Black Walnut Inspiration

For when you get demoralized thinking about all the things you can’t grow under your black walnut, take heart.  This venerable black walnut tree, located at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA, holds court over a lovely planting of magnolias and shade perennials:

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I did not check to see if the magnolias were marked, but they are probably a cultivar of M. soulangeana, and they are pretty glorious right now.

Underneath was a comely mixture of bear’s foot hellebores, other hybrid hellebores, Japanese Shield fern, and Virginia bluebells:

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This bed would be the envy of any woodland gardener, so those of us with black walnuts should not be feeling sorry for ourselves.  I will say that the folks tending this garden add quite a bit of shredded leaves to their beds, which makes the soil nice and fluffy and the plants plenty healthy.  My gut tells me that healthy, rich, organic soil tends to counteract the effects of juglone for plants that might be semi-susceptible.

However, I personally have hellebores, ferns, and bluebells growing very robustly under my black walnuts in terrible, dry soil.  So I think these plants will grow well even if you don’t give them perfect duff.

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What I’m rrrrrrreally jealous of with this garden bed is that mid-layer — the magnolias — which connects the ground layer to the big black walnut and pulls it all together.  I have not had as much success getting small ornamental trees to survive with my BWs….maybe I need to put M. soulangeana on my shopping list….

Definitely a “come hither” tree when in bloom:

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Cold Weather Ruminations

The weather forecast this week is sobering: high of 34 today, 32 tomorrow…high of 23 next Tuesday!

These are the hardest weeks for me as a gardener and human being.  I planted my bulbs (‘Cynthia’ tulips and ‘Ruby Giant’ crocus) in mid November under a smiling fall sun.  As recently as last week, I was still picking up fall leaves and dumping them in the compost and around some tender plants.  Just a few days ago I was pulling out some ivy from the cool but not-yet-frozen soil.  On Christmas day I peeked down into my hellebore patch.  Little baby hellebores were emerging!  I really enjoy working in my winter garden when the jet stream stays up by the Great Lakes where it’s supposed to be.

But when temps max out in the 20s and dip into the single digits at night, a sense of despair settles upon me.  Even trips out to the compost pile with my kitchen scraps fill me with anxiety.  The euonymus and privet leaves — ordinarily so robust — look brittle and defeated.  The cyclamen that was so handsome just the other day now looks like it’s trying to burrow into the ground to keep warm.  And god help those camellia buds.  The buds on my little Camellia ‘Scentsation’ — just planted last summer — had actually begun to open a teeny bit in the recent mild spell.  Poor things.  Like newborn babies opening their eyes for the first time and then ZAPPED by the polar vortex.  What was supposed to be a “sweetly-fragrant, silvery pink, peony-formed” blossom will be reduced to something more like a decomposing cigar-stub.  This is life in zone 7a.

I know some places have it way worse.  The meteorologist on the news today projected his map of the U.S. to reveal the full horror of the “Arctic Blast” afflicting the country this week.  Usually the coldest areas are represented by shades of blue, maybe light purple up in places like Duluth and the wilds of Canada.  Well, the temperatures are so extreme this week they ran out of cool colors for their map and had to wrap back around to pink and red up in Fargo and beyond.  Canada looks like an inferno.  It’s -40 degrees up there.  Can it be so cold it actually feels hot?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  If any Minnesotans or Canadians are reading this, leave a comment about what -40 feels like (if your internet signal doesn’t freeze immediately upon contact with the air, that is).

Compared to the northern plains and Canada, I know that Virginia winters are child’s play.  Highs in the 20s is about as bad as it gets and those spells don’t last long.  Soon enough, there will be a glorious reprieve of sunshine and 55 or even 60 degrees.  I’ll go out there in my shirt sleeves and start pulling purple deadnettle out of the thawing soil.  I will revel in the mild air and feel glad to be alive. (I will try not to think about the cigar-stub camellia buds.)  I will work outside while I can and say a prayer for my comrades in Duluth.

 

 

Care for a Black Walnut?

I’ve got plenty.

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And plenty still to come:

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This is a nifty nut collector made by the folks at Garden Weasel.  What a treat to discover a yard device that requires no engine and makes no noise, that is so simply designed and yet works beautifully.

