Color on the edge – Gardening on Rocky Outcrops

Celandine

Celandine Poppy

Who could believe we’d get so excited about gardening on the rocks!  At the new property in Shelburne we have some rocky ledges and I can’t wait to plant them with color.  After living in the heart of the Champlain Valley for 15 years (90% fine glacial clay, 90′ down) this type of geologic formation is a rare treat for us, but very similar to the terrain I grew up with in Maine.

In addition to the plants in the photos below here are My Top 10 Plants I plan to include in the dry shade of our zone 4 wooded slope: 1) Asarum canadense, 2) Dicentra eximia, 3) Carex pensylvanica, 4) Heuchera villosa, 5) Lathyrus, 6) Phlox stolonifera, 7) Polygonatum, 8) Tiarella, 9) Violas, and 10) Waldsteinia.

We put in a few thousand bulbs into our outcrop this fall and I will post photos when they bloom, but until then here are a few slopes I’ve photographed over the years to serve as inspiration.

Pasque Flower Pulsatilla

Pulsatilla (Pasque Flower) is a fleeting fancy in early May but works in well drained gravel soils

wild columbine rock ledge creeping phlox

Aquilegia canadensis and Phlox subulata are two of our early bloomers that are happiest in nooks and crannies.

 

 

Callirhoe Poppy Mallow stone wall

Callirhoe (Poppy Mallow) begins to flower in June after the spring rush, needs good drainage and full sun.

hillside ferns wooded slope

by July we all need some soothing relief from the heat – a mix of ferns in dappled shade does the trick – Dryopteris filix-mas (Male Fern), Dryopteris marginalis (Eastern Leather Wood Fern) and Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) will all creep slowly to form a colony on slopes.

 

 

 

Embracing The Simple Plan

groundcover combination Geranium Rozanne Carex Metasequoia

Keep it simple and solve a problem – Great plant combination with three elements – Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’, and Dawn Redwood ‘Ogon’

Linden L.A.N.D. Group has grown and evolved much over the last 10 years, and has developed into a company that last year serviced 70 Garden Care clients and designed/built 35 new Landscape Projects.  Looking forward we already have nine projects lined up for 2015 and several more in the design phase.

After a year of huge transition (moving the business to Shelburne, then designing and building a new net-zero house on the same property; and finally finishing our 15-year labor of love historical farm renovation in Addison which will go on the market in April) we have decided to simplify.  Moving is an intense experience for most and for us the process stimulated an evaluation of what was important for our family, and the realization that we need to make more time to enjoy our lives together (and our own gardens). To this end we have decided to focus the business primarily on new design/build projects (plantings and stonework), and to stop providing maintenance services.  We are calling it the Simple Plan – for each choice we are faced with we ask “does it keep it simple and solve a problem?”  everything runs through its gauntlet from our business structure and our marketing efforts to how we spend our non-working hours.

As a result you will see some changes on our blog this year.  I will still write the occasional thesis on ecological landscape design requiring extra joe, but the rest of the time I will keep it brief – photos of favorite plant combinations, quick garden tips, what’s happening in the barnyard, backyard and fields, as well as projects in progress.   So, here’s to the simple plan.  It goes against my nature but will preserve my sanity, and possibly yours too.

Waiting for Spring

I’ve been out for my regular tromp through our Vermont Clayplain fields and forest, enjoying fresh snow and the animal tracks that cross my path. Yet, as far as I’m concerned Spring couldn’t come soon enough – I miss the colors, fragrance and humm of my garden. So I’ve been surfing the blogs of other garden writers that appreciate Native plants, pollinators, and the joy that comes from incorporating them into gardens.

