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Favorite Garden Books: Garden Revolution

July 26, 2017

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, 2016) is part of a trend in garden design to use natural plant communities as a model for gardening. In  this sense, it fits together well with Darke and Tallamy’s  2014 book The Living Landscape (see my review here) and Rainer and West’s 2015 book Planting in a Post-Wild World (see review here).

Where Darke and Tallamy focus on mimicking nature’s layering of plants in the garden and Rainer and West focus on creating gardens of plant communities, Weaner and Christopher focus on the processes by which plant communities develop and change, particularly the ecological process of succession. Plant communities are almost always in the process of becoming something else. Where I live and garden in the northeastern United States, for example, the processes of ecological succession mean that all plant communities are either forests or on the way to becoming forests. (As I’ve weeded hundreds of oak seedlings and thousands of tiny maple seedlings out of my flower beds this year, I’ve been reminded of just how quickly my property would revert to forest without my active intervention.) Weaner and Christopher advocate a style of gardening in which you figure out what kind of soil you have and what plant communities naturally grow in that type of soil and then design a garden that uses a naturally occurring plant community with human interventions to shape the process of ecological succession (for example, stopping the process by which a meadow would turn into shrubland and then forest by mowing the meadow once a year).

Although the kind of wild-looking garden landscapes that Weaner and Christopher favor are not what I’m after, I found valuable insights for my own gardening in this book:

  • I had always heard (and believed) that plants which grow in poor conditions will grow even better in rich garden soil. Not so, Weaner and Christopher argue; many plants that grow in difficult locations are poor competitors that thrive there because they have carved out a niche where they have few competitors. Put them in rich garden soil, and they will be crowded out by more competitive plants, often weeds.
  • There is a tension between the idea of a garden as a composition of plant colors, shapes, and textures and the processes of plant community development. Good design requires thinking about how the plant community we are creating will change over time and an openness to those processes of change.
  • Disturbance is an important part of the ecological process of succession in plant communities. As gardeners, we can intentionally use disturbance (e.g., mowing a meadow, cutting down trees to create a forest clearing) to create desired results and we can avoid disturbance (e.g., pulling weeds) when it will create undesired results.

Before I was even halfway through Garden Revolution, it was already influencing my thinking about my garden. When a clump of self-sown blue Siberian irises bloomed in a flower bed that I had designed as a composition in shades of pink and lavender, I resisted my initial impulse to dig them out. So what if they changed the color scheme of the planting? The pink irises I had originally planted in this location had never really thrived, and these blue irises were healthy and happy and looked lovely in the company of pink flowers and green foliage. It was time, I realized, to let go of my pre-conceived color scheme and let nature guide me. The insight that not all  plants thrive in rich garden soil has shaped my thinking about how to design the new Front Slope planting that will be my major garden project next year. As I begin to work on that design, I am imagining a gradation of soil types from heavily amended rich garden soil at the top of the slope to unamended native loamy sand at the bottom.

I consider any garden  book that leads me to see my garden with new eyes or think about garden design in new ways well worth reading. Garden Revolution did both and I highly recommend it.

Summer’s Sweet Spot: GBBD, July 2017

July 15, 2017

summer sweet spotYesterday, a friend came to visit. We toured the garden and he took some photographs. As we were sitting on my screened porch, looking out over the new front garden and eating lunch, he said, “This is a really sweet spot you’ve got here.”

I love my rural house nestled in the woods in all seasons, but the experience of living here is sweetest in summer. And that is especially true in July, when the garden reaches its peak. In many ways, mid-July is the sweet spot in the garden season. In mid-July, there is so much going on in the garden that almost every garden area looks good (even the temporary holding area for plants, shown below). But there is so much more yet to come! In mid-July, I can drink in the current beauty while also enjoying the delicious taste of anticipation.

holding area color 2017

The entrance to the back garden features a lush display of goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), astilbe, and spirea flowers spilling over the retaining wall. goatsbeard & spirea

In the Circular Bed at the turn into my driveway, the pastel hues of June are giving way to the strong contrasts of July. The gold color of these daylilies contrast with the blue-violet flowers of Geranium x ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (below left). This color scheme is repeated on the other side of the circle in the blooms of daylily ‘Margaret Seawright’ and geranium ‘Brookside’ (below right).

