March 30, 2011

The Great Awakening

The garden has been awake for about a month now, but the magic really starts for me when the native trees begin to leaf out, changing the world from grey to green in a matter of weeks. 

As a lover of trees, spring presents one of those unique viewpoints when across the landscape you can pick out species based on colors: red samaras of the maples, light green deciduous leaves of the tulip poplars and sweetgums, dark green needles of the pines, or the showy white dogwoods and magenta redbuds peaking out of the understory. The two largest trees in the picture above are Tulip Poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), each about 3 feet in diameter, guarding the stream at the edge of our property.

We are lucky enough to have our little piece of city property back up to an undeveloped easement with a perennial stream.  A rare 3 acre unmanaged tract for being within the Raleigh City Limits, it attracts a wide variety of wildlife and has mature second growth hardwoods flanking the stream. The easement is dotted with naturally regenerated dogwoods, this one (right) is at the back of our property, trying to fight through the wisteria. A beautiful mixture of colors for this picture, I will eventually take this vine down because they are so invasive. The only thing stopping me is that the plant was a sentimental gift to the previous homeowner from our neighbor, but I will have to take it out before we move to prevent it from spreading.

 In the garden things are moving along at an astonishing pace. With so much rain, the plants have been growing steadily, and on a rare sunny afternoon everything woke up. Warm season herbaceous perennials like this native Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) (top left) are even making an appearance, just peeking over the newly laid mulch. With passing early spring flowers, the Winter Hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) (top right) popped open its swelling buds to reveal crinkled new leaves. Even the lawn is blooming! Amid the catastrophic chickweed outbreak we had had this spring are common violets (Viola floridana) (bottom left) showing their faces for the first time this year. Although considered a "weedy" plant in some situations, I leave these little guys alone to set seeds for the songbirds. In the shade garden, the evergreen Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) (bottom right) has recently sent out a flush of new foliage, and with it delicate white flowers with a sweet scent.

 A new addition to the garden this spring, the Easter Rose (Kerria japonica 'Honshu') is getting impatient and looks like it will open its buds before the name would suggest. I always love seeing the first flower on a new plant in the garden, and even the buds are beautiful on this one. You may also notice the pollen grains on everything! It is officially that time of year when the waters run yellow with the Loblolly Pine pollen flight. Although the grains of pine pollen are too large to induce allergies, they do make mess on the outdoor furniture. The rains lately have really helped though, hopefully we will have the same luck with the Oak pollen flight that will happen in a couple weeks, one that makes even me fuzzy headed in a bad year.

 One of the simple joys I find this time of year is watching the buds swell in the spring and pop to unfurl leaves. The Variegated Beautyberries (Callicarpa dichotoma 'Duet') (left), another new addition this spring, have put on quite a show. The yellow buds and variegation on juvenile leaves is especially exciting to watch progress over the days. The Wine and Roses Wigelia (Wigelia florida 'Wine and Roses') (right) always makes a stunning showing in the spring with its purple-tinged foilage and early buds. Providing a complementary background is a white blooming web of Mazus (Mazus reptans).

I couldn't resist including this pop of color, like I couldn't resist planting these Lorapetalums in our front landscape.  A beautiful evergreen specimen plant, these small Chinese Fringe Flowers (Lorapetalum chinensis 'Daruma') only get about 4ft tall, and flush with a purple-maroon growth of foliage as a backdrop for these neon flowers.

Other, less conspicuous blooms are also present in the front landscape. The Rose Glow Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Rose Glow') became covered in tiny bell shaped blooms over the last couple days. Even the winter-burnt and possibly disease-ridden Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinado) joined in the fun, offering sparse appearances of white flowers with a touch of violet.

For the final picture I will leave you with the Tulipia 'Little Beauty' that I mentioned in the last post on bulbs. After waiting patiently for 2 days of rain, the budded dwarf tulips opened all at once to greet the sun, and I like to think pose for my pictures too. With more rain in the forecast, and snow for our northern friends, these 'Little Beauties' send spring wishes from our garden!

