Fall Garden Assessment: All Credit Due to Nature

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REALLY, I CLAIM VERY LITTLE CREDIT for my half-acre garden on the East End of Long Island. I may feel like I’m working hard, schlepping compost from the dump and seaweed from the beach and dragging hoses around by the hour when my prayers for rain go unanswered. But when I look at photos from even a year ago, I realize that the plants are pretty much doing it by themselves.

This year, I can’t say I’ve “put my garden to bed” for the winter. I decamped for the city a few days ago, when it got cold, and closed up the house for the season. I shut the fireplace flue, emptied the fridge, stripped the beds, the whole routine. But the garden, I just sort of left.

No point raking now. The dozens of trees — oak, hickory, maple — haven’t yet shed the bulk of their leaves. As for applying that protective winter layer of mulch, “they say” you need to wait until the ground freezes. (Why? That they never say.) Anyway, I didn’t do it.

In the past few weeks, I have added plants, of course: the fab pink muhly grass (top), glistening in the morning sun. Some Montauk daisies (gotta have those for local color; Montauk is 12 miles away). Several shrubs and some perennials from a wonderful wholesale nursery a friend in the business took me to. A couple more shrubs from a local couple who have a nursery of sorts in their suburban backyard. And a few dozen exotic lilies, mail-ordered from Van Engelen, the bulb company, which seem to do very well in my sandy soil.

So I dug and planted and watered in October, and only afterwards was astonished to look, for comparison’s sake, at photos from last October, and see how things filled in of their own accord, when I was hardly paying attention.

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Two views of same area. Top, a thriving stand of Solomon’s seal in the foreground. Bottom, left to right: mystery shrub purchased from local couple (“like an azalea”); viburnum from last year showing fall color; new hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’; $5 white hydrangea from local couple that blooms for months and months

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View of same area, above, with fewer and smaller shrubs, about a year ago.

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Purple berries on new beautybush (callicarpa ‘Issai’), and a beauty it is.

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Beds near deck filled out, especially considering what they looked like a year ago, below

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Above, left to right in a corner of the deck: dusty miller that began as annuals bought for containers two years ago but have persisted in the ground and formed a large stand; new agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin,’ love the coral color; Montauk daisies in bloom

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Above, how I left things along the front walk. Impressive compared to last fall’s view of the same area from a different angle, below

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Two views of my raised beds, below, which are kind of experimental holding pens for things I don’t quite know what to do with. They were butterfly magnets this past summer.

The catmint has gone wild. There’s some purple agastache, two Miss Kim lilacs, a potentilla, a physocarpus, a blueberry plant, and some orange cosmos that self-seeded from last year.

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I cleaned up the raised beds about a month ago, cutting back verbena bonariensis  and phlox that had gotten mildewed and out of control, and shearing some other country perennials like obedient plant and coneflower, which I expect to return robustly next summer.

I need to add more soil to these beds. These things are growing in just a few inches, but it’s as rich as it is scanty. I used these beds as my compost bins, dumping all my kitchen scraps in there, for the first couple of years I lived here. I’ve since been adding seaweed from the beach and leaf mold from my own copious piles of leaves…but I really need to lift everything, fill the beds to the top and replant. Next spring for that.

Below, where I savor my garden accomplishments — or rather, nature’s — of an autumn evening.

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My Friends’ Gardens

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FROM THE SUNNY SANDS of Far Rockaway in eastern Queens to the backyards of Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, from the Connecticut shore to the Long Island beachfront, many of my friends are enthusiastic amateur gardeners, and often share photos with me. It’s a varied lot, to be sure, but there’s a common denominator: we are all nurturers who delight in wresting beauty from sometimes-unlikely places.

Susan in Connecticut turned her driveway, below — the sunniest available spot — into a tidy and productive vegetable garden, with gravel pathways separating the raised beds.

Barbara created an appealing oasis in a Manhattan backyard with virtually NO direct sunlight, making the most of it with a wood deck and filling in with shade-loving container plants.

