Thursday, February 28, 2013

Giant Plants

Our swallows are back!  They are early this year.  If Aristotle insisted that "one swallow does not a summer make", what would he say about a pair of swallows nesting in late February?

Of course, Aristotle wasn't talking about the weather.  In his Nicomachean Ethics the quote continues, ". . . nor does one fine day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy."  He goes on, in his eloquent and long-winded way, to conclude that it is "virtuous activity" of body and soul that makes a man truly happy.  He concedes that it is easier to be virtuous if one has the benefit of a comfortable living, with enough friends, good health, and a sound economy.  But while virtue can help a person acquire some of these things, they cannot, even when combined, give one the sense of well-being and peace that comes from integrity, from living a virtuous life. 

And that, folks, is my take on the ancients for the day!  Now, onto something a little more current: the photos below are of the round bed in our North Garden.  We built the bed a few years ago; it was meant to be rather formal in appearance.  The first thing I did was plant three durantas, otherwise known as Golden Dewdrop, duranta erecta, right in the middle.  It was a mistake.  In our area, they are not evergreen.  They die back to the roots at first frost to regrow each Spring.  This year, that didn't happen until late December and they practically became small trees.  Even our purple basil grew to huge proportions before giving up its ghost. 


The next few pictures are of our Waterfall Bed behind the swimming pool.  Many, many windows from our house look out upon this view.  When we moved into the house, there were some loropetalums, a lemon bottlebrush, a mature gardenia, a few dwarf yaupons, a sago palm, and three holly trees.  Our first summer, we took out the trees.  That was hard -- we love trees -- but they blocked the view of our field and made it hard for anything else to grow.  We replaced the trees with one gallon plants, esperanza, also known as Yellow Bells (tecoma stans), duranta, poinciana (caesalpinia pulcherrima), and Mexican firebush (hamelia patens), to name a few.  The first photo is from 2008, the next two are from this past January.


At first we enjoyed a wonderful, colorful, rather tropical view.  When the perennials died back to their roots the first winter, it didn't bother us.  The bare sticks were fairly small and worth the flowers from spring till frost.  As I had read more than once, they were the "bones of the garden."  Over time, we added a butterfly bush and Texas star hibiscus, which also grew really large, as well as various, smaller flowers.  Every year, the rootballs grew larger and the shrubs reached ever higher towards the sky.  We'd might as well have kept the holly trees.  This year, the plants were enormous and as autumn faded into a very mild winter, they continued growing.  Our Waterfall Bed began to look like a rainforest.  Finally, some time in late December, we had a couple nights' frost and they mercifully died back.  However, as you can see, we were left with the skeletons of the giant plants.  That's not what I want to see when I look out my windows.
But what should we do with large, sturdy, flowering shrubs that through no fault of their own go dormant in winter?  We have four acres.  Surely, they would fit somewhere, just not in any of my flower beds.
My thoughts turned to our hedgerow project.  I had orginally wanted the south side of our house to be a flower-filled corridor.  My husband and sons created beds for me all along the southern wall of the house, where there had only been grass.  These beds are filled with roses, esperanza, duranta, lantana, Mexican heather, and a few others.  If we moved the dormant plants to the hedgerow, it would have summer color, we would have privacy faster, and I would actually have the flowery corridor I had imagined.  I related all of this to my husband -- no pressure!  That's when we decided to move the giant plants.  We'd done so before and knew what we were up against.  But it seemed the best solution.
The first thing we did was to cut back the sticks.  We usually leave them because the roots are better protected that way, with more on top.  That took a while because, as the photos indicate, the plants are large and there were lots of sticks.  Then came the hard part, digging up the rootballs.  I didn't snap any photos; I was too busy helping.  But I know that most of them were about two feet in diameter and at least a foot deep.  They were heavy and needed big holes dug out of the lawn to accomodate them.  Some plants lifted more easily than others.  The poinciana, for example, had a long taproot that seemed to reach down to Middle Earth.  But in one short afternoon, we transplanted one esperanza, three duranta, one poinciana, and one Texas star hibiscus to the new hedgerow.
Am I being presumptuous in calling it a hedgerow?  Perhaps. 

All the same, for all of its pitifulness, it's a hedgerow in its beginnings.  This summer, it will look very different, as will the Waterfall Bed and the round bed in the North Garden.  Just as the return of the swallows suggests, change is a natural aspect in the life of any garden and certainly in our ever-changing landscape.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hedge, Hedgerow, Hedge Grow!

