Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fern Valley Northern Bog

This is not the best picture and that is not the most perfect Cornus canadensis flower of all time but it is flowering right now in the Northern Bog along the Main Trail in Fern Valley. That is something of an accomplishment. Bunchberry is a low creeping dogwood that is only listed as far south as USDA Zone 6; we are either a very high 7 (the general consensus), or a low 8 (my personal observation), and success with this plant is not common hereabouts.

We are growing it in a person made bog that we did a few years ago. To create it we excavated soil to a depth of about a foot, lined the excavation with a rubber pond liner, removed the middle of the bottom so that water could slowly drain in the event of prolonged periods of high rainfall (like this spring). Then we filled it with a mixture of sphagnum peat (both long fibered and standard horticultural) and quartz sand. We have been planting it ever since.

I am a person who goes to a lot of gardens and "bogs" were features that were quite hot for a while and may still be. This bog is working better than any of the other "created" bogs that I am aware of. We are developing a pretty good cover of Sphagnum moss, which is, of course, the predominant plant in most northern bogs, as well as the substrate in which the other plants grow. We have two cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon, that need to be pruned diligently lest they take over the entire bog. There are carnivores, both Sarracenia and Drosera. And there are a host of other northern species that are doing well so far: Twinflower, Labrador Tea, Rhodora, Leatherleaf, Crowberry, Aletris, Calopogon, Linnea, and, actually, a few more I am not remembering. You can't miss the bog; its abuts the left side of the main trail (by the Fern Valley sign across from the Parking Area) about 100' in from the road.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Christmas in May....Northern native plant windfall

If you are a regular visitor to Fern Valley, you have undoubtedly noticed the construction that is underway now and has been going on since last winter! The ultimate object of it all is to make as much of the trail system as we can accessible to as many people as possible. This involves resurfacing trails and adjusting level and grade. To achieve a reasonable grade in the Northern Woods section, the big bridge was raised resulting in its lengthening (to ~100'!). Two other bridges in that section were redone. The trail system is nice back there now, and the view from the newly uplifted bridge emphasizes parts of the collection that had previously not been particularly noticeable. We began to address these areas this spring by transferring propagations of plants that we already had in other areas. But wonderful plants were to arrive almost out of the blue; serendipity is a good thing.

Stefan Lura, the new Plant Records Botanist, resident rose expert (he would be the resident rose expert anywhere he went), and general plant fanatic, commissioned his parents to harvest native plants from their property in Minnesota. The bounty arrived Friday in the rain. In the picture Stefan is unpacking and rigorously inspecting the material to see if it was properly chosen and packed. I am kidding......sort of. Actually, Stefan did mention that his father, an engineer, had developed, just as an intellectual exercise, several innovative techniques and procedures for packing live plant material. They were useful here; everything arrived in perfect condition. There is a list somewhere to the right.

I am excited about Cornus rugosa, a plant who's virtues, Stefan, will extol at the drop of a cornus reference. Also Rosa blanda, whether it is a hybrid or not has retained beautiful red winter color in it's stems. We have been working on increasing our numbers of Ostrya, Joan wanted an Amalanchier laevis, and Carex albursina promised to be a great plant. Plenty of new material for the now irrestibly accessible North Woods.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Royal Ferns etc.

Hey, it is Fern Valley after all. Spring has alternated between cool and hot but it has been cooler far more than it has been hot. And there has been plenty of rain. Good fern weather. And the ferns are spectacular. Click on the picture above, Royal Ferns, Osmunda regalis. This is a nice large fern with a different texture than Cinnamon or Ostrich ferns. There are nice stands of them along the stream above the Fern Valley Pond, and between the Pond Steps and the low bridge, also a nice group on the road across from the Parking Area. I put this fern in designs because I like both the strong form of the plant and the curious texture. I have only planted it twice myself. Once would have been in about 1972 or so at my Parents' house and then again here in Adelphi about 15 years ago. The literature does make mention of the fact that it is relatively slow to establish; which must be the most shameless understatement of all time. Admittedly neither plant is in an "optimum location", and after a quarter of a century or so, both are respectable plants but still, I think I could establish a glade of Ostrich or Cinnamon Fern while I was waiting for a mature plant of Royal Fern, or possibly carpet an acre with New York or Hay Scented Ferns. But the wait is worth the time. It is a wonderful plant and won't overrun your least in your lifetime. Which is good.

Spring continues in Fern Valley; on the Coast Plain Magnolia ashei is producing its large fragrant blossoms (there is a picture to the right). Across the road Lonicera sempervirens Sulphurea is covered with yellow-gold tubular flowers (another picture). If you walk up the road towards the parking lot you will pass under Cladrastis kentuckea, the American Yellowwood, a very nice flowering tree native to a very small range in the SE, but adaptable to large portions of the country. Grey bark and fragrant white flowers will identify it for you. Also on the right side, walking still uphill, and overhanging the road is Styrax americana, with fragrant pendant white flowers.

