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Frost and Flowers: GBBD, October 2016

October 15, 2016

front garden octoberFor mid-October in Maine, there are a surprising number of blooms in my garden. I rushed around taking photographs yesterday, ahead of the killing frost forecast for last night. But, in fact, although temperatures fell well below freezing, only tender annuals were affected. Last night’s frost did end the season for the tropical morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’), and most (but not all) of the cosmos were also hit. cleome octoberThe annual cleome, however, came through relatively unscathed.

The truth is that I’m tired of the cosmos and cleome, which I planted to fill in the new front flower beds and which turned out to be way too much of a good thing. Although the cleome survived the frost, I’ll probably cut them down this week; I want to make sure that they don’t go to seed and leave me gifts of unwanted cleome plants for years to come.

I am surprised by how many perennials are still in bloom. There are, for example, a few last flowers on the tall summer phlox. Along the Lavender Walk, the lavender are still going strong, where they are still joined by flowers of Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’’.

lavender october echinacea october

Further along the walkway, there are also flowers on two varieties of dianthus.

dianthus october prairie pinks october
neon flash october I’m surprised to see a second flush of flowers on Spirea bumalda ‘Neon Flash,’ which was just planted this year and has been asked to settle in under difficult drought conditions. And these lovely blue delphinium flowers are also a special treat.

delphinium october

Perennial stalwarts that bloom continuously for month after month are particularly welcome at this time of year. In my garden, 1st place goes to Geranium x oxonianum, which has been gracing the Porch Border with its clear pink flowers since the first week in June. The runner-up is Heuchera x ‘Raspberry Ice,’ which has been blooming continuously since mid-June.

oxonianum october raspberry ice october

autumn joy octoberThe sedums seem to have transitioned from flowers to seedheads more quickly than usual this year, and only ‘Autumn Joy’ can still be counted as having flowers.
The asters, on the other hand, are enthusiastically performing their role as stars of the fall garden. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) ‘Alma Potschke’ provides a vibrant splash of color in the Porch Border. It is the more subdued flowers of Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’, however, that seem to be most loved by the bees. When I come out to walk through the garden in the chilly morning temperatures, I find many of these bees sleeping, each curled up on its own aster blossom waiting for the warming rays of the sun. When I checked my garden records, I was amazed to find that these flowers (which grow in a protected spot near the foundation of the house) bloomed through the first week of November last year.

alma potschke october aster bluebird & bees

New flowers were added this week when the native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) that grow at the edge of the woods along the side of the driveway began to bloom. These flowers can be hard to see against the backdrop of yellow and orange leaves. When the leaves have fallen from the trees, however, the yellow flowers will come into their own and light up the woods in the drab season between fall foliage and snow.

witch hazel blooming

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see October blooms from gardens around the world.

Preparing for Winter: Tree Following, October 2016

October 12, 2016

cherry tree going dormantWith the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder, my little cherry tree (Prunus pensylvanica)  is, like me, preparing for winter. While I clean up the garden and stack my winter supply of firewood, the tree is stopping the process of photosynthesis and  shunting sugars down the trunk to the roots where they will provide sustenance through the winter. This tree shed some of its leaves during the summer in response to our extended drought. As it prepares for winter dormancy, however, it is doing this in a much more generalized way.

The process seems to be working from the bottom up. The lower branches are already mostly bare, the middle branches are sporting a relatively sparse display of yellow and orange leaves, and leaves on the upper branches are mostly still green.

Our fall foliage color is fading more quickly than usual this year, presumably because of the drought. (My town is on the border of the “extreme drought” and “severe drought” areas.) I am quite happy, however, with how my little cherry tree has come through this difficult season. It has held its own and put on new growth, even without any supplemental watering. It will be interesting to see how it performs next year in what I hope will be more normal moisture conditions.

The tree following meme is hosted by Pat English at The Squirrel Basket, where you can learn about the many varieties of trees being followed by garden bloggers.

