Sunday, March 30, 2014

An idea occurs. Uh-Oh: Hard work and thinner wallet ahead....

Yes, I vowed to myself (and to my dubious husband) that I would not start any more new garden areas this year. I still need to work on several that are only a year or two old (the Rainbow Border, the North Border, and the Front Border, as well as the Addition Borders), plus I also need to start planting around the garden shed and the gazebo, which are still mostly blank slates. I already have a lot of work cut out for me this year.

But then I got a great idea! :-)

One of my concerns about my overall garden is that the garden areas are too spread out around my five-acre property. In discussing this, my good husband and I agreed that any future garden development should occur closer to the house. And looking around, I notice that there is quite a bit of undeveloped space to the west and north of my house (this didn't really just occur to me, but I never thought about it in any detail before, mostly because there is currently too much shade to the north and northwest of the house, from two large deciduous ash trees.

A drawing of the current layout of my yard near the house.
The two trees north of the house are both ash trees and
may eventually succumb to EAB

So I start thinking about the two trees north of the house: they are both ash trees, and everyone around here knows that the Emerald Ash Borer is eventually coming to destroy our ash trees. It could be 10-20 years until this happens, or it could be only a few years.

A red cloud crawls across the Midwest -- I live in east-central
Iowa, which is looking pretty red. EAB has been detected in
at least four Iowa counties already. (USDA Forest Service)

Perhaps if I removed one or both of those trees, there would be enough light and space to plant some small flowering trees and shrubs in both the north and west yards. Those areas are protected from the wind by the north and west windbreaks and would be ideal for dogwoods, eastern redbuds and other trees that can be killed by winter winds in Zone 5.

The two ash trees. The one closer to the house is smaller, perhaps
because there was a tree house built around it for about ten years,
until we removed it two years ago.

Of course, I feel bad about removing large mature trees, but here are some justifications:

  1. EAB may get them eventually. If I want to plant things in the yard, it's better to remove the ash trees before there are garden beds in the area. Also, I want to plant flowering trees, which take some time to mature -- perhaps ten years or longer. Why wait to plant those until after the ash borer comes?
  2. The ash trees are on the north side of the house, so they don't provide any shade for the house. We had three silver maples to the west of the house when we moved here, but when we built our library addition onto the west side of the house, we had to remove two of them. The house is much hotter in summer now, and I think I am going to plant a red oak to the southwest of the addition this year to eventually replace that shade.
  3. Every time we have a storm, the ash trees drop a bunch of sticks all over the yard. I have to pick up sticks before mowing most times, which is annoying work.
  4. The trees shade the west yard in the morning, and that area also receives midday shade from the remaining silver maple and late afternoon shade from the west windbreak. This makes the area too shady to plant many trees and shrubs in.
I think I have about decided to remove only Ash Tree #2, the one closest to the house, for now. It seems to be smaller and weaker than the other one, perhaps because of the tree house built around it for ten years. This will allow more light into the area and free up space for planting, and would let the remaining tree get more light, which might keep it healthier for longer. #2 also seems too close to the house now that it's mature.

But I don't want to make more mixed borders with perennials, annuals, shrubs and bulbs in these undeveloped areas; that kind of border is pretty labor-intensive and I have several already that still need work (see first paragraph). What I increasingly find myself wanting to plant are flowering trees and shrubs, and more spring-flowering bulbs.

But what style of garden? My other garden areas tend to be somewhat formal, although they are slowly becoming less formal as I garden longer.

I've started admiring curvaceous island beds and I think they might be most appropriate for flowering trees, shrubs and bulbs. I have a garden video about the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, and that might be what started to sell me on the idea of curvy island beds, which I never thought very highly of before.

The Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, Canada.
(Flickr - Jeffrey Beall)

Curved island beds seem almost Victorian in style -- 19th-century gardeners loved to display their specimen trees in such beds -- as well as somewhat Japanese too. I was blown away by the spring flowering in the Missouri Botanical Garden's Japanese Garden the first time I visited it, and return to see it every spring -- and I've been wondering how I can include some of that glorious flowering in my own garden. I planted five Kwanzan flowering cherry trees in the west yard two years ago, but in a symmetrical layout. Now I wonder if they might look better in island beds surrounded by flowering shrubs, flowering trees in other colors and spring bulbs.

The MOBOT Japanese Garden in glorious spring.

I could have four island beds in the west and north yards, holding my existing cherry trees, one or two dogwoods and eastern redbuds and perhaps a magnolia or two. Then I could plant numerous flowering shrubs such as tree peonies (and perhaps deciduous peonies too), azaleas, flowering quince, deutzia, kerria japonica, wedding spirea, lilacs and many others -- there are even a few camellias that are marginally hardy here that I could try. The possibility for shrubs is endless. I could even include a few dwarf conifers for winter interest. In a few years I could fill in with spring bulbs, and maybe some lilies for summer flowers.

