Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meet My Arch Enemy

Drat. He’s at it again. Who, you ask? Why, my ARCH ENEMY here in the Suburban Sanctum, of course. Who else?

Is he a deer, you might wonder? No, the deer around here are amazingly well behaved. We’re on the far side of the reservoir from their usual stomping grounds, so they wander our way only once or twice a year. I don’t begrudge them the hosta or two that they nibble from the back bed, where nobody sees them anyway. Last year they de-leafed a couple branches of a doublefile viburnum. Even that didn’t really bother me. (And yes, I know full well how lucky I am! My mom has tried every repellent recipe in the book, but still they munch mercilessly on anything they can reach in her yard.)

Okay, then maybe a rabbit? No, between the coyotes and the hawk, I haven’t even seen a rabbit in years. Groundhog? Negatory on that one too. The big fella that used to hang out here considered my flower beds his own private salad bar. But I sealed up his hidey-hole under my shed…and got a VERY BIG dog. The groundhog wisely decided the gardens were greener (and safer) around the reservoir a ways.

The skunk still comes around. (The coyotes know better than to mess with him…unlike Sam, the VERY BIG but NOT SO BRIGHT Suburban Pup.) Occasionally Mrs. Skunk and her babies overturn a plant while rooting around. But that’s not a bad trade-off for all the grubs they eat.

Well, who is it already? Who has me so spittin’, sputterin’ mad?It’s that blasted squirrel!

Now that the ground has defrosted, he’s been digging around in my gardens again, like he does every year. (Why can’t those coyotes learn to climb trees?) Last summer, as I relaxed in my family room, I glanced out the window just in time to see the dreaded Mr. Squirrel scamper by with a softball-sized lily bulb in his mouth. By the time I got out the back door, he was long gone. And so was my lily.

Earlier that same season, he paraded across the patio with a tulip in his mouth. And I mean the whole tulip! He looked like a mini sideshow weightlifter with a barbell in his mouth, the bulb and roots on one side balanced by the flower on the other. Arrrgggh!

Today I peered out my laundry room window to see if any crocuses were popping up in the south-facing bed. Our 50-degree temps yesterday had melted most of the snow, so I could finally see what’s been going on under there. But what’s this? A huge hole! Right where another one of my oriental lilies used to be!
lily hole
And there were smaller holes nearby. I don’t think he got deep enough to get those lily bulbs, but I’m sure he’ll be back for a second course.
More lily holes
This means war! I have to find a way to stop him. The Suburban Spouse offered to pull out his pellet gun for a little target practice, but that’s not my style. As murderous as my thoughts are towards this varmint right now, I couldn’t do him any harm. I just want him to stay OUT of my flowers!

I’ve already given up on the smaller bulbs. Mr. Squirrel has those for a snack before they’re in the ground ten minutes. The only ones that survive are intermingled with Allium and narcissus. He doesn’t care for those. I’ve learned a few other tricks too, like being careful not to leave bulb husks lying around to attract him. He also has a keen eye and nose for disturbed earth, so when I plant bulbs, I press the soil back in place as firmly as I can, then top with mulch and firm this as well, so it looks like no one was ever there. Sometimes it works...

Being a practical-minded (read “somewhat lazy”) gardener, I’m usually not inclined to try anything more complicated than that. The usual suggestion is to lay chicken wire over the top of the bulbs before putting the soil back into place, but that crosses the line of What-I’m-Willing-to-Mess-With and What-I’m-Not. For most of my plants, it’s survival of the fittest. If they’re tough enough to make it on their own, they get to stay. If not, oh well. (Roses are one exception, though even they get a minimum of coddling.)

But lilies might be worth putting up a fight for. I’m not yet willing to do without these magnificent beauties.
Lilium 'Orange Pixie'
Lilium ‘Orange Pixie’—one that has survived so far!

Maybe a little chicken-wire warfare is in order. Or maybe you have suggestions? Have you found any safe, practical, uncomplicated ways to dissuade squirrels from feasting on your prized bulbs? If so, pass your ideas along fast—the Suburban Spouse’s solution is looking better all the time…

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Best Foot Forward?

Admit it. We gardeners like to show off our best work right in the front where everyone can see it, don't we? Yet, my front foundation bed has been a bit of a frustration in this regard. After four years I’m still not happy with it. (It does look much better now than it did in this early photo.)
Maybe it’s “gardener’s block”—I don’t know. But I’ve struggled with what to put in here. Part of the problem is that I want fairly constant color, since it’s in the front. However, it's tough to find shade-loving perennials that will provide the bold color I desire. I’ve been filling in with impatiens and begonias for now, but eventually hope to have a mix of perennials that will take turns providing interest. Without the annuals, this bed would be a dark, shadowy hole most of the summer. 

The other problem is that everything I have put in is still pretty small. If I can just be patient, I think it will look better some day. Here’s what I have so far. In the center is a chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’). It has pretty white flowers in spring, followed by red leaves in the fall. In winter its red berries stand out beautifully against the snow. It will eventually reach four feet by eight feet, which will help fill out the bed.
At either end are the two catawbiense rhododendrons I mentioned in my last post, one a ‘Nova Zembla’, with huge, velvety-red buds that open to deep pink, and ‘Boursault’, which is lavender-pink. They provide a nice jolt of color in the spring, along with a smattering of tulips and other bulbs, and their large, evergreen leaves make a nice backdrop the rest of the year.

