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.
When we need to “Water” ourselves we take a drink towards the top of our stem, our mouth.
This water, sooner or later is then is eliminated, as if by gravity below the point of entry.
Plants, on the other hand, take a drink at the very bottom of their structure, their roots, and then, defying gravity, eliminate the excess at the very top of their structure, their leaves.
How is this journey accomplished?
Pathway of Water Through a Plant
Water enters the plant through the root hairs.
It is then conducted upward in the stem via the xylem.
Water exits the plant through the stomata located on the leaves.
Osmosis is the process used for the water to enter the root hairs.
Cohesion-tension theory is believed to be the method that water is conducted upward via the xylem. Think of adjacent drops of water, which when their exterior barriers are broken, move & merge into one larger drop.
Transpiration is the process of water evaporating from the leaf.
Roots have microscopic root hairs to take up more water
At the root of it all…are the roots.
Roots are designed in different ways to anchor plants.
Their main purpose, however, is to gather from the soil the water & nutrients needed to sustain & grow the plant.
To do this the root is designed in a point called the apical meristem.
This apical meristem pushes through the soil in search of nourishment.
In order to increase the surface for absorption the root has microscopic root hairs that increase the surface several hundred times. By osmosis, these root hairs bring water into the root.
Osmosis is the process that allows water to pass through cell epidermal walls. Water molecules attempt to balance the amount of water pressure on either side of the wall. Once the water enters the root hairs the equalizing mechanism is shut down & the water can’t escape. It then moves from the root hairs to the roots via a process called turgor.
Water moves through the plant from roots to leaves through the xylem. Osmosis moves the water from the ground to the root systems & cell turgor moves the water through the xylem.
Cell turgor is what keeps the firmness in plants. With low turgor you get wilting. You want to keep all cells filled with water or the cells begin to die.
This is why you cut flowers under water to use in your flower arrangement.
To protect the cells from exploding with too much water as it moves from the roots to the xylem, the cell walls protect themselves by pushing the water out into the hollow tubular cells in the root’s center using a gentle pumping action called root pressure. This brings the water into the xylem, which now conducts the water upwards from the roots to the leaves.
Rhododendron leaves in winter will curl up to reduce the number of stomates on exposed surfaces to reduce the transpiration rate of water. In my garden the rhodi leaves curl when the temperature moves into the 20’s
Transpiration occurs in the leaves by way of the stomates usually located on the underside of the leaves. Water is vaporized through the stomates & is replaced by liquid water that has been delivered by the continuous flow upwards through the xylem system of roots, stems and leaves.
This transpirational pull is felt throughout the entire length of the plant.
In most plants about 98% of the water is lost through the transpired water vapor from under the leaves. A 48-ft tall Silver Maple is thought to transpire up to 58 gallons of water an hour.
You can perceive this on a hot summer day when sitting under a large shade tree & enjoying the cooling effects of the transpired water.
Plants protect themselves from too much loss of moisture by closing the stomates in the underside of the leaves. Generally, stomates are open during the day & close in the night-time. In the winter when the ground freezes you can see the curled leaves of large leaved rhododendrons as they reduce the available surface of exposed stomates.
In preparation for winter and in times of drought, leaves will fall from the trees in a process called abscission further reducing the stomatic surfaces used for transpiration.
In winter, the deciduous trees have lost their leaves and water movement halts. If the water freezes in the cells, it ruptures the cell membranes. You can see this quickly in Colocasia AKA Elephant Ears after the first cold snap.
One way that winter-hardy plants survive is by a process of cold hardening, which uses sugars that function somewhat like antifreeze.
The pathways for water distribution are also modeled for nutrient distribution in the plants but that is worth another entire post.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.