Sunday, February 11, 2018

Planning For Spring

Catalog Covers
The overstuffed mailbox or the reassuring thud at the front door means that the spring garden catalogs have arrived.  They may not be harbingers of the season, but they will definitely help dispel winter’s gloom.

I’m far enough along in my own garden now to be able to resist wanting everything I see or read about, regardless of site orientation, sunlight, or zone suitability.  I now accept that I have only one partially sunny border and a backyard bordering on a hostile environment –- deep shade compromised by black walnut trees.  For the record, a new villain has been added. Verticillium wilt has killed off 4 of my 6 key Japanese maples, limiting the plant palette even further.

A brief sidebar here: verticillium wilt is a fungal disease caused by soil-borne pathogens.  There is no cure, and a stricken plant dies quickly, one large section at a time. There are only a limited number of plants that can be used in infected soils, and our maples have been replaced with sweet gums.  But more on verticillium wilt later; this post is supposed to cheer the reader.

Back to the catalogs: some of the best nurseries are now Online Only.  As fine as they are, these are not my favorites. I am a print person and like to carry my catalogs around, sitting or lying down whenever the mood strikes me, and marking them up as I go along.  But for those of you happy to look at tiny pictures on your iPhone, don’t miss Digging Dog Nursery.  It is among the most user-friendly: easily understood icons, plus a drawing of a camera leading you to a photograph when there is one available.  I’m ordering from them for the first time this year.

In the past I’ve bought as much as I can from our local nurseries, and with excellent results.  I have no complaints.  But when your garden is as small as mine, and with many site restrictions, the gardener tends to look further afield for more varieties to try.  That’s when the nuance of a really good catalog grabs you by the throat.

My current favorites are Roots and Rhizomes, Bluestone Perennials and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs; the last because it was the favorite of a much admired gardener on Staten Island, Muriel Peters, who specializes in daffodils.  

Roots and Rhizomes takes the award for the most beautiful cover design –- a garden in itself.  It specializes in daylilies with more than 160 photographed and described; it is a dream for the daylily collector.  I am not one, but instead have ordered several Siberian iris, a stalwart in my garden.

Bluestone’s list is wide and deep.  Twenty agastaches, 14 fall anemones, a few bergenias and brunneras, more than 30 clematis, 28 coreopsis, and I’ve only worked my way through the C’s. Skipping ahead, I found hollyhocks available in single colors instead of the usual offering of mixed colors in other catalogs.  I’m planning on yellow and black for my only south-facing fence.

I remain loyal to White Flower Farms because it was a first love. I always order a few things, although I find the catalog confusing and jumbled.  The nursery was started in the late 1940’s by William Harris and his wife Jane Grant, both journalists in New York City but weekenders in Litchfield, Connecticut. Their passion for gardening eventually became a small business in a time when American gardening was non-existent as an industry, and when there was virtually no interest in new plants or garden design.  They published a small, highly readable catalog under the pseudonym of Amos Pettingill to distinguish this work from their mainstream careers.  The nursery was sold in 1976, following Ms. Grant’s death, to Eliot Wadsworth, whose family I believe still runs it today.  This year I ordered a bi-colored honeysuckle to add to the arbor. 

Logee’s catalog is for the northeastern gardener who has run out of things to do and plants to try and is willing to take a risk on tropicals.  A Massachusetts gardener I know well grows banana trees outdoors, carrying them up two flights of stairs when the cold weather sets in to give them a warm room.  I am not going that far, but I am rethinking my side trash yard as a piazetta.  It borders on delusions of grandeur but I don’t think it will be extravagant enough to qualify as certifiably delusional. This fall I brought in my few oxalis and one lone plumbago which was glorious during the summer.  This year I will order a few more tropicals and think seriously about the possibility of wintering them in the basement.  Unfortunately I don’t have a greenhouse or a sunroom, only the relatively inhospitable basement. But maybe with growlights and a timer…

If you garden only in the shade, eat your heart out over David Austin’s Handbook of Roses 2018. He lists a few that are suitable for less than full sun, but does not offer an old rose, Betty Prior, which I remember with love and longing but can’t seem to find anywhere. 

Of course, in the end, the quality of the nursery lies not in the catalog but in the material delivered.  If the material does not arrive in good condition no finely designed or beautifully photographed catalog can make up for disappointment.  I’ll report back on deliveries, successes, and failures as the season progresses.  In the meantime, take your catalogs as the best medicine to get through a long winter. We can always dream… and order.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

At War with the Squirrels, Part 2

     Part 1 of At War With The Squirrels drew a large, animated and creative response from readers.  The suggestions for combating squirrels sent me back to Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War to look for parallels between my readers’ suggestions and the precepts set forth by the author.

