Articles

Flirting with Frost

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Sensation'

We’ve been just missing predicted frost the last few nights but I think this may well have been the last of the frost-free nights.  It’s hard to complain because the average date for first frost in our area is October 25th but I thought that nature was trying to make amends for the disastrous summer growing season with high temps and no rainfall.  We’ve had a lovely October and the vegetables that I, with only the faintest of hope of success, planted in the dregs of early August has been yielding in abundance.

Late Fall harvest

Everything is growing as though the parched summer was only a distant memory and it does help rekindle my enthusiasm.

Fall lettuce

It’s quite unusual for us to have squash this time of year because it’s usually long gone to the squash borers by now.

Summer Squash

In addition to the green beans which are doing nicely, the original planting of Swiss Chard went right through the drought as though it were no problem at all and the small patch has been flourishing this fall.

Swiss Chard

This wonderful fall weather has brought out the color for some of the trees and shrubs.  It’s always amazing to see the variety of colors and forms that jump to the camera at this time of year.  Let’s start with the Amur Maple that provides the backdrop for the MacGardens header.

Amur Maple (Acer ginnala)

This is a reliable treasure with consistent strong reds and golds on small leaves that flutter in the wind.

Another really strong red is the Sour Gum that grows wild in the second pasture.

Sour Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

It always colors up pretty early compared to a lot of the trees.

Sour Gum leaves

We also have a lot of wild sassafras that has pretty nice oranges and yellows in trees that line the pasture.

Sassafras

In the same area we have a lot of Bigtooth Aspen that not only color up nicely but flutter their leaves in the wind in a gentle whispering characteristic of the Aspens.

Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Of course you can’t go anywhere on our property without noticing the dogwoods, both wild and planted, that have to be one of the all time best four-season plants.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

A couple of standout favorites for fall leaves are the Sweet Gum and the Sugar Maple.

Backlit Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

The Sweet Gum is one of the first trees that we planted when we moved here 35 years ago.  Followed only shortly afterwards by the Sugar Maple.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Finally a treasure at the bottom of the pasture is a pair of Pecans that color up very nicely in a good year.  They always look very nice against the backdrop of White Pines that form that part of our boundary.

Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)

Of course they look pretty nice with just the sky as a backdrop as well…

Top of Pecan

Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day for July 2010

Oriental Lily 'Time Out'

Well it is Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day once again where thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens we are called upon to describe what is blooming right now.  For us it is lillies, lillies, and more lillies.  The problem is that because of the drought we have been through all the flowers are much smaller than normal.  More about that later.  First let me share some of the flower pictures.

Oriental Lily 'Salmon Star'

Oriental Lily 'Marco Polo'

Trumpet Lily 'Scheherazade'

Lilies provide the added benefit of striking fragrance on a summer night and their smell permeates the house if you bring them inside.

Even the daylilies are getting into the act.

Red Daylily

Yes, there a lot of other players in the yard right now — the Shasta Daisies, the Black-eyed Susans, Yarrow, Gaura, Heliopsis, and Joe Pye Weed.

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

And our favorite Glad is out in bloom.

Princess Margaret Rose Gladiolius is the first one out again

And let us not forget a cute little annual Celosia.

Celosia 'Flamingo Feather'

But the biggest feature of the garden has been the lack of water.

We went on vacation at the end of June.  June was a very dry month before we left.  But I had watered everything I could before departing.  For the full month of June this is what we got for rainfall.

Weather for June

Note the record heat.  In addition during the two weeks we were gone there was zero rain and the heat got worse. Through the first 8 days of July not a drop fell at our house and the temperature went to a 106 degrees.  I had counted on getting at least one little rainstorm and hadn’t expected desert-like temperatures.

I still haven’t finished toting up the damage.

The dead and dying on the Maple Allee

This is the sight I faced on the evening I returned.  A lot of labor and years of growth on the little Maples — wasted.

The newly planted Coral Bark Maple is toast...

Garden disasters - note shrunken water-starved corn

Potted plants on evening of our return home

The positive on this last picture is that with water our thirty year-old Grapefruit has opened it’s leaves again.

