Category Archives: Garden Musings

Hopeful Anticipation

The Hellebore hybrids are consistent early performers that really show off when early spring temperatures moderate.

We are several weeks into spring 2021, and so far, no surprise snow storms! Actually, we have even had a few days when it felt like it was the middle of May. Oh it’s so easy to get giddy when the skies are calm and blue and the temperature reaches 70F. Still, this New England gardener has had more than a few stinging memories of drastic temperature swings, when garden and nursery plants were nipped in the bud (literally and figuratively).

Jeffersonia dubia taking in the early morning sunshine on April 8th.

This unseasonal warm spell we just experienced did push growth on the earliest blooming perennials, and buds of many trees and shrubs have begun to swell (in our protected front garden our Katsura Japanese maple is beginning to leaf out weeks early). Except where voles and chipmunks have unearthed and/or eaten roots of choice Epimedium and Hakonechloa, it looks like there are fewer overwinter losses. The chipmunks especially love creating their tunneled habitats in the stone wall raised beds that Chris has built around the property. We’ve come to resign ourselves that we just have to share the gardens.

Chipmunks’ burrowing tunnels exposed the roots and created air pockets around dwarf Solomon’s Seal and Epimedium, and we are not sure who to blame for the gnawed below the crown of the Japanese Forest Grass.

One thing that has us already concerned is that 2021 has been unseasonably dry here in southeastern Massachusetts. You may not be experiencing a lack of precipitation in your region, or have no need for concern yet, but with last week’s warmth, we already began dragging hoses around to soak our planting beds.

This leads to the question, “What type of growing conditions should we plan for this year?” Last summer was horrifically dry for us (at least our succulent collections were happy).  Although there is still  time to catch up on rainfall totals, it would be wise to add a protective layer of compost/mulch on garden beds to help conserve moisture. Also, selecting adaptable but more drought tolerant native plants is advice that no one could argue with.

Aster ptarmicoides (Upland White Aster), native to the midwest, is a durable plant for the front of the sunny border.

Gardeners are optimists. In April,  we anticipate regular rainfall and kind growing conditions for the year ahead. That being said, those of us who have been at this for a while know to have a backup plan in place in case our positive outlooks become challenged. Yes, that adaptability thing…plants, human expectations…it is key in being a happy gardener.

How did your garden fare this winter? What are you most hopeful  for this season?

Holiday decor in the time of Covid

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’ and Begonias with cut greens and lights

Yep, this year is different. Fear of Covid has canceled holiday gatherings, and the urge to go all out with decorating is met by some with the question, “should I bother?” The answer is yes, even if it must be simple. This year, we absolutely need to illuminate the long nights with strings of lights and candles, but maybe we can take a break from lugging boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic. (The thought of putting it all away is a chore no one relishes!) Instead,  we’ll focus on bringing nature indoors with decor that is  gathered from the garden and (lucky us) , the greenhouse.

Succulents in shades of red, green and white sit on a tray with gathered moss. Even the Aloes have festive names: the tiny one in the foreground is ‘Christmas Sleigh’, just behind it is  Aloe ‘Blizzard’, with blue green Echeveria setosa dimunata flanking on either side.

a brilliant Guzmania with red spikemoss

fresh evergreen wreath cut from conifers in the garden.

So, yes to winter wreaths on doorways, garlands, and arrangements of cut branches with pine cones. Yes to forced pots of Amaryllis, Christmas roses and red and green leaved Begonia. We may bring in a potted evergreen from the nursery and simply dress it with lights. Some classic holiday music will set the mood, along with the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

catch early morning light in the garden

a fire brings light and warmth

a fire brings light and warmth to end the day

This may be the year when we can’t physically gather with friends and family, but we can find peace and hope in nature’s gifts. Be outside as much as possible: take an early morning walk to catch the bird song or build a fire at dusk. Perhaps these simple ways of acknowledging the season,  more akin to the ancient winter festivals of northern Europe, will become a new tradition.

bottom lighting sets off this white Amaryllis

Peace and joy to you all!

Stay well!

