Garden Diary - June 2001

This spring (2001) I made a garden I had not really planned on. It is the result of my attitude that "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." In September 1999 Hurricane Floyd took down a mature black walnut tree on the far side of the drainage creek towards the road. When Paul cut it up for firewood, he left three 7- to 10-foot-long logs from the butt for potential use as lumber. He dragged the smallest one out of the woods using his four wheel, all-wheel drive quad, but the other two were too massive for him to move. They lay in the woods until March 2001, when a neighbor used his John Deere 4020 tractor to snake the logs out to the road. Of course, before he could get in with the tractor I had to bushwhack a trail through the jungle of multiflora roses, cut down a couple of small trees, etc. That took longer than the actual log hauling. And once I looked at this nice open space, it seemed a shame to let the area go back to multiflora roses and garlic mustard. So I made it into a garden.

The first stage of any garden at BelleWood is to determine where the paths shall go. I walk the area again and again, to find where the natural pattern of travel is most comfortable. Once the paths are determined I can place the planting beds. In this instance the site is only lightly shaded, it has quite good soil (a relative term, meaning not much clay and few rocks) and it is flat because we're getting into the drainage pattern for the year-round creek that my intermittent creek flows into. I decided it would be a good place for a shrub garden with spring interest.

Ubel's Farm Stand (telephone 908-782-3545) on Rte 12 in Flemington, NJ is one of my favorite local garden centers. This spring Mr. Ubel was digging and selling some trees and shrubs that had been in the ground for a couple of years, or even longer. In late March I bought five 4- to 5-foot tall star magnolias, got them planted, and then bought three more. I spaced them widely enough along the path that all of them cannot be seen at once, but you can always see more when you look at one. I've always been fond of star magnolias: their flowers seem less likely to be damaged by spring frosts, the summer appearance is nice, fall color is a rich golden brown, and the overall shape and smooth gray bark of the shrubs is attractive when revealed in winter. This part of BelleWood is now called Magnolia Way, as I consider these the dominant, keynote plants.

In early April I was visiting a friend in Fairfield County, CT. Of course I made a stop at Young's Nurseries (telephone 203-762-5511) on Rte 7 in Wilton, close to where we used to live.One advantage of a Taurus station wagon is the quantity of shrubbery than can be loaded into it, especially if you are content with 3-gallon pots. I feel that smaller sizes settle in more readily, and they are also easier for me to bring into the woods to the planting site. My haul that day included10 inkberry, Ilex glabra 'Shamrock', a very nice selection of a native evergreen holly that has small, oval, glossy green leaves. They grow well in shade and accept a moist site. Five fothergilla, Fothergilla major, were added to my load. I very much like the fluffy white bottlebrush flowers and strong red, orange, yellow fall foliage color of this native. They seem somewhat fussier about transplanting, at least for me. I make sure they get a site with good bright light and reasonable drainage since fothergilla dislike wet feet. Even so, I expected, and had, some branch-tip dieback. The last three shrubs into the car were Oregon holly-grape, Mahonia aquifolium.Clusters of yellow, honey-scented flowers are followed by bloomy blue berries, and the holly-like leaves often turn a rich burgundy in cold weather. I really wanted Mahonia bealii, the Asian relative of this native species, which I had grown in Connecticut. Though common (and even a nuisance through self-sowing) in gardens of the Southeast it is difficult to find in Tri-State area nurseries.

Update: Mr. Ubel has a Mahonia bealii, but it is not for sale. In June 2001 he let me collect a number of berries. I'll sow them and grow my own.

Ubel's Farm Stand got a truckload of shrubs. I couldn't resist and chose 5 Pieris 'Brower's Beauty'. This andromeda cultivar has the usual trailing clusters of small, bell-like white flowers in spring, but the new growth is a yellowish green, rather than the vivid red of many other selections. I want to create a naturalistic look for Magnolia Way, and 'Brower's Beauty' is the best choice.

Let's add all this up: 8 magnolias, 10 hollies, 5 pieris, 5 fothergilla,and 3 holly-grapes = 31 new shrubs. Expensive, and heavy work moving,digging holes, planting, and mulching. At least we had good rains. Until mid-April that is, when someone turned off the upstairs tap. From April 18 until May 20 we had a total of .05 inches of rain. That's right, 5/100ths of an inch in 34 days. I bought new hoses, coupled six together and laid them down along the driveway. That got me to within about 300 feet at the closest. I would fill two 2-gallon watering cans, trudge across the drainage creek, water a shrub, and repeat. Again, again, and again. That's about 16 pounds per watering can, and after 20 trips it felt like my arms were stretching. However I did manage to keep everything alive.

It is now late June, we have had copious rain since late May, and the new shrubs along Magnolia Way are looking splendid.

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