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Just roll it along the ground and the nuts become trapped in the wire cage.  To release them you push a doohickey on the handle (like when you squeeze out a mop) that spreads the wires so the nuts can fall out again.  The only trouble is that there SO MANY NUTS and collectively they are very heavy.  A plastic trash can should only be filled about a quarter full; otherwise, there is risk of it busting wide open as it’s dragged (ask me how I know).

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Still, I never tire of this canopy:

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And there are some other pleasant distractions from the tyranny of the black walnut trees.  Some toad lily and sedum:DSC_2195

The Winterberry holly never disappoints:

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Bottlebrush Buckeye fruit:

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Some white wood aster:

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Zigzag goldenrod, now fading:

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This cute little bottle gentian that I nearly ripped out over the summer thinking it was a weed:

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A Japanese combo — bloodgrass and anemone:

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Blackberry lily:

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This year’s crown jewel — a Red Abissynian Banana.  I adore it so much! The leaves are insane!

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This lantana and bloodgrass was a good combo:

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This lantana was so exuberant this year that it shaded out my herbs:

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Elephant ear and celosia refusing to back down in the face of autumn:

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Sedge Allegiance

This WaPo article by Adrian Higgins about sedges has been going around among my garden-oriented acquaintances, so I thought I’d share my own sedge experiences.

I’ve got two types of sedge in abundance: Carex pensylvanica and Carex flaccosperma. Here is a spot where I’ve got quite a bit of C. pensylvanica:

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This started as 3 quart-sized plants about 4-5 years ago and it has spread (and as you’ll see I’ve lifted many chunks of it to other areas of my yard.) It’s planted behind a retaining wall in extremely dry soil in part sun.  As you can see in the photo, it does go a bit tawny by the middle of summer, but I don’t mind that.  I really like its fine texture and the way it splays.  I’ve always had the urge to comb and braid it.

Here’s some more that I transplanted about 2 years ago in attempt to make my ceramic fish look like they’re swimming through a river.  It sort of works:

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The thrust of Higgins’ article is that sedges make a good alternative mulch, and my experience does bear this out.  Before I planted the sedge above, this was an area that I had to weed and mulch to keep looking decent.

Below is a shot taken a bit further up the slope where the sedge has not filled in yet.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  And you do have to keep weeding and/or mulching during the years that you are waiting for it to fill in.

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Here is another spot way in the back of my yard where I transplanted some C. pensylvanica a few years ago.  It has spread very nicely.  Again, this is dry clay soil, part sun:

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I’ve got tons of these garden phlox seedlings all over my yard (the taller pink flowered plant), so I experimented with mixing some of them into the sedge.  It’s not bad, but I think a shorter plant might make a better complement.

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A word of warning about the idea of sedge as a mulch.  It’s definitely not foolproof.  I’ve had places where weed seeds had no problem sprouting up through the sedge, and then it’s kind of a nightmare to get them out.  For example, this big patch of sedge (above) was pretty infested by some weedy grass last year (maybe stiltgrass?) and I went nuts trying to pull it out.  I finally resorted to buying a spray-on grass killer from the nursery; it killed the grass but not the sedge and now this area is pretty weed free.

Here’s another place where I moved some C. pensylvanica:

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Again, it’s a place where I use mulch to fill in the gaps around the plants, but you can see that the sedge is starting to fill in those spaces.  I was even thinking of planting it in between some of those irises on the right.  Irises are a headache for me because weeds appear right down among the plants all tangled up in the rhizomes.  I was thinking of trying either the sedge or perhaps Japanese painted fern interplanted with the irises.

Now for the Carex flaccosperma.  This is a much coarser sedge with an agreeable blue color that seeds all over the place.  Unlike the C. pensylvanica, which spreads via stolons, C. flaccosperma spreads via seeds that pop off in the spring.  I have a lot of it an area of my backyard where I am trying to use lots of natives and make a sort of mixed woodland floor type thing:

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In the pic above, the C. flaccosperma is the strappy looking plant in the foreground.  It’s planted among wood poppies, bluebells, lady ferns, eastern wood ferns, and heucheras.  This is my attempt at a “matrix planting” that we hear so much about lately.  It has been an interesting experiment.

Here’s another shot of this matrix with the C. flaccosperma visible throughout:

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I took this shot today (mid July) but this planting looks best in spring and fall.  In spring it has blue bells and wood poppies blooming, and in fall there are many flowers of Heuchera “Autumn Bride” that emerge. The sedge is definitely the background plant that stays more or less constant while the other plants ebb and flow.

