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Seasonal Transition

November 5, 2018

asters in early snowIn his humorous riff on life in New England, Jeff Foxworthy describes the four seasons as “almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction.” As October has turned into November, we have been transitioning from “road construction” to “almost winter.” Construction crews are scrambling to finish up road projects before it gets too cold to pave. I am scrambling to get my winter wood supply stacked and out of the driveway and to get fall garden chores completed.

October was unseasonably cold and wet, more like our dreary month of November than like New England’s usual cool, crisp and sunny October. On October 15, I woke up to find the water in my bird bath frozen. Three days later, I awoke to a coating of snow. Before October ended, we had another snowfall, this one more than an inch. Fortunately, daytime temperatures have been above freezing and the snow quickly melted, giving me some time to finish getting ready for winter.

patio in early snowwood pile in early snow

Signs of winter are all around me. When I wake up during the night on clear nights, the view out my window is of a winter sky filled with stars. This morning, I realized that I could now look out from my bedroom and see the sun rising through the trees in the southeast.

In the garden, most of the leaves are gone from the trees, and most perennial plants have gone into dormancy. The exceptions are a few exceptionally cold-hardy species in protected micro-climates. The smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) ‘Bluebird’ (shown above)is still blooming by the foundation near the front door, and there are still a few flowers on the tall Rudbeckia x ‘Herbstsonne.’ There are buds on the newly-planted red ‘Knock Out’ rose, but I think these are frozen and will never open. On the fall-blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana), the fringy yellow flowers, which are at their best after the leaves have fallen, are fading.

herbstsonne late flower hammamelis flowers

In the next few weeks, “almost winter” will transition into winter. Before that happens, I need to finish stacking that firewood, getting it out of the driveway before the snow plow needs to get in. I also need to bring in garden furniture and plant supports, and spread the remaining compost on flower beds. Then the garden and I can rest.

The New Front Garden, Year 4: The Big Push

October 8, 2018

When the new addition on the front of my house was completed in the spring of 2015, I embarked on a five-year project to create a whole new front garden.

new addition image

In the first year, I installed concrete pavers to create a patio and walkways (see Hardscape), and then I created several small flower beds around the hardscape (see First Flower Bed of the New Front Garden, The Porch Border, The Lavender Walk, and Mission Accomplished). In the second year, I completed the side slope garden, a major undertaking, and got most of the Fragrant Garden done. Year three (last year) was a bit of a slack year. I completed the planting for the Fragrant Garden, created a tiny rain garden nearby, and seeded clover on a wide grassy swath to connect the now-completed upper garden to the lower garden below the retaining wall (see New Front Garden: Year 3 Progress Report and My Mini Rain Garden). I had also intended to create a shrub planting at the curve in the clover path as part of my year three efforts; but when I realized that I would be taking a course in October at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on how to select native shrubs for the Maine garden, I thought it wise to postpone this project until after the course.

That decision was the right one; I was much better prepared to select plants and design the Shrubbery with the course completed. But the delay meant that I was behind schedule as I entered the fourth year of my five-year plan. To get back on track, I would need to complete the Shrubbery and turn the large weedy front slope (about 750 square feet) into garden. This was a very ambitious goal, and I was not sure I could get it all done in one short Maine garden season. But I decided to dig in (literally) and make a big push to get both plantings completed.

Shrubbery siteFirst up was the Shrubbery. I made a tentative planting plan over the winter (see The Shrubbery), and bought many of the shrubs from the New England Wildflower Society, a good source of New England native plants. I placed an order with them in April, was notified in mid-May that my plants were ready, and drove down about a week later to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts (about three hours from my Maine home) to pick them up. By the time I brought the plants home, I had almost finished preparing the site, which involved clearing out unwanted growth and tilling in compost to amend the acid, sandy soil. I finally got all the plants in the ground the third week in June.

shrubbery plants

Even as I was planting the Shrubbery, I had already begun work on the big Front Slope project. I had decided to divide this slope into four horizontal bands with decreasing amounts of soil amendment from top to bottom (Thinking About the Front Slope). I began work on the bottom band in spring. front slope wildflowersThis was easy to prepare, requiring only that I weed out unwanted plants. I planted seeds of our native sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis) before the last frost. Then, in late May, after the lupine seeds had germinated, I added plugs and plants of bluets (Houstonia caerulea), wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), a groundcover dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis), and native stiff flax-leafed aster (Ionactis linarifolia). Except for the lupine, these were plants that were already growing in my unamended loamy sand.

