Monday, April 28, 2014

What an Arbor Day!

The Red Oak tree that my whole family helped plant on Arbor Day.
I hope it will grow to shade our house (behind me as I took the photo
and planted to the southwest of it). My kids were impressed when we
told them that it could live for 100 years or more if it likes the spot
(and if nobody cuts it down or hits it with a lawn mower -- I'll make
a nice big mulch circle around it after it stops raining.)

I'm finally starting to recover from my 2-day marathon of shopping, digging and planting trees and shrubs (and my muscles are incredibly sore!).

Friday was such a lovely day, that I decided it would be the day to go shopping for trees and shrubs. I have spent the past two weeks advance shopping with a camera, doing hours of internet research and mapping out on a drawn plan where things will go in my new island beds, as well as in other areas that need trees or shrubs. I printed out a list of what to buy at each store (with the best prices) and got in our pickup truck. (Unfortunately, I forgot to put on sunscreen or a hat, not realizing it would take me five hours of shopping to buy everything, mostly outdoors, on a sunny day...)

I hit the main plant outlets: Menards, Lowe's, Wal-mart, Earl May and Hy-Vee, and filled my truck bed with trees, shrubs and a few perennials that I have been looking for. A list of what I planted (the areas don't look too good yet, not having been mulched, so I won't post too many photos yet):

Soft Serve False Cypress
Emerald Green Arborvitae
Sawara False Cypress 'Gold mops'
Robusta Green Juniper
Hicks yew
Green Mountain boxwood pyramid
Pink flowering dogwood
Yoshino Cherry
Magnolia 'Ann'
Magnolia 'Butterflies'
Star Magnolia 'Royal Star'
Eastern redbud 'Hearts of Gold'
White Birch
Northern Red Oak
Apple 'Honey Crisp'
Weigela 'Pink Poppet' (3)
Spirea Vanhoutte
Itoh Peony 'Bartzella'
Golden Barberry 'Aurea'
'Garden Glow' dogwood (3)
Sum & Substance hosta
Japanese forest grass 'All Gold'
Bleeding Heart 'Gold Heart' (3)

No wonder my muscles hurt!

I spent the last few hours of daylight on Friday (Arbor Day, appropriately enough) starting to plant, and continued first thing Saturday morning, working until early evening in constant fierce winds of probably 30 mph. I wanted to get things planted before this rainy week began, and I was able to get almost everything into the ground (with my husband's help -- he planted the oak tree with our children on Friday, the apple and birch on Saturday, and watered everything for me when I was finished!)

OK, so it doesn't look like much yet. The trees and shrubs are still small
and the island areas haven't been mulched yet, but it's a start. Azaleas
and a rhododendron, pink-flowering dogwood in the raised mound and
star magnolia behind it. The other trees can be seen in the background.

Planting the dogwood was the hardest part: since we have clay, non-acidic soil, I dug out a five-foot diameter circle, first removing the sod, which I put aside, then I dug out a foot or so of soil, which I also put aside. I then added compost and sulfur and dug that in. Then, to raise the level of this area, I put in all the sod chunks from this hole as well as from all the other holes I dug for the other trees, into this hole, in a doughnut-shaped ring with the sod face-down, and topped up with compost and sulfur again. I then planted the dogwood tree in the center of the doughnut ring and backfilled with the dirt and more compost, sprinkling sulfur on top around the tree. I know it will settle some as the sod decomposes, but it is the best I can do to improve drainage for this picky tree. Who knows if it will survive, let alone thrive, but if it doesn't, it won't be for want of physical effort on my part....

The shrubs and perennials in the gold section of the North Foundation
Border, behind the house. I will plant tall, dark green ferns in the
back corner area, and more plants as I find them
or divide them from my existing gardens.

