Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still clinging to winter

The slightly longer days have lightened my mood somewhat from the busy holiday schedule. Now that the new year is upon us, I feel a renewed sense of hope and expectation in our garden. We began working in our garden in earnest late this last summer, amending the soil with compost and turning it in to our poor, construction-debris riddled soil. The sweat, blood (nasty blisters) and several yards of compost that were required to properly amend the soil seems to be paying off. Last fall we planted two ornamental trees in our courtyard (Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan sugi' and Acer palmatum 'Shishi gashira') and have since continued to trickle plants into the beds; our garden being modest enough so as not to be intimidating when it comes to adding plants.
I found this charming little specimen conifer at a local nursery and bought it for a song. It now occupies the NE corner of the courtyard where one of two Vine Maples (Acer circinatum) that were planted by the builder once stood. Golden Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan sugi') has stunning, yellow foliage with a light, feathery texture. Its overall habit is narrow pyramidal, growing 8-10" a year. When Evan and I set out plant shopping for potential conifers for this location, we looked at several different genera. The site conditions are south facing, with full sun during the middle part of the day, and well draining soil due to the abundance of construction debris mixed in with the compost and native soil. The limiting factor for us was the shallow depth of the bed, necessitating a relatively narrow, upright conifer. We also wanted a conifer that would stand out well against the chocolate brown siding, so yellow foliage was an obvious choice. Over time, this conifer will require some light sheering to reign it in a bit before it out grows it britches, but that will be close to 10 years down the road; more than enough time to enjoy this delightful tree.

At the SE corner of the courtyard, where the other Vine Maple once stood, I wanted to plant a slow growing, ornamental Japanese Maple. I went back and forth about what tree that would be as there are so many beautiful and unique Japanese Maples from which to choose: Golden Full Moon Japanese Maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') with its lovely, lobed, vine maple-like, yellow leaves, slow growth and dense habit was my first choice. However, after selecting the Golden Japanese Cedar, I thought better of having both ornamental trees in our small courtyard with yellow foliage, even if one were to be deciduous and the other evergreen. The other two Japanese Maples I considered were Acer palmatum 'Shaina', that has a very compact, bushy habit with deep, purple foliage, and Acer palmatum 'Shishi gashira', whose habit is upright, vase-shaped with leaves mid-green, densely curled and tightly held to the branches, with grass-green bark that is a sight in the winter. I opted for 'Shishi gashira' as the green leaves were a better foil against the brown siding, the green bark in the winter would provide much needed seasonal interest and the foliage in the fall is a lustrous, pumpkin orange.

These were pictures taken this last fall, days after it was planted and you can see the beautiful fall foliage as well as the green bark. I did a considerable amount of hunting to find just the right tree and it paid off. One thing to consider when shopping for dwarf/compact trees is that a 6' tall dwarf tree will cost quite a bit more than a 6' tall faster growing tree. My plant shopping was well worth the effort as I located a 7' tall tree for well under what I had expected to pay. Bonus! Also, don't just shop for a deal; above all, shop for the tree (especially a specimen tree) that has the best shape, branching and is of good health. When it came time to plant both of these trees, the conifer and the maple, the soil was very easy to work, as we had already amended it with compost and the trees were going in the same general location where the vine maples had been.

With the two specimen trees in place, we planted a few shrubs, along with some perennials and bulbs here and there. I'll share more pictures of them and new plants later to be sure. More recently, we planted our first hellebore, Helleborus x 'HGC Cinnamon Snow', in our parking strip bed. I am a huge hellebore fanatic and it was with great relish that I selected the first to go in our garden.
This is a new hybrid selection of hellebore, so new in fact that garden trials are still ongoing. I am happy to give this beauty a try and will be sure to recount its progress over time. It has beautiful, deep, olive green leaves with maroon stems, cream white flowers open from dusty rose buds in December. The large, 3" flowers are forward facing, reminiscent of H. niger. It's supposed to get to a decent size as far as hellebores go, 15"h x 20"w. I have it planted in our parking strip bed, beneath the oak tree where it will benefit from the open canopy in the winter and some sun protection in the spring and summer.