A possible layout of four island beds, after the ash tree closest to the
house is removed. A new shade tree planted in front of the house.
The west side the house is 24 feet wide (North-to-South), for scale.

The remaining ash tree would still provide enough shade in Island Bed #3 for trees, shrubs and bulbs that like shade, and the sunnier west beds would receive mostly full sun. Island Beds #2 and #3 might eventually at least partially hide the children's jungle gym and trampoline (not the most attractive items from a gardening perspective).

As far as work and cost, all I would need to do this year (after having the tree cut down and the stump ground out) would be:

  1. outline the beds
  2. have my husband spray the grass and after a few days come in with his tractor to plow up the ground (which is very compacted)
  3. add soil amendments such as leaf compost, and peat moss for areas for acid-loving plants, and dig those amendments in, breaking up large clumps of earth
  4. plant the trees and any slower-growing shrubs that I find locally at reasonable prices
  5. mulch (perhaps with leaf compost)

I wouldn't have to do anything else this year and could wait for future years to fill in with more shrubs and a selection of spring bulbs and lilies.

Look at all this space barely being used. I think a few island beds
might make this area more beautiful, and not just an empty yard to mow.

I know I vowed I wouldn't make any new garden areas this year (my poor husband is still somewhat shell-shocked by my rapid about-face). But if I want to grow flowering trees and shrubs, they can be slow-growing and I should plant them ASAP (no time like the present...).

And trees and shrubs are relatively low-maintenance plants; annual work should be fairly limited, just occasional weeding and annual/biannual replacement of mulch/compost. Perhaps some pruning, as trees and shrubs become mature, and some raking of leaves in spring (the ones that don't blow away as they usually do on our windy hill). No annual cutting back of perennial foliage (except lily stems), no staking and no dividing needed.

Maybe I should think about it for a few weeks. Any thoughts? Thanks!

Book Review: "The New Low-Maintenance Garden" by Valerie Easton

Since it's been too cold to do much gardening outside over the past week, I read one of the books I checked out of the library. Here are my thoughts about it:

Published in 2009 Timber Press.
284 pages.
"The New Low-Maintenance Garden" was written by Valerie Easton, a longtime garden columnist who downsized from her large garden to "a very small house with a very small garden": a geometrical backyard entertaining area surrounded by raised beds, pots, and a few very small areas of easy-care foliage plants, with no turf to mow.

Some concerns about this book:

1) Ms. Easton gardens only in Seattle and usually writes for a Seattle readership, and this book is more than usually tailored for a specifically Northwest audience. The majority of the plants she recommends in the book are not ones that will thrive in the rest of the country, and her recommendation for planting everything in pots is certainly not "low-maintenance" here in the hot, windy Midwest, where pots often need to be watered twice a day in the dog days of summer. I prefer weeding once a month over watering daily (and isn’t that wasteful of water?).

The author's new small garden. Perhaps the most floriferous residential
garden pictured in the book.
2) Many of the areas pictured in the book are not what I consider to be "gardens." The British term the area around a house to be "the garden," but here in the United States, a "garden" implies a place where plants are the focus. A number of the "gardens" in this book are just attractive paved areas with modern-design screens for privacy and a few foliage plants in tiny beds. The few beautiful, plant-filled exceptions didn’t look particularly low-maintenance to me.

Highly modernistic plastic screens are not exactly to my taste in a garden.

3) This book was published in 2009 at the height of the eco-guilt movement, and the author does not let an opportunity for lecturing about the evils of lawns pass by. But in her zeal to rid us of them entirely, she doesn't mention reducing the work of maintaining a lawn, with mowing strips, etc. If someone doesn’t want to maintain a lawn, he should replace his with something else. But enough already with trying to guilt people who enjoy a traditional lawn into getting rid of it!

4) The author’s preference for foliage gardens is not particularly appealing to those of us who garden specifically because we love flowers. None of the gardens in the book were joyous, flower-filled spaces; no examples of small cottage gardens that can still be relatively easily maintained. I’m just not convinced that we need to give up flowers when we grow old.

This is pretty beautiful, for a largely foliage garden.
But is this really "low-maintenance"?

But the book did have some good suggestions, and I'm glad I read it. And it has caused me to think more deeply about the issue that all gardeners must confront: their physical and time limitations (and resource limits too, of course).