Marsh Marigold in Monkton, VT

Marsh Marigold in Monkton, VT

Today I was pleased to see that Houzz included a post by Heather Holm (on my list of authors I would love to have a cup of coffee with) about Caltha palustris, a fabulous plant that’s important for native bees, and one of our first signs of spring.  I think it’s encouraging that Houzz is picking up progressive content like this – 3 cheers.  Enjoy and may we feel some sunshine soon.

http://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/42840525/list/great-design-plant-caltha-palustris-is-a-welcome-sign-of-spring

Cool Plants for Hot Spaces, Patios and Parking Lots

Our Champlain Valley clay soil can swing from wet as a swamp to dry as a brick, so we’ve become well versed in plants that can handle both extremes, as well as the occasional black thumb.  Many of the species adapted to these conditions have the ability to close off their pores – very helpful when spring floods cause temporary inundation.  In addition to being both wet and dry in a single season our clay soils are also alkaline (up to 8.0 pH) due to the limestone that lies beneath.  Here are some plants I use in difficult spots, such as parking lots and hot dry courtyards, that also tolerate alkaline clay in our typical Champlain Valley gardens.  Many of them come from North Creek Nurseries and American Beauties Native Plants:

Trees –

  • Cotinus ‘Grace’ (Cotinus obovatus x C. coggygria)
  • Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar),
  • Ostrya virginiana (Ironwood),
  • Quercus macrocarpa (Bur Oak),
  • Thuja occidentalis (Northern white cedar)

 

Shrubs -
  • Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ (Red Chokeberry)
  • Diervilla lonicera ‘Copper’ (low-bush honeysuckle),
  • Hypericum kalmianum (St. Johnswort)
  • Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Sweetspire)
  • Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac),
  • Juniperus communis ‘Blueberry Delight’,
  • Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Center Glow’ (eastern ninebark)

Grasses –

  • Sporobolis heterolepsis (Prairie Dropseed),
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ (Switch Grass),
  • Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ (little bluestem)

Perennials/Groundcovers  –

  • Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’,
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed),
  • Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’,
  • Baptisia australis (blue false indigo),
  • Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Summer Nights’ (false sunflower),
  • Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae (New England Blazing Star),
  • Rudbeckia triloba (Three-lobed coneflower)

7 Great Echinaceas for VT

Echinacea-CMBG

Echinacea at CMBG

Echinacea is one of our favorite plants for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden in July and August.  Twenty years ago most gardeners in the Northeast had never even heard of Echinacea. Then in 1998 Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ with its extra-large, rosy-purple flowers, and long bloom time, was named Perennial Plant of the Year by the perennial Plant Association.  For the next 10 years we saw the occasional new variety, selections of Echinacea purpurea in shades of pink to white, a pretty but limited palette.

Then a half-dozen savvy plant breeders started to produce colorful hybrids – crosses among three of the nine native species in the genus: Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), and Blacksamson coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) – and voila, gardener hysteria ensued.  Plain purple turned into every color of the rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, white, and even crazy double deckers.  Within five short years we went from having a handful of varieties to over 60 to choose from!!

Species vs. hybrids

Echinacea_pallida

Echinacea pallida

Given the right growing conditions (dry, rocky, fire-prone grasslands) some of the straight species including Echinacea pallida (pale pink drooping petals) and Echinacea tennesseensis (upturned petals) perform better than the hybrids in tough hot spots and naturalize well.  However, here in the Champlain Valley we have rich, wet clay so we are better off sticking with Echinacea purpurea which prefers damp or even wet prairies and has a fibrous root system versus the taproot of the drier soil adapted species.  When we are designing pollinator meadows there are arguments for sticking with the straight species (see the blog post ‘Nativars’), but there are also scenarios when a design benefits greatly from bold color, even if it comes from a native hybrid, so the trick is choosing which of the 60 varieties is best for our gardens.

Top 7 Hybrids for VT

I’ve waded through the results of the Mt. Cuba Center Echinacea research trial and will list here the best coneflowers that are hybrids of Echinacea purpurea for you to try – one for each color, along with some tips for growing them successfully.  These varieties were selected based on their longevity, habit, and disease resistance.  Some of them can be difficult to find locally so I’ve listed a runner-up as well.  Here we go:

Purple – short 20″ – ‘Pixie Meadowbright’ – compact clump, fragrant, repeat bloomer June-Sept, can be grown in a container or at the front of the border.

