Sunday, December 14, 2014

God said I was right

When it comes to the world of trees and shrubs, there exists, for those of us who care, a god. His name is Michael Dirr.  A professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, he has written a book, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture and Propagation and Uses, (otherwise known as the bible) which is the most widely sold reference book in the world of horticulture and landscape architecture. It has sold over 250,000 copies, which is fairly impressive for a book with small black and white pen and ink drawing of leaves.

I mention these credentials, because I love being right, and Michael Dirr has confirmed that, once again, I am. I speak of course, about not pruning hydrangea.

Why, you might ask, are you bringing up hydrangea pruning now in the depths of this hideous weather? No one is really playing outside in the garden anymore, are they? Well of course they are I would reply with a snort if you asked me this question face to face, and I bring this up now, because right now is when Michael Dirr is chatting via email with a colleague at work. Imagine that. He’s emailing with god.

So hopefully you all remember everything I’ve taught you previously about not touching your hydrangeas until springtime. That you are allowed to deadhead (remove the dead flowers) but that you really should not do any pruning until spring time, and then, when it comes to the macrophyllas and serratas (the mopheads and the lacecaps) you do not do any pruning at all, you just remove dead wood. You actually don’t prune querifolia or petiolaris either (oakleaf or climbing hydrangeas) but most people just plant the former two varieties and that’s all they care about.  So, since you’ve been paying attention over the last few years, you therefore have not whacked back your hydrangeas when you raked up your leaves. In fact, I’ve made you so paranoid you won’t even make eye contact with any shrub that starts with the letter H.

I’m here to tell you what Michael Dirr wants you to do with your pruners. Nothing. He too wants you to wait until spring. Even when it comes to your paniculatas, the panicle types – Tardivas, Limelights, Pee Gees, etc. I know people who like to prune these now, I’ve even been known to start to cut mine back in February, when I’m bored, but folks god has spoken and he’s saying wait, and recommending, “… a light removal of spent inflorescences.”

The reason I feel, is of course, simple. As this past year demonstrated, we don’t know whether stems are going to be alive or dead next spring, since none of us can predict the winter. For most of us this past spring, all those stems of our Endless Summers and Nikko Blues were toasted by the winter and new growth wasn’t coming in on old wood, it was only emerging from the base or the crown of the plant. That’s why most hydrangeas were not flowering; the only growth was new growth and most hydrangeas bloom on old growth. Endless Summer is a reblooming hydrangea, which means that it blooms on old wood as well as new wood. All reblooming hydrangeas are also unusual in that they have flower buds on 85% of the buds on old wood, so that even if the top buds on the old wood get blasted by the cold, the bottom ones have a chance of flowering.

So says Michael Dirr. He also says that his newest reblooming hydrangea, the one called BloomstruckTM, is the best rebloomer to date and is,  “… exceptionally stem hardy. Survived 50 days below zero with a low of -28 degrees in Bailey’s trial nursery area in Minnesota.”  He goes on to say that while it was being tested in the same trial area it was killed to the ground, but regrew the next spring and had flowers on every terminal by June. Nothing like that happened here with our Endless Summers. Mine never even saw a flower until September.

Which brings us finally to the reason why I am writing about hydrangeas in the second week of December. No I’m not crazy.

Yes, you maybe should wrap your hydrangeas to protect them from the upcoming winter.
This is not something I’m used to saying, but after last winter, I’m giving it a strong thumbs up. There was only one gardener out here in the Hamptons that I know of who had flowers on all the hydrangeas in all his gardens this year, and that was a gentleman who used Wilt pruf on all his hydrangeas’ buds and then wrapped each and every one of those Wilt prufed plants in all of his clients’ gardens in burlap.

I’ll be honest, I’m not going to do it in my garden because I don’t have the time to do it, nor can I afford to pay someone to do it for me, but if I could, I certainly would, and I’d like to recommend to you to do so.

Now luckily for me, this year we’ve had a long, slow cool down. It’s not the sudden drop we had last fall, followed by high temperatures and then a long, cold, deep winter, so this year the plants have had a better chance to acclimate, but we shall have to wait and see. It’s actually the abrupt up and downs, the days that rocket down from high 40’s to low 60’s degree afternoons to low 30’s and high 20’s at nights that do the most damage to plants.

And I know that everyone keeps talking about how unusually cold this past winter was, but when I was a kid Mecox Bay froze solid enough each winter for us to ice boat across. An iceboat is a sailboat on enormous ice skates, so that meant the bay was not just skinned with ice; it was deeply, solidly frozen.

