Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spring Flowering Trees

The spring flowering trees are all abloom here - and all at once! Here is my Amelanchier, covered in delicate white flowers. My neighbor has a wonderful tall pine which I think makes a great backdrop for the tree.
Amelanchier (Serviceberry) blooming
Here is a close up of the flowers. You can also see the wonderful felty gray leaves. The overall effect is delicate and ethereal - amelanchier is not as dense a plant as flowering crabapples, pears, or cherries.
Amelanchier (Serviceberry) flowers
Amelanchiers come in a variety of forms, from short and scrubby to medium shrubs to tall trees. Mine is a single-trunked tree form with an upright canopy. If anybody has any clue about which species this might be, let me know! I inherited it with the house, and I hate not knowing plants' names.

Amelanchier - upright form

My Canadian redbud (Cercis canadensis) is also blooming now. This picture is taken from underneath the tree, because there is a large play structure right up against it which totally obscures the view of it from the yard. Probably sounds awful but I am counting the days until my daughter outgrows the play structure, and I can finally open up this garden view!

Cercis canadensis (Canadian redbud) blooming
Crazily, even my lilac has buds on it already! This is a terrible pic, but just to prove to you that I am not totally lying here:
Lilac buds 3/28/12
Elsewhere about town (sadly, not in my own garden!), we currently have flowering pears:
Flowering pear (pyrus)
A variety of hardy northern magnolias:
Magnolia soulangiana (Saucer Magnolia)
Magnolia stellata (Star Magnolia)
... and even this crabapple! (To be fair, this guy is against a south-facing stone wall, so always blooms unusually early - but still! It's March for pete's sake!)
Crabapple blooming in Wisconsin March 28, 2012
Ordinarily, these trees would bloom here in sequence, over a 6 week period from April to May. It is just completely bizarre to see them all blooming at the same time. And what will there be to look at in May? Asters?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Early Spring Flowers

Hooray, early spring flowers are blooming! Miniature yellow daffodils are looking bright and cheery (as are the weeds... I've clearly got some work to do in there!). Tulips and tree peonies in the background promise to bloom sometime soon.

Narcissus 'Tete-A-Tete'
Siberian squill adds some rich blue under the maples. As you can see, these are very sparse still - they were planted just last fall. Hopefully they will eventually spread to form a spring carpet of blue. The vinca in the background also has a lot of ground to cover too - come on guys, let's get cracking!

Scilla siberica 'Spring Beauty'
Pale chionodoxa (Glory of the snow) is blooming gently against the dark backdrop of yew.
Chionodoxa 'Pink Giant'
Many trees are flowering or budding as well. My Amelanchier is a cloud of soft gray leaf and flower buds. I'm not sure what species or cultivar this is - we inherited it with the property. It produces sweet purple berries in summer that are appreciated equally by both the birds and my 5-year-old.

Amelanchier buds
Brilliant lavender-pink pearls adorn the Canadian redbud. I love how the color of the buds complements the silvery bark.
Cercis canadensis buds
Even the chartreuse flowers of the large shade maples look like heavenly froth at this time of year. Heralds of spring!
Maples flowering above thuja

Here are a few lessons I've learned so far this season:

1) I planted hellebores, bergenia, and hyacinth in what turned out to be the coldest, darkest corner of my new garden. D'oh! Everyone else's plants are blooming already, but mine are just barely making new growth... :-( Next year, I will know better.

2) The free wood chip mulch I got from my municipality is good for paths, but not for perennial beds. The young foliage has a hard time poking through and it just looks too coarse. My mulch budget is basically zero so I'm not sure where to find a free alternative. I am composting a large pile of fall leaves for leaf mold, but it will not be nearly enough...

3) Next year I need many MORE early spring bulbs, such as aconites, crocus, snowdrops, iris reticulata, and LARGER early daffodils (I love the minis, but they don't make much of a statement in the empty vastness of early spring). There are plenty of bare spots between perennials that could be doing some work right now!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dwarf Pines at the Arboretum

Pinus mugo 'Aurea'
I'm in the mode of observing my new garden to identify holes in design and seasonal interest. A major hole I noticed this winter is the total lack of evergreens visible from INSIDE the house. I planted a few evergreen shrubs as soon as we moved in (there were absolutely none on the property when we bought it - not even the obligatory "yew mustache"!): so far we have some arborvitae, yews, boxwood, and a dwarf spruce. However, I placed ALL of them around the foundation or the perimeter of the yard, where they look good from the street. I entirely neglected to plan for myself looking out on the barren scene from the windows! (Duh.) So, I need to select some more dwarf evergreens that will liven up my winter view - but which ones? Off to the Arboretum for some fun research!