Scattered in between are a few other small shrubs, including dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’), bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), and an ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea. The hydrangea took a couple years to settle in, but is doing well now, though my alkaline soil makes it look more like its cousin, the pink-tinged ‘Blushing Bride.’
When we moved here, there was a dwarf Alberta spruce in the center (which I pulled out after half of it turned brown) and three globe arborvitaes. I think there had been a fourth arborvitae at one time, two on each side of the spruce. (I kept one of the three leftovers where it was, and moved one elsewhere; the third died the second year we were here.) Existing trees on each end are paper birch and Amur maple. There’s also a huge green ash on the parkway nearby, and full-grown Austrian pine and Colorado blue spruce to one side, which quickly slurp up any moisture this area gets.
I’ve kept the variegated hostas left by Mr. Previous Owner, and have added a couple of golden ones, as well as Heuchera ‘Green Spice.’ Three ‘Bridal Veil’ astilbes will move to a moister location in the spring. They have not thrived here.
I planted a soft pink, thornless ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ climbing rose at the partly sunny, southeast corner of the garage, since she is supposed to do fine in low-light conditions, but I think she died back to the root stock last winter: She came in short and shrubby instead of tall and leggy, and never bloomed. I’ll probably replace her in the spring. Next to the rose is a deep red ‘Niobe’ clematis, which also does well with limited sun.

I guess I’m happy with most of what is here now, but have many gaps to fill. Now if spring would just hurry up and get here so I can go to work!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


February’s fluctuating temperatures have been giving my rhododendrons a workout. Have you noticed this fun little botanical phenomenon—that you can tell the temperature by the angle of your rhodies’ leaves?

The first time I saw my rhodies curl up for the winter, it scared me to death. I thought I had lost them all. But now that I know what’s going on, it’s fascinating to watch their slow-motion dance. (There. You now know just exactly how dull my life is!)

When temps are above freezing, they kick up their leafy heels at almost a right angle to the stem. Here’s one of mine on a recent 40-degree day:
rhodo 40 degrees b
Just below freezing, the leaves begin to droop (much like me on a cold, sunless day!).
Below 25 degrees (it was 15 here today when I took this next photo), the leaves dangle almost straight up and down, and curl lengthwise till they look like bean pods or little green straws. Besides preventing moisture loss, this also protects the plant from sun damage while the bare deciduous trees provide no shade.
rhodo  below 25
Rhododendrons and azaleas can be a little tricky to grow here in zone 5, but there are a number of varieties that do well in our colder winters, including PJM, Girard hybrids, and the “Northern Lights” series.

The two in these photographs are catawbiense varieties, my own personal favorite. (They’re also recommended by Ezra Haggard in his book,
Trees, Shrubs, and Roses for Midwest Gardens, which is where I found the comforting news that my curling rhodie leaves were nothing to worry about.)

These two rhod0-mometers are in my front foundation bed, which I’ll tell you more about in my next post. Stay tuned—and stay cozy and uncurled in the meantime!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ice Follies

Our recent day-night cycle of thaw-freeze-thaw-again, along with high winds, has left some mighty interesting patterns in the ice in my garden, as well as around the reservoir behind us. Here’s a little revue…

(I think these were footprints in the snow.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to Spot a Blogger

I’ve been a garden blogger for a whoppin’ five weeks now, and already I’m noticing subtle changes in my behavior. See if you recognize any of these telltale signs…

1. I nearly cause accidents while scanning the roadside for photo opportunities. Up till now I’ve never been very good about taking photographs. Just to show you how bad it is, my friend Sharon gave me a nice photo album for the holidays. She used her calligraphy skills to pen a beautiful label for the front: “Christmas Memories 2008.”

It was very thoughtful of her, and will be a lovely way to show off all TWO of the photos I took the whole season! (One of each of my kids with their gifts—at least I got that right.) I think I’ll see if my friend can add a dash and then, say, the year 2025. Maybe I can fill the album by then!

Back to my point, all of a sudden I go nowhere without the camera. Even Sam, the Suburban Pup, has caught on to this. If he sees the camera in my hand, he knows I’m probably going out and he beats me to the door. [Insert gratuitous pet shot here.]

2. I’ve suddenly become interested in plants and gardening topics I never paid much attention to before. Especially during these lean winter months, it’s a scramble to find good blog fodder. (Why, exactly, did I think it was a good idea to start a garden blog in January?) Everywhere I go, I’m on the lookout for anything bloggable.

In a related vein, everyday activities have suddenly become newsworthy. Today, for example, I ventured into the garden to wrap a few at-risk plants with leftover holiday greenery. Not the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in a garden. Yet, high winds and over-50 temps have caused our foot of snow to all but vanish over night, making this extra protection important for these plants—and for my blog as well!

3. My family doesn’t see me for hours on end. When I finally emerge from my upstairs office, they stare at me like I’m the long-lost Dr. Livingstone reappearing from the depths of the internet jungle. Even when I’m with my family, I often have that far-away dreamy look that means I’m still wandering the cyber-garden of my mind.

4. I’m keeping some mighty strange hours. I can often be found in my jammies at noon, or I’m up until the wee-tiny hours of the night checking “just one more” blog, jotting down ideas for future posts before I forget them, or tweaking the layout of my blog.

5. I have a newfound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I have met and vanquished (somewhat) the beast that is html, I have conquered (sorta) the fear of posting my opinions for all the world to comment on, and I have gained (certainly) many opportunities for connecting with new friends in the worldwide gardening community. All of this adds a whole new dimension to a favorite pastime.

Yes, the symptoms are all there. It’s definitely the onset of blogomania. I shudder to think what will happen as it progresses…