Archives for March 2012

Flowering Trees

paperbark maple


Every spring, I swing by my Mom’s house last house.  She died in 2002-so yes, this yearly visit is a pilgrimage of sorts. I had occasion to visit a regular client in the same neighborhood about what we would do this year, so I drove through the neighborhood. The landscape looks entirely different than when she owned it, save for an old record breaking size paperbark maple on the left side of this photograph.  She grew this tree from a twig start from Musser Forest (do I have the name right?)-I am guessing better than 25 years ago.  Paper bark maples are highly esteemd for their shaggy, cinnamon colored bark.  Why am I talking about it?  The girl that grew this maple taught me how to garden-and to love trees.

dawn redwood  This dawn redwood down the street from my Mom’s old house is an astonishing tree.  It is thriving in an urban neighborhood, just a few feet from a driveway.  The driveway of a gardening person, I might add-the yard always looks well cared for.  In my twenties, I loved visiting this tree before or after I visited my Mom.  Sometimes we would walk down the street to look at it together.  Forty years later it is still well worth the visit.  The woody trunk and branches are beautifully sculptural.

weeping cherry

As for ornamental, or smaller growing flowering trees-what do you make of them?  Some years, I cannot get enough of them. That cloud of spring pink is intoxicating.  The cherries, apples and crabapples have thousands of small blooms that flutter in the slighest breeze.  They can also be swept away in an afternoon, if the wind is strong enough.  They bring ballerinas and tutus to mind.  The flowers are just plain pretty, and that is sufficient reason to grow them.  Maybe more importantly, those blooms are seductive.  They may encourage a not so gardening minded individual to actually purchase and plant a tree.  Who knows where that could lead.  A few years later, perhaps they might be planting katsuras, or weeping Japanese white pines.  I love them the most for this reason.

bradford pearsA neighborhood street lined with Bradford pears  is a good spring look. This is a large growing ornamental tree whose fruit is small, and better suited for birds than people.  Bradford pears are highly susceptible to wind and storm damage.  Plant a good cultivar, such as Cleveland Select, and give it room.  They are not so broad, but they may grow as tall as 60 feet.

I have no idea what this pink flowering tree is, but it is certainly exuberant, blooming in front of a red shingle house. I like the nerve of this.  It takes the edge of of all of that sugary sweetness.  Some years, flowering trees strike me as silly. Somehow a petunia handles being pink much better than a tree.  All that frou frou and fluff, on a tree, for heaven’s sake.  But the fairy tale part of the tree is very short lived.  The bloom span might be two weeks, in the longest and best spring ever.

yellow magnolia

Every last bud on my 8 Butterflies magnolias frosted off a few nights ago.  I imagine this tree in my Mom’s neighborhood suffered likewise.  Magnolias are much more dramatic in bloom than cherries or crabs.  The individual flowers are much larger.  In the years when the flowers frost, there is a whole season ahead in which to enjoy a tree that has beautiful bark, leaves and attractive structure.

This dark foliaged crabapple lives in the traffic island across the street from my shop-I can see it out my office window.  Every year it virtually defoliates by late summer-usually from drought and fungus. Once in a white we will clean up around the base, and prune.  But every year in the spring it is a happening.  This showgirl has a heart of steel.

This is a fairly large tree-I have no idea what it is.  It’s the wrong shape for a Bradford, and it looks too symmetrical to be an apple.  But it is breathtaking in bloom, whatever it is.

weeping cherry

Weeping trees leave me cold.  But I rather like how this tree is trimmed on the bottom.  And it certainly is willing to bloom.  Such a stark landscape for such a tree with such a romantic air.

pink flowering trees

My favorite part of small growing flowering trees?  They lend themselves to being planted in groves, blocks, or swirls. They are quite comfortable being the star of a show.  The flowering branches are great in a vase.  All this pink?  Just a little fleeting frosting.


Lights Out

magnolia soulangiana

I planted a magnolia not unlike this one for a client 25 years ago.  She called to tell me it was in full bloom-would I care to come take a look?  Did I mention it was in full bloom in March, due to a jet stream anomaly?  Needless to say, I did not make it there in time.  2 nights ago, the overnight temp was 25 degrees.  A blast of arctic air out of Canada blew a huge hole in my jet-stream configured, and unprecedented March.  Magnolias are entirely susceptible to early spring frosts, not to mention early spring heat.  I have 12 magnolias in my yard-none of them bit on this March season.    

 It’s a very good idea to have other reasons to plant magnolias besides their enormous and breathtakingly beautiful flowers.  You might have those flowers for a few days, given an unfriendly spring. Nonetheless,  I have planted lots of them.  I like their large glossy leaves.  I like their ghostly grey and smooth bark. I like their low and wide structure.  Thier structure is penetrating-this I cannot really explain.  There are good reasons to have magnolias in every season. 


