Corona Garden Diary 5/2: Loss

Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.

– Marcus Aurelius

I’ve lost another Japanese maple.  This is the third.

I’m sure you’re not too busy to listen to my tragic history with Japanese Maples, so pull up a chair.

My backyard is rather shady and populated by (surprise!) black walnuts.  Since Japanese maples are said to happily co-exist with black walnuts, enjoy a part shade location, and since they are gorgeous, elegant, and display unparalleled fall colors, I have coveted them for years.

Alas!  Each tiny tree that I have planted over the past decade has died a tragic death.

Tragic death #1 was an Acer palmatum ‘Waterfall’ that I planted about 8 years ago in order to spill gracefully over a retaining wall.  This one actually lived for two years!  Then we had some major work done to repair the retaining wall, and come spring, only a “waterfall” of dead twigs adorned our wall.  All that remains of this tree is its plant tag with Care Instructions, which is tucked lovingly away in a special scrapbook.  I blame the workmen for its demise, though I have no proof.

Tragic death #2: Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’.  When I worked at a garden center in 2009, full-sized specimens of ‘Butterfly’ were placed strategically around the woody plant sales and occasionally a vulnerable patron would drop $1000+ for one of these beauties.  How clever I was to find a tiny specimen in a local nursery for just $19.99!!!  Eagerly I planted it, envisioning how in 5-7 years it would become an elegant focal point in my back yard, how my neighbors would peer out their windows, marveling at its ethereal beauty and envying my horticultural superiority.  Unfortunately, since I planted this poor wee thing smack dab in the middle of my lawn, completely exposed to prevailing winds during one of the more brutal winters of the past decade, my neighbors simply witnessed what appeared to be a couple of sticks poking forlornly out of my lawn.

Tragic death #3 involves this sweet specimen of Acer japonicum ‘Aconitofolium’, which I found at my local nursery last August.  After spying this enchanting little tree, I envisaged (yes, envisaged) the perfect spot for it in my backyard, purchased it, and carefully wedged it into my compact car.  It’s possible I even snapped a selfie.


I planted it immediately and boy how fetching it looked with the Japanese painted ferns adorning its base.


You have to admit it’s fetching!

All winter — out on trips to my compost pile or picking up yard debris — I stopped to examine the bare tree for signs of distress.  But the slender branches always appeared robust, not withered or dark.  The leaf buds looked plump.  And the winter had been remarkably mild. Surely I would be rewarded in spring with a fresh flush of foliage!

As March arrived, then April, I eagerly waited for the leaf buds to fatten further and push out tiny new leaves….


well, here’s the tree a couple days ago (grab a tissue):


I have passed through the Shock and Denial phases of the grieving process, where I tried to tell myself that this must be a species of tree that just takes its time leafing out.  And yes, there was Guilt as well. (What was I thinking, planting a tree in August??)  Currently I think I’m in the “Bargaining” phase.  Does examining your bank account to decide how much to spend on a replacement tree count as Bargaining?

Anyway, gardeners get lots of practice with loss.  Sure, losing a prized plant isn’t the same as losing a friend or a pet, but it sure stings.  And there’s something about losing trees that is especially painful…..perhaps because planting a small tree and watching it grow and evolve over the years into something grand and beautiful is somewhat akin to watching a child grow up.  When a young tree dies it feels as though something much bigger was taken away than when your pot of zinnias got powdery mildew.

But we keep planting.  We keep buying and sowing and dividing and watering and hoping, knowing full well that each year there will be some disappointment and pain sprinkled into the gratification and joy.

As for me, the pain of the lost ‘Aconitifolium’ is still rather fresh, but I am envisaging something new now.  Wouldn’t a redbud or a winterberry holly look absolutely darling in that spot?  Maybe a trio of winterberries….maybe one of those ones with the gold berries, even!  I am envisaging it now…

and it’s delightful.