Dwarf pines at the UW-Madison Arboretum

My first objective is to plant a dwarf pine near my tree peonies. I love how pine and peonies look together. The Arboretum has lots of pines to look at - although on the cutest ones it's of course impossible to find the bleeping ID tag! Rrgh. But here are my favorites of the ones who would tell me their names. These were all photographed in mid-March, so this is basically what they look like coming out of winter, in the dullest possible time of year.

Pinus mugo (Mugo pine)
Pinus mugo 'Aurea'

'Aurea' is a broad, spreading Mugo pine with long needles of a glowing, golden-green color. Shape is pleasingly bumpy. I really appreciated how it lit up the landscape. It is probably somewhat large for my small yard.

Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna'

'Big Tuna' is a very cool looking pine (with an equally cool name) - it is indeed big and chunky. It has long, stiff needles and a tough-guy globular shape. I didn't measure it, but it is taller than an average person and roughly equally as wide. Again, a bit large for my purposes, but I may just have to make room...

Pinus mugo 'Teeny'

'Teeny' is very small and cute! A compact flattened-bun shape, with rich green needle color. I'm sure I can fit this one in, or something similar. Some people think green is boring, and want all "evergreens" to be golden, blue, white, or pink..., but in the long winter deep green is the color I crave most.

Pinus strobus (Eastern White Pine)
Pinus strobus 'Pendula'
This weeping Eastern White Pine looked awesome in the landscape, and you can go inside there and hide! My daughter would love that. Probably also some raccoons, foxes, rabbits, or even baboons would move in too... This one is not very dwarf - it's at least 10 feet tall, and wider.

Pinus sylvestris

Pinus sylvestris globosa viridis
This one has the most fantastic long, twisty foliage that gives it a very appealing fuzzy, tufted look. It won't fit next to my tree peonies but would make a great background plant.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Things Happening

My lilac is starting to leaf out - in March!
Lilac foliage emerging

My tree peonies are waking up too:
Good morning tree peony!
My wintersowing containers are starting to pop:
Wintersown Iberis seedlings in milk jug
It's been so warm I got my vegetable garden amended with compost and planted with spring seeds already. I used scrap wood to make semi-raised beds this year - this is the neatest it's ever looked! (I'm sure it will still be a mess by summer...)
Veggie garden amended, dug and planted
I've started installing a new bed by the patio. Roses, iris, filipendula, geraniums, and lilies will go there. I've been working hard in the dirt every day and my winter-wimpy self is sore and covered in grime and blisters. It feels great!
Removing grass and rocks to make a new bed
There are no spectacular blooms yet, but bulbs are emerging, some perennials are growing, and I've started cutting back old foliage and cleaning out beds:
Beds cleaned out to reveal allium and daffodils poking up here and there
Hooray for spring! Now back to work ...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Crocus which I did not plant

The only thing blooming in my garden right now is this solitary crocus which I did not plant. Must be a relic from gardeners past...

Poor lonely little crocus! I did not plant you.
He looks a bit forlorn there all by himself, but he's certainly welcome to stay (and multiply), if the squirrels don't find him first.

Winter aconites and snowdrops are blooming in my area now, as well as these witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) I saw in the Arboretum on March 13th:

Hamamelis vernalis 'Sandra'
 Very difficult things to photograph, those witch hazels. They look much lovelier in person, and have a pleasant (if muted) fragrance. This yellow cultivar really shows up well in the landscape, glowing like a soft lantern from across the garden.
Hamamelis vernalis 'Sandra'

The photo below shows an orange cultivar named 'Red Imp' with a pink-flowered one called 'Kohankie Red' in the background.

Hamamelis vernalis 'Red Imp' (foreground) and 'Kohankie Red'
These are varieties I have never seen for sale in the trade. Although they perhaps look more interesting close-up, these non-yellow cultivars did not look as good in the landscape. From a distance, the orange-flowered one just looks as if it is covered in old dusty leaves. The pink-flowered one had very few flowers that disappear entirely. I did not even realize they were blooming until I was standing right next to them. Both also had a much more awkward habit than 'Sandra'.

For those of you not familiar with Wisconsin climate, this is astonishingly early for these plants to be blooming! See what else is blooming early this year at May Dreams Gardens' Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Garden Visitors

My previous community garden plot was adjacent to a prairie restoration field, with a small forest and lake nearby. As you can imagine, humans were not the only creatures to inhabit this space. Here are some fellows I got to know over the years. Some I really miss, and some not so much - I think you'll be able to tell which is which!

Sandhill cranes
A pair of sandhill cranes nested on the lakeshore every summer. They took a stroll in the field every afternoon. I would say hi to them from my plot as I worked in the garden. Once as I was bent over weeding, they flew right over me, so close they almost touched me. I felt a sudden wind rushing over me and stood up, only to be confronted with a crane rear-end in the air in front of my face!

