Getting Roots in the Ground Again

2016/17 been a remarkably mild winter in this corner of Pennsylvania, and although February usually brings us some of our harshest cold and winter storms, this year it’s going out with a whimper.  For a few days I won’t complain but beyond that I can’t promise anything.  March has a history of big snow-dumps and hopefully if they do come they’re more picturesque than they are damaging, and hopefully this quirk of a winter is also not some dark prequel to an even worse global warming future.

Without a solid slate-cleaning this winter I’m a little lost heading into the 2017 gardening season.  It all still seems so ‘last year’ so I suppose I’ll use that as my excuse for not putting out the usual bored with the snow, don’t want to face the cold, winter time flashback posts, but let me at least try and get this one post out before I’m lost outside again searching for spring sprouts.  It goes back to 2002 when the ignorance of youth thought it would be a good idea to buy a house, lose a job, and get engaged all in the same two months.

dupont house

Our diamond in the rough.

Before I get too distracted with the story I want to point out that a normal first impression of our little valley usually dates it at around 20 years behind the rest of the country.  It’s a region who’s boom time began at the tail end of the 1700’s with the discovery of vast deposits of anthracite coal; the cleanest, hardest, and highest carbon coal out there, and the fuel which powered the economic and manufacturing development of this entire region.  For about 100 years we were riding high but it was a one horse show, and by the 1950’s the horse was definitely showing its age.  Deep mining had shifted to strip mining and the whole region went into a kind of long term hibernation of fleeing youth and aging residents.  Our house is an example of the ‘build it quick for housing’ phase and was probably built around 1910 as cheap two family housing for miners.  After decades of rough living it was probably worth our $24,000 purchase price.

garden renovation

100 years of history and the yard didn’t even have a peony or daffodil.  Gardening was confined to an overgrown privet hedge which looms to the right and a single mass of lilacs growing alongside a decaying shed.

I optimistically brought all the potted plants over from my former apartment balcony and then later watched them freeze as first the plumbing and then heat and finally electricity were pulled out and replaced.  In case it’s not obvious from the photos or purchase price the house was in horrible condition, so much so that when the realtor’s odd girlfriend took her small dog into the house and allowed it to pee on the kitchen doorjamb it barely raised an eyebrow.  I guess we were too distracted by the rotted floor boards, cobbled home repairs, and ‘evidence’ of vermin infestation.

new garden

That fall I planted daffodils, and in between gutting the house and piecing together scraps for a rabbit hutch, put in the first patch for gardening and trimmed back the near side of the privet. oh yeah, and actually transplanted grass so that I had at least one nice strip of lawn to walk on.

As I’m very fond of saying, ignorance is bliss, and for several months the economic realities of the newly unemployed demanded that I just “polish and put a shine on shit” and hopefully have a resale value once the journey was done, but a former girlfriend now fiancée had different ideas.

new garden

I have no idea why I had to have a waterlily even when I didn’t have a running toilet, but there it is.  Until the next dumpster arrives, what better use is there for a 1960’s avocado green bath tub? 

After several months of basement and utility renovations the friend who’s a contractor is traded in for the actual deal.  We’re into new territory now and although I can’t pay my labor in cases of beer anymore there is progress.  Unfortunately real contractors can’t be bothered with sensibly small attic dormers, they prefer “it’s cheaper to rip it down and build solid walls” and so we did.

dupont house

About a year later.  Might as well add a second floor while you’re at it. 

So here we were taking a two family home (which likely housed close to a dozen people at one time), tripling it in size, and making it just large enough for the two of us.

dupont house

Looks quaint and country, but keep in mind that a freight rail line runs just behind the trees, and only a few years ago a garbage truck collapsed into the road when an old mine shaft gave way.

Still unemployed, and now enrolled in school (again) the ballooning “don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of the kids”, pricetag finally scared me off the very addictive drug of contractor help.  With windows in and siding set to go on we cut the cord, buttoned up the exterior and moved into the basement… and found out what it is to live on love 🙂

dupont house

Building from the bottom up.  What were we thinking!?  In hindsight it’s hard to believe all of this was the product of me in the basement with a few sheets of graph paper and a lot of ‘yeah, I think I want another door here and window there… and oh, probably another bathroom’. 

