Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Once Upon a Garden Clean-up in a heat wave!

Front yard in bloom. Ahead of schedule, but it is nice.

Gardens, like every place we occupy require the occasional cleanup. It is necessary to deal with plants at least once a year. You clean up debris, prune, replant, relocate, split, these are the basic yearly requirements. I don't know how you can get away from doing it unless you happen to be an absolute master gardener that planted every plant in the right place so that as it grows it never gets in the way of another plant or grow beyond the limits of the space you allotted it. If you are such a gardener you may skip anything I have to say. Even so, all gardeners will have to remove debris or a dead plant, or even an odd branch that grew left when everything else was going right.

Lilac in front yard was a purchase from a neighbor at a garage sale. Great fragrance and buy! Any idea which lilac it might be?

For the most part, the rest of us are guessing at how we do it. Don't get me wrong, this is not a shot in the dark approach, but often times it is a educated process based on outright education or repetition that we learn by seeing a garden go through its cycle season after season and if you are lucky, year after year. Repetition teaches us what to expect, how far a plant will grow in a season, how long will it be around, what might eat it and how to react. So it possibly goes without saying if you have been gardening many years you have more experience than someone who just started. Needless to say older gardeners have more experience but possibly less energy and weaker knees! Sounds like something I read along the way to becoming the gardener I am.

Lily of the Valley escaping its bed. Now I dig all this up and start another patch somewhere else.

Bridal Veil Spirea, an original plant in my garden that I have propagated throughout. No fragrance but great look and I have never seen in it in a nursery.

I digress, my garden has already been through it first flush totally provided by hundreds bulbs and a few shrubs and trees. Now comes the real work of getting the garden ready. Everything has budded and whereas before the focus was on a few plants because the rest was just sticks and mulch, now everything is green and anything that is a brown stick should be suspect. Unless you have some late budding more unusual plants. I have a Vitex ( I will tell you about in when it blooms) that is all sticks but will be solid blue flower clusters in Summer. Elsewhere in my garden is a Fruiting Fig that has not even considered sending the slightest chlorophyll into its brown red branches. For the rest the garden is a sea of green with many plants beginning to bloom ahead of schedule.

Viburnum opulus building up steam.

This is the time to check out and prune away dead wood and sculpt crazy hairlines of hedges into whatever shape you have chosen for them. It is the time to prune your roses and get rid of all those skinny twigs that will never support any buds. It is time to put in the ground whatever you spent Fall and Winter deciding to purchase from the many catalogues that we Gardeners receive. If you have any room that is. Many of us, yours truly included have way too many plants even though it is hard to admit, and the only way to make room for a new garden look is to move some plants out. This is why gardeners are such generous people. We are forever sharing plants. You would think it is our generosity, but it might just be that we want to make room for new varieties or our latest passion.

Fruiting Fig still very dormant (yes, I have to paint the back of the garage).

We have gone from weeks of cool gray weather(when many of us turned on our furnace back on) and rain into a bright sunny and very pleasant heat wave for the last four days with ninety degree temperatures ( 33-37 Celsius). We shall soon be cool and wet again, but for now the damage has been done, if you want to call it that. These four days of sun and heat have forced plants along possibly as much as a week or two. For me this is a bit of a disaster.
The reality is that I am on a deadline. I have to get the garden cleaned, pruned and planted or relocated before May 17. On that day our biggest local volunteer organization in Collingswood, Proud Neighbors, a not-for-profit group in existence since 1983 and who has hosted its annual Porch Brunch and House and Garden Tour for almost as many years will include my garden on the tour. The organization promotes historic preservation awareness and education and supports these ideals with financial contributions to a variety of projects throughout Collingswood by hosting many fundraising events throughout the year. This event is an amazing feat of coordination that occurs because of the generosity of the entire community: those that volunteer and who participate in everything from selling tickets to cooking, to volunteering their porches for the Brunch, to the house owners who open their homes and or their gardens, to those who monitor the public and take the tickets and finally to the curious and interested visitors from everywhere. This year they anticipate about 350 people for the Brunch and, weather depending, as many as 800 people who will tour the houses and gardens. It is all a lot of fun as neighbors visit one another and others get an insight into one of New Jersey's most talked about community.

Vitex (Chaste Tree) after pollarding. Will not bud for some time, but then presto, instant shrub.

