Garden Lessons: Techniques

Dry Shade Wasteland to Shade Hut Woodland

Dry shade is the bane of existence for many gardeners. We didn’t come up against it until we developed a previously untouched area of elevated woodland that was under four mature sugar maples. Did I say woodland? I meant wasteland. Dry powdery nutritionless silt. I am happy to report that it is now the area you see in the photo above, complete with pond and waterfall and very few inches of visible ground.

We began by removing all the brush and weeds. We left only the maples and the fence lined with some red winged euonymus and wild honeysuckle bushes. These shrubs were useful because they had the requisite ‘tough as nails’ constitution to survive in these dreadful conditions and they were a green backdrop, hiding the fence. We knew we would eventually replace them but for now, they were helpful. Next we brought in tons and tons of compost and aged manure, working it in with pitchforks and shovels. If we had had shredded leaves (awareness) at that time, we surely would have added them. We wanted a rich base in which to give our gladiators-to-be their best chance at survival. We then tackled the mental design. We began with where to place a bench? >>> Up against the fence, facing towards the back of the house. We knew we wanted the cool sound of water so we then dug, lined, and rock edged a pond with small waterfall. Then we began planting. Hiding the dirt, creating a lush green carpet, was our big goal. We knew that the maples would continue with their mapledom, meaning their moisture and nutrition- sucking ways. So nothing completely crazy like astilbes that need constant moisture to do well. After many years of experimenting, our dry shade workhorses include, as groundcovers and perennials: lamium, lamiastrum, epimedium, Japanese painted fern, Allegheny pachysandra, vinca, geranium macrorhhizum, variegated bamboo, and holly. Holly? Well, surprisingly, yes. When we planted the two Blue Maid hollies by the short stone wall, we were hoping that they would tolerate the dryness and rise to bush form. They did handle the dryness just fine, but the lack of sunlight was another thing. They responded by growing only 15″ tall, and their branches all kept reaching out horizontally for that elusive light. This resulted in very long drooping glossy dark green branches making for a visually rich and unusual groundcover.

For a similar effect, we are growing hydrangea vine both up a tree and as a groundcover. The hugeness of the plants we managed to obtain from Stonegate Gardens necessitated our planting them 1 1/2 feet awat from the sugar maple trunk we wanted them to cover. As we witnessed some of the vine’s branches beginning to travel horizontally along the ground, we experienced one of those “Aha!” moments. Hydrangea vines are tough little things. They send out short sturdy root clusters at the nodes all along their stems. These are used for holding them to any surface, trees, walls, chimneys (and they are not destructive; they will not destroy mortar or bricks. ) Or the ground! We have now begun using landscape staples to hold down those nodes against the soil. When the nodes have rooted, we cut up the vine into pieces(one piece for at least one node, which is now an independent plant with its own root system. We then have many pieces of vine to plant around and form a dense shiny dark green ground cover. Fyi, this is a new experiment for us; we don’t yet know whether this very hardy vine will prohibit other plants from growing in with it.

For medium height we added leucothoe Rainbow, variegated Solomon’s seal, uvularia, dicentra, bergenia, erythronium, Japanese painted fern, kerria Moonlight, and hostas. Recently we have been thrilled to discover and introduce here Rhodotypus, a kerria-like shrub with enchanting early Spring trillium-like simple white flowers. Water iris(unpotted, bare root! ) continues as the resident pond plant.

As of 2009, “The Maple Bed” changed once again. Disease took most of the sugar maples , so sunlight was finally able to enter the scene. We have planted a grove of assorted short and medium height Japanese maples in their place, with a few medium height open-canopied trees like Halesia and Styrax, and two new tall trees, Cledastris lutea and Acer Ensk Sunset. Flowering hydrangea vine is steadily climbing the remaining sugar maple and the shade hut, and we are also pinning it down with landscape staples to encourage it to romp along as a shiny dark green ground cover. Stapling also helps it to root at its plentiful nodes, and this enables us to make many divisions (each piece with roots is its own plant) and place those around. Laurel, Pieris and Bergenia, previous non-flowering survivors, are now much happier and responding floriferously. Likewise lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Variegata’(my very favorite of groundcovers) is taller than ever before (14″H)and covered with its lovely butter yellow flowers.