Obviously there wasn’t all that much free time for gardening, but you know how it goes with all work and no play…

new garden

Of course there’s not much to the garden in October, but the privet has bounced back from its trim back and another bed is in.  Not really a garden design, but these beds take care of the pathetic grass which it replaced.  Please note the ever popular burn pit where most of the old house’s lumber was illegally burned.

Once we moved into the house the next three years are kind of foggy.  A full kitchen came first, a completed first floor, a new job, a master bedroom, a new baby, a completed second floor… finally an attic loft.  Slowly the garden inched along as well.

garden renovation

Behind the garage became a new garden spot where iris divisions were welcomed.  You can’t beat the generosity of other gardeners for filling in bare patches.

To know me is to know I have a slight leaning towards the tropical flair.  I love how you can get a massive show in just a few short weeks.

garden renovation

The usual leftovers and scraps which are my constant struggle.  Someday I’ll get them under control… or move to a new house 😉

The fun of a new garden is you have room for nearly everything and don’t yet have the baggage of too many beds gone to weeds, invasive plants, or “shouldn’t have put that there” issues.

tropical garden

I am a bit of a creature of habit.  Ten years later and I’m still growing all of these tropical and tropical looking goodies. -and I still like too much red

Another big plus for this house was that pretty much everything we did was a blessing -considering the property’s history of troublesome kids, giant rats, and overflowing trash piles.  Construction debris, dirt piles, unfinished projects, were all overlooked in this neighborhood where it’s not unusual for people to live and die in the house they were born in.

garden renovation

The front garden never really had time to come together.  I would have loved a small picket fence or something.

We were on a different track though.  Memories were built, lessons learned, and dreams ignited but when it came down to it this wasn’t more than a stepping stone.  Five years into it (just as the last big projects were finished) we decided to buy the house of my wife’s grandparents.  It was an unexpected decision based mostly on emotion, but in the long run we knew this would be short term.

garden renovation

A very helpful addition to the garden.  From the start he was practically an expert in finding worms and digging up new transplants.

So that spring I focused on grassing over a few beds, moving a ton of plants to the new house, and getting the house set to go on the market.

garden renovation

The new view out the back door.  I wish I had better pictures of the seating area carved out of the back slope, but as usual I was distracted by lounging out on the deck.

So that was what brought us to the new house.  In what has become our normal mode of operation for life changing events, that spring we were hit with a tsunami of the house selling in three days, a baby arriving a month early, a job lost, a car totaled, all made even more fun when you decide a few changes to the “new” house might be necessary… but we survived and it really puts the panic of a late frost or snapped iris stalk in perspective.

Don’t worry, we shall return to our normal garden updates next post.  I’ve just taken a look outside and the snowdrops are coming and the snow is melting and as soon as 2017 is off and running I won’t give a darn about years gone by until winter rolls around again.  Hopefully the weather is looking up for you as well!

An old familiar itch

It’s time to face the reality of unsown seeds and unplanted vegetable beds.  There… done.  For the past few years I’ve been making a real effort tot get all kinds of annual seed growing, all kinds of cuttings started, and all kinds of summer bulbs planted, but this year something is off.  Maybe I’ve been too busy with other things, but in all honesty I live a fairly lazy life and for me to say I don’t have the time or energy to start a few salvia seed or pot up a few coleus cuttings is just a bunch of excuses.  My reality this year is I just don’t care to.  I’m not a farmer after all, and the family won’t go hungry or broke if the potatoes fail, so I just keep enjoying what I’m doing and don’t stress it if this year I only start 10 or 20 coleus cuttings rather than 75.  The iris are in bloom after all, and this year they are nearly perfect.

historic bearded iris

The view from the street is far nicer this spring with green grass and healthy spring growth.  I forgot what it’s like to start the year with cool temperatures and ample rainfall rather than dry winds and drought.

