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Thinking About the Front Slope

March 8, 2018

As the spring equinox approaches, the days get longer, the sun gets stronger, temperatures rise, the snowpack begins to melt, and I feel impatient for spring. But warm spring-like days at the end of February have been followed by a series of winter storms that provide a reminder that March is still winter in Maine.

While new snow has been falling, I have been getting my garden fix by making plans for this year’s big garden project, the creation of a large area in the new front garden that I am calling the Front Slope. The slope is a roughly rectangular area 36’ x 20’ that is bordered by the patio retaining wall and a walkway at the top, the driveway on one side, and the clover path on the opposite side and at the bottom.

front slope site

This southwest-facing slope is the sunniest part of my property, providing an opportunity to use sun-loving plants in a hotter color palette than is typical in my garden. I am also experimenting with a strategy that will allow me to include some native wildflowers that do not grow well in rich garden soil; I am dividing the slope into four horizontal bands with varying amounts of soil amendments. The richest garden soil will be at the top, where the slope borders the entrance garden. The bottom band will not be amended at all, providing a home for plants that thrive in my native lean loamy sand.  The borders between these horizontal bands undulate so that they weave into one another.

I began making lists of plants for each horizontal band last summer. This week I have been developing those lists more fully, using reference books, notes from last summer’s class with Bill Cullina at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on how to use Maine native perennials in the garden, nursery catalogs, and an online list of native plants available for purchase from the New England Wildflower Society. My focus has been on creating a planting design for the lower half of the slope, and here is what I have so far:


The planting area is not a perfect rectangle; the driveway curves, as do the edges of the clover path. But this rectangular diagram is close enough for planning purposes. The bottom band will be planted primarily in spring wildflowers. (The exception is the fall blooming stiff flax-leafed aster (Ionactis linarifolia).) Most of these plants are already growing nearby. The only risky addition is the relatively rare native sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), but it prefers exactly the kind of growing conditions I have here. Although most of these plants are spring bloomers, they are not spring ephemerals. The bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and moss phlox (Phlox subulata) leave behind mats of grassy foliage after they bloom.  The wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and their yellow-flowered look-alikes, dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis), send out runners of foliage that weave around taller plants providing an attractive groundcover.

The next band up will be planted in showier native plants that are happy in dry, sandy soil but don’t mind a little extra fertility. Most of these are plants that I have not grown before, so we will see how they do. As I move up to the top two bands, I will be dealing primarily with plants that grow elsewhere in my garden. I will be on more familiar ground both in preparing the soil on the top half of the slope and in choosing plants to grow there.  The alternating orange and green plants along the edge of the driveway are the common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) and a simple green hosta that flowers profusely with tall wands of lavender flowers in July. This is a combination that blooms together along rural roads in Maine, so growing them together provides a sense of place. The hostas will also link this planting with the Side Slope planting that borders it as you continue up the driveway; there the hostas alternate with the hardy geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense) ‘Biokovo.’ The orange daylilies tie the hot colors of this planting to a patch of Hemerocallis fulva growing at the edge of the woods on the opposite side of the driveway.

The size of this new garden area makes it a bit daunting, but having the beginnings of a design leaves me eager to get started.


Apple Blossom Time: GBBD, February 2018

February 16, 2018

apple blossom macroIt’s Apple Blossom time in my Maine garden. No, I’m not talking about apple trees blooming outside my windows. I don’t have any apple trees growing in my garden; and if I did, their bloom time would still be months away. In February, my outdoor garden is still buried under snow. I’m talking about amaryllis (Hippeastrum) ‘Apple Blossom’ blooming indoors on my window ledge. It’s been three years since this variety last bloomed for me, so it’s a treat to have it lighting up my world in mid-February.

amaryllis apple blossom in bloom 2018

It’s joined on the window ledge by the flowers of two potted cyclamen plants that I purchased in December and that are still blooming two months later.

pink streaked cyclamen pink cyclamen February

Meanwhile, I have two additional amaryllis bulbs that have flower buds, ‘’Charisma,’ which has bloomed faithfully for the past five years, and an unidentified red variety (possibly ‘Red Lion’) which I inherited from a friend and which bloomed last year. These promise more flowers for the weeks to come while I wait not-so-patiently for the outdoor show to begin.

charisma bud 2018 red amaryllis bud

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see what other garden bloggers have in bloom this February.

