants, and there’s plenty for all of us, so I have no idea why these particular deer walk right by masses of hydrangea to browse every single rose, balloon flower and phlox in the place. There’s plenty of tasty hostas for them to munch, but no, they ignore those and head straight for the daylily buds – and only the buds of the expensive specialty lilies, not the few roadside lilies that are mixed in. And for the first time, this year they’ve decided cosmos are yummy. Very upsetting, although expected.

What's disappointing is that I’m still losing the battle of the voles.

>Maybe we can try and teach the local epicures to throw a handkerchief over their heads and eat them the way they do songbirds in France, but until then I’d like to invite all the neighboring cats to a vole hunt at my house ASAP. Quickly, for those who don’t know, voles do not make the tunnels in your yard, those are made by moles, who are eating the grubs, beetles and other sundry proteins that live in your soil.

The voles then use those tunnels to get to plant roots and this is why the astibles that were perfect yesterday have done that fainting thing and lie withered in a heap in your perennial beds. Voles are vegetarians. And there is no truly effective way of getting rid of them. Trust me, I’ve tried everything.

And lets not get me started on the various scale invasions we have this year - so out of control that it’s causing some of my magnolias to die. Or the various and sundry funguses and wilts and blights that people keep asking me to identify and I keep sending up to Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead with the words, “I’m sorry but I have no idea, I’ve never seen that before.”

Did I mention my lemon balm is totally out of control? Compared to deer, rodent, insect and fungal issues an invasive herb shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but I made the mistake of putting one tiny plant in years ago (forgetting that it’s in the mint family – code word highly invasive) and now I have enough to harvest as a roadside crop. What’s a girl to do with armfuls of lemon balm? I feel guilty just ripping it out - the scent is spectacular, but last time I cut and hung my invasive spearmint up to dry all it did was get mildewy and gather cobwebs and snarky comments in the kitchen.

And how do I get rid of the onion grass that’s taking over the crabgrass that has already fought back the lawn? Or the glechoma hederacea or creeping Charlie that’s running roughshod throughout the entire property? It’s official. I’m overwhelmed.

However, after doing a little research I’ve come to learn that Lemon Balm is a fantastic remedy for anxiety, so perhaps I need to open that roadside stand after all. And along with lemon balm tea I can serve barbequed vole on a stick (perhaps wrapped in onion grass?) to all the other gardeners in my neighborhood.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The trauma of the homegrown tomato.

If you could capture the taste of a summer day, it still couldn’t compare to a fresh picked from your own vine tomato. There is nothing that even comes close to the intoxication of the taste of your own tomato, it’s flesh still warm from the sun, picked at the peak of captures the warmth of a day. For me it is the true definition of summer.

This is why every year I plant my own tomato plants. And every year it’s a disaster. Last year, it was deer and rot. The rain drained all the soul out of my poor little plants and then the deer chewed what was left of them down every night until I had weird little bonsaied plants that looked like spreading junipers. I think we claimed 17 or 18 fruits from the whole patch.

The previous year I tried them in pots but choose the wrong varieties and every time there was a strong wind they’d all topple over and snap their stalks. Or lose all their tiny little green pearls. I think I had eleven tomatoes total that year.

The year before that I forgot to stake them, ending up with tomato plants that acted like watermelon - all the fruits trying desperately to ripen while laying in the dirt shaded by their own leaves and chewed on by all manner of insect and slug life forms.

In short tomato growing has been an exercise in failure for me for many years.

As a child I had a vegetable garden, but I wasn’t a big weeder, still not that great actually, so nothing appeared in that first August’s exploration for the red wolf peaches my father had told me “we” were growing.

So now that the last frost has past, like every year, I’m facing tomato season with a touch of trepidation.
I only really have room for six plants, but I’m not good at self-editing, which is how I ended up jamming in fifteen last summer. But this year, as always, I’ve vowed to have more self-control. Ha!
Not to mention that this winter, I spent almost every snowy day drooling over the pages of Amy Goldman’s veggie porn book The Heirloom Tomato. Lusting for her recipes has created deep tomato cravings, so when it’s finally time to decide which ones are going in the ground, I’m like a starved woman in a pastry shop. I just can’t control myself.

