Square One

New Year's Resolutions and Mistakes

January 20, 2015

I might break my only New Year’s resolution: To make no New Year’s resolutions this year.  I make them perennially, and sometimes even keep them but this year I resolved to wing it.

A couple of sentences in Robin Lane’s Fox’s garden column in a recent Weekend FT are compelling me to reconsider.  He writes  “I bet that, like me, you have been sitting on mistakes without realizing them.  It can take years for an owner to see that an inherited or misplaced plant is in need of removal”. 

It is unimaginable that RLF is sitting on mistakes, but this hit a nerve.  I know that I am sitting on mistakes but I am not good about making hard choices in my garden.  I am downright spineless. 

These anemones may need a new home. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) These anemones may need a new home.
For instance, I have an “inherited” tree that is a nuisance from the time it finishes blooming until it drops its leaves in fall.  It is the aged weeping cherry tree about which I have written before, and that for weeks drips overripe purple-staining cherries all over the terrace, chairs, umbrellas, and us.  To add insult to injury, it drops copious leaves all summer.  I’ve consulted arborists, sent leaf samples to be analyzed, fed it, sprayed it, watered it, scolded it, encouraged it all to no avail because it is dying.  I dread a repeat performance in 2015 but it is so lovely for the 7 days it blooms and it must be more than 50 years old.  How can I justify taking this venerable tree down?  And yet, is it is certainly a mistake not to.  Perhaps it’s time to make that hard choice.  A New Year’s resolution?

Another mistake is hanging on to the pink Japanese anemones that bloom all fall.  You might ask what fault one could possibly find with healthy, long blooming perennials.   In theory there is none, but pink just isn’t the right color for my garden and at 4 feet tall, they require endless staking.  They are robust and beautiful so I have resisted taking them out and last year lamely shuffled them into a corner, but they still are out of place.  They really need a new home.   Could letting them go be another resolution?


These intruders will not be welcome this year (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) These intruders will not be welcome this year

And then there are the raccoons whose diurnal visits in search of snacks caused no end of mess and miserylast summer.  The main perp was caught red-handed in that same weeping cherry, his little masked snout peering resentfully at my dinner guests, willing us to go inside to eat so he could come down and do the same.  Who knew that raccoons are four-legged roto-tillers who use the kitty’s water dish as a finger bowl?  What a mistake to tolerate their intrusions!  By the time I launched into a hilariously feckless series of efforts to deter these adorable pests, they’d procreated and done expensive damage.  Coyote urine, mothballs, full frontal attacks with water spurting from my garden house, hurling unprintable epithets, and other “sure-fire” remedies failed.  I finally lined the top of the ivy covered garden wall with driveway stakes that protrude from under the ivy like medieval spikes.  This seemed to help, but the pointed yellow and orange stakes violate my color scheme.   Could another resolution be to make these raccoons wish they lived in the middle of the I-95 corridor the second they show up again?

Snowdrops for sale (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Snowdrops for sale "in the green" at the Royal Horticultural Society.

Last year I started keeping a running list of every cultivar in my garden.  The list is in the cloud and accessible on my phone, so I am never without it at a nursery.  I did not, however, keep track of where my bulbs are – what an admission for a Dutch woman!  Every year I think I should photograph the flowerbeds so I can see where and what I should be planting in the fall.  I have never done it so I’m always at a loss when the fall bulb catalogues come through the mail slot.  Could be a very easy resolution.

An alternative fall bulb project would be to plant bulbs like snowdrops, anemones, and scillas in small pots to be installed in Spring 2016 where they are needed.   You can buy all kinds of bulbs “in the green” in springtime at any UK nursery specifically for this purpose, and it seems such a good and simple idea; I wonder why I don’t do it, too.  This could definitely be another resolution – a fun one. 


Bearclaw hellebore and Tasselform provide great winter interest. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Bearclaw hellebore and Tasselform provide great winter interest.

The problem with making New Year’s resolutions is that I never know when to stop.   Thank goodness I havea word limit here to restrain me.  The list I started before writing this piece began to feel endless so I’ve prioritized.  In the meantime, when I went into the garden for a breath of air the other day, I came up with the one resolution that I will keep.  Standing in the bright mid-January sunshine, I noticed that there actually is a lot of winter interest in my garden, which is to say that the past few years of planning and planting have paid off.  Bulbs are poking up, hellebores are blooming, and the leaves of some of my heucheras and bergenias have become a gorgeous red.  There are ferns and grasses.  Leaf-mold mulch makes the beds tidy and insulated.  It is very pretty.  What a mistake it is not to pause and admire it! 