These limitations are not static; they change throughout our lives, as they did for the author. As young people, we often lack a settled place for gardening and money to spend on plants. When our lives become more settled, perhaps after buying a house, we enter a nesting phase in which we often wish to make our surroundings more beautiful. We still have energy and physical strength enough to handle the physical work that accompanies gardening, and may begin to desire to grow all the lovely plants that we read about. As we age, however, we are less able to handle hard physical work and may have sated our plant curiosity. Our children (if we had them) are likely grown, so this is a time we may consider downsizing.

Again, hauntingly beautiful -- but how can a pond be low-maintenance?
Her pond was one of the things the author specifically mentioned as a
source of laborious maintenance in her old garden.... 

But plant-loving older gardeners don't need to choose all or nothing. Ageing doesn't have to mean that we can no longer grow a garden full of beautiful flowers. However, the author does include some good, traditional suggestions for designing a lowER-maintenance garden:
  1. Obviously, a smaller garden will take less time to maintain, all other features being the same.
  2. Some plants require less attention than others. This doesn't mean that gardeners shouldn't ever grow delphiniums (which require staking) or iris (which must be divided every few years); just that they should grow mostly lower-maintenance plants and choose only a few more labor-intensive favorites. And the author is right that we should avoid aggressively spreading plants, which can be a lot of work, but then she includes in her list of recommended plants creeping lily turf (liriope spicata), which she must not be aware (Seattle-focused again) is invasive in a number of states. However, she does have a good word for modestly self-seeding plants such as borage, poppies, nigella and tall verbena, which are delightful even though you may have to pull a few out.
  3. Having fewer different kinds of plants makes for easier maintenance. Older gardeners should already know which plants give them the most joy each year, and narrowing the list down does make for less work.
  4. Having good, well-amended soil reduces growing problems that can require work. Likewise, mulching can reduce watering frequency.
  5. Reducing (not necessarily entirely eliminating) lawn area can cut down on work -- as can mowing strips, etc. 
Ms. Easton is right that each of us needs to honestly confront our ability and willingness to do garden work before planning our gardens. But I believe that her own exhaustion has led her to overreact by advocating that gardeners eliminate many of the plants and garden features that bring them joy.

A large kitchen garden and ornamental pond, viewed from beneath
a grape- and kiwi-draped arbor under which guests "need merely to
reach up to pick dessert." Really? Low maintenance?

Unlike the author, I have not yet reached the point of wanting to reduce my garden areas. (In fact, I am thinking about making a whole new garden area this year -- albeit a relatively low-maintenance area -- despite my vow not to make any new garden areas this year. More about this in my next post.) There are still so many plants I want to grow. Of course, as a naturally lazy person, I do want to minimize the work I have to do, and the author's suggestions are for the most part good ones, but that doesn't mean I can't have my flowers.

"The New Low-Maintenance Garden" is a good book to read to stimulate thought about how to reduce the work of gardening in our own gardens. But it will ultimately be most useful for gardeners who live in the Pacific Northwest and have the same taste for modern foliage gardens as the author.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Handy New Garden Present

Look what I got for Christmas! My lovely husband has been keeping this under a tarp in our tractor shed since before the holidays (I'd been hinting about needing one of these for some time) and last week was the first time I went out and uncovered it to take a look.

Its 10-cubic-foot-capacity can hold about twice as much material as a standard wheelbarrow and has two wheels on the front for added stability. Our other wheelbarrow is simply too small to be useful for clearing away the huge amounts of cut-down plant material in both spring and fall, and I have been using a large plastic garbage can, which is hard to drag across the yard to the compost and burn piles (and it's tearing near one of the handles from the stress of being dragged around). This looks like it'll do the trick. I think I'll call it "Big Blue."

Big Blue gets its first workout -- I made my kids pick up fallen sticks
and branches from the back yard while I was laid up with a cold last week.

My new garden equipment will soon get a taste of much harder work than this, when I begin spring cleanup in earnest (as soon as we get some slightly warmer, less windy days -- what's the point of getting an early start if it's not a joy to work outside after a long winter, the sun on your back, feeling the earth warm up beneath your feet?). My spring work is certainly cut out for me:

The 70-foot-long Rainbow Border. There's a lot of brush to cut out
and haul away from here.

The Herb Garden. Out with the old, to make room for the new.

And the Front Border definitely needs some attention.

