Saturday, May 16, 2009

Project #1 - It's Underway!

A good day in the garden - at least in the building part of it. I actually got farther than I had hoped. The day went something like this.

7:00 a.m. Working on the raised bed. All the materials were laid out in the carport - landscape timbers cut to length and holes drilled last night. It was a great morning for a project like this - overcast and cool and just the birds to keep me company. By 7:30 the first corner is in. Digging is less hard than I had feared. Fortunately The Tree Man's son had dug up a large section when he grubbed out the stump two weeks ago. I quickly found that I was digging out too much dirt and not too little, as I assumed I would do.

The big challenge was getting it level, the ends perpendicular and the sides parallel. If I could get the first row in properly, the rest would be easy. My father and brother would have measured and drawn plans. I, on the other hand, had spent the past year contemplating. So what does a girl do when she has grown up in a family of engineers? She plans it in her head and then wings it on the installation - and it worked just fine.

10:30 a.m. The entire back wall is built and the lower (left) end. Now I am ready for the hard part. I had assumed that the front would be harder to dig out since that part of the yard had been all in grass, whereas the back part had been a flower bed and therefore previously tilled. What I had not anticipated was that I had guessed exactly right on the amount of rise in the land - from left to right. The timbers I had cut fit exactly right. I only had to dig out a shallow trench for each new timber across the front and the rise worked out just right.

12:00 noon - The box is complete up to the first full four-sided row. And it looks good. Along the way I have hauled out three wheelbarrows of good dirt, two of bad dirt - mostly clay - and one load of grass and root scraps. The latter look like chunks of old decaying bone. It occurs to me, tho, that in a way they were the bones of the tree, so maybe it is a fitting image for them. I was able to leave more than a foot of space for the native honeysuckle, altho I did have to cut several of the ground level roots, and was able to make a small swale to carry any extra water away rather than letting it stand.

Time to take a break for things like food and regular garden maintenance - deadheading, cleaning around the pond, and cutting flowers for the house. Also a nap would be nice!

4:00 p.m. - Look out Laura Ingalls Wilder! I have a mini-cabin - at least that is what Mitchell thinks. He keeps looking for the door. I did have to make a trip to Big Blue for four more landscaping timbers to complete one more row than I had planned, but that was a nice break in the work. While there I picked up some gravel - well 750 pounds of gravel - for the bottom of the box.

Drainage is the crucial element in this project. The plants that I want are xeriscape plants - agastache, penstemon, and salvia. They need for the water to run thru the soil and then drain away - and not stand around their roots. I'll accomplish this two ways: first there will be a couple of inches of gravel and a couple inches of sand in the bottom of the box, and secondly, I'll take advantage of the natural drainage of the site. The land slopes from right to left and from the fence into the yard. So water will naturally run away from this raised bed. By putting in plenty of stone and sand I'll be able to take advantage of and encourage the natural run off.

8:30 p.m. - One last thing to do today. I ordered the plants! Agastache 'Ava' is a dark cerise that could go four feet tall - wow! With the fence as a background it will look great. Penstemon 'Elfin pink' is a clear pink about two feet tall. Penstemon 'Blue Lips' is a clear blue beardtongue with a lavendar throat. It's only 10 inches so will go near the front, along with Shimmer Evening Primrose (Oenothera fremontii 'Shimmer'). At the very front will be Red Mother of Thyme - a three-inch creeping thyme that will spill over the edges of the box - someday. I don't know how quickly they will ship out, so doubt that I will have them for next weekend, but surely in two weeks I'll have it up and running! I will also be moving some plants from my garden - some sea oats for sure, and probably some salvia 'May Night'.

If I can still walk and lift my arms, I'll get the gravel in tomorrow and look for sand.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Project #1 - Step One

Tomorrow's the day. Barring heavy rain tonight I am starting on the new raised bed. Mitchell went with me this afternoon to get the lumber - landscaping timbers - and spikes to hold it together. Then he cut the shorter pieces I will need, and helped me to drill holes in most of the pieces. I may have bought one round too many so don't want to drill the holes until I am sure I will use them.

I've spent several weeks looking and thinking and I know how I am going to do it. A good plan will surely help! I hope to get started early in the morning before it gets too hot. Last summer I successfully put this project off on the grounds that it was too hot, so I need to finish this time before the heat rolls in. I think I am ready to go, but time will tell.

