Sedum, a groundcover which comes in a variety of colors from gold to dark red, variegated or solid cover is not a plant I would have thought of for large parts of the garden. I used it on the edge of the pond, which is pretty much bone dry and much to their liking. These creeping plants disguise the edge between soil and gravel patio and as a bonus they bloom in bright colors, attracting many different winged insects. They root easily. Generally, I pull a few pieces off the main plant, scratch a very shallow trench with a piece of mulch and cover part of the stem with soil. Done, it’s as easy as that.
These days you can buy trays with a variety of different sedums to put in the garden. The big box stores have them at very reasonable prices, but I have also seen them at (wonderful) nurseries with price tags up to 75% higher for the same size trays. Needless to say, while I buy just as many plants at nurseries, my sedums come from the big box stores. I started with one tray. Rather than just putting the entire tray in the ground, I pulled the tray apart and planted little pieces of the plants about 8 inches apart from the others. Even tiny little pieces of the plants will root, and I generally just push these pieces in the ground by walking over them.
In some cases, I put different varieties of sedum right next to each other or planted the same type of sedum in a little clump away from other varieties. I went back a few times for more trays and this spring I bought a few more. It took about a year for the sedums to grow together and by this time next year the butterfly garden will have a sedum garden stretching from the driveway to the end of the sidewalk. The soil here is still atrocious heavy clay but the sedum has grown into the mulch and the decomposed mulch underneath, which gives it about an inch of decent soil. This part of the garden also slopes down towards our neighbor’s lawn, providing drainage for these plants which definitely don’t tolerate wet soils. I couldn’t help myself and bought a few dinosaurs which now “graze” in this sedum field. I need to get a few more to get a proper herd of them, but it never fails to bring a smile to my face or to the faces of visitors which see it for the first time.
Sometimes the garden takes on a life on its own. I have been known among gardening friends to run a tight ship in the garden (i.e. a bit of a control freak), but this garden is following new and different rules. This time around I planned a more restrained color palette and I am also allowing the plants to “do their thing”; well, up to a point.
My first garden included everything that caught my fancy and I loved that garden. This garden includes plants that worked the first time around but this time in larger numbers. Drifts of hostas, drifts of (Siberian, Louisiana, Japanese) irises, similar colored shrubs or, to shake it up, purple colored shrubs offset by striking yellow shrubs. Purple, blue and yellow dominate on one side, orange, red and yellow dominate another. But occasionally I try something new, hoping to incorporate new plants in the scheme that exists in my head.
My Tiger-Eye Staghorn Sumac was one such purchase. I had seen it in a spectacular private garden and wanted to see if it worked for me. As I wrote at that time, Tiger-Eye Sumac was more restrained than its “wilder” relatives, which will take over a hillside. I had high hopes for the two plants I put on the backside of the waterfall. The first year one of the plants put out one sucker, which I pulled off and that was the end of the that. The fall color was a bit of a let-down; rusty red rather than the bright red I had expected. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep these plants, but this spring I was surprised. One of the plants leafed out and looked great with its bright chartreuse leaves, but the second one lagged behind. In the end, it never leafed out and I had to cut it down, but not before it multiplied with suckers in a semi-circle around the parent plant. The ferny looking foliage also looked spectacular against the (chartreuse) background of the Gold Mop Cypress (Chamaecyparis) and the (equally chartreuse) Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’). However, something was missing and while I was (window)shopping for plants, I came across red hot pokers, although the yellow and orange dwarf variety of the plants named ‘Poco Yellow’ and ‘Poco Orange’. I bought 3 in yellow and 5 in orange and planted them behind the cypresses and around the Tiger-Eye sumac. The result could not have been more pleasing and while the Tiger Eye will grow taller, it will not obscure the view of the pokers.
One change made to the garden this spring took a bit of work but was worth the time and effort. The garden had mulched paths and while it was soft and springy underfoot, it also took many cubic yards of mulch each year to keep it looking good. It also tended to wash out in heavy rains and I had to rake it back in place time and time again. I like what mulch does to the garden, i.e. decompose, adding nutrients to the soil as well as turning into soil, but why should I have this goodness underfoot instead of using it for the planting beds? Last year I contracted with a landscaper to put down gravel which would also unify the gravel patio with the paths running through the garden. However, I had no intention of having them put weed fabric over the paths before I could dig up as much mulch and decomposed mulch (now good soil) and put it in the garden beds. Day after day I raked up mulch, digging down to the clay soil and distributing all this goodness around plants. By the time the landscaper showed up I had cleared the paths. Now when I walk in the garden I experience that crunchy sound that gravel gives. In The Netherlands, a gravel path to the house is nearly equal to having ADT or any other burglar detection system as you can always hear anyone approaching your house. The crew also put down some additional rock in the various raingardens and a trench was dug from the pond filtration system to the corner filled with willows. Now the water from the pond filter runs straight to the willows without disturbing the soil and I have another great looking and rocky corner. All in all, April and May were filled with work, but now I can enjoy the results. As soon as the sun comes out again, I will be out in the garden; weed a little, sit and read a little. Yes, it is a rough life, but someone has to do it.
