Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pot Garden


The gardening visiting season is almost over for another year. 


Opening the garden is a wonderful experience because no one ever says that “your garden is awful”, and it is so interesting to see the garden through the eyes of visitors.  We give garden tourists a brief introduction to Smugcreek and then explain that here we have created four gardens. 


A few weeks ago one of our guests suggested that we actually have five gardens.  It was suggested that our deck has so many pots and troughs on it that is could easily be called The Deck Garden.


So, that is what it has become.   Our Deck Garden consists of eighty-nine potted hosta in large and small pots, plus nine planted bowls and troughs.  
These containers include a bowl planted with the original Blue Mouse Ears sport collection and two large stone troughs that came all the way from the island of Bali in Indonesia (long story!)   In addition, there are several dozen really small pots containing miniature hostas that Kathy has arranged on an ornamental iron stand.   


We try to arrange the larger potted hostas for effect.  Some pots are placed on tall plant stands, lower pots are placed around them and even smaller pots and trays are arranged around them.  This arrangement is intended to showcase the beauty of the foliage whilst hiding the pots as much as possible. On a good day it can look really impressive.

 As people look around the deck garden, the most often asked question is “What do you do with all those pots in winter?”  The stock reply is this:

Hostas are perfectly hardy in our climate but the pot might not be.  Hostas need a cold winter in order to rest and recharge their batteries for the next season.  They go dormant and disappear underground.  This makes the storage of potted hostas quite easy.


Although it may look like many of our bigger hostas are planted in ceramic or terracotta pots, they are not.  They are usually in a plastic pot that is simply dropped into a larger fancy pot so the plastic cannot be seen.   As soon as the hosta has gone dormant,  these plastic pots are removed and placed in a sheltered spot in the woods – pushed closely together to keep each other company, and left until spring.   The outer ceramic pot, that may or may not be frost proof, is stored in a cold garage. 

All the ceramic pots and trays that have hostas actually planted directly into them are also stored in the garage on temporary shelves.  The plants stay cold but the pots do not get frosted.  It is the constant freezing and thawing during the winter months that causes some pots to break.   There are tiny cracks on the surface of these pots.  Damp collects in them and then freezes.  Frozen water expands slightly and makes the crack larger.   On a slightly warmer day the ice thaws but the crack it has left is now larger.   Next time it freezes there is more water in the crack that expands to make the crack larger still.   Multiple freezing and thawing throughout the winter and the cracks become big enough to break the pot into pieces. So, although the garage is very cold, it is not damp, there is no moisture to freeze and the posts do not crack.

Those small hostas displayed in very small pots and trays receive special attention.   Our friend John Walczak gave us a wonderful idea for the storage of these little gems.  Get a large plastic tote.  Once the hostas have gone dormant, line the bottom of your tote with small pots, add a layer of cardboard, then another layer of pots and then more cardboard and more pots until the tote is full.  Once the lid in on they are cold and protected from the frost and the vermin and they have a self-contained environment.


Elsewhere we have a large number of hostas in smaller plastic pots (There is a philosophy around here that if we manage to plant by fall all the plants we obtained during the summer, we didn’t buy enough) that are over-wintered in our hosta ‘corrals’. (The Book of Little Hostas, page 47).  For these hostas, we have still another scenario;  four wooden planks are used to make a rectangle.   The small plastic pots are placed within this rectangle as close together as possible.  Cedar wood mulch is used to fill the gaps between them, mouse bait added, and then the whole lot covered with a few inches of mulch and left for the snow to cover and protect.  Cedar mulch is used because it has been said that the smell deters mice and voles.   Mouse bait is added just in case the cedar mulch information is wrong.

When spring comes and the days begin to get longer and warmer we just have to remember to gently water the plants in the garage and gradually remove the mulch from the pots outside.


But often, in the flurry of activity in the fall, a pot is forgotten somewhere in the garden – or two or more.  We have come to learn that more often than not, the hosta survives just fine.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oh Deer! Deer Fencing at Smug Creek


Deer seem to have ‘discovered’ our gardens last fall and this winter.  It is very annoying and whilst they cannot do much damage at this time of year we do not want them to make a habit of visiting.


