Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Madame Curie Rose previously shown in bud finally in full bloom, hundreds!

It is a bit of an anticlimax to follow up last week's blog with something new and exciting. There were weeks of preparation for a single day's event. The garden, in spite of my fears of being past its prime due to the warm weather, proved itself ready to handle just about anything. The outcome of it all was rather a wonderful opportunity to meet people and share my passion for gardens.

In addition to the planning for the Proud Neighbors Garden Tour, I had been interviewed for an un-related newspaper article on the Philadelphia Inquirer that appeared on May 22. The topic, of which I was never sure, eventually became Building Backyards to Serve as Extensions of a House. In it three different gardens and their uses were discussed. My part of the article was about techniques to deal with my swamp and the natural approach that I have taken. Judge, and read it for yourselves and don't forget to view the three images associated with the article:

One of the things that I have done that makes my garden unique is I have removed some of the elements that make gardens difficult and a nuisance to house owners. I have simplified maintenance by designing around items where most people spend most of their time in the garden: mowing and trimming lawns. Add to that fertilizing and putting down chemicals to deal with everything under the sun that is other than the chosen blades that make individual lawns. My garden has no lawn. It disappeared from the front yard as soon as I bought the house. Replaced with the liriope you have seen in other blogs and that now seem as natural as the lawn in my neighbor's yard. The rear yard took more consideration and time to eventually be replaced, but I got there. Today I go to my garden to relax not necessarily to work. While I am there, however; I listen to my neighbors who are still pushing the mowers, blowers, and trimmers and making such a racket all they can do is escape back into their houses when they are done. Aside from the special occasion of a picnic, birthday or some kind of special event most people seem not to enjoy just lazing around in the backyards. I am often the only person in my backyard and the view that I share to other yards is often without their inhabitants.

It seems to me that for all people who grow up the USA lawns seem to be a right and an expectation. The issue is not whether or not we merit or are justified to have lawns. The question should be Why? I understand the reason for children playing in backyards and possibly for benefits of people with pets, but these uses used to be handled by parks where people often went to recreate and socialize. Now-a-days parks serve mostly to foster team sports; the rest we seem to do in private. But for show? A garden is far more complex and beautiful and if designed correctly does not need to equal more work than a lawn.

The issues of course are not so black and white because design costs money, installation likewise and finally once you have it installed who is going to take care of it if not you? Your typical mow and blow fellow who comes once a week and charges 30-50 dollars makes his money by doing a lot of different lawns. If you ask him to stop and look at something more complex, that might take him a half hour that throws off his schedule and you may not get what you want done correctly because he may not know how to do it. So who is left to do garden work? That, I will leave for another day.

The following, are a few plants worth showing that were not in bloom for the Tour.
Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica) From above
A medium size tree about 20 to 30 feet in height and width that blooms magically with white or pink fragrant flowers that hang to create magical effect in garden. Pest free and very little with little maintenance requirement. Plant some place where you can view flowers from below. Eventually flowers carpet ground like a snow fall. Mine is located in side yard and serves as a perfect screen between the houses.
Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica) Branch flowering detail
Dainty Bess a Hybrid Tea Rose bred in England in 1925: A simple and elegant rose.

Austin's Graham Thomas bred in 1983 is one of the finest yellow roses to date

Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale) that has managed to grow in my garden in spite of its requirement for not too much water

Another of my unknown irises. Please feel free to identify and send me a note if you know the variety.
Herbaceous Peony Resembling a Strawberry Ice Cream Cone

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Garden Tour

The weather which has been on a continuous rollercoaster mode relented Sunday for the Proud Neighbors House and Garden Tour. Although it sprinkled in the morning, we were spared from any rain during the entire 5 hours of the tour; however, it was sweater weather. First to arrive were two volunteers who came to drop off supplies and place the garden tour sign and bows to indicate participation to the visitors. Just before noon, two young lady volunteers and their adult supervisor arrived to take tickets and greet guests for the first shift. Later, two young men would take the closing shift. As you might be able to figure out, it takes a well organized and caring community to put on this kind of an event.

Two dear friends came to supply moral support, answer questions and photograph the event. I knew that I would be greeting and talking with visitors and wanted to have a different way of later remembering the event. Julia Coombs and Vori Kriaris took turns at recording the garden and the day's events. I am indebted to their great appreciation of the garden, their different sensibilities and how wonderfully they photographed it and me.

