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Melting, Mud, and Other Hints of Spring

March 21, 2015

The vernal equinox may mark the official start of spring, but it will be a while yet before spring gets to Maine. As I write, I’m watching snow float down outside my study window, and there are still big piles of snow everywhere – some of which won’t finish melting until late April.

front pile of snow driveway snow banks

Nevertheless, there are subtle hints that spring is coming, if you know what to look for.

Unlike in February, when the snow just kept getting deeper and deeper, March’s longer days and strong sun have brought melting, even on days when the temperatures don’t get above freezing.

muddy ruts Muddy ruts have begun to appear in my dirt road, precursors of the dreaded ‘mud season,’ when the road may become impassable for as long as two weeks.
Previously buried garden features, like this tarp-covered bench and garden sculpture, have re-emerged. garden features emerging
snow melt foundation2 Snow has begun to melt away from the foundations of the house,
And here and there under the trees, patches of bare ground have appeared. bare ground patch

Along the roadsides, broken mailboxes and street signs, casualties of the winter’s plowing, are appearing from under the snow banks.

broken mailbox broken street sign
maple syrup cropped But there are sweeter signs of spring’s approach. Around my neighborhood, taps have appeared on sugar maple trees. This is Maine Maple Sunday, when farmers open their sugar houses to visitors and ply them with various maple sugar treats.

And a close look reveals new growth on deciduous trees.

tree branch budsAll of these buoy me up with hope that spring really is coming.

I am linking this post to Donna’s Seasonal Celebrations at Gardens Eye View.

McLaughlin Garden Talk Follow-Up

March 19, 2015

Yesterday I gave a presentation on garden blogs at the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, Maine. Several people asked for a list of the blogs I referenced during that talk. If you click on the image below, you can download a pdf version of my PowerPoint presentation for the talk. You can then click on any slide in the presentation for a link to the corresponding blog.


Waiting for Spring: GBBD, March 2015

March 15, 2015

Charisma1It has been a snowy day in Maine – a warning that we should not be lulled by recent spring-like temperatures and melting into thinking that winter is over. More than a foot of snow still covers my garden, so I remain reliant on indoor plants for blooms.

My ever-reliable potted cyclamen (below) continue to flower, although they are beginning to slow down. Only the oldest of these plants is still producing new buds. As this plant has grown over the years, the number of corms in the pot have increased and they have gotten out of phase with one another. The result is that different parts of the plant go into dormancy at different times and it almost always has some flowers in bloom.

bedroom red cyclamen window cyclamen

For the past two weeks, blooms on one of my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs, ‘Charisma,’ have been a joyful presence on my living room window ledge. I took these photos on a sunny day earlier in the week to capture the beautiful markings on its translucent petals when they are backlit by the sun.

Charisma2 Charisma3
Happily, as these flowers begin to fade, I have another potted amaryllis just starting to bloom. This is an unidentified plant that I inherited from a friend last summer. It’s about-to-open flowers look like ‘Apple Blossom,’ which is a perfect companion as winter turns into spring.

amaryllis bud

unknown amaryllis

One thing I am missing this year are the vases of cut Forsythia branches that I usually force into bloom. The new addition on my house now sits where the brassy gold forsythia used to grow. I did take  a small rooted piece of the softer yellow one that grew in my Gettysburg garden and planted it outside my study window, but it is too small to bloom yet. It is currently buried under snow, and it remains to be seen whether this variety will be cold-hardy in Maine.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is the lovely invention of Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Although it will be another month before I have spring flowers in my garden, you can visit her blog to see what is blooming this month in many places where spring has already arrived.

Books for Garden Inspiration: The Living Landscape

March 5, 2015

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodeversity in the Home GardenThe long winter months when my garden is dormant provide a time for me to seek inspiration from garden books. One important source of inspiration this winter has been Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s The Living Landscape (Timber Press, 2014).  Darke, a horticulturalist, and Tallamy, an ecologist, have combined their talents and perspectives to consider how we can create home gardens that are both beautiful and ecologically functional.

The book is organized into five chapters, but it may make most sense to think of it as having two major parts: Chapters 1-4 lay the conceptual groundwork for Darke and Tallamy’s approach, while chapter 5 (which makes up almost half the book and is longer than first four chapters combined) applies these concepts to the home garden.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the key theoretical framework of the book, the idea that landscapes (both wild and domestic) can be understood as a set of interconnected layers, including vertical layers (canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground), horizontal layers (e.g., edges), and cultural layers. A richly layered landscape, they argue, is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically functional. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on ecological concepts, the interrelated community of living organisms and the ecological functioning of layered landscapes. Chapter 4, “The Art of Observation,” focuses on how we can better see and read both wild and domestic landscapes. Chapter 5, “Applying Layers to the Home Garden,” brings all these ideas together in an analysis of how to create richly layered, beautiful, and ecologically functional gardens.

