The hummingbirds have left now for their journey south, but they were here all summer, daily, hourly, piercing the bells of the Nepeta siberica, of Agastache, the lovely orange one called ‘Apricot Sunrise,’ dipping into the upside-down lampshades of abutilons, whizzing over to drink from the racemes of Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue.’ I see them as I eat breakfast looking out the door onto our catmints, hear their distinctive humming, whirring sound as I deadhead in the cutting garden and they flit from stem to stem, from each tiny funnel or bell to another. [Read more…]
We are having such fun watching Spring progress around our new house, not knowing, in the case of crabapples, lilacs, and peonies, what colors they would be, delighting in the smattering of varieties, grateful to be inheriting some loveliness.
Two standard shads (Amelanchier species) by the front door of the house were the first to open, along with a grove of multi-stemmed ones along the beginning of our drive. I find it thrilling to have these lovely trees up close where I can see at eye level their slender pinkish buds open to fragile white flowers and now begin to form fruit that the birds love.
We have two apple trees with great age and soul, their heavy branches wavily reaching outward from solid trunks. When they were in bloom, a pair of Baltimore Orioles, black-headed with blazing orange coats, chirpped from their branches as I weeded in a bed near by.
Crabapples too, pink budded, opening to white, an old one by the house and five planted at a distance in front of some tall spruces. And down in the boggy woods, I spied an old crab, brilliant red in bud, fading to pink in flower. I cut branches of it to bring indoors and mix with lilacs.
After thirty-three years of living at Duck Hill in North Salem, New York, creating, working in, learning from, and loving the garden there, we said goodbye in December and started a new adventure. The idea was to simplify, to leave Westchester County and its high taxes behind, to have a smaller garden that we could maintain more easily. We fell in love with our new home, in Falls Village, Connecticut because of its land–high fields, handsome old trees, a view of the Berkshire hills, and acres of rocky woodland, some high and dry, some wet, even boggy.
The house, which was built in the 1790’s as a meeting house for the Methodist-Episcopal church, and dedicated in 1840, was finally abandoned as a church in 1900, when its congregation decided to build a new church on Main Street. Since then, this small, simple house with its high roof has had a sporadic history of residents, many only weekenders. We are not living here yet, as renovation and the addition of a living room, screened porch, and mudroom take place. But we live in a friend’s guest house 1/2 mile away and go everyday with our lurcher Posy to walk on the land, start clearing paths in the woods, note the different habitats, dream and scheme.
The old apple trees and crabapples have been gently pruned, and we wait with excitement for trees and shrubs around the house and in the woods to bud, flower, and leaf out. Sometimes change is thrilling.
Duck Hill will be open to the public this Sunday, June 2, from 10 am to 6 pm, to benefit the Garden Conservancy. Roses are opening daily, late peonies are flowering, foxgloves showing their spotted throats. Lilacs scenting the air. Come and visit.
Peony ‘White Innocence’
I think I can say that our small spit of woodland is at its peak now, although perhaps I should say its final peak. For snowdrops and aconites started the floor show early on in March, and were followed by all the beautiful hellebores and a few treasured hepaticas. Then, in April, daffodils opened with troutlilies, bloodroot, and the Jeffersonias, and, by early May, all sorts of anemones carpeted the borders. These have faded now, and even most of the epimediums are no longer blooming, although their foliage creates handsome groundcovers for the rest of the summer and fall. But I love this moment in the middle of May when the woodland phlox are in full flower, Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera, painting great swathes of the woodland with lavender blue. Alot of unfurling is going on around them–yellow and white-flowering disporums, Solomon’s seal and Smilacina, the false Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and toadlilies (Tricyrtis). Trilliums are at their prime, elgegantly flowering in white, plum, and yellow above the pinwheels of blue, and foamflower, Tiarella cordata, compliments the phlox with patches of white bottle brush blooms.
Here and there, at the edge of the paths, and also where the woods meet our meadow, our native columbine is flowering, Aquilegia canadense. I have a weakness for this plant, for its diminutive flowers, its bright red and yellow, its jauntiness. It blooms where it wants, appearing often in unexpected places, but I think it likes rocks or gravel mixed with the leafy soil and filtered shade of high trees. I have picked a few stems today to mix in a posy with lilies-of-the-valley, just coming into flower, and the creamy-white violet, Viola striata, which blooms just as the other violets are fading, and makes lovely clumps along one of our wooded paths.
Soon most of the flowering on our woodland floor will be over, at least until fall, and this will become for the summer a quiet ferny green place.
The bitter cold is here, thankfully with a cover of snow, and our eyes drink in any strokes of green–in the case above, hemlock and box. Hemlock is our only conifer at Duck Hill. Mostly over the years, we’ve planted broadleaf evergreens for that color we crave in winter. Boxwood is a leitmotif of the garden, but we also enjoy mountain laurel, andromeda (Pieris japonica), which seems to thrive here, a few rhododendron, inkberry (Ilex glabra) and our native I. opaca, as well as leucothoe and skimmia. Yes, the leaves of some of these broadleaf evergreens curl in distaste when the temperature plunges to the single digits (rhodos are the most miserable), but neverthless they seem more at home in our predominantly deciduous landscape than non-native conifers. In December and January, I love to cut branches and sprigs of them for vases indoors.