I only buy organic plants and I only buy them from reputable places. After last’s year’s tomato blight fiasco I would be very surprised at anyone who decided it was a good idea to buy tomato that have been stuffed with the chemicals needed to keep them going at a big box store. I buy organic, and I buy the best I can find, which, because we live in the Hamptons, means I have a plethora of choices.
Should it be Mortgage Lifter or Green Zebra or Bradywine? And what about Black Krim and Purple Heart and Yellow Crazy? Who can resist a tomato named Jellybean and I know I need Sweet Million, and what are those little golden ones called? I want them too. There’s even a fuzzy skinned one I’m dying to try. And when I try and choose between them all, they look so innocent and tiny that I forget how enormous each plant is going to be. They all fit so nicely in the box I’m carrying around as I shop. Even when I fill half the box up with basil to interplant among the tomatoes I defy any tomato lover to only choose 6 plants!

So this year, like last year, I have too many plants. But this year I finally have a deer fence, so they won’t be mowed down to tiny little stumps just as they start to push flowers. And I planted them deep, burying their stalks right up to the bottom set of leaves to increase their rooting potential. I even staked them right after planting so that I’m not wrestling with tomato sprawl. I’ve given them love and food and the right amount of sun and everything their little tomato hearts could need.

And now I’m going to sit back and watch and wait and know that no matter what happens, I’ll always have Pike’s in Sagaponack, the Tomato Lady on Main Street and all my friends at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday to fall back on -- none of whom will judge me in July when I slid a few of their perfect love apples into my bag because I have failed once again to grow my own tomatoes.

Paige Patterson also has a thing for white peaches but is happy supporting the local farmers who grow them.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Who should I buy today

Before you purchase your first plant for your first garden, most books advise you to look around your space, to visit your neighbors’ gardens, to explore the places in your town where nature has reclaimed herself from man and to wander the places where he has not yet step foot. All to discover what will and will not thrive in the space you want to call your own. Then they tell you to make a plan.

They are absolutely right. I however chose to ignore this very good advice when I first started out. On the land that I first gardened there were abandoned pockets of weeds and wildflowers and volunteer cedars and deer paths along the sides of plowed earth. Like the meter of a poem I thought they would be all the garden structure I would need. In a place where a slight rise in the road made my first garden the highest land in town, the wind volunteered itself as a pruning expert and carved anything vaguely shrub-like as bare as a freshly shorn ram. I didn’t care.

I’d visited gardens all over the world and read hundreds of books that explained how to begin a garden – I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I was impatient. All I wanted was to buy plants and get drink on their eventual flowers. I didn't worry about planting shrubs and wind blocks, or any of the other bones of a garden – I was after the soul of the thing.

Knowing that I couldn't start with a sprinkling of forget-me-nots, although it is was I really wanted, I compromised. The first plants I purchased after officially deciding to have a flower garden, were 20 bareroot roses ordered from a catalog and six peonies found at Cheap Sam’s on the way out from the city one afternoon.

My flower choices evolved from there. First, of course, was garden porn. All those glossy magazine spreads and picture books with tempting photos of misty Welsh gardens and explosive Seattle backyards started me on the plant mania path – where I travel still. And although it’s crazy to try and duplicate an English cottage garden in the heat of August in the Hamptons, many other plants were purchased for even more evocative reasons.

Descriptions from Collette's recollections. A Fantin Latour bouquet. A sweep of wild meadow captured on a postcard pined above a colleague’s desk. Beth Chatto’s description of a plant that resembled a mouse who, having climbed up a stalk of grass when the breeze hits, clings with it's tail wrapped around the blade for balance. A friend’s childhood memories of Spain and mine of England. Southern folklore. A Sri Lankan poem. The centerpiece of an ex-boyfriend's casual acquaintance's bridal table. All were influences.

The low, low, low, low price promised in fat red letters on a big box store’s junk mail envelope. Tablecloth patterns. A defiant line of trees, seen through a rain smeared window of an Italian train. A favorite tea. A wonderful, unusual name. Joan Mitchell’s paintings, as well as Vincent’s and Claude’s. A clump of color escaping from a cultured garden and dancing wildly towards the depth of a woods along a back road in Oregon. Martha. Cracked ancient herbals. Thomas Jefferson's notes from Monticello. All influenced the arrival of various plants in my first garden.

Not all the plants I bought were suited to my garden. It's soil's sweetness or lack thereof, it's physical placement and its relationship to the equator determined the fate of many, many plants. Some died, some thrived and some threaten to overrun the entire area regardless of how completely I thought I had irradiated it. I have learned a lot since that first garden. I now love evergreens and I torture and kill far fewer plants. And when I buy a shrub I try to plant it based on what its mature shape and character will be, not what it looks like now.

