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.
Having the opportunity to start another garden from scratch is both daunting and exhilarating at the same time. After the pond and waterfall were put in mid-summer last year I spent some time putting old favorites from the previous garden in place while pondering what else to plant. In the fall I found quite a few shrubs and some small trees and this spring I added more. Slowly but surely the backbone of the garden emerged.
Two trees were planted when the pond was put in; one a Dogwood near the pond while the second one is a Canadian Redbud ‘Rising Sun’ (Cercis Canadensis). The leaves on this tree start out yellow and then turn green so at all times you will have both yellow and green leaves on the tree. It took me a while to warm up to this tree. By now I have embraced its “yellow-ness” and turned it into a theme for that side of the raised garden. Three goldthread cypress (Chamaecyparis Pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea Nana’ – yes that is a mouthful) and one Hinoki Cypress ‘Crippsii’ (Chamaecyparis obtuse) are planted near the Redbud. Their yellow and green foliage complement the tree. Three little lemon goldenrod were planted nearby. Unlike the tall wild cousin of this plant it stays around 18 inches tall but will be equally attractive to bees and butterflies during summer and into fall. Last but not least I found Staghorn Sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ which is the well behaved relative in the Sumac family. Wild Sumac can swallow hillsides but ‘Tiger Eyes’ is smaller and will mature around six feet tall and wide. It is a stunning yellow plant which turns a bright red in fall. Spacing out these plants at planting time allows them to spread and grow together over time and will prevent diseases from overcrowding. The garden may look a little sparse in the beginning when the plants are still on the smaller side and planted far apart but you won’t have to start pruning at year two and every year thereafter.
Another plant which had been on my wish list for years was purchased this spring through mail order. I have always loved red currant berries and each year while visiting Holland I would eat lots of them. They are a bit on the tart side, but with a little bit of sugar they make for a refreshing desert. Unfortunately, the plant is an intermediate host for white pine blister rust and as a result you could not buy or grow them in New Jersey. Now that we are in Pennsylvania I could order this plant and once it arrived I promptly planted it. It flowered and soon the first berries developed. But like so many things in life and in the garden, these flowers grow on second year wood and this "harvest" will be very, very small. Luckily for me it has been happy in its spot in the garden and it is growing many new branches. Next year I should have many flowers on these branches and subsequently more fruit. With luck I might actually get a bowl, or two???
To be a gardener you need to take a long term view. Plants take time to grow and mature and no matter how much we like to hurry up the process, it will take its sweet time. Last fall I couldn’t wait for spring to roll around to see which plants from my old garden had made a successful transition to the new garden. Happily, most made the transition just fine and they are prospering now. Now all the newly added plants are taking their time to adjust to new conditions, soil and moisture and I find myself wishing for time to fast forward so I can see what it will look like next year. But as my garden grows, I grow older with it. My first garden in the Garden State was started when I turned 40. Now nearly two decades have passed and my 60th birthday is only weeks away. It will be a day celebrated with the under gardener, my wonderful Spouse, as well as friends. I weed and dig hole after hole for new plants. I collect rocks from nearby home sites as soil is disturbed during the building process and I build low walls around beds. I collect branches and sticks and outline other beds. I get my exercise while the garden grows and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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 cone flowers 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 lobelia '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 as 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!