All this said to urge you to consider the value gained by having your trees pruned to open up their canopies and allow more light in. As explained above, there are plants that will tolerate dry shade, but if you can access more light, both the increased wildlife and plant beauty will make the expense well worth it.


Glazed Pots into Water Tubs or Fountains

Glazed pots- there are so many handsome ones. While they cannot be left outdoors in our Z.5 garden, we use large ones as focal points throughout our gardens , usually raised on a pedestal or stand and serving as fountains or pots for water plants(cannas, water lilies, colocasia, etc.) When they have holes in their base, we use the following sealing technique that we learned years ago from Ma. garden designer Kevin Doyle. When they do not have holes, we still use this technique so that the eye will not be drawn to the blonde color of the raw unglazed pottery and so we are assured of no leaks.

Cover a work area with a tarp or plastic bag or thick newspapers. On it set the pot, upside down.Use duct tape or heavy electrical tape to cover the hole with an X. Turn the pot right side up and fill the hole with Bondo, using a paint stick to smooth the top even with the inside bottom of the pot.(Plumbers putty might work as well but we have not tried it.) Follow the Bondo directions for time required to cure. With a substantial 4″wide paint brush (to be thrown away), carefully cover the entire inside of the pot with a thin coat of black roofing tar. So there are no leaks, make sure that the edge of the roofing tar makes contact with the glaze of the inside rim edge. Touch up as needed so all the raw unglazed pottery has a thin opaque layer of roofing tar. Let dry as required (usually a few days.) Put it in place and fill with water . If it leaks, empty it, let it dry, and repeat with a second coat of roofing tar. (I think roofing tar is toxic to fish.)

If you plan to use a glazed pot for a fountain, be aware that your water may leave lime deposits on the glaze, eventually dulling the glaze. We have handled this problem in the spring when we bring the pots outdoors or in the fall when we are bringing them to a covered porch or shed. Limeaway has not worked for us. Our best luck has been with scrubbing the pot outsides with a triple 0 (finest grade) steel wool pad saturated continually with very hot white vinegar.(We bring outside a portable burner and keep the pot of vinegar on simmer.) Once the white film is gone, we apply a thin coat of protective butcher’s/bowling wax and buff it thoroughly.


Sharp Drainage – How to Create It

So many things that we want to grow- require sharp drainage. While every gardener’s soil is different, our soil composition does not provide that sharp drainage on its own. When we first began gardening here, I thought that regular sand was the solution. But I was very wrong. I was told that the test for adequate grittiness was this: wet the sand and made a fist with it; if it holds its form, it is not gritty enough. As it was explained to me, wet normal sand will make concrete, not drainage. I heard from experienced gardeners that the correct size of grit was very hard to find. Gravel was too big; regular sand , even ‘coarse sand’ was too fine. For years, I heard about ‘turkey grit’. In some areas, ‘poultry grit’ is made from crushed seashells, which are lime and would affect your soil’s PH. Lime is not necessarily what your soil needs.(PH testing provides that answer.) “Builder’s sand” was what my vendor used to call the correct size of neutral (non PH affecting) grit. But that is no longer true in my area. Now we find that the perfect product comes in large bags and is called ” Paver Leveling Sand; Step 2″. It is grey and looks like pulverized slate.

Of course, if you are starting to prepare the soil of a new bed, in an area of predominant clay, now is the best time to work in grit to improve overall drainage in the bed. Raising the bed with 6″ of topsoil would help even further. But if you are dealing with established beds that are not sharp draining on their own, then supplementing planting holes is your best bet. Sharp drainage and drought tolerance usually go hand in hand. Bulbs, euphorbia, lavender, coreopsis, perovskia, daphne, berberis, gaura, dianthus, echinacea, eryngium, penstemon, variegated iris- these are just a few of the thousands of plants that want sharp drainage. When planting them, we generally mix 1/3 – 1/2 grit with our topsoil and use that to fill the hole.. Most plants requiring sharp drainage-prefer junky soil, so better not to mix in compost or composted manure. For particularly finicky plants and/or bad clay, you can place your plant in a hole, 1-2 times wider and deeper than the current (potted) root mass, and fill in around the loosened plant’s roots with 1/3 pea gravel in the bottom , then 1/3 grit, then 1/3 topsoil. It also helps to make a slight mound for the plant and to mulch the stems w/ gravel or grit to keep the stems from rotting.