Last fall, I cut back all back most of the plants in the Front Addition
Border, except these mums and sedum. Time to finish the job.
There are numerous other areas that will also need material cut back and hauled away, and I might be able to use my new toy for adding compost to my beds too -- such a handy item might have endless uses! I look forward to using my new garden present. Go Big Blue!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A New Garden (Bed-)Room

This isn't strictly about my garden or gardening, but it is garden-related: So, like most gardeners, by the middle of winter I start to yearn for spring, for the blue skies, the green grass, the colorful flowers of springtime and summer. What to do? (Besides bankrupting myself by building a huge conservatory, complete with grass and flowers, to spend my winters in -- see this marvelous article in this weekend's WSJ about fabulous greenhouses of the wealthy -- although not as fabulous as this one:)

Longwood Garden's Orangery. This is what I need! (wikipedia)
OK, so I'm not going to be able to build a large (or even a small) conservatory to take the chill and dreariness of winter away. So I did something a bit more modest: I redid my bedroom decor to reflect my love of plants, green foliage and blue skies.

Before, my bedroom had tan walls, dark brown silk curtains and a dark brown bedspread. They matched the beautiful dark-finished wood in my Arts & Crafts-style house, but they contributed to a dark feeling for such a sunny, southeast-facing room. Out with the brown, and in with the springy green:
  1. First, I chose a botanical-themed quilt. I found one at Walmart that was pretty nice. 
  2. Then I found some draperies at that were the rich green I was looking for and that matched the green in the quilt. I sewed linings in them so they would block more light when I want to sleep in.
  3. Then, with my husband's help (I am slightly color-blind about light shades of green and pink), I picked a wall color, a light, springy green. 
  4. We also painted the ceiling a light sky blue, so that I can wake up under blue skies every day (even in winter!).
  5. I repainted the two bedside tables in a rich green that matches the curtains, which really makes them look more fresh and modern.
  6. Finally, I had some vintage seed catalog posters printed from to the size of some standard frames available in a six-pack at Walmart. I also got a couple of larger posters and frames.
The result (click on the photos for more detail):

Our new, botanical room, on a sunny spring day. The grass hasn't greened up yet outside, but all is lushly verdant in here.
Two more vintage seed catalog prints above the bed, which is flanked by the freshly repainted side tables that had been pretty dingy before.
A large "Gardener's Alphabet" poster above the dresser.

Here are a few of the prints I got:

I got this one from
The vintage seed catalog prints I got from The two Iowa ones I made by finding images online and sizing them to the right size for the frames, and the others were images that Zazzle had available in print to order sizes. Very convenient and affordable way to custom-print color posters!

I think that seed catalogs from the turn of the last century are fascinating, and they tell us much about our culture. Here is the Smithsonian's online collection of covers, and a bibliography of research about them. Some of the covers are so beautifully illustrated, and evoke a nostalgic time. I think I will love having these on my walls.

Thanks for reading about my new garden room!

Thursday, March 13, 2014


What a lovely few days we've had here in southeast Iowa! Monday was the best: sunny, NOT windy and 60 degrees. It's been pretty windy since then, although the temps most days this week have been above average (the above-freezing winds have helped melt off the deep snow cover we had, so it could be worse). Our snow is finally almost gone, which means the ground can start warming up. And there's no forecast snow for the next 10 days, mostly with at least average temps for this time year. I feel that winter is about over, even if spring has not yet quite begun. Yay!

Snow melting in the herb garden (time lapse photography -- sort of):

The herb garden (to the right of the fence) on February 8,
after our last big snowfall. You can hardly see it's there under the snow.

On March 10 (this past Monday). Good progress, but still a ways to go.

March 13. This is one of the last areas here to have snow in it. I think
the boxwood bushes encourage the collection of snow and insulate it
from melting as fast as it does in more open areas. We're almost there....

The first sign of spring: daffodils poking up next to the house.
This sheltered spot on the east side of the house foundation is always
the first to have blooming daffs in the spring.

Happily, the sun is getting stronger, the Daylight Savings Time switch means sunsets are after 7 pm now, and it won't be long until the grass and other things green up. Spring is starting!

Monday, March 10, 2014

My Florida Trip, Conclusion: Harry P. Leu Gardens

So after our day at Universal Studios (the surprisingly impressive horticulture of which I described two posts ago), we drove to the east coast of Florida and spent time at the beach and at the Kennedy Space Center, neither of which had much in the way of gardens. Upon our return to Orlando, however, I made my family stop for a couple of hours at the Harry P. Leu Gardens in downtown Orlando, and I was happy that I did.

The Mizzell-Leu House, built in the 1880s as a farm house,
now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The Harry P. Leu Gardens are nearly 50 acres of semi-tropical and tropical gardens, landscaped grounds and lakes, and meandering trails shaded by 200 year-old oaks. The gardens have extensive collections of azaleas, bromeliads, citrus, crepe myrtles, cycads, gingers, heliconias, magnolias, palms, a large rose garden and 240 types of camellias. They were started by Mr. and Mrs. Harry P. Leu (Mr. Leu was a Florida businessman who owned a successful industrial supply company), who in 1936 purchased what was then called the Mizzell House and traveled all over the world, bringing back many exotic plants and varieties of camellias. In 1961, they deeded the house and gardens to the city of Orlando.