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Nancy’s 30-year-old Boerum Hill garden, though north-facing, receives lots of sunlight. The climbing roses and hydrangea, along with stands of wood hyacinth and irises, do their thing year after year with a minimum of attention. The dark-leaved shrub with pinkish flowers is a lacy elderberry planted last fall, after a tree peony in that spot gave up the ghost.

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On Long Island’s South Shore, Irvina created what she calls her ‘Giverny-inspired’ stoop. Yellow and purple flowers in blue and terracotta containers bringing abundant summer color to her gray-shingled house and cedar steps.

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And a view of Marlene’s sun-drenched Far Rockaway beach cottage garden in its exuberant summer prime, along with one from last May when irises were exploding…

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Finally, on Shelter Island between Long Island’s North and South Forks, Debre’s envy-inducing profusion of recent blooms included lilies, echinacea and dianthus. She’s worked hard to improve the rocky soil, and it seems the flowers have responded. (The photo at the top of this post, of the bee on the echinacea, is also from Debre’s garden.)

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Behold the Lilies

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CONSIDER THE LILIES of the field, and let’s not forget the hydrangeas, ladies’ mantel, astilbe, verbena and other things… July here at Green Half-Acre is turning out OK after all.

Lilies — whether fancy ones from a catalogue, yard sale buckets of roadside orange day lilies, hybrids passed on by a friend, bulbs picked up last summer at the Long Island Daylily  Society show and sale in Farmingdale — all seem to do well here, and they’re so EASY. More lilies, I say!

Above: Showstoppers alongside my front walk (Netty’s Pride, and mine too.)

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The purple things are verbena bonariensis, said to be a self-seeding annual, and I hope it is in years to come. That backdrop of greenery is sweet-smelling native bayberry, which was here on my arrival three-plus years ago.

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Your classic Hamptons blue hydrangea. True, I don’t have many such, but even a few are spectacular.

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More rhodies! These a later-blooming native type, of which I have inherited some two major stands. I  missed seeing them last July and the one before (when the house was rented) and am thoroughly enjoying them now.

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The long-blooming yellow ladies’ mantel in the foreground is a treat; I’ve tried it before, elsewhere, without success. Here it’s become a standout.

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In the wooded part of the property, still largely ‘undeveloped,’ a profusion of white hydrangea blossoms from a bush bought for $5 from a local couple who have a nursery of sorts in their modest backyard.

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I am pleased with my scallop shell mulch on one side of the front walk. The shells are available at the local recycling center, i.e. dump, where some commercial fishing operation evidently dumped them for the taking. The grasses are chasmanthium (sea oats) and, if I remember correctly, Prairie Fire grass that isn’t getting enough sun to turn red.

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Things to come: Turk’s cap lily buds in abundance.

Showtime in the Garden

IMG_0008THERE’S A SENSE AROUND HERE (in my head, that is) that my Long Island garden is already peaking at this early stage of the game. Memorial Day and the week following are spearheaded each year, I now know, by the pinkish-purple blooming of four massive, gasp-worthy rhododendron shrubs I inherited when I bought this place three years ago.

The rhodies were not in great shape when I arrived, but three years of mulching, extra watering and Hollytone-ing, along with some judicious pruning, made this year’s flower show the most profuse yet.

Up to fifteen feet tall, they surround my deck, are the main sight seen through the windows along the front of the house, and act as a magnet to draw people into the garden for a closer look. (My yard sale last Saturday, a non-spectacular affair mounted with three friends, became equally an unofficial Open Garden Day, with would-be yard sale customers meandering through my half-acre, and coming out praising my skills as a plantswoman, which was very satisfying.)

A week into June, however, helped along by a couple of hot days and a couple of pounding rainstorms, the rhodie’s blousey blossoms are already beginning to fade and fall apart, heralding a load of mushy-petal raking to come, and later in June, the chore of deadheading the finished flowers to make room for next year’s all-too-brief display.

Is it worth all the toil and trouble? No doubt. Will I be satisfied with the garden’s subtler pleasures to follow? I’ll try.