But again, the weeds can invade here, too.  In the pic above, you can see some dastardly bishop’s weed has snuck in, which is really hard to get rid of.  Also, oxalis, crabgrass, and other weeds pop up in there fairly regularly and need to be dealt with.

So it’s not like you can just have this great sedge matrix and then sit in your lawn chair for the rest of your summer.  There will always be some maintenance.  But yes, it is less work and less money than a sea of mulch, and it is infinitely more interesting to watch it change over the seasons.

It hardly needs mentioning, but of course sedges aren’t the only plant that can act as a living mulch.  Behold my Sweetbay magnolia amid a sea of plain green, absolutely indestructible hostas:

sedge1 Unlike the sedges, once the hostas are filled in there is rarely an issue with weeds.  Those wide green leaves pretty much shade out any weed that has the audacity to emerge from the soil.  I can move these hostas, hack them in pieces, plop the pieces in a hastily dug holes in some barren part of the yard, and they are sure to survive and cover ground despite my subsequent neglect.  They are tough! (I should mention that, sadly, most of the fancy hosta cultivars aren’t this accommodating).

The hosta-scape is functional, but is definitely somewhat static and boring; the sedge matrices I’ve played with are definitely more dynamic and more fun.

I leave you with a non-sedge-related picture of a plant I grow more in love with each year — my bottlebrush buckeye bush, in bloom right now:

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Fairfax County Sustainable Garden Tour

A few shots from Fairfax County’s 2017 Sustainable Garden Tour:

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This year the gardens were in the Alexandria area — some down around Mason Neck, others near Mount Vernon, and then all the way up to the Rose Hill area.  There were 9 in all but I only made it to four because it was 95 degrees out today.

This place was in a nice old neighborhood just off Rte 1.  It had about an acre of land.  You never would have expected it to be there:

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It had an amazing artificial stream, which they had landscaped very skillfully.  Note the little bridge in the distance.  What is it about those little bridges?  You just HAVE to cross them.

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Very nice fountain:

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The bright blue birdbath and the variegated hostas.  Very bold.  I like it.

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They had another project underway as well.  Very busy, these folks:

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Garden #2…they converted their front yard to a meadow just a few years ago. You can tell they probably don’t have an HOA:

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The mulched paths really help the wildness look intentional.  If you’re in suburbia doing the no-lawn thing, it’s definitely helpful to have some element within the landscape that says, “Yes, I meant to do this”…like paths or sculptures or a bit of nice hardscaping.

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Even a short, narrow path lends a sense of adventure to the suburban yard.  Actually, to lure kids around a garden, the narrower and curvier the better:

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The backyard of this house actually looked much neater and more traditional than the front yard.  It had a great little artificial pond and waterfall.  Check out that purple weeping beech.

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A few other random items.  I thought this was a very classy looking rain barrel:

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Cute:

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I sooooooo wish I could have chickens, but our property is too small.  This place had more than 7 acres for these birds to roam:

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Not on the tour, but I loved this guy’s workshop/shed:

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One last thought: I’m not sure what Fairfax County’s definition of “sustainable” is when it comes to residential gardens.  A couple of these gardens seemed fairly resource intensive to me.  Oh well.  Sometimes all of the arguing back and forth about what makes a garden ecologically virtuous gives me a headache.

What I loved is that all of these homeowners were hanging around, eager to talk about their gardens.  They loved tending their yards and were proud of what they’d created.   I think the love has to be there before anything else can be sustained.

Click here to learn more about the properties on this tour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wealthy, Benevolent Homeowners Open Homes and Gardens to the Great Unwashed

Well, another season of open homes & gardens has come and gone.  This year I spent three full days touring a variety of homes and gardens in my state, Virginia.  They were all great!  I loved the old stone home overlooking the Potomac with the lush shade garden of bleeding heart and ferns, the gigantic Tudor on a hilltop with the infinity pool, and the fully renovated 19th-century Georgian with the silk rugs that took 12 years to make.

I like to take pictures and mental notes.  I must a get a Red Buckeye tree was this year’s big takeaway.

Here was another takeaway: I feel like a slack-jawed yokel walking through this person’s gigantic dining room. 

As I shuffle along with a pack of other middle-aged-to-elderly folk so I can get a better look at the Tiffany lamps adorning some stranger’s parlor, well, sometimes I feel a bit like a salivating voyeur.  A starry-eyed member of the teeming masses who swarm upon these forbidden domains once per year.

