Category Archives: Garden Musings

Taking Stock of 2018

June Delpiniums

Part of the preparations for updating the Avant Gardens 2019 plant list is to archive the gazillions of garden photographs taken and update the website with new and better images. This cataloging of images reminded me of the star performers of 2018, and regrettably, which plants had a less than stellar year.

Planted in a sunny warm spot at the base of a wall, Acanthus hungaricus

Now one thing always holds true. You can’t rely on any particular weather pattern here in southern New England.   Every year (every season!) challenges us with a totally different set of circumstances, and 2018 was the most challenging gardening year that I can recall. Drastic swings in winter temperatures are the new normal…we began with an arctic blast with January’s arrival followed by 6 weeks of typical winter weather. The last week of February brought surprising warmth and it was a terrible tease… the dusk to dawn thermometers remained above freezing for 7 nights in a row. 

March Blizzard with Hamamelis (Witchhazel)

March weather reminded us why some New Englanders vacate to warmer climates until May….3 nor’easters blew in during the first 2 weeks, and this made spring seem so very far away. Sunshine and a gradual warming trend finally arrived in May, continued for a few weeks, and then summer heat and humidity settled in.

Dwarf Bearded Iris ‘Pastel Charm’ in May

Our garden, late spring.

This is what I remember about last summer…lots of heat and humidity but no rain to speak of…oh wait… on Aug. 4th we had a half inch of precipitation. Yes, I do know folks in much of the northeast had record rainfall, but during July and August the ocean fronts pushed any rainfall off of Cape Cod, the MA South Coast and coastal Rhode Island to the northwest. Our high humidity finally turned to almost daily precipitation in September and October, and then a killing frost finally pulled the curtain just before Halloween arrived.

it’s raining at last…August rainfall is wonderful!

So how did various plants in the garden fare with this irrational weather pattern? Well this was the first year the succulent planters, which in previous years have sung Hallelujah gloriously in September, sadly cried “Enough wet air, already!” long before the first frost arrived. The hardy succulents seemed worse for wear from the constant humidity even when they inhabited the leanest, well drained spots in the garden. On the other hand, any plant with tropical origins prospered in 2018…the Cannas, Caladium and Colocasia were saying “Hey baby!” without any coddling on our part.

Black Colocasia, Caladium and Variegated Bermuda grass

Magnolia macrophylla blossom

Clethra barbinervis in flower

Trees and shrubs always seem to persevere despite the weather, but I know they appreciated the rebound of precipitation our wet autumn provided.The standouts in 2018: I continue to be impressed with Magnolia macrophylla and Clethra barbinervis as extraordinary trees for our landscapes.

Honey bee visiting Pycnanthemum muticum

Calamintha nepeta

Persicaria ‘Firetails’ in the August border,

Detail of Persicaria ‘Firetails’

A few always stellar perennials stood out: Pycnanthemum muticum, flourished and bloomed for months, providing a food source for our honeybees and other pollinators as well. Aralia ‘Sun King’ just kept looking better and better into the fall. Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta and Persicaria ‘Fire Tails’ bloomed incessantly from mid-July to October. Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’s handsome variegated leaves held up strongly in the shade garden, and its display of lavender orchid like flowers bloomed for 8 weeks beginning in August. The Shrub Mints, Leucosceptrum ‘Golden Angel’ and ‘Mountain Madness’ , maintained their good looking foliage all summer and then their autumn flower spikes provided a feast for our bees!

Aralia ‘Sun King’

Tricyrtis ‘Autumn Glow’…in bloom from August to October.

Gardeners, who aware of the effects of climate change on their plantings, will be challenged to predict which plants will be the stars of 2019. We are lectured that native plants are always a good bet, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that climate change isn’t affecting them as well.  One thing that is constant: plants perform better when good gardening practices are in place. Select the right plant for your soil conditions, amend your soil with compost, mulch newly planted areas to retain moisture and limit weeds, use soaker hoses to irrigate and provide a habitat for beneficial insects. 

A yellow intersectional peony on a late spring evening.

Each year is different, and gardeners are optimists. There’s no telling what 2019 will bring, but I’m sure we will experience pure bliss when we will sit in our gardens on a late spring evening, inhale, and feel that at this moment all is right in this world.

