Getting my garden groove back

Usually by the time spring appears after months of cold and snow, I can’t wait to get outside and start digging. This year, though, spring came so early. It was wonderful, but the garden exploded. Daffodils were here and gone in March, hyacinths barely made it to Easter and are now kaput, the few tulips we have are almost gone, spring-blooming groundcover is on the way out…heck the azaleas are blooming! It’s been so strange, and it got hot so fast I wasn’t sure what to do. Too early to start digging? Or full steam ahead?

The spring chores seemed insurmountable. Weeds everywhere, wild onions especially (how DO they spread so much?), and the yard is a mess. The sweet woodruff, which is a really nice groundcover, has become a bit of a nemesis. It’s great filling in under the trees and shrubs where nothing else will grow, but it is also aggressively swarming over the hosta and other perennials and needs to be cut away every year (sometimes twice a year) before it chokes them out. Imagine pulling up 2-3″ thick carpet that’s been glued down — that’s what it’s like to pull up sweet woodruff. Amazingly matted.

I felt pretty defeated after a long day of that a couple weekends ago.

After this past Sunday, though, things are looking up. Mike has already edged a lot of the back yard (the first of at least 3 times we’ll do that), so that always makes things look great.

See that dark swath in the yard to the right of the light? I’m trying to ignore that — it’s weeds that have taken over — ground ivy, I think. Now blooming purple at least. I am so not a lawn person…

More stuff is up and getting greener — including buds on the peonies before I even thought about getting the ring supports out for them. Had to try to retrofit…just a ring this time; no neat little weaving a grid for the stems to grow through.

The hosta now have breathing room. I can feel them sighing in relief not to have the sweet woodruff choking them.

I planted 8 new little things here and there, including these Siberian Wallflower, which are supposed to grow to 30″ but are now only about 10″. Pretty silvery foliage.

And this adorable Saxifrage…I’m a sucker for the tiny pink flowers perched on their dainty stems. We’ll see how they do — I’m asking a lot of them — expecting them to grow and spread in the small border next to the driveway.

And 3 more autumn ferns. Last year was my first year planting these and they are fantastic — actually lived throughout the winter (which, I don’t know if that’s typical or only because winter was mild). My neighbor even commented on them, “Are those ferns hardy?”

I hope they’ll do OK in the shade garden — it doesn’t look so good this year. Maybe got hot too soon? Even my favorite Bugloss are much smaller. Or is it just too early yet? This weather is very confusing for me, so no doubt for the plants, too.

My biggest fear is the scraggly trees (neighbor’s side) that make it a shade garden will die and so will my shade garden.  It’s a favorite little spot of mine.

I don’t think I lost anything over the mild winter, though. But it’s strange — because things are still small, it looks like I have more room to fill in. I know full-well that’s not the case. In a month or so, I won’t have much room to dig at all, let alone add all the plants I’m itching to buy.

Some of last year’s purchases look good; others are still iffy. This Kolkwitzia (which, what a great name) is a good-looker — such a pretty chartreuse.

The jury’s still out on this hypericum (a form of St. John’s Wort grown for its berries — the orange-ish ones you see in bouquets). It looks mostly dead, but has signs of new life. Not sure if I should chop it back or not, so I’m waiting to see what happens.

I’m partial to this lungwort — a hunk my neighbor gave me a few years ago that has never taken off, but continues to bloom every spring before dying back when it gets too hot. Hers is gigantic and beautiful…not sure what mine is lacking to make it spread.

This cheerful one looks vaguely like a dandelion, but is actually a perennial I planted last year that’s doing well so far. I can’t remember the name, although I just saw it again at Lowe’s the other day. Oh well, goodoldwhatsitsname is quite a pretty little springtime treat. (UPDATE A FEW DAYS LATER: Not that anyone cares, but the name came to me in a flash — it’s called Leopard’s Bane, so named, I learned, because it was once thought to be poisonous to animals. And it’s also been used medicinally — but don’t ingest too much, because it’s toxic. I think I will just confine myself to looking at it.)

Even prettier close up.

I’m also trying to breathe new life into this poor weigela by giving it a new home.

It used to be fantastic and huge — 5 ft tall and wide (a “dwarf” that didn’t know it). But it grew too big for its original spot and I moved it, much to Mike’s chagrin.  Here’s how it looked right after the move (October 2009 — the one on the left).

An exhausting move of two giant “dwarf” weigela who outgrew their old home and will now anchor a new bed-to-be in the front yard (assuming they live, which Mike will kill me if they don’t)

It’s struggled ever since, poor thing. I hope it recovers now (and yes, Mike is not happy with me).

Its partner is doing slightly better, so it’s allowed to stay put out front for now. I wanted to move it, but the roots were thick, and I was afraid of killing it for sure this time. I had already dug the hole in the back yard for it, so now I have to find something else to put in that spot.

I can’t think of a nicer problem to have.

April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.
~ Christopher Morley

Bring out your dead

deadboxleafAaahhhhh, we’re coming off the rarest of the rare here in Western PA — two glorious sunshiny days in a row ON A WEEKEND! Actually three, as today promises to be beautiful as well. So beautiful I won’t even complain about the record-breaking heat (87) in April because the low humidity and steady breeze and a lot of sunscreen made it bearable.

