Archives for category: formal gardening

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

Now that it is fully a month into spring, we made another visit to Stonecrop Gardens. We brought along Rachel’s mother who has never been here before. We were very excited to show her around.

During our previous trip (see March 22, 2014), the ground was still covered by snow and we were confined to the Conservatory, the Pit House and other enclosed spaces.

This time around, the snow is long gone (not counting Tuesday night’s dusting, which only disappeared on Wednesday; see April 16, 2014), the skies are clear and brilliantly blue and, remarkably, it is comfortably warm. Perfect for a stroll through the outdoor gardens.

It’s a good time to see daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs (although it is still too early for irises and tulips). Not many of the trees have blossomed yet but the weeping cherry tree, the view of which is perfectly framed by one of the moon windows of the Wisteria Pavilion, looked beautiful anyway. Its slender branches have been carefully pruned to cascade downwards in a spherical spray of tiny buds.

This is the earliest we’ve been in the enclosed flower and vegetable gardens and their appearance is strikingly different from how we’ve seen them before. Late last summer (see July 27, 2013) for instance, the beds were overflowing with a rich variety of flowers, groundcovers and vegetable plants. The pathways between them were difficult to navigate without brushing against outreached branches or getting in the way of busy bees and other pollinators.

Today, these gardens are practically bare. Anything annual is long gone—cleared away in the fall, no doubt—and everything perennial has been trimmed back, almost to the roots in some cases. It is hard to believe that it will ever return to its abundant summer state.

But there are promising signs that this will indeed be the case. The Stonecrop gardeners were busy planting peas, lettuce and root vegetables, all under the watchful eyes of the benevolent scarecrow Miss Gertrude Jekyll (who was herself receiving restorative attention after what must have been a tough winter outdoors).

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

I have found that it is too easy to take for granted things that are right under my nose, even things I really like.

That’s the case with Stonecrop Gardens, the public garden and school of practical horticulture located only a few miles from our house. We first visited in 2012 (see March 30, 2012) and, after becoming members, returned twice that year to view the grounds at different stages of growth (see June 2, 2012 and September 16, 2012, part 2).

We were off to a good start towards a goal of touring the extensive gardens (which cover 63 acres) in each of the four seasons (as a minimum). But for a variety of reasons, or maybe no good reason at all, we only managed to get there once last year (see July 27, 2013). We made the most of it, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the eye-popping array of flowers (lilies, most notably) that were in bloom at the peak of summer (I took many photographs). Still, we hadn’t been there since.

Now, granted Stonecrop is closed from November until April (except for special events) and that is one reason why I tend to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But that is also why I was delighted to receive a postcard from them inviting us to today’s Spring Open House. The event is subtitled “Garden Walk Under Glass” because at this time of year, all of the action is going on indoors.

The walk starts in the Conservatory, a glass house built in an English country architectural style. The tower and wings, laid out in a cross arrangement (from above, it looks like a church, a temple to formal gardening), are literally crammed to the rafters with more than 250 potted plants that originate from all around the world, mostly from places with hot to moderate climates.

Each specimen is tagged with a number that corresponds to a printed list. The information—plant name, family classification and country of origin—is interesting (so that’s what a bowiea volubilis looks like!) and useful (can we get camellia japonica at the garden center?). It is also overwhelming, a lot to absorb all at once.

We moved from there to the potting shed (cum office) and passed through it to the Tropical House. In a vestibule to this traditional greenhouse, work was in progress to propagate cuttings from established plants (to supplement the onsite garden beds, I suppose, and to sell). Much of it looked familiar to me—short lengths of stems stuck into growth medium—but I was intrigued by the leaf propagation, a method I had never seen before.

As we exited the Tropical House, we were distracted by the warm cider, hot chocolate and assorted cookies (almost as varied as the plants) on offer in the barn. The day was warm and bright so after making our selections, we parked ourselves on a bench to bask in the sun and nibble our treats.

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

In Hawaii, we are surrounded by an abundance of tropical plants.  And in this climate, everything grows exuberantly and wildly, both in size and color.  Backyard gardens are lush jungles of succulents and vines and even roadside hedges and highway dividers boast vibrant displays of year-round flowers.  For instance, the main road through Kapalua, near where we are staying, is lined with hibiscus blossoms the size of salad plates.

We’ve had a big dose of local flora but to get a more comprehensive feel for what grows in this warm and hospitable habitat, we decided to visit a formal garden.  So, having fueled ourselves at the Gazebo Restaurant (see March 1, 2013), we headed back to the Upcountry and the Kula Botanical Gardens.

Located along the route to Haleakala National Park (see February 26, 2013, part 2), the garden rises up a west-facing slope of the dormant volcano at an elevation of about 3000 feet (the views of the lowlands and west Maui from the parking lot are phenomenal).  Pathways meander through the eight acres of densely planted beds and at particularly scenic spots, benches, pavilions and gazebos provide comfortable places to sit and contemplate (or simply enjoy) the surroundings.

Although formal in its arrangements of plant families (they provide a helpful map) and carefully tended, the garden has an endearing rustic quality.  It is not overly pristine like some gardens I have toured and that makes it all the more approachable and welcoming.  Almost everything is labeled for those (unlike me) who keep track of scientific names and places of origin.

Eight acres sounds huge but in fact, the Kula Botanical Gardens are just the right size for an hour or two of relaxed strolling, chatting and photographing.  We made an entire circuit of the grounds—oohing and aahing as we came around each bend—before heading back home for an afternoon at the pool.

The season is rapidly changing.  Unlike the garden, which changes slowly and gradually, the seasons seem to turn abruptly.  So far in September, we’ve had mostly summery days with one or two fall preview days thrown in for interest.  And then today, a switch was flipped and it is fall.

To celebrate the transition (which I heartily welcome), we made a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  We haven’t been here since early summer (see June 2, 2012) and had meant to come last week (when the weather was much more summerlike) until our plans changed.  We thought we had missed the summer peak.

Well, it turns out that we missed nothing.  Everything was amazingly colorful and lush, much more so than we expected for mid-September.  The gardeners have clearly been busy the last three months and there were many blooming flowers on display.  The variety of plantings continues to impress me.

They have a particularly good collection of dahlias, for instance, and must have dozens of specimens in different sizes, colors and configurations.

Also of note were the groundcovers (I’m probably using that term imprecisely), the leafy plants that fill in the beds around the more showy flowers.  Some have large leaves, some small; a few have flowers of their own, of different sizes; and most are green but others are veiny and red or gray-blue.  There was very little bare earth to be seen.

And some of the plants had been confused by the cool nights we had earlier in the month:  clustered around a tree were scores of crocuses in full bloom.  They were very pretty but I do not envy them when they realize that winter still lies ahead.