March 25

White Forsythia

White forsythia, as Abeliophyllum distichum is called, has been in bloom for the last week at Duck Hill, a month earlier than usual. The four-petaled flowers are similar in shape to those of forsythia, but are tiny, opening white from pink buds in chocolate casings. The little flowers stud the arching branches profusely in the same manner as forsythia, but are intensely fragrant, throwing their honey sweetness into the air so that just passing by the bush is a heady experience. (Think how fragrant our land would be if the real forsythia had a scent!) Abeliophyllum is a delicate shrub with none of the brassiness of forsythia, showing its fairy-white beauty best against an evergreen background or, like snowdrops, on an overcast day.

November 11

November Consolation

Lately, walking around the garden, all I’ve been able to see is the damage from the snowstorm of October 29. Broken and beheaded magnolias, dogwoods, crabs, lilacs, redbuds, halesias, willows, holly, winterberry, bayberry, smokebush, some split to their core, others reduced to lopsided specimens. Nature’s way of cleaning the slate a bit, we say to ourselves, trying to feel better. But in the soft sunlight this morning I was distracted from all the destruction by the late autumn color of shrubs and trees that managed to come through the storm unscathed. The fothergillas, for instance, are ablaze with gold and scarlet. These are marvelous shrubs for our gardens, thriving even in situations where they get only a few hours of sun. They are related to witch hazels, indigenous to the mountains south of here, but perfectly hardy in our northeast gardens, and unfazed by pests or disease. They flower in May, curious white bottlebrush blooms that smell of licorice. Their leaves are handsome all summer. Even leafless, I find their twiggy growth picturesque.  But they are at their showiest now in autumn dress and a glad sight to our eyes. Our native sweetspire, Itea virginica, compliments the fothergilla with its arching branches of wine-red leaves. I have planted both these shrubs in clumps at the beginning of the woodland. Clethra lights up the woodland path with its buttery yellow leaves.

 And by the barn road, the lovely small multi-trunked tree, Parrotia persica, is glorious right now as it turns orange and gold and crimson. It contrasts nicely with the maroon leaves of a dogwood next to it, both unhurt by the storm. Stewartia pseudocamellia is another treasure that stood up to the snow and is on fire now with gold and orange leaves. If you peer in among the golden leaves you glimpse the gorgeous bark of the tree, exfoliating into a mottled pattern of cream and tan. The spectacle of these November beauties is surely compensation for our loss.


Do admit. Hydrangeas add punch to the garden with their blowsy blooms from summer right through fall and into winter, their fat plumes turning from green to chalk white to pink to rose to buff. Of course I am referring to the Hydrangea paniculata hybrids such as ‘Limelight,’ ‘Tardiva,’ Quickfire,’ and ‘Little Lamb.’ From August on, I depend on them for my big bouquet in the library, their showy blooms mixing well with flowers from the meadow and garden such as the tiny-flowered black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba, and sprays of goldenrod, or, as now, the berries of autumn. Right now, I have a pitcher of ‘Limelight” mixed with branches of Viburnum dilatatum ‘Erie’ behind the library sofa. This viburnum is at its showiest right now with masses of tiny deep red berries littering the 8′ shrubs. The leaves are deep green and leathery, touched with bronze by the end of this month. Even after the leaves have dropped the fruit will linger, finally eaten by visiting birds.                                                                                           

The last of our roses to start flowering–sometime in the beginning of July–is Rosa setigera, the prairie rose, native to the Midwest. We have two bushes spilling over our old paddock fence that encloses our meadow, one, curiously without thorns, the other with. The flowers are simple, five-petalled, candy-pink fading toward white at their centers of golden stamens, and they bloom in profuse clusters for two or more weeks, depending on our weather. They are only faintly scented. The bushes have a graceful, arching habit to about six feet and fit the wildness of this meadow setting. I have seen them growing in Wisconsin by the side of the road in the company of coneflowers, bergamot, and prairie dock.

