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!

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!

Fall Is For Planting

I can see that I am going to have to watch this new WordPress format carefully. In addition to being really finicky about posting in advance, its autocorrect is horrific. I will tell it what I want, and it will go back and auto correct over me a second time. So if my posts seem crazy, I am still working the bugs out on my tablet.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, days are growing shorter, even if it hasn’t yet begun to cool down where you are.

With any luck, there has also been moisture where you are. That makes autumn the perfect time to plant. Obviously I am not talking about planting annuals, although in many places cool season annuals like pansies can over winter right into next spring.

Similarly ornamental cabbage and kale are hardy enough to survive as decorative plantings until it is time to replace them with warm season annuals.

I don’t live in such a place, but I can still plant many things in autumn for next season. One of the things that I tell people is to think about soil almost like a body of water. You know how a lake or the ocean is slow to warm in the spring, but in September the temperature of the water is still perfect for swimming.

The same is true for soil. Our garden soils are also slow to warm in spring as well so plants put into them in spring get a slow start.

But plants put in now, even though they will be going dormant shortly, are getting put into warm soil. There is less adjustment for them (provided you remember to water).

So it’s a great time to plant perennials, trees (if you can find the variety that you want) and shrubs. Again, you must remember to water, if nature isn’t doing it for you, until your ground freezes. Here, in my cool part of the world, that’s usually late November or early December.

On Monday we’ll talk a bit about spring flowering bulbs–which also must be planted now.

Arborgeddon

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These trees came down during Tropical Storm Isaias. We were fortunate. Anything major that came down, came down in the wooded portion of our property.

As you can see, they were dead. They were left in place deliberately. Standing dead trees provide nesting areas for all sorts of birds–woodpeckers, small owls, chickadees, nuthatches–it is estimated that as many as 85 different kinds of birds will nest in a dead tree, if you can leave one in place safely.

In addition, bats will rest there to consume insects. And the beetles that get under the bark to begin the work of turning the tree into compost can serve as food for birds, chipmunks and squirrels.

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I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that dead trees only be left if they will not endanger anyone or anything. These fell quite nicely down into the middle of our little woods. If they had been on the edges, near our neighbor’s house, or the power lines, obviously we would have had to remove them before they caused harm.

Isaias Aftermath

Tropical storm Isaias roared through Connecticut late afternoon on Tuesday. I had hoped for some beneficial rain since we are in moderate drought. And I really hoped for moderate winds since we live in a heavily treed state and heavy winds with the trees in full leaf is a recipe for disaster.

Of course by now you know what happened but you probably don’t know the exact details. At my house, I had exactly .2″ of rain–so hardly a drought buster. I had to go out the next day with my hose to water.

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And then there was this. Branches and leaves everywhere. This is the small stuff.

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It was a little worse out back by my hydrangeas. I pulled this out of them, in fact.

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And then there’s our pines. They regularly make a mess. This was no exception.

At the time all of this occurred, there was a tornado warning. There was no tornado, but the winds reached 60 mph or more. So we were very lucky–especially since one of our neighbors wasn’t quite so lucky. A pine similar to ours wound up on their house.

About one third of the state still has no power 36 hours later (nevermind no internet, cable or cell service in these work from home days). We are told that it will be “multiple” days until power is back.

2020 is certainly turning into quite a year.

Happy Accident

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This all looks so nicely composed, doesn’t it? The hanging impatiens above the ferns and the container below, with all sorts of nice contrasting textures from the ferns and the Japanese maple.

You can see by the title of my post that very little of it was planned. Lately, my best gardening just seems to “happen,” (although perhaps that is my imagination and my perfectionism talking).

But I will tell you that I didn’t plant any of those ferns. Nature sowed them for me. I just encourage them by watering (which is a feat, some years, like this one, when I am getting precious little help from nature!)

There is one spot where they don’t want to grow so I put a planter there. It has an impatiens plant the same color as the one in the hanging basket but you can’t tell. It’s been completely overrun by the oxalis. Oh well.

The color of the oxalis at least picks up the foliage of the Japanese maple leaves, and the cordyline. So you don’t miss the impatiens much.

And after I went out to get the impatiens plant, the Spoiler said, “oh. I thought you were going to plant a pot for the lawn.”

So I had to make a second trip to the garden center–not generally a hardship except in a pandemic–for more plants.

And that’s why he’s called the Spoiler.

Squirrel Fodder

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When I lecture on critter proofing, some of my audience will inevitably describe squirrels as “rats with tails.” That’s not at all accurate, but it’s not surprising either. Squirrels can be amazingly destructive little critters in the garden.

Despite the damage that they do, I have always admired them. (For that matter, I admire rats as well, so long as they are not in my house. They are even more clever than squirrels. But I digress).

The above two photos are what’s left of immature black pine cones. For some reason, this year, the squirrels are decimating them, both on and off the tree.

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This is what the cone looks like before it is ripped off and chewed up. Sometimes it’s left in place on the tree and chewed up right there. This black pine is 30 years old and I have never seen the squirrels do this before.

We are having a dry late spring/early summer. I can’t think that these immature cones help provide moisture in the diet, but I am not sure what else to think. I do know that I have pulled an extraordinary number of dead wildlife from my pond despite 2 birdbaths on the edge to help them.

So, clearly the squirrels know more than I do. I just hope they are enjoying the harvest because they are making a mess of my pond!