The Shrubbery

February 8, 2018

Shrubbery siteNow that we are closer to the spring equinox than to the winter solstice, and as the days grow dramatically longer, my thoughts are turning toward the garden. This is the time of year for reading garden books and for making garden plans and lists of plants.

Mostly, I’m thinking about the coming year’s work on my new front garden. Last year, I finished planting the fragrant garden and then prepared and seeded the clover path and created a small rain garden at the front west corner of the house. One part of the garden that was originally in my plans for year three (last year) got deferred to year four (this year), the Shrubbery.


The Shrubbery sits at the front west corner of my property. The site is a woodland edge area that nestles at the wide curve in the clover path and is bordered by woods, by the dirt road along the front of my property, and by the front and side perennial borders. Its size and its location in the lower garden are intended to balance the patio on the opposite side of the house in the upper part of the front garden.

When I signed up last year for an October course at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on “Selecting Native Woody Plants for the Maine Garden,” I delayed designing and planting this part of the garden, realizing that it made no sense to do so  before I took the course. And I was right; I came away from that course smitten by a whole set of beautiful native shrubs and with a list of possible candidates for the soil and light conditions in this part of my garden.

imageRecently, I sat down with my plant list and nursery catalogs and put together a tentative plan.  The biggest challenge in choosing plants was to meet both the light conditions (from partly sunny to mostly shady) and the soil conditions (low-nutrient, acid, sandy soil). My various reference books, nursery catalogs, and the materials from my course didn’t always agree on whether a particular plant will grow in full shade or needs several hours a day of sunlight, whether a plant needs high moisture or will tolerate those conditions but also grow in drier soil.

I had some difficulty approximating the shape of this planting area with my basic Microsoft Word drawing tools; but the size is approximately correct, and that is the critical factor for figuring out how many plants will fit in the space. I have then distributed those plants according to their light needs, with the shadier areas in among the trees and the lighter areas closer to the edges with the road, perennial borders, and clover path. Since my two-dimensional graphics are never more than approximations of the three-dimensional garden space, I expect to adjust the placement of plants when they go in the ground.

I included six different plants in this design, all shrubs native to the eastern United States, if not to Maine. The largest of the group is a pink-shell azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi); at 10’ x 10’, it will anchor the back corner. Also in mostly shady locations are three plants of maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), which should provide vibrant fall color. Like the azalea and the viburnum, Pieris floribunda, Forthergilla gardenii and Leucothoe fontanesiana all bloom in spring. In this planting, Diervilla lonicera (bush honeysuckle) is the exception, blooming in summer. I haven’t grown any of these plants before, so this is very much an experimental design. In addition, I couldn’t resist privileging flowering plants, and I probably didn’t pay enough attention to foliage size, texture and color.

Native plants can sometimes be a bit tricky to find (especially if you want the straight species, rather than a cloned variety). Several patches of volunteer bush honeysuckle are growing along the side of my driveway, and I plan to dig some of these up and transplant them. Most of the other plants are available from a local nursery. I’ll need to go a bit further afield, to the New England Wildflower Society in Massachusetts, to buy maple-leafed viburnum. The one plant that is not easily available is the American native Pieris floribunda, but I may have found a source for it in Connecticut.

I had hoped to prepare the soil for the Shrubbery last fall and be ready to plant in spring, but I got behind in garden chores and this planting area fell by the wayside. I did have some trees limbed last summer to let in more light. This spring, I will need to remove unwanted pine (Pinus strobus) and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) seedlings and saplings, along with some unwanted sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) and lilac (Syringa vulgaris) plants. Then I will amend the soil with compost to add organic matter, raise pH, and improve moisture retention. I hope to get plants in the ground no later than June.