By mid-June, I had moved on to the second horizontal band from the bottom, where I removed weeds and then amended the soil by tilling in compost. This went quickly, and the soil was ready for plants by the beginning of July. Some of these were plants I had grown before (including Phlox subulata, Geranium sanguineum, Rudbeckia hirta and Tradescantia virginiana). Many of the plants in this band, however, were new to my garden, chosen because they should do well in dry, sandy soil. Most were planted in repeated groups of three, and they included butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), two species of tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata and Coreopsis grandiflora), spotted bee-balm ( Monarda punctata), purple poppy mallows (Callirhoe involucrata), Echinacea pallida and Vernonia letermannii, a shorter, more feathery cousin of our New York ironweed. Many of the new-to-my-garden plants were purchased in a tray of plugs from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota; others were bought in pots from local nurseries.

rudbeckia hirta with poppy mallows monarda punctata

front slope diggingThe idea behind this big planting was to move from wildflowers at the bottom of the slope to a more formal perennial garden at the top of the slope. This meant that the soil in the top two bands had to be amended much more heavily, using a modified double-digging approach (see To Dig or Not To Dig), a much more time-consuming process. It took about two months, working on it about fifteen hours per week, for me to prepare this soil for plants. I finally put plants in the ground shortly after Labor Day.

The plants on the upper parts of the slope are mostly familiar from other parts of my garden. There is a row of shrubs – including roses, spirea, and weigela – along the bottom of the retaining wall; the rest are perennials. Lavender and Coreopsis verticillata are planted along the walkway as a continuation of the Lavender Walk. Much of the upper slope is planted in daylilies, more than twenty different varieties. These are accompanied by Liatris, false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), New England asters (Symphyotrichum novi-angliae), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), and two more species of beebalm (Monarda didyma and Monarda fistulosa). Here is the hot-colored planting design for this sunny slope.


Of course, like most new plantings, this one is looking a bit limp and sparse right now. But I am hoping for a glorious season of blooms next year.  And then, it will be on to the fifth and final year of my front garden project.

September’s Special Flowers: GBBD, September 2018

September 15, 2018

Liatris blooms SeptemberBy mid-September in Maine, fall is in the air and the garden is winding down. High summer’s riot of colorful blooms has been replaced by sparser flowering and plants with an overgrown, seedy look.

The stars of this late-season garden are the members of the family Asteraceae, all those late-blooming composite blooms with their characteristic combination of disc and ray flowers that are such an important food source for bees at this time of year.

The flowers for which this family is named, the asters, are just beginning to bloom in my garden. First up are the flowers of stiff flax-leafed aster (Ionactis linarifolia), a native wildflower volunteer that I have transplanted into the garden. Other species of aster will follow. Alas, these will not include the flowers of New England aster ‘Alma Potschke’, which have all been eaten by the resident woodchuck. first asters of fall

September solidagoThe asters have been preceded in bloom by their cousins, the goldenrods. I’m not sure which Solidago species, with golden inflorescences made up of tiny disc and ray flowers, is currently blooming along the dirt road at the front of my property. Much easier to identify is silverrod (Solidago bicolor), which seems to be flowering especially profusely this year.

silverrod 2018

Three different species of blazing stars (Liatris) provide a dramatic display in my side slope garden as they bloom in succession in late summer and early fall. Currently, the tall spikes of Liatris aspera are nearing the end of their bloom, while the flowers of Liatris novae-angliae have just begun.

Liatris aspera 2018 Liatris novae-angliae macro

Other members of  the Asteraceae family have been blooming in my garden for many weeks. These include purple coneflowers, rudbeckias,  and false sunflowers.

September composites

Not all my September blooms are part of this important botanical family. Sedums are also prominent at this time of year. ‘Matrona’ is blooming in the back garden, and ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Neon’ are blooming along the Lavender Walk in the front. Sedum matrona2018
autumn joy lavender walk Sedum neon 2018

There are many other flowers providing pleasure in the September garden.

balloon flowers september 2018 Balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflora) continue to bloom,
and morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’) have just begun to open on the garden fence. morning glory on fence

Here and there, flowers of Phlox paniculata have escaped the attention of the woodchucks.

