Boxwoods to the Rescue

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This one’s just for fun, above — it’s one of the more original examples of boxwood topiary I’ve seen in East Hampton

IT’S PLANTING TIME AGAIN, and sale time, too, in the nurseries here on Long Island. Forty percent off trees and shrubs…and I just happened to need a few.

For a long time, it’s bugged me that the first thing I see when I open my front door (which is actually on the side of my cottage) is my neighbor’s mint green propane tank, below, and, when they’re home, a black Volvo station wagon in their driveway. These are about 25 feet from my door, inadequately screened by the most pathetic privet hedge you ever did see. (The picture below was taken in April 2010, year 1 of my perennial garden.)

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Now I like my neighbors very much, and we’ve had several discussions about how to get that privet to regenerate. They are reluctant to do a radical pruning, which I advised, because then we’ll have nothing at all for two years; anyway, there’s not enough light for healthy privet. (Well, he is reluctant; she said, “Go ahead, chop it down, I don’t care!” and I do believe she meant it — but I couldn’t. After all, it’s not my privet.)

I also considered a fence and a trellis, with or without something on it. I tried a few nandina (heavenly bamboo) from Costco, which were supposed to grow to 4 feet but have remained for the past two years at 12 inches.

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Anyway, I’ve gone and invested this fall in six boxwoods, above — shade tolerant, deer-resistant, evergreen boxwoods, the little black dress of gardening. The three I bought last fall and put near the road are doing very well, so that’s encouraging.

I’ve got three new 48″ tall ones from Chas. Whitmore in East Hampton and three 36″ from Marder’s in Bridgehampton. I figure they’ll provide screening and also be a nice backdrop for my perennials (astilbes mainly, in that area). I had the larger three delivered, and picked up the smaller ones in my car, not realizing how massively heavy the little balled and burlapped mothers are (they were loaded in for me). But I managed to rassle them out of my car and onto a handtruck without calling a guy neighbor for help.

I’ve been tugging them around to work out the best arrangement. I don’t want to simply line them up in a row — that’s boring. I want a more naturalistic look (as if boxwoods could ever be naturalistic). I’ve been consulting books and magazines and even took The Boxwood Handbook from the library, but there ain’t much info out there on boxwood placement — only on cultivars, and pests and diseases, which I don’t want to think about.

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The folks above, also in East Hampton, have nothing but boxwoods in various sizes. They’ve clearly decided it’s the only practical solution in a deer-ridden neighborhood.

Tomorrow I’m expecting Dong, who helps me with landscaping, and they go in (it was supposed to be today, but…)  I spent yesterday moving stuff out of the way, transplanting ferns and ligularia to give the boxes some breathing room. I’ve settled on a 2 short-3 tall-1 short configuration, left to right, and overlapping each other a bit. I wish they could be as tall, once planted, as they are in their root balls and containers, but they’ll shrink a bit, just like me.

Lula’s Garden

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Four Alberta spruces and a boxwood hedge lead the way from driveway to front door

GOT ME A NEW CAMERA, but it’s not out of the box yet (I’m a little slow to adopt new technology, even when it’s sitting on my dining table). It’s a Canon S95, on the theory that the best camera for a blogger is the one you have with you, and this camera is light.

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Meanwhile, stalling for time, I hereby present some shots of 2-3 weeks ago, taken with a loaner camera, of a cottage and garden belonging to my friend Lula here in Springs, Long Island, N.Y.

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Lula is a professional garden designer who has worked on spaces both public and private, and she’s been working on her own piece of the planet for half a dozen years. I very much admire its variety, color, and organization.

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Curving beds around the edge of the lawn and a garden through the woods, traversed by a stepping-stone path, below, exploit all things shade-tolerant and deer-resistant, including pieris, bleeding hearts, brunnera, ferns, cranesbill, and much more. The red Japanese maple near the house is a show-stopper. As for the rhodies, Lula swears by Deer-Out.