Quick Container Rehab

Nothing stays the same, and this is especially true with gardening. A container planting can look great for 2 months and then an issue arises…a focal point plant gets leaf spot or melts with the humidity, or it just stops blooming.  This doesn’t mean you have to ditch the grouping. You just need to edit.

Blame it on the humidity or uneven watering, or gardener’s neglect (I’ll be honest) but the showy orange Begonia bolivinensis just began to look awful with leaf spotting. Spraying with a fungicide would only prevent new leaves from being affected, so the only thing to do was to remove this sad plant and find a worthy replacement. Sad because the hummingbirds sure did visit frequently.

This spot gets a few hours of the afternoon sun, and we’ll have summery weather for at least another 6-7 weeks, so I decided on using orange flowered Cuphea ‘David Verity’ (for the hummingbirds) which never disappoints and will flower until a hard frost. I also had enough space to tuck in a dwarf variegated papyrus  (Cyperus albostriatus) , (you can always count on foliage plants). Although it likes moisture I’ve found it can tolerate dryish conditions.

I am guilty of overplanting a container, in case some plants just don’t perform, figuring I can always thin out the planting later. This pot with Verbena bonariensis, Lantana montevidensis, Gomphrena ‘Truffula Pink’ and Euphorbia Diamond Delight needed editing. The Angel Wings Senecio candicans really started to go downhill once the humidity arrived in July.First  I brought down the height of the Verbena bonariensis by removing the tallest stalks. I cut back the Lantana and the Gomphrena to allow the Euphorbia to own more space. And out came the Angel Wings…lesson learned…not a plant for southern New England summers. Next, I fertilized with fish emulsion to give a nourishment boost to the planting.

Later, I’ll post how these containers fared when I do the end of September evaluation.

2019: A Spring to Remember

A favorite vignette with Enkianthus c. ‘Sikokianus’ and Acer palmatum ‘Chishio Improved’

It’s been a while since we’ve had a cool, moist  (wet…maybe really wet) lengthy spring.  Most years, April gives us a wintry mix; we get 2 weeks of spring in May, and then summer-like weather hits us by Memorial Day and we soon start praying for rain. Not this year. The flowering trees and shrubs have been putting on a show unlike any other year in recent memory.  Here are a few joyful images from the past 6 weeks.

Arisaema fargesii foliage emerging

Glaucidium palmatum, the lovely wood poppy bloomed for us for the first time!

Art imitating Life

Clematis recta ‘Lime Close’ growing up through Kolwitzia

Leucosceptrum ‘Gold Angel’ effectively disguising Allium foliage!!!!

Kolwitzia ‘Dreamcatcher’, aka Beautybush’

Epimedium ‘Domino’ has continued to throw off flowers since late April, and here it is mid June!

Paeonia ‘Bartzella’

Right now the variegated Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ is stunning with thousands of 3-4″ flowers.

What plants totally blew you away with their beauty this spring?

Planting for Honey Bees

Lindera benzoin, blooming in March,  is an early source of nectar.

We are about to begin our 4th season as beekeepers, and it has been fascinating, heartwarming and at times, devastating. It’s too early to be assured of our hives’ winter survival but there was a whole lot of action around all 3 hives during the recent 2-day warm spell. Off “the girls” went in search of food to replenish their winter stores. This brought up the question: which specific plants would the bees find around our property that might provide pollen and nectar? I knew our Witch Hazels (Hamamelis) were just beginning to open. What other plants could we introduce to ensure an early and sustained supply of bee nourishment in our northern climate?

Hamamelis ‘Arnold’s Promise’

There is much information for attracting pollinators, (a great source is Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden blog and podcast) but not so much specifically for the honey bee, Apis mellifica. I was able to get bits of info here and there, and finally found an online document, Gardening for Honey Bees by Kathleen M. Prough for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which was quite thorough and easy to follow.  It provided a lengthy list of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, notating their bloom period and whether they provided nectar  (for energy and honey production) or pollen (for protein) or both. Note to non-beekeepers: only certain plants provide nectar for bees, and when these begin to flower, beekeepers get ready for what we call the Honey Flow, a busy time for foraging bees to collect nectar to bring back to the hives. 

Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’

Here in the northeast, honeybees can forage from February through November, as warm temperatures permit. It is important for bees to have a steady supply of flowers to forage, and for the beekeeper to take note of when there is a dearth in her/his area. After referring to Kathleen Prough’s list, I checked off which plants we already had on or near our property and noted which bloom periods I needed to supplement with the right plants to fill the voids. It is important to plant groupings of pollen and nectar-producing perennials and shrubs.  Honeybees scout for sources and concentrate their efforts where there are ample stores. “Flower fidelity” is the phrase describing how honeybees focus collection efforts on one type of flower, as they single-mindedly collect pollen and nectar from one type of plant, ensuring good plant pollination.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in late February

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ with Iris ‘Kathryn Hodgkin’

I definitely knew I needed to add more late winter/early spring pollen and nectar sources. In the woodland behind our hives we have room to add Spicebush, Lindera benzoin and in our low wet area,  space for more Willows, Salix spp.  The early flowers of species Snowdrops (Galanthus) are sources of pollen. We already have a nice little stand of Crocus which provides pollen, but why not plant more?  Siberian Squill  (Scilla siberica) is another early bulb loved by bees and it has amazing blue pollen  Last year I noticed some honeybees on the early blooming  Helleborus niger, although I did not see it on the bee plant list. Hopefully, the nearby swamp maples and alders will provide a good supply of pollen in early April.

Pieris japonica

Enkianthus sikokianus

During April-May our gardens have a decent supply of bee loving flowering trees and shrubs: Apples (Malus)  Blueberries, (Vaccinium), Aronia,  Pieris, Enkianthus,  Hollies (Ilex) and Boxwood (Buxus).  Late spring/early summer perennial selections that offer pollen and nectar include  Baptisia, Crambe, Nepeta, Monarda, Phlox divaricata and stolonifera, Periscaria polymorpha and more.

Calamintha nepeta (Calamint)

Caryopteris x clandonensis Blue Empire

High summer into fall plants include Agastache, AlliumAsclepias, Calamintha, Echinacea, the perennial sunflowers Heliopsis and Helianthus, Lavender, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum), Penstemon, Persicaria amplexicaulis, Rudbeckia, Salvia, Teucrium, Verbena, Vernonia and Veronicastrum. Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia), Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens) and Blue Mist Shrub (Caryopteris) are summer blooming shrubs that I’ve noticed lots of bees visiting. We are fortunate to have a stand of Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) right near our hives, and its nectar makes the most delicate honey. I’m told the honey derived from the nectar of Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum) is also to die for. In case you are unfamiliar with Sourwood it’s a native tree with drooping panicles of white bell flowers in mid-late summer with outstanding fall foliage color. 

Cerinthe purpurescens aka Honeywort

Honeybee visiting Salvia vanhoutii

Planting annuals favored by honey bees will give quick results and offer food this season, well into autumn.  Early flowering annuals such as Honeywort (Cerintheand Calendula can start your season. Top honeybee choices for summer are Alyssum, Basil, Borage, Cleome, Cosmos, Salvia, Sunflowers, Tithonia and Zinnias to name a few. These annuals, along with fall blooming perennials such as the various Asters, Goldenrod (Solidago), Sedum and Chrysanthemum will provide more end of the season pollen sources.

very late blooming Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ in early November

You don’t have to keep bees to support the honey bee population, but do consider planting more bee-friendly plants in your gardens. Please refrain from using harmful pesticides (neo-nicotinoids, once thought safe, are very bad!), herbicides (no Roundup!) and fungicides in your gardens. Allow wildflowers to establish and flourish on your property. Let those Dandelions, one of the first flowers that honey bees gather pollen and nectar from, bloom away in your lawn. In the fall, native asters and goldenrod are valuable late season food sources.

Above is a little clip of bee activity on the Mountain Mint. I plan to take more notes on which plants honey bees visit. Feel free to share which plants you have noticed honey bees on.

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 St. Augustine 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 beautifully 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, aware of the effects of climate change on their plantings, will be challenged to predict which plants will be the stars of 2019. 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 the 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.