September phlox bright eyes September phlox blue paradise September phlox david
pinky winky september The flowers of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’ are turning from white to red,
and an occasional rose bud opens. knock out rose bud

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is a celebration of flowers hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog for a taste of the wonderful variety of flowers blooming at this time of year in gardens around the world.

Learning About Native Bees

August 25, 2018

clip_image002This year, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where I am working on a certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture, added a new option for students, half-day mini-courses. I signed up for several of these, but I worried that, given their three-hour length, they might lack depth. I was wrong. My first course of this type earlier in the summer was on floral mimicry, the ways that flowers fool pollinators by mimicking something they are not and promising a reward that they don’t actually deliver. The instructor was Kyle Martin, a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology at Cornell; floral mimicry is the focus of his doctoral dissertation, and he was full of enthusiasm for all the scientific details. It’s amazing how much science a geeky instructor faced with a class of geekily enthusiastic students can cram into three hours!

This weekend, I drove out to the botanical gardens for a three-hour course on creating welcoming environments for pollinators, with a focus on native bees. Entomology (the study of insects) is the weak link in my horticultural knowledge, so I was hoping to learn a lot from this course. Once again, I was not disappointed. An introduction to the different families of bees provided a structure for understanding the overwhelming diversity of these insects (there are 270 different species of bees in Maine alone), and I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know that bees go through the same four stages of metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) as do butterflies. I was also surprised to learn that wild bees are much more efficient pollinators than European honey bees and that they are also under much greater environmental stress. Since the focus of the class was on reducing those stresses by creating welcoming habitat for native bees, we paid particular attention to where and how bees nest and lay their eggs as well as to the plants they forage on.

clip_image004The instructor for this course was Deb Perkins, a wildlife ecologist whose company, First Light Wildlife Habitats, works with landowners in New England to create and improve wildlife habitat. I was somewhat familiar with Deb’s work because she lives in my town (Poland, Maine) and had been hired by our local Conservation Commission, of which I am a member, to create a wildlife management plan for some of our conservation lands. I was delighted to meet her, to learn more about her and her work, and to discover that I could arrange an individual consultation about how to improve habitat on my own property. I also discovered that she writes an excellent blog about ecology, which I have added to my sidebar. I particularly recommend her posts The Wonder of Wild Bees and Give a Warm Welcome to Wild Bees.

Because there is only so much that even an excellent instructor can cram into a three-hour class, the resources Deb Perkins introduced us to were perhaps the most valuable aspect of the course. These include the wonderful photo gallery of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, the Xerces Society, and Maine’s Eagle Hill Institute. I was particularly excited about the latter, which offers a dizzying array of weekend workshops and one-week natural history seminars at their coastal Maine location. There may be a week-long seminar on native bees or a weekend workshop on asters and goldenrods or on fall mushrooms in my future.

The Wildlife-Friendly Garden

July 31, 2018

patio border late JulyI garden in a clearing in the woods in rural Maine. I cultivate perennial gardens pretty intensively in the cleared area adjacent to the house and leave the forested areas around my house wild. This means that much of the wildlife that is at home in and around the forest also makes its way into my garden.

For the most part, I welcome wildlife into my garden. I garden organically (no pesticides or chemical fertilizers), I include many native plants that have co-evolved with native wildlife, and I am tolerant of some damage to plants. I was charmed one day recently to find a small toad hanging out in a blossom of daylily ‘Sarah Scally’ (right). Sarah Scally with toad

I’m thrilled that my garden is busy with pollinators all season long, from the first bees visiting the crocuses blooming through the snow in April to bumble bees snoozing on aster blossoms in October.

crocuses with pollinator alma potschke with bees

monarch caterpillar 2018They are accompanied in their pollinating rounds by flies and hummingbirds and hummingbird hawkmoths and butterflies. While I was working in the garden one day last week, I followed a glimpse of fluttering orange to find a monarch butterfly, the first one I have seen in my garden in at least five years, flitting from milkweed plant to milkweed plant, possibly choosing a place to lay eggs. This morning, I found a monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed near the back door, a very welcome sight.