Corona Garden Diary 4/19: Hellebores in a Glass

Since browsing at the nursery isn’t currently an option, I am making the most of the plants I do have, digging up clumps of them and spreading them around — mostly wood poppies, hostas, bluebells, and hellebores.  I had never actually tried to dig up and divide hellebores before; they were surprisingly hard to slice through! (Possibly because my shovel blade isn’t much sharper than the wooden handle).  
Anyway, in struggling to transplant a clump of this nice dark purple hellebore, I wound up slicing my shovel across the crown at far too shallow an angle.  The result was that I cut off a whole bunch of the stems without getting any roots.  Aaaaaah!!!
Horrified, I gathered the flowers I had just violently scalped off the plant and took them inside.
I am rather pleased with how they look in a large drinking glass!  
I wish I had more skill for flower arranging.  However, I have discovered that there is literally no skill needed when you cut several of the same kind of flower and stick them in a glass.  And the result is usually delightful.  Simply leave a couple of the stems longer and put those in the middle, and cut a few stems a bit shorter and those go on the outside.  Ta-da!  
If you have fewer flowers with shorter stems (shhh…this is a trade secret), you use a smaller glass. No vases necessary!
When they start to look crappy — boom! — in the compost they go.  In the meantime, for 2-7 days, cheerful blooms every time you’re at the kitchen sink.
This is really something we should all be doing more often.  

Corona Garden Diary 4/15: Michigan Gardeners Must Be Pissed

Just a public service announcement to remind people that the governor of Michigan has declared items like these “non-essential” and therefore has barred businesses from selling them to customers:

shovel            flexogen-hose-on-ground_1_orig            seeds


Meanwhile, these items have been deemed “essential” and are still readily available:

vodka             SMALLER-150million-payout-ticket-art            Jars Of Cannabis Flowers


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for banning any of these items (whatever gets you through!); I just hope we are keeping our eyes open about the fact that decisions are being made about what we should be allowed to buy and what we shouldn’t; about what is important and what isn’t; about what’s good for us and what isn’t.

And those decisions are being made by people who purport to know better than we do.  And who allow in-store lottery ticket purchases but rope off racks of garden seeds.

Let’s keep our eyes open, people.



Corona Garden Diary 4/6: Stuck With Your Own Yard Waste?

Of all the things to worry about during the pandemic, perhaps the fact that some trash companies have begun to suspend yard waste pick up should be way down on the list.

But this is a garden blog and it’s relevant, so here we go.

Yesterday I received a recorded message from my trash company saying that — due to the higher volume of residential trash that’s been produced during the shut down — they were indeed going to suspend yard waste pick up.  It’s understandable; nevertheless, it’s a tad problematic at this time of year to be without that service.

During the spring and fall, I clean up massive amounts of debris from my yard: sticks, branches, weeds, clippings, dried flower stalks, leaves, nuts, etc.  Some of this I add to my half-assed compost pile, but a lot of it I toss into old garbage cans and place out on the street every Tuesday night to be picked up by the trash company.  Presumably, they dump it onto a much larger compost pile, where I imagine an army of county workers lovingly tending the pile with pitchforks.  Much of the stuff I put out as yard waste is stuff that would take years to break down into usable compost (branches, course leaf stems, etc.) or it’s stuff that I fear would simply sprout on my compost pile and swallow it up (e.g., ivy clippings) so out it goes.

But alas, now I and many other gardeners are stuck having to manage our own waste.  The way I see it there are three options:

  1. Stop collecting the waste in the first place.  This means no weeding, no cutting down of old perennials, and generally no tidying of the garden whatsoever.  Just let everything sit in place.  For mowing, just let the clippings sit in the grass.  Or I guess, don’t mow?
  2. Hire some kind of landscaping crew to do the yard work for you.  They will then take the waste away as part of their service, presumably.  (Although usually it seems like the mowing guys leave the bags of grass clippings out at the curb for their clients’ yard waste service to collect.)
  3. Find an out-of-the-way place in your yard and dump as much of waste as you can in that spot.

