Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Winding Down the Old Year

Our back yard last winter.

According to the Chinese Zodiac, this was the year of the horse. It started with a nasty kick when I got laid off in February, joining the millions of unemployed Americans.  Going on two months of unemployment, a small MEP firm in Manassas responded to my resume, and they hired me as an administrative assistant (at half my former salary). I worked on their new web site and soon was called upon to do the same CAD and electrical design work, much as I’ve been doing for years, but without an increase in pay. After another two months, I got a call back from an earlier job application for an interview, and after the interview was offered a job at JMT Engineering’s office in Herndon, VA, with a better salary, so I jumped at the chance.

Early December was my six-month anniversary at JMT, and I must say I like this employee-owned company, my new boss and co-workers much better than my old employer. So all’s well that ends well. But it was tough going for a while to get here. 

There were some bright spots in between: a fun weekend in North Carolina's Green Swamp and some memorable local field trips with Virginia Native Plant Society's Piedmont Chapter. I worked a lot on the garden and on my botanical art, mostly on my Botanical Certificate Project which is due for completion next February. A couple of my pieces were shown at Brookside's Botanica and currently at BASCNR's show "Preserving Our Heritage: Native and Heirloom Plants" at the Alexandria Athenaeum.

We even found time to finally hang my two large paintings in our foyer, thanks to a good neighbor's loan of a high ladder.

After struggling for over a year with an e-publisher’s non-working website, Herb decided to pull the plug and go for a print edition at Lulu. On-line, he befriended a fabulous graphic designer who has done a great job on a new cover and re-styled the content for the print edition. We just ordered the first batch of copies of Piece of Resistance for Christmas and the book will be available for sale at Lulu after the first of the year.

A few weeks ago our son David finally proposed to his girlfriend, and the young couple is currently busy with plans for the wedding next fall. So the year is ending on a high note after so many ups and downs.

I know we were not alone--the year was also difficult for many of our acquaintance who lost loved ones, coped with illness or other set major backs. I hope next year will be calmer and bring happiness and prosperity to all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas 2014

One more Christmas comes around! This year we got our outdoor decorations up early (for us), taking advantage of a warm spell. And, since some of our old strings of lights finally gave out, we had to change our arrangement to accommodate what we had on hand.

We hung the blue lights on the cherry tree in front this year, with another ancient string of faded blue mini-lights strung on the railing. The colored strings of LED's were left for the two evergreens flanking the sides; the Colonial Williamsburg style candles in the windows have remained a constant staple over the years.

Last Christmas we left our old wreath hanging on the front door throughout the month of January, which was so brutally cold. When I took it down I discovered that the two artificial birds that were part of its decorations had been attacked and pretty much destroyed--some hungry predator must have been fooled into believing they were real and went after them!

Be it palatial, ever so humble or in-between, may God bless your home and ours in this season of good will. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Putting the Garden to Bed

Saffron Flower.

In late October only one of my saffron bulbs flowered--I was not surprised, since so many of them were dug up and eaten by unidentified rodents last winter. I fed the remaining bulbs heavily and hope they'll do better next year, provided they are not decimated again. I wonder if burying moth balls near them would prevent further attacks?

The pineapple sage plant I bought last summer didn't bloom until the end of September, too late for their beautiful red flowers to attract the hummingbirds. During the summer humming birds enjoyed browsing the calibrachoas in the hanging baskets on the porch--I would see them in the early mornings and late evenings. I'll try the pineapple sage again next year, plant it earlier, and perhaps in a different spot.

I'd ordered lots of new plants and bushes to continue landscaping the back yard: Stella d'Oro daylilies for the border with the Ten Little Indians (I added one more arbor vitae to make it eleven), some butterfly bushes and purple asters. It took a couple of weekends to remove the scrubby sod and work the soil for the thirty to forty foot length, but thanks to the lovely weather it was a pleasant, if vigorous workout.

Eleven Little Indians

I planted a Black-haw viburnum and a Ninebark tree along the rear property line. Along with the dogwood and redbud tree that I planted the year before, these small trees will make a nice transition toward the backdrop of tall trees in the ravine. But what to do in-between these?

On my way home early one Friday evening I came across a sale of ornamental grasses, and stopped to look. I ended up buying three plants for the back slope that Herb hates to mow.  I didn't want to plant Miscanthus sinensis, as my neighbors have this invasive grass and it's already spreading into the fallow fields across the road. I settled for less invasive species: pink Muhly grass, Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and one weird-looking plant of corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus 'Spiralis') that went in the moist bed with the hydrangeas. Needless to say, these few plants nearly disappeared among the empty expanse, and more plants were called for.