Purple – medium/tall 36-40″ – ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Ruby Star’ – similar to Magnus but taller and more vigorous, with a bold, brighter effect than other varieties

White – ‘Fragrant Angel’ – double rows of petals are held horizontally. The tall, vigorous plants are strongly branched and flower profusely all summer long.  Makes a great cut flower, (runner-up ‘White Swan’)

Yellow – ‘Sunrise’ – dense form, rose scented, citron yellow flowers blooms all summer, central cone changes from green to gold, tight mounded foliage.

Orange – ‘Tiki Torch’ – 24″ stocky plants, pumpkin-orange, fragrant bloom July-Sept.  (runner-up is ‘Sundown’, but not as cold-hardy, can be prone to flop and ‘aster yellow disease’)

Lime – ‘Green Envy’ – very unusual, flowers open green with green centers and with time, develop the typical coneflower rose-purple tones at the base giving an interesting ever-changing display. (‘Coconut Lime’ is also worth trying for its double decker form).

Red Double – ‘Red Papaya’ progresses from a single pale orange flower to a bright orange-red shaggy mop-head flower.

Echinacea 'Sundown' at Linden Farm

Echinacea ‘Sundown’ at Linden Farm

To learn more about both the native Echinaceas and the interspecific crosses you can read Bill Cullina’s very informative post on the subject.

Want fewer Mosquitoes? Add Shagbark Hickories

Little Brown Bat

Little Brown Bat

When we first moved to the farm in 2000, I was amazed by how many bats also called the barnyard home.  They would swoop down from the trees 20-30 at a time, darting swiftly back and forth, never colliding.  They didn’t bother me because I knew that they were playing a vital role – gobbling over 1,000 mosquitoes, moths, and other nighttime insects per hour!

Then our bat sightings began to dwindle, and our population may have been affected by White Nose Syndrome, which was a disease discovered in Vermont in 2007.  By 2010 I didn’t see a single one.  Then just last year we saw a handful, and now we have hope that they are on the rebound.

So what can you do to help bats in your own yard?

  • Minimize disturbance to natural bat habitats around your home (e.g., minimize outdoor lighting, minimize tree clearing, protect streams and wetlands).
  • Construct homes for bats

The Indiana bat is one of two federally endangered animals found in Vermont and their summer range in Vermont is limited to the southern Champlain Valley, from West Haven to Hinesburg.  The Indiana bat roosts under the loose bark of mature trees, unlike the more common little brown bat that roosts in man-made structures like buildings and bridges. Female Indiana bats also bear and raise their young in roost trees.

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickories are favorite roost trees for Indiana bats because of its peeling bark after approximately 20-30 years of age.  Shagbark hickorys are slow growing but long lived, and a properly managed stand is an investment in bat conservation for hundreds of years.  As a bonus the nuts are edible, and provide good mast for wildlife.

Shagbark Hickories should be planted with direct southern exposure for the best solar heating. In order to make an ideal roost tree, the shagbark hickory should have the lower branches removed to a height of 20 to 30 feet or more. This reduces the threat of predation.

Planting tips – Ideally, Shagbark Hickories of various ages (seedlings to 10′ tall or more as available) should be planted so the stand is sustainable.  They have a large tap root that makes it difficult to transplant after the tree is more than 2 or 3 years old, so start with small seedlings, or plant your own overwintered nuts as soon as the snow melts in spring.  Once the taproot is established they will begin to grow faster and can reach 30′ high in ten years.  If you need help locating or planting seedlings let us know.