Leucothoe is one of my favorites for big winter bouquets. It is a graceful, fountaining shrub, no more than 3′ or 4′ in height, growing happily in the dryish shade of our woodland. Its elegant arching branches last for weeks inside in water. We have the ordinary sort, L. fontanesiana, which has lustrous, burnished leaves in winter with pink stems and buds, and a variegated sort called ‘Girard’s Rainbow,’ streaked with cream and red. In time the bushes colonize to make handsome clumps. To spread the wealth around, you need only to dig up some rooted outer bits and transplant them in good humusy soil.
An even smaller, less common evergreen that I cherish in winter is Skimmia japonica. We grow the male form of this charming small shrub, which has rosettes of shiny green ovate leaves topped with clusters of dusty red buds, ideal to cut for small vases. I even add sprigs to our Christmas wreaths to nice effect. The female form of skimmia is decked in showy red berries, but I wonder if it is more tender or fussy than the male. We have planted it twice, and twice it has died over winter. We will try a third and last time.
Variegated boxwood, the sort called “Elegantissima,’ I find invaluable for winter arrangements. The cream-dipped leaves add light and sparkle to all the mixed dark greens, just as they do in a garden border. And cutting out branches of box from the innards of the bushes is a good practice in winter, allowing light and air to penetrate the shrubs, which is essential in our on-going battle against fungal disease.
Hellebores are blooming inside and out. H. niger, the lovely Christmas rose, is flowering in a patch on our woodland path, much earlier than usual again this year. As happy as I am to see these nodding white bowls, I worry that the inevitable harsh winter weather ahead will spoil their long-lasting early Spring show.
Indoors they are flowering too. A selection of the Christmas rose called ‘HGC Jacob’ is for sale right now at florist shops, even at Trader Joe’s, in pots. It is a cultivar created and valued for its very early bloom. How nice to have hellebores in our rooms for the holidays! We have pots of them clustered around a ceramic vase made by my daughter Kim on our porch where we stage begonias.
On another porch table, Kim’s ceramic bird is flanked by paperwhites and more begonias. When they finish blooming, the paperwhites are tossed. But we save the hellebores. In early spring they can be turned out of their pots, their roots teased apart, and dug into the garden in a shady spot with some compost. With any luck, they will be flowering outdoors this time next year.
Wishes from Duck Hill for a New Year full of peace and flowers.
We had a hard frost on Friday, the 12th of October, earlier than usual. That morning we had visitors to the garden and I was pleased that they enjoyed the congregation of dahlias flowering wildly in the vegetable garden–mostly in shades of red, from scarlet to crimson to plum and streaky orange, but pinwheel and button whites too, and warm yellows. We spent the late afternoon draping reemay over the blooms, thinking that would protect them from the night’s predicted chill, but the next morning they were all black and shriveled and it was hard to recall their gaiety just a few hours before. The tender salvias went too and plectranthus we had left out, and the geraniums lingering in pots. Bosco had gathered cuttings of his favorites, safely potted up in the greenhouse, and I had to content myself with a vase of brassy blooms brought indoors on Friday for the kitchen table.
Russell Page, in his classic book, The Education of a Gardener, says don’t spot the same plant in multiple areas of the garden. And yet, this frequently occurs at Duck Hill, by accident more than intent, and I am quite often delighted with the result. Foxgloves, Johnny-jump-ups, verbascums, feverfew–they’re all over the place. So, thank goodness is Joe-Pye weed. Our native Eupatorium fistulosum, is invaluable as a bridge between summer and fall, saving the garden from dullness, blooming for weeks on towering stems, bold, sculptural pillows of softest red-violet.
Joe-Pye brings much-needed drama to the late borders in our main garden with its panicled heads of pale mauve rising six and seven feet high, peering above the privet hedge and mingling nicely with white summer phlox ( the stellar ‘David’), arching grasses, the plum bottlebrush blooms of burnets, and the stolid, dark green globes of boxwoods. Meanwhile, a white-flowering sort I don’t remember planting consorts with Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ at the edges of the yellow garden.
And this summer, out of the blue, several clumps of Joe-Pye have appeared in low, half-shaded spots of our small meadow. Or I should say meadow-in-progress. We are still battling with weeds (ragweed, dock, alfalfa, clover, ailianthus seedlings…) and waiting, hoping the native grasses will one day take hold. But a succession of “forbs,” or native flowers, fills us with pleasure. Joe-Pye weed holds the stage here now with the goldenrods and coneflowers, and Rudbeckia triloba, the most winsome of the rudbeckia tribe, with profusions of tiny brown-eyed Susan flowers. But I will write about the rudbeckias another day. As for the eupatoriums–they are always dressed with a butterfly or two, as though their own handsomeness was not enough.
Come visit! Duck Hill is open to the public Sunday, June 3 from 10 am to 6 pm to benefit the Garden Conservancy. The roses are at their height, foxgloves continue to bloom, and poppies dance in the vegetable garden.
Find directions and details on the Garden Conservancy website: www.opendaysprogram.org