June 6th is one of the many days I think of my Uncle Teddy, the man who introduced me to gardening at the tender age of 6. Because of him, I began my long journey into gardening. I’ve written about him in previous posts.
This year on June 6th, I opened my garden to benefit the Huntington Historical Society. It was so fitting that it fell on Uncle Teddy’s birthday since, in the garden, he and I are entwined together. For five hours straight I taught, explained, identified plants, offered historical references, shared my knowledge, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Between 200-250 people came to enjoy my creation.
June 6, 2021, Huntington Historical Society Garden Tour – Welcoming the Docents
Every year I’m faced with decisions about where to spend my energy. Each year that decision shifts as my available time, available focus, and available interest fluctuates. Those issues don’t present themselves in linear time. There is no steady march towards some undetermined goal. No inevitable trudge towards downsizing.
Now I’m facing another decision point, one that I face each fall. I ask myself if it’s worth it to continue my seasonal shifts of bringing the garden indoors and outdoors again next spring. Do I let nature make the decision and just buy all new plants when the season begins again? And if I do decide to harvest, what will I bring in, where will I put it, is it worth the effort this particular plant will present me with, and what is the value of each choice given my limited space?
These are some of the deck plants. There are also 8 window boxes on the railings, 3 large box planters & other assorted containers around the corner from these. What was I thinking!
In my garden I have hundreds of shrubs and trees. I’ve designed woodland walks that encourage immersion in the garden as you journey along the different paths. Each time I walk the garden I meander a different trail to observe the small and big changes that occurred since my last visit. Sometimes it’s a new tiny shoot emerging from the soil just seeing daylight. Sometimes there is a plant weakening and a slipping into senescence. But each time the garden tells me its stories.
Twenty years ago when I was designing this garden I hired a company to help carve the terrain. Soil was to be dumped behind the row of trees along the edge of the property to make a berm, thus creating a buffer to the street and more privacy in the woods. The driver of the bobcat had the sensibility of a construction worker rather than a gardener. There was a carelessness to his treatment of the trees. He didn’t respect their majesty. At one point he drove his bobcat forcefully into the trunk of one of these, he didn’t blink, he didn’t stop, he just backed up and kept going, Concerned only with his job at hand.
This hemlock trunk has been healing for over 20 years now.
I walked to the tree truck and gently covered the gouged bark with the palm of my hand. I spoke to it as I often do while amongst the plants. Over the roar of the machine, I softly apologized and told the tree I was so sorry. I felt its hurt personally. It felt natural to me to nurture that injury as I’d cared for the scrapes and cuts on the bodies of my young sons.
I was delighted to open my local paper, The Observer, and right there on Page 3 upper right was a big and generous article about my Virtual Garden Tour Video. David Ambro the Publisher, outdid himself by putting into words the far-flung conversation we had of how people are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. As an artist and a gardener, it was a natural for me to share my garden online since the many garden tours I’ve hosted over the years were not going to happen anytime soon. My garden provides the inspiration for my art but it also gives me emotional solace. This is what I love to share with my visitors.
I thank David so much for sharing my thoughts and my garden with a wider audience.
I love to share my garden! This is a creation that I’ve been working on for over 30 years and what fun is it keeping it all to myself? That feels so selfish to me.
So the best thing I can do, since it’s hard for so many of you to travel here, is to take you on a garden tour around my 1/2 acre woodland walks in Northport NY. We’re Zone 7 here and this Garden Tour video is in the early spring on March 21, 2020 around 6pm in the evening.
I haven’t yet finished my fall cleanup at this point and of course, as gardeners well know, the garden is never perfect. At this time of year, in my neck of the woods, something new opens every single day. It’s a very exciting time for me each day as I walk around to see what’s new. Spring is about renewal. About optimism. About color. About surprises.
This is the first in a series of Garden Tour videos I’ll be doing so please remember to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to be alerted when I publish new videos.
My garden is the source material for almost all of my paintings. It is where I get my inspiration. It’s where I present yet another aspect of my creativity but this one is in 3D and seasonally adjusted over time and temperature.
