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.

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

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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….

but…

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

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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 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.”

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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.

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Blue & Gold.  My old high school colors.

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

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Redbud ready to pop

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

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

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

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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):

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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.

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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:

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This is some fun weeding.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

Corona Garden Diary 3/22/20: Two Views on the Ornamental Cherry

Here in northern VA, the cherry blossoms are at their splendid best.  Down at the Tidal Basin, at least some tourists are showing up to view the iconic Yoshino cherries (check the Bloom Cam to monitor the social distancing).

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There are a couple of different ways to view the cherry trees:

a) that they are to be revered as symbols of ephemeral beauty, that they should be contemplated in the spirit of hanami to remind us that life is short and we should make the most of it (this view courtesy of the Japanese)

or

b) that they are a nuisance and “messy as hell” (this view courtesy of my dad)

The topic of spring blooming cherries came up when I visited my dad this weekend.  Since we both have mature Yoshino cherry trees growing right next to our driveways, we bonded over the pros and cons of the tree.  While I tried to tout the merits of the pale pink blossoms as a wondrous harbinger of spring, Dad was more circumspect:

“The petals fall on the cars and stick like hell,” he said.  When I pointed out that the Japanese celebrate the beauty of the delicate blossoms scattered on the ground as the flowers fade, my dad had a different take: “It looks like an army of birds has shat on everything.”

I envision families in Japan gathered to contemplate the fleeting nature of life as they gaze upon the white-pink petals fluttering to the ground.  Meanwhile, my dad scrapes the petals up with his snow shovel and dumps them into a trash can.

Dad’s getting older though.  He’s nearly 84, moving slowly these days, and I realize that one day I will miss his cranky takes on cherry trees.

Hanami.  Life is fleeting.

Corona Diary 3/18/20: Seeds & Stuff

Yesterday, while the rest of the country was busy not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, I was planting my peas.  Here they are, snug in their Earthbox until they begin germinating in a week or so:

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A few years ago, I read that St. Patrick’s day is a traditional day to start peas in zone 7, which is just the sort of random tradition I take a fancy to.  Since then, I have planted peas every St. Patrick’s day and also every August for a fall crop.  The variety I have been planting is called Super Sugar Snap and it has been absolutely fool-proof for me.  I don’t even cook them, I just eat them raw by the handful, often plucked right off the vine with a feeling of triumph at having produced my own food.  Even though I probably burn more calories planting and tending them than they offer back as fuel, still, it’s cool to eat your own veggies.

Here is a higher calorie vegetable I am experimenting with — potatoes:

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I bought a couple of these grow bags two years ago but haven’t tried them yet.  The seed potatoes go in the bottom, then as they grow you are supposed to keep adding soil.  There is a little velcro flap at the base of the bag, sort of like you would find on a union suit, where you can dig around for the potatoes when they are ripe.  It’s all very experimental.  Because I like to live on the edge, I chose a blue potato, called Adirondack Blue:

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I guess I will be updating you about these potatoes in about 80 days.

Here are my indoor seeds.  Raise your hand if you can spot the problem:

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Very good, you can put your hands down.  None of my research indicated what to do when the seedlings grow at vastly different rates.  I have to keep raising the grow light to accommodate the taller tomato seedlings (back left), which puts the light further away from the Joseph’s Coat (front left) and cinnamon basil (first row, right).  Plus the tomato seedlings (a variety called ‘Bumble Bee’) are shading the smaller seedlings out.  Meanwhile, only one of my Gomphrena seeds germinated (the three rows on the right are all supposed to be Gomphrena!)  I am afraid if that lone seedling looks around and realizes it is alone in the universe it may lose the will to live!  Please just one more germinate so he can have a friend.

All of the seeds germinated at about the same time, believe it or not.  I suppose I need to research the number of days it takes between germination and transplant time for each plant.  Too complex!  In second grade I aced the unit where we sprouted lima beans and drew pictures of how they progressed.  I should be nailing this!

That is all for now.  I had some tree pruning done today, too.  Big trees, so very expensive!  I took pictures of it, but in all honesty, they are not very interesting.  Imagine a man in a hard hat up in a tree with a chain saw….now imagine a pile of tree branches sitting in front of a wood chipper….there, now you have seen the pics of today’s tree trimming adventure!

Corona Garden Diary 3/17/20

I planted several handfuls of ‘Tete a Tete’ daffodils last fall and I am reaping the rewards now.  I will definitely plant more of these little guys  — perhaps hundreds more!  Plenty of space on that brown slope there, don’t you think?

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Unfortunately, the dwarf iris that I planted at the same time (Iris reticulata ‘Rhapsody’) — which was also supposed to bloom at the same time  — did not get the message and is already done blooming.  Here are the iris a couple weeks ago:

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So much for my blue and gold early spring extravaganza!  I can still enjoy them sequentially, I suppose, but still…I had been excited about the combo.  Moving on to one of my beloved Ackerman Camellias:

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This camellia is one of the ‘April’ series…I think it’s ‘April Remembered’ but (ironically) I can’t remember for sure.  The flowers are huge even though the plant is still young and lanky; the effect is sort of like when you see a Great Dane puppy but with gigantic paws.  So sweet.

Next, hellebore patch growing right under my black walnut.  I can’t remember this cultivar right now, but it is one of the Pine Knot farms ones.  I love the ruffly, dusty-pink blooms:

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The bluebells are just starting to bloom.  Nothing better.

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Little patch of daffs blooming in a far-off corner of my yard.  Planted by the previous owner.

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Lindera benzoin with its soft spray of pale yellow blooms (in stark comparison to the eye-popping gold of the forsythias).  Birds planted this one a few years ago.

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Daffodil with silhouette of honeybee:

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Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’ planted in much too small a space:

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Clematis ‘Henryi’ working his way up the side of my porch:

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Classical statuary in the Orangerie:

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(Okay it’s a concrete doo-dad from an antique store on Rt. 50 and it’s sitting in a patch of daylilies, but still nice.)

Tarragon making lots of headway in the herb garden:

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Bumble bee resting on the ‘Sage’ sign.  They’re still a bit lethargic in the chilly spring air:

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Husband built some new beehives and brushed them with teak oil before setting them up:

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Bees coming and going, looking rather….well, busy, I guess.

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Like the college students down in Florida, there is very little social distancing occurring here, and little empathy for the weakest members of their community (they just shove their dead out of the hive!) Still, it is nice to see a functioning community at a time like this — full labor participation, lines of production open, etc.  Yeah, it’s a monarchy, but at least for now, the bee economy rolls on!

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