My plan is to build and dig simultaneously. Since the yard slopes, I will start at the lower end and dig in each piece of timber as I go up. We have a good long level that I can use to keep it all level together. As I get the first couple of rows dug in, I will be taking out most of the dirt. There is about 10 inches of good dirt on top of heavy clay, so I will only take the good stuff and just rough up the clay. Once the box is built I will be putting in several inches of rock and then sand for good drainage, so the clay on the bottom won't matter. I'll take the good dirt and mix it with the great dirt that Mitchell has been composting for me and have a good growing medium with excellent drainage. The natural slope of the land will help the water run out at the bottom of the box. If necessary, I can drill a couple of extra holes at the lower end.

Which brings me to my little helper. The last two times I have gotten the wheelbarrow I have found a little snake underneath. Technically he's a "common ribbon snake" - a form of garter snake - and appears to be about three feet long and the diameter of my thumb. The first time I saw him, tho, I did not think he was so "common". While I did not scream or go "eek" , I was startled to find him there. He froze and played invisible. When I went back a few minutes later he was long gone.

He's actually quite pretty - with stripes of several shades of brown and tan... like ribbons. I knew immediately that he was not poisonous; I do have sense enough to know what they look like! He has taken refuge in one of the compost piles. I normally keep the wheelbarrow upside down on the newer pile, so it provides a warm, dry spot for my little friend. Now that I know he hangs out there, maybe I can get his photo! I'll need to borrow his roof tomorrow, so will probably see him for a few minutes early in the day.

I would love to get the box built this weekend and then get the gravel and sand in over the next week. I have a few plants in the yard that I am going to transplant there, but mostly I need to order the plants. This is truly a long term project and won't be pretty until the middle of next summer, but the gardening game is not for the instant gratification crowd.... you have to plan ahead and then enjoy the wait.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's Blooming Today

I've been too busy at work to get anything done in the garden except a bit of clean up this week. But it does not need me right now as it continues to come into its own.

The geraniums bloomed yesterday - not the annuals that we call geraniums, but the domesticated "field" geraniums. I brought them from the old house, where they were a great groundcover in a shady area. I have them in a sunnier spot now and they are not as prolific, but I am really liking the way they have filled in. They have also spread themselves around a bit - as flowers tend to do! - and I have a small clump growing among the Pacific daisies. The contrast between the pink geraniums and the silvery foliage is just lovely. I want to move a few more into that bed to encourage that combination.

The evening primrose also bloomed yesterday. It's a lovely pale pink and I think I need more somewhere. And the Japanese iris are blooming, too. They are the lavender and would be prettier is there were some variety of color. I need to get some dark purple and some white to mix in with them.

But the big news is the peonies - they are gorgeous. Last fall I gathered all the plants I had into one spot to make a big bed. I did it partly to fill a corner and partly because I thought it would make a better presentation in a big drift. I was so right. I have mostly pale pink, but one white with a red fleck and one dark pink. I truly do want a "red" plant, so will try to add one this fall. I pinched out the side buds as the peonies grew to get bigger blooms and it really worked - I have many that are 8 - 10 inches across. It's a truly lovely corner. Of course, the Murphy's Law of peonies is that it will pour down rain this weekend and beat them down. It always happens. I brought a big vaseful into the house today so that I can enjoy them. They remind me of Grandmother. She loved them and I always took her a vase for Mother's Day - and they bloomed right on time for me this year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 11, 1984

What do you say to the man who has been your partner, friend, and lover for the past 25 years? "I love you", for starters.

I love you for sticking with me thru the thin days as well as the thick. For 14-hour days carving in the basement and driving from Virginia to Florida to Texas to Massachusetts and home again - with a dog and a trailer full of ducks. For canceling birthday parties and then rescheduling them. For finding a trailer to live in when we needed to leave Richmond. For being my rock when Dad died.

I love you for being there in the better days, too. For not insisting on your way, but being willing to wait until we can find a solution that fits us both - and teaching me to do the same. For nine wonderful years in a home that fits us like a glove. For road trips around the state and across the country. For showing me the glory of coral reefs, pinnacles, and black coral. For seasick days on Olympus and glorious days on Cat Ppalu. For skinny dipping on deserted beaches and walking on Hilton Head. For books shared and movies rented.