How do we grow gardeners? We start them young. We intrigue them with our questions about what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing. We let their imaginations run rampant. We celebrate their dirty hands and knees and when they grow up they already love their favorite garden spots.
My grandson CJ taking a break from chasing dinosaurs in our woodland garden on April 26, 2006.
We pass on what our elders taught us that captured our fascination with the world around us. How did we come to appreciate the complexity of leaf edges and the critters crawling under our stumps and stones? We talked with them, we enjoyed the experience of learning and sharing. We made the garden the center of their invented stories, their imagined dinosaurs, the strolling around the paths that led to nowhere but really everywhere.
My Uncle Teddy passed down to me the mysterious and exciting world of nature and the gift he gave me keeps giving. As my grandson CJ completes his Eagle Scout project of creating a woodland path through a nature preserve dedicated to native plant species with the eradication invasive species, we see how we generationally share our knowledge and continue to contemplate our universe.
My grandson CJ Ahern sitting at one of his favorite spots in our woodland garden on April 29, 2018 just before he started his Eagle project to restore a neglected woodland area at an animal sanctuary in Seaford NY.
That first sunny warm day in February seduces me into my garden to begin my spring gardening tasks before the last snowstorms of winter reappear for a brief visit. It is a happy day for me each year when I reach for my Felco’s, put on my gardening gloves, pick up my rake and head out to reunite with my garden.
Hellebores remain evergreen and provide winter interest in my winter garden.
I always start by trimming the hellebores since the longer I wait the more complicated the job becomes. Those stalwart evergreen leaves that have decorated my garden all winter are by this time raggy, spotted and brownish. Hiding beneath them are the brand new buds of the Hellebore flowers just waiting to burst through heralding spring. I love uncovering their light deprived lime green growth and freeing them to bask in the sunshine. Continue reading →
I am an Artist so color, texture, scale, focal points and other factors drive much of my garden design. My son gave this Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’ to me many years ago. Not knowing the eventual size of the tree I placed it right by the deck where I would be able to enjoy the delicate filigreed leaves all summer.
For a few short weeks in May this wonderful, almost stage setting display of cool pink azaleas blooms as a backdrop to set off the wine colored purple leaves of the maple. The azaleas were already on the property in this location when I bought the property in 1989 though they have certainly grown and expanded.
Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ or commonly known as Creeping Jenny with dandelion
As a ground cover underneath the mounding maple, I planted Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, commonly known as Creeping Jenny. The bright, almost chartreuse yellow offsets and lightens the ground underneath the purple leaves of the maple lightening an otherwise potentially dark corner. Happily, both the maple and the nummularia retain their vibrant colors the entire summer.
I would like to take credit for the whimsical placement of the dandelions in front of the maple but alas, that was the creative idea of Mother Nature.
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy felled 4 large Oak trees in my woodland garden. We were lucky that was the only damage we suffered in that severe storm other than loss of electricity. Instantly my garden went from full shade to sunshine a dappled shade. What a transformation for it and for me.
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
After a period of mourning, I started rethinking, planning and studying what to do with this newfound daylight.
One of the mighty Oak trees was left with an interesting sculptural remnant which I originally planned to keep in remembrance of what had been. As usual, I changed my mind as I started designing and replanting. Like most gardeners, I change my mind all the time as I work in my garden.
I decided to plant a Heritage River Birch, Betula nigra “Heritage” in memory of my Uncle Teddy who introduced me to gardening. As a child visiting him in Schenectady from my treeless home in Brooklyn, he one day found me peeling the bark from one of his many white birch trees. When he asked me to stop as I was pulling the “skin” from the tree and hurting it, I looked around with tears in my eyes and realized that the entire garden was alive. I was transformed!
Theodorus Hendrik Gerrits, 1914 – 1991. Thank you!
This tree is for my uncle who shared with me his garden and his love. Thank you!
Recently I was asked about replanting trees after the destruction of Storm Sandy. I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue since my garden lost 4 large oaks which were living here before I moved into the shade they kindly provided me.
Following the storm, my arborist Ron Strauss of Tree Believers, (631-864-5514) sent his newsletter , “The Root of the Matter”, with recommendations of what to and what not to replant. Here is what he said:
We recommend that you do not re-plant using the following species of trees (all commonly planted in LI landscapes) that did not endure the storms well.
