Monday, December 17, 2012

Getting in condition for the holidays

Just a week before Christmas, and I am getting in condition for the holidays. That means amping up my exercise regimen in anticipation of the celebratory effects of chocolate-covered almonds, cardomom bread, and peppermint stick ice cream with hot fudge sauce. And around the house, there are presents to be wrapped, batches of nutty, fruity granola to cook for friends, family, and colleagues, and halls to be decked--in a restrained manner--with holiday greenery.  
 "Blue Princess" holly (Ilex meserveae)
With an allergy to all things glittery, bright red, and swathed in ribbon, I'm a mimimalist in the holiday decoration department. So fresh-cut greens please my palette perfectly. Fortunately, our little yard hosts a variety of yews, hollies, and ivies, so I can pretty much sate my appetite just by picking up a pair of clippers and heading out the back door.

Common yew (Taxus baccata)
Properly conditioned cut greens will last about two weeks indoors, and longer if they are kept out of bright sunlight and at a cool temperature. Since our thermostat is set to 60 degrees during the short grey days of a New England winter, I'm anticipating that this weekend's gathering will easily see us into the New Year.

Conditioning is an oh-so-simple process: just re-cut the branches at a 45 degree angle, crush the cut ends in order to encourage the branches to take up water, and stick the mass of greens in a pitcher of room temperature water.  In a day, they'll be ready to cut down to working size.

Cutting at 45 degree angle
This holiday greenery looks festive in almost every container.  I think that the dark green foliage plays particularly well with pewter- and silver-colored metal.  Flanking our dining room nativity, a couple of family christening cups hold a mixture of hollies and yews.


Perched on a living room side table, a blend of "Chesapeake" Japanese holly (Ilex crenata),"Blue Princess" holly, common yew, and little-leaf ivy fills another antique cup.

Sprigs of American holly (Ilex opaca) are nestled among the Christmas tree balls in our holiday centerpiece. I'm clearly not going for the big bells and whistles presentation.

Joyful, joyful!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


After a season that blew out on hurricane winds and snow squalls, it feels good to retire indoors.  It's easy to put aside thoughts of rough weather when you can surround yourself with the oh-so-very sweet scents of forced flowers and the happy bustle of holiday preparations. 
Waves of paperwhile narcissi "Ziva" are now coming into bloom. They are planted in all sorts of containers--hurricane glasses, vintage bowls, Japanese tea cups, vases-- because they look lovely wherever they land.

 Even the roots make a pile of pebbles some kind of wonderful. I'll be potting up more this evening . . . and every week.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Seeding foxgloves in the fall

During a hike this summer, I happened across a woodland clearing scattered with common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). The bright fuchsia shafts towered above yellow-flowering field.  

What a great addition to the mellow yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) that happily inhabits a shady corner of the yard, I thought.  

In the past, I've tried, without success, to grow "Apricot Beauty," another Digitalis purpurea cultivar.  Perhaps this wild pink version will be more robust than its finicky cousin.

Late November is a good time for winter sowing in New England. Preparations are pretty basic: dig some composted cow manure into a bare patch next to the existing foxgloves, remove the glass jar of seeds from the refrigerator, and scatter seeds over the turned soil. The seeds are very tiny, so surface sowing seemed the best way to go.  

Hopefully, by next summer these garish-colored blooms will evoke memories of hikes in the mountains.  Or, at least, an excuse to relax in the garden with a glass of Riesling and wedge of Munster cheese.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tale of the cottontail's tail

While I was catching up on some garden chores this afternoon--trimming back spent foliage, pulling out dead annuals, winter sowing foxglove seeds, and cutting down and banking up dahlia tubers--I discovered this fluffy rabbit tail laying in a garden bed.

At first, I thought that maybe this was fur that a rabbit had groomed out of its coat to line a nest--but on closer inspection, I noticed that the tail bone was intact in this fuzzy little package . . . and over on the lawn saw some discarded body parts.  The local coyotes have been helping us with our vermin problem, it seems. Much appreciated, but I do wish that they'd clean up after themselves.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Cleaning up hurricane damage this weekend started the transition towards winter.  The weather was cold and clear, the skies were sunny, and there was such a lot to do!