I also know that everyone had a more diverse garden when I was a kid, there were weigelas and kolkwitzias and spireas and viburnums and hydrangeas. No one just used a mass of hydrangeas to give them color and nothing else, so if it was really cold and there were no hydrangea flowers there were other ways and means to have color in your gardens. Of course this was when people were also doing more with perennials, a phase that seems to have passed, but that’s all for some other conversation. I actually don’t think it was that unusually of a cold winter, I just think we all got lulled into thinking those incredibly hot summers were the norm.

Don’t you remember when we were kids? No one had air conditioning then, and we all were fine with fans. Maybe there were 4 or 5 killer nights when you wanted to sleep on the porch, because the house was too hot, but AC was not a fact of life. So maybe last year was an anomaly, and this winter will be mild again and next summer will be a scorcher. Or maybe not. I actually have no idea. Nor does Michael Dirr. We asked his advice and he sent my colleague a presentation from one of his associates, Mal Condon who owns Hydrangea Farm Nursery in Yarmouth Port, MA.

He suggests you wrap your hydrangeas.

Paige Patterson was planning on buying a few more bulbs now that they are on sale, but she’s coming down with a terrible cold.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I loathe daylight savings, and have for years.

I feel cheated when I lose the light that allowed me to ramble through the yard every evening after work. I feel lost without that time with my plants, with my trees. I know, I know it’s so that we better utilize the diminishing light, so school children are not invisible to the buses that gather them up each morning, so that I can see the hand at the end of my arm letting my chicken out each morning before I set off for my day, but I don’t like it. 

I miss seeing my trees change. 

I know the science behind the magic that dances fuchsia across the edges of my witch hazel’s foliage like a child playing with lipstick, but I prefer to enjoy the unfolding color craziness as if watching someone transforming my yard each day with a drunken paintbrush flinging paint. I watch the Nyssa sylvatica dance a scarlet exhibition of release as the wind stretches leaves from horizontal branches like splayed fingers. Look, there’s a viburnum with a somewhat heart shaped leaf which is still green, but which has had its veins crimsoned as if to show its each beating breath. This is the most extraordinary of metamorphosis, a poetry of color and transformation, and this year has been the most spectacular show we’ve seen in as long as I can remember. And I want to see it happen. 

Luckily I work at a place where I am surrounded by trees. And this year the Japanese Maples at Marders as giving a master class in the science of fall foliage. There are three factors that influence the way, the rate and the intensity of foliage changes as it kisses goodbye each year, and although I would like to attribute it to witchcraft or wizardry, it really is simple chemistry. 

The first factor is the shortening of the light due to the longer nights of fall. These shorter days, this limited light, and the cooler temperature that accompany the season’s longer, darker evenings, tell the trees that winter is coming and it’s time to slow down the production of food. The trees are not changing colors, that’s actually a misnomer, instead they are actually stripping away parts of themselves to reveal what has always been there, but has been invisible to our eyes. 

The pigments, the second factor in fall’s rainbow dance, the colors we associate with fall have actually been there all along; it’s just that for most of the year they are camouflaged by the leaf’s chlorophyll. Chlorophyll, a chemical cousin of hemoglobin, is the vehicle that transforms sunlight into sugars to feed my trees. The sugar that will keep my trees alive while they stand naked in my yard through the long winter darkness. During the rest of the year, the green of chlorophyll overpowers the carotenoid pigments that leaves contain as well. Carotenoids are primarily yellow and orange – the guts of a carrot or a butternut squash, and they too contribute to photosynthesis. They’re also the reason the palms of my hands turned orange the year I had a yam for breakfast everyday! In the fall, as the nights lengthen and cool, chlorophyll production starts to slow, and then comes to a stop -- as the leaves realize there’s no more need to gorge on the sun. As they realize they are sated with sugars, eventually all the chlorophyll in a leaf disappears and it’s inner carotenoids are revealed. Both carotenoids and chlorophyll are always present in leaves, but in the fall there are other phytochemicals produced called anthocyanins. Triggered into production by those huge stores of leaf sugar, these pigments present themselves as red, purple or blue depending upon the ph of plant. (Thus in another application, the alchemy of hydrangeas morphing pink or blue based on the addition or subtraction of lime or sulfur.) Anthocyanins are the blueberry stains on children’s lips and the kiss of plum juice and bruise of Concord grape skins. They are light-attenuators, and protect the leaves against sunburn. The combination of anthocyanins and carotenoids is species specific so as the chlorophyll robe of each leaf is dropped, the negligee of each tree is revealed. Clethra and ginkgos are golden; the burning bush is an obvious red. One of my varieties of crape myrtle turns a luscious, fudge rich maroon, while another is clear, vivid vermillion. Within a species there is incredible variation, as expressed so brilliantly each year in six different color that garb the enormous Japanese maples that embrace my father’s house on the corner of Palmer Terrace and Main.