Bittersweet Best Wishes

October 7, 2016

plainview signApologies for my weeks of silence. I’ve been so busy with gardening that I didn’t have time to blog about gardening!

My garden projects got put on fast forward in late August when I visited my favorite nursery, Plainview Farm, to buy plants for my new Side Slope planting, and learned that the owners, Donna and Steve Palmer, had decided to retire and were closing the nursery at the end of this season. Plainview Farm has been my go-to nursery since I first discovered it 15 years ago through Ruah Donnelly’s The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Find the Best Plants in New England. (See The Gardening Book That Changed My Life) At that time, the nursery had already been in business for 15 years, with husband Steve as the plantsman who provided the vision and wife Donna as the business person with primary responsibility for day-to-day operations.

plainview display garden4What made Plainview Farm special was an impressive selection of plants (many of them propagated on site) and wonderful display gardens where you could see those plants in the landscape. When I was planning a new garden area, I would typically walk around the display gardens at Plainview Farm for inspiration. Then, as I worked on a design for the new garden, I would use their web site to develop a plant list. When I was ready to plant, I would go back to Plainview Farm to buy the plants – and very often, I would be able to find everything on my list available for sale.

plainview display garden1

plainvew display garden3

I knew that Donna and Steve were thinking about retirement. They are of an age to retire, and the years of recession after the financial crisis in 2008 had been difficult ones for independent nurseries. Plainview Farm had scrambled to add products and services (e.g., growing heirloom tomatoes and selling them at area farmers’ markets) to keep the business going through the hard times. Because small specialty nurseries are usually extensions of the owners’ homes and expressions of their personal gardening visions, it is not unusual for these nurseries to close when their owners retire.

But I am in the middle of a big multi-year garden project; and even if the nursery’s closing was not entirely a surprise, it would leave a big gap in my available gardening resources. Donna encouraged me to rethink my schedule to speed up the development of my new Fragrant Garden and take advantage of the big discounts they were offering as they cleared their stock.  So I got busy preparing the soil for this new garden area and went back to Plainview Farm twice during their last month of business to buy plants. I was impressed all over again by the depth and and breadth of their stock and by how many plants were still available even in late September. Once again, I found everything on my shopping list. As I was checking out, Steve asked me if I had a shady spot that would make a good home for a cultivar of native baneberry, Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue.’ “I only have two left,” he explained, “and I’d like to see them go to knowledgeable gardeners who will appreciate them.” Then he led me out to the shady display gardens to see the plant growing there. This, of course, sealed the deal, and I added ‘Misty Blue’ to my cart.

plainview plants for sale plainview plants for sale hostas

This last visit to Plainview Farm was a bittersweet occasion. As a happy retiree, I can only wish Steve and Donna best wishes as they move into what I hope will be an enriching new phase of their lives. But I couldn’t help feeling sad that I wouldn’t have this special plant shopping experience again. Steve seemed to be focusing on the sweet side of retirement, looking forward to a somewhat slower pace of life and enjoying chats and little celebrations (including several gift bottles of champagne) with long-time customers. Donna was more inclined to tear up. Fortunately for all of us, we were saying farewell, not goodbye. Donna and Steve have tentative plans to open their display gardens to the public at some point in the not-too-distant future. Even as I mourn the loss of this wonderful nursery, I am looking forward to future occasions when I will walk through their display gardens  to admire plants and be inspired.

plainview display garden2

Sedums and Other Fall Flowers: GBBD, September 2016

September 16, 2016

September sedums-001Despite drought and some overnight temperatures in the thirties (F), there are still many flowers  blooming in my garden. The sedums, of course, are autumn stalwarts, generally unfazed by drought or cold.