You might note I am slightly older that the profile image with my dog Taxi. She was very much part of this garden and it is hard of think of one without the other. As a tribute to her I use that dated image when we were both a little friskier.

The garden was bursting at the seam with flowers. The roses have started their first flush. Although all plants are not in bloom yet there were enough plants to wow the visiting public. The threat of weather kept some people away so the numbers were less than expected. This was also due to difficulty that not everyone manages to see it all. In five hours, visitors were expected to see six houses and four gardens spread out around all over town. Some came by their own vehicles, others walked and others used the trolleys that visited all the locations. As I said before: this is well organized! All in all, I figured we had slightly less than four hundred people in the garden. By the end of the day I was exhausted.

The visitors were great, and thrilled with fragrant roses in a world that has gotten accustomed to the lesser fragrant varieties. The roses in my garden are mainly of Austin, Meidiland and Guillot varieties. These are English and French in origin and are based on hybridizing antique roses that have such beautiful flower shapes and fragrances. I also have a few antique roses and all are fragrant. I don't spray for anything and just use compost as to fertilize (and do very little of that). I will identify as many roses as I can. There are many, some which have lost their tags and others which the gray cells in my brain fail to remember anymore.

More people were interested in what they did not know rather than what they knew. They marveled at the roses but really focused on a few plants that are not used as much in gardens these days. As a consequence the number one question involved Weigela, followed by Amsonia hubrichtii, a Missouri native commonly referred to as Blue star.

There are many photos of the day's events in the blog but there are many more that display the talents of my two friends at http://picasaweb.google.com/renelctorres

Vori's Dreamy look of my cottage

Visitors queuing to enter
One of two Rhodies framing the house

Entrance to wooded garden

Wooded plantings Solomon's Seal and Hay Scented fern

Main garden with two lucky visitors who got it to themselves

Weigela is a hardy deciduous flowering shrub it comes in a variety of species some can grow as large as 15 feet massing. Mine are medium size at about 5 feet balls, I have three which I bought in a grocery in one of those plastic packages used to peddle cheap roses. These were cheap and have grown into marvelous plants that bloom like fountains and of small trumpet-looking non-fragrant flowers. They are pest free and require no fancy upkeep other than a heavy pruning every three years or so. They are originally from Asia, but have been in gardens for sometime. I suspect that in Victorian times they hit their peak of fashion that has long petered out. Today you find them in fancy catalogue that are always looking to make a statement with something new and good nurseries that know plants.

Baptisia australis (False indigo)

Greeting and answering questions with Garden Visitors (I am the one wearing red pants)

Amsonia hubrichtii or Blue Star is a perennial plant hybridized out of an American Native to Missouri and other midwestern states. The leaves are narrow and feathery and grow that grow in clumps. The stems get up to about three feet. The flowers have the slightest tinge of blue that appear along the stems. The show comes in fall when they turn all shades of gold and brighten any corner of the garden. These are pretty hardy and disease and pest free. The nicest display I know is at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne where they line a circle that separates the parking areas. Mine were a gift from one of their gardeners.

Austin's Gertrude Jekyll

Meidiland's Madame Curie

Visitors catching a little fragrance

My friend Vori forcing a shot

Austin's Heritage

Austin's Abraham Darby

I don't know any of my irises. They were gifts from many collectors who are as passionate and as confused as me.

More questions and answers and nice conversations

Dreamy shots

Julia's masterpiece photo of Acorus in the pond (Yellow Flag)

Julia and Vori having fun before the visitors arrived

After the Visitors departed. Guess who?

Proud Neighbors sharing stories and nourishment at the end of the day

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


first rose of the season

I have gotten the garden ready for the visitors from the Collingswood House and Garden tour this coming Sunday. The anticipation is for as many as eight hundred people touring the houses, but weather does not look promising. I received a few plants (4 roses) that I intended to use in the backyard to replace a rose l loved very much (Martine Guillot). It had perished and did not seem to be coming out of any dormancy. I also intended to replace a few others that were weak wooded and did not ever seem to flourish. Looking over the terrain, I discovered the weak wooded ones were returning with more vigor and should be given maybe another year. Regardless the neighboring vegetation was covering for them. The dead rose has miraculously, like Lazarus, come back from the dead. A new shoot, now about six inches popped up from the root where I had removed old plant.