Emerald Green Arborvitae
Norway or Crimson King Maple
Now to the question of planting recommendations his list included:
Green Giant Arborvitae
For our smaller gardens, trees that I recommend and have or will be planting are:
Dogwood ‘Stellar Pink’ (this is one of the disease resistant Rutgers hybrids) 15-30’ ht & spread. Pink flowers in early summer.
Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana. Quite slow growing 30’ht, 20’ spread. Decorative bark. White flowers in early summer. Single or multi-trunk.
For the past 25 years I’ve cultivated my woodland gardens. For the first decade I cleared the tangled woods, studied the indigenous plants, planned paths and materials. I worked on creating a natural looking shade garden focusing on the large oak trees and Kalmia that inhabited this spot of land before I showed up.
A lot of thinking and sweat went into this garden. I selected what shrub trees, like the untold numbers of small cherries, that needed to be removed. Purged, or shall I say, paid someone to purge the thick growths of poison ivy. Fought and pulled, yanked and grunted bales and bales of ivy from the trees and ground in a continuing war for dominance.
When the bones were clear I began to plant. The lists of shade tolerant shrubs and perennials read like a who’s who of my garden. Mistakes were made. Shade is not shade. Lessons learned. Successes were savored. Learning that gardening in shade reduces the need for weeding, plus you perspire less. Perfect!
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
But Sandy decided she knew better and redesigned my garden. She blew in and knocked down three large oak trees and a beech thereby instantly transforming my beloved woodland shade garden into a sun-splashed mecca. Thousands of weeds instantly rejoiced by dancing in the new sunshine, prancing in the beds and mulched walkways. Ivy rebounded with a vengeance of superiority, eyeing triumph. Scores of broken and battered kalmia, enkianthus, leucothoe, rhodi’s, azaleas, viburnum, hammemelis, and andromeda wept.
And now?? Lessons begin again.
Looking for low-maintenance in the sunshine? Remembering our club trip to the Highline designed by Piet Oudorf, my Dutch hero, I’m creating new plant lists with sunshine in mind to cover the time for my new gingko to grow and spread. Shade my grandson will perhaps enjoy in case I miss it.
Amsonia, salvia, achillea, aster, coreopsis, Echinacea, eremurus, liriope, persicaria, rudbeckia, sedum, helianthus, and grasses, yes many textures and heights of grasses. I’m excited now that my period of mourning has passed. Excited by all the new possibilities in the sunshine.
Sandy came to visit and in a fury broke, smashed and tore away some of my garden friends. These huge and venerable trees were here before I moved into their space many decades ago. They’ve provided me with the backbones of my woodland garden. They helped me design the paths I carved out of the thickets. They offered the strong verticals of a towering garden design.
These old oaks shared their shade keeping me cool in the summer. This shade offered me the opportunity to explore the great variety of plants and shrubs that thrive in their speckled light. Shredded oak leaves of these generous trees have been the basis of the garden mulch that nourishes my woodland garden.
I am mourning the loss of what was.
But now I’ve planted bulbs where the oaks once stood.
I look forward in the spring to enjoying their sunshine.
So now, after an unusually warm & snow-free winter, the weather has already skimmed the high ’80’s during the month of May. As I sit on my deck exhausted from the heat, wondering how I’m ever going to be able to do all my planting after I’ve indulged at our plant sale & exchanged plant trophies with my gardening girlfriends.
The good news is that I’m a shade gardener. (That’s not to be confused with a shady gardener.) If I play my cards right I never have to bow down in the bright sun, slather myself in sunblock, or supply myself with a straw hat. The sun, which in my youth was my friend, now entices me only from sheltered nooks.
I garden in full shade, dappled shade, high shade, mostly shade & some minimal shade. Because shade is an elusive distinction, my garden is a type of laboratory. Often I’ll divide a plant in order to test the shade tolerances of specific species or cultivars. I document my garden with extensive photos & data as part of my enjoyment of the Art of gardening.