I am pleased to see that the sedums have a lot of company in the mid-September garden. In recent years, I’ve been making an effort to choose plants that will extend my garden display into fall.

liatris scariosa flowersGiven this effort, it’s not surprising that the greatest variety of fall flowers can be found in my newest garden areas.  The recently planted Side Slope, for example, includes three varieties of Liatris with overlapping bloom times. The earliest of the three, Liatris spicata, finished blooming in August, but the blooms of Liatris aspera have moved from the top of their tall spikes in mid-August to the bottom in mid-September. And the fluffy button-like flowers of Liatris novae-angliae are now at their peak.

The most exuberant display of fall flowers can be found in the Porch Border by the front entrance to my house. porch border SeptemberAt first glance, the blooms of annual cosmos and cleome dominate, but a closer look reveals a number of other flowering plants. Heuchera x ‘Raspberry Regal,’ Tradescantia virginiana ‘Pink Chablis’ and Geranium x oxonianum have all been blooming continuously for more than three months. While the Heuchera and the Tradescantia are winding down, the Geranium is continuing to make new flower buds. It’s a mystery me why this hardy geranium, with its clear pink flowers and mounds of attractive green foliage that still look fresh in September, is not readily available from nurseries. It is an easy-care plant with no pest problems, it is easy to propagate (forming big clumps that are easy to divide and also self-sowing), and in cool climates, it has an exceptionally long bloom period.

cosmos September Geranium oxonianum flower

The tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), while not blooming as profusely as they were in August, are also still flowering in the Porch Border (and elsewhere in the garden).

September phlox-001

lavender walk SeptemberTurning the corner from the Porch Border, we come to the Lavender Walk, which is also doing surprisingly well in mid-September. Here the flowers of two different varieties of Lavendula augustifolia,  ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead Strain’ are blooming with Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ and Sedum x ‘Autumn Fire.’

echinacea & lavender sedum & lavender
These are only some of the delights in my September garden, and there are more still to come. In the Porch Border, for example, the flowers of New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) ‘Alma Potschke’ are just beginning to open, and these plants are loaded with flower buds! alma potschke opening

This is also the time of year to enjoy the many varieties of aster and goldenrod that grow wild at the edges of my garden.

asters & solidago

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see other gardeners’ September blooms.

To Dig or Not to Dig

September 10, 2016
side slope progressWhen I first began gardening, the gold standard for preparing new perennial beds was double digging. In The Garden Primer (Workman, 1988) – my gardening bible at the time – Barbara Damrosch described the process this way:

…I remove the soil from a section of the bed to the depth of a spade and set it aside. Then I loosen the soil under it with a digging fork, working organic matter, lime and whatever else the soil needs into the subsoil. I replace the topsoil layer, but only after I have added soil amendments to it as well. (p. 35)

For decades, I followed this practice, using double digging to amend my poor sandy soil and make it a welcoming home for plants.

More recently, however, double digging has come into disfavor. This topic came up early in my Master Gardener course. One classmate reported seeing bumper stickers in her affluent coastal town that read “Friends don’t let friends double dig.” The University of Maine scientist who taught our class on soils seemed mystified by this controversy. The university’s agricultural scientists warn against damaging soil structure through “recreational tilling,” but they consider tilling in soil amendments an important part of taking care of the soil.

Image result for soil texture triangle image

To understand my dilemma, you need to understand that my property sits on a big glacial sand deposit, and that my soil is what soil scientists call “loamy sand.” The diagram above shows different types of soil textures, depending on their mix of sand, clay and silt. As you can see, “loamy sand” is just one step up from pure beach sand (in the lower left corner of the triangle); it is a mixture of 70-85% sand with small amounts of clay and silt and has almost no organic matter. Not only are there relatively few plants that will grow happily in this loamy sand, but it is also very poor at retaining either moisture or organic matter. So if I want to garden here, the question is not whether to add organic matter to the soil, but how.