The surprise will be whether it was on its own root or some other hybrid root stock. Roses, for those who do not know, are typically grown on root stock of a certain hardiness that promote plant growth and health {Somewhat like fruit trees which are,(apples, cherries, pears, peaches, plums) in the Rosaceae family and thereby overgrown roses!} and the flowering part is grafted on to that root stock. The union of these is called the basal union. When you get new plants they always tell you to cover or not to cover the basal union depending on where you get your roses. Now-a-days many rose growers prefer to grow new plants from cuttings and to do not graft them (a timely and costly process). The results, if a plant dies for whatever reason the part that is below the ground may grow a new stem from the original plant material. In a grafted plant, the growth could come from the root stock (that can also bloom), that is different from the flowering stock. So, if I have not confused you, I am hoping that my rose will grow to be a Martine Guillot as opposed to something else. Only time will tell.

So, I got these plants to replace bad roses, but when I looked around there was little space to fit anyone in and expect it to grow. Looking for possibilities I ended up in the front yard which in reality gets very little attention due to its very low maintenance liriope massing. I decided that some plants up there needed sprucing and I cut out some holes in the liriope and planted all four roses up front to make a strong statement. Only time will tell about those too. I tried a great rugosa roses up front that is about as uncomplicated roses as is possible. It did well for awhile and then petered out to small shrub with few flowers. My front yard has more sand and is therefore less nutritious soil than my back swamp where the roses thrive. I have already applied some heavy applications of my compost into the new holes to help the roses along. I will need to keep this up if they are to thrive.

I called today's posting leftovers, because there are bits and pieces that I have thought about and photographed and I wanted to put them out there for your enjoyment but were not linked to a particular storyline or theme. Some are more fun than others, as with everything!
Liriope filling in nicely. In another week the process of molting will have taken place completely. Notice all new blades are emerald where as the old ones look more faded.

Liquidambar seeds (Sweetgum) I described last week. Here is an assortment provided by the rain splattered on the sidewalk. The old seeds from last year are the larger spiky ones. The yellow bundles of balls are how they start and then take a year to develop into the spiky brown balls. Each bundle may have as many as twenty balls. Thanks to the rain thousands of seeds have been removed from the tree, but many hundreds still remain.

Another beauty in the garden already blooming is Viburnum plicatum tomentosum "shasta". A mouthful indeed, but when it blooms it stops you in your tracks. This plant about eight feet tall appears as though doves had landed on it.

This Azalea Exbury 'Gibraltar' is a bit of a loud whore that contrasts nicely with the buildup of purples from the Irises elsewhere in the garden. Although over the top, and we all need something over the top, it passes by too quickly.
A little more of the purples with the giant tree peony.

A patch of purple irises in a neighbor's yard worth noting.

I anticipate the return of this beauty. Photographed last year at Cornell University in Ithaca New York, I have a small plant that I have nurtured since its introduction into my garden last August.

Easter Eggs, anyone? These fun, very over the top azalea massing make me think of Fabergé Eggs. They are in a Haddon Township, a neighboring community.

Just across the street from me. This Cercis canadensis (redbud) tree is so loaded with flowers that it even manages cover parts of its trunks with bloom. The Borough of Collingswood planted these smallish trees as they lie directly under the electric wires. They will never need to be hideously deformed by the utility crews as they will not get taller than twenty feet or so.

Another view of my Chinese Peonies. Sorry to bore you. I get so few flowers each year that I need to photograph them a lot.

Finally, a beautiful place to have lunch if you work in the City of Philadelphia. Located in historic Pennsylvania Hospital, this courtyard has possibly thrilled many a figure since its founding by Benjamin Franklin more than 250 years ago.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Green, Green and did I say Green?