Occasionally they would sneak through the gardens in search of a tasty tidbit. Sandhill cranes are supposed to be rather shy, but this pair seemed quite unconcerned at the close presence of humans.

Sandhill cranes with chick
Sandhill cranes have one chick per year. Here they are showing this year's baby around the neighborhood.

Ground squirrel watching me: "Plant some more of those peas, lady! We like 'em!"
 Here are two more friends I met on the plains. Both are small, tailless, and really like to eat. Ground squirrels would pop cheerfully out of their tunnels and stare intently as I surveyed the damage they had done. They would mostly just eat vegetables reachable from the ground, but I've also seen one climb a pea fence to get to the peas on top. They would always come to watch me work - many little heads in a circle around me, thinking: ooh, next we are going to eat THAT!
Vole peeping from his hidey-hole
Voles tunnel underground and are very shy. They eat the roots of plants away to nothing from underground. Usually all I saw of the voles themselves was a gray-brown streak as they scurried away if I disturbed the pile of mulch they had been hiding in. But they left behind plenty of mementos...
Rodent damage on 'Tetsukaboto' winter squash
I'm not sure who was at this feast - perhaps they had a giant rodent party? I can just see them, sucking the juice from some fermented tomatoes and shouting "Gardens RUUUULE!" So that you don't feel too bad for me, I would like to say here that I harvested a bounty of vegetables from this garden. Losses to rodent damage really never exceeded 10 or 15%. I just looked on it as the local rodent tax - not a bad rate, compared to some other tax codes I know!

Red-tailed hawk
Fortunately for gardeners, where there are rodents, there are predators. I find these large hawks somewhat terrifying (they always seemed to be sizing me up - could we eat her? she does look kinda wimpy...), but I know deep in my heart that they are good for my garden so I try to like them. Also, they are strikingly beautiful. But I still don't want to pet them.

My current garden is in more of a suburban-y landscape, and the visitors tend more toward the conventional marauding bunnies, chipmunks, and bird-seed fattened gray squirrels. I see cranes flying far overhead now, but we still receive plenty of visits from these guys:
Hawk with bunny fluff on my neighbor's lawn

Friday, March 9, 2012

Overwintering Spinach

I just picked my first spinach harvest yesterday, March 8. Yes that's right - I'm in Wisconsin, zone 5a, there was snow on the ground just last week, and I'm already harvesting spinach! I used my bounty to make a healthy "Green soup" (which, by the way, is my 5-year old's favorite soup).

Early March spinach harvest ('Tyee')
 This is possible because the spinach was planted last fall, and I overwintered it using a coldframe. Spinach is incredibly hardy - it can withstand temperatures well below freezing. If grown in a coldframe you can harvest spinach far into the winter (late December here), long after snow has blanketed the earth. Eventually, if your winters are as cold as mine are, the plants will freeze. But that's OK. As soon as spring arrives, they will thaw out and resume growing instantly, just as if nothing had happened. They are only temporarily frozen in time, like characters in a bad science fiction comedy. You can start picking right away, and the quality of the frost-sweetened leaves is excellent. I grow 'Tyee' which is a particularly cold-hardy variety.

Overwintered spinach growing in coldframe. Time to wake up guys!
I have a fairly flimsy-looking coldframe/mini-greenhouse that I purchased last year. It's made of plastic cloth attached to wires with handy zipper openings. I'm not sure how long it will last, but it spent all winter outside and did quite well - no rips, tears, or other visible damage yet. It got flattened to the ground several times under heavy snow and ice, but the flexible wires bounced it right back into shape as soon as the snow melted. Eventually I'd like to make a "real" coldframe, constructed of wood and glass, which should be sturdier and offer better winter protection.
My coldframe/mini-greenhouse
This fall I plan to try overwintering more types of cold hardy greens - mache, tahtsai, kale, and perhaps collards. I'm not sure if they'll all bounce back as easily as spinach does, but I should be able to extend the harvest by a month or more into winter at least.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Speed of Change

This is what my garden looked like just five days ago:

March snowstorm - check out the snow on the utility wires!
And this is what I saw on a stroll around the yard today:

New growth on sedum
 Quite a few perennials are showing signs of emerging spring foliage, including sedum, nepeta, geranium, iris, phlox, bergenia, and heuchera. I was actually able to do some work in the garden today and did a bit of an old foliage clean-up. Made my first delivery of the year to the compost pile! :-)

Helleborus orientalis - surviving winter foliage

Bergenia - surviving winter foliage
Now that the snow has melted I can see the surviving winter foliage of small evergreen perennials: hellebores, bergenias, and heuchera. They look tattered and worn, naturally, but it's still refreshing to look out the window and see something other than an endless white blanket! 

