Gardening for Neighbors

Much of my gardening is really done for my neighbors and passersby.  Don’t get me wrong – I love to garden, to design plantings, see how they’re growing, and tend to them in whatever way they seem to need tending.  But parts of my garden are really not visible to me except when I am actually out working on them – I can’t see them from my patio or windows, and I don’t even  go by them on my way into and out of my house, since I usually go out our “back” door.  So I try to think about these beds from the perspective of my neighbors, and how people walking by or driving by encounter these areas.  I love it when I find out that I’ve been successful, and my little gardens are providing enjoyment and maybe even a little inspiration.

Our front garden bordering the sidewalk is shady and dry most of the year, because of the large maple tree planted by the City of Cambridge in the sidewalk.  (You can see this in my blog’s header photo.) But in the early spring, before the maple tree leafs out,  it gets lots of sun from its south/southwest orientation, and produces flowering bulbs very early.  (The same bulbs, on the north side of the house, don’t come into bloom until several weeks later!)  I love this, and plant bulbs that flower in waves, so that people walking by see something new every few days.  In early April, the crocuses are long past, and the muscari and scilla are coming into bloom, with an occasional wandering daffodil or early tulip.

The west side of my townhouse offers another gardening opportunity/challenge.  There’s a small sloping garden next to the driveway used both by visitors to the condo association next to us, and by my cohousing neighbors, driving in and out of our underground garage.  And then there’s a tiny strip of dirt between the driveway curb and a retaining wall.  My neighbor got this strip going by planting some kind of daisy or perennial white mums (someday I’ll figure out exactly what this plant is) that have managed to find a toehold here. But that only gives us flowers in the fall, what to do for the rest of the year?  A couple years ago, I started planting daffodils in this strip, extending them all the way up along the driveway to the street.  I love the way they seem to greet people driving in and out, and am delighted when neighbors stop and tell me how much they enjoy them!


Early Spring Garden

Just a few days into April, and there are small signs of growth – new leaves, new buds – appearing everywhere.  Here’s a tour of some of the signs I saw today.

The wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), under the cherry tree, has new leaves just emerging from the ground.

My two Dog Hobbles (Leucothoe fontaneiana) on the side of the house took some damage from rain coming off the roof here, despite the gutter we added last year.  They lived up to their evergreen reputation, though, and now have some small buds appearing.

The small Cliff Green (Paxistima canbyi) is also showing tiny buds.  

Foliage from two wildflowers are making an early entrance: Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) and Columbines (Aquilegia canadensis).

And here are two non-natives that bring in the spring with early flowers: Candy Tuft, out in my south-facing street bed: and Heath, bringing a touch of color between our Alaskan Weeping Cedar trees on the northwest side of our house.

Gardening in the Fall

Fall really feels like the beginning of the garden year, not the end.  This is when I am most inspired to rearrange and add new plants, and for most perennials, this is a great time to plant.  After the summer, I know what didn’t turn out quite the way I hoped, either because I didn’t plan it out correctly,Kiwi vine in September or the plant doesn’t seem to like its spot (or sometimes likes it too much).  So I’ve spent the past couple of weeks doing lots of rearranging.  The patch under the Dawn Redwood was one of my projects; I also decided to give up on the day lilies and irises in our dogleg garden. I thought that area got some sun, but that was before the  kiwi vine on the nearby fence really got established!  I decided to replant the bed entirely with more shade-tolerant plants that will fit into the narrow bed better, too.


I also wanted plants that are evergreen or at least semi-evergreen, to cover the cement foundation.  But they can’t grow too big!  The fire alarm for our building is on this wall, about 4 feet up, and has to be kept clear.  A trip to the New England Wildflower Society turned up these two lovely Dog H obble (Leucothoe fonanesiana) plants, that only grow to 2 – 4 ft tall (and wide), and a beautiful Coastal Azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum), in a kind of blue-gray shade that goes nicely against the rain urn here.