I am entertained by the sight and sounds of the birds that visit my garden. One day while I was working at my desk, I looked up to see a pair of robins busily eating the tiny jewel-like fruits from the little pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) tree that grows outside my study. Phoebes are a common sight in my garden, as they busily hunt insects. Especially in the morning and evenings, I relax on the porch to the flute-like songs of thrushes.

A number of mammals also visit my garden. In early summer, when the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees drop their abundant seeds, the chipmunks scurry around sucking them up like little vacuum cleaners. And I am always happy to see foxes in the garden, as they help to keep the rodent population under control.

woodchuck pruned violetsOf course, sometimes my wildlife-friendly garden is a little too friendly, attracting animals that I would prefer to keep at a distance. That has been particularly true this year, when I have been plagued by a woodchuck (or possibly two). The woodchuck is a large herbivorous rodent, a close relative of the marmot, and often called a “groundhog.” I became aware of the woodchuck’s presence several weeks ago. At first, it was mostly eating violets, and I hoped a good pruning at this point in the season might help rein in the exuberant violets. But then the animal moved on to eating my garden phlox and the New England asters in the porch border, and I suspected that it had dug a den under the porch. woodchuck pruned phloxAfter four or five woodchuck-free years, I had forgotten just how frustrating it can be to walk through the garden and find plants that were just beginning to bloom broken and stripped of flowers and foliage. Fortunately, woodchucks tend to have very particular tastes, and only a few plants have been eaten. However, any hope I had that the woodchuck was not making its home in my garden was erased this week when I discovered a large pile of soil beside an entrance to the woodchuck den in my side slope garden.

Just in case my adventure with the woodchuck wasn’t enough wildlife contact for me, my garden has also been visited by deer this summer. Usually the deer come through in the spring when they are very hungry and browse heavily on some favorite plants. But I don’t usually see any sign of them during the summer; deer dinneras long as I walk around the garden every day and leave my scent, they stay away. But one morning recently, I discovered this clump of leafless stems. This is what a hosta looks like after it has been turned into deer dinner. A few days later, the Serenity Garden at the edge of the woods was hit hard, with most of the foliage stripped from goatsbeard, bowman’s root, and viburnum, and other plants (including hosta and astrantia) eaten right down to the ground.

I have two theories about why deer and woodchucks are making themselves at home in my garden this year. First, the populations of both rodents and deer are up. This is most likely because our red oak trees (Quercus rubra) have “masted” two years in a row, meaning that they have produced an exceptionally large number of acorns. All the animals that use those acorns for food (including rodents and deer) have been more likely to survive the winter, creating population pressure on available habitat.

The second reason for more wildlife damage in my garden is loss of habitat. A new house is under construction on my dirt road, and the cutting of trees and excavation of soil has driven out animals that were living there. This includes the fox family that were using a den right beside the construction. They decamped as soon as the commotion began; and although I know they are still in the neighborhood because I occasionally hear them barking during the night, I haven’t seen a fox hunting on my property in many weeks. I believe it was the intimidating presence of the fox family that kept the woodchucks away for the past several years; now that the foxes are gone, the woodchucks feel free to move back in.

Although it is frustrating to walk around the garden in the morning and find damage to plants from these unwanted guests, this is the nature of gardening in my rural woodland setting. Unless I want to fence my garden against the woodchucks and the deer (I don’t), I need to understand that my wildlife-friendly garden will attract some wildlife I would prefer not to have in the garden along with the wildlife that makes gardening in this setting special.

The Mid-Summer Garden: GBBD, July 2018

July 16, 2018

entrance garden JulyThere are only three months of summer in Maine: June, July and August. (And some would probably dispute the first half of June, arguing that it is still spring.) So July really is the middle of summer, when the garden reaches its high summer peak. This year, we had a record-breaking heat wave (exceptional for its length, the high temperatures achieved, and dew points that are almost unheard of here) as June turned into July, and blooms accelerated, with some plants blooming weeks ahead of their normal schedule. Suddenly, the garden has that lush, slightly blowsy look characteristic of high summer.