Barth gold with Johnson's Blue Circular bed vignette
Porch Border July 2017 I continue to be amazed by how mature the Porch Border planting looks in it’s second year. In July, the front-of-the-border planting of Heuchera ‘Raspberry Regal,’ Geranium x oxonianum, and Tradescantia virginiana ‘Pink Chablis’ that continue to flower all summer long are being joined by the tall spires of Astilbe x ‘Moerheim’s Glory’ and the first daylily blooms.
The Lavender Walk is also a source of delight in mid-July. lavender walk July 2017
Side Slope from top 2017 And it’s hard to believe that the Side Slope is only in its first year when I look down from the deck on the lush display of flowers spilling down the hillside.
The planting for the Fragrant Garden was completed only a few weeks ago, and it does look raw and new. Even here, though, there are beautiful flowers to enjoy, including sweet peas growing up the side of the deck, the first phlox flowers of the season, a few flowers on rose ‘Therese Bugnet,’ and several varieties of daylilies. sweet peas
First phlox 2017 Therese Bugnet bloom

My favorite part of the July garden is the beginning of daylily season. At this point in mid-July, about 20 percent of the varieties I grow have begun to bloom and two or three more are opening their first flowers each day. I leave you with this montage of some of my favorite early season daylilies.

Early Daylilies 2017

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is graciously hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see what garden bloggers from many climates have happening in their July gardens.

Smitten By Daylily Love

June 29, 2017

dumortieri groupingLast week, while on a garden tour sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Maine, I met a new daylily and fell hard. As regular readers know, falling head over heels in love with a daylily is not a new experience for me. Indeed, one of the first posts I wrote for this blog was entitled I Love Daylilies.

I don’t love all daylilies equally. I’m not particularly attracted to ruffles or picotees or tortured, twisted petals. And I find doubling in daylily flowers downright ugly. What I love most are simple trumpet forms, vigorous plants with lots of flowers, and old-fashioned daylily fragrance.

dumortieri close-upWhen I saw big drifts of yellow daylilies blooming at two adjacent waterfront gardens, I thought they must be the early blooming daylily species known in this part of the country as “lemon lilies” (Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus). These are relatively small yellow daylilies with a sweet lemony fragrance that often form big clumps and bloom about a month before other daylilies begin to flower. But the daylilies in front of me were distinctive in having copper-colored sepals that glowed in the sun, a feature I had never before seen on lemon lilies. I entertained the hypothesis that this was a local genetic variation in H. lilio-asphodelus; but my friend Harriet was unconvinced, and it was she who eventually identified these flowers as another early-blooming daylily species,  H. dumortieri.

Whatever its identity, I was smitten. I loved the form of these flowers, the copper glow of their sepals, and the way they provided a splash of bright yellow at a time of year when pastels dominate my garden. In one garden, they were providing a lovely contrast with white and yellow Siberian irises and with the blue spikes of Baptisia australis (both plants that I have growing in my garden). The icing on the cake is that Hemerocallis dumortieri is, like many daylily species, fragrant.

dumortieri vignetteThe problem with falling in love with with species daylilies  is that they are often not available from nurseries, even specialized daylily nurseries. As Allan Armitage put it in his 3rd edition of Herbaceous Perennial Plants (Stipes, 2008), “Unfortunately, in our pursuit of hybrid hipness, the old folks got left behind.” I have found a happy exception, however, at the Olallie Daylily Garden in Vermont. They currently have twelve different Hemerocallis species (including H. dumortieri) for sale both on site and by mail order. Next year, I intend to buy two or three clumps of my new daylily love for my garden.

