Garden Diary - May 2002

This has been a very busy spring. Early April had a couple of days with weather suitable for August. Tulips flowered more than a month early, but faded away in just a few days. Perennials awoke and shrubs began to leaf out. Then it turned cold again. Ostrich ferns, Matteucia struthiopteris, were frosted back to the ground. Fortunately there are three years worth of crosiers tuck away in the crown so the ferns were able to activate the next set and regrow. Fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, had its opening buds blackened as they were nipped by the cold. Similarly, reserve buds were available to green up this lovely native shrub for the summer. But the flower buds that had been made last year were lost, and the airy mass of delicate white flowers that should have graced the shrubs in May made no appearance this year.

Weather has been a major concern this season, and for more than just the temperature swings. A dry winter put the Delaware River region into a serious drought. Water use is restricted in Pennsylvania and all of New Jersey. Watering of lawns and gardens, washing cars, etc. has been especially curtailed. (See New Jersey Drought for more information.) Two useful skills I lack as a gardener are the ability to predict the weather, and a workable rain dance. However, since the ground was diggable by early March I found myself unable to resist various local nurseries well stocked with shrubs. Five Rhododendron PJM Aglo found their way to Bellewood Gardens, later to be joined by a sixth. This small-leafed rhododendron is somewhat resistant to predation by deer. The early flowers, also dainty in size, are a softer hue than the intense violet-pink of the typical PJM. The Agway in Flemington, New Jersey had really husky specimens of Leucothoe axillaris. A native evergreen shrub with rounded, more mound-like habit, it prefers shade. Drooping clusters of small white flowers resemble miniature lily-of-the-valley. And, it is another deer-proof shrub. Three were planted along the driveway in the sheltering cover of large spice bush, Lindera benzoin, which are native throughout my woods. Five more leucothoe were planted closer to the drainage creek, on the back side of the slope from the driveway. While the two groups are not visible from each other, they'll provide a sense of coherency as one walks through the garden. Two specimens of Mahonia bealii were also acquired, to add their tassels of fragrant yellow bell-like flowers to the garden's spring display. Blue berries in June, and pinnately compound, holly-like, evergreen foliage extend the shrubs seasonal interest. One mahonia was planted near the Rhododendron PJM Aglo while the other was planted on the bank of the drainage creek, across the path from the group of 5 leucothoe.

I find it very easy when acquiring plants to "live in the moment." Perennials in flower, shrubs in bloom - those are what catch my eye. It is important though, to look beyond to the current season to other times of year. Accordingly, my purchases included three each of beautyberry, Callicarpa dichotoma 'Issai' and snowberry, Symphoriocarpos X doorenbosii 'Magic Berry'. At the time I bought them these deciduous shrubs were stick-like, with buds just beginning to open. Even had they been in bloom their appearance would have been less than inspiring. It is their autumn fruiting effect that makes them desirable, when the beautyberry is wreathed with clusters of small, intensely violet hued berries, and the snowberry has abundant, lilac-carmine berries. Their autumn appeal will be accentuated with groups of naked ladies, Colchicum speciosum, an autumn flowering geophyte (a generic term that includes bulbs, corms, and tubers). Flowering in late September, colchicum has lilac flowers that resemble a crocus on steroids. They are resistant to all types of plant-eating vermin, including deer, rabbits, woodchucks, mice and voles. While the flowers bloom in autumn, leaves do not make an appearance until spring, then go dormant in late June. I'm also planning to add several different fall-flowering asters in various shades of lavender, lilac, and violet.