Make a Simple Fountain

The Sleeping Girl fountain is located at the entrance to the Cotton-Arbo retum.You can make a version of it fairly easily. Choose a location where an outdoor electric cord can run from the fountain to an outdoor outlet. For the safest ‘code following’ method, you would enclose the cord in a pvc pipe and sink it underground. We simply laid our cord in a shallow channel in the soil (in a run that would never see a shovel) and covered it with mulch.

Begin by visiting a masonry yard and choosing a slate(or other stone) slab. Ours is a piece of slate 34″H(48″ in total) x 28″W x 2″D and our tub is 28″ inside diameter x 18″ deep. Obtain a black plastic tub or small round heavy duty pond form, and dig a spot for it. If necessary, supplement the soil so that it is free draining (otherwise, surrounding plants will get wet from splashing water and their roots will rot.)Make sure that the tub is level, and leave its (rolled) lip above ground. Sink the slate slab, also leveled, 14″ or so into the ground behind and centered on the tub. To prevent heaving and movement, pour cement into the dug trough around the slate and let it set up. Using a masonry bit, drill a centered hole in the slate that is just big enough for the fountain’s spout (the end of a piece of flexible black hose the correct diameter to fit on the outlet adaptor of the water pump.) Coat the slate with clear masonry sealant and let dry.

Place a fountain pump (sized correctly for the volume of water in the tub) up against the rear pond wall in the tub’s bottom, and wrap it in a ‘pump sock’ to prevent debris from clogging the pump. Cut a piece of the black hose the proper length. Connect it to the submerged pump at one end, and run it up from the tub and behind the slate slab to protrude out the spout hole 3-4″ so the stream of water will land in the pond. Fill the tub with water; connect the pump to electricity. Adjust the pump for the desired water stream. If you want a decorative figure, face or plaque on the fountain, choose one and attach a strong braided hanging wire to its back. Drill through the slate at the proper height above the water spout ; attach a masonry bolt that protrudes just far enough from the face of the slate to hang the decorative piece. Hang the piece of art and secure the bolt with a washer on the back side of the slate. Plant moisture loving plants around the tub to hide the hose and tub lip and to visually anchor the fountain in the surrounding garden. The fountain will draw a lot of attention year-round, so choose lush plantings and build an attractive 3-4 season vignette around it.


Retrofitting bins to hold over many divisions

I am a ‘mass-production’ oriented gardener.For me, that means that when I do a task, like dividing plants, I like to do a lot of it at the same time.So last month,when I found myself dividing, for an upcoming plant swap and for our own gardens, I devised this method for retrofitting a large bin that could hold-over/grow-on many divisions at once.

We have a number of large heavy gauge plastic rectangular bins (approx.24″W x 32″L X 8″D) from a local box store- that we use in the gardens. I used a portable rechargeable drill and drilled into all four bin sides, about 1/2-1″ above the bin bottom, a line of 3 holes (each about 1/8″- 1/4″ diameter): one at each corner and one in the middle- of each side. I filled the bins w/ peat moss or potting soil , set the divisions in and watered well. I put the bin in a position of some shade/some sun. When the medium gets dry, I rewet it.My divisions settle in and when I’m behind in my planting schedule, they’re comfie and unstressed.

A plus with this system is that the bins can be stacked, criss-cross, still allowing light in, if you temporarily need to save space. With the same idea in mind, but for smaller bins, I use what are called in the trade- ‘Fish bins’, rectangular white semi-opaque bins approx. 17″L x 12″W X 5″d . Seafood wholesalers deliver in these,and you can often buy them cheaply from fish-store owners who have more than they need.

The rectangular bins are very efficient for many gardening tasks: carrying and filling, holding over/storing, transporting. They are also great for sturdily , efficiently and cleanly holding many potted nursery plants. I take empty bins like these on nursery-buying trips, leaving the newly-purchased plants in them for efficient storage.(Sure beats those flimsy plastic basket-weave-like plant trays)! And when I’m ready to plant those new nursery plants, or held-over divisions, these plant-filled bins are light weight and easy to carry out into the garden.


Adapting Y Stake Supports for Tall Ornamental Grasses

Here at the Cotton-Arbo retum there are few tasks as daunting as the tying up of heavy clumps of tall and flopping(or leaning) ornamental grasses in a way that looks ‘natural.’. To avoid having to use four stakes and connecting twine- which is obtrusive- I have devised a technique involving an English Y stake and a piece of steel rebar.