I know that after years of bringing home plants for all the wrong reasons, I have no business even thinking of buying more – I can barely take care of those I already have. Yet I still find myself insisting that I can find a space, can ease in a hole for a new plant whose peculiar name or strange brown flower or unusual story has connected with that place inside me that binds it to me as something I have to have.

Paige Patterson is crazy about Itoh peonies and white daffodils.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where's the secret in your garden?

Where’s the secret in your garden?

In mine, the land rises so that until you walk to the middle of the yard where the garage lives, you don’t realize that the garden continues for at least another acre and a half. The front is more stuffed with plants, but invariably when you get to the back of the garage and you see how the second half of my land rolls down and away, the thing most people say is, “Wow.”

Isn’t that kind of what we’re all looking for when we create gardens? Not just a space filled with flowers or manicured with various shades of green, but the creation of an outside arena that each time we experience it, or share it with others, there’s that little moment of surprise, the thrill of the reveal. Sometimes the surprise is a simple as a hedge not actually being a border, but a way to delay the truth.

To increase the feeling of discovery at my house I transplanted a hodgepodge of hydrangeas from all around my property to create a mixed bed on one side of my garage. It gives the eye a place to rest and fools you into thinking the property might stop there. I didn’t want to create a wall; just wanted your eye to hit lacy white flowers and get distracted. It blocks some of the view out my back windows, but it also forces me to get out of my chair and to go visit the rest of my own garden and so get a little of that “Wow” myself.

Most of us, when we look out our back windows, see the entire back of our property all at once. And for most of us, it’s a rectangle of green surrounded by a hedge or screen of brown and green. Pretty basic, right? Which is not to say it’s not beautiful, most gardens are out here, but what you’re missing is the ability to create mystery that a garden with a secret can provide.

One of the basic tenants of landscape design is that you don’t want to see everything at once. To take in the whole space in one sweeping glance means there is no impetus to go explore, to see what’s around the corner, or through that gate or off to the left. Now granted you can’t see the front yard from the back, but I’m challenging you to broaden your way of thinking about gardens and create intrigue in your yard by hiding a part of it.

Perhaps instead of one long rectangle of back yard you can create a series of rooms that connect and open out on each other, with openings that link one to another in a chain. Or maybe in the middle of the screening at the back of your property you could mount an outdoor mirror on a slight angle (ala Bob Dash) so that as you approached it you don’t see your own reflection but that of the garden creating the illusion of an entire undiscovered area of green that extends way beyond your actual boundaries.

Even the simple act of setting of a sculpture, birdbath or garden ornament in such a way that you can only discover it by moving through your garden will add a frisson of excitement to your world. Hide it with a shrub or behind the trunk of a tree so that it can be discovered and you will have changed the entire tone of your yard.

There’s a garden in North Haven that is created as a series of paths that meander and weave under a stand of trees that came with the house. The couple could have simply fed their need for color by removing most of the trees, limbing up the rest and creating deep perennial borders on all three sides of the property. Instead they sacrificed some of their lawn and created a deeper walk through a woodland they built from scratch. The garden is still lush and beautiful in a 270 degree view from the back of their house, but to really see it you have to enter it and let it lead you through. Then you get the reward of discovering the scattered fountains, statuary, specimen plantings and visual pauses that are only accessible to those who are willing to explore.

I promise that you can add mystery and excitement to any of the areas around your house by just changing the way you look at it. I once worked with a couple from East Hampton who wanted to screen their back yard and plant out their deer fence. Based on their light requirements, the existing trees and their need for height in some areas, we started with a mixed tapestry of evergreens on the extremely close neighbors’ side. This turned the corner and morphed into a white pine grove that blocked another neighbor. The pines segued into bamboo that provided the height needed to block a garage and the airiness required to not cast a pool into deep shade. Bamboo transitioned into pines again and then became a mix of viburnums and other flowering shrubs that turned the corner and continued onto the third side of their property. On that side all they needed to hide was overgrown scrub and thicket that led into woods on preserved land. The screening worked great on paper and they were happy when all the plants were placed before planting, but I asked them to indulge me for a moment. Walking over to the corner of viburnums I grabbed a plant, threw a ball cart under it, and dragged it out of line. After the third plant was pulled out of place the couple started asking me why I was making their property smaller and cutting off a chunk of their land. I didn’t answer until I had the plants curved perfectly, then I walked over and stood quietly next to them until they stopped muttering.
“Watch,” I said, and walking back to the viburnums I grabbed one and tugged it out of the curve and back into the corner of their property. Moving that one plant opened a “door” and invited the woodland behind back into their landscape. Suddenly a path to the beyond appeared so now instead of being walled in, it appeared that if they just strolled through the viburnums they’d find a meandering walk that would lead to the large woods that rolled out behind their house for acres. One couldn’t actually get to those trees, the deer fence was only about five feet away, but the whole yard changed when I pulled that one plant back and opened their minds.