Vitex hair cut remains.

For me, I have pruned and cleaned up and will be transplanting just a few things this week. I am concerned that all this heat will have pushed the garden ahead, way ahead of where I expected it to be on May 17. With any hope there will be plenty in bloom for all my future guests. Oh well, Qué Será, Será!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Rain, April Showers or Deluge you choose

Garden in April 2001, not as bad as Floyd but bad enough.
Have to find the Floyd pictures.

Well, the gray is still with us. A little less often than before. We now are the beneficiaries of April Showers. As I write this another storm will probably drop close to an inch of rain to help my garden return to the swamp that it is. This is when my garden shows it mettle. Not that I have a brave garden or anything, but it has determination and a plan on where to put all the rainfall.

Years ago when I purchased my house my backyard was a long green lawn with three trees and a few leftover shrubs. It was all plain enough and encouraged me as to what I could do with some vision, time and a lot of hard work. The house sits on a parcel that is about 50 by 180. Small front yard with the house slightly elevated above the rest on a little mound in an otherwise flat (or so it appears) parcel.

Shortly after closing escrow in September 1999, Hurricane Floyd came up the East Coast and dropped somewhere between 8-12 inches of rain on Collingswood. My large expanse of lawn was quickly transformed into a lake, about a foot deep, lasting about a week until the marine clay which sits about 2 feet deep below the surface allowed the water to permeate. The morning after, there were Mallards swimming and quacking their way through my lake. It was a great sight to see the bounty and the variety that can happen in Nature. One moment green lawn, next day, lake!

Needless to say, I suffered nothing other than water in my yard and unlike the many who were flooded by living near the many rivers, streams, creek and ravines that define this area. The outcome of this experience was to develop a plan to use this water for the garden and make sure that it did not make it into my basement. In addition to the water that sat in my yard, was all the water around me. All of my neighbors were equally flooded, if not more. When looking down from my second story bedroom window you could see that there was a rhythm to this as the water flowed from a neighboring corner in a direction to get to the nearby waterway called the Newton Lake. Our backyards drained the entire square block to Newton Lake (three blocks away). Similarly other blocks continued the process or was helped along by our antiquated storm sewers that flow directly into the Lake. Not only did I have to plan for the rainfall that accumulated in my yard, I had to plan for all that flowed past me from what I could determine as many as eleven neighboring yards. Somehow prior to NJ Department of Environmental Protection my neighborhood was probably a wetland that got filled. Given that much of Collingswood was an old Quaker farm dating from the 17th Century anything is possible -After all, this is New Jersey!
Garden in March 2003 very little improvement although dike and ditch were completed

The plan was simple: Think like the Dutch. They have managed to save a country below water with dikes. I created a drainage ditch about three feet wide and two feet deep around the perimeter of my backyard. I took the soil from the ditch and mound it up to create a dike. The dike would hold my water in place for my use and allow the neighboring water to continue flow through the ditch on its way downstream. I also installed a perforated drain pipe in the ditch to collect backyard excess water and move it to the street. When water reached a significant level in the drainage ditch it would start flowing naturally to the curb(something it did before but above ground). To help this along, the gutters are tied into a solid pipe, along the side of the house, that causes a siphon effect drawing out the water from the rear yard.
The first of the twenty tons of gravel that my friends and I moved by wheel barrow during the summer 2003 and 2004. Initially I thought 6-8 inches would do the trick (notice the netting to keep mallards out of pond).

My dog Taxi who never liked getting wet. One year it flooded so much that the Koi and Goldfish were swimming in my neighbors yard because the water level was six inches above the pond rim. Taxi 's genes kicked in and she turned into a hunter. She and I with a flashlight, a bucket and a net spotted all the bright colored ones and corralled them with extra timbers to raise the edge of the pond until the waters subsided. Alas the dark ones or those we could not see perished - So much for natural selection.

It was not easy and it took long time to develop it, but today it works like a charm. The net effect is that my drainage system even helps drain my neighbors upstream and makes the one downstream receive less water. Only the heaviest storms cause my yard to nearly flood today. The pond has not run its banks since the last tons of gravel forced me to raise the pond edge even further. The gravel area of my back yard is 18 inches deep by the pond and gradually decreasing to about eight inches next to the house. The space between the gravel serves as a reservoir where water accumulates in the middle and back of the property.

