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Garden Journal: January Madness

Updated: Jan 6

My personal garden journal for the month of January...

I'm in full design mode over here- professionally working through concepts and base maps for clients, reading and refreshing on design publications in preparation of my Residential Design Workshops, and planning my garden and landscape for this spring and the next 30 years.

I keep a draft of my yard in Dynascape (CAD) to fool around with ideas when it's too cold or dark to be outside. Lately, I've been working on incorporating more habitat-oriented trees, plants that catch the winter sun, and reducing lawn. I've also resolved to add more plants that I can harvest for Christmas decor.

CAD design over satellite image
My own backyard, a constant work-in-progress. I find I design my own property mostly in the field, but I keep track and check measurements in CAD. This also serves as a reminder of how far this space has come.

My mind reels at night, rearranging this or adding that. I have so many ideas going on, I find myself outside the next day, even in freezing temperatures, just to see how those ideas could flesh out.

So, on January 4th, with a burst of energy, I set out to scratch the itch and actually implement some of these ideas...

First stop, Primex Garden Center to see what was in stock. I was specifically looking for:

  • Red-twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea)

  • Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

  • 'Arnold's Promise' witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)

  • Shagbark hickory tubes (Carya ovata)- a long shot at best

After ogling three gorgeous 'Arctic Sun' dogwoods (labled Cornus stonolifera), I purchased those and an 'Arnold Promise' witch hazel (along with four dormant ferns on clearance). Only once I was in my car did I decide to research more about 'Arctic Sun', finding out that that cultivar is more than likely NOT native to the US. While I'm not a native purist, I was already on the fence about whether to go with 'Arctic Sun' or tried and true 'Arctic Fire'. Considering the 'Arctic Sun' were larger and almost twice as expensive, I turned around and exchanged the three non-natives for the one native 'Arctic Fire' that was left.

Once home, the weather was a mild 42 degrees, overcast with off and on snow flurries. Since they're forecasting colder temps and snow accumulation this weekend, I used my two-and-a-half childless hours during naptime to plant and transplant as much as I could.

Boggy Screen Garden

caged Magonolia virginiana 'Moonglow'
I'm very happy with the final location of my 'Moonglow' Magnolia

First, I moved a 'Moonglow' Magnolia from an uphill location to a low and wet location where my neighbor's downspout dumps onto the property line. The magnolia was from my township tree-giveaway in the fall and I was never really confident in it's location when I finally had to plant it. It's new location is perfect condition-wise. We will also be able to enjoy it's fragrant blooms from our main back patio and it will eventually contribute to a screen from the parking spot at the top of the driveway. Win-win-win. I'm feeling GREAT about it's location now.

I also planted my 1 gallon 'Arctic Fire' there and placed two cuttings in the area to hopefully take root. I'm really into experimenting with plant propagation right now, so I figured I could clip a few branches off the one plant and stick them directly into the garden soil. If it works for restoration projects, I can't see why it wouldn't work for me, but we'll see how it goes!

Since I didn't have time to prep the bed (ie- remove the turf grass), I just dug nice wide holes and mulched the individual plants with pine needles from nearby mature pines. I'll come back to hoe out the turf when the weather is a bit warmer. I dream of underplanting this small new bed with sweeps of Salvia lyrata 'Purple Knockout' and Packera aurea. I invested in a few Packera plants a year or two ago and have already been reaping the benefits of it- transplanting it to a shady "rain garden", under perennials in my pool garden, and hopefully now to this bog garden.

My magnolia came with a nice large cage, but I didn't fence the red twigs. Honestly, more than deer damage, I'm worried about mower damage from the lawn guys in the spring if I don't get rid of the turf early enough.

