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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I can see my breath tonight

It’s chilly out tonight, so it doesn’t really feel like the Summer Solstice is upon us, but it’s come and gone. It’s sweater wearing weather, which feels so strange in June after the last couple of sweltering summers we’ve all been through, but for me it’s a sweet reminder of my childhood. I grew up in Sagaponack, not year round, but every weekend and every summer and I remember summer evenings just like this one. We’ve see a few fireflies already, but for me they were a July sensation, captured in a jar when my skin was already the deep brown that comes from wearing a bathing suit all day long.  We never needed air-conditioning when I was a child, just screens in the windows and perhaps a fan or two on a few August nights.

As I sit writing this on the kitchen porch I can hear the sound of the ocean and the petals of my ballerina rose drop slowly as if dancing with or curtseying to the evening cool breeze. I am not minding what everyone else is calling an unseasonably cool June -- I like it. The roses are loving it, no heat and thus no black spot, the fungus needing the combination of humidity and heat to start its relentless attack. There’s talk that using a combination of milk and water to spray the roses will slow the creep of the fungus, but I am now just reveling in a June with roses billowing like overstuffed pillows and kousa dogwoods dripping pink and white.

There are no June bugs tonight, but that’s okay, it feels like the earth is slowly stretching into summer, and the June bugs will be bouncing off the screens again soon. I too, like those awkward brown beetles, am nestling into a quieter sleep on these cool evenings, and life is good.

I picked snow peas from my garden this evening and after steaming them for just seconds, had a plateful for dinner. No butter, no salt, just sweet bright green deliciousness. I even shared a few with the dachshunds. Perfect summer meal. Three days ago I cut enough garlic scapes to dress both my forearms with bangles of green up to my elbows. The pesto will last all summer long.  The hydrangeas are recovering, my tomatoes are starting to expand, the dahlias are about 8 inches high and it all feels right to me.

The weeds are a little relentless, but the cool evenings mean I’m not too tired and exhausted from the heat of the day to pull out the armfuls I must remove each evening after work. I am making a dent. Not a big dent, but it is progress. This summer is teaching me to be patient. To wait and them appreciate each bud as it opens. Yes the peonies came and went too fast, the rain did mine in, but the mock orange is an intoxicating perfume that more than makes up for it.

I am learning, after decades of gardening that each year is different. There is no certainty in my garden anymore. The winter was hard on my skimmia, eighteen years of beauty, and now it’s still looking bad, but my yellow magnolia that we thought for sure was a goner, has reveled in it’s hard chop that left thigh thick trunks exposed, trunks that are now pushing handfuls of luscious new growth. I lost a number of crape myrtles, but the spirea is bountiful. I am learning to appreciate the stalwart garden standards more.

Viburnums had a magnificent spring, and my apples and pears are laden with small fruits. My hive survived the cold and threw off a new colony into one of the abandoned hives that remains from last year’s deaths. Those bees persevered through the cold with a strength that gave me all the fruit that’s slowly forming, and even my fig is pushing out new growth from its roots. Sure the hydrangeas are smaller this year, but that’s just an opportunity to tuck dark pink nicotianas into the spaces and give my resident hummingbirds more floral dining options.

The smell of privet is something we don’t get much anymore. Too many hedges are tamed; few are left to roll wild and free like the waves on the beach. There are buds on my privet and I am loath to prune it. My childhood home had a hedge that ran perpendicular to the road that was as tall as the house itself. The only thing taller was the ancient beech that stood solitary to the west. I loved that hedge and it’s wild unruly scent. There was no pruning of it, who would have even known where to start. It billowed waves of summer into our bedrooms when the cool air danced into our rooms each night. That was the beginning of summer for me each year, not the ending of school, although that too was lovely.

There were no gardeners in my family, so I didn’t know that having butterfly bushes that topped out above the garage was unusual. There was milkweed growing wild in the fields that were not plowed, milkweed that feed butterflies and gave us magic, silken pods that released dancing ladies each fall. And that flower’s scent I mess as well.

Back when there were only handful of houses on Hedges Lane, the night sky still smelled the same as it does now, the air still tasted the same and listening to the rhythmic pounding of the sea was a quiet, easy way to drift off to sleep. To still have those same joys now is a gift that I am happy to receive.

Paige Patterson came home with three new hydrangeas tonight, who even knew there were still hydrangeas out there she didn’t already own.