Juncus effusus 'Spiralis'

Ornamental grasses with ninebark tree on the right
I found an on-line sale at High Country Gardens, a nursery I remembered from my trips to Santa Fe years ago, and decided to try a few varieties of grasses new to me, some native western: Silky thread grass (Nassela tenuissima), Boulder blue fescue (Festuca glauca 'Boulder Blue'), and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), as well as more pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia 'Pink Flamingo'). This area is rather dry, so hopefully they'll prosper there. In the spring I can add some lavender and other drought-tolerant plants, maybe even a yucca, to create a desert-inspired border.

After last week's plunge in temperatures, yesterday I finished digging in the last spring bulbs and the few grasses I had not planted yet. Now the last chore left is to trim back the dead tops of the perennials, then it'll be time to put the garden to sleep for the winter.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Papaya Blossoms

Papaya blossom

Weather predictions for last Sunday's temperatures were for the mid-thirties, so I began my houseplant migration indoors the previous afternoon, amid chilly breezes. I brought my new hybrid papaya tree upstairs and set it by a sunny window before I noticed that the little tree had a couple of flower buds! I hadn't expected this until next summer, when the tree would be a bit taller and more mature. These flowers may not set fruit, but it will be fun to try hand-pollination in any case.

This is a variety of dwarf papaya that is a self-pollinating hermaphrodite, hybridized for indoor cultivation. In their natural state papayas (Carica papaya) are dioecious, meaning that trees are either male of female, or hermaphroditic with perfect flowers (both male and female organs in one flower). Most commercially grown plants are hermaphrodites. It will be interesting to see if any fruit develops over the winter.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Orchid Seed Pod Opens!

Orchid seed pod maturing.

Orchid seeds are notoriously slow-growing. With so many other lovely spring and summer flowers and gardening chores, photographing the developing seed pod had fallen off my radar since last March. By August when I took this photo, the pod was noticeably longer and fuller. Surprisingly, bits of the tepals (petals and sepals together) and column structure are still hanging on. Herb asked me how much longer it would be before it opened, and I had no idea, it could be a month or several, or even a year?

About two weeks ago the seed pod began to turn yellow and shrivel. A few days later I noticed a crack along the side, and some hairy stuff inside became visible.

I presume the tiny seeds are somewhere in there. A week later the pod has continued to open more by twisting itself so that the opening in now facing downwards--to facilitate the seeds dropping?

And here's what the inside looks like. I don't know what function the hairy fluff serves--does it protect the seeds, does it help propel them like parachutes? I don't have the ability to grow orchid seedlings, as they need a very particular sterile environment and mycorrhizal fungi from the plant's roots, but observing the whole process from fertilization to seed has been a fascinating study.

Looking inside the seed pod.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Asters and Mums

Asters and chrysanthemums.

The morning was noticeably chillier, a presage of the coming equinox next week. The days have been getting shorter--dusk around seven-thirty, pitch dark by eight PM, and that means less gardening time in the evenings. And with so much planting to do! The three new roses I had ordered back in August arrived yesterday, the other shrubs and trees are bound to ship in the next week or two. I have a lot of work to do to prepare the new sites.

Marigolds and chrysanthemums.

This year the magenta aster that was so spectacular last year has not bloomed well. The buds formed way too early, probably because of the cool weather, and I pinched them back, but the new buds formed thinly and dried out quickly in the heat. The mums also budded out early and were pinched back with better results. Part of what I love about gardening are the unplanned color combinations that sometimes just happen, like this orange-red marigold with the dusky pink mum, or the lovely pink and lavender asters above with the yellow mums. It inspires the artist to be bolder experimenting with color.

The star of my garden this year has been the red coleus I took as a cutting from the landscaping at my old office two years ago. I planted the rooted cutting in a sunny bed and took cuttings from that to keep it alive through the winter. This spring I took cuttings again and set them out under the shade of the cherry tree where they make a stunning display.

The hardy begonias introduced from my old garden seem to have finally colonized under the tree, they came back stronger this spring than the previous year. With luck, they will continue to spread and form a large clump.

Hardy Begonia (Begonia grandis subspecies evansiana).

Monday, September 1, 2014

On the Last Day of August

Wildflower at Hog's Wallow overlook.

On the last day of August Herb and I took David and his girl for a drive along Skyline Drive to celebrate the holiday weekend. Native wildflowers abound on Skyline, but we had not visited the park this late in summer before, and it was fun to see so many colorful wildflowers everywhere-- in banks along the road, and masses in the open spaces. We stopped at some of the many scenic overlooks to catalog the flowers as we watched a summer storm building up across the valley.

Reaching Hog's Wallow overlook (around 3,000 ft. elevation) we could see an expanse of wild sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) growing side by side with Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta.), with boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and white and lavender asters at the shadier edges of the forest.

Red clover and wild phlox with Goldenrod in back.