Cross off the seasonal chore list:

1. Cut "New Dawn" climbing rose to 6' tall young-middle aged canes and temporarily secure with stakes and twine; cut and bag the rest of the foliage for removal
2. Empty containers: harvest hot peppers, transplant herbs, and compost everything else
3. Plant 50 "Queen of the Pinks" Spanish hyacinth bulbs
4. Cut down peonies and clean away dead foliage; still need to apply bone meal
5. Pull up and discard faded annuals
6. Mow lawn: cut short and chop up fallen leaves

Only that little bit was accomplished? Geez . . . this transition needs to slow its speed . . . 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dawn down

I was away in Philadelphia this weekend, so when I finally returned home last night--after running through four--four!--cancelled flights--there was little time to do much in the way of preparations for Hurricane Sandy.  My husband cleaned leaves out of the gutters, I brought in some potted plants, and we sheared back the "New Dawn" climbing rose so its trellis would catch less wind. Turns out that in the case of that last task, we were no match for Mother Nature: about a half hour into the storm, the trellis pulled free from the side of the house and smashed to pieces.

After the winds calm, the rains cease, and the canes are untangled from the lattice work, I'll be trying out a new technique for over-wintering this rose.  Maybe something with stakes and burlap?  Or a conical hoop and sheet foam?  Researching the options was a good way to pass time this afternoon--and to take my mind off the weeping beech branch poking through the attic roof.  Yes, we're pretty battered here.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Harvesting surprises

This year, I limited my edible garden to a big container of Sungold tomatoes. Three plants yielded a couple of handfuls of little yellow tomatoes each week.  There were just enough to graze through when working in the garden, but not enough to pick for cooking.

But you'll notice that in addition to the yellow Sungolds in the photograph above, there are some bursting at the seams red grape tomatoes.  Oh, those bad boys! These muscley guys sprung from a rogue plant that either self-sowed from last year's tomato crop or sprouted from a topdressing of spring compost.

Either way, this rambunctious tomato plant is busy growing up and over a nearby peony. I don't think that this is what is intended by the current fashion of interplanting flowers and vegetables but, hey, until the first frost clips the harvest, this unruly jumble of vegatation and little fruiting flowers is good by me.
And also good by me are these ripening ornamental peppers, a bonus from a more decorative container. Don't think that I'll be grabbing a bunch for casual snacking any time soon--hopefully, they're hot enough to add a spicy kick to whatever's cooking!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wobbly color wheel

Last year, I complained about the garden's late summer white out.  A pale monochrome palette made everything look tired, tattered, and washed out: a dog day garden for the dog days of summer.

This year, as is my nature, I over planned--but under implemented--a response.  In the spring, I gathered images of plants and palettes on a Pinterest board.  My scheme was to use peach, coral, and burgundy dahlias as the center of the color wheel.  Yellow, blue, and (yes, even) white would spoke out from this hub. Maybe a dash of pink or purple would sweetened up the mix.

The dahlia part went just fine.  September has "Arabian Night," "Rose Toscano," "Normandy Painted Pearl," and "Pattycake" tossing out sprays of blossoms. The shades spanned a neat band of the color spectrum, and the scale and structure of the flowers complemented each other.


Some spiky interest was added by a fat patch of purple and white angelonia.

But then hoards of hungry rabbits entered the picture. They liked yellow plants: Coreopsis verticillata "Zagreb" and lemony marigolds were devoured down to the dirt.  Only marguerite daisies and goldenrod Solidago x "Little Lemon" survived the lapine predations.


Achillea "Pink Grapefruit"--that touch of sugar--settled in happily.  By late summer,though, most of the flowerheads have browned out and the lacy leaves are battling the combined outslaught of rabbits and dry soil. I'm just hoping that these tough little sweethearts are putting down deep roots for next year.

Less successful has been a row of pink Henry I asters, which I dug in to fill the gap between the achillea and a bank of daylilies. The rabbits didn't even bother to say thanks for this aster treat before chowing down. I will have to extract that sedum "Autumn Joy"from behind the compost pile, separate into several small clumps, and insert them in this denuded space come next spring. Can't wait to rescue this old friend from its exile.


Far from perfect and not quite balanced but at least this wobbly color wheel is rolling in the right direction.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bartram's Garden, redux

Back in 1980, I spent a chilly spring working on an archaeological excavation at the home of John Bartram (1699-1777), the father of American botany. After prior summers laboring on militarily precise excavations of medieval bishop's palaces, late Roman cemeteries, and Iron Age villages in England and the Netherlands, to suddenly be mucking around somewhere in southwest Philadelphia in search of a few greenhouse foundation trenches and sherds of glass and flowerpots seemed quite a step down. The Bartram's Garden excavation was woefully ill-equiped: no field notebooks, inadequate hand tools, and a total lack of heavy machinery. And how ridiculous we must have looked when, lined up like dancers doing the Hustle in silence, we stamped down the back-filled site at the excavation's close.