 Galaxy magnolia

 They are well suited to small urban gardens.  I have lots of them in my neighborhood, planted inches from the foundation of the house.  I know how that tree came to be in those yards.  A homeowner saw a small tree in full bloom at a nursery in the spring.  They fell like a rock for those flowers.  They brought the little tree home, and planted it in a bed at the corner of the house about 3 feet in depth.  Who wants to deal with more than 3 feet of bed?  Decades later, those trees purchased over a momentary infatuation are still thriving.   

frost on magnolias

Yesterday I came home at 10 am to take the frost blankets off of my hellebores.  My Galaxy magnolia is a hybrid who parentage includes the bloom frost prone magnolia soulangiana. Those gorgeous hot pink blooms were a droopy black mess.  This tree has grown a lot in the past 11 years-too much for me to cover.  The flowers came on very suddenly, given our run of over 70 degree weather.      

frost prone magnolias

Even in full bloom, they drooped from the out of season March heat.  As much as I am furious that these flowers were tricked into opening, I know they had no other choice but to pull the trigger, and bloom.  The idea that biology is destiny is great in the context of a textbook, but the reality was heartbreaking.  They were my pleasure for 1.5 days.   

magnolia petals

 The gooey black mass of frosted flowers still hang on my trees.  Last year the petals fell in a timely way, and quietly.  This is the best my driveway has ever looked. 

This magnolia Stellata was but a 3 foot tall start wehen I bought this house.  It has grown slowly and steadily over the past 15 years.  It is always the first thing to bloom in my garden.  This year, March 16.   

magnolia stellata

The individual flowers are incredibly beautiful.  I have been known to go out stand up close to this tree for some time early in the spring.  Buck always pretends not to notice-this is just one of the things I really like about him.  He is really tolerant of my love for magnolias.  They bloom for such a short time, even in a moderate spring.  My idea-take it in while you can-damn the torpedoes.


 frost tolerant magnolias

 At 10 the next morning after the frost, I see the telltale signs.  The stellata blooms are drooping, sagging from the gravity of the frost.  The PJM rhododendron in the foreground-no trace remains today of those flowers, but tufts of papery brown where the flowers once were. 

Butterflies magnolia

I have 8 Butterflies magnolias underplanted with boxwood in the front of my house.  This photograph I took 2 days ago.  I knew the flower buds would not survive a hard frost. 

yellow magnolias

This picture from last spring represents my most favorite spring moment.  Those pale yellow green blooms set on top of the branches-exquisite.

yellow flowered magnolias

My yellow magnolias are thriving.  They endow my front yard garden every season of the year.  I am sure you can tell by now that I am a fan.  Any species, any hybrid which tolerates my zone, I plant them.  The magnolias-bring them on.  I take the time to try and interest clients in them.  I cannot bring myself to post the picture I took of the yellow Butterflies buds today.  That clear pale yellow pointed bud is now an ochre brown color.  No flowers this year.  It is not so hard to get used to this idea, knowing that other gardeners in other parts of the country are living through multiple days of killing frosts. My trees will be beautiful this season.  Next spring might mean spectacular flowers.  In my hope chest, flowers on the Butterflies magnolias next year. 


Fending Off The Freeze

By the time I publish this post about fending off a hard freeze, it will be too late to be of any help to anyone. I do not blame myself.  I have no insider information regarding the weather.  Nor do I have a vote in the nature congress.  A greatly talented gardener/writer from Kansas who writes the blog  My Education Of A Gardener  addresses the issue succinctly- Nature bats last. 

Nature batting last is on the minds and hands of gardeners throughout the midwest and northeast tonight.  Not that passionate gardeners need any help from me when faced with a crisis.  Most gardeners I know are hard working, resourceful, independent-and very hard working people.  While they were all about planning to fend off the freeze forecast for tonight on their own, so were we.  

I have 2500 tulips budding, and showing color,  givcn our extraordinarily warm March.  Did I have a plan to protect them overnight-yes.  Covering plants that might be damaged by frost is a good idea.  Leaves might sustain damage, but buds subjected to very cold temperatures will die, and drop.  The exact science of it-I will not bore you.  Suffice it to say that a newly emerging spring leaf that is subjected to bitter cold-I am quite sure you have seen that green black mush that is a frozen through plant.   

Covering our tulips was one part engineering, and 5 parts work.  Cice had it all in hand.  After all of her work today, I am sure she went home, and repeated the same process to protect her own garden. 

