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.
My muse is my garden. Other gardens as well, but my garden in particular. I move in it, feel it, and hear the breezes whisper through it. I watch the lighting during the day as it slides over and around the textured surfaces.
This azalea and tree peony combination bloom in my garden together every year. Their colors match perfectly and are so inspiring to me!
Lighting is so different on days with sun and with clouds. Lighting in the spring with the bright yellow-greens of optimistic new growth and lighting by the fall with ambers & tans of a lived life. Morning light offers tender ambiance while afternoon colors not only light the scene from a different direction, the colors are deeper and warmer.
My garden brings consciousness and meaning to me. It keeps me grounded. The ephemeral beauty of an unfertilized blossom studied up close with magnifiers and macro lenses is a representation of a miracle. The world of possibility. The beginning of a story I represent in my Art. I walk through my garden gathering ideas. Stories I want to tell. Suggested ideas I want to convey.
In my garden I spend time designing the landscape or I spend time closely and intimately with a singular specimen at a particular stage of growth. In my studio I may paint a vignette or a full landscape view of a part of the garden I’ve designed, or I may choose to paint a small portion of one flower that has moved me. The minute miracle. This is my work. Outdoors and indoors. These are the stories I tell. This is my Art. You can see more of my work in my online Art Shop.
There are some plants in my garden that just demand to be viewed together. In my front garden bed is a Fire Flame Tree Peony that for years has bloomed at the same time as a perfectly color matched azalea. Together they light up their niche in the world for a week or two each year if I’m lucky.
These Fire Flame Peonies blooming in my May garden along with the azalea inspired my original painting.
Keep the rain away from the peonies and the heat away from the azalea & I’ve got a perfect vignette. I love the way the focal points shift around my garden all year when either color takes prominence or form, as it does in winter.
I think of my garden as a theater production where spotlights guide your eyes around the action on stage.
If you want to extend the season of the colorful joy of these planting combinations you should consider buying one of my pieces of Art. Visit my Art Store to see your options. You won’t be disappointed!
Fire Flame Peony – Available in the Mary Ahern Art Store
Not to say that I don’t have any ivy, pachysandra or periwinkle in my garden but I try each year to add more interesting ground covers and reduce the spread of the ordinary.
Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ has proven to be a valuable asset to me since I can play with the sweet pale yellow color of the gentle flowers while they are in bloom in April here on Long Island. One of the chores that I need to do very early in the season, however, is to cut back last year’s growth which becomes ragtag during the winter. This allows the enjoyment of the delicate sprays of two-toned flowers. This is the only maintenance care I need to give this ground cover.
• Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ hiding in the dark
Since this plant has flourished in my garden, each year I am able to divide and share the wealth into other sections of the garden and in fits of generosity even give them to other gardening enthusiasts like myself. I always try to keep a bed of them close to the entrance though since they bloom so early that I want to enjoy each day with them.
Rhododendron PJM & Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’
In 2001 I transplanted a Rhododendron PJM that was growing under some hemlocks that were, at the time, providing too much shade. I planted it just off the entry deck and placed some epimedium in the general area. Together these bloom in April providing a nice combination of purple and yellow to brighten up my day.
Once the blooming season is over, the leaves open and create a wonderful and carefree weed suppresser. I have not experienced any insect damage which otherwise would make the planting unattractive.
I have designed a rather informal garden with meandering paths using a variety of materials. At the end of, or just around the corner of each path, is some type of focal point, which draws you forward, in eager exploration. My garden is about moving through and around rather than sitting in one location and observing the whole.
The irregular bluestone pavers serve as the path to bring you from the front entrance, around the deck, and under the aging mountain laurels. The azaleas to the left are rather dense so you don’t see the deck but instead have the sense that you’re walking through a woodland. The path is narrow and the laurels create a ceiling of sorts until you emerge into the openness of the front garden.
Oak Tree focal point as you emerge from the mountain laurel path
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the ceilings in his houses to give the same effect of enclosure and expansion as you walked from room to room. Variation of space enhances the experience of the individual as they explore the design.
This giant oak serves to keep the garden and deck cool all summer and feed the squirrels all winter with it’s abundance of acorns. In the fall you need to sit on the deck with an umbrella over your head since the acorns come down with such determination.
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.
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.
Deadheading the spent flowers on a rhododendron tends to focus the energy of the plant towards new flower production and general plant health. It also improves the sight of the plant when not in bloom.
To deadhead, use your fingers and gently rock the base of the spent flower truss back and forth until it separates from the plant. That’s it. Now you can either toss the spent bloom under the shrub for mulch or discard on the compost heap. Your fingers might get a bit sticky from the residue but that’s part of the fun of gardening.
I tend to deadhead my rhodi’s in the evening after I’ve worked all day in the garden and I’m strolling around to admire my work. I usually stop when it gets dark and that’s how I know it’s dinner time.
After the blooms are spent it is beneficial to deadhead your rhododendron
Notched leaves on your rhododendrons are caused by a variety of species of weevils. The adult forms of the weevil tend to feed at night during the springtime when you’re resting after a hard day in the garden. The damage will not kill your plant, just cause unsightly notching on the leaves. Of course, the leaves being evergreen will be around awhile to annoy you.