Sensational though they are, late May/early June is not all about rhodies. Check out the foxgloves I’ve got going this year. True, I took a shortcut. The property next door has been vacant for a year or more, and in a wrong-headed effort to make it look more “buildable,” the owner clear-cut dozens of mature trees. That was horrifying — the woods turned into a forest of tree stumps in a day — except that some dormant digitalis purpurea, a whole great stand of them in the sunny center of the lot, burst into bloom a couple weeks back. I stole a few and replanted them wholesale in my front beds.

Digitalis (foxgloves) are biennials, and they bloom in their second year, so whether they’ll reseed themselves and carry on, or whether this is just a one-shot pleasure, I have no idea. I certainly hope it’s the former.

My irises are nothing to sneeze at, either. I have several different kinds and know next to nothing about them. A few weeks ago, I was sure they didn’t like the soil, or I had planted them too deep — but lo, another brilliant showing. I’m postponing cutting off the faded flower stalks because I fear there’s nothing much coming to replace them.

There are still gaps and holes and huge areas of bare mulch in the beds, and even huger areas of wooded wilderness where I’d love to plant flowering shrubs and small flowering trees (magnolias, cherry) but haven’t committed the resources.

Anyway, it’s Open Garden Day on casaCARA. Take a look, and come away praising not my garden skills (which leave much to be desired), but the wonder of ephemeral nature.

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Ten Days in May

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HERE’S HOW MY LONG ISLAND, N.Y., GARDEN looks now, with the trees nearly all leafed out for the season, following a night and a day of blessed rain.

As recently as two weeks ago, it still felt like very early spring. Now we’re in it. A few warm days, and the rewards start coming.

The irises I thought were planted too deep, or didn’t like the acidic soil, suddenly shot up their flower stalks. The beds around the front deck — now a tad less shady, thanks to the removal of five or six more trees last March — are filling out, though plenty of bare spots remain.

I’ve been planting like a maniac, all in a spirit of experiment. I’m no longer making any attempt at design in the four raised beds in the sunny center of the property, where I’ve variously had dreams of starting flowers from seeds or growing edibles. Now it’s just a fertile place to hold the odd things picked up at nurseries in Philadelphia and Dutchess County, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual plant sale, and at community garden sales here and there.

I’m making repeated trips to the local dump for free compost, mulch and wood chips, a scene that never fails to remind me of Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s Red Desert, walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape in a pencil skirt and stilettos.

See nature’s progression below:

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Back to front: an ilex ‘sky pencil,’pagoda dogwood, two ninebark ‘Coppertina,’ a couple of lavenders, an acanthus and some annuals in their Brooklyn staging area, awaiting transport.

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Variegated Solomon’s seal, planted last October and doing spectacularly well.

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Golden bleeding heart and ferns as they looked two weeks ago.

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An old azalea, here when I bought this property in 2013, thriving as a result of pruning and Hollytone. 

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Stuffing the raised beds with bulbs only worked for a year. My Costco alliums and even the daffs failed to come back. Only the Pheasant Eye daffodils from a catalogue company bloomed this season, weakly. 

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Still early times, as of two weeks ago, in the bed above. 

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A car full of compost.

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A few native dogwoods on the property blooming better now — must be the Hollytone.

Signs of growth abounding this week:

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Weeping spruce putting it forth.

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Purple violas, gift from a friend, in a gorgeous hunk of driftwood, gift from another friend, in a spot where I had to remove a failing boxwood.

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Watch this space…

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Silver ferns around three rocks, an attempt at artistry and restraint.

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Happy smoke tree.

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I have high hopes for my Pagoda dogwood from the BBG. May be 12 feet tall some day.

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Mystery plants appropriated from vacant lot nearby, where property was clear-cut for development. Digitalis? Remains to be seen.

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Rodgersia — a first for me — and lady’s mantle in front of a rhodie about to burst into bloom.

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Irises blooming after all.

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My only stab at agriculture this year: a single Sun Gold tomato plant in a whiskey barrel.