Winter Blooms: GBBD, January 2018

January 15, 2018
Pink cyclamen1January in Maine is a cold, white season. But the potted cyclamen plants I bought in December are providing warmth, color, and a winter flower fix. Both plants have been blooming profusely for over a month now, and I never get tired of the way their petals are set alight by sun streaming through my living room window.
streaked cyclamen2 pink cyclamen 2018-2

hyacinth buds januarySince flowers in the garden are still at least two months away (the first crocuses bloomed last year on March 30), it is good that I have promises of more indoor blooms to come. The two hyacinth  bulbs that I bought last winter when I was desperate for color and fragrance and then never got around to doing anything with after they finished blooming have put up new growth and flower buds. They look like they will bloom in the next two weeks.

amaryllis bud 2018Each year, I wait with baited breath to see which of my dozen or so potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs will make flowers. This week, I noticed a flower stalk coming up on this one. This is the first time it will bloom since I repotted all the bulbs three years ago, and I don’t know which variety it is. I thought it might be ‘Apple Blossom’ when I chose this celadon-colored pot for it. In a few weeks, I will know whether that guess was correct.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see other winter blooms from the northern hemisphere and some summer blooms from the southern hemisphere.

A New Year in the New Front Garden

December 31, 2017

Cover 2018This is the ninth consecutive year that I have created a gift calendar for family and friends, and the 2018 Jean’s Garden calendar is one of my favorites. As always, each month features a photograph taken by me in my own garden. Once again this year, I had the calendars printed at, a vendor with better than average photo reproduction.

In this year’s calendar, the images are predominantly of my new front garden, which is featured in February, March, June, July, August, September and October. I have been working on the front garden since 2015, when the addition on the front of my house was completed. The garden areas that were planted in 2015 were looking particularly lush and mature by 2017.  (The walkway to the patio, flanked by the porch border and the patio border and featured both on the cover of this year’s calendar and on the page for the month of June, provides an example of this mature look.)

Here are the images I used for each month of this year’s calendar:

January 2018 February 2018



March 2018 April 2018



May 2018 June 2018



July 2018 August 2018



September 2018 October 2018



November 2018 Decmber 2018



Anyone who would like their own personal copy of the Jean’s Garden calendar will find them available to the public for purchase from

Happy New Year to all my gardening friends!

Rethinking Invasive Plants

December 27, 2017

Beyond the War on Invasive SpeciesFor several years, I have been concerned about the issue of invasive plants, and particularly about the challenge this poses for gardeners. (See, for example, Invasive Plants: What’s a Gardener To Do and Invasive Plants.)When I talk about invasive plants, I am not talking about “garden thugs,” plants that run riot in your garden. I am talking about non-native plants that escape from gardens, naturalize in the wild, and harm native ecosystems by out-competing native plants. In other words, invasive plants are not defined by how they behave in your garden, but by how they behave when they get out of your garden.

Most invasive plants were introduced into local environments intentionally, often by gardeners. For this reason, invasive plant programs try to prevent the introduction and propagation of problem plants through public education and through legal prohibition on the sale and propagation of the most problematic invasives. Invasive plant initiatives typically also go beyond prevention by trying to restore ecosystems  that have already been invaded and harmed by aggressive exotic plants.

This is a widely shared understanding of invasive plants, and it underlay my recent efforts to get my local Conservation Commission involved in an invasive plant project. But then I read Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species (Chelsea Green Publishing 2015), which challenged everything I thought I knew about invasive plants. Orion is a permaculture designer whose training is in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. She makes a very persuasive case for rethinking our approach to invasive species, and the key tenet of her argument is that invasive species are not a cause of damage to native ecosystems, but a symptom or effect of that damage. For exotic plants to take hold and naturalize in an ecosystem, she argues, there must be an available ecosystem niche, and the existence of that vacant niche is a sign of disruption in the native ecosystem.

But Orion does not stop at this fundamental challenge to current thinking about invasive species. She goes further by challenging the assumption that invasive plants contribute little or nothing to ecosystem services. For example, she notes that many invasive plants obtain an ecological advantage from being able to photosynthesize more than do native plant. Since atmospheric CO2 is a key ingredient in the process of photosynthesis, these invasive plants may be mitigating the effects of rising CO2 levels by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sinking it in the ground.

