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The Beauty of Winter Trees: Tree Following, February 2016

February 10, 2016

winter red mapleI did not post about my red maple (Acer rubrum) tree in December or January. The busyness of the holiday season explains December, but in January I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say about the tree.

Like all deciduous trees in cold climates, my red maple goes into winter dormancy after it drops its leaves in the autumn. It’s tempting to think there is nothing going on with the tree during the winter months, but that is not true. The dormant tree is still an important presence in my life, and the first thing that strikes me about trees in winter is their stark beauty, especially when their limbs are limned in snow. The contrast of white snow on dark bark is striking and emphasizes the tree’s vertical shape.

We often talk about the visible winter form of a deciduous tree as its “skeleton,” but dormancy should not be confused with death.  We can think of the winter dormancy of plants as more like sleep than like death, a restorative process that protects health. Part of the beauty of deciduous trees in winter is that they have a hidden life pointing us toward spring.

An attempt to learn more about the winter dormancy of trees led me to a Virginia Tech website on tree science. Here I learned that dormancy is a survival strategy that helps protect trees from the harsh environmental conditions of winter, enabling them to live long lives (hundreds of years long in some species). I also learned that there are stages of dormancy and that these stages are triggered by length of night and day and by environmental conditions like temperature.

As the nights got longer in fall, my tree entered the stage of “pre-dormancy,” when growth slows dramatically. This is when the tree’s leaves stop producing chlorophyll and the brilliant colors of fall foliage appear. By the time the tree enters true dormancy, it has dropped its leaves and stopped the growth of new shoots. Dormant shoots have “resting buds” that are covered in protective scales. Once the tree is in true dormancy, it won’t emerge from that dormancy until it has experienced a “period of prolonged chilling” (500-2000 accumulated hours of chilling, depending on the tree species and how far north it grows). As the days get longer in late winter, the tree enters the “post-dormancy” stage, when the resting bud is capable of growing but will not do so unless temperatures get warm enough. It is warm spring temperatures that will lead the tree to “break bud,” with flowers and new leaves.

Soon, I will be aware of subtle changes in the bare shoots of my maple tree that signal the transition to post-dormancy. In late February and early March, all the little shoots in the tree’s canopy will begin to swell with new life and the promise of spring.

winter maple canopy

Tree following is graciously hosted each month by Pat English at The Squirrel Basket. In her Cardiff, Wales location, trees have already broken dormancy and begun to bloom!

Year 2 Plans for the New Front Garden: The Side Slope

February 3, 2016

lower garden site1The addition on the front of my house, completed last spring, created an opportunity for a whole new front garden. This is a big project, and I am approaching it as a five-year plan. In year one (2015), I got the hardscape in place on the upper level and created four relatively small flower beds around that hardscape.

I have a more ambitious set of planting areas scheduled for 2016: a large area I am calling the “side slope” which slopes down from the walkways and retaining wall to the driveway, and a 20’ long x 12’ deep “fragrant garden” outside my new bedroom. I have been thinking about the design for both these garden areas, but I am focusing first on planning for the side slope.

side slopeBecause the walkways and retaining wall are parallel to the house but the driveway is not, the side slope is an awkward wedge shape. It is roughly 30’ long , and its depth ranges from about 16’ at the wide end of the wedge (where it borders a flight of steps up from the driveway) to 4’ at the corner of the L-shaped retaining wall. As its name indicates, this planting area is also sloped – steeply from the walkways and retaining wall at the top to the driveway at the bottom and more gradually from the top of the stairs to the far end of the retaining wall.


Above is an approximate diagram of the side slope. (This image is not true to size.) I want to plant this in a fairly casual style, with a mixture of shrubs, perennials, and grasses, and with plants that can provide a fairly large, architectural presence. Except for the edges, many parts of this garden area will be difficult to maintain (because of the slope), so it is important to choose tried-and-true easy care plants that are happy to grow in my garden and to use groundcovers to minimize the need for weeding.

