Make Your Summer Exotic

Variegated lemon tree–with lemons

I am famous for saying that Connecticut doesn’t have seasons–just Winter and July. So needless to say, when “July” arrives–or whatever passes for warm weather here–I am very anxious to make the most of it! I suspect that’s why I grow all manner of tropical plants that really have no business growing here in Connecticut.

Of course, I grow lemons so that when winter really gets bad (as in this past winter, which was so icy that I had to park at a neighbor’s at the bottom of the hill and hike up my lawn!) I can say that I will just make lemonade!

Olive tree

And something else that I grow, which is a very fun and undemanding plant is a little olive tree. I am probably stunting its growth horribly by keeping it in this tiny pot, but as you can see, it even fruited for me last year!

Here’s a great infographic all about olive trees if you would like to know more from the folks at Trees.com

Croton

I also love these croton plants–nothing exotic for most people, but here in the frozen north, their color is like a tropical party, especially when they are inside in the winter and the snow is falling behind them outside!

Flowering maple (and croton)

Even this flowering maple (abutilon) which I over-wintered for the first time last winter is really colorful with its drooping yellow bells. A warning to those of you who don’t like “messy” plants, however–this one drops leaves and flowers quite a bit. Some people don’t want to put up with that!

So these are just a few common–but “fun”–choices to liven up your summer. Try one–or all of them!

Let’s Get Tropical!

Herbs and evergreens

According to our meteorologists, it’s going to be in the 70s or perhaps even 80 this week here in the frozen north! That’s the point where I start thinking “tropical plants,” and what will I grow outside this year and “can I really bring my house plants (aka tropical plants) outside for the season?

Those are really a bunch of different questions of course, with several different answers. So let’s start with the most important one: what do tropical plants need to live outdoors in a climate where they might not normally do so (in other words, when is it safe to bring your house plants–or plants you purchase from a greenhouse–outside) and how do you do it?

Generally what you want to keep your eye on are the night-time temperatures. The lowest night-time temperature that a tropical plant will generally tolerate for any period of time is 50 degrees. Yes, certain plants–some annuals, for example, and citrus, and some plants that might be grown as outdoor trees or shrubs in other parts of the world (bay, rosemary, and olive are some that I have that come to mind immediately) can tolerate temperatures lower than 50)–but as a general rule, I try to keep to the 50 degree temperature rule so that everything pretty easy to remember.

Next, you will need to transition whatever plants you are bringing out from the inside to the outside. If you are familiar with hardening off seedlings, think of it like that. Or, as I tell the Spoiler, we certainly cannot go stand in the sun, after a winter indoors, all day without any sunscreen and just think that everything is going to be fine. Why do you think I can just plunk the plants outside in the sun like that?

An easy way to transition the plants is to set them outside in the shade of a large tree, if you are lucky enough to have one. I generally set all the house plants out under trees for a couple of days, and then gradually move them into the sun (for those that like sun).

Those that like shade, I generally leave under the shade of a large dogwood. That works pretty well. They might get a little early morning sun, but generally the tree provides dappled shade all day for them.

Honestly, it’s harder for me to find sunny spots for the plants than shady spots–but even outdoor shade is brighter than indoor light for the plants so I don’t feel too sad for them coming outside.

And for those of you that say “aren’t you worried about bringing in bugs when you bring the plants back in?” let me ask you about your homes. I am not sure about you, but I always have spiders and a few creepy crawlies around inside–so no, I am not worried about bringing bugs inside! The bugs are already inside! I just give the plants a nice wash off with a hose and that’s that!

On Friday I will talk more about specific tropical plants.

Little Mouse’s Ears

Oak leaves and flowers

What are you looking at? (And why do I keep having to ask that question at the beginning of my posts? It’s unnerving, even to me!)

This is an oak tree twig, with some tiny leaves and even some flowers, if you know what they look like. They’re not even showy–they’re like birch flowers–long strings of unremarkable chartreuse florets. And like birch flowers, they put out a remarkable amount of pollen too. So if you are sneezing, there’s probably a birch or oak tree nearby.

Every year I do a post like this because while Professor Doug Tallamy loves oaks because they feed so many pollinators, I love oaks because they herald the last frost. Once the oak leaves are the size of “little mouse’s ears” (and you can see that these leaves are significantly larger than that!), you have had your last frost!

I am not quite sure when I first heard this old-time farmer’s saying but it’s been decades now since I have been paying attention to it and the oak leaf saying has never failed me.

Now, am I going to go out and plant tomatoes and basil because the oaks have leafed out? Of course not! But when the TV forecasters are saying “cover your plants, there might be a frost tonight, ” I just look to the oaks. If they have leafed out, I don’t worry about a thing. I know that whatever is out there isn’t going to be harmed by frost because at least at my house there won’t be any frost.