We also planted a new Heuchera variety called Heuchera 'Encore', which has dusty rose/apricot foliage, the undersides of which are more purple, with a mottled silver overlay on the top of the leaves. Its tiny, creamy-white, bell-shaped flowers held aloft well above the leaves are a distant second to the foliage of this low growing, mounding, evergreen perennial. This is a great, colorful, evergreen foil to enliven the front of a bed or in a container, where it will not be overtaken by larger, my lusty plants.  As you can see, we planted it right at the base of the oak, tucked up between the base of the tree and the curb, where it will be quite happy.
Last but certainly not least, we decided to install a few flag stones in the parking strip to encourage neighbors and church goers who park in that location to use the path, instead of treading through the bed where young bulbs and perennials have already begun to emerge. We decided to go with natural stone, one that comes closest in color to the architectural pavers we have in the courtyard. Since we were in the garden planting the Hellebore and the Heuchera, and since the ground had only recently thawed, we decided to take advantage of the weather and get the flag stones in the ground too.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with all of the work we've made in our garden, especially since we held off on doing much work in it until only about 6 months ago! Even though it's supposed to snow in a few hours, I feel confident and optimistic about saying: spring is coming!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh the places you'll grow

The frigid weather we had a few weeks ago seems like a distant memory today as we stand now at a balmy 53 degrees. Long range forecasts show night temps aren't expected to drop below 40 for the foreseeable future. Though the warm weather is a far cry from winter, all of the other signs are most definitely here: herbaceous perennials that had bravely soldiered on through a mild fall are blackened, many even turned crispy brown from the dry arctic winds that dessicated the foliage. Winter blooming Camellias with their swollen buds are just beginning to break, giving a hint of the colorful show they are about to put on. Sumptuous, milky white flowers of the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) are starting to unfurl above deep, olive green, stout foliage.
This is a picture of the plant in late winter of this year but I wanted to include it to show how beautiful and long lasting the flowers are (they'd been blooming for several months by the time this picture was taken). This species of hellebore is one of the earliest bloomers, starting in December, as it's name indicates. What one refers to as a flower for a hellebore is technically not a flower but is a group of five petal-like sepals. The sepals, or flowers, vary in color from species to species, ranging from off-white, apple-green, slate-plum and some with picote (pink or red rim along the rim of the sepal). Once you get into hybrids you enter a whole new world with a stunning range of colors and flower characteristics (the topic of future posts to be sure). The range in flower color for H. niger is much smaller: whites that blush pink or shift to an apple-green with age. 

The thick, pedate leaves grows 6-8" in height and mature clumps can grow to be well over a foot in width. The foliage is evergreen and has thick stems which, unlike H. x hybridus, you ought not cut back in the winter or the plant well suffer for it. I wait to remove the old, low growing leaves until they lay down on the ground, turn black/brown and die. The flowers are forward facing, and held well above the leaves, which are low to the ground, making them a bright star of the bed in the winter.

Like most hellebores, H. niger prefers to grow in alkaline soil which one is hard-pressed to find in Western Washington (high annual rainfall makes for acidic soil on the west side of the Cascades). Generally speaking, you can get away without adding lime around hellebores, but they do perform much better in our region if you do. Christmas Rose also prefers part-shade to full shade and will work well under deciduous or coniferous trees. As with all plants, make sure you carefully water them in the spring and summer the first several years in the ground, especially if planted at the base of trees where they will have to compete for water.

There is nothing like seeing a hellebore in full bloom in the winter and there are so many different species and hybrids - it boggles the mind. Many people have devoted their professional careers and private gardens to the study, cultivation and adoration of these beautiful little plants. They have been experiencing a real surge in popularity over the past decade as more and more varieties have become commercially available. I love introducing people to hellebores for the first time as I am almost certain to get a "Ohhhhh, what a beautiful plant! That blooms in the winter?!" along with a wide smile. It's true, we look for the light at the end of the tunnel of a long winter, and for me, that first glimmer of light is usually seen reflected off of the lovely flowers of the hellebore.

So as the sun rises low and hurries across the southern sky this winter, casting long shadows in its wake, look for the bright lights in your garden and remember that spring isn't too far away.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Snow as hyperbole

We all seemed to have more or less survived this year's first snow storm, though it pains me to use the word storm when describing the weather conditions we had Monday. Yes, we did have snow, a jaw dropping 2"+, and we even had some significant wind. But seriously, snowmagedon? SNOMG? Let's bring it down a couple of notches, people.

I was fortunate to have crammed in the last of my fall work last week in preparation for what might be, what in fact did happen: snow and ice that brought the city to a standstill and set an end, for now at least, to gardening. But what of the rest of the people in this region who aren't able to work from home or who are foolhardy enough to venture away from home without chains? Forget chains, even if you had a snow mobile, the combination of wet roads all day and then a rapid dropping of temperatures well below freezing in the evening made for iced over roads, not just overpasses and bridges. We all saw the videos of cars and buses sliding down hills and bouncing off of telephone poles and other cars like over-sized pin-balls. I admit to contributing to the frenzied flake following but my love of the white stuff stops when it means it takes my partner 3 hours to get home. We live 20 minutes away from his work, 45-50 minutes by bus.