Which plants performed best for you in 2018? Which plants are you looking forward to trying this gardening year?

Joy

A while ago I heard someone comment “Happiness is overrated”.  Something about that comment resonated. 

We are constantly encouraged to pursue happiness. We are told that acquiring “things” will make us happy, that we will be truly happy when we meet our soul mate, that our children’s and loved ones’ happiness will make us happy too. If we don’t have new things or a soul mate, or our children are not happy, then that must mean we are unhappy too.

Joy, to me,  is something different. Joy really can’t be purchased nor taken away. Joy comes from deep within us, a place that is solid and loving. It is an intense feeling of contentment which can be ignited when we experience something pure: watching kittens or puppies play and tumble, observing an elderly couple walk hand in hand, spending moments in a garden while contemplating the array of life surrounding us. We can share joy with others who are open to it.

This holiday season, may moments of contentment ignite the joy within you. May those around you be open to the joy you feel. And may we all continue to find and savor joyous moments throughout the coming year.

 

containers 2018… the after shots

The summer of 2018 presented many challenges to gardeners here in the northeast. Some folks had mind-numbing amounts of rainfall. We had the heat and HUMIDITY but missed most of the storms until September, when we began to catch up with the precipitation….a good thing for the trees and shrubs,  but after a summer of high humidity, the succulents which s often end with a grand tra-la, began to falter.  On the other hand, containers that loved tropical conditions thrived, and I wish I had planted more.

I present to you the before and after pictures:

Brown terra cotta bowl, June and then October…a number of succulents like the yellow and copper Sedum melted with the humidity and late season wetness.

The turquoise jar held up admirably, with Echeveria ‘Afterglow’. The after picture was taken in mid-September.

We never caught them in action, but think some birds decided to have a go at pecking on the succulents’ foliage and breaking off strands from the Rhipsalis which trails over this gray cylinder pot.

Still looking as good as it did in June, this urn with Beschorneria and tender succulents put on a little more growth.

Shade Pot 1. The white form of Begonia boliviensis continues to send our flowers with the Blue Rabbit’s Foot Fern and trailing Alternanthera ‘Gails Choice’ is still holding up well in early October.

Time of day and time of year affect lighting so much. This was a fairly successful shade planter with Begonia ‘Concorde’ filling in nicely, and the golden-leaved piggyback plant Tolmeia ‘Cool Gold’ adding color contrast. The Maidenhair fern fronds had a tendency to brown out.

Happy happy tropicals such as the dark red Caladium and Black Elephant Ears aren’t ready to quit. Trailing over the pot is variegated Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon)

 

How did your containers perform this season?  Did you try a combination that worked well all summer and is still showing off now?

Thoughts on Fall Plantings

Late May in the mixed border with Allium, Baptisia and Symphytum

One of the first lessons of garden making is to plan and act now for future results. Garden making asks us to be patient; it may be months, (sometimes years) before we see the desired results. Planting in autumn requires an added measure of trust. Unlike in spring when we are rewarded with an explosion of top growth, fall planted trees, shrubs and perennials focus on growth below ground.

“Plant a spring garden in the fall.”  I remember receiving this advice from a seasoned gardener when I first fell in love with plants. Embarking on a new planting project may take some motivation after a hot dry summer. Still, there are solid arguments why you should consider establishing most hardy plants at the end of the growing season.  The most compelling reason is how little time we actually have to accomplish plantings once spring does arrive. 

Late April snowfall tormenting poor Epimedium

In recent years, it seems like our autumn weather lingers, with a killing frost not causing harm until almost Thanksgiving. Winter gets a late start, but then tends to hang around longer and longer, which means spring is late too. Just like a hangover, March rolls in, often tormenting us with one snow, wind or ice storm after another.  April is a tease, with signs of early plant growth stalled by frosty nights. Gardeners can only commiserate.  By the time the soil becomes workable and is warm enough for root growth, it is already May, and there is so much to do in May! Beds and borders need spring cleanups and fertilization, plus the container, vegetable and cut flower gardens need to be planned and planted as well.  Even with careful planning, everything always seems to happen at once.

Reasons to plant in the fall.