I'll post more photos after I have mulched and edged the areas. (To see what the outline and general idea of these new beds will be, see my post about it.) But even after mulching, it still won't look that great since the trees are all still so small, but at least it should look tidier. More work ahead -- Thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A tree comes down and garden possibilities open up

The tree guys finally came yesterday to cut down one of two trees growing behind our house. Not only is it an ash tree that has a fair chance of eventually succumbing to Emerald Ash Borer, but it's also closer to our house than we'd like and closes off the North and West yards from each other.

The ash tree closest to the house is the one that came down.
The tree guys got started by trimming off all the branches until only the
totem pole-like trunk remained.

The last view of both trees.

They quickly got the trunk on the ground and then cut it into
smaller (although still massively heavy) chunks.

Sawing on the trunk. The stump is still visible. Note the large piles
of logs in the background, which they left for us for firewood (and
which I moved most of myself -- very heavy work).

Then they ground out the stump using a large grinding machine that
was so loud, I had to take this photo from inside.

Then they brought in a front end loader to pick up the trunk sections and
load them on their truck. Peaceful silence followed their departure.
I was able to move most of the logs myself, but I left the
heaviest ones for my husband, who cut them into sections with
his chainsaw and moved them to where we store our firewood.
I made my (complaining) children pick up several large wheelbarrows-
full of sticks from this area, and I'm working on moving the sawdust/
mulch to the larger pile of wood chips they left:

They left behind this large pile of wood chips, which I will need for my
trees and shrubs area in the West Yard.

All the logs gone, only the mulch left to deal with.
The yard has truly been opened up now.

It's always a shame when a large tree must be cut down (and we don't have all that many mature trees to start with, so we didn't make this decision lightly). However, I think the yard looks much more open now than it did in the first photo at top. The tree was simply too close to the house, although this was not the fault of the previous owners who planted it, as we built the addition that stands too close to the trees. There was also the question of how long before Emerald Ash Borer strikes.

Now there is much more room (and light) to plant in near the house, and I hope the remaining tree will now be able to fill in and grow toward the increased light (the tree we cut down stood to the south of the remaining tree, blocking its sunlight).

I plan to expand the narrow planting strip along the back of the house to enclose the spot where the tree stood, in a generous curving garden bed along the whole length of the house. My plan is to plant mostly gold-foliage and yellow-flowering plants in these beds to light up this north side of the house. The part of the bed right next to the house is in shade, but the rest will be mostly sunny. Any favorite gold/yellow plants you can recommend?

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Island Beds and Bressingham Gardens

I've been researching about island beds as I plan to make my own ones filled with flowering trees, shrubs, evergreens and bulbs, and I became interested in the history of these freestanding beds. As a book-aholic with a large collection of garden books, I first looked on to see if any books had been published about island beds, and surprisingly, found only one:

"Perennials in Island Beds," written by Alan Bloom and published in 1977, is practically a dinosaur amongst garden books. It has no color photos inside, just a middle section of 16 black-and-white photos. It's a very short book of fewer than 100 pages -- and small pages at that, barely larger than a trade paperback.

But it was fascinating to read, and I suspect it will one day be of value to garden historians. Alan Bloom (1906-2005), the son of a market gardener, was a leading nurseryman in eastern England from 1926 until his death. He bought a small Georgian house and estate named Bressingham after the second world war, where he (and his son, Adrian Bloom) continued his work in developing hardy perennials. His company eventually became known as Blooms of Bressingham, and was responsible for introducing many well-known cultivars including Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Phlox ‘Eva Cullum’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’.

He also may have discovered (and certainly popularized) the idea of planting perennials in island-shaped garden beds, in England and here in the US. This book tells the story of how he came to think of planting in this way: Tiring of staking so many of his perennial flowers in his borders, he noticed that the plants that he grew in open nursery beds didn't grow as tall as in borders and had sturdier stems, requiring far less staking, and he theorized that a wall, hedge or fence backing a border provided protection from wind that resulted in floppier, taller stems.

In 1953, he designed some experimental and ornamental demonstration beds in his grass yard at Bressingham. These worked so well that a few years later he made more island beds in an adjacent 6-acre field, called "The Dell," for a total of 50 beds containing more than 5,000 plant species. Son Adrian Bloom added another area in 1967 named "Foggy Bottom," showcasing conifers, heathers, trees and shrubs. There are now more than 8,000 species in the gardens.