I have a weakness for iris, and go back and forth between indifference and obsession depending on the season.  This year it’s obsession.

historic bearded iris

Clumps of iris are scattered throughout the front border.  They are mostly old cultivars (~100 years) and although they lack the ruffles and fluff of the modern iris, they’re very well suited to the rough and tumble of often neglected and often overgrown perennial beds.

The number of blooms, the colors, the fragrance, are conspire against me this season and I’ve been on and off iris websites far more than I should admit…. even though the majority of my iris are either pass-alongs or just plain found alongside the road and had nothing to do with a catalog order.

historic bearded iris

From left to right, Flavescens (pre 1813), Ambassadeur (1920), and Indian Chief (1929).

The jury is still out on any big iris orders since I should really take better care of what I have, but people say it doesn’t hurt to look and so far that’s all I’ve been doing.

blue foundation planting

The striped leaves of Iris pallida ‘aureo-variegata’ accenting the front foundation plantings.  You can count on this iris to scent the whole corner of a bed with that delicious grape scent which many of the older varieties put out.

It hasn’t been all sloth and idleness in the garden this spring.  A few small projects are getting done in spite of my laziness, although I’m not promising they’ve all been done to the best of my ability or that they are the best value for my little effort.  One interesting discovery I came across is that bearded iris are fairly resistant to Roundup type (glyphosphate) herbicides.  That of course leads me to carelessness when spraying around the clumps next door, since the chances of iris damage are far outweighed by my ‘want to do as little free labor as possible especially when it includes pulling weeds out of monotonously boring mulch beds in someone else’s yard’.

roundup on iris

Iris foliage is fairly resistant to Roundup yet the flowers will discolor and stunt depending on how much of the poison they absorb.  These flowers should be larger and a dark velvety red rather than small and anemic looking.   

Before anyone gets too excited, I just want to say I really don’t use too many chemicals in the garden and although I like to appear as if I’m lazily spraying about I really am somewhat cautious, if only because I have too many more sensitive plants which I’d hate to lose.  For what it’s worth my research shows that iris, vinca, and nut grass are pretty much the only plants which will not be outright killed by careless Roundup spraying…. although for the vinca and nut grass the spraying was very intentional.

roundup on iris

Normal iris bloom to the left, increasing Roundup effects on the same plant to the right.  A heavy dose will give a colorless cauliflower-like stalk which is entirely uninteresting.

Besides chemical warfare on weeds, another questionable project started with my purchase of a Charlie Brown delphinium which needed a perfect spot in order to wow everyone with its amazing comeback.  My single successful clump grows alongside the front porch so this was the most obvious spot to try another, except for the six foot Alberta spruce which already grows there.

delphinium foundation planting

The healthy delphinium clump is front and center with the spruce behind.  The Charlie Brown delphinium sits soaking in the white bucket to the right.

Alberta spruce is a 365 days a year respectable plant, with an attractive form and many years of service in and many years of service to come.  It would make no sense to pull it out in favor of a temperamental diva which needs fussing and fertilizing and timely staking to protect it from the high winds which strike each year (always two or three days into peak bloom season).

delphinium foundation planting

Spruce gone, delphinium in (one of the ‘New Millenium’ hybrids).  Not the most logical decision I’ve ever made but in the garden I prefer to live guilt free and impulse happy.  Also, if you could, please ignore all the trash and clutter on the porch beyond.  I only got around to cleaning it up after this photo was taken.

I’m distracted again, let me finish up iris season.  The Siberian iris and Japanese iris might be some of the most beautiful flowers of the plant world, but I don’t grow many.  They seem to flower for a total of one week and although the grassy foliage looks respectable all summer and they handle nearly any abuse which comes their way I try to limit any collecting urges.

purple siberian iris

An unknown purple siberian iris with a still unplanted tropical border behind it.