In any event, the drama is all but over, the roads in our neighborhood are bare and we are looking forward to loading in to the car tomorrow to head up to our friends George and Sam for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. If there is one place that I can look to as an antidote to all of the hyperbole surrounding the snow and ice, it is the garden. Plants aren't freaking out because of the snow, and the cold; many of them are just now coming into their own.

In a way, I have been looking forward to the snow to see how the garden beds would look covered in a white blanket and to see how some of the marginally hardy plants would fair. I was flabbergasted to see our Maidenhair Fern (Adiatum pedatum) was unscathed, it's jet black, thin, rigid stems stood out starkly against the white snow. The foliage, which I expected to be shriveled and as black as the stems, were just fine. I was shocked, not because it isn't cold hardy, it is, but because it has such delicate, lacy foliage - it should have been bitten back by the cold before any of the other plants. Now, I do have it tucked up at the base of our Pittosporum tenuifolium, which looked a bit more peaky than the more delicate looking fern. Being so close to and slightly under the base of the Pittosporum undoubtedly gave the fern just enough protection to keep it from being frost bitten.
Seeing this reminded me of working at the nursery and the machinations we went through to protect the potted plants during cold spells: dragging long yards of fabric over plants, hauling entire departments into cold houses or pulling plants underneath covered walkways. It's the strangest thing, and you might not believe if you didn't see it, but having two of the exact same plants, same grower, same size, same level of hardening off, both outside, exposed to all sides, except one has a covering over the walkway. Which one is frosted over, has damaged buds and which one is untouched by frost? Plants that are mere feet from each other, and the one that is fine is under the walkway. It really only takes a little additional protection, like tucking up near the base of a broad-leaf or coniferous evergreen, pulling a pot up next to a structure or under an eave and your marginally hardy or containerized plants will pull through extremely cold temperatures.

Not to be out-shown by the miraculous maidenhair fern, our newly planted 'Charity' Mahonia (Mahonia x media 'Charity') is looking rather stoic and unperturbed by the extreme cold and snow.
The stately leaves are held stiffly horizontal and rise ever so slightly, as it of greet the snow. The deep, blue-green evergreen foliage is a perfect winter foil, and the lighter undersides of the leaves reflect the bright winter light. Sprays of newly emerged flower buds burst from the tops of the stems, just waiting to open and release their sweet, delicate fragrance and nectar - a grateful winter gift for our overwintering hummingbirds.
Speaking of which, while I was working in the kitchen making bread for our Thanksgiving feast, I kept noticing a bright flash darting to and fro just out of the corner of my eye at the window over my prep area. Last year we received a beautiful, blown glass hummingbird feeder and the hummers loved it. I brought it in during cold nights so it wouldn't freeze and crack. Unfortunately, the glass feeder cracked and a replacement was bought; this less elegant than it's predecessor but equally as functional. After the cold weather ended and once spring arrived, the hummingbirds stopped visiting and I stopped filling the feeder. Hummers are, apparently, somewhat fickle. Now that the cold weather is back and food is harder to find, I guess I am on good graces with the birds again.

I'll just have to remind myself that, if the hummingbirds and garden plants can handle a little snow, maybe I can too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflections on a severed bulb

Waking up to snow this morning means that, despite what the calendar says, fall is over and winter is here. A few weeks back, when fall was still in full swing, I took advantage of the sunny, balmy weather we had  and struck out for the arboretum for a mid-day stroll. I wanted to take in the myriad display of fall color and I was not disappointed. The warm days and cool nights we had this fall, combined with relatively little stormy weather, made for spectacular foliage color. 

I hadn't even made it all the way to the park when I saw a stunning, bright yellow Ginko tree (Ginko biloba).

Ginko has lovely, unique foliage that is mid-green in the summer then turns a vivid, lemon yellow in the fall. It was a beacon of light painted against a gauzy blue sky. The leaves of this living fossil are shaped like a duck's foot for which it gained the name ya chio ( ya chio to ginko) in China, where it originates. Ginko is a handsome, ancient ornamental tree that once grew widely, and has survived virtually unchanged for over 125 million years. The last remaining colony of trees grew in eastern China south of the Yangtze River and was highly regarded for its unusual fruit (yin hsing - silver apricot), which was paid as tribute to the emperor. This rare tree was eventually brought to the capitol and then gradually made its way into cultivation, spreading throughout China, Asia and then to the rest of the world.

The fruit, a drupe, is about the size and shape of a small apricot, is yellow when mature and contains an edible nut. For years I heard of how horribly messy the falling fruit of this tree can be and for this reason most ginko trees in cultivation are male. Last year, when Evan and I were in Montreal, I visited the Montreal Botanical Gardens and I saw the ginko fruits for the first time! They were beautiful - on the tree - and messy on the ground.