Y stakes, which are made to a maximum height of 4’, are invaluable for many gardening staking tasks. Their brown sturdy thin metal stems and flexible green arms camouflage well into many plants. However, their one weakness is with wide clumps of tall grasses; they’re just not strong or tall enough to hold up these heavy clumps on their own.

My staking technique uses the 4’ Y stakes but supplements them. To begin, I tie a 12” length of heavy green twine to the small loop at the end of each Y stake arm. Into the center of the rear edge of the grass clump I drive (with a rock or sledge hammer) a 6’ pre-cut length of 3/8” rebar (purchased at a local masonry yard.) . I drive the rebar down enough that it is securely in place and not easily pulled far forward. I then push down the Y stake into the center of the front edge of the grass clump with its arms extended and lightly bent at the ends to hug the grass.Depending upon the stand of grass, this usually looks best at ‘waist or chest height’ of the clump. The loose pieces of twine I bring around the grass and tie together behind the rebar just tight enough so that the grass stands straight up. If the grass clump is too wide for one Y stake, I put in 2 Y stakes side by side , such that their extended inside arms just meet. I then tie together with twine the end loops of the inside arms. Tying one or two Y stakes with the rebar in this manner allows the stake’s arms to hold in the natural gerth of the clump without a corsetting effect. Because we leave up our grasses for winter ornamental interest, the rebar and Y stakes are left in place until the following spring. At that point, we remove the Y stakes to cut the grasses back to the ground for resprouting. The rebar, self-camouflaged through rusting, stays in place. Depending upon the needs of a particular clump, we may begin staking with a shorter Y stake and no twine. As the grass grows, we will switch to the 4’ stake with twine. While authorities will counsel you to avoid flopping grasses by planting in crummy soil and not fertilizing or irrigating, the occasion does arise when they lean or flop. And with this technique we are ready when they do! It is also effective for staking other tall heavy clumping perennals such as Eupatorium Gateway and Rudbeckia Herbstsonne.


Anti-Flopping Cages for Peonies/Tall Perennials,
and Clematis Obelisks

We have over 100 peonies in our gardens, so we chose to make our own cages. Here’s what we devised: we buy the tallest 4- ring tomato cages and cut off the feet just ABOVE the lowest, smallest horizontal ring. With strong wire or bolt cutters, we cut squares of 2″ grid wire fencing(chicken wire) big enough to just fit over the circle of the top rung on the tomato cage, then we bend the 4 corners of the fencing square over the edges of that same top ring of the tomato cage. We push down the tomato cage low enough that the peony’s new foliage begins to grow up through the cage.(often you have to help weave the peony stems up through the square holes of the fencing). We then lift the cage to its tallest appropriate height after the peonies have maximized their height. We also use these cages for other perennials that flop – like clematis integrifolia, veronicastrum, cimicifuga and eupatorium. The short, narrow cage that is left after you’ve cut off the bottom of the tall cage- you can use for veronica Crater Lake Blue, nepeta, sedum, or any short to medium height sloppy perennials, to keep them from flopping.

For short to medium height Clematis Vines, we use the same tallest tomato cages, but this time, we use their full height. We turn the cages on their heads- over the clematis crown, and then we use staples and/or stakes to pin down the cages. We gather the legs together through a washer or bolt or some decorative ball with a hole drilled through it.

The cages quickly rust and blend in with the ground. Nice cheap obelisk for places (or budgets) where you want your attention to be on the flowers and not the architecture of the obelisk.


An Effective Work Bench Scraper

I know many chefs who are also avid gardeners, myself included. One of the key tools of a pastry chef is a ‘bench scraper’. It is used to scrape flour etc. off the work surface to keep it clean and level. It is a flat piece of palm- sized sturdy rectangular metal w. a rolled handle for gripping. My bench scraper is in constant use in my kitchen, and my familiarity with it has proved very helpful in the garden this year.