Another wet day in the garden

The rains have returned and the weather is cold again, and I almost turned the furnace back on, but have resisted to just wearing warmer clothing. This is after having four days so hot that it warranted turning on the air conditioner on the third day of the heat wave. I know our Spring always reacts with fits of starts and stops but with these extremes it is insane to think that we, Earth inhabitants, are not mucking about with global climate. As you can see, it looks and feels humid like a green wet primeval forest sans the tree ferns. I am glad the weather changed in spite of my belly-aching. March was not as wet as usual and August can be dry, hot and tough on plants without a good wet Spring. How quickly we forget it was not too long ago that it was several feet deep in snow.

March Storm left a short lived , but effective covering of snow
Mallard checking out my neighbor's pond, female is roosting in the next neighbor's yard

The return of the Mallards has forced me to cover the pond with a net until they finish roosting, otherwise it would be Sashimi time!

Benefits of rain beating down on flowering trees.
It is not everyday that rain washes petals down the gutter.
Liriope front lawn is mounded and wavy. No fertilizing, weeding or mowing!
My front lawn is molting. I call it a front lawn but it is in fact made up of liriope that has been growing for about ten years. I say molting because, like a dog it sheds off its old coat for a new one every spring. As I have never cut it, the blades are almost 2 feet long and the look is very Veronica Lake when you comb it with a rake. Really, the liriope has a rather informal wave look like naturally wavy hair. Somehow the old blades disappear under the new ones and then decompose. The new, emerald green blades, replace all the old blades and the wave gets actually a tad taller each year.
Liriope muscari or Lily Turf is a member of the lily family that produces a grass like leaves that flower yearly. It is native to Asia and it's pretty durable. You can't walk on it like a lawn but it does make for a great groundcover. It comes in clumping or running forms that take a while to fully contain the coverage area. It also comes in varying shades of green and a variegated form. The flowers, are rather minor in appeal, but do make a show when the whole bed blooms at once. They range from white to varying shades of purple.
I fear to think what I would find if I pruned it as it hides debris from my gum tree and from my neighbor's two sycamores. I suspect there must be plenty of those spiky ball seeds decomposing under it all. Still, I have debated giving it a haircut because you get tender green blades spiking up out of the plant in a straight untextured cover. My base would probably look like a good stiff brush if I chose to mow it down, but then I would lose the wonderful effect of a wavy lawn that has taken all these years to develop.
New blades grow through to create new coat of leaves
Lavender Tree Peony this morning.

My favorite plant bloomed. Yes, one has already almost come and gone and the second one is about to start, but it will be gone in a blink. I have two Chinese tree peonies that have been growing steadily and delighting me with a few blooms each year for some time. I purchased them in one of those booths where you find all kinds of exotic plants at the Philadelphia Flower Show Marketplace. There were hundreds of these little runty sticks measuring no more than six to eight inches in length with fleshy looking leaves starting to unfurl for sale with grand pictures of what they would look like - some day. They looked strange like those Chinese Crested dogs that have no fur except for a patch on its head and another on its tail. I may think the dogs strange but I am sure they are loved by their owners, or so I hope.
I, digress the Tree Peony flowers are the size of dinner plates and fragile and exquisitely elegant. Plants grow on the spindliest of wood that and can get to be 4-5 feet tall, some taller. Mine are slightly fragrant although they vary. They come in in a variety of colors from soft pastel to more intense colors, the most prized is the brilliant yellow which is too intense for me. My favorite is a coral pink that is truly lights up its corner when it blooms and a lavender although I am open to others but have no well drained room for any more of them. Alas, they are short lived. In perfect conditions those delicate large petals will last a week, but when they get pounced by rain, like mine have this year, you are lucky if you enjoy them for three days. Then the wait starts until their return the following year.
A tree peony root like I purchased

The Tree Peony bud about the size of a large scoop of ice cream photographed last Friday

Another bud photographed Sunday becomes 10 inch wondrous flower.

My neighbor's tree peonies; notice how many blooms. This is one plant.

This year I noticed that a neighbor has the quite a massing of the same two varieties I chose. Possibly from the same source, but her plants make mine looked like they missed taking steroids. I have to ask her what she does to get her plants so large and glorious. The answer could be as simple and sun and drainage. They require extremely well drained soil and sun. I have mine in the driest part of my swamp with limited sun and that may not be enough to keep them from growing into better sized specimens.
After seeing her plants, I am devising a plan of action to get mine to go to the gym and feed them steak, if I have to, for a spectacle next year.