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!
We are still in winter’s grip, but the days are getting brighter and longer. Temperatures remain on the chilly side, but already I can see glimpses of spring. The Witch hazels (Hamamelis variety Arnold Promise) have unfurled their yellow flowers. They are not yet in their prime but give it a few more days of sun and they will beckon the first bees with their scent and color. The low growing sedums, which are easily overlooked in winter, are starting to take on their spring hues; the dragon’s blood sedum is turning bright red while other varieties are taking on different colors. Soon my front patch of sedums will be bright green, yellow and red, with flowers following soon thereafter.
In the basement pots (and plants) seemingly multiply. My one Coleus plant ‘Marrakesh’ from two years ago has now multiplied into 60 new plants. The original 12 cuttings from late September had already grown into nearly foot tall plants. I cut these plants back by about half in order to grown them into bushy plants. The best cuttings were used for 24 new plants and the rest went onto the compost heap.
In the big box stores you can find all kinds of boxes with rootstock or bulbs which can be planted out in spring in the garden. I purchased a few boxes of Japanese Iris root stock as well as bags of different varieties of Dahlia rootstock and one peony. I take these smaller plants/root stocks, pot them up and grow them under ideal circumstances for a few months indoor before they are ready to be put in the garden. While I have little to show right now, in two to three months I will have nice size plants to add to my garden and they will only get better and bigger during spring and summer. One box of Japanese Iris includes six plants; three blue blooming varieties and three in yellow. Six plants for $15 comes down to $2.50 a plant and even if you add in the price of good potting soil (the pots I re-use from year to year) I will have the equivalent of a $10+ plant in spring from a nursery for ¼ of the cost. Buying multiples of the same plants also allows for a more cohesive planting design rather than a hodge-podge of “onesies”.
Of course, this time of year with mouthwatering catalogs arriving in the mail, it is easy to go overboard buying new plants. Frankly, I may have already crossed that bridge. There will be at least 5 or 6 nurseries delivering packages in two months or so and only today I received another catalog I will be ordering from. Then there are the willow branch screens I ordered and picked up as soon as they arrived in the store and the arbor and potting bench delivered last week. And, finally, there is the metal front door with windows I found at a salvage yard which will be put in the garden as soon as the weather is conducive to work outside again. There is lots of work to be done soon but first I get to enjoy the oldest flower show in the nation, the Philadelphia Flower Show, which will be held the first week of March. I will probably come home with more ideas for the garden AND without a doubt, more plants! I am going to need some more room in the basement…
Oh, how I detest this time of year. Sure, the days are getting longer, but sunshine is not in abundance and there are so many dreary days. While January was marked by rain events and very little snow, now we are getting nuisance snow events and even ice and hail. The next few days will bring rising temperatures only to see them fall again and with more snow in the forecast. Grrr.
These days I spend more and more time in the basement, tending plants. The latest round of cuttings from my ‘Marrakesh’ coleus has been successful even when I forgot to water one of the cuttings and noticed it completely wilted 24 hours later. A bit of tender, loving care and it perked right up. I would consider coleus as one of the easiest plants to take cuttings from and even a novice gardener would be able to increase the number of plants from just one plant. If you come across a coleus you absolute like this year, make sure you take a few cuttings come fall so you have new plants to put out in your garden the following spring!
I also started three trays with seeds. Grass in my case, and not just ordinary grass, but ornamental grasses. Two different types sprouted within the week, while the third tray doesn’t show any greenery yet. Few things are more satisfying than seeing seeds sprout and grow and nothing is more frustrating than waiting for anything to poke through the soil and announce its arrival. Oh, I hate this patience bit. Granted, gardening is all about patience. Waiting for spring to come around; waiting for that first flush of green and then the first bright colors returning to gardens and the world around us. Right now, I am more than ready to jump feet first in the garden if only 1. It was spring. 2. The weather was better. 3. It was spring!
On line I go to YouTube and watch British gardening show. Right now, I am on an Alan Titchmarsh kick with his “Love your garden” shows. Every episode shows how a new garden is created for a well deserving person who has experienced loss of a child, spouse, catastrophic health problem, or someone who brings joy to many others. All recipients are nominated by friends, family or co-workers and then Alan swoops in with his team and transforms a (usually derelict) garden into a place of peace, contemplation, play-space for kids and all-around beautiful space. They spare no expense and each garden is different from the next one with an amazing eye to detail and tailored for each recipient. If you need an uplifting gardening show this time of the year, it is worth finding it on YouTube. I also manage to glean bits of plant knowledge from this show and note worthy plants in my little gardening notebook so I can look for them in time for spring planting.
My repotted primroses are growing like weeds and blooming to their hearts’ content. Their bright bunches of flowers brighten up my days while I wait, most impatiently, for the days when I can work outdoors again and see my garden come back to life. I know it’s coming, it’s just not coming soon enough.