At that time, I knew nothing about John Bartram--and, in yet another failing of this silly project, which was part of a university class, there was minimal information provided about the property owner, why he was important, and how the excavation contextualized his personal history and that of the American landscape.

In the years following, I'd hear references to John Bartram: how he collected seeds and plants from the southern colonies, how the many species that he sent to Europe became part of our common plant vocabulary, or how his Latinized name was incorporated into various plants' Linnaean nomenclature. But not until this spring, armed with a greater interest in all things horticultural, did I return to Bartram's Garden.

The place had been totally rejuvenated since my dreary days there.  A new information center, knowledgable guides and gardeners, and a renovated garden added up to a terrific afternoon. 

Well-tended and clearly-marked stands of plants, like this false indigo (Baptista australis), sparked me to consider experimentation in my own garden. Upright blue-flowering plants always deserve attention.
In another area, carnivorous plants were enclosed in this most appropriate cage constructed from thorny branches. What a whimsically menancing display! Bartram is credited with naming and introducing cultivation of the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

The information center sold the best souvenirs: seedlings from the garden. In homage to Bartram's plant dissemenation ventures, a great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and a sprig of intensely celery-flavored lovage were transported back to my Massachusetts garden.

Above the door of his greenhouse--perhaps that very same greenhouse that we so unsuccessfully sought to find in our excavation--Bartram carved a quote from Alexander Pope: "Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, but looks through Nature up to Nature's God."

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Daffodil (and allium and hyacinth and amaryllis) dreams

Now that Labor Day has rolled past, it's time to put away the white shoes, sharpen the school pencils, and order bulbs for the coming winter and spring.  Thankfully, I had the foresight to jot a few notes down about what to order on my garden goalroll at the end of the last season.  How else would I remember a pressing need for hundreds of allium "Ostrowkianum"--or even how to spell that plant's name?!

Since I pledged my deep commitment to daffodils a couple of years ago, I find myself each autumn trying to fill, enhance, and extend their springtime show.  This effort means searching on a half dozen variables--hardiness, bloom time, color, flower shape, height, light requirements--to find the perfect variety, or at least one that meets most of the criteria.  This year, I'm seeking a replacement for my sadly unrequited embrace of hoop petticoat daffodils: none of the 100 Narcissus bulbocodium conspicuus bulbs planted along the front walk came up.  Not a single one.  None.  In their place, I'm yearning for a very early white northern-tolerant miniature. The closest candidate to my daffodil dream date appears to be "Jenny," a short (that's good), zone 6 hardy (yes!), early bloomer (terrific) with reflexed petals and a slightly frilled trumpet (okay, why not?!) of ivory and pale yellow (meh, I'll settle).

So here's how the whole order is shaping up:

Tulip World
60 narcissus cyclamineus "Jenny" Planted 10/13/2012 along front walk in groups of 3 bulbs

Bluestone Perennials
150 allium "Ostrowkianum" Planted 10/13/2012 along front walk in groups of 7 bulbs

Brent and Becky's Bulbs
50 wood hyacinth "Queen of Pinks"

And for indoor forcing:

White Flower Farm
36 paperwhite narcissus "Ziva"
1 amaryllis "Royal Velvet"
1 amaryllis "Picotee"

Old House Gardens
5 hyacinth "Gipsy Queen" 
5 hyacinth "L'Innocence" 
5 hyacinth "Lady Derby"

Now, if one reliable supplier would just carry everything on my shopping list.  But that's too much to dream!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Alsatian routes

Rather than spending the past several weeks weeding, deadheading, and watering, I've been exerting my efforts on the pleasures of drinking Gew├╝rztraminer, devouring Munster cheese, and admiring flower-filled window boxes.  Yes, that means a trip to Alsace, the sliver of eastern France that hugs the west bank of the Rhine.

Although we did enjoy plenty of the traditional Alsatian fare of red geraniums, there were also geranium mixes of ros├ęs, whites, and pinot noirs--all the colors that you might expect to find in wine country. I have never been a fan of geraniums, ranking them somewhere around pedestrian carnations and impatiens, but after seeing how Alsatians embraced this plodder of the plant world and amped it up to over-achievement by care and variety selection, I'm willing to reconsider.

Alsace is also the area from which, as a teen-age orphan, my great-grandfather emigrated to the United States in 1868.  I've written in the past about his farming background, so I was interested in seeing his homeland. The fields around his village, Aschbach, were indeed glorious: wide rolling banks of corn and hay sweeping up to the horizon. The farm tracks across corn fields and by orchards guided my eight-mile morning run through his neighborhood.  

