Although we are well into October the temperatures are still above normal. Just as we had 70 degree days in February which allowed me to read the paper outside, now I still hang out in the garden until the mosquitoes chase me indoors. The fish continue to be hungry and get fed a few times every day.
It is time to assess the garden. Most of the perennials and shrubs planted this spring and summer did well and will only increase in size next year and beyond. The annual potato vines took over their corner of the garden. I planted three different varieties; Blacky with dark burgundy leaves, a bright green variety called Margarite and a tri-color variety. Of the three, Margarite is the most vigorous and Blacky the least. However, the tri-color variety stole my heart and I have already harvested the tubers of this potato vine for replanting next year.
Very early on in my New Jersey garden I planted a bag of gladioli (plural for gladiolus). I didn’t know they were not winter hardy in my zone 6b and it is actually advocated to dig them up as far south as zone 8 and replant them in spring. Like some other “tender” plants, the gladioli were not aware of the fact they should have turned to mush in winter time and the following spring they all returned and bloomed. As the plant grows, the corm (the bulb-like underground bit) will make little offsets which over time will grow into mature corms and bloom. After about three consecutive summers of magnificent blooms I learned about digging up my gladioli for the winter, which I promptly did. But of course, while digging up the corms I missed a few of the offsets which also missed the memo of perishing during the winter. Soon I had gladioli appearing all over my garden; in their original spots and any new spots where they were planted and then dug up again. In about 16 winters in my zone 6b garden I don’t believe I ever lost a patch of gladioli. Now fast forward to my Pennsylvania garden; this summer I noticed several of my hellebores plants from the old garden sported different foliage near the plant. It looks I inadvertently dug up a few of the corm offsets from my original gladioli and transplanted these with my hellebores. In another year or two I should have more blooming gladioli from my original purchase so long ago.
This spring I purchased two bags of green blooming gladioli corms at the Philadelphia Flower Show. I planted them near my Arizona Cypress “Blue Ice” and wondered if the color combination blue and green would work. Well, it did not. But imagine my surprise when one gladiolus bloomed with a bright red flower spike. THAT one stood out against the ice blue foliage of the Arizona Cypress. Earlier this week I dug up all of the green blooming corms, including hopefully all of the corm offsets, and set them aside in a paper bag in the basement. Next spring I will find a good spot for them. The red blooming variety has been replanted close to the Cypress. Gardening may be a leap of faith at times but I am fairly confident there will be a glowing red gladiolus in my future.
With colder weather around the corner and possible frost in the near future I brought in the remainder of my plants. Most of these plants are in ceramic containers and bringing them in through the house and down the stairs was a hassle. I think this winter I will search for nice looking light weight containers and repot each and every plant come spring. It will make my life a little easier in the upcoming years, specially since I plan on doing this gardening thing for another decade or two.
September came and went. Suddenly it was fall and just as suddenly the weather got warm and dry. After a very damp spring and summer, for which I was grateful, we now haven’t had rain in weeks. Although it is October, it feels like May and I have resorted to watering those plants which show the most stress. While plants can stay outside a little longer due to the weather I have started taking cuttings from the various coleus in the garden. Coleus plants are very easy to start from cuttings as long as you keep the potting soil moist until the cuttings root. Once you start seeing new growth on your cuttings you know you have succeeded. Then it is just a matter of keeping them under lights to keep them from growing leggy. Usually I get to take more cuttings through the winter from the newly rooted plants and by May next year I will have a nice amount of plants to put back in the garden.
Last winter I brought in all of those plants which wouldn’t make it through a zone 6-7 winter and suddenly rooms were overflowing with plants. This summer we finished the basement and while carving out different spaces it suddenly hit me; I could carve out a space for myself and my plants. First there was the “man cave” or workshop for The Spouse. The mechanical room houses the heating and AC unit, sump pump and provides us with additional storage space. Then there is the new bathroom and the main space for parties or family or friends to stay overnight. But off to the back side of the house there was this 7’ by 22’ space with a window which would be perfect for me and suddenly the “plant room” was born. I found a barn door on-line as the access door to my room. The contractor installed cabinets and a sink as well as shelves in a corner. I found plant shelves and together with some old cabinets, a new table and two chairs I transformed this room into not just a “plant room” but also a space to hang out in winter and do crafts. It is painted a nice calming pale yellow, a heart warming color during cold winter days. I unpacked the remainder of my “Dutch stuff’, pictures, cups and saucers, trinkets and items once belonging to my parents and grandparent on either side. I created a room which contains memories of life in Holland and the family I left behind and it makes me smile every time I walk in there.
The orchids suffered last year while being outdoors; too much sun burned leaves and they were basically unhappy. This year I kept them indoors and they grew new roots, leaves and flowered with abandon. A gardening friend visited a few months ago. When I showed her the spare bedroom she immediately identified it as “the orchid room” and they are happy in this west facing bedroom.