 What makes each year different, and what has made this year so spectacular however, has been the weather, specifically the temperature and the rain. All these warm days with cool, cold, but not freezing nights have triggered enormous sugar production during the day, but with the cool nights constricting the veins of the plants and preventing the sugars from leaving the leaves, there is a larger than normal production of the anthocyanins. Add in our cool summer, which allowed the soil to stay moist from spring through fall and we have the makings of a magnificent display. A display which I am missing each evening when I get home. 

Fortunately at Marders there’s a gathering of Japanese Maples (that’s my official horticultural term -- like a pod of whales, or an exhalation of larks) that are so spectacularly colored it’s like we cheated and stole chunks of the sunset we watch each night as the darkness descends and tied them to the bare branches of the trees.I cannot capture the colors on my cell phone of either the changing sky or the trees. 

I get close but the camera keeps adjusting to compensate. 

And in some ways that’s actually a gift.

It makes me watch each and every sunset.

To really look at all the variations of each leaf of each tree.

It forces me to truly see. 

Paige Patterson has only one chicken left who is so traumatized by the disappearance of her sisters one by one that she no longer lays eggs. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Waiting for the drop of fall.

The mornings now are chilly but the afternoons are spectacular. The dahlias are explosions of color that drip down their laden stems. Bouquets made by the handfuls pile up all over the house and I have started to gather the seedpods of cleome and angelica to toss into spots that are empty of greenery in hopes that next year they will be more petalled.

I adore flowers, as we all know, and the way the flowers that are still in bloom in the garden glow in the fall light is beyond photogenic. That golden glow that gilds each petal with a 24 karat sheen at the edge of late afternoon each day locks the entire garden in an amber embrace. This is the magic of fall. It’s last hurrah is a celebration of gorgeousness.

My crape myrtles are flaunting their rainbow shades as the flowering pear starts to put on a shimmy show of deep jewel tones and wine. I have added more fall foliage plants in the last couple of years just to be able to expand this fall flourish, this last madness of color before the grays of winter descend. Since I tend to be a purchaser of flowers, to have chosen things based on foliage is a real step forward for me. Not that the clethra is without flowers, or the lindera, but they were selected to enhance the months of October, to add accents and depth and shimmer.

I do have one flowering plant that every righteous gardener should have, and that’s Rabdosia longituba, commonly called long-tubed trumpet spurflower.  A member of the salvia family that’s a riot of blue flowers on arching stems, it’s significantly underused plant. Ignored by the deer (I know fairly incredible right?) and graced with azure flowers that weigh each of the three plus feet long stems into elegant arches, it is a most becoming flower. I have to plant it behind plants so I don’t just randomly remove while weeding in the spring as I do my asters every year as it is somewhat unassuming until the fall arrives. But now, as the sky seems to deepen with meaning and the clouds look like painted cream puffs just waiting to be bitten into, it’s blue is like someone scattered sky sprinkles all over my shade gardens. Oh did I forget to mention it’s a shade plant? Divine right?

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to talk people into using it with the same ease that I have brought leucosceptrum into people’s lives, but it and aconitum, the monkshood that also is a true, clear blue are two of the best fall flowering deer resistant plants that I have in my palette. I have a great plant palette, with a vast range of plants to chose from now that I have a deer fence, but to truly expand my range, I must start to choose evergreens with the same passion I have for the floral, and I am, slowly, learning to embrace them, but it’s hard to resist plants that are waving  branches with electric yellow, screaming orange and ruby red leaves dangling as if piled with costume jewelry.

It’s at this time of year that I always promise myself a gingko. The first leaf to turn, a messenger of the shifting season and changing light, it’s a vivid yellow promise that the days are becoming shorter and the end of the year is beginning. I want to wear those golden leaves in my hair like barrettes or on my jacket like a broach on encircling my throat choker like. Their elegance is astounding and I’m sure the cultivar Jade Butterflies would be smashing on my eastern bank.

Another plant I’ve promised myself, is, of course, a fall blooming camellia. Hardier then the spring ones, they are evergreen, so I am allowed at least three this year and presently they are on sale and awaiting my tags. I am torn between choosing three different varieties or making a grouping, although I know the grouping is the right way to proceed. I already have a tag on a fothergilla. It’s not an evergreen, unfortunately, but with it’s honey scented flowers -- something the bees love about this southern native plant – and it’s fancy fall dress, it’s a must for the garden. Best grown in bright shade or preferably at least some sun for the best foliage show, this southern native is late to color up and so is a perfect way to extend that amazing autumn burnished golden time.

Of course, as I haven’t been given the green light to be active again, I don’t know how I’m going to get these plants I’m tagging into the ground. I’m already way behind on my garden chores and have already had to ask for help with the tedious task of picking up all my fallen apples, a crop that is beyond excessive this year. No one in the family is volunteering, so I’m calling Gerardo and begging for his assistance. Maybe he can also help with the tomato plants that are awaiting removal as they collapse upon themselves in increasingly billowing folds. My tulip bulbs have started to arrive and are piling up in the basement and it’s time to think about planting my garlic. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I must get better faster!