"It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility." ~ Rachel Carson

March 26, 2011

Bulbs, Old and New

I love bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes and corms. The physiology of the plants has always fascinated me: how they can store all they need underground and sprout beautiful and lush seems an amazing feat.


However, right now my tulip bulbs are not really loving me back. Above, a crimson-colored late double tulip, Tulipia 'Double Dutch', was my only traditional tulip bloom in the perennial border (1 out of 20 bulbs), but did make a spectacular showing! Many bulbs are easy to grow, but in the South keeping your tulips blooming regularly proves to be somewhat of a chore. I think the problem in our garden is that they are mixed into the perennial sun border, an area which demands frequent irrigation in the summer months. The tulips, on the other hand, prefer to be dry during their dormancy. Perhaps I should dig and move these to a less water-intensive area. 

In a different location in the garden, these unique tulips (left) just beginning to push blooms above the foliage are a new addition last fall, a pink fringed late variety from the Biltmore Bulb Collection (Tulipia 'Party Time'). Narcissus (I prefer that name to daffodils) are a solid performer in our area, and many perennialize. My favorite in our garden is this pure white variety (right), a Triandrus group Narcissus with 2-3 flowers per stem (Narcissus 'Thalia'). On a warm day these heirloom beauties give off a slight sweet smell. 

I seem to have better luck with the smaller tulips in the garden. These little pink ones (left) are only 6 inches tall and will open any day now to show a royal purple heart (Tulipia 'Little Beauty'). The Muscari (right) were a pleasant surprise this spring.  These were first planted around Christmas 2 years ago when we moved into our house and have never flowered before. I even planted perennials right over them and they are still toughing through.


So on to the new bulbs part. Its time for summer bulb plantings already! Every year I generally order a few bulbs from Brent and Becky's. They are the only online source I use for bulbs, partially because they are a short drive away and in the same zone as us, but also because their bulbs are consistently high quality. I also love the included plastic tags for easy marking. This year I got a small variety, a couple Dahlias, Crocosmia, Dwarf Gladious, and a (supposedly) 10 ft tall Lilly. These all went in the day after arrival, leaving me with a blister from the bulb digger! I've quickly learned my lessons about bulbs in our garden and clay soil, and now plant everything with a small handful of gravel topped by a handful of soil to increase drainage. Like with the tulips, the wet environment during the dormant period is often the killer of marginal summer bulbs here. Dahlias and Gladious are marginal here, and I have seen first hand that with the same mulching they will come back in more well drained spots, but not in those wet soils. Hopefully I made the right choices in placement this year! With bulbs planted and blisters bandaged, now we wait for summer.

"I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright."  ~Henry David Thoreau

March 22, 2011

Greeting Spring at the Arboretum

There is no better activity for the first day of spring than a trip to the local arboretum to get a taste of early blooms. We are lucky enough to be a 5 minute drive from the J.C. Raulston Areboretum at NC State University. With many class and leisure hours spent there, it is my one of Brian and my favorite places to spend an afternoon. This particular trip, along with a myriad of blooms, we took an interest in some yellow magnolias as possible choices for our landscape. Below is Magnolia 'Lois'.

The arboretum has a fantastic magnolia collection, and although many of the pink varieties are just coming out of bloom, the yellow ones were in their prime, just unfurling. I was amazed at how much was in bloom, way too many to take a picture of each, so I will show the highlights.

I absolutely love these prairie crocus (Pulsatilla spp.). The one on the right is P. halleri subsp. styriaca. I don't know anything about them, but they have them planted in their scree (rock) garden.

This beauty was a standout, a scarlet flowered dwarf flowering peach (Prunus percisa 'NCSU Dwarf Double Red') that is a NC State University Horticultural Science introduction. What an amazing specimine plant! This is one I will be taking cuttings of (a benefit allowed by the arboretum for those in the industry and horticultural science students).

