Monthly Archives: March 2014

What the Garden is Saying Right Now

Um, nothing.

I am teaching a class on Perennial Culture 101 this week and one of the things I will cover is a favorite sub-hobby of my gardening; phenology. Phenology is defined by wikipedia as

” the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate as well as habitat factors”

Essentially, for the lay person , it refers to the fact that all species of plant and animal life ( except most humans) use cues from the weather to know when to migrate, emerge, flower, hibernate, mate and depart to a Mexican resort for the winter. The cues are taken from available sunlight ( day length) temperature and precipitation.

Many of you have heard phenological proverbs and sayings like” sow corn when the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear” or “prune roses when the forsythia are in bloom”… these sayings  take advantage of what are called indicator plants , meaning that those particular plants have read the weather and are now in a specific life event ( bloom or leaf emergence) that gives us a clue as to how far advanced our growing season is, or as we are all well aware of around here, isn’t. “Sow peas when the daffodils begin to bloom ” is why my snap  peas still look like this002

The extension service of The University of Massachusetts  tracks phenoligical data from several reporting sites throughout the state and you can sign up to receive the newsletter they distribute with the complied data. It includes Growing Degreee Days  which is complex but worth having a basic understanding of if you garden seriously, indicator plants ( what is blooming now) , insect and pest emergence, soil temperatures,  and general temperature and precipitation information.

I just received this morning notice that the latest message had been posted so I went to check it out , talk about depressing. All 8 reporting scouts give soil temps at freezing, Growing Degree Days ( GDD) at zero, and indicator plants are all but non-existent. Bummer. Spring is taking a long time to arrive this year, a fact that I know all too well because I have yet to see a green tip of anything poking out of the soil, matter of fact  many places in my yard I can see no soil, just frozen crusty snow.

If the weathermen are right, we should be seeing a minor warm-up accompanied by rain ..the kind that feels raw and chills you to the bone…but not freezing. Maybe, just maybe ,next week I will be taking photos of garden activity, but for now all I have accomplished is cutting back my ornamental grasses and type 3 clematis and pruning the fruit trees.

PS if you would like participate in some citizen science  go to Project Bud Burst to either help log data about specific plants  in your area, or just read about what is going on in other parts of the US.


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Red- Winged Blackbirds

Just when I was complaining about the length of this winter, the  first harbinger of Spring shows up right at my door!

Every Spring, very early on, we get a visit to The Burrow  from Red-winged Blackbirds.  Red-Wings are usually found perched on cattails in marshes, wetlands  or the wet  areas along roadsides where  purple loosestrife runs amok. They are migratory and are just on their way back to their northern home to breed , and I am always happy to have them stop over for a bite to eat on the way.

The flocks that arrive here in March are comprised of all males of various ages, the females follow later after the males have staked out their breeding ground.  The adult males are easily recognized by the bright red “epaulets” that appear on their shoulders when in flight , at rest all you can see usually is a yellow wing bar.755px-Agelaius_phoeniceus_0110_taxo006

The 1 year old males( like this guy above) have wing feathers edged in a buff color and yellow epaulets. After this flock  finds it’s breeding ground I will only see solitary birds at the feeders occasionally.

What I, and others ,have noticed, is that when in the flock they are very easy to spook ( and thus very difficult to photograph), even noises in the house will scare them back into the white pines out back to sing and call until all is quiet here again and they will again approach the feeders. When the solitary birds arrive later on in the spring they are very comfortable with human noise and will remain close to the house even if I am acting like the paparazzi.

I have planted this garden to attract many species of birds and butterflies, but frequently wonder what it is that makes them stop by for the first time and  how they know to come back? I have a large hedge of willow, which is  a wetland shrub, and the Red-Wings will often build their nest in willows when they rest their destination and settle down( it defies explanation why I planted it and the other willows here and why they do so well in my dry sand).  I am guessing that it looks familiar to them and although they do not nest here it is cool to have them if only for a short time.

Follow this link to hear a video of the racket  they were making while they were waiting for me to disappear.


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Random Thoughts on a Cold Monday

Here are a few  of  the sea of  things that are swarming around in my head today (which is single digit cold BTW)

-As I looked through my garden journals last night reading March entries like :

Blooming; snowdrops, crocus, winter hazel

Buds showing on hyacinth and daffs

Yard clean-up started

magnolia buds HUGE

Squill blooming and roses leafing out

Planted new crab apple “Mrs. Robinson” and three new peonies

I realized that yes, it is damn cold, and this winter is starting to drag on. I love winter, I love the change of the seasons here in New England, and I love snow too. But c’mon, it’s late March and there are inches of the stuff covering the snowdrops and the squill and a week ahead that is predicted to be staying below 10 and then maybe  low 20′s  at night later in the week and daytime temps not so warm either. We could even get some snow or icy rain. The snow pack is so frozen I can still walk on it .Enough. Be done already Old Man Winter. You may exit like a lamb now.