As my heavy 8’ work bench is used primarily for dividing and potting dozens of plants in one go, it is constantly covered with dirt. Absent a pastry bench scraper, I devised my own, using a heavy plastic plant pot and a pair of my trusty Fiskars. With these sharp scissors, I cut a palm sized rectangle of heavy gauge plastic from a plant pot.(‘heavy gauge’ enough to not bend back in use.) Once the plastic is cut, it loses its curved shape and becomes flat. The piece can also be cut from the top of the pot, enabling the rolled pot edge to serve as the rolled grip of the scraper. ) I use this tool to keep my bench surface clear ,continually scraping the valuable dirt into waiting pots that are in their turn waiting for plants.


Ms. Snippy Reporting In:
Perennials for Whacking in Mid-June

On our corner of a busy suburban street, we have a natural fence of conifers, rudbeckia Herbstsonne and varied tall miscanthus around the inside of a deep bed that abuts 50’ of our sidewalk. Unpruned, it does get too tall for my taste, so every year, I whack it back. There’s a lot of it, so my technique is that I take my Fiskars or my Florian ‘snippies’ (see Tools page); I grab a big clump of the Herbstsonne, lean it over and cut each 4’ stem by about half. I don’t usually take the time to place each cut purposefully (thus the verb ‘whack’) , and the plants still rush back and fill in. After 2 weeks, you never see that they have been cut. But if you wanted to be careful, you would cut each stem just above a leaf node.

Usually, around the same time in mid-June, I notice other things in need of whacking. Geranium Samobor, after its flowers are mostly spent, leaves pretty but energy-sapping long spidery stamens(?) and seed heads. Because I don’t like seeing stem stubs on geraniums, I do purposefully cut these back (either on the first and only go-round or on the second, refining, go-round) to just above a large leaf.
Heliopsis, agastache, monarda and platycodon also get the treatment in June. Whacking serves a number of purposes: it takes a plant’s attention(energy) off flowering and it makes stems stronger and plants shorter and bushier. It also delays blooming by a bit. I have a feeling that it’s good practice to fertilize after whacking but I never have because the plants I’m ‘doing’ are hearty buggers!

(For the most complete information and charts on what perennials to prune when, see (genuflect, genuflect) Tracy Di Sabato-Aust’s invaluable bible The Well Tended Perennial Garden, written up on the Tools and Books page.)


When a Gardener Procrastinates:
Coleus More Forgiving than I Thought!

I have had two surprising results with coleus successfully growing in their original tiny flex-pack squares.
1) In our full sun driveway, we have large rectangular wooden planter boxes flanking our entry door. Last year I planted abutilon, coleus, pennisetum atropurpureum and dahlias, happy all summer. I also set down a few 3″ plastic pots of coleus on top of the planter-box soil, and never planted them. Summer rains and hand watering kept the two coleus thriving and they grew even bigger than the planted coleus near them (different variety), and their pots were hidden by lush foliage. Huge and happy. When I explored this phenomenon, I discovered that they had sent down strong roots from their little pots into the planter box. Talk about a no-fuss plant!

2)In another planter- a decorative 2 tiered iron Victorian one, rather than line the ‘trough’ areas with (expensive)cocoa fiber matting and fill with soil, I just filled one trough with shoulder-to-shoulder 3″ plastic pots of coleus.Resting on the top trough I left a plastic nursery plant tray filled with 3″ pots of coleus and purple wandering jew. I kept all these plants well watered and they grew so well that their foliage obscured their pots.

Ha! It goes without saying that it’s better to plant your coleus, but my point is, you don’t have to actually plant these coleus to have good success with them! That is a real surprise for me.

unfinished jobs can still be pretty!



Making a Trompe L’Oeil/Borrowed View Moon Window

Here’s what we did: we bought 2 crescent shaped turtle-patterned iron doormats and took them to our auto glass man. He cut off the interior iron feet, and cut and glued an outdoor mirror to the back of each mat. We wired together the 2 mirror halves to make a round trompe l’oeil /‘borrowed view’ moon window.

(see Garden Lessons: Design: Space and Movement page for explanation of mirror)



One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from both Christopher Lloyd and Warren Leach- is that some trees and shrubs can be coppiced i.e. cut to the ground in early spring , so that they will stay relatively small in size and not reach their natural state of tall/ sunblocking /overwheming when placed in a small garden. There are four woody plants with which I have practiced yearly coppicing: Catalpa Aurea, Physocarpus Diablo, Acer Negundo Flamingo and Cotinus Coggyria- Grace and Palace Purple. A few years ago, I missed my Early Spring window of opportunity and did not coppice the cotinus , the catalpa, or the physocarpus. I was thrilled with the results- for the first time- ta da!- FLOWERS!! and such striking ones at that! So my adjusted technique is that I will coppice my catalpa , physocarpus and cotinus every OTHER year. this way I see beautiful flowers one year , but in the next, I reign in the plants to a habit of dense tight growth. Now, those uncoppiced plants will get bigger than in coppicing years, but in their particular spots, this is fine. Coppiced or not, the plants each provide a strong color beacon that really pays off in the landscape.