Banishing Ugly Rainbarrels with ARD

ARD Koch LA

10th@ Hoyt Courtyard, Portland OR, Koch LA

The term “Stormwater Management” sounds so dark and menacing.  The up and coming term ARD, which stands for “Artful Rainwater Design” is much more positive and hopefully it will also mean fewer ugly rain barrels.  It’s high time we start treating water in our designs as art, and not just a problem to be solved, both in residential landscapes, municipal projects, and commercial LEED building landscapes (the Sustainable Sites Initiative v2 will award points for ARD).

These new water management techniques can use rainwater to create amenities that enhance a site’s attractiveness or value. This concept–“artful rainwater design”–both addresses stormwater management in environmentally responsible ways and creates expressive landscapes that celebrate stormwater.  A wonderful resource for brainstorming how to incorporate ARD into landscape design is www.artfulrainwaterdesign.net, a project initated by Stuart Echols, an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Penn State.  The site is organized into four categories of features: bioretention, walking trail, conveyance and sculpture.

There are lots of examples of ARD in Europe for us to learn from as well, both ancient (think Greek and Italian) and new.  This sidewalk in Malmo, Sweden uses stormwater captured on the neighboring rooftop in an artful way that enhances the pedestrian experience during a rain event.  The creativity goes on and on, let’s hope it takes hold here in the Northeast as well.

Swedish Rain Runnels

Swedish Rain Runnels

 

Raising Hardy Pastured Pigs in VT

Tamworth Berkshire piglets

George and Walter, two of our pastured piglets

In the beginning of June we buy 2-3 weaned piglets that are about eight weeks old from a few local breeders in Addison County, including Alethea Bahnck who owns a farm in Bridport.  She started a bit of an heirloom pastured-pig revolution here (her talks at the NOFA-VT conferences are always well attended), and we’re all fortunate to have access to the offspring of her efforts.  Her pigs are a Tamworth-Bershire cross, both of which are an old British breed.  She also tries to match her method of raising them as close to their social habits in the wild as possible, such as letting the sows farrow singly in the woods, and grouping the teenager piglets into wandering herds.  It’s a world away from the intensive pig farms where 5,000 animals never leave a concrete floor, and we are grateful.

Tamworths are red-haired, and adapted to cold climates and are very good at foraging on pasture and in woods.  Tamworths have very distinct personalities; they are intelligent and playful and enjoy the company of their human counterparts. They also have a reputation for producing the best bacon, but their lean meat makes the entire pig ideal for taste and health reasons as well.  If you’re considering raising them be aware that they also love to wander.  Despite solid fencing, I have spend more than one evening tromping up the hedgerow with a flash light to find the waywards, and even once had to stop traffic to herd 200-pounders back home that were on a neighborhood acorn tasting tour.

Some piglets show more of their Bershire traits

Our piglets last year showing more Bershire

Berkshires are black-haired, and are prized for the high quality of their meat.  Berkshire pork has recently earned the reputation as the next Kobe beef, enjoyed in the best restaurants for the same reasons the House of Windsor adopted it as their swine of choice over 300 years ago.  Berkshire pork is fatter and darker than the pork you buy in the store, and it remains rich and juicy when cooked.

The cross of the Tamworth and Berkshire breeds creates a perfect pasture-pig for Vermont – piglets are hardy, resourceful and size up by late November.  Sometimes the piglets look more like Tamworths (like George and Walter) and sometimes they look more like Bershires (like Jelly Bean and Licorice in the photo above).

The real challenge with pastured pigs is that they like to root up pasture, like all of it, which can be an advantage if you’re trying to till an area, but a disadvantage if your sheep want to keep grazing the clover.  So we don’t put them on the permanent pasture with the sheep.  Instead they get their own pasture, and once they tear up a whole section we rake it out and re-seed it with a hog pasture mix and some Mammoth Red Mangels from Johnny’s Seeds.  They also get a local natural grain, and they get windfall apples from the orchard.  Their favorite thing of course is the left-over croissant dough and veggie scraps from The Vergennes Laundry bakery – we supply them with eggs and get all their amazing compost.  Lucky piggies indeed.