The wonderful thing about these so-called farmer’s sayings is that they were developed for a reason. Long before we had “science” to tell us when to plant, we had to look to signs in nature. And in a sense, we are still doing that–it’s called phenology, which is the study of seasonal natural phenomena.

You may have heard of it a lot more in relation to climate studies–they are studying when trees are leafing out–if they are leafing out earlier, whether pollen and allergy seasons are lasting longer, how migration is being affected–things like that.

But before we had to worry so much, well, we still had to worry, because our forebears still didn’t want to plant too early and lose their precious crops. And that’s how the “oak leaves the size of little mouse’s ears” sayings–and others like them–came about.

So if you are in a cooler climate like mine, find an oak near your property to monitor and you’ll never wonder about your last frost date again. You’ll always know for sure by the timing of that oak’s leaves. Try it for yourself!

Springing Ahead

Glory of the snow–chionodoxa bulbs

Spring in Connecticut is always a “one step forward, two steps back,” sort of thing. This week we have actually had a few days of sustained warmth, which has been lovely.

Snow fountain cherry tree

It’s allowed some of the early spring flowering trees to bloom. For those of you that think late April is a strange time for “early” spring bloom, we have very strange springs here in Connecticut. While autumn has become an extended period of warmth, spring has not changed accordingly. Instead, it is an extended period of cool weather, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, sometimes snowy even. It’s not a very pleasant season at all.

Pieris Andromeda–blooming since mid-March

But one thing that the extended cool weather does permit is an extended bloom time as well. Bulbs that might bloom for days in warmer temperatures are lasting for weeks.

Forsythia

Flowering trees and shrubs–even that old stalwart, forsythia–also bloom for close to a month!

And the less frequently seen forsythia border

So while we may shiver for a longer period of time up here in the frozen north, we also get to experience our early blooming trees and shrubs for quite a long time.

Since I hate the cold, I am not sure the tradeoff is worth it. But then again, since I am always so grateful to see the first flowers and color, perhaps it is.

Expect the Unexpected

Shattered tree and part of the clean-up

You might have heard that the northeast had some strong winds recently. This really isn’t unusual for us. We regularly get strong winds above 50 mph in the spring and the fall as fronts come through.

And unfortunately, because we are a heavily treed state, with large, mature evergreens, someone, somewhere will lose a tree–or two. You can see my neighbor’s woodpile in the photo behind what is soon to be more timber. He stacks his logs in between our upright pine trees.

As the above photo shows, one of our pines took a hit in these most recent winds. The top half came off, flew across the yard and landed on the roof with a thud so loud it woke me from a sound sleep (not an easy thing to do!) and shook the whole house.

Siding ripped off down to the insulation

Once it bounced off the roof, it slid down the side of the house, taking off the siding.

The end where it was attached to the tree

This is the “small” end of the tree. The larger part is in the top photo. I missed the “good part” yesterday where the branches were up to the second story windows.

And one of the sad things is that it shattered a lovely granite bench into several pieces, beyond repair.

But here I am, telling you all about it–so there’s nothing truly sad about this at all really. Because this could have been so much worse!

Memorial Plants?

On Monday I posted about the dish garden that was given to me to commemorate–or commiserate over–a loss.

A few weeks ago I posted about my ‘Snow Fountain’ weeping cherry which we planted to honor my Dad’s passing.

So all this posting about “memorial” plants has got me thinking about plants as a way of remembering people. It’s not unusual, of course, to plant a tree to remember someone. But what really got me thinking was a comment I made in response to a comment on my “Dish Garden” post.

If you recall, the second part of that post was about a “deconstructed” dish garden that a neighbor had given me. What I really didn’t say in that post was that she received that garden when her husband passed away–so I was sort of the repository of plants given in his memory–and that was fine because I knew him well and liked him very much.

In my comment I said that eventually my neighbor would move away or pass away as well and all I would have as a memory would be those plants, making them true “memorial” plants.

I wonder how other people feel about this. Do you find it creepy or comforting? I know that out in the garden I have lots of plants from folks that are “no longer with me” in one sense or another. Many have just moved away. Others I have lost touch with, for whatever reason. But whenever I see those plants, I think of the various people with fondness.

So why should it be any different with house plants? For many years, my longest lived house plant was a begonia that was a cutting from a neighbor. That neighbor is long gone, but I still referred to the begonia as “Mr. So-and So’s” begonia.

Now my longest lived house plant is a ficus that I refer to as “Grandma’s ficus,” for obvious reasons (I hope). It was given to my Grandmother on her 90th birthday in 1988. It is now mine (Gram wasn’t really into plants. I inherited it shortly thereafter, probably no later than early 1989).