Have Shovel; Will Travel

As first time homeowners and new gardeners, our way of coping with big garden plans and a limited budget- was to adapt the “Have Shovel; Will Travel” mantra. First we designed and marked the perimeters of new beds and borders and next we overhauled the soil and prepared the beds for planting. Then we lit out for the hills, bringing back any plants found in our wanderings or offered by friends or neighbors. These early border residents served as marker plants ,outlining large swaths or filling small areas of beds -with something, preferably a blooming something, to show what was possible for the future of that area. Like “Early Honeymoon Period” furniture, these plants filled an immediate and temporary need. At their least, they left less space for weeds. At their most, they inspired us to grow and learn. Most of them were eventually replaced as our budget, taste and knowledge grew.

For those of you who follow a similar path, we have a critically important lesson to impart. Make sure that whatever you plant is not an invasive bugger that you will never be able to fully eradicate. Take it from us, unless you are planting a wild meadow, never to be cultivated, you do NOT want aegopodium or running bamboo, tradescantia or gooseneck loosestrife, ribbon grass or bittersweet , even if it’s free and available by the truckload. On the other hand, you are safe transplanting wild plants of orange daylilies, thalictrum, Joe Pyeweed, vinca, ivy, and yellow flag iris, often growing prolifically along roadsides and in vacant lots. Keep in mind that people are often looking to give away strong growers like hosta, monarda, daisies, bearded iris and black eyed susans, and these hearty, non-invasive plants are great for establishing pioneer plantings along new paths, driveways or bed edges. Eventually you will become the ones with surplus plants, and the cycle will continue.



Shredded Leaves Are A Girl’s Best Friend

Diamonds may have been Marilyn Monroe’s best friend, but trust me, for a gardener girl, it’s shredded leaves, hands down! We first learned of their value from noted Massachusetts iris hybridizers, Marty Shaefer and Jan Sacks, who had decided that leaves made the best mulch for their extensive beds. Shredded leaves are fluffy, smell good and woodsy, and are light and easy to work with. The best tool for handling them is your hands , followed by a pitchfork, but not a shovel. As a naturally aerated mulch, they won’t suffocate plant crowns if they mistakenly get tossed on top of them. They also break down and get mixed in with the soil, increasing its friability, i.e. tilth. (‘ Tilth ‘, such a lovely word, like ‘Lily.’ ). Who can’t use a lighter soil? Your shovel loves it; your back loves it; earthworms love it; plant roots love it! Shredded leaves represent recycling at its finest. And they are very versatile. For us, their main role is as mulch, but they are also invaluable in other ways.

Whenever we plant anything, we use a planting mixture of compost, shredded leaves, and the soil from the dug hole. For woodland plants – astilbe, ferns, hosta, solomon’s seal, ginger, etc., we often use a much larger proportion of shredded leaves, because that is what those plants like. (On the other hand, if we are planting things that can only survive with sun and excellent drainage, we will use in the planting mix a coarse builder’s sand or turkey grit instead of the leaves, and we will slightly mound the spot to be planted.)

Occasionally, when we have more divisions to pot up than we have time to finish potting them up that day, we use shredded leaves for ‘heeling in’ the divisions. We will fill our trusty fish bins or fish tubs or box store bins (see Tools page and Retrofitting Bins on this page) with four inches of shredded leaves or leaves and dirt, lay the upright divisions on top, and fill around their root mass with the same. The idea is to make the divisions as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible. They are in a bit of a shock, having been dug up and pulled or cut apart, and their fragile roots have been exposed to the air for the first time. It is the drying out of those roots (both the tiny hair roots and the regular roots)that you want to avoid, so you want to surround the roots with a light fluffy moist medium that can get into all the spaces and surround the roots. Towards this end, we water and then tamp down the planting mixture around the base of the divisions-to force the planting medium up against the roots and to replenish water in the plants through their leaves and roots.) Then we place the bin in a very shady spot. The drainage holes that we have put in our holding bins keep the divisions from drowning or rotting. If the sun is setting and we are in a hurry to protect fragile individual tubers like Solomon’s Seal , May Apple, or gingers, that don’t have a solid root mass, we will simply lay down a mass of tubers in a bin of shredded leaves, cover them with a light layer of more shredded leaves, and water them lightly. Even though the plants’ leaves may be covered with the moist mixture, they will not rot for quite a while. (I don’t think the same could be said for a wet pure-dirt mix which would suffocate the leaves, or peat moss, which is so difficult to saturate.) Hopefully the little ones will be planted before any danger of rot.