Fall blooming Vernonia lettermanii with Yucca ‘Color Guard’ and Crambe maritima in foreground

1. Warm soil temperatures allow for root growth and plants are well established once spring actually arrives.

2.  Rainfall tends to be more reliable and cooler temperatures mean there is far less time devoted to watering chores. Also since foliage is dying back or dropping  altogether, there is less top growth that needs sustaining.

3.  This is the best time to dig and divide most spring and early summer blooming plants. All species of Iris, for example are much happier if divided in early fall, as they set roots quickly in the warm autumn soil.

4. You may consider planting more late season plants! When plant shopping, gardeners are always attracted to plants that are in showy bloom. Folks who do their plant shopping primarily in spring tend to have gardens with lots of early bloomers. The opposite also rings true. Our own garden is heavy on late summer and fall interest plants, because many of our beds get planted then (out of necessity…we have so little time in the spring).

Important Gardening Tip:

If you live in an area which gets extreme winter temperature fluctuations, (most of us do in northern climates) it is a good idea to use a protective winter mulch on newly planted beds (and established beds as well). Sterile hay, evergreen boughs or shredded leaves placed over the earth after the ground freezes helps protect the soil from repeated thaws and frost heaving. Remove the mulch once the weather promises reliable springtime temperatures.

 

Fields of Gold

Have you ever wandered through a reclaimed woodland and come upon an abandoned homestead? Perhaps all that is left is a stone foundation and a few time-tested plants, such as a peony, century plant or Solomon’s Seal which manage to survive for decades without human care. And have you ever wondered, what will become of the plants that you’ve tended to all these years, once you are no longer around?

Back in my high school days, I came upon this open field of daffodils while exploring the woodlands off the road that I lived on. There may well have been a no trespassing sign, but all I can remember was being as enchanted as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I  had no idea whose property I was on, nor who was responsible for this field of gold.

Guess what? That field is still there. And fortunately, you won’t be trespassing if you visit today. In 2005, this 32 acre parcel was donated to our local land preservation group, Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, aka DNRT, by its last private owner, William Parsons. Thank you Mr. Parsons, and thank you DNRT!              

Now, it wasn’t Mr Parsons who planted all those narcissi; it was a gentlemen by the name of Raymond Pettey. The story I‘ve since been told is that Mr Pettey decided to plant the daffodils during the 1940’s as a cut flower crop, when the supply of spring flowers from Holland was cut off due to World War II. Once the war ended there wasn’t much of a demand for locally sourced cut flowers. The daffodils remained and multiplied.

The daffodil field property is now known as the Parsons Reserve and the fields and trails are maintained by DNRT. The main entrance to the property is on Horseneck Rd. in Russell’s Mills Village. The Reserve is open to the public, but a modest $2.00 donation during daffodil season is requested to help offset the cost of maintaining the trails and fields . There are things to consider before you visit. Parking is very limited, and more and more people make a pilgrimage each spring. There is a slight hill to climb, and it takes about 8-10 minutes on foot before you reach the fields. As you would expect, you  are not allowed to pick bouquets. Visit DNRT’s webpage for more detailed information of this and other properties, and of course, support their efforts if you can by becoming a member.

When is peak time? I was able to capture these images early in the morning last April 15th (2017). Our prolonged 2018 winter has meant we’re having a late start to spring, and my guess is that the daffodils will probably be at least a week late this season.

Thank you Mr. Pettey. You probably had no idea that your fields of gold would delight and inspire so many years later.

 

Holding winter at bay, the Danish Way

Haveselskabets Have, Horticultural Society Garden

Ordinarily, December isn’t the month you’d consider for visiting gardens, but the curious gardener welcomes any opportunity to observe new plants and planting schemes, even in winter. Earlier this month, Chris and I had the good fortune, along with dear friends Elin, Lasse, Nicole and Marc, to visit Copenhagen, and we had to make time for checking out the various public gardens.

at the University Botanical Garden

Melianthus major, a zone 8 plant

red and white berried Mountain Ash (Sorbus)

There were many surprises: most importantly, the climate.This Scandinavian country has milder winters than we have here in Massachusetts, with the average low of 32F, or 0C.  Yes, this means they can grow zone 8b plants like Melianthus. Summers are cool, with average temperatures of 67F (17C).  Temperatures like this allow for plants which dislike summer heat, such as Mountain Ash (Sorbus) to flourish. Being at a higher latitude means that winter day length is short, and the reverse is true in summer. This has a big effect on plant growth, and there are far less dramatic day to day temperature fluctuations due to the maritime climate.

