Monthly Archives: April 2010

Violets: Weeds or Wonderful?

Violets are blooming all over southeastern Pennsylvania this week. Their pretty little blue flowers bob above big clumps of heart shaped leaves where gardeners encourage them, and above little clumps of heart shaped leaves where they have tried to eradicate them.

Every year about this time I wonder if I should just let them grow instead of trying in vain to weed them out my garden every year. We’re talking the wild violet here, or viola papilionacea, not their fancy viola cousins for sale at garden centers. These are the ones that just show up. Who decides which plants are weeds anyway? The folks who named milkweed, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed and sneezeweed clearly had some question about their value in the cultivated garden. Yet native plant enthusiasts (myself included) pay cold hard cash to buy them at fancy nurseries and then feature them prominently in their borders.

Back to violets though. No question they are beautiful. Parents name their daughters after them. They represent a color of the rainbow. (Remember Roy G. Biv?) They are Wisconsin’s state flower. And without violets, how would Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson ever have fallen in love? As Mr. Forster describes it:

“Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end. . . . From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting in pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth. . . . George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her. ” (from A Room With A View).

Wow do I wish I could write like that.

So why not let them run in rivulets, irrigate my hillsides, eddy round my tree stems and cover my grass with spots of azure foam? Violets will do just that if left to their own devices. They are immune to most herbicides, weed and feeds don’t do the trick and REPEATED applications of Round-Up are necessary to make a dent. And this only if you’re willing to douse your garden with chemicals, which I am not. So I usually try to dig them up and throw them out, to no avail. You know, in the woodland section at the Missouri Botanical Garden, their violets are labeled with those nice little name tags I love so much. That must mean they want them there.

Here’s my plan then. If they get shaded out, too bad for them. But if they really want to be here, I think I ought to let them. (I speak here as if I had a choice in the matter). Who wouldn’t want a flower that can fill your face with radiant joy and cause the George Emersons of the world to notice?

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Lessons Learned from a Botanical Garden

What’s not to love about a great botanical garden? Fabulous garden design, uncountable cultivars of every plant you can imagine, old trees, gorgeous hardscape, a café to supply your latte needs and the perfect spot to sit and enjoy it. Not to mention the army of gardeners who weed, water and mulch behind the scenes. Where else can you go to find a railing that is this lovely?

At Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia

I must say that my favorite thing about a botanical garden is the name tags. Ever fallen in love with a flower or a tree when you’re out and about, only to be thwarted because there’s no way for you to know exactly what it is? Not so at most botanical gardens. Tags are great for picture taking too – no need for a notebook when you can shoot the flower, then capture all the relevant data.

At Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA

So helpful!

One of the jewels of the garden world is the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Formerly the city estate of Henry Shaw, this urban oasis boasts rose gardens, woodland gardens, a biosphere, a temperate house, a camellia house, a bird garden, a children’s garden, an herb garden, a prairie garden, a maze adults get lost in and an amazing Japanese garden. For the many years that I lived in St. Louis, I was a regular visitor. When I was working like a crazy woman, I went every Saturday morning when they waive the fee for locals. When I traded in my heels and sales career for a stroller (and soon after that a double stroller), I coughed up the money to become a member and went every chance I could get.

Every spring I would watch the garden come alive a week at a time, often with the help of the “what’s blooming now” display in the welcome center. In a little cart by the main entrance to the garden were cuttings of all the plants that were in bloom that day. In the spring and summer, of course, I didn’t need that much help as blooms filled every glance. In the winter and early spring, though, you kind of had to hunt. A camellia in the Linean House, a snowdrop in the woodland garden, some lavender in the Temperate House. I took for granted that the powers that be just happened to know what was blooming when, but clearly, they had a system. And yesterday, I discovered their system.

Eight hundred miles of interstate now prevent my weekly visit, but I find myself on their website quite often. Their Kemper Center for Home Gardening plant finder is fabulous – with thousands of plants listed alphabetically and a great search engine to help you find just what you seek. You can search by scientific name, common name and even the names of cultivars. (Thank goodness for the common name search. Am I the only one out there who can’t seem to get her head around all that latin??) There are pictures of each plant, basic data about bloom time and growth habits, noteworthy characteristics and problems it may encounter. There’s even a comment section where gardeners can rate the plant and leave notes about their experience with growing it. But here’s the cool thing I discovered yesterday as I was trying to figure out just what came in that box from the mail order place. The main page tells you Coronation Gold yarrow blooms from June to September, but if you click on the “bloom data” link, you get a page that show you exactly which weeks it was observed in bloom, which years and in which locations. So in one location in 2005, this yarrow bloomed from the second week in May through the last week in October, but in another location the same year, the blooms faded for good by the end of July.

