November is a month of transitions. The weather gets colder although you still get some days which are balmy. It entices me to go outside and work a little bit in the yard. We didn’t have a killing frost in October, but one night in November we dipped way below freezing. One day the annuals were still standing tall, the next day they were mush. But the hardest day of the year for me is the one when we turn the clock back. One day you still have light at 6 PM, the next day it gets dark one hour earlier. Suddenly I find myself thinking at 5 PM “what the heck am I going to do for the next five or six hours?” I go down to the basement and fiddle with cuttings; I water plants which were brought indoors a month or two ago. The spouse and I break out games and match wits. I pull gardening books off the shelves and go through them. I feel as if I could go mad…
Many moons ago I used to watch HGTV (Home and Garden TV) and ALL of the gardening shows they offered. I also watched BBC America for the wonderful gardening shows they used to have. Usually there were more shows in spring and summer than fall and winter, but still there was something most of the time which would be interesting. They showed you what to plant and where (right plant, right place). They educated you; provided you with Latin names as well as common names; shade lovers versus sun lovers; wet versus dry (RIGHT PLAN, RIGHT PLACE!). They took you to places with amazing gardens, but as time went by the “old time gardeners” were replaced with hipper, younger hosts. Then, gardening was replaced with design and build shows with little room for plants. Preferably they transform your “garden” (i.e. neglected outdoor space) into a fully functioning outdoor room with bar, grill, sitting area and a water and fire feature within a short period of time (2 days!).
There is usually a bit of grass and a few plants set closely together around the perimeter to screen out the neighbors. Never mind that some plants won’t make it through the winter or they are planted too close to their neighbors. Gardens aren’t static; plants grow and if you don’t take into account the mature size of your plant you will be forever pruning or subjecting your plants to overcrowding and disease. If you take the effort of matching the plant to your site you can actually stand back and enjoy seeing it grow to maturity.
The worst example of a gardening makeover show I EVER saw was a garden with a nice mature shade tree off to the side. The host of the show decided to put a sitting area under the tree. Rather than just mulch the area under the tree allowing for oxygen exchange and infiltration of water, they excavated the area under the tree while cutting off some large tree roots because “they were in the way”. They put down a 1 inch layer of sand and 6 inches of crushed stone before putting down the pavers for the patio. Guess what, that nice shade tree is now deprived of major roots, water and oxygen and will most likely die within the next three years. So rather than a shaded patio, you will have a large dead tree which will need to be removed so it won’t become a hazard ($$$!) and you will have a patio in full sun.
I gave up watching HGTV as they should rename it HGT (Home TV) or HGD&BTV (Home and Garden Design and Build TV). BBC America no longer seems to have ANY gardening shows at all while their (native) counterpart BBC has a slew of them. Oh, how I miss them all.
But… a while ago I came across an ad for a website: www.hortustv.com. I checked it out. Wonderful, the first week is for free. Then you pay $6.99 a month, or less if you happen to find a coupon (I did, check the web or gardening websites). Now each evening after watching the first 20 minutes or so of the local news at 4 PM I go online at www.hortustv.com. First I watched Alan Tichtmarsh and the Gardener’s Year. It takes you through Alan’s garden from winter through late fall the following year and shows you all the changes made to the garden. Next I surfed through a few episodes of different shows. Then I started in on Monty Don’s series at Longmeadow. I start with the 2011 year. By now I have made it through the first year in Monty’s garden (all 28 episodes) and I have moved on to the 2012 season, with 5 more years to go.
All in all there are currently 24 different shows to watch, some old, some current, some multiple years for the various shows. While we were in Holland in September we watched a few episodes of “Garden Rescue” and “Wildlife Gardens” on BBC with Charlie Dimmock (another favorite of ours). On Hortus TV I get to watch all of these episodes. No longer do I wonder what to do as darkness descends on us; I get a virtual shot of vitamin D (sunshine) while watching two, three and yes, sometimes four episodes of gardening TV during a particularly dreary day.
By now I have also put up a variety of birdfeeders and watch birds coming and going; in a way they are like flying flowers brightening up my garden. Then, as I take a walk in the garden during the day I see hopeful signs of flowers and growth to come two or three months from now. My magnolia (unknown variety) has both the fuzzy buds for leaves as well as flowers at the end of the branches.
My witch hazels (variety Arnold Promise) are full of buds which will flower in late winter (February/March). The only peony brought over from my old garden (Dancing Butterflies) has bright red growth peeking up from the soil; a promise of things to come. A hellebores plant opened up its first flower, a few months early. Meanwhile with Hortus TV and the promise of fragrant flowers not that many months from now I hold on through the darkness.
After a dreary, grey and rainy day the sun reappeared again. The temperatures are now heading into the 50s and in a few days we will have the first hard frost.
So far the hardy annuals are still going although I am expecting most of them to kick the bucket with this hard frost. The cuttings taken from the coleus plants have rooted and they are actively growing. One of the bigger varieties is putting on a growth spurt and in a few weeks I should be able to harvest a few more cuttings from this plant. At this growth rate the basement will be overflowing with coleus plants come mid-winter and the garden will be filled with them by mid spring. I heard someone referring to coleus as the “Hawaiian shirt of the garden” and they definitely have a point. These plants come in so many different colors, sizes and shapes and they can be rather loud. But how they light up a shady spot! Today you will find coleus which can take a fair amount of sun too so you can add pizazz to a sunny border as well.
My Castor bean plants (an annual for this area) grown from seed last winter developed into impressive specimens. It was a decade since I grew them last and I forgot how big they get and how fast they grow. I put one castor bean plant near the bog so it could shade a few shade loving plants which were unhappy last summer when they received too much sun. Well, these plants were happier this year with all the shade provided by the Castor bean “tree” but I lost my view of the waterfall from my favorite chair. Another one nearly blocked my path by October and I cut it down to size. The tallest one close to the waterfall now stands at seven feet with leaves about 18 inches across. Quite impressive for something that stood 4 inches tall in May.
Now that the back (and side) gardens are mostly in place I have started on my nefarious plan of converting front lawn into gardens. Last year I carved out a six by six foot spot for the Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica glauca). Trees prefer not to have grass growing right up to their trunk so I gave this tree a nice big mulched spot. As the builder is putting up the last house on this block, right next to us, I thought it would be nice to add a bit of screening between us and our (very nice) new neighbor. A few forsythias will add privacy within a reasonable amount of time and I added some purple ninebark (Physocarpus) to the mix as well. On either side I also put beautyberry (Calicarpa) which will provide fall interest with its bright purple berries alongside the branches. Yellow flowers for spring, green (forsythia) and purple (ninebark) foliage during the growing season capped off with purple berries for fall. Of course I can’t just grow these plants in the lawn. So, the corner of the lawn where these shrubs are growing will be mulched over. And wouldn’t you know that these shrubs extend just about to the corner of the mulched bed for the Blue Atlas Cedar. Suddenly I find myself with a perfect south facing spot to put some outdoor furniture come spring as long as I mulch over a very generous corner of the lawn, say 20 by 30 feet. There still will be plenty of lawn left over in front of the house; well, at least for now.
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.