One Siberian iris which I couldn’t walk away from was ‘Super Ego’.  It’s not because it was in bloom when I saw it or that the color was unique or any other particular quality, it was because of a childhood dream which was set on fire by a random White Flower Farm catalog which showed up in my mailbox one winter.  I think I’ve confessed to being a little odd as a child so the fact that I’d sit around spending hours reading through this catalog probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, but this 1980’s era catalog (which I probably still have somewhere in the basement) had ‘Super Ego’s glamor shot in it alongside a poetic description which convinced me that owning this plant would make me richer, smarter, and more popular.  Unfortunately the WWF catalog was way beyond my 10th grade budget so the actual plant never left Connecticut and I was forced to go on without.

Siberian iris super ego

Siberian iris ‘Super Ego’ just starting to open on a Thursday. 

The actual experience of growing ‘Super Ego’, while pleasant enough, didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  For what it’s worth, I guess I’m as smart, rich, and popular as I’m ever going to be.

Siberian iris super ego

‘Super Ego’ five days later after a few 90F days bleached most of the darker blue color out.  The chives in the back seem unfazed by the weather or passing time, although they are entirely less exotic in my opinion.

So as I wait for a new plant to come along and change my life I’ll continue weeding through the backyard iris beds.  They are infinitely less photogenic with their hefty companion plantings of weeds, but the old iris continue to carry on and deserve more respect than their neglected planting spot gives.  I even planted a few zinnia and marigold seeds last weekend.  That may not speak of high class and taste nor earn me a spot in the White Flower Farms catalog but it does mean that things are starting to move on the seed front, and if it all works out July and August should still be full of flowery color.

The garden of memory

I used to be a balcony gardener.  After a stint in Texas my next job took me back to the Northeast, and rather than commit to a house I opted for an apartment.  My choices were narrowed down to a roomy bachelor pad with an excellent nighttime view of the city lights or a smaller two bedroom apartment in a quiet residential area.  I chose the quiet life.  My choice was partly because it was half the rent, but mostly because of the small balcony which came off the kitchen and overlooked the side yard.  I knew I needed a spot in the sun but just wasn’t ready to buy and didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s yard again.  Who would have thought my stay would last over three years, and who would have suspected I could fit so much more than just the grill and a few chairs.

balcony garden

Does a gardener live here?

By the third summer things were completely out of hand.  I tend to like fast growers and big leaves and none of those are a logical fit with a small balcony… but what the heck, I usually just grow things because I can and not for any well thought out plan or agenda.  A rooted cutting turns into a butterfly bush, a trip down south adds a banana, a clearance sale brings in a staghorn sumac.  Things add up quickly, but mercifully winter would usually wipe the slate clean.  Plants have a hard time overwintering on an exposed, second floor balcony.

pink caladium tropical plants

These caladiums went out for the summer and came in for the winter for three years straight without a problem.  Nine years since moving and I’ve killed more than I care to admit.

If there was any secret to how my garden grows it was the drip irrigation which snaked out from the laundry, slipped between sashes of the window, and clicked on every 8 hours and saved me from the boredom of daily watering.   With the automated watering my plants were also saved from the almost certain neglected death due to a weekend away at the shore, a week traveling for work, or that gardener’s nightmare of a two week midsummer vacation.  No returning home to fried and dead plants for me!

Strangely enough my landlord never questioned the green tsunami which overwhelmed my small balcony, and we all ended up becoming good friends.  Coincidence that he and his wife ran a landscaping business?  Who knows.

tropical container plants

One chair. I guess this did turn into my bachelor pad after all, and with just enough room for a seat this became my preferred spot for a summer book and a icy cold beverage.  There’s a grill in there as well, I guess it goes without saying that for a couple months each year it was out of service.

Eventually it became time to move on and the balcony garden was traded in for the next adventure.  There’s an actual yard involved in this one but as usual delusions of grandeur made for a bumpy road.  Live and learn I guess 🙂

Hope your winter is going well.  It’s set to get warmer again this weekend and with snow melting almost as fast as it came my spring fever will be worse than ever.  I’ve been sowing seeds again and a sensible person would have stopped this nonsense a few dozen packets ago.

