Marty's Garden, November 4th, 2018

Today we set the clocks back one hour. Now all I must do is get through the next four months or so when the days are not as short as they soon will be. But, thankfully, the weather is rather nice, and I have been able to work in the garden.


The large silver maple was cut down a few weeks ago and I have utilized 95% of the wood in the garden. The arborist cut the multiple trunks down in manageable pieces, some halved, others quartered, and I used these to line the pathways. The larger branches have been cut into four to six-foot pieces and I intertwined these to line other beds and paths. While this wood will decay over time, for now it provides shelter for insects, toads and other living organisms. It also looks rather nice, although it will look even better over time (next year?) when perennials start growing over logs here and there. 

When we moved in, the spot around the silver maple was the only shady spot in my back garden. Now it will be the sunniest spot. All the shade loving perennials planted near the tree two years ago will be very unhappy come spring. Thankfully, I have new shady spots in the garden and today I relocated large pulmonaria (lungwort) to their new locations under large shrubs and (still smallish) trees.

Fall adds a whole new dimension to my garden; colors I didn't see before. Seemingly overnight last week parts of my garden turned yellow and orange. Hostas, some irises and ornamental grasses now glow buttery yellow while my witch hazels (Hamamelis) broke out in near orange. Only days later a severe storm blew through and scattered all of its leaves but all along the stems you can already see the promise of spring; buds ready to open with fragrant yellow flowers. They will arrive just in time when this gardener's heart needs it most, in late winter, when I can't stand another day of gloomy winter weather. 


The glowing fall garden


The dogwood tree (Cornus kousa) also promises spring flowers by the bushel as I can see buds everywhere, but now it is showing off its fall splendor: ruby red leaves. In the late afternoon sunshine, the tree almost glows! Off to the left of the dogwood three Viburnums (variety Winterthur) are also turning colors, bright scarlet red. Last fall, after experiencing dry conditions for months on end, their color was muddy and disappointing. What a difference a very wet year makes in the garden! While the crab apple (Malus, variety Prairie fire) already lost all of its leaves, the bright red fruits will entice birds come winter.

Dogwood in fall

My bulbs arrived earlier this week and I started planting them right away. First there were the small bulbs, grape hyacinths, which needed only shallow holes. Since grape hyacinths make the biggest impact in larger numbers, I planted them close to each other and in swaths. Puddles of blue will break out in spring as they bloom and bees will rejoice with an early source of nectar. Once those 200 bulbs were planted, I took a break and continued the next morning with Dutch irises and Iris reticulata. Time for another break after those were planted and the next morning I started with the daffodils. These were much bigger bulbs, which required deeper and bigger holes. Two days later all 150 daffodil bulbs were planted, mostly in the front garden where they will give me the biggest bang for my buck early in the spring season.


I am also staying on top of is weeding. The ground is still soft (especially after the downpour two days ago) and weeds come out of the ground with roots intact with little effort. As shrubs lose their leaves it is easy to see if there are any weeds hiding around the plants and it’s just as easy to get rid of them. With less work to do in the garden, I welcome the weeding. A bit of work now will save me time next spring when instead I will be able to enjoy all those spring flowers from bulbs. Of course, there is that OTHER season still to get through, but maybe reading my gardening books will make the time go faster and banish those winter blues. I can hope, right?


Marty's Garden, September 24th, 2018


Well, it is official, summer has come and gone. The days are getting shorter, some hostas are yellowing and getting ready to do their underground snooze. Others, however, are pushing out new growth and I even see a few flowers on some of them. But then there are the first red leaves on the trees. Fall is here!


The first caterpillars have made their transition from eating machine into chrysalis to butterfly. A swallowtail caterpillar picked a spot next to the front door for its metamorphosis and in less than a week a new butterfly was “born”. Talk about having a front row seat to watch a miracle. 


