Garden Diary - November 2004


The lengthy mild weather of October and the first week of November departed in a hurry on November 9th, when the overnight temperature dipped down to 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and an even chillier 21.7 degrees Fahrenheit the following night. Goodbye to all the tender plants, as cannas turned from their tropical summer splendor into limp brown rags. Trees continues their sunny autumnal display until wind and rain emptied their branches in just a couple of days. I seem to be sweeping up endless heaps of leaves from the driveway, raking them onto a tarp and then hauling them into the woods to dump them. BelleWood's wooded acres provide far more leaves than my compost heaps can accommodate.

This year the New York Botanical Garden once again featured Momijigari, the Japanese Autumn Garden, in the courtyard of the conservatory. Graceful bamboo in large, earth- brown pottery containers welcome the visitor into the space, defined by a simple, thatch-roofed gateway. Arrayed around the rectangular pool, an assortment of quite large Japanese maples display their delicate leaves in hues of scarlet, crimson, and pumpkin orange. The hardy water lilies are no longer in bloom, nor are the lotus. The withered lotus leaves and sturdy seed pods (like the rose on a watering can, or a section of Swiss cheese) provide an appropriate seasonal look. Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' sweeps over the mounds of soil and mulch that conceal the maples' pots. Other plants tucked beneath the maples include Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum'; various sedges such as Carex dolichostachya, Carex muskingumensis, and Carex siderosticha; ajuga, and more. Hardy chrysanthemums, the dainty white petalled Chrysanthemum yezoense, provides sprightly little flowers to the scene, along with the silver-edged leaves of Chrysanthemum pacificum. Other shrubs and trees are part of the landscape, in addition to more perennials. Late flowering toad lily, Tricyrtis 'Empress', has upright stems of purple-speckled flowers . I find this English name distasteful, and much prefer hototogisu, feathers on the cuckoo's breast, as it is known in Japane.

Several magnificent bonsai are on display: a forest grove of Japanese maples, their moss-covered earth on a gently cupped large rock that serves as a tray to support them, a majestic Japanese pine with a gnarled trunk, and more.

A garden shelter on the far side of the water lily pool provides a peaceful place to sit, observe, relax, enjoy, and contemplate. Open in front and on one side, the back and other side walls are "plaster" above and bamboo wainscotting below. The side wall has a circular opening which frames a view of the maple just beyond it. Upon my first visit, on November 3rd, the maple was in full autumnal dress. By November 6th, the ground beneath the tree was carpeted with fallen leaves. Elsewhere in the garden the wind had swept some into windrows. And by November 10th, the tree just outside the garden shelter had bare gray branches. I pointed out how beautiful it would be when dressed with winter's snow (imaginary, as after November 18th, its last day, the garden will be disassembled.)

One beautiful permanent feature of the courtyard is a lovely specimen of Ternstromia gymnanthera, known in Japan as mokkoku. The rather thick, rusty red branches are thickly covered with rounded, deep green leaves are evergreen. It is traditional to use a small needle or pin and scratch a little prayer into the paler underside.

Numerous pots of chrysanthemums in yellow, rosy orange, rust, and red add ample color. Some are merely "American style" - floriferous mounds of color. Others have been trained as single-stem standards, into columns with flowers adorning their entire surface. My favorites are the "peacock tail" style. A section of plastic-coated fencing is attached to the pot so it angles towards the ground. Somehow the pot is balanced at an angle, keeping the piece of fencing parallel to the ground. A single chrysanthemum is trained to fan over the wire, constant pinching resulting in full cover. As the flowering stems are finally allowed to form, they naturally grow at right angles to the wire. When put on display, the pots are displayed on a stand, returned to their upright position. This means that the flower-bedecked fencing section now sweeps down to the ground, similar to the train of a peacock.

