Saturday, April 30, 2005

Here is my foundation planting of bulbs in its first spring. (May 1, 2004)
 Posted by Hello

Bulbs, With Mixed Success

Moving to the front of my house, I have a bulbous foundation planting, about the only thing I planted in 2003 apart from a nursery bed. The bed gets sun from about 1:00 PM on (that’s high noon given Daylight Savings Time).

In this photo, (from May 1, 2004) the Crocus blooms have passed (you can see the grassy foliage of those in front) and the Alliums have yet to bloom. The former were of course welcome harbingers of spring, as well as being beautiful of bloom and foliage in their own right, although we would hardly notice them if they bloomed in June unless they carpeted a large section.

I was especially happy with the three orange Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) near the back. They are well worth the $6 a bulb, as much for their tall (40”) stately foliage and funky smell (some don’t like it) as for their flowers, which are rather short-lived like most early bulbs’ (perhaps a week at peak beauty). I can always justify such a purchase when I compare it to cut florist flowers.

What’s not working here? The back row, of azaleas and the Narcissus (daffodils) which are just inside them, which was here when I bought the house in 2003. While the Narcissus added a certain something when the house was white, they are barely noticeable against the now-yellow house. And the azaleas are quite hideous before they flower (pale purple) and get their leaves in mid-May; they manage to hang on to just enough withered brown leaves through the winter as to look more ugly and bleak than even bare sticks. They are slightly more compact this year after moderate pruning last June.

Finally, the predictable flaw in my all-bulb design is its lack of bloom or even foliage after late May. The nasty dying-down bulb foliage isn’t hidden at all and can’t be removed until June lest the bulbs weaken and die out over the next season or two – the few, later-blooming Alliums can’t hold their own under these conditions.

How did the plants hold up in this, the bed’s second year? Most of the bulbs have returned, to my semi-surprise given that through last summer I found dozens of holes dug in this bed by chipmunks, until I did away with them with a rather sinister trap. The rodents seem to have gone primarily for the Crocus, as there are about a third as many of these this year. The grape hyacinths and tulips seem exactly like last year, as do the Alliums, although it’s too early to tell about the Alliums’ blooms.

The most noticeable decline is in the Fritillaria imperialis. One didn’t come up at all. A second came up, but with two stalks for a while, and it does not now have a flower. I understand that bulb-splitting and non-flowering is common with these plants in the garden. (Obviously someone has figured out how to grow perfect flowering bulbs for sale, no doubt in a field with more sun, perfect drainage and high fertility.) The third Fritillaria is blooming now, but it and its nonflowering sibling are only about two-thirds of the height they reached last year. Yet the two tallish plants are still a positive, bringing vertical elements, foliage color, and one rather impressive cluster of orange blooms to an otherwise blankish wall flanked by the “undead.”

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from growing Fritillaria imperialis based on my example. Again, they’re only getting half sun, and my soil here is only about 8 inches deep, over foundation-related gravel, meaning the fist-sized bulbs were at the bottom of the soil layer. Further, the top 3 or 4 inches of dirt seemed to be almost entirely cedar mulch of varying levels of decomposition. The breakdown of wood removes Nitrogen from the soil, but I applied a bare minimum of Hollytone 4-6-4 to the bed last summer, probably later than would do much good for the bulbs. I’m not a strictly organic gardener, but I do generally minimize my use of chemicals; for some reason it would bother me much more to kill things from a chemical excess than from neglect.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Planting Out Seedlings – Too Early?

I finished planting out the last of my seedlings today, apart from the Scarlet O’Hara morning glory I started a week ago. (I started most of them under fluorescents in my basement at the end of February). It’s a bit early by the calendar, but the 10-day forecast shows no frosts. The forecast also shows a lot of cloudiness and rain (as we have been getting for the past week and a half), and so conditions are quite favorable for transplants to recover without a lot of coddling -- to be honest, without any hardening off process.

Fingers were crossed, for I would have preferred to make the move later and more gradually but for an infestation of tiny flies in my basement. This infestation seemed hardly dented by my spraying pyrethrin, something I felt less than comfortable doing given the product’s warning that it might damage young seedlings. (Are those spots on the Papaver due to insects, insufficient light or fertilizer, or the pyrethrin? Now I have made the point moot.)

It’s been a strange spring, although I know, as the immortal Henry Mitchell has reminded us, that the perfectly average spring would be the truly strange one. In April we went from snow-covered, frozen, saturated earth to too-dry-to-allow-burning conditions in just 10 to 14 days of unusually dry, sunny and warm weather.

These conditions compressed bloom times on our early bulbs. In fact, my Crocus and Chionodoxa started bloomed before my snowdrops (Galanthus). And while snowdrops have a delicate beauty to them once you get down on your knees, no one bothers to do so when there are relatively large, colorful flowers in the same view.

After the area’s out-of-control brush fires peaked on Boston Marathon / Patriot’s Day (April 18th this year, for those of you not blessed with this Massachusetts holiday, which often grants us a 1-day reprieve on our federal taxes), Nature followed with 10 days alternating between, on the one hand, overcast days, and on the other hand, overcast rainy days. So I was able to have my 4 brush fires, the product of my messy, overgrown wooded strip, and I have been able to plant my 3 to 4 inch seedlings with some prospect of success.

What did I plant?

Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ (although I’ve had second thoughts on these “green-eyed susans”)

Rudbeckia Morveno (an orangish, generally annual form)

‘Lavender Lady’

Celosia ‘Red Velvet’ (annual)

Yarrow (Achillea) ‘Summer Pastels’

Poppy (red and white annuals)

Most went into the 42’ bed I’ve shown below, or into the slope behind this bed. This slope still has many living stumps of brambles and poison ivy, so I will now have to use a surgeon’s delicacy in killing them with loppers and chemicals, while coddling my transplants from any turn to sunny weather.

Perennial Bed, from North, with aqueduct behind, September 6, 2004. Posted by Hello

My Long Perennial Bed

All in all, my perennial bed worked out quite well in 2004, its first season, helped by more annuals than it will have in 2005 or future years. A grass path divides it into a rear inverted-U bed of 3’ width, and a straight front bed of 4½’ width. The U bed is 42’ wide. It also has a mown grass path behind it, below which is the slope down to the aqueduct.

It was of course quite a lot of work, de-sodding and double-digging the whole bed, then amending the soil with peat moss, leaf mold and composted cow manure, ratios varying depending on soil conditions, material availability and whim as I went along, with a dose of Hollytone 4-6-4 added where cow manure was not.

The bed runs East-West, sitting atop a slope several feet down to the similarly situated aqueduct. Much of it gets close to full sun from April through August, but a row of very tall white pines to the South, on the far side of the aqueduct, shade it in other seasons when the sun is lower. This may be a good thing, in that it prevents premature spring thawing and frost heaves.

Right hand of bed, September 6, 2004. Posted by Hello

Right Hand of Bed

As we move to the right, the bed is increasingly shaded by a high deciduous tree (visible next to hideous white pipe) from early May on. This provides afternoon (and even mid-day) shade, with shading beginning earlier in the day the farther one moves to the right, providing a good bed for bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), the longer-blooming fringed bleeding heart (D. eximia), Astilbe, and, since the photo was taken, a variegated Hosta last fall and a Primula just a week ago (a Home Depot $0.99 special). The bleeding hearts were freebies from my neighbor, and remained healthy despite moving with limited root structures and despite my delay in getting some of them in the ground.

I credit the soil.

This far right-hand section of the bed was actually the worst I have dug, with compacted clay and rocks making up the bulk of the “soil.” After using the mattock and shoveling out clay and rocks, I amended it most heavily, adding leaf mold, wetted peat moss and local soil in mid-May, just a day before planting. “Aging” the bed was not necessary due to my avoiding incompletely composted materials. Despite some fear of a bathtub effect, I’ve seen no signs of sluggish drainage; the site’s raised location apparently makes up for its being surrounded by packed clay.

The afternoon shade allowed my spiderwort (Tradescantia) to keep its delicate blue-purple flowers open all day (they more typically close up at noon), yet the full morning sun is enough to keep pink Cleome and red Cosmos happily flowering behind it, if a bit leggy. The red grass at left (a non-hardy Pennisetum, I believe) also grew tremendously, but the lavender in the left foreground wants more grit and sun, and the barely noticeable Verbena to the immediate right of the Tradescantia suffered from powdery mildew. This mildew was endemic to the brambles (Rosa multiflora, blackberry, and something else with 5-leaf clusters and thorns) which dominated the aqueduct slope behind until I ripped and cut them all out last fall (some visible to left of Cleome in this photo), leaving behind established clumps of goldenrod (Solidago).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

First Things

This blog will primarily cover gardening, particularly the gardening I’m doing on my 1.3 acre partially wooded property in Natick, Massachusetts (zone 6A). The property’s most unusual feature: it includes a below-ground aqueduct which used to feed water to Boston. While the aqueduct, which dates to the 1870s, has been superseded by more than one larger replacement, the MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resources Authority) maintains the pipe and keeps the path clear. Basically, it’s a wide, almost perfectly flat trail through the woods. As ground levels vary, it is bordered by upward or downward slopes, looking much like an abandoned railroad easement.

While I own a stretch of the aqueduct, I have to allow the MWRA access, and I don’t object to others’ access (despite the big “No Trespassing” sign posted by the MWRA along the street). I can’t plant on the flat part of the path, or put trees or shrubs along the slopes. The MWRA mows the flat part each year in late summer or autumn, and uses slope mowers often enough to prevent trees from sinking roots into the below-ground masonry work.

Because there is a daily stream of joggers, cross-country skiers, dog-walkers and romancers passing along the aqueduct path, I consider it, more than the street, to mark the “front” of my property, and atop the slope edging down to the aqueduct is where I have put my largest and most labor-intensive planting, a double-dug 42’ by 8’ bed of perennials (with lesser numbers of annuals, bulbs and roses). This was just planted in the spring and summer of 2004 (a year after we bought the property), but I think it worked out pretty well for a first-year performance (photo from upstairs in my house).

Above the aqueduct I have a second path, basically an allée through the trees. So far most of my work on this area has been destructive (thinning trees and brush, pulling poison ivy, brambles and strangling vines).

Of course I also have lawns in front and back of my house, although the front lawn is in significant part a leaching field, meaning I can only plant the shallowest-rooted plants upon it and should minimize walking on and watering of the area. It’s now a grass lawn, and I have yet to do something about screening the prominent white vent-pipe.

I may also cover politics, particularly local politics as it relates to my property, adjacent properties and the aqueduct easement.