I continue to check the window wells in the basement for frogs. There are still a few who make the leap into the well and need rescuing, something I always enjoy and, occasionally, document!

green frog from window well


Making the rounds at nurseries and big box stores I find bargains. First, I picked up five asters at 50% off, even though it was early in the season and the plants were still in full bud. Then, a few weeks later I come across the bargain rack at Lowe’s; $3 hydrangeas and a week later $1 hydrangeas. Then I hit the jackpot: $1 and $5 hostas (small and extra-large plants!) and $1 and $3 asters and rudbeckias. I spent $25 on something which would have cost me $120 only weeks earlier and we are not talking about half dead plants either. Sure, they had a few dried-up leaves, a few flowers past their prime, but overall, they are healthy plants, with good root growth and plenty of life left in them for this fall season and many more years to come. I cut off the spent flowers, took off dried and shriveled up leaves and found spots for all of them. The asters are in the new garden in the front, hostas are underplanted around shrubs and the hydrangeas found a home on corners of the pink bed on the side of the house. There is no need to coddle them as they get used to their new spots; we continue to have -as I call it- Dutch weather, grey, cool and wet. Perfect weather for planting, not so great for growth.


My tropical annuals, the castor bean plants, remain diminutive. Last year two of them outgrew their spot and I had to “prune” them to get around them. This year the tallest tops out at four feet, but most remain around two. Their color is bright red, but the effect of multiple castor bean plants in the back of the front garden bed is negated by their small stature. I should have had a tall row of castor beans behind a green screen of forsythia, but instead I have a few small plants hidden behind the greenery. Rats! Next year I will try again, and if we have warmer weather (as in a REAL summer) my vision may come to fruition.


As our neighbors have been dealing with soggy, wet lawns and puddles, some regrading of back yards is being done. A swale is added to our neighbor’s backyard and now water from multiple houses drains into the swale and disappears within 48 hours. I get some leftover top-grade soil and fill a few low spots in my garden.


 There are not many tasks that remain to be done this year; plant bulbs once they arrive, put the wood of the silver maple to good use once the tree comes down and one more load of mulch to be put down in the garden. Slowly, but surely, my gardening year is coming to an end. Time for a short break and then I will start gardening in the basement. I will surround myself with house plants which are brought back inside and cultivate cuttings from annuals to grace my garden next year. Oh, and I will have time to read gardening books, lots of them!


Marty's Garden, September 7th, 2018

There is a bit of irony going on in my garden. Take my butterfly garden. Lots of flowers with large flowerheads, landing pads for butterflies and bees alike. Bright orange zinnias as well as Mexican sunflowers, with their equally bright orange flowers and soft, fuzzy leaves. Butterfly weed (Asclepias) has bloomed (in bright orange!) and is now going to seed. Everywhere you will see parsley; not for us, but for the swallowtail butterflies to lay their eggs on. Butterfly weed is the host plant for Monarch butterflies, while the parsley serves as the host plant for swallowtails. After all, how are we going to have butterflies in the garden if we don’t offer it a place to lay its eggs and host the ugly duckling stage of its development before it turns into the butterfly? 


The caterpillar, basically a mouth with a large stomach and stubby feet, will reduce these plants to sticks as they grow from tiny caterpillar into its final size. Occasionally I will move a caterpillar to another parsley nearby when it has reduced the original plant down to virtually nothing.  The monarch caterpillars seem to have a taste for the seedpods of the butterfly weed, of which there are plenty. Somewhere in this flowering display you will find my new roses; four small rose bushes and two medium sized ones, the latter which are called Vavoom! They bloom in (what else?) BRIGHT orange, although they have the (unfortunate) tendency to fade to a salmon-y pink. While every bud and subsequent flower brings a smile to my face, that smile faded when my flowers got munched on. The first culprits where the Japanese beetles, which were dealt with quite easily. I handpick them off the flowers, throw them in soapy water and that is the end of that. But then there was something else eating my roses… not just the flowers, but some of the new leaf growth as well. A closer examination was warranted. Hiding among the flower petals or under some leaves were tiny caterpillars. The smallest ones were yellow, but as they grew bigger they turned bright green. I picked them off the plants and fed them to my fish in the pond. Every few days I go back to the roses and see if I can find more. And there you have the irony in my garden; while I provide an environment for most butterflies and their hungry offspring, I fail to do the same for whichever little butterfly or moth is responsible for the rose eating caterpillars. Happy to provide parsley and butterfly weed for them to eat, I draw the line at my roses!