I taught a class on the history of Japanese garden design on Wednesday, November 3rd. Well attended, we began with the development of agriculture in the Joman hunter/ gatherer period of 300 B.C., ornamental horticulture, geomancy, hill and pond stroll gardens, Shinto and Buddhist influence on the development of gardens, tea ceremony and its garden, dry stone gardens, and more. My trips to Japan meant that I had excellent slides to illustrate much of what we discussed. Concluding the day, we visited the momijigari garden, for a lovely autumnal afternoon among seasonal plants and flowers.

The following Saturday I was again at the New York Botanical Garden. This time I began with a book signing at The Shop in the Garden, for "Enhance Your Garden with Japanese Plants", published by Kodansha. Of course there were other of my books available also. In the afternoon I gave a very well attended lecture on Japanese plants for American gardens, followed by a guided tour of the momijigari garden. The perfect autumn weather no doubt had something to do with the group of 40 or 50 people who accompanied me for a casual, yet informative talk about the gardening traditions and seasonal displays in Japanese culture.

Then on November 10th, I taught Creating a Japanese-Inspired Garden, also at the New York Botanical Garden. This was a new class that was being offered for the first time, with the goal not to replicate a Japanese garden in Western gardens, but of utilizing their concepts of nature and design. I decided to focus on water, fences, paths, and stone placement. Water was of course presented through discussion and slide-illustrated lecture. Fencing was much the same, though I did bring in bamboo and twine for students who wished to practice their knots. A step-by-step handout provided guidance. For stone-setting we had cookie sheet trays, gravel, and stones. First there was lecture, discussion, and slides to provide background. Forming three groups, two had gravel and stones from BelleWood Garden's seasonal creek while the third group worked with gray stones and fine chick grit for their gravel. Circulating from group to group, I showed them how the stones interact with each other, and the importance of viewpoint in placement. For pathways I made "stones" of cardboard - large primary stones, smaller secondary stones, rectangular blocks in various sizes, and upwards of 200 pieces of "gravel." To add verisimilitude, I had dry-brush painted the cardboard with a bricktown red paint, close to the color of my local rock here in New Jersey. We re-arranged the tables to clear the diagonal in the room, and then started making a path. Cardboard being lighter than real stones, we had ample energy to create one design, discuss it, re-arrange it, make a more formal pattern at one end of the path and a more casual design at the other. Great fun, and instructive to see the relationships of shapes, interaction of stone to block, how gravel is more important that might be first anticipated. Easy to tidy up, and then out to momijigari on another sunny afternoon.

Firewood

We heat our house in part with wood - a cast iron Vermont Castings stove, the Vigilant model, which we moved from Connecticut is set up in the great room. Close to 18 feet of double wall stove pipe rising to (then through) the roof helps distribute the heat to the upper story. With nearly 9 acres of woods it is not difficult to find sufficient standing dead trees to cut the three cords we need for each heating season. That's three stacks of wood 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet high. (Our stacks have different proportions, since logs are cut to 18-inch length in order to fit into the stove,. But the volume is three times 128 cubic feet so it comes out the same.) Not a problem, that is, when Paul is home. Since he's been working in Kalamazoo, MI and only home a couple of weekends each month time has been in short supply, especially if you factor in the frequent (or should I say consistently) rainy weather we had this past summer.

Friends and family rallied round in November, and the wood storage area is now filed with neatly stacked wood. Our neighbors John and Carol came around one Sunday. With two men lumberjacking with their chainsaws - both using Stihls with 18-inch bars - trees were dropped and cut in a tidy manner. John came with his larger 4 ft. X 8 ft. trailer attached to his Quad, for running wood from down by the road up the driveway to where the 20 ton log splitter was set up. Carol and I ran the log splitter, trading off who was running the machine and who was tossing wood into the smaller trailer attached to Paul's Quad. When that was filled he'd run it over to the wood storage area. At first we stacked, then just started tossing the firewood under the roofed-over storage area.

