Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hugging Trees

When I began gardening my interest was flowers and colored foliage.  Then, about a year after I started my garden, I went on a guided walk through Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum. The man leading the tour (unfortunately I have forgotten his name) met us at the Graham Visitors Center and began with a short talk, in which he confessed he sometimes spontaneously would hug a tree.  I discreetly rolled my eyes.  It was January and outside was cold and the sky was gray-white and by the end of the walk I had fallen in love.  I had become someone who might not hug a tree but certainly could understand the desire to do so.
The tree above is my favorite red barked maple:  ACER pensylvanicum 'erythrocladium,' (the common name is erythrocladium moosewood).  Cold weather turns the bark coral, and vertical white stripes (this is one of a group of striped bark maples) intensify the color.  Often, in winter's pale light, the coral becomes shades of orange and pink so that one looks longer at the tree, charmed by the shifting colors.
This maple is expensive and hard to find.  When I use one in a garden I plant it to be seen every day of the year.  It  will be eight to ten feet in ten years, and needs good sunlight.  The one above, planted on the east side of a house, gets light until mid-afternoon.  I accent the tree's color with both orange and pink; above you can see orange-centered daffodils blooming near-by, and pink-flowered hellebore would be a nice surround to add to the winter interest. 
Because of its exfoliating orange, green and gray bark some believe STEWARTIA pseudocamellia is the loveliest deciduous tree.  Above you can see thick pieces of peel and the colorful patches left behind.  This is a tree to plant near the front door of a house where you plan to live awhile; the peeling gets going by year five and gets better as the tree matures.  Orange flowers and foliage--perhaps an orange-leafed coralbell or orange daffodils or the sedge CAREX testacea with brilliant orange highlights--would nicely play up the tree's orange.   
My favorite exfoliating tree is the birch, partly because it starts peeling as it starts growing.  BETULA nigra 'heritage,' or the heritage river birch, has cinnamon, salmon and light brown bark that peels off in curly or wavy sheets to reveal creamy white bark.  Similar is BETULA jacquemontii, or the white-barked himalayan birch, with pure white peeling bark.
Birches grow fast, they grow in clay soil, they grow close together--a grove of birches is lovely--and they can be grown next to a walkway:  river birch, including the one pictured above, line the path through my sister's garden.  In a breeze the branches rustle softly, the sound of the wind offering a kiss.

The tree I use the most for winter interest is ACER palmatum 'sango kaku,' or the coral bark maple.  In the cold the bark is vivid, here in the Pacific Northwest it is like a fire throughout our gray winters.
This maple is vase-shaped and a moderate grower to fifteen or twenty feet.  It needs supplemental watering and can handle a lot of sunlight.  I had a client who planted one on the west side of her brick house, where it has been fine.
The maple above stands out brilliantly from the fence and the milky sky.  I like it beside the tall bleached MISCANTHUS, which will be cut down in spring.  I like the austerity, and the contrast of the colors and of the foliage beside the bark.  How can one not be in love when there is a tree like this, so red, so cheerful, in the midst of winter?



Monday, January 16, 2012

January II

HELLEBORUS is a a plant that would have to be created if it did not exist already.  Hellebore are evergreen perennials that bloom throughout the winter.  In Seattle HELLEBORUS niger, the Christmas rose, begins blooming in December.  HELLEBORUS orientalis, the Lenton rose, and its hybrids, bloom late January or early February through April.  The flowers are lovely, the leaves evergreen, maintenance easy.  
  Hellebore need shade in the summer, regular watering, and rich soil (however, mulch around them and keep the compost from touching the plants).  The leaves can become unsightly--they are susceptible to blackspot--but you can cut them off if they do not look good and the plant will be fine.  That is the extent of the work these plants need.
The hellebore above is planted under a bloodtwig dogwood (CORNUS sanguinea 'midwinter fire.').  Because hellebore like summer shade and are low maintenance they happily grow beneath deciduous trees and shrubs.
The hybrid hellebore is "black," (this particular black-flowering hellebore has quite a blue cast to it; I try to buy hellebore when they are blooming so the color doesn't surprise me). 
 I love black flowers and foliage, but one does have to be careful about placing them, especially in the winter, so that they don't disappear into the dirt.  Here the near-by orange leaves of a coralbell (HEUCHERA) and the upright foliage of a daffodil help the hellebore get the attention it deserves.  And the pale to vivid orange branches of the dogwood arching over the black flowers create drama.
This planting is beside the steps leading to a front door.  Black flowers cannot be seen from a distance so I always try to plant them near a walkway. 