Three Green Giant Arborvitaes
My close too-close arbs provide the instant screening I need

Unknowingly, the bed has been taking shape since 2021. It started as a quick fix to an unattractive view of our neighbor's trampoline (set on a bright blue tarp, so as not to miss it). This view is perfectly in line with our lounge chairs at the pool. The previous owners planted a Colorado Blue Spruce there, but the tree has suffered from needle cast, and most of it's branches are well above the eyesore. So, in looking for a band-aid, I planted three Green Giant Arbs (knowingly way too close) to get instant coverage and so far, I have no regrets. Now as I look for lawn to get reduce, I'm expanding on this planting- the benefits being 1) future screening and fragrance 2) growing plants that actually want to thrive in the site conditions and 3) adding to my selection of plants to use in winter/Christmas arrangements.

On the shady side of the arbs, I planted two Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) from Primex, hoping to "invest" in those just as I did with the Packera.

Driveway Planting

screening important views
Screening for privacy from the important view from our kitchen table

So much work left to do in the strip between my driveway and above a stone retaining wall. I've been working on removing variegated vinca and invasive brambles, vines, and woodies. All this while also trying to manipulate the views from some very important areas inside the house. Our kitchen table looks directly into our neighbor's bedroom. While they often have the shades down, I also don't like the feeling of being "on-display" for every meal or family gathering. I'm layering the view to deter my eye from the window and also breakup the view directly into the house. There was previously a large pine trunk obstructing some of this view and a black walnut that was excellent at screening, but it leaned so far over the wall, I feared it would either damage our neighbor's home or break our stone wall. So when the pine died suddenly this spring, I took both down.

Only, now we're left with this gaping view AND two large trunks and their roots. In another band-aid effort, I dropped in a few Skip Laurels along the driveway which struggled hard last winter. The one closest to the walnut never made it through and I think it may have been poisoned by the walnut's allelopathy.

young Arnold's Promise Hamamelis
My new witch-hazel nestled among the invasives and the tree stumps

I still need something for the height above the Skips though. Staring at the space each day, I recently realized how long the low winter sun lingers in that space. Perhaps the a backlit witch-hazel would glow in that space during the winter and act as screen in the summer? So, working long and hard, I dug through the intersecting roots of the downed trees and was able to squeeze in my precious 5-gallon 'Arnold Promise' witch hazel. I hope with some care, I'll be able to enjoy the design intent before I'm in a nursing home. If not, maybe the next homeowners will!

For the record, I certainly considered a native witch-hazel for this location. I absolutely fell in love with the native species at Mt. Cuba Center last winter for the shear fact that they hold onto their leaves for so long in the winter, adding another dimension of interest. I'm also dying to collect an 'Amethyst' witch-hazel. However, in this particular location, I like the idea of a deciduous plant with winter flowers. The sun is just right for it and I think the break from evergreen to a burst of color is the right choice for me.

Going on hour two...

Nothing gets a woman to work faster than the nearing end of nap time! As I fenced and caged and mulched my installs, I was invigorated having my hands dirty and something noticeable accomplished. My body ached, but in that beautiful, energized way it does from hard physical work.

So of course I needed to transplant two more plants.

I've been moving two tiny bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) around the property for three years now. I like the idea of their future form in their current location, but they haven't done more than leaf out each year, so I feel that they don't like their home (or they don't like me constantly moving them...).

With the concept of a back meadow on the horizon, I decided to move one of my Aesculus to the remaining hole from the magnolia (transplanted to the boggy screen garden). But upon field measuring, that was too far from the fence, leaving an odd gap looking at the house behind us.

Back I went for the second Aesculus and planted that 5' off the fence line. The site conditions are right for these bottlebrush buckeyes to thrive, I only hope I haven't shocked them too much with so many transplants in such a short period of time. But if it turns out like I plan, this will be the last time I move them and a perfect transition down from mature evergreens to meadow.

newly planted Aesculus parviflora before meadow
My go-to method for winter deer protection: a tomato cage wrapped with netting

All that (plus the other two ferns), mulched, caged, cleaned up, and back inside to grab the girls by 3:30. I think any gardener can attest how much you can get done when you know your time is limited- be it threat of rain, dark, or little kids waking up.


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