When we first move here and contemplated gardens I suggested that the garden area should be ringed with deer defenses.  Kathy pointed out that if we fenced the deer out we were fencing ourselves in.  We wanted to be able to explore and enjoy the rest of our property and I agreed.  We have never totally surrounded ourselves with deer fencing.


The first thing we did was to put the eight-foot high plastic mesh fence around an area behind the garage where we intended storing the plants and shrubs waiting to go into the as yet uncultivated gardens.  We stapled and sometimes tied the netting to the trunks of available trees.   We then used the same type of fencing along the lot line fairly close to the back of the house.  Deer have never come through or over these fences all the time they have been installed.   They simply walk around them.  But, they were very nervous that they are walking into a trap and did so very infrequently.


The problems with this plastic netting are many.  Branches fall on it and drag it down, snow collects on it and breaks it and the cold makes it brittle. It can be fairly easily fixed but the real problem for us is that it is so expensive and we could not afford to use it everywhere we wanted a fence.


Once we had dug and planted the two top terraces we decided that we needed to keep the deer out.   In a heavily wooded area it is fairly easy to make an effective deer fence by wrapping fishing line around the tree trunks and running it from tree to tree.


The method that worked for me is to first mark the route of the fence.  I tied colored tape around the trees that I want to form the ‘fence posts’.  The trees have to be big and strong enough not to bend in the wind, but the trunks have to be thin enough to enable your arms to go around them in a bear hug.  They also need to be free of branches from the ground to about eight feet high.



If there is a gap of more than about 15 feet between trees you will need to put a fence post of some type in the middle of the gap.  Tie the fishing line around a tree trunk.  Walk to the next tree, wrap it around the trunk and walk to the next tree.  After a while turn around and walk back with the line at a different height. 


My advice is not to go more than three or four trees away before changing the height of the line up or down and going back towards the first tree, wrapping the line around each tree as you go.  By zigzagging back and forth at irregular heights you will eventually achieve four or five lines of fishing line between each pair of trees the lowest as near to the ground as you can get and the highest as high as you can reach and at least 7 feet.  Over the years I have added more and more line to this defense and in places there are as many as twenty strands between trees but it is still almost impossible to see.


I don’t think deer have ever jumped over this fence but they have scrambled under it and across it when a fallen branch has damaged it.


The sight of deer in the garden this winter led us to agree that we needed more deer fencing and I decided to build a fence similar to one that I had first seen in Elaine Rappley’s Michigan garden several years ago.   The fence is made from fallen branches and is cleverly designed to keep deer out without looking too siege-like.   It is based on the principle that, unlike horses that at speed jump low and long, deer jump higher but almost vertically.  They are not able to long jump great distances.


The fence consists of tripods made from three similar lengths of fallen branch tied together at the apex and with the legs stretched apart far enough to make it stable.  The tripods are placed between six and ten feet apart and other branches tied to the uprights at ankle and waist height are used to link them. I tied the horizontal timbers to the uprights with a variety of Boy Scout lashings, plastic cable ties and long screws.  A final substantial branch connects the apex of each tripod to the apex of the next.


The first fence of this type I saw was about four feet high and three feet deep but I decided that the deer in Michigan are wimps and that my fence would be much bigger.  After all you get an awful lot of fallen timber in 13 acres of wood.  I also had plenty of fallen wood to back fill the fence both vertically and horizontally.  I ended up with a fence that was between five and seven feet high and three and for feet wide at the base.  It looks a little stark in the winter but as soon as the trees and undergrowth leaf out in the spring it will not be so noticeable.


But does it stop the deer?  Nope.  They walk straight through it.   Well they did.  Various snowfalls this winter have allowed me to find the spots where they are able to penetrate and block them with more and more bits of fallen branch.  My most recent look around has revealed very little encroachment into the protected area of our woods.