The Winter Garden 2016

An actual greenhouse would be awesome.  To spend the winter nights out in the humid warmth… or even sweater-cool, as long as you can smell that healthy dampness of growing plants, would be a fantastic break from the dry static of central heating.  Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon I’ve got to make do somehow and to that end I have my little winter garden.  It’s two shop lights hung over a table in the small workshop behind the garage.  That’s the reality, but the magic is much more, and of course as with everything else I try to do there’s a story involved.

galanthus in containers

The first of the Cyclamen coum (a nice seedling flowering for the first time), a snowdrop dug from the garden (Galanthus elwesii), and the frilled leaves of a scented geranium are filling the space beneath the lights this year.

Santa brought the kids electric scooters this year, and that has nothing to do with winter gardens but they needed a spot cleared in the garage near an outlet for charging.  Space is tight in the garage so obviously I needed to clean the attached furnace room first.  A day later the furnace room was cleaned and I had room in there for a few bikes, but the cannas and dahlia roots in the furnace room needed a cooler spot.  They had to go into the workshop which had now become remarkably full and as a result also needed tidying up.  A day later with the workshop cleaned and the bulbs stashed away I made the observation that the workbench was really unacceptable as far as winter gardens go.  A few years before we bought this house a pipe burst in the workshop, all was soaked, and the pressboard workbench soaked, sagged, and warped.  It was time to replace the top so off to the DIY store for lumber and hardware.  A day later and the old top was off and a new one had been crafted, more than doubling the tabletop and practically calling for another light to be added, so of course another light was added.

potted amaryllis

Merry Christmas to me.  A ridiculous clearance sale on amaryllis bulbs left me with eight new ones and the repaired workbench is the perfect place to pot them up.  Don’t even ask me how hard it is to find terracotta pots during the holiday season….

So one more day for the stain and polyurethane to dry and then finally I was able to bring in a few things for under the lights.  Just in time since the Cyclamen coum were beginning to flower and I was tired of dragging them in and out of the garage with every frigid weather forecast.

growing bulbs under lights

Twice the growing space of years past and already nearly full.  Overwintering cuttings share space with cyclamen and various too-special-to-be-outside seedlings under the growlights.

I should have tackled this job on a pleasant summer weekend, but at that time the lawnchair was so much more inviting.  Had I been ready to go at the start of the season (or had I built that coldframe I wanted) then maybe these seedling pots of tulips and allium wouldn’t have started to sprout in the garage, and maybe I wouldn’t be the only person in NE Pennsylvania growing species tulips indoors under growlights in January….

bulbs from seed

Hellebore and cyclamen seedlings growing in the winter garden.  The small wisps in the other pots are tulips, allium, and a single fritillaria  seedling.  The economics of spending years nursing along seedlings which are available cheaply (100 blooming sized bulbs for $14 last time I checked) is something else we shouldn’t look at too closely.

To wrap up my ‘How I spent my Christmas vacation’ essay I’ll just add that on the last day I moved an air compressor and rabbit hutch onto a shelf and was able to plug in the scooters.  Don’t ask me how I didn’t see that a week earlier.

pale moonlight eranthis

After two rainy days of 55F (13C) weather the soil has thawed and the first winter aconites have broken the surface. I think they’re perfect and they should be fine even if winter does decide to come this year.

Now I’m all set.  Even though I spotted the first winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) breaking out of the earth this weekend I think winter will still make an attempt at cold before the robins can come home.  Today in between rain showers I put up the bird feeder, braced the pole against tipping out of the mucky quagmire of lawn it sits in, and drug a flat of primula seedlings into the workshop.  Now when the cold hits, repotting a flat of young primrose should be just the diversion for a dark winter evening.

Winter Ennui

From Merriam-Webster online; Ennui –  a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction : boredom

On this day after Christmas I’m missing winter.  Winter is a time of year which really needs some good press and I for one enjoy the clean crispness and simplicity of the season.  On the other hand this weather we’ve been having seems like an endless autumn, and those who read this blog may already know my lack of enthusiasm for that season.  If I was forced to rate seasons, autumn wouldn’t even make the top three.

home grown winter decorations

The front door did get some holiday attention this year with a homegrown selection of evergreens and bits from the woods.