I am grateful that most of the roses we grow are one-time bloomers and flower in May and June because, without fail by the first of July (this year two days before), the Japanese beetles arrive. I hate to see them disfiguring and devouring the roses. I knocked off dozens of them this morning into a container of soapy water from the elegant white buds and flowers of the rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert,’ which had started to rebloom. Ugh.  The prairie rose is not much bothered by the beetles–perhaps it isn’t fancy enough for their taste. 

When the main flush of old shrub roses is flowering in June, I cut small bouquets of them for the house. I like to combine double and single-flowering sorts with a few greens like fernleaf tansy and apple mint. At least one dark velvety rose adds a bit of drama to the mix. This posy is in one of Frances Palmer’s charming ceramic vases on a table in our living room. The dark violet-crimson rose is a favorite of mine, a fragrant gallica called ‘La Belle Sultane’ or sometimes ‘Violacea.’

As the days heat up and plants get blowsy, I am thankful for the structure in the garden. The hedges, clipped, contain the wildness, and the big balls of boxwood give the garden some solid weight, their dense, dark foliage countering the chaos. Whenever I am upstairs (our bedroom is on the ground floor), I like to look out the windows of the bathrooms and bedrooms to see what the garden looks like from there. This is a view of what we call the main garden, hedged in with privet, which is high-maintenance, having to be clipped every two weeks this time of year. But its strong linear line is pleasing now. Roses rise above it–Rosa glauca on the left, the rugosa ‘Sarah van Fleet’ on the right, giving a hint before you enter this garden what’s in store. Amsonia makes fine billows of foliage and the grasses, Pennisetum and Deschampsia, add grace.

We have a rough slope near the entrance to Duck Hill where eight semi-dwarf apple trees are scattered, mostly older varieties like Cox Orange Pippin, Mutzu, Gravenstein, and Empire. Daffodils are planted around the trees and I let the grass grow high here while the bulbs ripen. Sometime in early July, we cut the grass down, then give it another haircut late in the summer. A winding path is mowed through it so we can walk among the trees and get from the entrance to the garden. We call this spot “the mini-meadow.” In the background is a wonderful rose the size of a tree. It is Rosa moyesii ‘Highdownensis’ and is a fine splash of hot color, somewhere between fire engine red and Schiaparelli pink. The flowers are large and single and stud the branches, which are tall and arching in habit. In the fall, red flagon-shaped hips develop. I had no idea when I planted this rose, that it would grow so big, but it is fortunately planted in the suitable company of some white lilacs right by our driveway. Posy the lurcher, posing in the foreground, is a  true mutt–a mixture of Scottish deerhound, greyhound and a dash of border collie. She was a Christmas present to me four years ago.

Knowing rain was forecast, I spent a couple of hours dividing snowdrops. It is a satisfying occupation, digging up a modest clump and gently teasing the bulbs apart, then replanting each bulb separately with a handful of compost if you have it at hand. Next spring those single bulbs will have multiplied into nice clumps and soon you will have a drift! Snowdrops are best divided “in the green,” that is, when they are actively growing, and I like to do it now, just after their blooms have faded but before the plants go dormant, while I still remember what they looked like and where I want to plant them.  Hitch Lyman, who has a vast collection of snowdrops and sells many of the different sorts mail-order from his Temple Nursery in Ithaca, New York, says these earliest of bulbs love a north-facing slope. At Duck Hill all the land slopes to the south and east, but clumps and small drifts of snowdrops seem happy enough along our woodland walk, and at the foot of our kitchen terrace wall. We have the common sort, Galanthus nivalis and its double-flowering form, G. nivalis ‘flore pleno’, both best for naturalizing, as well as a few fancy ones–among them the large and showy ‘S. Arnott’, an early little sort called ‘Tiny’ and, my favorite, ‘Lady Elphinstone’ with typical satin white outer segments but inside multiple layers of yellow-edged white petticoats. One Lady in Hitch’s catalog is $35, a huge price to pay for a tiny bulb. But one bulb soon expands into a clump of bulbs, and by lifting and dividing an established clump every other year or so, you can soon have many fancy crinolined ladies in your garden.