I’m thrilled with the way my new entrance garden, begun just three years ago, has filled in. Two varieties of spirea blooming by the walkway make a big statement at this time of year, and they are accompanied by hardy geraniums, heuchera, tradescantia, astilbe, and daylilies.

spirea with geranium and daylilies

Daylilies form the heart of the mid-summer display in my garden. In mid-July, the daylily bloom is just about to peak. Slightly more than half the varieties I grow are now blooming, and some of the early varieties will be finished soon.  The common orange daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, whose roadside flowers are a sign of summer in New England, will soon finish blooming. Another species daylily, Hemerocallis citrina, which forms large clumps of wonderfully fragrant pale yellow flowers, will last a bit longer.

H. fulva flowers H. citrina side slope
Happily, many of my early-blooming daylilies are re-bloomers and will continue to make flowers for many weeks (or even months). These include the lovely ‘Lily Munster’. I’m not usually a fan of daylilies with droopy petals; but this one, which can be covered with masses of flowers from July to September, stole my heart. Lily Munster flowers

Alna Pride flowerMany of my favorite daylilies are from the Maine daylily breeding program of Joseph (father) and Nick (son) Barth. One of the first Barth daylilies I acquired, and still a favorite, is ‘Alna Pride’. In addition to being strikingly handsome, this daylily, like many of the Barth offerings, is fragrant. ‘Alna Pride’ is named for the town of Alna, Maine. Other Maine places are honored in the names of ‘Sheepscot Valley Sunset’ and ‘Southport Delight.’ But most of the Barth daylilies seem to be named for Barth family members and friends, and I sometimes feel as though I have the whole extended Barth clan in my garden.

Barth daylilies

lavender hidcote blooming Daylilies aren’t the only flowers in my garden. Along the Lavender Walk, the lavender is in glorious bloom, accompanied by flowers of the groundcover sedum ‘John Creech’ and the first flowers of Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus.’
john creech blooming echinacea magnus blooming

But the daylilies really are the stars of the July garden – so I leave you with more of my daylily blooms.

July daylilies-001

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is a wonderful community celebration of  flowers, created by Carol at May Dreams Gardens and hosted by her on the 15th of each month. Visit her blog to see the bounty of July blooms from gardens far and wide.

Blues and Pinks in the Early Summer Garden: GBBD, June 2018

June 17, 2018

blues & pinksI’m a couple of days late with this bloom day post; with so much happening in the garden, I’m finding it hard to find the time to write about what’s happening in the garden. In the month since I  documented new growth and blooming spring wildflowers, the garden has exploded in a profusion of early summer blooms. Most of these are in shades of blue and pink.

The Blue and Yellow Border is in its blue period, with colors ranging from the intense blues of Tradescantia virginiana ‘Zwanenburg Blue’ to the barest hint of blue in the flowers of Amsonia tabernaemontana. B&Y blue period
zwanenburg blue 2018 barely blue amsonia

siberian iris bluesThe showiest blue flowers in my garden at this time of year are the Siberian irises (Iris sibirica). I originally planted two unidentified varieties that were pass-along plants from a friend and then added several named cultivars obtained from nurseries. Over the years, these irises have been divided and re-divided, and they have also self-sown with abandon. The irises showing off their beauty on the Back Slope at this time of year are mostly self-sown, and their colors display a range of genetic diversity from deep blues to paler lavenders.

At first glance, the Side Slope also seems to be a study in blues, but a closer look reveals a number of accompanying pink plants, like ninebark ‘Donna May’, rose ‘Therese Bugnet’,  and Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo.’ side slope blues & pinks
ninebark blooms
therese bugnet pink biokovo pinks

porch and patio pinksPink is the dominant color in perennial borders that flank the walkway to the patio. Peony ‘Mons. Jules Elie’ has just begun to bloom above a frothy border of ‘Biokovo’ flowers. Across the walkway, the clear pink flowers of Geranium x oxonianum alternate with the deeper pink hues of Tradescantia virginiana ‘Pink Chablis’ and the flowering spikes of heuchera ‘Raspberry Regal.’

pink tradescantia pink oxonianum
pink peonies
At this time of year, the Fragrant Garden at the front of the house is a study in pink and white, with blooms of dianthus, peonies, mock orange, roses, and geranium ‘Biokovo. I am particularly enchanted by this soft pink flower on the rose ‘Quietness.’ quietness flower

The pleasure found in my morning walk through the garden increases every day at this time of year. It’s a wonderful season to be a gardener.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted this month and every month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see beautiful blooms from gardens near and far.