We planted it that way. It was too provocative not to, and through the art of selective pruning, it’s still working for them. Unfortunately, the sweep of hydrangeas I talked about earlier isn’t pulling your eye around the corner as well as it initially did. In the last 7 or 8 years it’s gotten too tall, the flowers too high, so soon it’s going to be time to move them. But it’s okay, gardening is like that – everything keeps growing, everything keeps changing, and who knows, the next time I move them I might even surprise myself.

Paige Patterson avoids weeding her own garden by visiting those belonging to others.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I'm a petal person

A flower gather since childhood and a closet floral arranger, I’m a sucker for a big bouquet. When I lived in Manhattan I was on a first name basis with 11 different deli owners, and I prowled 28th street like a predator. So naturally, when I started to garden, I focused on the obvious suspects. Piles of peonies and other perennials jumped in my car, magnolia after magnolia followed me home and I collected hydrangeas like some women covet shoes.

My garden was stunning.

I cut armfuls of purple, pink and fuchsia. Filled bowls with cascades of salmon, lemon and cream. Ten minutes before arriving at a dinner party I’d be gathering handfuls of luscious, juicy vibrance for my host or hostess. I was in heaven.

Then came winter.

For a person who loves all the froth and flounce of flowers that first winter was dreadful. My dahlia’s were dug up, my annuals were dead and when I stared at the large brown circles where all my perennials hibernated amongst their skirts of faded January grass, I saw nothing but beige. Beige and brown and boring and bad. So I fought back.

I threw on excessive layers, grabbed my trusty clippers and ventured out into the cold. Forced outside to gather what I could to make arrangements, I learned how to combine wild rose hips with seed heads and pinecones and twisty twigs. I discovered that the simple gloss of Southern Magnolia leaves brings life back into a room. And when I had exhausted the contents of my own back yards I started wandering the roads and the properties of friends.

Being forced out of my comfort zone taught me how to see. Now when I cut sprigs of skimmia to mix with variegated holly, green transforms from filler to a radiant spectrum of olive through emerald to chartreuse, bottle and beyond. The few leaves left clinging to trees aren’t just brown, but range from the pale beige of our native beeches to the deep purple remnants on my privet. What I had decided was grey before properly looking is actually tinged violet or etched in silver. And there’s red everywhere, from the thin strings of bittersweet that I twist into balls to the berries left behind on barberry. Of course I lust after the winterberries in the wetlands – but leave them in their native arrangements along with the startled cardinal I disturb with my presence.

That the stems of a neighbor’s red twig dogwood named ‘Winter Flame’ resembles so closely it’s apt name made the plant one of the first I bought the following year. A black pussy willow, a plant I lusted for after seeing it used in a Valentine’s arrangement on an otherwise lengthy and dull date, was another and I’ve never looked back. A cryptomeria that turns purple when it’s too cold out to leave the house without gloves. Not just evergreens, but all the golden and variegated version as well. And things that I could force. Branches that would befriend my clippers. These all became plants I “have to have.”
Now, when the cold starts to stretch out interminably I can face the world with my trusty clippers. There’s clump of Forsythia I inherited with my property. Not being a big yellow person, I’d sort of ignored it, raised my nose to it, thought it common. Now I adore it. Its wide open egg yolk lemon makes me excited every time I open the door.

Winter is why I have two varieties of Prunus meme – a Japanese flowering apricot that blooms only sporadically in the garden – the vacillating extremes of December through February are normally too much for it’s delicate buds – but it explodes with delicate flowers when cut and brought into my kitchen.

I still can’t say I look forward to winter. I don’t like the cold, and this one has been a real doozy so far, but I like what the season has taught me. I’m a better and more diverse gardener with a deeper love and understanding of the entire plant kingdom. I’ve learned to look beyond the obvious. And I’ve discovered the anti-depressive qualities of a good pair of clippers and an open mind.