I am resigned to the fact that the vegetable garden is going to morph into a rose and dahlia bed, it just isn’t getting harvested properly and I’m tossing more then I’m eating which seem just very silly, so I’m going to try and cut back on the herb and vegetable purchases next year. Although we all know that fall promises are often lead astray by spring temptations. The fig will be allowed to remain regardless of what direction the vegetable garden takes as it’s getting enormous and is covered with small figs that unfortunately, will never ripen before frost arrives. I have high hopes for a milder winter, as that would mean the fig would be amazing next year, but I have no idea what this winter brings and I’m not in any particular hurry to bring it on and find out.

Paige Patterson has a counter full of apples for sauce, pie making and juicing, but fears she will drown in the cascade of fallen fruits. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Floating on the pillowcases of September

At a time when I greatly enjoy working in the garden -- the evening are cool, the dahlias are delicious and the light is magnificent, I find myself in the rather unfortunate experience of being confined to my bed for three weeks. Unable to climb up and down stairs I am greatly saddened by the dahlias gathering unloved and uncut by the side of the garage that I can see from my upstair rear windows. They are a reproach, and I am guilty, if of nothing else but poor timing, of at least that.
Luckily, just before my jailbed term began, a few wondrous gifts appeared. Two of my favorite catalogues appeared together one day in the mail; the first focused on new shrubs for 2015, the other a collector’s list of deliciousness and “have-to-haves.”  The next day’s post carried with it, along with the inevitable bills and flyers, the encyclopedic ‘Weeds of North America’ by Richard Dickinson and France Royer and six, count them out loud, six bulb catalogues.
The universe was feeling sorry for me.
Now I know there are many people out there, myself included who love to explore and ferret out plant information on the internet -- I impressed myself just the other day by identifying buckwheat in just a few moments of mousework when handed a limp, partially desiccated strand, but there is something wonderful with being able to curl up with the printed page.  Now I know that there are something I can never trust a book to get right, like when it comes to deer resistant lists. By the time the thing is published, it’s already out of date, just last winter we had deer eat daffodils, ostrich ferns, peonies and butterfly bush. How could any book hope to keep up?
But when I want to ferret out all the brassicacea formerly cruciferae or members of the mustard family that are labels as weed, I have 800 pages of lusciousness to help me do so. I forget that garlic mustard and my beloved dame’s rocket are related. And when I get to the section of caryophyllaceae or the carnation family I want to slide down my forbidden stairs and slide out into the garden to check the extent of inflation of the calyx of the silene that’s shot up in the bed next to the driveway.  But I know I will have to wait. What’s got me all hot and bothered is that common jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, is not even included as a weed. The introduction declares, “Species selection for this guide was determined by federal, provincial, and state weed legislation … and should only be used as an indication of legislation at time of printing.” This doesn’t make me feel better but could lead me down a rabbit’s warren of “what is a weed” questioning that is sure to take up weeks of my time lounging among pillows. And for that I am grateful.
I have already filled my entire property twice over with my fantasy bulb orders. I cannot located my favorite tulip from last year, Tulipa 'Green Artichoke' anywhere and am quite despondent. I am looking for volunteers who will get it for me from Europe and smuggle it into the country. So far, quite surprisingly, I have no takers. I confess that I am ridiculous when it comes to tulips. I know they don’t come back but the joy they give me each spring, now that I am no longer am plagued by deer, is visceral. I have a new lust, Tulipa Renown’s Unique which I have already ordered far too many of, and I am awaiting with baited breath the arrival of Tulipa 'Synaeda Blue' at Marders which our organic tulip vendor EcoTulips has snatched up for us, knowing how much I love unusuals.
This does not mean I can not dream and there is a list from two vendors in specific that is being revised and whittled down and then added too and negotiated upon as if it were the list for Noah’s Arc or the Capote Black and White Ball.
And of course, just because I am ill, there are a slew of new hydrangeas to obsess over. There’s a blush colored hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’ that looks like it’s a beautiful soft pink in the photographs. Anyone who was within distant earshot when hydrangea arborescens ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ finally showed up heard how passionately upset I was by that plant’s true appearance. Not that anyone would have confused that hideous ground-up brick colored flower with pink in my garden if they had but asked. However this new one does look lovely. Sigh. See I am an eternal optimist.
And I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under to not know about the ‘Gatsby’ line of hydrangea querifolia but it takes a few moments in bed with a good catalogue to realize just what I’ve been missing. I adore the oakleaf hydrangeas, and if anyone every wondered what to get me as a present, and oakleaf hydrangea would never be remiss as a gift, but right this moment I happen to need ‘Gatsby Star’ and ‘Gatsby Moon’ the way other people need chocolate and cheese and scotch.
And although I am a huge fan of the dwarf Citiline hydrangeas, my focus is being pulled back to the ‘Let’s Dance’ the Let’s Dance reblooming line. Although they lost the large war for rebloomers to the ‘Endless Summer' behemoths, they are now giving us some lovely options that are both dwarf and reblooming. So long 'Mini Penny', you will flop in a container for us no longer. I’m torn between asking our shrub buyer to get just, ‘Let’s Dance Blue Jangles’ or to purchase all three dwarfs, ‘Rave’, ‘Blue Jangles’ and ‘Rhythmic Blue.’ I believe it’s only right that Marders should have all three so that I can self-sacrifice and grow all three and really provide you with the knowledge that owning and growing all three will bring me. Wahahahahaha! These are the kinds of self-justifications one makes on one’s sickbed when the cat is the only creature you speak to for most of the day and you are told you must take your pain pills.
There’s actually so much reading, researching and ordering to be done I’m almost pleased to be under the covers.  Well, almost.
Luckily, Paige Patterson has her American Express card right next to her bed in case of an emergency like Tulipa Mistress for sale at Colorblends for half the normal price.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cooking up something in the back yard.