Here are a few beautiful modern photos (from Flickr, taken by Nick, Puritani35):

The original beds laid out next to Bressingham Hall by Alan Bloom in 1953.  The plants have been changed around many times, of course.

The breathtakingly beautiful Dell Garden at Bressingham. The mix of evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs, and perennials makes this resemble a paradise on earth. Too beautiful to describe.

More Dell Garden. So lovely.

Here is a greatly enjoyable 7-minute tour of the gardens given by Adrian Bloom, and this brief History of the Gardens is interesting. When/if I ever get to British shores, I will certainly make a point of visiting Bressingham gardens.

But back to the idea of island beds in general: Alan Bloom may indeed have been the one to come up with the idea of planting perennial plants in freestanding, curved, irregularly-shaped island beds, but the Victorians had planted in island beds a century earlier -- although the shapes were mostly ovals or symmetrical crescents. They often planted tender bedding annuals in their island beds, which required the labor of numerous gardeners.

Annuals in a series of island beds, from "Town Planting And The Trees, Shrubs, Herbaceous And Other Plants That Are Best Adapted For  Resisting Smoke", by Angus D. Webster (1910) from

Another island bed with succulent plants, same source. This island bed is raised into a mound, for better viewing.
Island beds likely fell out of favor when formal Victorian bedding was renounced in favor of the more "natural" hardy perennial borders advocated by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll in the late 19th century. They probably associated the freestanding beds with annual bedding schemes, so island beds were out of fashion during the growth of gardening popularity in the Arts & Crafts period and pre-WWII era.

It wasn't until the postwar period that Alan Bloom rediscovered the idea of planting in freestanding island beds, and he used perennials, shrubs and trees in them, not just annual bedding plants. And his beds followed the lay of the land, resulting in irregularly-shaped beds, which were perhaps also inspired by the kidney shapes in modern design that Thomas Church had incorporated into his pool designs in the 1940s, as well as Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx' designs of the midcentury. These had in turn been influenced by the organic shapes used in modern art in the 1930s.

Thomas Church designed this famous kidney-shaped pool in 1948 for a private house in Sonoma, CA.
(picasaweb, Michelle)

It seems strange that irregularly-shaped island beds, which are so common now, are of such recent origin, but I guess many things seem inevitable after they are discovered. As an admirer of Arts & Crafts-style English gardens, I have preferred geometric shapes until now, but I think trees and shrubs might look better in these organic-shaped beds than in formal ones, and I will undoubtedly begin to appreciate perennials in island beds more now as well. Bressingham gardens has certainly demonstrated how beautiful island beds can be.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring is finally coming along :-)

Yay, spring! I believe it has finally sprung here in southeast Iowa. These daffodils are next to the house on the east side of the foundation, so they're always the first daffs to bloom -- but they're fully blooming.

This photo was taken on April 5, nearly two weeks ago. I'm a little
disappointed in the show these crocus made, as I planted 500 of them
in mixed colors. We got white and yellow, and a few purple ones
showed themselves, but not until later than the first two colors.
Does this really look like 500 crocus?
(They are very pretty backlit by late afternoon sun, though.)

We've been helped along by some 70- and 80-degree days, and by the two inches of rain we finally got. We're still suffering from last summer's drought, so this rain was very welcome.

I didn't put my rain gauge back up after winter until we'd gotten a bit of
rain already, so I believe we did actually get a full two inches.

The rain has helped green up our grass, after what seemed like forever. There's something truly restful about a lush, green lawn after winter's grays and browns.

