Friday, January 29, 2016

Hedges - friend or foe?

I love hedges - of any size.  I note them everywhere I go.  The homeplace where I grew up in the small town of Palmetto, Georgia, had formal hedges.  I say formal in the sense that they were tightly clipped and formed geometric lines in the garden separating our house from my grandmother's cottage.

But, these hedges were the bane of my mother's existence.  The reason?  They were made of privet, which grew way too fast to keep up with.  I remember our gardener Felix using hedge clippers in a seemingly endless effort to keep the plants tidy.  My mother complained that he spent more time on those hedges than everything else put together.

Mother and Daddy never got rid of the hedges, though.  For my brother and me, they made great places for hide and seek and chase.  There were two long rows which led to steps going down to Granny Smith's cottage.  The hedges made a right turn on each side and led over to shrub and tree borders.  If the hedges hadn't been there, you would have had a rectangular expanse of lawn.  Someone who lived in the house before my parents bought it in 1941 had created that formal garden.  I'm glad they did.

But, to address the reality of hedges.  When you first plant them, the pace of growth seems agonizingly slow.  It feels like it will take forever for the plants to close in and form an uninterrupted line.  Then, before you know it, the years pass, and you wonder if you have created a monster.

Hedges are high maintenance if you want to keep them perfectly clipped.  Here in the South, most tall hedges are formed from Burfordi holly (at least in Atlanta).  I like the hedges in Europe, many of which are clipped yew.  It's too hot for yew here, and we don't have a lot of choices for tall material that will actually come together so that they can be even on the sides and top.

Years ago, when we built this house, I wanted a hemlock hedge.  I finally got one - outlining a large rectangle of grass.  But the small trees kept dying and leaving gaps.  And, in the beginning, the branches were floppy. Finally, they did fill in, but you can guess what has happened.  They are now way, way too tall and unreachable.  One really needs a cherry picker to maintain them.

Along the way, I've had trouble with this hedge in one way or another.  One day, after they had grown to about ten feet tall, I asked the work crew to shear them down to eight feet.  The men, for some reason, took matters into their own hands.  I came home to find a double line of "lollipops."  Who could have guessed they'd do such a thing?  I could hardly breathe.  They had limbed up the trees, so that instead of a hedge to the ground, I had bare trunks with wild-looking green shoots pointing everywhere on top.

The truth is I now have a monster, sure enough.  Every week, I ask my mower and blower who is supposed to do other things, too, to trim the hedges from the top.  He always promises he'll bring his clippers on a pole "next week"  I don't even want to guess how tall these hemlocks are now.

On the other side of the house, though, I have some short hedges coming along nicely.  They are made of Korean boxwoods, which lend themselves to shearing.  They grow fast enough to form a hedge quickly, but they are pretty easy to control.  By contrast, I also have hedges made of English boxwoods.  They, by contrast, cannot be sheared and are irregular and difficult to get even.

In the photograph above,  the homeowner has used a bit of hedging to surround a fountain.  I love the contrast of the clipped lines against the ground covers and the looser shrubs.

I still know of a double hedge out in the country in what is now Chattahoochee Hills (near Palmetto). Those hedges lead from the road up to the front door of an old house.  They've been there for as long as I can remember, and they look great.  But, Mother would not think these people are wise.  The perfect hedges are made of - you guessed it - plain old privet.

Below, at my house:  In this view, the lollipops are less visible now that the "dwarf" (I think not!) English boxwoods have grown up.  A rambling rose and sweet autumn clematis cover the top on the right side, making clipping even more problematic.  The original zoysia lawn is long gone.  In its place is tiny, sharp-edged pea gravel.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Behind the garden bench

Oh, how I wish there had been digital cameras around when we were shooting A Gardener's Diary for HGTV.

When we taped our first episode in 1994 (our show launched with the channel on December 31,1994; actually, A Gardener's Diary aired the next day, January 1, 1995), cell phones were new and cumbersome (and crazy expensive per call).  Looking up information about a flower on the Internet wasn't possible.  To research plants we featured at the end of each episode, I used multiple catalogs and books to come up with a few short facts and to get the botanical name right.

HGTV required us to take still shots on color and black and white film and have them developed for promotional purposes (they never used a single photograph).   I mostly used those throwaway cameras for scouting so I could show garden scenes to my co-producer when I returned from a trip and also satisfy HGTV's requirement.  As a result, I have boxes of unusable photographs of gardens dating back to the mid-1990's.

But I digress.  The reason I so wish that affordable digital cameras had existed was because of all the great garden scenes I got to see.  We taped 240 episodes all over the country.  I was the main scout, so I would fly to a city and visit several gardens.  I saw so many incredible places with great design ideas that I would like to pass on to you.

In one of our episodes in California, there was a segment about how to place a garden bench.  This was an unusual garden, set on terraces carved out of a steep slope.  Basically, there were paths going zig-zag across the terrain with small vignettes along the way.

One such scene consisted of a bench set among pink David Austin roses ('Gertrude Jekyll', I think). The garden's owners/designers explained that a bench should always have a tall, solid plant in back of it so that when you are seated, you feel secure.

Now, this would not apply to every bench, but in the case of this one garden, you would want something behind you so you wouldn't have the sensation that you could fall backwards down a slope several hundred feet long.

But, I've always thought about that suggestion every time I've passed a garden seat of any kind.  I think there's a bit of truth in it, especially in my case.