Hopefully the combination of the three types of deer fencing whilst not keeping the area enclosed totally free from deer will deter them from making a habit of visiting us and eating our precious plants.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Small Hosta Garden

Our Small Hosta garden is looking very good this year.  The little hostas planted three and four years ago have matured into very pleasing clumps and those planted more recently are growing well.   But is was hard work this year because locally the weather played lots of tricks on us.

The winter was a very mild one by Buffalo standards and we got very little snow.   For many weeks, between heavy snows, the ground was not snow covered and the blanket that it normally supplies to cover dormant plants was not available.  We worried about the effect of this mild season on plants like hostas that need a cold dormant period.   In March the thermometer rose to record highs and our little plants decided that winter was over for another year and it was time to wake up and start work.  There were tiny shoots everywhere and although that is always a thrill, it was a concern too.    

Then in April, just as a few of those shoots were beginning to unfurl, we had warnings of heavy frosts.  The tightly-bound cone of leaves in those little pips when they first emerge are fairly frost proof but as soon as the leaves unfurl the cold can destroy leaf cells and the damaged area will not recover.   We needed to protect those growing tips as best we could.   The solution was to place an up-turned flowerpot over each emerging plant.  Each day the pots were removed to give the plants some light and most nights they were re-placed as another frost threatened.   As more and more little hostas emerged, more and more pots were added.  And then it snowed. 

Eventually the weather pattern calmed down.  The snow left, the pots were removed and the little hostas began to emerge normally and vigorously. Today, in late May they are looking really good and the hard work has been worth it.

Mike and Anita Sheehan visit the small hosta garden.

We have two fairly large, slightly raised beds of little hostas and a shade rock garden where we grow hostas like alpine plants.   Nearly all the hostas chosen are those that grow less than 12 inches tall and the plan is to keep the spread to less than 12 inches too.  There are a couple of larger plants to the edge of the beds because we want a comparison to show that some of the miniatures are really tiny.  There are just a few small companion plants like violets and lily of the valley, two small Japanese maples and some moss covered stones, but mostly the garden is a sea of miniature hostas and, as Kathy says in her ‘Book of Little Hostas’, there are little hostas that mimic, in color and form, all of the bigger varieties so you can have it all and in a much smaller space.             
The hosta rock garden

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Creek Called Smug

When Kathy and I found this amazing piece of property in 2002 the feature that really caught our eye was that there was a creek running right under the house.  It is not a very big creek, although when the snow melts or after a really heavy rain it can be pretty impressive, but the fact that it disappeared behind the house and re-emerged under the deck at the front was a little unusual to say the least.

If that were not enough the house was built (in 1974) exactly where the topography of the creek changes completely.

The view from the back of our house shows a wide, very shallow creek coming toward us forming a staircase of low waterfalls as it tumbles over a series of steps formed by the underlying shale rocks.  On both sides of the creek there are gentle wooded slopes inviting us to both wander and... later garden.

To the front of the house the creek emerges into a steep, sometimes narrow ravine and the water is restricted to a much more confined path as it plunges out of sight down the hillside.

 Accessing the creek at the rear of the house is easy but to the front the steepness of the ravine make it almost impossible. Very early on Kathy and I agreed that we would only walk in the creek rarely so as not to hasten any erosion that nature might be steadily working upon.  Having said that, I have on occasions found Kathy ‘sweeping the creek’ and sometimes we need to remove fallen branches and accumulating leaves.

Luckily we are near the top of our hill and the drainage basin of the creek is fairly small. The overflow from a neighbor’s large pond and two roadside drainage ditches further up the hill are the three sources of our creek.  In summer, water is often just a trickle and algae can be a problem but for most of the year the water flow is just perfect. We can see the light dancing on the waterfalls and we can hear the tinkle of the water and passes through our gardens. A few times each year the flow is an exciting torrent that washes and cleans, sending everything towards an ocean somewhere.  
The question we are asked most often by visitors is “Aren’t you worried that the house will wash away?” Well, for awhile we were, but then we realized that it had been here for thirty years and if it was to be swept down the hill it would have happened by now.

