garden : where oh where will the little shrubs go?

Red hot poker in front of the pyramid trellis.

Lamb’s ear from a neighbor, planted just ahead of a rare rain.

An unforeseen benefit of having a toddler who likes to be outdoors has been an increase in evening gardening. In the past I’ve been pretty much fed up with working in the yard by this time of year; once it gets hot I like to hang out inside and look at my flowers through the window. Hanging out inside is not a recipe for relaxation with the sprout, though, so we head outside after nap time. Lately we’ve been staying in the yard rather than going to the park, because the porch now stores such enticements as chalk, balls, bubbles, and the extremely popular trowel, all of which makes it difficult to get very far away from the front door. And, as soon as we get outside I am exhorted to “Dig, dig, dig!” Having already moved and planted nearly everything that needs to be moved and planted this spring I am left with weeding. So, all of the front beds are edged and mulched (and look quite nice, if I do say so myself) and we have progressed to weeding the backyard beds. Usually the weeding of the backyard is an annual Herculean task that I delegate to my partner and a very kind friend and which they typically tackle on one very long Saturday round about September or October. Since we don’t have much of anything planted in the backyard (due to the fence that needs to be replaced and my determination to minimize the plants that will need to be relocated when that happens) “weeding” really means digging out the annual encroachment of liriope, ivy, and violets from the sides of the yard that have been successfully cleared in previous years and now languish under a variably thick layer of leaves.

Our new side garden.

The enormous sage, before it got a fungus and then the axe.

This year, however, the presence of my miniature task-master has led me to seek out opportunities for digging and pruning lest the desire to “Dig, dig, dig!” lead to the uprooting of all the herbs, bulbs, and perennials I’ve worked so hard to establish over the past few years. As a result, the peony “bed” (aka strip along the back fence where I plunked them for lack of a better spot at the time) has been weeded and mulched (this last for the first time ever). The area around one of the roses has also been weeded and mulched, the encroaching dwarf almond has been cut back, and the ornamental quince around the corner of the house has been pruned (that was very exciting for the sprout, I fielded requests for “more cut!” for days after that one). After all this I find myself in the odd position of having a fairly well-maintained garden early in the season, leaving me with very little choice except to proceed with digging out the liriope in the back side yard to clear space to plant my new shrubs, a task I would have sworn would be left for partner and friend to undertake sometime in September or October.

Some of my hesitation around this project is due to the fact that I still don’t know exactly which shrubs are going to go where. I have four shrubs that need homes (spicebush, ninebark, beautyberry, and inkberry), and juggling the sun/shade needs is proving a bit tricky. Mostly, though, the tricky part is that I want to be able to see all the shrubs from inside the house because they have been carefully selected to attract wildlife. Oh, and the small complicating detail that two of the spots for the new shrubs are occupied by old shrubs that I want to get rid of and my partner wants to keep. There is that. However, we both agree that regardless of the precise shrub placement, the liriope and other weeds need to be dug out of the side yard so that it can be turned into a mulched area with a path (or just a few stepping stones) which will not have to be mown or weeded very much at all in future years. That alone will require hours of work before we’re even close to needing to resolve our shrub location dispute. My proposal is: get rid of the dwarf almond on the back corner of the house and replace it with the beautyberry (or better yet the ninebark, given how big that one gets); get rid of the forsythia (to which I am incredibly allergic) on the other back corner of the house and replace it with a rain barrel (already purchased and waiting in the garage); get rid of the white lilac (already offered to a friend) and replace it with the spicebush; get rid of the sassafrass sprouts (already slated to be donated to the town park) and replace them with the inkberry; and fit the fourth shrub in somewhere once I see how the rest of this is coming along.

Really, if I’m honest, the dispute is not so much about where all these shrubs will go but more about how exactly we arrived at the current backlog of shrubs waiting to be planted somewhere in the yard. On that point, I got nuthin.

garden : where oh where will the little shrubs go?

beautiful year for a spring garden

Our hand-me-down tulips in full bloom.

This spring has been an amazing one for the garden! I’m trying to put aside concerns about extreme weather, greater pests and allergies, and a brutally hot summer and just enjoy having all the spring flowers in bloom at once. Even the flowers in our shady foundation bed benefited from the unseasonably warm week we had last month: the bleeding heart is putting out new shoots and the epimedium that’s getting the most sun is showing lovely variegation on its leaves. I already have irises and the tulips are blooming at the same time as the dogwood. This is all wreaking havoc on my sinuses but it’s making for an incredibly cheery display of color at the front of the house.

Celandine poppy bursting with color.

First blooms on the cranesbill geranium, with woodruff.