How time flies! Three years ago we officially moved from our New Jersey residence to our new home here in Pennsylvania. We closed on the house in mid-April and made a few trips back and forth with potted plants from my old garden. These plants were put in the garage of our new home until we were officially in residence and I could find new spots for them. The pond was in the planning stages and my fish were temporarily put in tanks at a vet until their new pond was built. The Spouse and I unpacked box after box and turned this house into a home. The pond was completed by early July; the fish came home, liked it very much, spawned and multiplied. Two trees were planted and the garden now was mine, to do with it as I saw fit. Frankly, it was a bit intimidating to carve new gardens out of sea of mud. This is what our lot looked like on May 24, 2016, when Google Earth took this shot.
Although I had a plan, not everything worked out as I saw it in my mind’s eye. The one large existing tree on the property, a silver maple, was in poor shape after all the building and it never regained its former glory. This past fall it was taken down and I used most of the wood to line my paths. Suddenly that corner of the yard is in full sun and all the shade loving plants from my former garden were now complaining.
Two curly willows, grown from cuttings a year or two before we moved are now growing into nice specimens. Once more I have created shade in the garden! The output from the sump pump is right at the willows’ feet and a small river rock stream meanders to the end of the garden. Under the willows and around the river rock astilbes and heucheras flourish with a sprinkling of columbines and primroses (from the grocery store). A clump of Louisiana irises intersects the river rock and happily grows its roots in permanently damp soil. In the corner Japanese dappled shade willow (aka Hakuro Nishiki) also appreciates the wet corner. This spring I gave all five of these willows a very short haircut and the new growth is already a foot tall. By summer’s end you won’t be able to see the fence through the thicket of willow branches.
The retaining wall behind the pond divides my garden in an upper part (pond, bridge, waterfall and surrounding garden and patio) and a lower part. After walking many times around this back end of the garden a plan slowly started to develop. First a row of Arborvitae was put at the back fence. By now they have grown a good two feet and bulked up. Give it a few more years and I won’t be able to see my fence, or the white vinyl privacy fence the neighbors behind us put up. Where the wall curves towards the house, I built two large beds; one hugging the fence and one hugging the outcropping of the wall. The bed hugging the wall is a raingarden as rain from the roof is redirected to another river rock stream. The Japanese and Siberian irises planted in this bed prefer damp conditions and they are perfectly happy here. Around the edges I planted hostas as well as two different hydrangeas, one of which was a cutting from my old garden. The crowning glory in this bed is a Chionanthus virginicus or American Fringe tree, which is perfectly at home in a rain garden. When in bloom its fragrance adds another dimension to the garden and beckons bees from far and wide.
With all the shrubs and trees in place in the garden I have started to augment the beds at their feet. The pulmonaria (lungwort) formerly growing in the shade of the silver maple are now in full sun. I dug most of them up and planted them in the shade of the shrubs. Interplanted with heucheras (Dale’s strain) they make a handsome addition to these beds. A few of my Japanese painted ferns, also originally planted in the maple tree’s shade, have been dug up and put behind the Vitex multi-trunked shrub. They will grow into impressive clumps and its blueish-grey foliage will compliment the Vitex blue blooms. I have also relocated the Solomon Seal to the bed with the Vitex where it can romp around with abandon before there is a need for me to restrain it, or so I hope.
In three years I went from a sea of bare earth with nothing but heavy, heavy clay soils to gardens on both sides of the house and in the back. During those years I dug and amended the soil every time I added plants to the garden. I made compost from garden “waste” and used it, amending the soil. I mulched heavily, which also amended the soil as the mulch broke down. While I still garden in clay soil, the top 5 to 6 inches of soil have much improved and the worm activity is amazing. These worms create airspaces as they dig through the soil, while also amending the soil with what is politely known as “castings” or worm poop. Now my plants are reaping the rewards while we get to enjoy the garden as the weather improves.
Meanwhile I am thinking of plans to add gardens to the front yard while removing some grass. Well, you didn’t expect me to rest on my laurels now that most of the heavy lifting in the back yard has been done, I mean, really?
