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!