Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Renovations and Low Maintenance Plants

With a bad lower back, an arthritic left knee and right ankle, gardening has become a bit more of a challenge these past few years. I find I don’t have the stamina I once did and all-day gardening marathons are out of the question. This has led to my current project of renovating the entire garden to minimize pain and suffering of joints and generally lead to a more laid back gardening experience.
Last time, I focused on the high-maintenance plants I am getting rid of or at least relocating to wilder areas. This post, I want to tell you about the plants I am introducing that won’t require the constant care and fussing that many of my existing plants did. We’ll start with trees and shrubs this month and discuss perennials and annuals in a later post.
Here is where I get to tell you about my biggest, and favorite, garden mistake; biggest in that it will be the hardest to correct and favorite because I keep making it. One of the things you must do when planning a new garden is figure out where to put the trees and shrubs first. They are, or will be, the largest features in your little patch of Eden and special care should be taken with their placement. Unless you’re like me when I first started and think you don’t need trees and the only shrubs you need are roses.
With time comes wisdom they say, and I’ve seen that trees and shrubs do indeed make a huge difference in the garden. These plants contribute winter-interest to the view, condos and fast-food for birds, and comfortable shade for you, depending on the varieties you choose. They also make wonderful accents and focal points to your garden, helping to draw the viewer’s eye to special areas. If you have a scene that is better unseen, these plants can help you hide it. Lastly, certain shrubs, with their dense branches and leaves, often reduce your weeding chores.
One tree to be added to my menagerie is the paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Originating from China, the paperbark maple is a slow-growing tree that only reaches 20 to 30 feet and approximately 15 to 20 feet in width. It is hardy to zone 4 (-30 degrees) and likes average garden soil. It will not tolerate drought, however, and is best grown in well-drained, moist soil.
What makes this tree special are its leaves and bark. The leaves are trifoliate, looking a bit like poison ivy (“leaves of three, let it be”), and turn a rich red in the fall. The bark is a lovely cinnamon color and peels off as it grows older, similar to a white birch. The only care this tree will require is protecting it from critters until it is big enough to fend for itself and raking the leaves for the compost pile once a year. My kind of plant!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Garden Mayhem!

I have moved many plants in anticipation of some new hardscaping (a patio and 2 pergolas).  This month the real mayhem commences as I clear out plants which are too much work, too fussy or just plain boring. Which plants stay and which ones go will be determined by several factors and, of course, the whim of the gardener.
The first ones to go will be those that rampage merrily through the garden, indifferent to the suffering of other, less enthusiastic vegetation and require entirely too much work to keep them from taking over. I don’t mind perennials that spread slowly for many years and then need dividing, like daylilies (Hemerocallis ssp.) or iris, but others can become genuine thugs. Reining in the herds of bee balm (Monarda didyma) will be the first order of business. This genus is in the mint family and spreads by underground runners; not as aggressively as true mints, like peppermint or spearmint, but too much for their current position. They have wonderful, strange flowers that are adored by hummingbirds and butterflies; the leaves smell like Earl Grey tea.

Monarda 'Jacob Kline'
 Several varieties, including ‘Jacob Kline’, a bright red, ‘Blue Stocking’, shorter and purple, and ‘Coral Reef’, a medium sized pink, will all be relocated to wilder areas of the garden where they can roam free and a few will be given away with proper warnings. While I adore their flowers, and these 3 are all wonderfully healthy, they have strangled 3 roses and a daylily and are threatening several iris. Fling! Out they go!
The flocks of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) will also be thinned out this year. I have 4 large clumps of the tall, white phlox, ‘David’; they are drop-dead gorgeous, smell like heaven and bloom for almost two months. The leaves rarely get powdery mildew, a common fault in many otherwise beautiful phlox. Three of them are getting the shovel, along with a few other varieties. Why, you may ask?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Weeks of Heaven

When seen any time after June 21, the vernacular name of Beauty Bush for the shrub Kolkwitzia amabilis seems more than a bit of a misnomer. The beauty bush is uncommonly common when not in flower. It is a tall, rangy tangle of twiggy stems and dull leaves; nothing graceful or engaging about it. The dried up remains of the blooms do not fall off cleanly yet add nothing to visage of the shrub. Many an old bush becomes a huge, ungainly beast, fully capable of engulfing the unwary lawn mower and the occasional household pet.