I’m sure there is some lesson here about abandoning your garden while hiking through the wildflowers in Colorado, but I don’t want to hear it.  Maryland is supposed to have better weather than Nevada…

A Maple Allee with Evergreen Enhancements

The new growth on one of our hundreds (thousands) of Maples

One of the key elements of our property are the two green Japanese Maples that I grew from seedlings.  They are now glorious 25 foot tall trees on either side of the house with multi-season interest.

One of the Japanese Maple seedlings frames the deck

The other Japanese Maple seedling marks the entrance to the side yard

We have many other Japanese Maples but none of the others produce the prodigious crop of seedlings that come from these two trees.  For years the kids potted up some of the seedlings and we passed them on to friends.  At one point I put some of the potted trees into the garden just to hold them over during periods of limited water and then for overwintering.  Well season passed into season and they have gotten quite large.  It was getting to the now or never point for these lovely little trees so I dug them out this week (digging is the term since the roots had gone well beyond their pots).

Potted Maples looking for a home

With this many little trees it seemed appropriate to create a little Maple Allee in the lower pasture.  So I took the mower and cut an S-shaped avenue in the high grass with the end point at the two most recent Christmas trees which had been planted at the far side of the pasture.

An S-shaped path in the lower pasture

With the help of the tractor I dug holes on either side of the swath and planted the little Maple trees.  This is a lousy time to be transplanting trees but I decided that the task could not wait for another season.

Maples laid out on the boundary of the path

At the mid point of the path I placed an Amur Cherry (Prunus Mackii) that I had grown similarly in the garden (beginning with a tiny internet purchase that was now 6 foot high).  However there were still more plants that I had placed (temporarily, several years ago) into the potting row.  These included two Redwoods, a Twisted White Pine, and an Italian Stone Pine.

Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the garden

The Giant Redwood deserves special mention because I have a history of planting Sequoias on the East Coast.  When we lived in an Alexandria suburb I planted a Giant Redwood about 15 feet from the front porch.  This was 35 years ago.  The last time we drove by the tree was still there but instead of the little 8 inch high plant I had put in, it’s now a huge tree — utterly inappropriate for the location.  Why, you ask, would I do such a thing.  Well it was directly inspired by Wendall Berry’s Mad Farmer Liberation Front where he says

“Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.”

And so, once again, I began here with a little Sequoia sprout that, after growing in the garden for years, is ready for the millennia.

The Sequoiadendron giganteum is actually reasonably hardy in Maryland.  The Coastal Redwood and the Italian Stone Pine are more of a stretch.  But each has a special place in my memory from growing up in California.  They have persisted for a number of years in the sheltered environment of the vegetable garden and now we shall set them free…

Evergreens added to the 'Allee'

Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)

Thinking Green

Green center of the Adonis amurensis 'Sandansaki'

The Gardening Gone Wild photo contest for April has the theme ‘Green World’ in which the judge, Rob Cardillo, has requested images where “the color green steps up and takes the spotlight for a change”.

As is often the case for these photo contests, one of the challenges is to sift through the various possibilities to come up with a single entry.  I was tempted by just the scene of our pin oak in the early morning light.

Pin Oak leaves emerging in the early morning light

Then there were the surprising seeds on the Chenmou Elm from the Easter visit to the National Arboretum.

Chenmou Elm seeds

The Euphorbias are interesting because they provide such a rich range of greenish colors, from reds to yellows.

Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire'

After all what does polychroma mean but ‘many colors’.

Another interesting green highlight is the Euphorbia hybrid ‘Blackbird’.

Euphorbia x 'Blackbird'

Similarly the epimediums offer a rich palette of greens, with some leaves showing splendid edge designs.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilac Seedling' leaf

However in the end I selected for my entry a daffodil.  In this case it’s where the green is in place of yellow that makes all the difference.