Monarch on Butterfly weed seed pod


A few hot and dry days (the fourth heat wave of this summer) were followed by more torrential downpours. With all this heat and rain most plants have put out new growth and my shrubs and smaller trees are bigger than a month or two ago. My Purple-leaf Mimosa tree 'Summer Chocolate' (Albizia julibrissin) has doubled its size. Hopefully next year it will get another growth spurt, up this time, so I can walk upright under it rather than bending down to get past it.  

My Chaste trees (Vitex) have provided the bees and butterflies this summer with a cornucopia of flowers and it is still blooming. Again, it has doubled in size and next year I can try to start pruning it into a multi-trunked small tree. Although Chaste trees are not reliable hardy below zone 7 (we are in zone 6B) so far I have been lucky as both plants are still with me, even after last winter’s very cold weather.

Chaste tree (Vitex)

The same applies to my crepe myrtles, hardy down further south, marginally hardy here. But all three of them are growing and blooming and, as all gardeners, I have faith they will live and thrive. Then on the other hand, if they curl up their roots and die, I will have an opportunity to try something else. That’s the nature of gardening; nothing remains the same from day to day and each day brings us new surprises, even if it comes in the form of tiny yellow or green caterpillars!


Marty's Garden, August 25th, 2018

With two thirds of summer gone it is time to take stock in the garden. It really hasn't been that hot for very long, but we have had plenty of moisture and it might be the wettest summer in decades. I certainly don’t remember any summers this wet since I landed on these shores in 1981. Most rainfalls were torrential in nature; no gentle rains slowly soaking into the ground!


 With two years of gardening under my belt in this new garden I admit I am starting to look forward to next year. There is a saying in gardening: when you plant anything in the garden, they (the plants) “sleep the first year, creep the second year and leap in the third year”. Yeah, my garden should be leaping all over next spring and summer since the backbone of my garden (shrubs and trees) were put in the ground in the summer and fall of 2016. Unlike unexperienced gardeners who tend to put plants too close together to make more of an impact, I carefully spaced my plants. It allows the plants to mature into healthy plants without pruning to shoehorn them in their intended spot. While I wait for the plants to fill out I must deal with open spaces between the plants. If you don’t care for the “open look” as your garden grows to its potential, you can use annuals to fill in the gaps. Oh, without a doubt, gardening is a game of patience, something I have not always been good at (the patience part, that is).


These days as I sit in the garden in late afternoon, I overlook the main garden and pond. There are few flowers and the main colors here range from creamy white, blue green, greenish yellow to bright green. A few clematis plants are in bloom and I can see puddles of blue. The gravel path is a light grey river next to the water of the pond. The spiky variegated foliage of iris glows in creamy white and green and contrasts with the sedum growing around the edges of the pond. The Canadian redbud tree towers next to the waterfall and behind it I can see the rounded shapes of my yellow green evergreens. The other side of the waterfall is now completely covered by blue rug juniper which I am training to grow over the rocks and down the backside of the raised bed. It’s a view that is restful and pleasant to look at.

 As we get closer to fall the inevitable fall gardening catalogs have arrived in the mailbox. As always, I peruse each and every catalog, dog-earing pages with interesting bulbs (as bulbs are the mainstay for planting in fall). I compare prices among the various providers and then wait a bit longer to see if any deals crop up. But don’t wait too long or all the best bulbs will be gone, and you will have to make do with leftovers! For the last two years my garden was still too new to start planting bulbs. The soil was heavy clay, compacted from building the house and then the pond and most bulbs would struggle to grow, let along bloom in splendor in the spring. And to be honest, by the time fall came around I was too bushed to amend the soil and dig hundreds of holes for planting. But this year… oh, this year I am ready to create a spring blooming garden. I ordered two different varieties of daffodils, various grape hyacinths, plenty of Dutch irises in bright yellow, two different varieties of iris reticulata, dwarf irises, one of which is called ‘Alida’ which happens to be my mother’s name and finally more snowflakes (those snowbells on steroids). All in all, 550 bulbs which will give me more than enough work to do once they arrive. Most likely sometime half way through planting I will wonder why I ordered that many bulbs. On the other hand, though, I will also know that come spring next year my garden will come back to life earlier than ever before and brighten up the block.  The witch hazels, which bloom in late winter, early spring, will be underplanted with daffodils and grape hyacinths and compliment each other. In other beds, the bulbs will work their magic first before their foliage dies back and make room for perennials which will strut their stuff in the weeks and months following the spring blooms. For the wettest parts of the garden, wherever the downspouts or sump pump dumps water, the snowflakes will bloom for weeks on end with bright white bells atop large grass-like leaves. When conditions are consistently damp the foliage stays green throughout most of summer before finally dying back in late August, early September. All these bulbs will add an additional layer to the garden and provide an early source of nectar for those first insects buzzing around in late winter and early spring. As for me, after months indoors during winter I will be more than happy to see my garden erupting with spring colors. 