My first-ever rose will fill the narrow end of the wedge. I chose ‘Therese Bugnet’ because it is an unfussy and very hardy hybrid rugosa. I will give structure to this large amorphous space with three strong horizontal bands of plants (indicated by the blue lines) that will converge at the rose bush. For the top band, I am planning to use a mixture of Baptisia (B. australis or B. x ‘Purple Smoke) and peonies. These plants are good companions for one another, and will provide a nice transition from the Patio Border, which is planted in peonies. For the middle band, I am planning on using Amsonia (either A. tabernaemontana or A. hubrichtii), punctuated with several plants of ornamental grass (probably Panicum). I haven’t decided what to use for the bottom band along the driveway. One possibility is more of my endless supply of Geranium x ‘Biokovo,’ an easy groundcover with lovely flowers in late spring and foliage that looks good almost year round. If I do use Biokovo, I will likely break up the horizontal band with clumps of some compatible foliage plant.

I plan to plant shrubs in the large spaces on either side of the middle band at the wide end of the wedge, bordering the stairway up from the driveway to the house entrance area. These will provide needed mass and help to balance the large sprawling rhododendron that dominates the back slope, on the other side of that stairway. I have not yet decided on the plants for the rest of the side slope, but informal drifts and clusters of plants between the horizontal bands will keep the planting from looking too regimented. These will almost surely include easy-care plants that grow readily in other parts of my garden: daylilies, Siberian irises, hardy geranium, tradescantia, and balloon flower.

I still have a lot of thinking and design work to do on this new garden area, but I expect to complete the planning for the side slope in time to begin preparing the soil and planting in May and June.

Favorite Garden Books – Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden

January 28, 2016

SissinghurstSissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) is a collaboration of sorts between Vita Sackville-West, the creator of one of the world’s most-loved gardens, and Sarah Raven. The collaboration is a very unusual one because Vita Sackville-West died in 1962, the year before Sarah Raven was born. But Sarah Raven is married to Vita Sackville-West’s grandson, Adam Nicolson; and the two have lived at Sissinghurst, where Sarah Raven has immersed herself in Vita’s style, Vita’s garden, and Vita’s written work, especially her garden writing. In this book, Sarah Raven explores the components of Vita’s gardening style, using Vita’s own words, mostly from her gardening columns in the Observer.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Sarah Raven provides context by recounting the history of Sissinghurst, introducing Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and their purchase of the property, and explaining the formal structure Harold laid out for the garden. Part two is the heart of the book; this is where Raven teases out the principles or “themes” that Vita used to fill Harold’s structure with plants. Sarah Raven notes (p. 69) that Vita “…was mainly a plants person, someone who loved and wrote about individual varieties and new discoveries” and that she seldom focused on garden design in her writing. In gleaning the elements of design from Vita’s writing about her garden, Raven has made an important contribution. In Part three, Raven turns to those individual plants that Vita loved, considering “painterly plants,” Vita’s indoor and container gardening, and Vita’s emphasis on cut flowers for the house. She then closes the book with a chapter on Sissinghurst’s recent history.

While I enjoyed Parts 1 and 3 of this book, Part 2 was the section I loved. Here, Sarah Raven devotes a chapter each to five themes that she identifies as the heart of Vita’s gardening style:

  • A Mixture of all things  – shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines, and bulbs all mixed together in the same planting;
  • A sophisticated palette – Vita’s use of color, focusing especially on the creation of the purple border, the sunset-themed cottage garden, and the famous white garden;
  • Cram, Cram, Cram – squeezing as many plants as possible into the space available, covering the walls, covering the trees, covering the ground, and even covering  the paths;
  • Flowering shrubs and their importance in Vita’s garden design;
  • Scents – the importance of fragrance and Vita’s use of it in the garden.

Part 2 of the book relies heavily on excerpts from Vita’s garden writing. The result is that Vita’s voice, with that wonderful breezy, intimate style familiar to those who have read any of the edited collections of her Observer columns, comes through more strongly than in Parts 1 and 3. Sarah Raven has done an amazing job of blending her own voice with Vita’s; several times, I found myself going back and looking for the quotation marks to find the place where Vita’s narration ended and Sarah’s took over.

Although this book focuses on the elements of Vita’s gardening style, it also emphasizes her experimental approach to gardening. She combined imagination, boldness in trying new things, and a willingness to tear out what wasn’t working. This excerpt from Vita’s garden writing provides a delightful example of Vita’s approach (p. 76):

My system is more practical. I observe, for instance, a great pink, lacy crinoline of May-flowering tamarisk, of which I put in two snippets a year ago, and which now spreads the exuberance of its petticoats twenty feet wide over a neglected corner of the garden. What could I plant near to enhance its colour? It must, of course, be something which will flower at the same time. So I try effects, picking flowers elsewhere, rather in the way that one makes a flower arrangement in the house, sticking them in the ground and then standing back to observe the harmony….