The road entering Aschbach was bordered by long, well-tended beds of white liatris and hydrangea, yellow potentilla and rudbeckia, and blue salvia.  Although only common plants were featured, with their perfect repetition of color and shape, these beds welcomed visitors with the very Alsatian message of orderliness, hard work, and solidity.

Yes, this is a place where people take their plants seriously. Even this old farm cart, laden with--of course--red geraniums, had been drafted into the effort. Vehicles like these were in use well into the 20th century.  The cornfields planted right up to the road verge and to the house yards left little unused space.  I think that I may have discovered my predisposition to all things horticultural.

And, in the village center, this tribute to lawn-mowing clinched the genetic link manifested by my great-grandfathers' descendants' love of their ride-on, gas-powered, and push mowers. So that's why my brothers and I wouldn't dream of hiring out this task to lawn care companies. I thought that we were all just penny-pinching and industrious, but it seems like those Alsatian roots might be the real cause.

Friday, July 20, 2012

View from above

Some second floor pruning of the "New Dawn" climbing rose affords a few views from above. I think that I've got the Japanese garden design principle of borrowed scenery (shakkei) down, thanks to my neighbors' mad skills, and there's even a hint of the hill and pond (chisen-kaiyu-skiki) style, courtesy of the rain garden.

Of course, even from these lofty heights, what I mostly see is overdue deadheading, pruning that's calling out, and an urgent need for staking. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ferns: big deal, little deal, or no deal?

I'm not a big fan of ferns.  It's hard to understand how anyone can get too worked up over a plant whose major contribution seems to be . . .  what?  It's green.  It takes up space.  Big deal.

That said, I have found ferns helpful--in a "they also serve who only stand and wait" kind of way--in different areas of the garden.  Several marsh ferns (Thelypteris palustris) anchor  the damp and sunny end of the raingarden. Their foliage plays off the surrounding spiky iris leaves and decorative grasses.

A few Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) are nestled in the dry deep shade of an eastern red cedar. Note to self: since you actually paid good money for these ferns, move them out from the shadows and into a spot where they can actually be seen!

But most of the ferns found their own way into the garden.  There are plenty of these common ferns springing up along the edges of shady beds.  I'm not sure what variety they are.  Perhaps since we're in Massachusetts, they're Massachusetts ferns?

A ginormous clump of lady fern--currently bowled over flat on its back from the ravages of drought and heat--has settled itself in between two evergreens along the back property line.  Its red stems and spores are really quite beautiful.

Despite my low regard, I am always pleased to discover ferns growing in out of the way places--beneath hedges, down the backsides of slopes, in those neglected areas removed from sight and mind.  The other evening, I was weeding one of these damp and dreary marginal spaces--the kind of gnarly wasteland where ugly stuff happens and a lot of it--kind of like the vegetative version of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. Among the weeds that don't seem to be able to grow anywhere else and the self-sowers that have escaped from their original locations, I was delighted to discover another fern variety--the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). 

This cache of four or five plants was growing in an area that is reliably damp and shady. Now that I've pushed some of the habitues of this low-rent district out, perhaps these ferns will be able to become a big deal in their own small way.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Suburban gardening: So different from town and country gardening

Okay, to start with a couple of facts: (1) Everyone knows that the plant pornography of high style horticultural magazines bears no resemblance to the really dirty stuff that happens in the garden and (2) many bloggers have humorously ridiculed the crap that American marketing masters would have you believe that you need in order to attain gardening self-actualization.

Although this turf has been well-trod, I still had a problem when, at the end of a weekend working in the garden, I sat down to relax with an iced drink and the latest edition of Town and Country.  Yes, it was Town and Country, so what should I expect? But, hey already. Between the articles about emerald and sapphire floral brooches and society equestriennes was this page of gardening "inspiration."  So this is what folks enjoy when gardening in a parallel universe. 

In contrast, here are the suburban highlights of my weekend around the back quarter acre.  First, I shoveled rotting compost. It smelled, it was soggy, it was not yet ready to be used.  And yes, that $685 pink silk shirt would look fabulous, darling, polka-dotted with decomposing plant muck.

And I pruned a portion of the climbing rose.  Cue cursing, sweat, and bloody cuts.  Geez, I forgot to focus my mental energy towards attaining the pruned perfection of those lollypop-like boxwood topiaries.  Dang!

Then there was the dead mourning dove that needed to be removed from its impalement on the trellis. Perhaps that set of cute little hand tools could double as surgical implements for the post-mortem extraction?

 I guess that proves that the suburbs are so very different from the town and country.  But we all know that.