This spectacular tree is quite tolerant of a wide range of soil types, grows well in urban environments (though better suited for larger gardens), prefers full sun and is heat tolerant once established. Its habit is broadly pyramidal, growing moderately, it can eventually reach 50-80' with age and can grow to be as broad. Its habit is highly variable, so try to stick to named varieties when selecting your ginko. I highly recommend Hui-Lin Li's The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees for more information about the fascinating history of ginko and other ornamental trees.

A few other trees I stopped to admire on my walk through the arboretum were Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum) and October Glory Red Maple (Acer rubrum 'October Glory').

When I returned home I paused out front to check on the status of our newly planted sidewalk bed. I have been eagerly awaiting the emergence of Cyclamen coum  bulbs that we planted in October. Our neighborhood has more than its fair share of squirrels with all of the acorns that the oak trees shed every fall. Feeling somewhat tenuous about planting bulbs for the first time in our garden, not knowing what the squirrel's level of interest would be, I opted to plant the cyclamen a little deeper than I knew I should have - 5" deep instead of a scant 1".

I know that squirrels generally leave cyclamen alone and I know that newly planted bulbs won't have leaves emerge at the same time as potted/planted bulbs, BUT I just couldn't resist the temptation to investigate their status. Against my better judgment, I grabbed my hori hori knife and dug around where I knew I had planted the bulbs. In doing so, I cut into one of the cyclamen bulbs. Just a nick really and not a mortal wound. The bulbs were there, undisturbed, until my zeal for signs of winter made me foolishly wield my knife. The lesson was clear: let sleeping bulbs lie and let the seasons come and go when they are ready.

"The very things are still the same, but human nature changes in time. Someone should record the beginning so that future generations can know its origin." Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) historian, essayist and poet, discussing the ginko tree, as translated in The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees by Hui-lin Li.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Starting Out

I must say that it feels a bit strange writing a blog and posting my work for anyone and no one in particular to read.  I have written for two local horticultural periodicals in the past and I absolutely loved doing it.  In part, my desire to again write for these and other publications inspired me to start this blog.  However, a blog is something entirely different from print media. Whereas print publications have a set readership, this blog has - well, at the moment that I write this - none.  So you see, I do feel a bit like I am writing to myself.  

Fear not, this isn't a blog about me, rather it's a blog that I hope will convey my passion for plants, gardening and garden design.  Just the same, in this first post I will give you some background information about me so you are reassured that I am not some hack with a keyboard and an internet connection spouting off about gardening. 

Growing up in the then tiny hamlet of Snohomish, I was a novice if not apt gardener, helping my mom tend our family's modest beds.  The germ of my love for gardening grew from her careful instructing.  We grew vegetables, perennials and annuals.  Her knowledge came from my great grandparents, both of whom I was fortunate enough to have known in my youth. I still remember the lush, carefully laid out vegetable beds of my great grandparents and the constant flow of fresh fruits and vegetables out of the garden and into the kitchen.  You could say that gardening is in my blood. 

My career in horticulture began 12 years ago when I started working at Molbak's Nursery which happened to have a store conveniently located near the college that I attended. I'll say right away that my degree is not, I repeat, not in horticulture or botany, nor am I a landscape architect.  My degree is in Archaeology with a double minor in Architecture and Art History.  I know, I know, I have a degree that entails carefully digging up things from the ground but instead my career is spent putting things in the ground.  Life sometimes does that.  Suffice it to say that while I was getting my degree, it struck me that I could combine my architecture studio skills with my rapidly growing plant knowledge and do two things I loved: gardening and designing. 

I did a brief stint designing and gardening with a friend before I started work at Wells Medina Nursery.  There I honed my horticultural skills from being surrounded by consummate plantsmen (and plantswomen).  For those of you who have never been you simple must go there.  It has stood as a regionally recognized nursery for the rare and unusual plant, be they perennials, shrubs, conifers or deciduous trees - especially Japanese maples.  Truly a fantastic experience. What's more, I learned from some of the brightest minds in the industry.  

I left Wells to work for a small start-up garden design company where I did the design, consulting and installations.  In 2006 I struck out to start my own garden design company and haven't looked back.  I have been designing gardens now for all of 6 years and this last September my company celebrated its 4th year in business!  I have been fortunate to work in some beautiful gardens and, recently to be working in my own garden.  Last year my partner and I purchased a townhouse in Seattle and this fall we began prepping and planting the beds (ongoing information to come on this!).  From this last point at least, this is a great place to start out my blog.  And now that all the boring stuff about me is out of the way and you have my credentials, we can get down to the stuff you're really here to read:  gardening!