Something (slugs?) has been chewing on the hellebore foliage. I didn't think anyone ate hellebores - aren't they poisonous?

There is a lot of animal winter damage. Some local resident (presumably of the rodent clan) chewed my fothergilla and oakleaf hydrangea right down to the ground! Disappointing, but next year I will know to provide better winter protection against gnawing teeth.

Tulips emerging

Bulbs are popping up all about the garden: early tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and even some allium. Oddly, what I thought would be the earliest bulbs to appear (chionodoxa, scilla, iris reticulata) have not made an appearance yet. I made the mistake of planting my earlier bulbs in frostier areas. This is my first spring in this new garden, so I made some bad guesses about which areas would warm up first. That's OK - I've been paying attention and now have the perfect spot scoped out for snowdrops next year!

I know there is not much to look at yet, but the signs of yearly transformation are visible. The speed of change is just dizzying. I have been waiting for spring to arrive for so long - I can't get used to the idea that it may actually be here!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finnish Rhododendrons at the Arboretum

Rhododendron 'Helsinki University'
I have been admiring the ultra-hardy Finnish or "Marjatta" series of rhododendrons for quite a while now. By my reckoning, there is only room for ONE of these large specimens in my new garden, and now I'm faced with making the torturous decision as to which one that should be...

All of the Finnish rhododendrons are incredibly winter hardy - down to at least zone 4 and some even to zone 3. They are elepidotes, meaning they have very large leaves. (As compared to the small-leaved PJM type.) Large evergreen leaves and raging northern winters usually spell disaster, but these toughies are an exception. They offer an exciting opportunity for us northerners to add bold texture to the winter garden.

Here are the cultivars I've personally seen growing in Wisconsin, mostly at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Olbrich Botanical Gardens:

Helsinki University

Rhododendron 'Helsinki University'
I've seen a few mature specimens of this one, and all were very tall and upright. Magnificent is a word that comes to mind. The foliage was mostly in good condition, and I like the nice bright pink color of the flowers. It's hard to tell the scale of the plant from the picture, but these are about 7-8 feet tall at least. It perhaps has a tendency towards legginess, which would not necessarily be a problem for me as this will be a background plant in my shade garden.


Rhododendron 'Hellikki'

'Hellikki' has bright reddish pink flowers, a deeper color than 'Helsinki University'. I haven't seen as many plants of this one, but it appears to be slightly smaller growing. On the few that I saw, the foliage did not look terribly happy, although that could have been an accident.

Mikkeli (aka St. Michel)

Rhododendron 'Mikkeli'
Rhododendron 'Mikkeli' with Japanese painted fern

'Mikkeli' ('St. Michel') definitely has the nicest foliage of all that I have seen. The leaves are particularly large and seem to hold up extremely well against winter weather. This is supposed to be the hardiest of all the cultivars, down to zone 3. This one also grows tall - the mature specimens in the Arboretum are at least 7-8 feet. BUT, I find the color of the flowers uninspiring. They are a very pale grayish pink which fades to white. Foliage is my main reason for wanting to get an evergreen rhododendron, but I WAS hoping for a bright splash of spring color as well...


Rhododendron 'Haaga'

'Haaga' has bright pink flowers of a medium hue. The foliage is smaller than 'Mikkeli' or 'Helsinki University', and the overall plant height is somewhat smaller too.


Rhododendron 'Elviira'

The color on this one is awesome - bright coral red. (Apologies for the terrible glary photo - it's the only one a managed to get!) 'Elviira' blooms earlier than all the others I've seen - mid-May here, as opposed to late May to early June for the others. It won't suit my purposes because it's a low, flat-growing bush and I'm looking for a large, tall specimen. It reportedly grows to be only about 2 feet high - the one I saw was only about a foot high, although it may have been immature (I've only ever seen one of these).

Pohjola's Daughter

Rhododendron 'Pohjola's Daughter'
'Pohjola's Daughter' is another low, broad shaped rhododendron, although larger than 'Elviira'. The flowers are a very pale pink, which often fade to near-white. (Again sorry for the awful picture - I include it for completeness' sake.)

So.. I'm still not sure which one to get. What I want is a rhodo with the foliage and habit of 'Mikkeli', but the flowers of 'Hellikki' or 'Haaga'. That probably doesn't exist... sigh.

There are three more cultivars that I have not seen in person yet: 'Kullervo', 'Pekka', and 'P.M.A Tigerstedt' ('Peter Tigerstedt'). 'Pekka' looks particularly interesting, but I'd like to take a look at a mature live specimen before purchasing it. The Finnish Rhododendron Society has a helpful page with some info on all nine cultivars.
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