Winter; a word that strikes fear into a gardener’s heart. Well, that is a bit of a dramatization although it is not my favorite time of the year. However, starting today the days will be getting longer and while I will be hard pressed to see the difference early in the season, give it another month and it will be noticeable.
This year has been one of the wettest on record and last night we had more rain. According to the weatherman we had rain 40% of the time of the year which equates to 146 rainy days out of (almost) 365 days! Most of the time we had torrential downpours and I am actually surprised my garden coped with the continued wet conditions as well as it did. Of course, putting willows in wet clay soil was a no brainer; they like wet feet and the roots bust clay soil. Others were planted “high”, meaning in a slightly raised bed with a gentle slope away from the trunk of the plant. I also added plants which can handle wet conditions and it will be interesting to see how well my garden will do in the foreseeable future (as in a drier year!).
After last night’s rain I checked the window wells in the basement for frogs. It’s a bit late in the season, but since temperatures were balmy (50s for the past few days and in the 60s today) the occasional frog might have been hopping around in the garden. Good thing I looked as I found the biggest frog in the window well yet. This goliath happily posed to have its picture taken before I put it back in the pond and it swam off.
While the gardening year has pretty much come to an end I still walk around the garden on nice days and observe bulbs (grape hyacinths and Dutch irises) planted over a month ago pushing greenery up through the soil. Already, the promise of spring can be observed all over, from these green shoots to the bright red eyes of peonies waiting for spring weather or the buds on both my Magnolia tree as well as the Witch hazels.
My ‘Dancing Butterfly’ peony, bought many years ago from K-mart for $4 eventually turned into a large plant. With bright pink flowers and equally bright yellow stamens it was a show stopper in my New Jersey garden next to the Japanese maple (see below). Before we even moved, I dug up a small piece and stuck it in a pot. It sat in that pot for a year, not doing much. That winter it was waterlogged when the soil froze, followed by heavy rains. I did not think it would live, but it did. The following spring we moved and several months later the plant got to stretch its roots in my garden and in 2017 it bloomed. This spring it bloomed with abandon but much to my chagrin the color combination of Pepto Bismol pink among the yellow-green evergreen shrubs was awful. “Thankfully”, peony flowers are not long lived so after 7-10 days of cringing at the color combination, the petals fell; my peony blended in once more. This fall I dug up this, now much larger plant, divided it into two and moved it to the pink bed where it will live in harmony with its neighbors.
Another peony found its way home after visiting Costco where Itoh peonies could be had for next to nothing. The Itoh peony is a cross between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies and it will turn into a larger plant than a regular, herbaceous peony. Like a regular peony, once fall rolls around, the plant collapses and it can be cut back. If you look closely, both the Itoh and regular peony will have bright red eyes poking up out of the soil, waiting for spring weather to unfurl its stems once more. But unlike regular peonies, the Itoh peony also has bright red buds along some of its older stems, which I hope will give me more flowers come spring. Plant care for Itoh peonies calls for cutting back the plant down to the ground in fall, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Next spring will show if my moderate pruning will give me more flowers on a bigger plant. If not, come fall 2019 it will be cut back to a few inches off the ground with hopes of many more flowers in spring 2020. For now, I bide my time indoors, dreaming of flowers to come.
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 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.
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 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?
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.