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The Boxwood Rebellion

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I wasn’t really planning something like this…

IT HAPPENED SO FAST, my head is spinning. At 3 o’clock, I was at Spielberg’s Nursery in East Hampton, now that fall sales have begun, looking to see what they might have in the way of shrubs to screen my front yard from the road. For months, I have been incubating the notion that it should be a “tapestry hedge” made up of native shrubs with varying textures and colors. A hedge that would always have something interesting going on with fruit or flowers, and attract birds and butterflies, like the books say.

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or this…

I was armed with a list. Actually, a sheaf of lists. Among the suggestions: blackthorn, hawthorn, field maple, hazel, crabapple, honeysuckle, spicebush, highbush blueberry, pagoda dogwood, viburnum.

Spielberg’s didn’t have any of those. And when I factored in my two challenges — shade and deer — my options were further reduced. In fact, they were reduced to one thing: boxwood.

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…something like this, perhaps?

Now I love boxwood. It’s tidy and green and reliable, and deer don’t touch the stuff. As one of my favorite garden designers, Dean Riddle, says, you can never have too many boxwoods. They’re the little black dress of gardening. But I wasn’t planning a uniform hedge, and I’ve yet to see boxwoods used as part of a mixed hedge. Not so’s I can remember, anyway.

By 3:15, I had bought three plump, 4′ tall Buxus sempervirens: Common or American Boxwood. By 4PM, they were delivered to my house. By 4:30, Dong, who has been helping me with weeding and mowing, was there with a shovel.

I hadn’t had time to plan, and Dong made it clear that once he dug the holes, that’s where the plants were going. So I did the best I could on the fly. I had him remove two mountain laurels that weren’t doing well on the roadside — not enough sun, probably — and replace them with two of the boxwoods (and move the mountain laurels to a more auspicious spot). I put a third boxwood closer to the house, where it forms a sort of triangle with the other two, for no particular reason except I thought three in a row would look stupid.

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Actually, I find this one very inspiring, if ever I get a deer fence.

Among my papers is an article about mixed country hedges that calls them a “revolt against all that boxwood.” Well, now I’m in unintended revolt against mixed country hedges, I guess. I’m still planning to put some more free-flowing plants around my buttoned-up boxwoods. That is, if I can find anything shade-tolerant and deer-resistant besides box.

I Cheated with Annuals

Celoisa 'Fresh Look Gold'

MY NEW PLANTING BEDS – the ones at the front of my property, that started out last fall as piles of dead oak leaves, supplemented by topsoil and compost – are now almost as green as they are brown, with lots of perennials transplanted from upstate, a few purchases, and donations from friends. Those perennials —  salvia, astilbe, catmint, ladies mantle, ligularia, and irises — aren’t blooming yet, and probably won’t put on much of a show this year. Hence all the green. Foliage, but no flowers.

I wanted flowers and I wanted them now. What to do? Hmm, I mused…if only there was a way to get flowers right away. Then it hit me: there is! Annuals!!!

Marigold 'Sweet Cream'

It might seem self-evident to you, but I had never done much with annuals, except window boxes and containers. Putting annuals in the ground always seemed like cheating. I was a perennials snob. Annuals are common. And stiff. The stuff of Victorian ‘bedding schemes.’

But this year, I didn’t care. So – having lit upon this annuals notion, I took myself to Agway in Bridgehampton, where the flats are $16 (that passes for cheap here in the Humptons), and I bought myself a half-dozen flats of some rather pedestrian annuals, sticking to a refined palette of white, yellow, and purple. Of course, they had to be deer-resistant and shade tolerant, except for some marigolds for the sunniest area (at least it was sunny before the oak trees leafed out this week).