One has the illusion of being an artist painting a picture – putting in a dash of colour here, taking out another dash of colour there, until the whole composition is to one’s liking, and at least one knows exactly what effect will be produced twelve months hence.

As befits Vita’s experimental approach, Sarah avoids treating her like a gardening god, making sure we understand that Vita’s experiments were not always successful. For example, Vita’s practice of planting roses and vines to climb up trees sometimes ended up killing the host tree.

Because Sarah Raven married into the family, has lived at Sissinghurst, and has known many of the family members and gardeners involved in the creation and maintenance of Sissinghurst, there is an intimacy in her collaboration with the co-author she never met. The result is a book I had trouble putting down and that provided me with vision and inspiration and practical suggestions as I work on designing my new front garden.

Art In the Garden

January 21, 2016

Sherwood Wind OrchidOn a beautiful summery day in early September, I visited the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with my friend Karen. Our specific purpose was to see the exhibit of George Sherwood’s kinetic sculptures then on display at the garden. I am a big fan of Sherwood’s work, especially the large-scale pieces, some of which I had seen previously at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. These sculptures are made of stainless steel, often have organic shapes, and are designed to move in the breeze.

The older Sherwood pieces that I was familiar with, like Wind Orchid (above), have large moving parts. The newer works in this exhibit have smaller moving pieces so that the aspect they present to the viewer and the way they reflect light continually change. Photographs can’t do justice to these sculptures.

It doesn’t really capture the way Memory of Water shimmers in the sunlight, Sherwood Memory of Water
Sherwood Memory of Fibonacci or the constant but subtle shifts in Memory of Fibonacci (my personal favorite).
Flock of Birds had the most dramatic movement, as the “birds” changed direction, moving now toward you and then away. Sherwood Flock of Birds

Seeing these sculptures with Karen was a revelation; she is herself an artist, and she combined aesthetic appreciation with an analysis of how Sherwood’s pieces are constructed. The visit not only gave me a much deeper appreciation of these works of art; it also got me thinking about the place of art in gardens.

Art and gardens seem to go together. Gardens are, in a sense, works of art, and it’s probably not surprising that many artists are also gardeners. Moreover, gardens often include objects d’art as part of their design. Carefully chosen pieces of art can provide a focal point or destination in a garden or can help set the mood. When I was first trying to understand how to create a mood of serenity in a garden (see Design Ideas from Butchart Gardens: Creating Serenity), I noted that serene gardens I visited included art objects made of natural materials like stone or wood.

Despite my love of both art and gardens and my understanding of the important role art can play in a garden, I have been very hesitant to add objects d’art to my own garden. A piece of art is a substantial purchase and may also be a substantial object that is difficult to move; I worry about making an expensive mistake. The kinds of small, inexpensive gnomes and fairies that work well in cottage gardens don’t fit the aesthetic of my garden. While I like a bit of whimsy both in art and in the garden, kitsch is not right for me.

rock spinnerI felt very confident when I bought my one garden art piece, a “rock spinner” by Maine blacksmith Andy Lech , for my serenity garden; but while I still love the piece, I have to admit that it’s not working well in its current location. The rock spinner seemed quite substantial when viewed in a grassy area at the Common Ground Fair, but it practically disappears against the tall pine trees that back my serenity garden; I need something with more mass for this location. Eventually, I will find the right piece for the serenity garden and move the rock spinner to a more open location where it will show to better effect.

One impediment to acquiring works of art for my garden is the problem of “champagne taste and a beer budget.” I would love to have a George Sherwood sculpture in my garden, and seeing photos of his work in his own garden made me swoon (see Favorite Garden Books: The Inspired Garden), but his pieces cost tens of thousands of dollars. I also love those large concrete urns from Lunaform; but they, too, are out of my budget.

garden fish artI need to find pieces that costs tens, or at most, hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Something on the order of these garden fish on display near the Sherwood sculptures at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens would work in my garden and might be affordable. I also want to see what’s available from Maine potters. I saw a vendor at the fair selling birdbaths that were essentially large pie pans mounted on copper pipes. One of my favorite Maine potters, Bonnema Potters, used to sell large planter-sized pieces that they displayed outside their shop. If they are still selling these, and if they can either be left outside through the winter or are light enough for me to move indoors for the winter, they might be ideal. I have many of their pieces inside my house, and I like the idea of using garden art that would reflect my indoor design aesthetic.