Obviously I do not find this creepy at all. Then again, I work in a job where part of it is helping people who have just lost a loved one plan their funeral. So during the pandemic, especially, I have talked about death a lot to a lot of people. It’s been gut wrenching.

Sometimes, we are blessed that we do have plants to help us return to normalcy.

A Cherished Tree for A Cherished Reason

Weeping cherry in bloom

A couple of weeks ago I had photos of my newly pruned ornamental cherry.  That tree is one of the most special trees on our property even though it has no intrinsic wildlife value. It was given to us as a gift to commemorate the death of my Dad in 1999.

It was already quite mature in 1999 when it was gifted to us and it has only matured more beautifully in its place. It blooms quite nicely every spring (and I am looking forward to this year’s bloom now that it has been pruned!) Its beautiful weeping canopy is visible from 1/4 mile away.

We live on a curvy street–and as soon as a car turns the curve and heads in the direction of our house, if that tree is in bloom, it’s visible. It’s like a beacon. It’s just amazing.

Small trees are something of a rarity in the landscape simply by definition. A tree is a tree partly because of its height. But this tree has stayed nicely under 7 feet, although its spread is much wider.

Cherry trees have a storied past in our country, although whether our first President really did cut one down is perhaps more an urban legend–or self–promoting myth–than reality. Still, they play a role in our American history. 

While we do have native cherries, most were brought here from Europe.  And the lovely small ornamental flowering cherry trees that many home gardeners now covet today are generally imported from Asia. For a great post on ornamental cherry trees, and the great selection available to home gardeners, here is this primer from Trees.com.

Our ornamental cherry has proven to be free from every type of disease and insect (with the exception of an occasional nibble from a passing Japanese beetle–but nothing too troublesome).  It has survived several droughts without supplemental watering and has never received fertilizer–but then again, everything in my yard gets tough love. Worst of all, it has been mangled by pruning from The Spoiler and his lawn mower.

Sometimes, just like with house plants, too much love (once a plant is established) can be a bad thing!

More Winter Pruning

Unpruned Japanese Maple

On Monday I showed some photos of my weeping Snow Fountain cherry after it had been pruned. Unfortunately I had no photos of it before it had been pruned, but I think the photo of this Japanese maple, above, will give you some idea of what it might have been like–except the cherry was in worse shape!

I can still handle pruning the Japanese maple and do prune it every couple of years. The unfortunate thing about this maple is that it sweeps out over our driveway–and so it is more susceptible to the Spoiler’s “hacking” every time it comes too close to his car. I just learn to park a little further from it, and therefore to enjoy its leaves. He has to hack it back. You can see where he has “chopped” the ends that hang over the driveway.

Branches in need of pruning

This year it’s definitely a little overdue for some pruning. You can see all the deadwood–evident by the light color. Only the vibrant red twigs are alive.

Part of the problem is that our weather the last couple of years has been a bit topsy turvy. I don’t want to prune too early and spark growth. And then we have no “spring” when there should be spring–say in March. There’s just nothing but terrible weather during the time when I should prune. And then it’s leafing out in the snows of April and I’m saying to myself, “oops, I screwed up again.” But it’s tough to get out and prune in February.

Maybe I will call the lovely ornamental pruner back who did the cherry tree after all. If this year gets away from us again like that, I am going to have to!

Winter Pruning

Snow Fountain Cherry

Normally this time of year, I am out lecturing about all sorts of things, including pruning. This year, because of the pandemic, no. I am not one of those speakers who has decided to present via computer, although I am enjoying other speakers who have decided to do so. I work on screens daily–I don’t want to come home and work with them in the evening. Gardening had been my escape from that.

One of the things I used to talk about when I spoke to clubs about pruning was to know your limitations. I always said that it was far better to call in a professional to prune large trees than to attempt to do it yourself. And while this cherry wasn’t “large” in the sense of height, its limbs were extremely congested. We decided that we needed a professional to come thin it out for us.

You can tell by the size of some of the limbs that were removed here–and by the girth of the trunk–that this tree is quite mature. Not only did I not have the strength to prune this tree properly, but I also didn’t have the proper tools to do it cleanly. And that’s equally important.

Cherries, particularly these with a weeping habit, can be prone to disease, especially if not pruned correctly. The last thing I wanted to do was bungle this.

No, I didn’t cut the top off the tree in the photo. I am trying to show you the huge circle underneath where there is no vegetation. That’s how large the branch canopy used to be. Now, with the branch canopy opened up, light will get underneath the tree so that my beautiful moss can fill in there.

I have seen these trees shorn at the bottom, just like a someone took a bowl and placed it on top and cut around the base. Clearly that’s not the proper pruning method.

The Spoiler’s method was to just hack off anything that got in the lawn mower’s way–also not proper.

This is the proper way to prune–from the inside out, to open up the tree. I can’t wait to see it bloom!