Although written in the 5th century BC, The Art of War should be read by anyone entering battle today.  Sun Tzu wrote this guidebook for generals -- commanders of the field and the troops.  It is equally useful in the battlefield and the boardroom.  But does it apply to gardening in a hostile environment?  Isn’t this a kind of warfare too? 

Sun Tzu identifies seven considerations by which one can forecast victory or defeat.  Although they all apply in some manner to our squirrel war, the second condition is the most relevant:  Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral Law.  Indeed, if this battle were to be observed from another planet, who would appear to be the superior species?  The one attacking from above?  Or the one on the defensive below, picking up debris while ducking to evade the assault?

1. All warfare is based on deception.

We started with this premise, and in Part 1 I attempted to deceive.  Having observed the squirrels shelling nuts on my bluestone front walk and the 4’ bluestone squares of my now unusable terrace, I paved an area adjacent to the newly located walnut storage corner of the garden.  The plan was to lure the squirrels away from the house, and it seems to have worked for the sorting component of the problem, but has not stopped the attacks.

2.Hold out bait to entice the enemy.  Feign disorder and crush him.

Paola and KC:  We thought maybe setting up a dispenser with rugelach might distract the squirrels from the garden.

3. In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed to secure victory.

Sally: You might want to try an ultrasonic deterrent. I have one for my window box; the squirrels come all the way to the 4th floor via the fire escape.

Tom: I might try playing some of Trump’s campaign speeches through loudspeakers at them.  Those that don’t die laughing deserve to live.

4. Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity.  Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.

Dacie:  How about a dog, especially a Jack Russell terrier?

Prudence:  Try sprinkling camphor balls near their lair.

5. In war, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Susan: No mention of killing the damn tree?

6. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

Jean: Good luck with your battle, but I’ve never heard of  a human winning.

7. If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

8. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but in our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

My position is totally assailable, so I continue to plot for protection.  My latest idea is to build a second arbor parallel to the first and erect shade sails using the house wall and the arbor posts as anchors.  An alternative is two rows of tensioning cables that will span the 22 feet of terrace, one above the other.  The lower cables could support vines, while the upper cables could hold a shade cloth to be used only seasonally. The third option appeared in Part 1, an open frame peaked roof, covered seasonally in protective cloth.  It is still in the running.

9. The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

Jonathan:  Walnut husks are one of the few natural dyes that do not require a mordant or fixative.  If I were you I would just spread canvas over the patio for the entire fall.  Allow the walnuts to drop and stain the canvas.  When winter approaches and the nuts stop falling, examine the canvas and select a section to stretch and frame.  I bet the results, a perfectly natural abstract expressionist work related to the staining techniques of Frankenthaler and the palette of Pollack and Kline and the “nature spirit” of Pousette-Dart will be astonishing.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Saretta Barnet

Saretta Barnet

My dear friend Saretta Barnet died just before spring.  We had been friends since 1963 and shared a great deal during our years together – holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, new babies, power outages, storms, pranks, museum and gallery visits -- but they are part of a different story.  This is about our gardens, the basis of a friendship from which all else grew.

We lived in Port Washington, Long Island and met because of our daughters, Liz and Jane, were entering kindergarten together. They still remain close.  A year or so later, Saretta and her family moved only one house away from ours -- if you took a shortcut through backyards.  We both planted perennial gardens at the same time; Saretta’s was a long sweeping bed in an open setting, mine was a 20’ x 40’ rectangle defined on three sides by a screen porch, a garage, and a lilac hedge.

If you can imagine a time when hardly anyone gardened, it was then –- the early 1960’s.  Besides us, there were only two other people to talk to in our village:  Evelyn Blankman, a second-generation iris grower who generously divided her stock with us every few years; and Nathaniel Hess, a rhododendron hybridizer with a modernist garden designed by James Rose, and who was much too formidable for us to approach. 

Saretta and I, full of the English garden books of that time, and casting ourselves in the image of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, planned and planted from our only two sources:  Martin Veitte’s Nursery on Rte 25A and Falconer’s, our local nursery in Port Washington.  Martin Viette’s plants were field-grown; we selected our plants when in bloom and they were tagged for us and dug later for fall or spring planting.  Falconer’s specialized in hanging baskets, a market with so little interest that Mr. Falconer would winter over our fuschias and plumbagos in his greenhouse.

We grew some of the same plants, but Saretta was more experimental than I.  She loved clematis and roses and tree peonies and platycodon and rose mallow.  Her bed was wide enough to necessitate a path for weeding, and scattered with stone markers brought back from European trips. Somewhere there must be photographs, and if I can ever find them I’ll make sure to post.