In the next two years, I would like to focus on adding art to my garden. I plan to start with something that could be used as a focal point in my new fragrant garden and also find the right piece to replace the rock spinner in the serenity garden, which will then free up the rock spinner for a location in the new front garden.

The Windowsill Garden of Winter: GBBD, January 2016

January 15, 2016

windowsill winter gardenI apologize for my two weeks of garden blog silence; I have worked on several posts but have been struggling with a bit of writer’s block. Happily, the prospect of a new year of monthly bloom reports was enough to get me unstuck.

Although winter was delayed this year, it has finally arrived in my Maine garden. It now looks and feels like January, and my garden is snug under its snowy duvet. This is the time of year when my windowsill garden of flowering houseplants brings me special pleasure.

In my cool house, the potted cyclamen are the energizer bunnies of houseplants; they just keep blooming and blooming. My original gift cyclamen, now more than 20 years old, continues to bloom profusely. pink cyclamen 2016
pink and white cyclamen 2016 Several years ago, I combined two separate plants, one white and one pink, in this pot. Last month, I had only white flowers and buds, and I thought maybe the pink corm had died out. But it turns out the pink flowers were just delayed and have now joined the white ones.
On the glass plant shelves by the big window in my bedroom, the red cyclamen, which was just beginning to open its first flower last month, is now going strong. I never tire of the vivid color of these flowers. red cyclamen 2016
charisma bud I had hoped I might be able to share the beautiful flowers of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) ‘Charisma’ on this bloom day, but its bud has not yet begun to open.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see what else is in bloom this month (including summer blooms from our gardening friends in the southern hemisphere!).

A New Year of Garden Images

January 1, 2016

Cover_4As I have for the past six years, I have once again created a calendar of images from Jean’s Garden as gifts for family and friends. For the past several years, I have used as my vendor; I have been very happy with the overall quality of their calendars, especially the color reproduction, and with their customer service. For the first time this year, I did not make any problem-solving changes from previous years. I continued the practice of using the free Google program, Picasa, to create a white border around each calendar image and of using the photo software provided with my Canon camera to add a caption. Like last year, I created a cover collage with a large central image surrounded by smaller images. The only difficulty I had this year was with the lettering on the calendar cover; the dark lettering I used did not show up well on the printed cover. In the future, I will stick with white or pale pastel lettering.

I very much enjoy the process of going through my photo archives and choosing just the right image for each month. Here are the images from my Maine garden that I chose for 2016:

January_5 February_4



March_4 April_4



May_4 June_4



July_5 August_4



September_4 October_4



November_4 December_4



The Jean’s Garden 2016 calendar is available for purchase from

Happy New Year to all my Jean’s Garden readers.

Celebrations of Light

December 21, 2015

Christmas tree 2015In the northern hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, which is – depending on your point of view – the shortest day, the longest night, the official beginning of winter, or the date that marks the return of the sun’s light. The winter solstice has long been associated with celebrations of light. Long before early Christians decided to celebrate Christ’s birth in December, festivals of light at this time of year were already present. These included the Scandinavian practice of burning a Yule log, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights.

Many of our northern hemisphere Christmas traditions can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. The practice of bringing a tree into the house and decorating it for the holiday is one example. In my part of the world, the winter holidays are celebrated with strings of multi-colored lights that are used to decorate the Christmas tree indoors and buildings and trees outdoors. As I drive along country roads, coming home from Christmas shopping and errands in the late afternoon darkness, all those brightly lit houses and trees are a joyful sight.

When I was a child, a local religious shrine was known for its lavish display of outdoor lights each Christmas. Going to see those lights was part of our own holiday tradition and that of many people, causing traffic jams that snaked for miles along local roads. In some cities, there are particular neighborhoods that are renowned for their light displays and are similarly visited by long lines of cars. In Maine this year, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are the site of a festival of lights called Gardens Aglow.


My all-time favorite winter solstice celebration of light remains a fictional one, held one year  in an episode of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure, when town disc jockey and philosopher Chris creates an enormous outdoor light sculpture to mark the season. I wish I could have found a clip to share of the magical moment when Chris lights up his sculpture.

Enjoy the celebration of light this solstice wherever and however you find it.


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