If you are a member of Zone-Challengers Anonymous, a pile of shredded leaves is your best friend for mulching marginally hardy plants because it is naturally aerated and will not mat down into a solid suffocating layer like plain leaves. A deep bed of shredded leaves also makes a great medium for insulating a group of potted plants over the winter.

We once had an expensive chipper/shredder but to our surprise, we learned that a basic Sears Craftsman 5HP string shredder is cheaper, faster and better for just shredded leaves. Some people like to use their lawnmowers for the same purpose. Our neighbors all know to bring us their pine needles and raked up dry leaves in the fall, and a normal October activity for us is cruising for dry paper-bagged leaves(we avoid plastic garbage bags of leaves because the plastic causes the leaves to sweat and get moist, and the shredder does not like that!)


Duncan with Yellow and Green Variegated Bamboo

Taming Variegated Bamboo

A swath of yellow and green variegated bamboo is a thing of grace, holding court in the garden from May through November.

However, the major fault of this bamboo is that if it is not situated in full sun, it will most definitely RUN. (Ah, the poet in me!)

We battle this problem in a few ways. Firstly, we plant one small 6″ clump in a 12″ diameter large black flexible plastic plant pots( like 12 ” H ) with drainage holes. We sink these pots into the ground so that the lip of the pot is 2″ above the soil level.

This keeps the bamboo from jumping over the lip, which will quickly be hidden by dirt and the bamboo leaves. Then we make sure to root prune the plants every year by circling the pots with a deep root-severing shovel. Even then we still have the annual chore of pulling out the roots that escaped.(And they are tough as nails.) While Hakonechloa macra aureola has the same coloring and striated variegation pattern, it is half the height of the bamboo, and is arching rather than erect.


Amazing What A Little Sun Will Get ‘Ya:
A previously shady woodland loses some main players
but gains much in return


The Art of Camouflage
Hiding the Mechanics

In an ideal world, one’s visual experience of a garden does not include hoses, faucets, hose connectors, pumps, electrical cords and outlets, or cinder block pedestal bases. But you already know that there is Ideal and there is Real. Given that all of the above are present in the ‘retum, we have some semi-solutions to offer.

Soaker hoses, the recycled black tire kind that sweats water, can be well camouflaged by shredded leaves. Here in Z.5, we leave our soaker hoses out all year. They eventually sink down into the ground (visually a good thing but not so good when it is your shovel that does not see them.)* Hose connectors, those bright orange “I’m over here!” attachments, can be strategically tucked under arching plants, chairs, or decorative plaques. Outdoor AC or other utility units can be screened with a short solid panel wooden fence, or conifers that are opaque in habit, or a solid fence and less opaque plants.

We have many glazed urns, fountains, and sculptures here, most of them displayed on pedestals. Often the pedestals are not high enough and we boost them up with cinder blocks. Left as is, these cinderblocks are eventually hidden by summer growth, but until then, they look horrible . Our solution to this challenge is first to spray paint the cinderblocks with dark green paint. We also plant around the cinderblocks a dense fence of Star of Bethlehem bulbs and Hellebore orientalis. Star of Bethlehem bulbs are the very first that we see here at the ‘retum, usually appearing in March, and their 6-7″ H strap leaves are very wide and dense. They die back and disappear by summer. The perennial Helleborus orientalis is evergreen here, with large 12″ H palm shaped dark green leathery foliage forming a dense mound. Both plants expand fairly rapidly and together, they form a very early green screen. Aside from this very specific usefulness, Helleborus orientalis is one of our favorite plants, with large beautiful long lasting flowers in a subtle array of pink, mauve, plum, white, and yellow tones and handsome dark green pest-free foliage that is a great foil for the surrounding fallen leaves in Autumn. Star of Bethlehem bulbs increase so rapidly that they can be divided every year and placed around to great effect.