If the last four weeks are any indication of how spring will progress, I say, bring it on. From March 21st till now the temperatures have slowly inched up and at this point I gamble on continued good weather. Two weeks ago I put the dahlias out on the porch; a risky endeavor considering they do not handle any cold weather well. The first night I tossed a light frost blanket over all of them; just to ensure the 38-degree weather didn’t do them in on their first day out. After that, they have remained uncovered and while the wind occasionally whipped them around a bit, they have come through unscathed. Today I put them in their designated beds and the drenching rains we are expecting should water them in well. Then I will keep my fingers crossed for the next three weeks in the hope no unexpected (but possible) frost will hit between now and mid-May. Well, as a gardener I am an optimist but not every plant benefits from this trait. However, when I am overly optimistic if something will live in my garden, it also provides me with new opportunities when something doesn’t. Yes, life in this garden occasionally can be rough.
My blue river of grape hyacinths flowed a little more powerful than a year ago. I added more bulbs this fall while some of the baby bulbs from previous years’ growth are now starting to bloom as well. In time (give or take two to three years) I should have a nearly solid blue flow from the tops of the rocks to the top of the retaining wall. Then, as the grape hyacinths fade, the ice plant will start blooming with bright yellow flowers. Without a doubt, my springs will be colorful!
Something that didn’t do well in the garden, my much heralded Schip Laurels, got the old heave ho a few weeks ago. They looked raggedly and while it is claimed they have no “significant pests” bothering them, mine had many leaves with large holes in them. No clue what was eating them, but happy they were not. The best looking two got relocated; the others were put out at the curb at trash time. Instead I reworked the entire bed. Two lengths of willow screen were put up against the fence. This will serve as a background for a few clematis plants which (in time) will disguise the willow screen and the fence which is still slightly visible behind it. An arbor was put in the middle of the bed and right behind it… a door. While it is a non-working door, as plants grow up around it, it will look like a gateway to another garden. The arbor will have yellow climbing roses growing up and over it, mixed with clematis ‘Betty Corning’. ‘Betty’ has blue purplish bell-like flowers and it will clamber through the roses. On either side of the arbor, large hostas have been relocated from other spots in the garden. Meanwhile I also dug up a few patches of Irish moss and put it down in front of the door. This will become my bright green entrance mat in front of the door. Today I noticed the nose of a Hosta coming through a patch of Irish moss; it will have to be teased out and relocated. Meanwhile the Solomon seal planted last fall is also coming up in front of the door. This too will need to be dug up and put off to the side. The vision that came to me last fall is slowly becoming reality in the garden; so far, my spring is off to a great start. Let’s see what the rest of the growing season will bring.
The other day while reading one of my gardening books I came across a quote which went something like this: “March and November have much in common, but March has more promise”. Oh, how true that is; let me count the ways.
· The days are getter longer and then on March 10th the clock jumps forward and suddenly we have an extra hour of daylight. What joy!
· March 21st, the first day of spring. Ok, last year on the first day of spring we had a snowstorm which dropped 8+ inches of snow. Considering we just had 3 nuisance snowstorms with 4 to 6 inches of snow each this past week, I am sincerely hoping THAT won’t happen this year.
· The temperatures are heading up. Well, they haven’t yet. As a matter of fact, we are below normal for now, but it is still early. Eventually, though, they WILL go up.
· Sun, sun, glorious sun. It brightens the house (and shows me where the dust bunnies are hiding). When I walked out of the house yesterday, I could feel a bit of warmth from those first rays. It even melts snow on freezing days!
· Nurseries will soon open again and entice us with all the possibilities spring will bring.
I am always interested in the names of plants and the story behind them. Quite often breeders name new varieties after loved ones or a famous person. Some plants are so successful that you can still find the named variety decades or more later. For instance, the peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ dates back to 1906 and was named after the French actress who was world famous at that time. To this day, Dutch growers alone grow 20 million ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peonies each year for export and while I had one in my New Jersey garden, I really should get another one for this garden. Currently I am trying to personalize my garden with plants which share the same name as my parents. For the last few years I had been trying to find the iris reticulata named ‘Alida’ and this past fall I was successful in getting it. This spring it will be blooming in the front garden in blue with yellow and white markings and remind me of my mom. Then the search was on for a Kees, anything named Kees. Reading a gardening magazine, I came across a bright and large flowering marigold named ‘Kees’ orange’. I have never been fond of marigolds; they make me break out in a rash when I touch them, and I never cared for their “fragrance”, but this one I had to have. A quick online search provided me with a place where I can buy the seeds and this spring and summer, I will have Kees’ orange marigolds growing in my yellow/gold/orange and red beds. Thank you, Mr. Kees Sahin, the Dutch breeder, after which this plant was named.
In two of our guest bedrooms the first orchids have started to bloom. While there is still a blanket of snow outside, inside color brightens my day. Meanwhile the potted-up roots and rhizomes in the basement are breaking through the soil and the beginning of plants can be seen. In another six to eight weeks these pots can be moved to the porch for hardening off (getting them used to outdoor conditions) and a week or two later I can plant them out to their final spots in the garden. Suddenly the basement seems too small to contain this explosion of greenery. It is true, March has infinitely more promise than November!