Marty's Garden, July 28th, 2018


This year’s gardening journal has a theme; a wet theme. Spring was mostly cool and wet, summer was hot for a short period and wet for the rest. Storms rotate over the same region time and time again and over 12 days this July I have measured nearly 11 inches of rain in the rain gauge. The first rains on Sunday 7/15 measured 2.3 inches and were a welcome relief from the heat. The garden immediately perked up and on Wednesday 7/18 we received another 3.8 inches of rain. No longer was there any need for watering and since then just about every other day we have had more rain. Since my side garden is on a gentle slope, the heavy rain, unfortunately, moved my thin layer of mulch all the way down the slope. I raked it back up the slope and the next heavy rain brought it down again. This got old fast! There was only one solution to the problem: more mulch, lots of it. So, I ordered another truck load and The Spouse and I have been busy spreading it on the side yard. I now have a good three to four inches all over the side yard and the next rain (coming down as I am writing this) will pack it down a little, but no longer move it down the slope.  

As a gardener I recycle all garden “waste” on the compost pile. I had two bins, bought many years ago, but it was hard moving the compost around in it or getting to the bottom of the bins where all those pieces of plants and paper had turned into wonderful soil. For a while I had been thinking about making new bins out of palettes (check out the internet for ideas – there are lots of them out there) but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I dismantled my bins and got a full wheel barrel and two buckets full of soil out of the bottom of my compost bins.

fresh compost from
fresh compost from "waste"

Now I had two heaps of garden waste sitting in the back of the garden and no will to reassemble the two bins. And here comes The Spouse to the rescue! Online he went and found cedar compost bins, to be assembled by the recipient. Just in time for my upcoming birthday! When the FedEx guy came (as we were mulching) I could not have been more excited. The next day I assembled my bins, which was as easy as pie! The corner pieces and slats are all dove-tailed and you slide the slats down the post (occasionally with the help of the rubber mallet). Rather than make three separate bins, you can use the corner post from the first assembled bin to add bin number two. My three boxes of bins thus gave me four compost bins with even a few slats and two more corner posts left over.

Compost bins
My birthday compost bins

Let’s just put it this way, I will be composting to my heart’s content for decades to come. My cedar bins will weather into a nice grey color and soon my neighbors won’t even notice them. 

Since June, July and August are months when lilies strut their stuff, my garden has been a fragrant paradise for weeks now. One of my favorites is the Turk’s cap lily, a four to five-foot giant with many (20+) flowers opening over a week or two. When I bought my first Turk’s cap lily, they were expensive at $5 a bulb and I only bought three of them. They multiply, slowly, but I dug up my bulbs from my original garden and brought a few baby bulbs with them to my PA garden. 

Turk's cap lilies from NJ garden

Each (flowering) stem will bear tiny bulbs, called bulbils, at each leaf axil and you may get as many as fifty of these tiny bulbs from one stem. Usually they will just fall off and start a new plant right next to the mother plant (as it did in my NJ garden). It will take a few years for these bulbils to grow into a larger plant and eventually flower. Two years ago I took all the bulbils from my Turk’s cap lilies and planted them in different parts of my garden. Some did well, others not so well, but one spot suited them greatly and now I have the first few blooming Turk’s cap lilies from these tiny bulbils.While the flowers are not as tall or as floriferous as the parents YET, I consider them a gift. Next year I should have many more Turk’s cap lilies blooming in my garden, both the single as well as the double variety, and it didn’t cost me a penny! Soil for free from composting and flowers from bulbils. Ah, gardening on the cheap, I knew I could do that too!