I spent the weekend answering questions at the Hort info booth at the Boston Flower Show and if the questions I fielded are any indication of the season ahead, get thee to the hardware store and stock up on vole traps and bait and rabbit repellent. Every other question I had got answered “Well now, that sounds like vole damage, so here is what to do….”

-The second  most asked question was what to do with the orchids  bought at ( insert big box store  name here) to make them bloom again. Sigh.

-Other than the Amateur Horticulture area where people enter their beloved plants, photographs they took ,and floral arrangements they made for judging, the show was uninspiring. Hence the lack of photos. I took none. Zero. Zip.

-I have to do a presentation this evening ( Monday) in Milford , MA. Last Monday I spoke in Milford, New Hampshire. I think that is a weird coincidence.

-I hate hate hate getting my picture taken, but I finally broke down and had some professional shots done and I  am ever so happy I did. I am speaking at the Suburban Boston Home Show in Lowell in April and would not have been happy with the picture I was using before plastered all  over their promotional material. You can see it here, if you are on a smart phone you will need to click the link  that says” Featured at the Show” then “Local Specialists” to view it.

-The third most asked  question, which is usually #1, is” Why won’t my hydrangea bloom?” I could recite the answer in my sleep ,that is how many times I have explained it and I wish that just once the nursery industry would work WITH gardeners instead of AGAINST us and only stock plants that  are reliable bloomers in the area in which they are sold Harumph.

-I started seeds over 2 weeks ago of eight different plants, sweet peas, chinese love vine, 2 kinds of sangusorbia, daylily, petunia exseta, allium cernium and huechera. Only the petunias have sprouted. This does not bode well for the season ahead.

On a happy note, the pussy willows are opening outside005


-and Happy Saint Patrick’s day!005 (8)






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Winchester Garden Club Info

For those of you who were in attendance at the WGC meeting this afternoon here are the links I promised

Perennial Culture Handout     (in case you did not receive one or need an extra)


Home Horticulture Series Info

Clcik away! and thanks for being such a super audience!

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It’s coming…

Picture1This weekend on Saturday night at  precisely 2:00 am begins our Daylight Saving Time, initially proposed as  a way to save electricity used by incandescent lighting (it did not) , it’s new purpose is to provide us more daylight in the evening after we presumably get out of work and are looking to frolic outdoors.  Although it means an hour of lost sleep to us in Spring (I don’t know about you but every few years I miss something because I forgot about the time change) , it is a lift to the spirit to have it light out at 6:00 pm and does help me get over  my tendency to hibernate in the cold dark months of winter. Love it or hate it, it is also the signal to get going  on plans for the garden, and that is exactly what I have been up to.

I am planning a complete overhaul of the side yard including the addition of three white pyramid tutuers I ordered from White Flower Farm,tutr planted with several new clematis hybrids and climbing roses. Pouring over rose catalogues and the clematis offerings of my favorite online nursery sources was one of the joys of winter and I have settled on two clematis ‘I am lady J’ ( in honor of my gram who was Jane)SONY DSCand ‘Wildfire’5CLEWILD and two roses, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and climbing’Iceberg’.  there will also be a hydrangea tree h.paniculata  ’Quickfire’  I am transplanting  from elsewhere in the garden, some little bluestem grasses  along with  the 5 different spirea cultivars that are currently in the area that will be rearranged . The planning has been a wonderful respite from the gloom of February, but now I am sort of dreading the execution which will involve bringing in new soil , lots of digging  and I am sure a few frustrating moments when the garden fails to meet the glorified pink purple and white plan in my head.

I have also been ordering  a number of plants I saw on garden tours over the summer that I fell in love with including hydrangea serrataPreziosa’  and a knautia called’ Thunder and Lightening’ . I will stop the list there lest Wil actually reads the post through , does the math , and cancels the credit card I use for online ordering. Shhh. I am trusting you not to tell.010

As always I am following my own advice and have stocked up on seeds of interesting annual vines for late season display ( morning glories, moonflower, cup and saucer vine, sweet peas, cypress vines, asarina species, nasturtiums and thunbergia alata …. I adore this one and I have many packets of seeds I saved from last year’s hyacinth bean vines, bottle gourds, pretzel beans etc. You should get on this same task  if you haven’t already. Make sure you add sweet pea lathyrus odoratus’Cupani’ to your orders/plans , it is a strong bloomer, divine  in color and scent, and heat tolerant. Happy Shopping!!!
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