Regardless of my feelings of ennui towards the garden, and my wish that the seasons would just move on with it, I have managed to get a few things done.  The Christmas lights and holiday decorations have never gone up as comfortably, and even though they’re a mismatched collection of leftovers and scavenged pieces they suit us just fine.

staghorn sumac winter decoration

Staghorn sumac (rhus typhina) seed heads catching the solstice light.

I often admit to ‘economizing’ my actions in the garden, and some equate this to laziness, but sometimes this leads to a few nice surprises.  Without freezing temperatures it was much easier to push evergreen boughs and branches into the soil of this summer’s planters rather than working out something new.  Imagine my surprise when on the  way out the door for Christmas dinner I was treated to the most perfect gerbera daisy rising up out of the dried debris.

winter gerbera

A single gerbera daisy welcoming Christmas.

I’ll admit a single daisy is not quite as thrilling as a hedge full of blooming camellias or sheets of early snowdrops but it does make the lingering autumn a little more tolerable.  Also making the autumn more tolerable are new bits of winter interest such as my growing evergreens and this nicely colored red-twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’) which a friend surprised me with.

dogwood cornus midwinter fire

‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood belongs to the tribe of redtwig dogwoods.  I love how the branches in the inner portion of mature plants get a yellow orange color while the ends turn darker red. 

The long autumn hasn’t been a complete bust.  Between leisurely bulb planting and leaf cleanup I’ve still managed to drag myself out for a few other small projects.  I finally removed the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) which anchored the end of the front border.

invasive burning bush

Bright autumn color wasn’t enough to save this wolf in sheep’s clothing.  There are other burning bushes (Euonymus alatus)  planted throughout the neighborhood but I’m not going to let this one contribute to all the invasive seedlings which have begun to show up.   

I can see why the bush did so well in this poor spot.  The roots became a thick fibrous mass in the six years it’s been here and I’m going to be on the lookout for root sprouts in this area over the next year or two.   

removing invasive burning bush

A prime clear spot in the front border. I promptly filled it with daffodils and tulip bulbs, yet will need to watch for burning bush seedlings and other invasives.  One of these is the Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) which still turns up three years after the mother plant was evicted.

What I should really get done is more bed prep.  Fall mulch and compost are the best things for this but my spirit is slightly broken in this regard.  This fall I did my usual whoring around in neighbor’s gardens, selling myself for far too cheap for the chance to take home some beautifully chopped autumn leaves.  It was all going well until I discovered my haul was missing.  Who had been watching and waiting to steal my treasure?  The six bags of mulch were tucked out of sight behind a large panicum clump next to the driveway just waiting to bless my compost pile with leaf mould goodness.  They were heavy.  I know that because I lugged them out of the neighbor’s backyard and jammed them into the back seat of my car to get them home. 

Long story (and several phone calls around town) ends up with the township yard waste collectors trying to “get ahead” in their collections.  They came up the driveway, found the bags, and hauled them away to the dump.  My only consolation after calling all over to “get my leaf bags back” is that I found out where free mulch is available, and if I can drive, lift, and lug for a few trips I might be able to ease the pain.  

preparing new flower beds in winter

Another bed expansion with a nice edging trench, leftover lawnclipping ready to spread to smother the turf, and a topping with township mulch.  Chopped leaves would have been nicer.  Just saying.

Other beds have been cleaned, other plants have been moved, bulbs are in, weeds are out.  There’s always plenty to do but my heart’s just not in it.  I’m moving into winter garden mode and hopefully between now and New Year’s I can get that set up properly.  Snowdrops are coming after all.

Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus Hiemalis Group ex Montrose

My first snowdrop for this year. I have it on authority it’s a Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus Hiemalis Group ex Montrose… unfortunately the label needs supersizing before I can update.