Option 1 seems implausible to me.  Even if you are a proponent of natural gardening practices and “wild” gardens (which I definitely am!) it seems like some clean up and debris removal is necessary.  Also, gardeners like to garden, and weeding/pruning/clean-up tasks are like 75% of gardening.  Having said that, it is worth asking if there are areas of the garden that could just get a bit more wild this year.  Who knows, maybe some interesting things could happen if you just let a few things go.

Option 2 is fine, I guess, but I can’t afford to pay a landscaping crew or professional gardener to come in once a week and do what I usually do, so that’s out for me.

Option 3 is a great option if you have an out-of-the-way spot, like a distant corner or an empty space behind a shed or something like that.  There are ecological benefits to keeping more “waste” on your property, and if you are organized and systematic about it, maybe it could even be a habit that continues after the shutdown is over.


I have to figure what to do with this stuff.

I am lucky in that my backyard ends in a pointy triangular shape that is the perfect place for compost and yard waste.


This bottlebrush buckeye will leaf out soon and hide my compost eyesore, which is located in that far corner.

Usually my compost area looks like this:


I know, it’s pretty bad.  There is no composting discipline here.  Underneath the vegetable waste are large branches that fell during summer thunderstorms, big sticks, and of course, there is last fall’s decorative squash bravely resisting the forces of decomposition.  I can dig under the pile to get some scoops of nice compost, but mostly it is a place to dump yard waste during the months that there is no yard waste pickup.

Since I will be needing to dump a whole bunch more stuff here over the coming weeks and maybe months, I tidied it up in preparation:


Check it out!  Good enough for the cover of Yard Waste Digest, don’t you think?

So my plan is to dump most of the weeds on the compost pile, and then try to sort the bigger yard waste, like sticks, tough perennial stalks, etc., into some organized piles.  Noxious things like ivy vines I will covertly slip into my regular trash can.

I don’t know if it will work, but gardeners are nothing if not adaptable, right?  Hey, maybe we will develop some valuable new habits as a result of this crazy shutdown.

Let’s give it a shot!

Corona Garden Diary 4/4/20: Tent City

On a drive through the neighborhood today, I noticed that two large tents had been erected in the front yard of one house.

Neat, I thought.  What a great way to keep the kids entertained during the shutdown.  Setting up the tents, decking them out with makeshift furnishings, imagining the tents are Indian teepees or castles — that would keep the kids occupied for hours!

Then my thoughts turned a bit darker as I imagined a different possibility.  What if the tents didn’t belong to the kids but to one of the parents?  What if the family togetherness  just got to be too much and Mom or Dad finally decided to social distance themselves right out of the house?

I wondered…..what possible scenarios could drive a person to flee the ones they love and take up residence out by the mailbox for a few days/weeks/months?  A couple came to mind:


“Mom, you know how you’re always talking about how I should take initiative?  I’ve decided to start a You Tube channel featuring my sick drum skills.  So I just have to set up my kit in the family room, mmmkay?”

“Honey, I have decided that now is finally the time to become a Sourdough Bread Artisan.  I will just need to keep this bowl of festering goo in the fridge for the next 10 weeks. Oh, and ignore the giant stack of dirty baking pans in the sink.  I will take care of those at some point in the future.  Now let’s watch TV together for 16 hours while the dough rises.”


***toilet flushes***

“How many squares of toilet paper did you use?”

What? I don’t know.”

“Well, it better not have been twenty, like last time!  We need to ration!”

“I am not going to ration my toilet paper.  I live in an advanced civilization.”

“You won’t be saying that when you’re using rye bread to wipe your butt.”


“Hey, are you serious?  You didn’t refill the water reservoir in the Keurig after your last cup of coffee??”

“Are you serious?  We’re in a pandemic, and you’re keeping track of who fills the water reservoir?”


“Look at that dirt you tracked in the house.”

“We’re in a pandemic, and you’re worried about a few specks of dirt?”



“Did you wipe that box of crackers with Chlorox before you put it in the pantry?”


“Did you wipe the grocery bags?”


“Thank you for the BLT.  Did you wipe the tomato with Chlorox?”

“Did you want me to wipe the tomato with Chlorox?  Do you want to die?”

“Do you want me to die?”