We replaced this lawn with new sod several years ago, so it always
turns green faster than our large lawns outside the fence. Almost time
to start mowing again.
Rite of Spring: potting up annuals. These cool-season stocks are so
beautiful and fragrant. They'll bloom most of the time until frost if
I cut them back periodically and move them into part shade during
the hottest months.
These yellow pansies are just above the daffodils on the east side of
the house, outside my kitchen windows. They're just babies still, but
they'll fill in soon and flower until November.
I love spring! I'm so happy that it's finally arrived. Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 11, 2014

"What vexes all men? Sums?"

Still planning out my new garden areas in my north and west yards. Since these will be island beds containing mostly shrubs and small trees, they are quite large and present several physical, logistical and financial problems:

To Mound or Not to Mound?

I was given a very good suggestion by Larry at Conrad Art Gardens: mound up soil in my new island beds to improve drainage. I have clay soil here, and raising the bed level by about a foot would probably increase the chance of success of many of the trees and shrubs I am planning to plant. It would also look nice too.

However, upon calculating the cubic feet of soil needed to raise the new beds, I experienced sticker shock:

"What vexes all men? Sums?" Having recently watched
"Pirates of the Caribbean" with my children (since we had ridden
the Disney World ride in February and they hadn't seen the film),
the phrase came to my mind as I calculated the cubic feet of soil
 needed for this and the other two island beds I am planning.
(Note the two shocking dollar figures I reached at bottom right.)

After calling local quarries and finding that the cheapest garden soil costs about $250 per 16-ton truckload delivered, and calculating that I would need about NINE truckloads, I realized that this was just not doable.

We do have a two-acre field that I thought about hiring someone with a large front-end loader to come out and strip topsoil from. But the soil from the field would be filled with large chunks of sod that would take years to break down (as well as numerous weed seeds), making my new garden areas look pretty ragged for a long time -- plus, it would probably still cost close to a thousand dollars for a day of front-end loader work.

So I've decided to go with the original plan:

  1. Spray grass
  2. My husband plows the areas with his tractor to loosen the soil. This will make it much easier for me to dig large planting holes for planting the trees and shrubs.
  3. Liberally amend each "$20 hole" ("for a ten-cent plant") with leaf compost and/or peat moss, depending on acid needs of the plants.
  4. Mulch the entire areas with either wood chips or leaf compost.
#4 raises another question: which would be better to mulch the large beds with:

Wood Chips or Leaf Compost? 

Both are available to me at the local landfill for a reasonable price, and the quality of both is good.

The peony border, the near side of which has been mulched for several
years with leaf compost. It has a dark, rich look.

Leaf compost pros and cons:
  1. Pro: very good for the soil, especially my heavy clay soil
  2. Pro: looks nice, like rich black soil
  3. Pro: keeps weeds from germinating quite effectively
  4. Con: breaks down more quickly than wood chips and would need to be replaced more often
  5. Con: costs twice as much per ton as wood chips 
The Green, Blue and Purple sections of the Rainbow Border
last June. This Border is mulched with wood chips, which don't
look as nice, but are probably a third the price per volume
and last longer, making for less work.

Wood chip pros and cons:
  1. Pro: I have read that wood chips can deplete the nitrogen in soil, but this article (and especially the information in the first 20 accompanying comments) has debunked this fear for me (as well as the fear of transmitting plant disease from wood chips, which is a very low risk). As long as the wood chips are not tilled into the soil when fresh, the nitrogen is changed only at the soil line, and only for a couple of months. And deep-rooted plants such trees and woody shrubs are not affected by what happens at the soil line anyway.
  2. Con: wood chips turn gray after a few months, which doesn't look as nice as compost
  3. Pro: effectively keeps weeds from germinating
  4. Pro: costs half as much per ton, and also contains more volume per ton, which makes it even cheaper -- and I can make fewer trips with my pickup truck to obtain a larger volume (when I get compost, I can only carry about a half-full truck bed, because of the weight limit of my half-ton truck; when I get wood chips, I can carry a load mounded up above the top of the truck bed)
  5. Pro: wood chips don't settle or break down as quickly as compost, which means I won't have to replace it every year -- this might seem lazy, but it could take ten pickup truck loads to cover these areas, and that's a lot of work for me to unload and spread out! Eventually, my husband and I will buy a small front-end loader for this kind of task, but right now, labor is preferable to large expenditure.
I think I've decided to use the wood chips for the general ground cover mulch, making sure the planting holes are liberally amended with leaf mold. 