Things are happening everywhere and it is worth while to walk the paths alongside the stream. Various Asarums and Hexastylis are flowering above the path on the south side of the stream. Below the steps at the Pond and on the left hand side, Trillium discolor has lovely clear yellow colors and nicely mottled leaves. And ferns are everywhere. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fern Valley Volunteers and Staff visit the British Embassy

I guess sometimes things do work out for everybody, though it definitely doesn't seem like it happens all that often. The British Embassy hired Jim Adams from the National Arboretum about three years ago and they could not have possibly understood what a wonderful decision they had made. Every time you hire someone you think they will make a great difference, that they will turn everything around, fix all the mistakes that have been made in the past and carry you gloriously into the future. It usually doesn't happen. Hey, it almost never happens. And you know what, the percentage of people who end up exceeding your wildest dreams is infinitesimally small.

Well.....Jim Adams has made changes at the British Embassy that they could not have even dreamed of. I have to admit that I stopped visiting the Embassy almost 20 years ago. They had, then, a nice rose garden, a confused herb garden, a perennial border that was okay, but sort of out of control. And they had the typical Washington downtown landscape, that included too much English Ivy, many uninteresting evergreen shrubs pruned too heavily and planted too closely together. Assorted trees planted almost randomly. It was pleasant but.........It really wasn't worth the trip. Thats not true anymore.

The confused herb garden is transitioning into a classic potager. The roses, particularly the climbers have never looked better. Overgrown, outdated beds are being transformed. Plantings that have had issues for years and years, for example the small Cornus allee off the back of the house will finally realize their potential. Masses of bulbs and good woodland perennials have been added for spring interest. 1/4 acre of bamboo has been transformed into a tidy cutting garden, dozens and dozens of bush honeysuckles are gone, Hedera helix had been pretty much eliminated from the landscape. In three years, a neglected uninteresting garden has not only been resuscitated but has moved towards the cutting edge. I can''t wait to see it next year and the year after.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I can't help myself...I love this place

I usually come to work early and drive around looking for interesting or beautiful things. If I have time I get out and walk a little, but today this incredible sunrise stopped the car in its tracks. Low clouds on the horizon diffused the sun but left enough rays intact to suffuse the pooled fog with golden light. Even the dandelion seedheads in the foreground are lit like little suns. (The pictures in the posts are clickable) It was transporting; for a few minutes I wasn't at the Arboretum. Then, for better or worse, photography brought me back. And I didn't even do a very good job; the picture is hopelessly inadequate....but, the Universe sometimes rewards early risers. I guess today was my day.

This is the flip side of the ellipse at the Arboretum. If you look closely below the crook of my wrist (which is shielding the camera from the direct glare of the just risen sun), you can see a column or two in the distance. Of course we worked in the shadows of the columns yesterday and if you scroll down and compare the quality of light...morning sun is the best.

The Ellipse is one of the areas that has received a good deal of well deserved attention over the past few years. Much of it has centered around The Flowering Tree Walk, an element of the Master Plan that is essentially a paved walking path planted with mostly flowering trees that parallels the roads inside the perimeter of the ellipse and provides pedestrian access to those collections adjacent to the ellipse. In preparation for installation of the section between the Herb Garden and the Capitol Columns there was a major reconfiguration of topography that included the construction of two bio-retention basins. Next, portions of the Walk were installed that linked The Herb Garden with the Columns on one side of the Ellipse and the Azalea Garden on the other side. Decisions were made about existing trees; most stayed, some went. Woody weeds in the "meadow" portions were addressed. Existing trees were pruned and cleaned up. Now another portion of the Walk is being installed continuing from the Columns to a new entrance to Fern Valley through the Fern Valley Meadow. Hey if you had a vague feeling that the grounds of the Arboretum looked better lately, you were right!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Jeanette Plants 'Pink Crystals'...Group Planting Project 5/5

We're back at the Capitol Columns. Still working on that big oval between the road and the columns. This time we're planting a tropical hot (for us, but cool in S. Africa) season grass, Melinus nerviglumis 'Pink Crystals'. I don't like writing about a plant I don't know but since nobody else outside of California seems to know this grass, I'll just summarize what I have learned. It is a small grass with blue-green foliage, which we have already seen. It flowers sometime in the summer with what are described as iridescent ruby pink blooms that "sit about a foot above the foliage." Sounds great. Can't wait. Hardy only in USDA Zone 9 and higher, we don't anticipate it returning next year. We have planted it to fill in the area this year until the Schizachrium scoparium and the Amsonia hubrechtii come into their own. Next year they will take over. Interestingly, after a month the Schizachrium looks like it has always been here; it has grown a bit and sits brooding as though waiting for summer while the Amsonia, the 70% of it that has lived, though small, looks bright green and newly planted. Despite the fact that a lot of Amsonia has died, I am confident that there is more than enough left to fill the space it was intended to fill.