I’m most excited to see how the new side garden turns out this year. It looks like we lost about half of the end-of-season bargain plants from Behnke’s, which is a shame (and yes, I know that they have a warranty but that would require me to have a receipt and an actual dead plant in hand). We also lost the thyme and marjoram plants, but the lemon verbena is putting out new shoots, so that’s a pleasant surprise. All of the semi-shady plants I received from our neighbors have returned: two geraniums, epimedium, celandine poppy, and bleeding heart. Inspired by the new oakleaf hydrangea (which is also growing like mad), I also placed a second bleeding heart and a couple clumps of epimedium over in the shady foundation bed to the right of the front porch. Along with the columbine, those should nice fill in the space behind the azalea and pieris and still be amenable to a nice easy leaf mulch each winter.

First blooms on the new bleeding heart.

Variegation on the epimedium.

Getting back to the side garden, I plan to replace the shrubby herbs and add a few more filler plants like yarrow and lamb’s ear, assuming I can scavenge some from neighbors. I would still like to add a dwarf oakleaf hydrangea to that side of the house, although I’m probably going to wait another year to see what kind of space I have for it. For now, the sprout and I are enjoying making daily inspections of the garden, pulling out weeds and smelling flowers as they emerge. Any pinecones we find on our walks get deposited there and we’re working on making clear the difference between plants you can walk on (grass) and plants you cannot (everything else).

Bee enjoying the volunteer patch of blue bugle flower under the maple.

beautiful year for a spring garden

is it spring yet?

First bloom of the year, on the new hellebore.

Since I’m now a parent and find myself saying dorky things like “Lead on, MacDuff!” and “it’s a doggie-dog world” on a regular basis, I am going to just come out with it: is this thing on? I think I may have hit a record length for blogging silence, at least for a blog that I still consider active. But yes, I do still consider it active and I do plan to return, dust in the corners, and charge ahead into spring. My biggest challenge remains a lack of anything in my life suitable for blogging. Or at least, nothing suitable for a garden/home/cooking blog; since I remain resolved to only refer to the sprout obliquely and without photos or specific amusing anecdotes, there isn’t much left. Yes, I could (and probably will) wax on about the conundrums of being an old-school feminist in an anti-feminist reclaiming-high-heels-for-the-masses era, but that’s only interesting for so long and hardly at all once it’s actually outside of my head. What I would prefer is to organize my actual life to allow for cooking, gardening, art, and home projects so that I will have more material to work with. We’re not quite there yet.

We are, however, making painfully slow but steady progress toward having space, time, and energy to make these things happen. The garden has the most potential since it’s outside and therefore exempt from being entirely covered with stacks of paper to be dealt with, which is the fate of all other available workspace inside the house. Last spring’s hard work is already paying off, as there are buds and sprouts and even blooms coming up all over in the new side garden. I finally have a hellebore, and it’s a lovely deep burgundy color; having bought it half off well after its bloom season, it could have been anything. One of these days, when there is money to spare for specific garden plants, I’d like to add a green-flowering one and a medicinally valuable one. (Because I’m a geek who likes unusual things, and green flowers are certainly that.) I remind myself that there is a whole backyard just waiting to be landscaped post-new-fence and there’s no need to cram every flowering plant I covet into one small patch. At any rate, the hellebore is flowering! The dicentra is also sending up shoots, which is reassuring since I feared I’d killed that one. I may yet have killed the second of the two; I’m not entirely sure as I am trying not to inspect the ground for shoots every single day (a watched pot and all that).

The shrubs seem to have all weathered the (unseasonably mild) winter well, as they all now have buds and new shoots. I did manage to get the second winterberry into the ground during one warm stretch, so that leaves just the spicebush, inkberry, and beautyberry in pots waiting to be planted. They are destined for the liriope-riddled side yard at the back of the house, near the stairs to the basement, just as soon as we remove all the liriope and the two sassafras saplings that we’re donating to the town park. That area is bounded by our neighbor’s fence, the rear addition, the sassafrass trees in the front and the holly tree in the back. So it’s the next reasonable place to garden, as it could use some cleaning up, pruning, and rearranging. It’s already a sheltered corner that the birds and squirrels love, and I think it will be lovely once the new shrubs are in place. It’s also visible from the two windows in the rear addition, and between the flowers, foliage, and autumn/winter berries it’s looking really fantastic in my imagination.

is it spring yet?

garden : pleasant surprise!

It appears that our pieris plant may actually be a native! I had just assumed that it was the Japanese variety and hadn’t even really registered that there is a regional alternative. The other day when we were sitting on the porch I noticed that it was covered in bees of all sorts. So we looked it up again and identified it as a “Forest Flame” pieris, which is (as far as I can tell) a hybrid cultivar.

