Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mother Nature's Garden

If I consider my knowledge of shade plants to be lacking, my knowledge of wildflowers and natives is even worse. My last two gardens have been around new construction. New construction in both cases on land that had been farm fields. No trees means no shade. And years of row crop cultivation means no native plants (and in the case of the last garden, thanks to the developer, no topsoil, but that's an entirely different story).

Now I own an acre of land in a suburb of Milwaukee. An acre of which nearly half is in a wooded, "natural" state (read bit of an overgrown mess). The first week we were here one of the neighbors stopped by to introduce himself. In the course of conversation he pointed out that there were trillium in some of the wooded areas. I'm thrilled to discover there's several more patches dotted all around the woods. Some fairly close to the "cultivated" areas. I'm wise enough to leave them where they naturally choose to grow. But still smile knowing that *I* am growing trillium. I'm guessing these are Trillium flexipes.

I found a couple of patches of another little darling. But have no clue to it's identity.

And of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum ). Lots and lots of May Apples.

I've always been fond of May Apples. Even from afar they reminded me of little umbrellas for fairies. This is the first year I've been able to view them up close. They first emerge as a tight little mass, and then slowly unfurl.

The flags through the May Apples mark the boundaries of the pet "fence" which keeps my cat and dog in the yard. This of course, does not prevent other animals from entering the yard. We have an opossum which frequents under our deck. Last week as I left for a pre-dawn plane flight, the cat snuck out.  My husband and son were awoken by a growling scream to discover a large red fox had cornered the cat (who has lost her out side in the dark priviledges). But the best was the deer last summer that seemed to love tormenting the dog by calming eating foliage just outside of invisible fence line. Excuse the picture clarity - all I had was my phone, and couldn't get close because I didn't want to scare the deer. As if that is possible, here in the wild, wild woods of suburbia!

Making the Bed(lines)

My serious garden project of the season is re-doing the beds along the front of the house. When we first bought the house two summers ago, this area was solid yews. To say that I am not a fan of yews, would be a gross understatement. I detest them.

This was the view in July of 2008.

Last summer we cut down all the yews. But got no further. I wanted time to live with the space, observe the amount of sunlight, get to know the soil. This year I'm ready to tackle the space. First step determining the bedlines. Which meant pulling out one of my favorite garden "tools". Inverted marking paint. I know books and magazines tell you to use a line of lime or other chalky powder, or to lay out a garden hose. I prefer spray paint - downward spraying marking paint to be exact. Easily found at the large box home improvement stores. Usually in a variety of colors.

The large tree to the left of the front path makes it impossible to make this a symmetrical design. I knew I wanted to take the bed in front of the tree out to the driveway and slightly widen the border along the front of the garage.

Notice how as I play with the bed lines, the garden part gets larger, not smaller?

On the right side of the front walk, I wanted to bring a bed to the driveway along the walk. I originally thought a 6' wide bed, but after eyeballing and measuring realized 4 feet made more sense.

From there I'm trying to create a flowing line that is mower friendly. 

At the far end, there is an area that gets 4-6 hours of mid day sun. I curved back out to allow me to expand my plant palette into more sun friendly specimens. And where I've marked an "X", I am going to plant the 'Princess Diana' Amelanchier I purchased at the Missouri Botanic Garden plant sale in May of 2007, and have been torturing in a succession of pots ever since.

Next steps, wash the orange off my thumb, and begin to plan the plants. Fun times..........

Monday, April 19, 2010

Making progress

Still not time to plant, but there's plenty to do in the meantime. Trying to work my way around the house cleaning up the existing beds. All of which appear to have been ignored for years.

This weekend I decided to focus on cleaning up the south side of the house. This is the sloped area with the retaining wall and planted primarily in hostas with a touch of pachysandra, lamium and lily of the valley. In summer this area is in full shade.

As of Friday it was also full of Garlic Mustard. Inspiring me to do some research and even write a post about it. Spent most of Saturday attacking the weeds.