Row cover was designed to protect crops planted early.  This non woven fabric is lightweight.  It is a heavy weight in the protect the plants realm.  The plants underneath a row cover benefit from a 10 degree increase in temperature.  Row cover was the order of our day. 

frost blanket

Ten degrees warmer makes a considerable difference.  Row cover is worth the effort.   The winds usually associated with late winter/early spring trouble pose a problem for this lightweight protection.  That said, we secure the frost cover in every way that we can.  A frost cover flapping and beating the plants underneath can cause more damage than the freeze.    

Our defence is simple.  Cover the plants.  Secure the edges.  Batten down the hatches.  

This may look like a lot of trouble over a few tulips, but we value every season.  There is no season we would want to do without.  Tonight’s low temperatures may devastate farms with fruit trees, early crops,  botanical gardens, and those little gardens that you and I tend. Tomorrow’s news will tell the tale.  But tonight I feel better, knowing we have protected our plants.

At the shop, we have moved as much in as possible.  We have covered what we could, in the best way we know how.

 We have spring plants under this bench for the night.  I am sure they will be fine.  As for my own garden, I am worried.  There is much I cannot cover. 


Sunday Opinion: Heart And Soul

I am reluctant to have plants at the shop too early in the spring.  As Rob has said, it takes mother nature a long time to make up her mind to commit to spring.  I hate to see plants damaged by frost.  We do have a green space of sorts where we can stash plants during inclement weather.  I cherish that glass roof. It makes reference to the living and the breathing that is the heart and soul of a garden.  Sun streams through the roof.  We sawcut and removed the concrete floor adjacent to 3 of the walls. We planting creeping fig at the base of 2 of those concrete block walls 10 years ago.  These green walls are lush and thick year round, and provide a green backdrop for the plants we house there year round.

Plants and water-we felt these two elements were an essential element of any garden shop.  We tore the midsection of the roof off the building in this room.  It sat exposed to the weather for 3 months, until we found an old used Lord and Burnham greenhouse for sale.  I remember watching rain falling inside that room.  The floor was greasy and slick from years of cutting oil that lubricated the machines bolted in place. The rain puddled on the floor, until we shotblasted that surface clean.  A steel storage tank that held waste oil was pumped out, and filled with sand.  A built-in concrete wall fountain designed after a French original sits on top of that old tank.  Eventually we set the peaked roof and hip of that greenhouse on top of the existing flat roof.  The room was flooded with light.  The exposed steel H-beam is a strong visual reminder of the industrial history of the building.  The glass roof still has the original old chains that open the vents.  I would not call this a conservatory-that would be laughably overblown, and altogether missing the point.  It is an old factory room repurposed such that we can shelter plants.

I am sure I have talked before about the purchase and reclamation of this building.  A good portion of it was built in the 1920’s-the rest in the 1940’s.  But that protected green space is much on my mind now, given the weather.  I have been uneasy about the unusually early warm weather-uneasy enough to be sure I had a giant roll of floating frost cover on hand.  A frost warming last night, and a freeze warning for tonight makes me glad I have it.   Yesterday afternoon we brought almost all of our plants indoors in anticipation of a threat of frost last night.  The glass house is stuffed with plants-hellebores, primulas, rosemary, ivy, myrtle topiaries and so on.  Ordering in plants in the spring can be dicey; that room has my back right now.  Most of our pansies are still outside, under steel plant tables covered in several layers of row cover. All of the espaliers are under cover, in the garage.

None of the plants in that space are rare but for our Wollemi Pine.  It is a small start of the rarest of all trees.  Only one stand of about 50 trees in some undisclosed location in Australia is known to exist. I bought a seedling propagated from an original tree from the Brooklyn Botanic garden 8 years ago.  The sale of these seedling trees goes towards protecting the habitat of the original trees. I like that it lives and thrives in our glass house.  The other plants we have you might well expect to see for spring, or perhaps they are unusual in commerce.  But what really makes them different is that they are very well grown, or in large sizes as in a 25 tear old lemon tree. Or that we created a space so we could properly look after them in stormy weather.  We will haul our usual standard spring plants in and out as often as we have to, until the night temperatures are reliably friendly. 

In the same vein, there is nothing about this standard issue old concrete and steel factory that is of any particular architectural interest.  The renovation and repurposing of an old building-our own showstring version of urban renewal-isn’t particularly newsworthy either.  Lots of people do this.  But standing in that glass house this very cold March morning, I felt such relief that we were at least able to protect some of our plants.  I cannot do a thing about my Galaxy magnolia in full bloom which will possibly be subjected to 25 degrees tonight.  If every flower freezes and falls tonight, there will be the ordinary heartbreak that is part and parcel of a gardening life.  But I could hardly sleep last night, worrying that gardeners in the northeast are facing much more seriously damaging low temperatures overnight tonight than I.  Godspeed, all of you.