This HELLEBORUS is niger 'josef lemper,' which usually begins blooming in December.  For many gardeners 'josef' is superior to the original because its flowers face out and are upright.  The five petals are really sepals, (which usually enclose the petals), and at the center are nectaries, (petals modified to hold nectar).
The above is one of three 'josef' hellebore planted just before Christmas at the corner of a front garden bed.  They will continue to bloom for two or three months.  The pure white flower is a good contrast to the plant's dark green leaves, and especially to the draped leaves of the rhododendron behind it.  And I love the soft green at the center.  The white causes the flower to stand out and the green softens the distinction and connects with the foliage all around the plant.   
For me hellebore are like a light drawing one into the garden, leading one through winter.  


Saturday, January 14, 2012

January I

January in the Pacific Northwest offers blooming flowers, scent, leaves in a variety of colors.  No matter how gray or drizzly or damp it might be we never stop gardening, and we never stop enjoying our gardens.
Above are two galvanized, and two aged pottery, containers that I planted and used in a garden at the 2011 Northwest Flower & Garden Show.  In one, an evergreen huckleberry (VACCINIUM ovatum) sets off a stunning CORNUS sanguinea 'midwinter fire,' a bloodtwig dogwood with orange branches:  at the base of the shrub the color is pale as sherbet, but as the color moves along each branch it becomes increasingly bright and vibrant, ending in a burst of red-orange.  
Beside this are a hellebore, fern and candytuft (IBERIS).  The five petaled flower and dark green leaves of the hellebore dominate, and the ferny foliage and the tiny leaves of the candytuft, which is just beginning to offer a few small white flowers, complement.  
Behind them the shades of white on the containers brighten the plantings, which are dominated by a dense green.  The peeling paint reveals deep orange clay, which connects with the dogwood.
This grouping could be set outside and would look almost the same.  There is a front and back to this planting, so it would be good at the entrance to a house, set against a wall, providing interest late fall through winter.
I would consider this a seasonal container planting.  The dogwood quickly would outgrow all but a quite large pot, so in the spring take out all the plants and put them in the ground and re-do the pots for summer.

These next two pictures are of the same grouping, one that is viewed from all sides as it sits in the middle of a garden in a parking strip.    
A fern fills the smallest container.  In the other two are brown CAREX, hellebores, winter pansies and a chartreuse coralbell, HEUCHERA 'lime rickey.'  The ruffled pale green leaves of the coralbell are a nice contrast with the dark hellebore leaves and both are "lightened" by the bleachy, skinny grass.
  The CAREX and hellebore are repeated in the garden, and beside the containers are more winter-interest plants:  an ABELIOPHYLLUM (white forsythia), covered in almond-scented flowers in January, and a dwarf quince, which will offer coral blooms in late February.  And climbing through both shrubs and into the containers is an evergreen CLEMATIS 'avalanche,' which will bloom in March.
The colors of the containers, orange and white, are the colors of the garden, and in winter, when many plants have lost their leaves or disappeared, the pots make a bold statement as an architectural feature.  They elevate the plants, making it much easier for us as we hurry through the rain or cold to see the plants, to appreciate the color of the flower, the shape of the leaf, the play of a bare branch against an evergreen.  We might even pause, even hesitate in spite of the weather, to enjoy.