Narcissus 'Arguros' with green and yellow cup

The green in the cup comes as a delightful surprise when you have been enjoying a host of more conventionally colored daffodils and it echos the green in the petals and the surrounding grasses to provide a very satisfying early morning encounter

An Easter Visit to the U.S. National Arboretum

Magnolia x ‘Elizabeth’

Today we took the Easter holiday as an occasion for a long postponed visit to the U. S. National Arboretum.  This venerable institution inspired some of our formative thoughts about gardens during the many visits there while we were living in Alexandria.  It was nice to see that many others had the same idea and parking was at a premium as people tried to follow the self-guided cherry trail that the USNA folk had set up.  We mostly followed our own eclectic interests in moving around from area to area (there are 486 acres so having a car helps).  I think the highlight for us was the hybrid Magnolias.  In other years I’ve been put off of some of these Magnolias because of late spring frosts that leaves them looking shell-shocked.  But when they work, oh, my oh my.  Our favorite was Elizabeth, as pictured at the start of this post.  The tree is perhaps 30 feet tall and covered with creamy yellow flowers that open finally to a red center as the fruit begins to ripen.  The flowers are nicely fragrant to add the icing to the cake.

Magnolia x ‘Elizabeth’ is perhaps 30 feet tall

Magnolia x ‘Elizabeth’ open flower

Magnolia x ‘Elizabeth’ flower with fruit beginning to show

There are a good number of other hybrid Magnolias featured as well.

More hybrid Magnolias

We revisited some of our previous haunts at the USNA like Fern Valley.  But we also found new features that we hadn’t seen before.  Near the R Street entrance is the bonsai exhibit and just outside of it is a delightful little shade garden under towering cryptomerias.  And if you look to right and left of the entrance (and inside as well) are Japanese Maples.  Not fancy ones, just plain old beautiful Japanese Maples.  We have several of these magnificent trees as well.  And just like ours the ones at the USNA seed the ground like the propagation of the species was the responsibility of each and every plant.  There are seedlings everywhere.  Apparently great public gardens go down the same paths that we have trod ….  In the end we concluded that the trees are worth the myriad seedlings.

Entrance to the Bonsai Exhibit — note the Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum)

Lovely Shade garden under the Cryptomerias

Japanese Maple seedlings

One of the reasons for going to a great public garden like this is to be inspired or learn new things about the art and practice of gardening.   It is after all why we have Cryptomerias up here in Frederick (which is probably pushing the climate zone where they are happiest).  We saw several things that we’ve added to our want list.  There was a trillium that we have to get because it matches the name of one of us and because it’s pretty as well.

Trillium cuneatum (Little Sweet Betsy)

And an epimedium that has a cloud-like cluster of flowers above its leaves.  Very floriferous indeed.

Epimedium stellulatum

But one of the things which was most surprising out of the day was little elm from China that has some of the prettiest green flower seeds that you could imagine.  Imagine a tree with green flowers.  I’ve not seen these pictured anywhere but I found them quite striking.

Chenmou Elm (Ulmus chenmoui) seeds

Goodbye Oak

Two Pin Oaks shade the deck

We planted two Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) on the side of the deck when we built it about 30 years ago.  The intent was shade and shielding from the driveway and garage.  We chose Pin Oaks for their deep tap root and compatibility with house and driveway.  Mostly that has worked out to be a good choice.  Although they are much taller than we ever imagined in our youthful enthusiasm.  But last year we noticed that the smaller of the two trees had a lot of dead branches.  When we looked into it the verdict was that it was most likely oak decline without much prospect that it would get any better over time.   So we decided to bite the bullet and take the tree out.

We were somewhat nervous about this because, in addition to possible damage to the house, there were lots of plantings nearby, including our favorite daphne and an unusually fragrant azalea, Rhododendron ‘Visco Sepala’.

Next to the pin oak are many little specimen plants

However, our tree guy, the brother of a close family friend, said that he could remove it without any ancillary damage so we went ahead this week.  If you undertake to remove a tree this large next to the house you better have someone who knows what they are doing.  And Mike certainly was up to the job.

Mike strips the tree at the top

Even in my best days as a young man I could not have managed the one-handed chainsaw operation that I saw Mike engaged in.  My arm muscles ached just watching.

One hand for the chainsaw

Meanwhile, down below his partner Sam gathered falling pieces and began cutting them up further.