I made an electric green cake yesterday; using five bunches of parsley and a bunch of mint. It was for a lecture I was giving on cooking from the garden and it actually tasted amazing. It looked like I was serving those lumps of grass that gather up under the lawnmower and compress in the awkward covers of the cover of the blades and it tasted like a perfect August day.

I think it’s funny that I give the lecture on cooking, as I have absolutely no kitchen improvisational skills. Sure I can follow a recipe like a rock star, and since I treat cookbooks like the food porn they are, I have a lot of good recipes.  But the talent that allows you to decide a little of this and a smattering of that will elevate the existing flavors into something ethereal, is something that eludes me. I can do it in the garden, I can combine textures and colors and shapes with ease, but ask me how much marjoram to throw into the pot and I panic.

Not that I necessarily always do the right thing in my own garden, I’m much better with other peoples gardens, with editing and coalescing the collections and assortments that other people have brought home, then I am at dealing with my own mess. People love my garden, but it’s purely a garden of, “Oh no, now where am I going to put this?” There is very little planning involved. Especially when it comes to sick plants. I am a sucker for a sick plant. Is there a phlox that has terrible mildew and is heading for the dumpster? Give it to me. A tree that is just a root ball with a chewed up stump and one lone side shoot?  Oooooh, quick let me plant that. A holly marked down to 60% off because it got smooshed on a job sight? That’s my baby.

I’m a sucker for a freebie or a deal, and so I have a lot of unexpected arrivals in my garden. It’s something I try to talk people out of doing to their own garden, but as I always say, I’m very big into, “do as I say not as I do” garden consulting.

It’s difficult to find a place for a yellow conifer if you are trying to work it into a bed of magnolias, hydrangeas, hostas and perennials; it’s probably not going to work; but I’m up for the game. I’ll try and tie it in using a golden thyme as a edger nearby and perhaps some ladies mantle over there. I will then rip out the tall heliopsis that is now clashing and wasn’t working there anyway and move those back among the forsythia, where they will created a second, later. sea of yellow. And I will then pick up the random self-seeded butterfly bushes that will complement that yellow with their purple and drag them to the back as well and viola I’ve got an interesting tall border started. The veronica that is eight feet tall works between the garden and the veggie garden, but there’s another clump in the front paniculata bed that is just not working and I will dig it and some of the Joe pyeweed up and move them to the back  too. I can’t say that the yellow conifer is really going to work, but for now it’s sort of interesting, and I can live with that.

It helps that I have a large property. It helps that I don’t mind experimenting and that I am willing to move things around, sometimes even a couple of times while looking for the right fit. In cooking, once you add too many anchovies you can’t go back. You have to start all over from the very beginning. Luckily gardening is not like that. In gardening you can take out some if not all of the offending anchovies (so to speak) and move them into another border, give them to another garden chef, or worse case scenario, chuck them out, without ruining the feast you’ve been creating.

Sure, sometime I go to someone else’s garden and I’m so enamored of what they’ve created that I want to go home and start with a clean slate, but most of the time I am honest enough to admit that I’m not going to be able to edit myself down to using just a few plants, or just a few colors. Much like I’m not going to be able to live in any of those sparse, monasteric, elegant, white and beige homes with three pen and ink drawings on the wall that I rip out of magazines and scrawl, “Love those" on for my husband. I can’t live there -- I have piles of books everywhere in my home.I am a girl who loves everything. Anchovies, chocolate, salt, sugar, dahlias, geraniums, phlox, hydrangeas, oil paints, paintbrushes, shoes, cashmere sweaters, books. 