Once they reach 200 pounds around six months of age, and our root cellar is cold enough to be used for chilling, we humanely slaughter the pigs here on-farm, and then we butcher and process the meat here as well.  See a related blog post “The Art of Pork” about how we process sausage, bacon and hams.  We’re always happy to share our experiences with others, so let us know if you have questions or you’d like to visit the farm.

Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden-winged Warbler

golden winged warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

I can’t help it, every time I hear the term “Shrubland Birds”, I think of the quote from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail – “First you must find… another shrubbery!”  Jokes aside, shrubland really is important.  It’s essential habitat for hundreds of species in Vermont including a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), the Golden-winged Warbler.

Shrubland habitat in the Champlain Valley

Shrubland Habitat in the Champlain Valley

Shrubland is early successional forest, which consists of thickets of shrubs and woody cover, interspersed with grassy and herbaceous openings.   A mixture of short and tall shrubs, with scattered trees and herbaceous openings is ideal.  This habitat can often be found on old fields or lightly grazed pastures on farms in the Champlain Valley.  Right down the road from our new Shelburne property is Geprags Park, which is currently being managed to promote early successional shrubland habitat.  The town of Hinesburg, in partnership with Audubon VT and UVM, have put together a great birding trail which I look forward to walking this spring.

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

Shrubland birds other than the Golden-winged warbler are also in danger – specifically the American Woodcock, the black-billed cuckoo, whip-poor-will, the chestnut-sided warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, Canada warbler, Eastern towhee, and indigo bunting (Hunter et al. 2001).  Populations of American Woodcock have declined about 2% a year for the past thirty-eight years (Kelley and Rau 2006).  In Vermont, the American woodcock was placed in the highest priority conservation status.  Hopefully conservation of shrublands will help rebuild the population of American Woodcocks so more of us can witness their air dance, or mating ritual in April – I’ve heard it’s quite a show.

But it’s not just birds that need shrubland – there are over 200 vertebrate species that rely on it including the Eastern cottontail, and the bobcat (in search of rabbits as prey), and bear in search of plants and berries.  There are also rare snake species that use shrublands for cover such as the Eastern racer, rat snake, and green snake.  Pollinators use shrublands for food, breeding and resting stops along their migration routes.

So why are all these species in trouble?  Shrubland isn’t very popular.  It often gets labelled as “wild overgrowth” and is symbolic of farms in decline, (as in, “oh they’ve really let that one go”.)  But where one person might see neglect, another person might see a home, and with the knowing comes caring.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for conservation-minded landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on their private agricultural and forest land.  The federal program is funded through the Farm Bill by NRCS, which is part of the USDA.  The VT NRCS wrote a WHIP Plan in 2007 which outlines conservation goals and strategies for enhancing Aquatic and Riparian habitats, Wetland habitats, Grassland and Old Fields, and Forest Habitats.

Specifically WHIP has incentives for protecting shrubland birds, and Agencies are joined in these efforts by many other Regional and State groups including the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, VT Audubon (Champlain Valley Bird Initiative), and the VT Land Trust.

If you want to learn more about how to manage your shrublands as habitat, funding is available for southwestern Chittenden County, western Addison County and northwestern Rutland County.  The annual deadline is at the end of January, so you have plenty of time to do a bit of research to see if the program is right for you, and then apply.  Contact Heather at the Colchester, VT USDA Service Center for more information.

