Garden Notes : Island spring
In so short a time we go from grumping about cold, grey weather to heat prostration, sunburn, and having to water! Today my husband and son planted the long-desired shrub, a Disanthus cercidifolius, a job requiring heavy digging and heavy lifting. The root ball is at least two feet wide by one and a half feet deep, probably about 250 pounds.
They positioned the root ball in the tailor-made hole and rotated it just so - hey, wait a minute! Is that a daisy basket under the burlap? Groans all around... Long story short, I insisted it come off (on my part, too many green school slide-shows of dead tree post-mortems with daisy baskets left on) and somehow, they managed it. Once again the root ball was set down in the hole and rotated just so.
I do become supremely impatient playing with hoses; their tangle-y intransigence can flood me with irritation at times. But play with hoses I did and shall, because this plant is going to be watered every day this week, and for all the weeks thereafter. Never before have I spent so much money on a tree, nor lusted so - that is the word - after one.
But other plantings all over the Island, newer as well as established, need water too. Everything is springing into growth. At this time of year, under the blaring UV sunlight of spring, moisture seems to evaporate unbelievably quickly if we don't have regular soaking rainfall. Mulching now, while moisture levels in the soil are still good, is one way to assist plantings to make the transition, from sitting tight for the winter, to active, warm season growth. Remember to keep mulch well away from trunks - no mulch volcanoes.
Photo by Susan Safford
We noticed in a down-Island garden the week before last that the deer had started up the regular tasting menu cruises for daylily, hosta, and hydrangea comparisons. Time to stock up on anti-deer and rabbit preparations and to prune buddleia, potentilla, caryopteris, lavender, and Montauk daisies.
A quick conversation with an up-Island gardener, some of whose choice plants had been hard-hit by rabbits and/or voles, led to my mentioning the evidence, bits of fluff and fur spread about the lawn, of owl kills of rabbits at our place. Relying upon owls to rid you of rodents is not the quickest or most assured method of elimination, but it is surely one of the most natural, one with appeal for ecologically aware gardeners.
The many conservation organizations and experienced birders of the Island are willing to advise gardeners on how to make their properties into more owl-friendly habitats. This might include owl-nesting boxes, leaving more "unhealthy" trees with cavities or dead limbs for surveillance, perhaps meadow habitat over which owls might patrol, or other ideas. There is a healthy owl population in our area, which has less to do with anything we did than its being largely undisturbed woodland, but we benefit, as three dead rabbits in the last two weeks show.
Speaking of woodland, a beautiful native "grass" (sedge really) is in bloom right now. Anyone who grew up on the Island playing outside, and beyond the backyard, probably knows it, although perhaps not by name: Carex pennsylvanica, the tough little Pennsylvania sedge. It is almost beneath notice; why should anyone bother?
I went to Rick Darke's "Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" (Timber Press, 1999; a reference workhorse that should be part of any garden library) and the entry that describes Carex pennsylvanica as delicate but resilient, a species proving itself in use as a lawn alternative in dry, sunny, or shady sites. It is capable of producing a soft, mowable, uniform cover of green even in dry(!), sandy(!), wooded(!) settings. Doesn't that sound like the conditions in which many new Island lawns are being established? There is much talk about low-maintenance lawns. This Island native is a plant that can actually achieve that goal.
But utilitarian purposes aside, I have long loved Pennsylvania sedge. When growing in natural settings its semi-evergreen tussocks become miniature fountains of hair-like green (partly tawny in winter) not usually taller than about four to six inches, although the leaf length is about eight inches. In some places where it grows here, I mow it; but this is primarily to discourage other plants, like dangleberry and goldenrod, that are growing in its midst. I want more, not less, of it.
The thin wiry stems carrying the flower heads are about six to eight inches tall. The dark brown flower sends out a surrounding fuzz of light yellow pollen tassels. "Oh!" you say, "that little thing, that looks like a flowering plantain head? I see that everywhere." That is pretty much the point.
Pennsylvania sedge requires well-drained soils, of coarse to fine texture. Clumping, it slowly spreads by rhizomes in a wide range of soil types from sandy loams to clay and silty clay loams, as well as alluvial deposits. It tolerates slightly acidic and relatively infertile soils and grows in a wide range of landscapes and climates, but it performs best in dry deciduous forests, grasslands, and open areas. The winter hardiness is from zone 3 to 8. Propagation of Pennsylvania sedge is by seed or divisions. North Creek Nurseries (northcreeknurseries.com) is a wholesale plug source for this and many other native grasses and plants.
Pleasures of spring: Flowering trees
Bare woods accentuate the surprise beauty of spring-flowering trees and shrubs. Everyone enjoys the awesome flowering cherry 'Accolade' at Polly Hill Arboretum, a high-visibility sign that Island spring is really here, but even tiny gardens have room for the combined beauty and practicality of a peach. As the Passover moon rises over my own garden, I greatly enjoy how the magnolia we planted in 2005 gleams in its light, a hoped-for result of its siting. Then, the plant, a sapling M. denudata, had five blossoms, when it was new, spindly, and - unlike today's Disanthus -inexpensive. Now it has grown, and moonlight catches in two dozen milk-white, goblet shaped flowers, while a mourning dove coos nearby.