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!
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 new shrubs which will serve as hedges a few years from now are 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 witch 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 shrub 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.