Heather Wetzstein
Phone: 802-951-6796 ext. 223
Email: heather.wetzstein@vt.usda.gov

Can you really have a Native Lawn?

white house lawn

The White House Lawn

Lawns, hmmmm. There isn’t an issue in the landscaping world that’s more charged with dogma  and drama than lawns.  It may be due to our inability to separate the lawn from its historical symbolism of wealth and status.  Having a lawn meant that you didn’t need that space to grow crops to feed your family, and that you had the leisure time to use a lawn for strolling and lawn games.  In the post-war era the creation of suburbia included a small lawn for every family as a status equalizer.  Today most families can afford such small luxuries as lawns, and their existence in the landscape is assumed mandatory.  What’s changing (slowly but surely) is our definition of the lawn, its size, shape and role in the landscape.  Let’s look at these four trends:

Lawns are going Organic – The “natural lawn” movement is rooted in an increased appreciation of the environmental costs of traditional lawn care practices (phosphorous, pesticide and herbicide runoff, carbon emissions, lack of biodiversity, etc.).  Thanks to the work of many organizations including SafeLawns.org, and the like-minded NOFA Organic Land Care practitioners that followed, many lawns have been transitioned to an organic maintenance system.  In Vermont we also have some great programs helping to keep Phosphorous out of Lake Champlain, including the collaborative Lawn-to-Lake program.

Personally, we’ve never had irrigation or applied anything to our lawn here in Addison and after 13 years I think it’s still beautiful.  It’s green all season long partly because there’s nice wet clay underneath and partly because we let the clover grow (a wonderful nitrogen fixer and drought tolerant), and the dandelions do their thing (amazing deep rooted aerators).  I’m sure a Victorian gardener would roll over in her grave, but it works for us.

native_lawnLawns are going Native – at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ecologist Mark Simmons has been leading research on a mixture of drought-adapted native grasses that cut down on mowing, watering, weeding and feeding. These fine-leafed species grown together form a dense lush lawn that takes less effort to maintain a lawn of mixed native turf grasses than a non-native lawn.  It’s called HABITURF®, and the seed mix outperforms Bermudagrass in terms of rates of establishment, thickness of the turf, mowing rates and weed resistance.  Of course it was designed to combat the drought conditions of Texas, and we usually have the opposite problem (fungus) when it comes to turf, but climate change makes it hard to predict.  There’s also the slow growing grass blends such as Pearl’s Premium, which are a mix of native and exotic grass species.  The State of Maine is growing ten different mixes, including one that is 2/3 native, in a research project called the Great Grass Experiment.  Out of curiosity we will trial some of these seed mixes up here in Vermont and see if we get good results compared to the typical VT Conservation mix we normally use.

Lawns are getting smaller – One of the first questions I ask my clients when I sit down with them is how much lawn do you really need and how do you think you’ll use it?  The answer affects the size and location (if any) of lawn on the design.  Families with children definitely need open spaces for running around and a certain amount of turf is necessary, my own family is testimony.  The area we mow still gets smaller every year, and now we have a 30’x50′ badminton/croquet area, joined to other garden areas with paths.
Carex_pensylvanica

Carex pensylvanica

Lawns are being replaced with low native groundcovers or transitioned to meadows.  Many large public institutions, including our own local Middlebury College, are transitioning large areas of previously manicured lawn into meadows that are brush-hogged twice annually, which is all that is necessary to maintain the open space (prevent reforestation) and reduce the tick population.  In rural areas I usually advise clients to let 90% of their burdensome multiple acres of mowed turf go – just mow paths for walking, brush hog the rest a few times a year if open views need to be maintained, and enjoy how the grasses transition over the season.  When lawns transition to meadow you see movement and song come back into the landscape – breezes sway the seedheads and birds arrive in droves.  For smaller suburban front yards I take lawns out of the design altogether – if the goal is curb appeal there are so many better choices for that space that require so much less maintenance and have a lot more “Wow” power.  In shady areas sedges are the winner – the photo above is of Carex pensylvanica, which is a clump-forming Northeast native that only grows 6-9″ high and can handle dry shade.  We plant it spaced fairly tight and it grows into a lawn-like planting that you don’t have to mow more than once a year or fertilize, and it looks soft and inviting. Now that’s drama I can live with.