Moving Into Summer: GBBD, June 2017

June 16, 2017

entrance garden JuneThis is one of my favorite seasons in the garden, the beginning of the big flush of early summer blooms. Each morning I step out into the garden eager to see which plants have opened their first flowers. The flower beds around the front entrance, now in their second year, are looking remarkably mature. The Blues Border features electric blues of species Siberian irises and Tradescantia ‘Zwannenburg Blue’ along with the soft blue stamens of Tradescantia ‘Osprey.’

Blues Border in June

raspberry regal flowersFlowers are just beginning to open in the two flower beds that flank the walkway to the patio (photo at top). The big show here is being provided by  the floral spires of Heuchera ‘Raspberry Regal,’ a hummingbird magnet.

The June garden features pastel hues – blues and pinks and lavenders, with chartreuse accents provided by flowers of  Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle).

The newest flower beds, the Side Slope and the Fragrant Garden, are in their first year with small plants and relatively few blooms. However, the Side Slope display currently includes Rosa ‘Therese Bugnet,’ the pale blue flowers of Amsonia tabernaemontana, and clear pink blooms on Geranium x oxonianum. The fragrant garden has several varieties of Dianthus blooming along its front edge.

side slope june blooms fragrant garden dianthus

When that somewhat scrawny Amsonia grows up, it will look like the one below blooming in the Blue and Yellow Border, where it is accompanied by stronger blues of Tradescantia virginiana, Iris sibirica, and the true blue of Linum perenne.

amsonia grown up linum perenne 2017
deck border biokovo

Across the walkway in the Deck Border, hints of pink are provided by the flowers of Geranium x cantabrigiense Biokovo.

In both the Fence Border and the Circular Bed, ‘Biokovo’ grows together with its stronger-hued sibling, Geranium x cantabrigiense  ‘Karmina’ and with Alchemilla mollis. cantabrigiense and alchemilla

In the Fence Border, that pastel combination is accompanied by this lovely vignette of blue Tradescantia virginiana and pink Geranium endressii; in the Circular Bed, it is being upstaged by the display of Allium ‘Globemaster.’

blue and pink fence vignette 5 globemaster blooms

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see the bounty of blooms being enjoyed this month by garden bloggers in many places.

Thinking About the Front Slope

June 10, 2017

front slopeI have been giving quite a bit of thought recently to the design for the Front Slope section of my new front garden. The Front Slope isn’t on the agenda for this year; this year’s focus is on creating the grassy path that will connect the upper and lower gardens, the shrubbery that will anchor the front west corner of my property, and a small rain garden depression by the downspout on the front west corner of the house. But, even as I begin to work on these areas, my mind has been skipping ahead to the Front Slope, which is next year’s garden project.

The Front Slope is the largest planting area in my new front garden, approximately 720 square feet (36 feet wide by 20 feet deep). As I work on other parts of the garden, I have been noting ideas for this area: (1) I want to feature hot colors below the retaining wall– reds and oranges that are not much found elsewhere in my garden, mixed with yellows and purples. (2) I want to transition from more formal planting at the top of the slope, closest to the upper garden, to informal planting in the lower garden.

Wild Seed Magazine 2017My current thinking about how to bring these ideas together has been shaped by three influences: First was a class I took a few weeks ago with Bill Cullina, President and CEO of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, about how to incorporate native herbaceous plants in the Maine garden. Second was the Wild Seed Project’s annual magazine, with inspiring articles about gardening with native plants. Third was Larry Weaner’s Garden Revolution (Timber Press, 2016), about ecological gardening. (Look for a review of this book in a later post.)

