Garden Diary - March 2005

Cover Girl

The March issue of Hunterdon Life, an up-market glossy magazine insert to both Hunterdon County Democrat and Delaware Valley News newspapers, has a great photo on the cover, and two more inside, beautiful pictures of me taken by Ben Scheetz. With snow covering Hunterdon County here in New Jersey, greenhouse pictures of lush greenery and plants in bloom are definately appealing! And I think I look pretty darn good too. It just goes to show that gardeners look their best when surrounded by plants.


This year, March arrived with 9 inches of snow. It started on February's last day, small flakes, but steady in their constant fall. Towards dusk there were eight does and yearlings just beyond the tree line, snow lying on their winter-dark, hollow shafted, insulating hair. An occasional flurry marked where one or another would kick at the snow-covered ground, to uncover one or another plant to eat. The young ones were gamboling and bounding through the snow, curveting and chasing one another. I recognize one doe, readily identified from previous years by the white patches extending up her sides from her paler belly fur. She seems heavy-bodied to me, perhaps with the fawns she's no doubt carrying. (Often the mature does, well fed, have twin fawns in spring, occasionally even triplets.) The group browses on some shrubs in addition to perennials, then move slowly and silently away. Morning reveals the lines of their travel, scuffed hoofprints laced across the snow-covered ground.

The weather continues cold at night, but the lengthening days and strengthening sunlight bring milder daytime conditions. Though the snow condenses, it remains. By the following Sunday it now has a somewhat icy crust. Fog demands to go out, miaowing at the door with that persistance that a stuborn cat can muster. Released into the sunshine he pauses on the deck, eyes slitted against the light, tail raised and crooked like a question mark, whiskers aquiver. Down onto the snow-covered ground.

His forepaws travel over the surface, but each hind leg sinks down, dropping Fog belly deep onto the snow. He tracks along, periodically shaking each rear leg to free it of spicules of icy snow that are apparently catching betwen his toes. He makes it across the hidden lawn and starts up the slope. The snow is perhaps a little deeper here. Apparently deciding that enough's enough, he turns around and starts back. Only now it is his forepaws that break through the fragile crust, landing him chin deep in the snow.

Regaining the shovelled surface of the deck, he comes back inside. Perhaps another day his people will figure out how to open the door into summer.

The Philadelphia Flower Show

Always a welcome break from winter/ introduction into spring, this year the Philadelphia Flower Show is especially welcome. Though in some years my garden shows its first flowers by now, this year all I see is snow-covered ground. The usual folk saying of planting peas by St. Patrick's Day will be difficult, short of using dynamite to plant it. So a trip into that fantasy land of a flower show is a more than usually welcome break in my routine. I go with two friends, Chris and Doug, to the Sunday opening day. This year's theme is America the Beautiful. Though honestly, other than one exhibit with a backdrop of phragmites grass sprayed blue, red, and white, and a pressed flower mosaic class based on the eponymous song, I'm hardpressed to see much of a connection. Small matter, as the entire huge exhibit space in the convention center smells like Spring, of green and growing things. Trees are in leaf and flower, roses bloom with daffodils, clematis with forsythia, iris and lilies, primroses and orchids, everything together in one grand, confusing jumble.

Arriving about 9:30 a.m., the three of us are pleasantly surprised to find relatively uncrowded conditions. This doesn't last very long. People arrive with friends, families with grandmamma and toddlers, as the tour buses start to pull up and disgorge groups of winter-weary gardeners. A sort of Brownian movement eddy sets in, highlighted by individuals already clutching a bunch of curly willow or pussy willow purchased in the sales area. These seem to be the signature flower show acquisitions, accented by orchids.

The three of us started our tour of the flower show with the grand set pieces: the garden and landscape displays. It astounds me afresh every year, the effort that goes into bringing full-size birches into leaf, cherry trees into bloom, conifers, rhododendrons, perennials from astilbes to the stately spikes of delphiniums and foxgloves into perfect flower. Haul in soil and mulch, logs and stones, set up water features, weathered sheds, pergolas, fences and statuary and more, and make it look like a cohesive landscape that been there for well beyond the few days it took to set it up.

As ever, some of the landscapes were immensely appealing and others just passed me by. Silk sunflowers attached to some of the corn plants in a vegetable garden for example. Others had whimsy rather than reality to recommend them: Lamsback Floral Decorators garden had a supersize paintbrush near a pool of black water as a major feature of their display, with half-dome islands of tightly bunched chrysanthemums in yellow, orange, pink, red, and other hot colors. The water was so still and dark that the reflections completed the rest of each sphere of color. A carefully thought-out touch - a couple of smaller islands in the same hue as the one nearest the paintbrush's tip - accidental blobs that dripped off the bristles.

As always, I was eager to see the J. Franklin Styers exhibit. In the past these have included such offbeat and innovative displays as a garden with planters made of tires, giving that humble folk art a new respectability, or a huge Green Man made of garbage bags, inflated with a blower that allowed him to jig and dance. This year their landscape was more sedate, and especially magical. Broad paths were made of cut pussy willow stems, the silver catkins threaded along the shoots creating a shimmering surface. Water was also a feature in this garden, with a few large multicolor beachball spheres swirled with red and yellow set near the edges or floating on the water. Only these spheres were made of glass, rather than plastic or rubber, and some were lit from within for a luminous effect. Willows were not only used for paving, but as a major component of the planting. Bare willows were twisted into tornado-like spires, reminding me of the bare cypress trees in certain of Van Gough's painting. Familiar weeping willows dipped to the water of the pond. A dozen or so weeping goat willow, Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock', were paired in an allee. Older specimens with thicker trunks and more sinuous framework made head high umbrellas. One, grafted on a short, perhaps 3 foot tall stem, made a ground-hugging umbrella. Black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla var. melanostachys, made a handsome, subtle showing of black catkins against red-barked twigs. But my favorite was Japanese pussy willow, Salix chaenomeloides, with extra-large silver catkins.

A graceful pergola-garden hut, with shapely, sharply pointed verdigris bluish-green roof and columns buried in the twisted bare trunks, branches, and twigs of curly willow only added to the fantasy landscape. I found especially fascinating the use of bare branches - the twice head height ascending tornado-like spires and as a shell covering the building, as "paving" material, and as growing plants. Chris, Doug, and I were not alone in our admiration of this exhibit. In the pre-show Saturday judging it had been awarded Best Achievement for innovative design, along with Best in Show landscape, and the Alfred M. Campbell award for the most successful use of a variety of plants in a unique fashion.

Another landscape that would be a worthwhile destination all on its own in any other setting was that of Stoney Bank Nursery. A woodland setting had been created on a gently undulating piece of ground with a small pond. The broken trunk of a massive tree still stood, with a portion fallen into the pond and another chunk just beyond it. The black water was scummed with some duckweed. A fog machine was cleverly set to emit small drifting puffs that caught on plants, dispersed, and formed again. Not a duplication of nature, this naturalistic design incorporated both native plants such as Allegheny spurge, Pachysandra procumbens, and Jack in the Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, along with exotics, such as Lenten rose, Helleborus Xorientalis. This was a powerfully appealling landscape for me, and for Chris and Doug as well.

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