Why do people move to the country?  Some reasons might include to have more space, to enjoy fresh air and nature, to obtain privacy and solitude, and certainly a combination would be common.  As for my husband and me, all of these reasons apply.

In our rural subdivision, properties are no less than two acres and many are more.  Our home is situated in the middle of our four acre plot; the neighbors to our south have at least six acres.  Despite this, the side of their house is not more than twenty-five feet from the edge of our driveway.  We don't know our neighbors well, but they seem to be nice people.  They haven't owned the house long and while they don't spend a lot of time outdoors as we do, they are outside more than their predecessors.  It's not their fault that the houses are so close.  Moreover, my husband and I obviously knew the house was there when we bought ours.  We love our house and land, but from the first day we agreed that a privacy hedge would be important.  When we were raising our sons in the suburbs, seeing our neighbors out in their front yards and chatting at the curb was part of the charm.  But out here, where all fences and spaces are open, it is disconcerting that we and our neighbors must see almost everything going on in each other's yards, both front and back.  I should add here that our back patios are completely private due to the design of the homes and how they are situated. 

But it's not just a matter of privacy.  Not all of the views are to our liking, especially from our driveway.  To be fair, from certain back portions of their property, they can see our work area, compost pile and all, but not everyone who visits them has to see it.  Eventually, a hedge down the entire length would be nice for everyone, but for now we shall focus on what's most important to us.  In a way, I suppose this aspect does concern privacy for all, the privacy to utilize one's own space as desired without bothering or offending someone else.

In the above photo, the parking area of our driveway is to the right. The roof of our neighbor's home is in the top left corner of the picture.  Below is a cropped photo of one of my primary objections.

We can view this utility area and more of it from our driveway.  It involves a partial, dilapidated fence, lots of pipes, air conditioners, and possibly a generator.  I realize that many people have worse views from their doorsteps, but all the same, it detracts from our garden.

We could talk with our neighbors or complain to the homeowners' association, but it might not help and, as we would like more privacy, anyway, we don't see it as necessary, at least not right now.  I daresay that me standing in my bathrobe on the driveway might not be any better a view for them.   

All things considered, when it came to choosing between a rose arbor and flower bed or a privacy hedge for our first project, I, the plantoholic, chose the roses without hesitation.  After that, it was one landscaping adventure after another.  It's only recently that we've revisited the hedge situation and decided to use native plants rather than ligustrum or some other hardy import.  Ever since that momentous decision was reached, I've been fantasizing about hedgerows.

Hedgerows have been used in Great Britain to delineate property lines and restrict livestock since ancient times.  They are useful as windbreaks, too, and can prevent soil erosion.  Hedgerows, as opposed to a single, formal row of evergreen shrubs, are several feet deep and are deliberately informal. They are filled with both evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees as well as native grasses, flowers, and vines. Ideally, some of the trees and shrubs provide nuts or berries for wildlife, some are thorny for added protection against predators, and they are planted densely enough to provide shelter. Vines afford additional cover and sometimes food, but I personally shall forgo them as they would render the hedgerow a little too informal, considering the fence is wrought iron.  Traditional hedgerows can be enormous, but there are practical guidelines for even small, urban spaces. 

In England, many hedgerows were destroyed during the past century and now there is a movement to restore and protect them as part cultural heritage and part wildlife protection.  Lots of small mammals and birds make their homes in hedgerows.
That's why I like them!  My fascination with hedgerows probably could be traced to my childhood, when I read books with such phrases as "the little animals of the hedgerow".  Rabbits, hedgehogs, mice and many a talking bird filled my imagination.  They still do, to some extent, and I would love to entertain more of these creatures in my own backyard. 

I do realize that hedgerows or even a single row of hedges can also harbor snakes and that bunnies, raccons, and other small animals could at times disturb the peace in our garden.  However, most of our ornamental beds are on the north side of our house, while the hedgerow will be on the south.   Rabbits, for example, might venture past the house and across the property, but we know they are out there already and so far they haven't been a problem for our flower beds. 

We need a lot of plants to densely screen an area of fence over a hundred and twenty feet long.  It could prove to be costly, especially since we have other landscaping projects, even more hedges, in mind.  But we're gardeners.  Surely, if we are resourceful and willing to be patient, we don't need to purchase all of the plants we want.  After all, there are already some yaupon hollies and wax myrtles on our property and these large shrubs/small trees sucker.  We had already transplanted a few bird-sown wax myrtles from our flower beds and they grew surprisingly fast.