Well, screening a cinderblock is one thing, but what about screening a large ugly fence ( chain link or white and green vinyl basketweave anyone?) Monique and Les Anthony (see Other Gardens page) taught us their brilliant way of dealing with taste-impaired and unpleasant neighbors. Over the internet, they ordered many fake Xmas tree branches and then wove them vertically into their side of the fence. Seen from a distance as it is, you have no clue what you are looking at, only that there appears to be an attractive green backdrop to their amazing garden beds! At the ‘retum we also have an unavoidable eyesore involving a mound of cinderblocks and bricks (it’s a long story) and we have encircled it with a strip of 2″ square hardware cloth (the same thing we use for our peony cages.) We have planted the robust pink and orange flowered Lonicera heckrotii to grow up through and hide the ugliness, but in the meantime, we have purchased a good number of real-looking but plastic greenery stems and vines, and have interwoven them in the hardware cloth. In a year or two, the lonicera should cover all this. Regardless, we are really only concerned with this eyesore through mid June because after that, the mound is more than adequately hidden by the dense perennial planting that surrounds it.

For our many electrical needs, we have outdoor electrical outlets mounted to short vertical 2 x 4s that rise about 12″ above the ground. These we cover with overturned handleless baskets. For hiding electrical cords that connect fountain and waterfall pumps to outlets, we use shredded leaves and other mulch, plants, and rocks.

In order to support the many vines that we grow over our solid wood fencing, we have eschewed the relatively expensive and maintenance-requiring trellis. Instead, we have affixed to the fence large pieces of our trusty 2″ square hardware cloth – which approximates the cedar fence in color and which disappears under the vine greenery. For growing vines up our outdoor wooden entry arbor (said vines being planted in glazed pots which are removed for the winter) we wrap around each arbor post a piece of black plastic melon netting which blends into the dark green painted arbor and which becomes hidden by the vine foliage and flowers.

*Many years ago, we installed a rather expensive emitter hose system (from Gardeners Supply in Vt.) that did not satisfy our watering needs. We replaced it with a large number of black soaker hoses from a box store; and they have been a good solution for our extensive garden system in this increasingly drought-prone climate.


Adapting Very Large Containers for Planting

We acquired some enormous and very heavy glazed pots this year and decided to use them for lilies in our sunniest location- the driveway entrance to the ‘retum. Because our climate necessitates moving glazed pots into a sheltered spot for the winter, we did not want to make these monsters heavier than absolutely necessary. At 24″ H with a 26″ diameter, the pots had more than enough room for expanding lily and perennial roots, and they already had drainage holes. We decided to fit them with false bottoms. Finding no premade versions that were large enough, we made them ourselves. First we filled our pots about halfway with recycled packing peanuts, leaving 12-15″ of vertical space for a thin false bottom and the soil. For the false bottoms, we obtained some of a friend’s leftover 1″ thick foam insulation boards that were feather light but dense and strong enough to support the weight of the dirt and of the plants.

Because the necks of our pots were smaller than their waists, we had to fineagle a technique to cut the boards into tightly fitting 26″ W false bottoms that could still pass through each pot’s 20″W neck. We measured the inside of the pot’s waist and then cut 2 foam semi-circles which slid vertically into the pot and then were positioned horizontally, pushed together tightly to make a solid circle on top of the foam peanuts(not the water soluble cornstarch peanuts!) To draw and cut the semicircles, we tied each end of a 16″piece of butchers string to a large headed nail and inserted one nail into the flat foam board at its edge. We wound the excess string around the stationary nail head until the string measured 13″(the diameter we needed. ) We pushed that nail into the foam, thus keeping the string from unwinding. Then, with firm pressure on the string, we used the nail tip to draw a 13″ arc. A small pointed kitchen knife sawed through the foam board with ease and further shaved edges as needed. We made sure that the foam fit snugly so that the soil mass would stay above the false bottom and not filter down into the peanuts. After the foam board was laid down,we pierced drainage holes in it by using the closed pointed tips of a pair of scissors, rotated to establish 1/2″ wide holes. We then filled the pots with a mixture of compost and potting soil and proceeded to plant them!


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