I love you for loving my family - sometimes more than I do. For embracing my friends and for sharing yours. I love you for our time with Jack, Buck and Mocha, and for adding the fish to the mix. For bicycling, tennis and diving. For diets shared and pounds lost - even when the were regained.

I love you for all the times you knew what I was talking about before I said a word, and for all the days we get to spend together now. I love you for telling me you love me every day. Twenty-five years has flown past like a few weeks. I am ready to sign up for another year.

Happy anniversary. I love you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Garland's Gardens

For the past four days I've been visiting gardens. Got a lot of ideas and thoroughly enjoyed myself. First kudos to the NCDOT for their continuing program of planting wildflowers on the highway right-of-way. There are huge swaths of red, purple, blue, pink, white and yellow flowers all along I-85 thru the central part of North Carolina and on into the foothills of western North Carolina. In addition there are nice plantings of shrubs at most of the interchanges. But it is the wildflowers that are breath-taking in many spots. Let's hope that by good cutting practices - that is, not cutting until the wildflowers have seeded annually - that they will continue to spread. I wish I could have taken a good photo to share with you.

The big gardens that we visited were at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. There are all sorts of gardens - from the most formal English-type planned garden, to kitchen gardens, to shrubbery, to seemingly "natural" hills and valleys of native plants, trees and shrubs. All of it planned to the ninth degree and all lovely. I found that while I really liked the formal gardens and enjoyed seeing them, it was the open areas and natural glens and hillsides that really spoke to me. Somehow the planned, measured formal gardens seemed too perfect, too planned and lacked the fun and spontaneity that I really like. There were no surprises. Instead, I found the banks of native shrubs - azalea, rhododendron, and mountain laurel - just gorgeous. A bank of bamboo appearing around a bend, perennials blooming among the rocks along the bass pond, and mounds of perennials at the winery all made me happy - even on a rainy day.

But the finest garden I saw belongs to my friend, Garland. She moved home to western North Carolina nearly five years ago and started renovating the property to create the kind of garden she loves. She has cleared out old dying trees and acres of brambles in the fences, pulled weeds and poison ivy. She has cleaned out and restored the vegetable garden. But mostly she has added new beds and greatly enlarged the existing beds while planting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of flowering shrubs and perennials in colorful swaths on all sides of the house. Wherever one looks out, there are beautiful flowers to see.

Step out of the front door and there are shady beds filled with helebores, ferns, and hosta, and a sunny spot with herbs planted among the patio blocks. Look down from the porch and there are sunny beds with iris, peonies, and sedum. Many plants she moved with her from her Richmond garden, and many are native to Translyvania County. There are evergreens, rose beds, and even a 90-foot asparagus bed - all laid out in a pleasing way, each with a little surprise to be found as you wonder around the nearly seven-acre yard. Right now the rhododendron are in full bloom along with many azaleas, so it is a riot of pinks and purples with the occasional bank of white, and way over "there" a patch of bright orange as a surprise.

I took her some variegated Solomon's Seal and she sent me home with a sedum, so a bit more of her will grow here with me and a bit of me will grow in her garden - if the deer don't eat it all!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mitchell's Plants

Today is the day to celebrate those things in the garden that are there because Mitchell loves them. He is first and foremost a fan of foliage that is anything except green! He loves coleus and crotan and all those red/brown plants, so over the years we have worked them into the landscape as fillers. Fortunately, they are lovely with the blues, purples and pinks that I love so much. And then there are a variety of plants that he just likes.

Like the little dogwood in the front yard. It is currently growing in what we call the "boomerang". When we first moved in we planted a weeping cherry tree in the front corner of the yard. He watered it devotedly as it got sicker and sicker. Finally after a full summer of dying, it was gone. When we pulled it out we discovered that it was sitting in the equivalent of a terra cotta bowl filled with water. That was how we learned that it's impossible to plant anything in our yard without first amending the dirt - and I do mean amend! We decided that we needed the equivalent of a raised bed, but we did not want the obvious raised border. So, we got a load of topsoil delivered and shaped it into a boomerang and left it higher than the yard. We amended the heck out of it and over the years it has sunk some into the yard, but remains an excellent place to plant. Last fall we moved a small dogwood there. It had been growing too close to the house, so we took a chance and dug it up. We watered loyally over the winter and it is growing like topsy this spring. I believe it will be a keeper.