I also love more. 

I have a lot of passions and very few edit buttons. 

I don’t just shop I binge. 

When I had a place to paint I used to buy oil paints by the handful. 6, 9, 12 at a time. I buy 11 books, not just one. I combine hot pink with orange, both when I dress and in the garden. From where I write I can see a patch of the garden that has five different pink dahlias combined with a maroon one and a red one. It’s jarring but in a good way. It’ll be better when the climbing white rose and the fairy rose that will eventually frame the dahlia both head and foot have grown, but I still like it. I am a person who always tries to throw a little something else into the pot.

Not the best plan for cooking, but something that can be managed in the garden. And is sometimes, even a good thing. 15 years ago I planted a baby, beat up, cut leaf Japanese maple that I found somewhere, either at a yard sale or at Cheap Sam’s in the fall. It’s planted too close to it’s neighbors, that’s for sure, and it’s now on it’s way to being suffocated, but I don’t care. The way it’s tucked itself around its neighbor makes it look like they’re in love. The maple hugs it’s bedmate and peeks out from behind it like huge burgundy eyelashes flirting with you. It’s fabulous. It’s terrible planting practice, but it’s great looking when you come upon it. And it makes me smile and ask for more, which is the recipe I think all chefs strive for, don’t you? 

Paige Patterson’s recipe for Parsley Cake came from the Roberta’s cookbook, which rocks. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The random musings of July.

I was actually looking forward to two full days of rain, and the clearing of the humidity but I was gypped. Sure there were showers, but nothing could pull the wetness out of the sky enough, and as I donned my white cotton bee suit to add two more supers onto my original beehive and my swarm hive, the sweat rolled down my temples – and it wasn’t even 10 am. I have a lot of work to do in the garden, but the humidity is melting me and making me cranky. I did rip out the lettuce that bolted last week and I did harvest my garlic. I probably should have left some of the smaller heads in for another week, but I knew if I didn’t do it now it wouldn’t happen.

Lots of things in my life are like that. I need to do it when it comes to mind, or it won’t get done. I need to pay the bill the day I receive it (or within the week) or it will be buried in a pile somewhere. I need to weed the beds when I notice they are getting overwhelmed.


Well I didn’t do that with the pear tree bed and now that I finally ripped out all the Hesperis (Sweet Rocket) I am left with a few really gaping holes. I love Hesperis, in both its purple and the white shades and I adore the way it fills the beds in my garden, but it always seems to swamp its neighbors and suffocate them. This year it’s done in a couple Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’, a Platycodon ‘Fuji Blue’ and a number of Echinacea ‘Milkshake.’ You would think I’d learn.  I am torn over Hesperis – like the English, I’m quite mad about the flower – but in my garden they can become the most hideous of invasive thugs and they suffocate anything that’s on either side of them with wild abandon.

What I really should be doing is only allowing them back in the shrub gardens I’m just starting in the back and use them to keep the other weeds down. How brilliant would that be? So, since they are biennials, I need to gather up the seeds of the plants I still have remaining and scattered them into the far back beds. Those beds have the most dismal of soils, pure orange sand and rocks, with a layer of wood chips on top, so I’ll have to lay down some purchased soil for my Sweet Rocket to start in. I’m actually going to have to do the bags of soil thing anyway since Marders cornered the market on Asclepias Incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) plugs for a job that never happened and now they are selling the trays for ½ price.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, plants from the asclepias family are where Monarch butterflies feed and lay their eggs, and since the Monarchs are in deep trouble, we all need a patch of Asclepias for them to find if they venture into our backyards. I have the cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’ in two of my beds already, and it’s white (deer resistant) flowers are perfect already, but I’m going to use the pink in those back shrub border beds in large swathes.

I am always telling people that they need to plant things in large masses, and I am trying to follow my own advice, but I’ve been bringing home sick and broken plants and using those to fill the back beds. It’s a bad habit I can’t seem to break. This is how one ends up with a hodge-podge, and If I’m not careful it’s going to look terrible. Luckily I’m also shopping the half-price table, which means that if I do find 10 of something it’s priced so that I can bring them all home (hello Uvularia Grandiflora!) The Asclepias Incarnata I’m getting at half price is a really good clear pink, not the dirty dusty rose of the Common Milkweed and it can handle wet feet which means it’s more versatile then the Asclepias Tuberosa that must remain dry.  You get fifty plants in a tray and I’m thinking of bringing home three. How’s that for massing?