To decide whether or not to double dig my new flower beds, I needed to consider (1) alternative methods for adding organic matter to the soil and (2) the reasons why double digging has fallen into disfavor. Let’s start with the alternatives. One is to add organic matter on top of the existing soil and let it work down into the soil over time. This is the method I use to recharge organic matter in existing flower beds. But I didn’t consider this a workable alternative for my new garden areas; I’m in my late sixties and can’t afford to let years go by while I wait for organic matter to build up in the soil. Another alternative is the “lasagna” method, which involves covering the existing ground with cardboard or wet newspaper and then piling several inches of compost on top. The idea is that the cardboard or newspaper kills any sod or weeds while the organic matter improves the soil. I used a variation on this method to create the raised bed in my back garden, but I don’t want my front garden to consist of raised beds and it seemed as though I would have to pile the organic matter up quite high in order to put plants in right away (rather than waiting for the weeds to die, the cardboard or newspaper to decompose, and the organic matter to work its way down into the soil). A third alternative is tilling rather than digging, spreading several inches of organic matter on top of the soil and then turning it under gently with a garden fork.

To decide between tilling and double digging, I needed to look at the arguments against double digging. The main ones are  (a) that soil plays an important role in carbon sequestration so that digging releases carbon into the atmosphere and (b) that digging destroys soil structure. I quickly decided that carbon sequestration wasn’t really an issue in my case; it is the organic matter in soil that provides carbon, and the big problem with my soil is that it lacks organic matter. Soil structure, however, is a trickier issue. Soil structure refers to the way that particles of soil are arranged, particularly the ways that bacteria, fungi, and organisms like worms bind particles together into clumps or soil aggregates. In my earlier double-digging days, I would carefully break up clumps into friable crumbs of soil. Now I know better; soil aggregates are an important part of healthy soil structure, and disturbing the soil inevitably damages soil aggregates. Because my soil had already been disturbed by the construction process, however, there weren’t many soil aggregates to damage.

I decided that double digging is a reasonable way to add organic matter to this backfilled soil. Sure enough, as I have worked with the soil, I have encountered very few clumps. I dig out soil to the depth of my spade and pile it into my wheelbarrow, removing weeds and their associated roots as I go. I also remove any rocks or large stones, but I try to leave any clumps of soil undisturbed. Occasionally, I encounter a lump that may be a soil aggregate or may be a soil-covered rock. In the past, I would have squeezed it to find out, breaking apart the clumps of soil. Now, I tap these lumps gently against the side of my wheelbarrow. If they are rocks, they make a metallic “thunk” sound, but soil aggregates make a soft thud. When I put the soil back into the ground, compost and cow manure have been mixed in with the sand and loamy clumps.

As I worked to amend the soil on my back slope, I noticed a big difference in soil structure when I reached an area that had not been disturbed by the construction. Here my digging did disturb soil aggregates, and a different method for adding organic matter probably would have been preferable. This means that I will need to rethink how I add organic matter to my soil as I begin (next year) to work on sections of the front garden where the poor sandy soil was not disturbed during the construction of my house addition.

The Side Slope: Mission Accomplished

September 1, 2016

side slopeMy big garden project for this summer has been to turn the weedy slope that runs along the side of my driveway into a mixed planting of perennials and shrubs.

This is a large area (almost 450 square feet) and it consists mostly of backfilled soil from the construction of the retaining wall. Even before the soil was disturbed by construction, it was loamy sand with little organic matter (a soil test returned a value of .5%) and little ability to retain moisture. Before I could put in plants in this area, I needed to add organic matter, a time-consuming process. I added 1.5 cubic feet of compost and composted cow manure to each 6 cubic feet of soil, a process that took 45 – 90 minutes for each 6 square feet of soil surface.

side slope in progressI began working on this planting in early June, with a goal of finishing by the end of August. By late June, I had amended the soil in a 3-4 foot swath along the top of the slope and put in a row of plants. For the next two months, I continued to amend the soil in six-square-foot sections, first working my way down the wide end of the wedge-shaped slope, from top to bottom, then along the top of the remaining unworked area, then alternating vertical swaths from top to bottom with horizontal swaths from wide end to narrow end.

side slope shrinking wedge_1 By the beginning of August, as the remaining wedge left to be amended got smaller and smaller, I could see the end in sight and began to visit nurseries to buy plants.