yellow fruited crabapples and benches

formal gardens at Rosenborg Castle

Danes are eager to be outdoors year round, no doubt to absorb as much natural light as possible, and design their gardens and landscapes to have strong winter interest. Evergreens, fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, grasses and seed heads add structure, color and form. One thing that struck us was the balance of formal and naturalistic plantings working together. Trees are routinely pollarded. Boxwood is commonly sheared into geometric forms. Clipped plantings are mixed with billowing shrubs, masses of grasses and herbaceous plants. While I would not feel at home in a rigidly formal garden this blending of treatments was fun and unexpected.

clipped yews with naturalistic yucca

The Maiden statue, with water feature

Garden structures and hardscape play an important role in Danish gardens. Planting beds tend to have squared off geometry rather than wavy lines. Sculpture plus a strong role. Outdoor seating its always considered, in both open or intimate settings. In this often overcast climate, brick buildings are often stained in shades of orange or gold to brighten the otherwise neutral grays and browns of winter.

orange stained brick, with yellow fall foliage

in the window at Tage Andersen, a florist shop

Seasonal containers included plantings of Christmas Rose, (Helleborus niger), Heath, (Erica), Boxwood (Buxus) and Ivy (Hedera), accented with cut branches of Winterberry and Evergreens. Popup street vendors were selling potted winter interest plants including Skimmia, Hellebores, forced hyacinth, and Amaryllis along with branches and boughs of holly. A particularly magical floral shop Tage-Anderssen, had exquisite window displays, showcasing carefully crafted centerpieces using plant based materials.

Chris Tracey, having a “hygge” moment outside the succulent greenhouse

Danish interior design is world renown, celebrating geometry and simple lines. But what this gardener couldn’t help to notice were the many plant based accents, in the form of cut flowers, forced bulbs or potted succulents, used to soften and add warmth to living spaces. During the short days of winter, the Danes decorate interior spaces with white lights and candles, a particularly “hygge” thing to do.

winter solstice greetings!

As we head approach the solstice, with weeks of colder weather before us, I’ll hold onto my Danish experience. Today I brought in cut  branches of holly and boxwood, and will illuminate the darkness with candles and strings of lights, to drive the cold winter away.

Hygge…& Celebrating Winter’s Gifts

chokecherries2

Aronia arbutifolia “Brilliantissima’ with the first snowfall

Last week’s arctic blast brought temperatures in the single digits and truly announced that winter had arrived. Ready or not, garden chores were a wrap and the time had come for most of us to give ourselves permission to chill…indoors! 

We gardeners are naturally inclined to follow the rhythm of the seasons, and the shorter days of winter are a check for us to slow down and restore our energies. You, like I, may resist going into full hibernation mode, but why not take cues from Scandinavian folks, who endure even shorter days than we do. For example, the Danes practice hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) as part of daily life. Hygge can’t be translated into English with a single word, but imagine feelings or activities that promote coziness enhanced by candles or firelight….think warm socks and woolen sweaters, friendly gatherings before a roaring fire, warm beverages in your hands, looking dreamily at snowy scenes through frosted window panes, and late afternoon nature walks to catch the last rays of light.

The words of many secular Christmas carols promote feelings of hygge. There is no need to stop at the Yuletide’s end; we should make it our practice to continue hygge through the long winter. Take back the darkness by continuing to light candles or drape strands of white lights, then sit in your most comfy chair under a coverlet and lose oneself in a good book or listen to music, or finish knitting that scarf you started last year. All too soon spring will arrive, and the garden will beckon.

What interpretations of  hygge do you practice in winter? Would you like to share?

