Gardening is hard work. It is dirty work. There is little point in wearing fancy duds. There is definitely no room for manicures in my life during the gardening season; pedicures, yes, if only to hide the dirt under my toenails. A manicure would probably last all of one day with the constant digging in the garden so that would not be money well spent.
I own a plethora of garden themed t-shirts, all slightly oversized to provide ample room for bending and stretching. They are also great for wiping your hands off when they get dirty or wiping the sweat off my brow on hot days. I have always been hard on my clothes, but these shirts and shorts can handle the dirt and abuse I put them through.
With most of the trees and shrubs in place as the backbone of my garden I am now looking for annuals and perennials to start fill in gaps. I am taking my time. I need plants that will work for years to come and not just any cultivar will do. While I enjoyed the plain old purple coneflowers in my last garden, today you can find a variety of these hardworking plants in different sizes and colors. I came across a variety named ‘powwow wild berry’ in bold pink which stays rather low at 18”. I bought seven of them, to be planted in three different spots. I put two each on either side of a large bed and three in another bed. I inter-planted the annual Laguna sky blue around these plants and the contrasting blue and hot pink makes for a nice combination.
Around the garden you will find some furniture as well. A very comfortable chair and ottoman sit at the base of the pond. It’s a perfect place to observe frogs in the afternoon in the shade of the silver maple tree. A comfortable bench can be found across the bridge at the large pond, giving me another view of the garden and the back side of the house. It’s a good place to read the paper early in the morning and watch the fish swim back and forth, hoping I will throw another handful of fish food in the water. Adjacent to the back of the house is a gravel patio with the main seating area. It is shaded by an awning and almost always subject to a nice breeze. I am thinking of adding one more sitting area in the back corner of the garden. With my back towards the neighbors it will have a view of the sloping garden (the backside of the waterfall) and the retaining wall. All these seating areas provide different viewpoints of the garden. They are places for this gardener – and the under gardener, The Spouse – to sit and relax after digging all those holes for new plants, small and large. After all, what’s the hurry, in retirement I can garden nearly each and every day. I can get a grubby as I want, hose myself off as needed and plop down in comfortable spots to view my domain or read a book. What a life!
I have been busy in the garden during the past two months. Local nurseries were visited multiple times and I managed to find gems as well as bargains, with the gems being “slightly more expensive” than the bargains.
As I am developing my new gardens a few favorite perennials keep turning up. One of these favorites is the Heuchera or coral bells, a North American native which has caught the attention of breeders over the past decade or two. Today there are many different varieties of Heuchera with colors ranging from dark red to bright greens, yellows and oranges, with or without ruffled edges, some with contrasting veins running through the leaves. Several Heucheras from my old garden were moved to our new lot and now I am adding more. At one local nursery, which also grows most of their own plants, I found LARGE pots of Heuchera, variety ‘Caramel’ for $8. I bought three. A week later I went back and bought two more. One slightly more expensive ‘Plum Pudding’ Heuchera (twice the price and half the size of the ‘Caramel’) also found a place in the garden.
In order to create privacy as well as shade in the garden I concentrated on finding shrubs which will provide both within a reasonable amount of time; years rather than decades. In the fall we planted a row of Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green Giant’ on the back fence line, but I had to leave a gap under a large Linden tree planted about five feet off our fence line on the neighbor’s property. All winter long I pondered what to put there when at a wholesale nursery (which is also open to the public) I found Prunus laurocerasus 'Schipkaensis' or Schip (pronounced ‘skip’) cherry laurel. It has large shiny evergreen leaves, is a fast grower, it can handle shade or sun and does well in clay soil. In other words, it is a great addition to our garden as a privacy screen and it will fill the gap under the Linden tree (in the shade) just fine. At $45 for a five foot plant, I purchased seven. During a trip at Costco I noticed they had the exact same size plant for $35 a pot so I bought four more which found a place at the fence in the side garden. A month after planting I already have six inches of new growth for the plants in the side garden in full sun and those on the back fence in the shade.
Last year when we moved into our new home this garden was in full sun with only a bit of shade provided by the neighbor’s Linden tree and the silver Maple tree in the back corner of our lot. Two small trees, a Cornus Kousa (Dogwood) and a Cercis Canadensis (Canadian Redbud) were added once the pond was put in, each providing a puddle of shade. Now with the back fence planted with a growing privacy screen, I am moving shade lovers such as Heuchera, Hellebores, Coleus and Hostas at their feet and suddenly I have the beginning of a woodland walk. The garden I envisioned in my mind is slowly coming to life and the transformation is magical.
April, the month I waited for all winter long, is just about gone. It is a month filled with promises; longer and warmer days, a range of colors bursting out everywhere, birds pairing off and building nests.
First there is that faint glow of green on shrubs and trees, soon followed by a true flush of green as leaves unfurl. Then there are those trees which break out in color; all white, pinks, yellow or purples. Suddenly the world seems like a much nicer place.