Four people can get quite a bit done in five hours. Five of the trees were down by the road, standing dead that the Asplundh tree company had topped off when doing work for the power company. They unfortunately also cut down a young Evodia davidiana that I had in that general area. I also used to have three forsythia but now appear to only have two. Spring will reveal if it wants to sprout from the roots or if I need to replace it. Most of these trees, about a foot in diameter, were black walnut, Juglans nigra. Perhaps a pity to burn such lovely wood but we already have a basement full of black walnut lumber from a much larger tree that came down in Hurricane Floyd in 1999. I believe, from its grain and color, that one of the trees was a hickory. And both walnut and hickory burn well. Choosing standing dead trees means we can burn the wood that same winter. Wood cut green, when the sap is up, must dry for a year.

John and Paul cut down a dead sycamore near the driveway that I've been wanting down for a couple of years, and started on the topped-off trees. Dropping a tree for firewood is the least of the work. Next comes limbing it, cutting to length, then moving it, splitting it, moving it stacking it . . . Remember what they say about firewood. It heats you three times. Once when you cut it, once when you move it, and lastly when you burn it!

That evening I made a fried chicken dinner for all of us. John brought Ye Olde Chip Pot over. It's immaculately clean inside, so coated with blackened grease on the outside that he's scratched its name onto it. Chips - that's French fries to the non-English - and steamed asparagus rounded out a meal for appetites sharpened by hard work.

Thanksgiving weekend saw a gathering of the family, as our daughter, son-in-law, and their three daughters came down from Connecticut, while our son, his wife, and their two children made the even longer trip from Massachusetts. As Mira, Kim and I worked on cooking a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, Steve, Seth, and Paul worked on firewood. They cut the remaining dropped trees to length, got the wood split and stacked. The weather was surprisingly mild for late November, with temperatures in the low 60 Fahrenheit range, somewhat damp and drizzle-y with occasional rain. Overnight a front came through and the next day, Black Friday, dawned clear and chilly - just the right weather for a fire in the stove. As an aside: with fluctuating temperatures I make fires as needed. Once the weather turns consistently cold I keep a fire burning 24/ 7. A little more work by the three men on Friday brought the last of the firewood up to the house. After the last contingent headed home on Saturday, that afternoon Paul did some relatively minor cutting, and split the last of the wood with a sledge and wedges.

It is with a feeling of satisfaction that I look at the stacked wood. I make nice end stacks if I do say so, alternating layers of wood laid side-to-side, then front-to-back to secure the wood piled behind. Yes, it is messy dealing with bits of bark that dribble off the logs in the house, and cleaning ashes from the stove. It is easier to adjust a thermostat than carry wood from outside into the basement storage rack, then upstairs to the smaller rack near the stove. I find the process of fire-making something of a nicety: here's a somewhat punky piece that's good in the morning, to start the fire up from the coals. Here's a nice solid piece of oak or maple to feed the stove at bedtime, to warm the house all night and offer good red coals in the morning.

And, should you be interested, the Thanksgiving dinner was ample, starting off with two 13-pound turkeys. Both were stuffed with a bread stuffing seasoned with Bell's Seasoning. (I happened to see the yellow cardboard box at the grocery store, and remembered my mother using it.) Oven roasted potatoes, a fennel and carrot confit, braised white onions, and green peas. I'd made a fresh chopped cranberry and orange relish with chopped pecans. Kim brought a cooked whole cranberry relish spiced with cinnamon. I'd made a Wellsley fudge cake in a Bundt mold, its chocolate intensified with Andes bits stirred into the batter, and the cake finished off with a Kahlua chocolate glaze. Mira brought a pumpkin pie, and Kim brought a pecan pie. It was a lovely meal.

Odds and Ends

On Monday morning, November 22, I saw a beautiful red fox traversing the slope behind the house. Actually, he started off close to the deck, then went up through the garden to the tree line and sauntered along, stopping occasionally to lift a leg and mark his territory. He had a magnificent brush of a tail, carried horizontally in line with his russet-red-furred body. It looked nearly as large as the rest of him. Slim and dainty black furred legs carried him daintily through brush and dried stems of goldenrod and grasses.

Thanksgiving Day brought the first snowdrop in bloom in my garden, a single open flower and another bud of Galanthus elwesii 'Potter's Prelude'.

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