If one were to only see it the rest of the year, one would wonder why the gardener bothered.
But then there are those 3 to 4 weeks in late May and early June when the entire shrub lights up with pale pink flowers and the wild, fresh scent beguiles the nose and the gardener has no choice but to suffer the rest of the year in yearning for those few weeks.

The rough, ungainly limbs are suddenly festooned with delicate pink flowers, showing a subtle weeping structure unseen when out of bloom. Looking closely, the fragile-looking bells have a tracery of yellow lines on the white inside and soft little filaments, reminiscent of penstemons, which are also called bearded tongues. Looking very closely at the flower clusters, one sees the pedicels, those tiny little stems connecting each flower to the branch, are completely covered with a heavy fleece of white hairs. Darker pink shades the outside of the trumpets and the unopened buds giving the whole plant a multihued appearance.

And the scent . . . the scent. There are no words to describe the wild freshness, touched with only a hint of the sweetness found in flowers of a lesser aroma. Intoxicating barely begins to touch on it, while exhilarating goes too far. Invigorating may be exactly correct. One can hardly bear to stand and inhale such a scent and not climb a mountain at once. Truly, those few weeks are a preview of the perfume of paradise.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Renovation Begins

The first step to a garden renovation is clearing some space for new hardscaping. As mentioned last time, we will be having a small patio installed and also 2 small pergolas, so I needed to move all the plants within range of the construction to a no-work zone. I have previously tried leaving the plants in place, only to have the contractor’s size 13 waffle-stompers deprive me of some favorite plants.
The first bed to face the shovel was the one along the sidewalk, facing the pond. All the plants in the middle of the bed had to be relocated. When I first made this bed, I planted a couple of spiraea shrubs named ‘Golden Elf’, one near each end, and a rose in the middle. ‘Golden Elf’ is a lovely, small shrub, only getting 2 or 3 feet tall and wide with bright, green-gold foliage and pink flower clusters in the spring. It’s tough as nails and rarely needs any care except the occasional trim.
The 2 spiraeas are staying, but the rose, named ‘Gourmet Popcorn’, had to be moved. Additionally, 3 astilbes (2 ‘Peach Blossom’ and one ‘Spinel’), one daylily (‘Stella d’Oro’) and a Japanese forest grass (‘Aurea’) were also shuffled off to the holding bed. There is a patch of daffodils left which should probably be moved, but I’m hoping to let them bloom first.
Pruning ‘Gourmet Popcorn’ in preparation of moving was traumatic for both of us. This rose forms a twiggy shrub that is covered in tiny white blooms all summer and looks uncommonly like its namesake. It is generally no care and a pleasure to have around. In testament to its vigor, the main canes were as big around as my wrist and the whole plant just screamed “don’t move me, I’m happy!!” I hope it forgives me for hacking off all but a few strong limbs and ripping it out of the ground. I felt exactly as I imagine a parent must feel when bringing their kid to the doctor – you know it’s for their own good but you hate to hear them scream. I did give it some fertilizer and a position with more sun, much as the parent takes the kid out for ice cream after a shot.

Rosa 'Gourmet Popcorn'
The astilbes were much less trouble and popped out with no struggle. The reason for the lack of resistance soon became clear when I saw all the roots had been chewed off by the local varmint population. Fortunately, astilbes are quite tough and I believe the few roots remaining to them will be sufficient to get them started elsewhere. ‘Spinel’, in particular, is a favorite of mine. The flowers are a vivid dark red and last for most of a month. When the blooms fade, the foliage remains and looks vaguely fern-like for the rest of the season. No pests, except varmints, seem to bother it.