So that sums December up.  I hope it’s been a merry Christmas and I hope the holidays are going well for all, and here’s for a wonderful start to the new year!  Best wishes 🙂

Roadtrip to Long Island

Summer always seems to hit like a whirlwind around here, and during the season where the garden is changing and showing off more than ever the blog which is supposed to tell the story always enters a slump.  The gardener is busy outside of course, and posting about it falls to the wayside.   That’s bad though since going back through the pictures of seasons past is a favorite activity for the desolate dark days of winter and I need that sunny cheerful reminder to keep me going when icy cold locks up everything.  So let me apologize for the slowdown and also for the lack of visits to other blogs.  I still stop by of course and look, but more in a wallflower way taking it all in but not commenting… oh, and I’ll also apologize in advance if there are too many posts over the next few days.  I’m going to try and catch up and I hope I don’t seem like that other party person, the one who just goes on and on 🙂

avalon prairie stony brook

A prairie planting in Stony Brook NY

I grew up on Long Island and still return as much as I can to visit my parents and my brother’s family.  This last time while the kids were playing and others were visiting doctors and shopping, I snuck off alone for a visit to the Avalon Park and Preserve in Stony Brook, NY for a summertime peek at their fields of prairie plantings.  I was not disappointed.

field of heliopsis avalon stony brook

In mid July Heliopsis helianthoides  (false sunflower) dominates the former farm fields of Avalon.  Keep in mind this photo was taken from above since most topped out at around five feet!

This is North shore Long Island, gold coast, old money territory, and with a location approximately 40 miles out of Manhattan it’s retained much of its city escape feel.  Think Great Gatsby, and although most of the old mansions have either fallen to ruins or been leveled there are still plenty of old estates and gentleman’s farms.  Fences and gates usually separate the common people from these retreats but in this case several tracts were purchased and the gates were opened.

milkweed prairie avalon

Common milkweed dotted the prairie but I didn’t see a single nibbled leaf or monarch caterpillar.

Avalon is made up of three sections, Avalon Park is a manicured area with woodland plantings, walking trails, and art features, Avalon Preserve consists of hiking trails through woodland, old field hedgerows, and the prairie plantings, and East Farm Preserve is a Nature Conservancy property accessible through the Avalon sections.  The three parts combine to form a nice cross section of Long Island’s former wilder self.

paul simmons avalon stony brook

Paul Simmons memorial at Avalon Park and Preserve.

Although today the park is a peaceful oasis filled with children playing and friends strolling, the origins of the park are rooted in grief.  In 1996, 34 year old Paul Simmons was killed by automobile collision while cycling nearby.  To celebrate his life and love of the outdoors the park was created.  At the site of a former pre-park residential building a memorial for Paul has been built, with an adjacent meditation labyrinth.  On this visit art installations of colorful knit ‘tree sleeves’ and hanging patterns dotted the area.

avalon labyrinth stony brook

Meditation circle  

The park plantings, buildings, and care reflect a healthy park endowment and it’s not surprising considering that the father of Paul Simmons is one of the world’s wealthiest men.  James Simons is a math man who has translated his mathematical talents into the financial markets and stands somewhere in the 70-80 range of wealthiest people worldwide (around 30th for wealthiest Americans).  His story is a fascinating one, but his estimated 14 billion net worth surely hasn’t hindered park funding, and is always the subject of whispered stories in the three villages area of who works for his remarkably successful Renaissance Technologies and what their annual take home pay might be.

avalon park stony brook new york

A second residence on purchased park property has been transformed from a 1940’s ranch to a coastal New England style park office, ready for park foundation functions and always immaculately manicured. 

Coming down out of park brings you down to the Stony Brook mill pond.  This is the duck pond I loved visiting back in the day and is the power source for the Stony Brook grist mill (c.1751).  As recently as 1940 the mill was still carrying on the work of grinding local grains into flour and even today the wheels are put into motion on summer weekends for the sake of tourists. It’s an area rich in history from the sea captains who settled around the harbor, to the colonial farms which cover the rolling hills, to the Manhattan escapees who missed the train to the Hamptons and ended up here.

cormorant rookery stony brook

Cormorants nesting on a mill pond island.  These are relatively recent arrivals to the area,  only now recovering from their fish-robbing persecution from days gone by.