A year or so after we moved we were able to get our dear friend, Ran Lydell of Eagle Bay Gardens. to bring in his small backhoe and shape the gentle slope at the back of the house and to the right of the creek so that we could later terrace it. We also took down four of five of the larger beech trees to give us light.

I built stonewalls and we brought in topsoil and compost to mix with the underlying shale and clay. Kathy began to creatively plant and out gardens began to take shape. We were very content.   

So content indeed that we began to privately call ourselves the Smugracks rather than the Shadracks. It was no huge step to refer to our little unnamed creek as Smug Creek and by osmosis the gardens we were building became Smug Creek Gardens.                                                                                                                                                                                

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Forget-Me-Not Time at Smug Creek

forget-me-nots line the main path

At last the rain has stopped and the sun has begun to shine. When spring arrives she arrives quickly in these parts and the garden has suddenly burst into life and color.

For a couple of weeks at this time of year we have a dense carpet of blue and white forget-me-nots across much of the terrace garden. Many garden visitors and friends alarm and remind us what thugs these plants can be and how willfully they spread. While this might be true, they are easy to pull as soon as they have finished flowering and the provision of so much color early in the season allows us to forgive their rampageous nature. From this sea of forget-me-nots rise volcanoes of iris, hosta, peony and lily foliage that promise much for the future... and islands of hellebore flowers of many hues that are very nearly past their prime.

late daffodils
continue to bloom

Although the irises are late this year the hostas are beginning to unfurl and show their early season pristine beauty. The exposure of so many hosta leaves, although very striking, may yet cause us a problem. The tender new leaves are very susceptible to a late frost now that they have left the safety of the tight emerging shoot. There are too many of them now for us to have any hope of protecting them should a sudden drop in nighttime temperatures be forecast so we just have to keep our fingers crossed.

Over recent years Kathy has collected a large number of pretty and interesting small plants and our terraces have provided the ideal place to both grow and enjoy them. Many of these plants are spring ephemerals and often only bloom for a few days. Having them growing on the terrace walls brings them closer to the eye and gives us the ideal viewing point. Bloodroot, tiny trilliums, spidery epimediums, anemones, tight domes of saxifrage, small pastel hepatica, bright aubrieta, viola and various ranunculus are among those in flower at the moment and they are enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. Soon the ferns, hosta, daylilies, hydrangeas and iris will grow too big for us to see these small companions properly but for now they very nearly have the place to themselves and they are a joy.

Epimediums are small but fabulous
and shine in the terraces

Monday, April 25, 2011

Come on spring.....

Spring is a long time coming to Smug Creek this year. Although we are closer to Toronto, Canada than to New York City and we get piles of winter snow, by late April our gardens are usually bursting to break their hibernation. This year however nature seems very sleepy.

April is set to be the coldest for many years and at this rate it might also be the wettest. Snowdrops have come and gone but the daffodils and narcissus are very reluctant to nod their heads. During the last few years we have planted nearly 1,500 at the back of our orchard and usually by now the area is a sea of yellow and white. This year only about six have dared to risk exposure.

Hostas are only just beginning to show their pips above ground and the peonies, iris and daylilies have barely sprouted. But the bonus has been the hellebores. They don’t seem to mind the cold temperatures and dull days. As soon as the last patches of snow left us they began to emerge and within a week there was color in the garden. We seem to have a much brighter and bigger display than in past years and have wonderful erect stands of white, pink, chocolate and pale green blossoms dotted across the terraces.

The weather has not been a total disaster. The creek has often been full and exciting. There have been days when we have been able to get out into the terraced gardens and begin to clear up. There is some vole and chipmunk damage but nothing like as bad as we experienced last year. The practice of planting vulnerable plants in a mixture of soil and sharp gravel, of covering the soil surface with a shallow layer of the same gravel and, on occasions, covering that with a sheet of plastic mesh seems to have deterred the critters. We also wrapped the lower 12 inches of the trunks of our ornamental trees with aluminum foil to stop hungry creatures feasting on the bark worked as well.

But today the sun is shining. The sky is blue and the creek is full. Come on daffodils, come on forget-me-nots. We have waited a long time for spring.