A Fresh Start

Trees that provided great scale. And zero privacy.

We took a big leap this spring. In the early 1960s the family that lived in this house brought in live trees for Christmas, then planted them out to grow along the property line. Time intervened and the lower limbs died, leaving us with large scale trees and a virtual uninterrupted sightline into our neighbor’s bedrooms. Note that the first 15 feet of trunk are devoid of foliage. What to do? Well, we took a deep breath and removed them.

The “after” is scary. But we have a plan. Sort of.

Continue to follow this blog along and see the newly installed planting. We’re heading into it with an eye toward lower maintenance. In addition, we’re striving to create a habitat of native plants hospitable to pollinators. One major shift is the reality of the change in stewardship from a young gardener with good knees to one who is now in her sixties. The plan will lean on some interesting new trees mixed with shrubs and ground covers to create plant communities that provide privacy and beauty.

Resilient Plants: Hardy Mums

November. From a weather perspective it’s pretty much my least favorite month. Sure, we might get a couple crisp fall days in the 50’s, but it’s typically gray, rainy, foggy or raw. Add to that, we lose an hours of evening light. One bright spot in this dreary month are the blooms of hardy chrysanthemums (botanically Dendanthrema species). Not the lumpy mums sold alongside pumpkins- pretty as they are, but true hardy chrysanthemums.  Long-lasting, late-blooming and impervious to the vagaries of November weather, their lanky foliage quietly graces the border until the shorter days spur them to bloom.

This bright pink beauty is ‘Cambodian Queen’ a tough, drought resistant daisy with a crisp white eye. In a month when we’re retreating to indoor projects, hardy mums are a bright spot in the garden. They make great cut flowers, bloom for 3-4 weeks, return faithfully every year and are pretty much pest and disease free. Make room for these in your garden, maybe paired with a native switch grass, for nice contrast in texture and a spot of late season interest in the garden.

PS- November is not without its charms. My middle daughter and my twin granddaughters celebrate birthdays in November…so I’d definitely keep it on the calendar!

Support your local nursery

Spring has FINALLY arrived and even the most reluctant homeowner will head out to buy a few geraniums or fresh basil for their garden. “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” has become a clarion call for farmers. Your local plant growers warrant similar support- with good reason. Growing plants is labor intensive and requires skill- and most local growers aren’t doing it for big money. It is their passion. The choices at big-box stores pale in comparison to what your local nursery offers and their wisdom is indispensable for choosing plants that will thrive once you get them home. Why go local before you head to a big-box store? Where does a plant obsessed Master Gardener go for plants?……2kty4yonr96g2kcwnccica.jpg

  • The selection of plants at big-box stores is skewed to those easy to propagate, cheap to source in quantity and shippable from long distances with little plant loss. That mind-set means you can get a crappy Bradford pear prone to ice damage, a mis-marked rhododendron or a tomato plant in late April on the cheap. A local nursery owner might not even stock Bradford pear (thank you Best Feeds!), will know that the rhodie they’re selling is purple not pink, and would caution you that soil temperatures aren’t warm enough for tomatoes until late May.
  • Local nurseries can be tuned into the zeitgeist of their horticultural community. They may have plants that are native and perfect for pollinators and VERY hard to source. Thank you Quality Gardens.
  • If you ask for a plant you have a chance that the nursery will order it in for you. Try that at the big box- where one size fits all. Thank you Dan from Michael Brothers Nursery. I could soak in his knowledge for days and he’s never steered me wrong.
  • If you live in deer infested areas many local nurseries sell plants that they’ve installed in local gardens and have thrived i.e. they know the palate of the local herd. Thank-you LMS Greenhouse and Nursery. (Sad post-script- I just learned they are closing because they can’t get anyone to work the hard labor of garden maintenance. The H2B Visa program has fizzled away).
  • When you walk into a greenhouse whose owner has lovingly selected each and every cultivar of plant, grown them from seed into nice healthy specimens, carefully placed them in a greenhouse and watered, fertilized, cut-back and tended them like their own children, you’ll be planting with the very best head start. Compare that to the rack upon rack of hastily potted annuals shipped to the box store and meant for purchase within 5 minutes or the odds of watering or liberation from their stacked confines can be days or weeks. Pisarcik Greenhouse, pictured above has some of the healthiest, stockiest young plants and one of the most neatly organized greenhouses I’ve ever seen.
  • Sometimes you’ll read about new plants and won’t be able to find them. One of Pittsburgh’s rock-star nurseries is Brenckle’s Greenhouse. They always have the latest offerings from growers and the younger generation has taken up the mantle of their parents. Their selection is always amazing- if you read about a flower in a magazine you’ll find it at Brenckle’s.
  • Every nursery I’ve mentioned above has staff that knows their plants. For a novice gardener, that expertise is indispensable. We’ve got to support them or they’ll be gone. Our only plant choices will be that suck-y Bradford pear, invasive barberries and flats with barely rooted baby annuals. We can’t let that happen.

Choose plants that light up the garden during prime-time.

If you head to the nursery in May, clouds of white and pink flowers bedecking cherry, crabapple and Bradford pear trees dominate the scene.  Rhododendrons clad in purple and raspberry flowers will vie for your attention, making a perfect palette for a pretty spring garden. That’s fine, but think about when you are actually IN your garden. Grilling on the the July 4th? Playing badminton on a sunny weekend in June? That pretty purple rhododendron calling your name in the spring will be a quiet spot of green in the summer or early fall, when you are likely hanging out in your yard. Meanwhile, languishing in the nursery are the plants like bottlebrush buckeye (described below) that will take center stage in mid-summer.

Aesculus parviflora

Take a look at this beauty! It’s bottlebrush buckeye or Aesculus parviflora, a grand shrub reaching a height of up to 8-10 feet with about equal girth. It tolerates full sun through nearly full shade. For the giant candelabras of buckeye flowers in this image, give it at least 4 hours of sun. Unfussy about soil and usually unbothered by deer, the coarse foliage creates a weed-proof spot perfect for the woodland edge or tucked under large deciduous trees. In my landscape, a sunny hillside with unamended clay soil was planted with gallon pots of bottlebrush buckeye over 20 years ago. Today, they create a dramatic show, covered with bees and butterflies, making the garden gorgeous when we’re outside sipping rose’ and listening to the BOOM of fireworks on the 4th of July. The bottom line- ask your local nursery staff to steer you toward plants that will make your garden shine when you are outside enjoying it with your family and friends.

Finding Beauty in the Winter Garden

A seedpod of Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) backed up by the seedheads of Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) provide moody beauty at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. While it’s not the kind of day one might choose to venture out in, making the effort is worth it to see remnants of the summer garden and the fog encased trees along the river. The birds see it. For them this spot is a perfect spot for lunch- the native plants in this bed are a favorite for them. We need to see it too. If only for the reminder that spring is around the corner. IMG_3618.jpg