My resolution to make no resolutions this year is hereby officially broken:  I resolve to take more time to simply enjoy the garden.  And if that means taking down that damn cherry tree, I’ll do it.







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Born To Be Wild

August 25, 2014

Willow flowers, a non-native, have naturalized in woodlands. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Willow flowers, a non-native, have naturalized in woodlands.

It has been a wild summer.  I don’t just mean world news, which I have assiduously avoided because it’s been so grim.  I mean that it has been a fantastic summer for wildflowers, starting with iris, lupines, foxgloves, and columbine and now peaking with golden rod, black-eyed Susans, and tall grasses gone to seed.  It seems that abundant rain and not-so-hot temperatures have been ideal for run-of-the-mill wildflowers as well as some unusual ones. 

Orange day lilies are an import from Asia. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Orange day lilies are an import from Asia.

In July, my Maine neighbor showed me a flower along our dirt road that she did not recognize.  It had a spectacular spike of candy-pink ruffled orchid-shaped flowers arrayed in orderly profusion along a tall stem, and was growing in a delightful tangle of ferns and sedges.  I had no idea what it was, so I sent a photo to my friend, Stephanie Oberle, Director at Brookside Gardens and plant expert extraordinaire.  She instantly recognized it as a  "Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid" (Platanthera psycodes) -- a wild orchid.

While most orchids with which we are familiar are epiphytes, plants that absorb oxygen, nutrients, and moisture through exposed roots, the fringed orchid is terrestrial, meaning its roots must be in soil. There are about 200 species of terrestrial orchids in the US and Canada, including the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid, which, though uncommon, is found inmoist swamps, marshes, wet meadows, and boggy ditches from the upper Midwest to the East Coast and from Georgia to Hudson Bay.  Excited, my immediate reaction was to plant more, but unfortunately, this July-blooming, butterfly-attracting beauty is difficult to propagate and is not commercially available.  It grows best uncultivated in the wild.

Valerian was imported by early colonists. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Valerian was imported by early colonists.

A few days later, I happened upon a treasure trove of light blue flowers growing in the woods. Though I recognized them as campanulas, I'd never seen this color nor had seen them growing wild before.  Fresh from the orchid discovery, I was confidant they were another unusual wild flower but when I looked them up I learned that they are probably willow flowers (Campanula persifolia), a native of Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia.  Obviously they had escaped the confines of a gardener's perennial border.  Unlike the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid they aren’t native, though they are obviously “born to be wild”.

Determining that these campanulas are imports had me wondering about other flowers I thought were “wild” by which I mean native flowers that grow uncultivated in natural areas rather than species introduced from other parts of the globe.  I looked up orange daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), sure they fit the bill.  After all, they grow in abundance and almost everywhere.  I long to stop along a roadside to dig them up and plant them in my garden.  I am not too cheap to buy them but these ordinary, long-blooming lilies are not available at local garden centers or in catalogues where you can only find refined cultivars with fancy names like "All Fired Up", "Cosmic Hummingbird", or "Flaming Frolic".  A quick peak at the American Hemerocallis Society website revealed that they are actually native to Asia.  I confess I was a little disappointed to find that orange daylilies are just another garden-escapee posing as a wild flower.

This impatiens from the Himalayas is an invasive. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) This impatiens from the Himalayas is an invasive.

I looked up another favorite.  Tall graceful valerian (Valeriana officianalis) grows wild in meadows and along roads throughout the Eastern US and elsewhere.  It blooms in midsummer, producing flat clusters (cymes) of tiny white flowers on slender 2 to 3 foot stems, and is spectacular when it grows in colonies through wild grasses and other meadowy plants.  It is so common, it seems like it would have to be native, a but a little delving revealed that valerian was introduced to North America by early colonists who used it as a sedative to treat insomnia and anxiety.  (Please don’t try this on your own without consulting a doctor.)  Valerian, having broken free of its cultivated confines, has also naturalized, perhaps inspired by its cousin Valeriana sitchensis, a true native indigenous to the western United States.