The Living Landscape is not a how-to book with a set of foolproof steps for creating functional layers in the home garden. It is primarily a conceptual volume, providing us with tools to see and think about our gardens in new ways. It felt to me like the more advanced sequel course to Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (see review here), a book that completely changed how I understood the presence of insects in my garden. In saying that this is a conceptual book, I don’t mean to imply that The Living Landscape does not provide practical advice; it does. This a big, gorgeous picture book, and every idea is richly illustrated with lush photographic examples (mostly by Rick Darke). There are also important pieces of garden design advice. I found this guideline for creating biodiversity in the home garden particularly helpful:

   One potential down side of plant diversity in gardens is that it is often concentrated at too small a scale. For the love of plants, gardeners sometimes group too many species with distinctly different growing needs into areas that are too small or not diverse enough to sustain them…. Looking to healthy natural habitats as models is a reminder that while the overall plant diversity of a landscape may be high, in any given space or localized ecosystem there is considerable repetition of a few key species.

   When designing for diversity, it’s important to aim for the highest supportable biodiversity overall but to avoid unsustainable variety in any one spot. (p. 151)

Practical information is also provided in a series of appendices (organized by region of the United States) that list the landscape and ecological functions of plants that could be used for the home garden.

Darke and Tallamy live and garden in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and their analysis and examples are based primarily on the deciduous forests that characterize the native wild landscapes of that region. This means that their analysis is most relevant for those who garden in conditions similar to that of the mid-Atlantic states. My own home in New England is a geographical neighbor to the mid-Atlantic region, has a similar deciduous forest native habitat, and includes many of the same plants, so the book translated well for me. As you get further afield from the mid-Atlantic  region, however, either geographically or ecologically, the specifics of The Living Landscape become less useful. Although Darke and Tallamy do include some examples in the text from other regions of the country and even the world, the book privileges the mid-Atlantic states. The plant listing for the mid-Atlantic region takes up 32 pages, compared with much shorter listings for the Midwest and mountain states (14 pages), the southeast region (10 pages), New England (8 pages), the Pacific Northwest (7 pages), and the southwest region (5 pages). And, of course, Darke and Tallamy have not attempted to analyze the landscape and ecological functions of native plants for other parts of the world.

Despite these inevitable limitations, I think Darke and Tallamy’s conceptual framework would help gardeners anywhere to look at and think about both their native landscapes and their gardens differently. For those in the United States mid-Atlantic and neighboring regions, the book is a goldmine of information and is likely to become an indispensible reference.

Winter Light

February 26, 2015

winter lightTo many who live in northern latitudes, the phrase “winter light” may seem like a contradiction. But in my Maine home, just south of the 45th parallel, winter is a light-filled time. There are a number of reasons for this. Winter is our longest season, beginning fairly early but lasting many months. We typically get some snowfall six months of the year – November, December, January, February, March, and April – and it is not uncommon to have continuous snow cover from late November until early April. This means that winter begins shortly before the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, but lasts until after the spring equinox.

In many ways, February is the heart of winter here. It is a cold, snowy month (especially so this year!) and spring is still many weeks away. But by the end of the first week in February, we have already journeyed more than half the distance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. By the last week of February, the hours of daylight are increasing dramatically. Today the sun rose at my house before 6:30 a.m. and it won’t set until almost 5:30 p.m. – giving us more than 11 hours of daylight. This is only one hour less than the equal day and equal night of the spring equinox, and it is a big change from the less than 9 hours of daylight we experience at the winter solstice.

But it’s not just that winter is a time of increasing daylight. The winter weather patterns here also make this a season of light. New England is not a place where winters are gray and dreary. Instead, our weather pattern is one of alternating low and high pressure areas. The low pressure areas bring us snow; the high pressure areas that follow bring us days of blue skies and brilliant sunshine. And all that white snow cover reflects and enhances the sunlight.

Sunlight reflected off snow at mid-day can be blindingly bright. (I can’t count how many times this month I’ve gone into a room to turn off a light that I had left on only to find that there were no lights on; the brightness I was seeing was reflected sunlight.) My favorite times for winter light, however, are morning and late afternoon. In the morning, the trees across the road from my house, in the west-southwest, are lit with the rosy glow of the rising sun. By late afternoon, it is a golden glow that lights up the trees in my back garden.

morning glow

evening glow

This has been an arduous winter in New England, and I will be happy to see the snow melt and green shoots appear as March turns into April. Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the winter light.