What all these inspirations have in common is an emphasis on using plants in the garden that we more often think of as wildflowers. I came to gardening through a love of wildflowers, and I have often tried to incorporate wildflowers into my garden. These sources give me a better understanding of how to do so successfully. Years ago, I read that plants that grow in poor soil will always do better if you give them good soil, but that turns out not to be the case. Many of my attempts to transplant wildflower volunteers on my property into the garden have not been successful. In his class on gardening with native herbaceous plants, Bill Cullina distinguished between plants that do well in amended garden soil and those which do not. In Garden Revolution, Larry Weaner notes that many plants growing in nutrient-poor soils are not good competitors. They thrive in challenging conditions because they are filling a niche that other plants aren’t adapted to; in rich soil, however, they will be out-competed.

Larry Weaner recommends not amending soil at all, but instead choosing plant communities that grow naturally in the soil you have. However, the kind of wild garden look that he extols is not what I am after. Nevertheless, there are a number of plants that have volunteered to grow in the unimproved soil on or near the Front Slope that I would like to include in my garden. These include four plants that can be used as groundcovers: wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis), bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and moss phlox (Phlox subulata).

front slope strawberry front slope potentilla
front slope bluets front slope phlox

Other volunteers include Tradescantia virginiana, Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), and black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

front slope tradescantia front slope daisy

I am thinking that I can combine these (and other) volunteers and wildflowers with cultivated plants and my other goals for this planting by using gradations of soil amendments, from fully amended rich garden soil at the top of the slope to unamended loamy sand at the bottom. I don’t want the design to have obvious horizontal bands, but if I create undulating edges between different gradations of soil richness, the different plant communities will weave into one another, blurring the boundaries between them.

I am excited by these ideas and have begun to compile lists of plant possibilities for the various levels of soil richness. I expect to modify and expand on these ideas as I continue to work on the design for this planting in the year to come.

The Spring-to-Summer Race

June 5, 2017

back slope rhododendron 2017Spring in Maine is known for being both late and fleeting. During our winter-to-spring transition in April, I moved through the garden at a leisurely pace, cleaning up each bed as the snow melted there. It was pleasurable to be outside in the fresh air and to see new growth emerging from the ground. The last snow melted from my garden on April 30, and I completed my spring clean-up a few days later.

I imagined a similarly leisurely experience in May as I would work my way through the garden again, weeding, putting in plant supports, and mulching. I had forgotten the realities of the race from spring to summer, when everything happens too fast and all at once, and it is impossible to keep up. This year, May was unseasonably cool and rainy, punctuated by occasional days of sunshine and exceptional heat. The cool, rainy days were unpleasant for working in the garden. During the hot, sunny days, the plants raced to catch up, growing by several inches and producing an abundance of flower buds.

side slope mulchedWhen May turned into June a few days ago, I had barely made a dent in my May list of chores. I focused my attention in May on the newly-created Side Slope and Fragrant Garden plantings. By disturbing the soil to add organic matter and plant these areas last year, I created an opportunity for weed seeds to germinate – and they did! The Side Slope, which I worked on during the summer and planted in early September, was particularly full of weeds. I worked steadily on this large planting during May, weeding and mulching it one section at a time until I finally finished it last week. (I also transplanted some low-growing native plants – sweet white violets and wild strawberries – that I hope will naturalize and form a weed-suppressing groundcover.) fragrant garden mulchedThe Fragrant Garden, which I worked on in September and October, was much less weedy. It is also less than half the size of the Side Slope, and I was able to get it weeded and mulched in a couple of days. Here, I also needed to complete the planting, adding roses, a peony, phlox, and sweet peas to grow up the deck railing at one end of the flower bed.