“Do you want me to want you to die??”

***death stares***


“So how was your online meeting?”

“Really rough.  I need to relax now.  Will you bring me a lemonade?”

“Oh, sure, sure.  Hey, I could overhear your meeting.  It’s funny, your boss sounds a lot like Gordon Ramsay.”

“Heh-heh.  Yeah, okay….so?  Maybe he does sound like Gordon Ramsay.  What’s your point?”

“Does your boss scream at you and call you a donkey??


“Uh-huh.  So which team are you on at work?  The red team or the blue team?”


“I rolled a six.  That means I get to take twenty-four of your peasants and expand my feifdom into Dad’s territory.”

“No, you can’t take his peasants unless you have a vassal card.”

“What??  I hate these European games! Where does it say that in the rule book?”

“Chapter 14, section 5.”


So if you notice tents starting to pop up around your neighborhood, consider who might be inside.  If you see tricycles and bags of Skittles scattered in the grass, that’s one thing.  But what about that tent littered with Terra Chips wrappers and Bartles & Jaymes empties?

And is that a little white flag poking out and waving slowly in the April breeze?




Corona Garden Diary 4/1/20: You’re Wearing THAT?

In these difficult times, it’s only natural to take a step back and reflect on what’s truly important.  Your family, your friendships, your health, sure, sure…but let me ask you this:

Is your gardening wardrobe meeting all of your needs — practical, emotional, and spiritual?  Is your gardening attire suitable to wear during a possible global economic meltdown but also fashion forward?

Or are you still going outside every day in that disgusting t-shirt from that Fun Run you did in 1996?  If so, let’s get to work on that.  What else do you have to do?

I think you will find this next image inspiring.  It’s an ad that appears at the back of my English Garden magazine in almost every issue, and it shows how those clever Brits have eclipsed us Yankees not only in gardening but in gardening fashion!


Man: “My shovel has disappeared into the mist.”  Woman: “Nigel, come back to the yurt.  I made scones.” 

Just because the man is wearing the same outfit your great-uncle Jimmy wore as a dockworker in Baltimore in 1935, just because he looks like he is about to walk into a pool hall and punch somebody in the face, doesn’t mean he’s not the pinnacle of garden style.  It’s the 21st century! If you aren’t wearing work clothes made from wool or flax — or spun from straw — you will simply not be trending.

Notice what it says in the text about how this couple is going to pass these bespoke garments on to the next generation.  Can you say the same about those Hanes sweats you wear out in your sad flowerbeds?

Check this out.  Here is the couple’s only son. It didn’t bother him that mum and dad didn’t pass along their vast seaside property; he is happy to have inherited the tan pants.gardenclothes2

He would be smiling except that the wool overshirt has caused excruciating rashes all over his torso.  But like a true Brit he keeps calm and carries on: through weeds, viruses, Brexit, or dismal English weather.

Friends: the lesson learned is that we can overcome any obstacle as long as we stick together and as long as we are properly attired in heritage rural workwear.



Corona Garden Diary 3/30/20: No, April isn’t Canceled

In the wake of Virginia governor Northam’s stay-at-home order today, I saw a headline that said “April Canceled.”


Clusiana tulips ‘Cynthia’.  They close up when the sunlight starts to fade.  When they are open they are yellow.  When they are closed they are pink.  I like these little pink spears.



Blue & Gold.  My old high school colors.


Wood poppy.  (Stylophorum diphyllum) Another “good spreader”


Redbud ready to pop

DSC_2357 (2)

Epimediums are a terrific groundcover.  Here they are growing right at the base of a black walnut.  They spread slow but steady.


Solomon’s Seal.  A steady spreader.  I started with 4 plants 3 years ago.


New foliage on Oakleaf hydrangea with last fall’s burgundy foliage hangin’ on.


April canceled?  The gardens have not gotten the message.

Corona Garden Diary 3/25/20: Good Spreader/Bad Spreader

It all started out innocently: a tiny plant that hitchhiked its way into my yard in the pot of a coralberry bush that I purchased from a nursery a few years ago.  I planted the coralberry in the fall, and in the spring I was delighted to find a robust new perennial with starry yellow blooms growing beneath it.