The planting beds adjacent to the gravel path and terraces are slightly higher and soak-up the water until it is all gone. When summer arrives and rain is scarce everyone brings out the hoses to water. My garden is lush and green with no strain because of this deep watering system.

Rear drainage ditch taken today. I usually throw my winter leaves in there to help them decompose then I move them as dressing and nourishment to the beds.

My neighbor's yard taken this afternoon. The willow just loves the water.
My backyard next to the willow above. Deceiving how dry it looks. If you dig into the gravel it is just as wet as next door. My Willow also loves it.

Some years ago with Mallards having a great old time in the swamp!
Every now and then the mallards come back and swim on the drainage ditch or worse yet go fishing in my pond. Enjoy your April Showers.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Away with the Gray...Spring has Sprung!

liriope dusted with snow

A few weeks ago we had our final snowstorm. Looking out my front porch the masses of groundcover liriope looked more like a dirty dust mop than anything else. The weather in a four season State starts having fits of start and stop as it goes from one season to the next. We will get a day of the new season and three or four days of the old season until the next season is fully in swing. I say four season State because I grew up in LA where tulips and daffodils bloomed in January or February and the weather went from cool to warm to hot to mild. I now live in a four season State. Each is different from the other and regardless of how good or bad one season is from the other, they change roughly every three months. In this part of New Jersey, winters are not very hard but the gray lingers for a long time. The Delaware River Valley seems to have its very own weather pattern that is accentuated with torrential downpours, fog, gray, wind, snow, more gray, some awfully close to hurricanes windstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, and did I say more gray!

Bella Italia was the theme this year theme

Then there is Spring. The great season of Spring! Around here it falsely starts with the Philadelphia Flower Show created by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and a cadre of talent that occurs in early March (this year spring arrived on March 21) and has a historical pedigree like no other event in the country. Ten acres of concrete are turned into every imaginable garden or floral display conceivable. The Flower Show started in 1829 and has been held pretty steadily ever since. This year more than a quarter of million people saw it and at it broke the record for a single day admission on March 7 with more that 48,000 individuals coming to smell the posies.

The reality is that Spring come a little later and we normally endure four to six more weeks of gray.

a Calla Lily languishing against my gray snowy window

When Spring finally arrives it begins the best season of the year for me. Everything comes alive, from bulbs to trees. The daffodils and crocus come up in major drifts. Daylilies that were nothing but buds and roots underneath the mulch appear to become full size plants while you are looking at the daffodils. Overnight, we go from twigs and open space to green and greener. The brown mulch gives way to an assortment of natural groundcovers. My favorite are the wild violets that come up in my swamp by the thousands. Barely two inches tall when they start blooming, they carpet everywhere there is space. Each year many reseed themselves other grow from gnarly root clusters. Although some people consider them weeds, I find them delightful and helpful in controlling weeds that don't produce much. Few real weeds can establish themselves in a sea of violets. They grow so much capitalizing on the March and April showers. In summer they slowly die back and by fall only the most established clumps remain.

assorted violets carpet
If an elephant is the most important of animals because of its size and presence, then flowering trees are the equivalent for flowering plants. Easter has brought a plentitute of flowering pears, star and saucer magnolias that look like unreal creations because of the quality and the shear number of blooms. How can plants produce so much bounty for what is so little time. The monarch of blooms is the cherry. Delicate in flower color and size with elegant shimmering trunks the cherry is indeed worthy the acclaim it receives. The Japanese rightfully celebrate its blooming with festivals and go en masse to view the blossoms cascade like snowfalls.

I have not been able to grow one of my own due to the swampy nature of my garden but have often placed them in projects. No one ever complains. The following is a twelve-year-old planted about four years ago. It belongs to my friends Julia and Rich who await it brief but wondrous yearly show.

Prunus yedoensis
Before they stop blooming stop and look at a flowering tree, regardless the one, you will be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening Salvo...Redux

Versaillete, my garden in Collingswood

This is indeed a new adventure for me. There is a lot to figure out when creating a blog. This is my second opening salvo as the first one I deleted by mistake! There is an order to everything, and blogs are no different. So far, I have figured out that images posted do not appear the size you like them to be. How you change their size is still a mystery but given that all of this is provided free initially, ( I am sure someone will come asking for money when I want to make the images larger or I run out of memory) it is an exercise in living and learning - yet another aspect of life.