Mid-Winter Color: GBBD, February 2015

February 15, 2015

back garden in snowSo far, February in Maine has been much colder and snowier than average. We have been getting snow every three days, and temperatures have averaged more than 10 degrees below normal for this time of year. February is mid-winter here. The mild days of fall are just a fond memory, and spring is still many weeks away. And we’re all starting to get just a bit tired of snow. Happily, recent storms have followed a track that takes them out to sea south of here, leaving us on the northern fringes; as a result, we haven’t been hammered with record-breaking snow the way Boston has.

There’s not much to see in the snow-covered garden. The blue tarp that covers my garden bench is barely visible. But the garden is happy to be covered by more than two feet of snow. The snow is a great insulator that protects plants from the cold temperatures, and its melting in spring will provide them with moisture to support new growth.

February pink cyclamen February pink & white cyclamen
For flowers and color in February, however, we must look indoors. My potted cyclamen are still blooming happily in shades of pink and white on the living room window ledge. Recently, they have been joined by the red flowers of a third potted cyclamen in my bedroom. The intense scarlet of these flowers is just what my soul needs in this white season, and I love the intricate pleats of their about-to-open buds. february red cyclamen
scarlet cyclamen flower scarlet cyclamen bud

Two of my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs have sent up flower buds, promising more colorful blooms in the weeks to come.

tall amaryllis bud I think this one will bloom in February.
And this one gives me something to look forward to in March. short amaryllis bud

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is the brainchild of Carol at May Dreams Gardens and is hosted by her on the 15th of each month. Visit her blog to see what’s in bloom this month in gardens around the world, including colorful summer flowers from our garden blogging friends in the southern hemisphere.

Garden Books

February 11, 2015

garden booksWith many feet of snow on the ground in New England, and much of it likely to be there until April, gardening outdoors is not an option at this time of year. In our long winters, we turn to indoor gardening (houseplants, seed starting) and to mental gardening. I am particularly fond of the latter activity, and garden books provide the inspiration for much of my mental gardening.

So, when I finally got the bookcases installed in my new study about a week ago, the first books I moved in were garden books. I have long dreamed of having my garden books readily at hand near my desk, so that I could just roll over to them in my desk chair and pluck the one I need off the shelf. And that is just what I now have – three shelves of garden books given pride of place in the spot most accessible to my desk.

And what did I do when those books were in place? I added to their number. For many months now, I have been keeping a list of garden reference books that I wanted to get as soon as I had a place to put them. One evening last week, I took out that list, counted the value of the Barnes & Noble gift certificates that I received both as retirement gifts from my colleagues and as Christmas gifts from family members, and placed an order. Yesterday, in the midst of yet another snowfall, my books were delivered to my door.

garden book delivery new garden books

Here are my new purchases:

  • The third edition of Allan Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants (Stipes, 2008). Armitage is my go-to reference for learning all the particulars about any perennial genus, and my 2nd edition is falling apart from long use. I have been coveting this new edition for years, but have been deterred by the price. But with all those gift certificates waiting to be used, the moment seemed ripe to satisfy this longing. And satisfying it is! This is an encyclopedic volume, with over 1000 pages and a wonderful new-book smell.
  • The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy (Timber Press, 2014). I put this on my wish list as soon as Timber Press announced its publication last year. Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home was critical in my education as a gardener, and a volume that weds his ecological principles with an approach to garden design that models the layering of wild deciduous forests is very exciting to me.
  • Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso (Cornell University Press, 1997) is a basic reference book and an identification key that can help me to learn more about many plants already growing on my property.
  • Science and the Garden, 2nd edition (Blackwell, 2008) is the Royal Horticultural Society’s guide to the scientific basis of horticultural practice. This is one of two books that I chose to  improve my scientific education in relation to gardening.
  • Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2010) is my second science selection, this one to help me understand soil science. This seems like a particularly important subject for me because so much of my experience of gardening involves dealing with the very sandy, nutrient poor soil on my property.

garden readingOnce I had unpacked my new books, I felt a bit like a kid on Christmas morning – unsure which new toy to play with first. After some deliberation, it was The Living Landscape that I moved to the table beside my reading chair in the living room. I am about to begin the process of designing my new front garden, with the first flower beds scheduled to be prepared and planted this spring and summer. Darke and Tallamy’s approach to garden design seems particularly helpful in thinking about the relationship of this new garden to the rest of my property, particularly the surrounding woodlands, and for making the best selection of plants and creating a lush, layered look with sound ecological principles in mind.


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