Her garden was on a flat, bare two-acre site, and over the years white pines, apple trees and rhododendrons were added to give heft to the property.  But it was the perennial border that caught your eye and brought your afternoon walk to a halt.  There was an advisor, I can’t remember his name, who would come once or twice a week to keep it all tidy and would bring her plants that he had started from seed in his greenhouse.

In later years Saretta spent more and more time in the city, and eventually the house was sold.  I had left long before, and we never revisited our old gardens.  In her last years she became a bit unmoored as her memory slipped.  But it was only her memory of the immediate.  The past remained clear, and that’s what we continued to talk about to the last. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

At War with the Squirrels

Dear Reader,

My apologies; I’ve been absent too long.  During the missing months I purchased the house I’d been renting and started a new garden.  It took a year of planning and months of construction and installation.  The result so far has been more successes than failures; not a bad scorecard.  I have much to report, but illogically I’ll start at the end and work my way back to the beginning during the winter. 

At War with the Squirrels

As Washington careens towards conflict with North Korea, I have launched a pre-emptive strike against my enemy -- the squirrels.  They are in the middle of their seasonal cycle, laying waste to a crop of walnuts.   My garden is beautifully shaded by the dappled light of black walnut trees, but I pay a steep price when the nuts start to fall. 

My terrace is one of the areas so beautifully shaded.  Why did I choose to locate a terrace directly in the line of fire, you might well ask?  Despite having a few years to observe the pattern of falling walnuts and the habits of squirrels, I did this out of sheer stubbornness and the belief that is it my right to sit outside my kitchen door. And, evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that I could outwit the marauders. 

Newly-laid Bluestone

But they are so clever.  Last year my neighbor couldn’t start his car, and lifted the hood to find his engine compartment neatly packed with walnuts.  My plan was to head the squirrels off at the pass, collect the nuts and deliver them to the dump before the squirrels could get to them.  But I underestimated their determination. 

For weeks last year I collected each day’s crop of fallen walnuts and stored them in the car for delivery to the dump.  The squirrels, infuriated, would wait for me to emerge for the morning collection and shake the overhead branches so furiously I needed a hard hat to work outdoors.

My squirrels are not inclined to store their nuts in my car’s engine compartment because, unlike my neighbor’s house, here they have paving to work on.  They are busy collecting the nuts, piercing the shells that have not smashed open on the paving, taking off the shells on the long front bluestone walk or the new rear terrace, laying the nut meats on the tree branches to dry, and eventually storing them for the winter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the product, the walnuts are encased in a hard shell wrapped in a green husk, the inner layer of which is composed of inky black extraordinarily messy soft matter.  For six to eight weeks in the early Fall the walnuts come crashing down at the rate of 50 to 100 per day.  When landing softly in grass or soil it is only a matter of collection, but when they hit pavement it is with a shattering force, spewing black dye on paving and house walls alike, often landing on the chair in which I used to enjoy my morning coffee.

Walnut Ink Stains on Bluestone

My daughter, a zoo veterinarian, says squirrels are trainable. Her suggestion was to rig up a cloth across the blue stone terrace, cut a hole in the middle and put a large basket under the hole to collect the walnuts.  Then build a bench of the same stone alongside the terrace; hang a small basket level with the new bench; transfer the nuts from the large basket to the small and the squirrels will learn to use it.  This plan did not pass muster.

I believe her theory in principle, thus the first line of attack is to train the squirrels.  This year I am collecting all the walnuts and depositing them in the rear corner of the garden; a pantry if you will.  Having observed the squirrels shelling the nuts on the aforementioned single slab of bluestone that is my front walk and the 4’ bluestone squares of my now unusable terrace, I’ve paved an area adjacent to the walnut pantry with bluestone; a kitchen table if you will.  It is too soon to tell if it’s working.  So far there has been no sign of activity, but I remain optimistic. 

Squirrel Training Station

The second stage of the offensive is to cover the terrace with some garden-esque form of protection.  There is already an arbor to the east of the terrace offering tactful screening of the house next door.  We could build another arbor on the west side, cover it with lathe and plant vines.  The lathe alone would not be sufficient to prevent walnut husk fragments from falling through, but if we erected an open frame peaked roof, and then covered that roof seasonally with a strong shade cloth … well, you can see where this is going.  Who are the “us”and “we”?  Whoever will take on the construction of this folly.

In the meantime, there is a lot of scrubbing of trim and collecting of walnuts.  The only bright spot in this story is a wonderful new tool from the Lehman’s Catalog:  The Nut Wizard.  It’s a round wire basket with a long handle that rolls merrily across the lawn with only a gentle push, effortlessly collecting all in its path.  It is available in Small, Medium or Large, depending upon the size of your nuts, crabapples or golf balls.   

The Nut Wizard