As I was saying before, this is a new chapter for me as I have never done a blog before. What I have done is a lot of crazy things like working in retail and fashion, landscape design and historic preservation. This Blog comes at a good point in my life as there are many changes taking place. I bring experience in garden design that no doubt was prompted growing up in tropical Cuba. As a kid I was somehow the one in charge of the plants for our club (no lie). Little did I know that thirty years later I would be a Landscape Architect.

I have worked in fashion for Givenchy, on projects redesigning the campus of MIT, designing bits and pieces of Philadelphia, documenting the landscape of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and digging around with a spoon and a tooth brush in Herod's coastal Palace archeological remains in Caesarea, Israel.

Most of all, I have a great love for plants and what we can do with them creating gardens. For almost thirty years my gardens have provided me a place to relax and to create moods, textures and evoke feelings with changing and growing plants - there is nothing like it! My gardens have been described as all kinds of wonderful places by friends and visitors alike. I have designed for people who share this passion for gardens. I hope in this blog to be able to share some of my experiences, mistakes and surprises that have come in a process of continual discovery. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Monday, April 6, 2009

So much for thirty years...

This week was the first sunny, clear, nice weather, and hurricane (I exaggerate a tad) that we have had this season. Something about Spring like a tiger...The appearance of the sun ( it is back to being gray today as it has for much of March) Saturday and Sunday brought out the colors of Spring. Yellow is in force now. Daffodils, Forsythia, hyacinths and crocus, are out in force. The latter two have started to wane, but depending on the garden, in New Jersey, they are blooming. It is resplendent to see the sun shining and all manner of daffodils out.

We have had a few rain showers that have clobbered the large double or triple daffodils. I don't know which variety I have. I never did. Somewhere along the line there was an offer of 100 assorted daffodils for a silly price and I took two hundred! The results are quite spectacular as I have a gravel walkway that is lined with two somewhat formal planting beds and whose edges are lined with what appear to be a thousand or more daffodils. It has been ten years since I planted them so they appear to be Christian daffodils as they have gone out and multiplied. It creates quite a spectacle of unmatched daffodils. Unmatched because they are of different colors and sizes. There are small, medium and large trumpets and then there are those that don't look anything like daffodils. I will call these the lion mane ones. They are so huge that the first drop of rain they collapse and break their own stem. What seems a pity in fact is quite the opposite. Not all of these monsters do collapse leaving enough of them in the garden to balance the beds and I go out and cut most of the collapsed one which makes the house reek of daffodils. Yes, they are lovely and fragrant, but this morning I have a splitting sinus headache that I am sure it is from the bounty of nature as I never get them otherwise. I did have fun spending some time in the sun and looking at what else is in bloom or building up steam.

A Star Magnolia has been throwing a show of its own. I planted this 15' tree when it was a foot tall about...well at the same time as the daffodils. The squirrels showed me how much they loved this tree as they sat on the branches and were munching on the white/pink blossoms as though they were some kind of banana eating monkeys. Needless to say I did not allow this type of Smörgåsbord to continue.

the treacherous clematis/rose trap

All this wonderful weather pointed out deficiencies that needed to be corrected. I have two clematis ( Montana Rubens and Sweet Autumn ) intertwined along the remains of my electric dog fence (more on that for another time). They grow so vigorous and dieback equally that it produces quite a mass of debris that the birds use to make their nests. I usually leave it for a few years before I clear it up again back to a few solitary canes start the process all over again.

The wires are stretched to create the effect of a curtain on my rear porch facing my neighbors. I enjoy my neighbors but enjoy coming out to the porch without having to offer salutations every single time. A space of about eight by twelve is covered by the combined efforts of these two incredible growing vines. Over time I have added layers to the layers that includes some climbing roses for even more dramatic effect.

The brown pile of twigs looks a mess and I thought I would do a quick cleanup with a tug of the dead branches. I had forgotten all about the roses when I stuck my hand in the dead debris for a quick tug. My ungloved hand ripped into the thorns of the rose and the rest you know. So much for thirty years of garden experience.

my lion's mane daffodil

Garden, often times make you do things on impulse. Hopefully you learn but it is not critical if you don't.