May 30

Garden Open

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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.

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Peony ‘White Innocence’

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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.

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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.

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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.

It is the first day of spring and you wouldn’t know it outside. The snowdrops and winter aconites, which I was savoring in full flower just a few days ago, are once again covered with snow.  But, thanks to the bounty from our coldframe, it is spring indoors. Every October we pot up bulbs–daffodils, grape hyacinths, scilla, crocuses, trout lilies, frittilaries–sinking them in our best clay pots in a mixture of loam and compost. We then water them well, label them with tall wooden labels, and bury them under 8″ of shavings in our coldframe. There they go through their required period of dormancy for about 10 to 12 weeks. By the beginning of February, we are pulling them out, a few pots at a time, transfering them to the greenhouse where, with water and sunlight, they push up leaves and buds. When they are just beginning to flower, we bring them down to the house.

 

 

Right now, the early cyclamineus daffodil ‘Jetfire,’ with bright yellow flared-back perianth and orange trumpets, is flowering in the kitchen. I especially like forcing the very early-blooming narcissus, and also the miniatures, sweet ones like white ‘Toto,’ soft yellow ‘Gypsy Queen,’ and ‘Rip van Winkle,’ which looks rather like a dandelion.

We have a small pot of N. ‘Snipe’ flowering in the living room–I first saw this sweetheart at the San Francisco flower show with its tiny flared back petals and long narrow soft yellow trumpets. For some reason, it is not easy to find in the catalogs and is expensive to buy, but I always try to have at least one pot of it to force in the winter.

I know you can buy grape hyacinths in the supermarket, but it’s fun to force some of the more unusual sorts. This year we had a pot of Muscari neglectum with stalks of inky-blue bells dipped in white, and we forced an especially nice white sort called M. aucheri ‘White Magic.’

I am not sure why more gardeners don’t have coldframes. They are easy to build–ours are made from inexpensive wood and clear plastic, three boxes that are 3′ deep by 3′ wide, their backs slightly higher than their fronts, with hinged tops, sitting on gravel, facing south. You can start all sorts of perennials from seed in March or November in the protection of the frames, you can grow lettuces there before it is warm enough to do so outside, and you can have the prettiest pots of flowers to cheer up your rooms inside no matter how much snow is on the ground. When you pull the pots out of the coldframe, you don’t need a greenhouse to force the bulbs into flower; any sunny cool window will do the trick. This week, I am pulling a small pot of white erythroniums and larger pots of the lovely late daffodils ‘Segovia’ and ‘Hawera’ to have in bloom before the daffodils are flowering outside. Happy Spring.

February 28

Winter Bark

One of the pleasures of winter is seeing trees in their starkness, when the shape and character of their branches, their buds, their seedheads, and the pattern of their bark are all beautifully revealed. Three ornamental trees at Duck Hill–the kousa dogwood, the Persian parrotia, and Stewartia pseudocamellia–heralded for their gorgeous flowers or handsome leaves and brilliant fall color, have trunks that are astonishing to see this time of year because of exfoliation. As the trees age, some of the bark peels away resulting in mottled patchworks of gray, cream, orange and tan.

The stewartia, though not native here, is one of my favorite small trees. It is pyramidal in shape, rather prim in its youth, but with age its branches relax and stretch out gracefully, so be sure to give it plenty of room. (I have not!) It has lustrous leaves and in early June is covered with white camellia-like flowers that open from fat round buds like tiny balloons. The flowering continues for several weeks. In autumn the tree begins to turn color until it is ablaze with orange and red. A beauty in every season.

January 6

Winter Green

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.

 

December 22

Holiday Flowers

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.

December 9

The Garden at Rest

The weather has been so mild off and on that I feel I should be out in the garden weeding. There are certainly weeds out there to pull. But instead I busy myself with projects inside– washing slipcovers, decluttering, cooking, making lists, plotting Christmas–and, once or twice a day,  I walk the paths with the dogs, picking up kindling and admiring the lingering greens. Hellebores, Christmas ferns, evergreen epimediums, and heucheras liven the woodland paths, and, in the gardens around the house, the old stolid boxwoods are star players, holding the stage in their rich, dark dress.

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.

August 16

Joe-Pye Weed

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