Dusty Miller 'Silverdust'

Here’s what I got:

Begonia Bada Boom – bronze foliage, white flowers
Ageratum Hawaii Blue – commonest of the common, but I’ll give them a chance
Celosia Fresh Look Gold – I’m excited about these – chartreuse foliage, yellow plumes, and they grow tall
Marigold Sweet Cream – big off-white flowers
Marigold Durango Yellow
Dusty Miller Silverdust – these may be perennials here

And I couldn’t resist some Ipomoea – sweet potato vine. Remember when these became popular about 10 years back? There were just a couple of types, and they were always so satisfying as ‘spillers’ in pots and window boxes. The other day, I saw many variations, all from Proven Winners, from bronze to purple to yellowish green, with leaves of different shapes. I bought several, and put them in the beds as groundcovers, which I’ve never tried.

Ageratum 'Hawaii Blue'

As I was planting this morning, I tried to weave the little cell-pack annuals in and out naturalistically, rather than lining them up in rows like some, you know, Victorian bedding scheme.

Photos to follow when they fill out a little. Oh – I’ll need more. I ran a bit short. Since my Agway excursion, I checked out Wittendale’s in East Hampton which, though more expensive ($20/flat), has a more interesting, extensive selection. Can’t wait!

Are you doing annuals this year?

I Dig

I ALWAYS THOUGHT B&B stood for bed and breakfast. Now I know it means balled and burlapped.

Plants sold in plastic containers are a cinch to plant – you dig a hole and pop them in. Bigger trees and shrubs are B&B’d, like the two hefty mountain laurels I planted this afternoon. They’re heavy mothers.

Oh, my aching back.

Yesterday I went to Marder’s in Bridgehampton, an old-fashioned, full-service nursery where they really help you, to see what they had on sale. I was shopping on the principle that you should choose plants to suit your conditions, not frustrate yourself trying to grow what isn’t natural (and get 60% off if possible).

I went armed with a list of deer-resistant, shade-tolerant, acid-soil-loving shrubs to begin creating a ‘mixed hedge’ along the road (as opposed to the solid, all-one-kind, evergreen wall that is synonymous with the Hamptons). There’s an area about 20’x60′ along the road that is now cleared, thanks to my daughter Zoë, of most saplings and undergrowth (there’s still plenty of wisteria vine, pulled up out of the ground and coiled for later removal and ‘treatment’ — that is, poisoning [heh heh]

On my wish list was:

  • skimmia
  • clethera
  • kerria japonica
  • mountain laurel
  • mahonia
  • American holly

Not the most exciting stuff, but better to have un-showy flowers, I figure, than no flowers at all, because they don’t get enough sun or the deer have eaten them.

Marder’s was out of most things on my list, but I ended up buying eight plants:

  • 1 pee gee hydrangea
  • 2 osmanthus (purple false holly)
  • 3 sarcococca (sweet box)
  • 2 mountain laurels

They were delivered this afternoon. I had the delivery guy set the mountain laurels — only about 3 feet high but the root ball makes them monstrously heavy — near where I wanted to plant them. Once they were out there, right by the road, I realized I needed to plant them right away or risk their being stolen. (Call me paranoid, but this happened in Brooklyn once with two brand-new Alberta spruce; they lasted about 20 minutes on the front stoop.)

I had decided not to spring for planting services like last week, when I had a doublefile viburnum planted by the nursery and felt like a princess. Having watched the technique, I wanted to give it a try and save the bucks (planting often costs as much as the plant). It would have been easier with another person, but my daughter had gone off to the Yankee game.

Each of the two shrubs took an hour to plant: digging the hole with two different shovels; wrestling the plant into the hole, then out again and digging deeper, then in again; cutting the rope and burlap away and pulling it out from underneath; re-filling the hole with dirt (by now I was on my knees and using my gloved hands to push the dirt back in; I’d had it with the shovel); making a moat around it to hold water, much like building a sand castle at the beach, but muddier; and finally watering by hand.

I know I should have made the holes twice as wide as the plant (there’s that garden guilt again), but 1-1/2 times was the best I could manage.