My friend Benjie gave me a concrete bench in exchange for my designing his garden.  I was thrilled, because it became the perfect focal point for my arch garden.  You look down through the arches to see the bench at the end.

But, I need some backing.  I already have some uneven English boxwoods as a border atop a retaining wall that is around six feet tall.  There's really not a chance you'd fall over the wall, but I still want something in back of that bench.

You can see by the photograph, there is a 'Graham Stuart Thomas' English rose hovering over the seat.  This is coming from a tuteur in the corner where I plopped the rose after letting it languish in a container for two seasons.  The soil is rather poor, and the spot gets about half the sun needed by the rose.  Still, it gave me an idea of what I might do.  If I improved the soil, planted another 'Graham Stuart Thomas'  (or maybe two), and installed a sturdy free-standing trellis, I might get the effect I want.

Of course, I don't want to stick myself with thorns (not that I've ever spent more than two minutes on that bench), but I could move the bench out a bit.  If I ever did sit down long enough, I would be rewarded with a lovely scent.

I also love this rose - the weird yellow color just appeals to me.  The other day, before it dropped below freezing, it had two open blooms (we're talking January).  It's a great repeat bloomer, and if I treated the roses right, they might thrive.

There's only one thing.  You can barely see it in the photo, but a Japanese holly that grows quite tall came up volunteer next to the bench on the opposite side.  I've been clipping it so it will form a single, narrow shape.  I had once envisioned attaching it to a wide arch going over the bench.  I don't dare move it for fear I would kill it, so I'm not sure how I can cram this all in to one space.

But, all this gives me something to contemplate on this cold, sunny day.  I have a while to figure it out before I order the own-root roses from Pat Henry at Roses Unlimited in South Carolina.  And, where will I find a sturdy stand-alone trellis?  That's going to be difficult.  Maybe I can have it made if I can figure out what it should look like.  Just something else to dream about.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The garden: The pain of discipline vs. the pain of regret

The weeks before Christmas, as you know if you live in the eastern half of the country, were unusually warm.  Every so often, such a warm spell will occur (not as prolonged and hot as this one), causing the mid-season camellias to come into bloom.  This was the case in December.  All month long, I was able to keep the red blooms of 'Professor Charles S. Sargent' in cups on my silver service in the dining room.

But these weren't my flowers.  They were all purloined (I'm using that word to make me feel less guilty).  The first batch came from a serendipitous discovery I made near the garden I designed at our church (how did I have the temerity to do this when it involved tens of thousands of dollars worth of plants and the entire future of our Flower Guild?  I was not qualified!)

Anyway, I was checking on the condition of the plants we'd put in - lots of rain in November turned out to be a good thing; I don't think any of the roots drowned - when I noticed some bright red flowers next to a magnolia tree on the lot line.  Camellia japonica 'Professor Sargent'!  I admit I picked a few, rationalizing that the blooms would not be seen and thus not used or appreciated.  Then, I'll confess that I went back a second time in my church clothes and snipped a few more.

But that was it for stealing from the church.  My next adventure took me to the vacant lot on the hill above my house.  I was trolling for some variegated osmanthus (false holly, and it's painfully prickly, too) when I glanced over to my left and saw the red flowers.  'Professor Sargent'!

This time I felt it was okay to take the blooms.  No one as far as I know goes up there except for my dog and me.  I do pull ivy off the beautiful old trees up there, so I am rendering a service.

I loaded up on the red camellias to bring down to put on the silver service.  That's really a beautiful combination, I might add.

But, truth be known, I should have been picking my own 'Professor Sargent' camellias.  Long ago, maybe 20 years ago or longer, I bought a large 'Professor Sargent.'  I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't decide on a place to plant it, so I let it stay in its container year after year.  It would bloom -not a lot - and I would promise it over and over that I would find it the proper home.

I never did.

In 2006, when I thought I was going to have to sell my house, I let a woman come and take a lot of my shrubs.  She was a friend of my parents' in-home caretaker and crazy about plants.  I gave her several camellias and let her dig other plants (I can hardly stand to think of how much I let walk out of here).  She got the 'Professor Sargent', of course, and the 'White By the Gate' and the 'White Empress', among others.

I can't even imagine how large these camellias would have been by now.  I can only console myself that the spot I'd thought about for 'Professor Sargent' would have cut off the view I have of a lot of twisted trees my neighbor left after a mini-tornado hit us.  Also, I wouldn't get to see the deer caravans, as I call them, pass through.

Back in early November, we had a Sunday School teacher who told us that if you don't suffer the pain of discipline, you will inherit the pain of regret.  That's what happened to me way back when.  Had I made good, disciplined decisions, I would not have been stealing red flowers from other sources.  The camellias the woman took would have been much too large to dig, and I would have flowers galore now,

This blog serves as a perfect example of my bad habits.  I have neglected it for two months now, using the excuse of having to clean and decorate my house to get ready for company at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  How I feel the pain of regret in not sitting down to write.

So now, I must either adopt this new way of doing things, or sink back into the abyss of constant regret.  Already, I have been punished by the absentee neighbor's giant dead pine tree falling into my driveway and blocking any passage.  I still haven't received the bill from the nice man who rushed over here in the rain with his chain saw.

I hope I don't experience any such retribution from the church.

With this post, I am going to start my new life of discipline.  Even though I haven't finished taking the Christmas decorations to the basement, I am officially adopting this new idea of one pain vs. the other.  I keep hearing about people my age re-inventing themselves.  Well, here I go.  I am choosing the pain of discipline, and I look forward to being free from this very intense pain of regret!