And speaking of things that need doing when they come to mind, what I really should be focusing on is digging up all the daylilies from the front bed that have become or reverted to the common roadside daylily. I don’t remember ever planting these flowers, instead I remember buying expensive clumps right out of the fields of the daylily grower that used to live in Watermill. I choose my daylilies for their rose and pink and melon pastel colors. But after years of heavy deer pressure those are all gone now and all I’m left with is this orange I don’t want. I should dig them up while they are in flower so I know I’m getting rid of the right ones and keeping the few sorbet flavored ones I have left. Not that it’s going to happen anytime soon, but I did just go out and buy my lottery tickets for the month on the off chance that I could quit my job and just read and write and paint and cook and garden.  Sigh.

Oh well, I’m off to harvest the handful of haricot vert beans that are ready. For some reason only a few of the seeds took. I’m quite unhappy about it, but we all know how bad I am at starting seeds, so I will have to put a chunk of those lottery funds into the most marvelous of greenhouses so I can do better. That’s if I win, of course.

Paige Patterson found a dead baby possum that was so incredibly beautiful, she wanted to paint it, but it was way too smelly to bring into the house and her painting studio is still a pipe dream.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

knowledge of the sea

When I first stated gardening for pleasure, as opposed to being forced as a child to weed in a vegetable garden I had little to no interest in, it was on a high piece of land in Bridgehampton belonging to my parents. No one else in my family had any interest in gardening, even the afore mentioned vegetable garden had been a rank failure, a fenced in rectangle of chest-high weeds hiding renegade foot-long zucchini. There had been, back in the days of the dreaded vegetable garden patch, a gardening book that my father owned that captured my interest. Titled Gardening by the Sea and written by Daniel Foley it was first published in 1965 and then reprinted in 1982. Dad actually had both copies, but I had relieved him of his reprint years before I knocked the pegs into the ground to square out the rough border of my soon to be own plot.

I’m not sure why my father owned the books, possibly to help choose which trees to plant at our old house on Hedges Land in Sagaponack, where, when we bought our twelve acres, the ocean was visible across empty potato fields that now grow nothing except huge, shingled, second homes. The winds there tasted like salt all year long, so maybe he was being practical and researching his choices, or perhaps, like me, he bought books to dream about the possible future.

I read that book cover to cover, a couple of times, before I ever begin to really garden in earnest. And I still get it down and flip through it whenever I’m asked to create or consult on a seaside garden for someone now.

The photos are in black and white, the Russian olive (now an illegal and invasive plant) is raved about not only for it’s resiliency but also it’s beauty, and there’s no real mention of deer resistance, but I still love this book. It’s where I first learned to appreciate bayberry and the fact that trumpet vine can survive on the ocean-facing front of a house. The book talked about how hard it was to find beach plum, an issue we no longer face with all the amazing nurseries we have out here on the East End, and it introduced me to clethra and its ability to tolerate wet feet.

I didn’t really have to worry about salt spray in my first garden. As I weeded I could still see that silver sliver across the fields and past a pond, but them my parents put up hedges and the view died away. I only grew flowers, so none of the book’s relentless knowledge of tough trees and shrubs that could survive a winter at the beach was really necessary, but it’s how I learned that ilex crenata was not as good with salt spray as ilex glabra, and got my first exposure to some of the plants I now love to use -- viburnums, spireas, weigelas and roses.

It didn’t reference boxwood, nor did it mention crape myrtles, both plants I truly adore, but it fueled my imagination and started my plant education. I tell people who are interested in learning how to garden out here to buy this book, and to supplement it with Theodore James Jr.’s book published in 1995 titled Seaside Gardening. That book’s color photos are a little dated now, but the peek you get into local homes is deliciously tempting. There on page 112 is their list of deer resistant perennials, which with a few obvious exceptions (Shasta daisies, astilbe, echinacea) is not too bad.

As a gardener, I quickly became seduced by the gardens and garden books of the English, and still bring home random primroses, campanulas and other fluffy, frail, fragile things even now, things that I know will, eventually, succumb to the winter winds that whip through my garden each year. I should knock it off and go back to my basics, back to planting the plants Theodore and Daniel taught me all those years ago. But then I think, we’ll I’m not close enough to the ocean to benefit from how the salt mist battles black spot, so I’m probably far enough away to have a hornbeam, a Korean hornbeam at that. It’s a problem.

So let’s get down to the basics of salt and salt tolerance. First there are very few things that can handle having their feet in salt water. Baccharis halimiflora, (groundsel) grows on the beach edge of Sagg Pond so it certainly can tolerate more salt then anything else. Myrica pensylvanica (bayberry) also grows down on the beach, as does prunus maritime (beach plum) and all three are natives, but the rugosa rose that grows in the dunes is, contrary to popular belief, not indigeous, but is a Japanese plant. I think it’s amazings how it throws itself into the dunes facing the ocean, so I adore it. This is the same place you find chrysanthemum nipponicum (Montauk daisy) and the lathyrus maritimus (beach pea) which has been successful propagated by a local grower and is available this year at nurseries for the first time in ages. Go Jim Glover.