Okay, fine. So this world renowned botanical garden has a cool website. Great. But what’s that to me? Every year I wish I had written down what was blooming in my garden the year before at the same time. Did the tulips and the lilac bloom at the same time last year? Can’t remember. Should I be freaking out because it’s September 15 and my crepe myrtle hasn’t bloomed yet? Don’t know, because I forgot to write it down. So, a new year’s resolution. (Never too late). I’ve made myself a version of this chart and I will make a weekly visit to my own garden for the purpose of tracking my blooms. All I will need is my chart and a pencil. I may be the very last gardener on earth to take this step – but it feels like one I ought to commit to. Here’s my fancy excel spreadsheet – and once I figure out the names of everything I’ve planted, I’ll be ready:

super high tech! Let me know if you want a copy.

Watch out. Things are getting serious in the little garden outside Philly. Next year when you visit, there might be name tags!

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Redbuds on Bloom Day – April 2010

My friend Paul, an avid up-before-dawn birder, once made a great comment to me about cardinals. How lucky we are, he said, to have this amazing, tropical-looking scarlet bird eating at our feeders during the depths of winter. Don’t take for granted this fabulous, showy bird just because it’s native to our area.

Since I’m not an up-before-dawn anything, I’m going to preach the same message about my favorite tree: the eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis). How great is it that this April show stopper belongs here. Not some import from Japan or China, the redbud flashes its bloom laden branches and we here in North America get to enjoy it guilt free. Hey – I have a redbud. I’m sustainable! I support local insects! I didn’t import any nasty elm-killing, chestnut-blighting hitchhiking fungus! See – you can feel good about owning a redbud.

But even if you don’t look over your shoulder guiltily whenever you plant a non-native (true confessions), you must admit the redbud is spectacular. The blooms burst right out of the bark for goodness sake.

My dad always said he loved them in the spring, but they were horribly ugly the other 49 weeks of the year. I must disagree. They have beautiful heart-shaped leaves and grow up to 30’ tall so they can provide shade if planted strategically. They love full sun to part shade and well drained soil. Apparently they don’t transplant well, but I’ve moved mine twice and its doing great. Plant one next to a white dogwood and you’ve got a gorgeous pair all year round.

So there you go. Plant a redbud. And then be amazed with me at this spring and the bounty of blooms we have to enjoy on tax day.

My lilac behaved this year:

The grape hyacinths are actually just past their peak (at least the ones in the sun):

I love the tiny blooms on the brunnera macrophylla:

as well as the tiny blooms on the sweet woodruff

and look! The hope of blueberries

The foam flower is getting there:

And my favorite newcomer (and native),  fothergilla

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m getting tired of uploading. Wait, here come the tulips. In back:

and in front:

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Garden for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day every month. Very fun!

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Pathetic Pink Dogwoods Anyone?

******If you have stumbled onto my site by googling “why won’t my dogwood bloom,” or something like that, welcome. My best guess, if you’re in the northeast or midatlantic, is TOO MUCH WATER. If that’s enough info, thanks for stopping by. If you want more of a story and some truly pathetic pictures, read on!*****

Four years ago, my husband, my realtor and I visited a house for sale outside of Philadelphia. You could barely see the house through the two huge trees in the small front yard. To get to the front door, we had to push our way through a hedge of overgrown yews and azaleas. (Don’t even get me started about what we saw when we managed to get into the house. Ever seen dalmation spotted shag carpet? Up the stairs? Not pretty). We bought the house.

I happily oversaw the yews being ripped out; I was a bit conflicted about the azaleas. But I could walk to my front door unimpeded. Both my realtor and contractor suggested that we cut down the trees in front and start our landscaping from scratch. A two story Japanese maple and a towering pink dogwood tree. I am seriously opposed to cutting down trees, especially two trees that had been on my wish list for years. My contractor preached doom and gloom regarding the dogwood. “Look at this bark. This tree’s got a fungus. It’s done for.” Hmmm….let me think. No thank you. The trees will stay.