Meanwhile some of the larger agaves will overwinter in the east facing bedroom. Everything else will go downstairs. The ponytail palm tree, which in reality is an agave, has already been moved to the basement together with other succulents as well as the clivias and fuchsias. For now the begonias and cacti are still outdoors, but soon they will come in for the next six to seven months.
Last winter my plants took over most rooms. This year I have a dedicated “orchid room” and a temporary agave room. The mechanical room houses all of the cuttings while “the plant room” houses everything else. I have a place to hang out when life in the garden is too bleak. While I always look forward to a few weeks of downtime in late fall/early winter, I think I have created enough spaces in this new home to make it through all of winter. And then of course there will be spring again and the whole cycle starts all over again.
It’s official. My birthday came and went and I am now “the big 6-0”. Funny, it doesn’t feel any worse than turning 50, or 40 or even 30. Getting older is pretty much a state of mind or as my grandmother used to say “it certainly beats the alternative – death”. So while I creak a bit more in the morning when getting up I still get around in the garden like before. I think all the gardening, digging, playing in the dirt is what is keeping me young at heart, if not in body.
With a big new garden it is easy to lose sight of the smaller picture; those little vignettes in a garden, tucked away among other plants. For a while I was busy getting the bigger plants in, shrubs and trees, to create the framework for the garden. But there was room for other plants, annuals and perennials, to fill in some of the gaps.
On the south facing slope of the waterfall I had planted a few blue rug junipers (Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’) which in time will cover most of the slope. They are drought tolerant, but will need sufficient amounts of water to establish a strong root system in order to thrive. Last year after planting them I watered them regularly. This year nature has provided copious amounts of rainfall on a nearly weekly basis and these junipers are thriving. They are branching out and making their way along the slope. It looked nice but there was something still missing.
In early spring I put in an order for plants including some favorite bulbs; oxalis triangularis. I had this plant in my previous garden and loved it. Although a small plant, it has purple triangular leaves and pretty pink flowers. It also spreads a bit if it finds a place it is happy in and occasionally you will find plants popping up far away from its parents. My plants were in the back yard, but one year I found a seedling in the front garden right next to the house. I still don’t know how that volunteer plant managed to get around two corners and thrive up against the house. This plant is at home in Brazil, it can be grown outdoors (supposedly) in zones 8 through 11 and kept indoors through the winter in zones colder than zone 8. Funny how plants don’t know about hardiness; my oxalis triangularis happily wintered over outdoors in zone 6B and came back in greater numbers most springs. With all the plants I dug up from the old garden, oxalis triangularis didn’t make the cut. Instead I bought two small bags of bulbs this spring and planted them in the back yard near the pond. They didn’t like this spot. I dug up the small plants and inter-planted them among the blue rug junipers. Suddenly this slope looks much more interesting. The purple color of the leaves on this plant also work very nicely with the flowers of the sedum which is planted at the edge of the bed right next to the waterfall. Voila, I created a little vignette in the garden. As the junipers grow and cover the entire slope, the oxalis will still be able to pop up through the branches and the juniper will probably also protect the bulbs underground from the cold during a truly cold winter.
There are still larger amounts of garden to be covered by plants, but sometimes stepping back from the bigger picture and working on a small area pays off big time. It's also easier on those creaking bones; I consider it a win-win.
I like frogs, all frogs AND toads. Always have, probably always will. In Holland, with its many rivers, canals as well as ditches around every field you will find frogs everywhere. As a kid I would go out hunting for frogs, or even better, find frog eggs and watch the whole metamorphosis from egg, tadpole into frog. One year I managed to catch a few stickleback fish, a pair actually, and they were put in a small aquarium. Later I also found some frog spawn and brought it home. Since the frog eggs and the stickleback fish both came from the same ditch I added the spawn to the aquarium. That was the year I found out that newly hatched tadpoles make an excellent meal for stickleback fish and I ended up with stickleback babies rather than small frogs. Well, it is one way to learn about nature.
In my old garden I attracted frogs to the pond but in THIS garden I have a wealth of frogs and toads. At the end of our block there is retention basin fully loaded with frogs. If that wasn’t enough, a little closer to home across the street is another small natural bog/pond containing more of the same. During last year’s hot and dry late spring and summer I attracted toads when the plants from the old house were temporarily put out on cardboard on the driveway while being shaded by sheets during the hottest part of the day. Each evening I watered the plants and the moist soil in pots and the moist cardboard seemed to be the perfect spot for toads to hide and look for insects to eat. Now I still find toads all over the garden; itty bitty ones in spring and big ones during the rest of the time.