Down below Sam gathered the pieces

It looks like it would be very easy to lose track of which branch the safety harness is attached to.

Mike spread-eagled from branch to branch

I think that it took them about 2 1/2 hours to transform the deck to a one oak platform.

Now just one oak covers the deck

And other than a gentle sawdust mulch there was no damage to anything surrounding the oak, including the volunteer dogwood that had grown up behind it.

Nothing else at all harmed in cutting down the oak

And all that is left to testify to the pin oak’s existence is a stump which will become a potted plant platform and some of the biggest fireplace logs that I’ve yet encountered on our property.

The remains of the oak

Meanwhile, I was busy with another removal project next to the woods.  The previous owner had built a little cow/chicken shed but had only placed it on a limited brick foundation and it rotted off years ago.  I bashed it in with the tractor and hauled a lot off two years ago, but quite a bit of junk remained and the brush and vines had grown up around it.  So took tractor, chain saw and mower to hand and cleaned most of the remaining junk out.

Getting rid of the last of the shed

The goal is not only to get rid of the unsightly junk pile but to make a little grove of Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) that we can mow around until we decide what to do next in that area.

Making a Cherry/Ash grove

One challenge was the Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) that was well entangled in the one corner of the grove.

Pruning back the Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

It really can’t decide whether to grow as a tree or a shrub but I think with some careful pruning we should be able to keep it more willow-like in appearance.  I do like the fragrance in the early spring.

The remainder of the shed was carted off to the dump.  But because much of the shed material was throughly rotted I think we will be encountering roofing materials and plywood pieces for years.  And there is still a slab of concrete that formed part of the structure.  The concrete won’t be going anywhere soon.

Goodbye shed

And on a more constructive note we were not just tearing things down this week.  I also planted a replacement for the Coral Bark Maple that the Deer destroyed last year.

The new Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'

I opted for a bigger one, hoping they would not choose to repeat the process.  I had never before seen them disturb a Japanese Maple.

We put it in the logical place to sit down and admire it at the end of the day (were we sit down and admire kind of people …).

Relaxation at the end of the day

Watch for flying objects…

I was crouched down underneath the Witch Hazel today trying for a shot of the yellow flowers against a pretty blue sky when I heard a commotion in the forsythia bushes next to me.  I glanced over just in time to see a hawk about 4 feet away from me.  It had apparently just struck a smaller bird.  We stared at each other through the branches for a moment and then I finally had the presence of mind to raise my camera, but too late!  He launched with the small bird in talons.  I took pictures as best I could having neither the right lens or the time to look through the viewfinder.  As it turns out in looking at the pictures later I believe that the small bird was a cardinal — the beak is a giveaway.  It was amazing how fast the hawk could fly even carrying the other bird.  They are certainly the masters of the sky.  I can’t tell which hawk it is from the pictures, but something tells me I will get another chance to see in the future…

Hawk with Cardinal

Hawk w cardinal as he flys away

And oh yes, I did get the witch hazel against the blue sky….

Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) against the blue sky

Thawing out

I took a walk around the grounds yesterday to see what was emerging.  The first thing that caught my eye was that the snow has melted off half of the deck revealing the little three gallon pot of Witch Hazel and its straps of flowers seem to be no worse for the weight of snow that has been on them for more than two weeks.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) 'Diane' after the snow

Seeing its bright red flowers as a real portent of the spring to come makes it even more important that I find the right place to plant this one in the yard.  We need a spot where it will be noticed throughout January and February.  Of course its close relative the Chinese Witch Hazel is also continuing to be a bright spot in the yard.  And it is so very much more appreciated this year.

Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) with its straps unfurled

Mostly the ground is still covered with snow. I can finally see the top of my the small bench in the backyard that we bought for our granddaughter.

Aoife's bench

But there are a very few places in protected locations where there is actual soil visible.  And in one of those I can see the first leaves of a Primula emerging.  Hurrah!

Primula x polyantha emerging

It’s raining tonight and if we get enough gentle rain I’m hopeful that will wash some snow away.  I’d certainly like to be able to assess the damage to the evergreens which have been flattened for the last two weeks.

Daphne flattenitus