While productive, it was also a little sad. Time for the annual garden episode of Survivor — as in, who did and who didn’t. This year: several confirmed casualties (two boxleaf euonymous [seen above], a pink coreopsis, and a pretty blue groundcover I don’t know the name of, a couple thyme plants [curiously a couple other of these did great]) and several potential casualties (a hydrangea, three ‘Wild Thing’ pink sage planted in border with Russian sage, which itself looks like it could use a few shots of vodka, or had a few too many). Also lost some things that had been fine wintering in big pots before — most sadly, a beautiful blue trailing Veronica.

Plus I think I figured out why Frick and Frack the hydrangea brothers haven’t progressed in four years: They must be a variety that blooms on old wood, so because they die back to the ground every year and have to start over, they’ll never bloom (frickin’ frackin’ shrubs).

You’d think I’d learn by now, but I’m always taken in by those blasted plant tags and something different blooming at the garden center. I need to be ruthless in not buying anything that claims to be hardy to “0 to -10” because invariably we get a few nights below zero (though rarely -10) and it must be too much for them. That would explain the dead euonymous, the surely-dead-but Mike-says-give-it-a-chance pink sage (“I’m not dead.”), and the never-blooming hydrangeas, including another two non-hardies I planted last fall. (OK, I think I get it now. Finally. Fortunately, the two oakleaf hydrangeas and the dwarf Pee Gee called ‘Pee Wee’ seem to be doing fine.)

But, of course, never say never. I took an expensive chance on something I’d never heard of — Siberian Bugloss — and have been thrilled with it in the shade garden. Beautiful silvery leaves, charming tiny forget-me-not flowers. It’s lovely. I know now this is what they had in mass plantings around Fallingwater that we saw last spring. Just stunning. I hope I can find more, as these plants were a chance find at the Lowe’s in Somerset.


I’ve also (sort of) learned, to save my receipts so I can take dead soldiers back to the store within a year. Managed that for the euonymous ($17 credit at HD now, thank you) and will do the same for the surely-dead-but Mike-says-give-it-a-chance pink sage and possibly its neighboring, iffy Russian sage (so much for that lovely border on top of the new side retaining wall).

On the good side, the big bag of daffodil bulbs from Sam’s Club I planted last fall did wonderfully — many varieties that bloom at different times and very long-lasting. I’ll for sure be doing another bag come fall.


More good — all of the 10 or so boxwood we planted are doing fine, along with probably 30 other shrubs or perennials planted last year (and many more planted in previous years). We’ll be here four years next month, and I can hardly believe how much we’ve transformed the garden.

But….so much more to do. It was a working weekend for Mike as well — back at it on the porch/sunroom project. The lawn is a disaster — giant bare spots out front from last year’s big-dig sewer project and more weeds than lawn in back. I think we’ll be forced to hire professionals when the time comes to dig it all up and start over.

But that’s another project for another spring. In the meantime, I’ll be working hard to avoid more casualties (not really — I’m more of a “you better be hardy because I’m not babying you” gardener) and Mike will be working hard to make progress on some of our ongoing projects. In other words: Business as usual in fixer-upperhood.

Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.
It is not much matter if things do not turn out well.
~ Charles Dudley Warner

The bloom is on the wort!


I got a nice hunk of pulmonaria (lungwort) from my neighbor last year and am amazed to find it’s already blooming, well before the foliage fully transforms into its lovely, speckled self. (My sister and I have joked that we need to have a “wort” garden, just because it’s funny to say.)

And check this out: daffies! Already!


Makes me a little worried — too warm too soon? Will everything get zapped when we get the inevitable April snowstorm? Doesn’t bode well for the magnolia out front.

Just look at the buds on this lilac — a poor little guy we rescued from overgrown viburnum and privet. It hasn’t bloomed since we moved it two years ago, so I hope this will be the year — white blooms.


Sad to see a few things didn’t survive. I can never resist taking a chance on an unfamiliar “find” at the garden center, but they never seem to work for me. This was, of course, lovely when I bought it — blue flowers (another something I can’t resist). No tag, and I can’t remember what it was called. I had such high hopes of it trailing over the new wall.


At least the lemon thyme seems to have survived (though some other varieties haven’t), and the tricolor sedum is pinking up nicely — it’s never this pink in summer.



But, not so fortunate inside. Just like every year, the rosemary I try to overwinter does fine until just before I can put it outside again. Then it channels Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree and it’s all over. I’m always starting from scratch with these.


Oh, I know it’s not good to be wishing life away, but March can’t be over soon enough. There’s so much hope to be found in April, especially because we’ve planted so much. I just went through and did a quick count of my beloved plant tags — 50 shrubs (not counting multiples of the same kind, like boxwood) and 75 perennials. Of course, not all have survived, but even so, spring is pretty exciting.

I look around, though, and see just how much more there is to do and to fill in. Makes me admire “real” gardens and gardeners even more. (You’ll notice all of my garden pictures show a lot of mulch — of course the goal is that you see something growing everywhere, shoulder to shoulder, instead of boring brown bark. Give us 10 years or so for that…)

And yes, last year I was speculating whether April really is the cruellest month…what a difference 12 months make, bringing much perspective and enough progress to make the eternal warm-weather DIY fixer-upper projects a bit less daunting.

It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is.
And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t
quite know what it is you do want, but it just
fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!
~ Mark Twain