I opened my copy of the American Horticulture Society's book Plant Propagation, editor-in-chief Alan Toogood, and studied the section on propagation by division.  Best attempted in early spring, an underground stem with suckers is lifted and cut close to the parent plant, trimmed back to its fibrous roots and the top growth trimmed back to about half, and replanted. 

That's just what we did.  More clearly, that's just what my husband did while I held back branches, handed him things, took care of the cuttings, and generally tried to help without injuring him.  I didn't always succeed; every once in a while a branch would escape me or I held the wrong one and thwack!  But we both survived and so far, so have most of our little transplants.  For our hedgerow, we want first a row of evergreens and shall build out from there with a mix of evergreens and deciduous shrubs.  It has occurred to me that our neighbors might not be thrilled to have a wildlife habitat planted along the fence -- all the more reason for the evergreens.  The first row shall consist entirely of wax myrtles and yaupons.  We don't yet have enough for the sections of fence we want to cover first and we can only hope that our tiny sticks survive and thrive quickly. 

It's a far cry, a long journey, towards a wildlife habitat or privacy screen of any sort.  However, this weekend we moved several large, dormant, shrubs that should become quite large and floriferous by midsummer and stay that way until the first frost.  Right now, a riding mower fits between the two rows; eventually, we will stagger more evergreens and probably some grasses between the two and mowing will finally become both impossible and unnecessary.

I have a lot to say about moving giant plants.  It's not easy to redo large flower beds.  But that's for another post.  

For more information on hedgerows, wonderful hedgerows, here are a couple of articles I enjoyed:

We will evaluate how many plants we might have to purchase or not purchase as spring moves sweetly towards summer.  In the meantime, we can watch and hope that our infant hedgerow grows!


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Things

"Beware of planting a bigger garden than you have time for."
"Observe your property for a while before planting."
"Mulch, mulch, mulch!"
"Gardens for wildlife should be a little messy."

There's so much advice out there, especially for a novice gardener.  Like anything else, some of it is good and some not so good.  At the end of the day, it's up to each of us to sort out all of the advice and apply it as best we can.  While I've always considered myself to be a fairly wise and reasonable person, it's become clear that when it comes to my garden, I an neither!  I have much more enthusiasm than good judgement.

For the past six and a half years, since our younger son graduated high school, my husband and I have lived on a four-acre property in a rural subdivision southwest of Houston, Texas.  Our front yard is a native pecan grove; our backyard is a treeless field or, at least, it was.  There was almost no landscaping around the house.  Even the large front beds merely showed the standard hedges.  Almost immediately, my husband and I set to improving and enlarging the garden.  Despite many mistakes and outright fiascos, our hard work produced some worthy results in the way of landscaping.  We created flower beds where there was only grass, built arbors and beds, added birdbaths and benches.  At the same time, we are still struggling because of some of our early mistakes.  We created a much larger garden than we knew what to do with, arranged plants in all the wrong places, mulched those plants half to death, and created a wildlife garden at the entrance of our house.  We are now endeavoring to rectify the various situations at a reasonable pace, having already leapt from one mistake to another many times over.  Our landscape is indeed ever-changing and evolving in more ways than one.  At this point, I'm not sure if I would have it any other way.

I've been through a wonderful Master Gardener program, attended conferences, lectures, and workshops, read many, many books and blogs and visited many websites. I have also enjoyed plenty of hands-on experience the past several years.  I am not uninformed; I am not going through this blindly.  My engineer husband is willing and able to help, naturally being more willing at some times than others.  But I did take a sort of mini-hiatus from gardening that lasted for over a year and we're dealing with a rather large space, heavy clay, and harsh weather conditions.  Our summers are long and scorching, we are just emerging from a drought, and our winters usually have at least a few days below freezing, sometimes more.  Moreoever, we're dealing with me, a plantoholic.

Those are our challenges.  My basic approach is native, organic and with an eye out for wildlife.  My goal this year is to reconstruct our beds so that the formally arranged ones look prettier and a little more formal and to begin a wildlife hedgerow along our south fence where there's just grass and a ridiculously close-up view of our neighbor's property.  I would appreciate suggestions, anecdotes, stories.  I'm willing and eager to learn from others' experiences.  It's surely much easier on the back, wallet, and spouse and probably even easier on the plants.         

Here's to 2013!