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Garden Notes May 2013

June 8, 2013

white azaleaChristina writes: May is for me perhaps the busiest month of the gardening year,* since it is when, in addition to ongoing tasks of weeding, watering, deadheading, and keeping the edges of beds clearly defined, I choose new plants (with input from Wayne) and do much of the installation. By the beginning of May, as the weather warms enough to plant shrubs and perennials, garden centres are well stocked. On Saturday 4 May, we visited our nearest nursery, Whitney’s, thirty minutes away, in search of replacements for plants which had not survived the winter, plus some additions to fill bare spots. Most importantly, we wanted replacements for two Purple Gem dwarf rhododendrons (part of our original landscaping in 2010) which  produced very sparse flowers in spring 2012 and by this spring were clearly dead. We had decided to replace them with two dwarf spirea, and soon located what we wanted. Since Whitney’s were offering three three-gallon plants for the price of two, we added a dwarf andromeda.

When we laid out the shady beds to the east and west in 2010, we spaced plants evenly, but over the past few years it became clear that those in the shadiest parts do not grow to the same size as those that receive more sun, and more plants are needed to compensate. For these areas we bought two additional heuchera, a lady’s mantle, and two European ginger. Since I find it difficult to pass by when I see a display of hellebore, we also bought two more of these. For the perennial bed, we bought a dark purple-blue columbine and three lupines (pink, purplish blue, and white) – last year’s did not survive the winter, but we’ll give them another try. We had Dan, our landscaper, plant these.

The large bed parallel to the driveway at the front of the house is almost entirely devoted to perennials, but because most of these have short flowering periods, I add annuals along the lawn side and in some adjacent areas to provide longer-lasting colour. On Saturday 18 May, with the weather forecast suggesting no more frosts this year, we checked Renton’s, a small local nursery, which is usually quite a good source for annuals. For the perennial bed we bought soft yellow and cream marigolds, yellow and purplish pink snapdragons (antirrhinum), and mixed dianthus, as well as red salvia which I plant every year beneath the locust trees on the corner between our driveway and the road. I planted all of these over a couple of days.

wintergreen and fuchsiaWe had intended to spend Saturday 25 May visiting three garden centres to the south of us, but there was heavy rain all day. Showers were forecast for Sunday 26 May, but not until late afternoon, so we decided to risk it. We left just after ten o’clock on the seventy-five minute drive to the furthest nursery, Ward’s in Great Barrington, and had not driven far before the first shower arrived – our weather forecasts are very unreliable – but decided to continue on our way. The showers continued on and off all day. At Ward’s we bought a couple more perennials for the shady beds: a brunnera and a wintergreen, and three ferns to add to the sparse remains of those planted in 2010 at the far north end of one bed, hoping that with sprinkler hoses now extending that far the new ones will prosper better. We also added a few more annuals for the perennial bed and adjacent areas: Supertunias and summer snapdragon (angelonia) in shades of white, blue, and purple.

We had lunch at Café Adam, our favourite restaurant in Great Barrington, which has moved to new premises down and across the road. We could not really judge these, though, since we were seated at a table in an enclosed loggia outside the main area, and lucky to get that as they were so busy, but the food was good. We both had the ‘poached duck’: two poached eggs on grain bread toast, crispy duck leg, sauteed sliced mushrooms, arugula (for a little greenery), and hollandaise. Afterward, we stopped briefly at the Windy Hill nursery, very briefly as their annuals were covered over because they were outdoors and the nights were still cold. We did buy two orange heuchera to brighten up part of one of the shady beds which I felt had too much dark green.

On our way back north, we again visited Whitney’s. By now the showers were heavier but, as we were mainly interested in annuals which were under cover, it was not too much of a problem, though I did get a little wet dodging between the main display area and adjacent greenhouses. There we bought several packs of yellow Superbells, plus two of coral and one of red, two oxalis, and three double impatiens in shades of pink for the perennial bed area, as well as two small fuchsias for a shady area. I wanted Guinea impatiens to plant in a semicircular bed around a dogwood shrub on a corner at the back between two beds, one running east and the other north, but had to go searching in the greenhouses to find what I want. Six-packs have smaller plants but are cheaper, but I was only able to find pink and mauve six-packs and had to buy individual white specimens. At the moment, they look a little uneven, but I expect the smaller ones will soon catch up.