Because the spring rains have been typical of the season there has been adequate moisture for plant growth. But I still remember what my mentor John Osborne used to say, "Is it raining on you while you're planting? If you aren't getting wet, water when you plant." Restrictions on water use require hand-held hose nozzles with an automatic shut off, no sprinklers. This, I decided, would be the year I finally got rain barrels. A friend, Laura Mirsky, gave me the name of a man two towns over who was selling 54-gallon plastic barrels at a very modest $10 apiece. Excellent quality, the translucent white barrels were used as shipping containers. Coordinating a visit with a neighbor and his pick-up truck, a friend and her Volvo station wagon, and my Taurus station wagon we managed to cram 13 barrels into the three vehicles. They would eventually end up at eight different gardens. I kept three, and decided to use my tool shed as the collection point. One hundred square feet of roof (a 10 ft. by 10 ft. area) will collect 64 gallons of water in a 1 inch rainfall. Since my tool shed is 10 ft. wide by 18 ft. long with an even-span roof, that gives me a 90 square foot collection area. Like most of my projects, this was not as simple as it might sound. To begin with, the tool shed had no gutters. Then, the barrels need faucets and connecting links. The plastic gutters and down spout, clips to secure them to the tool shed, various connection pieces to link them to each other, and leaf guards all came from Home Depot, and took Paul, my handyman husband, about two mornings' work to install. Three faucets and two barrel-linking kits came from Lee Valley Tools and are of excellent quality for a very reasonable price. I had to visit Buzbys, our local masons supply yard for 9 concrete blocks on which to set the barrels - they need to be raised off the ground so I can set a watering can under the faucet. And Paul need to buy two hole-cutting drill bits for the faucets and connector kits. The project is completed and, with the heavy, 4.25 inches of rain in 24 hours on May 12th & 13th, all three barrels are full. An added bonus - since I had to clear the area along the tool shed's outside back wall where I store various plastic pots such as the large, 15-gallon tree size nursery pots that are used to haul mulch, that area has been tidied up and I've disposed of unneeded, accumulated cell paks, 4-inch and quart pots that made it difficult to walk around back there. Neat is nice, just difficult for me to maintain.

There is a very wet area on the eastern edge of the garden towards the road. This is the portion that accidentally/ incidentally became a garden when I had to clear a track through multiflora roses and weed trees for a neighbor to haul out black walnut logs with his large 40/20 John Deere tractor. Having cleared the space, why allow it to regrow as trash trees and shrubs. Opening up more of the area, in the spring of 2001 I planted star magnolias, inkberry hollies, and other shrubs. Last fall I planted two kinds of bulbs that enjoy damp conditions: quamash, Camassia leichtlinni ssp. leichtlinii, with spikes of star-like blue flowers, and summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, with 5 or more green-tipped white bells swaying on a 15-inch high stem. Using these bulbs in groups of 10 to 25 created a pleasing display as I stroll along the adjacent path, and also from the path on the far side of the drainage creek from this area.

As you can imagine, all sorts of brush and woody debris accumulated when the area was cleared. I confess it was all piled in a sort of hedgerow along the nearby property line - too far to haul it away to my usual disposal site, and besides, I hoped it might discourage the deer who saunter through the area. It worked, which is to say that the deer moved over and created a new trail nearby. And meanwhile the nasty spiked branches of huge multiflora roses remained piled chest high as an eyesore, like some medieval cheval de frise.

While at Home Depot I spotted some fake bamboo window shades intended for indoor or outdoor use, beige plastic in various widths but all 6 feet long. Aha! I thought, fence! I bought one shade and two metal fence posts to try out this idea. The posts were pounded into the ground with a post driver, one of those heavy metal cylinders with two handles towards the bottom. Lift over the top of the post then slam it down, again and again. It is astonishing how well this works (unless you hit the large slabs of rock buried underground in the upper garden.) The 6-foot wide window shade, turned sideways, became a 6-foot high fence section, 6-feet long. It was fastened to the posts with plastic coated wire, but I quickly switched to black, UV resistant cable ties, used for bundling electric wires. I was so pleased with the effect that I went back and bought 3 more window shades. For the left-most section closest to the road I trimmed the plastic slats to create a gentle curve that creates a transition shortening the left-most two-thirds of the screen down to 4 feet. The brush pile is concealed and can rot in peace. Additionally, that area now has a pleasing backdrop.

Can you predict what happened next? Back to Home Depot for three more 6-foot by 6-foot plastic bamboo window shades and four more metal fence posts. Leaving a gap from the previously installed fence, I put up two more 6-foot high sections. This time I trimmed down the right-most section of fence. Eyeballing it when installed, I made yet another trip to Home Depot (the fourth time, if you are keeping count) and bought a shorter post and a 4-foot wide by 6-foot long shade that, when turned sideways with the slats running vertically, became a 4-foot tall fence section. This 24-foot long fence has two 6-foot tall sections, a transition down to 4 feet, then a 4-foot high section. It also finishes at the squelchiest, muddiest spot. I planted four pots of purple-leafed canna, very similar to 'Intregue' with narrow leaves and dainty apricot flowers that hummingbirds visit. I also planted several small tubers of 'Black Magic', an elephant ear with truly black, heart-shaped leaves that can reach 2 feet long if well-fed and kept constantly moist in summer heat. I envision a colorful tropical foliage effect.

And now back to my weeding!

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