In addition to the retaining wall one of the primary features of the space is a planting bed around a large black walnut tree.  This bed is an approximately  6' by 15' oval. Will be a shade perennials mixed border. One corner gets a few hours of sun, so plain on sneaking in a Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey' there. 

After clearing the weeds, I wanted to amend the soil a bit to prep for planting. There was already a nice coating of chopped partially composted leaves, so added a couple of 50# bags of alfalfa pellets (one of my very special secret garden ingredients), and a few bags of cow manure, and tilled it all up. Ok, I admit, I just wanted to play with some power tools, but the bed needed the work!

Here in Wisconsin, we don't have just any old cow manure, we have Dairy Cow Manure.......

Now this is much better. Kinda a blank slate. But one thing I do know is that Mother Nature abhors a vaccum and as evidenced by the garlic mustard will fill the space if I don't. So next weekend will probably involve many yards of mulch. But also some planning.

The scariest part of all this is in many ways it is new territory. I just don't have the mental palatte of shade plants.  In the past, I always knew where I was going with a bed. I might name it by colors and design from there - I had blue and yellow beds, peaches and berries beds. Or design around a favorite plant or combo. But those were all sun plants. I've never had a true shade garden. I can't just start mentally ticking off plants to fill the space. 

But wait, I always like a "grape and lemonade" bed. And there's some great gold leaved hostas, and dark leaved heucheras. Maybe a few dark leaved astilbes. And I saw this incredible tiarella with chartreuse leaves and wine colored veining. Always wanted to grow Aceta simplex 'Brunette'. And hakonachloa, oh I love hakonechloa.......

Yes, there may be hope for this garden.

And for me......


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Be afraid, be very afraid......

At first glance, a charming scene. Some sort of groundcover weaving its way between the Lily of the Valley. But step back a bit, look at the whole scene, and you quickly realize that is not the case.

This is our third spring since we relocated to Wisconsin, the second in this house. The first spring was spent in "corporate housing" while we searched for a house. That apartment backed up to the fox river plain. During that spring I marveled at the wild turkey that wandered onto our patio, the occasional sighting of a fox, and wondered about the plant with white flowers that seemed to be taking over the landscape. 

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), at first glance such an innocent looking plant. Presumably introduced from Europe for culinary or medicinal properties, but one of those plants that outside of its native habitat has proven invasive, crowding out other plants. Endangering the natural habitat.

And it's no wonder. These lines from the King County, WA noxious weeds website pretty much sum it up:

"The fact that it is self fertile means that one plant can occupy a site and produce a seed bank. Plant stands can produce more than 62,000 seeds per square meter to quickly out compete local flora, changing the structure of plant communities on the forest floor. Garlic mustard is also allelopathic, producing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and mychorrizal fungi needed for healthy tree growth and tree seedling survival."
Last year, I did my best to pull up or cut off flowers of the plants I saw around the yard, but hadn't noticed the small seedlings. In fact, I hadn't really studied up on the plant and assumed this was an annual. I wasn't looking for the first year seedlings. Yesterday, as I attacked the current season crop, the long tap roots of the plant made me realize, this was no annual. This is a biennial. Meaning it grows two season - seeds sprout in the first spring, flowers in the second spring, sets seeds and dies. And this plant does all that with remarkable vigor. This robust root structure is not the result of a single spring's growth, and explains why the WI DNR site says not to just cut off the tops in the spring. This is a plant built to survive, it can re-sprout, is built to do so.

And that's when I noticed the seedlings. Thousands and thousands of them. Between rocks, under plants, in the walkways. EVERYWHERE.

This spring's seedlings in the the cracks of the retaining wall will become next spring's plants.