I'm now in the process of deciding the basic layout of trees and shrubs to plant in the areas after this ground preparation has been done (we're just waiting for the grass to begin growing, so that the glyphosate will work when we spray it). I've been visiting all the nurseries and garden centers in the area to see what trees and shrubs I can purchase locally, and I hope I can get started planting soon! 

Then, the 5-10 year wait for the trees and shrubs to grow larger will begin, and I hope someday that these areas might resemble these in some ways:

Flowering trees and bulbs are so beautiful in spring.

And a few conifers too, since I like the way Adrian Bloom's
Bressingham Garden (in England) looks, with trees and shrubs
in island beds. His father, Alan Bloom, started this garden and
is credited with popularizing the island bed style of planting
in the 1960s and 1970s.
( Stuart Logan)

Planning, calculating, deciding... then doing!

Friday, April 4, 2014

A beautiful spring garden area (in my mind)

So in my last post, I discussed my idea for a new garden area in the space west and north of my house. I envision this area having several large island-shaped beds containing:
  1. spring-flowering trees
  2. flowering shrubs (mostly spring-flowering)
  3. a few small evergreen trees and shrubs for winter interest
  4. lots of spring bulbs
  5. perhaps some lilies for summer flowers
This area will be mostly a spring garden, peaking in April and May, my favorite time to be outside enjoying the garden.

Who doesn't need more of this in spring?

I think I've basically decided on the shape and placement of the three large island beds, and have been figuring out how much sun each area will receive.

And I would like to thank Larry from conradartglassgardens for all his very helpful advice via email in planning this area. I had been thinking of planting more flowering trees and bulbs, after visiting the MOBOT in St. Louis and seeing a garden video about the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, but I wasn't sure what form these new gardens should take until I saw Larry's magnificent gardens that he shares with us on his blog. Seeing how beautiful his island-shaped beds are has helped to inspire me to plan this new area, and he has been extremely kind and generous with his time in giving me numerous helpful tips and suggestions.

Three new island beds: #1 is an arc-shaped bed in full sun;
#2 will have partial shade after the trees leaf out;
#3 is against the north foundation of my house and will be mostly shady
all year, except for the northernmost edge of the bed, from which
the second ash tree will have been removed.

I've been doing some research on the trees and shrubs I would like to include, and have been making a list. Today, I'll list a few of the spring-flowering trees that I have been thinking about:

Spring-Flowering Trees:

  1. Flowering cherries (I already have five 'Kwanzan' trees that I planted two years ago, and I will be moving them to different spots in the new beds.)
    'Kwanzan' cherry tree in my west yard. I'll move these around.

  2. Flowering dogwoods, perhaps one or two white-flowering ones
    White flowering dogwood (

  3. Eastern redbuds, probably a couple of these beautiful purple-flowering trees 
    Eastern redbud trees (

  4. Magnolias, several different types including Lily Magnolias, Star Magnolias and perhaps even Sweet Bay Magnolia (which is only marginally hardy here).

The Lily Magnolia 'Jane' on the east edge of my property. It arrived in the
mail as a tiny stick five years ago and now is nearly as tall as
I am. Next to it is a Chinese flowering almond shrub that I found
at Walmart 4-5 years ago. I think I'll put a couple of those in
my new area too. 

In my next post, I'll discuss some flowering shrubs that I'm thinking about including. I'm restricting my list to shrubs with showy flowers in spring, that don't spread by suckering and don't need a yearly "chop" to keep them a reasonable size and shape. I'm trying to design a relatively low-maintenance area that still flowers delightfully each spring. I think by avoiding perennials and sticking to trees, shrubs and bulbs that don't require much attention, I can do this. Here's to more spring flowers!