The end of May is the traditional time to put out tender annuals in Maine, and I took some time around the Memorial Day holiday to shop for annual flowers and herbs at several local nurseries. This weekend, I got the morning glories (both purchased seedlings and seeds) into the ground, planted a few herbs, and crammed colorful flowering annuals into containers to go on decks and patios. container planted

In the first week of June, I am finally turning  my attention to the older parts of the garden, where time is running out to get weeds out and mulch in before plants are too large to work around. Last year, I learned that the compost I have been using to mulch my garden for the past several years, made by a local farm from a combination of shellfish waste and cow manure, has a pH higher (7.4) than most plants are happy with. This year, in search of an alternative, I decided to buy a leaf shredder and use a mixture of shredded leaves and compost to make a more pH-balanced mulch. For the past week, I’ve been getting out on dry days (still too few!) to get this done. I found a twenty-gallon plastic barrel with just the right diameter to hold my leaf shredder. I fill my wheelbarrow with raked leaves and then feed them into the shredder. Two wheelbarrow loads fill the barrel about three-quarters full of shredded leaves, which I then dump back into the wheelbarrow, mix (3 parts to 1) with compost, and spread between plants as mulch.

shredder shredded leaf mulch

My garden is still about a week behind its normal bloom schedule, but many plants are just bursting with buds. Later this week, our weather is expected to turn seasonably sunny and warm. When that happens, the plants will race to catch up. Within a week or two, it will be early summer in my garden. As the garden races from spring to summer, I am racing along with it, trying to complete my spring garden chores before it is too late.

A Late Spring: GBBD, May 2017

May 17, 2017

pin cherry blossomsI’m a couple of days late for bloom day, but that seems fitting in a month when my blooms are also late.

In Maine, spring is not normally a season of slow, gentle unfolding (as it is at latitudes to our south). Here, a long wait for spring and much anticipation precedes an explosion of new growth and bloom that morphs into early summer so quickly that it feels like you can miss spring if you blink. But this year has been different. Warm weather in the first half of April got everything started early, but then was followed by several weeks of cool, dreary rain and drizzle with high temperatures 10-15 degrees below normal. The garden seemed to be in a state of suspended animation.

Except that it wasn’t. Although the changes were almost imperceptible as I walked through the garden each morning, one day I noticed that the spring bulbs had finished their bloom period. Another day, I realized that daylily foliage was well up out of the ground; and yet another day, I saw the first nubs of hosta breaking the soil.

And then, yesterday, the succession of low pressure areas that have dominated our weather since April finally got chased out over the Atlantic and replaced by a dome of high pressure that brought sunshine and sudden warmth. Spring flowers that had been waiting for the right conditions to bloom began to open.

As I walked around the garden yesterday, I found very few cultivated garden flowers in bloom. In the Serenity Garden at the edge of woods, hellebores were blooming and the first flowers of the bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) cultivar ‘Gold Heart’ had just appeared.

hellebores 2017 Gold Heart 2017

The real stars of my garden in mid-May are the spring wildflowers that sow themselves around my property. The little volunteer pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) tree that I noticed growing outside my study window last year and decided to encourage is blooming enthusiastically this year, as are the clumps of sweet white violets (Viola blanda) that grow primarily on the back slope.

flowering pin cherry white violets 2017

Today, I transplanted violet seedlings that had planted themselves in inconvenient places to the top part of the side slope, where I hope they will naturalize as a groundcover. The wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), which have just begun to bloom, will be planted as groundcover on the bottom half of the slope. Clumps of what are probably common blue violets (Viola sororia) and carpets of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) can be found scattered around the cleared areas at the edges of my garden.

blue violets bluets 2017
In the woods alongside the driveway, the delicate flowers of bellwort (Uvularia sessifolia) have begun to bloom. (It’s easy to miss these if you aren’t looking carefully.) uvularia

I also keep an eye out for wildflowers blooming along the dirt road that leads to my house. On one side of the road, the blossoms of a native viburnum (Viburnum lantanoides) are quite conspicuous. On the other side of the road, yesterday’s sunshine revealed masses of little white flowers blooming on mossy hummocks; I believe these are goldthread (Coptis trifolia).

hobblebush blossom goldthread

As May turns into June, the wildflowers will be upstaged by the flowers of cultivated perennials.

If you would like to see blooms from places where the garden season is well underway, visit May Dreams Gardens where Carol hosts Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day on the 15th of each month.