Two beautifully fragrant early spring plants, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima - the name says it all!), and early Korean lilac (Syringa oblata subsp. dilatata) were in full bloom

These were two of my favorite trees of the day, a bright chartreuse Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas 'Spring Glow') (top)  just starting to leaf out is another NC State University Horticultural Science Introduction, and a two-toned witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Wiero') (bottom). I love witch-hazels, such an interesting bloom in addition to its many medicinal uses.

Another beautiful yellow magnolia (Magnolia 'Legend') was just opening to reveal its pollen coated innards in a pool of rainwater.

The final yellow magnolia specimen (Magnolia 'Yellow Lantern') (left) looked stunning here amidst bright pink flowers and blue skies. This Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana 'Wate's Gold') (right) is a special winter-gold variety that is one of my favorite trees at the arboretum. A great variety of a native, this one graces the winter garden. I have tried on several occasions to root cuttings from this tree with no luck yet, but I'm sure I'll try again sometime!

Another one of my favorite specimen trees, this weeping elm is deserving of the spotlight even in the absence of blooms or leaves. Found growing wild in a nursery mans backyard (click picture below to see whole story) this NCSU Horticultural Introduction is 54 years old! The white-edged samaras hanging from the weeping branches created an effect much like sequence shimmering in the sun.

"Now every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire."  ~Virgil

March 18, 2011

Hop Projects

Hops (Hululus lupulus) hold a special place in our garden. Brian is a home brewer, and we both love our beer! Growing hops is one of the rare opportunities to combine two passions for us. We have grown them in our garden for 2 seasons now, and were needing to expand our trellis system, thus the hop project began with cedar timbers, some free ground, and a shovel.

Most of the hops grown in the US are from the Willamette Valley in Washington, with Oregon and Idaho being the other major producers. However, with the recent microbrewery craze people have started looking for local sources, and a few hop farms popped up in Western NC. There is little known about hop production in the state, and we are interested in trying out different varieties to see what does best. We use what we grow in our brews, but never get much of a harvest here in Eastern NC. Our summers are too wet for their liking, and the shorter daylight hours mean a late harvest. In the spring we dig and split the some of the rhizomes and pot them up in the greenhouse. Maybe one day we will have enough rhizomes to trade or sell.

We use a grape trellis for support for hops in our vegetable bed (see surviving vegetables post), but we wanted something more fit for the hops twining habit. This area used to have a mature dogwood and pink azaleas. The dogwood died last summer, our neighbor told us the older couple living in our house had left a whole bag of fertilizer to leak on the base. With the dogwood gone, the azaleas get too much sun so we took them out too, and have a big space for projects. For the arbor here we went with the traditional tee-pee style, it reminds me of a Maypole. Brian dug 2-foot deep holes to anchor in the 3- 10 foot cedar timbers. Its a easy design, upright posts with string strung from a stake in the ground to a screw in the top. I will note at this point that I mostly watched, or as I like to call it "supervised", and took pictures.

 The birdhouses give it a little interest... although they might be a little close together to get many birds nesting. The three poles each have a different cultivar. We have Humulus lupulus 'Mt. Hood', 'Chinook', and 'Willamette'. On the other trellis (in the veggie bed) we have 'Centennial'. 
Next update: Harvest Time!


"A mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer." ~Ancient Egyptian Wisdom, 2200 B.C.

March 15, 2011

March Bloom Day

I just couldn't resist posting for the March Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, sponsored by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. This is the 'Crimson Candles' Camellia japonica, in various stages of bud and bloom.


Not having much free time to blog at the moment, I put together a quick collage of happenings in the garden today... some blooms and some buds about to bloom.

From top left: 
'Marley' Violas, 'Quinault' Strawberries, Hyacinth (forgot the variety!)
 'HGC Joseph Lemper' Hellebores, 'Spring Boquet' Viburnum, Mazus reptans
Tulips (another unknown variety), 'Winter Hazel' Corylopsis, 'Reeves' Spirea

"Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life."  ~Rachel Carson

March 14, 2011

You Say Potato

I'm a sucker for starches and love cooking with potatoes, making them a must have in our garden. This is our second year growing 'Red Norland' potatoes, but this year we are also adding 'Yukon Gold' and 'Kennebec', all varieties of Solanum tuberosum.