Shade gardens are about subtleties. Textures of leaves, the size & scale of those leaves, the shiny leaves versus those with indumentation, rough to the touch or smooth as suede. Color in the shade is not blinded out by the harsh sunshine. One can appreciate the varieties of green, the blue-greens, the lime-greens, the purple-greens & how about green-green. The color of an emerging stem or bud versus that in its maturity is quite an event to observe in the shade garden.
My shade garden is zen-like for me. It’s about savoring the space, the sounds of the birds singing for their supper, the smell of the soil on moist mornings, the wandering on my woodland walks.
Oh, and one final thing, because of the shade there is very little weeding to be done. Sweet!
Woodland walkways with Ginkgo bench in the distance.
One of the ways I plan for next year’s garden is to take a look around, make notes & gather ideas from other gardens. This is particularly helpful in planning the fall garden.
I look for what plants have continued to hold their own & still look beautiful into this time of year. I avoid looking for suggestions at the nurseries & gardening centers because those plants have been coddled, fed, trained, trimmed & produced specifically to entice you to buy them as your own garden fades.
Instead, I look at the gardens of my friends. Which plants are in bloom & in which colors? Which have stood the ravages of a long season of pests, fungus & weather to still look stunning? Which plants have resisted the need for staking & other high maintenance gardening chores?
Here are a few of the choices you’ll find in the fall garden:
Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'
Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’
This cultivar is a bit shorter than the Chelone oblique & the pink color a bit brighter. It needs no staking & reliably blooms for weeks on end. The dried heads look stunning in the winter sun as they’re popping up through the snow.
Angelica is a sturdy biennial, which reseeds conservatively in the mixed border.
This chest high specimen blooms on tall stalks with purple broccoli like flowers adorning them for weeks on end. Just be careful not to lose them by being to earnest in your springtime weeding or you’ll miss out on this fall wonder.
This 4’ tall and 4’ wide no maintenance fall blooming plant sports pearl like buds of yellow flowers in the shade garden. No staking, no pruning, no pests. Just sturdy, reliable performance.
Call your friends. Visit your neighbors. See what’s blooming in their gardens as you plan for next year’s fall extravaganza.
Plectranthus and other members of the Lamiaceae family, like Coleus, are easy to propagate. These tender perennials are not hardy in my Zone 6 garden so before frost I bring in a few of my favorite plants as stock plants. If the plants are small enough I overwinter them in a pot with soil and towards the end of winter I begin propagation. If the plants are too big outside in the fall I proceed to take cuttings and begin propagation at that time.
An apical cutting of Plectranthus ciliatus ‘Zulu Wonder’
Whether I begin this process in the fall or late winter, this is how I propagate my square stemmed plectranthus and coleus. I prefer to begin the process later rather than sooner since it makes the house less cluttered.
I use my fingers rather than scissors to pinch off the leaves because that gives me more control over how close I can get to the stem
I cut sections off the host plant making sure that I have at about 5-7 leaf nodes. Then I pinch off most of the remaining leaves right to the stem taking care not to tear stips. Since the leave nodes are opposite, I leave only 2-4 nodes depending on the spacing between them on the stem.
Once I cleanly remove the excess leaves I discard them
I take off so many leaves since I want the energy of the plant to got towards root production rather than transpiration. I cut the stem to a length of 4-6 inches, making sure that I cut the stem just below my final node.
I like keeping the glass on my windowsill in the kitchen so I can enjoy watching the roots grow
I leave the stems in a glass of water on my windowsill in the kitchen for a few weeks making sure to keep the water clean and the glass full. Once there are a sizable number of white roots and root hairs visible I plant each of the stems into a pot using fresh pro-mix potting soil. I place a bit of soil at the bottom of the pot, sprinkle in a bit of timed release fertilizer and then top it off with more soil to within about a half inch toward the top of the pot.
I try to keep the water clean and high enough on the nodes to develop more and healthier roots
I make sure as I’m sprinkling the soil around the roots that they are evenly spaced and not cramped. I continue to water them without letting them dry out in their pots.
Wherever there is a leaf node submerged in water the roots will develop
This propagation process always gives me a great feeling that spring is in the air even when there’s still snow on the ground.