Over the past few years I’ve been vigilant about cutting out any damaged sprigs and the new growth is starting to fill out the shape of the plant. Once we removed the struggling evergreen on the north side of the pieris there was more room to grow in that direction. With the addition of the oak leaf hydrangea, that shady section of acid-loving shrubs with white flowers is now complete!

garden : pleasant surprise!

garden : going native

I have vowed that this will be the year we make progress on converting the yard and garden to native plants. This means saying goodbye to the orange daylilies, forsythia, dwarf almond, lilac, and crape myrtle sprout (the large one can stay for now). Wait wait, you might be saying: most of these are popular, non-invasive, flowering garden shrubs. Yes, most of them are. However: I am allergic to forsythia and my partner is allergic to lilacs, and both of these are scrubby plants in less than ideal locations, which is also true of the dwarf almond. I do plan to dig up and give away the lilac and crape myrtle, and I suppose I could do the same for the other two (if anyone wants them). Certainly there will still be plenty of opportunities to see forsythia, lilacs, and myrtles just on our block, let alone in the neighborhood as a whole. Also true of the daylilies, which are best categorized as an invasive weed despite their cheery profusion. We are keeping the ornamental quince, as it produces fruit that the local wildlife like (yay, possums!).

So, yes, going native means replacing some perfectly decent shrubs. Replacing being the key word, and where the fun starts. I have been longing for more bird-friendly shrubs ever since we moved in. We are doing well with the trees, as the yard includes: native black cherries, American hollies, dogwoods, red maples, mulberries (which are destined to disappear in a later phase that involves actually hiring people), and a sweet gum tree (technically in the neighbor’s yard, but along our property line). With the addition of some wildlife-friendly shrubs, I hope to see more nesting species or migrating songbirds and fewer insects. I’ve been using the American Beauties website and the notes of a dedicated wildlife gardener to sketch out a plan for the yard that I hope will also add some winter structure (which the front in particular is sorely lacking).

The first thing I did to further this plan was replace the dead rhododendron in the shady foundation bed. I had already decided that I wanted an Oakleaf hydrangea; I went to my local nursery planning to just look at the options and (of course) came home with one. In a rare instance of planning and action, I planted it out before the maple tree leafed out and the day before the spring rains started in earnest. It’s happily leafing out and I’ve left it plenty of room to grow.

My plans for the rest of the yard are not firm, but they involve a couple of major changes. We really need to grade the side yard the property line to address the downhill flow of water to (and through) our foundation wall, and I want to use that project as an opportunity to replant that entire space as a mix of new shrubs and the perennials I already have in other spots in the yard. I’d also like to add a shrub or two into the sunny foundation bed; as much as I like the perennials, the winter landscape looks too lopsided with the shrubs and tree on the right and nothing but scruffy seed heads on the left. I’d also like to add some woody herbs (rosemary, sage, another lavender) to the sidewalk bed, along the top of the bed that’s currently a row of (clumping) daylilies; I plan to move those to replace the row of invasive orange ones.

So, what will all these shrubs be? At least two will be varieties of Winterberry, as a male is needed for good fruiting. I’m thinking that one (or maybe two, depending on size) will go at the end of the sunny bed next to the porch to provide some screening once they reach full height (I’m planning to put the male in the backyard, beside the stairs to the basement and underneath the sassafras and dogwood; hopefully that will be proximate enough for fertilization). I’ll add at least one more Oakleaf hydrangea, and possibly two; probably another large specimen to replace the forsythia and a shorter variety in the side yard or at the end of the sidewalk bed. At least one Clethra will go in the sidewalk bed and possibly also in the sunny foundation bed as a complement to the other butterfly-attracting plants there. Native viburnums are the other category of shrub to be worked in. I need to do some more research, but I’m thinking a small variety like Arrowwood for the side yard and a taller variety like Blackhaw for the other corner of the back wall to replace the dwarf almond. (The stretch in the middle of the wall is going to become a raised bed, planted with herbs or for use by the kid in future years or both.)

Again this year, I’m not planning anything for the rear yard where the fence needs to be replaced, so the focus is on the front. The goal is to increase the aesthetics, add some winter structure, and last but most important, increase the cover and food for birds and small wildlife. I would love to see more migrating birds stopping in our yard, particularly songbirds. I’ve spotted several varieties of vireo and warbler over the years we’ve been here, and I imagine many more went unnoticed. Attracting them to shrubs closer to the windows would be great!

garden : going native