Orion lives and works in the western United States, and many of her examples are from western ecosystems. One powerful case study is her analysis of salt cedar (Tamarisk), widely considered an invasive scourge in western riparian ecosystems where it is seen as outcompeting native willows and cottonwoods that are key to those ecosystems. She argues that salt cedar spreads aggressively where willows and cottonwoods are already in decline. And why are they in decline? Because of dams and other flood control measures that disrupt the cycle of periodic flooding on which willows and cottonwoods depend. What’s more, in river systems where river waters have been diverted for agricultural irrigation and are subject to increasing salinization because of agricultural fertilizer runoff, salt cedar plants perform the ecosystem service  of  “absorb[ing] salty water through their roots, acumulat[ing] salt within their tissues, and transpir[ing] freshwater through their leaves. Transpiration releases moisture into the atmosphere, and little by little, the salty water that other plants’ roots come in contact with is rendered less salty.” (p. 72)

Is Orion arguing that we should stop worrying about invasive species? Not at all. The presence of invasive plants is a sign of  trouble in an ecosystem. But she is arguing that, in order to understand both the effects of invasive plants and their control, we must “think like an ecosystem.” Simply killing off all the invasive plants, by whatever means necessary, will not restore the native ecosystem to its previous state. We must understand the disruption that created an ecological niche for the invasive plant, and we must also understand that ecosystems are always in the process of transition and the role of particular invasive plants in the processes of ecosystem succession. Orion is particularly concerned about the widespread use of herbicides in invasive plant eradication, and she provides a compelling analysis (chapter 1) of the harm done by so-called “inert” ingredients in popular herbicides.

In the last chapters of her book, Tao Orion considers the implications of her analysis for projects to control invasive species and restore native ecosystems.

One of the reasons we’ve been so misguided in our approach to managing invasive species is because managing them effectively requires something far more challenging and more powerful than the business-as-usual approach of aggressive, extensive annihilation of “offending” plants and animals. Effective management requires that before anything else – before we develop a plan or reach for the herbicide – we have to first teach ourselves to think differently…. [I]f we are to embrace the true meaning of ecological restoration as repairing degraded ecosystems, then we must move beyond short-term and short-sighted invasive species eradication measures and begin the necessary process of engaging the critical task of restoration on all fronts, from our homes and neighborhoods, to farms, forests, and the economic systems that support them – as well as restoring our own way of thinking. (p. 165)

And just as I was feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of this charge, I turned to Orion’s final chapter, which provided a step-by-step practical guide to putting these principles into action.

Beyond the War on Invasive Species has challenged me in ways that are both disquieting and exhilarating.  Not since Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home have I read a book that so powerfully changed my thinking about the complex ecosystems around me and my relationship to them.

Holiday Blooms: GBBD, December 2017

December 15, 2017

red Christmas cactus Winter has arrived in my part of the world, where the morning low temperature today was –10F. Out in the garden, all is white and frozen. In this holiday season, I depend on indoor houseplants for holiday blooms.

I have two holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) plants in bloom. The one that began blooming at Thanksgiving is almost done, with a few unopened buds and one pale lavender blossom. The smaller red one, received as a gift from a friend last Christmas, began blooming two weeks ago and is still going strong. The flamboyance of its layered red and white flowers always makes me smile.

lavender cactus bloom red and white cactus bloom

Streaked pink cyclamenFor the past two decades, I have depended on my cyclamen plants for flowers at the holidays and throughout the winter. But last year all of them were infected with mites and had to be thrown out. Two weeks ago, I stopped at  local farm that was selling flowering poinsettia and cyclamen plants for the holidays along with their Christmas trees and wreaths, and I picked out two new cyclamen. One is a hot pink similar to one of my old plants. The other has flowers streaked in pale pink and white. I love them both and hope to enjoy them for many years to come.

hot pink cyclamen flower streaked cyclamen flowers

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to find out what other bloggers have blooming during this holiday season.