Mitchell's red tree tho is a beautiful plum [Thundercloud] that shades the back deck. After the disaster of the weeping cherry we got another load of topsoil and dumped it on the west side of the deck before we planted another tree. The plum was the tree equivalent of a 98-pound weakling when we planted it - about five feet tall with skinny little no-nothing twig branches. Today it is 25 feet tall and shades the entire deck all summer. Mitchell has kept it well pruned, so it has a beautiful vase shape and when it blooms it is covered with tiny pink flowers. It's truly a gem.

Underneath is a field of Ajuga reptans 'Burgundy Glow' - another non-green plant. It actually changes from more greenish to more redish over the growing season, and blooms with a pretty purple flower on a stalk in the spring - like now. In addition to the field under this tree, we have used it wherever we need a little filler, like around the pond. It is helping to fill in among the stones that surround the pond. It likes a bit of shade, so it has not done as well as other ground covers in some of our sunnier spots.

Around the side is a Japanese maple. In twenty years it will be stunning! Since we bought it, it has filled out and now has a lovely fountain shape and the leaves are that beautiful red that one expects, but there are two things that we did not know about Japanese maples when we added it. First, they grow incredibly slowly - like an inch a year or less. Ours is still less than three feet tall, so we have lots of shrubs that would kick it's derrierre in a fight, and 2) in our climate it turns green! Apparently it is not fond of our hot, humid summers, so by August every year it is a lovely green maple! Then from November to June it's red again, before starting its color change. We love it, but will probably not live to see it full grown.

I've mentioned the Harry Lauter's walking stick [Corylus avellana 'Contorta'] before, but it is another of Mitchell's interesting choices. In the summer it is a pretty screen of bright green leaves - like now - but in the winter it is one of the most interesting specimens in the garden. It loses its leaves, but keeps its catkins all winter among its twisted branches. It's large enough now that I could use some of its branches for flower arrangements, but I have not touched it yet. I think it is about three-quarters full grown. The birds love it and so do we.

Finally, I always make him at least one planter with shade plants including coleus. Am running a bit behind this summer, and do not really have the planters done yet, so that is yet to come. We have a bench in the shady part of the garden that nicely holds two or three large pots, and I like to put a variety of coleus there along with some annual flowers. From that garden bench one can see both down the side - the bowling alley - to the street and back up the hill to the main garden. It's a lovely place to read.

So Mitchell, it's all about your plants today - happy anniversary!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Stump Gets Company

After nine years I finally have the emerald arbovitae I have always wanted. As you know - oh, too well - I had to cut down a Green Giant arbovitae that I thought was an emerald, and lo and behold I found an emerald at a good price. Big Blue had a huge selection of seven-gallon plants at an excellent price, so I shopped around and bought the tallest of the lot. It actually has two main stems and a very nice growth habit. I put it - as promised - right behind the stump that we recently put in the back garden for the birds. In my shopping frenzy last weekend I bought two clematis and planted one on each side of the stump. The idea is that the clematis will grow together and mix it up over the top of the stump and then spread out almost like a ground cover around the stump. I used two shades. Since I bought four different clematis, I am not 100% sure what went where - except for the one that went in the front - so what I think will be growing over the stump are Clementis 'Kivihu' and Clematis 'Kongiskind'. The former is a bright magenta and the latter is a medium lavendar - both with yellow centers.

The arborvitae is Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd' aka Emerald Beauty, which may be the only variety of emerald. It's already more than five feet tall and should grow to 12 - 15 feet in ten years. I love the way it looks behind the stump and I think the birds will love it. Come Christmas, tho, the solar lights will be on it. I have two strings and will need at least one more, but it will be perfect. In the photo you can just barely see Mitchell's Henry Lauter's walking stick at the right edge, with day lilies and fall anemones in front of it. On the left is actually the top of something that is growing in the foreground - perhaps monarda. At the extreme rear is a euonomous hedge that actually belongs to the backdoor neighbor, but which I try to keep trimmed as a background to my garden.

All in all, I am very pleased with these new additions to the back of the garden.