So far I have come across four different types of frogs in the garden and they seem to get along well enough. First there are the bull frogs, the biggest frogs in the garden and the loudest. With a mouth that grins from ear to ear they are big enough to eat smaller frogs, large insects, mice or even small birds. They are also the most timid. When I open the back door to go into the garden I will hear a startled “eek” followed by a splash. There go the bull frogs. Once in a while a bull frog will be too far from the pond and as I walk closer to it, it will jump wildly, crying “eek” until it finds cover.
The green frogs are less shy. Once they get used to me I can actually get within inches of them before they move on. They like to sit in the water, right at the level where water meets land and close to cover. They are smaller than the bull frogs, but bigger than the leopard frog, another inhabitant around the pond. Leopard frogs, or at least the ones around my pond, are quite docile. They have a tendency to hang out around the edges of the pond, quite content to sit out on dry land for long stretches at the time as I garden around them.
The fourth frog species I found in my garden is the grey tree frog. One evening a few weeks ago I suddenly remembered my plants on the porch needed watering. My watering can was full and I started watering. Suddenly only a little trickle of water came out of the spout even though there was still water in the can. I looked at the spout and it seemed as if the spout was stopped up by some leaves. I nearly stuck my finger into the spout to dislodge the leaves before I took a closer look. Those weren’t any leaves; it was a little grey face with two big eyes looking back at me. I carefully put my watering can down, apologizing to the frog for disturbing its home. Ten minutes later curiosity got the better of me. I went back out again and found the grey tree frog hanging off the spout of the watering can! I think by now it has moved on, maybe to the back yard where there are actual trees. I don’t think it still fits into the spout of the watering can.
Since we have window wells on two sides of the house as egress from the basement I also find frogs and toads in the wells on a nearly daily basis. I learned shortly after moving into this house that it pays to put a saucer of water in each well unless you want to have dried up and desiccated amphibians in the window well. I make a daily check in each window well, lifting up the saucer to see if any frogs or toads are hiding under it. I also change the water in each saucer every other day; no need to breed mosquitoes while trying to save amphibians! After rainy evenings I find multiple frogs and toads in the wells. The most I every captured from one window well after a rain storm was 19 frogs and 6 toads. In short, in this garden I find myself surrounded by frogs and toads as I make a habitat for them. The garden will be richer for it, for them as well as for us.
With nearly a year of gardening under my belt at our new house I am learning a lot. There are places in my garden where the soil is nearly undisturbed from large earth moving equipment when building the house and not much later, the pond. In those places I can dig a hole, have crumbly –albeit clay-like – soil and there are lots of worms. Whenever I put new plants in this soil they only need a few days or weeks of babying before they stretch their roots and take off.
Then there are whole areas with hard compacted soil. I dig and go down maybe three inches. I dig some more and go down a few more inches. The soil is red clay and roots have a hard time penetrating it. During a dry spell this soil turns nearly into concrete and plants wither and die. When wet there is so little airspace between the clay particles that roots nearly drown and plants will rot. Of course, with temperatures in the high eighties and nineties I get tempted to make my life a little easier, but it comes at the expense of the plants. When digging in the compacted soil I set aside the worst of it. Later I discard it in the still empty lot next door. Whatever soil crumbles in my fingers gets saved. Once the hole has been dug big enough I grab a bag of garden soil (purchased at the big box stores) and add it to the hole. Then I mix both the more crumbly clay and the garden soil so I have a mixture of both in the hole. Any disturbed worms are gingerly put back in the hole, tucked into the soil. The plant is added and the mixture of both soils is firmly put around the roots. A layer of mulch is added all around the plant. I water the new plants and make sure there are no air pockets left around the roots and there is good contact between soil and roots. Then I wait and see how well the plant responds to its new spot. When the plant droops I water it; after all it is summer and quite hot. Most respond well and soon I see new growth. Now it is just a matter to get them through their first summer and with a bit of luck they will come back bigger and better next year. So far this summer has been wetter than last summer. Just about every week we get torrential downpours, followed by gentle rains, and the garden responds with lush growth. The water bill is much lower compared to last year’s hot and dry summer!
The trays of low growing sedum purchased last fall, cut up in small pieces and planted around the edges of the pond and where soil meets gravel has grown in beyond my expectations. I now have four and five inch wide ribbons of sedum, topped off by pink flowers which attract bees, flies and small butterflies by the dozens.
Unable to find more of the same sedum at stores I carefully separate small clumps from bigger plants, and put them down in spots where I want more. Since they are succulents which resent heavy soil, I scratch small depressions in the mulch, mix it with a bit of soil and press the plant down in it. They don’t really need much water and before long I see new growth. By next year these plants will mask the edge of the beds and creep on to and into the gravel. They will also hold back the mulch which has been sliding down the slopes of the beds surrounding the pond and moving into the gravel. The garden will have a living necklace of low growing evergreen plants with pink blooms for months at the time with butterflies dancing around as little jewels. It is slowly becoming quite a magical garden.