Now Revealed

weetamoo_berries2There is much to observe in the winter landscapes surrounding us here in New England. This past Sunday, Chris and I revisited nearby Weetamoo Woods in Tiverton RI. The deciduous trees have mostly let go of their leaves, and what is now revealed might go unnoticed earlier in the season or be at a totally different stage.  For example, above, the pesky green briar offers subtle beauty with its zigzag lines and blue black orbs of fruit against the waning light.weetamoo_woods_bark_moss_lichen_stone500Now, without the distraction of spring’s brilliant greens or autumn’s blazing red and gold tones, natural stone, tree trunks and moss become the main attractions…weetamoo_woods_stone500Look at this end of a wall formation embossed with aged lichen and liverwortsweetamoo_woods_ferninrock500There are colorful surprises…even at some distance, this olive green Rock Fern, happily embedded in a fissure of this sculpted stone, stood out.weetamoe_woods_ferninrock_detail500A closer view of the fern’s habitat.weetamoo_woods_stonewall500A dry laid stone wall still stands proudly and has developed a patina money can’t buy.weetamoo_woods_stream500Life and sounds emanating from this creek announced the remains of an old saw mill nearby.
weetamoe_woods_arch_bridge_chris500 Chris, a master stone wall artisan himself, inspected an ancient arched stone bridge which spanned the creek further ahead.weetamoo_woods500The vertical rhythm of tree trunks countered the soft crunch of oak leaves on the forest floor. Note to self: How simple, how peaceful.weetamoo_woods_wall1_500Dry laid stone walls, like this handsome and still structurally sound example in Weetamoo Woods,  acted as boundaries for livestock in earlier days, and now mark “rooms” throughout the property. Here and there, a tree might take root at its base, but a caregiver has seen to it that bramble hasn’t obscured its presence.

We can all be thankful for the simple beauty of our local woodlands, preserved with sensitive editing by the stewards who care for them. Imperfections, such as a wall slightly tumbled, may not be tolerated in some of our more cultivated gardens but are celebrated where the natural landscape rules.

Is there a special woodland walk near you which you find restorative? Perhaps you would like to share a special place with our readers.

From my window…

2016_nov_16outmywindow2webI love an autumn that lingers, that gently let’s go of leaf and blossom, that holds onto color made more vivid against a changing gray sky. A day or two or three of mild temperatures can make us forget that the naked garden of December and January awaits.  Right now I am enjoying this picture from my window, as it about to change, and yet will continue to offer interest in the cold months ahead.

What do you see when you look out your window? Are you pleased with your view? Does it include evergreen plants which add bold mass and keeps some color happening? Is there a nicely pruned tree whose silhouette can show off the tracings of winter snow? And do you notice branches that take on red or gold or purple pigments when temperatures drop, adding subtle hues, (but color nonetheless).

Do your plantings also invite the activity of birds? Will you catch the scarlet flash of a cardinal, who finds refuge in a dense evergreen, or the business of chickadees, who flit from one branch to the next, waiting for safe moments to descend upon the feeder.

From my window, the Hinoki Cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa compacta, provides a dark green screen from the road, and the winterberry, Ilex verticillata, adds brilliance for at least another month. The Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ will let go any day now, but we’ll suspend a feeder from its branches for the birds. The Forest Grass, Hakonechloa macra, will change from gold to tan. And then in late winter, the scene will flush anew reminding  me that spring is on its way, with color from early bulbs and Hellebores.

What plants are your favorites for winter interest?

Early November Journal

I began keeping this blog as a garden journal, documenting what is in color at particular times of year,  and capturing the surprises along the way. As we begin November, the show continues.ilex_wpeacockmaple72Despite the drought, there is a very good berry set on Ilex verticillata, with the Peacock Maple, Acer japonica aconitifolium echoing red in the background.enkianthus_showyl500Enkianthus ‘Showy Lanterns’ can’t decide which color to turn and is simultaneously taking on shades of yellow, orange, red and maroon.cotoneaster500Cotoneaster franchetti (grown from seed shared through a seed exchange) has a good fruit set this year.euonymus_sp500Prettiest time is now for  Euonymus carnosus, Chinese Spindle Treeaster_ageratoides_ezo500Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’ (or has the name changed to Kalimeris?) has already put up with 28F temperatures and is still offering color. Note that this Aster likes to spread!chrysantheum_sheffield500Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’, a peachy pink classic, offering pollen to honeybees and other insects.chrysanthemum_rhmbasp500Perennial Chrysanthemum ‘Rhumba’ (formerly Dendranthema) picking up the autumn toneschrysantheum_doublespoon500This mum was a gift from a friend who found this in her travels and swears this baby is winter hardy in zone 6…we shall see.mahonia_charity500Posed to flower, Mahonia ‘Charity’ will illuminate with citron yellow candles later this month.

What plants are about to show off for you this November?