Blue asters are beautiful additions to any perennial border. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Blue asters are beautiful additions to any perennial border.

Purple jewelweed, (Impatiens glandulifera), a cousin of the ordinary garden-variety impatiens, was next on my list.  It seems to be everywhere this year, growing in moist lightly shaded areas to about 3 feet tall, with long leaves and disproportionately small orchid-like blush-pink flowers.  A little research quickly revealed that this is a Himalayan native that made its way with a little human help to North America in the early 1800’s.  Purple jewelweed and its relations (orange and yellow) are prolific self-sowers, as each plant produces hundreds of seeds that are explosively released from its pods to ensure they are distributed as far as possible away from the mother plant.  Jewelweeds are considered invasive because they spread so quickly, taking over the habitats of native plants.

I was pleased that the next flower I looked up is a native.  The Smooth Aster, (Symphyotrichumlaeve), is one of the 180 species of asters that are native to the US and is a sweet periwinkle blue, the perfect accompaniment to perennials and annuals of almost any color.  They and other North American asters are commercially available and grow best in full sun.  Smooth Asters attract various butterflies and grow 2-3 feet tall, so are good back-of-the-border plants.  Pinching them once or twice early in summer will make them lower and bushier so less likely to need staking.  Just to confuse everyone, in 1994 experts determined that North American asters differ from asters found elsewhere in the world and so changed their classifications and Latin names.

Just as many plants brought to North America have “gone native”, some so completely as to have become invasive, many North American perennials have done the same in other parts of the world.  Once established in far-away gardens, they have naturalized in fields or marshes or woodlands, growing wild where they find conditions conducive to their specific needs.  It is the nature of things:  “Like a true nature’s child, they are born to be wild”.

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The Color Purple

July 21, 2014

The Golden Raintree is blooms in mid-summer. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Golden Raintree is blooms in mid-summer.

Purple is a great color – regal, royal, romantic, and more.  No matter the time of year, whether it is purple kale in winter or purple irises in summer, you can’t go wrong with purple.  The exception is when it comes in the form of small ripe cherries splatting down from the cherry tree beside the patio where they smear when walked on, are tracked into the farthest reaches of the house, and are digested and copiously excreted by birds overhead. 

The weeping cherry tree on my patio, dazzling for a week every spring -- sweet white petals profusely cascading down its long, pendulous branches -- turns into an unbelievably messy tree by early summer with a malevolence that reminds me of the transition of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.  It has just finished four weeks of dropping its amaranthine fruity load onto chaise lounges, the white market umbrella, and unsuspecting people.  As the hard green cherries began to ripen, squishy fruit and violet-white bird poop rained down vigorously, especially when squirrels and birds were dining.  In short order, the flagstone terrace looked like a poor imitation of a Jackson Pollock canvas, and violet splats covered every surface beneath the tree’s benign-looking canopy. 

The point is that there are good trees for small gardens and terraces, and there are messy trees for small gardens and terraces.  Most complaints about are evergreen magnolias that drop large leathery leaves,  mulberry trees that drop large sticky crimson berries, and female ginkgos that drop delicious nuts encased in foul smelling plumy fruits. 

Fringe Trees have unusual flowers with a pleasant fragrance. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Fringe Trees have unusual flowers with a pleasant fragrance.

And weeping cherry trees.  Lately I have been fantasizing about chopping that tree down.  After all, if George Washington can do it, then so can I.  I would replace it with something beautiful and well behaved.  A Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) might be a good choice.   An Asian native, it is a fast growing tree that will reach up to 30-40 tall and wide, but can be pruned to keep it in check.  One of its attractions is that it blooms in summer when relatively few other trees are blooming.  Panicles of small, bright lemon-colored flowers appear in July and August and morph into clusters of brown seed pods in fall that persist into winter when they provide texture and interest.  Its leaves are comprised of small leaflets arranged along a center stalk that become a good yellow-orange in autumn. Golden Rain Trees do self-sow so its seedlings need to be pulled each spring.