I love this area for its quiet waterfront peacefulness and many hidden treasures, but on this visit it was the flower filled fields which really made me smile.  On a still summer morning the low hum of thousands of native bumblebees visiting the flowers and the less-than-springtime-frantic chirping of songbirds really worked magic to calm the day.

Avalon prairie planting

Avalon prairie plantings.  Even with the heliopsis blooms dominating early summer, there were plenty of other native grasses and colorful perennials to carry on for the rest of the year. 

Good thing the day started out relaxed.  Summertime beach visits and afternoons spent barbequing can be so stressful 🙂

west meadow beach ny

Cousins exploring the salt marsh near West Meadow beach in Setauket, NY.

Now back to the garden.  We’ve been to Florida and back in the meantime and catching up in the garden has been an uphill battle against Japanese beetles and crabgrass…. but there’s been plenty of pool time too, so I really can’t complain!

Viva la summer 🙂

Taking a bite out of Crime

Since moving here six-ish years ago the garden has been growing by fits and starts.  There wasn’t much more than grass and foundation plantings here  -so beds were promptly carved out of lawn- but it’s possible I bit off a little more than I could chew.  Now don’t get me wrong, in my opinion restraint is something better saved for the day after your funeral (and for plant orders edited after you review your checkbook balance), and I don’t regret anything…. but I think it is time to finish chewing.

So here comes the story.

my backyard is a meadow

Spring 2008 was when we moved in. I really couldn’t see the point of cutting all that grass, so to the joy of my new neighbors (also inlaws btw) I left it to grow as meadow.  The uncut grass  went over really well (I think).  This was when ‘the queen of the prairie’ got her name, she was in the house as an estate sale leftover, but now you can barely make her out in the grass to the left.

After 40 years of wooded seclusion, the company owning the land behind our house chose the year after we moved in to begin construction on a new industrial park.  Trees were promptly cut down and bulldozers moved in.

kids love bulldozers

Kids love bulldozers. The previous fall was when I dumped dirt, planted daffodils, and the bed in question was born.

Don’t get teary eyed over the trees and earthmoving, bulldozers weren’t the worst thing that could happen to this land.  We’re talking about mine scarred land covered with tailings from the coal mines and a massive culm bank.  Industrial decay can be cool in photos, but less so in your own backyard.

construction site as my view

Another good thing about construction were the nice rocks salvaged from the site. Too bad my back gave out before I could lug up even more.

Fast forward to this summer and things have grown back up… too bad weeds have also grown up, and it’s downright criminal what the bed has become.

Annabelle hydrangea

The “Annabelle” hydrangea was just a homeless cutting. Four years later and it’s too nice to remove, but as for everything else?

Now is probably a good time to remind you of my blog’s subtitle “More than you ever wanted to know about my garden”.  I think we’ve reached that point, and to keep it short and sum it up;  July -about 50 clumps of daffodils dug, sunflower seeds planted, heavy grass clipping mulch applied.

sunflower seedlings

Better late than never, a planting of sunflower seedlings coming along on August 11th. Some rain would help since I hate dragging the hose out to this bed.

Finally to wrap things up the sunflowers are blooming and I’m trying to keep on top of the weeds.  A smarter person would have covered the whole bed with newspaper or cardboard, mulched over that, or sprayed for the weeds but I’m going to try and pull them as they show up.  Wish me luck.

late summer sunflower patch

It’s not the worst thing to have a few late season annuals. They seem to know enough to get a move on it and are blooming at a shorter height (a mere five feet)

The bees may not be impressed by them, but a few fully double sunflowers give it a nice Van Gogh feel.

double sunflower

This double sunflower looks fluffy enough to use as a pillow.

I just need to resist planting things here until the last of the weeds are killed off.  That won’t happen, but maybe I can at least keep it to a minimum 🙂