These notches on the Rhododendron leaf was caused by a weevil
• Hand pluck the critters.
One method of control is to go out to your garden in the evening with your flashlight and pluck the weevils from underneath the rhodi leaves and toss them into a bucket of water. This never appealed to me.
• Spray with systemic insecticide.
Another, more toxic method is to spray with a systemic insecticide, like Orthene. Make sure to follow the instructions on the label. Soak the leaves, both top and bottom as well as the soil underneath to get the best control.
• Accept imperfection.
The third method is to allow for a measure of acceptance of the notches and let nature take its course. Your neighbors will either respect your concern for the environment or talk about your lack of concern for aesthetics.
Generally speaking, cultural requirements are less “demanding” for lepidote (small-leaf) rhododendron and azaleas, both evergreen and deciduous. They tolerate, and to some extent require, more sun than elepidotes, and azaleas will also tolerate less well-drained soil. In all other respects, the general guidelines outlined above apply to all plants in this family.
Rhododendrons prefer a site that provides afternoon shade, some protection from wind, good drainage and air circulation. Sloping terrain is also a decided advantage.
Well-drained soil is a must. Use raised beds to plant on top of poorly drained soils. Ideally, soil should be acid (ph 4.5 – 6.0) and high in organic matter. Pine bark, coarse sphagnum peat moss, composted wood chips and other such materials can be worked into the soil to improve organic matter content and soil drainage. Incorporate a few handfuls of super phosphate (0-20-0) in the mix to stimulate root growth.
Container plant root balls must be sufficiently disturbed so that roots extend out from the ball. The planting hole should be wide but shallow. Loosen and amend soil only 8 – 10 ” deep so that the root ball sits on solid ground to prevent sinking. Plant only as deep as the top of the root ball with no soil on top of the ball. Do not pack soil tightly around the plant, as tender roots will be destroyed. Mulch 3″ deep and water thoroughly.
Rhododendron Planting Diagram
Mulch with 3″ of pine bark, pine needles, oak leaves, composted wood chips or other loose airy material. Do not use maple leaves, grass clippings or other materials that pack down.
Loading mulch for placing under shrubs
If plants hold good green color and grow well, no fertilizer is needed. Rhododendrons are not heavy “feeders”. A soil test can determine what elements are deficient if plants do not perform well. When necessary, apply a fertilizer formulated for acid loving plants in late winter or early spring. Don’t fertilize after June 1st.
Proper watering is an important after care practice, especially for the first several years as plants become established. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Water deeply, (apply 1″) in the absence of equivalent rainfall. Don’t water again until the soil starts to dry out. Afternoon wilting of new growth is normal. If leaves become turgid a few hours after sundown, no additional water is needed. Water requirements diminish in late summer and early fall as new growth hardens up for winter. Plants should, however, be watered going into winter following a dry fall.
This is part of an outline of a ten minute talk I gave to the Centerport Garden Club on November 9, 2010
HOW ARE RHODODENDRONS CLASSIFIED?
Rhododendrons are classified into two major groups, lepidote and elepidote?
Elepidotes are large leaved rhododendrons. They are the type of shrub that most individuals would associate as being a rhododendron. They do not have scales located on the underside of the leaves. Plants tend to be very large in their maturity.
Elipidote Rhododendrons have big leaves
Lepidote rhododendrons have smaller leaves and are usually low growing or dwarfs. They usually bloom earlier in the spring than the larger leaved elepidotes.
Lepidote Rhododendrons have small leaves
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS?
Rhododendrons have 10 stamens, 2 per lobe
All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.
True rhododendrons have 10 or more stamens which is 2 per lobe. Azaleas usually have 5 stamens or 1 per lobe. Azaleas have 5 lobes in a flower
Azaleas tend to have appressed hairs which are hair parallel to the surface of the leaf. This is particularly true along the midrib on the underside of the leaf. It is easily seen in “evergreen” azaleas.
True rhododendrons instead of hair are often scaly or have small dots on the under side of the leaf.
Azalea leaves are never dotted with scales and are frequently pubescent.
Many azaleas are deciduous.
True rhodi’s are usually evergreen with the exceptions of R. mucronulatum and R. dauricum.
Azaleas have tubular funnel or funnel shaped flowers. Rhodi flowers tend to be bell-shaped.
This is an outline of a ten minute talk I gave to the Centerport Garden Club on November 9, 2010
Rhododendrons and azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron of the heath family (Ericaceae).
The heath family includes the heaths and heathers, blueberries, mountain laurels and several other ornamental plant groups. Most members of this family require acid soil and good drainage.
This is a selection of the Rhododendrons submitted to the judging of the Spring Flower Show at the NY Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society at Planting Fields Arboretum
Where are Rhododendron’s from?
Some are native to the US.
The British became the first explorers to seek out new additions.
Collecting has brought plants, seeds & cuttings from Japan, China & the Himalayas.
New species are still being collected in central China.