I bought these seed potatoes almost a month ago. They have been sitting in a cool room where they get lots of light but no direct sun. Within a week  the brown eyes sprouted and grew slowly while I forgot about them, waiting for the right time to plant. 

A couple of the 'Kennebec' potatoes were a little too big (the recommended planting size is 2-3ozs, and these were more like 4-5) and I wanted to split them, both to help them grow and increase the harvest. The package recommends dusting the cut surfaces with a powder fungicide, but not having any on hand, and wanting to experiment a little I tried a different way. I learned in plant pathology that potatoes, when cut, have the ability to heal over and form a new cuticle layer (skin). They can be cut with a sharp, sterilized knife  (dipped in diluted bleach) and set back in the cool room to cure, cut sides up. Generally this is the practice used in commercial production, since it is more cost efficient: all it takes is a little time (and no touching). After two weeks I could tell they were ready, the cut surface became dark and calloused, and the sprouts started growing again. 

Both the 'Red Norland' and 'Yukon Gold' are early potatoes, and I will harvest them when they flower to get yummy buttery fingerling potatoes. The 'Kennebec' are late variety, I will harvest them when the plants die and get big starchy potatoes perfect for my Basil Mashed Potatoes (I'll have to post the recipe when the basil comes into season). I plant everything in huge 15 gallon pots dug halfway into the hillside on the South to keep it cool in the summer. The open side makes for an easy tip-over-and-harvest. I fill it halfway with mushroom compost, add potatoes (I put the 'Red Norland' and 'Yukon Gold' together here), and add 3 inches more of compost. I'll have to pick up some more compost to cover the sprouts, which will hopefully pop their heads up in about 3 weeks. I'll count this as my first planting of summer edibles... something to get excited about.
"Found a little patched-up inn in the village of Bulson. Proprietor had nothing but potatoes; but what a feast he laid before me. Served them in five different courses-potato soup, potato fricassee, potatoes creamed, potato salad and finished with potato pie. It may be because I had not eaten for 36 hours, but that meal seems about the best I ever had." ~General Douglas MacArthur

March 11, 2011

A Closer Look

Along with the abundant blooms on the Cherries, Pears, and Magnolias seen around town, a single inconspicuous bloom was hiding in the 'Emerald Blue' creeping phlox (Phlox subulata).

While the flower is beautiful, what stands out to me are the details in the tightly spiraled buds.  Its amazing how much more you see when you really look closely at nature. Elsewhere in the garden, a closer inspection revealed Southern Wood Fern (Thelypteris kunthii) curls unfurling, and proof that the bugs are back already, sitting here on the Forsythia. Spring has arrived in North Carolina, and according to weather forecasts, will be sticking around for good.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~Anais Nin

March 9, 2011

Pear Problems

'Bradford' Pears (Pyrus calleryana) are a popular tree in our area for good reasons: beautiful early flowers, high tolerance of stress, and a stand-out fall color on glossy leaves that stay on the tree longer into the fall than most other species. 

However, there are some very important unfavorable qualities in the species: its invasive nature and narrow branching angles that result in unstable limbs. Bradford Pear's are widely planted across the Triangle, including this specimen in our front yard which, judging by its size, was planted when the our house was built. We originally had two trees, planted side by side along the road. Last summer, we noticed severe canopy die back on one of them. Upon further inspection of the base of the tree we found the culprit: circling roots that are slowly girdling the trees! What a tribute to breaking up the roots before planting! We cut one down last year, and this one will too die, possibly this year as its blooming is becoming patchy and frequent water sprouts are a sure sign of stress. The possibility of picking a new full-sun specimen tree is exciting, as there are so many wonderful choices. Two I've been eying are 'Thundercloud' Purple-leafed Plum (Prunus cerasifera) and Golden Rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

"God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods.  But he cannot save them from fools."  ~John Muir