So now, four years later, the garden is in, installed with the two lovely trees as key design elements. I have gloated every spring as my dogwood put on a fabulous show, loaded with blooms.

Those blooms were my assurance that I was right and my contractor was wrong, confirmation that mature trees do not mean sick trees. So imagine my horror this year when I realized that my beloved tree looked completely pathetic.

Where blooms cascaded last year, I count eight blossoms. Where hundreds of pink flowers waved in the breeze, I see only baby leaves. Argh!!! Was he right? Is it sick? What will happen to my garden design if I have to take it down???

I was slightly reassured when I began driving around my neighborhood spying on the state of my neighbor’s pink dogwoods. Theirs aren’t so great either. True, there are some that look pretty good, but for the most part, the pink dogwoods of Philadelphia are underwhelming at best. None are fully covered. Most have some blooms to show, but lots more foliage. The white ones are great, but the pink ones, not so much. If it isn’t just my tree, what’s going on?

I have no definitive answers, but here’s a list of reasons dogwoods don’t bloom:

1. Too much nitrogen. Trees planted in fertilized lawns suck up too much nitrogen which causes great leaf growth but isn’t good for flowers. Two strikes. My tree is not in the yard. My yard is not fertilized.
2. Too much or too little sunlight. Dogwoods were made to grow on the edges of forests where they get dappled shade. They don’t like full sun or deep shade. Strike. My front yard is the perfect example of dappled shade, with a shady maple next door and a house that blocks the afternoon sun.

3. Improper Pruning.
Prune dogwoods in late winter and you lop off the baby buds. Thus, no blooms. Strike. I’ve never pruned mine except to cut out dead wood. I love the abstract, japanesish shape they have on their own.
4. Lack of water. Not enough H2O inhibits blooms. Strike, strike, strike. During the second half of 2009, we received 31” of rain when we usually get only 17”. This winter’s 70” of snow buried our normal tally of around 20”. Too much water, maybe. But please. Not lack of water. Not this year.
5. Cold Snaps and Temperature. If you get some really cold temps in the early spring, that can zap your buds.  We had a though winter, but despite all the snow, the temperature was never ridiculously low. And spring came at the beginning of March with great temperatures in the 60s and 70s, way above normal.

So you tell me. What has caused this year’s anemic performance? I would really love to know. In the meantime, I’m going to give my dogwood the same stern talking to that my lilac got last spring when it gave me a meager 4 blooms. The lilac has shaped up significantly. All I ask is that you limit the doom and gloom and keep the dang chainsaws out of my garden.

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Beach Colors

They say that a bad day at the beach beats a good day anywhere else. I heartily agree, but I’d like to amend that statement to say that a day at the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina really is just the best ever. The sun rises over the ocean (I really do wish I were a morning person), the sun sets over the sound (I really do wish I weren’t always feeding children at sunset). I know it’s happening though, and that works for now.

I love this narrow strip of land that snakes down from the Virginia border out into the Atlantic Ocean. In some places, the walk from sea to sound is measured in feet. In other spots, you’re separated from the mainland by 60 miles of water. But no matter where you are, you’re never far from the roar of the ocean. The air smells like salt and the wind blows and blows. (A perfect place to fly the first airplane – just ask Orville and Wilbur). These elements mean only bad hair days for me, but I’m willing to suffer.

I especially admire the trees and plants that manage to make it in the sandy soil and the salt air. Survivors. Short, scraggly pine trees and beach grass thrive, native honeysuckle hugs the dunes.

Usually I’m a sucker for bright, vibrant colors. But when I’m at the beach, give me the steely gray of the sea, the blue of the sky, the beige of the sand and I’m happy. Toss in some bonus shells and feathers and we’re in business.

The ocean helps me get my mind around the concept of “fearing” God. How can you fear something you love and who loves you? But when I apply the same logic to the ocean, it makes sense. I love the ocean. I want to sit beside it and ride upon it and play in its waves. But I fear it too. It is so immense, so powerful, so beyond my ability to control. But boy, I’ll take it any time I can get it.

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