Most of the irises are now positioned in another part sun/part shade bed, in the gap between the Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum var. nudum) bushes.   I put a few out in the shady sidewalk boxes (not an ideal spot for them, but the greens will help to fill in these boxes even if they don’t flourish), and gave some to a neighbor.  I moved the day lilies down to the very narrow strip between the retaining wall and driveway.  This spot was originally filled with junk dirt from the time of construction,and it seems like it couldn’t possibly support any plants, but it’s sported a great line of daffodils, liatris, and what seems to be a perennial chrysthanemum (planted by one of my neighbors) sequentially, and I hope the day lilies will fit in.  My grandmother had a beautiful bed of these tiger lilies along the sidewalk of her house, and I’ve wanted to replicate it ever since she died, as a kind of remembrance.

bare patch in street bed A bare patch in the front street bed still confounds me.  There’s a large root from the maple tree right under this patch that seems to steal all the water from any plant I’ve tried to establish there.  I’m now thinking I may need to wait for the barren strawberry to wend its way over, since it can take sustenance from several points along the way, and does well in dry-ish areas.  I may have to wait for the spring to work on this one!

Replanting Under the Dawn Redwood

We have a beautiful Dawn Redwood in the sloping bed next to the driveway to the parking lot on the west side of our townhouse.  Ever since we got here (2006), a bunch of plants with lovely little purple bells have appeared under the tree, apparently getting enough sun slanting in under the lower branches to keep blooming.

My neighbor, a much more experienced gardener than me, warned me that these plants would spread through their root system throughout my garden.  But they continued to provide a beautiful spot of color in a shady area, and I was reluctant to dig them out.

Another neighbor said she thought they were some kind of Canterbury Bell, but neither could remember their name, and in several internet searches, I couldn’t find an exact match.  In a search about how to divide another perennial, I suddenly saw a picture of exactly this plant: Adenophora Liliifolia, or Ladybells.  Finally, a name for the plant!  A little more research turned up the information that they are, indeed, very aggressive, spreading both by seed and roots.

This year’s blooms were much reduced, perhaps partly because of the long rainy spell in the beginning of the summer, but also, I think, because the Dawn Redwood has spread so much further out, making this space really shady.

So earlier this weekend, I decided to make the big switch, dug up all of the Ladybells (they will go to one of those challenging sidewalk tree boxes, where we will welcome their invasive tendencies), and moved in some of my favorite dry shade perennials: a Leather Wood Fern, a couple Heuchera, and a Foam Flower.  Then I added a beautiful new Barren Strawberry plant (thank you, New England Wildflower Society) up near the top of the slope, where it will, hopefully, start to colonize the area, moving downhill and gradually filling up the space where the Ladybells had been.  I have a few of these around my garden, and they seem to do better in the more shady spots. under Dawn Redwood-new plants

The Heuchera were already in the vicinity, but they were too far down the slope and all sunlight was blocked by the yew (I think) that had grown up in front of them.  They suffered from insect or slug damage this summer, and aren’t looking great, so I’m hoping they survive the transplanting okay.  I’ve put all of them close to the irrigation hose, and have been running it every day to help them get established.

It all looks very sparse now, and I’m sure I’ll be pulling up Ladybells for years to come, but I’m looking forward to seeing it again next spring.

Urban Garden Violence

Last year, I got tired of looking at the two empty tree boxes out in front of our property, and decided to start gardening them.  This was considered to be pure folly by most of  my cohousing neighbors, but if I wanted to work on them, why not?  I dug up both spots, sifted out buckets of rocks and debris, adding in buckets of compost, and then moved in a few plants.  I planted them mostly with plants I scavenged from other areas, so that if the whole project failed, I would have only lost my investment of time, not money.

I thought I understood the risks when I planted them – hot, sunny, dry spaces; dgarden violenceog pooping, human tramping, car door openings and litter.  What I didn’t foresee was violence committed on the plants – whether by dogs, squirrels or humans, I don’t know, but it happens every so often.  Yesterday I went out to tend to these spaces and found the Bearded Iris leaves scattered all over the sidewalk, with one of the larger cosmos plants tramped down next to them.

It’s ironic, because I planted these irises specifically to try to discourage people from trampling through the space.  Their sword-like leaves look sharp and pointy, and passersby are much less likely to walk into a bed edged with these plants than one that has soft mounds of flowers.  Looks like someone decided to do battle with the swords today!

Such are the challenges of gardening in urban spaces.