I was there on a damp, overcast day in late February, but the visit was still enjoyable and there were a number of plants flowering, including many camellias, roses, perennials, bulbs and flowering trees. Here are a few photos I took:

A massive live oak covered with hanging moss. Very southern-looking.

The Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow tree (Brunfelsia pauciflora), a closeup of which I included in my last post. Here is the whole multicolored effect. It is a tropical tomato relative that has dark purple, pansy-like flowers that fade to lavender-purple on the second day and to white on the third, so that it looks like it has multicolored blooms.

The garden had several magnificent Golden Trumpet Trees, (Handroanthus chrysotrichus - Bignoniaceae, Syn. Tabebuia chrysotricha), which were radiantly in bloom. The bright golden, trumpet-shaped flowers were falling to the ground in a circle of gold and the effect was magical.

The fascinating Popcorn Cassia
(Senna didymobotrya) in the Leu's Cottage
Garden. The leaves apparently smell like popcorn
when rubbed. Closeup next. 

I had to show a closeup of the flower and giant black seeds again,
simply because it is so interesting.

The Leu Gardens have a Cottage Garden, which is undoubtedly
a tropical version inspired by the English and North American cottage
gardens we have up here. It contains many traditional cottage plants --
many of which are favorites of mine. But this is something we don't
ever see here in Iowa: some sort of warm-weather-tolerant narcissus,
together with nasturtiums. These just don't ever bloom at the same time
here in Iowa, and seemed very strange to me. What a different way
to garden.

Another narcissus, together with that cottage garden stalwart, delphinium.
I can only imagine that they must grow these as winter annuals in Florida,
as delphiniums can scarcely stand the summer heat here, let alone there.

The cottage garden's herb garden, in which  parsley grows alongside
agave. Another Florida way of planting. Very interesting.

Lemon trees in full fruit. Cool.

Soft Necklace Pod (Sophora tomentosa spp. occidentalis)

What an incredibly textural plant. It looks like a bunch of razor blades that might cut you terribly.

I don't even know what this fascinating curlicue plant is
-- the label I took a photo of is not the correct label.

Lovely azaleas on the way back to the visitor center. 

A very nice garden to visit; seeing so many beautifully growing plants made a nice contrast with the man-made environments of the Kennedy Space Center and Disneyworld. If you ever find yourself in the central Florida area, I highly recommend a visit to the Harry P. Leu Gardens. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fertilizer Friday: March 7 (Orlando Tropical Flowers)

Boy, I like the sound of that "March"! It certainly is the most hope-filled month of the year: hope that warmer weather is not long off; hope that green grass is coming shortly, hope that shoots of crocus and daffodils will be poking up any minute now. Plus, we have St. Patrick's Day, that announcement of spring and fun, accompanied by Irish whiskey, good Irish cheddar, and cabbage, potatoes and corned beef. Yay, Spring!

Anyway, as promised, here are some Fertilizer Friday photos ( of the flowers I saw in Orlando, Florida on my recent trip (I actually have current photos of real flowers this time!). These are all from my trip to the Harry P. Leu Gardens, which I haven't finished writing the post for yet -- I will tell more about these extensive botanical gardens in a few days when I post about my visit.

Camellia japonica 'Abundance' 

Another beautiful camellia from the Harry P. Leu's collection of
240 varieties of camellias.

A white one (sorry, no cultivar info)

A flower from the fascinating Popcorn Cassia
(Senna didymobotrya) that I saw in the Leu's Cottage
Garden. The leaves apparently smell like popcorn
when rubbed, which I wish I had known while I was at the
garden, as my whole family would like to have smelled it.
The tree was not labeled and I had quite a time trying
to look it up on Google images.

A hollyhock or some other sort of Malva
(who knows what will grow down in tropical lands?)

I had to include some roses -- I'm always so excited
to see them blooming in the middle of winter!

Some sort of flowering vine, again not labeled....

Two florets from the "Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow" tree
(Brunfelsia pauciflora), a tropical tomato relative
that has dark purple, pansy-like flowers that fade to lavender-purple
on the second day and to white on the third, so that it looks
like it has multicolored blooms. Fascinating -- I'll post a photo
of what the overall effect of the whole tree looks like on my next post.

Anyway, I feel better that I was able to post photos of real flowers this time, and somewhat interesting ones. Thanks for reading!