A smaller alternative would be the American native, the Fringe Tree, (Chionanthus virginicus), which George Washington actively sought for Mount Vernon. Fringe Trees grow slowly up to 15-20', to it is ideal for a small space.  Its flowers are unusual – bouquets of long, fringy white flowers that exude a delicious fragrance -- and appear in late spring.  In summer the flowers become loose clusters of blue olive-shaped berries (not toxic) that birds relish and in fall its leaves fade to gold.  Fringe Trees are low-maintenance trees prefer that fertile, moist, well drained soil, and will tolerate full sun or part-shade.  It is interesting to note that there are male and female trees, though they are not usually labeled as such as hollies often are. 

Dogwoods have year-round interest, an important feature for small gardens. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Dogwoods have year-round interest, an important feature for small gardens.

As long as we are talking about native species that George Washington collected, we should mention dogwoods  (Cornus florida).  It is difficult to think of another species of tree that is more perfect for small gardens than the dogwood.  My regular readers know that I prefer trees and shrubs with multi-season interest, and dogwoods fit the bill perfectly.  In winter, the black alligator bark stands out sharply against snow and sky and the delicate twigs bear little knobs that turn into large flowers (actually small clusters of flowers with large colored leaves called bracts) in mid-spring.  In summer dogwoods produce cheery red berries (non-staining), and in fall their leaves turn deep maroon to cherry red.  I find their fall color combined with their bright red fruits just as beautiful as their spring displays.  Dogwoods are susceptible to anthracnose, a fungus, but there are several resistant cultivars, both pink and white, available.  As is true of all trees, a properly planted dogwood, located in full or part sun with adequate air circulation and in good soil, will thrive.   

Sweetbay magnolias can be semi-evergreen in mild winters and protected places. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Sweetbay magnolias can be semi-evergreen in mild winters and protected places.

While evergreen magnolias are too large and messy for small gardens, their native cousin, the semi-evergreen Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a drought-tolerant charmer.  I was first introduced to this tree at the National Arboretum and it was love at first sight.  I’ve never had a good spot for one, but I managed to persuade a neighbor to plant one once, and I made a point of visiting it (and her) when it was blooming just to drink in the classic magnolia scent from its waxy ivory flowers.  The flowers are reminiscent of those the evergreen magnolia but are smaller and appear sporadically from mid-summer to fall instead of having an intense, one-time display like some of its deciduous spring blooming cousins.  Sweetbay Magnolias will reach 15-25 feet, developing a pretty rounded shape, and can grow in a variety of soils as long as it doesn’t dry out.  Its foliage is semi-evergreen during warm winters and in fall, its red berries, arrayed on cone shaped spikes, are a great food source for mockingbirds, catbirds, bobwhite, and your pet wild turkey.

Crepe myrtles are ubiquitous and bloom well into early fall. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Crepe myrtles are ubiquitous and bloom well into early fall.

Chopping down that cherry will give me enough sun for a Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia), native to India and other parts of Asia.  Though available in shrub and dwarf forms, I prefer the tree form, especially when they have not been over-pruned into nubs as they too often are.  Crepe myrtles seem especially ubiquitous this time of year, so it might be too obvious a choice, but they make excellent specimen trees that meet the multi-season interest test.  They do not begin to leaf out until late in spring, but are otherwise splendid the rest of the year.   The real show begins in summer when dense bouquet-like clusters of crepe-papery flowers emerge.  The flowers last into well into fall, an advantage over trees with shorter bloom times, but that means you must select a color of which you do not tire easily.   I would plant a white one, rather than one of the varieties of pink, red, and lavender because white is easier to work with in my garden. Crepe Myrtle leaves are quite small and tidy, and turn radiant shades of orange and red in the fall.  In winter, the cinnamon colored bark exfoliates giving it a mottled appearance, and its dark brown seed heads add interest, especially when snow or ice-covered.  Mildew can be problematic, so look for a cultivar specifically bred to be mildew resistant like “Hopi” or “Zuni”.

Choosing the right tree for a small garden should not be hard, which makes me wonder who’s bright idea it was to plant that cherry.  The trick is, as always, to determine the conditions and size of the space and to work within those parameters.  Height, spread, seasonal interest, sunlight requirements, soil conditions – all are important features you should take under consideration when you select a tree.  The one thing that is different about trees for small gardens is the messiness factor.  A messy tree will make you see red.  Or purple of the not regal, royal, or romantic kind.



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