I spent a lot of time the following Monday and Tuesday planting our Sunday loot. And, of course, the work does not end with the planting, for new plants need frequent watering to get them established. I like to water them daily for about a week, and then every other day for another week – unless, of course, there’s enough rain that watering isn’t needed. Too often, though, I’ve been caught by a promise of rain mid-afternoon, then nothing happens, so only reasonably heavy rain during the previous afternoon or night lets me off the hook. And naturally, the rest of the garden also needs water, though less frequently. We now have two sprinkler hoses and seven soaker hoses covering all of the planting areas except the three apple trees, the large perennial bed, and the adjoining lilac and periwinkle area, which have to be watered by sprinklers, watering cans, or hand-held hose.

rhododendron roseum elegansWe have three outdoor faucets, but use only two at the same time so as not to make too much demand on water pressure. We water the various areas in rotation, so that even after we have had rain, unless we are pretty sure more is on the way, we can leave off watering for only one or two days before starting the rotation again, or else the last in line will suffer. Unfortunately, the whole of the side and rear part of our garden is surrounded by tall trees, which soak up a lot of moisture. We’ve learned by experience that our larger shrubs, such as mountain laurel, andromeda, azaleas, and rhododendrons, suffer badly if they don’t get enough water. At least we had quite a lot of rain at the end of May and beginning of June. The temperatures have swung wildly, and for much of May I was switching between cotton, merino wool, and heavier lambswool sweaters every few days, with just the occasional day warm enough to wear a T-shirt. On the first weekend in June, the temperature was 89 degrees Farenheit with high humidity, while on the Monday it dropped to 69.

Things to be happy about this year:

1. The ferns at the southern end of a shady bed, lily of the valley, and windflowers have all  started to spread at last after three years.

2. The two white azaleas planted in 2010 have flowered profusely. One produced no flowers in 2011 and started shedding leaves so badly we thought it might have to be replaced. The other one flowered, but not prolifically. We began to give them more water in 2012, and the first one produced more leaves but not many flowers. This year, we started to water earlier and more frequently, and both azaleas were beautiful though now past their peak.

3. All of our andromedas have produced more flowers and more new growth than in previous years. I’m now glad we didn’t replace the one that was damaged by a falling branch.

4. The hollies have flowered profusely, and presumably were pollinated despite there being fewer bees around, as they already have small green berries.

5. Most plants seem to be flourishing and increasing in size. This may be just because they’ve been established longer, but perhaps they’re already responding to Dan’s fertilizer programme.

6. The Album rhododendron (white with pink buds) we planted in 2011, and which had only new growth in 2012, is covered with blooms. Each of the two new Roseum elegans rhododendrons we put in last year has one blossom to show us the colour, and otherwise lots of new growth.

Near misses:

1. On 20 May, I noticed that some of the leaves on the yellow waxbells in the birch bed had turned black. Wayne did a web search and found a stray reference that this might be the result of  lack of water. I gave the plant plenty of water for a few days before the rains took over, and now it looks quite healthy. I had thought it to be covered by a soaker hose, but perhaps it is just out of range, or the birch steals too much of the moisture. I’ll have to remember to include this among the other areas that need supplementing with a watering can or hand-held hose.


1. One apple tree had no blossom this year, the second only a few flowers, and the third less than half than it had in 2011, so even at best we can hope for only a few apples.

2. There has not been much blossom on the sand cherry, though otherwise it looks healthy.

3. There’s no sign of life on the butterfly bush (buddleia) we planted last year. Our landscaper told me that he had lost a buddleia this past winter, and so had another client. He thinks that something about the weather must have been responsible, and will try to get a replacement for us. We need a dwarf variety, but couldn’t find one at any of the garden centres.

Time seems to go by so fast, as various plants come into flower and then fade. Everything is so transitory. I was especially sorry to see the white azaleas pass their peak. Although the bachelor’s buttons will still have the occasional flower for another month or two, the first profuse flowering which only lasts a few days is over, and I need to start to deadhead. The salvia, iris, sweet william, and weigela are all in flower at the moment, and the mountain laurels are coming along.

Other May tasks included cutting Virginia bluebells back to the ground once they had finished flowering and were falling over; struggling to get support rings into the ground where needed, and with so many tree roots around; and shearing phlox, bee balm, and catmint to prevent them getting too tall. At the beginning of May, I was reasonably in control of the weeding and clearing debris, but with all of the other tasks I am now well behind.

* Unless we go away, as we did in 2012.

Images (top to bottom): white azalea in flower, the ground awash in pachysandra (and a shoot of scrub maple we’ve just noticed in the photo); wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) with fuchsia ‘Betty’, hosta, and lamium; varieties of hosta, with lamium, (our neighbour’s) ferns, and dwarf spirea; rhododendron Roseum elegans.


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