At other overlooks we found wild phlox, red clover, queen anne's lace, knapweed (Centaurea), milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca) and tall goldenrod about to bloom. A stray monarch butterfly visited the milkweed and David managed to get a photo, but the butterfly spooked before I could get shot of it. We stopped at Hemlock Springs to see if any orchid seed pods could be spotted, an impossible task as the banks were overgrown with many other lovely flowers, some of which I had not seen before. Among these the most unusual was the Turtlehead (Chelonia glabra), forming dense mounds about 3 and a half foot high. Clumps of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with boneset and Joe Pye weed completed the artistic arrangement.

Turtlehead and jewelweed with boneset and Joe Pye weed in back.
Close up of Chelonia flowers.

Jewelweed, sunflowers and boneset.

We drove south as far as Skyland, one of the two hotels in the park. The cool breezes at this elevation were a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the valley, signalling the thunderstorm was rapidly approaching. .

David and  Lili at an overlook.

After a short break we started our drive back and not a moment too soon--tiny drops of rain soon built up to a nice summer shower.  The brunt of the storm, which passed over the ridge just to our north, seemed to miss us. After the rain passed we stopped at a couple of overlooks to take in the dramatic views to the east. We could hear the distant rumble of thunder and saw a few flashes of lightning. Plumes of cloud rose from the folds of the hills.

When we got home I was happy to see our rain gauge showed that we'd received a half inch here in Front Royal--thank you, Mother Nature, for watering my garden!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Patiently Digging My Garden

While most vegetable gardeners are currently celebrating the season's bounty, this year I'm still digging up holes for trees and flower beds in mid-August. My rocky soil makes for harder work than I'd ever imagined, but this summer's cool weather and well-timed rains have been a real boon. Herb removed the stakes from the trees we planted our first fall here, and with almost two year's worth of growth the front is finally starting to look a little fuller.

The front garden.
By the garage.

The area by the garage looks better now that the bed has been expanded to include two small hollies, lavender and other perennials. I love the red barberry bush with the yellow leaf edges. To think I almost pulled it out this spring believing it had perished during the harsh winter! Good thing I noticed the roots were alive when I started to dig it up.

There's a lot more work to be done in adjacent areas, not to mention the entire empty back yard. With three new roses on order for fall, I started digging up a new bed behind the three pink bush roses I put in last fall. Two tea roses and a red 'Simplicity' will need lots of tilling and soil amendment for their new home. I wonder how many buckets of rocks I'll have to dig up?

Coreopsis and blue salvia.

The flowers I put in last year on the west side of the house are flourishing, so I added three 'Sky Pencil' hollies (Ilex crenata) between the ink berry bushes for more greenery. Somehow, we started referring to the row of arbor vitae out back that divide our property from the neighbors' as "The Ten Little Indians," after the wonderful Agatha Christie mystery I so loved as a girl. These were pathetically small and neglected when we moved in, not to mention numerically wrong--in landscaping as well as art, groupings of even numbers are a particular no-no unless one is dealing with formal elements.

 The Ten Little Indians.

After two seasons of tender ministration the Ten Little Indians are starting to show marked improvement--this fall I'd like to add one more tree to take the curse off the even numbers. Last year I added a few perennials in front of the row, and this spring the bed was expanded further with some Japanese hollies and a prized variegated boxwood variety called 'Elegantissima' that I got at discount from Virginia Boxwood Co. after working at their booth during the Arboretum's Mother's Day plant sale. I learned so much about boxwood in one day! A particularly attractive plant for this area, deer don't find it palatable and leave it alone.

Small boxwood  'Elegantissima' (with whitish leaves) and Japanese hollies.

The east side of the house presents a bigger challenge, because of the bay windows, the steep hill and utility lines buried underground. Every time I want to dig I have to call Miss Utility to mark the lines so as to stay away from them. But I managed to get in a few more plants in early summer. A taller holly, perhaps a Nellie Stevens, might be good to mask the downspout and unsightly pipes here, though that will make it necessary to eventually move the smaller plants in front. Oh well, it's a work in progress.

Gaillardias and a dahlia with flame azalea and viburnum.

Hydrangeas and False Holly under Herb's office window.

My latest acquisition was this Japanese false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki') planted under Herb's office window to grow between the two hydrangea cuttings I brought from our old home in Columbia. There our hydrangeas were nearly eight foot high and their blossoms a beautiful sky-blue, indicating an acidic soil. Here, the lace-cap hydrangea (on the right) has not bloomed to date, but the re-blooming variety on the left has pink blossoms, a sign that this soil is quite alkaline. The soil acidifier I mixed in does not seem to have had any effect yet.

Redbud and Dogwood saplings.

Next: what to do with the empty expanse of back yard? Last year I planted these saplings at the edge of the slope, and they have been making progress (I fear the deer will take their toll, as they did last year, unless I install another electronic deer repellent). Perhaps a water feature as a focal point, maybe a waterfall with a stream? A pond or bog? It's fun to have so much space to deal with!