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Photo Credit: http://practic-al.blogspot.com/2012/08/more-on-shepherds-sheep-fences-religion.html

I don’t know how difficult it is to get these affluent homeowners to open up their homes and gardens to the public each year, but I wouldn’t blame them for being hesitant.  I know I wouldn’t want to.  Some properties can get hundreds or even thousands of people in one day tramping through their private living spaces.

And it’s not just dirty shoes and curious stares that we bring to these homes.

On a recent trip to a large property in central Virginia, the homeowner was nice enough to take fifty of us on a personal walk-through of her magnificent gardens.  When she asked if there were any questions, one of my fellow travelers waved her hand around.

“Where do you get the money to pay for all this?” was her question.

Ugh.  I wanted to crawl behind the homeowner’s imported French tuteur and hide.  C’mon lady!  I thought.  Don’t make us look like a bunch of mouth-breathing hoi polloi!

But we kind of are, really.  On many of these tours, the chatter among the visitors (myself included) focuses on how much things cost, how much help would be required to clean and maintain everything, with a great deal of speculation about how the wealth was acquired.

Sure, we are all generous with the compliments, but they are often followed up with vague suggestions that perhaps the amount spent by the homeowner was a tad grotesque.

“Sally, check out the field stone wall along the drive.  It’s absolutely gorgeous! I bet this wall would pay for three years of long-term care at Mom’s assisted-living place.”

Another homeowner was nice enough to let my tour group use the bathroom in her pool house if we needed to.  I did, so I got in line behind a gentleman shaped like a large butternut squash, who occupied the bathroom for a full fifteen minutes.  After he finished, I went in and the room was absolutely toxic.  It felt so wrong that this bathroom, with its beautiful limestone tile floor and high-end fixtures, should have been defiled by the gastric system of this man.  Such bad form!

I now envision the wealthy homeowners bringing in a team of cleaners at the close of open garden day, swooping in and disinfecting everything we’ve touched.

And me, driving my ordinary car back to my rather ordinary home and garden, wondering if crowds of people would ever want to come tour it.

Being mostly relieved that the answer is no.

 

 

 

I am Not a Science-Based Gardener

If my Facebook feed and many prominent gardening blogs are any indication, “science-based gardening” is trending.  Here is my feeling about that:

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Hey, I know there’s a lot of bad gardening advice out there, and it’s great that there are strong and trustworthy voices ready to stamp it out, but gardening is just not something that I (and dare I say, the majority of gardeners?) approach scientifically.

For me, gardening — like cooking — is something to be approached intuitively, even sentimentally, rather than methodically.  I would rather bake and eat the chocolate chip cookie made from my mom’s recipe on the yellowed index card than the one whose sugar/butter ratio was tested and deemed superior by a panel of food science doctoral students.  (Yes, I can taste her love in the cookies, don’t tell me I can’t!)

Same with gardening.  My planting choices are often guided by pure emotion, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  The little voice that tells me I really oughtn’t to plant a banana tree in my yard just because I saw it done in that little garden in Charleston with the amazing wrought-iron gate with the pineapple motif and the whole vignette just about made my heart stop — that’s a voice I often just ignore.   The banana is going in!

Years ago I got a soil test done.  I carefully followed the instructions given to me by the Master Gardeners: I selected several different spots in my yard, dug a few inches down, collected the prescribed amount of soil, placed it into the designated receptacles, and sent it down to the lab at Virginia Tech.  The helpful people at the Extension service sent back a detailed report indicating acidity levels and the presence of micronutrients, etc.  I recall they suggested that I add a quantity of lime to my lawn — even specifying how much per square yard and such.  It was awfully nice of them.

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I carefully folded the report back into the envelope, stuffed it into my Gardening for Dummies book, and drove to the garden center, where I purchased plants that spoke to my eye and heart, which that year was probably columbine and clematis.

I never did lime my lawn.

Unfortunately, the way I usually learn what NOT to plant in my yard is by heartbreaking trial and error, and not by flipping through Foolproof Plants of the Midatlantic.  I have learned many other life lessons in this same painful and unscientific manner, and it seems to be the only way that things stick.  And let’s face it, sometimes it’s more fun not learn the lesson at all.  Sometimes life is best lived by moving from one gloriously impractical idea to the next.

So I shall continue to stumble along, letting my ridiculous, irrational brain guide my gardening choices.  And the banana shall be planted forthwith!