This is a group project that includes the efforts of gardeners and interns. Two days a week we focus our combined efforts on selected areas. Over the last several years we have accomplished a lot using this scheduling format. We have renovated the plantings around the Administration Building, done a lot of tree planting, planted roses along New York Avenue, done a remarkable amount of invasive plant removal, and cleaned up many overgrown "Uncurated Areas" (areas outside the purview of any individual curator). These projects have helped change the general appearance of the Arboretum; it has morphed from being a site that clearly was neglected into a collection of better maintained, interesting gardens sited on a campus that, though it clearly needs attention, doesn't look abandoned anymore. If there is a down side to the projects, it is the fact that the participants (us) are not in their "assigned collections" when they/we are doing the projects. Peter to pay Paul and all that. Still on balance the whole place looks better than it did. If we can keep the collections up it will be all good. There are not that many of us though.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Spanish Moss and Yellow Bananas

I couldn't find an image of the copse of Live Oaks, Quercus virginiana, in the National Grove of State Trees at the Arboretum. I took this picture in Georgia at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. Since this is the Georgia State Tree, I guess it is appropriate to have a picture from Georgia. The trees in the picture are bigger than ours; actually, if they were cannibalistic, those trees could eat our trees for an appetizer . Our tallest tree is not 30 feet tall. The point of the picture is that Live Oaks and Spanish Moss go together. Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides is a rogue member of the Bromelliad family. While eschewing the vase structure typical of the family, choosing instead this mossy trailing form, it does retain the epiphytic habit. Anyway, returning from Florida three weeks ago, I brought back a big bag of Spanish Moss from the Wildwood garden, with the intention of adorning the Live Oaks in the Grove. Well...spring is a busy time of year for a gardener and there were more pressing issues, but this is going to be the week.

I have done this before, that is brought back Spanish Moss, and kept it with fairly good success. Obviously we are a bit north of it's preferred range, but it has overwintered for me before and if winters get warmer and warmer, who knows. The Plants Database is a wonderful website from the USDA. Actually it isn't wonderful, its better than wonderful. It's incredible. I use it constantly. It does have one feature that, completely inexplicably........Well, the distribution maps often just make you want to scratch your head or sometimes laugh. I guess we all have our Achilles Heels. But this time I am liking what I am seeing. Maryland is green signifying that there is some documentation somewhere? that Spanish Moss exists in Maryland (Cedarville Swamp??).If it can live in Maryland, I can keep it alive in the heat island that is the District of Columbia. Maybe. For a year or two. Actually I typically lose most of what I put out to nesting birds; obviously if it were really hardy they would just be spreading it around. Still I will keep trying.

So the big bag of moss is sitting outside the front door where I won't be able to miss it tomorrow morning. I did a variety of gardening tasks this weekend; one involved unpotting a Musella lasiocarpa, Chinese yellow banana, that has been in an 18" pot for the last two years. I put the mother plant in the ground, planted one pup?, stuck another into a pot to do something with, and I will bring the rest of them to work to give away, so I have a box and a bag to take tomorrow.


This is the same bed as Friday, just moving a bit to the left. Some Germander is still visible top right. The Opuntia is cool. I got it from Sandy's Plants (outside of Richmond). Sandy's, as she admits, is a great example of a hobby gone wildly out of control and one of my favorite nurseries. I haven't been down there for a while, but it is worth the trip. If you do go, make a day of it and go to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Sandy also wholesales and her plants are on the benches at a number of nicer nurseries in the area. When I bought this cactus, there were ~30 taxa of hardy cacti there! At the MANTS show this spring (a giant horticultural trade show) I stopped at Sandy's booth and they don't have that insane variety of cacti anymore, but they do carry more than a few. They are on top of trends; they have interesting new plants you will be hard put to locate other places. And to top it all off you get to drive the Gators. You can't beat that. Good website too, which you ought to check before going as her weekend hours are variable, well at least complicated.

But I digress. (short attention span) The yellow flowers in the picture are Hieracium maculatum, or Spotted hawkweed. This is a plant I allow to seed about in this bed and to a lesser degree other places. I know that I have an irrational fondness for hawkweeds that few others share, and that some (most?) people will look at those flowers and think dandelion and say no, but...The basal tufts of spotted foliage are beautiful, and I like the drifting effect of the yellow flowers on relatively long scapes. This bed has a yellow/gold and blue foliage thing going on so with bluish leaves and yellow flowers, it fits in perfectly. Controlled reseeding is looked on favorably in my gardens. Every hardy plant that isn't sterile has the potential to reseed, and most eventually do but when I think of my "reseeders" I'm considering mostly small short-lived plants. To the right there is a list of some I am particularly fond of. Lilium regale isn't short-lived, but it is interesting how easily it seeds, and it is a plant I feel it way underused.