I developed a planting design for the Side Slope during the winter and continued to refine it as I prepared the soil and began to install plants. I tied this garden area to the Back Slope that occupies the other side of the long stairway up from the driveway by repeating several of the plants that grow there. These include green hostas (probably H. ventricosa or H. fortunei), Siberian irises, tradescantia, balloon flowers, and daylilies. Below is the composition of the final Side Slope planting:


side slope upper plantingTwo weeks ago, I decided to take a break from preparing soil and spent three days putting in the remaining plants for the top half of the slope and also adding a row of stepping stones at the middle of the slope to provide access for maintenance.

A week later, I had finished preparing the last small wedge of soil at the bottom of the slope and was ready to add the rest of the plants. First I planted the last of the shrubs for this planting, a cotoneaster; then I began to spot the rest of the plants, adjusting their locations from the paper plan to the realities on the ground. While the plants on the upper slope were mostly bought new from nurseries, most of the plants on the lower part of the slope were divided from plants in my garden. (This means they will look droopy until their roots get established.)

side slope planted_1

With the Side Slope now planted, I have finished creating my Entry Garden, the plantings that guide a visitor up the stairs from the driveway to the entrance level of my house and then along the walkway to the front door. These plantings include three flower beds around the front door (the Blues Border, Porch Border, and Patio Border) that were created last year and the new Side Slope and the old Back Slope that flank the stairs up from the garden.

I’m giving myself a few days break from major garden projects. Then, next week, I will begin work on the Fragrant Garden at the front of the house outside my bedroom window.

Learning About Maine’s Native Plants

August 24, 2016

CMBG native plants classFor three days in mid-August, I drove out to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens each morning for a course called “Introduction to Maine’s Native Flora.” The course was part of my certificate program in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture, and it was taught by Melissa Cullina, staff botanist and Director of Education for the garden. Like all classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, this one combined lecture and hands-on exercises, time in the classroom and time in the field, and was deliberately kept small to facilitate interaction (there were about 15 of us).

This was a challenging course, with a lot of information to be mastered in just a few days. The goal was for us to be able to recognize and identify a wide range of native plants from a variety of habitats. We were introduced to between 50 and 100 native plants, and had to master 30 of them well enough to be able to look at a sample branch in a vase and identify the plant by botanical name (genus name and specific epithet) and botanical family. I have made it a practice to learn the botanical names of plants, but I hadn’t previously learned the family names, so that was a new challenge. On the morning of the first day, we were introduced to various characteristics that are used to identify plants: leaf arrangements and shape, shapes of flowers and inflorescences, types of hairs on stems or leaves. In the afternoon, we went out into the garden to look at plants (mostly trees and herbaceous perennials) and to practice using our newly-acquired vocabulary to describe them. On the second day, we added more plants to our repertoire, including ferns, and also learned how to use various kinds of identification keys. On the third day, we focused on shore and salt marsh plants.

CMBG goldenrodsIt’s been a long time since I tried to commit this much information to memory in such a short period of time, and I sometimes felt like my brain was about to explode. But the amount of learning was also exciting. I had always felt overwhelmed by trying to figure out the minute differences among the various types of goldenrod (Solidago) that grow on my property. By the end of the first day of this course, however, I could see the differences clearly and was able to identify four different species growing in and near my garden. (These are Solidago juncea, Solidago bicolor, Solidago canadensis, and Solidago rugosa. There may also be a fifth species, but I will need to get out my hand lens to look more carefully at the shape of the stem and whether/where it has hairs to be sure.) Learning to identify the goldenrods has given me confidence to tackle another confusing set of related plants in the Asteraceae family– all the different wild asters growing around my house.

Next month I’ll be able to build on my native plant knowledge as I go back to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens for two more courses, one on collecting and propagating seeds of Maine native plants and one on invasive plants in Maine.