By the end of that first summer, there was a healthy patch.  Believing I had found a perennial groundcover that actually thrived in my difficult backyard, I enthusiastically transplanted patches of this plant in about five different places.  And that is where the story takes a disturbing turn.

The following spring (May 2018), the original location looked like this (it’s the groundcover to the right of the path):


The epicenter 

I was soon to learn the name of this intruder: Packera aurea, also known as Wuhan Golden Groundsel.  Ha.  Actually, this interloper happens to be a North American native, and I have seen it touted on quite a few blogs and articles as a great native groundcover. I suppose it could be, but based on my experience I would put a giant asterisk next to this recommendation.  If you plant it, plant it in only one place and then watch it!  I have spent the last couple of years trying to flatten the curve on the spread of this plant, which for me has been rampant and exponential.

DSC_2342 It is a pretty plant in some situations, but it also has the potential to look rather weedy, as above (though the struggling Skip Laurel doesn’t help this tableau).  In a woodland garden, a few patches of it would be delightful, but in my semi-shady-but-not-quite-woodland backyard, it has spread like a ______________, overtaking everything in its path.

Packera aurea is difficult to pull out of the ground as well.  It seems to have two kinds of roots: large, fleshy ones and fine, fibrous ones and both seem to reach deep into the soil.  The roots quickly entangle themselves into the roots of nearby plants.  Here it has grown underneath a sedum and sent up shoots clear through the formidable crown of a mature plant.  Note all the little baby Packera that I am desperately trying to keep at bay with assorted mitigation efforts.


Packera aurea spreads aggressively through its roots, but the flowers also produce tens of thousands of dandelion-like seeds that, in April or May, drift through the air and land in all sorts of fun places, like nestled between the rhizomes of iris:


This is some fun weeding.

It also seems to be perfectly happy to become a lawn replacement:


So yeah, if I had to do it all over again, I would have instituted a travel ban against this particular native.  Based on the positive reviews this plant has received from other sources, I gather that it’s not a scourge in every situation.  But this is a perfect illustration of how most gardening advice should be local, and how not all native plants are created equal.


The original epicenter as it looks today.  Social distancing efforts between the Packera and other plants have shown promise.  It may be some time, however, before things return to normal.

Take, for example, Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells). This native spreads in the best possible way: slow, steady, and polite.


Eleven or twelve years ago I bought three Virginia bluebell plants from the native plant nursery Nature By Design.  Since I bought the plants in August and Mertensia are dormant in the summer heat, it looked like I was buying three pots of dirt.  But what a great payoff the following February and March: lettucy foliage pushing up into the cold, followed by violet buds, then electric blue bells!

And while Virginia Bluebells do spread, they do so slowly.  Do they ask permission before spreading their roots into a new space?  Not quite, but almost.


Site of first bluebell planting.  It has grown to an 8′ x 12′ patch.  Also note satellite plants popping up a few feet away.

Over the past ten years, I have noticed that new Mertensia plants will appear within a five foot radius of established plants.  I am not sure if this spread is down to underground roots or to seeds popping out into surrounding soil, but the spread is certainly not aggressive.


As the bluebells fade in May, I usually dig up a few clumps and place them around the yard.  Placing them next to hostas is ideal because as they go dormant the hosta fills in the empty space.

Virginia Bluebells also seem less assertive because they go dormant in the summer.  They put on a spectacular show in the early spring, but then they retreat backstage and let other plants step up.


Another transplanted clump.  This one will also slowly spread over the coming years.  


Tete a tete daffodils with a transplanted clump of bluebells

Should you tire of seeing jolly blue blossoms during the gray skies of early spring (i.e., if you are a psycho) you could easily pull out unwanted plants and share them with a lucky friend.

Upshot: not all spreaders are the same.  Not all will conquer your entire garden in the blink of an eye.  Gardeners must never panic.  However, it pays to watch, learn, and intervene when you must.