In my own garden I survey the landscape and see that virtually all plants from my old garden have survived the move and replanting last year in the middle of a very hot and dry summer. All the other plants purchased last fall have also made the transition and they are leafing out as well. Meanwhile I make trips to local nurseries and see what is available. A few more small trees are purchased, shrubs which will serve as hedges a few years from now are also bought. I tend my seedlings in the basement, parsley and lupines. An entire tray of zinnia seedlings curled up their toes and died.In mid April the grape hyacinths bloomed. I planted these bulbs last fall around the outcroppings of the rocks of the waterfall. For now it looks like a "blue trickle" but as I add more of these minor bulbs to the mix eventually it will turn into a "blue river".
When the weather is halfway decent I can be found in the garden. Slowly I am deciding where the paths will be and where I will be adding more beds. An Arizona cypress called blue ice will be the anchor for one bed on the side of the house with an Arnold Promise witch hazel on the other side of the same bed. I added gladiolus green star and a lily called yelloween. The yellow-green of the lilies and the green flowers of the gladiolus should make for a nice combination although it remains to be seen how well it combines with my blue ice cypress. Another Arnold Promise which hazel anchors the corner of the main bed off the patio. At its foot I planted a few heucheras which will appreciate the shade this shrubby tree will throw on them. The back fence line is mostly planted with arborvitae for privacy from the neighbors. Or at least in years to come as these plants grow in there will be privacy. For now we can still see each other, wave and have conversations. But since these 6 to 7 feet arborvitae provide some very welcome shade in my garden I have started under planting them with hellebores, hostas, heucheras, bleeding hearts and some pulmonaria, giving me a bit of a woodland garden.
A screen of forsythia is put in place near the fence line in the front garden to replace the solid screen of wild grapes and wild roses which I (very carefully – thorns!) removed in February. The roses and vines had intertwined themselves in the branches of a mulberry tree, contorting them by their weight and sheer size. Some of the branches had died back completely while others were bare except for the top where the grape and roses had not climbed. This corner of the garden will be the butterfly garden, but without screening from the wind butterflies would have a hard time fluttering around this garden. Although the forsythias are not very tall yet, they are fast growers and will become a solid screen within a year or two. Meanwhile the butterfly magnets planted last year, Ansomia hubrichtii or Arkansas blue star and Perovskia or Russian sage and seedlings from my Liatris kobold, also known as gayfeather or blazing stars are starting to come up. I added a dozen parsley seedlings together with lupine seedlings to the mix and hopefully the butterflies will find this corner of the garden to their liking. Slowly but surely I am building a garden and getting lots of fresh air, sun and my exercise, all at the same time. Life is good.
Where does the time go? January, my least favorite month of the year, came and went. February surprised us with more than balmy weather. While we had some cold days, it also gave us days with 70 degree weather. I don’t recall ever sitting in the garden in February in a short sleeved t-shirt reading the paper or just working in the garden. I considered those days a gift and I was hoping for many more. But then March came along and with it colder days and snow. March actually ended up being colder than February. Go figure.
The only good thing about March was the Philadelphia flower show. We made the trip to Philadelphia just before the big snowstorm was supposed to hit and spent a very enjoyable day at a sparsely attended show. The next day we were back at the show again (I always get four tickets) and I even came home with lots of lily bulbs for planting in the garden soon. And then, finally, winter was over (technically) and it was spring.
I am still waiting for the weather to warm up and this week they are forecasting a string of 50+ degree days in a row. So many plants in my garden are ready to come up and out, but as temperatures drop regularly it remains a waiting game. Nevertheless, I saw the first flowers on my Katharine Hodgkin irises. Two pale blue flowers opened up just as fierce winds were blowing for a day or two. The next time I stuck my head out of the door, the flowers were history. Thankfully the remaining Katharines delayed their blooming by a week or two and I might actually be able to enjoy them in another week. My dancing butterfly peony is showing more and more bright red stems ready to unfurl. This plant spent two years in a container before finally making it back into the garden and neither year it bloomed. This year I am hoping to see their bright pink flowers in another month or so.
The big box stores had their regular offerings of bulbs and plants and I must admit I could not pass by without buying something. Siberian irises were a steal at 6 plants for $15 and while the plants are small, they should fill out quickly. ‘Caesar’s brother’ will bloom in blue while ‘butter and sugar’ is a pale yellow. Supermarkets are also worth a look in their plant sections. Yesterday I picked up two large hellebores for $15 each which is really a steal. Since most of my hellebores have already started to bloom and they are actively growing I took a chance and planted the new ones. So far so good!
And then on a sad note, this morning I had to dig a grave in the garden for one of my fuzzies. Ferret Betsie celebrated her eight birthday at the end of January and although she had slowed down considerably over the years, she was still sprightly. However, over the past few days she went downhill fast and this morning she was gone. She is now buried next to the shed and has a big cement leaf on top to mark the spot (and make it harder to be dug up). In the picture she is in the bottom of the ferret pile with two white fuzzies, Sammie and Bella, on top. Although she loved to bite my toes to get my attention, she was a good ferret.