Last year we rebuilt a garden in the dunes and planted both ammophila breviligulata (beach grass) and elymus arenarius (blue lyme grass.) The elymus proved to be so successful it’s outrunning all its boundaries. This is also a garden where the next two plants facing the sea are Endless Summer hydrangeas and behind them juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood juniper.) Both made it through this winter like champions. As did the locust trees that sat with their roots under a foot of water at another beach front location where I work. Those trees sat in slat water for a week after hurricane Sandy. It was interesting to see what survived that storm and what didn’t – who would have thought blue spruce would be okay after sitting in hurricane water in Sag Harbor? If they had just been planted that spring, there’d be no way, but these established beauties made it fine.

That hurricane killed spreading junipers but not Hollywood junipers, that were both terribly old in some places while in other spots, younger spreaders survived, so there are no hard and firm rules to be made. I’ve had crape myrtles survive beautifully inmost locales I’ve placed them, but at my house last year three were struck back to rootstock. So who knows? Of course we know that pinus thumbergiana (Japanese black pine) is the most tolerant evergreen of all, but we also know that the turpentine beetles that attack it can be devastating. Of course, if you keep all your black pines healthy and well cared for --watered and fed -- and make sure you have someone come check for and treat beetle damage, they will last significantly longer. Picea glauca (white spruce) do well in dune conditions but look a little out of place to my eye, I prefer pinus rigida (pitch pine) – it’s a little harder to find, but much more natural looking. However there’s a Japanese garden on the north side of a seafront house in Bridgehampton that’s doing super well, so I think the key is to be well versed in knowledge and then to a take a wander around your neighborhood and see what’s working and what isn’t, and then possibly, take a few chances and try some things out.

Attached is a list of salt tolerant trees and shrubs to get you started on your garden by the sea, although I strongly advise trying to dig up both of these books before you start planning or planting.

Common name
Latin name
Sycamore maple
Acer pseudoplatanus
Aesculus hippocastanum
Red buckeye
Aesculus pavia
Gray birch
Betula populifolia
Catalpa speciosa
Celtis laevigata
White fringetree
Chionanthus virginicus
Amelanchier canadensis
Shadbush serviceberry
Japanese cedar
Cryptomeria japonica
Common persimmon
Diospyros virginiana
Ginkgo biloba
Gleditsia triacanthos
American holly
Ilex opaca
Black walnut
Juglans nigra
Eastern red cedar
Juniperus virginiana
Koelreuteria paniculata
Common larch
Larix decidua
Liquidambar styraciflua
Southern magnolia
Magnolia grandiflora
Sweetbay magnolia
Magnolia virginiana
Black gum
Nyssa sylvatica
Colorado spruce
Picea pungens
Austrian pine
Pinus nigra
Japanese black pine
Pinus thunbergiana
Black cherry
Prunus serotina
White oak
Quercus alba
Black locust
Robinia pseudoacacia
Weeping willow
Salix alba
Corkscrew willow
Salix matsudana
Japanese pagodatree
Sophora japonica
Japanese tree lilac
Syringa reticulata
Taxodium distichum
Chaste tree
Vitex angus-castus

Common name
Latin name
Red chokeberry
Aronia arbutifolia
Baccharis halmifolia
Littleleaf boxwood
Buxus microphylla
Callicarpa Americana
False cypress
Chamaecyparis pisifera
Clethra alnifolia
Red osier dogwood
Cornus sericea
Spreading cotoneaster
Cotoneaster divaricatus
Rockspray cotoneaster
Cotoneaster horizontalis
Scotch broom
Cytisus scoparius
Hibiscus syriacus
Bigleaf hydrangea
Hydrangea macrophylla
St. John's wort
Hypericum calycinum
Japanese holly
Ilex crenata
Ilex glabra
Chinese juniper
Juniperus chinensis
Common juniper
Juniperus communis
Shore juniper
Juniperus conferta
Creeping juniper
Juniperus horizontalis
Myrica pennsylvanica
Mock orange
Philadelphus coronarius
Mugo pine
Pinus mugo
Shrubby cinquefoil
Potentilla fruticosa
Purple-leaf sand cherry
Prunus x cistena
Beach plum
Prunus maritime
Staghorn sumac
Rhus typhina
Rugosa rose
Rosa rugosa
Sambucus Canadensis
Japanese spirea
Spiraea japonica
Bumalda Jap. spirea
Spiraea x bumalda
Syringa vulgaris
English yew
Taxus baccata
Japanese yew
Taxus cuspidata
Highbush blueberry
Vaccinum corymbosum
Viburnum dentatum