In the 1800’s they were so expensive & were considered a rich person’s plant. They appeared on estates and in arboretums.
Most of the Rhodi’s we know today are hybrids created from the parents of the plants collected by these plant explorers.
Azaleas blooming in May in my garden in Northport NY
Large leaf evergreen Rhodi’s: Great for screening and as a backdrop behind the flower garden, Catawbiense, English Roseum, Scintillation, Maximum
Small leaf evergreen Rhodi’s: some sport beautiful mahogany leaves during the winter months, Aglo, Dora Amateus, Mary Fleming, the PJM’s
Yakushimanum hybrids: usually 3’wx3’h with woolly indumentum on dark green leaves. Have wonderful winter interest, Crete, Fantastica, Ken Janek, Percy Wiseman, Prince & Princess
Species Rhododendrons, can present well in a mixed flower, shrub border. There is a species rhododendron garden in DC.
Azaleas-Evergreen: Michael Dirr begins his Azalea Cultivar & Hybrid Group section with:
“In some respects, it is paralyzingly frightening to attempt to present the cultivars of azaleas.”
There are so many but you can begin to study them realizing that some are named for their hybridizers: i.e. Girard Hybrids, Glen Dale Hybrids, Polly Hill’s North Tisbury Hybrids. Others by their location: i.e. Linwood Hybrids, Karume Hybrids of Japan.
Today the sun is shining on the beauty of my garden after the blizzard of February 10th, 2010.
I haven’t been out yet since I’m leaving all the shoveling to my hubby Dave. But I ventured to take the screens out of some upstairs windows and shot some photos and video of the heavily snow-laden branches.
It seems from my perspective so far that the only major damage is the loss, yet again, of the top of the American Holly, (Ilex opaca). I don’t remember what year it was but it happened once before over 15 years ago. The central apex broke at the time from another snowstorm but grew back with a double lead. I don’t know yet whether I’ve lost just one or both.
I made a short, one-minute video of the garden as it looks this morning before the wind picks up and blows all the heavy snow from the branches. It will be fun to watch the garden perk up during the day as the snow begins to rearrange itself.
“Kansas Peonies” Art inspired from my Mother’s Day present.
Four O’Clocks were my first introduction to growing plants from seed. Uncle Teddy took me by the hand at his home in Schenectady and introduced me, the kid from Brooklyn, to gardening. I can still smell the soil as we dropped the seeds of Four O’Clocks into the ground he taught me to prepare. Four O’Clocks weren’t the only things growing in his garden, so was I.
The Kansas Peonies I grow in my garden was a Mother’s Day present from my son Chris. I have so many gifts he’s given to me over our many years together but I still cherish the bright pink of these robust plants each year as they bloom for me right in season. They return each Mother’s Day, expanding and adding to their beauty, as does he.
Japanese Maple a birthday gift.
One year for my September birthday, my son, Michael came swooping in proudly bestowing upon me a stripling of a Japanese Maple. Still dangling was the $9.99 tag placed on it from Home Depot. Now, this mature specimen holds court as a central focal point in my front garden.
A bouquet of Zinnias comes into my hands each year when my husband Dave buys them from the gardener with a stand up the street from us. The grin on his boyish face as he hands them to me with love is matched only by the riotous colors of the single and double flowers grouped tightly in his hands.
On Mother’s Day this year my grandson C.J. bounced up to greet me with a pot full of poppies. He shares my garden with me and helps to bring my attention to all the wonderful colors and shapes he finds there for fear I might miss them. These poppies are pink he told me and reminded me that we need to photograph everything so we’ll remember how they looked.
Rhododendrons have such a great place in plant hunter’s history. Tales are still being told and re-enacted as new and old seekers traverse the back roads and non-roads of the Himalayas in search of the newest and rarest of Rhodies. Courage, stamina, and leeches always play a big role in these adventures.
Having quite a different perspective of plant hunting, I traverse the hills and dales of Long Island in search of the ever elusive cultivar not yet in my plant collection. Rather than being the intrepid adventurer of far off lands gathering seed, I drive to nurseries and make some of my decisions on whether I can lift the plant into my car. Rhodies can be backbreaking.
Which brings me to the problem of this Rhododendron catawbiense which is an original inhabitant when I bought the property in 1989. The foundation plantings were all huge view-concealing Rhodies. Over time I’ve managed to dig up and move all of them except this last remaining specimen. Some of the huge plants I moved by myself and in some cases, I hired a person with a bobcat. Some survived the transplanting and some didn’t. In retrospect, I think the fatalities had to do with watering and drought issues since the rootballs of Rhodies are pretty shallow and self-contained.
View from the dining room window of the Rhodi in bloom
The way to view Rhododendrons is not to the exclusion of a view of the rest of your garden when sitting at your dining room table. This view is only beautiful for 2 weeks a year when the rhodi is in bloom. The only other benefit to having this view is that in the winter you can use the leaf curl as a thermometer to determine if the temperature is below freezing. Not worth it I say. So, as I’ve said every year for the last decade or so, I’m going to move that Rhodie to the woods this year.