The local recycling center will not accept garlic mustard, which tells me not to compost it. This means my weeding has now become a two trug job, one for the "normal" weeds, and one for the garlic mustard. In my old Kentucky and southern Illinois gardens, I fought henbit and chickweed each spring. Thought those were the worst things to battle. Know I have a much more formidable opponent in this plant. Will have to be much more vigilant, but is it me or the garlic mustard who needs to be least in this little patch of ground.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I spy with my little eye....

Have a new resolution to try and get out of the office for a fast-paced walk over lunch on most days. Not sure why in two years of working from this office I never did that. Is a good little habit I'm bringing back from my Chicago office days.

This week as I was trotting along Martin Drive, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a pretty little Henry Lauder's Walking stick (Corylus avellana "Contorta"). The intricacy of the twisted branches slowed my pace a bit, the plant tag and fresh mulch slowed it a bit further. But what stopped me dead in my tracks was the garden I noticed behind the bush, well, behind the low hedge behind the bush.

A charming little urban oasis. Paved seating area up front. Pretty iron arbor with some sort of climber - curious to see that that is when it leaves out. Stone path through what appears to be a herb garden. Lots of garden art, both on the wall and throughout the space. Another seating area in the back with a small statue centered at the rear. Obviously well tended. Someone or someones pride and joy. In a sliver of land between an apartment building and a parking lot. Somewhat a fringe neighborhood, abutting the semi-industrial area of Milwaukee where the Harley Davidson headquarters and Miller Brewery are located.

I've driven by the spot probably hundreds of times on the way to and from work. And have never noticed this garden. Now I can't wait to watch it through the seasons. Funny what slowing down and paying attention to the world around you can bring................

Monday, April 12, 2010

Appreciating things close to home and heart...

From reading this blog, you'd think I lived in Chicago. There was a post about bike riding along their lakefront trail, a streetscape post, another streetscape post, and yet another streetscape post. Fact is I live in a suburb of Milwaukee - another city with a great lakefront along beautiful Lake Michigan. This weekend my son (one of the things closest to my heart) and I took advantage of a gorgeous spring day to ride along Milwaukee's Oak Leaf Trail in the section from the Summerfest grounds, around Lakefront Park and north to Bradford Beach.

First stop was a cruise around Lakefront Park which brought us to the back-side of the now empty Henry Maier Festival Park, aka Summerfest grounds. So odd to see this empty - but the Harley stage and the Miller Lite stage brought a smile to my face - honoring these two icons of our proud city.

Moving onward, the smart (read, sneaky) Mom in me knew that in order to make *my* goal of riding 10 miles that we needed to take the occasional break. Which we did, first stopping at the park in front of Discovery World to play some tunes - on the bench and the pebble waterfall, a quick pause on the promenade by the art museum to watch a couple of spear fishers and finally a stop to check out the kite shop in Veteran's Park.

McKinley Beach caused us to wonder, how crazy you have to be to be swimming in Lake Michigan in early April. While Bradford Beach brought another hint of summer, and that beach's strong volleyball tradition.

We enjoyed our stop at what appears to be a new fitness area. I got a kick out of showing the guy you see struggling on the yellow apparatus how an assisted chin-up machine works - I did a couple of sets of squats, assisted chin-ups and back extensions, while my competitive gymnast son gave the p-bars a work-out.

After we left the fitness area, kiddo asked me if he'd ridden 1.5 miles yet. I fessed up and told him, he'd ridden almost five miles. Which led him to proclaim he was going to ride 10 miles this day. We made several laps around Lakefront Park in order to accomplish this goal. What fascinated me was how often he stood to ride, or assumed the bent over determine pose of acceleration. Made me realize the fun of riding as a child - and maybe understand a little the draw of single speeds. Not that I'm going *there* anytime soon - but I get how they might re-connect with the childhood joy of riding.

Once we accomplished the goal of 10 miles, we headed back to the car. With the kiddo telling me his next goal is 15 miles, and then 20. Meanwhile, I was reminded of what a great city I am privileged to live in! Not to mention I am blessed with one great kiddo!